The Isis CD player and Osiris integrated amplifier ($8995 each) are, by a very wide margin, the most ambitious audio components ever produced by the British firm Rega Research, and as such they represent what some might consider a radical departure from the firm’s past offerings. After all, most Rega products have been mid-priced overachievers—not premium-priced components looking to storm the gates of high-end audio. Since past performance is often the best indicator of a company’s future behavior, the Isis and Osiris raise an inevitable question: Does Rega really have what it takes to be a player in high-end audio’s top-tier?
To be perfectly candid, I came upon this review full of skepticism and doubt, not because I haven’t found past Rega products good (many I’ve tried have been very good), but rather because I am aware that in the high end of high-end audio, “good” just isn’t good enough. It also does not help that many mid-tier manufacturers have previously tried and failed to take this quantum step upward. The problem, more often than not, is that aspiring mid-tier players who aim high but fall short largely do so because they end up producing expensive and exceptionally well-built components that still sound pretty much like well-executed pieces of mid-tier equipment. What’s often missing, I think, is the kind of breathtaking, extraordinary, stop-listeners-in-their-tracks sound quality that is the hallmark of all true top-tier components.
Let me begin this review by telling you that, over the months they have been in my reference system, Rega’s Isis and Osiris have proven time and again that they are no mere wannabes. On the contrary, they’ve convinced me they are in every way the genuine articles, and are—believe it or not—legitimate contenders for crème de la crème honors in their price range. The sound quality of Rega’s flagship components require no apologies. While some have questioned whether Rega has abandoned its value-oriented roots or simply over-reached by building the Isis and Osiris, I see the pair as marking a point of redefinition or rebirth for Rega, so that all that has come before from the firm has been merely a prelude. In short, the Isis and Osiris show what those plucky and creative Brits can really do when they pull out all the stops, flex their design muscles, and embrace the concept of British exceptionalism (a term that really does apply here).
In a moment I’ll discuss the qualities that make the sound of the Isis and Osiris exceptional, but first let me explain some of their key construction details.
The Isis is the Rega’s seventh-generation CD player design, and it leverages all that the firm has learned in creating its first six generations of players. Modest to a fault, Rega characterizes the Isis as more an evolutionary than revolutionary design, though in practice it sounds dramatically different and better than previous Rega players.
Differences begin with the Isis’ chassis, whose panels are precision CNC-milled from thick slabs of aluminum, then bolted together to form a beefy, vibration-resistant platform for the components within. Like all Rega CD players, the Isis is a top-loader, but one whose drive motor and laser/lens assemblies have been rigorously hand-selected and “blueprinted.” Unlike many top-loaders, the Isis doesn’t use any sort of weighted puck to clamp discs to its motor spindle; instead, the motor is fitted with a precisely machined combination spindle/ball-chuck mechanism that locks CD firmly in place (meaning you’ll hear a soft, reassuring “click” as you snap CD’s into position).
Component-parts-matching for the Isis is extremely selective so that Rega actually chooses three hand-matched sets of laser/lens assemblies for each unit; one set gets installed in the player you buy, while the other two are marked and held in reserve at the factory for use as spares should your player ever require them. The drive mechanism and laser/lens assembly is controlled by a custom CD control chipset and software developed specifically for Rega by a British partner, with two objectives in mind. First, the Isis is set up to “test-read” each CD and then to adjust and optimize its laser/lens positioning algorithms to match the specific characteristics of the disc (meaning that laser positioning is fine-tuned on a disc-by-disc basis).
Rega says this process means the Isis “will often play discs with marks or scratches that other players cannot read.” Second, the CD chip-set includes an unusually large 20MB data buffer, which CD control software leverages to allow extra time for an extremely powerful 32-bit DSP engine to run extensive error-detection/correction algorithms, to help clean up digital audio data before passing it along to the Isis’ DACs. Rega contends that, “previous chipsets always made compromises on error correction,” so that it was “possible of have good jog resistance or better musical performance.” But with the Isis CD control chip-set, Rega claims it is now possible to optimize both at once.