THE IDEA -
The Planar 1 Rega is widely considered to be a very good entry level 'serious' turntable. Some would say it is the best choice for a beginner with aspirations of excellent sound on a shoe string. Out of the box though it is supplied with a Rega branded cartridge (Carbon) with a fairly familiar appearance. It looks like a Audio Technica AT91 but with a white coloured stylus rather than the normal yellow or red. I'm not sure what the total of the differences between the AT91 and the Rega Carbon cartridges but Rega does state the cantilever is made from Carbon. Audio Technica state their standard AT91 has a “aluminium pipe” as a cantilever. If compared with the naked eye they look the same? Whatever the tech differences I prefer the sound of the Rega version. Maybe I am imagining it but it seems cleaner, sweeter and rather good considering its a freebie on an inexpensive turntable.
As good as it is though it lacks a bit of resolution and is a bit bloated and slow in the bass. All in a rather enjoyable way but for those looking for more performance and perhaps not being sure whether the step to the P2 is a step too far, maybe a cartridge upgrade is in order. Here I test the new VM95 cartridges on the Planar 1 in an attempt to discover whether an improved cartridge can help the P1 to rise above its entry level status. Although in some ways I am just going to try different styli as the new VM95 range uses the same electromagnetic engine-body in each model. I only have to fit one of the new VM95 series cartridges and then quickly swap styli after that to hear (or possibly not) the improvement offered by a superior diamond tip.
I have chosen 2 from the range to compare. The VM95E which sells for $80 and the VM95EN which in the context of the realitively inexpensive Rega record player in question, is substantially more at $220. The difference is really only that one is an elliptical tip (good) and the more expensive one a nude elliptical (really good). The difference is outwardly marginal being that a nude is a whole diamond attached to the cantilever (the tiny rod poking out of the body of the cartridge that is forced to wobble in the groove by the diamond tip). The standard elliptical consists of a tiny diamond (being the angled tip part only) which is glued to a non diamond shank made from an unknown material in this case. There is clearly a saving in diamond purchases for AT using a non diamond shank and hence the green tip (VM95E) is cheaper.
WILL IT WORK -
The Planar One Rega isn't the most adjustable of turntables with a fixed anti skating force (at one assumes approx 2 grammes to suit the original Rega Carbon cartridge) and a minimum cartridge mass of about 5 grammes. This is the case because out of the box you just slide the counterweight fully home and that coincides with the correct tracking weight for the previously mentioned original fitment cart. So if we are going to fiddle with the original recipe we need a cartridge that weighs in excess of 5g and has similar overhang (as the cartridge mounting slots are not terribly long) and the potential new cartridge needs to track optimally at about 2 gramess. The new Audio Technica VM95 range does all of this!
SO DOES IT SOUND BETTER? -
Before fitting the fancy new VM95 I re listened to a few tracks I am familiar with using the standard arrangement. Wow it's a great sounding machine straight out of the box. It really plays music!. Its fun to listen to and does most things really well, but falls short in a couple of areas that may or may not be caused by the super budget nature of the supplied cartridge. The two key areas I noticed again during the reappraisal is the distinct fuzz in the midrange. Perhaps most noticeable as a sybillance on some vocals and just a general slight dirtiness, particularly on higher frequency notes. Not awful but its there. I would put this down to the cartridge. The second thing I was reminded of was the slightly bloated and bit 'one note' nature of the bass. This maybe mostly a good thing in the context of what kind of equipment this turntable will be generally partnered with and who the listener might be and their preferences for tonal balance. I would prefer a quicker bass though, but I would have thought this characteristic would be mostly down to the turntable itself.
First I bolted on the green VM95E (effectively the replacement for the very long lived AT95E). Alignment and balance wise its dead simple. Slide the cartridge all the way forward for correct alignment and slide the counterweight back the thickness of a 10c piece for correct tracking weight. There is nothing else to do other than of course connect the wires in the correct spots which is the same physical location as for the original cartridge. On another note the threaded holes in this new VM95 series makes for super easy bolting up (no nuts to mess with) and the Rega supplied internal hex headed bolts are the same thread as required by the cartridge. Win win as long as you have a 2mm allen key hanging around. Oh and don't over tighten them. Just use the short end of the allen wrench to grip, don't attempt to tighten them up like a cylinder head on an old Holden.
Now to enjoy some music, hopefully improved thereby making this whole article worthwhile! Audio Technica have definitely made some advances here. The bass is tighter and more tuneful and slightly bigger sounding. The sybillance and slight sizzle the AT91 based Rega Carbon produces has gone! A smoother overall sound that's just as earthy and musical as before but now with a degree of cleanliness that I missed. Stereo imaging qualities are improved too. Mainly just a bit more accuracy of placement across the stage. I'm liking this improvement. Not expensive and much more enjoyable. Now to very easily and quickly swap styli to the nude elliptical.
The differences between the green and the orange are somewhat more subtle. Interestingly the more expensive solution to extracting vibrations from the records grooves actually sounds a bit lighter on in the bass. I would say its a touch more agile though, but distinctly produces less output in the bass region. In the vocal ranges its slightly cleaner and overall extracts tiny amounts of extra details in the recording without increasing clicks, pops or surface noise levels. In fact I felt surface noise was very slightly less apparent with the nude elliptical (orange one). I then refitted the Carbon. Sure enough the slightly gruff nature of that cartridge is back again. I then do a lap back to the VM95 series just to make sure of what I am hearing and yes its cleaner and of course slightly sweeter due to the rough edges being removed. The new designs also seem to have slightly more output so signal to noise ratio will be somewhat improved too.
SUM UP -
There is a lot to like here. I can only describe the VM95E green styli version as a bargain at $80!! The $220 orange version with nude 100% diamond styli is great value and a definite step up from the standard elliptical. If you are chasing a more tuneful bass and a cleaner mid and high end from your P1 Rega either are an improvement. The VM95EN is the one I would pick though as sweeter cleaner highs with greater detail are what I want and that slightly lighter but more tuneful and less coloured bass would get me to part with a bit of extra cash.
Both are highly recommended and represent one of the few mods that makes sense to retro fit to a Rega Planar One.
Audio Technica Cartridges are imported into and distributed throughout Australia by - TAG Audio Group