Rega Planar 5 & Planar 7 turntables Follow-Up, March 2005
In his February 2003 "Analog Corner" column (Vol.26 No.2), Michael Fremer had some interesting things to say about speed accuracy in contemporary turntables. In particular, he observed that a goodly number of them run at least 1% fast, and he wondered if that sprang from a deliberate effort on the part of some manufacturers to create a more appealing sound. "Things sound snappy and lively" when a record is played back on a fast-running turntable, he wrote, with stereo images seeming to shift forward. "I don't know if this represents a mere sample-to-sample variation," Mikey continued, "or if it's a plot to give these 'tables a snappy delivery, as some who shall remain nameless have charged."
As I said, interesting stuff—but what does it have to do with me? And why did I wait two years to react?
Because the Rega Planar 3 was among the turntables Mikey found to be running fast—and that might lead one to wonder, not unreasonably, if the same might be true of Rega's new Planar 5 ($1295) and Planar 7 ($2595) models. Which I'd just reviewed, for the December 2004 issue. Since the P5 and P7 were still in my house at the time Mikey and I exchanged e-mails on the subject, a clear answer was clearly within reach—so I set about testing them.
Now, there are two ways to measure a turntable's speed accuracy that I'm aware of: Play a record containing a steady tone of known frequency (usually 1kHz), measure it with a frequency counter, and calculate the difference as a percentage; or observe the turntable's performance with a strobe light and strobe disc, the latter hopefully calibrated in such a way that deviations from accuracy can be measured and, again, calculated as a percentage. As things turned out, the first method wasn't an option: I still had Stereophile's Fluke 87 multimeter on hand, which can measure frequency in Hz at the press of a button; but I surprised even myself when I realized that none of the test records in my collection contains a useful test tone.
Thank goodness for the Linn Speedchecker kit, which consists of a flexible plastic strobe disc of the usual sort (it doubles as an alignment protractor for Linn's Ekos and Ittok tonearms) and a battery-powered 300Hz strobe lamp. The latter also incorporates a metal mounting strap that slips neatly into the hinge bracket of a Linn LP12 dustcover—although it's almost as easy to use on other 'tables.
The Speedchecker not only tells you if and when a turntable runs at a steadily accurate speed; with a stopwatch and a bit of careful observation, the user can time the advancing or retreating strobe markings to calculate speed error as a percentage with apparent accuracy. (At both 33.3rpm and 45rpm, an error of 1 line per second indicates a speed error of 0.3%.)
So here we go:
In its most basic configuration, without the use of an outboard power supply, the Rega P5 ran 0.1% fast at 33.3rpm—and 0.15% slow at 45rpm. With its accessory power supply, the TT PSU, the Rega P5 ran 0.025% fast at 33.3rpm and 0.2% fast at 45rpm. The more expensive Rega P7, which requires the use of a TT PSU, ran 0.075% fast at 33.3rpm and 0.3% fast at 45rpm.
You may have already caught the flaw in my measurements, which the test-tone approach would have sidestepped: I measured the speed of the Regas when they weren't actually playing records—and groove drag can be counted on to bring all those numbers down, howsoever slightly. (Groove drag is something to which the Rega players, with their comparatively light platters and low-torque motors, are susceptible. And, of course, the effect will be inconsistent, given the continuously varying degree of groove modulation, which opens up an entirely different can of worms, especially for the truly adventurous soul who wishes to measure wow and flutter . . . )
I don't think the speed inaccuracies I measured would be audible to most listeners. As for whether or not the goosed-up speed in other products is deliberate, I can't answer as confidently—though I tend to doubt it, if only because in-store turntable comparisons and the shopkeepers who are willing to perform them are virtually extinct. These days, you're lucky to find a store that has one record player each at a couple different price points, let alone samples of different brands that compete directly. (Remember the Linn LP12–SOTA Sapphire wars of only 20 years ago? Ah, me bucko, now those were the days . . . )
The moral of the story: Questioning authority is always good, always healthy, and always educational—especially when you get to play records after you're done.—Art Dudley