Rega's Planar 3 Turntable ReviewThe term ‘iconic’ is undoubtedly overused. But sometimes it’s the only word that’s sufficient to describe people, places and things that have made profound impressions on our lives and behaviour. The VW Beetle, the iPhone, the Fender Stratocaster guitar, the Polaroid Camera and the Coca Cola bottle are just some of the design achievements that have earned their iconic status.
The market leaders at the top end of the hi-fi industry strive constantly for perfection in design and engineering, but since perfection is undefinable, the search is never-ending. The story of Rega Research brilliantly illustrates this. An award-winning audio equipment company established in England in 1973, it has remained faithful to the drive and passion of its founder Roy Gandy, whose fascination with the possibilities of true high fidelity won Rega its reputation for innovation and quality.
So we’re entirely comfortable in calling the Rega Planar 3 turntable iconic. It has dominated the record player market since the first model was launched in the late 1970s. This was before the advent of CDs devastated the vinyl market and long before MP3 music players. For a time, vinyl records seemed to be a dying format, kept alive only by enthusiasts even though most record companies simply stopped pressing them.
Audio history did not follow the plan, however, and the resurgence of vinyl has been one of the music industry’s most welcome surprises. CD sales have fallen by an astonishing 95% since their peak in 2000, while vinyl has been increasing in popularity for 15 years, reaching its highest sales levels since the early 1990s.
Throughout all of this upheaval in the industry, Rega turntables have remained a constant, first for the diehards and now, increasingly, for average consumers. Its series of Planar 3 turntables have been the obvious choice for anyone who appreciates the potential of analog reproduction to deliver the very best sound.
In 2015, the Rega RP3/Elys 2 record player won several prestigious awards, as an excellent all-rounder that kept things simple and concentrated on truly excellent sound quality. In appearance it differed very little from all the previous generations of Planar 3 turntables. The design was almost minimalist, with its high-quality main bearing, arm and motor mounted on a solid plinth. It featured two significant improvements which a casual inspection doesn’t reveal. The first is the addition of strengthening phenolic braces between the arm base and the main bearing while the second is the further refinement of the already exceptional tone arm. The Rega Elys 2 cartridge provides the perfect interface.
After 2 years of development, Rega have improved on what seemed unimprovable. It has long been regularly compared with the Pro Ject Debut Carbon Evo turntable, but the new Planar 3 puts clear water between the two. Continuing its programme of constant upgrades, now in its fifth decade, the company has taken another stride to keep ahead of the competition, including close rival Pro Ject. Rega turntables already represent the benchmark for other manufacturers and the new Planar 3 is simply the best in class. If you’re already familiar with the quality of its earlier incarnations, you’ll be thrilled with the latest one. If it’s your first time with a Planar turntable, then you’re in for a treat.
Throughout the long history of the Rega Planar 3 turntable, its generational changes have followed a line of gradual, steady evolution, but with the latest version, the improvements in every aspect are extensive and stunning. According to Phil Freeman from Rega, the only features it shares with its predecessors are the hinges that hold the dust cover. Before we even consider the turntable itself, special mention should be given to Rega’s new TT PSU power supply unit, which uses the same high stability, crystal locked, low distortion sine wave generator as the P9 synchronous. The TT PSU power supply generates a signal with less than 0.05% distortion, whatever the changes in mains voltage. To put it in layperson’s terms conditions of your electricity supply, which can easily vary, will have no detrimental effect on your listening pleasure.
Every element has been revised to provide a considerable increase in sound quality and even its appearance has been rethought to make it slicker and smarter, with a glossy plinth in white or gloss black acrylic laminate which looks classier than ever. Functionally the plinth has also been refined, with a pair of phenolic braces on the top and bottom. This double bracing strengthens even further the region between tonearm and brass main bearing.
The main bearing itself has been upgraded for a better fit and reduced stress while other improvements have been made to the subplatter, the float glass platter and the PCB. The float glass platter is now made from a substance called ‘Optiwhite’, a technical glass with zero iron content, which does away with the slightly greenish look of earlier models. Now you can see right through to the center hole. Even such a rudimentary element as its feet have been redesigned with a wider profile to give more stability. However, these improvements have not hiked up the price. Freeman again: “We’ve streamlined, updated and optimized our manufacturing process, so part of the way we’ve kept the cost down is by eliminating assembly time. Yet the end result is more consistent than ever before.”
The new RB330 tonearm isn’t noticeably different but it has been given more than a new name. It benefits from a redesigned arm tube and a new bearing housing. The result is better rigidity and controlled resonances as well as a reduction in friction. Rega have made the bias arrangement clearer and the spring-loaded dial for setting the tracking weight now has much clearer markings. The new arm also has higher quality output cables and better-looking plugs.
We’re very pleased to find that the engineers haven’t messed around with the principles behind the Rega Planar. It is still the simple, expertly designed record player we’ve come to cherish, with world-beating performance. The turntable is supplied without a cartridge, so if your budget is tight, you’re perfectly at liberty to choose a cheaper compatible one. However, you won’t find a better option than the moving magnet Rega Elys 2 cartridge, so if you can stretch your funds a little further you’ll really get the best results for your money. The Elys 2 mounts easily onto the RB330 tonearm with a three-bolt connection that guarantees precise alignment. Find a stable position, set the bias and tracking weight (we recommend 1.75g) and you’re all set.
It’s worth noting that if you want to play 7” and 12” singles, or LP sets that include 45rpm discs, then you won’t find a speed control switch. Rega have taken the decision to keep the plinth as uncluttered as possible. All you have to do is move the drive belt to the appropriate position on the motor pulley. If you have any concerns about this action disturbing the performance, have no fear. The drive belt on the Planar 3 is designed for precisely this routine speed control adjustment.
Although the aesthetics of the Planar 3 are superb, it’s the sound quality that really matters. The new model is even clearer and cleaner than its predecessor, with noticeably greater transparency and much more resolution in the detail. Even the notoriously poor mixing of ‘LAMF’ by Johnny Thunders Heartbreakers - almost legendary in the muddiness of its sound - achieves a clarity that we never thought possible. It plays like a turntable that enjoys music as much as you do.
Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto gives full rein to the Planar 3’s organisational capabilities. Even at its most complex, the piece remains its balance and composure, with every instrument in the orchestra clearly defined but restrained enough not to detract from the piano line. There’s a tremendous energy in the grand dynamic transitions but the subtler shifts are executed with poise and finesse. The Elys 2 cartridge does a particularly good job of sustaining a balance between the lower, middle and upper registers. What we particularly liked is that the clarity never becomes clinical. The priority is on the emotional heft of the music. In a work like Tchaikosky’s 1812 Overture, scored for orchestra and cannons, the cannon fire can so often sound like amorphous explosions of sound. On the Planar 3 they have the crisp immediacy of the battlefield.
In the very different field of Jazz, Rega has managed an even greater feat. The work of contemporary artists is rendered with an accuracy that we’ve never come across before, but perhaps an even greater achievement is the way the Planar 3 has given new life to older recordings. Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert is given a new sharpness and depth, with even his mutterings and exclamations conveyed as integral to the improvisation rather than just amusing extras. Miles Davis’s 1960s albums sound utterly modern, while the primitive 1940s Charlie Parker recordings are effervescent with energy and attack. And while we’re on the subject of pre-hi-fi audio, even the legendary 30s bluesmen are served with a new delicacy and definition. Robert Johnson’s ‘Hell Hound on My Trail’ is no longer a ghostly cry from history but an urgent expression of regret and damnation, every vibrato of voice and string cutting to the soul.
Rock, soul, pop, funk, reggae and metal test the Planar 3 to its limits. For example, Augustus Pablo’s ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’ is a perfect demonstration of the balance between registers. Parliament’s ‘Chocolate City’, a complex, ground-breaking funk confection, is given such definition that the space between the instruments is allowed to become a central feature of the song’s effect. The all-out attack of the early feedback-laden Jesus and Mary Chain, Led Zeppelin and even Metallica are treated to a sonic lift and sophistication that has laid dormant in the grooves for decades. Unsurprisingly, the gentler acoustic sounds of Fairport Convention, Kathryn Williams and Tracy Chapman are delivered with a power that doesn’t sacrifice delicacy and tenderness.