Rega are not a company known to jump on the bandwagon; a fact reinforced by them being the last major brand to produce a CD player. Their first player (the Planet) didn’t make its debut until 1997, and it was arguably a product born of necessity than a particular desire of the company’s designers to build a CD player. On its release, however, it established Rega’s reputation for building some of the most analogue-sounding CD players on the market and as is traditional with Rega it incorporated a simple design, omitting superfluous features and thus carrying a sensible price-tag.
The Planet 2000 followed thereafter, as did the Jupiter – a 2-box flagship which came at a time were separating components into as many boxes as possible was the latest craze. In 2004, the single-box Saturn became Rega’s flagship player, overtaken in 2009 by the Isis which forms part of Rega’s Reference range. In 2013 the Saturn was finally replaced by the £1598 Saturn-R, designed to partner the Elicit-R amplifier and incorporating technology from the baseline Apollo-R CD player and the aforementioned Isis.
A full-width player built into a case not dissimilar to that of the Elicit-R, the Saturn-R is easily distinguishable as a Rega player thanks to its top-loading CD mechanism and plastic lid, which raises and slides back on a set of damped lift arms to reveal a CD mechanism not unlike that found in portable players, rigidly affixed to the top surface of the player. A spring-loaded spindle grips the disc eliminating the need for an external clamp, at which point the lid can be lowered into place allowing the CD to be read. Switching between CD and DAC modes is performed within the digital domain. It’s unclear as to whether the player shuts off its laser while running in DAC mode, though I would assume that to be the case as not to do so would be illogical and decrease the life of the laser.
Along with the CD transport, the Saturn-R incorporates a dedicated high-resolution DAC section supporting resolutions of up to 24 bit, 192KHZ and featuring 2 optical and 2 coaxial inputs and a galvanically isolated asynchronous XMOS USB input. Two Wolfson WM8742 chips sit at the heart of the Saturn-R’s DAC feeding Rega’s analogue output amplifiers and powered by dedicated power supplies fed by a toroidal transformer that is also responsible for powering the isolated CD section.
The packaging isn’t unlike that of the Elicit-R either, with the plastic-wrapped Saturn-R supported by styrofoam blocks and the power cable and remote contained within a cardboard support at the side. A manual and power cable are both included, as are a set of AAA batteries for the Solaris remote.
Central to the top panel of the player is the CD transport, with a rubber Rega badge situated in an indentation in the lid. The controls on the indented front display panel are similarly clutter free, featuring only a selection of basic transport controls (play, stop, next and previous) and a power button. The rear panel hosts the connections including the dual optical and coaxial inputs, the USB B input and a 2-pin IEC power inlet. There are also digital outputs in both coaxial and optical form for both the CD and DAC sections and of course the analogue RCA outputs.
As with the Elicit-R the rear connectors don’t offer any cause for complaint but the front panel controls do, offering up the same imprecise tactility as those of the partnering amp. The lid is also rather flimsy, and has a tendency to wobble from side to side as it’s raised and lowered, the lift arms rubbing against the metal top panel as it goes. As the lid is dampened using a high viscosity grease, the dampening effect lessens as the player warms up; and I would’ve liked a bit more room inside the lid to extract a CD from the player.
These design flaws are overshadowed however by the lack of a front panel control to toggle between the CD and DAC modes or to switch DAC inputs. These operations can be carried out only using the remote. Given that the Saturn-R is largely software based, implementing such a function wouldn’t be difficult using the controls already provided. For example, pressing the play button with no CD inserted could switch the player between CD and DAC modes, at which point the next and previous buttons could be used to switch the DAC functions and the stop button could even be used to toggle between the digital filters. I’m surprised that Rega didn’t implement such a feature into the design, and feel that such an oversight is taking the minimalist approach a step too far.
Speaking of the remote, the Saturn-R is supplied with the same Solaris remote as supplied with the Elicit-R. Consequently the remote will control both products and the rest of Rega’s R range of electronics. The layout is logical with the controls for each component (DAC, CD player, and amplifier) oriented in blocks. The top section of the remote is dedicated to DAC functions including the aforementioned control to switch between DAC and CD modes, DAC input selection and a control to choose from 1 of 5 digital filters which have a subtle effect on the sound of the player.
The blocks beneath are dedicated to playback and programming controls, with a direct-entry number pad positioned beneath the amplifier controls. The Saturn-R can play MP3 or WMA CDs and there are a selection of associated controls to facilitate MP3 CD navigation, along with a control to display the CD text and a control to toggle the display on / off. The MP3/WMA CD functionality supports discs with up to 999 files or 99 albums, with CD text supported on MP3 CDs only.
In use I was surprised to find that the remote is fairly directional, requiring it to be aimed directly at the Saturn and at reasonably close range to function properly. I also found myself having to press commands a couple of times before the Saturn would respond. I didn’t notice the remote’s directionality with the Elicit-R so suspect it has to do with the receiver in the Saturn itself rather than a criticism of the Solaris.
The Saturn-R supports the usual programming modes including repeat (track and disc), random and the ability to program a playlist of up to 99 tracks to play in any order. With a disc loaded in the player, the display will show the total number of tracks and play time of the disc. in DAC mode, the display shows the incoming frequency (if detected), the chosen DAC input (1 through 5) and the current digital filter.
The USB interface connects to a computer vi a standard USB A-B cable (not supplied). Windows users will need the XMOS driver downloadable from the Rega website. Mac users need no such driver, and it’s plug and play with many common Linux distributions too. 3 LEDS on the rear panel show the USB power and communication status, the 3rd LED lighting when data is flowing through the USB input for example when an audio file or internet stream is playing.
The USB driver was loaded automatically by my Mac upon connecting the cable. A quick check in the Mac’s audio utility confirmed that the correct sampling rate of 24-bit, 192KHZ had been detected and automatically configured. It wasn’t long before Queen’s ‘A Night at The Odeon’ was streaming from iTunes. I’m impressed by the Saturn’s fuss-free USB implementation, though I would like to see the ability to control media playback using the transport controls on the remote.
Straight out of the box my first Saturn-R suffered a transport failure whereby it would fail to play the first track of all but a few discs, and though it would play tracks towards the outer edges of the disc it did so with a significant amount of juddering and skipping. A replacement was better in this regard, managing 14 albums over a span of 4 days before it too began to show signs of imminent failure. Its transformer was also noticeably louder than that of the first example. Allowing the player to run in worsened the performance to the point where it too was returned. At least the paint finish on the top was noticeably better.
Once loaded, discs are initialised quickly. It’s reasonably quiet in operation, though certainly not as silent as some with a noticeable chugging sound audible particularly during the first few tracks of a disc where it spins at its fastest. Seeking tracks is speedy, though seeking through a track is a slow and awkward process. The player doesn’t offer any audible feedback as it seeks, and resuming playback takes a while to respond often resulting in you missing the desired part of the track. While seeking through a track is a function I rarely if ever use, it’s a basic CD playback function that every other player I’ve used gets right. I also found a few discs in my collection that the Saturn refused to initialise, despite them being properly finalised with a valid table of contents. So far no other player has encountered an issue with these discs.
True to Rega’s tradition, the Saturn-R is one of, if not the most, analogue-sounding CD players I’ve ever heard. It’s tonally on the warm side, with plenty of detail. Vocals and acoustic guitars shine, though that’s not to say the Saturn can’t rock out when required. Backgrounds are silent, there’s a distinct clarity to the top and and the bass is exquisitely controlled.
One thing the Saturn possesses that few other CD players can equal is a level of rhythmic drive that makes it extremely fun and entertaining to listen to. It’s virtually impossible not to raise the volume to astronomical levels as the Saturn plays. It’s an infectious sound that’ll have you listening to album after album, and pulling out albums from your collection that you never thought you’d play again just to see what they’ve been hiding. Simply put, it’s great fun.
The sound remains largely consistent when you switch the player to DAC mode. Even 320KBPS MP3 files sound more than respectable. And while I’m not one to buy into the high-res hype, opting instead for music in physical form, a 24-bit rip of Fleetwood Mac’s 1980 live release sounds simply sublime.
While experimenting with the digital filters I struggled to detect a difference and therefore stuck to the player’s defaults. The difference between the digital inputs was however easier to discern. While the characteristics of the sound remained largely the same regardless of the input used, the coaxial input offered better definition and clarity than those of the optical variety, and the USB input offered more of the same over the coaxial with a greater sense of scale and depth to the stereo soundstage.
In summary I can’t fault the saturn’s sound. It brings tracks to life with a sense of pace and timing that’s hard to beat, with a touch of analogue warmth that many CD players are missing. And the high-specification DAC only serves to add to what is undoubtedly an exceptional package.
It’s let down by a few poor design choices, a flimsy lid and a temperamental transport. Questionable quality control is an issue too, detracting from what would otherwise be a fine player. If you’re after an analogue sounding CD player / DAC and its eccentricities and build quality foibles don’t phase you, the Saturn is a fine CD player and worth an audition.