Rega Planar 3 turntable Michael Fremer

Michael Fremer wrote about the Rega in December 1996 (Vol.19 No.12):
The last thing I did before sitting down to write this column was run an $1895 Lyra Clavis DC phono cartridge on a $650 Rega Planar 3 turntable. I played a British Polydor pressing of Roxy Music's song "Avalon," then played it again on the $9000 TNT Mk.3/Immedia RPM combo using a $3800 Transfiguration Temper cartridge. That's $2545 vs about $13,000.

Were there differences? Of course. Were they big differences? Not nearly as immense as I thought they'd be. When I started my comparison of four reasonably priced arm/'table combos a few weeks ago, the last thing I thought I'd be doing during the process was playing with expensive cartridges. I was figuratively wrong and literally correct.

Let me backtrack: It's fun playing with $3000 cartridges, $2500 arms, and $6000 turntables, and I hope that, even if you can't afford such exotica, you at least enjoy reading about it. I like reading about Porsche Carrera 4s, and I thumb through the Victoria's Secret catalog, but...

Back in the real world, there are car payments and mortgages. For most of us, dropping a thousand dollars on an analog front-end is the limit. An analog revival for the well-heeled few is no analog revival at all. Besides, if you blow your wad on the hardware you'll have no money left for the great end-of-the-century vinyl glut.

But if reasonably priced analog doesn't sound better than the equivalent digital, what's the point? So at last spring's HI-FI '96 I did some reviewer shopping, procuring the Rega Planar 2 ($450), the Rega Planar 3 ($650), the Moth Kanoot ($699), and, just for good measure, a Thorens TD 320 Mk.III ($1080). The Regas came fitted with Rega cartridges: the 2 with the $175 Super Bias, the 3 with the Elys ($225).

Rega Planar 2 & 3 turntables
Roy Gandy, Rega's designer and main man, is a confirmed iconoclast. In the instructions that come with both models, he implores you to use the dustcover. Mainstream thinking on dustcovers these days is that they act like giant resonating chambers that cloud the sound. Gandy says "use 'em," both because they keep the dust off the record and because they may make the turntable sound better. I don't see why that would be the case, but who am I to argue with a guy who makes his platters out of glass and gets great sound anyway?

Gandy also warns against cleaning records with fluids and/or cleaning machines. He claims a little dust isn't really a problem, because the stylus simply pushes it out of the way. Better a little dust, he figures, than cleaning the record with liquids on a machine. I don't agree with any of this, but I pass it on for your consideration.

The Rega Planar 2 and 3 turntables are basically the same design executed to different price points. The 2 retails in the US for $450 and features an unsuspended MDF plinth that sits on three of those cane-tip–like rubber feet. The Rega RB250's substantial arm post is mounted via a hole in the plinth. The drive system consists of an Airpax AC synchronous motor (manufactured in the Netherlands) mounted from below in close proximity to the platter bearing.

Drive is via a plastic pulley mounted on the motor shaft, and a small $wO-ring that fits around a diminutive 4"-diameter subplatter/bearing/spindle assembly. The record spindle protrudes through a hole in the center of the glass platter and rests on the subplatter, centered via a raised area around the spindle. Topping the platter is the ubiquitous hairy British felt mat.

The Rega Planar 3 uses the same motor as the 2, but it's better isolated from the thicker, heavier plinth via a rubber suspension. The glass platter is also thicker, as is the felt mat. The RB300 arm features higher-tolerance bearings, a decoupled counterweight, an at-the-pivot coil-spring–type VTF adjustment scheme, and higher-quality interconnect cables. Both arms feature spring-type anti-skating compensation; neither offers VTA or azimuth adjustment.

I used a variety of test discs to check out the two 'tables' speed accuracy, wow and flutter, noise level, rumble, etc., and the arms' tracking ability and resonance points when fitted with a variety of cartridges. All tests were performed with the 'tables resting on a Townshend Seismic Sink sitting on a spiked, four-tiered Target stand resting on four A.R.T. Q-Damper feet.

Keep in mind that the floor beneath my carpet is concrete. A turntable without a suspension—even a turntable with a suspension—is susceptible to serious floor-induced feedback, and worse, when placed on a "bouncy" floor. In my previous abode, I had my TNT on the TNT stand filled with lead shot and sand, and I still had occasional stylus bounce because the floor of my old house was springy. If your floor bounces, you're going to have to put the 'table on a wall-/stud-mounted platform, or at the very least "ground" the floor stand to a wall—I did that by wedging a block of wood between the stand and the wall behind.

Back to the cement world: Both 'tables ran at precisely 331/3. Using wow/flutter test tracks on Stereo Review's handy-dandy SRT14-A Test Record, I found wow and flutter to be "very low indeed," as Julian Hirsch would say. Both 'tables exhibited very low noise on "silent groove" bands, and both arms handled all of the cartridges in exemplary fashion.

The arm/cartridge resonance points were always very low where you want them, but not so low that they'd be excited by the normal warp/wow on most records. Sorry, I'm generalizing like hell here—something I don't do in full reviews—but in "Analog Corner" I've got to worry about the final frontier (that's space for you non-Trekkies).

Neither the Rega 250 nor the 300 could track Telarc's 1812 Overture cannon shot at the third level on the Omnidisc. Not surprisingly, the Rockport arm sailed through. But on the other Telarc "tests" using real music, the arms performed extremely well, exhibiting outstanding control with all of the cartridges I tried.

None of this is surprising given the outstanding reputation Rega turntables and arms have garnered over the many years they've been in production. The drive system is simple yet effective, providing a great deal of torque along with accurate speed. Why a glass platter doesn't ring and sound hard even with a felt mat is a question perhaps Gandy will answer for me when I speak with him about his top-of-the-line Rega Planar 9 (which uses a high-tech ceramic platter and will get a full review shortly).

But the real stars of the show are the arms. While writing about the VPI JMW Memorial arm (review to appear next month), I asked VPI's Harry Weisfeld how Rega can sell two such outstanding arms for so little. Both are extremely rigid, well-damped, and feature tight-tolerance bearing sets, precision-cast arm tubes with tapered wall thicknesses, and decent-quality internal wiring and interconnects. These arms feel good and sound good too. While you can't adjust VTA (vertical tracking angle), the large-diameter post that mounts to the plinth ensures an extremely rigid connection.

"Why don't you make an inexpensive cast arm?" I asked him. "Cost," he replied. "Making the die is very expensive. It's only after you sell large quantities of arms that you recoup your initial expenses." Back when Rega made the outlay, analog was the only game in town. Today, every arm they sell is gravy.

How do they sound?
While I've recommended Regas turntables and arms to many friends and to readers who've contacted me, and I've heard them in other people's systems, until now I hadn't had one in my own listening room. I'm glad I finally got the opportunity: Now I can say, with complete confidence, that the Regas are incredible bargains. They sound and perform even better than I'd previously thought. (The Moth's sound was comparable, but because the wobble took it out of serious contention, I returned it to the box and didn't bother with "head to head" comparisons.)

The Rega 2 came fitted with a Rega Super Bias moving-magnet cartridge ($175), which I ran through the quiet, neutral-sounding Gold Aero Signature dB45 phono section ($999). Even after a long break-in period I was not impressed: The Super Bias was grainy and fatiguing, turning applause into rain on a tin roof. It lacked any semblance of low-level resolution, was bright on top and bulbous on bottom, and accentuated surface noise to the point where you were always aware that a stylus was digging through a groove. Not a good start.

Of course, at that point I didn't know whether I was hearing the cartridge, the turntable, or both, so I substituted the low-output Benz MC Gold (which I was already familiar with), and even though it lifted the front of the arm a bit higher than was optimal, the sound became much smoother and more refined. Not surprising—the cartridge is twice as expensive.

In the end I tried both Ortofons, the Rega Elys, the Benz MC Gold, and a Grado Signature Jr. ($125) on the Rega 2 and 3, and both 'tables were capable of extracting outstanding performance from all of these cartridges. I was so impressed with the stylus-caressing abilities of the arms that I ended up mounting heavy hitters like the AudioQuest Fe5 and Lyra Clavis DC to accurately gauge the sound of the 'tables relative to the TNT Mk.3.

Given the $200 difference in price between the Rega 2 and 3, go for the 3 if you can afford it. The RB 300 arm is a better performer, and while the 2 did nothing really wrong, the 3 offered somewhat deeper and tighter bass, better dynamics at both ends of the scale, a better sensation of "quiet," and smoother overall performance. Because of space limitations I'm going to skip the 2's sound and tell you about the 3. (Lower the bar a few notches and you've got the 2.)

The Rega 3's sound with any of the cartridges I used was extremely well balanced tonally—that was the biggest surprise. I expected a slight metallic hardness on top and some bloat on bottom; what I got was very tight, ballsy bass that in some ways worked better on blues and rock than what I got from the TNT with the Rockport arm!

For instance, on the terrific new Blues Union (AudioQuest AQ-1039), with Ronnie Earl and Joe Beard, there was a "crack" to the snare and a meatiness to the bass that reminded me of what I hear in a club sitting close to the stage. Through the TNT it was more laid-back, more refined, like what you hear in a studio—which is, of course, the actual venue. But the excitement generated by the Rega was incredible—and in some ways preferable.

The Rega excelled at providing the rhythmic thrust of the music, which I think the Brits pay more attention to than Americans do. The Naim CD-2 CD player offers the same kind of outstanding throb (for CDs) relative to the EAD 9000/Audio Alchemy DDS Pro combo.

In general the Rega 3 tended to move the soundstage forward, putting the images closer to the plane of the loudspeakers; it slightly brightened the overall tonality and provided more of a stiff, etched feel to cymbals, female voices, and other sources with lots of high-frequency energy.

I still had the stack of records out that I'd used to evaluate the VPI arm, so I played the tracks from each I'd used for that review, which included "New York State of Mind" from Mel Tormé's Live At Marty's two-LP set, Elvis Costello's "New Lace Sleeve" from a British pressing of Trust, "Betty Ball's Blues" from Conjure, "The Syncopated Clock" from the Mercury Living Presence LP of Music of Leroy Anderson, Vol.2, "Surrey with the Fringe on the Top" from Nat King Cole at the Sands (get this Capitol gatefold LP!), Sinatra's "When You're Smiling" off of MoFi's superb Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!! (part of the boxed set), "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" from Joni Mitchell's For The Roses (original Atlantic-pressed, George Piros–mastered, white-label Asylum—skip the later blue-cloud label Elektra/Asylum version), Classic's reissue of Reiner's Pictures at an Exhibition, and DCC's superb new reissue of Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time.

While each cartridge offered a somewhat different perspective, in general the focus on Sinatra's and Torm;ae's voices was surprisingly close to what I got from the TNT, with just a bit of extra size to the image, a bit of flattening, and slightly less overall harmonic coherence. Female voices sounded somewhat more aggressive, less velvety and round, but still had that certain PP (palpable presence) you don't get from CDs

In fact, a new Reprise two-CD HDCD Joni Mitchell collection showed up during the listening sessions, and it's quite impressive-sounding, decoded or not. But I still preferred my 24-year-old original pressing of For the Roses for its warm, luxurious-sounding acoustic guitars (the CD guitar sounds bodiless and thin by comparison), and its ability to focus all of the instruments and background voices on the soundstage. While Mitchell's voice was rendered quite cleanly on the CD, the LP sounded more like a human being sitting before me and singing.

The bottom line is that considered on its own terms, the Rega 3 offers outstanding performance: it's quiet, dynamic (check out the opening to Pictures), free of obvious tracking distortion or other supposed analog problems, extremely well-balanced top to bottom, offers very deep and reasonably tight bass, and will do no damage to your precious records.

It's only when you compare the Rega to the much more expensive TNT that you notice what it doesn't do. Even then, if you don't listen to classical music, you won't be too disappointed. If you do listen to classical, you'll find the noise floor—or at least the perceived noise floor—somewhat audible, the strings somewhat harder, the overtones somewhat squelched, and ambience and decay a bit truncated.

The overall sound on all of the records I auditioned was more like a recording and less like real life on the Rega 3 than on the TNT. Not surprising, but I'd bet that with the more modestly priced systems likely to be used with the Rega, you'll feel no pain at all.

And if you're an all-CD kind of audiophile, here's the kicker: I think the Rega 3 will blow your mind even if you have a very-high-priced spread. While good CDs sounded somewhat smoother and quieter than records played on the Rega, the vinyl, as usual, was more emotionally compelling, better focused, better nuanced harmonically, kept my attention longer, and provided a much bigger, airier picture.

Which cartridge on the Regas?
Since the Rega arms don't offer VTA adjustment, you have to be sure to use a cartridge that puts the arm close to parallel when installed. Here, a knowledgeable dealer or cartridge seller is crucial. The Rega cartridges, of course, do just that. While the Super Bias didn't do anything for me, the purple-bodied moving-magnet Elys, which tracked well at 1.75 grams, offered high output, vivid tonal balance, and good extension top and bottom. It features a three-screw mount that offers a tight ride and, save for zenith, makes overhang automatic. (The RB 300 has a third screw hole pre-drilled.) On the down side, like its less expensive sibling, it too accentuated surface noise and was less than exemplary at the very bottom.

For $50 less, the high-output Ortofon X1-MC (tracks well at 2 grams) offered a leaner bottom with pretty good overall balance and surprisingly good low-level resolution, though with a bit more grain on top than the Super Bias, and did a better job of masking surface noise—a very good performer for the money. Its height tilted the arm back a bit more than I'd like, but the styli in these inexpensive cartridges make VTA setting somewhat less critical.

In the low-output category (0.35mV), the Ortofon Super MC 15 II was a real sleeper, offering very neutral tonal balance—a bit lean, if anything—good ambience retrieval, fine extension on top without grain or glare, good control below, and impressive overall dynamics. It required a bit more tracking force than I like—about 2.2 grams—but it provided a quiet background from which the music emerged. It interfaced reasonably well with the RB 300 arm, again with more lift in front than I'd like to see, but the final arbiter is the sound. I was impressed.

The low-output Benz MC Gold (0.4mV output) at $350 was a real smoothy, offering the most luxurious, refined top-end of the bunch, and the greatest sense of background quiet. It tracked well at 2 grams, and offered a greater sense of liquidity and ease than the others, but dynamically it was a bit compressed, and its bass was not as punchy as some of the others'. Its lower profile mated well with the RB 300 arm, but I suspect its more finicky stylus footprint (0.3 by 0.7 mil) made it more susceptible to VTA changes than some of the others.

Finally, the Grado Signature Jr. ($125), with a very high output of 5mV and 0.2 by 0.2 mil stylus, despite being very tall and lifting the front of the arm way up, sounded much better than the setup looked—probably due to its stylus shape, which is basically impervious to VTA changes. The Grado makes a good-sounding, inexpensive, very safe choice for the Rega 3—especially with inexpensive electronics.

Sorry I don't have space here to be more specific and detailed about the sonic performance of these cartridges in the Rega 3. That's where a good analog dealer, or one of the mail-order guys who specializes in cartridges, can come in handy. Get as much advice as you can from all of them before making your final choice. I've been told by a few that the $150 Ortofon high-output (3.3mV) MC 1 Turbo is a good match for the Rega. And don't forget the Sumiko Blue Points!

Finally!
I began this column with the Rega 3/Clavis D.C. combo, and that's where I'll end it. That combo was scary-good, as was the AudioQuest Fe5/Rega 3 combo. The better the cartridge, the closer I got to the TNT! (But believe me, TNT owners need not second-guess their investment.) My conclusion from all of this playing around is, if you're on a limited budget, better to get a Rega 3 and an expensive cartridge than an expensive turntable with a cheap cartridge (footnote 1). I'm surprised by this, but that's what I found. Of course, if your electronics can't do justice to a low-output MC, the point is moot. I tried a Dynavector XX-1 ($1100) high-output cartridge, and that combination scored high marks with me. Unfortunately, it's a very heavy cartridge; I had the counterweight almost hanging off the back of the arm. Still...—Michael Fremer



Footnote 1: I think it's a tribute to the Rega record player that it will work with an expensive cartridge. But dollar for dollar, my experience has been that you get better sound from a relatively inexpensive cartridge on an expensive tonearm/turntable combination than the other way around.—John Atkinson
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