AOM Logo April 1997


The Rega Planet CD Player
Audio Meets Art


Anthony Kershaw

Roy Gandy - one of Rega's founding fathers and an ardent keeper of the analog faith - has finally succumbed to the digital calling. Whether driven by market forces or just a fine design idea, the Rega Planet CD player is the latest component from this venerable British audio company. As such, the audio industry has been buzzing around the idea of a Gandy digital device. With the hype at fever pitch, obtaining one of these machines was, initially, an exercise in frustration. In fact, I found myself with the only review copy in Canada. The demand was so great that the initial manufacturing run was modified somewhat in order to keep up with the orders. Clearly, there was excitement in the rarefied air of audio.

The Rega Planet CD Player

...Art Nouveau
Visually, the excitement was justified. The Rega Planet CD player is a striking piece. The build quality is exemplary and married to uncommon visual beauty. When considering its relatively low price, the player's quality is a marvel of price ratios and manufacturing acumen. A benchmark has been laid for future machines under a thousand dollars.

The chassis is machined aluminum and continues in the Rega house style. If you are a "Regaholic", the style will match perfectly with your system. It is not overly large, but, as a top-loader, will need care in placement. The loading mechanism is ingeniously designed and exudes the quality found in the rest of the chassis. There is a large clear window for easy viewing, with a small black spinner dead center. Suitable warnings are emblazoned under the plastic to not look directly into the laser or to touch the mechanism. Four indents under the cover make for easy disc placement and retrieval. The top lifts easily and glides open on its well-designed hinges, then floats to close under its own weight. Well done Roy!

Electronically, the Planet features a Sony-sourced analog post-conversion filter and a Burr-Brown D to A chip. Rega worked with Burr-Brown for three years to develop this unique chip which is said to exemplify a more "analog" sound. There is a digital output for those wishing to substitute an external DAC. All listening sessions were completed using only the on-board electronics.

With Rega being a champion of simpler audio methodology, the power cord is not detachable and a generic interconnect is supplied. Many audio enthusiasts are not adherents to this simpler approach. If an audiophile spends nearly a thousand dollars on a machine, he will use a quality cable commensurate with the price. Using the generic interconnect did nothing to enhance the sound during listening sessions. When substituting the inexpensive WireWorld Oasis II interconnect, the sound benefited, demonstrating more impact and a wider soundstage. Even greater strides were made when an Audioquest Emerald interconnect was placed in the audio chain.

When reading the information booklet, I concluded that Rega was not a company to blind the purchaser with science! The booklet is from the minimalist camp, and offers only the basics, but happily, chapter and verse on operation. The less said about the remote control the better! Priced in plastic, it is a perfunctory attempt at best and should be kept away from the beauty of its parent. Strangely, it is not included in the price, and must be purchased as an option! Only for the most practised of couch potatoes!

...Sound
Roy Gandy has dedicated his design life to developing analog technologies. While pondering his philosophy, it seemed strange to sit down to review a Rega CD player. For many years Rega have promoted all things analog and, at the same time, denigrated the digital domain. In many respects I concur, with ninety percent of my listening enjoyed on vinyl. Only recently have I begun to hear the qualities of what the compact disc has to offer. With the Planet, Rega's ideal was to marry the best of analog sound with digital technology. Obviously, great care has been taken with this task. It is then with some regret, that I have to report the Rega design team has failed in its mission. Sadly, both formats have been short-changed.

After hours of listening, I found the Planet unexciting and somewhat lifeless. Some audiophiles may hear differently and enjoy this type of sound. I prefer a more rhythmic and involving sound. The wonderful elements of digital - bass definition, pinpoint imaging, and effortless dynamics - were not showcased after extended listening sessions with the Planet. And in comparison to their much vaunted Rega Planar 3 turntable, the digital compadre's sound was a mere shadow. One listener might call the Planet's sound laid-back or neutral, another listener may call it bland, and yet another, smooth. This listener found it far too removed from presenting the life of the music. I'm not suggesting that all music be dynamic and in-your-face, but the Planet failed to inspire at many listening levels. Micro-dynamics were attenuated and the largesse of similarly priced players was not present.

In comparison with the Arcam Alpha 6 CD player (now discontinued), I found the Rega still living on a flat plane. The Arcam gave life to all types of music with a beautiful liquidity that was missing from the Planet. For example, the opening orchestral slams of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances on Telarc CD-80331 (slowly becoming an Audiophilia review team demo disc), had more power and bite on the Arcam. Later, the gentle exchanges between clarinet, bassoon and bass clarinet had far more of the essential air that many audiophiles crave. The Planet laid out the performance quite effectively, but left one wanting more. Richness and the resonant dimension of sound continued to be absent while listening to different genres of music.

The Hyperion CD, Essential Purcell highlights one of the musical genius' of 17th century England. Purcell's vocal and instrumental music is highly sophisticated and beautifully constructed. This sophistication leads to thorny and dense textures requiring a good machine to decipher the complex sounds. The Planet failed to unravel the melismatic vocal lines, shining only in the simple instrumental ritornellos. Solo vocal lines were displayed with some beauty - the music cannot help to inspire - but again, bloom and richness were missing from the overall presentation.

I had been using an Arcam Alpha 9 integrated amplifier throughout the sessions. A local Rega dealer suggested the Planet may have a better synergy when coupled to a Rega amp. She kindly loaned me a Rega Elex integrated amp (50 watts/channel). After I hooked it up to its sibling, very little changed. The intrinsic character of the Planet remained. The same repertoire was used to compare differences in sound. With the gentle English amps, the sound remained consistent. Comparison with a different style of amplification can be read below in our venerable editor's added thoughts.

...In Short
Visually, the Planet is a tour-de-force - sonically, less so. While attempting to emulate analog sound and do away with the digital nasties, Roy and company have missed the mark. If you are in the market for a cool-looking, inoffensive sounding CD player, the Planet may be for you. If, however, you like living a little dangerously in the digital domain and have the option of comparison, the Rega Planet may not suit. Hopefully, there will be a Mk.II in Rega's future. With their design brilliance, it won't be long before the analog/digital marriage is a happy one. Unfortunately, this Planet's union has ended in divorce.

...Devices
Arcam Alpha 6 CD player, Rega Planar 3 turntable, Rega RB300 arm, Benz MC Gold cartridge, Arcam Alpha 9 integrated amplifier, Rega Elex integrated amplifier, ProAc Tablette 50 speakers, ProAc Response One SC speakers, Target speaker stands (sand filled), Audioquest Emerald interconnect, WireWorld Oasis II interconnect, Monster cable speaker wire, BBC CD vibration platform(s), Seismic Sink platform, XLO TPC contact wipe, Record Doctor II record cleaner, Nitty Gritty Pure CD cleaner (reviewed in this volume), Yamaha YFL 881H handmade silver flute.

Andrew Chasin Comments
First, a little history. In the mid-eighties I took my first foray into the world of digital audio and bought a CD player - an inexpensive Denon job whose model designation currently eludes me. To say that that player didn't exactly impress sonically would be the understatement of the century. The sounds emanating from that binary beast were akin to fingernails on a blackboard, and it was only a matter of days before it was put out to pasture. I decided that this new technology was far from mature and I instead chose to invest my then-scarce audio dollars in a new analogue rig - a Rega Planar 3 turntable/RB300 arm/Denon moving magnet cartridge. I soon became the laughing stock of all my friends who had fallen in love with the compact disc's convenience and lack of surface noise, and had literally given away their large record collections. Did I care? Not a chance! I spent thousands of hours listening to that rig and enjoyed every minute of it. The Planar 3/RB300 combination had an uncanny way of bringing music alive, which amounted to a minor miracle given its ridiculously low price. I eventually replaced the Rega with a Linn LP-12/Valhalla/Ittok LVII/K9 setup, but the slim, black, suspensionless British deck forever changed my sonic expectations of an audio component.

During the course of my happy coexistence with the LP-12, I did again occasionally dip my toes into the icy digital waters, but found it difficult to find a reasonably priced player that I could happily live with. That changed when, in the early-nineties, I heard the Rotel RCD-955AX, a player which was far from perfect but which rendered compact discs listenable in a way that previous players at its price point had failed to do. The 955AX allowed me, for the first time, to listen to compact discs for hours without fatigue or restlessness setting in. While it could get a little nasty in the treble on occasion, it was head and shoulders above most of its competition at the time. The 955AX was ultimately replaced with my current digital front end, the Theta Data Basic II transport, Theta DS Pro Progeny DAC and XLO Type 4 digital cable, which does things sonically that the little British-designed player could have only dreamed of, but the Rotel was, in my opinion, a budget reference in its time and one which still manages to fetch a decent return on the used market.

Now, I find myself presented with another budget CD player with high-end aspirations, namely the Rega Planet. Long-time analog stalwarts Rega Research, surely one of the last of the high-end manufacturers to bring a digital product to market, have had enormous success with their Planar turntables and RB300 tonearm, and obviously hope to have equal success with their analog-inspired digital creation. How successful the Planet is as musical device will certainly depend on your perspective. Those with a substantial investment in a very high-quality digital front end need not fear that the Planet has rendered it obsolete - my Theta-based front end easily bettered the Planet in many significant ways, as well it should for nearly four times the Planet's price! However, this comparison holds little relevance to potential purchasers of the Planet who are likely unwilling, or unable, to spend megabucks on a digital front end. For music lovers on a budget, the Planet offers battleship-like build quality (no paper-thin sheet metal or plastic to be found here), wonderful ergonomics, one-box convenience, and aesthetic beauty. The Planet's self-closing, top-loading mechanism, with integral disc clamp, is a joy to use, and its ingenious design means that it requires little more rack space than a drawer-loader. All right, so the Planet's built like a tank, looks and feels good, but how does it sound? If I had to choose one word to describe the sound of the Planet it would be "polite". None of the usual terms used to describe inexpensive CD players, such as "bright", "edgy", "hashy", "glaring", "grainy" or "forward" really apply to the sound of the Planet. The Planet has avery laid-back, somewhat analogue-like, presentation, that is a welcome change from the screaming budget boxes of the recent past. While I feel that the Planet's laid-back presentation is its most endearing quality, I do find it somewhat lacking in immediacy and presence. Whether or not you find this a liability will depend on your listening biases and associated components.

If aural memory serves, the Planet easily beat my previous budget reference, the Rotel RCD-955AX, in terms of sheer musicality and treble purity, although the Planet did sound a mite threadbare through the midrange. The Planet's midrange and top-end were detailed and free of grain or grit, rendering vocal recordings, and recordings rich in high-frequency content, with a delicacy and musicality rarely heard at this price point.

At the bottom-end of the spectrum, the Planet was a bit loose and lacking in extension and definition, but its performance in this area was still quite good for a player in this price range.

I could go on analyzing the pros and cons of the Planet, but Anthony Kershaw's comprehensive review has rendered further analysis unnecessary. Suffice it to say that I found the Planet to be a bit of a mixed bag sonically, but one which will likely appeal to many audiophiles. While I do admire Rega's attempts to banish the stereotypical digital nasties from the Planet, and, given what I heard, they were very successful at doing so, I feel that these efforts came at the expense of some immediacy and liveliness in the Planet's presentation. As far as build quality and ergonomics are concerned, the Planet is leaps and bounds ahead of its competition. Sonically, there are several competing machines that will certainly give it a run for its money.

Rega Planet CD Player
Price: US$800
Manufactured By Rega Research Ltd.
119 Park St.
Westcliff-on-Sea
Essex SSO 7PD
England

Source of review sample: Manufacturer loan

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