Pro-Ject Audio System X1 Turntable Review
This company’s iconic first turntable has been reimagined thirty years later. David Price listens in…
AUD $1,190 (No Cartridge), AUD $1,519 (Ortofon 2M Blue), AUD $1,889 (Ortofon Quintet Blue)
The X1 as reviewed here was fitting with an Ortofon Pick-It S2 cartridge (not available in Australia or New Zealand).
You only need to look at how stock markets react to sudden events to see the herd mentality in action – there’s always a moment when people behave irrationally simply because everyone else is doing so too. It was exactly this groupthink that caused many traditional turntable manufacturers to pull out of the sector in the early nineteen nineties. Being kind, you could argue there was method in their madness, as so many experts were heralding “the death of vinyl” back then. But scratch the surface, and all was not as it seemed…
One of the few industry figures who understood this was Heinz Lichtenegger. He saw that the huge amount of LP records already in circulation, plus the changing demographics of people buying vinyl, meant there would always be a market for it, of sorts. And because so many big-name brands were stopping making decks, he reasoned that he could have some of that market going forward. He reached out to a small but growing share of a huge but slowly declining consumer base. He once told me that when manufacturers move out, the “little guys” can step in and do well. Because they don’t need to sell huge volumes to make money, they can be bolder and more imaginative.
Heinz’s response was to custom-tailor a turntable for a type of music lover that he believed to be poorly served. The original Pro-Ject 1 was launched in 1991 and proved an instant sales success. The very definition of “affordable audiophile”, it was unpretentious, unassuming and honest – and importantly, cheap as chips. His simple minimalist design was hand-assembled in a former Czechoslovakian Soviet weapons factory – a place I visited not long after he launched the deck. It played records enjoyably, and came bundled with a better-than-expected Ortofon 510 moving magnet cartridge already fitted. It was hard to argue with the value for money of this new design.
The deck catapulted Pro-Ject up to the status of one of the world’s largest manufacturers of turntables. Nearly thirty years later, Heinz now has a huge, ultra-modern manufacturing facility which turns out a vast number of – and indeed range of – products. The $1,190 X1 is that first Pro-Ject’s direct spiritual successor – its no-nonsense, no-frills approach is instantly recognisable, yet the improvement in quality is quite a thing. It’s a long way from being a simple remake of the original, however – so while the concept is the same, the execution isn’t.
This new X1 feels like the original, but much better nourished! Measuring 415x125x335mm and weighing 7kg, it sports a denser fibreboard material for its plinth; Heinz says this makes for a tauter bass compared to the lower grade particleboard of the Pro-Ject 1. The finish is far more lavish than the 1991 turntable too, with eight layers of paint and a hand-polished gloss finish in a black (white finish not available in Australia) and walnut wood veneer. Improved isolating feet are fitted underneath. The 1.5kg acrylic platter is heavier and more acoustically inert. There’s a new power feed for the motor, which itself is better isolated; it’s now fed via a DC/AC generator rather than being fed direct from the mains. Push-button controls let you choose between its three speeds.
The tonearm fitted to the new X1 is also a major evolution over the old one. The 8.6” armtube now sports a carbon and aluminium sandwich construction, which is said to be light but stiff. The one-piece, fixed headshell design comes with Pro-Ject’s TPE-damped counterweight to reduce resonance. Azimuth and VTA adjustments are provided, and the base has been beefed up. The arm’s main bearing is now a Kardan ultra-low friction 4-pin point precision type. The supplied review sample was fitted with Pro-Ject’s brand new Pick-IT S2 MM cartridge which is said to be voiced by Heinz and manufactured by Ortofon (but sadly, not available in Australia & New Zealand). To hook this all up, a Connect-IT E shielded RCA cable is bundled.
Although there are a good few user adjustments on this turntable, the clever thing is that newbies need never mess with any of them; the deck comes supplied with its cartridge perfectly aligned. Getting the deck going takes about fifteen minutes; it’s a case of unboxing it, placing it on a level surface and then fitting the counterweight to set the tracking force. Pro-Ject recommends 1.8g for its elliptical stylus to scavenge the record groove securely. The deck sounds slightly better with the dust cover removed, but this is, of course, a matter of preference. Plug in the power lead and the arm lead, and you’re ready to rock!
The mark of a seriously affordable turntable is – to my mind – that it has none of the nasties associated with cheap record replay, and should also be fun. Some of us are old enough to remember the cheap Garrards and BSR turntables of the nineteen seventies, and these had rumble and wow and flutter aplenty. The original Pro-Ject 1 largely dodged these bullets, but the new X1 takes us out of the danger zone altogether. It’s a solid, composed and competent performer that doesn’t struggle with the basics of record replay. This lets the listener relax and enjoy what’s so famous about vinyl – its big, bouncy sound.
Perhaps most striking about its character is the surprisingly wide window that it opens up on the recording. If you’re used to entry-level digital, for example, you’ll be really surprised by just how ‘out of the box’ this sounds. For example, my 12” white vinyl pressing of Too Strong for So Long by Manix sounded expansive, with an upfront feel that saw the drum machine pushing out hard into the room, allied to wonderfully deep sub-bass that had my curtains flapping. The X1 set the scene really well for a budget turntable, floating the sound way beyond the physical boundaries of my loudspeakers. Vocals dominated the centre of the mix, giving things even more impact. There was decent stage depth too, especially when compared to budget digital that tends to render music only in two dimensions.
Indeed I was also impressed by the X1’s fine tonality; the fitted Pro-Ject cartridge seems to match the rest of the deck very well. The turntable itself has an ever-so-slightly warm balance, while the cartridge is brighter and crisper, making for an enjoyably impactful sound. Vinyl done well tends to have a pleasingly sumptuous bass, and so it went for this disc spinner. Some classic rock from REM in the shape of Welcome to the Occupation sounded fulsome and physical, with a nice tone to the bass guitar and a lovely bounce, too. In fairness, it’s not the tautest turntable I’ve heard low down, but if anything this is a plus at this price because it lends the music a slight euphonic quality.
Midband proved surprisingly clean and open; I loved the natural timbre to Michael Stipe’s vocals, and the backing harmonies. Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker guitar had a rich and fruity tone, although it wasn’t so sweet that bite was lost. At the same time, drums were as tight as any self-respecting mid-eighties rock record. Snares had a pleasing snap to them, while still showing a decent bit of body. Indeed, this is where good inexpensive analogue excels – it’s able to deliver a sound that’s instinctively right, in a totally fuss-free way. Switch back to similarly priced digital, and things can certainly seem more processed…
It’s surprisingly well poised for such a modestly priced package. Los Endos by Genesis is a dense mid-seventies rock recording with lots of multi-tracking used, as instruments are layered on top of the other. The X1 served up a powerful and detailed sound, and on crescendos when the mix got seriously loud, it acquitted itself in a controlled and confident manner. Even on heavy groove modulation, the deck’s bundled moving magnet cartridge continued to track tenaciously, showing no apparent signs of distress. This made the music highly enjoyable, giving a confident feel to the song – not something expected at this price. Here it showed fine speed stability too – there was no sense of wobble to vocals or Steve Hackett’s guitar work.
So the X1 is perfect then, right? Well, it does have some issues that more expensive turntables avoid. For example, the deck lacks midband insight compared to pricier products, and there’s a subtle looseness in the bass. Interestingly though, neither of these make it any less nice to listen to – instead, the result is a warm yet engaging sound that’s difficult not to like.
For the money, Pro-Ject’s new X1 is something of a star. This price point is where this company really excels, and the deck’s combination of sound quality, flexibility and ease of set-up and use is hard to beat. In other words, it does precisely what that original Pro-Ject 1 did – but a whole lot better.
For more information, visit Pro-Ject.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.