Ian Peel tests out a true entry-level turntable, but with some of the trappings of higher-end decks – and pairs it with some eager-to-please wooden droids for speakers…
Turntable with Iota Alpha speakers by Neat
We received some interesting feedback from a few readers recently on Rega’s Planar 3, reviewed in Issue 2. At £600-plus, that’s not really an entry-level turntable, you said. And quite right, too. Although what we were getting at was that the P3 was entry-level for what you might call a ‘lapsed audiophile’. The sort of user who packed away their kit after the CD revolution of the 90s, but who’s now ready to spend some (admittedly serious) money on vinyl and a turntable again. Re-entry level, you could say.
So, this month, we’re looking at a ‘true’ entry-level product, Rega’s Planar 1 which is, at £249, coincidentally around a third of the price of the P3. Their Carbon cartridge comes pre-installed, and it’s the same needle you’ll find on the Planar 2.
Rather rewardingly for a low-end product, the speed change is manual. So, instead of flicking a switch, you get to roll up your sleeves and lift off the platter and adjust the flywheel when you want to move from 33rpm to 45rpm or back again. And that platter is surprisingly light, being made from phenolic resin (or plastic, to you and me). The P1 is available in black or white. If you want red – and, indeed, a glass platter – it’s a case of going for the next model up.
On the speaker front, we gave the Planar 1 a real treat in the form of a pair of Iota Alphas from Neat. Sure, this is rather like buying a Mini and adding a set of Ferrari tyres, but we’ve been itching to have a play with a pair of these speakers for some time, and they certainly lived up to our expectations – on two counts.
Firstly, there’s their looks to consider. They’re half the height of your average pair of medium-to-high-end floorstanding speakers. And secondly, their welly. With a top speaker tilted upwards and another hidden in the bottom (above some demonstratively large spikes), it rounds out the bass superbly, looking up at you like a droid that’s just rolled off the Star Wars set, albeit with a satin wood finish.
I went slightly off-piste with the first of this month’s test discs, and played a copy of Silva Screen’s recent reissue of Puppet On A Chain, Piero Piccioni’s soundtrack for the 1970 Patrick Allen movie thriller. And it’s an incredibly dark and brooding experience. The low bass this system delivers really enhances the low brass on the Drug Dealers cue. And the strings – think Ipcress File intimidation or Persuaders-style tension – have an open-air feel, as if the orchestra’s travelling with the action on Psychedelic Mood.
When playing back this first LP, it’s immediately apparent that the tone arm lever is not only well engineered, but also designed superbly. Rega must agree, as they use the same lever on all their models, regardless of price. For something more modern, but still musically related, I tried out a copy of Caroline True Records’ recent double-LP compilation, Perfect Motion – Jon Savage’s Secret History of Second-Wave Psychedelia, 1988-93. And this is where the Neat’s ribbon tweeter comes into its own, giving a very accurate reproduction of the very bass-light DNA Groove Mix of Electronic’s Get The Message on Side Two.
Snap, crackle and pop
Being realistic, our playback of an LP such as Puppet On A Chain should have sounded pretty terrible. And, in a bygone era (with a 70s pressing on a 70s turntable), it would have. But now, with a combination of the Planar 1’s robust build and musicality (and a good remastering session by the record label), this is an experience that’s a compelling alternative to streaming and digital, delivering an experience that’s physical, as well as sonically absorbing.
To give the deck one last test, we went for a very well-worn copy of Tracy Chapman’s still-spellbinding eponymous debut. The bass was there on Fast Car, with all due respect to the Neat Iota Aplhas. And, let’s not deny it, there were some very audible pops and crackles – this is a record that celebrates its 30th anniversary next year, after all.
But herein lies the key point, of course. When the CD age dawned, manufacturers would talk of these pops and crackles to dismiss vinyl. But now, we listen to them in a different context. The turntable gives such a great playback experience that the pops and crackles come across on the Planar 1 like sugar coating on a cake. Exactly what you expect to hear from your vinyl.