|The Vinyl Word
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Rega Planar 25 Turntable
My high-end life began more than a dozen or so years ago when somebody decided they really needed my modest but personally significant record collection (400 to 500 LPs) and my even more modest stereo. After I got the insurance check, I began the search for replacements, and since I had a decent chunk of change I thought it might be a good time to check out that new, hot thing, the CD. After picking up Stereo Review and Audio, I went down to the local stereo store and picked up a CD player and a receiver. Those, coupled with a friends extra speakers, and at least I had tunes while looking for a permanent pair of speakers for myself. Several weeks later, while browsing the newsstand for the new issues of SR and Audio I found two, digest-sized audio magazines that had speaker reviews, The Abso!ute Sound and Stereophile. While the price was a bit steep, I bought em and went back to work. Reading them later that day planted the first seeds of audio discontent as well as the idea that my jump into CD may have been premature. But then again, compared to the old rack system I had been using, that CD player sounded pretty decent, and since I was one of the first on my block to have one of the new toys, I kept buying those polycarb discs and soon had a collection too large to go back to vinyl, or so I thought.
Fast forward about eight years. The CD collection is now over 1000 strong, but for some reason the corner holds about 75 LPs, in spite of the lack of a turntable. With a bit of spare cash (an oxymoron to an audiophile if there ever was one), I decided it was time to get a licorice-pizza spinner. I had to learn the audiophile way to do vinyl (Rule 1: a taped nickel on the headshell is not the right way to set tracking force), but learn I did. And soon my garage-sale-sourced AR turntable was making decent sounds. After several years of moderate use and more than occasional abuse, it died and was replaced with an NAD 533 (a variation on the Rega Planar 2). Im an audiogeek, so change is inevitable. In spite of the protestations of my wife as well as the occasional rejection by those tight-ass folks at the credit-card company, I soon replaced that unit with a VPI HW19JR armed with a Rega RB300. The sound quality improved, with more detail than I had been getting with the NAD, as well as a slightly less wooly bottom end, albeit with a slightly more mechanical sound. After several minor mods to the VPI, and, most importantly, the addition of the supremely funkalicious Dynavector Karat 17D Mk II cartridge, I had vinyl sound that was very close to that of the three times as expensive digital source I was using. And then I heard a Rega Planar 9.
This was clearly sound and music making on a different level than either my vinyl or digital sources were capable of. But at $2795, it was also too expensive to justify based on my growing but still modest vinyl collection (which had expanded to about 300 titles). Add the fact that the wife was now doing a more serious job monitoring the audio bottom line, and I was stuck. What to do? Wait, I guess.
And then a year or so later Rega announced the Planar 25, which only goes to prove that good things do come to those who wait.
For the last 20 years, the smartest $495 or $695 you could spend in high-end audio was on either a Rega Planar 2 turntable or its big brother, the Planar 3. The deck itself, an unsprung, unassuming but capable and well-built plinth/glass-platter combo was basically a giveaway when you factored in the quality of the arm Rega attached to it. The RB250 (on the P2) and RB300 (on the P3) differ primarily in the tolerance of their bearings and other minor features. The RB300, in particular, is one of those rare products that completely skews the price: performance ratio of an entire product category. And the RB300 is not just a favorite of those who buy the entire Rega package -- it's the most widely used OEM arm on the market, as well as being the darling of the after-market.
After years of owning the entry-level market, Rega decided to make a statement table, the Planar 9. The P9 keeps almost nothing from the P2 and the P3. The plinth is completely new, the motor is completely revised, and the platter is unique, both to Rega and in the industry. About the only area of commonality is the arm, but even there much is changed. The RB900 uses the same basic geometry, but upgrades the bearings, the tonearm cable, the finish, and uses a brand new mounting scheme (but one that still precludes VTA adjustments without the use of spacers). And at that price of $2795, the P9 also costs a lot more.
All of which brings us to the Planar 25. Named in honor of Regas silver anniversary, the P25 bridges the gap between the P3 and the P9. The plinth is quite similar to that used in the P9, while the platter is taken from the P3 (the platter on the P9 is reportedly 1/2 the total cost of that unit). The motor assembly, with two hand-adjusted pots (used to remove resonances from the motor) is a tweener, using ideas and the mounting location of the P9, but built on a P3 design. According to Steve Lauerman, the US Rega importer, the motor on the P25 gets about 80% of the performance of the P9s. Lastly, the arm, the RB600, is another tweener product. Using the same mounting scheme as the RB300, it sports upgraded bearings, a silver anodized finish and uses the same tonearm wire as the RB900. Best of all, at $1275, the P25 is an affordable step up from the P3.
Given that the P3 is such a great bargain, and that the P9 is a world-class deck for a lot less than its peers, should you care that the P25 exists? Absolutely. First, the P3 is a great table/arm combo, able to compete with other designs up to two and three times its price, but it is still a cost-constrained design. The arm is great, but the platter, the motor assembly and the plinth can all use work, as evidenced by the P9. And the P9 is an equally formidable table/arm combo in its price range, one that makes spending more than $2795 for a vinyl setup cause for a sanity check. The P9 delivers an easy 95% of what is possible at any price. But any bargain that requires spending almost $3000 to get can be hard to justify, at least to my wife. So (almost as if Rega cares about Robins priorities) what the P25 sets out to be is a table/arm combo that is still reasonably priced, and in their tradition of offering extreme value, one that both delivers a significant portion of the improvements of the P9 and attempts to set the standard for the price category. Do they succeed? Lets see.
The P25 takes about 15 minutes to un-box and set up. Factor in a similar time for cartridge mounting and general fussing, and in under 30 minutes, you have sound. And the sound you get is very good indeed.
Earlier I mentioned how moving from the NAD to the VPI had increased the detail, bass clarity and control of my vinyl sound while also becoming a bit more clinical. Well, going from that comparably priced setup ($695 for the VPI, $425 for the RB300, plus $100 for a dust cover -- for a total of $1220) to the P25, and using the same Dynavector cartridge, I was surprised at the amount of improvement I heard. The bass was a tad bit tighter, a slight bit deeper, but a lot more natural-sounding. For an example of what I mean, I play a lot of jazz on vinyl, especially late 50s and early 60s Blue Note stuff, and if the bass isnt right on a track, such as on Lee Morgans The Sidewinder [Blue Note BN 46137], you may as well turn the thing off and go to bed. It doesnt matter how much bite Morgans trumpet has, or how much bounce there is in Barry Harris piano lines and Joe Hendersons sax, or even how much swing Billy Higgins loads into his cymbals. If you cant feel Bob Crenshaw setting up that bottom-line action, you have nothing. With the VPI, I played this cut on occasion, but often found that putting on the CD got me groovin mo better. Not so with the P25 in the house. With it doing the spinning, I was a boogie fool, a dancin master, a full-blown groove-king. I know those arent exactly audiophile-approved descriptions, but when it feels this good, who cares about terminology?
OK, OK. Back on track now. The bass with the P25 is not so much a quantitative change over the VPI, but rather a qualitative one. While only a tiny bit fuller and deeper, the bass on every platter I played on the P25 was both more organically flowing and had a better sense of timing. John McVies bass on Fleetwood Macs Rumors [Warner Bros. BSK 3010] locks in better than when using the VPI, as does Paul Chambers on the Classic reissue of Kind Of Blue [Classic Records CLA 8163-2]. Orchestral foundations, blues bands, and rock all had a richer, fuller, more tuneful bottom end.
Moving on, the midrange has an enhanced sense of purity. The piano on George Winstons December [Windham Hill WH-1025], a mint copy I picked up at a thrift store for a buck, was so naturally and fully reproduced that to call it a reproduction borders on slander. Rather than placing Winston in my room, the P25/Dynavector combo took me to the recording venue, as it should. The same album also highlighted the improvements in the treble. The top register of the piano with this combo is cleaner than with the VPI/RB300. Actually, it was a lot cleaner, with decay so nuanced that it became a tactile and expressive part of the sonic picture.
Playing classical, full-orchestra performances highlighted the staging skills of the P25, which were, as I had now come to expect, a step beyond my old setup. Depth, detail and separation all had significant advances. But, and heres a point I seem to be making time and again, they did so in a more natural, less clinical manner than the VPI.
In all, the P25 is a better detail retriever, a more balanced music player and a cleaner-sounding table than my old standard. But the review doesnt end here. Being about 49% audiodweeb, I took the RB300 arm and mounted it on the P25, and put the RB600 on the VPI to try and ascertain how much of the gain I was hearing was due to the new plinth/motor combo, and how much was the result of the arm improvements.
Starting with the VPI/RB600 combo, what I heard was a modest step up from the old rig. Staging was improved somewhat, as was treble purity, but the bass was only slightly more natural, with none of the changes reaching the level of the full P25 setup. And while I would take an RB600 over an RB300 in a heartbeat, from this swap it is obvious that even an improved arm can only make so much a difference to a table.
With the RB300 on the P25, the bass timing was a bit less locked in, the stage shrunk, and the treble was slightly less pristine. But overall these changes were less troublesome than I imagined. In short, the RB300 did less to degrade the performance of the P25 than the RB600 did to improve the VPI. My conclusion then, is that the new plinth and motor assembly are both very effective and a very significant part of the sound of the P25. To place a number on it, Id guesstimate that the plinth and motor assembly added up to about 60% of the improvement in the P25s design, while the upgraded arm accounts for the rest of the sonic gain.
And performance anxiety
For a final comparison, I snagged a P9 from a gullible friend ("I only need it for a weekend," I said, knowing full well that it would be at least two weeks before he could track me down to get it back). The bad news is that as good as the P25 is, with everything that it does well, the P9 is better. The bass was, first, deeper, but also richer and even more natural. Mids were more tangible and vocals were projected with ease and grace, while the treble moves to that next level of realism. The stage displays fewer discrete layers and has more of a seamless flow from front to back and right to left. In short, your extra $1520 gets you a better table, as it should -- one that gets more detail out of the black platter and yet does it in an entirely natural and flowing manner.
The good news is that the table you get for a total of $1275 plays on the same field as the P9. While I dont have a P3 to use as a comparison, the P25 makes up at least 75% of the detail difference between the VPI/RB300 and the P9, and 90% of the musical difference, which add together to make it a bargain of the first rank. If the big Rega is the Ken Griffey, Jr. of turntables, a superb all-rounder and one that you should be able to build a world-championship system around, then the P25 is an Andruw Jones: not an all-timer, but an all-star who is a great team player and will raise the caliber of your team -- ah, system. Best of all, moving from the P9 to the P25, while dropping a bit of detail, lets you keep all the music.
The LPs now number close to 500, while the CD collection is just about to hit 2000. Still, about 40% of my listening is with the P25. One reason is that the LP collection has some items that arent available on any other source, like the Buckingham Nicks album [Polydor PD 5058]. Another is that vinyl is a cheap way to experiment with unfamiliar music, albeit of an older variety. I routinely pick up stuff at little risk for a buck or so, either because I like the cover (12" cover are so cool), or because I always wondered what so-and-so sounded like. But the most important reason I listen to the P25 so often is that it recreates music, not just sound. When I play Boz Scaggss "Loan Me a Dime," from his self-titled, debut album [Atlantic SD 19166], what comes out is 100% music. That is the highest compliment I can pay any audio component. And while the P25 isnt perfect, it is so good for $1275 that the entry-level price makes it even more of a steal. If you like music and analog, I simply cant recommend this table enough.
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