The Vinyl Anachronist: Rega Rhapsody
I’ve often joked that I’ve persuaded so many people to buy Rega turntables, I should be listed as an official dealer. On more than occasion I’ve received an email from someone actually trying to order one from me. Let me say this one more time for the record… I am not in any way affiliated with Rega, nor do I get any kickbacks, bonuses or incentives from Roy Gandy, the illustrious founder of Rega.
I simply dig their turntables. If I had only a thousand U.S. dollars to spend on an analog, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a Rega P3, probably mated with a Dynavector 10X5 cartridge. There isn’t a Music Hall, Pro-Ject, SOTA, Nottingham, Thorens or Technics in the world I’d rather own for this kind of money. I’ve owned three Regas in my life, a P2, and P3 and a P25, and I can see a day where I might own another one, just for the fun of it.
That said, what many people don’t realize is that I haven’t really used a Rega turntable in my system since March 2003, when I purchased my Michell Orbe SE. Sure, I technically still own that P2, but it’s in an office system I put together for my wife, and I rarely get to hear it. About a year ago, I heard from an engineer/machinist friend of mine who had designed some very effective tweaks for Regas, including a counterweight, a platter and a subplatter. He was eager to send them all to me so that I could review them. He seemed utterly shocked when I told him I didn’t have a Rega anymore. I felt like a heretic.
A change is in the wind…
I’ve been feeling a bit out of touch lately when it comes to Rega, and understandably so. Roy Gandy has been pretty busy lately, introducing one new product after another. I’m not even talking about their new CD players (the Apollo, while not quite a classic giant-killer, is still the best CD player in its class), or their recently revised loudspeakers (their little R1s are my favorite inexpensive bookshelf speakers right now) or the latest versions of their classic integrated amplifiers, which sound much better than before, in my opinion. No, I’m talking strictly about their analog products. It’s gotten to the point where I feel nervous making those blanket Rega recommendations. Are they the same great products I used to rhapsodise about?
The shake-up started about a year ago, when Rega unceremoniously continued the Planar 2 turntable around the same time they introduced the P5 and P7 ‘tables. I thought this was a huge mistake. For nine years I’ve been telling people that you generally need to spend about US$500 on a decent turntable in order to get the kind of analog sound that will consistently beat your average CD player. I chose that particular figure because that’s how much the Planar 2 cost. The P2, for me, was the entry point into great analog sound. And while I briefly recommended some of the cheaper ‘tables from Music Hall and Pro-Ject, I ultimately still pushed the P2 whenever I could in order to prove my point about how great analog gear still sounded.
So I was relatively upset about the demise of the P2, so much so that I quickly bought one of the last ones available in the US. And I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to tell people that US$750, the price of a Rega P3, was the new magic number for getting into analog. Needless to say, that was going to be a much tougher sell.
Whew… that was close!
Then, much to my surprise, I started hearing rumors about a new Rega ‘table that was going to be priced to compete with the Music Halls and the Pro-Jects. The new P1 was going to be US$350, including arm and cartridge! (NZ$675). I scoured the web for more information, and then I started seeing pictures here and there of the P1, and it looked exactly like the recently discontinued P2. I immediately thought the worst, that the P1 was just a P2, probably made in China to cut costs. Rega has always enjoyed a reputation for making extremely reliable products, which was always the edge they had over the competition. Were they going to compromise their image just to stay in the game? I hoped not.
Well, if you may have noticed, the P1 has been out for a while now, and it is not a Chinese P2. It’s made right in the same English factory as the P3, P5, P7 and P9. It does sport one departure from the Rega norm. It’s not mated with a Rega cartridge, but an Ortofon OM-5se. But when you see one in person, it’s still very much a Rega… simple, modest and unobtrusive, but well-made.
My first experience with the P1 was less than exciting. I was able to compare a completely stock P1 with a certain Japanese-made direct-drive that cost about the same amount of money, just to confirm my poor opinions about the latter ‘table. I was surprised to find I disliked the sound of both ‘tables intensely. Maybe I’ve been unduly spoiled by my Michell Orbe, but I simply couldn’t recommend either ‘table to anyone. And I was really underwhelmed by the P1′s MDF platter, which wobbled along the edges. The machining tolerances aren’t going to impress anyone.
The quick fix
Then, I started hearing about some of the tweaking going on with the P1. First of all, many Rega dealers in the US are offering upgrades to the Ortofon OM-5, throwing in OM-10s and OM-20s for a very reasonable price. I think this is a great idea, especially since I really like the smooth, ultra-listenable OM-20, which is one of the few inexpensive cartridges I can stand. Secondly, P1 owners started grabbing Rega glass platters and throwing them on their P1s, discarding that woeful MDF platter. It turns out that the glass platters are easy to find on e-Bay and Audiogon, since many Rega owners have upgraded to acrylic platters.
I finally got to hear one of these P1s, with the glass platter and an Ortofon OM-20, and it indeed sounded like a Rega again, possibly even pretty close to my Rega P2. In fact, I’d like to hear the P1 with a Rega Bias 2, which is what I installed on my P2, because I think it’s the Ortofon that’s making the biggest difference. Like I said, the OM-20 is smooth and warm, but not the last word in detail, while the Bias is forward and clear and a little rough around the edges. It makes me wonder why Rega chose the Ortofon OM-5 in the first place, and why many dealers aren’t pushing the Bias when people order the P1.
Upgrading to an OM-10 or OM-20, however, can be done for just a few dollars. I had one person tell me that it cost them an extra US$30 for an OM-10, which is more than reasonable. And those glass platters are going for US$25 on e-Bay. Trust me… one look at that chintzy MDF platter will convince that this is a mandatory upgrade. So that brings the total of your new, improved Rega P1 to just a hair above US$400, which is still significantly cheaper than the price of the old P2, which didn’t even come with a cartridge. This is the new entry-level turntable that I recommend without hesitation.
Obviously, there’s a lot more going on at the Rega factory than just the P1. Rega made news a few months ago by introducing the Apheta, which is Rega’s first moving-coil cartridge. At US$1695, it isn’t cheap, but it offers some unique design features for the money, and was obviously a labor of love for Roy Gandy. For years, Rega has been recommending their Exact cartridge for their top-of-the-line P9 turntable, but I’ve never felt that the Exact was up to the task. I always felt the Exact was better matched to the P25, and I enjoyed that combination for a few years. The Apheta may be the Rega cartridge that finally helps the P9 realize its potential.
I did hear the Apheta/P9 combination briefly, however, and felt that it was a little bright and edgy. This wouldn’t be the first time a Rega cartridge made me feel that way. And the reviews are definitely mixed on the Apheta. But I think that the Apheta opens an important door for Rega, and I think other, better cartridge models will appear in the future.
Once a Rega man…
But for me the most interesting announcement from Rega is the reintroduction of the P2. The only real difference I can tell so far is that the new P2 has a different platter than the old P2. Unfortunately, it looks suspiciously like MDF. Rega tried throwing on MDF platters on the old P2s, the same ones used on the modified P2s sold by companies like Moth and NAD and Rotel and Goldring. Most Rega purists balked at buying these P2s, and Rega switched back to the glass platters before discontinuing the P2. My P2, thank goodness, has a glass platter. Hopefully the platter on the new P2 will not be the same one they use for the P1.
Well just have to wait and see…