Rega Saturn MkIII CD Player Review

Rega’s moonshot

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

67

Highly Recommended
Rega Saturn MkIII CD Player Review
MSRP: £2,000.00
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Rega Saturn MkIII CD Player Review

The Saturn MkIII combines well thought through connectivity with a performance that is a little bit special. It's a CD player that manages to feel bespoke, modern and special and delivers a performance that is absolutely sensational.

Pros

  • Sounds absolute fantastic across CD and the digital inputs
  • Well made and easy to use
  • Manages to feel special

Cons

  • Top loading mech needs more space than a tray
  • No DSD

Introduction - What Is the Rega Saturn MkIII?

The Rega Saturn MkIII is a combined CD player and DAC. We look at sufficiently few CD players for the appearance of one on the site to be worthy of note. A little while back, I received a private message from a member (you know who you are) lamenting that all the digital I cover is streaming and DACs. They have a point too. I generally stick to DACs and streamers (when I cover digital sources at all, such is the increase in amplifiers trying to cover all bases) because that’s where the bulk of interest is.

Bulk or not, it seems a determined subset of you have no intention of ripping your CDs and would very much like to be kept abreast of the odd new spinner from time to time. The Saturn MkIII seems like the perfect candidate for one of these reviews for a few reasons. The first is that it’s not ‘just’ a CD player. As we’ll cover, it has some additional functionality that makes it a little more flexible than a straight CD only device. The second is that it’s a Rega. Obviously, the company is best known for their turntables (and rightly so) but they have been producing CD players for nearly thirty years. When they launched the original Planet CD player, they noted at the time that they were the last company to adopt CD and there’s symmetry that they look to be one of the companies who will stick it out to ‘the end’ (more of which later).

There’s something else too. There is an argument that this is a golden age of CD. The loudness wars are at an end and most modern digital masters sound pretty good. This pales into irrelevance next to the reality that you can wander into charity shops the length and breadth of the UK and find things worth buying for a pound. Yes, they’re usually on streaming services too but you can have a physical music collection; with its rituals and pleasures for a fraction of the price that doing so with vinyl costs you these days. Is the Saturn MkIII the device of the moment?

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Specification and Design

Rega Saturn Mk3

Rega’s absolute disinterest in doing things that everyone else considers ‘normal’ is one of the reasons I find them as engaging a company as I do. In some regards, the Saturn MkIII is a classic example of this. Rega makes two pieces of source equipment at this rough c£2k price point; the Planar 8 turntable and the Saturn MkIII. The Planar 8 is an unashamedly radical thing; an Ariel Atom with a tonearm. It uses a plinth material that nobody else would think to try and it is a mass of brilliant ideas, some of which have almost no parallel with any rival on sale.

The Saturn MkIII by contrast is not unashamedly radical. Or even radical for that matter. While many companies have been engaged in an arms race of technical sophistication with their digital sources, Rega has developed a platform that they like and have largely left it be. Where vast swathes of the digital landscape has moved to ESS and AKM (and even ‘hold out’ companies like Naim, iFi etc tend to be ones that use Burr Brown/Texas Instrument), the Saturn MkIII is built around a pair of Wolfson WM8742 chipsets. Running a pair allows for one per channel and means that the channel can be ‘summed’ in the two channels of decoding that each DAC offers, which reduces errors.

This is fronted by a mechanism that Rega developed some years ago and has little to nothing in common with any other system in widespread use. This means that while Rega is not completely immune to non availability of components, it has more control over just how long it can keep making its CD players. Something that is noteworthy about it is that it seems to be purely CD focused rather than a ROM type mechanism with the latent ability to handle the DVD family of discs too. This means that - often quite usually for CD players in 2022 - the Saturn MkIII is able to read a table of contents in the time it takes you to go back to your listening position. Like all Rega players going back to the original Planet, it is a top loading design. Lift a manually operated door, pop the disc on the spindle and close the lid and away it goes. Realise you’ve left a disc in there after you’ve turned it off? No problem; as the lid is manual you can access it regardless of the power state of Saturn MkIII.

Rega Saturn Mk3

As well as the CD mechanism, the Rega offers five digital inputs; two optical, two coaxial and a single asynchronous USB input. These ensure that, in a system where there is otherwise no digital decoding, you can connect a TV and also get streaming up and running if you aren’t totally wedded to CD. There is a certain irony that, years after CD players with digital inputs started appearing, the mechanics of using these inputs is a great deal more straightforward. You could have the Saturn MkIII accessing the streaming service of your choice via an old mobile phone or something creative involving a Raspberry Pi (to say nothing of more conventional NAS or parasite streamer based options. Put simply, Rega has sidestepped the issue of streaming for sufficiently long that the answers have been largely provided for them. These inputs support PCM to 24/192 with no DSD or MQA decoding and, not for the first time, I’m here to remind you that, back in the real world, this is all you generally need.

The Saturn MkIII is now finished in the new Rega casework that made its debut with the Aethos and has been appearing on other members of the family. This is not a cheap piece of kit but spend a bit of time with it and you can feel where the money has gone. The familial consistency means that the Saturn MkIII is as happy being partnered with the new Elicit MkV as it is an Aethos. There’s more than that going on too. This is a good looking, conventionally sized CD player that has arrived at a point where many companies are cutting back their offerings. If I owned a Naim Nait XS3 or Supernait 3, one of the new Exposure ‘510’ series amps or quite a few other models, the Saturn MkIII is just the sort of device that might partner them better than what those brands might be offering themselves. The market for CD players is not getting bigger but as the number of brands servicing it shrinks, it means that Rega’s decision to stay put looks pretty shrewd.

There’s something else too. Perhaps it is a side effect of all those turntables but Rega manages to build CD players that have a little theatre to them. Using the Saturn MkIII is fun. It has ceremony and engagement to it that tray mechs don’t generally achieve and it does this without being so ornate or fiddly that it annoys you. Rega’s ‘Solaris’ handset is supplied which is still a bit of a buttonfest but drives both the player and a matching amp from the same controller. The only note of caution is that, as a top loader, the Saturn MkIII is in competition with a turntable for the top shelf of any rack (Rega will naturally point to their range of wall shelves for their designs but that isn’t a perfect solution for everyone) so this is something to take into it account.

Rega Saturn Mk3

Using the Saturn MkIII is fun. It has ceremony and engagement to it that tray mechs don’t generally achieve and it does this without being so ornate or fiddly that it annoys you

How Was the Saturn MkIII Tested?

The Rega was initially connected to a Chord Electronics CPM2800 MkII integrated amp driving a pair of Mission 770 speakers. As well as playing CDs, it has been connected to a Roon Nucleus via USB. Halfway through testing, the new Elicit MkV (that will receive a solo review in due course, don’t worry) arrived so the Saturn MkIII was connected to that and the duo run into a pair of Spendor A1 speakers. Material used has been CD, FLAC, AIFF, Tidal and Qobuz.

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Performance

Rega Saturn Mk3

My thoughts on CD are a matter of public record; I never had problem with the way that they sounded but my tendency towards clutter did leave them vulnerable to collecting in sad piles or in my car’s passenger footwell. Spend half an hour with the Rega and you can find yourself querying if the headlong rush into Hi-Res was actually worth it (spoiler; it was but the payoffs took longer to realise and were smaller in progress terms than we were led to believe). Having spent some time with it, I feel that part of the reason for this not simply the format but the Rega’s approach to decoding it.

As we’ve noted, the Saturn MkIII is not radical in terms of its decoding hardware but it uses good components in a well implemented circuit. In some regards, the manner in which it goes about making music is similar in approach to the iFi ZEN One Signature that passed through at the same time. The Rega is unquestionably going to be accurate in a bare measurement sense but there’s a character to its presentation that gives it a distinctive appeal of its own.

This presentation is uncannily similar in essence to Rega turntables. The Saturn MkIII is not something you have on in the background to murmur away in the background. Listening to the jagged, angular songs of Bloc Party’s Alpha Games, the Rega is propulsive and attention grabbing. Give it a time signature and it latches on to it, making it the focal point of what it does. It’s something that the Planar 8 and 10 do with effortless ease but it’s less common to encounter in a digital source. It’s central to what the Saturn MkIII does.

Something else that takes very little time to establish is that the Rega has sensational bass. The reproduction of low end weight is something that still seems to be where premium digital products can extend an advantage over more affordable devices. The Saturn MkIII doesn’t have more bass than rivals but it finds weight, texture and detail in low frequency information that makes for a more compelling listening experience.

Rega Saturn Mk3

This means that the CD of Arcade Fire’s Funeral is a visceral experience. The rapid flourish of drum beats hits like a boxer and draws you in to the music as a performance. It’s helped by excellent tonal realism that has an almost ‘analogue’ warmth to its midrange and upper registers. There is a refinement that takes the edge off poor recordings without softening their impact too, making this a device that can handle a fairly diverse spread of recordings without a struggle. Listening to CDs on the Saturn MkIII is uncannily close to the experience of digging the vinyl out and sticking it on the Planar 10.

In terms of presentation, the Rega is identical via the CD mechanism as it is the digital inputs. I would say that this extends to the manner in which it handles Hi-Res material. There’s no huge step change to Hi-Res sample rates and, while that might sound a little disappointing on a two thousand pound product, it is more a reflection that the Rega does what it does regardless of sample rate. This is a condensed version of the argument as to whether you are here to listen to music to intently study its composition or quality or whether you listen to music to enjoy it. The Saturn MkIII is not as detailed or revealing as some alternatives at the price point but few of those rivals can get anywhere near the level at which the Rega is actively fun to listen to.

There’s something else too. The arrival of the Elicit MkV resulted in a pairing that is sublimely well balanced; a combination that offers a performance level in advance of the price point. Rega’s lack of interest in what other companies do could be seen to be insular. You could argue it leaves them vulnerable to missing a major step change in what customers are buying, hell you can argue a lot of things. When the quality of the ecosystem that Rega is building in its own little world is this good, it’s hard to argue that its approach is probably the correct one. I stand by what I said about the Saturn MkIII being something that’s going to have appeal to a variety of amp owners but if you do go all in… let’s just say, I don’t think you’re going to be disappointed.

Rega Saturn Mk3

This presentation is uncannily similar in essence to Rega turntables

In our round up of the best Hi-Fi products of 2022, Ed tells us why the Rega Saturn MkIII is the Best Aspirational Hi Fi Product we have reviewed in the last year.

Conclusion

Rega Saturn MkIII CD Player Review

For a great many people reading this, the core function of the Saturn MkIII is no longer something that they need (it’s a shame in some ways that the Rega DAC has gone to the great showroom in the sky as the input side of the Saturn MkIII would have interest to streaming types) but the fact the Rega currently seems able to sell every single one the moment they build it, suggests that this is not a universally held position.

If the Saturn MkIII was ‘only’ a CD player, it would still be superb. In a world of slow loading, graunchy ROM mechanisms, the top loading, fast reading, utterly silent Rega feels like a bespoke and entirely ‘Hi-Fi’ experience. It then gives a sonic performance that matches that experience perfectly, reminding us that CD might be venerable; old hat even, but it can still delight when given the right hardware. And then, to round things off, the Saturn MkIII is able to be the decoding section of a perfectly modern streaming solution. It seems weird to describe a CD player as a 'perfect modern solution' but the Saturn MkIII is just that and comes Highly Recommended as a result.

Highly Recommended

Scores

Sound Quality

.
9

Features

.
.
8

Ease of Use

.
9

Build Quality

.
9

Value For Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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