Pioneer PLX-500 Turntable Review
"Technics? Never heard of them."
What is the Pioneer PLX-500?The Pioneer PLX-500 is the latest addition to the range of direct drive professional turntables from Pioneer DJ. It is to a greater or lesser extent, a cut down version of the existing PLX-1000 turntable that has been around for a few years now. At £300 including cartridge and phono stage, it also has some possibilities as a home audio deck, pitching as it does into the very competitive level contested by home audio brands.
First though, the elephant in the room. The Pioneer looks rather like the Technics SL-1200. While we can accept that there are only a given number of ways that a turntable can look, the Pioneer might be seen as a 'loving homage' to the SL-1200 in terms of how close they appear to be. Over the intervening years where the Technics wasn't available new, this might not have been too much of an issue but with a new model back in production, the Pioneer might be seen to be trying a little hard.
Ignoring this for a moment, the Pioneer can't help but look like an awful lot of turntable for the money. In the same vein as the Numark TT250USB that passed through the review process recently, does the PLX-500 offer the possibility of a bombproof piece of equipment for home use too?
SpecificationsThe Pioneer is a direct drive turntable built with at least one eye on DJ use. To this end, the usual calling cards of such a device are present. Speed control is electronic and done at the touch of one of the speed buttons. Unusually, the Pioneer also supports 78rpm playback by holding down both buttons at once. There is then a +/- 10% speed control that is active on all three speeds – notionally meaning that the maximum speed the PLX-500 is capable of is an impressive 85rpm.
The motor that supplies this power is a three phase brushless DC type that has the required attributes to hopefully avoid both cogging – the sense that the motor is moving in distinct stages – and vibration being sent back up through the bearing. The PLX-500 is servo controlled and has as an electronic brake when the stop button is pushed. Thanks to plenty of power, the Pioneer will hit 33rpm in less than a second and stop just as enthusiastically.
The platter is die cast aluminium and – as is the tradition for semi pro designs of this nature is fitted with strobe markings to confirm the speed accuracy under a light. The platter is fairly lightweight in terms of its feel and somewhat resonant but it is well finished and once mounted on the bearing, it feels reasonably inert and the supplied mat creates a good playing surface.
The tonearm is the traditional S-shaped device with a separate headshell that holds the cartridge. The arm is well finished and feels fairly inert but it also feels a little on the stiff side in terms of both horizontal and vertical movement although this has not affected playback. Like the Numark, the Pioneer trumps domestic rivals by offering the ability to change the vertical tracking angle of the arm at the mount via a six position control. The effect is slightly crude as there is no continuous adjustment but it is still more than is usually offered.
Pioneer supplies the PLX-500 with a matching headshell and cartridge of indeterminate origin. As the headshell is a standard SME bayonet mount though, there is no challenge substituting it for another one and the counterweight assembly has enough adjustment to be something you can easily contemplate changing the headshell and cartridge on.
In keeping with a number of turntables at this price point, the Pioneer has an internal phono stage which works with any cartridge that has standard moving magnet values. Unlike the more affordable Numark though, the Pioneer is more in keeping with the Audio Technica AT-LP5 in that the phono stage can be switched out and used into an external phono stage if you wish which means that the upgrade potential is rather greater and if you wanted to use a moving coil cartridge on the Pioneer, you could. You still only get a captive mains lead on the back but you can't have everything.
The other connection on the back of the PLX-500 is a USB B connection. This allows a diehard fraternity of individuals to create vinyl rips with it but in the case of the Pioneer, the connection is more interesting than that. The PLX-500 is supplied with software called Rekordbox that additionally allows you to play files on your computer and use the PLX-500 as a scratch pad for them. I confess that as someone settling comfortably into middle age, this is not something that has me delirious with excitement but I will freely concede, it is pretty clever.
DesignAs has already been noted, the Pioneer looks more that a little like the Technics SL1200 but given that the Technics is a design icon and deeply aspirational – especially in its latest iteration costing as it does, ten times the price of the PLX-500 – perhaps this should not be a huge surprise. It looks more like the Technics when finished in the traditional black than it does in the rather sudden white of the review sample – an object which has gone straight into my top ten list of tricky things to take photographs of.
If you forget the similarities though and take the Pioneer on its own merits, this is an impressive device for £300. Firstly, it is seriously weighty for an affordable record player, tipping the scales at 10kg. This makes the Pioneer pleasingly immune to all but the most extreme places you could choose to place it. The feet offer a further degree of isolation too. The chassis is microphonic if you tap it hard but this is far from unusual at the price. Everything is impressively solid in terms of materials used and the way that they have been put together. I don't really like the white finish but it will have its fans and gives the Pioneer a fairly clean appearance.
There are some nice touches too. The controls are nicely weighted and feel solid and well thought out. The hinged lid (something the more expensive PLX-1000 does without) is fitted with a pair of moulded lumps that allow you to display a record when it is open. This is a handsome piece of equipment that works as happily in a domestic setting as it does in a professional one. It lacks the sheer elegance of the Elipson Omega 100 but it has the Elipson comfortably beaten in specification terms, even if we aren't considering that unusual USB connection.
Everything is impressively solid in terms of materials used and the way that they have been put together
How was the Pioneer PLX-500 Tested?The Pioneer was tested in four phases. In all of them, a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp and pair of Audio Note AN-K speakers acted as the rest of the system. The Pioneer was placed on a Quadraspire QAVX rack and initially used with its supplied cartridge, headshell and internal phono stage connected directly to the Naim. Then, the phono stage was switched out and a Graham Slee Communicator used instead. After this, the headshell was removed and an Audio Technica AT-HS10 headshell with Ortofon 2M Red was fitted and the arm setup for them. Finally, a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage was used to get an absolute handle on the performance. The material used in all cases was vinyl.
Sound QualitySetting the Pioneer up is reasonably straightforward and should not prove too challenging, especially if you have access to a stylus force gauge. Once up and running, the Pioneer does a fair amount right – but not everything. Listening to Biffy Clyro's Only Revolutions, the PLX-500 has some traditional direct drive attributes. The sound has a rhythmically engaging and propulsive quality and as you might expect, pitch stability is pretty much absolute.
No less impressive is the bass performance. The mass and general construction ethos of the Pioneer helps it to produce deep, clean and impactful low end that has good detail and texture to it. The problem the PLX-500 has in this out of the box configuration is that it doesn't have the same assurance to the midrange and upper registers. The track Many of Horror, simply doesn't open out in the way that it does on other turntables that have passed through the review process at a similar price.
There are also some issues with the upper registers. The Pioneer isn't harsh or thin sounding but equally it doesn't sound as rich or real as the similarly priced Elipson. Compared to the similarly specified (and £80 cheaper), Numark TT250USB, the Pioneer is certainly no worse but it doesn't really move the game on in the manner you might expect.
What the Numark can't do that the Pioneer can, is switch its internal phono stage out of the circuit and make use of an external one. Switching to a Graham Slee Communicator – which at £180 is possibly pricier than you might consider to use with a £300 turntable but not unreasonably so – and the performance improves considerably. The width and scale that seemed a little compressed before is returned to the performance and everything begins to sound more effortless. Switching to the Neil Cowley Trio's Touch and Flee, this sparse arrangement of instruments gains a tonal realism and richness that allows you to enjoy the album properly.
There is more to give as well. While the cartridge on the Pioneer seems respectable in terms of basic behaviour – and it certainly inspires more confidence being lowered onto records you've paid a fair bit for than the Groovetool cartridge fitted to the Numark – it still can't challenge the Ortofon OM10 fitted to the Elipson Omega 100. If you remove the supplied headshell and cartridge and substitute the Audio Technica headshell and Ortofon 2M Red, the jump in performance is considerable.
In this configuration, the Pioneer becomes a seriously capable turntable. The basic character of the deck remains intact but it now has a spacious and well defined soundstage, genuinely good tonal colour and a level of refinement that means even edgy pressings are handled without becoming sharp or sibilant. The beautiful recording of Fink with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is delivered with real ability. The opening track Berlin Sunrise builds and builds from near silence and the Pioneer reproduces this with an effortlessness that is unusual in a turntable that even with the added components is still fairly affordable.
As a final test, substituting the Cyrus Phono Signature as the phono stage in the system allows the Pioneer's abilities to be studied on a forensic level. The incredibly low noise floor of the Cyrus confirms that the noise levels of the Pioneer are also entirely unobtrusive. The basic presentation of the PLX-500 is confident and punchy with bass that starts and stops with speed and precision. The integration of this bass into the midrange is seamless and the Pioneer has no trouble scaling the size of the performance it produces to match the material you are asking it to play. There is also a well judged sense of fun to the way the Pioneer makes music. Leftfield's Space Shanty positively grooves along and for people who feel that only analogue offers real rhythmic ability (and for the record, I am not one of them), the PLX-500 could stand as a happy exhibit to this.
The sound has a rhythmically engaging and propulsive quality
- Punchy and dynamic sound
- Very solid build
- Interesting additional features
- Some limitations to the out of the box performance
- No lock on the tonearm
- Lacks the visual elegance of domestic rivals
Pioneer PLX-500 Turntable ReviewSumming up the Pioneer and giving it a fair score is a slightly difficult business because there are a few variables that need to be considered. As it exists out of the box, this is a good but not great turntable. Compared to the Audio Technica AT LP5 which is only £30 more, the Pioneer doesn't sound as assured or as enjoyable. Compared to the identically priced Elipson Omega 100, the PLX-500 feels heavy handed and lacking in space and top-end sparkle.
If you were shopping for a turntable with more than £300 in the kitty, conversely the Pioneer makes more sense. It has become clear that the fundamentals of the PLX-500 are very good indeed and that it responds brilliantly to some sensible upgrades. This is best seen as a very good turntable that is supplied with enough equipment to get you up and running but that has considerable performance potential locked up within it. If you are content to put this work in, the Pioneer certainly warrants recommendation.
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Suggested retail price when reviewed: £300.00
Ease of Use8
Value for Money8
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