One instinctively knows when something is right. And so it was when I first discovered the Rega Brio five or so years ago. Costing just £328, Rega described it as a “simple, high performance, integrated amplifier”with the company’s characteristic understatement, and that’s a fair summary. A Terry Bateman design (one of Rega’s stalwart designers and a valve amplifier aficionado), it is based around a pair of Sanken 150w Darlington output transistors. An electronic circuit protects against shorted speakers and reactive loads. The short circuit detects loads of 1.7W or less. The Brio has enough power to deliver 100 watts into a 2W load. The power supply uses a generously rated toroidal transformer and 10,000mF smoothing capacitors providing enough current to drive the hardest of loads. The company claims 38w RMS per channel into 8W, and it has five inputs: Phono, CD, Tuner, Line and tape. There’s a toroidal mains transformer inside.
This little amplifier was made in England, and finished in a way that totally belied its price. Admittedly, its feature count is sparse – so there’s little on it to suck up the budget – but it still seemed unexpectedly solid for the money and had a sturdy painted steel casing set around the acrylic fascia. I only realised that costs had been cut when I found the volume control’s channel balance at low levels wasn’t quite spot on; that aside it could pass for a £1,000 product.
Sonically, it sounds even more expensive. It is lucidly musical in a way that totally belies its price point. It’s not the best amplifier in the world of course, but you never so much as question its position in life until you get it driving speakers ten or fifteen times as expensive as the sort of budget fare you’d expect to run it with. It just sounds incredibly engaging; there’s something beguiling about it, in an eerily valve-like way, that makes you want to run the gamut of your music collection and enjoy every last second of the performance. It’s flawed, but you just don’t care. Special amplifiers such as this may not be as technically accomplished as similarly priced rivals, but you don’t give this so much as a second thought; such is its ability to get you ‘lost in music’.
The Brio even drove my reference Yamaha NS1000M loudspeakers with surprising ease. These are starkly revealing and sound just plain painful with anything less than the right amp driving them. Normally it’s only when you put truly classy tube amplification on the end that you get fireworks. Well, the humble Rega Brio sang. In absolute terms it proved a little two dimensional, a touch too ‘around the plane of the speakers’, and it was ever so slightly loose and splashy, yet still three things amazed me about it…
First is its power output; Rega’s quoted 38W sounded louded than most and it never once seemed to lack confidence when called upon to aspire these tricky three ways. Rega’s hype about how it can go loud into low loads is – unusually – true in this case. Second is its tonality, which proved surprisingly rich and euphonic. It has a warm bass, smooth and slightly cloudy midband and decently sweet treble. I was not expecting this; I’ve heard few budget designs work as well with what I regard to be one of the world’s most merciless loudspeakers. Also impressive was the Rega’s midband dynamic articulation. Even at high volume levels, when asked to signpost the difference between a light drum stroke and a balls-out thwack of the snare drum, the Rega didn’t so much as bat an eyelid. The result was an extremely musical sound with very few signs of strain.