Call me shallow, but I believe that in order to fully perform its job, a turntable must look good. Turntables aren’t like other components. They require constant interaction, for setup, fine-tuning, and daily use. Speakers just sit there, lump-like, and CD players can eject a disc with a push of a button. And don’t get me started on preamplifiers -- in this remote-controlled age, you need never touch a preamp again, and many of them don’t even have knobs. But this inveterate knob twiddler enjoys interacting with his audio gear. I take inordinate and vaguely inappropriate sensual pleasure in gently rocking a tube from its socket and then -- gently, s-l-o-w-l-y -- pushing in its replacement.
Which means that each time I approach my turntable, I gaze at it -- and while my eyes don’t exactly well up with feeling, I really see it sitting there, and I prepare for my interaction with it. I’m not too hasty, and my sleeves are rolled up. (Years ago, hungover one New Year’s day, I smoked a Shelter 501 cartridge with a shirtsleeve and wept like a baby.) I place the record gently atop the platter, give the platter a bit of a spin (less wear on the belt), and hit the power button. Then I carefully lower tonearm and stylus to the record surface and smile at my turntable, as I’ve seen other people simper at their pets.
A good turntable is an elegant machine, and all the more so for its simplicity. My own Pro-Ject RPM 10 is the embodiment of elegance, with its teardrop plinth, carbon-fiber tonearm, heavy, well-proportioned supporting infrastructure, and automotive-quality gloss-gray finish. Its appearance is one of the reasons I’ve kept the RPM 10 around for a decade now -- that, and the fact that it sounds so very, very good. Other ’tables have come and gone in my system, and they’ve either sounded a bit better but not looked as smoking-hot as the Pro-Ject, or they’ve been kinda sexy but not sounded as good. I need great sound and come-hither looks.
But now . . . imagine how excited I am as I sit here looking at the Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon ($4000 USD), an evolution of and the replacement for the turntable that’s kept me faithful and monogamous these last ten years.
I’d first heard rumblings of the RPM 10 Carbon a few years ago, from Kurt Martens of Essential Audio, which used to distribute Pro-Ject in Canada. He told me that this ’table would be one to watch out for . . . but I lost my focus. Then, this spring, I was perusing Pro-Ject’s website and there it was -- a sexy supermodel in silver and black. I shot off an e-mail to SoundStage!’s publisher, Doug Schneider, asking him to hook me up.
Description and setup
Fully boxed, the RPM 10 Carbon makes an impressive package with a shipping weight of 125 pounds. I suggest you get help with delivery and setup -- don’t do it solo, like Jason and his perpetually inflamed lumbago. I arrived at the headquarters of Pro-Ject’s current Canadian distributor, Gentec International, in Markham, Ontario, and stood there stymied, trying to figure out how to jam a massive wooden crate into the back seat of my (thankfully) long-wheelbase Mercedes S500. It took a fair bit of shoving and cajoling, but eventually I was able to get the thing home.
Once there, I unscrewed the top of the crate to expose the brilliantly laid-out packaging: a multi-level pharaoh’s tomb of analog artifacts. Unearth the top layer and you’ll find the first surprise -- three different counterweights to accommodate varying weights of cartridge, as well as some tools: the drive belt, a bubble level and Allen keys, a rudimentary cartridge protractor, white gloves to keep from smudging the plinth, and other little goodies. It’s like Christmas morning.
Excavate deeper and it all comes together. The main chassis is nestled in a Styrofoam sarcophagus, the tonearm preinstalled. Below that are the motor and the substantial record puck. The layer below that is the platter, and the lowest stratum is Pro-Ject’s Ground-It Carbon base, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.
The platter’s inverted bearing is ceramic, installed on the end of a stout spindle; the platter fits down over it with very close tolerances.
Unlike the acrylic platter of my RPM 10, the 10 Carbon’s platter is machined from solid aluminum. Within its periphery, the aluminum platter is lined with copious amounts of TPE rubber, and the whole thing is topped with a vinyl mat that’s bonded to the aluminum. Near the end of my listening period, I wanted to take another look at the bearing, and tried to lift the platter off. At first I thought it was stuck, or resisting due to suction, but no -- at 23 pounds, this is one seriously heavy platter. Further gee-whizzery: Pro-Ject has retained the RPM 10’s opposed ring magnets in the plinth and platter, which help relieve the bearing of some of the platter’s weight.
The RPM 10 Carbon’s outboard AC motor is driven by a DC wall-wart power supply. The motor contains the same circuitry as found in Pro-Ject’s Speed Box S electronic motor control and speed-change power supply, which regenerates from the incoming AC a nice, clean power signal. The motor itself rests on an extremely dense, puck-like base. The motor’s machined aluminum pulley spins without observable run-out as it turns the platter’s round-section drive belt.
The plinth is made of MDF covered with a carbon-fiber skin bonded to it with a proprietary heat treatment that eliminates any voids between the two materials. The MDF is hollowed out, the hollows filled with pellets of resin-coated steel.
The RPM 10 Carbon comes with the latest version of Pro-Ject’s 10cc 10” tonearm, the 10cc Evolution, with carbon-fiber armtube and headshell. The arm mount is very sturdy, with machining of extremely high quality. The arm itself is fully adjustable across all parameters: vertical tracking angle (VTA), azimuth, vertical tracking force (VTF), and antiskating. To output a fully balanced signal if desired (and I do), the 10cc Evolution has a DIN plug for its high-quality phono cable. Perhaps the coolest feature is the magnet embedded in the armrest. Move the arm back toward the rest, and the magnet pulls it in that last fraction of an inch.
All of this rests on the Ground-It Carbon base, a 32-pound platform filled with more pellets of resin-coated steel. The turntable chassis’ feet fit precisely into brass-lined recesses in the base, which greatly eased alignment and assembly. Adding more sciencey tech, the Ground-It Carbon itself sits on four squishy feet that provide damping by way of opposed magnets.
While weight isn’t everything in analog, I was impressed when I tallied up the RPM 10 Carbon’s total mass: platter, plinth, motor, tonearm, and base weigh just a hair over 80 pounds.
During an e-mail exchange with Heinz Lichtenegger, founder and president of Pro-Ject Audio, he let slip that the RPM 10 Carbon is a special turntable for him. When I asked him why that might be, given that his company currently makes 51 models of turntable, he replied:
For me the RPM 10 Carbon is my favorite product because it unifies all real high-end technology in a super-fantastic package. My aim at Pro-Ject is to supply real high-end products for reasonable, affordable prices. When you see the 10 Carbon, see the materials, weight, and design, and then hear the price, you’ll say, “Wow!” even without listening to it. In our industry there are so many products around which may sound good, but the prices are often so ridiculously high that people pass on high-end and go to other products that are not hi-fi. That’s the philosophic point. Technically I like the 10 Carbon so much as it’s doing all that I think is the best.
Assembly was straightforward. Screw the feet into the base, and insert the DIN plug of the phono cable. Place the chassis on the Ground-It Carbon base and then -- carefully -- lower the platter over the spindle. Hook the antiskate weight on the side of the tonearm, place the motor and belt, choose the counterweight appropriate for your cartridge, and thread it onto the tonearm stub. Install your cartridge and you’re off to the races.
For much of the review period I relied on an Ortofon Quintet Blue moving-coil cartridge and was loath to change it, given this combo’s extraordinary sound. Yielding to the I-suppose-I’d-better call of my journalistic professionalism, I swapped over to my Roksan Shiraz and was instantly happy I’d done so.
But Thorpe -- how did it sound?
Damn good. Part of me wants to say that the RPM 10 Carbon is an evolutionary improvement over the 10, and in some ways it is. I’ve walked my way up over the years through three Pro-Ject ’tables -- the RPM 9, RPM 9.1, and RPM 10 -- and well understand how Pro-Ject can retain its house sound while steadily improving it.
As for that Pro-Ject -- or, at least, RPM -- house sound: All three of those earlier models exhibited an endearing neutrality that was never dull or fatiguing. Neutrality and solidity -- solid pitch, and frequency extension at both ends of the audioband. And so it was with the RPM 10 Carbon. After hooking up the ’table, I placed on its platter Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring (LP, EMI EMCX 3506) and let it spin.
Nothing in the fickle world of analog is guaranteed, but from the first strokes of kick drum and muted snare in “Happiness Is Easy,” I knew that Pro-Ject hadn’t screwed up this one. “Ah . . . no surprises,” I said to myself with satisfaction.
There was more. It didn’t take long to hear some striking differences between my 10 and the new Carbon. But really, in retrospect, I’d have been surprised if there weren’t significant differences. The evolution of the platter alone, from the old 10’s acrylic to the 10 Carbon’s extremely heavy aluminum manhole cover, should initiate a sea change in the sound. But it was still the family sound. The 10 Carbon still refused to highlight any part of the audioband to the detriment of any other. From the very bottom of “Happiness Is Easy” -- bassist Alan Gorrie’s low E -- right up through the sizzling lead guitar, the 10 Carbon exhibited Pro-Ject’s even hand, and their careful mission statement (if I’m permitted to put words in the company’s mouth) of accurately reproducing music without editorializing on it.
But it didn’t take me long to realize that the RPM 10 Carbon had leaped one quantum orbit outward in performance. Perhaps the most endearing quality of the RPM 10 Carbon was the way it imbued music with weight and power. Staying with Talk Talk and moving on to a wafer-thin domestic pressing of their Spirit of Eden (LP, EMI E1-46977), I was blown away by the depth and control the RPM 10 Carbon dredged up from “Inheritance.” This fairly sparse-sounding track is anchored by subterranean bass notes that at first are hard to get a handle on. I’ve listened to this album and this track for over 20 years, but not until I heard it through the RPM 10 Carbon could I truly distinguish the low bass guitar from the kick drum. (There’s also, if I’m not mistaken, an oboe lurking around in the basement that I’d never noticed before.)
I’m a professional. I listen to music all the time, and write about what I hear. But over the last few years I’ve gotten just a bit jaded. I draw this conclusion because I’ve found myself able to actually write while listening. This means I’m paying more attention to drawing conclusions about the equipment than to the pleasure of listening to the music itself.
But this review has taken me much longer to write than most. With the RPM 10 Carbon, I’d sit down, ’puter on lap, fingers poised, only to discover after a couple of hours that the computer’s battery was nearly dead and I hadn’t written a word.
Huge depth and planet-spinning control emanate from this turntable. Its ability to wrap the music around its little finger absolutely transfixed me.
I always get Steve Tibbetts and Steve Reich mixed up. Recently, when pulling out some unfamiliar records, I grabbed Reich’s Tehillim (LP, ECM 1-1215), thinking I was about to hear some buzz-saw electric guitar overlaid with an ambient groove. Instead, I cocked my head, birdlike, and sat through an entire album of percussion mixed with a chorus of women’s voices singing repeated figures à la Philip Glass.
It was instructive. Tehillim is essentially devoid of low frequencies -- all the rhythmic work is done by the vibraphone. The measured, crisp sound of that vibraphone pushed through my speakers with rock-solid pitches. I could almost feel the mallets striking the bars, and as a result, the vibes produced a well-fleshed-out frame for the voices. Once again, I could feel the RPM 10 Carbon quietly sitting back, an impassive, unmoving anvil on which the cartridge can ply its extraction of nano-level information from the groove.
This is not to say that, despite my declaration of its neutrality and control, the 10 Carbon sounded sterile or without emotive character. No sir -- its neutrality meant that the 10 Carbon let each recording highlight itself. Recordings of slow, measured music were revealed as having greater majesty and grace than I’d been aware of. Snappy jump jazz had the right dollop of bounce. The music had whatever character it had on the recording.
Listening to Charles Mingus’s multiply eponymous Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (early 2000s LP, Impulse! IMP-170), I found myself captivated by the sense of “blackness” in the background of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” -- a huge, peaceful acoustic enveloped my room. Riding just atop that low, low noise floor was the RPM 10 Carbon.
Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus is saturated with dynamics. Jaki Byard’s stride piano in “II B.S.” snapped out with firecracker jump, which was of particular note as this track is quite busy. What’s important here was how the 10 Carbon was able to untangle such complicated music without mush or confusion. It took me a while to understand how the 10 Carbon could push up its sleeves and exert its will over a recording. I could almost see it removing aural fluff from the music’s actual threads, making it easier to hear disparate lines. I don’t know, but I suspect that’s partly due to the solidity of the entire package -- the stylus at the end of the cantilever moves frantically in such complicated music, but the rest of the turntable and the arm are impassive and unmoving.
Continuing with jazz that swings, I segued to Duke Ellington’s own Indigos (LP, Columbia CS 8053/Impex IMP6010), and reveled in the pitch-black silence that the 10 Carbon so very well conveyed. As you listen to the first track, “Solitude,” you’d be forgiven for thinking Hey -- this isn’t a big-band album! At first, it’s performed by a small jazz combo fronted by Ellington’s loping, sexy piano. As it builds, full horn and reed sections rise in intensity about halfway through -- but under it all was still that sense of quiet, of restrained power, that was half Ellington, half RPM 10 Carbon.
Perhaps it was the recording, or maybe the wonderful quality of this reissue, but even when the dynamics wick up in “Mood Indigo,” some of the silence and sense of space from the earlier, quieter parts seem to carry over, to bleed into the power of the horn sections.
Many years ago, when I was about 14, my father took me to see Count Basie and His Orchestra in concert. To this day, I remember the physical presence of the sound of the horn section, the way it pressed on my chest with a sense of gravity. Recorded music can’t come close to replicating that much air moving in concert, of course, but with the RPM 10 Carbon in my system, it came closer than I’d ever heard it. The trombones had that power-in-silence thing I mentioned just now, but they also had a weight and density that all by themselves made the case for the RPM 10 Carbon.
It took me a while to decipher just how the RPM 10 Carbon was adding this sense of power, until it dawned on me that it wasn’t -- the ’table was digging deep into a previously untapped well of dynamic range that Indigos already contained. This wasn’t run-of-the-mill jump-factor dynamic range. Rather, it was more of a feeling of a larger acoustic and instruments of bigger, more realistic apparent size. All of those things together were intertwined with dynamic range, but that was only part of the story.
Normally when I listen to Indigos, I luxuriate in the warm bath of its rich, peaceful ambiance and relax into Ellington’s loping lyricism. But the RPM 10 Carbon changed my reaction to this album I’ve known for years. Now I was actively listening into the intent of the album, finding new information and meaning in a recording whose soundscape had grown to take over my entire listening room.
I've found the love of my audiophile life. If you’re still looking for yours, do not ignore this turntable.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog source -- Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable, Ortofon Quintet Blue cartridge, Roksan Shiraz cartridge, VPI Industries Cyclone record-cleaning machine
- Digital source -- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Phono stages -- AQVOX Phono 2 CI, JE Audio HP10
- Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifiers -- Audio Research VT100, Bryston 4B3, Simaudio Moon Evolution 860A
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L, Focus Audio FP60 BE
- Speaker cables -- Nordost Frey
- Interconnects -- Nordost Frey
- Power cords -- Nordost Vishnu
- Power conditioners -- Quantum QBase QB8 Mk.II
Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon Turntable and 10cc Evolution Tonearm
Price: $4000 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
90 Royal Crest Court
Markham, Ontario L3R 9X6
Phone: (905) 513-7733
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Phone: (510) 843-4500
Fax: (510) 843-7120