By means of introduction to the Rega P10 turntable, let me start by saying that I work as a mastering engineer. For some time, I’ve wanted to upgrade my current turntable, a Rega P3, to address a few issues. While using the turntable to check test cuts (done by myself and others), I realized that the speed-accuracy on my P3 is not great (it runs fast). While wow and flutter is generally low enough so that it won’t interfere with my listening enjoyment, it isn’t good enough for me to critically hear how well my lathe is performing when auditioning a freshly cut lacquer or vinyl test pressing. So, while I didn’t have any serious issues with the general sonic performance of the P3, I did want an analog front end that would allow me to review speakers and electronics, using an input signal that provided higher resolution.
Words by Dave McNair
Why not use digital sources to evaluate gear? Well, that’s pretty straightforward: since I listen to digital all day long at work, at home, I prefer the particular sonic colorations and all the rituals associated with records. So I decided to buy a Rega P10. In the past I’ve owned a Linn, shared a house with a SOTA Star Sapphire and worked in shops selling lots of high-end turntables. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the new Rega P10, but none of my previous experiences had prepared me for hearing what the Rega P10 sounded like in my system.
Setting up the Rega P10
First, I decided to initially move the Dynavector DV-10X5 that was on the P3 to the Rega P10. I liked the sound I was getting from the Dyna and even if I decided to upgrade to another cart later, it would make for a good comparison to a sound I considered familiar. After arriving at my local dealer, EMBER Audio + Design in Winston Salem, NC, owner Chris Livengood used his experience and a fancy German SMARTractor to set up my new baby.
Before leaving the store, we decided to do a quick test and compare the P10/Dyna to a Clearaudio Performance DC with Tracer Arm and Maestro V2 cartridge. Even with the relatively modest 10X5, the Rega P10 kicked ass playing the excellent George Marino remastered Acoustic Sounds release of Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman. We listened to a system comprised of an Octave V 80 SE integrated amplifier with the Super Black Box external power supply into KEF Blade loudspeakers, and the Rega P10 seemed more alive and revealing but not dry or antiseptic, just less coloration and more information. The Clearaudio got the prize for a slightly more fleshed out and smoother midrange, but just slightly.
The Home Listening Begins
It took a few days before I could make the time for serious listening with the Rega P10, but I couldn’t resist a few short spins one evening after work.
My immediate reaction was one of shock and disbelief. My system sounded completely different. I noticed right away that while things didn’t sound thin or lean, the area around 250-400 Hz, which I had always assumed was a room acoustical mode, was cleaned up considerably. Bass was deeper and waaay more controlled. Dynamic contrasts of every variety were more apparent than ever before, even small scale events within a loud section of music. I could hear faders being turned up in mixes. Different kinds of depth and image-related effects in mixes were very apparent.
One of those casual first spins was Electric Light Orchestra’s “Telephone Line.” I could clearly make out the drum picture as being an intentional stew of close mics, ambient mics, artificial reverb (EMT plate?) and digital delay (Eventide Clockworks?). In the past, I’ve always heard this indistinct drum concoction as simply part of ELO’s dramatic, but washy over-the-top vibe. This time, the increased clarity from the Rega P10 made it sound like a whole new record, and more fun to listen to.
When I finally got a good chunk of time for listening, a few common themes emerged. The Rega P10 is an information retrieval monster! It wasn’t brighter than the P3 (it wasn’t, even though at first I thought it might be), but the increased detail, in the sense of a subtle smear being removed, revealed a clearer, cleaner top end. Record after record, whether audiophile or garden variety releases, the sound had a sense of rightness and even a sense of ease to the listening experience, a purer conduit into the music. At one point I had a strong sense of being an audio voyeur when I heard things that may not have been intended to be revealed to this degree:
- I noticed, for the first time, the number of repeats to the tape echo trail on some woodblock percussion in the Beach Boys song “God Only Knows” (stereo remix/remaster).
- In the late great Tom Petty track “Breakdown,” a quick in-breath (in the right channel) before some percussive vocal effect + reverb on the left. The background vocal ooohs have an electronically generated vibrato that I never noticed before.
- The imaging picture created by room ambiance from Art Taylor’s drums (close mic’d in the right channel) spilling into John Coltrane’s sax mic panned to the left forms a cool yet subtle arc from right to left on the classic track “Giant Steps.”
- I’ve listened many times to “15 Steps” off Radiohead’s album In Rainbows, but I’ve never heard the separation revealed between the drum machine claps, sampled drum loops, and real drums in the way the Rega P10 does. Plus, I noticed the crazy phase manipulation done by the brilliant engineer/producer Nigel Godrich on the opening bit-crushed percussion.
- The big, dense, orchestral chord clusters and internal moving string lines combined with various keyboard and guitar textures during the coda of “Lonesome Tears” off Beck’s masterpiece Sea Change was unraveled by the Rega P10 in all its mysterious, phase-shifted glory.
The Rega P10 doesn’t make bad records magically sound great, but I got a sense that there is so much more information being pulled out of the grooves that my ear found something sonically pleasing about almost any ol’ record. Those neurons in a certain part of my brain were doing a happy dance. An old mono jazz record? No problem. And I don’t even like mono records. Ok, Phil Spector and The Beatles get a pass, but until now I’d always rather hear stereo.
I had to find out how this thing that simply turned the record around and placed the cartridge on the groove could have such a profound effect on the sound, so I referred to the excellent Rega book A Vibration Measuring Machine. The book is part Rega history and part design concept and execution details and I was on a mission to find reasons for what I had been hearing.
How You Do That Voodoo That You Do
The story of the Rega P10 starts with the company realizing, sometime around 2007, that CD player sales had slowed way down and turntable sales were picking up. Thus began a revamping of the existing line of tables as the company felt things could be improved quite a bit on the old designs in light of this most improbable vinyl resurgence.
For approximately 5 years, the research took the form of an unnamed testbed turntable where cost was no object and only existed to test the more exotic new engineering concepts. This turntable eventually became known as the Naiad. The Naiad was never intended to be sold. But reportedly upon hearing one, a French distributor told Rega he could sell several immediately at basically any price Roy Gandy wanted to ask! Sources tell me that you can stand in line to get one since only about 3-5 produced per year at around $35,000. Out of the Naiad testbed the RP10 was born—it was intended to be close to the Naiad in performance but without the ultra-expensive handmade, resin bonded carbon fiber with aluminum oxide braces, and a few other details that were taken to extremes in the Naiad experiment.
The Rega P10 is a further refinement of the RP10. Ceramic is used for the platter and as an ultra-stiff and low-mass bracing piece between the platter bearing and tonearm. The chassis is made from a sandwich of Tancast 8, an exotic aerospace material with a high-pressure laminate. This reduces mass 30% from the older RP10 while being considerably stiffer.
The Rega RP10 also includes the new top-of-the-line RB3000 tonearm, with higher bearing tolerances, a newer higher tolerance platter bearing, and an improved motor and control electronics complete with 33rpm or 45rpm speed selection on front panel buttons–no more pulling off the platter and moving the belt! The motor power supply/control box also has a fine-tune trimpot in the rear for ultra-tweaky speed adjustment which is useful to compensate for belts that are nearing the end of their age cycle. I’ll probably never touch it, but I love knowing it’s there.
Further Impressions After More Listening, or Can I Just Stay In This Room All Weekend?
OK, I decided to get serious with the Rega P10 and play around with cartridge loading. With the Simaudio 310LP phono pre it’s not too hard to pop the top and move the jumpers around. Unless it’s the evening. And it’s kinda dark. And you can barely read the tiny writing on the circuit board and your new glasses with new prescription haven’t arrived yet.
It turned out that the settings where I had it originally set still seemed best. I also played around with gain. Even though the Dyna is a high-output moving coil, it could still use a little more juice than the lowest setting which is intended for most MM carts. But after digging in a little deeper I felt like the lowest gain setting on the 310LP was better sounding than one notch higher. It didn’t seem to obviously overload—it just seemed a hair edgier compared to the lowest gain setting. But now I needed that extra 6db from the balanced out if I really wanted to party with the Rega P10 with some Queens Of The Stone Age ….
I used the unbalanced outputs of the phono pre into my PS Audio Stellar GainCell preamp because I felt these single-ended outputs are a tiny bit cleaner. Balancing an output requires either a transformer or an active stage. In theory, the benefits are well known but a single-ended output will always have less in the path so implementation of the balancing stage is key for the best sound, except in cases where you really need an extra 6db to rock. So now I’m in love with the sound of the balanced outputs on the 310LP. You feel me?
Since I was in nerd mode, I tried the Rega P10 table with and without some IsoAcoustics Iso Pucks. With the P10 I liked it better without the pucks. Previously the pucks had made a significant improvement under the P3. Hmmm.
Over the course of the next several days, I never lost my amazement for what the Rega P10 did to transform basically any record I played. Well, maybe not that totally worn-out copy of Cheap Trick’s Live At Budokan pulled from the dollar bin, but you know what I mean. The dynamic contrasts and ability to unravel complex and dense sections of music is fantastic within the Rega P10. There is an interesting sense of ease to the sound. It’s not polite or smoothed out in any way, yet there is a certain element of holistic clarity without any hype that makes for hours of enjoyment. Surface noise is at an absolute minimum. The P10 is like getting a turntable with some kind of extra noise reduction thrown in.
Here are some of my observations during my listening sessions with the Rega P10:
D’Angelo—Voodoo. Sultry and slammin, with the vibe in the studio oozing from my Dynaudio Special 40s in conjunction with a Velodyne 12” sub.
The exquisite lo-fi crunchiness of the Tame Impala album Lonerism (or really any of their records) was rendered in an authoritative and spacious way that pulled me deeper into the psychedelic haze.
I pulled out several favs in my classical section including George Solti conducting the CSO on a very rousing Beethoven’s 5th. I like this recording for the energy and flair but also because of the recording quality. It sounds like a Decca tree with some spot mics that come and go for dramatic effect. The string tone is smooth as silk and the Rega P10 served up every bit along with a generous helping of hall ambiance and air.
I’ve been a fan of Kevin Gilbert since the early 90’s. His first solo album Thud, mastered for CD by Steve Hall, sounds amazing however the double vinyl album, audiophile-quality remaster, cut by Kevin Gray is jaw-dropping. The Rega P10 revealed all the texture, nuance and organic quality of this recording in a way that is simply stunning. I find well done digital (hi-rez or even plain 16 bit 44.1) to be very listenable. It’s certainly more accurate to the master than vinyl. Yet this record is a great example of how the recording/mixing/mastering/lacquer cutting/platting and pressing planets can align perfectly to produce a vinyl version that gives me the definitive listening experience.
A Few Small Caveats
This product, like pretty much everything Rega makes, is strictly a form-follows-function affair. It’s smaller and even less imposing in some ways than other tables in the Rega line. If you need your turntable to make a big visual statement as a large, complex, scientific-looking, fat platter contraption or maybe just the more traditional hardwood plinth kinda table, the Rega P10 may not be your jam. Some may love the look, others may not. I’m down with it.
The dust cover is kinda cute in a retro ‘70s way, but it’s not attached by hinges so it’s slightly tricky to return to the table after you’re done swimming in Elysian Fields of sound. The dust cover is also unusually shaped so I never know where to put it when not on the turntable.
A Worthy Conclusion
As far as the sound of the Rega P10 goes, it’s pretty flawless. If I were to nitpick, the P10 is merciless in revealing any and all transient information, similar to playing digital sources but with a certain additional alive-ness that may not fit every system or taste. I realize some of this observation might be due to the Dynavector, so take this comment as provisional. And don’t expect the Rega P10 to have any of that upper bass-low mid resonance which gives a warm yet smeary sound that can be flattering in some systems. Personally, I’d rather start with as much information off the record as I can get and adjust the upstream components accordingly.
For any serious, vinyl oriented audiophile searching for the kind of performance usually found at the BMW i8 level, but at an i3 price (approximately $5,495 without cartridge and $6,695 supplied with Rega’s Alpheta 3 MC cart), the P10 offers more than just great value. For a lot of folks, this might be as good as it gets.
For more information on the Rega P10, please visit them online: http://www.rega.co.uk/planar-10.html.
About the Author
Dave McNair has been a professional recording engineer, mixer, producer, audiophile, and for the last 20 years, a multiple Grammy-winning mastering engineer.