When the Planar 3 evolved into the P3 a couple of years back the biggest change was a new motor and motor mounting arrangement. Whereas the motor on the Planar 3 was suspended below the plinth on a pair of elastics, the P3’s new motor can be rigidly mounted to the plinth, owing to its much lower levels of vibration. The new motor also does away with active, electronic trimming, apparently enhancing its smoothness even further. Most importantly, with the motor now rigidly mounted, it can pull more steadily on the belt, with no swaying against the elastics which held the original motor in place, greatly reducing the chance of wow and flutter.
This is by far the most complicated of the upgrades discussed here, requiring some patience and a little handiwork with a soldering iron. I probably have too little of the former, and my skills with the latter are suspect at best, but I went ahead and did the upgrade myself anyway (evidence of the former, no doubt). If you don’t feel you’re up to it, chances are your local Rega dealer is, although I would expect a fee of around $45 to make the switch.
The motor swap was relatively painless, but would have been more so with better instructions. I discovered halfway through the operation that the instructions on Rega’s website featured much better line drawings than the sheet that came with the kit, making the positioning of the new motor and circuit board quite a bit clearer. That’s basically all there is to it, removing the old motor and circuit board and replacing them with the new. This requires de-soldering the mains leads and switch wires and then re-soldering them to the new circuit board. Rega supplies a new plastic cradle to hold the circuit board as well as a double-sided adhesive pad which bonds the motor directly to the underside of the plinth. I was able to complete the transplant in about an hour and a half with a minimum of profanity and skin burns.
Unfortunately, with this kind of change, quick A/B comparisons become impossible, the listener having to rely on the memory of what the turntable sounded like with the old motor; there’s no quick back and forth. In evaluating the products listed above I had certainly gained a lot of familiarity with how the Rega was sounding and had listened to a couple of records immediately before the switch with the intention of revisiting them immediately after.
The first of these records was Michael Hedges’ Aerial Boundaries (bought on the street in Seattle for a pittance), which features almost supernatural acoustic guitar playing packed with lightning fast transients and lots of long, sustained chords. The latter are good tests of pitch stability and the former of turntable finesse in general. Spun by the new motor the improvements were not jaw-droppingly dramatic, but they were increasingly apparent over time. Detail, especially inner detail, increased significantly. I could now hear Hedges’ fingers interacting with the strings on a practically microscopic level and the overall sonic picture sounded more natural and three dimensional. The sound was also quicker, clearer, and sharper with superbly well defined transients. This added up to music with more vibrancy, vitality, and life. On longer, sustained notes and chords pitch stability was also noticeably improved, the table sounding smoother and clearer than before.
The other record I played immediately before and after making the motor swap was another from the former Macy collection, Murray Perahia playing Chopin piano Sonatas No. 2 and No. 3 (Columbia M32780). Solo piano is also a very demanding test for any turntable and my tweaked Planar 3 was now more up to the task than ever before. As with the Hedges disc the sound was crisper with greater speed, solidity, and vitality. Lower notes struck with force had an impact and slam I had not heard with the old motor. The effects of better pitch stability were noticeable as well, translating into an unwavering solidity and a feeling of grip and traction, or, if you prefer, improved rhythm and pace. A sense of better timing was likely also the result of tighter and superbly well defined bottom end, something which was immediately apparent as I played more rock/pop records with the new motor.
It’s possible that the motor will further improve as it breaks in, but even fresh out of the box it represents an entirely worthwhile upgrade for your Planar 2 or 3. As I’ve discovered it’s not the only one either, all of the products I tried on my table resulting in improvements disproportionate to their cost. Buying them all will set you back around US $540, plus another $45 or so if you opt to have a dealer install the motor upgrade. This just about doubles the cost of a Planar 3 even, before considering a cartridge or phono stage. No small chunk of change, but when you consider how easy it is to sink $1200-2000 or so into a digital front end, and how thoroughly a Planar 3 tweaked in this manner will trounce any CD player I’ve ever heard, it begins to put things in perspective. I’ve simply never heard a CD front end convey the speed, detail, harmonic complexity, textural richness, and grin-inducing musicality my analog rig is now capable of producing. And, I reiterate, all this with a budget phono stage. I salivate to think what the Rega would sound like with a Linn Linto or similarly capable phono section (and I hope, in a future column, to find out). And then, of course, I’d probably have to explore the last major avenue of Rega tweaking, rewiring the arm. I’m also hoping to finally dip my toes into the waters of SACD and DVD-A and see how these formats stack up against vinyl playback of this caliber.