First there was the Debut, then came the Genie, then inflation kicked in and the decks hit or even broke the £200 barrier. So Pro-Ject built a new entry-level turntable called Essential for those who want to find out what the vinyl thing is all about.
Pro-Ject has managed to make the Essential affordable by using more cost-effective materials for major parts like the plinth and platter and using a Unipivot version of its 8.6 tonearm.
You can also choose from three colour options including black (£155) or red or white (both £170 each), so on paper at least it looks like great value.
The Essential is naturally not an elaborate turntable, but it's European-built, fully set up and is virtually plug and play; all you need is a phono stage.
The plinth is a slab of particle board (supported on three compliant feet) and this houses the three key elements of a record player.
The motor is a synchronous type with two pulleys for 33.3 and 45rpm, while the main bearing, on which the platter spins, is chromed-steel with a ball-bearing thrust pad and sintered bronze housing.
The unipivot arm is an unusual choice at this price point. Most cost several times the price of this package, but they are intrinsically simple devices and presumably inexpensive to build in bulk. It has a one-piece headshell and armtube, and an eccentrically mounted counterweight, which eases the cartridge's job with warped records.
The cartridge fitted is Ortofon's entry-level OM3E moving magnet.
Can it be done?
While you'd be hard pressed to find a sintered bronze bearing on other turntables in this price bracket, it is the smallest example of the type we've seen, but size isn't everything.
The platter is, by necessity, vinyl wrapped, which leaves a joint in its periphery, but this is an aesthetic, not practical issue. The tonearm is not a true unipivot: it only pivots in two planes, but it's neatly put together and has a captive signal lead unlike most Pro-Jects.
On/off switching is on the side, next to the motor and dust is kept at bay with the supplied lid. We also like the simple, but effective downforce gauge supplied in the box.
The only competition at this price comes from plastic turntables with extremely flimsy-looking arms, so one has to wonder if even Pro-Ject can build a useful player at this price.
The Essential delivers a reasonably coherent and, with simpler records, surprisingly robust rendition of the signal embedded in the groove. All the fundamentals are in place and while transparency isn't impressive, channel separation is on par for the money.
Compression levels are a little high, however, and image scale (as well as high-frequency extension) is rather obviously curtailed. On the plus side, image width is quite acceptable and the bass, while not exactly weighty, is not without its appeal. It manages to control the bass as well, even when placed on a standard equipment rack where speaker feedback will be getting through to it to some extent.
Female voice seems to work well too, better than some male ones for no obvious reason, the latter often lacking a degree of clarity and precision.
It would seem that there is a limit even to what Pro-Ject can achieve when costs are cut to the bone, we wondered whether the cartridge is a limiting factor, but trying it on another turntable revealed that (while its treble is restricted) it's more than adequate.
We suggest you buy a Genie Mk 3, it looks better and delivers the sort of sound that will embarrass many digital sources. The Essential is a very affordable way to get into vinyl, but there are better alternatives from the Czech expert.
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