It has been a while since Rega used this name on a turntable but in the seventies, eighties and nineties the Planar 3 was considered the next best thing to a Linn LP12. The company built its reputation on the Planar 3 and cemented it with the RB300 tonearm, a turntable and arm that remained in production until 2000 when it was replaced by the first P3. It looks like the simplest turntable you could make, a one piece plinth that supports a bearing for the platter, a motor that sits very close to the subplatter and an arm, but there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
The new Planar 3 has all the same constituent parts as its forebears but is different in every way, even the glass platter which does not appear to have changed much since its inception is different. It no longer has a green hue with a matte perimeter but is made with Optiwhite glass that is colourless and has a polished edge. The plinth is the most obviously changed part having gone from a matte paint finish to fabulous high gloss black or white with the on/off switch removed and placed underneath, a cunning move that actually improves ergonomics. The subplatter that supports the glass looks like its predecessor but has been redesigned for greater accuracy and stiffness, and the 24 volt motor that drives it has revised control electronics. Should you wish to upgrade the Planar 3 a socket on the back will connect to the TT-PSU power supply (£198) found on the next model up, the P6.
The bracing system between main bearing and armbase has been beefed up with a thicker bottom brace and this should help keep movement between these two fundamental points to a minimum. Roy Gandy who founded Rega points out that if a turntable is going to extract maximum data the only thing that should be moving is the stylus in the groove, so anything that stops the arm and platter from moving relative to one another is a good thing. The brace, which is found on all but the least expensive RP1, is a key to this, Rega understands that rigidity is critical in a turntable and they know where and how to achieve it in such a way that high Q resonances are avoided. You can have a slab of aluminium that’s very stiff but it will have ringing modes that transfer energy into the arm and cartridge that is added to the signal. The best way to design a turntable is with the minimum of high rigidity, low mass material so that it has very little potential to be excited. It’s an engineering challenge that few appear to truly understand, this is partly because vinyl is such an intrinsically forgiving format that you can get a pleasant sound out of it almost regardless of how badly a turntable is designed and built, see Crossley models for example.
The biggest change over the RP3 is probably the tonearm, the RB330 looks similar to earlier Rega arms but there are some key differences. The bearing housing has tighter tolerances and redesigned bearings while the armtube itself is less prone to resonance thanks to the use of 3D CAD/CAM technology. The bias system remains magnetic but is easier to read and the arm cable is a new low capacitance cable with Neutrik RCA phono plugs. Down force remains spring loaded as with the original RB300 and the counterweight is a 100g lump of mild steel. Set up is a matter of pushing the counterweight on until the arm balances horizontally and then dialling in the required downforce, which in the case of the Elys2 cartridge that can be supplied ready fitted is 1.75g. Even the card alignment gauge found in the box has been improved, it now resembles the hard to find Polaris Plus gauge and makes cartridge alignment as easy as it gets.
I’m not suggesting that the introduction of a now well established European turntable brand to the UK market about 15 years ago has had a direct influence on Rega models, but I have my suspicions. In that time Rega turntables have become considerably better finished and more sophisticated in their operation and sound. They always had the upper hand when it came to the core strengths of the vinyl format, namely timing and musical engagement but the earlier incarnations of this model lacked something with regard to refinement. The new Planar 3 combines precision, finesse and high levels of detail retrieval with a sense of rightness that makes it hard to turn off.
In many ways its one of those boring products that does so much right that there isn’t much to write about except the music, but in an effort to inform I will have a go. I used the Elys 2 moving magnet and Rega’s Aria phono stage with the P3, the latter has fabulous timing and is more than able to reveal the capabilities of the record player while the Elys 2 if not the most sophisticated of cartridges does a great job for the money. Its limitations are to be found at higher frequencies where things aren’t quite as pristine as found with the very best at the price. What it does do extremely well on the P3 is show you how a piece of music is being played, what the intonations and timbres of the notes are like and most crucially, how different musical lines interact. In short it has very good pace, rhythm and timing and if you put on a piece of music with several musicians playing interweaving lines, such as Mop Mop’s ‘Let I Go’ (from Isle of Magic), the effect is mesmerising. I use a digital version of this track quite often but it never has the syncopation achieved with the P3. This combined with the richly atmospheric ambience of the piece makes for an intoxicating experience that inspires extended listening. I also put on one of the less intense pieces from Binker and Moses Dem Ones, a great recordign of drums and sax on Gearbox records. Here the scale and energy of the drums is fabulous, possibly a bit too much so for the sax which sounds a bit small by comparison – you can’t beat a drum kit for air moving capability. But the point is that the quality of playing from both musicians is pushed to the fore in the context of a clean, effortless presentation.
Earlier Planar 3s and their successors could do the timing bit but they lacked sophistication, in the past a Pro-Ject usually sounded more refined than a Rega at the same price. Not as engaging but easier to listen to lively music with, that is no longer the case, the P3 has drive, energy and finesse to a degree that was once the preserve of turntables at twice the price and more. Apparently many of the changes brought to the P3 trickled down from the RP8 and (mighty) RP10 which share its shiny finish, the new turntable doesn’t sound as good as those models but it approaches their effortless ability to reveal just what was being played in the studio or on stage. It makes sense of the music in a way that only the best turntables and very few digital systems do.
In a nutshell the new Rega Planar 3 lives up to its name and then some, if you want to hear just why vinyl is the format that will not die you cannot do better for the money, and you’ll be hard pressed to beat it unless you spend a lot more. But don’t take my word for it, take your vinyl to your nearest audio emporium and let them prove the point.