Pro-Ject Essential 2 Phono Turntable Review
Forget 4K Blu-ray, what you want is one of these
Introduction- is this a turntable I see before me?A number of you will have clicked on this review wondering if we have our dates mixed up for April fools day or if the inmates (or inmate in this case) have taken over the asylum. What is the UK’s best AV website doing reviewing a record player? The reasons are simple enough. Some time ago, I wrote a pair of articles, one explaining why I love vinyl as much as I do and another giving a beginner’s guide to buying a turntable and getting in on the retro love in. Following feedback from members, this is the next logical step.
What follows is the first of what is intended to be four reviews of turntables that are ideal for the task of starting out in (or indeed returning to) the world of vinyl. As I have explained before, I love the endlessly customisable nature of turntables where you can choose deck, arm and cartridge to suit but I’m not blind to the rather daunting nature of doing this from scratch for the first time. As such, the models selected for review forgo this process and are intended to be a self contained purchase like any other format to get you up and running. These decks work well as a package because they were designed to be one.
As we are starting at the affordable end of the spectrum, really there was only one brand that was in contention to supply a turntable. Pro-Ject dominates the budget hi-fi turntable market (as distinct from more ‘lifestyle’ and convenience devices) largely because it is the brand that recreated it. The company has made clever engineering, economies of scale and cost effective manufacturing an art form and the Essential II is- as the name suggests- a must have package to get you back in the black stuff at a sensible price. Does it work in practice?
What is the Essential 2?Pro-Ject’s budget turntable range is large and initially a little confusing but at the core of it lies some common sense. The Debut range- the turntable that kicked off the company’s involvement in this area and that became a sales phenomenon- has moved up in the world over the last few years and has become a range of very clever turntables that include some design features that are a far cry from the original model. With this has come a rise in price- although the Debut is still very good value for what it is.
To fill this gap, two turntables have been released. The first is the Elemental. This pared back design is perhaps the smallest and simplest collection of components that can be assembled to form a turntable. Then there is the Essential. This is much more akin to the Debut models and is essentially a carefully considered process of what can be done to that basic design to reduce the costs back to a more budget oriented point. The original Essential has been replaced by the Essential 2 which can be had either as a basic turntable or as you see here, including a phono in stage that will not only allow you to connect it to any amp with a line level input but also to rip vinyl to computer if the fancy takes you. This means that at £285 you have a device that will turn up in a single box and contain everything you need to play records. Except an actual record- you’ll need to buy one of those yourself.
The Essential 2 is a plinth type turntable with an inverted bearing into which the single piece platter is dropped into. The tonearm is borrowed from the basic Debut and is an 8.6 inch aluminium design. The use of this arm neatly shows Pro-Ject’s pragmatic attitude towards turntables. The first Essential had a different type of arm that used a single ‘unipivot’ bearing that had a single bearing to move the arm both horizontally and vertically. While this arm did some things very well, it wasn’t always the most comforting thing to use and didn’t always ship as securely as dealers would have liked. A more absolutist company would have doggedly tried to make that arm work on principle. Pro-Ject simply looked at the cost/benefits and substituted one from elsewhere in the range. This arm is finished with an Ortofon OM5 moving magnet cartridge which is all aligned, wired and ready to go.
What’s good about the Essential 2?I’ve said before that turntables are mechanical engineering in contrast to almost everything else in the industry on sale today. This means that the turntable has to perform some basic tasks to work properly. It has to spin the platter at the correct speed with no variation up or down. It has to get the stylus firmly into the groove and isolate that arm from vibration both elsewhere on the deck and the outside world. What is deeply impressive about the Essential 2 is that all of these bases are covered in a deeply efficient way.
Take the arm- the 8.6 tonearm is extremely simple but it has a positive feel and moves with little slack or play in the bearings. The little fishing weight on the thread is the anti-skate mechanism- the counter to the natural force the tonearm is subjected to that pulls it towards the record. It might look a little Heath Robinson but it works like a charm. As the deck has no suspension, the isolation is provided by rubberised feet which are incredibly simple but surprisingly effective at the business of keeping the Essential isolated from the outside world. This is the AK47 of the turntable world- incredibly simple, ubiquitous but also rather brilliant.
It is also a lot of turntable for the money. The phono stage is clearly partly or wholly derived from the Box range of Pro-Ject components and while I find the business of ripping vinyl to a computer to be perfectly hateful, having the ability to do so for free is very welcome. The Essential 2 also has a lid which is great news if your vinyl habit has to share a room with children, pets or dust.
This is the AK47 of the turntable world- incredibly simple, ubiquitous but also rather brilliant.
What’s not so good about the Essential 2?Pro-Ject has largely managed to keep the Essential 2 a satisfying piece of industrial design despite the relatively low price point. The only area where any degree of frustration is possible is the belt. As the platter is a single piece with no smaller sub platter, the belt has to be run around the edge of the ungrooved main platter. Compared to the belt fitting process on some more expensive decks, this is the work of a moment but as the rest of the setup process is so incredibly easy to do it can be fustrating the first time. Another area that is worth taking into account is that although the Essential 2 doesn’t need a phono stage, it does need a ground connection. As my Naim doesn’t have such a thing, I had to draft in my Avid phono stage to supply one even though it wasn’t otherwise connected. There are ways and means around this though.
Otherwise, the Pro-Ject gets most things right. If you compare it to more expensive decks, the isolation isn’t perfect and I’d say it looks tidy rather than actively pretty but there is very little to touch the Essential 2 for out of the box performance. This being said, where the Essential 2- and in the interests of fairness, its competition too- suffers is that compared to slightly more expensive decks- such as the next one this series will visit- offer rather more upgrade potential. I don’t doubt you can fit a better cartridge to the arm but the whole deck is effectively set up around the supplied Ortofon so just how far the performance will move on is unclear. If you get bitten by the bug, the likelihood is you’d need to chop the Pro-Ject in rather than upgrade it to suit.
How was the Essential 2 tested?The Pro-Ject was set up following the logical and well evolved setup instructions that came in the box and from putting the box down to playing a record took me a whisker under ten minutes- mainly because as above, I had to dig out my phono stage to ground it. There aren’t many other turntables as easy to get going as this.
The Essential was tested in two ways. This being an AV forum, I connected it to a Yamaha RX-A3040 AV Receiver with Elipson Planet M speakers and a Tannoy TS2.12 subwoofer. I then connected it to a Naim Supernait 2 and Neat Momentum 4i speakers for a more absolute judge of performance. Both systems run via IsoTek mains conditioners and the Pro-Ject was connected to an IsoTek Sigmas. The material used for testing was vinyl amazingly enough.
What does the Essential 2 sound like?Short answer? Pretty damn good. Spend five minutes with the Essential 2 playing a good pressing, in my case Present Tense by Wild Beasts, and the Pro-Ject will either give you an idea of why, beyond cool sleeve art and the tactility some of us persevere with the format or you’ll shrug and go back to listening to stuff off the internet. Compared to a good digital source at the same price, the Essential 2 is unlikely to have quite the same depth and impact to the bass and while you are never consciously aware of noise, the moment you switch back to digital, you become aware of the noisefloor dropping away further.
Where the Pro-Ject hits back is that there is a fluidity to the way is makes music that is joyous to listen to. I don’t subscribe to the idea that digital conversion ruins music- good digital is a great thing- but nonetheless, the Pro-Ject sounds effortless in a way that is somehow unlike similarly priced DACs and CD players. The presentation is relaxed, open and simply musical. You don’t automatically think “that bass is excellent” or “those voices are very convincing”, you simply think “I like that.”
Listen a little longer and I think this sense of rightness is down the Pro-Ject delivering the bit that matters- the signal between roughly 100Hz and 14kHz with real life and conviction. This isn’t to say it can’t do bass- a spirited rendition of Invaders Must Die is surprisingly seismic- but the midrange is so focussed and beautifully laid out, you simply savour it for what it is. This means that voices are rich, full and detailed and supported by instruments that have real weight and texture to them.
Spinning a brand new copy of If you wait by London Grammar purchased at the Bristol Show and the performance of Wasting my Young Years is packed with emotion and simple, unapologetic pleasure. I’ve not a second’s doubt that the same track played via Tidal from my laptop is going to measure better but I know which one I’d rather listen to. The Pro-Ject is one of the most cost effective turntables I’ve ever used that has the little spark of greatness that is what us vinyl freaks chase.
This performance is also something that is present connected to an AV rather than stereo system. Vinyl and 2.1 is not a combination that I’d actively seek out but the Yamaha, Elipson and Tannoy trio keep the same fluid, open and fundamentally engaging sound there is with the Naim/Neat system. If you want to add vinyl to an AV system, the Essential 2 is a perfectly capable way of doing it.
You don’t automatically think “that bass is excellent” or “those voices are very convincing”, you simply think “I like that.”
Any downsides to the performance?Very few of the downsides I’m going to raise are specific to the Essential 2 and more the drawbacks of affordable vinyl. The Ortofon cartridge is slightly susceptible to dust and debris on the record where some more expensive models can play through without an issue and as the whole deck tracks fairly light which means that any damage to your media might not be played through. If you are a classical music fan, I would encourage you to either stick with digital or budget a bit more (quite a lot more in fact) for a deck that offers rock solid pitch stability. Listen to a piece of rock, pop or dance music (or even Jazz for that matter) and the Pro-Ject is perfectly stable. The long sustained notes of classical music can reveal fractional imperfections that otherwise pass unnoticed though.
- Sound quality beyond the sensible price
- Very simple to set up
- Everything you need in one box
- A little soft at the frequency extremes
- Susceptible to surface noise
- Limit upgrade potential
Pro-Ject Essential 2 Phono Turntable ReviewIf you consider the business of buying a turntable in 2015 to be an act of lunacy, my congrats to making it this far. I am fairly sure that this review is unlikely to have persuaded you to think otherwise. If you are thinking of taking the plunge though, the Essential 2 is an extremely well thought out proposition. This is a turntable that has everything you need to get up and running in one box but more than that, it delivers a big slice of what vinyl can deliver at a very reasonable price. The Essential 2 is almost magnificently simple but it uses this simplicity to such great advantage it is hard not to admire that approach. There are few turntables anywhere near this price that does as much as this little deck can do and if you want to go analogue, you could do a lot worse than start here.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £285.00
Ease of Use9
Value for Money9
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