Rega P3-24, RB301, & Elys 2 turntable, tonearm, & phono cartridge Belt Upgrade

Rega P3-24 drive-belt upgrade November 2010 (Vol.33 No.11)

With its long and cherished history, and its abundance of critical praise and commercial success, Rega's P3 is a turntable worth knowing (footnote 1). The original Planar 3 was ranked 30th on Stereophile's Hot 100 list of most important hi-fi components of all time, and the latest incarnation of this fine and simple design, the P3-24 ($895 with tonearm), sits proudly in Class C of our "Recommended Components"—and, as my long-term reference, in my living room.

In his July 2008 review, Michael Fremer admired the P3-24 for its big, solid images, snappy pacing, easy musical flow, and warm tonal balance. While I share Mikey's admiration for these qualities and have been very happy with the overall performance of my Rega, I've lately begun to wonder about the many hobbyist "upgrades" available for the P3-24. Uneasy about the idea of subjecting my Rega to a complete plinth overhaul or something equally wild, I was happy to learn about Rega's own drive-belt upgrade.

Rega's improved drive belt costs $59. A simple mention of this on my blog, "Elements of Our Enthusiasm," resulted in a storm of passionate cries and semi-deranged utterances. Fifty-three comments later, I gathered that people were skeptical. While most respondents felt that $59 was too much to pay for a new drive belt and wondered what benefits it could possibly provide over, say, any old rubber belt, the majority also felt that the upgraded belt should be provided as standard equipment.

I asked Steve Daniels of The Sound Organisation, Rega's US importer, what makes the new belt better. "This is basically a higher-grade, precision belt," he said. "It's made to higher tolerances, and there are no impurities in the rubber." Why does it cost $59, and why isn't it offered as standard? Daniels explained that the new belt is made from a different, purer material, and takes longer to produce. While Rega feels the new belt is a worthwhile upgrade, they also want to offer it at modest cost. The company will use the higher-grade belt as standard in future upmarket turntables, but it would be impractical for them to include it with the lower-priced models. There is no mechanism in place for first-time buyers who want the higher-grade belt included with their new turntables. If you want it, you'll have to buy it separately.

Installing the new belt was a snap. Lift the platter from the spindle, remove the old black belt, insert the new white belt. There's no need to be concerned about getting the belt in exactly the right spot on the motor hub; after a few spins, it falls right into place. The stock belt appears to be very slightly smaller in circumference and very slightly thinner than the new belt. While the black belt slipped on and off easily, the white belt was consistently more tricky to get in place.

The sound, however, was definitely tighter, as was most noticeable with small-scale acoustic folk rock. In "Flume," the opening track from Bon Iver's musically and sonically outstanding For Emma, Forever Ago (LP, Jagjaguwar, JAG115), I first noticed that that strange, shimmering sound—like a blade slicing across brass strings—had less ragged edges and was brought forward in the stage with the new belt. Bass was bettered controlled, too. The gentle thuds in the background were ever so slightly more noticeable and more musical, and therefore more enjoyable.

This same tracked played back on my Uncle Omar's system with his Rega P1 resulted in similar improvements. Omar was psyched. As we listened to his system, we heard the most dramatic and instructive differences when listening to "Kill Your Jitterbug Darlings," from September's "Recording of the Month": Jitterbug (LP, Rune Grammofon, RLP 3097), from Norwegian power-trio Bushman's Revenge. This hard-core track had Omar searching for a stopwatch. "The song sounds faster," he exclaimed.

Indeed, it did. I believe he was hearing tightened bass. Omar's system tends to be overripe in the low end, and the white belt was reeling things in, resulting in a snappier overall sound. Cymbals also sounded cleaner and more expressive, with faster attacks and longer decays. In addition, or as a result of these improvements, low-level details such as overdubbed organ and acoustic guitar were brought to the fore. We heard similar improvements when playing Cat Power's intoxicatingly lovely rendition of "Dark End of the Street," from the 10" EP of that title (LP, Matador OLE-835). This track's fat, heavy bass can overwhelm a small room, but the white belt tamed Erik Paparazzi's bass guitar, preventing the sound of his instrument from flooding the entire soundstage.

Curiously, these improvements were less noticeable in my own listening room, perhaps because my system doesn't suffer the same low-frequency looseness. But once I'd grasped the improvements, it was hard to let go of them. With the white belt in place, listening to American pianist Frank Glazer perform Erik Satie's Vieux sequins et vieilles cuirasses (3 LPs, Vox SVBX 5422) was an absolute joy. Bass notes and the climactic pounding of chords had a more physical quality that resulted in an improvement in impact and tone that I felt as much as heard—and when Glazer raced across the keys in the faster movements, it was almost as if I could see the blur of his graceful hands. The act of listening became more thrilling and engrossing, and I soon resented having to replace the new belt with the stock belt to continue with my comparisons; I wanted to keep the white belt in place and simply enjoy my records.

Rega's drive-belt upgrade retains all of the P3-24's positive qualities while tightening the bottom end and adding an addictive, more forward balance to the top. And so here, as I often do elsewhere, I'll paraphrase my friend and mentor Art Dudley: Especially for the lucky hobbyist whose Rega turntable represents a modest investment, Rega's drive-belt upgrade seems an inexpensive way to considerably increase the pleasure of listening.—Stephen Mejias