Thursday, November 6, 2008

Analogue Source - Rega P5 turntable

I hardly listen to music from the sweet spot nowadays. Music would be playing in the background while I read, do my house chores, get some work done / surf net on the computer or lie down doing nothing on the sofa. Hence I pay more attention to tone, emotional aspect, rhythmic flow and ebb of the music over the 3 dimensional sound staging capability of my system.

The sound which I seek is the middle path of today's 2 extremes - overly analytical accuracy vs. valve lushness. I am more of a midrange guy rather than a basshead and like a lush to almost liquid midrange, smooth natural highs and decent but controlled bass. Music must be involving to me, hence I do not opt for highend brands after having owned such gears in the past which I enjoy very little. In my opinion, their main misgiving is they tend to push the limits of their own sonic traits of resolution, neutrality, soundstage, slam, dynamics but these rarely integrate well resulting in music to sound cold, detached and incoherent to my ears. A highly-resolved system would sound superb with well recorded/mastered CDs and LPs but unforgiving at the same time resulting in a big chunk of our software collection unlistenable.

I listen primarily to 16bits/44.1kHz CDs as most new music releases are in this format and for convenience sake. I went retro and embraced the analogue source of turntable 2 years ago. I have explained why I did so in my article on My hifi system. An interesting article outlining such a similar move which I could identify my action with could be accessed here:

I upgraded my turntable twice since then as I wanted my analogue source to have slightly better resolution and to bring its sound closer to that from CD playback so as to enable me to realise more of the rich presence, organic wholeness and freshness of sound that the LP playback is really good at. This analogue medium, although antiquated, clearly demonstrates its superiority in sound over CD playback with its sheer simplicity so much so listening to LPs has often been likened to seeing through a piece of slightly dirty mirror with scratches whereas listening to CDs to seeing through a reassembled broken mirror. With highly resolved digital format of SACDs, it is still same but with a broken mirror assembled from even smaller pieces. The vision of Jeff Goldblum going through the teleportation process in his 1986 movie of 'The Fly' always flashed back in my mind whenever I listen to CDs right after the LPs.

My immediate previous turntable was a ProJect RPM5. I have often felt its sound is not immediate enough, has lesser PRaT than even a Rega P2 and is rather laidback (probably also an attribute of the Ortofon OM20 MM cartridge). I have seriously considered some turntables of the next level up such as Roksan Radius 5, ProJect RPM 6.1SB, Clearaudio Emotion and Michell Tecnodec but in the end Rega P5 prevailed over others. 2 factors come into play here, namely their respective nett selling price and I do not want to end up with an obsolete turntable just few years down the road.

I set up my Rega P5 turntable recently although having bought it from overseas some 2 months ago. I had wanted to sell it off without opening its sealed box but to no avail, either due to present adverse economic outlook or the P5 is a mid-end turntable and not that sought after as its sibling in the P3 (despite my low asking price) or I am destined to live with a P5 afterall. Why have I attempted to sell the turntable since I already bought it? I was in a bit of dilemma as on one hand I wanted a better turntable whereas on the other hand, I felt that a Rega P3 might be good enough for my listening needs and I do not intend to buy a lot of new LPs which are so much more expensive than CDs. My CD playback through the Roksan Caspian M series-1 cdp is quite listenable and its sound ressembles that from LP playback in a certain way. I have since fitted in a brand new Denon DL-160 high output MC cartridge to the P5. Read about this cartridge and other Denon cartridges here:

I opened up its box at 5.00AM in the morning of 30.10.2008 after finishing work just before I went to bed. I was extremely tired then, hence I only fitted in the Denon cartridge and continued with the set-up of the P5 two days later. I have checked its alignment with a ProJect protractor (the Stevenson Arc protractor is more suited for the Rega turntable) and fitted in the stock stainless steel counterweight. I turned the tracking force control knob to 1.5 and pulled the bias adjustment slider also to 1.5 before checking the VTF (vertical tracking force) reading on a digital meter borrowed from a friend. I readjusted the counterweight position to enable the meter to show 1.5g after which I thought the turntable is ready to spin records.

As I lift the armlift lever to place it onto a record, alas I found that it could even track it without me lowering the arm lift. The VTA (vertical tracking angle) is certainly out and the height of 17.6mm Denon cartridge appears to be too tall for the P5. I need the Rega 3-point 2mm alloy spacers but how many units do I need? I discovered later that Rega cartridges are 14mm in height which means I need 2 pieces of the 2mm spacers. I managed to source for a Rega 3-points all-in-one phenolic height adjustor at RM65 from the local Rega distributor, Asia Sound Equipment S/B and would try to finish setting up my turntable during the coming weekends. I am in no great hurry as I feel a slight discomfort having to remove and re-affix the tonearm back onto the plinth but I guess I do not have much choices unless I revert to Rega cartridges like the Rega Exact at RM945. Roy Gandy of Rega does not subscribe to VTA settings; an article explaining rationale of his thought:

Judging from the few records I listen to, I thought the sound from the P5 is crystal clear, immediate and more forward-sounding than my ProJect turntable. In stock form, the bass of the P5 clearly is much better than that of the P3 although I thought I also heard some mild lift in upper midrange (probably an attribute of the stock glass platter of which in my opinion could easily be cured by replacing it with an acrylic platter). I have since ordered a 24mm thick acrylic platter from Acrylteller Deutschland, a Michell TecnoWeight and a Michell record clamp for the P5. The stocked subplatter and spindle of the P5 are made of phenolic/plastics and I hope to also acquire a high precision machined aluminium/stainless steel unit and the dedicated PSU later, all in good time to complete all possible upgrades to my P5. I have bought a Locus Design BasiClamp (340g) record clamp much earlier on.

Update on 23.12.2008:I took a long drive down to Singapore on 13.12.2008 and picked up 2 turntable related items there: a 3-point 2mm alloy spacer for S$40 from Asia Sound Equipment P/L and a brand new reissued Ella and Louis LP by the Speaker Corner Records label. I fitted in the spacer and the Michell Tecnoweight to my P5 and rechecked alignment of my Denon DL-160 MC cartridge with a downloaded Stevenson arc protractor proper on 19.12.2008. There is quite some offset angle required, more to the left and I wonder if this is really so. Is overhang sufficient? Subsequent listening to my LP collection including 李烁 - 相见欢's LP (purportedly pressed in Germany), the last 2 tracks on both sides of the said LP which have never sounded good on my 2 former ProJect turntables now sound exactly same as the outer tracks. This allayed my fear that the alignment of my Denon cartridge is not done correctly. The sound from vinyl playback now is really good with more than decent extension to both the top and bottom ends, more so for the latter. I have been spinning LPs almost non-stop whenever I am home since then and thought I am hearing new things which I have never heard before with my ProJect RPM5, for example I never remembered hearing a saxaphone playing to the right of Diana Krall's Sleigh Ride in her Christmas Songs' album. Could this be the placebo effect or is the Rega P5 really so much better than the ProJect RPM5? There are abundance of details, all sounding vivid and extremely rich in the Ella and Louis LP; it is definitely a gem.
Update on 06.01.2009:
I only start to make use of my newly acquired acrylic platter on my P5 after receiving 2 units of brass shims from Acrylteller. The P5's wood surround is some 2.5mm taller than its plinth, hence I need one piece of these shims on the plinth (and under the ball bearing housing). My first impression on the acrylic platter: I am using it without any mat and the music (and vocals) thus far exhibited more of resolution, preciseness and in-the-face type of details, slam and dynamics. My vinyl playback now sounds extremely close to CD playback in my system. Compared to glass platter which I thought treble was a bit hyped-up and some mild lift in upper midrange, the acrylic platter nullify these effects and tonal balance appears to be more neutral overall.

Spinning the Aaron Copland and Gian Carlo Menotti piano concertos LP under Analogue Productions label, I heard for the very first time vinyl playback in my system has such awesome speed in attack, slam and dynamics far exceeding that of CD playback and with lots of presence. As for the Art Pepper meets The Rhythm Section LP, a reissue by Analogue Productions label that I am thoroughly familiar with, music takes on a less hurried (more relaxed) approach with instruments sounding fuller, richer, less shrill and with less sibilance. Bass also gained tremendous weight and my P5 now sounded so different from before with more finesse and reduced hardness. Spinning a 1978 (31 years now) almost mint copy of Mozart’s Violin Concerto Nos. 3 and 5 LP, the tone and timbre of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s violin is so real as though she is performing live in my living hall. I have yet to hear a CD system capable of attaining this feat. Nancy Bryan sounded so velvety and creamy (distinctly analogue) in her
Lay Me Down LP, a limited edition copy of yet another Analogue Productions’ titles.

Some extract comments of Rega P5 from audio magazines:ABSOLUTE SOUND 10/06: "A low vibration / low coloration design; as close to set it & forget it as you're likely to find."
ABSOLUTE SOUND 9/05: "One of the most musical front ends I've heard anywhere near its price. I prefer its overall musicality to almost any digital system & several more expensive analog rigs. Compared to Rega P3, the P5 is quieter, had tighter & deeper bass, a more three-dimensional soundstage & better highs. While the P3 is quite the bargain, the P5 is noticeably superior & worth the extra cost. If you believe your audio system should help eliminate stress rather than increase it, the P5 will prove highly rewarding. Its engaging musicality, easy setup & ease of use should delight music lovers."
STEREOPHILE 4/08: "Gets the musical essentials down right"
HI-FI CHOICE 2/08: "Great sense of timing, market leading resolution & phenomenal tonearm - hard act to beat."

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