Playing records is – as my good friend once told me – the audiophile version of the Japanese tea ceremony. It is all about preparation, and presentation. There is a strong visual aesthetic to the act of putting an LP on a turntable, cueing up the tonearm, and dropping the needle into the groove. If you’re not sure of how to do it, it shows, and you lose some of the inherent grace, intelligence and sophistication that having a turntable, and a record collection, connotes in many people’s minds. I mean, let’s not be coy, a well-curated collection of albums is more than just a nod to loving music, one is putting some of their most intimate, and personal moments in life on display with a wall of albums. Hell, even with just a few dozen LPs, one is exposing themselves to a level of critical judgement that many aren’t all-too comfortable in revealing through casual conversations. But playing an album while having a glass of wine with friends can be not only a cathartic emotional act of sharing, it invites empathetic conversation – or at least acknowledgement – of what intellectual stimulus the music invokes in those listening. So, in that sense owning a turntable – and the record collection that shares a symbiotic relationship with it – is a reflection of one’s personal, mental equilibrium, or lack thereof.
The Pro-Ject RPM 9 Carbon turntable being reviewed here is, in my mind, a design, and sonic execution reflective of it’s Austrian heritage: smart, savvy, practical, calm, cool, and collected. I played a lot of albums for myself, for my family, and for my friends, and its monochromatic colour scheme, and sleek silhouette attracted a fair share of admirers as visitors often commented on its looks upon arriving, and then on the clarity of the sound after hearing it. Outfitted with a weighty record puck/clamp, an outboard two-speed (33 1/3 ~ 45 rpm), one-button-touch DC motor, 15-pound inert, damped aluminum platter, and a sandwich-construction plinth consisting of MDF/carbon fibre/steel pellets. Its sub-chassis features mass-loading with magnetic-isolation feet, and it comes mounted with a 9cc Evolution tonearm, and in my case, a Sumiko Blackbird LOMC cartridge. The RPM 9 is awash in technology marking it as a formidable turntable competitor at its $2,999 USD/$3,825 CAN price point.
The RPM 9’s design is unique, as it incorporates a number of techniques for dealing with vibration isolation, absorption, mass loading, speed consistency, and levelling that one doesn’t usually see combined. It also has interesting green/acoustical-engineering features such as the vinyl mat which is bonded to the platter being fabricated from recycled LPs (which to me makes perfect sense). I was fascinated by the design, and had many questions regarding the creative process of the turntable’s development, so I decided to go to the source, and spoke directly with Heinz Lichtenegger, the President of Pro-Ject Audio, and CEO of Audiotuning.
Rafe Arnott:The Pro-Ject RPM 9 Carbon is a unique design approach to isolating the delicate signal retrieval in a mechanical transcription device. What was the focus of the précis when you sat down to determine how to implement the ideas in hand for this model? ‘
Heinz Lichtenegger: Over the last 25 years we always tried to find a relation between our listening experience, and facts by measurements. Very soon we realized that “sound” and colouration comes from resonances of the plinth, the platter, and also from the support on which the turntable is placed. Also from the type of speaker you use, as well the cartridge, and tonearm, and here I don’t mean the sound character of these components, I mean specifically the resonance behaviour. We soon realized that the shape of the plinth as well the materials used makes a huge difference. For example, every rectangular shape introduces more resonance than if a tear-drop shape or egg shape is incorporated, so that’s the reason why we reduced the shape of the RPM to a minimalist tear drop.
Another major factor we considered is that the material you use in construction carries what we refer to as a “fingerprint.” Especially when you use the same material in the entire construction of the turntable (ie; metal plinth, metal platter, or acrylic plinth, and platter). Therefore we always try to utilize a sandwich construction to balance out the individual sonic properties. In the past we did MDF with metallic sand, in our latest research we saw that adding a carbon-fibre jacket again improves the sonic results.
Finally, mass is needed, so we use a technique with our gravity centre-point whereby all resonances are sucked out, and become dissipated into heat. But mass is expensive, therefore only a few companies implement it at the RPM 9 price point, but we have learned that by adding mass to any material you can reduce the level of resonance considerably. Now, you can’t get away with eliminating the characteristic of the material, but you can make it more “neutral” by adding mass. When it comes to the platter implementation, again, if you want to cancel-out resonance you need to turn to sandwich construction which we achieve through a mix of vinyl, metal, and Thermo Plastic Elastomer (PTE). So, the design you are left with in the RPM 9 is not by accident, it’s the result of intensive listening, and measuring.
RA:A turntable has to deal effectively (and musically) with a plethora of issues to be a success: rotational/speed stability, eliminating/minimizing wow and flutter, vibration isolation/absorption, the means to properly level the device, choice of sympathetic or non-resonant materials used in construction, and also building/designing to a price point. Considering the somewhat complex design of just the RPM 9 Carbon plinth for example, was this design difficult to implement from a manufacturing standpoint?
Heinz Lichtenegger: It’s very complicated to work the carbon-fibre layer around the MDF/sandwich of the plinth. It costs us a lot of time, and requires incredibly precise tooling. You have to avoid any air enclosure (trapping), so you need a perfect compound. Also you need to finish the edges perfectly in order to have it look good. Believe it or not, but we can only do two-to-three tables a day maximum. Up to now we only know of one other company who invests the same effort building their enclosures with similar technology, and that’s Sonus Faber with their Extrema, and that is at a very high price point. But that reflects the huge complication of constructing something close to what we would describe as a perfect cabinet or plinth.
RA:Pro-Ject has a varied array of turntable designs in it’s stable of models. The RPM series approaches analog playback in a very different manner than the Classic Line or the Essential Line. Why does Pro-Ject choose to implement so many different turntable concepts into the brand? Why not choose one design type, and offer varying levels of materials/finish/tonearm specifications for increasing sonic benefits at higher price points, like Rega for example?
Heinz Lichtenegger: It would be great to only produce five models with one technological approach, that would save us an enormous amount of money. Yet the truth is that there is no one single “true” approach to turntable design, and construction.
There are many ways to make a good-sounding turntable. We’ve studied them all (I have close to 70 high-end turntables in my lab). We realized very quickly that all different turntable designs have justification. Every design has advantages, and disadvantages: On top of these you have all the variables inherent to the tonearm, and the cartridge utilized. Its’ all a compromise like speakers. There are probably 2,000 speaker manufacturers on the planet, and all of them tell you they have invented the wheel. Even there you have huge variations in designs. Look at Bose, and Klipsch for example. Both produce a sound loved by many, but in theory are exactly the opposite of one another (indirect vs. direct sound dispersion).
I think it’s the duty of a manufacture to give the customer as many choices of sound, design, colours, and solutions as possible. Therefore, we have many possibilities. We are the only one who offers choices in stiff/low mass, energy-transporting designs (Debut/Essential), Sub-chassis designs (The Classic/6PerspeX), and mass-loaded sub-chassis (RPM 9/Xtension Series).
We also are the only high-end orientated company who offers a variation of features in the different models if the customer requires them. Electronic speed change/built-in phono/ recording /USB/digital output/ wireless Bluetooth/automatic cutoff/78 RPM capabilities. That’s unique. Also we have so many different finishes: matt/high gloss/ piano gloss/colours/wood/ acrylic. We like to think that at Pro-ject we think differently. We want to serve the customer. The effort is huge, but it has paid off because today we are the leading turntable company in this industry. We make great sound, but even more… we make a great overall package.
I had the luxury of pairing the ‘Carbon with a number of different systems for this review. The first system I evaluated the ‘table with consisted of the Pass Labs XP-10 preamplifier, and XP-15 phono stage mated with a Pass labs X150.8 power amplifier, and DeVore Fidelity O/93 loudspeakers. Cables were all supplied by AudioQuest. The next system was an all Audio Note kit consisting of the Soro Phono SE Signature integrated amplifier, an Audio Note AN-S2 Step-Up Transformer (SUT), and Audio Note AN-E/SPe He loudspeakers with all cabling by Audio Note. The next was made up with Pass Labs newest pre-amplifer, and phono stage; respectively the XP-12/XP-17, and the X150.8 (supplying grunt again) being fed into (alternatively) the Harbeth C7ES-3 loudspeakers, and the Totem Acoustics Signature One. All these set-ups were being fed clean power from a PS Audio P10 Power Plant.
The Sumiko Blackbird is a cartridge I’ve been interested in spending time with in my own home environment/context since I first heard it, and their Blue Point cartridge several years ago on a McIntosh turntable/system. I have to say this cartridge tends to the lean side, and required some experimentation with loading to get it to where the sound was what I wanted from it. Sumiko recommends 100 Ohms of loading for the Blackbird Low, but I ended up happiest with 25 Ohms through the Pass Labs XP-15/XP-17, as it fattened-up the bottom end, and added some needed midrange jam. Some might complain that the highs suffered a loss of air, which they did (ever-so-slightly), but it was a balance i was willing to live with for long-term listening enjoyment. I used the “High” setting on the impedance selector of the windings of my Audio Note SUT, which is optimized for cartridges with an internal impedance of roughly 15-20 Ohms (the Blackbird Low is 28 Ohms). The tonearm is an updated 9cc Evolution with an inverted bearing, made of carbon fibre with a dampened-metal counterweight, and a beefed-up C-collar bearing/pivot housing. All the usual suspects are present in the technical adjustment lineup for an ‘arm of this caliber including easily-tweaked VTA, overhang, and azimuth.
I’m going to dive into the listening sessions with a rather somber, yet beautiful cello, and guitar LP by Carey, and Daniel Domb called “Apollo” on Adagio Classics & Jazz, which was pressed in Germany on “Premium HQ-180 Super Vinyl.” This album features works by Bach, Casals, Schubert, Verdi, Puccini, and more all transcribed for guitar, and cello. This is an extremely quiet pressing with an incredibly black background that the plaintive notes of the instruments seem to launch into being as if from literally nothing. Startling at times in its clarity, the RPM-9, and Sumiko did an impressive job of translating the emotional nuances of each piece, with both cello, and guitar timbre beautifully recreated with micro-dynamics, and subtle fret work standing out in stark relief from the rich body tones of each instrument. The sound was transparent, and engaging with a presentation that was a little more forward than I’m accustomed to, but which nonetheless kept my attention rapt from song to song. The opening track of Bach: Arioso, sets the timbral, and spatial expectations high as the cello of Daniel Domb resonates beautifully with a scale appropriate to that of such a wood-bodied instrument. Carey Domb’s lyrical guitar plucking accompanies the cello in such a way that every note from both instruments seems to perfectly enmesh together to create a symbiotic musical relationship.
Frank Sinatra is well-known for his phrasing with old standards, and ballads – and every song that he ever stunned rapt, attentive audiences with while hanging on his every word. Listening to his 1957 LP “Where Are You?” which not only was his first for Capitol Records without Nelson Riddle helming production – Gordon Jenkins was in charge here – it was also his first stereo album. I’ve got a low-numbered MoFi pressing, and it’s one of my favourite albums to listen to. Period. It’s superbly recorded, mastered, and pressed on heavyweight vinyl, and the production value – thanks to Jenkins deft touch – has few peers in the vocal-jazz genre in my experience. Through the RPM-9, and Blackbird, Sinatra’s honest, lilting voice on I Cover The Waterfront is presented without artifice, and without grain, with a smoothness that had me leaning forward throughout this listening session. This album can have prodigious bass in the right set-up, and while it wasn’t present to the degree that I’ve heard through other ‘table, and cart combinations, what was there was tight, detailed, and defined. With a nod to a more even presentation throughout the dynamic range, bass-heads need not apply here, but those looking for balance in their playback will not be disappointed.
“Random Access Memories” was the 2013 summertime breakout cross-genre hit LP for French EDM duo Daft Punk ( Thomas Bangalter/Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo), and is about as jam-packed with infectious grooves as an album can be. I don’t think there’s another effort out these since the Bee Gees “Saturday Night Fever” that is as chocked-full of tunes that force me off the sofa, or out of the lounger, and have me doing The Hustle across my living room floor. With a propulsive, addictive bassline inherent to almost every cut on this double LP, it’s over an hour of percussive workout for a sound system. But it’s not all about the bottom end (Lose Yourself to Dance), there’s a huge amount of subtle electronic details to be balanced against all the booty-shaking funk bass and drums. The sheer number of variations on instrumentation, and vocals that Daft Punk are able to program into their electronic mixes, and the minor-key inflection that so effectively adds a tinge of sadness, regret or longing to a number of tracks (The Game of Love) calls for a ‘table/’arm/cart combo that can translate emotional heft, as well acoustic impact. Here again, the Pro-Ject, and the Sumiko delivered the goods in a balanced, nuanced, and emotive way.
The Pro-Ject RPM 9 Carbon, with its modified 9cc tonearm, and Sumiko Blackbird low-output moving-coil cartridge proved themselves to be worthy of praise on multiple fronts. This is a unique, and aesthetically-pleasing turntable design rooted in long-term research & development toward producing compelling, musical, and dignified playback, with a tonearm executed to match, and a cartridge capable of keeping pace (rhythm, and timing) makes this combination a thought-provoking musical companion – albeit more cerebral, than brawny – for those interested in a long-haul analog relationship.