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Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Cairn Fog v2.0 24/192 CD player, Pro-Ject 1 Xpression turntable w/AT95E cartridge
Preamp/Integrated: Manley Labs Stingray, Audio Zone AMP-1, Pro-Ject Tube Box phono stage
Amp: n/a
Speakers: Meadowlark Kestrel 2, Green Mountain Audio Callisto [in for review], Living Voice Auditorium [in for review]
Cables: DH Labs Q-10 speaker cables, Revelation and Air Matrix interconnects, Chord Odyssey biwire speaker cable [on loan], Audience powerChord AC cables, GutWire Power Clef 2 AC cable
Stands: Premier three-tier, filled with sand
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle BC86 MkII Power Line Pillow, GutWire MaxCon
Sundry accessories: Pro-Ject Speed Box, Gingko Audio Cloud 11 platform, Grand Prix Audio APEX footers, Walker Audio SST contact enhancer, Audience Auric Illuminator MkII, GutWire Notepads and SoundPads, Duende Criatura Tube Rings, AudioPrism Isobearings, dedicated AC line with Isoclean ICP-002 outlet, homebrew acoustic treatments
Room size: 13' x 17' x 8'
Review Component Retail: 2 Xperience: CDN$1299, SpeedBox SE: CDN$699, MP-30: CDN$399, Gram Amp-2 SE: CDN$579, Era Gold V: CDN$1299

No sense beating about the bush here. This was by far the most fun I've had reviewing to date. And what was not to get excited about? I had the sheer pleasure of playing with several thousand dollars worth of analog playback gear for several months - and much to my wife's relief, it did not put so much as a dent in our family budget. But boy was my restraint sorely tested. When Essential Audio's Kurt Martens called to arrange pickup, it was not without a sigh of relief. As Keith Richards once slurred, "Music is more addictive than smack". He oughta know.

After reviewing the Pro-Ject 1 Xpression and Speed Box last year, I was keen to work my way up through Pro-Ject's product offerings, thus today's review of the 2 Xperience plus a veritable cornucopia of analog goodies to make any vinylphiles swoon. During the last few months, Kurt (Pro-Ject's Canadian distributor) has expanded his product line to include Graham Slee, Nagaoka and just recently, Ortofon. It would appear that for a format long rumored to be on the wane, analog is experiencing a resurgence of late. Checking with a few Toronto dealers after Christmas, I discovered much to my surprise that all reported selling more turntables and analog accessories than digital. In fact, sales of stand-alone CD players seem to be way down. Many of these customers reportedly are not what you and I would call audiophiles. Perhaps many are simply rediscovering their record collections? However, no one is as surprised as Kurt whose business is growing faster than anticipated. I am happy to hear that. Kurt is one of the hardest working distributor chaps I have met.

With all this talk of upsampling, 24-bit DACs, DVD-A, SACD etc., analog is still the superior format as far as I am concerned. Even on inexpensive analog gear, I hear a beguiling relaxed ease compared to even multi kilo buck digital equipment. While I can detect an improvement going from a $1000 CD player to a $2000 one, I hear a far greater difference with similarly priced analog setups. Analog is a more intrinsically musical, perhaps even more natural medium for the storage and reproduction of music. I suspect the human brain performs far more processing and sorting with digital music, which is essentially a series of samples as opposed to the continuous experience of analog. Analog playback is also more tactile and physical as though it somehow loads a room differently than digital, which is a little detached and two-dimensional by comparison. Instruments and voices have a fuller, more vital feel about them. I hear or feel the difference immediately when switching from one format to the other. Moreover, that's not just in my admittedly modest system. I remember a demonstration Lawrence Blair III, US distributor for Brinkmann, performed last year at the Montreal show. He flipped between Sony's top-of-the-line SACD player and the same recording (Kind of Blue I think) on a Brinkmann La Grange turntable. While both formats offered startling quality of music reproduction, I had a clear preference for the vinyl. Call it a gut reaction but the vinyl sounded more natural and lifelike to me. Of course I realize I am swatting at windmills here. I do indeed obtain a great deal of satisfaction from my CD collection and digital is improving with every passing year. It's not going away. However, a part of me wishes digital never happened.

Upon close examination of the 2 Xperience, one gets the sense that Austria's Pro-Ject can build pretty much whatever they want at any price point they choose. I frankly could not find any visible faults or signs of less than stellar workmanship. The 2 Xperience is a new mid-level table in Pro-Ject's lineup featuring some unique design characteristics. The 2kg platter is an MDF sandwich with a 4mm flat-ground layer of vinyl. I am told this layer consists of recycled records! I like to believe only truly horrible LPs are used for this purpose, preferably the entire Journey and Styx discographies. Throw in Jazz At The Pawnshop while we're at it. But to think Exile On Main Street or Marquee Moon might be in there somewhere is just too unbearable to imagine. Because of this coating, conventional mats are unnecessary.

You must turn off the motor before removing LPs unlike on tables with felt mats. The clear acrylic plinth sits on three height-adjustable aluminum cones, which contain a layer of Sorbothane decoupling/damping material. These footers are impressive and well constructed. I expect if sold separately, they would be useful under other components. The AC motor is decoupled from the plinth to reduce vibration and features a two-step acrylic pulley that drives the outside edge of the platter via a square belt. The platter's chrome-plated stainless-steel axle runs on a Teflon bearing plate situated in a sintered bronze-bearing housing. A screw-down metallic record clamp is also provided for those who prefer tighter physical contact between LPs and platter. The stock power supply is a conventional 15V wall-wart. While the 2 Xperience is equipped with decent quality RCA interconnects with integral ground lead, there are gold-plated RCA jacks and an earth screw under the tonearm assembly for those who wish to experiment with other cables. I did not find anything wrong with the supplied cables so I used them throughout the review.

The 2 Xperience is equipped with the same 9" carbon fiber tonearm used in Pro-Ject's top-of-the-line RPM 9. It features a tapered conical arm tube to reduce standing wave reflections, a fixed aluminum head shell with high-grade copper wiring, hardened stainless steel bearings in sapphire cushes, a silicone-damped arm lift and easy adjustment of needle azimuth and VTA.

Also from Pro-Ject, I received a Speed Box SE, an electronically regulated speed change unit/power supply. In my review of the standard Speed Box, I was pleasantly surprised how much this inexpensive box improved the performance of the standard 1 Xpression. The SE version kicks it up to a completely new level. The Speed Box SE is essentially an AC filter followed by voltage regulation and waveform regeneration stages. Think of it as your very own personal turntable power station. The Speed Box SE can also act as power supply for other turntables with a 16V AC motor. Additionally, this device SE sports a 120V AC output to drive the motor of any turntable with a 120V AC motor, provided the motor's power consumption is no higher than 6 watts.

The quartz-generated electronic speed regulation boasts
a speed stability of +/- .001% as opposed to the cheaper SpeedBox's .01%. For the twitchiest of vinylphiles, the SE is equipped with a pitch control (+/- 20 steps/ .1 rpm) to fine tune table speed via two buttons on the front panel. The casing is identical to the Tube Box phono preamp. As with the Speed Box, the SE version eliminates adjusting the belt when switching between 33 and 45rpm records.

Unlike Pro-Ject's budget decks, the 2 Xperience is sold without a cartridge. The listeners this table is aimed at will want to pick their own cartridges. My sample came with a Nagaoka MP-30 moving-magnet. Nagaoka may be familiar to some but is relatively unknown in North America since this brand suffered spotty distribution over the years. Nagaoka is a huge Japanese conglomerate that manufactures just about everything. This keiretsu also contains a tiny audiophile division that specializes in not only their own cartridges but OEM work, specifically cantilevers for just about every other cartridge firm on the planet. As a result, usually expensive components such as boron cantilevers are available in relatively inexpensive Nagaoka cartridges such as the MP-30. I am not aware of any boron-equipped cartridge anywhere near the MP-30's $399 retail price. The MP-30 weighs in at 9g with a .4um x .7um elliptical stylus. The output is 3mV and the recommended tracking force 1.3-1.8g.

Graham Slee's phono preamps hardly need introduction to savvy vinyl spinners. There isn't a publication in print or web that hasn't already positively commented on Slee's products. Oh well - sometimes we're first, sometimes dead last to report on exciting audio discoveries. Both phono stages require at least two weeks of burn-in. The specs of the Gram Amp 2 SE and Era Gold V are as follows:

Gram Amp 2 SE: Nominal input sensitivity 3mV | input range 2 to 10mV | input impedance 47k & 100pF | maximum input 44 mV rms (ref 1kHz) | gain 41.5dB | output 360mV maximum output 5.3V rms | output will drive 1.6k Ohms output noise CCIR* q-pk 20Hz-20kHz) -73dB | distortion < 0.03% | RIAA accuracy 0.5dB | bandwidth 10Hz - 150kHz reproduction curve RIAA | channel balance 0.25dB | channel separation 64dB.

Era Gold V: Nominal input sensitivity 4mV | input range 2mV - 10mV | input impedance 47k & 100pF | maximum input 45mV rms (ref 1kHz) | gain 41.5dB | output 480mV maximum output 5.3V rms | output will drive 600 ohms output noise (CCIR* q-pk 20Hz-20kHz) -68dB | distortion <0.02% | RIAA accuracy 0.25dB | bandwidth 5Hz - 2.7MHz reproduction curve RIAA with 50kHz EQ | channel balance 0.2dB | channel separation 64dB.