The vinyl resurgence continues at a joyful, flourishing pace. There’s no doubt about it: vinyl done right has the magical ability to transport a listener back in time to that late night session in a Jamaican studio where a young Bob Marley sashayed away or to a bandstand in a small nightclub in New York City where Dizzy Gillespie hit his gleeful heights on his soaring trumpet.
Analog playback is superior to every other medium in that it just sounds more like the real thing – live music. With proper equipment and set up, a vinyl rig is the only medium that can best capture the heft and airy weight of a real acoustic space in which humans make music in all its tactile (and sometimes messy, unpredictable) glory. Be it an original Mercury Living Presence Label pressing from the 1960’s or a hard-to-find pressing from the superb Swedish label, Opus3 Records, (ensnaring a group of wide-eyed young Swedish musicians playing Ellington to the rafters), the hunt to time-travel and get closer to the musical event (with vinyl as the most effective conduit) continues. It is the reason why we spend countless hours in our favorite local record stores, (such as RRRecords [www.rrrecords.com] located in Lowell, MA.) looking for that hidden gem to get lost in its grooves.
Entry-level turntables (with their low cost build materials and cartridges) offer an enticing first slice of the “you are there” magic of vinyl listening. However, once you have experienced this first introduction to vinyl’s magic, you will be smitten and will want to hear more of what is buried in those record grooves. Once you can afford to move into the world of more innovative (and yes, more costly!) turntables, cartridges and tone arm designs, recorded performances will reveal their inner worlds and tactile glory even more, if these systems are set up properly. One reason why today’s reference turntables can deliver so much more of the transported world imbedded in a record’s grooves is that designers now have at their disposal advanced materials science (utilizing composite materials that are incredibly light and stiff) and new software resources to better test their prototype designs. All of these improvements go to combatting noise and vibration in a turntable’s mechanical system generated from its motors and bearings; inconsistent platter speeds or even airborne vibrations- all detracting from us hearing more clearly into the innermost sonic clues and tactile details embedded in our favorite recordings.
One high end audio manufacturer in the forefront of designing turntables is the venerable British company, Rega (www.rega.co.uk), a company that has been producing reliable and reasonably priced turntables and cartridges for several decades. I recently tested Rega’s flagship new turntable model, their RP-10, on advice from my trusted analog guru here in the Boston area, Jim Fuller, of Goodwin’s High End Audio of Waltham, MA. (www.goodwinshighend.com). Fuller is always the first person that I call about anything related to analog playback – from getting his advice on the latest products (such as the superb “Diamond Stylus Cleaner” product from Clearaudio- www.clearaudio.de) to Fuller’s first-rate repair service offered in his lab space at Goodwin’s (his “boneyard” of spare parts comes in real handy!). It was through Fuller that I learned that Rega had recently released the RP-8 and its big brother, the RP-10, and that these turntables were delivering a performance level that Fuller believed competed with turntables costing thousands more. Hearing this advice, I had to take a spin with this new design to hear it for myself.
The Rega RP8 and RP10 are featherweight “skeletal” models consisting of a plinth composed from a lightweight nitrogen-foamed polyolefin core, which is skinned with a bonded phenolic resin compound. The combination weighs almost nothing but is incredibly strong. This is combined with a “dual beam bracing” system composed of magnesium and phenolic (two extremely light and stiff materials) between the RP8 and RP10’s tonearm mountings and main hub bearings. Their designs differed radically from the “heavier is better” philosophy of many other turntable designs such as the VPI Classic 2 turntable (that I owned for many years), which relies instead upon a heavy base and bracing to combat noise and vibration. The RP8 and the more expensive RP10 differ in terms of their power supplies, platter materials and tonearm configurations. (Refer to Rega’s website, www.rega.co.uk or your local Rega dealer, for all current specifications and pricing for these models). My RP10 was equipped from the factory with the RB2000 tonearm (which, according to Rega, is hand built to “exacting tolerances employing the stiffest of materials to increase the amount of detail retrieved from a record surface”) partnered with Rega’s Apheta2 cartridge, specifically developed for use with these new turntables.
Jim Fuller come over to set up the RP10 because proper set up from a dealer is critical for any high end audio system component- particularly when it comes to a turntable and cartridge where everything from proper leveling to precise cartridge adjustments are vital to gaining optimal performance.
The first record that I played on the RP10 turntable system (partnered with my reference phonostage, the Aesthetix Rhea) was Audio Fidelity’s 2015 limited edition pressing of Michael Hedges’ recording from 1984, Aerial Boundaries [AFZLP208; www.audiofidelity.net].
This superb recording is a great litmus test for any turntable because its inspired music contains startling dynamic shifts combined with arresting silences that starkly reveal whether a turntable is up to the task of delivering such emotional portend along with Hedges’ intensity of touch and attack on his guitar. It also helps that Audio Fidelity’s pressing (with mastering by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio) is stunningly quiet. This recording, similar to other Audio Fidelity’s titles I have recommended (including their reissue of the Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street [AFZLP120] or Sade’s Diamond Life [AFZLP089]- see www.audiofidelity.net for their complete catalogue) succeeds beautifully in ensnaring the essence of raw propulsion and great pace and rhythm. On Aerial Boundaries, Hedges is joined by bassist Mike Manring (on fretless bass) for Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush” and their version is serpentine and deep, with gauzy guitar swipes and bone-rattling bass lines. The RP10 followed this momentum and drama note-for-note, always quick to define the smallest dynamic shifts; the leading transients and resonant decay of notes and the common groove between these two string masters. In contrast to the RP10’s approach, The VPI Classic 2 turntable, (equipped with a Shelter model 7000 cartridge), was better in the fine texture and inner resolution department, mining the filigree and light delicacy of Hedge’s guitar strokes. But the RP10 was quicker on its feet in defining the leading and decaying edges of Hedges’ unexpected guitar note explosions (such as occur on his “Rickover’s Dream,”) where such blasts (both subterranean deep and surging high) are projected with effortless flow and dense harmonic colors.
The RP10’s sense of having fun with the music (and its lightness on its feet) was equally apparent on other acoustic gem recordings. I pulled out one of my recent favorite acquisitions (found in a record bin at RRRecords): The Tony Rice Unit’s 1979 recording, Acoustics [Kaleidoscope Records], and pounced on the first track, “Gasology”.
Who is this guy Richard Greene playing violin? A master of velocity, charm and dapper chatter on his fiddle to be sure! He joins guitarist Rice, Sam Bush on mandolin and Todd Philips on bass for a rollicking sprint in which the RP10 laid out each surging note and nimble trill in sparkling fashion. This is what vinyl is all about: entering the world of these musicians as they informally parlay away in their masterful velocity, virtuosity, thrills and spills. There was no glare or harshness to Greene’s feathery violin reaches with the Alpheta2 cartridge in charge, and Philips’ bass strums were heard pungent and grooving. Once again, with the RP10, every note and phrase fell into its natural meter, timbre and momentum no matter how quick, agile or sweetly soft.
And what could be any sweeter to have the front line of trumpeters Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie joining in with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Joe Pass and Bobby Durham in a radiant version of “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”? This amazing band appears on the superb reissue of the Pablo LP recording, The Alternative Blues [Analogue Productions 3010] with the team of Bruce Leek and Stan Richer engineering this stunning release. (Any Analogue Productions-APO-Acoustic Sounds LP is cause for celebration- their superb production values are second to none! See their full catalogue at www.acousticsounds.com). This particular recording achieves great image dimensionality with each of these three gifted trumpeters occupying their own separate spaces on the stage (with Dizzy moving around during some of his inspired soloing) so that one can hear all three of these brilliant horn players’ contrasting styles, phrasing (and comedy!) with great clarity. The RP10 delivered all of the spatial magic that this recording offers with a vivid and inviting sound. “Wrap Your Troubles” moves from a slow tempo start to a swinging festival of spraying notes and pouncing bass lines, with Peterson exchanging surging bluesy grooves on his piano. The RP10 made sense of this whole performance: the sparring of metallic horns, the jumpy bass lines; the animation of the musicians playing full throttle. Again, the VPI and Shelter combination offered more resolution of the individual parts and delivered a more in-depth feel to the finery of inner textures in this performance but the RP10 was the champ when it came to capturing the raw vitality of this collective feast for the ears in all its rollicking fun.
This special quality of the RP10 to capture the dynamic essence of a great performance was apparent in listening to other great live performances such as from spirited vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon (in his buoyant, life affirming recording with saxophonists Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan and one of my favorite jazz pianists, Jimmy Rowles) on their Everest Records label [FS 264] collection.
In this superb “up front perspective” recording, the frisky Witherspoon and his band take a train to “Kansas City” propelled by sax calls and vocal punches that thunder in their blues swing and elemental power. The RP10 ensnared all of this surging action with great panache and ease, down to hearing the decay of thunderous handclaps propelling the action.
Another great example was found in Fleetwood Mac’s sojourn at the legendary Sound City Recording Studio in 1975 that produced their self-titled album on Reprise Records. On an original pressing of this recording, Stevie Nicks is heard singing her rousing vocals in lithe soars over the big funk foundation of “World Turning” and then cavorting on the collective swing of “Sugar Daddy”. With the Alpheta2 and RP10 navigating this record’s 70’s grooves, the attack of bass and drums behind Nicks’ vocals, (with Christine McVie’s keyboards and Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar slicing and snaking around), is danceable crisp, gutsy and right on pace, note for note. The original pressing of this album is also delectable in its delivery of the airy and deep acoustic space of the Sound City Studio (that it was famously known for) and the RP10 portrays this surrounding air and weight in spades, particularly when the studio walls are lit up by Mick Fleetwood’s huge drum kicks.
The final curve in my test spins with the RP10 brought forth the glory of classical music both intimate and large scale. One of the treasures you can find in Baroque Orchestra performances, (highlighting the sparkling work of master musicians on period instruments), is the LP recording of the Canadian group, Tafelmusik, recorded in a church in Toronto in 1982 by the eminent engineering team under the direction of Keith O. Johnson, (with mastering by Stan Ricker) on the Reference Recording label (another label that is always sonically superb and sought-after by audiophiles. Their entire catalogue can be found at www.referencerecordings.com).
With the RP10, this music burst from its seams with spirited lightness and freshness, opulent and bright. Strings were tensile and radiant while recorder, oboe and bassoon made for crisp interplay in the airy church surroundings. The special way in which the RP10 system captured this performance in its totality – its dynamic punch and its multifaceted emotions and roving meter shifts- created a enveloping sonic landscape to get lost in.
In contrast to Tafelmusik’s intimacy and small scale sparkle on their Reference Recording, there is the weight and majesty of (Boston-based) composer Alan Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain, recorded on the RCA Living Stereo Label with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra [LSC-2251]. This recording was a favorite of my mentor, Harry Pearson, especially for its meditative surges of big-boned brass folded around the twinkling sounds of the celesta and harp. Again, more expensive turntables will probably offer more resolution and finer detail than the RP10, (and with the RP10 there was some lack of finery in hearing the differences in tones between string sections, particularly on Hovhaness’ glorious Presto where the string sections swirl in a dizzying fugue that rises and falls), but the RP10 delivered the overall dynamic flow of this meditative piece just as satisfyingly. For instance, as the Hovhaness comes to a tranquil end (with spirited soft strings combined with regal brass calls from deep in the soundstage), the RP10 ushered in all of this growing momentum and grandeur with great flair – building a coherent note-for-note dynamic staircase that brought home the wonderment of this musical statement in the hands of Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.
The conclusion drawn from my auditions with the RP10 and its Alpheta2 cartridge is that this turntable system is clearly a new reference at its price point for vinyl lovers who seek to re-discover their vinyl collections. Its music signature emphasizes the fun-loving nature of exploring music, its human qualities and its dynamic flow and statements, rather than being a vehicle for achieving the best surgical resolution (or delivery of all micro-tactile finery) found on one’s favorite LP’s. The joy of discovery is always in the forefront with this nimble turntable design. Its musicality is beyond reproach and for that reason it is a keeper – a fun loving one at that.
Associated System Components:
Constellation Audio Centaur Stereo Amplifier
First Sound Paramount MKIII-S (single input version) Preamplifer
Aesthetix Rhea Phonostage
Hansen Prince V.2
Nordost Tyr speaker cable and interconnects
Nordost Valhalla power cords
Nordost Vishnu power cords
Tara Labs The 0.8 ISM Onboard interconnects
Nordost Q-Base 4 and Q-Base 8; Nordost Qx2 and Qx4
Argent Audio Dark Matter Base
SSBC large pucks
Nordost Sort Kones
ASC bass traps and sound planks
Clearaudio Diamond Stylus Cleaner
Rega Research Ltd.
USA Distributor for Rega: The Sound Organization