Analog Corner #88

I got into one of my snits this morning while reading the "Circuits" section of the New York Times. Michel Marriott was heralding the introduction of yet another portable music format, DataPlay. Each encased DataPlay disc, about the size of a quarter, can hold 500MB vs CD's 650MB. Prerecorded discs will sell for between $18 and $22, blanks for $5, and the first player-burner for $350!

I yucked so hard that coffee got up my nose when I read that DataPlay will be aimed initially at kids, with albums by Britney Spears, 'N Synch, Pink, and Usher being among the first releases. Label support is coming from BMG, UNI, and EMI, though a daring BMG executive went out on a limb to say, "I don't think the CD is going away anytime soon." DataPlay is liked by the labels, the story said, because it's a secure medium.

What have these guys been smoking? Where can I get some? The vice president for marketing and business development for DataPlay summed it up best when he said, "Money is what ends up driving everything." What I want to know is, who's driving these clowns to the unemployment office?

But it wasn't the launch that ticked me off, but the Times's description of DataPlay's sound quality as "comparable" to that of CD. One writer has a habit of writing that MP3 sound is "CD quality," and despite numerous e-mails from me to the "Circuits" editor, he's still making the claim. This time I sent an e-mail suggesting that perhaps the New York Post (good mostly for cat litter) is "comparable" to the New York Times, since both are printed on the same stock.

I went on to read that CD, which has rendered the LP "practically threatens the same fate for cassette tape" [and that CD sales surpassed those of prerecorded cassette several years ago—Ed.]. Never mind that LPs outsold cassettes last year in the UK. Then, at the top of the page, I spotted a timeline that began with Edison and ended with DataPlay. The 331/3rpm disc was introduced in 1928, it claimed. Actually, RCA did introduce a 331/3 record in 1932, but pulled it a year later because it was a technological disaster. As we all know, the real introduction of the LP was in 1948, by a development team headed by Peter Goldmark at CBS. I sent an e-mail to the corrections editor of the Times, but a correction never appeared. I guess some facts aren't fit to print.

The "Circuits" article ended up with a sour cherry on top, in the form of quotes from Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff, who recently predicted that digital-music downloading would be a $2 billion business by 2006. In an e-mail to Bernoff, I bet the left half of one of my most treasured anatomical resources that it wouldn't happen. In this article, the soothsayer predicted that the "era of discs of any kind...may be coming to a close." Right, and the Internet will spell the death of bricks-and-mortar stores, and e-books will end publishing as we know it. "So much wanking," I scolded the writer in another e-mail, "but I guess that's what you get paid for."

A Listen to Rega's New P9 turntable
Have you ever, while on a trip, rented the basic model of the car you own and been shocked at the differences in handling and fit'n'finish between it and what's in your garage? They're two different cars under the same skin. I got behind the wheel of a 250hp Saab Aero wagon, and the differences in performance between it and my light turbo model were profound.

Keep this analogy in mind as you consider Rega's new P9 turntable. It might look like a P25 ($1200), but the new P9 ($3500) is an entirely different animal. Consider: The plinth is an enclosed skeletal structure of ultra-lightweight, ultra-rigid, laminated phenolic resin—a step up from what was used in the previous P9, and worlds apart from what's used in the P25 and other Rega 'tables. Rega claims the plinth alone costs more than the entire P25. The ceramic platter is made of compressed and fired oxide powder—one of the hardest substances known—diamond-ground precisely to size .

The drive bearing and hub assembly, with twin O-rings, is a big step up compared to what's used in other Rega, though Rega's claim that the twin-belt design means one belt's small inaccuracies cancel out the other's doesn't compute with me. There are three precision-machined raised areas on the top plate, on which the platter rests.

The 24V twin-phase synchronous motor is shielded with Mu-metal, fitted with a CNC-machined pulley, and driven by a handsome new quartz-crystal-locked power supply. This outboard supply contains 3 and 4MHz reference oscillators (331/3 and 45rpm) that drive high-current, low-distortion (±0.03%) FETs. Because the motor is dual-phase, each power supply can be trimmed by Rega to vary the phase, thus eliminating motor vibration. I saw at the factory how this is accomplished, and it works, eliminating the need to mount the motor outboard, or to fit the 'table with a suspension (at least for motor-noise suppression). Even the surround, offered in a choice of exotic woods (which can easily be changed), has been visually upgraded and made larger, but thanks to CNC woodworking machinery, it is actually lower in mass than the old one.

While the new RB1000 arm superficially resembles the P600 and RB300, it's said to take 30 times longer to build and, Rega claims, represents the single greatest change in Rega tonearm design in more than 20 years. Only two technicians at Rega are skilled enough to build the arm, which features new bearing assemblies, wiring (finally, I believe, without breaks from cartridge pins to RCA plugs), and other materials. While the new arm shares the P900's three-point mounting system, the entire assembly is now made of stainless steel. The arm's mass is reduced by forgoing any kind of coating on the cast aluminum. This is one of the big differences between Rega tonearms and most other arms now made. Back when analog was king, Rega bet the farm on this casting technique, a tooling-up whose cost today would be prohibitive, given the smaller number of arms sold. The advantages in terms of rigidity of the one-piece casting can't be overestimated. Rega has sold well over 250,000 arms so far. I think they've made back their money.

All of this makes the P9 compact, super-rigid, meticulously built, and definitely not for tweakers. While you can get spacers that will allow some VTA adjustability while retaining rigidity, if you like to play with VTA, this will not be the combo for you.

I'm no tweaker, believe it or not. I go crazy when VTA is way off, but once I find that sweet spot on a 180gm record, I find it's good enough for 150gm vinyl, 200gm, or however thick or thin my records are. If you insist on making micro-VTA changes, rule out the Rega, but you'll be missing one of the tightest, fastest, quietest analog rides out there at any price. The P9 is not just an overpriced P25, but an outstanding value in terms of parts, labor, and, especially, sound.

I listened first with the supplied $595 Rega Exact cartridge. This high-output (ca 7mV) moving-magnet design has a non-removable cantilever and a Vital stylus; ie, a "fine-line" shape (I couldn't ascertain the precise dimensions) micro-ground from a rectangular diamond. The coils are hand-wound on Rega's proprietary machines, and each cartridge is handbuilt and tested twice, the tests run 24 hours apart.

Except for its so-so bass control, the Exact is a musical, reasonably detailed cartridge. It produced a pleasing and coherent musical picture, but overall it couldn't compete with the better moving-coils at the same price—the Ortofon Kontrapunkt A, for instance—when it came to the resolution of low-level detail, transient speed, and rhythmic snap. Still, the Exact was easy to like, and, with its high output and three-point mounting system, easy to use. Depending on your musical tastes and system sound, it might just fit the bill until you can step smartly upscale.

This was the first opportunity I had to use the Alesis Masterlink hi-rez digital recorder as a reviewing tool, and it was instructive to compare, in real time, the P9 with the Exact and the P9 with the Transfiguration Spirit Mk.3. The Spirit Mk.3 ($1600) was clearly faster, airier, and more detailed, and its bass tighter, more articulate, and revealing. Not surprising, given the difference in price, but the comparison indicated that the Exact was the limiting factor.

After making recordings using the Spirit, then the Temper Supreme and the Helikon, I believe the P9 is good enough to be used with the best cartridges out there—as long as the proper VTA can be accommodated. (Hardly surprising, given the quality of the bearings, the claimed care of assembly, and the super-rigidity of the mount and the cast arm itself.) The choice of spacers should do the job for most cartridges. If you insist on variable VTA on the fly, you're not buying the P9 anyway. Only a top cartridge will let you know how great this turntable is.

Can you get really deep bass from a small, light turntable like the P9? Of course! I used my usual bass suspects, which I won't repeat here to save valuable space, and the P9 was up to the task. It packed a wallop in terms of low-frequency extension and dynamic slam, but, just as important, it had superb low-end focus and control. That gave it the relaxing sense of musical "grip" needed for long-term listening comfort.

Airy, easy, open, and light on its feet, the P9 is a Class A turntable all the way. And, unlike some of the lower-priced Regas, it didn't run slightly fast—my sample was right on the money at both speeds, which I verified with Clearaudio's neat Stroboscopic Test Record (ca $40). This disc has modulated grooves for cartridge break-in and to account for stylus drag. One side is calibrated for 50 and 60Hz illumination, the other for a special ultra-accurate 300Hz quartz light source Clearaudio sells for around $100.

Direct comparisons between the Rega P9 and the VPI Aries extended with JMW 12.5 Memorial tonearm were instructive (I used the Helikon SL cartridge). The P9 was faster, tighter, better focused. The Aries was more extended, sounding more lush and rich, and with larger, somewhat more diffuse images and a bigger overall picture, but at the expense of focus and snap. I A/B'd the title track of Willie Nelson's Stardust (Columbia/Classic JC 35305), and the differences were clear: more "pluck" and definition to the nylon-stringed guitar, more snap to the snare, and better spatial definition and organization to Booker T.'s organ fills. A familiar story. I can't say that one sound is better than the other—it's a matter of taste and associated gear. But I think Harry Weisfeld is starting to pay more attention to the rigidity issue and the difference it can make.

The compact P9 is like a Porsche, the big Aries Extended with JMW 12.5 more like a Lincoln Continental. If you opt for the P9, chuck the dumb felt platter pad and, if your VTA needs allow, replace it with the better-sounding Ringmat. The felt mat isn't just a dust sponge, it can be dangerous—it can cling to a record as you lift it off the platter, then slide sideways into the cantilever. Also, don't believe Rega's silly claim that LPs don't need cleaning, and that the stylus will just push the dust aside. I once tried that at Rega founder Roy Gandy's home, with a moderately dusty used LP I'd bought at the UK's Beano's record store and halfway through, so much dust had accumulated on the stylus that it lifted out of the groove and slid across the record's surface.

The Aries Extended/JMW 12.5 Combo Revisited
After reading in the March "Analog Corner" about the problem I had with motor-noise transmission in his Aries Extended turntable, VPI's Harry Weisfeld sent me different rubber feet for the motor and four new cones to replace the original ones. The original feet included a rubber damping insert that can't offer much in the way of genuine isolation, given what must be the relatively hard rubber's high resonant frequency—especially when compressed by the weight of the plinth. The insert also permitted horizontal plinth movement, which, even on the micro level, might vary the distance from pulley to platter—and that can't be good.

When I removed the old feet, I was surprised by what the rubber dampers appeared to be: automobile tail-pipe hangers, or something originally designed for a similar use. Nothing wrong with that kind of ingenuity if it works as promised, but I found that, without the inserts and with the new motor feet, the motor noise diminished and the 'table's overall sound seemed to tighten and exhibit better focus. My advice for tighter sound from your Aries is to chuck the rubber insert and replace it with a threaded rod, which you should be able to find at a good hardware store.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel, Classic 200gm Quiex SV LP
2) Count Basie, 88 Basie Street, Analogue Productions 180gm LP
3) Alison Krauss, Forget About It, Diverse 180gm LP (test pressing)
4) Van Morrison, Down the Road, Exile (UK) 180gm LPs (2)
5) Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis, 4 Men With Beards 180gm LP
6) Lovin' Spoonful, Do You Believe in Magic?, Sundazed 180gm LP
7) Jo;tao Gilberto, Chega de Saudade, Odeon Brasil 180gm LP
8) The White Stripes, White Blood Cells, XL (UK) 120gm red vinyl LP
9) Gomez, In Our Gun, Hut (UK) 180gm LPs (2)
10) Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pendulum, Acoustic Sounds 180gm LP

alucas's picture

is it me or did i detect that your not pulling any punches on these reviews. i like reading straight forward reviews and i don't have to read between the lines. thanks!

Lazer's picture

Its refreshing to read honest and intelligent reviews. I’m considering so many turntables in that price range, it makes my head spin. The P9 is now a must listen.

Lazer's picture

The Technics 1200G sounds amazing at a slightly higher price. The VPI Signature also has good reviews. Deciding is half the the meantime, I’ll listen to awesome music on my vintage AR XA. But I want to upgrade.

Tom L's picture

These reviews are from 2002.
Prices, competitive products etc. will have changed.

vinyl_ninja's picture

Yikes. Mike's loyal readers hot-keyed into sycophant mode over a sixteen year old re-run. Rich.

Lazer's picture

I was reeled was an old review.... kind of embarrassing I didn’t realize that but I love this hobby....listening to great sound and trying to find better sound is lots of fun.

Lazer's picture

I forget these are from the past. LOL.

criolf's picture

Can they be re-listed here? It's been a while, so maybe even an update? And, as others have pointed out too, it's a delight to go through these articles after all these years. Interesting times...

Slammintone's picture

So Michael, do you still shoot for the sweet spot VTA settings on a 180gr record and find that it still works for all other thickness/weight records?
Thank you!