Taking record playing back to it historical roots, Paul Rigby looks at the fully automatic turntable, the Automat A1
There is something oddly apt about the name of this new turntable from Pro-Ject because it will take many of us back to the beginning. Back to the roots of our hobby. For many of us currently into our HiFi and music in general, we began our road to sonic nirvana via a solid and no doubt decidedly stout record player. In my case, that was a Dansette-a-like fully automatic record player presented in a big box with a built-in amplifier and single speaker.
Such designs were also fully automatic. That is, at the flick of a switch the tonearm of the said record player would lift itself up in the air, it would swing over to the start of the record – whether that record be a 12” album or a 7” single – it would lower itself to the record surface and, upon completion, lift itself from the record surface, return the tonearm to its cradle and then switch off the record player.
During the later 70s and 80s, the fully automatic turntable beam deeply unfashionable and faded from view while the manual turntable began to dominate the market.
Why? Partly because, with the increase in competing entertainments, HiFi lost ground, moving away from being a mass market product towards a niche, relatively high-priced, specialist and rather geeky hobby in which lifestyle features like automatic operation became less important and sound quality moved to the top of the priority list.
The new audiophile turntable designs veered away from features, lights, knobs and the like to a more minimalist ethic.
The reason? The mechanical gubbins inside an automatic turntable is full of vibration-creating components which doesn’t help sound. Getting rid of the same help sonic performance.
But hey, the vinyl renaissance is here isn’t it? Which means that the HiFi geeks are no longer alone. They are now joined by general music fans. You know the sort of people I’m talking about here. The sort who are not interested in minimalism or the chemical composition of your platter mat or the shape of your stylus tip. They just want to listen to music. And quick.
So. Ease of use is suddenly a thing, all over again.
The rising popularity of vinyl has created a new demand for more lifestyle features in low-cost turntable designs.
And automatic operation is back on the table.
So yes, you can buy a cheapo, fully automatic turntable for a little over £100 – although I wonder about the parts quality on these things – and you can also buy expensive automatics from the likes of Thorens for several hundred pounds.
But look, there’s automatic designs and there’s automatic designs.
For example, you can buy an automatic turntable with audiophile pretensions from the likes of Fluance but it’s not fully automatic. It’s only partially automatic.
The Fluance RT81, for example, doesn’t automatically place the stylus on the record, nor does it remove it at the end of play.
The RT81 automatically starts its motor when you pick up the tonearm and swings it towards the vinyl record. Then, at the end of play, the RT81 just switches itself off, leaving the stylus sitting in the groove – rather precariously – until you decide to lift the tonearm back to its cradle.
That’s all well and good but for many vinyl fans out there. It ain’t enough. What many music fans have been crying out for is a fully automatic turntable, priced around £300 or so, that goes big on features but also gives a big nod to audiophile-level sound quality.
For many years, such a goal seemed impossible.
Pro-Ject, it appears, doesn’t know the meaning of the word.
The twin-speed, belt-driven A1 or, to give it its full name, the Automat A1, is the first in a new line of turntables from Pro-Ject under the Automat banner.
The key point in the A1’s design is Pro-Ject’s assertion that the automatic operation only engages before and after the record is being played. During the actual play, the automatic mechanism is reportedly disengaged, taking a back seat, which should help sound.
The turntable is a fairly basic-looking device. Oddly for an automatic, it does retain a certain minimalist design ethic. Actually, this may be a good thing. It may be a boon for any nervous beginners out there who might be wary of lots of buttons, knobs and other controls. The A1 tries its best to stick to what’s necessary to operate the turntable and no more.
For what it is, the plinth is surprisingly solid and heavy. I was expecting a light and fluffy basic plinth design here but the company insists that most of the plinth is solid with only enough space within to hold the actual mechanism.
To the right is the ULM, this is a very basic-looking, 8.3” aluminium tonearm which Pro-Ject describes as “ultra-light-mass”. That’s industry speak for a tonearm that’s about as spindly as Tinkerbell’s magic wand.
Tracking force and anti-skate are non-adjustable and are fixed which, considering the target audience for this design, is not only understandable but I would venture to say an essential requirement.
And one thing, there’s no latch to secure the tonearm to the turntable. This is a design aimed at the general audience, possibly one lacking in a bit of confidence in HiFi terms. A securing latch is needed here to prevent accidents.
Hanging off the end is an Ortofon OM10. Boy was I surprised by this one. The OM10 cartridge is valued at £60 or so, that includes an elliptical stylus. I really was expecting an OM5s with a spherical tip. The OM10 is around twice the price. So, a real bonus then.
Adjacent to the tonearm is a suite of controls. There is an arm lift which – to my mind – operates backwards. That is, you push upwards to lower the tonearm and push downwards to raise the tonearm. Odd.
The speed select switch moves up to choose 45rpm or down to select 33rpm. Again, I would have thought that 33rpm would have been positioned at the top.
Finally, there is a Start/Stop switch which sets the turntable in motion. Again, in contradiction to my own expectations, starting the turntable is initiated by flicking that Start switch upwards.
Around the back of the plinth is a socket for a barrel-plug. That hangs off the supplied switch-mode power supply. Next door are the built-in phono cables. These are tethered to the plinth, they cannot be removed.
Onto the platter now and under the felt platter matt is a non-removable aluminium platter. I fact, there is a securing clip around the spindle in case you get any funny ideas. The platter itself features cut out windows. You can position one of those windows to locate a small switch which turns a built-in phono amplifier on or off.
I found this switch counter-intuitive. If you’re aiming the A1 at the beginner, the non-audiophile, the guy who doesn’t want to faff with HiFi, who may very well be technophobic, the guy who just wants to listen to music, then asking him to fiddle with a switch, mounted directly to a circuit board, accessed through a platter window, under the platter mat, is slightly bizarre.
The switch is fine, in and of itself. But it should have been easily visible and even easier to use. And it should be obviously positioned – somewhere on the plinth.
The A1 includes a hinged lid.
In operation once you flick the plinth-mounted Start switch, in classic automatic style, the tonearm lifts off its cradle, lands on the start of the record, plays to the end, automatically lifts off the record and swivels back to the tonearm cradle whereupon, the turntable switches itself off.
Just watching the A1 in action triggers a bucket full of nostalgia for me. Speaking as someone who regularly runs a complex and delicately engineered turntable costing around £15,000, this little automatic was a joy to use.
It was such a nice change to plonk a vinyl disc on the platter, then do nothing but flick a switch. To then turn my back on the A1 and know that it would do the rest was oddly…liberating. It was also fun.
I also felt that my vinyl was being taken care of – I’ve always been wary of those partially automatic turntables that stop at the end of a record’s play, leaving the stylus in the groove. Life happens and it’s too easy to forget that the record has finished and the stylus is still sitting at the end of the record. All it takes is one accident and you risk a vinyl scratch or worse, damage to the cartridge cantilever.
With its fully automatic action, that’s not happening with the A1.
So how does this thing sound?
I don’t have a comparably priced, fully automatic turntable to use as a reference comparison. In fact, I’m not even aware of one out there to bring in – unless you can tell me otherwise. So I did the next best thing and brought in the partially automatic and well-regarded Fluance RT81, which also includes a stylus with an elliptical tip, to see how it compared.
Let’s get the basics out of the way first then via Elton John’s oldie but goodie, Tiny Dancer. I was very happy with the foundation of the sound here. There was nothing untoward in sonic terms. No fizzy treble, no pinched midrange and no boomy bass. This is an important first test because if a turntable fails this bit, then it’s dead in the water in review terms. There’s no recovery.
The A1 was, well, A1 in terms of basic frequency discipline.
Going into more detail? Bass was good, although it didn’t have the same mass or confidence as heard from the RT81. This is not necessary surprising because the RT81 has a very heavy plinth which aids its bass performance. Even so, the bass from the A1 remained decent for the price and the design. Not amazing but certainly not bad. There was still impact from drum strikes and arguably a more focused impact too. The RT81 can be slightly warm and broad in bass terms. The A1 was a little more precise in bass terms, even though the weight wasn’t as impressive.
In midrange terms, if I was being super critical with my audiophile hat on then I’d point a finger at a slightly wobbly presentation, a certain lack of control, especially around the upper mids. I would say that there’s evidence of high-frequency noise here. Despite Pro-Ject’s efforts in design terms to reduce this area, I can still hear something there. It’s not bad, I have to say. The effect is not damaging to the turntable, especially as we’re talking about a full automatic here but I can hear high-frequency noise.
Playing rock now and Thin Lizzy’s Chinatown, the midrange does its best to remain open and airy. This does allow detail to reach out to the ear. There’s plenty of emotion around the vocals, guitar strums are full of resonance and the treble response is good.
In short? There are better performing turntables out there for the price but they tend to be manual designs without the gearing, the extra vibration-inducing controls and more budget spent on essentials like the tonearm.
The RT81 from Fluance has a better tonearm but the A1 has had to spend out on the automatic mechanics. Horses for course.
For a fully automatic turntable like the A1, the sonic performance is remarkably good. I’d heard fully automatic designs that sound wayward, they can sound bright and thoroughly nasty. For a fully automatic design, the A1 not only sounds good but it does actually challenge the RT81. I would say that the RT81 wins but the RT81 is much more of an audiophile design. The A1 is a lifestyle design yet it has a go and it doesn’t shame itself. It puts up a good fight.
I have over 60 turntable reviews on my website, almost 30 on my YouTube channel. Within those lists are designs covering a host of price points and technologies and there’s a host of reader and viewer comments for them all.
Nevertheless, I have to say, a full automatic turntable of this configuration, sound potential and price point has been the one design that has been talked about and most in demand by both readers and viewers alike.
Many music fans just can’t be bothered with the pernickety audiophile turntable configurations out there. And I can understand that. They don’t care about HiFi in and of itself. Yes, they want decent build quality. They also want a nice sound. But more than anything, they just want to play their records and they want to hear that music in the quickest possible time. Preferably at the push of a single button.
Well, Pro-Ject has given those people what they have asked for. The A1 is it.
For the price and for a fully automatic operation, the Pro-Ject Automat A1 is a great little design. It blends price with ease of use and sound quality to offer a perfectly blended package. If you want one-button access to the grooves of your vinyl then take a very close look at the A1.
PRO-JECT A1 TURNTABLE
USA – https://amzn.to/3D46pUM
EUROPE – https://amzn.to/3VBjtrG
GOOD: minimalist design, easy to use, overall sound for an automatic, price
BAD: bass confidence, midrange noise, no tonearm latch, phono amp switch
Spendor S3/5R speakers
Tellurium Q cabling
Blue Horizon Professional Rack System
Harmonic Resolution Systems Noise Reduction Components
Air Audio AC-2K Balanced Transformer
Tom30th October 2022 at 11:44 am
Given what’s is described I was a bit shocked to see that RRP. I’ve just helped my Dad buy an Audio Technica LP2X, another budget automatic turntable but with anti-skate, removable headshell and adjustable counterweight. Comes with a very capable beginner cartridge. Similar specs to the A1 at almost half the price. It takes 5 minutes to get familiar with tonearm set up. Not sure why Pro-Ject think it is beyond a beginner to figure it out. Sounds overpriced for what you get and the consumer gets patronised to boot. Bargain!