Analog Corner #44

Rega's $1275 Planar 25 turntable/tonearm combo

(Originally published in Stereophile, March 12th, 1999)

I literally dropped everything when Rega's new Planar 25 turntable arrived a few weeks ago. I'd heard the 'table compared with the Planar 3 at designer Roy Gandy's house when I visited Rega last fall—see "Analog Corner" in the January '99 Stereophile—and was anxious to audition it in my own system and tell you what I heard.

In analog, it's the little things that count—hardly news to toilers and tweakers in the vinyl underground—and Rega's upgrade of the basic Planar 3 design to the Planar 25 can only be described as visibly "small." But the sonic improvements I heard during my first encounter with the $1275 arm/'table combo were audibly big.

What Rega has done here is give you a large measure of the Planar 9's performance (see review in Stereophile, August 1997, Vol.20 No.8) for less than half the price. How? One of the keys to the 9's sound is its outboard power supply, housed in a sumptuous cast-aluminum chassis. The supply drives the twin-phase synchronous motor via quartz oscillators (one for each speed) and high-current FET-based amplifiers. The supply trims the phases, virtually eliminating motor resonances. When I visited Rega, I held a motor in my hand while a technician adjusted the pots until it felt as if it had stopped spinning—that's how effective the circuit is.

Obviously, this alone improves speed accuracy. More important, it allows the motor to be hard-mounted directly to the plinth. On the Rega 3, the motor must be suspended to (one hopes) prevent vibrations from reaching the platter and tonearm. The problem with suspending the motor is that any movement relative to the platter changes belt tension, which changes speed. Since the motor is always vibrating, the speed is always changing. While the changes are not perceptible as shifts in pitch or any other gross form of speed error, astute analog observers have long noted that these minute shifts cause a hardening and brightening of any turntable's sound.

This is one reason why direct-drive, phase-locked-loop turntables, while measuring virtually "perfect" (and thus declared so by the measurement-happy mainstream audio press, back when it covered analog), almost always sound brighter and harder than belt-drive turntables. The speed can never be spot on, so the loop "hunts and pecks" for perfection, overcompensating and undercompensating as it goes, thus creating the minute speed variations that cause brightness. [The frequency of the servo's hunting'n'pecking was often around 3–5kHz, the region where the ear is most sensitive.—Ed.]

In the case of the Planar 3, good as it is, the suspended motor causes a similar problem. A hard-mounted, vibration-free motor is one reason the Planar 9's sound simply overwhelms the 3's in terms of liquidity, focus, and harmonic richness, even though so much of the basic system is the same. Unfortunately, the cost of the electronic drive used on the 9 makes it impossible to use on a budget 'table like the $1275 25.

Rega's chief electronics designer, Terry Bateman, was responsible for the 9's drive circuit, and he set about finding a less expensive way of achieving the same result in the 25. He couldn't, finally, but he did manage to come up with an inexpensive, ingenious, and compact circuit that accomplishes a great deal of what the 9's supply does in terms of vibration control. The circuit is small enough to fit in the motor housing under the plinth, and, more important, is effective enough to allow the motor to be hard-mounted.

This development led to the idea of releasing a new turntable to celebrate Rega's 25th year. With the drive upgrade in place and a retail price targeted, Rega looked for other ways to bring the 9's performance to the analog masses. A new tonearm was fashioned, the RB600—essentially the RB300, but wired with the RB900's low-capacitance Klotz GY 107 cable and Neutrik RCA plugs. The look is sexier than the RB300's black powdercoat: glossy clearcoat over silver-anodized finish, with the high-density tungsten counterweight used on the 900. The 600 uses the 300's threaded-pipe mounting system and high-quality pre-loaded bearings. The 900 features ultra-high-tolerance bearings and a more rigid, antiresonant, three-point mount of stainless steel.

The Planar 25 and Planar 9 share the same thin, light, but very rigid plinth of chipboard and phenolic laminate, and the same attractive wooden frame (available in various finishes), which attaches via three standoffs. The 25 sports the same three hollow-rubber feet (tuned to slightly different frequencies) used on all Rega turntables.

The 9 uses a drive hub of extremely hard, exquisitely machined and polished vanadium with dual $wO-rings, and a high-density, ultrarigid ceramic-oxide platter that takes three weeks to make. The 25 is fitted with the 3's plastic drive hub, single $wO-ring, and glass platter. All Rega 'tables are topped by a felt mat.

Analog's Shifting Sands
Back when I reviewed the Planar 9, I was skeptical about its hard, ringy platter and thin, low-mass plinth. I was convinced that damping, and lots of it, was the key to low coloration and the accurate retrieval of information. I couldn't understand why Roy Gandy would go to all that trouble to produce an ultrahard ceramic platter that rang when tapped.

Well, the 9's dynamic, rhythmically lithe performance turned my head. The Simon Yorke's snapped it off. The Yorke's platter—24 lbs of (mostly) nonmagnetic austenitic stainless steel—also rings when struck. And the armboard, made of a light, rigid wood laminate, also seems to be the opposite of what's needed.

But hearing is believing. Both products produce a fast, clean, harmonically convincing, exceedingly well-organized sound. Instead of damping resonances, these turntables (and other products, such as Black Diamond Racing cones and shelves) use stiffness to raise their resonant frequency. The higher that frequency, the more quickly the energy can dissipate. Both damping and quick dissipation can work effectively; many great examples of both can be found throughout high-end audio.

The Planar 25 steps out in style
Setup of the Planar 25 is the same as with other Rega 'tables: fast and easy. Since you can't adjust azimuth or VTA, once you've set overhang and antiskating you're ready to play records. A few days after the Planar 25 arrived, a small box bearing Grado's new Statement phono cartridge arrived. This $2600 wooden-bodied cartridge has the lowest output of any Grado in recent memory, if not ever: 700µV. I installed it in the Planar 25 and attached the Neutrik connectors to the Lehmann Black Cube set for MC (61dB) gain, loaded at 47k ohms.

The height of the new Grado, like that of the others in the wooden-body line, puts the arm below parallel to the record surface, but not severely so. As Roy Gandy loves to point out (or rub in, depending on your perspective), you have to dramatically alter the pivot height to make small changes in VTA. Though the arm is clearly not parallel to the record surface when you look at the cartridge body alone, you might think that it is.

I put the Planar 25 on the top shelf of a Zoethecus stand fitted with a constrained-layer-damped Z-Slab and thought about what records to spin. What a painful job! Staring me in the face was a new MoFi gold CD of Squeeze's great East Side Story. I sat down and played it on Naim's CDX HDCD player fitted with the optional outboard power supply (currently under review).

MoFi's transfer, using its new Gain 2 mastering chain, is really outstanding: immediate, dynamic, three-dimensional, and highly resolved on top. In other words, very "analog-like." The recording, by Roger Bechirian, Elvis Costello co-producing, is especially honest for a rock recording, and does justice to the great octave singing duo of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, who also wrote most of the tunes.

The gold CD has tremendous bass clarity and authority—especially the kick drum—and the cymbals ring, shimmer, and decay impressively. Since there's not a bad tune on the disc, I listened straight through.

Then I switched to the LP. Granted, I have an original British A&M pressing—a "Porky Prime Cut." This means it was mastered by George Peckham, one of the greatest rock mastering engineers of the analog era. (Look for "Another Porky Prime Cut" or "Pecko Duck" in the leadout-groove area.) It sounds much better than the American A&M version, but the difference, good as the MoFi gold CD is, was remarkable. The LP on the new Rega resolves much more detail, and while the CD was impressive on top, the shimmer and ring of the cymbals were far more real on the LP.

No point in further hammering CDs in a turntable review. What you probably really want to know is how much better the Planar 25 is than the 3, and how much better the 9 is than the 25. To determine that, I had to (reluctantly) remove the Grado—which, based on limited listening on the Planar 25 and through a $699 phono section, convinces me that it is among the finest cartridges I've ever heard at any price—and switch to more familiar transducers.

I tried the Clavis D.C., the Transfiguration Temper, the Grado Reference, and the $595 Rega Exact. I also substituted the Ringmat for Rega's supplied felt mat, and put inexpensive but extremely effective Vibrapods under the Planar 25's rubber feet. (To keep the 'table level, you need to put an unnumbered pod under the right front foot, a #2 under the left front foot, and a #5 under the rear foot, where the motor is.) Toward the end of the evaluation, I received a Paulson isolation stand, which uses monofilament to create a spring suspension between two platforms. But I didn't have it long enough to draw any meaningful conclusions about its benefit under the Rega.

The Planar 25 is worthy of the finest cartridges in the world, though you can't adjust VTA without using spacers, or one of the many VTA adjustment add-on devices on the market. Even without optimizing VTA, the Planar 25 offered far richer, more refined sound than the 3, with a smoother, more graceful, and far more transparent midband; deeper, better-controlled bass; and pristine high frequencies.

Like the 9, the Planar 25 produced the kind of deep, tight, authoritative bass and rich, buttery highs I usually associate with far more expensive 'tables. And like the 9, the Planar 25 had the snappy, focused rhythmic decisiveness found on the better turntables.

The 3 sounded somewhat hard and thin compared to the Planar 25, and couldn't control wide dynamic swings nearly as well. At less than twice the price, the 25 is way more than twice as good as the 3. If I owned a 3, I'd trade up to the Planar 25 in a minute. And while the 9 is, as I remember, somewhat more refined, I don't think it's worth the extra $1600 or so. You're better off investing in a higher-quality cartridge and putting it on the Planar 25.

The Planar 25 is a fitting tribute to Rega's 25-year legacy of producing great audio gear at reasonable prices. If you're in the market for a new turntable, you ought to hear it before you buy one at any price. It's an incredible value, and a fine performer.

Well, there you go again
A few weeks ago, Jon Pareles, pop-music critic for the New York Times, wrote a front-page article in the Sunday "Arts & Leisure" section about the new phenomenon of downloading music off of the Internet. It was a long, detailed, thoughtful essay about the sociopolitical, cultural, and business implications of the new means of music distribution. Amazingly, however, Pareles devoted but one sentence to the issue of the sound quality of MP3-compressed music.

MP3 (MPEG 1 or 2, Layer 3) doesn't sound particularly good. In fact, it's awful—hardly high-fidelity—but the technology is in its infancy, and the possibilities are exciting, especially for discovering new music. Here is my (edited) response, which the Times published a few weeks later: "To the Editor, the New York Times: "Mr. Pareles, incredibly, devotes but one sentence to the critical issue of sound quality. Worse, that sentence—'But digital copies are indistinguishable from originals.'—is essentially meaningless.

"Does Mr. Pareles really believe that a downloaded and severely compressed MPEG3 copy of a 16-bit, 44.1kHz CD sounds 'indistinguishable' from the original?

"At a time when there's hope for a better-sounding and long-overdue high-resolution digital audio format, the last thing we need are uninformed, uncritical discussions of miserable-sounding, though perhaps more convenient, music carriers.

"Given the primitive state of today's Internet technology, the 'fast food' approach to music distribution does a disservice to the music, the musicians, and the public."

It was a relief seeing those words in print, but a few weeks later, "Circuits," the technology section of the Times, was at it again. Peter Lewis, who writes a column called "State of the Art," waxed rhapsodic about the Diamond Rio PMP300—a portable player for downloaded music stored in memory. Lewis wrote, "MP3 allows big audio files to be condensed to about one-tenth their size without significantly harming the music quality."

Yeah, right.

In the same section, Pareles wrote about the sound of files downloaded to his Rio: "They sounded at least as full-bodied as a cassette on a Walkman." Whatever that means.

Before I tell you what happened next, you need some background: I wrote a column on vinyl for "Circuits" last year, and another one on computer loudspeakers. I compared systems from Bose, Cambridge SoundWorks, Altec-Lansing, and Eminent Technology. The Cambridge, at half the Bose's price, sounded twice as good. The Eminent, at the same price as the Bose but without amplification, sounded best.

After that, the editor with whom I'd worked would answer none of my e-mail pitches. Could it have been something I wrote? Finally, after sending a series of pestering e-mails, I got a response. I was told that the section was going to steer clear of audio. Fair enough.

So when I read that Diamond Rio stuff, I flipped. Reading a computer writer tossing off the sound issue in one sentence was infuriating. And reading Pareles—a fine music reviewer who almost never mentions sound—doing the same had me e-mailing the "Circuits" editor in a hot flash. There was no point in writing a letter to the editor; the last time I'd tried that, I was told that NYT policy was to not publish contributors' letters.

Now, for your laughing and retching pleasure, comes the full exchange between me and "Circuits." First, my personal e-mail to the editor I'd worked with on the previous two pieces: "On what basis is Peter Lewis qualified to make the statement 'MPEG3 allows big audio files to be condensed to about one-tenth their size without significantly harming the music quality'? Is he an experienced critical listener? A former audio writer and/or reviewer? What? Or did he simply regurgitate a press release?

"This is like having a backpacker write a column in the food section of the Times which states that 'Freeze-drying manages to reduce sushi to a lightweight powder without significantly affecting the taste and texture.' It wouldn't happen! because it is absurd on its face, gourmets would blow their tops, and the credibility of the food section would be called into question for printing such a statement from an unqualified source.

"Nothing personal against Mr. Lewis, but is this kind of unsubstantiated, uncritical statement the current 'state of the art' in New York Times journalism? It is simply absurd to have 'computer people' covering this subject from anything but a technical point of view. At least Pareles doesn't claim the sound quality rises above the level of a 'Walkman cassette' in his piece. Given that there are very-high-quality, good-sounding Walkmen and awful ones, I'm not sure what his statement really means, but at least he's not claiming 'CD quality' for the freeze-dried format. Having spent 20 years as an audio reviewer, I am particularly galled by the usurpation of my field by computer writers who, for the most part, don't know what they are talking about when they delve into this field. I haven't suddenly started reviewing computers; they should not be reviewing sound just because it is coming from a computer.

"If you would like an informed piece on the sound of MPEG3, I'd be happy to write it for you, or if you'd like the names of ten other audio writers who are qualified to do so, I'd be happy to pass their e-mail addresses on to you.

"I realize my tone is snappy here, but I see what's coming: the 'dumbing down' of sound—tasteless, fast-food sound parading as 'state of the art' popularized by computer writers who are cheerleading on a subject they know little about. My job is to try and stop it."

Here's the response I got from Jim Gorman, editor of "Circuits'': "If you'd like, I'll pass this along to Pete Lewis, to whom your remarks really seem to be addressed. I think you should tell him directly what you think and I'm confident he would respond to you. Jon Pareles, one of the Times music critics, concurred in his conclusions, as you may have read, and perhaps you would like to write him as well. We would also publish a letter from you, if you like, although shorter and less insulting. As to your offer to write an article for us, I have no interest in writers whose idea of a story pitch is, 'Your writer did an awful job, why don't you have me do it?' If you feel there is a correctable error in this or any other piece we publish, please call it to our attention and we will consider whether a correction is needed."

Moi insulting? I wouldn't take back a word. Here's part of my response: "I don't think I insulted Peter Lewis by writing what I wrote—any more than I would feel insulted had Lewis—an expert on computers—written to criticize an article I'd written on PCs which dealt with a serious technological issue with a one-sentence glib statement.

"As for my 'insulting' tone, why shouldn't I be 'insulted' to read computer writers who are not qualified to write about sound doing so on the front page of a section of the New York Times? I guess I was, and I guess it set me off, so for that I apologize.

"I am also an editor, and I understand your instinct to protect your writers, but I believe your first obligation is to serve your readers, and I don't believe what was in today's 'Circuits' section regarding MPEG3 does that.

"What was written today doesn't need a 'correction.' It needs an article explaining the subject. If you can devote a full-length article to elevator technology, I cannot understand why the latest technology relating to music reproduction gets two not particularly well-informed sentences on the subject—and that's not insulting, it's the truth!

"If my letter to you so poisoned my relationship with 'Circuits,' so be it, but please get someone to write about this before a commercial technology that seriously degrades recorded sound gets swallowed whole by a public that depends upon the New York Times to be authoritative. You owe your readers that.

"Truly, I wish you happy holidays—even if I sound like a nasty guy. I'm not. I'm just very passionate about sound."

Every Stereophile reader should understand what we face: a future world in which computers are the center of everything, from watching movies to listening to music. The shots will be called not by audio and video designers, but by computer techie geeks. Why? Because they'll have usurped the power to do so. They already are beginning to. As Lewis states in his piece on Rio, "so there's a lot of pent-up demand for it among MP3 fans, especially young people who are already using computers as alternatives to dorm-room stereos."

No one covers audio for the New York Times anymore. As far as the Times is concerned, everything that needs to be said has been. Dozens of Times writers cover computers and the Internet. Can you say "oblivion''? We may be headed there, but I'm gonna go fighting the whole way!

Billf's picture

I see these Analog Corner items as the equivalent of album filler and just move up the tonearm or skip forward to the next track. Sitting on the shelf, already written, just itching for a cut-n-paste here. Do I really care what Mikey thought of a then-new turntable 14 years ago? Uh, no. Same for his contemporaneous reviews of ridiculously priced new equipment. The dearth of comments to these suggests that others may share my views. Please just play the new wax and tell us what you think so we can decide whether to buy it. That's why I keep coming back here, not to educate myself about some new tone arm made of driftwood found only on a beach in Venezuela that costs more than my car. Thanks.

tbeavan's picture

I read the review with no small amount of interest.  A used Rega P25 would be a great option for someone on a budget--between $700-800 or even less from what I've seen, certainly not exclusive or insanely expensive!  And if you find yourself a nice used one it'll probably outperform anything new that can be had for the same price or even more money.  Maybe it wouldn't hurt if Michael posted a little "post-game analysis" for these old articles more often?

I'd also point out his latest cartridge comparison includes some very affordable stuff including a $40 Audio Technica.  Again not exclusive or unaffordable, these days $40 is (unfortunately?) just one tank of gas in my car....

Having said all that, I also enjoy reading about the stuff I can't afford--I'll probably never own a $125000 turntable and doubt I'll have one that's 1/10th that amount, but I can dream.  And thanks to Michael's efforts in creating those sound files, now I can at least get an idea of how a Continuum really sounds!

Finally, if you don't want to read the article it's not like you have to get up and cue the tonearm, it's more like the amount of effort of grabbing your remote and clicking your CD player's "Next" button--or scrolling!

Kevin Ray's picture

I love my P25!

marmaduke's picture

I for one believe this site has a nice balance of articles to satisfy the curiousity/interest of most analog devotees whether it be gear, albums, events or Mr. Fremer, being well, Mr. Fremer.

Should I not find an item to be of  interest, I move on.  It is really no bother.

As for dearth of comments, I have viewed or read most of the articles posted here and have only commented upon two or three tops.

Lack of comments does not mean lack of interest.  Perhaps Mr. Billf is too young to have heard the phrase 'silent majority'.  Different context, same meaning perhaps.

The sound of contentment is but a sigh. 

l5chambre's picture

Well folks need more data than 'this is a 6, that's an 8'; we want to possibly prepare ourselves for the purchase experience? Besides the mag or website would be too thin or short?

nogan's picture

I enjoy everything this website has to offer. Even if it's super high end gear or old articles I always learn something. Thanks Michael for sharing your knowledge/ experience with the masses.

Brother John's picture

I upgraded my Rega P25 with a Groovetracer aluminum subplattter and acrylic platter last year and have been in analog nirvana ever since. It lowered my TT's noise floor so much that I now hear tons of Info I never heard before on 20 year old records. Bass and dynamics are huge on recordings where they exist. Vocals seem to have a richer tone quality that I hadn't experienced before and I hear lots more presence and decay on many records. The overall sound is more involving which leads me to longer listening sessions. I suspect the P25's speed is also more accurate but have no proof since I have no strobe in my possession.  I must however say It doesn't quite sound like a Rega table anymore. It's sort of a cross between an older VPI model and British turntable if that makes any sense. I don't hear any negatives but still want upgrade to something even more resolute. I've got the audiophile bug.