It’s nice to have someone help out with turntable setup. And it’s absolutely critical if you’re new to the intricate hand-eye-and-finger tricks required to properly mount a cartridge and adjust a tonearm—key steps to realizing the performance you’ve paid for.
Knowing that most novice—and plenty of veteran—vinyl-spinners are likely to botch the job, turntable manufacturers are increasingly likely to offer special pre-packaged rigs, sometimes at a reduced rate, in order to make a turntable purchase less intimidating. (As an aside, ’twas a time when your dealer supplied this service as part of the purchase price, but those retailers are increasingly rare—at least based on reports from the manufacturers I’ve spoken with, who lament that, aside from a few specialists, finding a dealer who really understands analog is about as likely as finding a sober fan at a tailgate party. And then there are Internet sales, where a customer may never even visit the seller’s store.)
Our survey of three affordable, if not quite entry-level, turntables led us to some of the bestestablished firms in the business: Pro-Ject from the Czech Republic, Rega Research from Great Britain, and SOTA from the U.S. Rega paired its latest edition of the venerable P3, now the P3-24, with its own Elys 2 moving-magnet cartridge; Pro-Ject’s U.S. importer Sumiko selected the Blue Point No. 2, a high-output moving-coil model; and SOTA pre-mounted another high-output moving-coil, Dynavector’s 10x5.
What follows is not a “shoot-out,” but rather an attempt to inform you about how each of these differing designs actually sounds.
Pro -Ject RM-5 SE/Sumiko Blue Point No. 2
A slightly more expensive edition of the regular RM5 ($699) Jim Hannon wrote about in our last analog issue (172), the RM-5 SE ($899) features the same teardrop-shaped, dark-greylacquered MDF plinth, a motor assembly that is suspended by elastic bands for acoustic isolation, a stainless-steel-and- Teflon bearing assembly housed in a bronze sleeve, and a tripod of cone-shaped aluminum feet. The supplied record clamp and 9-inch carbon-fiber arm are likewise the same. The arm sports Swiss bearings, adjustments for azimuth and VTA, and detachable interconnect cables. What differs in the SE are a sandwich platter made of MDF with a vinyl top layer, and the inclusion of Sumiko’s excellent little budget movingcoil, the Blue Point No. 2, which sells alone for $299. This MDF/vinyl composite platter is also available as an upgrade to RM-5 owners for $160. The Pro-Ject was easy to assemble, is handsome, and has an incredibly small footprint, thanks to that teardrop-like base.
The sound of the RM-5 SE/Blue Point 2 combination was very nicely balanced (the BP No. 2 is notably warmer and richer than earlier versions of this cartridge), and is marked by a remarkable rhythmic incisiveness. I noticed this before I’d even spent serious time with the setup. On Sundazed’s mono pressing of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, I quickly snapped to attention at the sound of Dylan’s alternately picked and strummed acoustic guitar on “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.” As well as I know this track, and I strum a bit myself, I don’t know if I’ve ever paid as much attention to the way Dylan is playing his instrument as I did with the RM-5 SE. It’s not so much that this Pro-Ject lets you hear more detail, or that I heard things in the track I hadn’t before, but that its rhythmic incisiveness somehow heightens the sensation of a guy playing the guitar, with simple left-hand chord changes and slashing right-hand strumming. The turntable’s incisive nature was also displayed in Dylan’s famously unique way of phrasing words, the way he practically wraps his tongue around consonants or spits out middle and ending vowels.
Nathan Milstein’s performance of the Bach Sonatas and Partitias for Solo Violin [Deutsche Grammophon] also highlighted this aspect of the RM-5 SE, along with its very swift transient attack and nice overall dynamic range—as Milstein navigates variation after variation of double-stops, ostinatos, and repeating chord progressions.
The RM-5 SE is also good at large-scale dynamics. Luigi Nono’s A Carlo Scarpia [Edition RZ] is a short orchestral work that veers from quiet creaks and ghostly fragments to sudden bursts of all-out explosiveness. The qualities that made the ’table so involving with the first two LPs served this music well, as did its open soundstage and fair semblance of depth.
I also received and was to report in this article on Pro-Ject’s Phono Box II USB, a nifty and remarkably good-sounding $179 phonostage that outputs USB for transferring discs to digital audio files. Unresolved technical difficulties (on my end, not the Pro-Ject’s) resulted in a missed deadline, so I’ll report my findings in an upcoming issue.