Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviewers' ChoiceIn September 2020, SoundStage! publisher Doug Schneider wrote about the Pro-Ject Audio Systems X1 turntable in his “System One” column on SoundStage! Hi-Fi. His headline posed the following question: “Perfection from Pro-Ject for under $1000?” His review never quite answered that, but he liked the X1 so much he recommended that another SoundStage! reviewer buy one.

So why am I reviewing this turntable a little over a year later? Well, Doug received a “universal” X1 with Pro-Ject’s own Pick it S2 cartridge made for them by Ortofon. In the US, however, the Pro-Ject line is distributed by Sumiko, and the company installs its own Sumiko Oyster Olympia cartridge ($199 on its own, all prices in USD). Frankly, I am often amazed at the difference a cartridge can make. So I wanted to try the turntable Doug was raving about to see if I concurred with his findings. Based on Doug’s most positive review of the X1 ($1099) and my appreciation of Sumiko’s cartridge line, this was one combination I knew I had to audition.

Pro-Ject

Description

The Pro-Ject X1 is of moderate dimensions (16″W × 12 3/4″D × 5″H) with its supplied dust cover closed and weighs a solid 14.4 pounds—3.3 pounds of that weight is from the frosted acrylic platter. The platter rides on a stainless-steel bearing with a soft brass bushing and Teflon coating for minimal drag and maximum stability. Pro-Ject also lauds its new motor suspension, which it says results in better decoupling of motor vibrations from the arm and chassis, thus reducing rumble and noise. The turntable sits on three rubber feet to help isolate it from external vibrations.

Pro-Ject

I asked the folks at Pro-Ject why they emphasize the X1’s platter bearing system. They responded as follows:

The simplest explanation here is that the main sub-platter bearing (the exposed polished stainless-steel post on the bottom of the sub-platter) needs to spin freely and smoothly. Any increase in friction can cause small speed irregularities and can actually be audible as rumble.

In order to keep this friction to an absolute minimum, Pro-Ject uses an extremely precise sub-platter main bearing (machined to a tolerance of 1/1000 of a millimeter!), which rides in a Teflon-coated brass bearing well for the lowest possible friction as the spindle rotates. You can get an idea of these super-precise tolerances when you gently “drop” the sub-platter into the bearing well. It won’t clunk to the bottom—instead, it will slowly lower into the well as the air is evacuated. Excellent, precise engineering!

And that is the case: the sub-platter descends slowly, yet the sub-platter and platter spin effortlessly when left to their own devices.

The tonearm is 8.6″ long and made of carbon laid over an aluminum tube. Pro-Ject uses one-piece tonearms as the company believes (with good reason) that these arms are superior in suppressing arm resonances because they are super stiff. The arm is mounted in vertical and horizontal gimbals to minimize drag across the disc. The vertical tracking angle (VTA) and azimuth of the cartridge on the X1 are adjustable to provide the perfect stylus angle and verticality to the record. Of course, the only time you might need to fiddle with these is if you change the cartridge.

Pro-Ject

Sumiko’s Oyster Olympia cartridge features a 0.3 × 0.7-mil elliptical stylus mounted on an aluminum pipe cantilever. In case you’re wondering, a mil is one one-thousandth of an inch; there are 39.4 of them in a millimeter, so we’re talking tiny. The Olympia is a moving-magnet/fixed-coil cartridge, which should work fine with a phono input on an integrated amplifier or with an outboard phono stage. Sumiko recommends a tracking force of 2.0 grams (20mN). One nice aspect of the Olympia is that it features a stylus that’s interchangeable with that of its pricier ($299) brother, the Moonstone (the cartridge I use in my Dual CS5000).

The plinth Sumiko supplied me with was a brilliant Gloss White, but the turntable is also available in Piano Black or Satin Walnut. The turntable comes with a 15V wall-wart universal power supply, a very nice pair of Pro-Ject Connect it E 4′ braided interconnects ($69 retail), and a small tool that helps you set the VTA and azimuth.

Setup

Pro-Ject’s setup instructions for the X1 are among the best I’ve seen. First, the back cover of the owner’s manual clearly shows how the turntable and its parts are packed into the box. The instructions themselves are thorough, and setting up the turntable is pretty straightforward—with one minor deviation from the norm: Pro-Ject leaves it to the user to install the right-front foot and level the turntable with a spirit level (a simple one will do nicely and won’t set you back a bunch of cash).

Pro-Ject

From there, it’s what you’d normally expect. Place the sub-platter’s spindle into the hole in the plinth. Loop the belt around the sub-platter and pulley and put the main platter on top. Next, it’s on to working with the arm. Install the counterweight, balance the arm, and apply the recommended 2.0 grams of tracking force. Really, all that’s left (other than plugging the power supply into the turntable and an AC outlet and connecting the turntable to an amplifier or phono stage) is to set up the anti-skate system (anti-skate is the mechanism that counteracts the arm’s tendency to slide inward toward the spindle).

And that’s where I have one tiny complaint: Pro-Ject’s anti-skate uses a small weight that’s suspended on extremely fine nylon thread, which is threaded over a support and then connects to a small post extending from the back of the arm gimbal. The thread is so tiny, it’s difficult to hook it over the post on the proper second groove. I had to make use of diagonal pliers and a magnifying glass to accomplish the task. I’m sure Pro-Ject has very good reasons for relying on this system, and, of course, once it’s set up, no further futzing is needed. And although the initial setup is a slight pain, if you follow the instructions, you’ll probably have the turntable up and running in less than half an hour, even if you’ve never set up a turntable before.

Pro-Ject

Operation and listening

The X1 has an on/off switch neatly hidden under the left front of the plinth. When power is applied to the turntable, a blue LED next to the rotation rate that’s been used last blinks until the platter is at speed. The cue control works smoothly and gently.

The X1 offers the 78-rpm speed and Sumiko offers an optional stylus for it; all that you need to do is swap the stylus, set the tracking force to Sumiko’s recommendation, then exchange drive belts on the turntable. That’s accomplished by removing the platter and exchanging the flat (33 and 45) belt for the supplied round one and fitting it around the sub-platter and the larger-diameter part of the motor pulley. Pressing the speed control twice will bring up 78.

Pro-Ject

The first LP I chose was Peter Serkin Plays Chopin (RCA Red Seal ARL 1 3344). This is a gorgeous performance by a true artist of the piano, playing some of the most beautiful music ever composed for the instrument. It’s a minimally miked recording, and the sound is simply stunning. I heard some space around the piano and felt the natural warmth in the performance. The staccato notes were crisp and clean. The more melodic segments of the music were laden with that warmth, yet detail was not lost. I started with the intention of trying just one or two cuts and ended up so caught up in the music that I listened to the entire record. The X1 brought out every aspect of the recording beautifully. A genuine aural treat.

Back in 1966, a young pianist from Dayton, Ohio, was signed to the considerable jazz artist stable of Columbia Records. His name was Roy Meriwether and he and his trio are still performing today. Meriwether is a strong pianist with a real R&B style. His performance of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” on The Stone Truth: The Live Sounds of the Roy Meriwether Trio (Columbia CS 9384) has a great bluesy, energetic style. Unlike a lot of live recordings, this one sounds great, and the audience really gets into the tune. The percussion is fairly minimal, but over the X1, it was placed just behind and to the right of Meriwether’s piano. The bass player was off to the left just a bit and, again, behind. The X1/Olympia combo brought me nearly into the room—not quite, but close enough to absorb all the detail in the recording. Meriwether has some of the fastest piano fingers I’ve ever heard, yet through the X1, nothing sounded smeared. As I’ve opined before, if a component and system get the piano right, the rest of the recording will be right. The X1 came through on all counts.

Pro-Ject

I’ve always found Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home” from Still Life (Talking) (Geffen GHS 24145) an incredibly haunting tune. Metheny’s guitar synthesizer, which sounds like a twangy Dobro in some places and a banjo in others, sets the mood, aided by the use of fairly heavy echo. The drummer’s consistent use of brushes sets up the sound of a train hurtling through the night; the bassist’s use of absolutely the lowest notes on his instrument adds to the drama. The voices in the latter part of the song coming through with their “hey-yah, hey-yah” chant and the final sound of a train whistle set up an almost mystical sound. It doesn’t hurt that the recording is simply top notch. And the X1 covered it all. The delicacy of the brushes was easily audible and dead center. The piano’s chord-based backing was somewhat to the right and reproduced with maximum impact. I listened to this at least three times just to take in how beautifully I thought it came through on my system.

From my early folkie days, I’ve always deeply admired Gordon Lightfoot. His recording of “Me and Bobby McGee” (If You Could Read My Mind, Reprise RS 6392) is one of his best. Lightfoot’s gentle light baritone was dead center over the Pro-Ject while the six-string guitar and some guy slapping his thigh in heavy echo were clearly reproduced as backing at the beginning of the song; after the first verse, an expertly played dobro or National Steel guitar came in, and its sound rather surrounded Lightfoot. The backing vocals were placed on either side of him. The delicacy of the hand slaps echoing against the fairly aggressive steel made for a compelling counterpoint. The use of echo on Lightfoot’s voice late in the tune could have been heavy handed, but over the X1, it wasn’t. It just added to the wistfulness of the song. The X1 reproduced all of this magnificently. I was very impressed.

Pro-Ject

Poco was one of those here-and-gone folk-rock groups of the early 1970s. It had real music power in Jim Messina (ex-Buffalo Springfield member), Richie Furay on 12-string and vocals, Rusty Young on pedal steel, and George Grantham on drums. “Grand Junction” is an instrumental from their Pickin’ Up the Pieces album (Epic BN 26460) that shows off the players’ considerable skills. Furay’s 12-string and Messina’s six-string are the backbone, as Young’s steel takes the lead on this cut. Young was a skilled steel player and did some mighty fancy licks. He was placed just to the right of center with the six-string just off to the left and Grantham’s drum nicely behind the 12-string. Bass was provided by Randy Meisner, later of the Eagles, and he turns in a tasty line placed a little off to the left. The instruments are closely miked and that came through clearly over the Pro-Ject. This recording is not the ultimate in high fidelity but a great instrumental given its due by the X1. I listened to it three times.

The Olympia cartridge is something of a Clark Kent: it’s usually the mild-mannered cartridge for a great metropolitan turntable. But then, it can duck into a phone booth and come out as the Cartridge of Steel, ready to handle the grittiest rock. This whole analogy struck me as I put on my excellent 45 of Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” (Back to Back Hits, Warner GWB 0385). It coerced every one of Mark Knopfler’s licks to the fore and gave them the proper emphasis while the backing instruments came through in an unhurried, pleasant way that fit the song. Again, I listened to the song several times to take in the complete performance. Knopfler’s guitar and vocals were on top of one another, as they might be in a live performance. The jazzy drum part was well down front, at floor level. The drums were separated into left and right channels with no center fill, reminding me of the 20-foot-wide drum set on “Money for Nothing.”

Pro-Ject

“I’d Love to Change the World,” to my mind, is the best song ever by Ten Years After (A Space in Time, Columbia KC 30801). It starts out with a moderate-tempo-but-insistent acoustic guitar that repeats the same eight-bar theme through most of the song. Lead singer Alvin Lee comes in with a frantic, searing electric guitar solo that eventually fades out, to be replaced by his multitracked and heavily echoed voice, and then it’s back to the acoustic guitar lick. Ten Years After had some serious moxie, but here, the Olympia returned to being Clark. It provided every bit of the performance in a relaxed way. There was some real energy in my room as the recording was reproduced through the X1—the X1 did not sound congested at all. The recording sounded as good as I’ve heard it.

Comparison

I almost hesitated to compare my vintage Dual CS5000 to the Pro-Ject X1 because, as noted above, recent turntables—especially the VPI Cliffwood—have shown how far turntable design has come in the last 35 years. But as the Dual and Pro-Ject both run Sumiko Oyster cartridges, I wanted to do a head-to-head with the Olympia stylus.

The song I chose was “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye from Anthology: The Best of Marvin Gaye (three-record set, Motown M79143). Usually, I look for recordings with lots of “hi-fi” cred, but Motown was not noted for sonic excellence. The Snakepit, Motown’s studio, was small and fairly primitive. Plus, Motown’s boss, Berry Gordy, selected singles by listening to them through two 6″ × 9″ speakers because he wanted to know how they would sound in a car.

Pro-Ject

“I Heard It . . .” has lots going for it: Gaye’s voice, at once gritty and soaring, is right in the center; the strings of the Detroit Symphony are in the right channel along with Gaye’s piano; and the Andantes, a “girl group” that vocally backed many Motown artists, are in the right channel as well. Through the left channel, it’s the incomparable Funk Brothers, who, it is said, played on more hit records than were recorded by the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and the Beach Boys combined. And of course, the Greatest Bass Player of All Time, James Jamerson.

On the CS5000, the reproduction was smooth and clean, with the rough edges rounded off. It was nice and pleasant, but didn’t bring out the anguish in Gaye’s voice as it should. Taking the disc over to the Pro-Ject X1 gave me what I expected: the grittiness and passion in Gaye’s voice came through in buckets. The high strings were more prominent, less recessed. The soundstage was better defined. Definitely, the X1 took the prize on this cut.

Conclusion

After spending several weeks with the Pro-Ject X1, I see why Doug raved about it. It is, in my estimation, one of the best turntables I’ve ever auditioned—up there with the VPI Cliffwood. The Sumiko Oyster Olympia cartridge is a great match to the turntable, and the combination offers absolutely fabulous sound. It isn’t inexpensive by my standards, but I firmly believe that the Pro-Ject X1 is a turntable you can enjoy now and for a very, very long time. It really deserves a long and careful listen.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Turntable: Dual CS5000.
  • Cartridge: Sumiko Oyster Moonstone.
  • Preamplifier: Apt Holman.
  • Power amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
  • Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 powered subwoofer.
  • Phono cables: Dual (captive with CS5000 turntable), Pro-Ject (supplied), both RCA.
  • Interconnects: Straight Wire.
  • Speaker cables: Acoustic Research (14-gauge), terminated with Dayton Audio banana plugs.

Pro-Ject Audio Systems X1 Turntable with Sumiko Oyster Olympia Cartridge
Price: $1099.
Warranty: Two-year limited warranty, parts and labor to the original owner.

Pro-Ject Audio Systems USA
6655 Wedgwood Road N., Suite 115
Maple Grove, MN 55311-2814
Phone: (510) 843-4500

Website: www.pro-jectusa.com