‘It’s all about grasping opportunities…’
Rega is one of the most famous names in British hi-fi. Its turntables offer legendary sound and build quality and it is now producing electronics and loudspeakers too. Chris Frankland went to meet its founder Roy Gandy
When I last visited Rega, it was based in an old mill in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. My jaw drops, however, as I approach the new 30,000 square foot factory near Southend Airport that the company moved into in 2014.
One astonishing fact about Rega is that they pretty much make everything in-house. Certain mouldings and castings and populated circuit boards are outsourced from UK suppliers, and some components are made in Germany, Finland, Taiwan and Japan, but apart from that, Rega makes it all.
It manufactures the turntables, arms and cartridges in-house. I even watch the guy winding the coils onto armatures for their moving coil cartridges. Rega also makes and assembles the drive units for their loudspeakers. This is more amazing when you consider that they are producing entry- and mid-level products, such as the Planar 2 turntable at £248 and the latest Brio amplifier at £500, as well as the RP10 turntable at nearly £3,000.
As I look around, the two-storey factory is buzzing and workers in the Planar 1 production area are busy producing their 120 turntables for the day. The company also makes OEM tonearms for another 20 brands.
From humble beginnings some 40 years ago, Rega now employs more than 100 staff and exports to 42 countries. It predicts a turnover for the next year of £10.1 million – up from £9.6m last year.
But did founder Roy Gandy ever dream it would become so successful?
“No,” he admits. “I didn’t start Rega because that’s what I wanted, it just sort of snowballed. It’s all about grasping opportunities. When things that seem obvious to do come along, I do them.”
I ask him about the company’s decision to make its product in-house.
Mr Gandy says: “The company has acquired a number of core people who love making things. Our company is about making things. We are a skills-based company.”
Have turntable sales been boosted by the vinyl revival? “Yes. In the 1980s, a good month would be 1,500 to 2,000,” Mr Gandy tells me. “Turntable sales had been going up five per cent a year for five years, but suddenly, sometime between 2007 and 2009, we had a doubling in one year. That was the beginning of the vinyl revival. Now, we are making 4,000 to 5,000 a month. What that has allowed us to do is invest in real development of turntables.”
Rega turntables have long been admired for their engineering and sound quality. So is Mr Gandy a perfectionist?
“I’m not a perfectionist,” he counters. “It’s about the level to which things should work. It’s more about compromises. Our ideal product is the Planar 3 [around £550]. We don’t have to make any excuses for it. We’ve not had to downgrade its performance for cost. It was always a giant killer and still is.
“There’s no such thing as perfection, but to reach near-perfection you have to be sensible about which compromises you accept. If you’re a manufacturing company, it’s important to be competent as a manufacturer. To make a loudspeaker that costs £200,000 has nothing to do with being sensible or being a good manufacturer.”
Having started with turntables, what made him branch out into speakers and electronics?
“I’d always made speakers for friends, even before I made turntables,” he recalls. “There was a lot of brainwashing around at the time [mid-1970s] where two British companies were saying you should spend the minimum on speakers and the maximum on the turntable. This led to a lot of bad, cheap speakers and our turntables were being sold with rubbish, so you couldn’t hear their performance advantage. So we produced a speaker at £400 and sold hundreds.”
And the move into electronics?
Mr Gandy explains: “One day a guy walked in with an amplifier that was just a pile of wires. We listened to it and it was right up there with the market leader in sound quality. Then we took on our electronics designer Terry Bateman. In two weeks, he had it working nicely. It was really a £2,000 amplifier that we sold for £700. We sold lots, but we didn’t make money on it. Terry quickly made a £250 lower-powered version. It taught us a lot and now we have a viable electronics department.”
At the Bristol show, Rega unveiled the Ania entry-level moving coil cartridge at £498. Mr Gandy tells me that it has the same generator assembly, but uses a plastic body. “This was a five-year project. It uses an advanced plastic called Fortron, touted as the plastic equivalent of aluminium, and it needs special moulding. It also has a lower cost diamond.”
I ask Mr Gandy what he thinks of the current state of hi-fi retailing.
“I have always been critical – right from the beginning. The expertise was low. I went along to shops with ideas for them to make themselves better, which I learned from the better shops all over the world. At the end of 10 years, I gave up. I realised most shops were like they were, because that’s how they wanted to be. It was a garden shed mentality.”
With Article 50 triggered, I ask Mr Gandy what impact he thinks Brexit will have on his business.
“We buy predominantly in England with a few parts from Germany, Taiwan, Japan and Finland. I find it difficult to believe that Europe is going to slap huge tariffs on us. People are talking as though we won’t be able to trade with Europe. It’s nonsense. I voted to pull out.”
The next product we are likely to see from Rega is a new flagship turntable, the Naiad – due for launch this month.
But it started out as a test bed. Mr Gandy explains: “If you want to know your ideas are working – make one change at a time. But if a turntable is well balanced, it’s very difficult to make one change that improves it. You have to improve everything. So we had to bite the bullet and forget the money. We put all our ideas into it. We found an F1 supplier who had an engineer who was a vinyl fanatic and they did a lot of work on carbon fibre for us. We had an MOD company that was happy to spend its money to research a ceramic bearing for it. Suddenly, we’d made the equivalent of an F1 car as a turntable – and it sounded wonderful.”
Rega is currently making 50 of the Naiad and its price will be capped at £30,000. It has also led to spin-offs for the rest of their turntables.
So what of the future for Rega?
Mr Gandy smiles: “Growth has always worried me, but I am enjoying the benefits now more than ever. I love the collaboration with suppliers that want to work with us because we are bigger. We have a wonderful team of people that we can afford to let explore areas that don’t have to be 100 per cent commercial. I get a big buzz out of it and the people here are happy. It’s wonderful.”