Roy Gandy: 40 Years of Reganomics
As Rega Research plans to celebrate its 40th anniversary, Gandy has good reason to feel that way. Things have never looked better for the company he founded in June 1973 and still owns. Rega is a major beneficiary of what we still must call the vinyl revival, though that's only part of the story.
Rega began with the now-collectable Planet turntable, then got established with its earliest glass-platter decks, the Planar 2 (1975) and Planar 3 (1977). Then, in 1983, came the groundbreaking RB300 tonearm, surely the most successful speciality audio product in history. Including all variations and OEM versions, sales of the RB300 now amount to well over 400,000 units.
In 1988, Rega began making its own cartridges. Loudspeakers and amplifiers followed in the early 1990s, their first CD player was launched in 1996, and Rega became a whole-system manufacturer.
A few years ago, Gandy would have told you that turntables steadily accounted for 40% of Rega's turnover. "It's about 50% now," he says. "Everything else is growing, but turntables are growing more. We've got to keep it in perspective. It's a niche market. I don't believe that turntables will ever become a mass-market product in the way that they were in the 1960s, and I can't even say that it would be nice if they did. But it's a hugely growing niche market, a small market of which we're a large part. And that's a wonderful situation to be in.
"It's like any marketing situationyou could look back and say why it happened, and say that you planned it! We didn't plan it, we didn't predict that vinyl would come backor, rather, that it would start to grow at about 10% a year. But after a few years we could see that this might continue, and that, commercially, it was more sensible to invest in turntable production than it was to invest in CD production.
"Then the vinyl growth exploded, and one year it actually doubled. We had orders for twice the amount we were making. At that point, we thought, this is where we invest. Don't just carry on making what we're making, even though we've got demand for it. We've got all these lovely ideas, we've got a design department, we've got the people. Everything jelled!"
Behind the scenes, Gandy and his colleagues began to develop a no-holds-barred turntable, a concept design with no cost constraints. It would become the test bed for an entire new range of models. Gandy's philosophy of turntable engineering had never changed, but now he could take it to its logical conclusion.
"We went to extremes on our theories. Talking about stiffness and bracing and lightness, we made the lightest possible chassis with the stiffest possible brace, with money not being any object at all. Even though we have the ideas and we're engineers, and we've researched, you need things to substantiate or approve or agree with what you believe."
The main chassis component is a carbon-fiber molding, with ceramic braces forming the most rigid possible beam to link the platter bearing and arm mounting. "This is from a Formula 1 supplier. They make things like gearbox casings for Formula 1 cars. They make bombproof mini-buildings and vehicles for the Ministry of Defense, and they use glass fiber and carbon fiber to create that impact resistance. They put that technology into this part. And they were brilliant. Because they understood, because they were real engineers. It didn't take more than 10 minutes for us to explain the concepts, and then they were putting in their own ideas and helping us.
"There are joints, if you like, creating a beam. And if there's any tension in those, it creates a problemany tension in anything creates a natural frequency. But they've been able to design the molding so that everything is totally relaxed. There's no compression in the mold. And just their understanding of that, and why, allowed them to put input into the product for us."
Gandy finds this kind of understanding lacking in the hi-fi world. "I've never met anybody in this industry that I can share ideas with. The turntable is a whole. The cartridge, and the arm, and the turntable itself are all one measuring machine, that's the way I like to look at it, and it measures vibration. You can't make it perfect. There's no such thing, in life or engineering. But you design the compromises to get the closest to perfection in a number of conflicting engineering parameters, and that's it. That's a turntable: a series of real-world engineering compromises. Not hocus-pocus hi-fi ideas of 'listen to it, see what it does.' That vibration you're trying to measure doesn't actually exist until the platter is rotating. And that rotational energy comes from the motor, which is part of the turntableor from the mains, if you take it far enough! You're into lots of little interlinking chickens-and-eggs, or circular energy routes.
"The obvious conclusion is that the energy seems to come from the record. But if you've got a record in your hand, it contains zero energy. Once it's rotated, there is still no potential energy in that record. But as soon as a stylus is put into the groove and the stylus starts moving, there is energy. It comes from rotation, it comes from the motor, it comes from the electrical supply. That's why the mains supply can have an effect."
Although the RP3 and RP6 turntablesand, above all, the new, "skeletal" RP8 and RP10are most directly linked to the "optimum" research prototype, the first model to benefit from Rega's new investment in turntables was the budget RP1. "The RP1 came about through us being asked to make OEM turntables for different companies. We don't see ourselves as a hi-fi manufacturer, really. We see ourselves as a precision-engineering manufacturing company, and we're happy to make a product for someone else, provided that what we can make fits in with their requirements. It's been typically about 15% of Rega's turnover.
"However, as soon as another company gets involved, they have their own ideas, and it becomes a matter of, 'How much are we willing to compromise our ideas to suit what they want?' We made a small range of OEM turntables with various differences, none of which we were very happy with, although they suited the people we made them for. That led us to think, 'Why don't we make one for ourselves?' And that was the RP1.
"There was one major and significant development in the RP1, and that was the platter itself. We invested in tooling to mold a platter from phenolic resin. And the confidence to do thatbecause you had to make a tool to make a part that you don't know whether it's going to work or not, and the tool costs 40,000!came from making our cost-no-object turntable.
"The rest of the turntable centered around the P3 and ideas that were well tested, but the improvement in quality vs cost came from this investment. I personally have been aware of phenolic resin's properties since I was 14. But this is something specific to turntable engineering, where you need very stiff, lightweight, cost-effective materials. We've always had phenolic skins on our turntable plinths.
"One reviewer said that the platter material is irrelevant because there's a mat placed between the platter and the record. And this is a highly qualified engineer! Our experience is that the platter needs to be very hard and very stiff, and phenolic resin met those criteria at a low cost."
People can be puzzled by the idea of the record merely resting on a felt mat, because so many manufacturers advocate clamping it to the platter. Could Gandy explain?
"It's, quite simply, surface area. If you have a weight of a kilogram and you want to glue it onto the ceiling, and the weight is 10cm long and a square centimeter in section, if you put glue on that square centimeter and stick it on the ceiling, however strong the glue is, it's likely to fall off after a period of time. If you make the area 10 square centimeters, the glue itself has to take only 1?10 of the load. You are spreading the stress over 10 times the area. With a turntable, the stress on a rotating recordand stress also relates to vibrational inputis spread over the whole area of the 12"-diameter LP. In that context, the mat, contacting it at many, many different points, is very stiff.
"If you're driving [the LP] against the force that's being rendered by a vibrating stylus, which is minuscule but real, there is really very, very little opposing force, and the whole area of the felt mat is a real, rigid connection, in a rotational direction. You've got a huge surface area opposing this very, very small force. Actually, the softer the mat, within limits, the more rigid it becomes, because it contacts more. It's a compromise, because if it gets too soft, it will start to form a nonrigid structure.
"But the platter itself is something entirely different. The platter is a flywheel. It's trying to slow down continuously because of wind resistance and bearing friction. It's a flywheel and a gyroscope at the same time, and its gyroscopic stability and its flywheel stability will depend on its accuracy and also on its stiffness, because lack of stiffness equates to lack of accuracy. Lack of stiffness allows waveform vibrations to generate around the platter. For an engineer, this is all very basic; it's not a complex concept at all. But in the hi-fi world it seems to become complex!