Rega io integrated amplifier

It might strike some of you to start a Rega review talking about Naim, but the comparison begs to be made. Rega’s io is destined for legendary status.

Naim’s original Nait amplifier was a fantastic product, offering incredible musicality in a compact form factor at a price everyone could afford. It enticed thousands of audiophiles based on the above, and to this day, those still in possession of a working Nait cherish it.

 We’ve always been huge fans of Rega’s $900 Brio-R for the same reasons. While the Brio-R bests the vintage Nait in every way, it remains true to the concept of high performance, high value, and minuscule form factor. Though lacking the onboard digital section of something like the PS Audio Sprout (come on, this is Rega we’re talking about), the sound quality of the Rega’s discrete design and overall build quality is far superior. Rega says that the phono and amplifier section of this amplifier are straight from the Brio, so it’s easy to hear where its brilliance comes from.

Lowering the stylus on my older Rega P3 with Elys 2 cartridge, via a pair of FYNE 500 speakers makes beautiful music with a minimum footprint. Tracking through the first side of the purple bonus disc of Prince’s One Night Alone is spacious and delicate. Even though the FYNE speakers only have a sensitivity of 87db/1 watt, they are driven and controlled by the 30 watts per channel offered by the io with ease. The io only offers MM phono, but it is of very high quality. There are plenty of standalone phonostages selling for the $595 MSRP of the io failing to reveal this much music.

Different legos

Swapping the P3 out for a vintage Technics SL-1200 facilitates trying a few other MM cartridges from Sumiko, Clearaudio, and Shure. All offer equally fantastic results, so any cartridges in the $50-$500 range should be a good fit. The phono section of the io is extremely quiet, but Rega has been building great budget phonostages for decades. Experience makes the difference.

Also included in the io is a front panel, mini headphone jack. Trying to stay in the budget ethos, a few phones from B&W, Grado, and an original pair of Audeze 2s make for great personal listening. Again, we can’t think of a $595 headphone amplifier with onboard phonostage that we’ve enjoyed this much. Apartment dwellers not yet ready for speakers would be smart to acquire an io as a headphone amplifier for now, adding speakers later. The io is the perfect building block to transition you from personal listening to full room listening. Merely plug your phones in to disable the speaker outputs.

In addition to the MM phono input, there are two more line-level analog inputs around back, so you can add a DAC/streamer, possibly a tuner, or maybe even a tape deck. Staying compact, we used the Gold Note DS-10 DAC/streamer to provide digital files for additional listening beyond analog.

Quiet quality

In the end, the amount of music that the io reveals is the value proposition. There have been a handful of notable low power solid-state amplifiers over the decades, and we submit the io for top billing. Most amplifiers at this price (and beyond) struggle just to drive a pair of speakers. The io sounds like a component you would expect to pay quite a bit more for.

One of the biggest keys to Rega’s ability to build this much for this little is their corporate frugality, combined with major engineering chops, building nearly everything in-house. Having been to the factory a few times, their commitment to excellence and efficiency is amazing. They use a limited number of enclosures for the same products to minimize tooling costs, with as much raw material overlap as possible. Everything they do is refined, distilled, and simplified as far as it can, but no more. Finally, the highly skilled workforce at the factory assures things are built and tested to perform for the long term. The io is built with the same level of care that Regas top components are.

Sublime sonics

Using the io as an anchor for a $1,500 system will provide plenty of sonic bliss, but going upstream a bit proves just how much more this small amplifier is capable of. Swapping the FYNE speakers for the $1,500/pair Wharfdale Lintons and even the $4,000/pair JBL L-100 classics – both with excellent result illustrates how much resolution the baby Rega amp can muster. This amplifier could easily be paired with components costing a lot more. 

The io provides a lot of bass control, offering a lot of low-frequency definition when listening to bass heavy tracks. This was always an area that the original Nait lacked.

The ios’ high frequency response (especially when listening with more revealing speakers) has a level of polish that you’d expect in a $3,000 integrated. Again, there’s something special about a high quality, low power amplifier used within the realm of its capability. This amplifier plays music with the best.

Selecting tracks with multiple vocal layers shine through, and acoustic pieces give enough insight to feel natural. The io is dynamic, but like the Brio-R will hit a wall. 30 watts only goes so far, and this amplifier does run into a wall when taxed. It does not clip hard though, it merely flattens out dimensionally. The solution is easy, keep listening levels modest or get a pair of very efficient speakers.

Head of the class

The Rega io is so good, one is tempted to summon up a cauldron full of well-worn audiophile clichés. While it is excellent at first listen, the toughest part of reviewing a component offering such a high level of performance is that it begs being connected to much more expensive ancillaries to experience the depth of its true capabilities. You could grab a pair of budget speakers and a thrift shop turntable and live happily ever after with the io, but like that other legend from the UK, don’t be surprised to see this one in the company of much more expensive components. Watch for the audio forums of 2050 to speak of this amplifier in hushed reverence.

Of course, the io is worthy of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2020, but that doesn’t truly explain a product that gets the essence of the music so right. Audiophiles beginning their journey here may be spoiled for a very long time.

I need one!

The Rega io

$599 (NA distributor) (factory)

Rega’s Vivacious Brio

The dictionary in my Macintosh defines Brio as “vivacity of style or performance,” but in the case of Rega’s Brio integrated amplifier, it has a vivacity of style and performance. With so many choices these days, it’s tough to sort through it all.

Though England’s Rega Research is best known for their turntables, they have been making a full line of high quality amplifiers (and speakers) for decades. The new Brio you see here is a perfect example of an integrated amplifier with an outstanding on-board phonostage, featuring more than enough power to drive any pair of speakers and a headphone input for personal listening.

This beautiful amplifier will only set you back $995, and it’s small, 8.5”W x 3”H x 13.5”D footprint will fit anywhere, making it a perfect choice for the space challenged music lover. We paired our review sample with the awesome Totem Signature One speakers ($2,650/pair) and Rega’s legendary Planar 3 turntable ($1,145 with Elys 2 cartridge).  While you don’t have to spend that much on a pair of speakers to build a great Brio-centric system, know that it is up to the task.

Around back, there are four analog inputs for any other components you might have, like a digital to audio converter (DAC), CD player, tuner, or even a tape deck. Considering the mighty cassette from the 80s is making a mega comeback, you never know. Taking this a step further, the Brio offers a “record output,” just begging you to make a mix tape, which I did, inspired by a recent screening of Guardians of the Galaxy. Firing up the Nakamichi cassette deck with a fresh tape and a pile of 80s favorites, all rendered by the Rega turntable, this proved to be a fun and engaging experience – something a streaming playlist just doesn’t provide.

If you aren’t going all-Rega, the Brio features a standard MM (moving magnet) phono input, so you can use it with any turntable sporting a moving magnet phono cartridge. We auditioned the super stylish, vertical Pro-Ject turntable as well as the newest offering from EAT, all with excellent results. Rega has always been known for making great phono sections and the Brio is highly capable.

Regardless of what medium you choose to use with your Brio, the sound quality is fantastic, and that’s what makes this little amplifier such a great value. Rega build quality is equally great; we’ve been using a number of their products without fail for decades now. Thanks to a broad dealer network worldwide, in the unfortunate event that your Brio ever needs a bit of help, it’s never far away.

The Brio’s 50 watts per channel is enough to drive most speakers to realistic levels, and more than enough to get most apartment dwellers evicted, so you can look forward to distortion, fatigue free music, regardless of how loud or how long you listen. After initial listening with the Totems, we auditioned the Brio with a number of different speakers, some considerably more expensive and came away highly impressed with the level of refinement that this amplifier delivers. TONEAudio Magazine gave their overall Product of the Year award, judging the $995 Brio-R against other components with six-figure pricetags. A side by side comparison with a friend’s last generation Brio-R proves the new model sonically better in every way.

A bare bones remote helps control the Brio from your listening position, but it is small, so keep it in view or you might lose it. The only other caveat with the Brio is that the speaker outputs on the rear panel are very close together, so if you haven’t bought speaker cables yet, make sure they have banana plugs. Anything with spade lugs will be tough if not impossible to use.

Finally, the headphone section of the Brio is dynamic and powerful as well. Running it through a number of playlists with a wide range of headphones again proves its versatility, making it a great headphone listening station, even if you don’t have speakers yet!

If you need high performance on a tight budget, with a slender form factor, Rega’s Brio integrated amplifiers is one of the best you can buy.

The Rega Brio Integrated Amplifier

$995 (factory) (US Distributor)

The Sonneteer Alabaster Integrated Amplifier

Sonneteer is a new name to many, admittedly including me. In the 1980s, college friends Haider Bahrani and Remo Casadei discovered their shared passion for live music and audio recording. After years envisioning products for their own use, and leaning on their backgrounds in electrical engineering, the two solidified their collaboration in 1994 with the founding of UK-based Sonneteer.

Why name the company Sonneteer you ask? In addition to his design skills, Bahrani enjoyed poetry. The name serves as an homage to those sonnet writers who inspired him. As such, their Alabaster Integrated Amplifier received its moniker from 16th-century poet William Alabaster[1] [2] .


The Alabaster integrated amp sports a traditional and understated appearance. Our review sample with a black anodized aluminum facade does little to hint at the electronic prowess within. The front panel offers a purist complement of controls, with three knobs managing input source selection, adjust volume, and power. That is it. While the Alabaster may not win any beauty awards for modern elegance, the build quality is solid; with controls and switches that feel substantial when operated. For a very reasonable price around $2,400, this integrated earns a high score for price-performance. Looks are always a plus, but of course, that kind of facelift would drive up production cost. I applaud Sonneteer’s tradeoff, focusing on sound quality over flashy looks.

Weighing 26.5lbs. with dimensions of 12” deep x 17” wide x 3.5” high [3] only [4] hints at the hefty transformer coils, steel bracing, and circuitry within. The unit pushes 55 watts into eight ohms, and roughly double that into four ohms. With a new website on the way, the manual will now be downloadable.

With all respect intended to the straightforward design, the Alabaster has one major functional limitation – the lack of a remote control. Those like me who listen to a variety of artists or songs in a single sitting recognize that music is not always rendered at the same volume without software intervention. Depending on your audio setup, and your tolerance for volume swings between songs, this reality can lead to several tedious trips to the volume knob for small adjustments. [5] As the North American importer is quick to point out, “The Alabaster is good for upping the step count on your Fitbit.”[6] [7]

The ins and outs

The rear panel features a utilitarian look similar to the faceplate. Speaker binding posts at the far left and right of the unit body sandwich in between them a series of five single-ended stereo inputs, plus a set of RCA line outputs. Among the line inputs, the Alabaster comes standard with one MM phono input, giving the owner extra flexibility. Those seeking balanced connections are out of luck, but those with a single ended system will find this Sonneteer a perfect companion for the rest of its brethren residing on the audio rack.

The speaker binding posts meet European safety standards, the plastic shield covers each post ensures stray cables cannot connect inadvertently. Safety is a good thing, and these posts make connections to banana terminations or bare wire easy. Connecting spades requires sliding the cable termination into the shield from the underside. Due to the shield, there is no way to thread spades in from the top, so the Alabaster must sit against the back edge of the audio rack so that spade-terminated cables can dangle downward. If your speaker cables prove problematic in this regard, high-quality banana adapters may prove a saving grace.

The Alabaster’s straightforward connection options make setup very easy, and in a matter of a few minutes, this silver-tongued poet finds itself prepared to speak. When powered on, a small blue LED over the input selector comes to life indicating readiness. As a solid-state design, the Alabaster deserves several days of break-in to achieve the musicality it is designed to deliver.


Some characterize a “British” component sound as one that is voiced to prioritize warmth over stark transparency, politeness over detail, and relaxation over speed. Yes, those elements do serve well as broad brushstroke descriptors for the sonic signature this amplifier. Music portrayal is forgiving, perhaps akin to that heard several rows back in an auditorium where cymbal crashes and brass instrument blasts lose their bite as part of the bigger musical picture. At the same time, clinging to those generalizations would not do the Alabaster justice. These audible characteristics do make the Alabaster a joy to settle into for long, fatigue-free listening sessions. However, the sum of its sound is not bound to those overly-simplified descriptors. For example, listening to Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble’s dub-inspired collaboration Radioaxiom, the Alabaster reproduces low bass notes with solidity, musicality and drive which create the illusion of control by a more powerful amplifier. Those 100 watts never pull punches when needed.

Through the Sonneteer, the soundstage is substantial, organizing musical elements accurately from left-to-right across the soundstage. The front-to-back layering of musical elements is good, but when a complex array of vocals and instruments litter the soundstage, the Sonneteer tends to compress that picture a bit in comparison with some high-end gear I have experienced. The nitpick is minor, however, since the Alabaster does so much so well.

The complex harmonics of cymbal crashes or triangle strikes, like those captured on Ben Harper’s Burn to Shine, preserve most of the impact, reverberation and decay a listener should hear. Similarly, vocals offer the emotion of the performance without uncomfortable stridency or sibilance. For instance, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” reveals itself through the Alabaster with the powerful crescendos one wants to experience from her recordings, but without the wince factor that accompanies it on some overly-revealing gear.

While the Alabaster cannot be expected to deliver the sound of separate components many times its price, it certainly offers an incredible amount of musical satisfaction. Higher-end components can exceed the Alabaster’s ability with a broader and better-layered soundstage[8] , a greater sense of realism, and more detailed presentation, especially at the higher end of the frequency spectrum. However, when compared more fairly to components in its price range, the Alabaster’s accomplishments are stellar indeed. The Sonneteer is a component any music lover will be proud to own. The team at Sonneteer deserves some serious accolades for making an amplifier that sounds this good, at a dollar figure accessible to many who prioritize the joy of music in their lives.


Simply put, the Sonneteer Alabaster is a price-performance wonder. For its very reasonable cost under $2,500 USD, it delivers excellent sound. The Alabaster might not unseat single purpose amps and preamps several times its price, may not be ideal for those who prefer a highly-detailed component which exposes every nuance in a recording. However, the Alabaster’s sound is beguiling, and this integrated amp is piece of gear to be enjoyed for many years to come. The warmth of its sonic character will help it mate well with many sources. If a prospective buyer does not require bells and whistles like a built-in DAC, networking connectivity, variable outputs for a subwoofer, or a remote control, this may be the integrated amplifier he or she has been seeking. I recommend it wholeheartedly, and it handily deserves a 2017 TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award.[9]

Sonneteer has a substantial dealer network in Europe, and has a growing number of North American dealers. If the Alabaster piques your interest, be sure to visit your Sonneteer dealer to hear it for yourself. For what it is designed to do, it performs those tasks extremely well. Sonically, it is a flat-out bargain for its modest price tag. Were William Alabaster alive today, I think he would enthusiastically approve of his namesake.

Additional listening: Jeff Dorgay

I couldn’t agree with Rob more that the Alabaster deserves an Exceptional Value Award. This integrated reminds me so much on one level of my reference, the PrimaLuna HP – it’s pure sound quality with basic functionality. With simple yet understated casework, all the value goes into the circuit and for the true music lover, this is a sonic treat.

Where something like the Simaudio ACE offers more functionality, the Alabaster offers a higher level of sonic prowess; if you can get by with 55 watts per channel and have the need for an excellent MM phono stage, it’s one of the best (if not the best) choice you can make.

Staying mostly in the British groove, with a slight detour to France and a trip across the pond to the US, I used the Alabaster with four different sets of speakers. Listening began with the lovely Graham LS5/9s, moved on to the Focal Sopra no.3s in my main system (which cost nearly ten times the Alabaster’s MSRP) and the vintage Klipsch LaScalas written about in this issue before settling back in on the Quad 2812s in room two. All delivered cracking performances.

What I’m the most excited about is the quality of the MM phonostage. Utilizing the new Gold Note Machiavelli high output MC (again, more expensive than the Alabaster) the level of refinement here is astounding, with a level of resolution I wasn’t prepared for.

In the context of some fairly expensive speakers, and using the PS Audio DirectStream DAC and memory player as a source, digital files were just as engaging as analog, and I suspect that a lot of Alabaster users will pair this $2,395 integrated with modest speakers and sources, never really knowing just how damn good this amplifier truly is. If it had thicker, more elaborately machined casework and a fancy remote, they could easliy ask $6k for this baby and you’d still be getting a bargain. So if you are a true music lover that is ever so slightly frugal, the Sonetteer Alabaster is your slice of heaven.

It’s certainly one of my favorites. You must hear one to believe it.

Sonneteer Alabaster Integrated Amplifier

Approximately $2,399 USD

Arcadia Audio Marketing
[email protected]


Digital Sources: Mac Mini, Roon Music Service, dCS Debussy, SimAudio 780D, Oppo Sonica DAC

Amplification: Burmester 911 mk3

Preamplification: Coffman Labs G1-B

Speakers: GamuT RS3, JL Audio Dominion Subwoofers

Cables: Jena Labs

Power: Torus AVR 15 Plus, RSA Mongoose power cords

Accessories: ASC tube traps, Mapleshade Samson audio racks, Coffman Labs Equipment Footers, AudioQuest Jitterbug, Atomic Audio Labs Mac Mini stand

Harbeth Compact 7ES-3

Sometime back in the early 80’s Roger Van Oech wrote a book titled A Whack on the Side of the Head focusing on creative solutions to problems that one might not have considered without being taken outside of their comfort zone.  The new Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 is the perfect example of this.

The first whack on the side of the head came when visiting Acoustic Sounds years ago covering the Blues Masters concerts.  Listening to the Avalon Sentinels in their main sound room was my top priority, but what I heard in the second room was just as amazing considering the price.  No, you can’t have the sound of a pair of Avalon Sentinels for 3,500 bucks, but you can achieve substantial musical enjoyment with these small boxes at a price that is accessible to most music lovers. Today, the 7ES-3 sells for $3,690 – $3,990, depending on finish.

Spending the evening listening to the Compact 7s in a friends house in an outstanding system, consisting of the SME 20 turntable (with Koetsu Urushi Blue cartridge) and Croft’s best amplifier and preamp, proved highly impressive.  After calling it a night around 2a.m., it was settled that the Compact 7s would head our way for a review.

All new from top to bottom

First, forget any kind of built in prejudice you might have about “The British Sound”, just producing good midrange and forgetting the extremes.  None of that applies to the new Compact seven.  That’s not to say they aren’t musical, but they are open and dynamic in a way that isn’t the norm from the likes of Spendor, ProAc or any of my other favorite British speakers, even the Compact seven version 2 for that matter. None of the legendary BBC accuracy has been sacrificed, however these speakers now have more resolution as well as more extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum.

Though version three looks the same as version two, it is a completely new speaker from the drivers to the crossover components.  The woofer features Harbeth’s new Radial 2 technology, used on the more expensive Monitor 30 and 40 along with a new tweeter.  We could write pages about all the techie stuff, but suffice to say it works tremendously well.  A quick trip to the Harbeth site ( will answer all of your in-depth technical questions.

The Compact 7ES-3 impedance is rated as 6 – ohms and it is equally at home with tube or solid state electronics.  Though the spec sheets suggest slightly low sensitivity at 86db/1 watt, we had no problem driving these with amplifiers possessing 30 watts per channel and up.

Incredibly un-fussy

Alan Shaw, Harbeth’s director and designer of the Compact 7 advised putting the speakers on 19 – inch stands in place of the 24 – inch stands at my disposal.  This proved spot on. Unless you have a very tall listening position, getting the tweeters up on 24 – inch stands makes for an uninvolving listening experience.  Both Mr. Shaw and I suggest the Sound Anchor stands, built specifically for this speaker.  A pair will set you back about $625 plus shipping, but it is money well spent.  While others swear by the Skylan wood stands, I am not a fan – they tend to muddy the lower mid/upper bass region too much for my taste.  The Sound Anchor stands give these speakers the authority they deserve.

For the novice audiophiles in the audience, these are incredibly easy speakers to set up.  While a little bit of futzing will help the ultimate imaging performance of the Compact 7’s, just getting the speaker height correct will get you 80% of the way there.  A bit of time with the tape measure and a little bit of room treatment will give you the last bit of performance they are capable of, but in short, the Compact 7s are not tough to achieve great sound with.

Listening began with Shunyata’s Orion speaker cables from my reference system, but enjoy the ED 415 speaker cables as well.  These cost $450 a pair and are a fantastic match for the Compact 7s.  Experimenting with other from Cardas, Furutech and ALO Audio all gave excellent results, confirming that these speakers are not terribly cable dependent.


The Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 is one of the most enjoyable speakers I’ve heard in the last few years, regardless of price.  They offer tremendous balance, with strong bass down to about 45hz, (according to Harbeth, they have a measured frequency response of 45- 20khz with the grilles on) and what’s there is solid, accurate and full of detail.  The midrange is also very correct; when you listen to a piano, it sounds like a piano.  I can listen to someone play a Steinway on the Harbeths, go in the house and plunk around on our Steinway and hear a very accurate resemblance.

In a small to medium sized room move enough air to give a good feel of dynamics – a very important aspect of musical reproduction that is often overlooked.  Push them too hard and they will flatten out instantly. The threshold from playing fairly loud to compressing is very immediate; you will know when you’ve hit the wall.  Fortunately, that wall is at a high enough sound pressure level that all but the most crazed rock and rollers will be more than happy.

The Compact 7’s also do a fantastic job at having an airy presentation with just the right amount of decay that again, gives that feeling of acoustic instruments sounding correct.  A familiar acoustic guitar record instantly confirms this.  The image presented by the Harbeths doesn’t extend all the way to the side walls as it does with a panel speaker, but with good recordings it extends well beyond the speaker boundaries.

Chameleon – like

Where version 2 of the Compact 7 had a definite wooly character, the current speaker does not.  These speakers are revealing enough to take on the characteristics of the electronics behind them.  Those favoring the “classic British” sound will be better served by a more traditional sounding valve amplifier.  The McIntosh MC275 served this purpose perfectly, adding a bit of warmth and tonal saturation to the presentation.

The Naim Supernait, in for review, was the ying to the Mac’s yang, producing plenty of PRAT and dynamics, as did the Conrad Johnson Premier 350.  The Luxman L590A -II integrated, with 30 watts per channel of Class – A power was the staff favorite, offering the best of both worlds for all audiences.

Combining the Luxman with the Rega P9/Lyra Skala combination is analog bliss.  The wind chimes in Santana’s Abraxas (MoFi version) on the opening track floats around the speakers as if a small pair of surround speakers are hidden somewhere, and the layers of percussion in this classic recording are a delight to partake.

Vocals emerge up and out of the soundfield created with ease, the Compact 7s dissapearing in the room, making it easy to concentrate on the music.  Old favorites from Ricki Lee Jones, Tom Waits and Johnny Cash all proved compelling.  At the price asked, the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 is a speaker without fault – they are faithful to the music.

Those wanting to rock out with the Compact 7s will not be disappointed, provided you have a high current solid state amplifier at your disposal.  Switching the program material from James Taylor to Deep Purple was easy when using the Premier 350, allowing for sufficient dynamics and bass control.

Long term listening

While the review above was originally featured in issue 16, my enthusiasm for the Compact 7 remains strong as ever after using these speakers as a reference for a few years now.  I’ve also had the chance to use them with a much wider range of amplification, and pretty much the only amplifiers that won’t drive them are of the 300B and 2A3 vintage – they really need at least 30wpc and you won’t regret having more if it’s convenient.

Best of all, these speakers still remain highly true to the music.  Others dazzle and sizzle, either with fancier cabinetry, or voicing trickery, but an oboe sounds like an oboe when played on the Compact 7s and that’s something even a few five – figure speakers can’t get right.  These speakers have been tuned to perfection in the BBC tradition to achieve a natural midband, and the result is a highly resolving, yet low distortion speaker that you can listen to for hours on end without fatigue.

Four years later, the price has not increased – a testament to Alan Shaw running a tight ship.  The Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 remains one of the best buys in high-end audio.

The Harbeth Compact 7ES-3

MSRP:  $3,960 in eucalyptus, $3,690 in cherry

Manufacturers Information (factory) (US Importer)


Preamplifier:                           Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2

Phono Preamplifiers               Nagra VPS, ASR Basis Exclusive

Analog Sources                       Continuum Criterion w/Copperhead arm and Dynavector XV-1s, Rega P9 w/RB1000 arm and Dynavector XV-1s

Digital Sources                        Naim CD555

Power Amplifier                     Conrad Johnson Premier 350, McIntosh  MC275

Interconnects                          Cardas Golden Reference, Shunyata Antares

Speaker Cables                        Shunyata Orion

Power                                      Running Springs Dimitri and Jaco