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Rega io, Brio, & Elex-R Integrated Amplifier Comparison
Rega has become known over the decades as one of the top turntable suppliers in the world. Their turntables have won numerous awards over the years that are well deserved. As a matter of fact, at Audio Advice, our most popular turntable overall is the Rega Planar 3.
What you might not be aware of is the fact that Rega also produces a complete line of integrated stereo amplifiers that cover a very wide range of prices. These amps are a lot like their turntables with their simple, no-frills design that focuses on great sound over gimmickry. They are also in very similar prices, ranging from $699 all the way to about $10,000
With the recent introduction of their io model, Rega hit a price level way under $1,000 — bringing that classic Rega sound to a much larger group of music lovers. We thought it would be fun to take a look at the new io and offer up some comparisons between the io, the Brio, and the Elex-R. These are by far the most popular Rega integrated amp models and hopefully, if you are considering one of them, this will help you make a better decision on which model matches up best to your needs.
What's an Integrated Amp?
For those of you new to great home audio, we want to give a quick lesson on just what an integrated amplifier is and clear up a little terminology confusion you might encounter if you start shopping around. An integrated amplifier is actually two components rolled into one. If you look at high-performance audio separate components you’ll see lots of preamps and power amps.
A preamp is the control section that switches your sources. It may also include a phono preamp, and some preamps have digital sections with built-in D/A converters. The preamp will switch between sources for you, then send that signal to the power amp through a volume control that lets you adjust the audio level.
A power amp, as the name implies, simply provides power to your speakers. Power amps do not have switching, but just get a single connection from a preamp.
If you combine a power amp and preamplifier into one box, you get an integrated amp. That would seem simple enough, but in many European countries, they do not have a lot of room for audio components and very few separate components are sold. Over time, and especially in the UK, the integrated amp evolved in its name to just being called an amplifier. In the US, we would think of that name as meaning a power amp, so just keep that in mind when you are looking around at components. Rega calls all of their integrated amps amplifiers and they do not even make a separate amp and preamp at this point.
With these three Rega integrated amps being all about great audio, they do share some common characteristics.
First, everyone uses a toroidal power transformer. These are quieter than standard power transformers and offer better performance, although they do cost more than a cheap basic transformer.
Next, none of the Rega integrated amps have anything digital — they are purely analog. Each one also has a good moving magnet phono preamp.
All of the integrated amps have solid binding posts for speaker connections for one pair of speakers. If you want to upgrade the AC power cable, this is possible on every model as they all have detachable power cords.
We sometimes forget about this when discussing Rega products, and it is a pretty amazing fact in this day and age of globalization, but all Rega products are made in their UK factory. That is very impressive when you consider their price points.
Finally, each model comes with a small remote control for the basic functions of the unit.
Now let’s take a look at each one to help you understand which model might be the best pick for your system.
Rega io Integrated Amplifier
Rega, like a lot of great audio companies, uses what we refer to as trickle-down technology. When they discover a better way to do things, they come up with ways to make that new tech more affordable.
The Rega io integrated is a great example of this. When Rega updated the Brio integrated amp in 2017, they learned a lot about circuit isolation, chassis design, and how to make a good headphone amp even better. The Brio has won a whole host of awards for its great sound for the money.
You can really view the Rega io as simply a lower-powered Brio. Rega wanted to take all the great things about the new Brio and make a unit that sounded very similar with less power for customers who might not need the extra power in the Brio.
The io is rated at a very conservative 30 watts per channel and has the exact same type of amplifier circuit the Brio does. It is class A/B and uses two Sanken output transistors per channel. Rega paid very careful attention to the parts selection for the io to get the very best bang for the buck. They even used a high-end Alps volume potentiometer, the likes of which you would normally find in far more expensive gear.
The io has two line-level inputs and a moving magnet phono input. The custom-designed phono preamp is the exact same circuitry found in the Brio, which is pretty darn impressive! It has plenty of gain for any moving magnet cartridge.
For the headphone amp, Rega uses relays to switch over to the internal power amplifier, which means it can drive any headphone with ease and sounds super effortless. When you plug in the headphones, the speakers are muted automatically.
When Rega re-designed the case for the new Brio, they came up with a design using an aluminum shell with a heavier steel base to help improve the ability of the heat sinks to shed off heat. The case for the io is very similar in design and in our opinion actually looks even better than the new Brio.
Finally, you get a newly designed mini remote with the io.
With the only real difference between the Brio and the io being power and the number of inputs, the io is actually a great fit for a lot of people. The io uses just two output transistors per channel. There have been a few other classic amps over the last several decades with this type of layout. Something about that type of circuit just sounds really good on the right speakers.
To our ears, on speakers that are not very demanding, the io actually sounds a little sweeter than the Brio- although the Brio certainly wins out on dynamics and separation of instruments. But at $400 less than the Brio, the io will let you take that money and put it towards purchasing a great set of speakers to match up to your io.
Rega products are known for being true to the rhythm and pacing of the music, totally fun to listen to, and having the ability to portray dynamic contrasts really well. These are all the things that draw you closer to the performance. The io captures all of these characteristics at a price point we have not seen before from Rega.
Pair the io with a small pair of B&W, Paradigm, Klipsch, or the new Rega Kyte speakers and you will have a system that can rival ones costing far more, especially if you are listening in a small to modest-sized room!
Rega Brio Integrated Amplifier
If you are thinking about the Brio over the io, you basically get an amp with a lot more horsepower! In addition to the extra power, the Brio provides two additional analog audio inputs and a tape output for those of you getting back into the retro world of cassette or reel to reel.
The phono preamp sections are identical, so the big difference to us is in the power supply and power amplifier section. The Brio has a much more massive power supply. Just the sheer weight difference tells you the transformer is far larger with the io weighing in at a little over 6 pounds and the Brio being over 11 pounds.
What this much bigger amp and power supply translates to from a listening perspective are much better dynamics and control. Bass impact, especially on larger speakers, is far better. The larger power supply and amp stage also enable the Brio to separate out individual instruments better in space.
The headphone amp design is the same as the io in that it uses relays to deploy the power amp section. We did not hear any real difference in headphones between the two units as the amp in the io is plenty for any pair of headphones.
So, which is the better choice — the io or the Brio? If you plan to stick with an easy to drive, small pair of speakers in a modestly sized space, the io is a great deal. However, the Brio can drive far more demanding speakers with ease. We even tested it with the very hard to power Magnepan MG 1.7i and it drove them incredibly well. For those of you who love listening to music and improving your system, it will take a much longer time to outgrow the Brio, if ever.
Like the io, the Brio gives you that live feeling to music that we just love about Rega products. You’ll be able to mate it up with a variety of speakers, including most floorstanding models, and its sound will make you smile!
Rega Elex-R Integrated Amplifier
The Elex-R is the next step up in Rega’s line of integrated amps and the top model in this comparison. There are three more models above it in the Rega stable of amps, as Rega is very serious about their integrated amplifiers. The Elicit-R is the model up from the Elex-R and you’ll find the Elex-R shares some of its great technology.
Feature-wise, the Elex-R is similar to the Brio with a built-in moving magnet phono preamp, 4 other analog inputs, a record out, and it adds a preamp out. The preamp out would come in very handy for mating up a subwoofer to the system, a feature lacking on the Brio and io.
We guess you can say the Elex-R is really made for analog music lovers. At the Elex-R price point, a lot of its competition will offer digital inputs and Bluetooth, but it is the great sound of the Elex-R that makes people love it. It is no wonder the Elex-R is one of, if not the most awarded amplifier in its price range.
The Elex-R takes the beefy power the Brio can provide and takes it to a whole other level. You’ll find an even more massive power supply inside the Elex-R which makes it weigh in at more than double the weight of the Brio at 24 pounds. The Elex-R comes in a full-size chassis which also allows for increased heat dissipation.
This guy will make your speakers stand up and pay attention with control over the dynamics and bass that is super impressive for its price. You will be able to drive just about any pair of speakers we know of under around 3K a pair easily with the Elex-R.
The Elex-R is rated at 72.5 watts per channel, but it sounds far more powerful than this rating. We think this power rating is quite interesting to think about. Most manufacturers of audio gear will decide they need a product that has a certain amount of power to compete against other models. They design the amp to hit that power spec. With the nonstandard number of 72.5 watts per channel, you can tell Rega told the design team to make the best sounding amp they knew how to make for the price point, then whatever the power rating came out to is what it is. That is pretty cool!
Vinyl lovers will be happy to know the phono preamp in the Elex-R is a huge jump up from Brio, as it is the same one used in the much more expensive Elicit-R. It is also super quiet with a total lack of any noise. It will easily support a Planar 6 table with the top of the line moving magnet Exact 2 cartridge.
The only thing lacking as compared to the Brio is a headphone jack. Rega elected to put the cost of this into sound quality giving you a better phono preamp and amp section. The good news is, with the preamp outs on the rear, you can easily add a separate headphone amp with no issues.
The Elex-R takes all of the aspects we love about the Brio and just simply gives you more of them. Rhythm and pacing are even better, dynamics and bass control take another step up, and the separation of individual instruments with each one revealing subtle micro-level volume changes is easier to hear.
Getting the best sound for your money comes down to remembering your system is only as good as your weakest link. When deciding on the best integrated amp, you have to think about the other parts of your musical chain, like your speakers and source components. And, along with that process, consider where you want to be in ten years’ time with your system.
If you have speakers and a front end that you love, get the best integrated amp that you can afford. However, if you have a fixed budget and are just starting out, the io is just so amazing for its price point, you’ll probably love it for years to come.
We would love to help you design the best system for your room and budget, so please feel free to reach out to us via phone, email, chat, or if you are in the Raleigh or Charlotte area, drop by one of our stores.
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