As the old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." However, Rega completely ignored that advice when, in 2014, it decided to 'fix' its Planar 3, a manual, belt-drive turntable that many would've argued was not broke.
In fact, not only did the British audio manufacturer 'fix' the turntable, it spent two years doing so. The Planar 3 had been tweaked on numerous occasions following its original launch in the late 70s, but this was by far the biggest overhaul to date – so we, along with plenty of others, were unsure what to expect when the 'new' record player emerged in 2016.
We should've known better than to doubt Rega – five years on, the revamped Planar 3 still tops our list of the best record players.
In case you didn't know – where have you been? – Rega manufactures a wide range of turntables covering a variety of budgets. These go from the new Planar 1, a budget deck whose sound quality we described as “absolutely fantastic for the money”, right up to the Planar 10, an exquisitely designed, audiophile system that will set you back thousands.
That places the 2016 Rega Planar 3 (£550, or £649 with an Elys 2 cartridge factory-fitted) somewhere in the middle of Rega's price spectrum. So, why should you part with that money? Here, we take a closer look at this refreshed record spinner.
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Rega Planar 3 review: Design
Though Rega co-founder Roy Gandy says that the revamped Planar 3 is his favourite of all the Rega turntables (he did, after all, design it himself), we think it looks almost identical to most of the other record players in the company's lineup – the exceptions being the otherworldly Planar 8 and Planar 10.
That's by no means a criticism, mind you – with its lightweight, high-gloss acrylic-laminated plinth and Pilkington Optiwhite float-glass platter, this turntable boasts a minimalist aesthetic that's both modern and refined. Whether you go for the red, white or black option, it's sure to elicit a second glance.
Speaking with our friends over at What HiFi? in 2019, Gandy said the plinth's light weight was not a cost-cutting measure: “Most of the unwanted real-life energy from a record comes from the plinth; its bearing and motor noise. The lighter the plinth, the less of that noise is fed in.”
To further enhance the sound quality, Rega has reinforced the plinth with improved phenolic braces, whose job it is to strengthen the area between the tonearm mounting and the main hub bearing, thus minimising unwanted resonance.
This being a manual turntable, there are no buttons or switches on the plinth (the power button is located underneath), meaning that the only other thing on view is the hand-assembled RB330 tonearm.
This features a redesigned bearing along with a new bearing housing that's aimed at reducing friction during playback (note that this is an upgrade on the RB220 tonearm that comes with the Rega Planar 2). Speaking of stability, the Planar 3 sits on a set of rubber feet that have been re-engineered to further reduce vibration transfer.
If all of that sounds like Rega has virtually rebuilt the Planar 3 from scratch, that's because it has: the company claims that only two components have been carried over from the previous version.
Rega Planar 3 review: Features
Rega turntables don't tend to come with fancy features, so you won't find things like Bluetooth connectivity or strobe lights here. The features the Planar 3 does have are geared – as with everything else on this turntable – towards making your music sound as good as it should.
There's an improved 24V, low-noise, low-vibration motor, and, as of March 2021, that powers an advanced EBLT drive belt. The science behind this new belt is well worth a read, but if you don't have time, we'll cut to the chase and say that it improves stability and speed accuracy.
While we're on the subject of speed, you'll need to manually change it by moving the belt from one part of the motor pulley to another. This kind of design has a certain Luddite charm, but if you're the type of listener who likes to chop and change between singles and albums, you might find that it gets annoying after a while.
As we mentioned earlier, you can opt to have the Planar 3 factory-fitted with a handmade Elys 2 moving magnet cartridge. Though it adds a fair bit to the overall price, we recommend going for it as it's renowned for its durability and clear reproduction.
There's no built-in phono preamp with the Planar 3, meaning you'll need to spend a little extra on a pre-amp in order to play it through a set of speakers. On the upside, this turntable comes with a lifetime warranty, meaning you shouldn't have to shell out any money if something goes wrong.
Rega Planar 3 review: Sound
We've always found the Rega Planar 3 to be a great-sounding turntable, so we were looking forward to seeing (or rather hearing) what difference the manufacturer's design tweaks might make. For this particular test, we plopped an original vinyl copy of Nirvana's Nevermind onto that gorgeous glass platter and dropped the tonearm onto the groove.
After 30 years the opening chords to Smells Like Teen Spirit no longer excite us like they once did, but played through this reconstructed deck they somehow managed to sound fresh again. Throughout its life, the Planar 3 has been renowned for offering a lively listen, but it sounded more fun and detailed than ever, with Kurt Cobain's hoarse howl, Krist Novoselic's grinding bass and Dave Grohl's rhythmic blitz all getting a Butch Vig-orating new lease of life.
As the album proceeded, the Planar 3's attention to detail and tonal maturity started to shine through. Equally impressive was the way in which the turntable managed to organise the trio's ferocious squall, and even at its most obstreperous (we're looking at you, Territorial Pissings), this seminal album never once sounded murky.
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Rega Planar 3 review: The alternatives
If your budget doesn't stretch to the Rega Planar 3, then maybe turn your attention to the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo. It's similar in a lot of ways to Rega's award-winning turntable, offering a minimalist high-gloss plinth, manual operation and a fantastic sound – but this Austrian-made deck is a bit more affordable at £450.
Should you have a great big wad of cash that you're desperate to spend, you could consider the Clearaudio Concept Turntable (£1300). Another minimalist manual deck, it's a spectacular-sounding turntable – and has a huge haul of awards to show for it.