Pro-Ject Primary E Turntable Review
Pro-Ject tries to bridge the gap between the supermarket specials and Hi-Fi
What is the Pro-Ject Primary E?The Pro-Ject Primary E is an unsuspended, belt driven turntable. It is singly unremarkable in terms of its basic design and appearance but it is both a significant and surprisingly innovative product. As a revision of the original Primary, the Primary E is available at the time of writing (September 2018) for £150. It is about as affordable as turntable built to this pattern can be and, as we shall see, Pro-Jet has had to make some key design decisions to achieve it.
It is important to put that £150 figure into some sort of perspective too. When the original Pro-Ject Debut was launched in 1999, it cost £119 (although, in reality, most UK customers treated themselves to the gloss version at a slightly higher cost). Adjusted for inflation in 2018, that £119 is within a whisker of £200 - still not a fortune but it begins to show how significant an achievement the Primary is at its asking price. The Debut is a product that has been instrumental to the vinyl resurgence of the last fifteen years. Without a readily available affordable player, the ability for people to start listening to vinyl would have been more dependent on the unreliable availability of used turntables - and I don’t buy that any other company would have filled the breach in the absence of Pro-Ject.
As such, the Primary E is here to keep that window of affordability open as wide as possible. How well does it manage this and do the decisions that Pro-Ject has taken to hit this price point have an impact on
the performance? Looks like we’re going to have spin some records.
Specification and DesignThe Primary E is an evolution of the original Primary which itself takes the basic design of the Debut series (which has crept up in both specification and price over the years and has now settled into being a competitor to the Rega Planar 2 and 3 depending on the spec that you choose) and Essential range, and carries out some revisions with a view to reducing the price. In the case of the E, the difference to the original Primary that produces this saving is one that actually improves the convenience of the player as a whole. The Primary E uses a new motor that works at 230v rather than the low voltage of the older models. This means it can be directly wired with a plug and saves on the cost of a wall wart and block arrangement and the need to find somewhere to place it.
The other area where the Primary E makes savings over the Debut and Essential models is more significant and fundamental. The tonearm on both Essential and Debut models comes with a cartridge fitted but they have the means of being adjusted to be used with other cartridges if the fancy takes you. As the owner of an original Debut, I used it for several years with a Grado cartridge in place of the supplied Ortofon and very tidy it sounded too.
The Primary E uses an arm that reduces this flexibility in the pursuit of simple setup and cost savings. It is designed with a view to being used with the Ortofon OM cartridge that it comes fitted with. There are immediate pros and cons to this. The Primary E erodes the idea that a turntable can grow with you and be developed and improved but, while I personally like this idea very much, I will freely concede that the number of affordable turntables that see any change to their composition at all - even something as simple as a mat change - is very limited. Pro-Ject is effectively removing a feature that simply doesn’t see much use with owners. It is also worth pointing out that this trend is present in other brands too - the Rega Planar 1 Plus we looked at recently is also fitted with an arm really designed to work with the supplied cartridge.
There are benefits to doing this too. The counterweight can be preset for the OM cartridge and comes ready fitted. There is also no need for an adjustable anti-skate system so the Primary does without the hitherto ubiquitous line and weight system that has been a Pro-Ject trademark for twenty years. Unlike the Juke Box we looked at recently, the weight on this review sample had been very accurately set indeed. The Primary E is supplied without a phono stage which is ideal for many people as the number of amps fitted with them rises (to say nothing of unexpected ones like the recently tested Klipsch R41 PM). If you need a variant with the phono stage built in, you can have one for £200.
The rest of the Primary bears more than a passing resemblance to the Essential II we reviewed a few years back. The plinth and platter are MDF and the belt acts on the outer edge of the platter. Having spent some time with the memorably challenging Funk Firm Gett! I no longer regard the fitment of the Primary E’s belt to be that tricky but it is still very easy to snag it when lifting the lid. Speed change, as you might expect is via moving the belt from one pulley to another.
The most impressive aspect of the Pro-Ject’s construction is that it still manages to feel pretty solid at the asking price. The very simplicity of the design is a considerable asset here as the lack of adornment and frippery means that the Primary E feels, for want of a better description, ‘grown up.’ There’s nothing here that doesn’t need to be here and this gives the Primary a good, no-nonsense aesthetic. The only downside in use appears to be that the plinth is very susceptible to fingerprints.
There are some good details too. The feet seem to be closely related to the ones on the Essential III and they do a fine job of ensuring that footfall and vibration near the Pro-Ject don’t make it to the playing surface. That new motor gives a perfect result on a strobe at 33 and 45 rpm and seems quiet in all conditions. You even get a fairly smart lead out cable from the arm - something which may or may not make a performance difference (although, I’d suggest if it was going to make a difference, with the tiny voltages from a cartridge this would be the place) and improves another of the points of contact. You also get a lid too which is a highly underrated thing. Perhaps the most significant achievement of the Pro-Ject is that it doesn’t feel like a bargain basement product despite the price.
It also means that set up is a breeze. From opening the box to spinning your first record on the Primary E, even if you have never so much as laid a finger on a record player before, should be no more than ten minutes. Pro-Ject has been refining their own unboxing process for the best part of twenty years now and the process has been refined to an art. There are very few turntables that are simpler to get up and running than this one.
Perhaps the most significant achievement of the Pro-Ject is that it doesn’t feel like a bargain basement product despite the price.
How was the Primary E Tested?The Pro-Ject was installed on a Quadraspire Soundbase and connected to a Graham Slee Communicator and a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage. In all cases, the equipment was connected to an IsoTek Evo3 Aquarius mains conditioner and amplified by a Naim Uniti Star all-in-one system. Speakers used for testing have included the Neat Momemtum 4i, Acoustic Energy AE1 Classic and Spendor A1. The test material used in all cases was vinyl.
Sound QualityJudging the performance of an affordable turntable is always something of a balancing act. I am a fully paid up fan of the format but I have no trouble admitting that all other variables being eliminated, even a good affordable turntable (and even some fairly unaffordable ones) will lose a measurement fight with an Audioquest Dragonfly, let alone something more expensive. At the same time, there are a significant number of areas that turntables need to hit in order for a record to be something other than a stereotypical ‘warm and smooth’ sound. What is notable is how many of these basics the Primary E manages to cover.
First, the basics. As noted, the Pro-Ject is very pitch stable and the noise floor is sufficiently low that the vast majority of phono stages that it is likely to be partnered with are going to introduce more noise than the Pro-Ject does. This means that it has the consistent ability to pull key information off the record. This means that Christine and the Queens fabulous Chaleur Humaine conveys the extraordinary depth of emotion that this notionally ‘pop’ record is packed with. Vocals are rich, detailed and given enough separation from the backing audio to be consistently convincing.
The Primary E has clearly been designed with a view to its likely use patterns. It is very capable at handling poorer pressings - either new rush jobs or second hand finds. It will track through damage and congested passages well and the overall presentation manages to take the rough edges off things without subsuming detail or the three dimensionality of the music. There are some minor issues with end-of-side distortion that make themselves felt with longer sided records especially but this is not significantly more severe than other affordable record players I’ve tested of late.
Beyond the unemotive basics, what the Primary E does very effectively is capture some of the intrinsic musicality that is why some of us persist with this wilfully flawed format. Listening to the wonderful Exile on Coldharbour Lane by Alabama 3, the way that the Pro-Ject delivers the iconic Woke up this morning (better known as the theme from The Sopranos) is infectiously groovy. More than simple reproduction, the Primary E is a means of enjoying music at an emotional level rather than just a cerebral one.
Part of this comes down to the thorny issue of timing. The Primary E isn’t quite up there with the Planar 1 Plus or its bigger brother, the Essential III but it does do a fine job of getting stuck into anything with a beat. This doesn’t solely manifest itself with faster material either. Enjoying Talk Talk’s The Spirit of Eden on the 30th anniversary of its release, the Pro-Ject is a satisfying partner. The nine minute opener of The Rainbow barely breaks out of a canter but it has a compelling grooviness and the Primary E manages to deliver it as the absurdly specific requirements of its creators. As noted earlier, the logical way to listen to anything would be to call up the digital file and get on with it. What the Primary E does is convey enough of the intangible joy of analogue - whether you want to go down that particular rabbit hole or not is up to you.
Beyond the unemotive basics, what the Primary E does very effectively is capture some of the intrinsic musicality that is why some of us persist with this wilfully flawed format.
- Lively and consistently enjoyable performance
- Extremely easy to use
- Impressively well made
- Looks a little drab
- No real upgrade potential
Pro-Ject Primary E Turntable ReviewWhen I took delivery of the Primary E for review I will admit to a certain reticence about whether a £150 turntable could deliver enough of what makes vinyl playback what it is. After all, the next most affordable turntable I have reviewed for AVForums is the Numark TT250 USB and I did consciously avoid playing some of my more treasured records on it. The Pro-Ject manages to feel like a more complete device by the decision to limit the upgradeability of the arm. On balance, I think this is the right decision. Like the Planar 1 Plus, the vast majority of Primary Es are never going to have their specification changed from the one that left the box. The result is that for £150, you get something that delivers on the premise of vinyl replay and a new starting price for respectable analogue. Pro-Ject’s twenty year mission to make record players affordable shows no sign of abating and the Primary E is certainly worthy of recommendation.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £149.00
Ease of Use9
Value for Money9
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