When I first laid eyes on it, I thought, “A CDP with heat sinks? Now that’s radical!” The Rega Saturn is something different, not due to its slightly unconventional looks, but rather its unconventional technology and, dare I say radically unconventional sound.
The term “radical” seems a bit strong for the British outfit that has produced a stable of winsome products for vinyl as well as digital. Ask any audiophile for the name of a radical manufacturer of audio equipment and I assure you Rega will not be the first on the lips. However, to my mind, the Saturn borders on the term, revolutionary redbook technology.
Let’s get the physical and operational descriptions out of the way, since the Saturn will not win awards for the most innovative looking component. Of course, Rega is not gunning for such awards – they largely kept the now familiar chassis and display of the Planet and Jupiter (the Saturn is available in either silver or black satin metal finish), and fitted it with a similar “USS Enterprise” shaped top loading lid. That lid always has been one of my favorite fantasies melding audiophilia and pop culture, thinking as I insert a disc… “To boldly play where no CD player has played before!”
The power-amp-like fins are not heat sinks. They are stabilization devices to add mass and rigidity, and they fairly shout, “This unit will unleash serious digital signals…” They lend a look of seriousness to the player that is fitting for a high-end component.
Vinyl is Rega’s heritage and while they made respectable CD players, they were not the last word in digital sources. However, as their supplier, Sony, stopped supplying digital transports for them, they were thrown into crisis. Rather than sourcing transports from the East, Rega went a different route and elected to build its own transport. By acquiring a British software company, which had developed a 32 bit program to read Redbook CD’s, both the software and hardware were in place for a radical improvement of Redbook player sound.
What Rega has done in the Saturn strikes me as the marriage of a computer brain with the eye of a CD player. The player is a testament to the fact that we live in an age where data is King. The Saturn will make a believer in fine digital playback out of all but the most hard-boiled vinylphiles.
And if one thinks it through, the inevitable emergence of a CDP superior in every respect to vinyl makes sense. After all, data dominates our reality. Our body’s own DNA screams to us that we are mind-numbingly complex biomachines. Yet, all that precision in information, as quantifiable in DNA as bits in the digital realm, yields an organic being.
Allow me to make a prediction: A new generation of CDP’s will demonstrate that it is not digital data that is cold and harsh sounding, but the lack of proper technology to transmit that data into sound. The more precise the data is mined and transmitted from a CD, the more organic sounding the music will be. I predict that as CDP’s in the Saturn’s strain advance, they will sound better, fuller, more complete than vinyl. In fact, it’s happening now.
The Saturn certainly does treat the data on a CD differently than the typical player. Upon insertion into the machine, as the display pleasantly indicates “initializing”, the laser assembly aligns itself properly to the disc. Processing the data takes longer than with conventional players. But then again, the Saturn is utilizing 20 megabytes of memory to max out playback of the CD. Because of past limitations on the memory in CD players, even 24 bit players could not address the disc with unlimited number crunching authority. But, the Saturn, with its 32 bit processing can handle all the data without compromise.
I recall a demonstration of a computer-based product in which a hard drive recorded a CD, and then the cd was played back from the hard drive as a source. The sound was impressive since all the data from the cd could be exploited. Rega has done similar by upping the memory and processing in a CD player. The result is a purer signal and and less influences by error correction. The resultant sound is much more natural than one would expect from a player under $2,500.
There is a very minor price to pay for such processing power, a few seconds of your precious time. Initialization takes several seconds; however, I noticed that in comparison to the Apollo, the Saturn seems quicker. When a disc is inserted, one needs wait up to ten seconds for initialization to complete. For some, such a wait is intolerable; they want to begin mashing buttons the microsecond numbers begin displaying.
I say, “Settle down, Nanoman!” Take a second to rearrange your butt on your chair, blow your nose or something to occupy the time, because it’s all going to be well worth it. As harried as we are, we take the time to wash our cars, have our shoes shined or clothes dry cleaned, groom ourselves (well, most of us, anyway), so simply consider this essential time to get the superior results this machine will give you. Bypassing this machine because you can’t wait a few seconds would be a BIG mistake, maybe not in the scheme of life, but definitely in the scheme of audio.
It should be noted that the Saturn also plays MP3 and WMA files. The manual gives instructions that the recordable disc should be burned at no greater than 8x to guarantee readability of the disc. My test disc played flawlessly and sounded terrific. The Saturn may take a bit longer to initialize to play home made discs, but I did not experience an undue delay when I used this feature. I can assure that the Saturn will bring out the best of such formats. However, this review will focus on the use of the Saturn to play redbook discs.
A puzzling feature of the Saturn is the enigmatic ‘silent search’ function. When fast forwarding or fast reversing, the unit is completely silent. This gives the listener no clue where they are in the process of searching the disc. One must jump into fast mode, then pop back out again to check the progress. The software and chip set that Rega obtained do not contain that functionality. The rest of the now-familiar “Solar” system remote supplied with both the Apollo and Saturn is straightforward. Aside from being a tad bit large for the necessary functions of the player, it is laid out fairly intuitively and works reliably. *
Aside from these idiosyncrasies, the Saturn is intuitive. I found that I could fairly, easily look past these things, and all it takes is one half-hour listening session to convince a person that the peculiarities of the machine are negligible compared to what it can do.
And how does it sound? In a word – Glorious! To describe the sound in terms of bass, midrange and treble would be sacrilege. It would be similar to describing a Salvador Dali painting in terms of structure. It’s not perfunctorily structured; it flows, bends reality and lures your eyes across the face of the image.
Similarly, one does not hear simple bass, midrange and treble with the Saturn but a myriad of smaller flowing realities – not midrange, but the low midrange as well as the higher midrange and that just a bit higher, but not so high as to be treble midrange, as well as about three or four categories in-between. These all blend so seamlessly that you sense the multilayered richness but none stands out obtrusively. The cohesiveness and fluidity of the presentation is wonderful.
I listened to Craig Chaquico’s Acoustic Planet, track #8, “Center of Courage”, a guitar picker’s paradise. With the Saturn, I could hear just about how many molecules of skin touched each string. The astounding clarity of the Saturn allows the listener to process at a higher rate, along with the player. As the notes were ferociously plucked, even at each split second it was played, I could clearly sense the force with which the string was pulled.
As a person who once played guitar, I know that when played at such a blistering pace, some notes are inadvertently played more lightly than others. The speed covers up the minor discrepancies. This is natural; as people perform faster, there is more variation from the norm. It is beautiful and interesting to have such resolution that I can hear the subtleties of his fingers – most grabbing each string, but once in a while one grazing a string.
The Saturn has a way of “de-analoguing” older discs. You know, the ones recorded “AAD”. They just don’t sound as good as “DDD” most of the time. For that reason, I have struggled to play them. They sound older, less precise, less involving. With its delicious blend of processing power and smoothness, the Saturn magically transforms these discs into sounding far more like “DDD” recordings. It’s amazing how so much additional clarity and precision can be achieved while simultaneously dropping the noise floor to abysmal levels. The result is that by making older discs sound less analogue and more digital, they acquire a sound form closer to high end vinyl. I am well aware that such a statement sounds contradictory, but a listening session with the Saturn will convince you of its accuracy.
There are thousands of older CD’s like Dave Sanborn’s Straight to the Heart which was recorded in 1984 – 22 years ago! That’s ancient for digital. I love the music and recall seeing him in concert in an open air venue amid wicked skies and (unbeknownst to our concert-going group) tornado warnings. The memory was so vivid, but the disc always sounded like an old album being reproduced, an attempt to drag music recorded with older technology into the digital age. However, the Saturn makes it sound like an entirely fresh recording, much more like I’m back at the concert again. The hellish haze of noise is almost completely gone! Sonically it’s like someone took one of those Ionic Breeze units to the recording. Hmmm…is that an idea for a new tweak?
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