Review: Rega Planar 3 turntable with Rega Exact cartridge

Vinyl is continuing to make quite the comeback, with plenty of new music released on the venerable 12 inch analogue disc. For years, even extremely expensive home theatre receivers didn’t have phono inputs fitted. These days most of them do, and indeed most mid-level and some entry levels ones do as well.

If you want to join this retro trend then you need a turntable. And if you want decent sound you need a decent turntable, not one of those $50 plastic things.

While we’ve looked at some moderately priced models in the past, with the Rega Planar 3 we’re moving into more exotic territory. With the Rega Exact cartridge, this turntable comes to $1799.

Features

The task asked of a turntable seems simple enough. It has to rotate a vinyl disc at a constant angular speed. It has to hold a stylus in place in a groove, firmly enough to ensure it isn’t flung out by the vibrations, but gently enough so that the stylus can track along the groove towards the centre, and lightly enough to minimise the damage the stylus inflicts on the recording (diamond is a lot harder than vinyl).

It has to convert the tiny vibrations of that stylus into an electrical signal. That signal turns out to be very low in level – roughly a thousandth of the level produced by a CD player – so it must be protected from interference.

Oh, and because the stylus picks up vibrations, and is in contact with the vinyl disc which is resting on the turntable, well the turntable itself – its motor and bearings – must be extremely quiet. Especially as the RIAA equalisation boosts the deep bass picked up by the stylus by a factor of ten.

Okay, maybe it isn’t so simple after all.

Rega was one of the first to use the massive platter approach to making the turntable run evenly. The platter is the turning part of the turntable. The Rega Planar 3 uses a 12mm thick glass platter. That gives it a rather high moment of inertia, which means it resists speed variation. It’s like a flywheel. A felt mat sits on top of that. The thing is driven via a belt that runs around a motor pulley and the hub upon which the platter sits. You change speed by moving the belt from one notch in the pulley to the other. Speeds of 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm are supported.

The plinth – the main body of the turntable – is a light weight design and braced with two metal struts, one on top and one below, between the arm and spindle. It comes with a high gloss finish with white, black and red available, and a clear perspex lid.

The tonearm is Rega’s RB330, a hand assembled unit. It uses spring loading to set the stylus pressure and anti-skating.

Cartridges

As reviewed, I had the turntable coupled with the Rega Exact cartridge.

The cartridge is the little dynamo that turns the physical vibrations of the stylus into an electrical signal to feed to your amplifier. Physically, it’s the gadget on the end of the tone arm. It has a diamond stylus on the end of a thin tube. In turntable talk, that tube is called the “cantilever”. At the other end of the tube is either a magnet or a coil. If it’s a magnet, then it is surrounded by a wire coil attached to the body of the cartridge. If it’s a coil, then magnets surround it. Either way, as the stylus moves up and down and side to side in the groove, the magnet and the coil are moving with respect to each other. That’s the very definition of an electrical generator.

If it’s the magnet that’s on the cantilever, it’s called a Moving Magnet (or MM) cartridge. If it’s the coil, it’s called a Moving Coil (or MC) cartridge. The latter tend to be more expensive. The Exact is the highest MM cartridge on offer from Rega. Like the tone arm, it’s hand assembled. It uses a “Vital” profile for the stylus (the shape of the stylus can affect performance) and is designed to track at 1.75 grams of stylus pressure.

The turntable is priced at $1249 without a cartridge, but it cames as a package with Rega’s mid-level Elys 2 moving magnet cartridge already fitted for $1449. That’s a $50 saving, and also a possible saving of worry if you’re not confident about fitting the cartridge to the tone arm.

Setting up

Assembly was pretty straight forward. The belt was already in place. The lid slots into place. The heavy platter and felt mat just slip over the centre spindle. The output cables are fixed. Unusually, there is no separate earth wire. The turntable uses the shielding conductor for earthing.

A cardboard “alignment protractor” comes with the turntable and that makes it fairly easy getting the geometry of the cartridge right. The tone arm doesn’t have a vertical height adjustment, and Rega cartridges are of course designed to present the correct stylus angle when fitted to a Rega tonearm. So setting that up only took five minutes of very careful work.

Once that was done, I pushed the heavy counterweight onto the back of the tone arm and nudged it backwards and forwards until it precisely balanced the arm. Then I dialled in the stylus pressure and antiskating force on the two dials near the tonearm’s pivot.

There seemed to be a very slight antiskating pressure even with that dial set to zero. In case you’re wondering what the skating is which might require an anti-it mechanism, let me explain. As a stylus sits in the groove, the friction with the groove pulls on it. But the angle at which it is being pulled does not line up with the pivot of the tone arm, but slightly to its right. So while the tonearm’s pivot counteracts the bulk of this force, a residual amount is left over and this pushes the stylus towards the centre of the record, increasing wear on the inner sides of the grooves, along with distortion. Antiskating applies a matching outwards force.

If the grooveless section on my ancient Shure test record – called “An Audio Obstacle Course” – is to be believed, the 1.75 setting on the antiskating dial was far too much. I settled on something close to 1.0, and that kept the stylus from moving in or out.

The first time I played a record, the stylus started skipping, and tracking was pretty terrible. A quick inspection revealed that the arm lift mechanism hadn’t gone all the way down when I’d lowered the arm, so at points it was stopping the stylus from resting fully in the groove. I pushed it down with my finger and all was then well. There was no recurrence afterwards, so I guess that the damping fluid must get stirred up in transport, and that press with the finger was enough to settle it down.

I’ll just jump ahead slightly here. Most of the listening I’m about to describe happened before I this final adjustment. I was playing Mark Knopfler’s sound track for the movie Local Hero and at the second last track on the first side – “The Rocks and the Thunder” – there is an enormous swell of music far beyond what most albums produce. This sounded very rattly, very scratchy. One never knows for sure whether an album has been damaged by poor playback equipment in the past, but this had only ever been played on my gear so I was reasonably confident that the track should sound okay.

So I figured there were tracking issues: that is, the stylus wasn’t being held as confidently in the groove during a period of high modulation as it ought to be. That could be because of a poor cartridge, or because of a mismatch between cartridge and arm, or because tracking weight was too low. Neither of the first two seemed likely so I went back to the start with balancing the arm and setting the stylus pressure. But this time I pulled out my ancient stylus pressure balance and checked the 1.75 gram stylus pressure. You can’t tell by how much with a balance, but the pressure was clearly too low. With quite a bit of trial and error I determined that a touch below an indicated two grams on the tone arm calibration markings – 1.95 grams I’d estimate from eyeballing it – delivered the desired 1.75 grams.

Then I re-set the antiskating, and it was right on “1” on the scale. Since I had the Shure record on the platter, I checked out the orchestral bells and bass drum tracking tests, and the system easily handled them. So Local Hero went back on the platter, and the troublesome track under the stylus and … perfect playback! No rattling. No distortion.

And, you know, everything I say below, add five per cent in the quality stakes. The sound improved noticeably from that small change.

Listening

Listening was a delightful experience. Right now, as I’m typing this paragraph I am listening to Jethro Tull’s album Thick as Brick which I purchased some decades ago. Likely in the 1970s, since has the full album cover with the fake newspaper reporting on that controversial poetry competition (along with the meta joke of a review of the present album). There is, of course, a little surface noise in the beginning due to quiet opening, but as the music opens up a couple of minutes in, that fades into the background and instead I am presented with a wide, full, soundstage of high quality music. The bass is tight and complete, with a strong kick drum and the bass guitar itself nimbly handled. The cymbals tick away throughout the performance, neither overwhelmed by, nor dominating the other instruments.

I should note that normally when I listen to this music I listen from a high resolution (96kHz, 24 bit) Steven Wilson remix from five years ago. That this LP stands up says a lot for the original mix and for this turntable.

Glancing over at the turntable, I notice that there’s not so much a warp in the record as a slight bump of perhaps one eighth of its circumference. That’s the price of a fancy, and uneven, record cover I guess, imposing a gentle pressure on the vinyl for nearly forty years. The good news, this was completely inaudible in playback on the Rega Planar 3. That heavy glass platter does iron out speed variations.

I did quite a bit of rediscovery – or perhaps, new discovery of old records. For example, the briefly popular New Zealand group Mi-Sex’s debut album Graffiti Crimes turns out to be quite nicely recorded, and with a surprisingly diverse range of styles and song types. This was delivered with characteristic tightness, detail, and a not inconsiderable sense of stage depth.

You might be able to get that one on CD and you can certainly listen to it on Spotify. But if you want to listen to the album Human Games by ex-Sebastian Hardie member Mario Millo, vinyl (or perhaps a ratty old cassette tape) is your only choice. Amongst mostly original tunes, this one covers the Hardie hit (penned by Millo) “Rosanna”. Again, impressively delivered, even with the surprisingly lush orchestration. I think I prefer the more raw and primitive Hardie version, but it’s nice to have a choice. And the title track is a particular fine song in its own right.

There remained one oddity of the turntable that puzzled me. When at the end of each album I’d use the cue arm to lift the stylus from the groove and for a second there’d be a slight crackling noise, followed by an abrupt cut off that sounded all the world like the stylus was being lifted then, not a second earlier.

That’s only a curiosity, though, having no affect on the overall performance.

Conclusion

If you want quality sound from your vinyl LPs, you won’t go wrong with the Rega Planar 3 turntable, especially fitted with Rega Exact cartridge. But if you don’t have a stylus pressure gauge or balance yourself, I’d strongly recommend borrowing one from the high fidelity shop where you purchase the turntable. Once you’ve determined the setting, you can jot it down in the manual and return the device. You’ll be able to dial in that value next time.