Roy Gandy: 40 Years of Reganomics Page 2
"So you've got this big rotating flywheel, rotating as a whole mass at the most constant possible speed. To make it do that, it needs to be stiff, hard, and heavy. If it's too heavy, it starts to affect the bearing. If it's too light, the bearing friction overtakes it and you start to get speed inconsistencies."
The platters in the more upmarket RP6 and RP8 turntables are made from Rega's traditional material, glass, but with a new approach. There'd been a long and happy relationship with the original supplier, but that ended when he retired. When Gandy found a new supplier, he also found that at last it was feasible to make a glass platter with its mass concentrated at the rim, by bonding two pieces together. A modern CNC machine could make the two pieces accurately enough to permit this.
"Specifically, that achieved the platter for the RP6, which has more flywheel effect without increasing the mass. If you increase the mass, you create a bearing problem, so the mass needed to be concentrated near the edge. With glass, that's very difficult. But our new supplier, with a half-a-million-pound machine, was happy to put that machine at our disposal, because he saw it as his future. We couldn't have bought a half-a-million pound machine just to do that."
For the RP6, launched last year, the 10mm rim section is bonded to the underside of a flat, 6mm-thick main platter. Having managed this, the supplier was able to combine three parts, which has been done for the RP8. "Doing it with just one ring means there's a big stress step, but with this we managed to create nearly the ideal bell shape. It meant a step up in quality and a step up in price, and that moved us in the RP8 direction.
"But that wasn't enough on its own. For a big step up in our range, we needed everything changingthe plinth, lowering mass, increasing stiffness, lowering the arm mass, everything! This was all clear from our 'super model,' which led us into knowing what we could make in production, practically."
So, rather than impossibly expensive molded carbon-fiber, the RP8's skeletal chassis is made from sheets of phenolic resin with a foam filling. "This is a polyolefin foam. Most foams are polyurethane, which is white or cream, and then goes off with ultraviolet light and becomes yellowy and horrible. We could buy the parts made with a polyurethane foam at less than half the price. Instead, we've spent nearly two years working with the company that makes this, and we've chosen the laminate, chosen the foam. But the process means that they have to cut the foam flat, glue it by hand-rolling the glue onto the foam, and then stack the parts in presses one above the other. At the moment, they're still only able to do one at a time. But we've been working on the next step, where we've got a better glue, sprayed, and then we can probably do two to four at a time in the press.
"We designed the turntable chassis shape to get the minimum mass rather than to make it look good. There are metal pillars between the two braces at each side, so it's actually a proper beam, totally independent of that structure.
"Skeletal turntables can look spectacular, but don't fit people's perception of what they want in their home. It's just like loudspeakers needing to be a square wooden box. A turntable needs to be something with a lid on it to stop dust getting in! So we designed the plinth so that the actual turntable can sit in it. There are little rings to center the feet, so there is no contact between the plinth and the turntable. It's effectively a very beautiful and expensive dustcover.
"Everything needs to be a balance, and when you've got vibration traveling through something and it suddenly reaches a large mass, there's an immediate problem at that point, because the stress will center around the change in mass. So when the turntable had become much lighter, we had to reduce the mass of the arm using lighter-weight materials, including plastics. Luckily, we'd done some of that before, with the RP3. Here, we wanted to have high rigidity, so it's a combination of plastics and aluminum.
"In manufacturing generally, things like chrome plating, anodizing, and painting are the bane of your life, they're the biggest problems. Making something accurately is relatively easy: you can measure it, and it's either good or not. But you paint something, and it's always, 'Is that mark important? Is that one not?' It's subjective.
"So eliminating finishing is something we've always wanted to do. And we've done it completely here, except for the coating on the arm, which is a new finish from the automotive industry. That's the only finishing used on the RP8. On the RP10, it's taken to the next stage, with no paint finish on the arm."
At the top of the range, the RP10 comes with the same skeletal chassis while using a ceramic platter like that of the old P9. But the new models look to be selling in very much larger quantities than their predecessors. "Where we used to make 20 a month of the P9 and 30 a month of the P7, our first order of the RP8, from just four distributors, was for 500. We're up to 1000 orders now, and we've made about 300 so far. That's the difference!
"Apart from the old tonearm, the RB300, [the RP8 is] probably the product of which we're the most proud, with the most feeling, the most buzz within Rega about. Because we can genuinely say it's something special. We've put a huge amount of effort in, and it's paying off in terms of people wanting it.
"And the concept started with us working on a design idea, rather than a production product. We just put many thousands, many tens of thousands of pounds into doing the optimum as a turntable. Which now looks as if it may become an anniversary product, but we're still working on that.
"Everybody wants recognition. I'm totally arrogant about Rega's abilities. If I'm making something, I feel that I know what it is, what its faults are, what its qualities are. I've always been cynical about the concept of reviewing, and we don't need a reviewer to tell us how we built our product or what its qualities are.
"But we make things for people; we're proud of making something that we'd like to have ourselves. It is for people that we have engineering techniques, production techniques to make lots of them as cheaply as possible, and work with our suppliers to make them as efficiently as possible.
"And I have to say, we've never in the past felt that was appreciated as much as we would like. But now, suddenly, it's clicking with people generally. Partly because the sound quality is improving a lot, partly because the expected sound quality is a lot worseyou're comparing compressed music to turntables now, and that's a big difference from comparing one turntable with anotherand also, I think, because of the Internet.
"Our naive idea of 'Don't advertise, spend the money on the product' doesn't quite make it when you can only tell your friend, and that's how it used to be. But now you can put it on the Internet: 'I've just bought a new RP8 and it's amazing, just sold my so-and-so that cost this much . . .' The word gets 'round the world, instead of just friends."
In spite of, or more likely because of, its nonmarketing approach, Rega has steadily outgrown or outlasted most of the competition and remains a unique operation, still under its original UK ownership and viably building its complete range in-house in the UK. But how long can the vinyl boom last?
"Nothing lasts for ever, which is a cliché! It's an enigma for everyone. For us it is wonderful, because we would have loved, I think, not to have got involved in any form of digital engineering. We do it, and I think we do it quite well because we've got an analog state of mind. I think we analyze digital design in an engineering way rather than in a digital-engineering way, which is very different."
Rega continues to sell CD players, though with production down to 200 to 300 a month compared with the 1000 a month of three years ago. Rega's latest CD player, the new Saturn R, also serves as a 192kHzcapable DAC. "Maybe it's going to be our last CD player, but we don't know," says Gandy. "With turntables, with speakers, with amplifiers, you can see steps ahead, there's always the next step. But at the moment, this looks like being a swan song."
Other new Rega models now appearing include the Elicit R integrated amplifier and the Aria phono stage, while the company's 40th anniversary will be marked by the publication of a book as well as special products.
Rega Research now employs some 80 people, and Gandy has always emphasized that it's their skills, dedication, and teamwork that have made the company successful. But if the brand is at last getting the recognition it deserves, its founder should as well. Perhaps it's time for Roy Gandy himself to be acknowledged as one of audio's all-time greats.