Vinyl records are so hot right now. And if you take your music seriously, you know that the keys to good audio are improving each part of the signal chain that the audio passes through. In this case, that means the turntable, the phono pre-amp, and eventually the amplifier and speakers. Pro-Ject, makers of fine turntable and turntable accessories, has a new record player and phono pre-amp made with the discerning listener in mind.
Being really clear, if you’re severely budget-minded, this isn’t cheap. But in the world of stratospherically priced audio, these are reasonably priced.
The X8 Turntable
The X8 Turntable is priced at $2499 USD with a factory installed Sumiko Moonstone cartridge. Just saying that sounds impressive.
Here’s what you need to understand about any turntable. A record has grooves that carry bumps and valleys, recording the soundwaves. The needle rides in those grooves. The needle is a part of a cartridge that has wires coming off of it, carrying the sound as small electrical signals.
Those electrical signals need to go to a pre-amp. The other important details of the record player are minimizing anything that would cause the needle to restrict the sound. The biggest enemy here is friction. If the needle has too much weight on it, it will create friction in the groove and wear out the record. If the platter the record sits on has friction, it will be fighting against it to play the record at an even speed. How does Pro-Ject solve this?
The tonearm carries the cartridge, and has a pivot in the middle, a counterweight on the opposite end of the cartridge, anti-skating settings, and an arm to raise and lower the needle, to avoid scratching a record when you want to begin playing. That’s all pretty standard. The Sumiko Moonstone cartridge is a moving magnet cartridge.
The platter in this case, is not standard. It’s machined and balanced from a single block of aluminum. It rides on bearings, and has a belt-drive system run by a motor off to one side. The X8 includes a TPE damped mass-loaded platter, which is a kind of rubber-like polymer added to the aluminum to reduce vibrations. To reduce friction at the bearing, the platter has neodymium magnets positioned to use magnetic force to push the platter off the bearing, causing less drag, and allowing the platter to rotate at a stable speed. It’s kind of ingenious.
The audio signal travels from the needle cartridge down the tonearm, and out some connectors to the pre-amp. In this case, the outputs of the turntable are balanced. Most affordable record players are unbalanced. The point of balanced outputs and inputs is that it results in lower noise, allowing you to hear more of the music, and less of anything that might interfere with it. Pro-Ject has made the X8 so that the signal is balanced from the cartridge all the way through the pre-amp.
The Phono Box S3 B sells for $499. It’s got balanced inputs and outputs, 40dB up to 65dB of gain, capacitance adjustable from 50pf to 400pf, and ohms from 10k to 47k. The point of these adjustments is so that you can match the preamp to your cartridge and cables. For example, starting with a low load capacitance may match the cartridge, but as you increase it, the sound will get brighter. If you have less than ideal high-capacitance cables, increasing it will overcome their weaknesses.
The Phono Box DS3 B sounds like it ought to be similar, but costs $899. For the additional 400, you get a control knob on the faceplate of the preamp that has a stepless 10–1000 ohms or fixed 47k ohms. This gives you a lot greater flexibility to match the ohms of a low-output MC moving coil cartridge. If you got the X8 turntable for use with this preamp, you might consider upgrading the moving magnet cartridge to a moving coil to really hear all the details that have been held back.
What should you get?
It depends a little on where you are in your listening journey, and where you’ll go. Do you have a good amplifier? Good speakers? Are you going to use a moving magnet cartridge, or upgrade to a moving coil? Are you running balanced cables for the whole signal path from cartridge to amplifier?
You could do -very- well to get the X8 turntable, the Sumiko cartridge, and the S3 B pre-amp. Or, you coud get the X8 without the cartridge (for $2399), bring your own MC cartridge, and get the DS3 B pre-amp. While it’s possible to be overwhelmed by the options, you can be pretty sure you’re going to be rewarded by the sound over at pro-jectusa.com.