One of the first notes I made after installing the Aphelion 2 in a Rega P10 was: it’s not going to do anyone’s vinyl habit any good. Three months and several hundred tracks later I realise that not only does this cartridge make you want to listen to more vinyl but if that vinyl is of approximately the same vintage as the recording you won’t want to do anything else. In other words, remasters won’t do, not even audiophile ones in most cases. But to get back to the beginning the Aphelion 2 might look very much like any of Rega’s metal bodied moving coil cartridges but there are small but significant differences that put it in a completely different league.
We have become used to the idea that moving coil cartridges can cost thousands of pounds but when a company with a high value ethos like Rega produces one that is nearly three times more expensive than the model beneath it, questions have to be asked. On paper the differences between Aphelion 2 and Apheta 3 appear to come down to a boron cantilever on the former and an aluminium one on the Apheta 3, both have ‘fine line’ styli, an aluminium body, a tiny neodymium magnet and Rega’s tie-wire free cantilever fixing system.
Winding coils onto the tiny iron cross of an Aphelion cantilever by hand takes considerable skill and patience
Rega’s MD Phil Freeman explained that there is a lot more to it than that, for a start the Aphelion has a more powerful magnet which allows for fewer coil windings on the iron cross at the top of the cantilever, less mass here means faster recovery at the stylus and equals greater detail retrieval from the groove. The Aphelion 2 also has a very different fine line stylus that rather than being bonded onto the tip is fixed in a slot at the end of the cantilever for an even stiffer connection. The critical element that differentiates this Aphelion from its predecessor is the stylus profile, this was developed with Ogura of Japan and is unique to Rega, it has fine ridges on the sides that ‘read’ a wider patch of the groove in order to deliver higher frequencies than other tip profiles.
The other key differentiation between Aphelion and Apheta is the grading of the body, just as Rega select the very best bearings for their top tonearm they also measure every machined aluminium cartridge body and save the most accurate for Aphelion. The differences between an Apheta body and an Aphelion one are tiny, too small to see without magnification, but not as tiny as the modulations in a vinyl groove: when it comes to maximum data extraction very high precision counts. That said all this was true of the first Aphelion, which remains a fabulous cartridge and one that I enjoyed thrilling results with for several years, but the Aphelion 2 with its new stylus is a giant leap for cartridge kind, it really is a milestone. Initially it seems to be on the bright side, incredibly fast and immediate but short on body, but after a few weeks it calms down and you are left with the most revealing, highest resolution sound yet encountered with vinyl. Which can be a mixed blessing when it comes to my first point about pressings, the differences between earlier and later examples with music from the 70s is huge. Original pressings have long been in demand for this reason but the sound quality gulf has never been so wide, I have actually started selling some highly regarded audiophile pressings of classic albums because the older ones sound so much more alive and exciting.
As a reviewer I am familiar with the thrills of finding a great component, one that reinvigorates my enthusiasm for music I know well. It doesn’t happen very often but it’s what makes this pursuit interesting, and usually I can carry on in fairly orderly manner during and after the experience. Here I have been having vinyl slew problems, in other words I have been failing to put the records away properly because of the urgency to hear another one. That hasn’t happened for quite a few years in truth, even the Rega RP10 and subsequent P10 which are undoubtedly game changers, didn’t result in piles of records cropping up around the room. The Aphelion 2 on the P10 makes for an astonishingly exciting and engaging musical experience, one that had me using expletives in an attempt to get my enthusiasm down in the notes. Steely Dan’s ‘Show biz kids’ (Countdown to Ecstasy) being a prime example of a track that I’ve played to death yet which offered up so much more detail with this record player (and the able assistance of a Tom Evans Groove+ SRX phono stage), it is positively deadly as my Irish cousins might say. A well worn 70s pressing of Beefheart’s Clearspot is a serious improvement over the 180g repress that came out in the 90s, the energy and life that the Aphelion 2 digs out of the groove in the older version is just glorious.
But even near original copies of some records just don’t have enough meat on the bone, Led Zeppelin III for instance appears to have been cut to suit the thick stodgy sound of 70s turntables. Not a bad commercial move at the time of course but it’s notable that the more successful untitled album that followed it (LZ IV as it’s known) sounds considerably more beefy, especially Black Dog which is absolutely spectacular, the guitar work is nothing short of stunning. Rumours likewise sounds superb, the balance is spot on, proving that great engineering stands the test of time with ease. Another standout that hit me like a bolt of lightning was Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ where the intensity of the first guitar break, the power of the following vocal and the ferocity of the final guitar solo left me a quivering wreck. This track has always been the highlight of OK Computer but here it turned into a towering inferno, and there was no need to crank it to get that effect, it’s all there in the multi-layered picture that so much detail produces.
Aphelion 2 comes in a machined aluminium case with a Rega torque wrench
I am a speed freak, there I’ve said it, where’s my support group! Immediacy is what makes recorded music sound like the real thing to me and the Aphelion 2 on the P10 does this so well that I can’t stop staying up late listening to music old and new. It does wide bandwidth with meaty, weighty bass that is incredibly nimble but powerful too. It does image scale, depth and three dimensionality with ease when the requisite information is in the groove, and it does tonal finesse that will keep a tube lover’s head in the clouds. In effect this cartridge makes your record collection a voyage of discovery, where you get to hear right into every recording and find out how it was put together. There is so much potential for variety when making a recording, from the performance, the studio, the equipment, the mixing right through to the mastering, that records should sound totally different from one another, yet so many turntable and cartridge combinations have a homogenising effect that blurs these differences. This Rega pairing does the opposite, it really shows you what the artist, engineers and producers did. A good example is Stevie Wonder’s fabulous Innervisions, this has a slight thickening/warmth to it but wide dynamic range for a pop album and wide bandwidth. At the other end of the spectrum Television’s Marquee Moon sounds thin and etched yet the music is powerful and palpable and the track ‘Venus’ positively mind blowing. Zappa’s ‘The ocean is the ultimate solution’ is such a strange composite of instruments and sounds that I had to research it in an attempt to verify the use of double and electric bass, various electric guitars and Terry Bozzio’s intense drumming throughout. It’s a track that starts out as a jazz-rock workout but slides into an atonality that is generally not that appealing toward the end, here the emphasis on the music rather than the ‘sound’ made the whole piece engaging with no tendency to turn it down when the ‘difficult’ bit came along.
This cartridge is a revelation, there’s no other word for it. In combination with the Rega P10 it resolves detail that you hadn’t imagined was in the groove, it cuts through the myth of vinyl warmth to reveal that this format is as neutral and capable of high resolution as anything, especially any format that offers a wide variety of material to suit all tastes. If you want to know exactly what your records sound like it is very highly recommended.