Pro-Ject Essential Turntable

Pick up a TV guide these days in the UK, look in the back, and you’ll almost assuredly be hit by advertisements for USB-outfitted “miracle turntables” that promise to transfer your vinyl to data for iPod, car, or computer use. Plus, you get an independent platform to play treasured wax. Oy vey. These toys give vinyl a bad name by arousing the suspicion that vinyl really is a dinosaur and all these weird types that bang on about sacred grooves must be in the pay of the hi-fi industry. And yet, the jump from poorly constructed rubbish to audiophile fare isn’t far. Witness the $250 Pro-Ject Essential, the cheapest audiophile deck on the market.

Structurally, the plinth is constructed of MDF with semi-isolating rubber feet. The platter is also created from MDF and sits on a reasonably performing, toughly built bearing. And the single tube-pressed unipivot tonearm is superior to the glued-on headshell type. For such a low-cost turntable, manufacturing has been closely monitored.

Be careful during setup, however. Approach the ‘table gently to avoid pulling on the delicate signal leads connected to the unipivot housing. In order to provide a low center of gravity (which should help with LPs suffering from a touch of warping), the counterweight is low slung. An Ortofon OM 3E cartridge completes the main portion of the deck; not surprisingly, an Ortofon 2M Red reportedly transforms the Essential’s performance. It is also possible to swap another OM stylus to upgrade the cartridge at minimal cost; the bodies are identical.

Laurence Armstrong, managing director of Henley Designs, which acts as the UK distributor for Pro-Ject and design partner for the Essential, confirms that “Everything bar the belt, which is bought in, has been machined in the Pro-Ject factory, even the screws that hold it together. The deck has a far eastern economy of scale with European build quality.”  John Paul Lizars, from Sumiko Audio in the US has also jumped on the bandwagon with the Essential, so by the time you read this it will also be available there.

A Curate’s Egg

After unpacking, all you have to do is attach the belt, add the anti-skate weight and the arm weight, place the mat on the deck, plug in everything, and you’re away. You’ll be finished in 15 minutes. The Essential also comes with a dustcover, which I left off to improve overall sound quality during tests.

Because of the low cost, the Essential is a curate’s egg: Design shortcuts yielded a few foibles. First, the belt sits on the outside of the platter and is a bugger to fit. You need full 3D handling to stretch the belt over each pulley and the outer platter. Also, accidental knocks can twang the belt off the platter. Not vastly important, but potentially irritating. Second, the unipivot arm—by its very nature and because of its inherent design—requires gentle handling. If you’re too rough, it will leap out of its housing. Not a big deal during use and again, at most, irritating.

My third criticism is more a window of opportunity than a drawback. The platter mat should, at your earliest convenience, be consigned to the dustbin and replaced. Better feet isolation should also be considered, as should disposing of the lid and associated hinges to reduce distortion. Suffice it to say that the Essential is a tweaker’s dream and will reward low-cost albeit ingenious sonic improvements. Armstrong agrees.

“We’ve found that swapping the platter mat for a leather mat increases the platter mass, improving speed stability,” he says. “Squash balls under the feet on a solid shelf works well as does a trampoline effect under the deck to create a suspended sub-chassis—unipivots really like that.”

An Easy Listen

What you certainly don’t get with the Essential is any great bass—although this may have more to do with the low-cost cartridge. When playing the Human League’s early electronica masterpiece “Being Boiled” from Travelogue, bass control was minimal and bass weight non-existent. But, you do get detail. Pro-Ject certainly made the best trade-off here. Indeed, details, partly the result of using a unipivot arm, are available in spades; vocals oozed personality.

Midrange and treble fared best via organic instruments. Tripping through Neil Young’s On The Beach, cymbals had a surprising amount of lightness and fragility while an acoustic guitar brimmed with texture and a vivid energy that kept the ear involved. What little bass existed tended to live in the crossover between lower midrange and upper bass frequencies. On more rocking tracks, bass guitar possessed a tremendous grip (considering the unit’s price), while lead electric guitar also tracked well. All the instruments were easily delineated, and instrumental separation proved remarkable given the ‘table’s price point.

Spinning “Lush Life” from John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman’s self-titled album, the basic Ortofon cartridge impressively tackled the rigors of the saxophone and notably maintained control of potentially chaotic frequencies all the while portraying the instrument’s requisite energy. Imaging was only decent, yet the soundstage possessed greater body and depth than that of some $500 CD players.

When playing Stevie Wonder’s ‘”I’d Cry” from the original Tamla LP I Was Made To Love Her, I couldn’t believe how much music came forward. Any ingrained pops and clicks were placed in the background, speaking volumes about the deck’s information retrieval—more expensive budget turntables could learn from it.

A Real Steal

Whether you’re looking to get back into vinyl or are approaching the medium for the first time and have a restricted budget, the Pro-ject Essential is highly recommended. For the price, the turntable screams value: It boasts all of the required basic features and, more importantly, provides an arresting and involving playback—a solid foundation for a top-quality budget hi-fi system.  -Paul Rigby

Pro-Ject Essential

€172 (Black)

€195 (Various colours)  $299 US, both finishes


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Cables Avid SCT    Avid ASC