In Review: The Pro-Ject Phono Box Ultra 500

The Phono Box ultra 500 is one of the most striking — and hardest to photograph — phono products I’ve ever used. Clad in chromed metal and designed to do one thing and one thing only (make your records sound awesome), this $399 little box delivers in scads.

First, let’s talk a little about what a phono amp does. Most high-end turntables consist of a platter, a motor, and a needle. The electronics necessary to turn the grooves on the vinyl into audible sound aren’t quite there. Instead, you get a need that vibrates along a magnet in order to recreate the sound on the disk and then a simple circuit will send that sound out to an amplifier. This means the signal coming out of a regular turntable is about the level of an unpowered microphone. You need something powerful to amp up that signal and make it listenable.

Enter the phono preamplifier. The preamp is designed to take the phonograph signal and output a clean, amplified $399, the Phono Box ultra 500 isn’t cheap but it’s definitely worth it.

This product is a limited edition unit to celebrate the 500,000 Pro-Ject Phono Box sold and is limited to 500 pieces. This model comes in chromed metal because it looks really cool.

The product itself is a limited edition model made by Viennese manufacturer Pro-Ject. The product is a limited-edition bit of electronics that is similar to the $349 Phono Box S2 Ultra and it uses “Audiophile-grade polystyrene capacitors” in lieu of fancier tubes or other audiophile-grade gear that manufacturers slap into audio hardware these days. This means you get a standard, extremely precise sound out of your turntable without spending a fortune.

How does it work?

Running this thing is as easy as plugging in your photograph and then plugging the output into your speakers. In most cases, the Phono Box is sufficient for playing audio to a set of powered stereo speakers and in my case I connected the box to my Sonos gear, allowing me to send the sound around the house. Connecting this directly to a pair of Pioneer DJ speakers, however, sounded great.

The Phono Box is an charmingly archaic piece of technology in that it uses DIP switches and simple buttons to change settings. These settings allow you to tune the box to certain setups including settings for Moving Magnet and Moving Cartridge-type phono needles. The dip switches add or remove certain frequencies based on the individual cartridge specs and a subsonic button will reduce low bass tones that some audiophiles believe can vibrate the vinyl and mess up the sound. It’s all very fiddly at first but if you simply check your cartridge settings, assuming you’re working with a fancy enough turntable, you can simply set it once and forget it.

What this box is supposed to do is offer perfectly-balanced RIAA equalization. This standard, set in the 1940s, is a pre-set equalization profile that reduces both bass and treble. The standard, which essentially ensures solid playback of vinyl, is not bass-heavy or particularly punchy and it offers a listenable set of levels that are amazingly pleasant.

Is it worth it?

Is this product worth $399? Yes. I’ve used a number of smaller pre-amps in my audio setup and my last phono pre-amp was a compact Behringer PP400, another RIAA equalizing box that cost under $100. While I initially figured one box will sound the same as any other, I quickly realized that Pro-Ject was offering something special. The clarity coming out of this thing is unparalleled in my recent listening and it’s perfectly tuned for vinyl. You can spend way more and potentially get better sound, but as an entry- to mid-level solution, the ultra 500 is a winner. The $399 is a bit high, to be clear, especially if you just want to listen to some old Leonard Cohen albums you inherited from your parents, but I’ve been listening to everything from modern Beastie Boys to classic Grant Green and the 500 has done an amazing job. I love good audio gear and Pro-Ject makes some of the best.

John Biggs

John Biggs is an entrepreneur, consultant, writer, and maker. He spent fifteen years as an editor for Gizmodo, CrunchGear, and TechCrunch and has a deep background in hardware startups, 3D printing, and blockchain. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, Wired, and the New York Times.

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