Pro-Ject Audio Systems currently makes over 50 turntable models spread across 12 lines. The X1, from their X Line, stands out from that crowd for its lineage -- it’s essentially an update of Pro-Ject’s very first turntable, the 1 (aka P1), which debuted in 1991. The 1, Pro-Ject’s first product of any kind, was successful enough to give the company the kick-start it needed to eventually become the hi-fi manufacturing juggernaut it is today.
Pro-Ject’s founder, Heinz Lichtenegger, told me that while the X1 was created to take advantage of all the more modern materials, manufacturing techniques, and design ideas they’ve learned to use since 1991, it also had to retain everything the 1 became known for: good parts and build quality, great sound, and a reasonable retail price. I wondered if they’d succeeded.
In the box
My review sample of the X1 arrived just over a year ago, shipped direct from Pro-Ject’s headquarters, in Mistelbach, Austria. This meant that it came equipped with Pro-Ject’s Pick it S2 moving-magnet cartridge, which is bundled with the X1s sold in Europe (€799) and Canada ($1199 CAD), where I live. Unlike the rest of the X1, which is built by Pro-Ject in the Czech Republic, the Pick it S2 is made by Ortofon, in Denmark, though Pro-Ject claims that the cartridge is voiced differently from any model available directly from Ortofon, regardless of similarity of looks. X1s sold in the States ($999, all prices USD except as noted) come with an Olympia, from Sumiko’s Oyster line of entry-level MM cartridges. My comments below only reflect the X1’s sound with the Pick it S2.
Cartridges aside, everything else about an X1 should remain the same, regardless of where in the world you buy one. It’s supplied with a Pro-Ject-designed, 8.6”-long tonearm made from a sandwich of aluminum and carbon fiber, which they claim provides great internal damping (you don’t want your tonearm to vibrate), with a counterweight damped with thermoplastic-elastomer (TPE). A cueing lever, to gently lower and raise the arm, comes pre-installed on the arm pivot. The arm can be adjusted for azimuth and vertical tracking angle (VTA), but as these are set at the factory, you shouldn’t have to change those settings unless you use a different cartridge. You will have to set the vertical tracking force (VTF), which Pro-Ject says should be set to 1.8gm.
As with almost any turntable at or near this price, the trickiest part of setup is adjusting the VTF. It’s important to get the VTF just right: too little, and the sound is likely to be light in the bass and wiry in the highs; too much, and you’ll get better bass and smoother highs, but more groove wear. But no worries -- it’s not that difficult to set VTF on the X1, and Pro-Ject supplies a good setup guide.
The X1’s platter of frosted acrylic is 0.75” thick and weighs 3.3 pounds, and has a felt record mat. The sturdy plinth measures 16.34”W x 1.5”H x 13.2”D and is available in High-Gloss Black or High-Gloss White paint -- eight layers of it -- or a real-wood Walnut veneer. My review sample (see photos) came in High-Gloss White. It was built very well and looked good, but I would have preferred Walnut, which has more of a classic turntable look.
The only control on the X1’s top deck is a single pushbutton in the front left corner; pressed, this toggles between platter speeds of 33⅓ and 45/78rpm. Two LEDs just above the button indicate the selected speed: 33⅓rpm (left) or 45/78rpm (right). The 45 and 78rpm speeds require different drive belts (both supplied), which must be changed manually: For 33⅓ and 45rpm, lift off the platter, and loop the flat belt around the platter pulley and the smaller motor pulley. To play 78s, wrap the round belt around the larger motor pulley and the platter pulley. (Novices: Never use both belts at the same time.)
According to Pro-Ject, the X1’s platter rests on a “[s]tainless steel platter-bearing with soft brass bushing and Teflon mirrors for lowest rumble and noise, and a stable, accurate speed transmission.” The arm has a “Kardan ultra-low friction 4 pin point precision tonearm bearing.” Under the plinth, toward the front, are a rocker switch for turning the motor on and off, and, to level the platter, three adjustable feet made from a sandwich of aluminum and TPE to somewhat damp vibrations from the surface the X1 sits on. A clear acrylic dustcover is included, as is Pro-Ject’s Connect-IT E phono cable (RCA), which they describe as a “semi-balanced, low-capacitance cable with superior shielding that’s optimized for turntable use.”
All in all, the X1 took me about 15 minutes to set up -- including unpacking all the parts, looping the belt around the motor and platter pulleys, installing the platter, making all the necessary tonearm adjustments including setting VTF, and removing the stylus guard. All went off without a hitch, which speaks well for Pro-Ject’s quality control.
The Pro-Ject X1 arrived while I was reviewing Paradigm’s Monitor SE 3000F loudspeakers and Audiolab’s 6000A integrated amplifier-DAC and 6000CDT CD transport. (Those reviews were respectively published in July and August 2019.) I plugged the X1 into the 6000A’s phono stage with Pro-Ject’s Connect-IT E phono cable, selected the appropriate input on the amp, and, using the cueing lever, gently lowered the stylus into the lead-in groove of side 2 of Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love (LP, Columbia OC 40999). It took only the first few seconds of the title track to tell me that the Pro-Ject X1 was a big step up in sound quality from U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Plus turntable ($289), which I’d been using off and on -- or that of Fluance’s RT83, which I’d just written about and was getting ready to ship back to the manufacturer. Compared to how it sounded through those two ’tables, the opening drumstrokes of “Tunnel of Love” had far greater impact and solidity through the X1, with more apparent space around the drums, and the high-frequency jingling sounds, intended to sound like an outdoor carnival, were cleaner and much more distinct. Springsteen’s voice sounded pretty much as it does in a digital version of this song, either from a CD rip or an uncompressed stream: super-natural, with loads of details. I could never say that of the sound of the U-Turn or Fluance -- played on either ’table, my Tunnel of Love LP never sounded as good as the digital versions of that album I usually listen to. I heard similar improvements throughout the rest of side 2, and throughout Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (LP, Warner Bros. BSK 3010).
That the X1 was better than the U-Turn Orbit Plus or the Fluance RT83 wasn’t a big surprise. As I write this, €799 is about $950 USD, which makes the X1 cost, respectively, a bit more and a bit less than three times the price of the Orbit Plus or RT83. It should sound better. But I was surprised at how much better it sounded -- not always the way it goes in high-end audio, aka the Land of Diminishing Returns. But the improvement in sound I heard from the X1 over the two other ’tables was profound in every way. If you asked me if the X1 sounded three times as good as the other turntables, my immediate response would be, Yeah.
As the months marched on and I connected the X1 to the phono inputs of Heaven 11’s Billie (which I reviewed in November 2019) and Schiit Audio’s Ragnarok 2 Fully Loaded (April 2020) integrated-DACs, and the speakers varied from Wharfedale’s Linton Heritage to Totem Acoustic’s Skylight to Q Acoustic’s 3030i to Triangle’s Borea BR03 stand-mounts, all of which I reviewed between October 2019 and July 2020, I remained impressed by the quality and consistency of the X1’s sound. The main strengths I’d heard at the start were always apparent: greater impact and solidity in the bass, superclear and extended highs, and lots of detail throughout the audioband and especially the midrange, where voices live. What most struck a chord with me was how immediate and exciting the X1 could make my LPs sound. I’ve often found lower-cost turntables to have narrow dynamic range, which makes records sound flat and uninvolving -- one reason digital versions of the same recordings often sound better. The snappy, hop-to-it sound of the X1 had none of that.
Over time, the X1’s strengths got me to realize something else. I found myself so often preferring to hear an album on vinyl that the DACs of the integrated amps I was using often sat idle. Tunnel of Love provided a great example of why: Tidal’s 16-bit/44.1kHz stream of this album, the version on my solid-state drive that I ripped from the CD, and my LP can sound very alike through good-quality gear -- not precisely identical, but close to it. But, vinyl’s unavoidable surface noise aside, when I played this LP on the X1 and sent it through one of my System One setups, regardless of what amp I was using, the LP consistently edged out the digital versions by sounding a little smoother and fuller in the midrange, with no loss of detail or dynamics. These differences were tiny, but they nonetheless made me prefer the sound of the LP almost every time.
Almost. There were exceptions. Either of my two 20-year-old LPs of Bob Seger’s Against the Wind pales in comparison to the digitally remastered versions of this album that you can stream or play on CD. The X1 couldn’t work miracles with something like that.
Still, all of the above is enough for me to unhesitatingly recommend the Pro-Ject X1. And my enthusiasm for it grew a bit more when, last month, I reviewed Hegel Music Systems’ H95 integrated amplifier-DAC. The H95 lacks a phono stage, but still I wanted to hear the X1 through it. I hooked up a Bellari VP549 moving-magnet phono stage ($149) to one of the H95’s single-ended analog inputs with inexpensive Axiom Audio interconnects, and the Pro-Ject X1 to the Bellari with the X1’s phono cable, all driving a pair of NHT C 3 Carbon Fiber speakers. As I wrote in my review of the H95, I was “blown away” by the sound of side 1 of Dire Straits’ Communiqué (LP, Mercury SRM-1-3791) -- it was clearer and more detailed than what I’d heard from the X1 and the same speakers driven by the Schiit Ragnarok 2 Fully Loaded and its phono stage. Other recordings, such as Bryan Ferry’s Boys and Girls (LP, Warner Bros. 25082-1) and the Eagles’ The Long Run (LP, Asylum X5E-508), benefited from similar improvements in sound.
The improvement in sound with the Bellari wasn’t as great as that from the U-Turn or Fluance to the Pro-Ject X1 -- it was more incremental than monumental -- but it was enough to get me thinking that an integrated amp’s lack of onboard phono stage might not be so big a deal if something as cheap as the Bellari VP549 can provide such great sound. As you’ll soon read about in this column, this has sent me down a new rabbit hole of surveying inexpensive phono stages. I want to hear which ones will reveal most or all of the X1’s sound quality for the least cost.
An easy recommendation for . . .
When good build quality, great sound, and reasonable price combine, you have a killer product. Pro-Ject Audio Systems’ X1 turntable delivers all three in spades, making it as easy to recommend as it is to enjoy listening to. When fellow-writer Roger Kanno asked me which affordable turntable he should get to use for his reviews of integrated amplifiers with built-in phono stages, the first one that sprang to mind was the X1. Roger took my advice and got an X1 finished in High-Gloss Black and with a factory-installed Pick it S2 cartridge. He’s astounded by how good it sounds for the price (see his review this month of Naim Audio’s Supernait 3 integrated amplifier).
But I’d recommend Pro-Ject’s X1 to anyone who wants a great-sounding turntable for under a grand. The original 1 or P1 helped establish Pro-Ject’s reputation -- it’s outstanding products like the X1 that have maintained that rep and helped the company to thrive.
. . . Doug Schneider