Product refreshes in the hi-fi world often come in one of two forms: either the company knows it needs to introduce a new product so it can issue a press release and stay in the news, or it’s simply adding modern features to keep up with the times. At first blush, Rega’s new Mk4 version of its popular Elex integrated amplifier ($1875, all prices in USD) seems to fall into the latter category. At the very least, you get the sense that it doesn’t fall into the former.
Here’s the thing, though: this new mid-tier (for Rega) integrated amp doesn’t add support for things like MQA (thank goodness), nor does it hop on the more recent trend of bringing room correction to the two-channel domain (I wouldn’t be mad about that) or adding bass management (ditto). Compared with its predecessor, the Elex-R, it simply adds a DAC (with optical and coaxial inputs; no USB or wireless connectivity) and a well-integrated headphone amplifier. Some cosmetics have also been touched up, resulting in a lovely little chassis that’s compact and solidly built, and much more in line with the company’s pricier Elicit Mk5 integrated.
All of the above may not seem like much, but Rega makes it clear (with actions more than words) that its passion still is very much analog audio delivered via speakers in a room, and the addition of a DAC and HPA are more about enhancing flexibility than redefining the Elex model. Otherwise, this is very much an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it design. And I respect the hell out of that.
Like its forebear, the Elex Mk4 delivers 72Wpc into 8 ohms or 90Wpc into 6 ohms, at least on paper. As I mentioned in my unboxing blog post, Rega doesn’t rate the power section with lower-impedance loads, and even warns: “Continued high level use into loads of 6Ω or less may cause the case to exceed 40°C above ambient temperature and activate the thermal shut down.”
That was a weensy bit concerning to read, because all of the tower speakers I have on hand dip well below 6 ohms, with most dipping below 4 ohms. And I like to listen at high levels from time to time, however briefly.
Installing and configuring the Rega Elex Mk4
In addition to its digital inputs, the Elex Mk4 sports a phono input (MM), four line-level stereo inputs (RCA), Record Output connectors (fixed line-level RCA, so unaffected by volume control), and Pre-amp Output connectors (also RCA), plus very nice but unflashy five-way binding posts. Given that its connectivity is so straightforward, there isn’t much to say about setting up the amp. I connected my reference speakers, a pair of Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers, using my go-to pair of nice-but-not-ridiculous Elac Sensible speaker cables. I also plugged in my reference iFi Audio Zen One Signature DAC (fed by a USB cable from my Maingear Vybe PC) using its own RCA interconnects, and then I ran a Monoprice #2765 digital optical audio cable (12′) from the Vybe to Input D2 on the Elex Mk4.
It’s not immediately clear which of the digital inputs is which in terms of numbering, but it’s easy enough to cycle through them and listen for a signal. If you’re looking for some logic to help you remember which S/PDIF input is which, just keep in mind that the input numbers climb in value from left to right as you’re looking at the back panel. Given that the optical input is to the right of the coaxial input, it’s not too hard to figure out that it’s D2. Hopefully in the Mk5 version of the Elex, Rega will just go ahead and name the digital inputs Coax and Opt to make things a little simpler, but for now this is hardly a dealbreaker.
The Elex Mk4 comes with a straightforward remote that gets the job done. It’s a little light for my taste, but I love that the buttons I need most—volume control and input selection—are right where my thumb naturally rests. My only real beef is the lack of direct input selection. Pressing the input up and down buttons simply cycles through all available sources. It’s also odd that the remote completely lacks a standby button, and the amp features no auto-standby timer, so you have to remember to walk over and press the front-panel power button when you’re done listening.
I mentioned the light weight of the remote to contrast its hollow, plasticky feel with the heavy-metal thunder of the Elex Mk4 itself. Despite measuring in at a mere 17″W × 3.1″H × 13″D (smaller than most of the disc players I have kicking around the house), it tips the scales at a chonky 24.25 pounds. I’m assuming a lot of that is the beefy linear power supply, but whatever the reason, I’m starting to understand why shady electronics manufacturers used to pack their gear with dead weight back in the 1980s. There’s simply no denying that it makes the Elex Mk4 feel as substantial and well-built as it looks from the outside.
How does the Rega Elex Mk4 perform?
I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I have a Pavlovian response to a good volume knob, but a recent episode of the SoundStage! Audiophile Podcast has prompted me to spend a lot more time thinking about channel balance and consistency than inertia and hand-feel. There’s no denying that the volume control for the Rega feels nice—perhaps a bit small and stiff, but really precise and with a finger-pleasing texture. But how does it sound in action?
I figured the best way to find out would be to fire up Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys (Remastered for Buddha)” from the album Waylon & Willie (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Buddha Records / Qobuz). I picked this track because the vocals are rock-solidly centered, at least during the verses, but the lap-steel and acoustic guitars and even the background vocals sort of wander around the mix, and when the chorus kicks in, the soundstage gets deliciously wide.
Good image specificity is essential to get the full effect of this mix, and it’s easy enough to get it right with the volume left alone—although I have to say that the Elex Mk4 still excels in this respect. But what’s really impressive is the way the entire spatial balance of the track holds together as you adjust the volume. Using the remote, I dialed the loudness up and down, hitting extremes ranging from whisper-quiet to jackhammer ridiculousness, and never once did the precise placements of Waylon’s and Willie’s voices waver, nor did I ever feel unable to dial in precisely the right comfortable listening level.
One thing I didn’t really expect Willie and Waylon to be able to tell me was the Rega’s ability to fill my somewhat thirsty Paradigm towers with strong bass in the frequency range where their impedance curves dip below 4 ohms. But as it turns out, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies . . .” has a lot of strong bass between 60 and 100Hz, especially starting around the 40-second mark.
At one point I had the volume turned up so high that I had to put my earphones in just to protect my eardrums, and the bass was hitting so hard that it made my chest uncomfortable. I ran the song on a loop for about ten minutes, and while the case did get toasty to the touch, it wasn’t out of line with what you’d expect from a class-AB amp. Nor did I ever trigger the thermal protection shutdown.
Given that experience, it seems to me that perhaps Rega was being overly cautious when it wrote its warning about sub-6-ohm loads. But I couldn’t resist pushing further. So I turned to my go-to subwoofer stress test, despite the fact that no sub was connected. I know at some point regular readers will get sick of my referencing Björk’s “Hyperballad” (Post, 16/44.1 FLAC, 143-Lava-Atlantic / Qobuz), but it’s as close to a test tone as you’re going to get from an actual piece of listenable music, what with its sinewave bass line that bounces around between ~32.7Hz and ~65.4Hz. I’ve fried amps with this track. I’ve blown fuses. I’ve destroyed voice coils. I’ve triggered fault-protection circuitry more times than I care to count.
So even though I was hoping to push the Elex Mk4 to its limits, I didn’t cue up “Hyperballad” with the volume cranked. I started at a comfortable listening level and just let it soak in. And I didn’t hear any of the thinning bass or lack of dynamics that would cause me to suspect that the amp was struggling to provide enough current to keep up with the more power-hungry load. If anything, its dynamic punch and full-bodied presentation, even at lower listening levels, was noteworthy.
I turned the volume up to uncomfortable listening levels and let the song play a few more times. Here again, I appreciated the precision of Rega’s volume control and the utter stability of the sonic image as I adjusted the loudness. I found myself appreciating some of the subtle textures of the mix that normally only reveal themselves during headphone listening. Still, the amp didn’t flinch.
So I cranked the volume again to stupid SPLs, plugged my ears, left the room, and shut the door. After an hour or so, I poked my head back in the door, and while the Elex Mk4 felt like it needed an antipyretic, Björk was still wondering what her body would sound like slamming against those rocks, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she should have wrecked this amp by now.
Or at least you’d think so from reading the instruction manual. Now, am I criticizing Rega for any of this? Of course, I’m not. I’m thrilled when any component undersells and overperforms. But in trying to square this circle, I noticed that when I had the volume set to punishing levels, the little indicator mark was at around 11 o’clock, on a control that ranges from roughly 7 o’clock on the low end to maybe 5 o’clock max.
And to be fair, I was using fairly sensitive speakers in a relatively cozy listening room measuring a mere 10 by 12.3 tootsies. When I was enjoying the Elex Mk4 in this room at a casual listening level, the volume knob was at around 8:30 (or maybe 15 percent of the way from 0 to 100 if you want to put it in such terms). At reference levels, the knob was sitting close to 9:30—or something close to 25 percent.
Long story short, I think Rega expects folks to employ this amp in much larger rooms with much less efficient speakers. And with that, I gave up on trying to break it and decided to listen purely for pleasure.
“Take This Waltz (Paris Version)” from Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man (24/44.1 FLAC, Columbia-Legacy / Qobuz) is a song I find myself drawn to like a moth to flame, mostly because it’s just so damned weird that I can’t help loving it. It’s also not a bad reference track, because the intriguing mix of synthesizers and Cohen’s inimitable vocal timbres will shine a bright spotlight on any sound system with appreciable distortion.
If there’s any distortion to contend with here, it’s below audible levels, and I can say that with confidence because any coloration of the signal can really be heard in the decay of the lead vocal with this track, and I simply wasn’t hearing it. The background vocals—especially the “I-i-i” at around 2:36—can also sound edgy through a preamp or DAC that suffers from too much noise or distortion. I didn’t hear a bit of that when running my iFi Audio DAC through a line-level input, so I decided to switch over to the optical in, and it sounded just as pristine.
Comparing the iFi to the internal DAC of the Elex Mk4 on a handful of other tracks, I found that I wanted to describe them differently—I wanted to call the Rega’s internal digital-to-analog converter a little more laid-back and a bit smoother in its presentation—but I couldn’t reliably identify which was which in single-blind testing, so take that observation with a whole salt-lick. Long story short, to my ears the DAC in the Elex Mk4 is as good as everything else about this little integrated amp, and that’s high praise, to be sure.
That “everything else” extends to the headphone amp. I often find myself with little to say about the headphone outputs of most integrated amps, because they’re sort of perfunctory, aren’t they? The headphone output of the Elex Mk4, on the other hand, is nice and punchy and super dynamic, as well as being nicely balanced, tonally speaking, and very resolving. With my go-to headphone test track, The Allman Brothers Band’s “Blue Sky” (Eat a Peach, 24/96 FLAC, Mercury Records / Qobuz), I really loved the way I could hear the tube saturation of Dickie’s and Duane’s amps, not to mention the rock-solid stability of Berry Oakley’s bass, even with cans like my Audeze LCD-2s. Unless your headphones are just a stupidly difficult load, it’s hard to imagine needing a headphone amp that does any more than the one built into the Rega.
What other integrated amps in this price class should you consider?
If I were shopping for an integrated amp right now and my budget was capped at around $1900, another model I would be strongly considering is the NAD C 368 BluOS-2i ($1749). In many ways, this is a matter of different horses for different courses, as the NAD packs in a lot of the digital connectivity that the Rega eschews. It has Bluetooth, for example (with aptX decoding), BluOS streaming capabilities, AirPlay 2 support, and double the S/PDIF inputs as compared with the Elex Mk4. All that, of course, comes at the expense of analog connectivity, as the NAD has only a phono input and two line-level ins. It’s similarly specified in terms of power, though, with 80 Wpc of output. But since the NAD relies on HypeX UcD modules instead of class-AB topology, it runs a lot cooler, and in our testing, similar modules employed in the C 3050 LE appear to be stable into 2 ohms, although NAD only rates it with 4- and 8-ohm loads.
I also like the cut of the Marantz PM8006’s jib ($1499). Like the Rega, it’s an analog-focused affair. Unlike the Rega, it doesn’t even bother with coaxial and optical digital inputs, so if you know for sure you’re bringing your own DAC to the party, that might be something to consider. It also has speaker A/B outputs and is rated to deliver 70Wpc into 8 ohms or 100Wpc into 4 ohms.
TL;DR: Should you buy the Rega Elex Mk4 integrated amp?
The combination of Rega’s warnings and my experiences using the amp in my system make me think that perhaps the company intends the Elex Mk4 to be used in rooms much larger than mine, or with speakers much more demanding than mine, so keep all that in mind when you consider my subjective impressions. With that caveat out of the way, I think this is a great option if you’ve got a lot of analog sources, don’t need USB connectivity, don’t give a rip about Bluetooth or network streaming, and expect the headphone jack in your integrated amp to get the job done, obviating the need for an outboard HPA.
This may or may not be a consideration for you, but I also just dig the design of the Elex Mk4. There’s something a bit old-school about it, what with the glowing red indicators, the pushbutton controls, and the lack of a screen readout. I also adore the feel and precision of the volume control, whether using the somewhat basic remote control or cranking it manually.
On the balance sheet, if I were spending my own coin, I’d probably be drawn to something with a bit more digital connectivity and built-in streaming capabilities, not to mention class-D amplification. But even a digital audio enthusiast like myself has to admit that this little amp has something that far too many of today’s audio value-oriented products lack: genuine personality. But nary an ounce of that personality comes at the cost of performance.
. . . Dennis Burger
- Speakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v.5.
- Speaker cables: Elac Sensible.
- Interconnects: Monoprice Monolith #33464 USB Type-A to USB Type-B cable; Monoprice #2765 Premium S/PDIF (Toslink) Digital Optical Audio Cable, 12′.
- Sources: Maingear Vybe PC; iFi Zen One Signature DAC.
- Power protection: SurgeX XR115 Surge Eliminator/Power Conditioner.
Rega Research Elex Mk4 Integrated Amplifier
Warranty: Limited lifetime.
Rega Research Ltd.
6 Coopers Way
Southend-on-Sea SS2 5TE
Phone: +44 (0)1702 333 071
The Sound Organisation
1009 Oakmead Drive
Arlington, Texas 76011
Phone: (972) 234-0182