USB turntables have always been something of a bugbear for me. These cheap, mass-produced decks have been enjoying a huge amount of success thanks to the resurgence of vinyl, and the average consumer for whom anything with a platter and stylus will do.
There are a number of issues with these decks. Firstly, their heavy-tracking, flimsy tonearms will make short work of ruining your precious record collection. Their flimsy plastic platters add to the extraneous noise already generated by the low-quality bearings, and their little DC motors can’t hope to maintain the torque required to spin a vinyl at a consistent speed.
The construction quality of these decks often means that when the stylus is worn, you’re better off changing the deck itself. In short – they’re a recipe for disaster – and they’re the reason vinyl has gained a reputation amongst average consumers for sounding “bad”.
However, not everyone has the budget, the system, or the desire for a true audiophile turntable. Enter the Pro-Ject Elemental – a minimalist, plug-and-play budget turntable. Offered in 2 flavours, the standard Elemental is as basic as it gets, while the Phono USB model offers a built-in phono stage and USB output, enabling you to transfer your vinyl to your computer.
In order to keep costs low, Pro-Ject have opted to radically re-invent the wheel when it comes to styling. A thin, rectangular plinth with rounded ends holds the turntable together, while a ‘Central Gravity Mass Point’ base fashioned from artificial stone supports the weight of the main platter bearing, absorbing rumble and unwanted motor vibration, as well as providing a stable platform for the deck to sit on.
To the left sits the motor with its associate power supply input. A power switch on the front of the plinth allows you to toggle the motor on and off. The deck features manual speed change, requiring the belt be moved from 1 area of the motor pulley to the other. On most manual decks, this involves removing the platter itself – here, however, the motor is fully exposed, making speed changes a snap.
Both the plinth and platter are fashioned from low-resonance MDF. The platter, topped by a felt mat, sits in the middle, directly affixed to the turntables spindle. No subplatter is used, meaning the main platter must not be removed to avoid disturbing the pre-applied bearing oil. The bearing is made from stainless steel, with a bronze bushing and teflon bottom. The bearings are extremely solid, with no play or platter wobble.
To the right sits the 8”, ‘ultra-low-mass’ tonearm, protruding from the front of the deck. There’s a rest into which the tonearm can be placed when not in use, and a well-damped arm lift mechanism. The arm itself does protrude somewhat when not playing a record, so more care than usual must be taken to avoid damaging it or the stylus.
The Elemental is a true plug and play design, with an ultra-low-mass tonearm designed specifically for the Ortofon OM series cartridges. The deck comes pre-fitted with an Ortofon OM5E cartridge, and the anti-skate and tracking force are preset at the factory. For the tweakers out there, the Elemental will accept any standard, half-inch mount cartridge, though for most the included OM5E is more than adequate and is a great match. It also features one of the best stylus protection guards I’ve ever used – it’s easy to remove and install without damaging the stylus, and keeps the stylus protected from accidental bumps.
Situated beneath the deck, along-side the tonearm mount is the junction box allowing you to connect the Elemental to your amplifier – or, if you opted for the Phono USB model, your computer. The RCA jacks are gold-plated, and theres’ an earth connection too should you need it. It’s worth noting that if you opt for the phono USB model, the onboard preamp isn’t switchable – so you can’t upgrade the phono stage at a later date. That said, this shouldn’t be a problem at the price.
In the box, you’ll find the turntable itself, along with the DC power supply and a range of adapters to fit the outlets in various countries. You also get some documentation, not that you’ll need it. The Elemental does not include a dust cover – I covered it with a box throughout the review to keep it out of harms way. It’s a small price to pay though and shouldn’t be an issue for most people.
Lower the stylus to a record, and it soon becomes apparent that the Elemental sounds like no other budget deck. Were it not for a slight hum emitted by the motor, the background noise would’ve been almost silent – that smooth bearing offering up little residual noise. And, as the opening chords of Halestorm’s cover of ‘Gold Dust Woman’ began to play, I immediately exclaimed something to the effect of “oh yes!!!”… it really was that good
The bass lines were beautifully defined, the sound stage was spot on, and the highs had a certain snap to them. Despite a tendency to lean towards brightness, the sound never becomes fatiguing or brash – it just has a certain sparkle in the top end that makes even warn records a joy to hear.
Inner groove distortion, a problem that plagues many budget decks was notable here only by its absence. At no point on any LP I played did the distortion become prevalent, even discernible. The sound was clean, crisp and clear from start to finish.
The Elemental also showed excellent tracking ability, even when tracking warped or warn out records. Pops and clicks did sound somewhat metallic, but that’s a minor criticism and one that is simply unavoidable with a low-mass aluminium arm. Its ability to track warn polystyrene 45s, as as well as it did brand new 180G pressings impressed me greatly.
Whether you’re taking your first step on the vinyl ladder, re-discovering your record collection, or simply want to transfer a few old 45s to your iPod, the Pro-Ject elemental is a great place to start. It’s simple to use and sounds better than it has any right to at the price. It’ll outlast any mass-produced plastic turntable. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it won’t ruin your record collection. Highly recommended.