Got a Rega Planar 3 hanging around, not doing much? Fancy transforming it into a high-end turntable? Paul Rigby looks at a possible method as he reviews the Rage 1 upgrade kit
When you attach the word ‘kit’ to a hi-fi product, it is a label that is too often one step away from derision. Kits are often dismissed as second class solutions. Kits tend to be applied to established hi-fi products, they tweak hardware here and there, they improve sound quality (hopefully) a bit and everyone is happy. Thirty quid well spent, eh?
This particular kit is just a bit different. When I got my head around this upgrade kit, my eyebrows did lift a tad. What Funk Firm is asking you to do, in effect, is to take your ageing £550 turntable and add a kit to it worth almost £1,400! Almost three times the price of the original product! And that’s not even including a cartridge! I’ve never used so many exclamation marks in one review, let me tell you.
To repeat, the Rage 1 is a kit. Like any kit, it’s up to you to install it. So, you buy your Rage 1 from The Funk Firm and it sends you a FX-R arm, Bo!ing feet and Achromat mat and it’s up to you to fit them.
Installation is pretty easy. The Achromat replaces the Rega’s felt mat, it fits over the spindle, the Bo!ngs replace the Rega feet, they screw into the same holes. Finally, for the arm, you remove three screws on the Rega plinth, pull away the old tonearm and then you put the FX-R on the plinth and, using the same holes, you screw the FX-R into the plinth. Funk will provide you with new screws. Apparently, if you have an older Rega 3 turntable with an earlier generation arm, the screws will be in a different place. No worries. When the new Funk arm is inserted through the tonearm hole in the plinth, were the arm rests on the plinth, that’s where the new holes need to be. Using the tonearm screw holes as a guide, make a mark in each hole, remove the arm for a moment, drill three new holes using a 2mm bit and then install the FX-R. Sorted. The DIY is pretty minimal.
The FX-R is an intriguing design because it utilises a mixture of Rega and Funk technology. The Funk bits include a new bearing and central vertical column at the rear of the arm. Apart from that, there is a new, thinner, stiffer, arm tube with a cross-type spine running through the centre plus a minimal headshell. The tube is is designed to retain as little energy as possible. The minimal headshell is designed to do the same thing. Dump as much energy as you can from this area and sound improves. That’s the idea.
The arm is relatively expensive if you’re looking at this kit from the Rega’s perspective – you’re moving from a £300-or-so Rega tonearm to a £1,300 Funk Firm FX-R. What you’re getting, though, is a hunk of technology from Funk’s high-end £2,500 FX3 tonearm, bonded to the old Rega. So, you could also say that you’re getting a high-end tonearm on the cheap.
The basis of the design is a good one and its a philosophy that, oddly enough, I was promoting myself not long ago when I reviewed the AVID Diva. In that review, I was talking about the notion of Golden Ratios. That is, equal ratios when buying and then upgrading your turntable, arm and cartridge.
My view, stated within that piece, was that the turntable as a whole very rarely sees all of its potential sound quality realised because there is a weird tradition that the plinth/platter should be the most expensive bit while the tonearm and cartridge should be worth a fraction of that in price terms. So, for example, I’ve seen many reviews of turntables valued at, say £5,000 with an arm attached to it valued at £500 with a £200 cartridge added and the reviewer is happy with this ratio (or variations on the figures but the pattern remains similar). Such a price breakdown is fine if your budget is tight. Great to get you going. What you need to do though, I have always thought, is to upgrade to a 33:33:33 price ratio (i.e. turntable/arm/cartridge). That is, the plinth/platter, the tonearm and the cartridge should be (roughly) the same price. Give or take. So, for example, my Origin Live plinth/platter is valued at around £5k, the arm is £5k and the cartridge is a tad under that at around £4k. But the theory basically stands.
So, what Funk Firm is doing here received warm support from me. And then I looked again. What, in fact, Funk Firm has produced with Rage 1 is to push that Golden Ratio concept far, far beyond any vision I ever had. What designer, Arthur Khoubesserian, is actually promoting, is to take a Rega Planar 3 (£550) and a FX-R tonearm to the plinth valued at around £1,300. The company also sent me £950 worth of Audio-Technica cartridge, the AT-ART9. Which makes my plinth/arm/cartridge Golden Ratio (including Funk Firm mat and feet) explode from a nice neat 33:33:33 ratio figure to the current Rage 1 kit ratio from Funk Firm of somewhere around 16:48:32 (give or take, of course). So, rather than the plinth being the most expensive bit, as we see in many other set-ups, it now becomes the cheapest with the Rage 1. That’s what is so different with the Rage 1 philosophy. That is why this kit is so radical.
I talked to Khoubesserian about this because I initially thought he was, as it where, ‘having a laugh’. I thought he’d installed the wrong arm. I feared for his sanity, in fact. Despite my own equal ratio philosophy, I feared that the turntable itself may be unbalanced. That it couldn’t cope with the high-end arm.
Why? Because a plinth/platter is nothing but a support system. That’s all it does but that job is critical. The platter supports the vinyl and the plinth supports the tonearm. Each has to be steady, solid and secure. Any tiny wobbles, vibrations or other insecurities and all of that will travel up the arm, into the cartridge, over the stylus and through your speakers. The basic plinth/platter, therefore, has to be A1.
Now, this is the interesting bit and shows why Khoubesserian’s designer instincts often take him into areas previously unknown. He believes that Rega, with the Planar 3, has a top quality basic support system on offer here. That is, in terms of the Planar 3’s plinth, platter but also the turntable’s core bearing. He’s of the belief that the Rega Planar 3 can produce greater sonic quality than it is exhibiting in its standard guise and a lot more than most people give it credit for. In effect, the Planar 3, according to Khoubesserian, offers great sonic potential. Potential that can only be realised by The Funk Firm, of course.
Before I move into the sound quality section, if this kit is a bit rich for your blood, there’s always the lower cost option, the Rage 2. See HERE for more information.
To begin, I compared the Rage 1 with a basic, standard Rega Planar 3. On the face of it, this seems like a crazy test as the two are far apart in terms of value and potential sound quality but there is method in my madness.
One of the first things I need to check here is the sonic balance of the Rage 1. The standard Rega Planar 3 has been, one assumes, designed to be a well-rounded, even-handed, complete system where everything works together, everything is happy with everything else and stresses and strains are not entertained.
The Rage 1 is an unknown quantity. On the face of it, this collection of bits and pieces, bolted together, shouldn’t get on. It should sound noisy, unfocused, wayward, glaring possibly, it should complain and grouch a lot. It should, at first glance, be a mess. On that basis, the default Rega Planar 3 should be a better proposition. Let’s see.
I started with Nina Simone’s Who Am I from the RCA LP …and Piano! An album of voice and piano from Germany’s audiophile label, Speakers Corner.
After listening to the test track for a while, in terms of sound from the new kit, it was pretty obvious that the Rage 1 does indeed sound balanced. During this track, which was a real challenge incidentally with Simone’s almost avant vocal presentation and the chaotic nature of her piano, the Rage 1 tracked each and every note without losing control, without smearing during the midrange sequences or blurring around the bass. I never heard any unstable areas in terms of cartridge tracking or noise from the bearing or platter.
Midrange insight was certainly present on the Rage 1 where it was not a major factor on the default Rega Planar 3, in comparative terms. Take the gamut of subtle sounds from a hard-struck piano key hitting the piano chassis, for example. You can sometimes hear this effect on recorded music. It sits behind the music, as it where. That resonance was beautifully produced by the Rage 1. The smooth transition from Simone’s almost talkie-lyric sequence into a gentle vibrato – that was another notable effect of the Rage 1. The resonant and lingering bass tones from the piano were also impressive. All of these effects either didn’t exist on the basic Rega or, if they did, the effects were subdued, dull in comparison or the ear was never truly directed or alerted to them.
I brought in Funk Firm’s own Little Super Deck, a made-from-scratch, high-end turntable, to see how the Rage 1 coped with rather more specialist competition.
The Rage 1 competed well too. Very well. Scarily well, in fact. Was the Rage 1 an improvement over the LSD? No. But the differences were not huge. We’re talking shades of grey here. For example, the LSD soundstage was a bit wider and a little more space and air was infused within. Bass was richer by degrees with a fuller and more exuberant feel. Again, though, the distance between the LSD and the Rage was not a massive one. Mid track, Simone had an intense vocal rant sequence. The LSD revealed this sequence to be infused with more joy and energy. Even so, the Rage 1 performed brilliantly well. Especially when you factor in the price.
Heard in isolation, the Rage 1 lacked nothing. In fact, it had so much going for it I had to check once more that a Rega Planar 3 was the core of this analogue system.
I then turned to more dynamic fare and Tubeway Army’s You Are in My Vision from the fine 2008 Vinyl 180 reissue of the LP, Replicas. Bass was firm, hefty, meaty and generally powerful. The Rage 1 could certainly be aggressive when it put its mind to it but it did so with a sense of organisation because it never infected the rest of the soundstage. There was still plenty of air and space to enable the guitar to display a heap of insightful detail. The Rage 1’s upper midrange was free to present an array of delicious detail and that guitar was but one source for that. The analogue synths were also full of texture but there was enough air in between each to enable a sense of layering to enrich the entire track. That air also provided a vehicle for reverb tails to add a sense of atmosphere, ambience and mood.
Frankly, the Rage 1 screamed quality in sonic terms. As it stands, it is like no hi-fi kit I’ve ever heard.
You know, I have to shake my head and laugh to myself. No-one would be innovative enough, brave enough and, I have to say it, crazy enough to produce a turntable like this except for Arthur Khoubesserian. The man is a maverick.
And it’s a breath of fresh air. A break from staid practices, bland designs, safe (scared?) production philosophies and a willingness to think, not only out of the box but to do so whilst circling the outer atmosphere.
The Rage 1 turns the concept of the turntable on its head. It changes the dynamic. It re-writes the entire notion of what a turntable actually is and how it should be viewed. It is, my friends, revolutionary.
And for that reason amongst many other sonic benefits, it deserves the ultimate accolade of a Golden Groovy award. I await the next project from Funk Firm and I shake in my boots whilst I do so.
THE FUNK FIRM RAGE II
Bo!ng feet (3): £112
FX-R Tonearm: £1,300
If you order the Rage 1 as a whole, price is: £1,380
Tel: 07846 798367
GOOD: airy soundstage, midrange insight, bass power, value for money, innovative
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