RGCD2 CD PLAYER $1890 usd
RGI60ENR INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER $2,850 usd
RGS MANNA MONITOR SPEAKERS $2,200 usd
Dr. John Richardson
FIrst, many thank to Carl James, owner of USAHI-FI.com and CanadianHIfi.com for providing the gear and working with us on this review.
We audiophiles are an odd lot.
In many ways, most folks would say we are the literal, walking examples of obsessive compulsive behavior. We do seem to have this never ending itch to always improve or otherwise change our systems, thus grinding through expensive gear faster than certain Kardashians go through significant others. I’d like to think that this level of craziness is shared by enthusiasts of other pastimes that involve stamps, model trains, art, cars, comic books, baskets, or figurines as well, but I could be wrong.
I’ll be the first to admit that this constant quest for “better” leads us down the road of searching for that perfect synergy that must exist between components forced together to make what we call a “system”. We typically believe that achievement of this synergy must involve testing components from multiple manufacturers in order to arrive at the best possible combination, especially since many of our favorite boutique manufacturers focus on only one link of the audio chain. Think about the number of possible permutations and the task starts to seem more than unreasonably daunting. There just isn’t enough time or money in a lifetime to get it absolutely right, and even if we did, we’d still be searching for something better! Come on and admit it, as we all know it’s true. For many of us, that’s part of the fun of high-end audio, but I can imagine that there exists a whole population of music/audio buffs out there that probably finds our antics silly. I can see why; we aren’t always the most practical of people.
What about the classic well-heeled music lover? Someone who has some real disposable income, appreciation of nice things, and who just wants simplicity when it comes to getting audio reproduction right (or as close to right as he or she cares to get). Someone who wants to take the hassle out of the hobby and focus on the music more so than the gear. You want to simplify. Downsize, baby! We know there's a lot of you out there. We get mail. This type of person might be better served by cutting to the chase and going with a single manufacturer’s audio system.
When thinking about it, I can’t come up with that many high-end manufacturers that have ever provided one stop shopping for the audio enthusiast. A few domestic that come to mind are Krell, Carver, and McIntosh. Apparently this idea is more popular in Europe and Asia, and maybe also in Australia, which lays claim to one of my personal favorite high-end operations: REDGUM Audio. Yes, the folks at REDGUM will be happy to provide an entire audio system for you, ranging from source components to amplifiers to speakers and even wire for hooking it all up. I’m told that they are currently the only audio outfit in Australia to offer a complete audio system. About the only components I couldn’t find on their website were turntables, though they do offer not one, but two, standalone phono stageS.
So what’s the story with REDGUM Audio? As I recounted in my prior review of the excellent REDGUM RGi120ENR integrated amplifier, this company, under the leadership of head designer Ian Robinson, has been around for about 20 years. The whole operation is housed in the suburbs of Melbourne, a coastal city in the state of Victoria, down in southern Australia. Ian himself has an interesting history in high end audio dating back to at least the early 1970s when he spent time building speakers and doing odd audio repair jobs for various retail shops. As he recounted to me in an earlier interview, he pretty much either sold or worked on most everything available at the time and got a very good understanding of what makes audio gear tick and how, at least in his opinion, to make it better. The culmination of all this experience was the first REDGUM product: an integrated amplifier that is still in production today. While I still tend to think of REDGUM primarily as an amplifier company, it makes sense that Ian would have moved into other areas of audio given his vast experience in the service and sales fields.
Perusal of REDGUM’s website astonishes in the sheer array of high end goodies available. You name it, they probably build and sell it. Heck, with the ever increasing popularity of vinyl playback, I wouldn’t be shocked if Ian came out with his own turntable design one of these days.
I really like REDGUM’s integrated amps. The one I reviewed about a year ago, the RGi120ENR, really got me going. I liked it so much that I bought a lower powered version, the RGi60ENR for myself. That model has been a favorite amplifier for reviewing and listening for pleasure ever since. Knowing that I had the amp, Carl James of USA HiFi, the North American distributor for REDGUM Audio, got in touch with me and asked if I’d like to add a cd player and speakers to the amp to make a complete REDGUM system.
I took the bait, so here we are doing homage to my favorite Australian gear again... not that I’m complaining! It’s been fun to be back in touch with Lindy Gerber, REDGUM’s director of promotions, which I think translates to head of sales and advertising. Lindy’s cool... She even sent me a BluRay disc with stunning footage of the natural history of her home country. I’ve always wanted to visit Australia, but now it’s a must! When I get there, I’ll surely trek down to Melbourne and pay Lindy and Ian a visit.
Enough introduction then; let’s get down to talking about some gear. What I have are several pieces that would make up perhaps what would be considered an entry to intermediate level system for the typical REDGUM customer. These include the RGCD2 disc player, my RGi60ENR integrated amplifier, and RGS Manna loudspeakers. I’ll introduce each component individually and then get into how they performed as an entire system. So here goes...
REDGUM RGi60ENR Integrated Amplifier ($2850 usd)
Let’s start with the amp, since I’ve had it the longest and am most familiar with it. As I said, I own it and get to enjoy it every day. As far as features and sound quality go, there’s really not much more that I can add to what I said before about its bigger sibling, the RGi120ENR. These amps have keys you have to turn to get them going, as well as true dual mono volume controls. Do go for the remote control option, as it makes balancing the channels at any volume setting a breeze. A bit different in a geeky sort of sense, but cool enough in my book.
The “60” designation in the amp’s name would suggest that its output power should be around 60 watts per channel, but that’s not the case. The “ENR” designation means that this is one of Ian Robinson’s signature products, which in this case provides a bit more power. REDGUM’s literature rates the amp at 75 watts per channel, but the test report for my amp indicates an RMS output of more like 105 watts per channel continuous. That’s plenty for me. Well, until I fire up the Zeppelin on a hot day...
Sound-wise, I just can’t find much fault in the REDGUM integrateds. They seem to strike that wonderful balance between detailed resolution and musicality. I highly value both attributes, and the REDGUMs offer them up in large enough helpings to keep my ears more than happy. I’ve also found that these amps mate well to lots of different speakers, doing duty with my Shahinian Compasses, vintage JBL 4311b control monitors, and several models from the Fritzspeaks company in southern California. The diminutive RGi60ENR up for review here pushes hard and always delivers, though I did manage to send it into thermal distress on one occasion. All right, it really was at least partly my own fault. I was driving a pair of the excellent Fritzspeaks Rev7 speakers on a really hot day with no air conditioning. The temperature in my listening room was probably over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was listening to some Led Zeppelin at a pretty unreasonable volume (my wife wasn’t home). All of a sudden, the amp started to distort and drop in volume. I knew immediately what was happening, so I turned the music off, did a quick restart of the amp, and turned the volume down to a more reasonable level. The amp’s chassis wasn’t at all hot, but the rear panel was nearly smoking! I waited a minute and turned everything else back on. The RGi60ENR picked up right where it left off and didn’t miss another beat. Those MOSFETs really do work as advertised.
The RGi60ENR that I own costs about half of what the RGi120ENR does. What did I lose by not going with the bigger amp? Fortunately, not that much. I did note that the smaller amp seemed somewhat less snappy and refined, and I could sense some loss in the power reserves, especially when listening to big dynamic climaxes of the orchestral variety. Otherwise, all of the wonderful tonal and spatial attributes of the RGi120ENR were preserved in the RGi60ENR, at least with the reasonably efficient (89 dB and above) speakers that I tend to use. As Ian Robinson told me, one can easily tell that all of the REDGUM amplifiers come from the same family.
REDGUM RGCD2 Disc Player ($1890 usd)
News flash! CD players are making a comeback! It's true. Four to five years ago CD players were not being shown much at hifi shows, the reason being that not many people were buying CD players. Everything was music servers or streaming audio. But recently, at least in overseas markets, the little disk spinners are making a comeback. Seems a lot of people just don't like playing music at home the same way they work at the office. Who knew..
REDGUM gear seems lovably quirky in many ways, and I’d say the disc player under review here has to take the cake. Don’t get too worried, though, as it’s still all cool in my book. Firstly, the front panel hides behind a hinged plank of solid red gum wood, which in and of itself is quite lovely. However, as all of the working parts reside underneath, I ended up leaving it perpetually in the unhinged (down) position where it’s nowhere near as pretty. Function over form, you know. Secondly, the transport is actually a cd rom drive just like the ones you would expect to find in a computer. I’m sure this little quirk will no doubt freak some folks out, but there are several valid reasons behind it.
Let me set the tone a bit here before I explain. Some number of years ago when my son (who will remain unnamed here to protect the not-so-innocent) was just a toddler, he found it funny to round up small items and place them in the open drawer of my very expensive cd player and then try to close the drawer. After some number of repeated attempts, the drawer got stuck and decided not to open again. Not able to access his personal bank vault, the little troublemaker got bored and wandered away, leaving the mess for me to discover. The ultimate result was that I was able to get the drawer open with some cajoling and empty out sonny’s account, but the damn thing never successfully read a cd again. Moral of the story: gear with moving parts is easy to break, especially when there’s an unruly toddler in the house.
I guess someone at REDGUM knows about the antics of kids such as mine, so they designed a player with a removable cd rom transport. If the drawer gets stuck or the laser goes kaput, just replace the transport mechanism! Apparently just about any replacement will do, or REDGUM will gladly ship you their choice transport. You can even do the removal and installation yourself. Indeed, quoting the manual: replacement of the drive unit is “... a simple operation for those already familiar with changing drives in a computer. Otherwise, seek professional help.” Seems these people really do know me, as folks close to me have requested that I do the latter before... Anyway, I find this to be a great idea since the part that will most likely need to be replaced or upgraded at some point can be attended to most easily.
Furthermore, Lindy Gerber was quick to remind me of a second big theoretical advantage of using a cd rom drive: its ability to make up to 52 passes over the same digital data, thus minimizing the possibility of read error. Fewer screw-ups leads to more pristine sound.
Access to all controls must be handled using the included remote, as the only user accessible controls on the front panel are the on/off switch and a button that opens and closes the drawer. I didn’t find this to be an issue, as the remote is the same one used to control the amplifier. One remote that does it all; who’d have thunk?
Also on the front panel is a back-lit fluorescent display that gives the typical information about track number, timings, etc. Apparently, this feature was missing on previous versions and was recently added as a convenience factor. Again, a nice touch.
Truth is, I was a bit concerned about this device only being able to play the archaic little silver discs. As many of you might know, I gave up my own cd player around five years ago and made the total jump to computer audio, which I find more convenient and much more tweakable. I’m sure there’s still a good market out there for disc players, especially among the older farts in the high-end community (that’s most of us, right?). Should the value conscious buyer be concerned that the RGCD2 is a one trick pony? I’m here to tell you that Ian Robinson has gone to some lengths to make this little box as future proof as possible. It’s actually more than just a simple cd player! A quick look at the rear panel shows that it has a coaxial RCA digital input (and output), meaning that it can accept a digital bit stream from an external device such as another transport, or even a usb to S/PDIF converter attached to a computer. Further perusal of the RGCD2 indicated that it also has its own usb input, providing yet another way to get the digital data from your computer to the player. So what we really have here is a single device that will read compact discs using its own transport and also function as an external DAC! Not bad, not bad.
On the inside, the RGCD2 employs a Burr Brown PCM 1710U Dual 20 bit DAC chip. 20 bits? Do they even make 20 bit chips any more? I checked up on the chip with Lindy Gerber, and she did indeed verify that it is well over a decade old. Now, don’t get too excited, as newer doesn’t necessarily mean better in the digital world. REDGUM keeps using this chip because they like the way it sounds, especially with the 16 bit cd data this player is designed to decode. Heck, we’ve got four extra bits to play with. Will it decipher high resolution files sent via computer? Yes, indeed, but by necessity the chip will downsample the data and truncate the word length down to 20 bits. Also, it didn’t recognize my homemade hi-resolution .wav and .aif files that result from archiving my vinyl, though it didn’t seem to mind playing either compact discs ripped to my hard drive or downloaded files (e.g., stuff from HDTracks.com).
Another potential issue to deal with is the potentially large amount of jitter that comes from the raw digital data stream from the cd rom transport. REDGUM gets around this problem by re-clocking this data using a Cirrus Logic CS8412 crystal clock prior to sending it on to the DAC chip. The analog output stage consists of an Analog Devices AD712J dual precision high speed BiFET operational amplifier. Were there any problems? I’d say not, as the music from the player was well resolved and musical, whether sourced from the internal cd rom transport or directly from my computer. Aside from the older technology employed when compared to today’s cutting edge digital products, I really can’t find much to fault on this good ol’ fashioned silver disc spinner. Quirky, yes, but quite lovable. Kind of like me.
Oh, and a few other things to note as a post script: when discs are played, I hear a fairly loud “click” between tracks, and there is an annoying green light that flashes on and off under the drawer when a disc is spinning. Rather irritating for late night sessions, so I’d suggest covering it with a small strip of black electrical tape and calling it done.
REDGUM RGS Manna Stand Mount Speakers ($2200 usd)
Finally we come to the last of the trio of components in our exclusively REDGUM system: the RGS Manna speakers. While not exactly mini-monitors, they are small enough to be stand or shelf mounted. I ended up using them on adjustable height stands with the tweeter positioned right about at ear level. They also seemed to appreciate a bit of toe-in to get the stereo image to solidify, and I kept them well out in the middle of my listening space and away from room boundaries.
A typical bass reflex design with a front panel port, the Mannas use what look like SEAS drivers (as confirmed by Lindy). These consist of a 16.5 cm polyproylene mid/bass driver and a 2.5 cm soft dome tweeter. The reported frequency range is from 40 Hz up to 19 kHz with a sensitivity of 92 dB per watt at one meter. The speakers boast a nominal impedance of eight ohms with a crossover point at 3 kHz. Looking dead-on at the front of the speakers, one notices a narrow baffle, presumably to minimize surface reflections. Each speaker provides a single pair of five way binding posts and is fully encased in quite stunning red gum veneer over 19 mm thick MDF. The woodwork and construction appear to be first-rate. Top quality crossover components are used, and all internal connections are said to be soldered rather than crimped, further demonstrating the attention to detail that I have become accustomed to with REDGUM products.
Put ‘em All Together and They Spell.....
Total system price is just less than $7,000. Maybe Carl James will give you a little discount if you buy the whole system, or maybe trown in sme cable. I don't know, but it never hurts to ask. One nice thing about a single manufacturer system is that the listener is poised to get an idea of what the designer feels good reproduction of music should sound like. After all, he or she did the voicing of all of the components that went into the system. If the designer has a good idea of what real music should sound like, then we’re in luck. Another good thing is that if something goes wrong, you only have one dealer to work with, and Carl Jame's outfit has an excellent reputation.
Fortunately, I think Ian Robinson knows how well-reproduced music should sound.
I’ll tell you that I took the time to get to know each REDGUM component well in at least one of my other systems before putting them all together as a single system. Each was individually at least a good performer, if not outstanding. What we really care about here though is how the components function together as a system.
For my final listening evaluations, I used all three REDGUM components in a single system. The only other external source used was my computer audio system, which consists of a Mac Mini feeding bits to a Sound Devices USBPre2 digital interface which in turn served as a usb to S/PDIF converter. Bits from the USBPre2 were then fed directly to the digital RCA input of the REDGUM RGCD2 player/DAC. Both the RGCD2 unit and the RGi60ENR integrated amp were plugged into a Spiritual Audio VX-9 power conditioner. Speaker cables were REDGUM Audio “Expressive Line” copper cables; interconnects were also provided, but proved too short to run from the disc player to the amp so I used the excellent Holistic Audio Arts TimeLine cables instead.
Musicality is the order of the day here. I really can’t see any serious music lover being unhappy with the modest REDGUM system I have. Gear hounds might want to perk up and listen as well, since this system also punches the bucket lists of many audiophiles out there. Is the system perfect? No. Not even near perfect. But what system is? Even megabuck systems have their flaws when compared to the experience of live music.
On their own, I have characterized REDGUM’s integrated amplifiers as tonally neutral and fast. Mating the amp with REDGUM source and speakers tends toward a bit of warmth and fullness of the lower midrange and bass, imbuing the music with a nice sense of power and body in that all important presence region of the sonic spectrum. I never felt that the presentation was lightweight or threadbare. I really didn’t miss my subwoofer, suggesting that the speakers really do extend down to something near 40 Hz. All types of music had sufficient punch down low to keep me satisfied, whether rock, jazz, or large scale orchestral. Treble information was crisp and light but never overdone or etched. Mids were meaty with plenty of harmonic information that always kept my attention focused on the musical event without becoming overly congested.
Imaging and soundstaging were quite good, as to be expected from a system utilizing smaller monitor speakers. While listening to Oscar Peterson’s “We Get Requests” (compact disc, First Impressions Music), I was astounded to hear the kick drum on the cut “The Day of Wine and Roses” seem to come from slightly behind the speakers and somewhere behind the left wall of my listening room. Interestingly, I’d never noticed this effect before when using larger speakers. Yes, these little guys really do get out of the way and do a disappearing act. Individual instrumental or voice images were stable and didn’t wander about the soundstage, and portrayal of instrument placement within the soundstage could be excellent if these characteristics were present in the recording.
When listening to systems with smaller speakers, I tend to shy away from orchestral recordings because of their complexity of harmonic color and extended dynamics, neither of which I typically expect such speakers to handle as well as their larger brethren. You’ve heard the drill: don’t tax the system, so play female vocals and jazz lounge trios. Not surprisingly, the REDGUM system worked its magic with these types of performances, but it didn’t exactly run screaming from the room when asked to reproduce complex orchestral scores. As an example, I played Howard Hanson’s “Lament to Beowulf” and “Suite from Merry Mount” (compact disc, Delos), both of which have lots of tonal color and broad dynamic range. I was not disappointed given the known constraints of the system. The brass entrances toward the beginning of “Beowulf” were appropriately piercing and intense; they should almost scare you if you don’t know they’re coming. And indeed they did, almost lifting me out of my seat when I had the volume up a bit. I also got sufficient detail across much of the audio spectrum, with good delineation among instrumental sections, as well as between orchestra and chorus. My quibbles are twofold, but minor: I didn’t feel that I got quite as much front-to-back layering as I have heard before with this disc, and I sensed a bit of congestion in the lower mid/upper bass regions that robbed the system of that final sense of resolution that I crave. Nonetheless, the REDGUM system managed to satisfy me, and I fully enjoyed listening to this challenging piece of music through it. I also need to keep in mind that I seem to recall that some Delos orchestral recordings, while tonally rich and quite beautifully done, tend to sometimes seem a bit muddled in the frequency regions I mentioned.
The very same arguments listed above can be equally applied to the system’s rendering of the “Suite from Merry Mount,” a rollicking and intensely beautiful orchestral extravaganza. Lots of dynamic range here, and it was dealt with quite handily. Maybe not perfectly, but quite involving indeed. There’s also plenty of nuance to be enjoyed here, such as the triangle in the movement “Children’s Dance” which was penetrating, yet appropriately delicate. Again, while the overall dynamics weren’t the best I’ve heard, they really were quite acceptable for a relatively small system such as this. The involvement was there, even if the SPLs weren’t exactly lifelike.
I have no such criticism when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll. Cueing up Led Zeppelin’s “Celebration Day” (24 bit/48.2 kHz download, HDTracks) was an absolute joy. Here, the bit of upper bass emphasis of the REDGUM system really paid dividends in terms of providing some real drive, body, and presence. The kick drum and bass guitar provided plenty of propulsion and underlying energy. I found the REDGUM system’s treatment of this music to be as good as any system I have heard as long as I kept my listening to reasonably moderate (but still fun) volumes.
As a final personal assessment, I’d have to ask myself if I’d absolutely want to be the proud owner of this totally REDGUM system. As much as I’ve enjoyed my time listening to this system, it’s ultimately not for me. Not because it fails at what it does (really, quite the contrary is true!), but because I remain the inveterate audio tweaker. The folks at REDGUM have just made the whole process of achieving really good sound with minimal effort too easy for me. Probably someday, as it is with most aficionados, I'll want to simplify my life and listening experience. Push one button, hear great music. Heck, hopefully I'll just think of Led Zeppelin’s “Celebration Day” and it will play back not only a perfect sonic replica of the piece, but a perfect hologram of the band as well. It will look and sound absoultely as it did when it was originally performed. Maybe we'll even be able to smell which brand of scotch the boys had before walking on stage.
The truth is that it matters not whether I love it or hate it. My job as a reviewer is to give you as much objective information about the gear as I can. If there is one thing we all know for sure is that 10 different "experts" can listen to any given system and come away with 10 distinctly different opinions. In fact, there are actually TWO things we know for sure: the second is that we could take that same system and put it in a different room and you'd most likely get ten more different opinions. For many audiophiles and music lovers out there, the REDGUM system will check off most of the important boxes in terms of features and performance achievable at the reasonably modest asking price. For all but the nuttiest audio nuts out there, you really can’t ask for much more than that. Well done, REDGUM Audio!
So there you have it... REDGUM Audio’s more or less entry level system really can stand up to the competition when it comes to making beautiful music. Yes, the gear can be a bit quirky; umm, I mean unconventional, but it remains ultimately quite likable and easy to use in my book. Is there a star of the show when it comes down to my assessment of the individual components? Well, yes, there is... Envelope please?
It should come as no surprise that my favorite piece of gear of the trio is the RGi60ENR amplifier. It should be, as I have owned it for some time now and have no regrets. The cd player and speakers are strong performers in their own right, but the amp just stands out to me, excelling with pretty much anything I hook up to it, both upstream and downstream.
Back to the system then, which is pretty much the purpose of the review. As I said before, if you are a hard-core music lover looking for a turnkey (quite literally) system without having to work hard at creating that evanescent sense of audio synergy, then look no further. The folks at REDGUM have you covered.
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