Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Rotel RCD-971 CD player, Sony SCD-XE670 SACD player both modified with IEC jacks instead of captive AC cords, HIT Audio/Cayin CD-22 CD player [in for review]
Preamp/Integrated: Audio Zone AMP-1, Manley Labs Stingray
Amp: n/a
Speakers: Meadowlark Kestrel 2, Reference 3A Dulcet [in for review]
Cables: DH Labs Q10 loudspeaker cables, DH Labs Revelation and Air Matrix interconnects, DH Labs Power Plus power cords, Audience Maestro interconnects, loudspeaker cables & powerChord AC cords [in for review], GutWire C Clef & Power Clef SE AC cables [in for review]
Stands: Premier three-tier, filled with sand
Powerline conditioning:
Blue Circle BC86 MkII Power Line Pillow, GutWire MaxCon Line Conditioner [in for review]
Sundry accessories: Grand Prix Audio APEX footers [in for review], Walker Audio SST contact enhancer, Walker Audio Vivid CD treatment, Audience Auric Illuminator, GutWire Notepads, AudioPrism Isobearings, Vibrapods, dedicated AC line with Hubbell outlets, homebrew acoustic treatments.
Room size: 13x17x8, long-wall setup.
Review Component Retail: 1 Xpression CDN$549, Tube Box CDN$699, Speed Box CDN$129

Back in April this year past while combing the halls of Le Festival Son & Image in Montreal, I stumbled upon what turned out to be one of my favorite rooms. It managed to get me all hot and bothered by delivering great sound at low prices. That room was Pro-Ject, a brand I was aware of but had little experience with. A chat with Pro-Ject's enthusiastic Canadian distributor, Kurt Martens of Essential Audio Corporation, only further piqued my curiosity. Suffice to say it wasn't long after Montreal that Kurt was in my living room quaffing fine Belgian beer while setting up a 1 Xpression deck, Tube Box phono preamp and Speed Box speed change unit, along with delivering a history lesson on Pro-Ject. On second thought, I believe Kurt drank the beer after setting up the table.

With the unprecedented consumer acceptance of the compact disc in the late 80s, the analog market initially all but collapsed. Even firms that had built their reputations on affordable turntables simply stopped making them. All that remained were pricey statement products that continued to get more expensive. While Rega was well-known and respected in the UK, their products were anything but inexpensive in other countries. In fact, this continues to this day as Rega does not seem to have implemented a strong international distribution strategy. Heinz Lichtenegger -- who had been running one of the leading High-End audio distribution firms in Austria since 1985 -- was thus on a mission to offer a low-priced, simple but well-built and good-sounding table.

After the Soviet Empire imploded in early 1990, Heinz found himself touring a factory in the Czech Republic. Among the stacks of bad copies of Western record players, Heinz spied a rather interesting deck sitting in a corner. Upon closer inspection, Heinz realized he had found the object of his quest. It was a very simple belt-driven turntable with a flat black plinth, a heavy platter and no automatic lift or speed control. After some modification by Heinz, the Pro-Ject 1 was born and became one of the most highly regarded turntables of the day. It was heavily reviewed in the European press and favorably compared to decks three to four times its cost. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Pro-Ject is the largest manufacturer of turntables on the planet, with over 18,000 tables sold in the UK alone last year! That factory in the Czech Republic, by the way, now employs over a thousand people and manufactures all of Pro-Ject's products in a state-of-the-art facility. As labor costs are a fraction of what they would be in Austria, Pro-Ject is able to pass those savings on to their customers. Unlike Rega, Pro-Ject has a very robust distribution strategy and its products are available across the globe at the equivalent price they sell for in Austria.

One of the subjects of today's review is the descendant of the original Pro-Ject 1 turntable, the 1 Xpression, with a few technological enhancements tossed into the mix. The most impressive of those is a carbon fiber tonearm usually seen on far more expensive decks. Costly to manufacture, carbon fiber is highly regarded for its damping qualities and in combination with a tapered tonearm, virtually eliminates standing waves within the tube itself. The fact that Pro-Ject can offer it on a turntable for less than CDN$550 is truly amazing.

The arm uses an open bearing design consisting of four hardened stainless steel bearings in sapphire cushes and offers VTA and azimuth adjustment. Anti-skating force is handled by a simple weight-and-thread system. Internal wiring consists of high-grade stranded copper from the headshell right through to the captive interconnect. The 1 Xpression uses a 2.2 kg aluminum alloy platter with a felt mat. Like a superior knife, it is precisely balanced. In fact, when the table is operating without an LP, it is nearly impossible to notice any motion at all. While speed control (33 and 45 rpm) can be handled by removing the platter and slipping the belt on a two-step pulley not unlike Rega tables, the belt can also be flipped through two large holes in the platter via a small plastic tool that ships with the table. The removal of the platter is thus unnecessary. Cool!

The power on/off switch is on the bottom left of the plinth. The chrome-plated axle runs on a polished ball bearing sited in a brass housing. The MDF plinth sits on four soft feet to assist in 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. Many turntables, e.g. most Regas, use a 120V AC motor which generate a much larger magnetic field when operating than a low-voltage AC motor. As the tone arm (with the cartridge) moves closer to the motor when a record is being played, this magnetic field can cause audible distortion such as phase shifts and hum. Hence, Pro-Ject uses a custom-built 16V AC unit with an outboard power supply. This solution keeps interference down to an absolute minimum. Upon close inspection, I have to say that the build quality on offer here is nothing
short of extraordinary at this price. The platter and tonearm alone appear to be built to very high tolerances. In Canada, the 1 Xpression is factory-equipped with an Audio Technica AT95E cartridge which has a considerable reputation as a superior budget cartridge.

Along with the 1 Xpression, I also had Pro-Ject's dual-mono Tube Box which offers amplification and RIAA equalization for MC and MM cartridges via a pair of ECC83/12AX7A double triodes in an industrial-looking metal case with the tubes visible through little Plexiglas windows. A series of DIP switches on the bottom allow a choice of gain and impedance for moving-magnet and moving coil cartridges; 40dB for MM (47k ohms) or 60dB for MC (1k ohm, 220 or 100 ohm). A non-defeatable subsonic filter (-18dB @ 18Hz) is included. The power supply is a 16V/1A wall wart. High quality RCA connections plus ground post are provided on the rear. Last but not least, I was given a Speed Box speed control unit.

This tiny black box allows painless speed change between 33 and 45 rpm with the mere push of a button. But that's not all. This neat little box offers quartz-generated electronic speed regulation. In other words, the Speed Box isolates the attached turntable from line voltage fluctuations that can affect speed stability. The quartz oscillator boasts a speed stability of +/- .01%. The more upscale Speed Box SE offers speed stability ten times better than the Speed Box. If you think a fraction of a percent of speed variation wouldn't have much of an audible affect, you should hear what the diminutive Speed Box can do. I'll get to it later but it literally blew me away. I truly did not expect the degree of sonic improvements that this little CDN$129 box delivered. I mounted the 1 Xpression on a MDF board which in turn sat on a two-inch thick granite slab isolated by a trio of Audio Prism Isobearings.