Rega Planet CD Player
by John Stafford
Its always interesting to find out how the people who are loaning you equipment are going to send their baby off for review. Will they give you the usual warnings about how to handle it and set it up correctly? Will they just say, "Here it is; let me know what you think"? Or will they give you advice on how to use it, how its going to sound, and what the best tweaks are? When Vince Staples from May Audio Marketing (Justice Audio is now distributing Rega in Canada) dropped off the Rega Planet for review, he chose the latter. I do tend to play around a bit with review equipment to see what it can really do, but Vince had a few suggestions I just had to try:
Reverse the polarity on the plug. Its not grounded and the plugs arent two different sizes, so you can try it both ways.
Dont use power conditioning. Plug the player straight into the wall and youll get more punch.
Try the Nitty Gritty CD cleaner (which he also loaned me).
The Planet is certainly a striking machine with the same chassis design as the other Rega electronics, an industrial-looking black metal case with heat-sink-inspired ridges and austere LEDs. In the beginning, I was not particularly fond of the look, but it grew on me over time. It is quite slim with a top-loading mechanism and feet that appeared to be quite well damped. Overall, it is a well-thought-out design. In particular, I grew to like the top-loading drive; its more sturdy than the drawer design and much faster for changing CDs. The buttons on the player were also nice. From a distance they look like they are the "solid-state" typeyou know, the kind with the thin sheet of plastic covering the actual buttons so it looks like you are pressing a touch screenbut they arent. Over time those type of buttons can wear through and really start to look bad. In contrast, the buttons on the Planet are just quite small with a short throw and no plastic cover.
The remote was a good-news/bad-news story for me. The good news was that it was quite powerful, and it didnt seem to matter how far away you were or whether you had a clear view of the player or not. I rarely had to punch in my request in twice. The functionality of the remote is pretty standard, with any memory functions being handled by the remote only. However, I found the slanted arrangement of the buttons confusing and never was able to operate the remote without paying close attention to what I was doing.
By now a fair bit has been written about the Planet, with reviews ranging from "digital product of the year" to "it looks good, but better luck next time." I try to avoid reviews of equipment that I am going to bring in so that they dont prejudice my opinionsthere are enough human factors in a subjective review already. However, I did end up reading a few reviews before I knew that the Planet was coming, so it was interesting to find out some of the opinions ahead of time. Best known for turntables, the folks at Rega state that they had a strong desire to make their player as analoglike as possible, so you know that they were paying close attention to the high frequencies in particular. Lets see how they did.
I used an NAD 514 CD player as both an integrated player and a CD transport to provide bits to an Audio Alchemy DDE v1.2 DAC. These fed an Arcam 6 Plus integrated amp that was used in a biamp configuration with the Alpha 9P power amp, or a Cary SLI-80 integrated amplifier. These in turn drove either Ruark Crusader II or Coincident Triumph Signature speakers. Cables used were Canare Quad Star, Van den hul CS122, or XLO Pro.
My first impression of the Planet was that it had a similar sound to the Audio Alchemy DDE v1.2. That is not to say that the two sounded exactly alike, but the presentation was quite similar in that the designers seemed to be trying to steer clear of some of the biggest complaints about digital audio, particularly at the budget-end of the market. Both the DDE v1.2 and Planet have a fairly lush (for digital), laid-back sound that is a little softer than most digiphiles would be used to. From that point of view, the designers at Rega seemed to have accomplished their goal of a more analoglike budget CD player.
The mids are particularly well presented with the Planet. Saxophone was realistically produced with a rounded presentation that avoided the ever-lurking nasal sound that can show up when you least expect it. John Coltrane did not plug his nose when playing the sax! I also found male vocals to be well defined and balanced. Mighty Sam McClain is a standard around the Stafford listening room, and he was as full-bodied and soulful as Ive heard him.
On the bottom end, there was reasonable extension, but this is where the sound of the Planet fell short of the Audio Alchemy DAC. I found the midbass a little lean. Plucked strings on the double bass in jazz recordings were fast and articulate, but I just found that they could have been more rounded. On tracks like "Flamenco Sketches" on Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy CK64935), the bass was not as resonant or as full as I have heard otherwise. Perhaps the best way to describe it was that there should have been more decay to each of the notes. I am nit-picking here, so Ill get on with it.
The top end was smooth and avoided any tizziness. Listening to some standards like Holy Coles Temptation (Alert Z2-81026), I found the highs quite appealing without any tendency towards shrillness or sibilance. If the highs are overdone, breathy recordings like this tend to turn me off because the abundant high-end energy starts to sound like someone is spitting into the microphone. However, I feel that this may have been accomplished at the expense of getting the most detail, and this is where I think you are going to get some controversy regarding the Planet. Its proponents will say that Rega has accomplished its goal of sounding more like an analog source, and its detractors will say that its not detailed enough. My take on it was that it avoided what analog lovers hate most about digital, but it needs more detail to earn the giant-killer reputation it has achieved.
Imaging and soundstaging were also quite good. I often switch to John Lee Hookers "Stripped Me Naked" from Mr. Lucky (Virgin/Point Blank CDV 3128) to check this out. Some tracks are very layered and have strong images that will show up on just about any decent piece of equipment, but I have found this particular track to be more sensitive to equipment changes, and the Planet handled it with much dexterity.
When I used the Planet as a transport, I felt there were some obvious pluses. As I said, I liked the top-loading mechanism. It lifts up manually and the CD fits directly on the drive unit, which also acts as a clamping mechanism. There is very little risk of the door closing without the CD in place. I say this because it is easy to misplace a CD slightly on the traditional drawer-type mechanisms and have the drawer slide in and badly scratch the disc. The one thing about this setup that worries me is that the top part of the clamping mechanism spins on the outside of the unit. If little hands were to grab this piece, they could cause some real problems. Sonically, the Planet performed quite well as a transport, but I would have to give the nod to the Teac VRDS-9 in this price range.
It was now time to try out some of the tweaks suggested by Vince. I found that switching the polarity on the plug did make a difference. It sharpened the focus and improved the dynamics somewhat. The explanation for this improvement can be found in Greg Weavers Synergizing column called "Equipment Maximization Through Electrical Minimization," which deals with minimizing AC potential. I dont know if the plug orientation was "backwards" or not because there is no marking on the plug. To avoid confusion later, I put a piece of tape on the top side of the plug so that I could know which way worked better for me.
The removal of any power conditioning didnt work out for me. I preferred the sound of the unit run through my Blue Circle Power Line Pillow. There was no more punch by plugging it directly into the wall, and the clarity was diminished as well. I would not like to generalize across brands or even homes on this point. Although I have a dedicated line, I dont find the power in my house to be very clean, and I have found power conditioning to be an important part of my sound system.
The Nitty Gritty CD cleaner was quite an interesting product. It actually buffs the cleaner right onto the CD using a circular motion similar to that of a Spirograph. The disc sits on a rubber pad that is recessed into a wooden base. The recess is also circular and about an inch bigger in diameter than a CD. The edge of the recess is also lined with rubberthe reason for this will become apparent. The buffing pad is shape liked a small hockey puck with a handle that spins, and the outside edge is lined with the "stiff" side of Velcro. When you buff, it is in a circular motion around the edge of the recess, with the Velcro gripping the rubber and causing the buffing pad to spin over the CD. When complete, the CD is extremely shiny and the are no marks to be found anywhere. Also, the fluid is anti-static, which means that dust does not build up as it normally would. One caveat is that you must ensure that there are is no dirt on either the disc or buffer because you will scratch the disc if is any dust present. I lightly scratched one disc, but thankfully it didnt affect playback.
The CD cleaners anti-static properties are claimed to improve the sound (similar to degaussing). It fixed the tracking problem on some discs I had, and the treated CDs did not accumulate dust for several weeks. From that point alone the product is worth the cost. As for better sound due to reduction in static, I was not convinced.
What did improve the sound on the Planet were Black Diamond Racing cones. I was a little surprised by the extent to which this worked because the Planets feet seemed to be better damped than those of most players in the Planets price range. However, the improvement on the Planet was as significant as on an NAD 514, which has pretty chintzy feet. The imaging came into greater focus, and the resolution was even enhanced. If you already own a Planet, you may want to try some Black Diamond cones yourself.
As you can tell, I had some fun with this review. Trying different doodads with equipment can lead to some startling discoveries and much-improved sound. Overall, I found the Planet to be a refined player that made great laid-back music, but I found it a little thin in the upper bass and lacking the ultimate resolution that a sub-$1k CD player requires to earn the "giant killer" reputation. Although the Planet didnt quite perform sonically to the level of the outboard Audio Alchemy DAC, it was pretty close, and, of course, it doesnt require a separate transport. I suspect your buying decision will likely be based on whether or not you will put up with a few digital nasties to get more resolution, or whether you prefer to tame the uppermost frequencies.
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