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Positive Feedback ISSUE 68
Xperience Classic Turntable
as reviewed by John Hoffman
Independent film makers have a reputation for taking an unconventional view of a mundane segment of everyday life, and pulling together a story of how these overlooked life experiences have played a prominent role in the development of our society. Perhaps a movie based on how the vinyl record has influenced and shaped our modern culture would capture the attention of those discerning individuals who are capable of thinking a bit deeper about how our world and culture have developed. I could envision this movie debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, with the opening scenes based on the background story of Parisian inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, who in 1857 created the earliest known recordings of the human voice known as phonautograph recordings. In Martinville's experiments a stylus captured the vibrations of the human voice with etched lines on a soot coated sheet of paper. This resulted in a visual recoding, although there was no method of replaying the information. Recorded audio playback had to wait until 1857 when Thomas Edison created the mechanical phonograph cylinder. The phonograph cylinder dominated the consumer market until roughly 1910, when it gave way to the gramophone disc, which then became the precursor to the modern LP. Now this movie would shift into high gear, for in 1948 Columbia Records released the Long Play 33 and 1/3 RPM microgroove record, which has been the vinyl format until today. From these remarkable beginnings the vinyl record rose to prominence in modern culture, and became a centerpiece of the music broadcast industry. Disc Jockeys created careers of distinction and notoriety, while retail outlets sold hundreds of thousands of records from artists that were fortunate enough to get air-time on the radio. At the zenith of its power and influence, the mighty LP was struck a mortal blow by Phillips' and Sony's introduction of the Compact Disc. At this point the director would capture the despair and futility that had beset the vinyl industry, and how utterly bleak the future of the marketplace appeared to be. Yet a few analog giants would weather the storm, and a couple of daring companies would push back against the tide of public opinion, that vinyl playback was no longer viable in the marketplace. In 1990 Heinz Lichtenegger became one of the young Turks in the audio market by establishing Pro-Ject Audio Systems. Heinz observed that established audio companies no longer supported the analog market, and that hobbyists needed products that were affordable and offered a high level of performance. The last twenty years have validated his keen insights, and would make an excellent conclusion for this story about the life and times of the vinyl record. Even though LP records, and the means to spin them, have been around for sixty five years, Pro-Ject is still finding ways to design refinements to analog playback, and make them accessible to a wide range of audio hobbyists.
The Pro-Ject Xperience Classic strikes a dashing pose, with a substantial plinth sporting an olive wood veneer. The olive wood is distinctive in appearance, and I find it visually appealing, however Pro-Ject offers alternative finishes of mahogany and lacquer piano gloss black. The overall appearance is classic and timeless, but it only takes a moment to notice that beauty is juxtaposed against a decidedly high tech tonearm. The 9CC arm utilizes a one-piece carbon fiber arm tube and head shell. The tonearm counterweight is isolated from the arm stub with a dampening material, which eliminates any interaction between the two parts. The arm bearings are an inverted bearing design with four hardened ABEC7 spec ball races. The thrust bearing rides on a sapphire thrust pad, and clearly this is a very sophisticated bearing assembly. Vertical tracking angle and azimuth are both adjustable. The arm pillar has the typical set screw to adjust tonearm height, and the head shell has a small set screw that can be loosened to make slight azimuth adjustments. There is an RCA termination box attached to the underside of the plinth, so owners can select their own tonearm cable.
Pro-Ject is intent on producing turntables that offer the hobbyist honest value for the dollar spent. Their product line covers a great deal of territory, from the $299 Essential Phono and tops out at the $2999 RM 10.1. Value for the dollar spent is the catch phrase at every stop in between these two price points, and the Xperience Classic certainly embodies this philosophy. With a selling price of $1499, which includes a $399 Sumiko Blue Point No. 2 high-output moving coil cartridge, it does not take much imagination to understand that a substantial portion of the price is spent on the tonearm and phono cartridge. This means that the remaining dollars in the development kitty have to be spent wisely, and that crafty engineering and production decisions need to be made to keep this table affordable. Smart design decisions are scattered throughout the table, such as using a layer of Sorbothane dampening material in the aluminum cone feet. These feet provide a significant degree of isolation through the Sorbothane, and yet the cones mechanically ground the turntable body. The design team has a wonderful solution for isolating the motor from the plinth. The motor sits in a pod in the plinth, and there are two bands attached to the housing that wrap around a set of pins and suspend the motor body. This arrangement is simple, very frugal in regards to cost, and extremely effective in terms of isolation. The platter weighs in at a substantial 4.4 pounds, and it contains a composite of MDF and an integrated vinyl outer shell. The vinyl shell is composed of re-purposed records that are bonded together and then machined flat. Each platter contains roughly 280 grams of recycled vinyl! The platter design provides a substantial amount of rotational mass, possesses excellent internal dampening, and is a cost effective solution when compared to conventional materials such as aluminum, PVC, or acrylic. The platter spindle is chrome plated stainless steel, and the bearing housing is bronze and contains a Teflon thrust plate.
The Xperience Classic comes with all the amenities a turntable should have. A full sized hinged Plexiglas dustcover is provided, which is a convenience that is often overlooked with many current production turntables. The platter spindle is threaded, and a surprisingly nice record clamp is included. A basic alignment protractor is also part of the package, as well as a head shell weight for use with light body cartridges. Even a set of white gloves are provided, to keep oils off the belt during installation. When a new owner receives this turntable, the only additional piece of hardware that needs to be sourced is a high quality set of interconnects for the tonearm. Otherwise, the Xperience Classic is a complete plug and play package.
Set up with this table is a breeze; I believe that almost anyone can get this table properly situated in their system. Leveling the table is not terribly difficult with the adjustable feet, and I used a small spirit level to confirm proper setup. The Blue Point No. 2 comes mounted and aligned, although I did verify the installation with the factory protractor. The cartridge was spot on, so no issues there. The counterweight is marked for tracking force, so I balanced the arm out, and then dialed in 1.8 grams of tracking weight. I double checked this number with a digital scale, and made some fine adjustments. Then I set anti-skate bias to the middle setting, which corresponds to the cartridge tracking force I selected. There are two foam pads to remove under the motor, and then the isolation bands need to be stretched around the pins embedded in the plinth. The bearing housing already has the proper amount of oil placed in it, so all you need to do is set the platter in place. I performed a quick wipe down of the side of the platter with a bit of Windex, and then donned the white gloves and installed the belt. An outboard wall wart power supply connects to the back of the table, and at that time I also installed a pair of ZU Audio Mission interconnects to the tonearm junction box. The Blue Point No. 2 is a high output moving coil cartridge, so I set my Liberty Audio B2B-1 phono stage to the moving magnet position, and was ready to spin vinyl.
The Xperience Classic and Blue Point No. 2 cartridge underwent several days' worth of casual listening to accumulate break-in hours for the cartridge, motor, and bearing assembly. During this time period I gained an appreciation for overall fit and finish of this table. The record clamp worked like a charm, the motor was remarkably quiet, and the 9CC tonearm felt solid and expensive. Right out of the starting gate the Xperience Classic gave the impression that it is worth every dollar of its price. Once the initial break-in process was completed, I started my serious listening sessions with "I Found a Million Dollar Baby" by Mel Torme [It's a Blue World; Bethlehem BCP-34] and this table reproduced it in a strikingly delicate and refined manner. I found listening to Torme's music to be so completely soothing and relaxing, as the Xperience Classic unerringly found the correct context for this classic Jazz album. The Pro-Ject table and Sumiko cartridge adroitly sidestepped any grain and harshness, and once again reminded me of how wonderful many of these recordings are from this era of music. The brush strokes on the drums were clearly defined, and the triangle strikes were strong and tightly focused in the rear of the sound stage. The string instruments were sweet and full sounding, while the acoustic bass was lively and taut, with the plucked notes possessing a dynamic feel. The primary limitation of this table and arm combination was noticed in how ambient information was slightly diminished, giving the music a bit of dark and closed in feel. The soundstage the table formed was well proportioned, and instruments were easily located within its confines. However, the decay of instruments got lost in the shuffle, and I am pretty that sure can be attributed to the cartridge rather than the turntable. Since I had a Sumiko Blackbird on hand, I formed a mental plan to come back and revisit this song towards the final stages of my listening sessions.
The next artist up was Rickie Lee Jones with "Woody and Dutch on Slow Train to Peking", one of my all time favorites from this unconventional artist. [Pirates; Warner Bros. BSK 3432] This song presented another layer of complexity for the Pro-Ject table to sort out, and happened to be the innermost track on the record, which challenges a cartridge's ability to cleanly navigate complex passages. The song opened with finger snaps, hand claps, and brush strokes on the drum kit that were neatly sorted out, with excellent definition and texture. Multiple voices were spread throughout the soundstage, and each singer had a definite location and a solid feel to their voice. There was an underlying bass line in the opening passages, and the electric guitar was precise and tightly defined. Jones's vocal style can be a bit difficult to sort out, yet the Xperience Classic and Blue Point No. 2 combination did a respectable job with this task. There was a slight trace of sibilance on certain phrases, but this arm and cartridge pairing got above average marks for tracking ability. The horn section was brash and powerful, although it did have a small degree of coarseness that was absent on my reference table. Once again, I suspected this was a limitation of the Blue Point No. 2 cartridge, and planned on listening to this track with the Sumiko Blackbird installed.
The equipment evaluation process and critical listening sessions often miss the point that music playback should be a fun activity. Quite often hobbyists get caught up in the process of being hyper-critical about the gear and systems they own, and lose the joy of listening to music. I try to make it a point to include at least one album that could be a selection played by a prospective owner, and relay how the table performs with a pop, or rock and roll record. One Sunday afternoon I dug the Cars' Heartbeat City out of my record collection, and the Xperience Classic and Blue Point combination definitely hit its stride on this record. The opening track "Hello Again" [Heartbeat City; Elektra 60296-1] was dynamic, and had a huge room-filling presentation. The electric bass and drum kit had a primal rawness to the sound, and had a driving feel that demanded the listener's attention. Ric Ocasek's vocals were placed well out in the front of the soundstage with excellent separation from the back-up performers. Instruments and singers were all tightly focused, and even though the soundstage was a fabrication of the recording studio, every performer was solidly located in their position. Clearly, the Blue Point cartridge excelled at playing rock or pop music, and as I worked through the other tracks on this album my appreciation for this cartridge continued to grow.
The Xperience Classic is certainly a high quality table, and while the Blue Point No. 2 is a respectable cartridge at its price point, it is apparent that the table would benefit from a high-performance cartridge. I happen to own a Sumiko Blackbird, which is a high output moving coil with boron cantilever and a small profile elliptical stylus. The Blackbird sells for $1099, and is the first cartridge in the Reference series that Sumiko offers. I spent a bit of time installing the Blackbird, and in the process came to the conclusion that the factory supplied protractor is primitive at best. Nevertheless, I managed to fit and adjust the Blackbird in about 45 minutes, and proceeded to replay the first tracks from Mel Torme and Rickie Lee Jones. The addition of the Blackbird noticeably elevated the performance of this table. It can be argued that a $1099 cartridge should increase sound quality; however it is important to note that a top flight phono cartridge is not wasted on the Xperience Classic. On the Mel Torme album the upper registers opened up and there was significant improvement in the retrieval of subtle details and ambient reflections of the recording venue. The interaction between the room and the performers was now clearly presented, and subtle nuances within the music were uncovered. With the Rickie Lee Jones track the issue of sibilance on certain vocal passages completely disappeared and the improved tracking ability of the Blackbird manifested itself through superior vocal reproduction, and the ability to clearly define the beginning and end of dynamic segments of music. The massed horn passages no longer had that trace of coarseness, but still retained a metallic sheen and bite that defined the instrument. With the Sumiko Blackbird in place, the Xperience Classic became a serious bit of kit, and, in no uncertain terms, was a high performance turntable in spite of its reasonable selling price.
Perhaps I should take a moment to discuss the shortcomings I encountered during my time with the Xperience Classic turntable. The only quibble I had with the table itself was the need to physically move the belt from one motor pulley to another to perform a speed change. I kept a dental tool handy to manipulate the belt and not contaminate it with the oil from my skin. I certainly can see the value of purchasing the Pro-Ject Speed Box S for its precise electronic speed regulation, and push button speed changes. As far as initially setting up the table, I found the manual to not be as detailed as I would have preferred. There was no mention of hanging the motor from suspension bands, or removing the foam that set in the motor pod in the plinth. There was also no reference to the bearing oil already being installed, and I had to confirm this with the distributor that this was the case before putting the table in service. Finally the anti-skate instructions list tracking weight in newton meter(nM), which requires a conversion to grams before the appropriate degree of anti-skate can be calculated. This required a bit of digging in the appropriate reference material, although all of this information can be supplied by a knowledgeable dealer. All in all, these were minor difficulties to work through, but I feel the manual supplied with the Xperience Classic could certainly be improved upon.
The Pro-Ject Xperience has dashingly good looks. The olive wood gives this table a classy appearance that will have a timeless appeal as the years pass. The other finishes are equally attractive, and I imagine prospective owners will have quite a challenge selecting between the three possible choices. Yet, there is more to this turntable than just its captivating looks, as Pro-Ject has seen fit to install the outstanding 9CC tonearm. This is a first rate arm that is capable of supporting a high performance cartridge, such as the Sumiko Blackbird, or possibly even the Pearwood Celebration II. The isolation feet are simple, innovative, and provide a respectable degree of isolation. The motor suspension system is a creative and an effective solution to isolate the motor from the plinth. The composite MDF and vinyl platter is another creative element that addresses platter dampening and increases rotational mass, yet keeps the overall cost of the turntable at an affordable price point. The Blue Point No. 2 that comes with the Xperience Classic is a versatile high-output moving coil cartridge that is a solid offering at its price point. From a performance standpoint, I appreciated the abilities of the Xperience Classic with the Blue Point cartridge. Music was engaging and evenly balanced, and the table performed well with a wide array of program material. The only limitation I could find was that ambient information and low level detail were slightly diminished. When the Sumiko Blackbird was fitted to the table all these issues just disappeared, and there was no doubt that this pairing was a high performance combination. In my judgment, the Xperience Classic is a high value table that will appeal to those hobbyists looking for a high rate of return on their hard earned audio dollars. John Hoffman