Twenty-five years ago, I made one of the most significant system upgrades I've experienced in audio. I replaced my sexy Philips 212 turntable and highly-regarded Denon 103D moving coil cartridge with a rather plain Rega Planar 2 table and Grace F9E moving-magnet cartridge. Coupled with original Quads and modest tube electronics, that system caused many a jaw to drop. After several years, I moved on to more costly components, but dollar-for-dollar, that Rega-based system gave me more sheer musical enjoyment than just about anything since. When I was asked to r e v i e w Rega's new P5 turntable system, I wondered if it, too, would produce a similar effect.
Well, this thoroughly designed system solution, including the P5 table, RB700 tonearm, and Rega Exact cartridge, is one of the most musical front-ends I've heard at anywhere near its modest price. By effectively dealing with "bad vibrations," the P5 lets the music shine through, producing a surprisingly engaging, and natural sounding result. The Rega P5 is as close to a "set it and forget it" analog front-end as you're likely to find, and its absence of "groove noise" is astonishing. I prefer its overall musicality to just about any digital system I have heard, as well as to several more expensive analog rigs.
Using the Rega P5 can be quite a liberating experience. Since selling my Rega Planar 2 years ago, I have admittedly become much more obsessive about things like c a r t r i d g e VTA, turntable suspensions and/or isolation, record cleaning, and more. However, Rega founder Roy Gandy's design takes most of the worry out of setting up and using an analog front-end. My P5 came with the cartridge already mounted on the arm, so all I needed to do was put on the glass platter and the tonearm counterweight, adjust the tracking force and anti-skate, and connect the power to the table. It takes minutes—just a little longer than the commercial break on late-night television. With this combo, there's no need to worry about fiddling with cartridge VTA, or with isolating the table with a mass-loaded stand (a light weight, but rigid, end table works great), or buying a record clamp (not recommended). Instead of my timeconsuming record cleaning regimen, Roy suggests putting a new record directly on the platter, closing the dustcover, and letting the music flow. It's as close to instant gratification with analog as you're likely to get.
Overcoming years of "programming," I listened to a stack of new jazz reissues on the P5 without cleaning them first. Do you know what? I was stunned at how much more I was drawn into the music with the P5 than with the digital players I've reviewed lately. The musical timbre of the saxophones of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, and Sonny Rollins all sounded life-like and natural. The record surfaces were eerily quiet. I went through one record after another with hardly a pause. Although I had planned on listening to just one track per record, I found myself listening to both sides of each album! It reminded me of the "good old days," when I would listen for hours on end with my Rega Planar 2, but the sound through this Rega was much more refined, with more detail, clarity, transient speed, bass extension, and so on.
What's the secret to the Rega P5's outstanding musicality? Roy Gandy and his team at Rega have taken a systems approach to keep structural resonances from interfering with the vibration of the stylus wiggling in the record grove and blurring the transmission of musical information. They also obviously do a lot of listening. To dramatically reduce structural vibrations, there are as few joints as possible between the stylus tip and the P5's connection to the preamplifier. Additionally, the three-point mounting and flat top of Rega cartridges allow them to be rigidly affixed to the tonearm, and the new RB700 arm mounts to the plinth using a similar three-point arrangement. Roy believes these structural elements make far more of a sonic difference than small and "futile" VTA adjustments, and that a light-weight but rigid plinth that quickly dissipates energy is far preferable to a massive one that stores it. I hate to admit it, but he may be right.
Compared with my friend's Rega Planar 3, the P5 was quieter, had tighter and deeper bass, a more threedimensional soundstage, and better highs. Don't get me wrong, the entry level Rega table is quite the bargain, but the P5 is noticeably superior and well worth the additional cost. Although I didn't have the P5's predecessor, the Rega P25, on hand for comparison, the P5 offers several significant improvements to minimize or dissipate spurious vibrations still further, including a 24-volt motor, a smaller, lighter, and less resonant plinth, and an optional external power supply. Perhaps the biggest difference between them is the new RB700 tonearm. It offers higher quality bearings with tighter tolerances than the RB600, as well as the three-point arm mount, instead of the previous lug-nut solution, to increase rigidity and reduce unwanted stress on the plinth and related vibrations. With its high quality, hand-tuned bearings, the RB700 arm is quite impressive, reminding me of arms I've owned costing far more. Others might charge in excess of $1295 for an arm of this caliber, but Rega includes a great table, too, for that price.
Exact-ing Bass Extension
Since it's not a moving coil, I thought the Rega Exact cartridge might be a bit slow and shut down, but it has good transient speed and openness. Better still, the Exact doesn't have the "zippy" top end of many comparatively priced moving coils, yet it rivals their level of detail and bass extension. Like all Rega cartridges, the Exact is produced entirely in-house and is hand-built. Compared with most moving magnets, it has one-third of the windings around its coils and more naturally extended highs. With its high output, the Exact should be compatible with just about any preamp, including low-gain tube types, and it didn't overload my highgain preamp either. In keeping with the Rega philosophy, it features a Vital non-detachable stylus and a rigid onepiece body to keep spurious vibrations to a minimum. These design elements produce a strikingly low level of groove noise when the Exact is used in the P5 system.
While I found the Rega P5 refreshing, it is not for "Type A" audiophiles who like to continually fuss with cartridge VTA or who treat their analog front-ends like science experiments. If Rega's unique cartridge overhang alignment is going to bug you, you can use the typical Baerwald null points, but you'll lose the advantage of the three-point cartridge mounting. Although the P5 gives up some dynamics, subtle details, and soundstaging to my reference rig, its overall musicality and low groove noise come surprisingly close, at a small fraction of the price. It makes me eager to see what Rega's top-of-the-line P9 can do.
An Approved Upgrade
The Rega TT PSU is an optional external power supply unit for the P5, derived from P9 technology . Besides cleaning up the power to the table and providing electronic speed control, it reduces the already low turntable motor vibrations to still lower levels. Depending on where you live, you may not need it to clean up the power or improve speed stability. When I tested the speed of the stock P5, it was right on. However, when I added the TT PSU, the noise floor dropped still further, clarity improved slightly, and the bass gained more solidity. Additionally, you can also change the speed from 33 to 45 rpm at the push of a button. At $345, it's a bargain.
If you believe your audio system should help eliminate stress rather than increase it, the Rega P5 turntable system will prove highly rewarding. Its engaging musicality, easy set-up, and ease of use should delight music lovers. The P5 may also be just the antidote for demanding audiophiles who long to enjoy their systems again and be drawn back into the music. Isn't that why we got into this hobby in the first place?