In 1991, at a time when most people thought vinyl was dead, Heinz Lichtenegger introduced the first Pro-Ject Audio Systems turntable. He knew there were probably millions of people who still owned billions of records and that many of them would want to hold on to their collections. So he set out to build a turntable that offered great sound at a budget price. That turntable was the Pro-Ject 1.
Today, Pro-Ject is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of turntables, building not only its own lines but also the lines of other companies. And while the prices of its units can extend into the stratosphere, Pro-Ject still makes its mark at the budget end of the price spectrum. Witness the recently introduced Pro-Ject E1 Phono ($399, all prices in USD).
The E1 actually comes in three different models: the E1 Phono (under review here), a turntable with an onboard phono preamplifier for people whose electronics lack a dedicated phono input; the basic E1 ($349), sans phono preamp; and the E1 BT ($499), which comes with an inboard Bluetooth transmitter that’s perfect for feeding active speakers. E1 Phono users can bypass the unit’s phono preamp, which is how I used it during most of this review, unless otherwise noted.
Pro-Ject bills the E1 as “a turntable made for everyone,” and the description is apt. The E1 is as basic a turntable as the Volkswagen Beetle was a car. Its plinth is made from fiberboard wrapped in a decent representation of walnut; gloss black and gloss white are alternate options in terms of finish. The arm is straightforward—a fairly standard 8.6″ (218 mm) long, lightweight (7 grams effective mass) aluminum tube equipped with an Ortofon OM 5E cartridge, which hosts a 0.3 × 0.7 mil elliptical stylus. It’s been an industry standard for 35 years.
The platter is unusual in that it’s constructed from ABS polymer and is quite light. This isn’t a turntable that relies on the “flywheel effect,” in which the weight of the platter tends to smooth any speed anomalies. However, as Jeff Coates, marketing director for Distributed Brands at Fine Sounds Americas (formerly Sumiko Audio), told me, despite its weight, the platter’s design is well considered:
The platter material is pretty ingenious. Usually turntables at this price point use a very thin aluminum or stamped-steel platter that rings like a pie tin. To counter this, many manufacturers add a thick rubber mat to add mass and reduce ringing. This is unfortunate, as a thick rubber mat can actually absorb energy from the whole system, making playback sound dull . . . so resonance is captured, but at the expense of the high-frequency detail, where great imaging and soundstage cues come from!
The ABS platter, on the other hand, is relatively acoustically inert (pick it up and give it a flick—no ringing!). And when used with a felt, cork, or thin cork-and-rubber mat (like our Cork & Rubber it 1mm), ABS does a great job of providing a stable, low-resonance platform for rotation, without robbing the system of energy encoded in the discs.
The other secret to this design is the subplatter—the dense resin subplatter manufactured around the polished stainless steel spindle/bearing surface also adds to the rotational mass of the whole system, which, once in motion, helps keep speed consistent.
I checked the platter by giving it a good flick with my middle finger. There was no ringing, so Jeff’s comment about the ABS being acoustically inert appears to be correct. Yet it can’t weigh anywhere near a pound. Very interesting.
One feature that separates the E1 from many other budget decks is its electronic speed control. There’s no futzing with moving belts from one pulley to another; speed change is accomplished using the power switch on the left side of the plinth. The E1 comes with a sturdy dust cover that slips over the hinges on the back of the deck. Power is supplied by a wall-mount 15V external supply that comes with interchangeable mains connectors.
The E1’s dimensions are fairly compact at 16.5″ × 4.4″ × 13″, and it weighs a mere 7.7 pounds. That low weight can present problems because the deck’s mass isn’t sufficient to guarantee that it will stay in one place. The turntable’s isolation is aided by polymer feet; they’re not adjustable, so it’s critical that the E1 is mounted on a level surface. At the rear of the turntable, you’ll find the output jacks on the left and the power input on the right; the phono preamp in/out switch is on the side of the preamp box. The unit is warranted for two years; this can be extended to three years by registering at the Fine Sounds Americas website. The drive belt and Ortofon cartridge are both covered for 90 days.
Setup is short and sweet since the E1 is about as plug-and-play as a turntable can be. Upon opening the box, the first item you’ll find is a plastic envelope containing the setup instructions, a force gauge, a drive belt, a 45 adapter, an Allen wrench to adjust tracking force, and a stereo-RCA-to-stereo-3.5mm plug. Remove the dust cover and the felt platter mat, and then the turntable itself. You’ll find the power supply is tucked into the side of the Styrofoam packing, and the platter is at the bottom of the box. Remove the wrappings on the deck and platter. Install the belt, first looping it around the subplatter and then around the pulley. Install the platter and the dust cover, attach the power supply to its connection, and connect the interconnects. Plug in the power, and you’re ready to play records.
To simplify setup, the tracking force is set at the factory, although I noticed that the review unit’s tracking was 1.4 grams (14mN), which is below the recommended lower limit of 1.75 grams/17.5mN for the ortofon OM 5E cartridge. However, the supplied Allen wrench enabled me to loosen the nut that holds the counterweight in place, and with the supplied stylus force gauge, I adjusted the counterweight until the stylus force was between 1.8 and 2 grams (18 to 20mN). Having the correct tracking force can make a big difference in the sound you get. Too heavy and it can harm the groove; too light and it can harm the groove and create distortion during playback. Anti-skate force is set at the factory.
As mentioned above, speed is selected via a three-position switch on the left side of the turntable. The middle position is Off; pushing the switch forward gives you 33 and pulling it back gives you 45. I used the rpm app on my phone to check speed accuracy, and at 33.3 rpm, the E1 registered an average speed of 33.4 (+0.3%); at 45, the average speed was 44.95 rpm.
First up was a cut from a new acquisition, “Rosanna,” from the album Toto IV (Columbia FC 37328). I’d read an article celebrating how exceptional this track was from a sonic standpoint: recording it required three 24-track tape decks synchronized together to provide 72 tracks. What I noticed most about this tune as played back by the Pro-Ject were the numerous backing instruments, many of which were recreated on synthesizers. During the instrumental bridge, the lead instruments, fuzztone guitar, and piano spanned the width of the stage, but there was very little depth. The locations of the other instruments were pinpointed across the stage. The E1/OM 5E combination handled the tune quite well, with lots of detail, good attack and release of notes, and full-range sound.
“Birdland” has always been a favorite song from Manhattan Transfer. But this time, I went to the original: an instrumental by the group Weather Report from their Heavy Weather LP (Columbia AL 34418). The lead instruments are two synthesizers of the day, the Oberheim Polyphonic and ARP 2600, played by the song’s composer and group leader, Joe Zawinul, with soprano and tenor saxes by Wayne Shorter and the phenomenal bass playing of Jaco Pastorius. They had some fun with instrument placement on this track, especially the saxes: one moment, the soprano is on the middle left, the next, it’s down near the floor on the right—or the soprano is on the left and the tenor is on the right. The synth sounds were placed correctly by the Pro-Ject, but again, there wasn’t much depth to the soundstage. Even so, the E1/OM 5E demonstrated fine pace. The reproduction of Pastorius’s bass was especially good. He plucks the strings pretty hard at some points, and I could hear that intensity. I was well pleased with the reproduction.
Many people of a certain age think Starship’s “We Built This City” is the worst song the band ever recorded, as it seemed they had abandoned their previous political/social commentary and sold out by making a pop hit. But this song from their Knee Deep in the Hoopla (Grunt BXL1-5488) is a favorite of mine and many other ex-radio folks. On the E1, it was apparent that the track was not engineered like most rock songs, where the lead vocals are out front and the band is spread across the stage behind them. On this recording, the lead singers are just a little out front with the band seemingly smushed up right behind them; it’s the backup voices that spread from one speaker to the other. There was a reasonable amount of bass slam over the Pro-Ject, and the Ortofon demonstrated good pacing on the tune. I was impressed at the overall fidelity on offer by the Pro-Ject/Ortofon combo.
Karla Bonoff gave Linda Ronstadt one of her finest songs, “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me.” In return, Ronstadt’s exceptionally fine band backed Bonoff on her Restless Nights album (Columbia JC 35799). My favorite track is “Baby Don’t Go,” which features Bonoff as the lead, backed vocally by Andrew Gold and Kenny Edwards. The drum beats offered up lots of tight slam and the electric guitars of Gold and Waddy Wachtel shimmered when played through the E1. Again, there wasn’t much depth evident, but the width of the soundstage was outstanding.
Dave Brubeck’s liner notes for “Unsquare Dance” on his quartet’s Time Further Out LP (Columbia CS 8490) describe the tune as “. . . a challenge for the foot tappers, finger snappers and hand clappers.” The reason? It’s written in a 7/4 time signature (seven beats to the measure; a quarter note is one beat; the typical time signature for most songs is 4/4 or 3/4 for a waltz), so it refuses, as Brubeck says, “. . . to be squared.” The bass holds the piece together throughout with a simple six-note theme, reproduced here with more than adequate heft. The only other instruments are percussion—drumsticks tapping the metal edge of the snare—and Brubeck’s piano, but they play only minor roles. The piano was in the middle, the drums off to the left, and the bass somewhat to the right—and once again, not a lot of depth. I noticed a bit of distortion on the piano in the opening bars when Brubeck is playing little riffs, but I’ve heard that every time I’ve listened to “Unsquare Dance,” including on CD, so it’s on the master tape. The E1/OM 5E did a fine job of reproducing the instruments with great realism, proper imaging of the piano and drums, and snap on the percussion.
Josef Haydn was a well-known jokester and this character trait extended to his music. His Symphony No. 94 is known as the “Surprise” symphony due to a joke Haydn inserted in the second movement—after establishing the theme very softly with the strings, all of a sudden the whole orchestra plays a fortissimo note. The classic story of why he arranged it this way is that Haydn wanted to wake up concertgoers who had fallen asleep. In reality, he wanted something new and bright so his music wouldn’t be shown up by that of his pupil, Pleyel, whose work had premiered earlier the same week. In my recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Raymond Leppard (Musical Heritage Society MHS 4599), the orchestra is smaller and more intimate than a typical symphony group of today, but it’s the proper size for 1792. This recording favors the low midrange a bit too much, so it sounds honky, but the E1/OM 5E handled all the dynamics beautifully and presented a wide soundstage with the best depth I’d experienced to this point in the review. Attacks and releases were crisp, and the fast-paced violins in the fourth movement were reproduced by the Pro-Ject with good pace.
Internal phono preamp: the E1 Phono versus the APT Holman
For this comparison, I wanted something with lots of bass slam, sharp percussion, and several musical instruments. I chose “You Can Call Me Al,” from Paul Simon’s Graceland (Warner Bros. 25447-1). When I used the E1’s built-in phono stage, I was impressed by the immediacy of the sound—fairly crisp with occasional sibilance on Simon’s voice, a forward presentation of both voice and instruments, and not as much bass punch as I expected. With the APT preamp’s phono stage, the bass punch was improved; the overall sound was smoother, and the large conga drums that punctuated the end of each verse appeared well beyond either speaker—they extended the soundstage in every dimension. I liked the crispness of the E1’s onboard unit but, overall, preferred the APT’s sound. However, that is not to damn the E1’s stage with faint praise. It’s as good as any onboard phono stage in a sub-$500 turntable that I’ve heard.
E1/OM 5E versus Dual CS 5000/Sumiko Oyster Moonstone
This, too, was an interesting comparison. I used “You Can Call Me Al” again on both turntables. The E1 was connected to the APT preamp’s phono stage (bypassing its own). The Pro-Ject sounded fine again, with a bit of high-frequency emphasis. The bass line was adequate but not inspiring, while the pace and rhythm were good. A more-than-decent performance for a turntable at this price point.
The Dual/Sumiko combination was actually a bit too laid back. Attacks and releases were fine, but they didn’t have any punch. The bass dug deep but sounded too nice and polite. For my usual classical and jazz, the Dual/Sumiko combination was great, but for this track, I almost preferred the E1 Phono.
Bottom line, this is a fine entry-level turntable for someone just getting into or returning to vinyl. It’s incredibly easy to set up, it plays records just fine, and it’s priced right. Pro-Ject has produced a unit that will get someone up and running and playing music that sounds bright and flavorful but doesn’t tire their ears on long sessions. It is worth every penny of its $399 list price and will serve the casual listener well for many years.
. . . Thom Moon
- Analog source: Dual CS 5000 turntable with Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge.
- Preamplifier: APT Holman.
- Power amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
- Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer.
- Interconnects: Captive on Dual CS 5000, Pro-Ject supplied for the E1 Phono, Wireworld Luna 8 (preamp to power amp).
- Speaker cables: Acoustic Research 14-gauge terminated in banana plugs.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems E1 Phono Turntable with Ortofon OM 5E Cartridge
Warranty: Two-year limited on parts and labor to the original owner; three years when registered; 90 days on the drive belt and Ortofon cartridge.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
Fine Sounds Americas (formerly Sumiko Audio)
9464 Hemlock Lane North
Maple Grove MN 55369
Phone: (510) 843-4500
Fax: (510) 843-7120