It’s been nearly 30 years since automatic turntables were widely available. In the intervening years, I can remember only a few that were in general distribution. But it seems that automatic turntables have suddenly risen from the dead, just like vinyl. Why? Because they’re perfect for the casual vinyl listener who wants a no-fuss record player. Recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing four automatic turntables: the Andover SpinDeck Max; the Dual CS 429 and its less expensive companion, the CS 329; and the Thorens TD 102 A.
Now the world’s largest quality turntable manufacturer, Pro-Ject, has entered the ring with its Automat A1 ($499, all prices in USD). Unlike the rest of the Pro-Ject line, the Automat is produced in Germany’s Black Forest by Alfred Fehrenbacher GmbH. For a number of years, Fehrenbacher produced turntables for both Dual and Thorens, and it’s the source of the SpinDeck Max. But much of the firm’s output has now been contracted to Pro-Ject. The Automat A1 is the first of a contemplated line of automatics from the joint venture.
The A1 shares design elements with other European turntables. It’s very Bauhaus (“form follows function”), sleek, and largely black with white markings. The outer base panel is constructed of 8mm MDF, which gives it some mass, and this, combined with the four elastomer feet on which it sits, helps damp external vibration. The motor, platter bearing, and tonearm are mounted to a 2cm-thick MDF baseplate. The unit is topped by a heavy, hinged dark-smoke-tinted dust cover. Both base and dust cover are well constructed. The A1 is warranted against manufacturer defects (parts and labor included) for two years.
The 12″ platter is made of steel but features a damping ring that adds mass and reduces resonance, topped by a black felt mat. It’s belt driven by a low-torque motor. The 8.3″ (212mm) ultra-light tonearm is made from aluminum, but its non-interchangeable headshell is constructed of a carbon fiber-reinforced polymer. As ease of setup and operation is paramount, the A1 comes with tracking and antiskating forces that are permanently set at the factory. Overall dimensions are 16.9″W × 5.1″H × 14.4″D, and the unit weighs 12.3 pounds.
Controls are limited to Start, Stop, and 33 1/3 or 45 rpm. However, record size is preset according to speed: if 33 1/3 rpm is selected, the automatic mechanism will assume the record is 12″, while at 45 rpm, the setting is 7″. My guess is that the folks at Pro-Ject don’t imagine the owner of an A1 will be big into 12″ 45s. The automatic mechanism is totally disengaged during play.
There’s also an arm-lift lever in case you want to use the turntable manually, skip a track on the record, or play one of the aforementioned 12″ 45s. The lift mechanism doesn’t seem to be damped in either direction, up or down.
The A1 comes with a defeatable, integrated phono preamp for integrated amplifiers, preamplifiers, or receivers without a phono stage of their own. Its location is a bit unusual: to turn it on or off, you remove the felt mat and rotate the platter to expose the slide switch underneath that’s located near the back of the plinth. Those of you who own a phono stage, be warned: the A1 comes with its inboard stage turned on, so be sure to flip the switch if you want it turned off. Otherwise, as I found out, it will make a mighty unpleasant racket if you start a record with the unit connected to a phono input.
The back of the turntable is home to only two features: the captive but far-better-than-usual interconnects—Pro-Ject’s Connect it E cables—and the socket for the wall-wart power supply. Said supply comes with a variety of plug inserts that will allow you to work with nearly any mains connection in the world.
The supplied cartridge is an Ortofon Ortofon OM 10, a better-than-entry-level standard for many years. In fact, Fehrenbacher-made Dual turntables normally were supplied with an Ortofon OM 10 or its brother, the OM 5E. So the Ortofon OM 10 is a natural choice for the Automat A1. It features an elliptical stylus, almost always a good thing, and tracks at a very light range: 1.25–1.75 grams (12.5–17.5mN).
Setup couldn’t be easier. As you open the box, you’re greeted with a poster-sized Quick Start guide that walks you through installation. That process begins with attaching hinges to the plinth and the dust cover to the hinges. Then you install the platter and look for the red ribbon that helps you install the belt over the motor pulley. There’s no need to balance the arm or set the tracking force; as noted above, the tracking is preset. For shipment, the arm is bound to the arm rest with a twist tie. Remove that, decide whether you need to use the built-in phono stage, place the mat on the platter, connect the captive patch cords to your integrated amplifier, preamplifier, or receiver, plug the power-supply cord into the mains receptacle, and that’s it. I have to say, the Automat A1 offers about the simplest setup of any turntable I’ve reviewed. For more complete information, a downloadable owner’s manual is available from the Pro-Ject site.
Operation and tech check
Operation is a breeze as well. Put a record on the platter, select the speed, and hit the Start lever. The platter will rotate, the arm will move over the lead-in groove of the record and gently lower to the disc. At the end of the side, the arm will rise and return to its rest point, and the motor will shut off. The automatic mechanism, derided on past automatics for smearing the sound due to drag on the arm, does not seem to be a problem here. The Pro-Ject’s arm operates smoothly and quietly and puts little if any drag on the motor. One shortcoming is the lack of a lock-down feature. I took to using the twist tie used to hold the arm in place during transit to secure it whenever I had to move the unit. Finally, I found that rapping the unit or its support surface with my knuckles did generate a thump during playback, so finding a good, solid, level surface to put it on is a must.
As usual, I played records without listening to break in the cartridge’s cantilever mounting. Rotational speed was fast at both 33 1/3 (33.98, +1.9%) and 45 (45.55, +1.2%) per the RPM app on my smartphone. Wow at 33 1/3 averaged a good 0.22%, better than the specified 0.27%, although that’s not exactly a stellar spec. Note that speed and wow figures from the RPM app are approximate, so your mileage may vary. The measured stylus pressure was 1.76 grams (17.6mN), just a smidgen above Ortofon’s recommended high of 1.75 grams (17.5mN). Finally, while the cue function is not damped, it is remarkably accurate, which shows that Pro-Ject dialed in the skating compensation very well.
Unless otherwise noted, I did my listening with my APT Holman phono stage and the Pro-Ject’s phono stage disengaged.
I started with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Karl Böhm, performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 (Beethoven Edition, Deutsche Grammophon 2721 154). Overall, the bass reproduction was solid although I thought the sound of the cellos and violas was somewhat hollow (this could be down to the acoustics of an empty hall) and the violins sounded strident. The flute and oboe that play through most of the first movement sounded very clean and clear. However, I felt the sound was closed in on the high notes.
Next, I pulled out Billy Joel’s second studio album, Piano Man (Columbia PC 32544), for my favorite cut, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid.” As I’ve noted before, this is a major production that sounds as if Aaron Copland had written some rock music. The soundstage was exceptional over the Pro-Ject. I could clearly “see” Joel was seated just to the left of center, while his piano stretched all the way right. The frenetic drum beat extended to the left and right behind the singer while other instruments—strings, percussion, and harmonica—were arrayed across the stage. Again, the high notes were more subdued than I’ve heard on other units. Still, the A1 gave a nice performance of the tune.
“Love Alive” by Heart, from their Little Queen LP (Portrait AL 34799), was never a hit, but it’s my favorite cut on the album. It begins with two acoustic guitars playing some very tasty, complementary runs on opposite speakers. Ann Wilson’s vocals (and flute) sounded very natural and were solidly in the middle, with the backing singers just behind her. The other instruments—piano, autoharp, bass, tabla, and drums—were spread to the left and right. The guitars were reproduced quite well, and when the electric guitar comes in at the bridge, it hit solidly and with immediacy over the A1. The only thing lacking was the high harmonics I hear on many other turntables. But, in general, I thought the Automat A1 sounded quite good.
You may not know the name Joe Zawinul, but you may recognize a song he wrote, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” for Cannonball Adderley’s quintet. He played with Miles Davis and was the leader and primary composer for the early jazz fusion group Weather Report. He wrote “Birdland” for them, a tune you’ll find on their Heavy Weather album (Columbia PC 34418). Zawinul plays acoustic piano and two different early synthesizers, on which he was able to produce at least seven different “voices” for the song, including some very authentic-sounding guitar riffs. As was the style with early synths, their sound was accurately spread all over the place over the Pro-Ject but was anchored by the piano dead center. Wayne Shorter’s saxes were imaged just to the left and above center, and Jaco Pastorius’s incredible bass underpinned the proceedings. Here, the Automat A1 performed quite well. It handled all the electronic sounds easily and did justice to the acoustic instruments, a tambourine and knee slaps that kept the beat, as well as the backing voices—with no constriction of the sound. Nicely done.
Finally, I loaded “Freddie Freeloader” by Miles Davis, from Kind of Blue (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2–45011). I had to use the A1 in manual as this release consists of a set of 12″ 45s. Davis was placed just right of center for his long solo. Cannonball Adderley’s alto sax was a bit further to the right with the piano hard right. Coltrane’s tenor sax was imaged slightly left of center and the drums and bass, full left. This was a typical arrangement for jazz groups in the early days of stereo, when engineers and producers did their best to give listeners the full, if artificial, “stereo experience.” And, as with “Birdland,” there was no apparent dulling of the highs. This album is a masterpiece and the Automat A1 did a fine job of bringing out the attacks and releases, as well as the detail and precision of the playing.
Apt Holman phono stage vs. Automat A1 inboard phono stage
The A1’s built-in phono preamp provides 34dB of gain, enough to drive any line-level input. To test this, I selected Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life,” from the Brothers in Arms LP (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2–441).
I chose to let the Automat go first. I felt the A1’s phono stage did a respectable job. There was good placement of the instruments and the backing voices were just behind Mark Knopfler. The high frequencies still were muted and the bass and kick drum sounded mushy, but in general, the sound was good. So, I thought, “Well, okay.”
Then I switched over to the APT Holman. That opened my eyes. I heard a much more complete frequency range. There was a crisper sound, the kick drum had more punch, the bass line was more defined, and there was a wider soundstage with even more precise placement of instruments. I heard an acoustic guitar and other details I had missed previously.
The phono stage in the A1 is acceptable, but I’d venture to say it would take a back seat to the phono stages in many integrated amps, preamplifiers, and receivers.
Comparison: Dual CS 622 with Audio-Technica AT440ML vs. Automat A1 with Ortofon OM 10
Right off the bat, this is probably not a fair comparison. The Dual CS 622’s 1982 list price when I bought it was about $300, which is about $920 today. The AT440ML cartridge added another $220 when it was purchased in 2016. But it’s the only turntable I have in-house right now.
This time, I started with the Dual and listened closely to “Rosanna” from Toto’s Toto IV LP (Columbia FC 37728) mostly to see what I could pick out among the myriad “voices” in the song. The sound was crisp, detailed, dynamic, and compelling. The main instruments had stable placement while the occasional synthesizer bursts showed up all over the soundstage. The frequency range was full and complete. I had to admit I was pleased.
Then, the Automat A1 certainly showed its mettle in several ways. While the sound wasn’t as full range as the Dual, the Pro-Ject did reveal one detail—a tinkly piano riff on the lower left of the soundstage—that I hadn’t noticed on the Dual. Overall, however, the frequency response was not as extended as on the Dual. Oddly, the Pro-Ject demonstrated a bit more bass-drum heft on this cut. Given the Automat A1’s price, its performance was certainly more than adequate.
In many respects, the Pro-Ject Automat A1 shares several characteristics with the Andover SpinDeck Max mentioned at the beginning of this review. They share a similar layout; they’re both belt driven; their arms are quite similar and they’re both equipped with the Ortofon Ortofon OM 10. It’s evident they’re made in the same factory. The major difference is the Andover costs $100 more—a considerable difference at this price point. I think that makes the Automat A1 the better value. In addition, its operation is quite smooth and quiet, its cue control works very precisely, it has a renowned industry-standard cartridge and, frankly, it sounds pretty darned good. Is it my favorite turntable? No. It has some shortcomings, mostly involving its inboard phono preamp. But for the price, it turns in a solid, most pleasant performance and does what a turntable should: it makes fine music.
. . . Thom Moon
- Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer.
- Amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
- Preamplifier: APT Holman.
- Analog source: Dual CS 622 turntable with Audio-Technica AT440ML cartridge.
- Analog interconnects: captive on Dual CS 5000 and A1; Wireworld Luna 8 (preamp to amp).
- Speaker cables: Acoustic Research 14-gauge terminated in banana plugs.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems Automat A1 Turntable with Ortofon Ortofon OM 10 Cartridge
Warranty: Two-year limited warranty, parts and labor, to original owner; 90 days on the drive belt and Ortofon cartridge.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
11763 95th Ave N
Maple Grove, MN 55369
Phone: (510) 843-4500