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Positive Feedback ISSUE45
Reference Subplatter and 110 gram Counterweight (for Rega turntables)
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
Full disclosure: I love Rega products, and their turntables in particular. I've owned more than one, including a 1980s-era Planar 3 (with Linn arm) as well as the 2000 series P2 and P3. The tonearms in particular are miraculous pieces of engineering and manufacturing given the low prices, while the decks are simple, durable things and virtually un-killable, with well-chosen design compromises all around. The fact they're still made in England is, in itself, notable.
However, especially on the budget end of Rega's line, those splendid tonearms seem to be doing most of the work (and accounting for most of the total cost of the player). The deck's plastic subplatter for example, with its integrated spindle, looks and feels cheap. Lowering a glass platter onto it during setup accentuates that cheapness even more. The bearing it all rides on is nothing special. Now, don't get me wrong: all those parts were still working perfectly, nearly 30 years later, on my Rega Planar 3 when I sold it. That's the thing about Rega: the design "compromises" really don't feel like compromises at all. Until, that is, someone addresses them.
I had an NAD 533 lying around—essentially a P2 2000—and it was crying out for some tweaking. Until the P1 arrived, this was the most modest of Rega models. It's tuneful and upfront in a good way, with solid midrange presence, but the noise floor is high, inner detail is low, and it can sound a bit wobbly and disorganized when compared with more expensive models. Perfect!
Groovetracer is an outgrowth of a Silicon Valley machining company owned by Frank Smillie. "I started out with a P3 years ago and was instantly hooked on the ‘Rega sound' but found myself wanting a little bit more,” he told me. It is, of course, a hobby of sorts. When you see the quality of his products relative to the price, you immediately realize it's barely profitable at best. E-mail Frank and you'll get the same level of customer service he probably gives corporate clients who place six-figure orders with his firm.
Based on my goals for the NAD, Frank recommended his top-of-the-line subplatter, the $250 Reference. It's stunning. First, the tolerances are incredibly tight, even to the naked eye. Second, it incorporates a sapphire thrust plate that rotates on a zirconia bearing which are far, far superior to the standard stuff. It also has three little isolation dots where the subplatter contacts the platter, which is nice since motor-mount isolation schemes are fairly basic (bordering on crude) in lower-level Regas. At first glance, the little isolation dots look like stick-on rubber thingies, but no, they are also precision machined to the same exact height so they all contact the platter perfectly.
Installation takes a few minutes and should be done with care. Thorough instructions are provided, and the process is simple, if slightly exacting. You extract the old bearing with a supplied magnet, add the new one (might as well change the oil while you're in there, and that's provided, too) and finally, mount the subplatter assembly. Save the old stuff, because if you should happen to upgrade to a better Rega, you'll want to take it with.
The improvements are immediately noticeable and equivalent to moving up to the next price class, and perhaps beyond. The soundstage snaps into focus with greater clarity. The noise floor drops substantially, along with surface noise, which is pushed deep into the background as it is on more expensive tables. Thanks to the quieter backgrounds, imaging improves along with the sense that music is happening rather then being played back via a mechanical interface with some weedy tolerances in the chain. Soundstage width and depth improve as well, and pitch stability gets about as good as you can expect without an outboard power supply. These aren't subtle changes, and once you hear them, it's impossible to go back to the stock table.
Less dramatic are the improvements imparted by the Groovetracer counterweight. It comes in three different weights, and if you swap cartridges, you may need all three, though the manufacturer claims the 110-gram version I tried is nearly universal. If you own the RB250 arm, the plastic endstub will need to be replaced before the counterweight can be installed. For the moment, it is being included free of charge with the counterweight in your choice of silver or black for $145 and it too strikes me as a bargain. I've always preferred the RB250 to the RB300 for its simplicity, as the design just makes more sense to me. The Groovetracer counterweight and endstub move the RB250's performance closer to the RB300 without sacrificing its inherent simplicity.
Installation is easy. The plastic endstub simply screws out, and the metal one is screwed on and snugged with a quarter-turn using pliers. The counterweight glides onto the beautifully machined stub and is tightened using an allen bolt at the top. Unfortunately, setting the tracking force is so frustrating, it could drive Deepak Chopra to kick his dog. The difference between 2 grams and 2.1 is just a hair in either direction. After about an hour, when I finally achieved 2.0 on the nose, I snugged down the bolt and found I was at 2.2. After another few minutes of fiddling, I had it snugged at 2.0 but the counterweight was lopsided, so I loosened the bolt, evened it, and—son of a bitch! Why the hell am I at 3 grams! I swear I didn't move the weight forward or backward! Owners of the RB300 and up will only use the weight to balance the tonearm, since tracking force is set using a dial on the side of the arm, but RB250 owners will be in for some fiddling, swearing and perhaps a post-setup bender.
Luckily, the modded RB250 tracks more confidently, improving dynamics and detail. It was like getting an arm upgrade for a fraction of the cost. When I sat down to spin some records I forgot all about the hassle. Music showed greater general finesse, with more micro detail throughout the spectrum. Bass tightened up significantly, and though I didn't note any additional depth, what was present was definitely more nuanced. I checked the tracking force after about a week's worth of listening and it was still dead on, so the good news is that once you finally get the bugger adjusted, it stays adjusted.
Groovetracer also offers a precision-machined acrylic platter for $170, but for some reason, it just seems too foreign to the Rega design concept so I declined to review it. It's thicker than the glass platter but yet the same mass. In that sense, it's true to Rega, but I tend to believe that if you insist on messing with success then a platter with more mass would be a good thing here. Also, it's designed to be used without a platter mat, and that just plain freaks me out. I don't like my vinyl riding bareback but that's just me. It's up to you and your therapist to decide whether your own deep-seated issues will allow it.
It is said that Roy Gandy hates it when people mess with his tables. There's no such thing as a free lunch, and to me, it indeed seemed like the modded 533 lost a little bit of its signature Rega tunefulness with the Groovetracer products in place. Either that, or the extra finesse made me miss some of its raw boogie. I switched out the Rotel phono stage for my higher-res Audio Research unit, and a lot of the grain in the stock table that made me prefer the less resolving Rotel was now gone. It was slightly less musical and slightly more analytical.
With the Groovetracer improvements in place, the 533 came close to the stock, previous-generation P3 in detail retrieval and beat it in terms of quietness, organization and pitch stability. I did not have a current generation P3 on hand, and can also only wonder what the addition of Rega's TT PSU outboard power supply might do. Would a stock P3 with the TT PSU be better or worse than a modded P2 or P3 with Groovetracer tweaks? I can't say. And frankly, I'm not sure it's a valid question.
That's because it makes more sense to buy the best Rega you can afford right now. After all, wouldn't you rather have a stock Acura NSX than a hot-rodded Honda Civic? The numbers suggest a similar conclusion. A new P2 costs $545. The optional glass platter is an essential upgrade and that's $100. Add the Groovetracer subplatter and counterweight and you're now at $1040. You've nearly doubled the cost of the P2, and it's now dangerously close to the price of a P5 or a P3 with TT PSU. Not to mention that fact that, if quietness and pitch stability are your overriding priorities, you can have both in any variant of the Technics 1200 for half the price.
There is also a case to be made that, like secondhand Linn LP12s, Rega turntables share such a stable design platform that it is not at all out of line to spend a few hundred bucks in the same way Linnies might go for Keels and Trampolins and such. If you currently own a Rega and feel like tweaking, the Groovetracer Reference Subplatter and 110-gram counterweight are the real deal. They substantially elevated the performance of the modest 533, putting it mostly on a par with models in the next price class. They're worth the money in terms of sonic payoff, and given their quality, probably as much a bargain as stock Regas themsevles. That's saying something. Ed Kobesky