While ruminating on being a vinyl noob, I realized I will not be a noob forever. Today, however, is not that day! So I plough forward with cock-eyed optimism on my vinyl journey with the set-up of my Rega P3 turntable. For the first installment of The Vinyl Noob, check here.
Securing a Rega P3 was relatively easy. Rega P3s are still in production and sold in many locations. After some internet research I settled on a stunning red table. Rega is distributed in the United States by the Sound Organisation. Bryce Allan, with his Scottish accent, helped with my purchase and accessories and I have to thank him for his patience and generosity in helping me on this journey.
Words and Photos by Graig Neville
I’m not going to get into painstaking details on reviewing the Rega P3–there are so many reviews of this ‘table out there that I doubt I have anything new to contribute. The Rega took about the same effort to unpack as the Onkyo, and in some ways it was even more simple. The Rega arm does not have vertical tracking angle (VTA) adjustment, but the stock Rega cartridges have a lower profile than many and so I needed a shim to raise the tonearm to the correct height for other cartridges. Otherwise, unpacking, general setup and leveling was straightforward.
My stunning red Rega P3 is set up and waiting to be played, but I still need a cartridge. Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings, the distributor for Hana, discussed how I plan to use the turntable and he helped with my purchase of a Hana SH, a high output moving coil (HOMC) cartridge. We decided that the SH might be a better fit than the SL (low output moving coil), as many inboard phono stages in integrated amps or preamps are more focused on moving magnets than moving coils. The high output would work with a greater variety of gear.
The Rega P3 Setup – Rocket Brain Surgery
Setting up a digital front end can be as simple as plugging in a CD player or streamer/DAC, although it might get more complex when you factor in wiring it all up and having it work functionally according to your needs. But as long as you know how to plug a wire into a device, it ain’t that hard. But setting up a turntable? That requires science, a steady hand, and a bit of rocket brain surgery.
Rega had supplied what they deem a protractor. This is critical to align the cartridge on the turntable so the needle tracks straight in the record grooves. Alignment requires a delicate balance of weight, measured in grams, and is a function of the purest geometric tomfoolery.
First, before you can even get to the trigonometry you have to connect these itty-bitty, teeny-tiny colored wires into the cartridge which screws into the tonearm headshell. Thank the audiophile gods and stars I’m not colorblind! My hands and fingers are fairly averaged sized, but it’s still a tight fit and I’ll admit some holding of breath, use of my reading glasses, and maybe the utterance of a little prayer while performing this task. The last thing I wanted to happen was to accidentally bend one of those fragile looking pins, but I also needed to make sure there was a good, solid connection.
I removed the protective cover on the cartridge, placing that ever-so-fragile needle on the tracking force scale, adjusting the counterweight by either moving the weight itself or the little fine tuning dial on the base of the turntable until the weight is within operational parameters. After performing this iterative process about 15 dozen times, I was ready to align the headshell on the protractor.
This requires moving the cartridge along two axes, along the slots in the headshell which I’ll call front to back, and perpendicular to the tonearm, which I’ll call side to side. And further complicating this rocket brain surgery, the headshell is slotted which allows the cartridge to rotate off of parallel to the cartridge.
Once I laid down the paper protractor on the platter of the Rega P3, there’s this gentle manipulation of getting the fragile needle on the center point of the protractor. The teeny tiny needle point is eventually centered, which is in itself immensely challenging since my optometrist has been saying that “you are getting older and wiser” and that my close-up vision has been getting steadily worse. So I resorted to technology to help out. There’s a magnify function on the iPhone that I used judiciously, and I also took photos so I could zoom in to see if I was on the right point. In this game, fractions of millimeters matter. Another few dozen iterations and I was ready for step two.
Diamond on point, I checked the alignment. Of course the cartridge is nowhere near parallel to the lines on the protractor. Trying to align the cartridge on the Rega P3 from this point is not straightforward. Optically, there’s something called parallax. Depending on the point of reference of your eyes, the lines can appear parallel when in reality they aren’t. To further complicate matters, the headshell partly obscures the side of the cartridge, making a clear top down view of the cartridge side and the parallel lines impossible.
So, I’m moving my head around looking to compensate for parallax in some complex aboriginal mating head dance. Tweaking the angle slightly – oops sh$t too much! Start over. After what felt like an hour (it was probably longer) I finally felt like I had this all aligned on the Rega P3. Then I did a final check on the weight and made final adjustments to get within the grams recommended for the cartridge.
William of Ockham must never have set up a turntable and no razors were implemented during setup. I’m sure his philosophical view point would have been dramatically different and his career ruined if he had to setup a turntable. And the Rega P3 does not have VTA adjustment! I’m sure I would need 30 minutes of zen meditation and blood pressure meds before tackling that.
All the World is a Phono Stage, and the the Mystery Box
Finally, the Rega P3 is set. I have it all plugged in and I start spinning LPs. The Mani dip switches are set to the Hana SH requirements, or at least as close as they allow. The Rega P3 definitely sounded different than the Shinola Runwell, but was it better?
Yeah, a little, but not as much as I expected. Much like Rodin I put my thinking cap on until my puzzler was a bit sore and figured either, a) the Runwell is a better turntable than internet wisdom admits (which is likely true) or b) the phono stage is holding things back.
The Schiit Mani is a tremendous product for its price. The presentation is punchy, fun, and full of energy, but it’s not accurate and it’s also a bit grainy compared to more expensive units. Is it a fault? No, like I said it’s an amazing product for the price and in the opinion of many folks that know more than I about vinyl if the phono stage can’t beat a Mani it has no business being on the market. Dave McNair goes as far as saying, “If it can’t smoke a Mani, don’t bother.”
So I opted to explore choice b). Enter the mystery box. Looking closer at the forlorn box I had ignored for months, the one that Scot Hull had provided, I read Rogue Ares on the side. Naïve as I was, I went ahead and opened it up not knowing exactly what to expect. Lo and behold, a phono stage! With tubes! The Ares is a dual box configuration with 12ax7 tubes, so I was a bit excited to see what this unit could do. The proprietary wiring threw me and I had to revert to the installation instructions to figure out how to connect everything properly to the Rega P3. Dip switches set and the Ares plugged in, I sat down to listen.
The Ares definitely smoked the Mani. Imaging and soundstage were significantly better. The Ares laid bare how much the Mani was adding to the mix and the punchiness of the Mani became a liability instead of an asset. However, the Ares was buttery smooth and liquid, very much tubey in quality and demeanor. And to my tastes ultimately it was too smooth and buttery. As I mentioned before, vinyl has this inherently smooth analog sound, and smooth on smooth was a bit too smooth for my tastes.
A friend of mine that is into headphones summed it up when he talked about one of his headphone amps that was syrupy – in a good way. And he had a headphone that he also felt was syrupy – in a good way, but paired together it was syrup on syrup, which is altogether too much syrup. Which is how a felt with the Ares in the system. So my phono stage search continued for the Rega P3. I’m sure your mileage may vary and this was simply my tastes for the system that I have.
Enter Garth Leerer again. I asked him about reasonably priced phono stages and he generously sent
along a Clearaudio smart phono v2 and a Musical Surroundings The Phonomena II+ for me to try out. I’ll give each of these a proper review of their own, and Garth informed me The Phonomena II+ is being replaced with the Phonomena III, so more on that later. I was also impressed with the phono stage in the Parasound P6 preamp I reviewed previously and Marc Phillips favorably reviewed the John Curl-designed Parasound JC3+. So I also requested a Parasound JC3 jr to review as part of my search.
Each of these phono stages also smoked my Mani, and outside of using the Mani as a review tool to compare future phono stages it has been relegated back to its hidey-hole. I won’t leave you hanging in suspense, as all of these phono stages are excellent in their own way, but for my tastes and perhaps a bit unfairly as the Parasound was the most expensive of the bunch by a fair margin, almost double the cost of the smart phono v2, I went ahead and purchased the excellent Parasound JC3 jr.
But you didn’t answer the question, “Does the Rega P3 sound better than a Runwell?” Yes, emphatically, yes it does. A good phono stage is a game changer. It adds soundstage, depth, imaging, tone, and groove.
I was surprised on how different each unit sounded, some of that change is due to different settings of the dip switches some of it the implementation of the RIAA curves. I’ll dig deeper into phono stages in the individual reviews of the three units above as it’s a rabbit hole that I need to research in more detail to expand my competency to discuss intelligently (did I hear laughter in the background?).
Until next time, Vinyl Noob signing off and heading to the record store. In the next installment: Tweakery, A Cart of a Different Color, and Clean as a Whistle