|The Vinyl Word
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Pro-Ject Xperience Turntable
Pro-Ject is one of those understated companies. It goes about its business with a minimum of fuss and self-promotion. While they've been building turntables since 1990, and certainly have the resources to mount an assault on the state of the art, Pro-Ject concentrates on well-built products that those of us of modest means can easily afford. By selling a whole bunch of lower priced 'tables as opposed to a few high-priced ones, Pro-Ject has created an economy of scale and in the process has built a very successful business around analog products in the almost completely digital 21st century.
With its 1"-thick polished acrylic plinth, the $999 USD Xperience turntable is pure Pro-Ject and a real attention-grabber. It sits almost perfectly in the middle of Pro-Ject's extensive turntable line. To my eye, the Xperience's plinth is visually flawless and perfectly polished. It's on par with the quality of the plinths from Clearaudio, which are generally considered the reference for all things acrylic.
While we're considering materials, the Xperience's platter deserves mention for both ingenuity and execution. This multi-layered platter is composed of a 1"-thick high-density fiberboard base that's laminated to a thinner layer of vinyl. The whole shebang is painted flat black, and the combination looks exceptionally trick and likely contributes to the high overall sound and build quality of the unit. My guess is that the materials used for the Xperience's platter are really inexpensive (although it's probably not cheap to machine them to the high tolerances required for a true platter) but work very well, which makes for high value to the consumer.
The high quality of this Pro-Ject turntable continues underneath. The Xperience rests on three machined aluminum cones, and the 'table is decoupled from these by a layer of squishy sorbothane. This is well-thought-out vibration control. The motor mount is pretty much the only evidence of cost-cutting on the Xperience. The motor is decoupled from the plinth by a taut rubber O-ring; a square-sectioned belt connects it to the platter. The motor itself vibrates quite busily, but the primitive mounting scheme seems to control this behavior quite well, as I could neither feel nor hear any vibration through the plinth. That said, the high levels of vibration should have some impact on sound quality, as they undoubtedly travel through the belt and thus reach the platter. However, I most definitely could not hear any negative consequences that I could lay at the feet of the Xperience's dancing motor.
While the Xperience's tonearm initially appears identical to the 'arm on the RPM 9.1, Pro-Ject's current top-of-the-line turntable, there are three significant differences. The carbon-fiber armtube of the Xperience's 'arm is of a smaller diameter than that used for the more expensive turntable. The bearings are ABEC 5 specification, while the RPM 9.1's 'arm employs ABEC 7 bearings. Finally, the RPM 9.1's 'arm has an integrated carbon-fiber headshell, which is said to make for a significant improvement in tonearm resonance control. The headshell of the Xperience's 'arm is a separate aluminum part that's glued to the front of the tonearm tube. Other than those differences, the 'arms are the same. Pro-Ject tonearms are adjustable for VTA and azimuth, although not while the record is in play. The cuing arm is nicely damped, and once set up, both the 'table and 'arm require absolutely no adjustments.
Pro-Ject supplies a screw-on record clamp with the Xperience, and while it performs its function adequately, I found it fussy to use and rather flimsily made. Then again, I have the benefit of an HRS Analog Disc record clamp, which is far superior in both tactile and sonic characteristics.
I auditioned three Xperience turntables (see sidebar) using the supplied interconnect, since the ground screw is located, most inconveniently, right underneath the 'table. Although the supplied cable looks simple, flimsy and decidedly lo-fi, I didn't get all bent out of shape because of its presence. After all, if I'm unaffected and unimpressed by the appearance of thick, hose-like high-end cables (I am), then I should be similarly amenable to a thin, low-end one. Rest easy -- the supplied cable worked just fine.
Preamplifier and amplifier duties were performed by a Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 and Anthem Statement P2 respectively. Phono stages alternated between an Ayre P-5xe and the AQVOX Phono 2CI. Cables varied. I used Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cable exclusively, while interconnects alternated between Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval for all balanced connections and Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference for single-ended duty. Power cords were Cardas Hexlink 5s, and a Chang Lightspeed 6400ISO handled power-filtration duties. The speakers in my review system were my own Hales Transcendence Fives.
High fashion means high maintenance, and, as with other acrylic-plinthed 'tables, the Xperience shows every mark. This tendency extends to fingerprints, as well as dust, hairs, and other detritus that's cast off a record when you brush it prior to play. Fortunately the Xperience comes with a Plexiglas dust cover, so at least you can keep the 'table protected when it's not in use.
In my experience, turntables fall on one side or the other of a sharp dividing line. On the one hand, inexpensive 'tables can sound enjoyable and engaging despite a host of audible flaws. Even the cheapest, those that sound harsh, aggressive and thin, with weak bass, still manage to capture enough of that analog magic to make the process of listening to LPs worthwhile and enjoyable. As we move slowly up (generally in price, but not always) the analog food chain, we eventually reach a point where we no longer need to make cognitive excuses for these shortcomings. Slowly, with each step up the ladder, a greater feeling of ease and harmonic integrity makes its presence known, and the lower registers gain weight and definition.
This is the land where the Pro-Ject Xperience resides. When the record meets the platter, the Xperience proves itself a true heavy-hitter. From the first record I played, I immediately came to the realization that this turntable should be judged on its own merits and not with regard to any budgetary context. Over the two months that I spent listening to it, I became very accustomed to, and quite enamored of, its crisp, articulate, detailed presentation. There's no overt richness or additive bounce to the manner in which the Xperience presents music. The Xperience allows other components and the recordings to star in the show, and that's part of what makes this 'table so special.
The 180-gram Blue Note reissues that came out about eight years ago were darn good for the price (I picked up a dozen at $16 Canadian when they were released), and some were outstanding. One of the best was trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's Ready For Freddie [Blue Note B1 7243 8 32094 1 5]. This album, recorded in the early '60s, strides across the ages, sounding like it was recorded yesterday. The performance is timeless. Ready For Freddie is a lyrical, flowing session, and the Xperience just nails Hubbard's rich, expressive tone, retaining the beautifully loping rhythms of tracks such as "Crisis" without adding any excess warmth that might serve to muddy the musicians' intent. Listening to this album was definitely an "oh yeah" moment. Well done, Pro-Ject.
Sticking with classic jazz for a bit, I spun a mint original pressing of Oscar Peterson's Night Train [Verve VG-8538], which I just picked up at Discovery Records here in Toronto during their half-price Boxing Day sale. Listening to an older pressing after a steady diet of Classic Records reissues is a sobering experience. Compared to the outstanding sound quality of Classic's pressings, some of these moldy oldies can sound rather flat and muffled. The Xperience makes the best of what's there, and although Peterson's piano sounds like it was recorded in a bathroom, the pitch holds rock steady, and Ray Brown's bass comes through the mix with a commendable woodiness. What's most impressive about this album on this turntable is that despite the sound quality, the brilliance of the performance shines through in a way that often isn't communicated by equipment in this price range.
A few evenings ago my buddy Phil stopped by and we listened to LPs for several hours. On the face of it, that doesn't sound like such a big deal, as you likely perform this same activity on a regular basis. However, from my listening-room window I can see into three other houses, and in all of them the TV was on and the occupants were passive, while Phil and I spent a solid hour actively listening to Giant Sand's Chore of Enchantment [Thrill Jockey Thrill079]. To them, we are unusual people; to us, they are missing out on something great. The Xperience portrayed singer Howie Gelb's gruff monotone with its granularity intact. On tracks such as "Satellite," the dimensionality of the backup singers was precisely rendered in space, along with the unlikely combination of the grinding heavy-metal opening and the countrified instrumentation in the latter half of the track.
Chore of Enchantment immerses the listener in its sometimes dense, sometimes sparse acoustic, and the Pro-Ject faithfully takes you there. "Satellite" can be quite abrasive and busy in parts, but even though the Xperience is dead-on neutral, it never turns harsh, and never homogenizes instruments into a soupy mess, as many budget turntables cannot help but do. Phil is now sold on this album, as you would undoubtedly be if you had been listening with us that night.
While the Xperience doesn't plumb the depths in quite the same manner as some more expensive turntables, such as my old Roksan Xerxes, it does a respectable job nonetheless. "New Planet" from Medeski, Martin and Wood's latest album End of the World Party (Just in Case) [Blue Note 7243 5 95633 1 2] is laden with tight, deep bass that flat-out grooves, and the while the Xperience got the gist of it right, it couldn't quite dig down to the very basement, and as such this track lost a tiny bit of its impact. However, the bass that the Xperience did extract was tight and tuneful, and distinctly of overachiever status. With 'tables in this relatively low price range, bass received is often directly proportional to cash spent. Not with the Xperience.
A large part of the fun of writing about audio is that I get to spend hours listening to music and then call this activity work. Right now "Black Eye," from Uncle Tupelo's 89/93: An Anthology [Columbia/Legacy/Sundazed LP5153], is playing, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. If you're a fan of Neil Young, odds are you'll love this compilation album. Both the pressing and the recordings are (generally) very good, and the Pro-Ject Xperience's clean, clear, expressive midrange hangs Jeff Tweedy's angst-ridden voice on the same plane as the speakers, neither bringing it forward nor pushing it to the back. There's a great sense of body and outline to both the vocals and the backing instruments, which press forward or fall back in the soundstage depending on the original recording venue of the varying tracks.
Work? Nah, but that can be our secret.
Last year I reviewed -- and subsequently purchased -- the $1499 Pro-Ject RPM 9 turntable. You may recall that I found Pro-Ject's then top-of-the-line offering to be an overachiever in its price class and a Reviewers' Choice as well. Given this, the Xperience had me worried. My concern had to do with the impending re-insertion of the RPM 9. What if I preferred the less-expensive Xperience? What would my audiophile friends say? Would I get kicked out of the guild and have to return my membership card?
I needn't have worried. With the RPM 9 back in the system, all of the positive attributes of the Xperience remained, along with some notable improvements. That same admirable level of detail was immediately evident, but with a little more weight in the bass. This additional low-end grunt was sufficient to add a more pleasurable foundation to the music that extended up through the midbass, and imparted a small amount of bloom and richness to male vocals. This isn't to say that the Xperience is thin through the midbass -- far from it -- just that the RPM 9 was a touch more fleshed out in this region.
Returning to Uncle Tupelo's Anthology, a direct comparison to the Xperience shows that the RPM 9 is more adept at sorting out complex, busy music. "Graveyard Shift" gets a bit thrashy in parts, and the RPM 9 better sorted out the different instrumental lines, and was thus able to provide a slightly clearer view into the musical performance. The Xperiences slight homogenization was definitely a subtractive failing, and returning back to the cheaper table failed to elicit much in the way of disappointment at this loss of information.
The only areas where the RPM 9 scored big over the Xperience were in imaging and treble extension. The RPM 9 presented vocals with a more fully formed dimensionality, a roundness and completeness that the Xperience couldn't quite match. Up top, stringed instruments, guitar and harmonica (can you tell I've been listening to a fair bit of country music these days?) benefited from an extra helping of treble air and sparkle, which in turn helped liven up the RPM 9's sound, while providing further realism to its already substantial soundstaging prowess.
So, yeah, switching back to the RPM 9 from the Xperience proved that the former is the better-sounding turntable, but not by much. If funds in the Thorpe household were more limited than they already are and it became a necessity to do so, I could happily live with the Xperience, especially when you consider its gee-whiz appearance, which stands in stark-raving contrast to the rather plain-looking RPM 9.
I've always assumed that the demarcation line between budget and true high-end tables sits right around the $1500 price, most notably because of my experience with the Pro-Ject RPM 9. Lesser 'tables tend to sound coarse and strained, while the RPM 9 and its betters don't require any suspension of disbelief in order to gain access to the music. At its quite reasonable $1499 selling price, the Pro-Ject RPM 9 was a no-brainer for someone who was looking for a 'table that sat quite firmly at the knee of the price/performance curve.
However, with the arrival of the Pro-Ject Xperience, I have been forced to re-evaluate that notion. First off, the Xperience does not look like a budget turntable. With its acrylic plinth, carbon-fiber tonearm and machined aluminum feet, the Xperience smacks of high-end luxury. Add in the two-layer platter, square-sectioned belt, and sorbothane suspension, and the Xperience moves up a weight class in engineering as well as appearance.
But it's the sound that matters, right? And it's here where the Xperience scores. For a buck less than a grand, the Xperience serves up much of the poise, neutrality and competence of its big brother, and it can compete with other 'tables in the same price range. If you're looking for a turntable that can accurately, truthfully and euphonically reproduce the music that's contained within your records, for its reasonable asking price you could do much worse, and not much better, than the Pro-Ject Xperience.
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