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Rega’s Elicit MK5 is – plain and simple – a superb integrated amplifier

  • Rega is best known for making turntables, something it’s been doing since 1973. Next year is the company’s 50th anniversary, a milestone most would shout loud about. Don’t be surprised if it’s a muted cry though; company owner Roy Gandy is more the quiet engineering type.

    Prior to this review, I’d have guessed that Rega amplifiers joined the party around 20 years ago — in fact, it was 1990. As Rega’s product timeline shows, that first amplifier was the Elicit MK1, the direct descendant of the Elicit MK5 reviewed here (£2000 / US$3345 / €2500). That’s quite the lineage. The immediate forerunner, the Elicit-R MK4, enjoyed a thirteen-year run. One thing’s for sure: Rega isn’t in a hurry to switch things up.

    What is it?
    The Elicit MK5 is an integrated amplifier. The R on the previous model indicated remote control. That’s been carried over here, as has the moving magnet phono stage. The power rating remains at 105wpc into 8 Ohms or 162wpc into 4 Ohms.

    New to the Elicit MK5 is a headphone output. Also new are optical and coax digital inputs that tap into the unit’s internal Wolfson WM8742 DAC circuit whose output stages were developed in-house by Rega.

    The Elicit MK5’s pre-amplifier circuitry is a direct lift from the Aethos (the next model up), and the volume control here comes from a high-quality Alps pot. The importance of the pre-amplifier stage is often underestimated (in my experience). Kind of reinforcing this, Rega’s Simon Webster says of the MM phono stage:

    “It’s the same MM stage as the previous model but the addition of the Aethos pre-amp has transformed its performance. I listen using a Planar 6 with the Exact MM at home and the difference between Elicit R and Elicit MK5 was one of the biggest changes for me”.

    Four RCA line inputs complement the MM phono input. A ‘Direct Input’ bypasses the pre-amplifier, allowing for devices with volume control (inc AV setups). Or bypass the power amplifier by using the Elicit MK5’s pre-out sockets.

    A Record Input/Output increases flexibility, adding another input and fixed output as a minimum (and if you do still own a cassette deck). A second line-level fixed output says hello to external headphone amplifiers or similar.

    You could even use the Elicit MK5 as a fixed output DAC or phono stage into another pre-amplifier.

    Occasionally useful?
    Controls are simple. From left to right: buttons for power and input selection straddle the headphone socket. A row of eight small LEDs indicates active input and mute. Then the large volume knob, with two further LEDs showing when Direct and Record are selected. The shiny Solaris remote has lots of buttons to control an array of other Rega models. I just used volume up and down.

    The Elicit MK5 is a full-width device but being low profile its looks aren’t showy. Rega continues to buck the blingification trend. Just remember to leave some breathing room around the amplifier as it runs reasonably warm when in use. Build quality is of the solid variety, particularly when you lift the amp from the floor to a shelf; it’s heavier than it looks. It certainly feels like value for money.
    All of this lends the Elicit MK5 the feel of a ‘classic’ integrated amplifier of old, albeit with added digital inputs.

    Review equipment
    In my space, the Rega integrated fed Graham LS6 standmounts (£2,400) and (sometimes) a REL T/7x subwoofer(£1,000). The source was an Allo DigiOne Signature with Shanti power supply ($500 all in). A Mytek Liberty 2 (£1,295) would take care of DAC comparisons.

    As a whole, comparisons were also made to the Cambridge Edge NQ pre-amplifier stage & 2 x Gold Note PA-10 power amplifiers (circa £4,500 given I only used the Edge’s pre-amplifier). The Elicit’s MM phono stage sat out this review as I use an MC cartridge. I thought about borrowing a step-up transformer but testing two unknowns is pointless.

    Listening – line inputs
    Three weeks of casual listening via the Allo streamer and Mytek DAC set the scene. Nothing untoward stood out sonically and the setup sounded surprisingly close to my usual, much costlier rig. Onto more focused listening…

    First up was Lizz Wright’s version of “Old Man”, taken from her new live album Holding Space. I found myself leaning forward into the music, just as I did when I saw Wright live. She’s not afraid to step back and let her band perform sizable chunks of material without her. They reward by building the momentum compellingly, taking you with them before Wright comes back in. A mini-journey crafted by top-drawer musicians. When I heard it first hand I got a distinct adrenaline rush as the pace built. I got the same feeling with the Rega, which emphasised the ‘live’ in this live recording. The Elicit MK5’s performance was as confident as Wright and her band.

    ‘Leaning in’ and ‘live’ feel quickly became the mots juste of the Elicit MK5. Sonically, this amplifier majors on detail and clarity, matched to a slightly forward presentation. It may not always be the most comfortable of listens but it certainly holds your attention.

    Vocalists in particular seemed more forward in the mix. Jack Johnson’s new Meet the Moonlight is typically laid back and intimate. The Rega made Johnson sound very present. Elton Johns’ ‘Levon’ from Madman Across the Water is fifty years old yet through the Elicit MK5 it sounded fresh and clean as if it were recorded yesterday. Rhiannon Giddens’ ‘Julie’s Aria’ is forcefully persuasive, a trait of her music that was really bolstered by the Rega.

    Organist Anna Lapwood is a current fave thanks to her outing with Bonobo. Her transcription of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Images is beautifully crafted. Like all good organ recordings the venue’s acoustic – Ely Cathedral – was captured well. The Elicit 5 portrays a cavernous space. Yet the detail in the “Dawn interlude” came over well – the Rega can be a subtle performer, it’s no one-trick ‘propulsive’ pony.

    And so it continued. Regardless of genre, I listened through whole pieces, not flitting between tracks. Detail retrieval proved strong – delivered in spades with no hint of etching. The bedrock midrange was lovely. Bass was deep and controlled but not overly damped. When present in the recording there was a large soundstage, and dynamics were strong. All combined to give a level of performance that in itself I’d classify as ‘fine’…

    …to which the Rega added a touch of vigour. We might call it a sprinkling of ‘live’ dust to differentiate it from its peers. As a simple integrated amplifier – even without the digital or phono capability – £2k was already seeming eminently reasonable.

    Against the Edge NQ / 2 x PA-10
    When I switched back to the Edge NQ / 2 x PA-10 the sound quality improved. As it should for over twice the price. The Rega isn’t as refined, the acoustic it presented not as palpable. The Edge / PA-10’s presentation is also more relaxed, the Rega more forceful in comparison. The latter is more observation than comment: the Elicit MK5’s up-front nature isn’t overcooked.

    Bottom line – the Cambridge / Gold Note setup justified its higher sticker but after returning to the Rega I was quickly re-immersed in its sound. Forgetting about the more expensive separates, I dug the Elicit MK5’s ballsier take on music. A bit more drive, a smidge of attitude. Maybe not the most neutral sound but eminently enjoyable.

    Listening – digital inputs
    The Mytek Liberty DAC costs two-thirds of an Elicit MK5. An extravagance if the Rega’s internal DAC is anywhere near in performance. It was time to see. With the DigiOne Signature hooked into the Elicit MK5 via coax it was clear Rega’s internal DAC is no convenience feature. I wasn’t craving the Mytek’s return.

    Manuel Barrueco’s fingering on ‘Koln Concert Part IIC’ was clear and precise. Theessink and Evans’ ‘Talk To You Daughter’ had real momentum, the bass line underpinning the track rhythmically (something the Rega brought out well). The complexity of Chris Woods’ ‘Riches on The Bold’ was handled nicely, the gentle basso-profundo when he backs himself clearly discernible. Overall the internal DAC didn’t let the side down. It’s a confident performer.

    Back to the Mytek to see what it could add. Detail stepped up a notch, as did refinement. Most noticeably the Liberty made music sound better organised, presenting the individual elements of the sound more distinctly. That’s as true for complex music as it is for simple. Think of it this way: the Rega’s internal DAC is very good but the Mytek is excellent.

    To nail the Rega DAC’s performance, I benchmarked two more alternatives. The original £900 Mytek Liberty is still a step up from the Rega, sounding more natural, more relaxed. As if it wasn’t having to try as hard.

    Moving over to a £250 Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt, running off a Pro-ject streamer for its USB output. Bingo! There was little to choose between these two DACs. If minor differences could be attributed to a different streaming front end, they were certainly of no musical consequence.

    Headphone output
    Finally the headphone output. Out came an original Schiit Jotunheim (£400) headphone amplifier with Audioquest Nighthawk Carbons (£600), Drop 6XX (badged Sennheiser 650 – £220) and Meze 99 Classics (£280) headphones.

    Listening focused on the 3rd movement of Teodor Currentzis’ Tchaikovsky 6 – massive orchestral forces, huge dynamics swings and a vivid recording. Not the easiest to reproduce.

    I played all combinations of headphones and amplifiers. A consistent picture emerged. All bar one pairing was hugely enjoyable: the exception was the Drop 6XX powered by the Rega, which struggled with the crescendos. The duo was slightly bright and didn’t differentiate the musicians as well. I checked the specs to see if there was a power mismatch. Nope – into the Drop 6XX’s 300 Ohms, the Rega outputs 8.1V, which should be fine. There must be some other reason why Rega’s headphone output doesn’t pair well with the very open-sounding Drop 6XX.

    And yet the Rega’s forward characteristic – mimicking the main amplifier – worked very nicely with the Meze 99 Classics, delivering a sound that was very close to the Schiit’s (if not quite as good). The Meze’s sometimes-ripe bottom end was also well controlled here.

    With the Nighthawks, the differences between the two amps were clearer. The Schiit pulled ahead, sounding better organised than the Rega, particularly during the crescendos, which it put on a tighter leash. The Schiit was also more finessed than the Rega. My inkling that the forward nature of the Rega would pair best with the Audioquest’s slightly muted treble proved wrong. The pairing still sounded very good though.

    Conclusions
    The Elicit MK5 errs from neutral with a slightly forward sound, which some listeners will prefer. This calling card isn’t overdone and its digital stage is good, far from being a convenience feature. A USB input would have been nice but that’s the only nit I can pick. The Rega’s headphone output is very satisfying too. I wouldn’t bet against the in-built phono stage being similarly decent. This is a superb amplifier for the money, worth the asking price even without its phono and digital capabilities. It’s made in the U.K. to boot.

    Further information: Rega

    Written by Phil Wright

    Phil is a Brit living in deepest Devon. Think: Tolkien's Shire but with killer cream teas. He's been around since digital audio's inception - he even wrote his dissertation on the introduction of the CD - but today's developments in both music and audio gear make him think 'we have never had it so good'. Phil is a Music-First audiophile with wide ranging tastes (Trad Jazz excepted): 5000 albums in his local library with the remainder coming from Tidal.

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