Let’s get straight to the point: I have never seen a piece of kit show this degree of musicality for so little. For less than £600 all in, here is a complete turntable package that will show a clean pair of heels to almost anything digital that I have heard up to twice its price. I am also struggling to identify an analogue package in the same price range that comes close to competing on sound quality or finish.
Listening to the UKX, I had to remind myself time and again of the cost as I found myself holding it to much higher standards than its RRP justifies.
What is it?
The Xpression Carbon UKX is a belt drive deck, tonearm and cartridge package, specially produced for the highly competitive UK market with an RRP of £575.00.
What do you get?
The Pro-Ject arrived well packed in a compact box. Inside the box are a turntable with pre-fitted carbon fibre tonearm and an upgraded Ortofon 2M Red cartridge which form the main parts. Also included are an acrylic platter, a Perspex dust cover, a pair of RCA connectors and earth lead, a wall wart power supply and two mats, one felt and one cork. Clearly, there is no desire to scalp purchasers with expensive after-market extras here. This really is a complete package.
The plinth for the UKX comes in two colours which suggest that this package is not aimed at the pipe and slippers brigade – my review sample was a Burgundy Red; a rather vivid Midnight Blue is the other. I found the UKX well finished, unobtrusive, low profile and visually neat. The paint finish on the turntable is well executed and the deck itself is designed to resist audio and mechanical feedback. Rapping the plinth does not seem to affect either speed stability or tracking in the slightest. Like most turntable users, I don’t usually attach dust covers but for thoroughness I installed the cover; it can be a bit stiff and is liable to drop suddenly if not put up at a high enough angle.
The on/off switch is easy to reach on the front left of the unit, although it is tucked out of sight on the underside of the plinth. The music signal is output via 2 RCA phono sockets on the rear of the unit. The DC supply from a wall wart is changed to AC via a mechanically decoupled low-voltage custom-built 16V AC generator underneath the turntable. Pro-Ject claims that gives a very clean and stable power supply for accurate speed consistency. The low voltage generator is designed keep radio magnetic interference to a minimum.
At this price level, a credible fully suspended sub-chassis and platter would not be viable, and this approach brings its own problems anyway. Instead, the engineering solution for the suspension system is by the use of vibration absorbing spikes and a sorbothane-type material in the turntable’s three adjustable feet. The motor is isolated from the plinth via two, Ortofon-designed, rubber grommets, designed to avoid resonance transferring from the motor to chassis. This is very simple and very effective engineering.
Obviously from the same stable as the Evolution version of the 9cc carbon-fibre tonearm, the supplied tonearm is well engineered. It has an oversized outer ring and one-piece carbon-fibre arm. The oversized outer ring is open to avoid resonance but is also very rigid to provide the most stable platform for the arm to work from. Carbon fibre is highly rated for its damping qualities and, when used in a tapered tonearm, can largely eradicate standing waves within the armtube itself. Carbon fibre is also very expensive.
The supplied MM cartridge is an uprated Ortofon 2M Red, tweaked here with silver spools for optimum signal generation. It has a tipped elliptical shaped stylus, designed for a low wear rate on the vinyl.
The platter has been upgraded from the standard model to an acrylic version with the aim of better matching the vinyl that sits on it, improving the timing and cohesion of sound and offering superior detail over the standard platter. Two mats (one cork, the other felt) are provided and can be used according to taste. No clamp is provided or necessary.
Setting it up
This package is as close as I have found to a ‘plug & play’ solution, given that the supplied cartridge arrived already mounted and accurately set up. I had the package up and running within fifteen minutes from opening, of which a full five minutes were spent with my digital stylus gauge, confirming that I had dialed in the correct tracking weight by following the Pro-Ject instructions (I had).
The instructions are clear and worth reading through before starting on set up, if only to locate where in the box the parts are. All the buyer has to do is take the parts out of the box; put the belt around the sub-platter and motor pulley; put the platter (with or without its felt or cork mats) on the centre spindle; loop the bias weight thread onto the short rod sticking out the rear of the arm; screw the tonearm counterweight onto the rear of the arm and balance the arm for level and then adjust the playing weight to suit the cartridge (around 1.75g for the Ortofon 2M Red); and, if so inclined, fit the clear perspex lid onto the two metal hinge rods at the rear. Attach the supplied (reasonably good quality) phono leads and ground wire to connect the turntable via its rear RCA sockets to your amp or phono stage and that’s it – ready to go.
The build quality on offer here is extraordinary for the price. The platter, bearing and tonearm seem to be built to very tight tolerances. The platter is precisely balanced and it is hard to discern any motion at all while the platter is spinning without an LP in place. Speed control (33 and 45 rpm) is achieved by removing the platter and adjusting the belt on a two-step pulley. I tested the platter with a strobe light and it was rock solid at both speeds. Listening to a Satie LP later, the quality of timbre and decay of the solo piano notes rather confirmed by ear what the measurements suggested.
I also checked that the cartridge was properly fixed in the tonearm, and found that the mounting had been done very well by the factory. No adjustments were needed for overhang, azimuth or VTA. The cartridge tracks very well. Although I notched up the counterweight to 1.8 grams, that is a matter of taste, and it was a new cartridge requiring a bit of breaking in.
The tonearm lowering mechanism is damped and works smoothly, although it is not as silky smooth an action as more expensive arms, but the arm does lower accurately, gently and safely onto the record.
I initially set up the turntable on my Townshend Seismic Sink Stand, checking all planes with a spirit level. Leveling was easily done by simply adjusting the three spiked feet. Also bearing in mind that likely buyers for such a turntable might not have specialist hifi isolation equipment, I also tried the unit out on a bookshelf and a table; neither caused any problems. Putting the plinth on either Isoplat or Dark Rock isolation platforms had little effect, either positive or negative, that I could discern.
I can only conclude that the decoupling engineering built into the unit is very effective and this turntable is very tolerant of most surfaces. As a result, unlike many much more expensive turntables, this one will not go out of kilter because there is an R in the month or because the CD player gave it a nasty look.
For the purposes of testing, I used the excellent Whest RS30 RDT phono stage for most of my listening, although I also got good results from the Dynavector P75 MkIII, Electrcompaniet ECP-1 and the Clearaudio Basic Symmetry phono stages. I used a series of Naim amplifiers and my Audiovalve System 20 for listening purposes. Speakers were a Sonus Faber Grand Pianos and a pair of Open Baffles (a la Bastani). I also used a pair of cheapo Eltax speakers for completeness’ sake. The Pro-Ject was not obviously out of place with any of this kit.
Scope of review
On first hearing, it immediately became plain that there was little point in comparing the Pro-Ject with either my Clearaudio Reference or my Kuzma Stabi S. They are both in a completely different class to the Pro-Ject, as would be expected given the many times price differential and any comparison would have been unhelpful and uninformative. I decided therefore to listen to the Pro-Ject on its own terms and also to compare it against a couple of digital sources where I had duplicate media.
Before getting on to the listening to music. I should report that on all (cleaned) records, the surface noise was low and rumble close to undetectable.
To put the table through its paces and to get some sense of the table’s limitations, out of devilment I decided to put that audiophile favourite, Thelma Houston’s ‘I’ve Got The Music In Me’ (Sheffield Lab 2), on. The Pro-Ject took the record remarkably well in its stride. I assumed that this highly dynamic LP would cause all kinds of trouble (much in the way of torture tracks on setup discs) but actually it gave a good account of itself. The transients and climaxes for which this direct-to-disc recording are famous worked well enough, for which I imagine the carbon fibre arm is most to thank. The treble was a little peaky and with a rapid high frequency roll off. The midrange was a little overshadowed by the mid-bass. The deep bass wasn’t really there, but I wasn’t expecting to hear it either, but there was enough painted in to give a rounded picture of the music.
What I did hear mostly, though, was a decent and stable if not especially deep soundstage, with a clear and consistent spatial positioning of instruments and voices. There was much more there than I had any right to expect from a budget MM. The downside was that drums and female voices could sound a little thin and brittle at times.
So onto some “normal” records – ‘Sad Old Red’ from the ‘Simply Red’ album has a full rolling bass line, up and down, which is a good test of how capable a turntable is in the bass regions. The UKX gave a good account of itself although the bass did roll off at the bottom end. The integration with the well-recorded vocals was also good.
Up next was Brubeck’s ‘Time Out’ album: on ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’, the cymbal on the left should have a different and very discernible emphasis on each strike. The recording is also good enough to highlight the sound of the reed when the saxophone is playing. On ‘Take Five’ the turntable should be reproducing the drum on the left but the drum’s echo sweeping back from the right. The UKX managed to dig up and convey enough of all of these features to give a real sense of the playing. It also managed to convey the timing of the music very convincingly within a credible soundstage.
Bearing in mind the pricing and possible youth market for this package, I then put on the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘The END’ and Li’l Wayne’s ‘Tha Carter IV’ and compared them to the Redbook versions I had ripped into WAV files onto my Mac Mini and played back through my Naim DAC stage. I also dug out the original CDs to play through my TEAC VRDS. Both LPs were more authoritative in the bass and felt more airy than their digital counterparts. Interestingly, neither album sounded as musical, dynamic or convincing on my Kuzma/Cadenza Blue set up as they did on the Pro-Ject which suggests that the deck might be better adapted to, or more forgiving of, some more modern recordings than some more expensive decks. Whatever the reason, the UKX took the material in hand and made the most of it.
On to more testing types of music; Louis Auriacombe’s Debussy orchestrations of Satie were an excellent test of speed stability. The spare tones of the piano are some of the easiest things to hear when they are “off”, but among the hardest for any electronic equipment to reproduce well, let alone a budget turntable. The cartridge, assisted by a stable motor and quiet tonearm, made a good job of capturing the sound of the piano and the decays of its strings. The sound was recognizably a piano and the space it was playing in. This is quite a feat for a budget MM and I was impressed.
However, large-scale classical music, generally, presented more challenges. I think it was the cartridge that did not really have quite the prowess to decode busy orchestral scores, leaving a broad sense of what was on the disc, but not much detail and a little sense of clutter and congestion during busy periods. Some soprano voices could also sound a bit shrill and sibilant, but then I’ve heard the same from MC cartridges at thrice the cost of the whole UKX package.
In all fairness, however, I would suggest that opera lovers and Wagnerians might want to look elsewhere (and probably spend a lot more, too) for a one-stop solution, or at least consider my caveat below about upgrading the cartridge pronto.
All of the comments above are made by a reviewer spoiled for choice with a range of expensive turntables, arms, phono stages, step up transformers and moving coil cartridges. Of course, a relatively cheap turntable package will fall short in almost all technical areas against these. The interesting point is that it did not fall nearly as far short as I thought it might – and its virtues tended to mask its vices. I enjoyed having the UKX and really did not want to give it back…despite its shortcomings, the UKX really gets to the core of most music and then boogies with it. I cannot think of any other budget equipment I have had where I kept digging up recording after recording to give it a go and where I have found myself going to bed at three in the morning quite so often! The UKX is nowhere near perfect but it really does put a grin on the face.
Thinking of it metaphorically: it is like a modern diesel engine; it is only really in certain rev zones and at certain times that it is caught out and then suddenly it is clear why it will never beat a good petrol engine. But for most of the time it does the job very well and very economically.
Who’s it for?
There are, I think, two credible and distinct markets for the UKX.
I am open to suggestions, but I am struggling to think of a turntable package below £1000 which, in my estimation, improves on the UKX package. While extra expenditure on a dearer turntable might give better dynamic range, a deeper, more authoritative bass, better image focus and a more convincing soundstage, that is by no means certain until this threshold, and even then not guaranteed.
On that basis, the UKX should be considered a very good starter turntable – it has all that is needed (with a phono stage or compatible amp) to start playing and getting real pleasure out of vinyl. Any money left in the budget could then be invested in enough new LPs to start a respectable collection.
The other possible market is for those whose emphasis is more on the digital part of their systems but who wish to keep a small collection of vinyl. This machine is quite capable of providing a sound quality at least equal to any digital kit I have heard up to twice its price. I had it plugged into a £5000 amplifier designed for the digital world that I am currently reviewing and it did not feel out of place at all.
Scope for upgrade
Over time, and as budgets allow, I can also see that the UKX could provide considerable opportunities for tweaking. My first stop would be the cartridge. As would be expected, while good enough for a sub £100 piece, the 2M is very much the limiting factor in this package. If I owned the UKX, I would hesitate before trading up either ‘table or arm until I had tried a better cartridge, possibly even an MC; keeping to the Ortofon theme, I see no reason why any of the new Quintet series would not partner happily with the excellent arm, but any medium mass cartridge might be worth a spin.
Although I do not imagine many people would stump up for this level of upgrade, I hear that another reviewer has fitted a Koetsu to very good effect on a Pro-Ject Carbon turntable and tonearm, confirming my view that the arm and table might well be worth sticking with rather more than the cartridge.
The UKX package provides great musical fun. It is much better for overall drive and general atmosphere than any digital source that I can think of in its price range and some way above.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that this package is a giant beater – it isn’t. Clearly, the UKX package does not offer the highest resolution nor are its dynamics world-class, but the sound is smooth and reasonably well balanced over of most of the range, with good imaging and tonal colour. Timing is excellent and, for most forms of music, it gives a very clear and coherent idea of what is on the disc. It does not get on brilliantly with large orchestral pieces and can make some sopranos sound a bit brittle, but show me a turntable package below the £1000 mark that does, and I do wonder if that is the limitation of the supplied MM. The arm is more than capable of extracting all the detail from the cartridge that it can dig up. The turntable is, of course, because of its relatively low mass, a bit deficient in the lower bass but it gives a reasonably convincing story generally.
Regardless of any cavils I may have, the UKX easily passes my main test of any hifi equipment – I found that I was able to listen to most forms of music for hours without fatigue and always wanting more.
I’m genuinely astonished that Pro-Ject can bring this package to the market at this price but this is not the place to muse on the economics of electronics manufacture. I’d simply suggest that anybody in the market for a turntable package in the sub-£1000 bracket should put the UKX on the audition shortlist. For the money being asked, I cannot think of a better source system – full stop.
Build Quality – 10/10 – (it really is hard to see on any standards, let alone budget kit, what they could do better)
Sound Quality – 8.5/10
Value for money – 10/10
Overall – 9.5/10
Price when reviewed – £575
Author – Peter Stanton-Ife