Words by Rafe Arnott. Photos credited individually. Each column will examine an archetype of high fidelity and investigate its development, design, impact and legacy.
In 1976, Roy Gandy’s Rega Planar 3 turntable set off a battle – that rages to this day – for the hearts and minds of budget-conscious vinyl lovers. Eschewing conventional suspended-chassis designs of the time, the unadorned, belt-driven Planar ‘table featured a rigid, lightweight plinth to combat unwanted resonance, an Acos-produced tonearm, glass platter with a thin felt mat and a single rotational speed – 33rpm. If one desired to play 45rpm records they had to manually switch motor-pulley grooves.
The configuration was considered radical in its simplicity, and initially looked down upon by audiophiles who saw it as lacking refinement. And while Gandy ackowledges previous iterations (the Planet and Planar turntables) were works in progress, it was the Planar 3 that he poured his engineering knowledge into; lightening the plinth further, swapping the alloy three-disc platter for glass, addressing bearing/motor noise and speed stability. Critical acclaim for the ‘table soon followed, and with that same basic design now approaching five decades in production, Gandy finds himself helming one of the largest manufacturers of high-fidelity products in the world.
Photo above: Gandy's first design, The Planet (left), while visually striking, needed sonic refinement. This led to the first Planar (right).
Gandy ended up building turntables (as well as speakers and amps) in the early ‘70s from cast-off parts and materials at hand. This was borne out of dissatisfaction with the quality of record players he was selling to go with his speaker designs (he was training to be an engineer at Ford Motor Company during this period). Almost every deck ordered arrived in pieces – damaged in transit. Gandy surmised he was spending so much time repairing other manufacturer’s designs he might as well bring his own to market. From this intention came the Planet in 1973, which he sold out of a local hi-fi shop whose owner had an eye for gear built in the United Kingdom. That man, Tony Relph, pushed for Gandy to make a full-time go of it, and each of them put up £1,000 to start Rega Research – the name formed from the first two letters of their surnames.
According to Gandy, the Planet’s success was more a product of its unique form factor than sonic excellence, so he worked hard at improving it and the first Planar was born. A driving factor of Gandy’s design principles was that mass absorbs energy, which he believed resulted in music lost. This translated to the constant distillation of the MDF plinth inherent to Planar designs over the years. While audiophiles love to tweak turntables, Planar construction frustrated these pursuits to no end as they were consciously fashioned as nominal, needing no adjustment other than the vertical tracking angle of whatever cartridge was fitted to the Rega R200 tonearm – an OEM version of the Acos Lustre without height adjustment, but an improved headshell. This was eventually replaced in 1983 by the Rega-designed RB300, a tonearm that became as legendary and influential in high fidelity as the Planar itself.
“The success of a design depends on every single part being as close to perfection as possible."
Photos above: Left: Gandy as teen astride a motorcycle he built from parts. Right: In the early '70s while training at Ford Motor Company. Images courtesy Rega Research.
The way Gandy made set-up of the Planar models so simplistic – something that with 15 minutes time anyone could achieve – seemed an admonishment of the complications inherent to the configuration of suspended chassis designs popular at the time like the Linn Sondek LP12 or Thorens TD-125. Both were highly-popular and customizable turntables, but needed a minor degree in engineering to perform their best. Indeed, a dealer with bespoke, factory-supplied jigs and training were obligatory for optimization of Linn chassis suspension. The Rega required none of this. Indeed, it was this lack of pretence which Gandy built-in that converted hordes of vinyl enthusiasts to his camp. Much like Gutenberg disconnected the church from the written word in Europe with his movable-type press, so too did Gandy empower those weary of equipment requiring hi-fi technicians to place their own LP collections within reach.
The early '70s was a time of shifting priorities in high fidelity for many manufacturers. Solid state amplification was less expensive to manufacturer than valves, and along with “cheap watts” came speakers that were less concerned with efficiency and more concerned with appearing modern. New-think marketing dictated products regardless of requirement, coupled with a massive increase in demand for music playback equipment as boomers matured, graduated from college and entered the workforce. These music lovers wanted sound systems of their own, not their father’s hi-fi. This new industry aesthetic coupled with a visually minimalist one further popularized the Rega decks with consumers who wanted clean lines and simplicity in use. Gandy’s stripped-down offerings fit into this ethos perfectly and it wasn’t long before the affordable Rega turntable became almost as ubiquitous in high-fidelity systems as records themselves. The fact many considered it as entry-level hi-fi, as opposed to consumer fare thanks to the generous sonic helpings of attack and decay to notes, nimble dynamics, deep, controlled bass and lifelike presence, only cemented its position further. With its popularity rising, over time a number of manufacturers started offering what amounted to Rega “clones.” These turntables emulated the Planar look. Whether it was the Pro-Ject Debut series launched in the ‘90s, or the NAD 533 from the ‘80s (a straight-up OEM Planar 2 rebadged for NAD). These days one need only glance at offerings from Edwards Audio, Fluance, Flexson, Sony or U-Turn Audio to see striking similarities to Planar designs.
Photo above: A mid-'80s Planar 3 model with RB300 tonearm. Image courtesy Lyle Stafford.
Over the intervening decades Gandy continued to refine materials used in the construction of the Planar models, always striving for greater rigidity and further weight reductions of the plinth to stop it contributing energy into the record. Most of the unwanted energy from LP playback is fed into the cartridge output from the plinth as bearing noise and motor noise. Lighter plinths minimize this effect, said Gandy, who also points out that the Planar, by its very nature as a turntable, is wholly the sum of its parts from a performance standpoint. The tonearm, plinth, motor, bearing assembly, platter and sub-platter – all integral to one another in order to achieve maximum potential. “There isn’t just one thing. A turntable is a measuring instrument made up of lots of components,” Gandy said in a 2019 interview. “The success of a design depends on every single part being as close to perfection as possible. In our industry, people tend to focus on just a few areas, rather than looking at the whole.”
Since its introduction, the Planar series can be separated into four basic iterations. 1976–2000, The original. This started it all, and incorporated the engineering elements carried on throughout the turntable’s history; synchronous motor driving a plastic sub-platter via pulley/rubber belt, (at a single speed of 33 rpm, 45 rpm achieved by manually swapping the belt to another pulley groove). The sub-platter mounted upon a stainless steel, oil-lubricated bearing shaft, slotted into a bearing insert directly coupled to a lightweight MDF plinth using a triangular array of rubber feet for mechanical isolation. A 10mm thick float glass platter is supported by the sub-platter, and is covered by a 2mm felt mat. A plastic dust cover is included. The tonearms varied over time from the Acos, to the RB300. 2000–2007, P3 with colour way choices. These included red, green, yellow, grey as well as black and white. 2007–2012, P3-24. This model came with an improved 24V motor, and an optional external power supply borrowed from the higher-spec’d P5/P7 decks. It allowed for two-speed operation at the touch of a button. The new RB301 tonearm was also included with three-point mounting system and the plinth switched from MDF to a laminate design with a 0.9mm phenolic resin skin. 2012–2016, RP3. This model featured further plinth refinements which now included a 2mm-thick horizontal brace on the top and bottom which dispensed with the need for phenolic skin. New RB303 tonearm with tapered-tube design now fitted. 2016-2021, new Planar 3. Plinth now MDF core with acrylic laminate finish and more substantial bracing, redesigned sub-platter/main bearing assembly, new glass platter material marketed as “Optiwhite.” Tonearm updated to RB330.
Photos above: The 38,000 sq.ft Rega factory is located in Southeast England. Left: RP8 and RP10 turntable production facilities. Right: RB330 tonearm manufacture area. Images courtesy Rega Research.
It’s difficult to imagine the landscape of high fidelity without Rega turntables in both the foreground and on the horizon. The Planar 3, in various guises, has been exerting influence over the direction of analogue playback for almost 50 years based around a following of users who think listening to records needs to be neither expensive nor exclusive. Few in the hobby could claim ignorance of the brand or design – and most likely owned a Rega at one time or another (myself included). Built out of frustration with the way things were, and a dissatisfaction with conventional sprung-chassis designs of the time, Roy Gandy wanted to democratize vinyl playback by making it as easy as possible to buy, set-up and enjoy a turntable which produced a captivating, in-the-room realism. While some Planar turntables have suffered at times from quality-control issues over the years, Gandy and Co. continue to work at delivering on the original promise of the Planar: that you don’t need to spend ridiculous sums of money, or employ audio technicians to extract musical information from a record groove. A further testament to their design longevity and popularity is how plentiful original Planar 3 (and subsequent models) are on the secondhand market. Depending on the version and condition they can be had for as little $150 – a true bargain of high fidelity – with most only requiring a dust-off, a drop of oil in the bearing well and a new pulley belt to be up and playing music again.