Mini Marvels from Pro-Ject!

Many people only know Pro-Ject for their line of high-value turntables, (and we’ve got one of those for you here…) but they produce an entire line of electronics and loudspeakers, along with some very stylish accessories.

Company principal Heinz Lichtenegger puts it perfectly when he says, “I like to make fun components that everyone can afford.” Add stylish to that list of boxes to tick – all Pro-Ject products share a very cool design aesthetic as well.

We’ve been living with an entire Pro-Ject system, consisting of their VT-E turntable ($349), the MaiA CD Player ($399), MaiA Integrated Amplifier ($499), along with the matching Speaker Box 5 mini monitors ($299). For this review, Rob and I concentrate on the components, with a review of the Speaker Box 5 speakers to be published online very soon.

Every Pro-Ject product we’ve used has always been high on performance and simplicity with a minimal footprint. It’s an understatement that Lichtnegger has outdone himself on this recent crop of products! If you are pinched for space, yet crave great sound, this trio is for you. We were all shocked at just how small the MaiA components are.

MaiA Integrated Amplifier: A Marvel of Compact Efficiency

Like the other products in Pro-Ject’s “Box” product like, the MaiA integrated amplifier is designed to pack much functionality into the smallest possible package. Wow did they succeed! Without its wall-wart power supply, the amplifier weighs in at a scant 4 lbs. (1850g). At 8.11 inches (206mm) wide by 1.4 inches (36mm) tall by 6.14 inches (156mm) deep, the MaiA is deceivingly minimalistic. Straightforward and effective controls on the front panel facilitate adjustment of the volume, plus your choice of source components. While nondescript on the outside, things get a lot more interesting when exploring MaiA’s capabilities.

The ins and outs

Any way you choose to connect a music source to this amplifier, there is an input to handle it. In addition to three stereo line inputs, options include USB, Bluetooth, digital optical, and RCA-type digital coaxial. As they say on infomercials, “but wait… there’s more.” An onboard MM phono stage as well as a headphone amplifier with a ¼” input is also included.

Five-way binding posts facilitate connection to loudspeakers using a variety of cable options. However, bananas are an ideal candidate, as these binding posts are relatively close together. With such a small chassis, there is little room for all the connections on the rear panel, so it is nearly impossible to connect spades in such a tiny space without touching each other inadvertently.

The only other connection required is the power cord, supplied by the included wall wart power supply. I suspect there was not enough room left in this small chassis to fit a full-sized 115v power cord socket, much less an internal power supply.

Lots inside

All those inputs lead to some remarkable circuitry within. The internal DAC does not decode DSD files, but it does a solid job with digital files up to a sample rate of 24bit/192kHz – plenty for CD and SACD input or streaming your favorite online music service.

The MaiAs Class D amplification circuitry delivers 25 watts into an eight-ohm speaker load, or 37 watts into four ohms. While featuring a much lower power rating than my usual reference amplifier, the MaiA had no problem driving GamuT RS3i speakers. Back at the TONE studio, we substituted a broad range of different speakers and found the power amplifier section both robust and conservatively rated.

Sonically satisfying

For our testing, we paired the MaiA integrated with the matching CD player in the same product line, as well as other sources on hand. No matter what musical genre you enjoy, the MaiA delivers excellent sound with ample detail. Sonically, the amp is very neutral, a touch to the forgiving side. It provides a high level of realism while avoiding uncomfortable and edgy stridency that emerges from some budget-conscious pieces of gear I have experienced over the years. Bass goes deep and punchy considering its modest power rating. Higher frequencies appear effortlessly, and retain the shimmer and glow desired from favorite recordings.

Soundstaging represents another important strength. The perceived performance expresses with large scale breadth and depth, extending forward of the speakers when a recording dictates it and filling the room with music without any apparent strain. Do not expect this amp to drive massive full range speakers with oomph given its power rating, but as long as you stick to speakers in the 90db/1watt range, it’s all good. Stand mounted speakers, though, are likely to find a very welcome ally. Simply put, it is a great amp. An audio fan cannot expect the world for the MaiA’s price point of about $500 USD, but you easily get a large continent or two!

The MaiA CD: Diminutive Digital

The MaiA CD player matches the integrated amplifier in size and performance, with its front-loading CD slot taking up three-quarters of the player’s width. Without its wall-wart power supply, the CD player weighs in at 2.77 lbs. (1260g). I have owned power cords which weigh more than this player!

Under the hood resides solid engineering and technology. Built around a Burr-Brown (Texas Instruments) DAC chip, this player is meant exclusively for CDs.The DAC handles all files at 24bit/96khz with 8x oversampling, bringing a lot of life to your CD collection. Those wanting to use the MaiA CD player as a transport only can do so via the Toslink output. Utilized in this mode via a 25 foot AudioQuest Toslink cable, we found the MaiA player to provide an interesting solution to those still wanting to play compact discs occasionally. The MaiA player is an excellent transport, via the Audio Research DAC 9, also reviewed in this issue. Even the fussiest audiophile can take advantage of a MaiA player, to play the redbook discs in their collection.

On the right side, the front panel offers a little digital display, the size of a postage stamp, noting track number and play time. On the left is the power button as well as a tiny IR receiver for the remote control. Beneath the disc slot is the expected buttons for track advance, reverse, pause/play and stop/eject. The small remote allows the owner to make these adjustments, plus others. The control allows track or album repeat, random play, and selection of a specific song by typing in the track number. The only remaining choice is black or silver casework. Both are very attractive.

The rear of the player is even more minimalistic. A single pair of RCA analog outs make connections to any amplifier straightforward. If you already have preferred interconnects at home with audiophile grade terminations, be aware there is little space between the terminals. Hose-like interconnects will not fit, so choose accordingly. We’ve had excellent result with the Audience or Cardas cables in this respect, and Pro-Ject even offers a line of their own.

In addition to the compact form factor, this player is a top musical performer. More expensive dedicated CD players can offer more refinement and a greater level of micro-detail retrieval. For the price asked, this mini-marvel will not leave its owner longing for more. Voiced slightly to the warmer side of neutral with robust detail, the MaiA player is very “anti-digital” in its rendition. Soundstaging is excellent with a soundfield that projects left and right beyond the speaker boundaries, and each musical element has a good degree of separation in the perceived distance behind the speakers.

Playing MoFi’s remaster of Beck’s Sea Change, proves immersive. Vocals lock in place up front with ambient cues layered across the soundstage. Bass notes have substantial heft, and highs offer gentle sparkle. Even loudspeakers many times the price of this CD player will find themselves complemented by this marvelous partner. Switching the program between acoustic, solo vocal and even densely packed rock recordings all satisfy.

Vertical Integration – The Pro-Ject VT-E

Up till now, the vertical record players we’ve seen have been little more than mere toys. Leave it to Pro-Ject to come up with a vertical that offers serious performance. As at home on a shelf or table, the VT-E combines Pro-Ject performance in a vertical format with a pre-installed Ortofon OM5 cartridge. You can even wall mount it, and they are available in red, white and black. At $349 each, I’d even consider buying six of them to make wall art! Should you not be integrating the VT-E with an amplifier containing a phono preamplifier, consider the VT-L, which has a built in phonostage and can be connected to a line input.

Everything is set up from the factory, so the only decision is whether to shelf or wall mount. Those that are challenged for space need only about 16 inches of wall space and a little bit of counter space underneath to put a complete Pro-Ject system! Though I admit I love the idea of a VT-L on a pedestal in the middle of the room with a pair of long interconnects to the rest of the system. Again, Pro-Ject is as much art as science. You can even order one in right or left-hand operation. Very diplomatic!

Skeptical as I was about the concept of a vertical table, the VT-E works perfectly. Most of my listening was done with the table wall mounted, so it proved immune to room induced vibrations. Sonically, it reminds me a lot of the Debut Carbon table. Tracking through some favorite current and classics, the Pro-Ject/Ortofon combination is more than capable. Of course, the synergy between it and the MaiA integrated is fantastic, and the aesthetic works well.

For the beginning vinyl enthusiast, the VT-E should prove a worthy companion, providing a musically rewarding experience and a real conversation piece to boot. And because it comes from the factory completely set up, it’s as no fuss as LP playback can be.

Summing up

Considering everything inside these tiny components, you might expect compromise, but none have been made regarding sonics. The Pro-Ject MaiA Integrated Amplifier and CD Player both combine excellent audio performance and functionality in a pair of very tiny boxes. We are pressed to think of anything offering this level of performance near this price.

Should you have more space, or just want bigger, more powerful components, the MaiA series will probably always have a place in a second room or desktop system. Our publisher is even thinking about a set for his garage system!

Both the Pro-Ject MaiA Integrated Amp and CD Player more than earns a much-deserved TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award. These would be outstanding components if they were in full sized boxes. Considering they offer it in such compact enclosures is certainly a bonus. Now you have no excuse not to have a great sound system anywhere.

Pro-Ject MaiA Integrated Amplifier. ($499)

Pro-Ject MaiA CD Player ($399)

Pro-Ject VT-E Turntable ($349) (factory) (US importer)  (for more details)

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


Preamplifier Aesthetix Calypso
Phono Icon PS3
Power Icon MB845 Monoblocks
Speakers Quad ESL-57 (Slightly Modified)
Cables Avid SCT    Avid ASC