A few years ago Rega set out to build the ultimate turntable, they looked at completely new ways to create a plinth with massive stiffness and negligible weight and used technology from F1 and aerospace to create the Naiad, the only cost no object product the company has ever built. The research that was done for that project proved to be invaluable for the development of more affordable turntables, the first one to really benefit was the RP8 launched five years ago. This was the first Rega to be built around a foam cored plinth cut down to skeletal form to keep the weight as low as possible. It didn’t always look skeletal because the removable surround gave it a conventional rectangular appearance, its real purpose was to provide hinge points for a lid. With the Planar 8 Rega have abandoned this approach and built an entirely skeletal turntable, their first unless you count the rare as hen’s teeth Naiad.
What’s more surprising is that the new plinth is a different shape to the RP8 (and likewise the RP10), presumably the decision to live without a lid and the requisite support gave Rega complete freedom in this respect. All a turntable plinth needs is a means of fixing the armbase, main bearing and motor plus legs placed such that it stays upright. The Planar 8 plinth is smaller than an RP8 and thus sheds a few grams but there must be another reason for the change. Those of a cynical bent it might think that the change away from an outer plinth was done to keep costs down, which is not a problem in my book. The RP8 maintained its £1,598 price point for five years during which time costs must have risen. It was incredibly good value in my book, easily the best turntable you could buy for the money so margins couldn’t have been that big in the first place.
The Planar 8 shares the triple layer glass platter from RP8 but it now has a clear glass middle section which makes a (go faster!) stripe, the main platter and the lowest peripheral ring are in smoked glass to provide the contrast. The main bearing has been redesigned with a single piece machined aluminium sub-platter and hardened tool steel spindle which sits in a brass journal (housing) that is mounted in such a way as to “eradicate” energy being transferred into the plinth. As the bearing and the motor are both sources of unwanted energy on a turntable they are the areas that require the most care in mounting. It’s not clear how Rega have managed to rigidly mount the bearing and yet decouple it in some way but the results suggest that they have been successful.
Drive is via two short EBLT (spot the anagram) belts from a 24v motor placed close to the subplatter, Rega makes the logical argument that the fluctuations in the smoothness of a motor are likely to be amplified with a belt that drives the periphery of the platter as found in so many turntables, so they keep their drive belts short and let the flywheel effect iron out variations in motor consistency. The main bearing is anchored to the armbase by phenolic braces above and below the plinth to ensure minimal movement between the two, when you are building a Vibration Measurement Machine (the name of the book Rega published about turntable design among other things) you don’t want anything moving except the platter and the stylus, movement in the turntable and arm structure will only add distortion.
The arm supplied on the P8 is dubbed the RB880, at a glance it looks like the RB808 on the RP8 but it has an improved vertical bearing assembly built from aluminium and stainless steel, the difference is only visible at the bottom of the armbase where there is a shiny ring. The arm cable has also been redesigned and is terminated in locking phono plugs. As you can see Rega haven’t left the skeletal P8 completely without protection from dust, a new bent acrylic cover is provided that you simply lift off to play your vinyl. Given that it has always improved sound quality to completely remove the lid of a turntable this is a welcome move and one that Rega could sell to everyone if they removed the pin that stops the thing spinning round and potentially damaging the arm or cartridge (but word is they won’t). Power is controlled by Rega’s Neo power supply, this is tuned to the motor on the turntable in order to minimise vibration and allows switched speed changes and even fine tuning of RPM via a recessed adjuster on the back.
Describing the sound of this turntable is not easy, Rega aim for ‘no sound’ essentially a turntable that adds as little of its own character to the recording in the vinyl groove as possible, and with the Planar 8 they have got very close indeed. In practise this means you hear an awful lot of whatever was laid down in the mastering studio, every note and virtually every nuance of every note. As a result the music becomes more animated, vibrant and easy to enjoy, it reveals so much of the character and colour of each musician that you can’t help but be carried away by the way that they play and sing, and the more complex the music is the more apparent is the turntable’s ability to present a coherent sound.
With more listening it became apparent that the P8 has a lightness of touch that is uncanny, this is apparent in the way that reverb shows up on virtually every acoustic source. Hand beaten drums like tabla were the first example I spotted but this happened time and again. The main reason is that the noise floor has been pushed down much further than is usually the case with vinyl, it’s surprising how much detail there is down at the quiet end of the scale detail that most turntables fail to uncover because they are swamped by vibrations within the plinth and platter. This is also probably the source of the fluidity that this Rega delivers, every tune flows effortlessly, making each record as beguiling as it deserves to be. This happened with an oft played favourite, ‘Oakland Blues’ by Conjure, where the subtlety of detail resolution and the absence of perceived distortion served to underline the poignancy of the song.
The P8 is therefore very sensitive to recording quality, a fact made concrete by putting on Doug MacLeod’s latest album Break the Chainfrom the always impressive Reference Recordings label. This always sounds good but not usually so much better than more traditionally recorded albums, the bass and tabla interplay is superb and the shape of bass notes in particular is unusually well articulated. Add to this the substantial depth of image that the Rega delivers and you have a very convincing facsimile of a live event in the living room.
I can see that some will feel that the Planar 8 lacks bass but that isn’t true, what it lacks is a tendency to thicken and bloat the bass that so many turntables have. This is partly why certain turntables remain popular with DJs in the digital age, they have a fat bass character that suits dance music and probably gets fatter when more energy is pumped into them by big speakers. Digital systems tend to be leaner and quicker in the bass albeit few can match the fluency of the bottom end on this Rega. You can tell that it’s got the balance right because it’s much easier to hear what bass players are doing when a whole band is throwing it down, not that you would describe John Martyn’s ensemble on Solid Airof doing exactly that but it’s lovely to be able to appreciate just what the guitar, sax, vibes and double bass are doing behind the studio thickened voice. Which brings me to another of this turntable’s strong points, lyrical intelligibility, the more music I played the more it became obvious that it was possible to understand lines that had previously eluded me. Esperanza Spalding’s ‘Judas’ is a well played review track (Emily’s D+Evolution) on both digital and vinyl but until it got a spin on this deck there were words that remained unclear. This is an example of how well it separates out the various elements in a mix, making each clearer and easier to follow. It also shows up the use of compression and limiting in a recording, there are always pros and cons with transparency.
What differentiates the Planar 8 from most sub £2,000 turntables and many that cost more is the sense of immediacy that it delivers. One of the biggest differences between live and recorded sound is the sharp attack of a note or chord, some brands try to enhance this with a bright or forward balance but that quickly becomes fatiguing, though often not until you have left the dem room. Here you get the speed of attack without any edginess, thus a good recording like Patricia Barber’s Modern Coolsounds very real indeed, the drums and bowed bass intro on ‘Constantinople’ seem so physically solid that you could reach out and grab them. This is partly because of the clearly defined acoustic that surrounds them, it has the depth and scale of the studio space which amps up the realism.
The Planar 8 with an Apheta 2 moving coil is very sensitive to recording level, if you follow a quiet recording with a heavily compressed one be careful to adjust the volume before dropping the needle. This is a factor of its wide dynamic range, as is an ability to sound engaging when played quietly. Like all low distortion sources it’s more fun at higher volumes of course and here its inherently calm presentation means that it’s the music you are amplifying not spurious vibrations added by the turntable, so it sounds superbly vital. I really enjoyed the Grateful Dead’s Blues for Allah, the album where they went slightly jazz and tightened up the playing just to show that they could do it. The syncopation is fabulous on ‘Franklin’s Tower’, every instrument is clear and locked together by the rhythm but not playing in a straight ahead fashion.
Listening thus far had been via a Rega Aria phono stage which is a fine piece of kit but probably not good enough for this turntable so I hooked up a Tom Evans Microgroove+ X MkII which still costs less than the P8 but is a very capable phono preamplifier. This really brought out the ‘less is more’ strengths of the Rega, less record player character equals more musical detail, Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones was absolutely brilliant. From the dynamic impact of the big bass drum on ‘Underground’ to the broken glass percussion of ‘Shoreleave’ there is so much depth and colour in the groove that it blows you away. It proves as much as anything that the Planar 8 warrants the best phono stage you can afford to put with it.
If you are looking for maximum musical intensity for your pound, dollar or euro you will be very hard pressed to find a better turntable at anywhere near this price. I am a Rega RP10 user myself but I’ve been hearing new things on this newcomer at nearly half the price, it truly is a triumph of analogue audio engineering.
Cartridge: Rega Apheta 2