Sunday, June 08, 2008

Hunting for Turntables - Some Pro-Ject Tables

Alright, now it's Pro-Ject's turn. Last post saw a number of high quality turntables from Rega, the veritable gold standard in hi-fi audio. Now let's take a look at some of the Project tables that have been seriously tempting me.

Again, just to recap: I bought a Project Debut III roughly three months ago. It was a dramatic upgrade from my first turntable, a humble little $99 portable from Newmark. That was a thrill for me, and essential at the time, since my room had no room whatsoever for a real stereo system. But after a while it became obvious that the poor little Newmark didn't have the serious chops to compete. So I hunted down a stereo, scoring a vintage 1977 Marantz 2235B stereo receiver, and a nice pair of RCA speakers.
To complete the package, I rushed out - a little too fast, I realized, but I am a music junkie - and returned with the table recommended to me by the fine folks at Needle Doctor. That was the Project Debut III. At $300, it represents the entry-level price for anyone who seriously wants to get into vinyl records.

I should probably point out that there are many cheap turntables available at big-box retailers like Best Buy, usually available for $150 or less. Don't touch those. Don't lay a finger on any of them. No! Bad dog! No soup for you! Those are cheap, all-plastic junkers that aren't worth five bucks at a rummage sale. In fact, you're guaranteed to find something better at any given rummage, really, you'd be surprised at the gems you'll find that some other soul foolishly tossed away. But let's deal with new tables for now, eh?

Back to Pro-Ject. The Debut III is a fine table, and it's a good entry-level machine, a pick-up-and-play table that requires no fuss from the user. The only real upgrade you'd need would be a better needle cartridge, but this is true of any table that comes pre-equipped. It's just like the pack-in games to most videogame consoles. It's just like Altered Beast. You're going to want to chuck that bad boy out and score Sonic. Dig?

So, here to illustrate, a photo of the Debut III, and its twin, a $329 model that comes with a colored finish. These come in many different colors, including blue, white, brown, and red. The red really looks cool. I mean, come on. Every Project table should come with a colored piano finish. Tell me that wouldn't impress your girlfriends or boyfriends.

For me, though, I've caught the tinkering bug, and I'm craving to have something higher up the food chain, something that will last for a while and provide at least a couple options for upgrades and tweaks. At the very least, I want a better tone arm, and a table that can handle far tougher carts. I'm thinking of the carts priced around $500 - you know, the ones the hi-fi press calls, "entry level." Are these people insane? I know how much money writers make. Who are these middle-aged geeks fooling? You just try telling your wife that you want $500 for a needle cartridge so you can hear the floor squeaks on those Beatles records. Yeah, you just try that.

Ahem. I'm just cranky 'cause I don't have that kind of money.

Here's the next table in the lineup above the Debut. It's called the Xpression III, and sells for $599. Fortunately, the US distributors like Needle Doctor (located right here in Dinkytown, yay!) keeps this in stock. They just sold their demo copy several weeks ago for $500, in fact. Wish I had my money saved up for that.

Now, one thing that really bugs me about the turntables of the 2000's is that they look....well, dull. They're nerds. They have no style, no panache. It's all about the design, design, design. That's all fine and good, but most of these tables look the same, either covered in black medium-density-fiberwood (aka MDF, which I thought was a party drug from the '90s), or in a clear acrylic. So it's either black or white, or shades of grey. I really miss the wood frames from the classic '70s tables. I miss wood paneling. I don't care what anyone says. I'll have my rec room decked out in wood paneling and loud carpets - we'll party like it's 1969!

This is why I dig the color finish on those $329 Debuts so much. And that's why I'm really digging Xpression III. As you can see, the table (or plinth...who comes up with these lame-ass names?) has a shiny black piano finish, just glossy and cool. The platter on my Debut is metal; this platter is clear acrylic. Oooh! I'm already planning to sneak in a small blue Christmas light to the back, so the table can glow in the dark. Tell me that's not groovy cool.

More improvements follow. The tonearm, a crucial element of any turntable, is a glossy carbon fiber....and, again, you can see why I'm itching to upgrade. My humble little Debut is looking poorer and poorer. This carbon-fiber arm enables much better sound and allows for much pricier, more powerful carts, especially those exotic "moving coil" carts. The Debut is pretty much limited to "moving magnet" carts, and certain ones at that.

The feet at the bottom are now aluminum cones, which is a standard with tables these days. Everyone tries to limit outside vibrations and interference, so you'll see all audio parts with spiky cones at the feet. It's also stylish, it adds a veneer of cool....I wonder if I could polish them and bring out a shine? Maybe I'll have to pull out a can of gold spray paint for that. I've created some of my best artwork with gold spray paint.

More innovations? The interconnect cables, which are hardwired to my Debut III, are now connected to RCA plugs in the back. That's a nice improvement; even the legendary Rega P3 doesn't allow that. I'll let you argue amongst yourselves whether this means a great improvement in sound quality or a little, but these are the sort of things vinyl junkies (vinyl records, you perv) live for. Even a small improvement in performance is worth taking. So that means another trip to Radio Shack for some Monster Cables, right? Ugh, this hobby is expensive.

In any event, you can now understand my feelings for wanting to upgrade. I do feel guilty for knocking the Debut III. It's a nice table, I really enjoy it. I'm sure a good cart - maybe the Ortofon Red or Blue 2M, which look great - would make it shine. But there are so many areas for improvement, and if I don't pursue them now, I'll go nuts wondering what might have been. This is probably a good test to see how devoted to records you are. Feel happy with wherever you choose to stay. You'll be happier that way.

So that's Xpression III. Here's a look at the next table in line, the RM 5, or RPM 5 as it's known in the UK and Europe. RM5 sells for $650, but without any cartridge (XIII does have a cart), which means I have to factor that into my budget on day one. This is the rule from here on out, kids, so keep that in mind. At this point in the game, your budget has to grow to at least $1,000. If you're not willing to invest that amount, then get off the train now. Lucky you. I really envy you kids.

I wouldn't be mentioning the RM5, since there's the XIII just below, and a number of Project tables just above at $999. But pleasant surprises abound. Needle Doctor has announced the sale of the final 30 RM5 tables in the US, and they are selling them for $500. Five hundred? Now this changes things. To my mind, five hundred is a solid investment. That's a table I can hold onto for many years.

So what's the difference between these two machines? Apart from the tonearm, which is slightly longer on RM5, the only difference I've noticed is its appearance. You can see for yourself. The familiar block table is replaced with something far more compact...really just big enough to hold the platter itself and the tonearm. It's very small. Reminds me of the Sega Dreamcast, which is just about the best compliment I can muster.

Also, we can see the same piano black finish to the table, which is terrific. I like that look. I like it a lot, and I'm glad that Project has put the extra work into their style. They're still upstarts compared to the mighty Rega, so every bit helps. I root for underdogs, always have. The competition is a good thing, especially us.

That platter is a bit different. It's a sandwich of MDF, painted silver. I've no idea if an acrylic platter could be attached, but it does look very nice. I could always spray paint it, or use some acrylic paints - go all Woodstock for personal style. That clamp on the top is a nice touch, and probably does help the sound.

Beyond that? Hard to say. Owners love this table, it has a small if devoted following, but little word online as to its performance. I've really had to dig around the internet to learn anything. But this is true of most turntables. RM5 is one step above the XIII, so we should expect them to be mostly the same. Any major difference in sound quality? I've heard yes, but I'm not so sure.

Then again, at $500, this is a steal. Any way you slice it, this is a great deal for a brand-new turntable. I just hope there's one available when my next paycheck comes in two weeks. Cross your fingers, kids. We'll see how this little story progresses over the next fortnight. Stay tuned....

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