PRO-JECT AUDIO SYSTEMS ESSENTIAL III PHONO turntable
+ Makes less-than-perfect records listenable; musical and engaging sound; fuss-free playback; vibration absorption feet work very well.
– Overall, a little lightweight; stiff dust cover hinge; glosses over some detail.
THE vinyl format, to a large extent, has an undeserved reputation as being an overly-fragile medium. But the fact there are so many second-hand records available for sale today (a record from 1970 would be almost 50 years old!) is testament to vinyl’s inherent durability.
Record damage does happen, of course. Besides the obvious scratches, it can also be caused by poor playback systems, ie, the turntable. Whether these are improperly set-up or the inherent nature/quality of the arm and stylus itself, some can permanently damage the grooves, damage which is not apparent to the naked eye.
For a vinyl collection to endure, it is imperative it is played on a turntable with respectable pedigree, thoughtfully designed and built to a certain standard – something like the Pro-Ject Essential III Phono here.
It bears to keep in mind that the Essential III is an entry-level product and built to a budget, which is reflected in the end result. You do get what you pay for, but the company’s reputation for affordable turntables that are well-engineered is rightfully deserved – they may be cheap, but are definitely not garbage.
There are a few variations within the Essential III range (Bluetooth, USB or even optical digital output options!) and the model under review here comes with a built-in phono stage (MM only), so it can easily integrate into any system that has a RCA input to spare.
This is pretty much a no-frills design – there are no superfluous features on this turntable. What you get are truly the “essentials” for proper record playback.
Both the plinth and platter are made from MDF but are coated with a high-gloss lacquer that gives them a nice bling factor (black, white or red finishes and even special editions – with Sgt Pepper and Guns N’ Roses guises available!). Pro-Ject also says the bearing supporting the platter is now built to tighter specifications compared with the previous Essential II.
Providing the spin is a DC motor powered by a wall-wart, fitted with an aluminium pulley that in turn attaches to the outer diameter of the platter with a large rubber-band like belt. Playing speeds of 33.3 and 45 RPM are possible by fixing the belt to the appropriate notch on the pulley. The tonearm used is a single-piece 8.6-inch rod made from aluminium with sapphire bearings and comes factory-fitted with an Ortofon OM10 cartridge (which boasts an elliptical stylus). The tonearm does not allow for VTA adjustment (arm height) but you can tweak the azimuth.
This version comes with an integrated phono stage, which can be bypassed if you have access to a higher-quality one. Included in the box are a wealth of accessories – a 45 RPM adaptor, a decent pair of shielded interconnects and even a dust cover, among others.
There’s minimal set-up required to get the turntable spinning – all you have to do is link up the turntable to the amplifier, connect the power, fit and adjust the counterweight to the correct tracking force (1.7g) and attach the tiny anti-skate mechanism. It’s a simple enough procedure but it will be better to use a tracking force gauge – or you can just ask the dealer to do it for you. Every other parameter is supposedly set-up before leaving the factory.
However, I was not happy with the cartridge alignment – there was audible distortion when playing. This required me to whip out my own two-point protractor (I used a Stevenson alignment), which improved matters tremendously.
It was also when fitting the dust cover when I felt the overall package was, on the whole, a tad lightweight. The hinges are very stiff and I had to slowly and carefully raise the lid or risk lifting the entire turntable off the shelf!
One of the Essential III’s major plus points is the use of three soft and very compliant feet, which isolate the turntable very well from external vibrations. It even managed to significantly reduce the transmission of taps directly to the platform it was sitting on, and could barely be heard through the speakers!
All these peripheral matters aside, what matters most was how the Essential III sounds. To that, I’d say it is excellent – for its price.
What I noticed first was its overall coherency. True, it was not cutting-edge playback, but it gave a very good account of the vinyl warmth which makes the format so popular these days.
It managed to convey the drive of the music well, giving good verve to rock and jazz music with a surprising foot-tapping factor. Bass had heft to it with decent control and treble extension was just on the right side of sufficient, without sounding sibilant or splashy.
While not the most detailed or transparent, the Essential III had a very forgiving nature that allowed me to enjoy some of records I don’t fancy as much – typically digital remasters or those with some higher-frequency hash to them. This, I surmise, will work to its advantage when matched with some entry-level components.
The soundstaging was not very expansive, but it managed to give some decent imaging and even some front-to-back separation.
As for the built-in phono stage, it does the job it is needed to do, but switching to a higher-quality standalone unit will reap benefits. I was genuinely surprised at how well the Essential III performed when paired with my unit – there were instances where the music sounded so fluid that I did a double take, realising it was coming from a source that costs about less than the cartridge I have on my regular turntable!
THE LAST WORD
I have tested and used a number of entry-level Pro-Ject turntables in the past, and have always been more than impressed by how good they sounded, which outweighed any criticism that I had. This turntable is no different.
Yes, there are limitations to what the Essential III Phono can and will do. How could there not be? But what should be noted is that the Essential III is not just a great turntable for those who want to get into vinyl – it represents a worthwhile upgrade for owners of those so-called “suitcase turntables” looking to purchase their first audiophile-grade vinyl spinner.
Sources: Sony HAP-Z1ES HDD Audio Player, Rega P5 and Technics SL-1200 turntables, Benz-Micro MC20E2-L and Hana SL cartridges, DocTT Andromeda SUT / Amplification: Custom-made phono stage, Odyssey Audio Tempest preamp, Odyssey Audio Kismet monoblocks / Speakers: Magnepan .7 / Cabling: Clear Day Double Shotgun speaker cables, an assortment of pure silver interconnects.