Just as I was working up to finally reviewing the Rega Apheta 2, the cartridge that kept me up late on many occasions last year Rega had the temerity to announce a new moving coil above it. The Aphelion is the most ambitious cartridge the company has ever made yet it comes from the same production line as the Apheta 2 and shares many of its parts. Rega founder and turntable guru Roy Gandy is keen to point out that these are the only moving coils made anywhere that do not require tuning during build. That is because they dispense with the usual tie wire and damping suspension that all other MCs use and which require adjustment to perform to spec. It’s also because Rega has always been ahead of the game when it comes to production engineering and wants to build products that are consistent. Certainly the small but high tech workshop where they are made at Rega’s Southend facility looks pretty organised, with high definition cameras and screens rather than microscopes to aid assembly.
The Aphelion’s key advantage over the Apheta 2 is that its cantilever is boron. This is considerably stiffer than aluminium and is therefore more effective at transmitting the vibrations coming off a vinyl groove. But boron represents a challenge with regard to tipping. It is very difficult to glue a diamond tip onto boron and have it stay there, so Rega cut a V shaped slot in the boron and rotated the vital profile stylus so that it locks in, which should bode well for long term reliability. Another important factor is the cross that support the coils, this is half the size and weight of the original Apheta cross, making it far easier for the coils to move as they are vibrated by the stylus.
The body that supports everything is machined from a single piece of aluminium and black anodised, which makes it easy to distinguish from an Apheta 2 and a bit cooler too. The magnet itself is neodymnium, an obvious choice given its high power to weight ratio. The coils and magnet are visible through a clear, rigid cover that keeps weight down but protects the workings from fingers, allen keys and iron filings – open bodied cartridges are remarkably good at collecting the latter. The stylus itself is protected by a wire protrusion, a sensible addition given how much of it is exposed.
The Aphelion is supplied in a surprisingly lavish box for Rega – the Apheta 2 is quite the opposite – and comes complete with one of the most desirable tools in the turntable universe, a cartridge torque wrench. Made by Rega this heavily knurled lump will tighten the mounting bolts to a precise 0.4Nm and ensure that all three (in the case of Rega cartridges) have the same torque. I don’t recommend you try this with a regular torque wrench!
When I first installed the Aphelion into a Rega RP10 I was a bit underwhelmed, it doesn’t produce the instant thrills that the Apheta 2 does and nor does it seem to have that cartridge’s lightening speed and kick arse timing. Instead it is very refined, smooth, calm and revealing in an effortless way, at least that’s how it sounded for the first few weeks, but clearly its not built for first impressions because the more I used it the more I realised how incredibly revealing it is. How much it gets out of the way and lets the detail on the record come through and fill the room. It turned out to be far more sophisticated and refined than the Apheta 2, making what I had thought was one of the most neutral and precise moving coils on the market sound a little over enthusiastic. The Aphelion only delivers zing and attack if its on the record, while the more affordable MC adds a little bit of its own, here there is no detectable colour or emphasis, just pure musical transparency.
It’s a cartridge that needs a totally transparent, very low noise, very high speed system to really shine. It sounds great on a decent system but is so subtle and nuanced that it’s true brilliance will only be obvious once all that lies between it and you is adding as little as possible to the signal. It’s detail level is so fine and character so selfless that listening via a lesser system is a bit like putting a gauze over the Mona Lisa.
A new pressing of Bert Jansch’s Jack Orion is a bit noisy between tracks but quiet enough to reveal the brilliance of ‘Waggoners Lad’, the piece that without a shadow of a doubt formed the backbone of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Gallows Pole’. It’s fairly simple with banjo on one channel and blinding steel string acoustic guitar ‘thrapping’ on the left. You can hear everything on the recording, the low level foot tapping, the noise floor, the tone, all of which serves to reveal the brilliance of the playing. Of all the British acoustic players of the sixties and seventies Jansch can claim to be among the very best, if he had gone electric who knows how big he might have become.
The Aphelion is a slow burn cartridge and probably needs a bit more run-in than usual, but once you get there it is extremely neutral, lightning fast and delivers pure adrenaline rush from great records. It is more sophisticated than most MCs and supremely articulate, revealing the nature of the acoustic and the shape and character of each note with seamless coherence. The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s ‘Theme de YoYo’ is a riot of a track with some brilliant and often dense playing, a piece that has always enthralled, the Aphelion opens up the genius of the musicians for closer analysis. Places them in distinct acoustic spaces and lets the efforts of each shine in the context of inspired ensemble playing. Equally interesting is that the track that follows this on the ‘Universal Sounds of America’ compilation (Soul Jazz Records) has never really been interesting, it has never made me want to listen but with the Aphelion it turns out to be an fine piece of music, not a tonally charming one but a decent composition and you can hear why it was included on this eclectic release. That is the mark of a successful piece of audio equipment in my book, any component that can make inaccessible or unappealing music worth listening to has succeeded and truly warrants its place in the system.
John Surman’s The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon (ECM) is all about the timbre of the horns, their shine and richness and the brilliance of the recording, the instruments project into the room with a palpable presence. All of which often distracts you from the composition, but not here, here you get tone colour and flow that draws you in and won’t let go. On Frank Zappa’s Bongo Fury I got to appreciate just how scorching the guitar work on ‘Muffin Man’ is, rarely has so much heat come off of FZ’s guitar. It’s a truly momentous finale to a stunning concert and one that I will be playing rather more of from now on; “Goodnight Austin Texas wherever you are” indeed.
This cartridge also exposed the weird effects used on Donald Fagen’s voice on ‘Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More’ (Steely Dan, Katy Lied, ABC), a track I’ve played countless times yet never has it been so clear. This seems to happen a lot with the Aphelion/RP10, fundamental details about the way music has been made are unearthed even on well worn slabs of vinyl. It makes me wonder if CDs will be playable for as long as LPs? With the decline in CD player production and the breed as a whole rarely outliving its owners they could be extinct within a generation.
The Aphelion also reminds you of just how brilliant musicians are, emphasising the quality of writing and playing with a lightness of touch that few cartridges can deliver. There is for instance a superb rendition of ‘Hesitation Blues’ on the original Hot Tuna album, but never has the bass line worked so well with the guitar nor the low level detail been so clear, you can hear crowd noise and the speech between tracks on this live album that have previously been veiled. There’s a heck of a lot of space on this 1970 live release, it’s a Jazz at the Pawnshop for acoustic blues, albeit N times better. There’s no percussion save the tap of a foot and spectacular playing of a very chunky bass guitar, it’s enough to make me investigate the Jefferson Airplane back catalogue of that period.
The vibrance of John Fahey’s album Let Go is extraordinary, it must have been recorded pretty hot but that makes it sound very live. You can hear it all, new steel strings, the quality of playing, and the string bending on the title track is second to none. And here it seems more real, more subtle and with far more shades of light and dark than usual. The character of the studio is very clear on other tracks, the first side seems less hot than second which may be why it has the best track on it.
Out of interest I also tried the Aphelion on an SME 20/3 with Series V arm, a very different turntable to the Rega RP10. Here it managed to make everything clear, instruments and voices are presented with lots of character and definition and well known records once again give up more fundamental detail. Everything from the lyrics to the way they are sung right through to the solidity of stereo image in the room is so good that it becomes hard to tear yourself away from the system. And this via a fairly modest Marantz PM14S1SE amplifier, helped along by a fine phono stage in the Trilogy 907. What I really enjoyed about this set up was the way that the timbre and intonations of playing were so well portrayed. Everything from saxophones to various types of hand beaten drums and percussion sounded remarkable. Then Olu Dara started playing trumpet and I was gone. This cartridge is clearly not limited to Rega turntables even if that is where it will probably sound the best.
The Aphelion one of those very rare cartridges that is so well thought out that you get detail down to the quietest sounds as well as musicality that cannot be beaten. Many cartridges are either a shade too analytical or tonally coloured, the Aphelion is a slave to the music and has so little character of its own that all you can hear sounds like it what was cut into the groove. I have been reviewing cartridges and turntables for several decades and none has done what this one does, the RP10 certainly helps but nonetheless this is a world beater and at a price that is by no means extreme by the standards of the competition.