The Rega R1 Loudspeaker
|The Rega R1 Loudspeaker|
A New Budget Reference
I’ve always had the deepest respect for Rega. They have, since their inception, never lost sight of their ideals: making affordable components that truly deliver the music. Their refreshing attitude towards marketing (no advertising/no hype, reliance on word of mouth to earn their reputation,) company structure (non-hierarchical and without the militaristic pyramid structure of authority) further endear them to me, but it is the way they create products that marks them as special. They actually listen to their products and base their design decisions on whether the product truly satisfies their musical ‘jones.’ Making the demands of music their prime design consideration strikes me as the proper relationship between technology and music. That Rega’s products get the music so right and at prices the average music lover might actually be willing to spend makes me seriously question the existential justification for High End items that can’t even get basic rhythms right. “It’s got a bad beat, and even James Brown couldn’t dance to it” in the old American Bandstand record-rating terminology.
Rega is, of course, best known for their turntables and tonearms, products that have so dominated the market that the Rega tonearm geometry has become the default geometry for most other tables and arms. In some ways this success is unfortunate, as it overshadows Rega’s other outstanding products and their larger goal of creating complete music systems, each component of which is designed to work harmoniously with the others to achieve the same direct and satisfying musical result. I reviewed a complete Rega complete system (Rega system) and found that to truly appreciate what Rega is doing musically you really must hear all their components playing together. As good as the individual components are, they are even better when heard in the organic and holistic context of like-minded Rega products. The musical result is so direct and so satisfying that music lovers can easily avoid the darker aspects of the High End/Audiophile obsession.
Much of Rega’s time recently has been spent in the design and development of their new “R” series of loudspeakers, of which the bookshelf/stand-mount R1, at $495 a pair, is the least expensive. There are 5 speakers in the line, the other 4 being floor standers, priced at $795, $1195, $2495, and topping out with their flagship R9 at $3995 a pair. All the speakers were designed in-house and are manufactured in England. Rega designed and manufactures the individual drivers, a unique departure from the current speaker manufacturer norm, where a company buys OEM drivers, slaps them in a box, and uses sweatshop Chinese labor to manufacture them for pennies. The “R” series is no run-of-the-mill speaker line. The time, care, and attention paid to the demands of producing music right have paid off: the R1 hits the musical nail squarely on the head.
At the heart of the R series is Rega’s new RR125 mid/bass driver, a 125 mm paper cone unit of superb transient speed, timing accuracy, clarity and resolution. The R1 uses the RR125 in a small, genuine wood veneered box of mini-monitor (12.5” Hx10”Dx6” W) dimensions. The woofer is reflex-loaded at the back of the R1’s cabinet and is mounted at the top of the cabinet, above the Rega tweeter. Speaker load is benign; Rega quotes a sensitivity of 90 dB. Any good, musically competent solid-state amplifier of 30 watts per channel (for starters Rega’s own Brio comes to mind) should be able to drive the R1’s in the smaller-room applications for which it was designed.
Speaker break-in was typical, with bass response and subtle dynamic tracking being the last aspects of performance to flower, these last fully occurring at about 40 hours of play. Rega’s owner manual doesn’t make any specific recommendations as far as speaker placement and set-up goes. This may strike one as cavalier until one realizes that the goal of the speaker – musical involvement – occurs with even casual set-up. Fully optimizing its performance is up to the user, should they require it, and the speaker fully responds. The R1 is small enough to be actually used on a bookshelf (remember when monsters like the Large Advent and AR 3a were called bookshelf speakers?) as well as on speaker stands. Toe-in doesn’t seem critical, nor does speaker stand type. This was especially true since I use the Stillpoints to isolate all my speakers from their stands: the stand then becomes immaterial. Speaker height is critical however, as the R1’s tweeter is located below the woofer: too high a placement will keep the tweeter from integrating with the mid/bass driver. I tried the R1 in 3 different rooms, with 3 different grades of equipment resolution, and with set-ups ranging from the slothfully maladroit to the classic mini-monitor small room set-up. The R1 was truly musically involving in all these configurations; perfectionist small-room mini-monitor set-up allowed the speaker to project truly hallucinatory stereo illusions in addition to its music making abilities.
Immediate impressions are a clear and transparent portrayal with very high detail retrieval, fast and controlled transient response, and superb musical timing, both in articulating rhythms and tempi, and in placing instruments within the temporal flow and context of the performance. The RR125 is an outstanding mid/bass driver, sonically and musically right in line with the midrange performance of Rega’s amplifiers and phono cartridges. Get the midrange right and everything else will fall into place. Get it wrong, and all the king’s horses…
When auditioned with the R1’s woofer at ear height or lower, the R1’s tweeter has a slight time delay to the ear compared to the RR125. The sonic effect of this is an integration of the tweeter with the RR125 mid/bass unit so well done that it sounds like the R1 is using a single driver. Higher frequency harmonics emanate from the position of the instrument rather than from a detached artificial space above it, yet high frequency percussion placed high in the sound field is perceived as such. The tweeter itself is as exceptional a performer as the RR125, its speed and transient resolution allowing one not only to hear the signatures of cymbals and other high frequency percussion, but also to hear how they are being played, and most crucial of all, to hear their rhythmic patterns. Rega quotes no crossover point for the R1. I was unable to identify it by ear: the sonic and musical coherence of the 2 drivers is exceptional.
Rega has always excelled at coaxing surprising amounts of clear bass from their small bass drivers. The R1’s bass response is very clearly articulated and is as fast and rhythmically coherent as the rest of the bandwidth. Users can expect flat response in-room to at least 80 Hz (in my small room ‘classic’ mini-monitor set-up, the –3dB point was 63 Hz) with some additional reinforcement available by room size, building construction rigidity, and speaker positioning.Bass lines are extremely easy to follow: the R1 passed my acid test of The Ron Carter Quartet’s Piccolo, clearly separating Carter’s piccolo bass from Buster Williams’ lower pitched standard acoustic bass AND articulating what they were doing musically and rhythmically. Considering that I’ve heard $7,000 to $10,000 speakers flub this recording, the R1’s performance is stellar. Low bass rolls off steeply due to the reflex-loading of the RR125 of course, but in small rooms in particular, articulate and detailed bass is far more musically communicative than opaque boom and thud. Quality trumps quantity every time. Like some other truly excellent small speakers, some of the lower bass is “phantom” bass; the R1’s speed and transient control reproduces the 2nd and 3rd harmonics of a bass note so well that one can both identify and place the instrument in the sound field, even though the 30 to 60 Hz range where the fundamental note is placed might be down in absolute level.
One could of course try to augment the R1’s bass response by adding a subwoofer. To be successful the subwoofer would have to match the R1’s fleetness of foot and would have to have a steep crossover roll-off so that the subwoofer’s mid-bass response would not interfere with that of the R1. Particularly in small rooms, this is unlikely to succeed. It makes more sense to move up to the Rega R3 or R5 speakers with their larger cabinets and additional bass drivers ($795 and $1195) if one’s room is too big to allow the R1’s bass response to convince.
Unlike many inexpensive speakers, the R1 is a very high-resolution device. It is not “dumbed-down” to flatter less able partners or mediocre recordings, nor does it partake of the old British stereotype of too stiff an upper lip reticence. It handles nuance and exuberance equally well. It is capable of revealing differences in electronics and sources that less capable and opaque designs simply cannot resolve. In this aspect of performance, the R1 can become ‘analytical.’ The solution is to audition the R1 in the context of a complete Rega system whose overall nature is integrative and organic. Still, even with my humblest auditioning system (a 1970’s Connoisseur BD2a turntable and Marantz 1060 integrated amp surely qualify as humble enough) the R1’s extracted the musical message unambiguously, relayed the acoustic in which instruments originated, and created a 3-dimensional sound field that eliminated any perceptual effort at orientation. It was clear, however, that R1 was capable of more than this system was producing, and further auditioning at 3 higher resolution levels showed the R1 to be completely at ease.
Not surprisingly given Rega’s strong turntable background, the R1’s really shine with LP playback, creating that deep sense of rhythmic and musical flow that is the LP’s forte. I used the R1’s in my recent review of the Graham Slee Elevator EXP and Era Gold V phono preamps and found it able to reveal sonic and musical differences in phono sections, arms, cartridges and turntables. Not to the degree of my Sound Lab Dynastat big room reference speakers, of course, but remember that this is a $500 “entry-level” product. There is something deeply satisfying about a reasonably priced speaker able to make such fine discriminations.
High resolution, detail, and fleetness of foot do not always guarantee musical communication however. It is the ability to organize the sound into comprehensible and meaningful patterns that is the gist of successful music making, both in actual live performance and in audio reproduction. Punctuation, emphasis and de-emphasis, and the organization of time are crucial here. This area has been the province of British products in general, and Rega products in particular, almost exclusively for most of the last 30 years: the R1 continues Rega’s noble tradition. It makes musical sense of a wide variety of types of music, leading quickly to an immersion into the music rather than to a distracting awareness of the sound of the speaker. This is as it should be, and is part of Rega’s long-standing design philosophy: Listen to the music. Quit obsessing about the sound!
I have always been more impressed by inexpensive speakers that deliver the music than I have by cost-no-object designs. It takes far more design intelligence and a deeper awareness of the demands of music to produce a coherent budget design. It seems, in fact, that the more expensive the dynamic-driver speaker, the less likely it is get the basics of music right. Forget rubato, forget revealing “in the pocket’’ drumming, or articulating polyrhythms: most of the over-priced dynamic-driver speaker monstrosities can’t even lay out a simple 4/4 beat. They too often play as if they were musical illiterates. That inexpensive speakers can get the basics of timing, phrasing and punctuation right creates a difficult existential crisis for mega-buck speakers that can’t. For this reason I have always kept a budget reference speaker around.
The Rega R1 becomes my new budget reference speaker. In addition of its ability to get the fundamentals of music right, it adds clarity and resolution, and an ability to lay out a vivid and coherent 3-dimensional stereo image. In small room applications, what more could you want?
2–way bookshelf/stand mount loudspeaker.
Nominal Impedance: 8 ohms.
Rega Research Limited
119 Park Street
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