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Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Eastern Electric Minimax CD player with NOS Philips Miniwatt 6DJ8s, Pro-Ject 1 Xpression turntable w/Ortofon 540 Mk II cartridge, Pro-Ject RPM 5 turntable w/Ortofon Rondo Red cartridge [in for review]
Preamp/Integrated: Manley Labs Stingray, Audio Zone AMP-1, JAS Audio Array 2.1 [in for review], Pro-Ject Tube Box phono stage
Speakers: Green Mountain Audio Callisto (on sand filled Skylan stands), Zu Cable Tone [in for review], REL Q108 Mk II subwoofer
Cables: Zu Libtec speaker cable [on loan for review], Zu Gede interconnects [on loan for review], Audience Maestro interconnects and speaker cables, DH Labs Air Matrix and Revelation interconnects, JPS Labs Superconductor+ interconnects, Auditorium 23 speaker cables, BPT IC-SL interconnects and SC-7.5L speaker cables [in for review]
Power Cables: Zu Birth [on loan for review], BPT L-10 [in for review], Gut Wire Power Clef 2, Power Clef SE, Audience powerChord
Stands: Premier three-tier, filled with sand
Powerline conditioning: BPT Pure Power Center w/Wattgate 381 outlets w/ Bybee Quantum Purifiers and ERS cloth, Blue Circle BC86 MkII Power Line Pillow, GutWire MaxCon
Sundry accessories: Grado SR-60 headphones, Pro-Ject Speed Box, Gingko Audio Cloud 11 platform, Skylan isolation platforms [in for review], Grand Prix Audio APEX footers, Isoclean fuses, Walker Audio SST contact enhancer, Walker Audio Ultra Vivid, GutWire Notepads and SoundPads, HAL-O Tube Dampers, Herbie's Way Excellent Turntable Mat, Herbie's Grungebuster2 CD Mat, dedicated AC line with Wattgate 381 outlet, Echo Busters acoustic room treatments
Room size: 11' x 18' x 8', short wall setup, hardwood floors with large area rug
Review Components Retail: RPM5$649 | Rondo Red $499
Ask any group of vinyl savvy audiophiles for a turntable recommendation in the under $1000 category and I bet the most common answer will the Rega Planar 3 or it's more recent incarnation, the P3. There are several reasons apart from its sonics. It's reliable, simple to use, and easily upgraded. In fact, a whole cottage industry offering Rega upgrades and mods has cropped up; tonearm wiring, counterweights, mats, you name it, and it's available. In fact, since the Planar 3's appearance many moons ago, it has pretty much dominated the market in its price range. However, that may soon change. Austria's Pro-Ject has recently come out with a new stylish turntable in the same price range, the RPM 5, which just might give the Rega and similarly priced tables a good run for the money.

Derived directly from Pro-Ject's top RPM 9.1 ($1,499), the RPM 5 is targeted to hit a price point directly above their two most popular turntables, the $299 Debut III and $499 Xpression II. According to Canadian Pro-Ject distributor Kurt Martens of Essential Audio: "With the RPM 5, Pro-Ject set out to improve as much as they could on its predecessor, the RPM 4. The Debut and the Xpression were already pretty much the market leaders within their respective price points when design work was started on the RPM 5. The problem was that the RPM 4 wasn't as successful at the next price level (just above the 1 Xpression), so it was decided to redesign that turntable from scratch. The new RPM 9.1 (at that point already in a very advanced stage of design) was used as a reference, looking at how much of that concept could be incorporated in the RPM 5 without increasing the price in comparison to the RPM 4. Not an easy task at all, as it turned out...

"Eventually the RPM 5 ended up a $100 more expensive than the RPM 4 but incorporated so many improvements at every level that it was decided it was well worth the extra money. Coincidentally this also turned out to be the new (lowered) price point of the P3 in North America, but this was not done intentionally. Pro-Ject looked at and tested just about every turntable that was available on the market in the sub $1,000 price category. While none of these turntables were used as a reference, they were used as study samples, to discover problem areas and to determine where the most significant i.e. audible improvements could be made."

Let's have a closer look. At first quick glance the RPM 5 looks almost identical to Pro-Ject's flagship RPM 9.1 table (there's a RPM 10 due sometime in late March) with its compact and shapely tear drop shaped plinth but minus the latter's outboard motor, thicker acrylic platter and several other subtle but sonically important differences. In fact, the first time I saw it sitting on a shelf at Applause Audio in Toronto I mistook it for a RPM 9.1 and thought proprietor Rob might have been indulging in illicit pharmaceuticals during working hours and messed up the price. Nope. The tag was correct, I was wrong and Rob was clean.

The RPM 5 sports Pro-Ject's VTA and azimuth adjustable 9c carbon fiber arm which rides on four inverted stainless steel bearings in sapphire thrust pads. A simple, yet effective weight-and-thread system handles anti-skating. While optimized for cartridges weighing 6 to 10g, an optional counterweight is available for 10-15g carts. Internal wiring consists of high-purity copper running from the headshell right through to the gold plated phono sockets. Before you throw away the included interconnect: it is a high quality, low capacitance phono cable assembled for Pro-Ject by a leading audiophile cable firm. I'm not at liberty to say which one; however, I can tell you it's from an outfit well known for aftermarket tonearm wiring upgrades. The RPM 5's platter is a sandwich construction utilizing the hub, a thick silver-sprayed MDF platter, and a cork mat (a felt mat is also included) plus a screw-down record clamp. A solid metal block optimizes the table's center of gravity and reduces the effect of vibration on the main bearing.

The power on/off switch is on the bottom left of the plinth. The chrome-plated stainless steel axle runs on a Teflon bearing plate in a sintered bronze bearing housing. The MDF plinth sits on three height adjustable rubber damped aluminum cones to assist isolating the table from stand and floor-borne vibration. The power supply is a conventional wall wart connected to a mechanically decoupled low-voltage (16V) AC motor which drives the hub and platter via a flat-ground belt. Speed is adjusted between 33 and 45rpm by removing the platter and slipping the belt from one step of the pulley to the other. Or you can buy Pro-Ject's Speed Box (now available in an upgraded Mk II version) which electronically switches speed with a mere push of a button. Speed variation is approximately .5%, wow and flutter is .08% and the signal to noise ratio is -70dB. Total weight is around 14lbs. For further information, go here.

At $649, nothing looked cheap or compromised to me. The tolerances on the stainless steel axle and supporting bearing were quite remarkable as their surfaces were so carefully machined and polished; I could feel the suction pulling on the axle as I slid it out of the plinth. There was a loud pop when I finally did remove it. Quibbles? Not much really. Oh, perhaps the metal/rubber feet were a little flimsy and due to the shape of the plinth, there wasn't anywhere to rest my pinky when cuing up a record. However, at $649 sans cartridge, I ain't complaining.

Essential Audio's Kurt Martens who also distributes Ortofon in Canada set me up with the RPM 5 and Rondo Red MC ($499) cartridge. The Red is the entry point in Ortofon's new mid-price Rondo MC line. Rather than plastic or metal the Rondo bodies consist of ground Japanese wood in a resin matrix. The theory being this wood/resin concoction is ideally suited for minimizing unwanted resonance effects, which is critical for cartridges. As with anything else, spending more will generally get you more, in this case styli. The Rondo Red features a Nude Elliptical with aluminum cantilever, the middle child Blue ($699) has a Nude Fritz Geiger 70 and the top Rondo Bronze ($849) sports a Fritz Geiger 80 and tapered aluminum cantilever. Otherwise the specs are identical: 10.5g weight, 2-2.5g tracking force and 10-200 Ohm load impedance. I expect as one moves up the range the basic character will be identical but with greater detail, nuance and refinement. For further specs, go here.

Kurt says Canadian Pro-Ject customers can receive a 20% discount on an Ortofon cartridge of their choice (MSRP $150 and up) plus free cartridge installation and alignment, including test report with the purchase of the RPM 5 and up to the current flagship RPM 9.1. Sweet.

I let the RPM 5/Red burn in over the next couple of weeks before I got down with some serious listening which is difficult if not impossible with analog. I had a blast working my through Classic Records 200g Led Zeppelin reissues, which sound spectacular. I've listened steadily to Zep's I through IV since I was 16 and I don't recall them ever sounding this good. Other albums I enjoyed during this review included Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue [Classic/Blue Note 84123]; a great late night album if there was ever one, Ella Fitzgerald sings the Rogers and Hart Song Book [Speakers Corner/Verve MGVS 6009/10], Andre Cluytens traversal of Ravel's orchestral works [EMI Testament SAX 2476-79], Pictures of Heath [Pure Pleasure/Pacific PJ-18)] a great record featuring Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Carl Perkins and Curtis Counce, plus Joni Mitchell's Blue [Reprise MS 2038], Richard Hell and the Voidoids' Blank Generation [Sire SR 603] and Nick Cave's awesome double LP, Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus [Mute Strumm233]. Who else but Nick the Stripper would rhyme orifice with Orpheus?

Post burn-in, I was greeted by an extremely clean, dynamic, open soundscape without so much as a hint of unnatural edge or brightness. Bass was especially articulate with fine grip. Voices and instruments sounded solid and real. With the exception of just a hint of warmth, the most notable characteristic was the lack of character or euphony. Neutral was the word that most readily came to mind. For several readers, neutral can be a loaded word like musical. It can mean many things and I realize some folks see such words as a reviewer cop out or laziness. Maybe so, but that was my dominating observation as I certainly heard more musical information but minus any overt highlighting or underscoring. Some firms deliberately voice components for a certain sound. For example, perhaps they hype the leading edge and treble range to offer a sense of greater detail retrieval or juice up the midrange for a lusher, more romantic sound. This is just as true for cartridges and turntables as with any other component. I sensed the designers for Pro-Ject and Ortofon were primarily focused on extracting as much information from vinyl as possible for the given price point. And doing so without added euphony or coldly dissecting it. You want a more colorful presentation? Then either pick something else or choose the appropriate preamp or power amp. Don't expect the Red or the RPM 5 to do that for you.

Compared to my 1 Xpression /540 Mk II combination, I easily noticed more musical detail and could hear further into recordings.
(The 1 Xpression/Audio Technica AT95E combo has been replaced with the new Xpression II turntable which now comes standard with an Ortofon OM 10 cartridge for $499. The new Xpression II also features the same height adjustable aluminum/rubber cone feet, gold-plated RCA outputs and separate phono interconnects as the RPM 5.) The top end was crisper and more extended while the nether regions were deeper and fuller. Rhythmic integrity and forward pulse was also improved. Those Classic Records reissues of Led Zeppelin's albums I mentioned earlier exhibited significantly greater weight and slam while guitars were suitably grungy with plenty of bite and sting. Switching back to my 1 Xpression/540 Mk II, music was slightly grainy and opaque with greater background noise. Jimmy Page's guitars weren't quite as raunchy and vibrant and Bonzo's pile driver drumming wasn't as powerful and punchy.

The Rondo Red beat my less expensive Ortofon Moving Magnet 540 MkII in terms of frequency response, ambience retrieval and dynamics. The degree of grip and control I heard was no doubt due to the Red's superior tracking ability. It simply dug a little deeper into the groove than the 540 which is still a great cartridge for the money. I don't want to overstate the differences here as the 1 Xpression and cheaper Ortofon moving magnet are still great performers for their asking price and after switching back to this combo for a spell, my aural memory of the more expensive deck/cartridge did recede. Thank God or I'd surely fall victim to a serious case of analog induced audionervosa and spend money I clearly don't have. The money I did have I recently blew on EveAnna Manley's Shrimp and Mahi review loaners. So much for my simple stripped-down system proclivities.

Roughly a year has passed since I reviewed Pro-Ject's more expensive 2 Xperience so any meaningful comparison is pure conjecture on my part. However, I suspect the Xperience is a quieter, more solid performer and probably worth the surcharge. Nevertheless, the RPM 5 was considerably more stylish and attractive to my eyes as well as more compact.

I tried Pro-Ject's Speed Box on the RPM 5, which is essentially an electronic speed regulator. As with my 1 Xpression, the results were readily noticeable and well worth the mere $119 asking price. Both ends of the frequency spectrum were slightly more resolved and the sense of natural flow and drive increased a tad. There was also greater focus and definition. For example, an acoustic bass was more solid and you could sense its resonating body to a higher degree as well as its driving pulse. Violins and vocals were less sibilant and more intelligible. It's a no brainer: if you own a Pro-Ject turntable, I can't think of a more cost effective upgrade than adding a Speed Box.

I tried the included felt mat and cork mat as well as Herbie's Way Excellent Turntable Mat. The verdict? No clear winner. All three were simply different. The felt was the most neutral (there's that word again). Nothing really stood out to me. The cork, on the other hand, gave vinyl playback a touch more lively snap. Music just flowed with a more clearly defined leading edge. Herbie's mat was somewhere in between with perhaps lower noise levels plus a little more warmth and richness in the midrange. Like I said, neither made huge differences and I really didn't prefer one over the other. Each mat spent more or less equal time on the RPM 5. However, kudos to Pro-Ject for including both mats to allow owners to experiment with. You decide which works better.

As with many components, the RPM 5 benefited from proper support. I obtained fine results with Skylan's isolation platform which features alternating layers of MDF and a proprietary viscous damping material. I heard greater focus and definition with less background noise and hash. At the tail end of this review, I received Grand Prix Audio's state-of-the-art Brooklands wall-mount shelving which has so far completely blown my mind with its effect on equipment, especially turntables; even inexpensive ones to boot. I'll have more to say on the Brooklands and the Skylan in the coming weeks but I can tell you that you really haven't heard what your components are fully capable of until you address resonance control.

The RPM 5 and Rondo Red performed well together and offered a level of performance greater than their individual price points would suggest. There definitely was some synergy happening here. Mind you it will not be to all tastes. This is essentially a neutral, clean sounding and controlled pairing that may seem a little dry or colorless to some, especially those hankering for a little more character or euphony. Otherwise, they were a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable duo.

I didn't have a P3 on hand for direct comparison so at the $700 range sans cartridge, I'd check out both the RPM 5 and P3. One just might tickle your audio jones more than the other. However, I wouldn't at all be surprised if the RPM 5 came out on top.

The RPM 5 is the third turntable I've sampled from the Pro-Ject stable and it may be the most successful yet in striking that magic balance between price, performance, accessories and appearance. The Ortofon Rondo Red is also worth putting on your list if you are looking for a clean and resolving $500 moving coil cartridge. There has never been a better time to be into vinyl as the sheer bang for your dollar available at present is truly remarkable. If you're hunting around in this price range, I heartily recommend both pieces for further investigation.
Pro-Ject website
US importer's website
Ortofon website