Rega Planar 3 Turntable Review & Test
Full review and laboratory test of the Rega Planar 3 Turntable and Elys Cartridge by Australian Hi-Fi Magazine. Free download.
If you would like to read the complete review, together with a complete set of independent laboratory tests and graphs conducted by Newport Test Labs and a test report written by Steve Holding, click on the graphic at the right, which is a downloadable pdf that is an exact replica of the original pages on which the review appeared in Australian Hi-Fi Magazine, January/February 2017 issue (Volume 48 Number 1).
Rega Planar 3 Turntable Review & Test
A list of famous high-end turntables would include the Caliburn, the Clearaudio Statement and of course the venerable—if rather long in the tooth Linn Sondek—but if talk were to turn to the compiling of a list of iconic real-world turntables, that list would surely be topped by the Rega Planar 3.
Introduced in the 1970s, the Planar 3 was radical in its time and it still retains certain ‘rebel’ philosophies even after several and various revisions, which included the arrival in 1983 of the almost equally-legendary RB300 tonearm, which was the long-awaited replacement for the Acos-derived R200 and the first tonearm to be manufactured at the Rega factory.
Notable for its beautifully cast single-piece arm tube and headshell, close-tolerance bearings, rigid bearing housings and magnetic frictionless bias compensation, the RB300 has never been out of production… and should never be confused with the later RB301 which borrowed the bias housing and phono cable from the RB700, used a stainless steel counterweight and had shim-adjustable VTA.
Now that vinyl is resurgent once more we have not only a new Rega Planar 3, but also a new RB330 tonearm to go with it. The price is smack-on a sweet-spot for those returning to the black stuff—though of course that price means it is not without significant competitors.
Rega is, of course, British, the company being located on the south coast of England across several buildings in picturesque Southend-on-Sea, where this reviewer enjoyed a full factory tour a few years back. Rega undertakes a large part of its component and product assembly in-house, and where often the same component goes into multiple turntable models, I witnessed the quality control system which allocates finished components according to their adherence to the master specification—the best going into Rega’s top turntables, and those with the widest variations going into a box marked ‘OEM’, for those other companies that piggyback on Rega’s production expertise.
The latest Planar 3 is notable for being not merely an iterative new edition of the previous RP3 released some six years ago, but a strip-down and rebuild, with only two components surviving from the previous model. Key among the new livery is that new RB330 tonearm, with its tube shape tweaked using 3D computer simulation to redistribute mass and reduce points of resonance, also incorporating lower-friction horizontal and vertical bearings, a re-designed stiffer vertical bearing housing, a new bias assembly, a new spring housing with easier-to-read numbers, and an integrated arm clip. Cables are upgraded, the RCA-terminated flying leads out to your phono stage now fitted with sturdy Neutrik connectors. As with previous Rega turntables, no earth spade connection is required; the Planar 3 earths through the arm cable’s own screening.
As for the turntable itself, it’s a lovely looker, especially with its felt mat off so you can see through the 12mm-thick green-tinged edge-polished glass platter to the redesigned sub-platter below. The surrounding plinth is no high-mass monster—that is not the Rega philosophy, which focuses on rigidity, not mass. Indeed Rega say its ideal is zero mass with infinite rigidity: ‘mass absorbs energy’, says Rega, ‘lost energy equals lost music!’
To this end the company has long favoured the use of phenolic resin, a heat-cured plastic of longstanding application for imparting rigidity. In some high-end models Rega has used it to entirely coat lightweight plinths made of a sponge-like particulate core, but here the plinth is acrylic laminate, and the phenolic resin is reserved for the attractive piece of engineering which forms a double brace between the main hub bearing and the tonearm mount, also isolating the 24-volt low-noise motor. This construction has a 3mm phenolic bottom brace and a phenolic top brace with metallised skin, the holes along its length (see pictures) again serving to reduce mass while improving rigidity.
The Planar 3 has only three feet, so it sat perfectly level on my turntable platform and I encountered no particular susceptibility to footfall or external vibration.
While the new Planar 3 has some notable design flair, the design of product packaging has not traditionally been a priority for the engineering-led Rega, as is evident from the entirely understated brown packaging of the Planar 3. But you know what?—with a single seal broken, the box unfolds in a delightful single motion, cool and efficient, revealing the plastic-wrapped lid and a large leaflet within, very nicely designed and dominated by Rega’s preferred—and probably trademarked—shade of green.
Very little set-up is required. The drive belt was already on; I stripped off the two pieces of tape around the arm clip and stylus guard. Here in Australia, the Planar 3 is available without a cartridge, in which case it retails for $1,249, or factory-fitted with a Rega Elys 2 cartridge, in which case the package retails for $1,449. My review sample came with the Elys 2 is pre-fitted, which was perhaps just as well since it has an unusual curving outer edge, that would doubtless have foxed me had I needed to align it (a protractor card is provided, but given the Elys 2’s flared end and its curved sides, there’s nothing to get parallel). However, one benefit of ordering the factory-fitted Elys 2 is that you save about fifty buck ordering the package, because on its own, the Elys 2 retails for $250.
So the only real set-up other than simple assembly is to push the balance weight up the arm to ‘float’ the cartridge before the ideal tracking weight, here 1.75g, is applied to both the tracking force dial and the bias adjustment slider: the latter a welcome replacement for the tiny bias weight usually strung and hung on a slender nylon loop which is hard to thread and easy to slip off. This is far easier!
Then you’re done, according to the guide, but there’s one stage omitted there—plugging it in. My habit is to plug things in last, but that proved to be a bit late in the day here, since the connection for the d.c. pin from the off-board block transformer is far underneath the very rear of the turntable which you’ve just lovingly set up, so you’ll probably need to spin it and tilt it and peer underneath with a lamp to make this and the signal connections.
Much praise for a plastic lid that covers the deck completely when in use or not, even if the hinges tended to lift up every other time I opened the lid one-handedly. The upside was a notably quieter and tighter delivery with the lid down, especially as I raised levels higher… which I did fairly quickly, as the Planar 3 proved a stellar performer across a range of vinyl discs during the month I had it in residence.
Its delivery of both weight and speed lent a marvellously taut thump to kick drums, and realistic tone and scale to bass guitars. One tune that burst into life in this regard was Olivia Newton John’s Totally Hot from the LP of the same name (forgive me, for I have two copies), its rhythm section gut-kickingly solid and deep while horns punctuate the beat to left and right, leaving Olivia and harmonies clean and honey-toned centre stage. Surface noise was kept delightfully low, too, even on this $5 disc from a local record fair (subsequently put through a Spin Clean and coming out almost good as new).
I then plattered a near-mint 1959 Deutsche Grammophon pressing of Bruckner’s Ninth (the Berlin Philharmonic under Eugen Jochum) and thrilled to the Planar 3’s portrayal of the dynamic blasts from mountainous horn, timpani and string combinations reaching high above the peaceful pastoral Austrian valleys between. No sign of restraint crept into these crashing climaxes; the Planar 3 held its resolving powers all the way to the very peaks.
The most recent ELO album on Columbia had its outer-edge opener sound a little flattened, but the sound soon opened up into a rich tapestry of Lynne layers, and the production power emerging from side one’s final cut, The Sun Will Shine On You, was simply massive—digitally mastered, no doubt, but recorded through Jeff’s 30-year-old analogue desk and sounding gloriously rich and broad on vinyl through my system. You couldn’t want ELO to sound more like ELO; my system simply sang from the vinyl source.
The toneam’s auto lifter proved highly accurate in its drop, making cueing a simple delight even if playing less than a full side, whilst the manual finger lift is both long and curved to fit your finger and thus help work against accidental slippage. Top marks.
One of my favourite vinyl spins is the box soundtrack to ‘Dead Man Walking’, two of the discs dominated by Ry Cooder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, while side six is dedicated only to the delightful eight-minute Isa Lei, with Cooder on bottleneck guitar and V.M. Bhatt playing the Indian mohan vina. I own this recording also at 24-bit/88.2kHz digital, which proved to be an interesting comparison. Both deliveries were divine, and given the quality of my digital rig it was a delight to hear the Planar 3 serving up not only the detail of string plucks and the full rounded depth of the tabla tooms but also the sense of the hall acoustic extending from the tabla taps.
I took the opportunity to spin some classic singles too—you change speed to 45 rpm manually, lifting off the mat and platter to do so, though the Planar 3 is compatible with the optional upgrade of Rega’s TT-PSU electronic speed change and power supply box. My strobe card confirmed its 45 rpm speed to be entirely accurate out of the box, as was the speed accuracy at 33⅓ rpm.
I did some extended comparisons with the nearly-identically priced Thorens TD 203 and found the Rega delivered a firmer centre image, which speaks well to its factory alignment, though the Thorens deck managed to open up the grooves rather more—that tabla decay further clarified, individual elements of a mix better resolved, the whole sound more three-dimensional.
The preference was less clear when cranking the Bruckner symphony, the Rega presenting a lower high-frequency noise floor over the silences and sweetening the strings compared with a raspier delivery from the Thorens, though still with that greater depth and openness. Then again the Thorens has its design downsides, including a dangling bias weight and the silliest turntable cover I’ve ever seen (one which can’t be used during playback). The Rega’s looks are more stylish overall, especially that classy glassy platter—perhaps ironic given Rega’s engineering bent has never expended too much energy on ‘looks’; it being, of course, ‘all about the music’.
And on that note I could not repack the Planar 3 without playing ‘A Bend in the River’, an album produced by Rega itself in 2008, co-engineered by Roy Gandy, indeed, and recorded in his house using a mixer and mike preamps by Terry Bateman. It is led in its performance and mixdown by the many guitars of Gary Bennett, and on the radical folk-prog rearrangement of Eddie & The Hot Rods’ Do Anything You Want To Do the Planar 3 held Bennett’s acoustic plucking snap-tight, while the multi-tracked soundstage spread wide, with its individual threads all present and alive, and with a beautifully understated vocal from Janosi Kinga.
Rega now has three new Planar turntables on the market—numbers One and Two came hotfoot behind this Three, each revived and renewed to face the continued 21st-century resurgence of vinyl playback. The Planar 3’s performance, ease of use and attractive design would seem to indicate that Rega’s turntables will remain leading lights for now, and likely for as long as the black stuff may last. # Jez Ford
Rega Planar 3 Turntable
RRP: $1,449 (inc. Elys 2 cartridge)
Warranty: Two Years
Distributor: Synergy Audio Visual
Manual speed change
A full technical appraisal of the performance of the Rega Planar 3 Turntable and Elys Phono Cartridge with laboratory test results, frequency response graphs and an analysis of the technical performance, is contained in the LABORATORY TEST REPORT which is in the pdf version of this review. (Click the TEST RESULTS box).