Rega Planar 5 & Planar 7 turntables Page 2
I began my own musical relaxation with the stock P5, and found it did a fine job of sorting out notes and beats and presenting them as a realistic continuum. Rock music virtually always sounds good on a Rega—but it's worth noting how well the P5 played classical, too. Bruno Walter's thoughtful performance of Brahms' Symphony 4 (a Classic Records reissue of Columbia MS 6113) held my attention throughout, with good note definition and believable flow. My fully tricked-out Linn LP12 was more dramatic, and imbued such things as the plucked basses in the Andante with greater color and texture, but the Rega wasn't so terribly far behind—and was, in fact, shockingly good for roughly a third of the price.
The P5 also did well with Zubin Mehta's Bruckner Ninth (Decca Jubilee JB 108), an unusual record that combines a subtle performance with a recorded sound that's unambiguously big. Again, the best thing I can say is that the Rega allowed the music to hold my attention from start to finish—a talent that escapes so much "high-end" gear I could cry.
A very different sort of Bruckner performance—Claudio Abbado's brisk and well-controlled First, in a superb-sounding Decca/London release (CS 6706)—also found a good home on the P5's platter, where it was both pacey and timbrally very rich, all delivered with a huge sense of drama and no strain whatsoever.
The P5 also remained unfazed by surface noise. One rainy afternoon I dug out my worn copy of the odd sampler The Reiner Sound, by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA LSC-2183), and noted with appreciation that the Rega rivaled my Linn's ability to sail through Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte—which is, counterintuitively, a perversely mediocre recording of a good, emotional performance—without exaggerating the disc's many ticks and pops.
But given a clean and superior-sounding record, such as Miles Davis' Young Man with a Horn (a Japanese reissue of Blue Note LP 5013), the Rega P5 rose to the occasion with a satisfying mix of everything that's important in music replay: the sort of emotional and intellectual involvement that comes only when a hi-fi component gets the musical essentials down right, plus such niceties as realistic impact from Kenny Clarke's drums, and good texture and color throughout—especially Gil Coggins' piano, which was commendably resonant and clear (try the opening bars of "How Deep Is the Ocean").
It didn't take many LP sides to convince me of the P5's musical competence, and a brief comparison with my own P3 revealed the former to be more explicitly detailed and—surprise!—significantly better at putting across soundfield depth and image placement (on stereo records, that is: lateral imaging on monophonic records remains the province of the Thomas De Quinceys of the audio press). Still, the introduction of the optional TT PSU power supply was a remarkable thing, in more ways than one: It very obviously helped the Rega decode the subtle timbral shifts throughout guitarist Tony Rice's introduction to "Home from the Forest" (Manzanita, Rounder 0092). And it gave all music a bit more momentum, and took the stereo depth and image placement further still. Music playback was, overall, more convincing with the TT PSU in place—a real no-brainer for the extra $345.
I noticed, however, that if I left the TT PSU set for 45rpm and then switched on the P5, the platter had a hard time coming up to speed—and usually needed some digital coaxing (digital as in my fingertip). Apparently, the small belt and subplatter prefer to have motor torque sneak up on them rather than rush them all at once. It was a shortcoming to which I simply resigned myself—aided by the pleasure of easy access to my collection of XTC's brilliant 12" singles without the unspeakable torment of having to get on my knees and pull off the platter.
By now it was clear: The P5 is an unambiguously fine, musical LP player, considered on its own and in comparison with its less expensive sibling—and it does nothing but add luster to Rega's already well-deserved reputation for value.
In light of all that, and for its part, the new P7 package had nothing up its sleeve. It's fair to say that the P7 sounded a lot like the P5, and it played notes and beats at least as well. But the more expensive player built on the P5's strengths in some interesting ways. I kept noticing that it had an even greater honesty, for lack of a better word—not so much a sonic clarity per se, but a greater measure of musical insight.
In that sense, the P7 was suited especially well for such things as Otto Klemperer's late recording of Schubert's Symphony 9 (Angel S 35946). On that one, the Philharmonia's playing is first-rate in terms of intonation—the lowest string-bass notes have a sureness that can't even be found in the rightly famous Krips/LSO recording on Decca—yet the orchestra sounds less than confident in those measures where Klemperer changes the tempo abruptly, such as the startlingly quick final measures of the first movement. Listening to the fine Rega P5, those moments were somewhat glossed over; heard on the P7, the humanness of the playing really struck me. The unvarnished nature of the recorded performance was laid more bare, to the music's benefit—and my enjoyment. That the P7 also did a better job of getting across the weight and color of the Philharmonia's fine brass section—even with the humble Rega cartridge in place—was another feather in its cap.
Inescapably, perhaps, the P7 shared its elders' most noted strength: that of honoring the music's temporal qualities. Surging beats, such as the one in Traffic's jazzy instrumental "Glad," from John Barleycorn Must Die (Island ILPS 9116), went away the better for it (although the P7 wasn't as good as my Linn rig at pulling out the congas and other percussion instruments from the mix). Interestingly, more broadly paced pop also benefited, such as "Champagne Supernova," from Oasis' What's the Story, Morning Glory? (Creation CRE LP 189). And I was delighted with the way the P7 played the tactile, rhythmically nuanced performances by the Duke Ellington Orchestra on Speakers Corner's superb reissue of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book (Verve MGV 4010-4). If I were a Rega salesman, I'd just buy a copy of that set and play "Cottontail" on the P7 for everyone who entered the store—then sit back and watch the record machines fly out the door.
About the only thing I didn't care for was the way the P7 looked while running: The ceramic discs on the platter's underside create a quasi-strobing effect as they zoom by, and I found it difficult to look directly at the platter as it spun. In fact, even when I was focused on listening, I continued to be mildly distracted by the sight of the revolving platter off to one side, just at the edge of my vision.
But from adversity comes...other things: It was that wheel-of-fortune effect that initially prompted me to swipe the higher-tech ceramic platter from an early Rega P9 I have at hand and try it on the P7. The fit was perfect. The look was much improved. And the sound was the same in every way. Hmmm.
There was only one thing left to do: I took the Supex cartridge I'd been using away from the P7, installed it in the P9 using the same arm spacers and other setup variables, and listened for the difference. And, as much as I enjoyed my time with the P7, the P9 delivered still more of everything: more color, more drama, more momentum—even more bass content, and blacker, darker silences between the notes. Rega's most expensive record player is still, forgive the cliché, a great deal more than the sum of its parts.
Here's the sad irony at the heart of all equipment reviews: Being a professional gives me access to a greater variety of gear than other enthusiasts—yet, at the same time, having lived with so many very good products, it's all but impossible to put myself in the position of a real-world hobbyist who's mapping out a multi-source system on a finite budget. I can say with honesty and enthusiasm that the Rega P3 is far and away my first choice for a "budget" player, and that the P9 is among the three or four I most admire at the other end of the spectrum. It's the stuff in between that trips me up.
In other words, were I to recommend a turntable to a vinyl enthusiast who's new to perfectionist audio, it would be the P3, hands down—virtually regardless of that person's budget. And to the more seasoned audio enthusiast, who already has some familiarity with good analog gear but simply wants an easy way off the merry-go-round, the P9 is my equally easy choice.
I can now go a step further and recommend the P5 to anyone who's lived with a humbler Rega—even more so to the hobbyist who's upgrading from a different budget deck—because it represents a step up in every way, musically and sonically. The P5 also brings to its price category the same high level of value that the P3 does in its own way. That the P5 is upgradeable—that its performance can be taken even further at some later date for only a few hundred dollars—makes me all the more enthusiastic.
There's no doubting that the P7 is an excellent performer, and I can confidently recommend it to anyone who, like me, enjoys cleanly designed, minimalist gear that's cleverly made and reasonably priced. But at $2595—nearly twice the price of the P5—it faces competition from other good players, including but not limited to the VPI Scout with JMW-9 tonearm ($1600) and the Nottingham Analogue Space Deck with, er, Rega RB300 arm ($2194). I'm familiar with both of those alternatives, and while neither sounds quite like the Rega or each other, both are solidly musical products that deserve your attention.
Happily, both the P5 and P7 add much to the Rega legacy while taking away nothing. And although it's just dawned on me that the names of Rega's musical heights have echoed those of Beethoven—whose greatest symphonies were, after all, Nos. 3, 5, 7, and 9—I'm even more curious to someday hear the Planar 4, Planar 6, and Planar 8.