The Rega P3-24 Turntable
|The Rega P3-24 Turntable|
|Premiere US Review!|
Apropos of nothing, I recently noticed how aged some of the hi-fi components scattered around my house are. The tubed EICO preamp and amplifier to which I still listen with musical and sonic pleasure are now 47 years old. Had I been a budding Hi-Fi Nut at age 10 in 1960 (instead of yearning to be a pirate, or an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs,) I could have acquired them new and thus avoided my whole ensuing audio amplifier odyssey. As it happens I’ve only owned the EICO pieces for a dozen years or so, a seeming eternity for the more flighty contemporary audiophile who replaces components or systems monthly. Now I hold no reverence for things antique, nor am I an anachrophile. I have never audibly intoned the phrase “They don’t build ‘em like they used to.” The fact that some of my ancillary components are now chronologically long-in-the-tooth reflects their staying power as musical devices rather than any conscious aim on my part to acquire permanent gear. Their longevity is quite accidental.
Longevity of ownership can bear useful fruit - the acquisition of an intimate knowledge of a component’s true sound and performance. The long-owned component’s sonic signature sears into consciousness, creating an indelible memory. Of all the audio components I’ve ever owned however, the Rega Planar 3 turntable had the longest continuous residence. One of its permutations had been in one of my systems for 25 years. Its musical virtues were ear-opening in 1979 when I acquired my first one; its sound is permanently ingrained in my memory.
For many the world of high performance audio focuses on the experiencing of ultimate components - products that attempt to reach perfection without regard to cost. Equally important, I found in my 25 years of plying the audio retail trade and dealing with the so-called ‘real world’, was finding ‘threshold’ components – gear below which’s price and performance one could not go without compromising the music and the sound. The Rega Planar 3 held that ‘minimum threshold’ position for more than two decades. Indeed, in that antediluvian UK time of simplified turntable cosmology, one bought a Planar 3 as one’s “serious” table until one could afford a Linn Sondek LP12. Today’s turntable world is far more complex: analogue LP playback has entered its third “Golden Age” since the appearance of the CD. The best current gear makes the products of even 10 years ago sound somewhat quaint and rustic.
The basics of the Planar design were simple and effective, and so long-running as to flirt with being classic: black MDF plinth supported by three rubber feet, glass platter (covered with a felt mat) riding on a sub-platter, high quality oil-bearing, and manual speed change from its AC synchronous motor. There were only two major changes to the Planar 3 during its long product life: the move to the famous Rega RB300 tonearm in the 80’s and, more recently, to a new AC synchronous motor, whose low vibration permitted eliminating the old Planar motor’s rubber-belt suspension mounting.
Rega has been going through an immense period of creativity and growth in recent years, launching new products and expanding their product range. The breakthrough performance of their reasonably priced CD players – the Apollo and Saturn - has been matched by a superb line of loudspeakers and an expansion of their turntable line, which now includes seven turntables. The new P3-24 lies in the middle of the current Rega range, above their entry-level P1 and their “always-a-bride’s-maid-never-a-bride” P2. The new P3-24 sells for $895. It can be purchased with a pre-mounted Rega Elys2 moving magnet phono cartridge for $1095; an optional power supply for the table’s motor costs $345.
Glanced at superficially, the P3-24 looks like every other Planar 3 from the past. The changes in the new table are quite significant sonically though they might escape notice from superficial visual inspection. The “24” in the P3-24’s name refers to the 24-pole AC synchronous motor, the same motor used in Rega’s P5 and P7 tables. A ‘wall-wart’ power supply connects to the table to drive the motor. This motor is tuned for very low vibration, allowing direct mounting to the table. The optional TT PSU power supply connects to a dedicated socket on the table’s plinth and offers crystal-controlled synthesized AC to drive the motor. The TT PSU allows electronic speed switching from 33 to 45 RPM, which is done manually on the stock motor/power supply.
The P3-24’s plinth is now constructed of phenolic resin laminates. Gone is the old Planar’s MDF plinth, along with its colorations. The P3-25 retains the old classic glass platter, covered by the same felt mat. Big, big news is the change of the classic RB300 arm. Dubbed the RB301, the new arm offers an improved vertical bearing housing and a new 3-point mounting attachment to the table. The new arm’s anti-skate and external tonearm cable come from the Rega RB700 arm. The RB301 retains the RB300’s spring-loaded tracking force arrangement. The new arm mounting requires new and different arm spacers for those needing to change arm height to set correct VTA/SRA. The standard tonearm height is set for Rega’s own cartridges (which are less tall than many other pick-ups.)
Longevity has two faces. Familiarity, famously, breeds contempt, but it is just as likely to breed forgiveness, as long-term listeners to the old Planar 3 are likely to attest. While the classic Planar was excellent in its musical expressiveness, it possessed some sonic foibles that most listeners simply ignored. Among these was occasionally temperamental speed consistency due to the aging of the rubber belt that suspended the motor. While the table and RB300 arm’s midrange and lower treble were exceptionally neutral and coherent, the bass could sound somewhat thick and slurred (I suppose ‘wooden’ might describe the effect) in part of its range, especially when hit with loud and fast bass transients. Timing, dynamic nuance, and musical flow in the mid-range were better than that of the bass. A slight tizziness could be heard in the upper octaves, though the Planar 3 didn’t sound bright. This was the classic sound of the old Planar 3 that was seared into my memory over the long years I owned one.
The significant achievement of the new P3-24 is how well it has addressed the failings of the table’s predecessors while maintaining the ability to extract the music. The new directly-mounted motor does away with the old Planar’s speed variation, leading to a more accurate way with the starts and stops of notes, and with the tempi and rhythms of the music. But it is the combination of the changes to the RB300 arm, its arm-mounting method, and the plinth’s material that forever alters that ingrained memory of the older table’s sonic signature. Gone is that slightly thick and slightly slurred way with bass notes. Bass is now articulate, forceful, and controlled, and very clearly portrayed. Fluidity of bass rhythms approaches that of the best aftermarket modifications of the old RB300 arm, banishing forever the ‘hula dancer with a slight back-ache’ impression that the older table evoked. The slight tizziness in the treble, held by some to be the result of resonance in the RB300’s spring-loaded VTF method, fades to the threshold of perception with most cartridges when the device is by-passed. Simply set the tracking force dial on the arm to “3” (no tracking force pressure from the internal spring) and apply the tracking force purely with the counterweight. The P-24’s new-found clarity and accuracy across the sonic bandwidth demands tearing out and forgetting that old ingrained sonic memory of the old Planar. Yes, the new P3-24 is considerably and significantly better.
Like almost every turntable on the market the P3-24 benefits enormously from additional isolation. The table’s tripod rubber feet, like most rubber or elastomer compounds, offer isolation at frequencies roughly from 30 Hz and above only. The primary contaminants of structure-borne environmental vibration lie in the low-bass and sub-bass areas, and require more effective isolation to keep from entering and clouding the performance of the P-24. I found the Townshend 3-D Seismic Sink air platform (now sadly discontinued) or the Stillpoints Universal Resonance Dampers to achieve the best results. Effective isolation yields an enormous increase in the amount and coherency of low-level detail, along with an increased overall clarity throughout the audio bandwidth. The P-24’s bass quality in particular became superb when the table was isolated. Consider purchase of an effective isolation device as a first priority; it makes a bigger difference than, say, buying a $1500 cartridge.
The Rega’s felt platter mat has always been rudimentary and I replaced it with the Ringmat, which not only isolates the record from the platter’s material but also damps the record’s internal resonances while it is being played. The Ringmat produced clearer and more accurate tracking than the felt mat: hard and fast simultaneous high frequency transients were tracked clearly and without smear, allowing the identity of each of the instruments during these sonic events to be clearly and individually perceived.
I thus base my comments on the P3-24 mounted on the 3-D Seismic Sink and with the Ringmat replacing the stock felt mat. Rega offers the P3-24 pre-mounted with the Rega Elys2 moving magnet cartridge, a real boon for those unable to mount a cartridge themselves, or too far away from a willing (and competent) dealer to do it for them. The Elys2 slots in under Rega’s top moving-magnet cartridge – the Exact – lacking that cartridge’s line-contact stylus. The Elys2 uses Rega’s 3-bolt headshell mounting system, and arrives precisely torqued into the RB301 arm. All the user has to do is screw on the counterweight and apply tracking force and anti-skate, both idiot-proof operations.
The Elys2 proved a very musical match to the P3-24. Like all of Rega’s moving magnet cartridges, the Elys2 sounds big, bold, vivid, and dynamic, with a rich sonority that sounds neither fat nor lean. The Elys2 portrays the full harmonic structure of the instrument. Its sound is well balanced from top to bottom with particularly forceful and controlled bass. Above all, it is musical - allowing one to concentrate on the music rather than being distracted by the sound. I was very taken by its performance in the P3-24, and not really bothered by its slight lack of ultimate refinement and a slight crudity, which I assumed to be the limits of its design. I then switched to the optional TT PSU motor power supply.
Wrong, Assumption Boy! The cartridge improved to an almost unbelievable degree, becoming fully fluid, refined, and supple, its slight crudity completely gone. I have spent many a long hour in my 35-year audio career listening to the difference between various power supplies to AC motors (I do, after all, own two Linn Sondeks,) comparing AC to DC motors, repeating the tedium by doing the same power supply testing with DC motors, and even factoring in an occasional battery power supply. Someone has to do it. So I’m no stranger to the differences power supplies can make, both to the sound and musical organization of the sound. Still, I was astonished by the sonic and musical improvement the TT PSU made. I used it for the rest of my cartridge tests.
Rega has long catered to music lovers who are not interested in becoming audiophile hobbyists forever tweaking their gear. Consequently Rega has traditionally designed their tonearms’ height to work optimally with their own cartridges, thus eliminating one of the more fiddly and excruciating tonearm adjustments, that of setting the correct SRA/VTA. The Rega cartridges are unusually short top to bottom, making arm height adjustment essential to correctly set VTA/SRA for most non-Rega cartridges. Rega offers new dedicated spacers for the new RB301 arm. Changing arm height by adding spacers is, to be blunt, a pain in the ass, but not completely insufferable unless you’re constantly changing cartridges … like I was.
I ran through a bevy of cartridges, both moving magnet and moving coil, ranging in price from the $50 budget champ Audio Technica AT 95E on up to the $1750 Cartridge Man Musicmaker Classic. The P3-24 handled most of them with aplomb, only running into problems with the hottest-sounding moving coils, whose rising top-end frequency responses were fully exposed. Since there are a great number of more neutral-sounding and intensely musical moving magnets on the market, I don’t consider this to be a major limitation on the Rega’s part; truly it is a flaw of the cartridge.
Not unexpectedly, the P3-24 does have its limits. Given the inherent impossibility of the job a turntable is required to do (youtry removing a mote from the eye of a flea during a hurricane from ten miles away,) the P3-24’s ultimate limits are understandable and forgivable, especially considering the P3-24’s $895 price. Specifically, the P3-24 lacks the clarity and transparency of the next-level-up in turntables, like the $1595 Funk Vector, or the Origin Live Aurora MK. II at $1300 (both without arm, and both, incidentally, equipped with DC motors) sounding diffuse and cloudy by comparison. It also lags behind them in sheer rhythmic brio (OK, “Boogie Factor”,) timing, and in unraveling complex rhythmic patterns. Make no mistake, though. Those factors are mostly therewith the P3-24, they’re just not as clear to the perception.
Those entering the turntable market for the first time are faced with a great variety of choices. By the very nature of the impossible job it has to do, the LP front end is necessarily expensive, as it is first and foremost a mechanical device, demanding precision, quality of parts and materials, and scrupulous fashioning. The biggest mistake budget-oriented (read: cheap) buyers make is to buy too inexpensive a turntable, just to “see what all this LP hub-bub is about.” The LP is capable of supreme musical and sonic performance - timing, rhythmic sophistication, dynamic shading, accuracy of timbre, and intensity of musical expression – but it requires a far more expensive minimum threshold in order to render it. While an increasing number of manufacturers are producing cheaper turntables – even the deadly and dreadful Japanese Direct-Drive tables have come back from the dead – buying an inadequate turntable will fatally distort the LP’s considerable music merits.
The older Planar 3 long ruled the roost of the ‘minimum threshold’ turntable. The continuing overall progress in the analogue world has raised the bar considerably in the past few years. While long-time LP enthusiasts with sophisticated analogue rigs might not blanch at spending $900 for, say, a high-performance tonearm cable, those entering the LP world might turn very pale indeed at $900 for an entry-level turntable. By entry-level I mean a device that does what it’s supposed to do without any glaring faults. Given the quality of the vanguard of contemporary LP playback, the older Planar would fall far short. The improved sonics and musical coherence of the new P3-24 re-establishes its long-held position: for most listeners, it is the least expensive turntable worth buying today if you want to get LP right.
From a monetary view, the rising hierarchy of sonic improvements to the P3-24 would run as follows: first, the P3-24 mated with an Audio Technical AT95E or AT95s/a cartridge. Less than $950. Then a state-of-the art isolation system. Say a set of Stillpoints under a shelf of hardwood. $400. Then a Ringmat. Roughly $125. Then the Rega TT PSU power supply. $345. Only then would buying a better cartridge logically enter the picture. The Rega Elys2 and the Exact2 would be the obvious first choices, topped only, perhaps, by the more expensive Cartridge Man MusicMaker III.
Whether the new P3-24 attains the same longevity as its classic predecessor is difficult to predict, though its physical reliability looks akin to that of a stone axe. Certainly it is a more accurate and neutral product than the old Planars were. Most importantly it achieves its new level of sonic accuracy without compromising the music encoded in those sonics. The P3-24 is musically convincing, sonically neutral, and very easy to live with long-term. Only compared to far more expensive turntables and arms does its slight lack of ultimate clarity and resolution impinge. Whether it matches one’s own internal minimum threshold demands, of course, personal audition. But a lot of music lovers are going to love this table. And maybe even keep it long enough that they will put it in their wills.
2-speed belt-drive turntable.
24-pole AC synchronous motor.
Glass platter riding on sub-platter.
Felt platter mat.
New RB301 tonearm.
Optional TT PSU motor power supply: $345.
P3-24 with pre-mounted Rega Elys2 moving-magnet phono cartridge: $1095.
Rega Research Limited
119 Park Street
The Sound Organisation
159 Leslie Street
Dallas, Texas 75207
Ph: 972-234-0182 Fax: 972-234-0249
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