Looking for your first turntable but on a tight budget? Paul Rigby reviews a possible solution with Pro-Ject’s Primary
I have had the – sometimes dubious – honour of getting to know a range of low, low priced turntables during this year. It was a conscious decision, though. Partly because its a sector of the market that is all too often ignored by the media and journalists at large. Well, it lacks that audiophile pizazz that wows the ear, doesn’t it? Far better to review turntables valued at £5k and higher. Much more civilised. Yes, some will review the odd ‘token’ design but I wanted to really get to know what was going on in this low-priced arena. To gain a broad knowledge of the market.
Hence, I’ve checked out a couple of designs from Crosley and then (after checking in and out of rehab following that experience) from Dual and Audio-Technica plus direct drive models from Lenco and more. The entire experience has been highly educational, I can tell you.
I used to be wholly cosseted in the cardigan-wearing halls of crusty hi-fi magazines and its only really since I threw myself into the edgy, real world of social media that I’ve realised just how much sub-budget turntables are wanted, needed and demanded.
I believe that this low priced area of hi-fi is a critical part of hi-fi. Firstly because, as a vinyl fan, this ‘sub-budget’ (i.e. below £250) price point is an ideal entry point into the analogue world if money is tight. It’s a great way to get back into vinyl, if you haven’t listened to the ol’wax in a while, it’s ideal for beginners to dip their big toe into analogue and to gain confidence working with turntables as a breed and its also a perfect method for a young hi-fi user to play vinyl records.
When you look at the sub-budget turntable sector, you can have fun by dividing it into a number of sub-groupings. For example there’s those that host a basic Chinese design template and those that do not, you could also group manual turntables, semi-automatics and full automatic designs or you could corral those that feature plenty of toys and those that don’t and so on.
All of these categories can be mused upon when describing the turntable under review here, Pro-Ject’s sub-budget turntable, the Primary.
Firstly, that price of £189 (Amazon sell it for under £170) is wholly aggressive. It challenges many of the sub-budget designs around them from Lenco, Dual and Audio-Technica and beats many of these company’s offerings in price terms. Not all, of course, but many of them (Lenco’s L-85 can be had for £100, for example).
Secondly, if you scan the chassis of the Audio Technica AT LP-3, for example you will find some interesting feature comparisons. Both offer a ‘free’ straight arm and cartridge and both provide two speed options: 33⅓ and 45rpm. Both handle most of the set-up chores back in the factory so you’re left with minimal work to get them up and running.
It’s from that point, though, that things get interesting and the underlying philosophies of both designs require study.
The Audio-Technica gives you a built-in phono amp which means that you save money on buying an external model and you don’t rely on an example being resident within your integrated amplifier. It also means that you can plug the turntable directly into a set of powered speakers. The Primary offers no such thing.
The Audio-Technica is also fully automatic so you can play your records without ever touching the arm. At the press of a button, the Audio-Technica will automatically cue the stylus at the start of a record and pick it up to return to the arm cradle at the end. The Primary offers none of this. It is completely manual. You have to cue the arm yourself and pick up the arm at the end of the record yourself to carefully place it back on the tonearm cradle.
If I was then to compare the Primary with the direct drive-infused Lenco L-3808 then I would have a range of DJ-type controls. These lifestyle features would enable me to utilise the turntable for extra-curricular activities, as it where. Not the Primary. It plays records at home only.
The Lenco also offers a digital option, a USB port for vinyl ‘ripping’. Not the Primary.
You can see the theme here can’t you? But there is also a philosophy at work too. The Lenco, the Audio-Technica and all of the other Chinese-sourced turntables out there are wholly lifestyle in their approach. The feature count is a priority. As it used to be back in the hi-fi heyday of the 70s. These turntables depend upon headline-making features to sell their turntable. The Primary, as a contrast, has no feature headlines that would appear to a broad-based lifestyle audience. That, though, is a headline in itself. Why? Because the Primary is dedicated to the audiophile. The audiophile beginner. An audiophile, let me remind you, is someone who wants the best sound possible for the available budget. The best way to do that is to forget on-board toys.
The reason that a turntable spouting these ‘toys’ is a bad thing is two-fold. Firstly, as the manufacturer, you have to spend part of your build budget buying them in or designing them. This leaves less of the budget on getting the basics right and less money making your turntable sound good. Secondly, the more of these features you squeeze into a turntable, the more noise they all make. I mean mechanical and electrical noise, not the music itself, of course. The more of this detrimental noise you create in a turntable, the worse that it will sound.
The more you keep your turntable design relatively pure in design, the better it will sound. That is the dictum.
So the Pro-Ject Primary gives you nothing but the stripped down basics.
Before I talk about the sound quality, let’s take a closer look the the Primary itself. It’s based on the engineering principles of another deck in the Pro-Ject range, the Elemental turntable, including a very stable motor and straight arm plus optional hinged dust-cover the black, red or white plinth can be bought in black, white or red. Power is via a wall-wart switch-mode power supply that plugs into the rear of the underslung unit while the inherent turntable features include phono cables with an earthing wire included. The power switch sits on the left edge of the plinth (so you’ll need to site the turntable with a bit of space on the left-hand side of the plinth) and the belt of this belt-driven design runs around an exposed pulley and around the edge of the platter. To change the speed, you must move the belt from one notch to the pulley to the next.
This manual option is, again, a ‘good thing’ for a turntable at this price point. A cheapo automatic speed selector would produce excessive noise and degrade the Primary’s sound quality. You might have to go to more effort but your ears will thank you for it.
Star of the show is the included Ortofon OM5 E cartridge which costs £55 on its own. This moving magnet design offers an elliptical stylus – an incredibly important ‘plus’ point because it grabs a heap of detail from the record, crucially important at this price point. The more expensive turntables I’ve mentioned above all arrive with inferior spherically tipped stylii.
I began with I’m Mandy, Fly Me from the 10cc album, How Dare You! The worst part of the Primary design was its struggle to command low frequencies. It couldn’t compete with the performance from the direct drive Lenco L-3808 on this matter. Then again, the Lenco is a more expensive option. In comparison with other belt drives of the sub-budget genre (including many more expensive choices), though, the Primary did very well. Despite the lack of extra bass focus, the lower frequencies were unsullied, clean and organic with no artificial boom to speak of, that could have easily infected the midrange.
As for that midrange? It offered a superb performance with an open and airy soundstage that, for the price, was engaging and involving. The wonderful mid-song symphony of strummed guitars from the band can, on some turntables, produce a confused mess of chaotic music and head scratching from the hardware. The Primary gently coaxed the midrange to provide a glorious and swirling performance. It allowed the band to let loose and gave the impression that they really enjoyed themselves.
The soundstage itself was richly layered with a 3D effect that gave the music both depth and complexity. The admirable instrumental separation also allowed the ear to hear subtle effects such as the bass guitar and background organ.
I then turned to jazz and Betty Carter’s Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love on the LP, Now It’s My Turn.
Carter used her voice, on this track, almost like a jazz instrument. Quickly moving the delivery up and down the scales, bending and manipulating it to great effect. The Primary was able to keep pace without any real effort while Carter’s breathy effects during much of her performance was tracked easily and successfully .
Behind her, I was most impressed by the complex percussion. Transients were impressive for their accuracy and speed while the treble-infused cymbal fairly danced across the broad soundstage offering, for the price, impressive reverb tails of their own. The normally chaotic piano was spotlighted successfully, despite that instrument trying desperately to run out of control while the bass offered enough grounding and power to provide a successful foundation for the song.
The difference between most turntable designs of this price point and the Primary is that they don’t focus on sound as a priority: the Primary does. Everything about this deck is designed to maximise the sound quality from your LPs and it does this with a great deal of success. For those looking for a first turntable or if you’re coming back to vinyl and cash is short, then the Primary is a cracking entry point into the glorious and terribly cuddly world of vinyl.
PRO-JECT PRIMARY TURNTABLE
Tel: 01235 511166
GOOD: audiophile-centric, price, airy soundstage, instrumental separation, midrange detail
BAD: bass focus
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