Just prior to actually dropping the stylus onto a record for the first time I have a particular (some might say peculiar) habit reserved for turntable evaluations. Given that they are the only components (excepting reel-to-reel) in audio chains with mostly visible, mechanically operated systems, I like to sit back and observe the ’table and tonearm behavior—the quality and control of its operation. How fluid and stable is the ’table in full motion? Does the platter/mat waver during rotation? Is there any vibrational noise, or motor noise? Long story short, the system should present a platform so placid and stable that at a glance the stylus/groove interface should appear as if there is nothing moving at all—frozen in time like a still photo. The RPM 9 Carbon passed this initial test so impressively it looked as if it were unplugged.
The sonic performance of the RPM 9 Carbon is devilishly good. Backgrounds are jet black and softly tinted to the warmer end of the tonal spectrum. Its character is one of overarching balance across all criteria, a trait that makes LP reproduction sound elegantly composed and well nigh effortless. Imaging and soundstage stability are excellent with a wide comfortable spread of images across the stage. String sections, winds, brass are all nicely differentiated from another and there’s little to no image smearing.
On the classic Reference Recordings LP Nojima Plays Liszt my ears instantly go on red alert. If there is any hint of pitch instability or tonal warble it’s going to raise its head during this recording’s quietest passages—especially on long, sustained single notes. The Pro-Ject was rock-solid at these moments, each note decaying unwaveringly into the deepest corners of the soundspace. Presto arpeggios were liquid and articulate, as well. Plus, there was an impressive sense of air and lift in the upper octaves. And equally and literally striking were the artist’s percussive keyboard stabs, which were deep and authoritative. As these aggressively played passages built in intensity, the harmonic aura enveloping the soundboard and rippling the air around the concert grand was superb.
When evaluating turntables I invariably return to the deep, widely spaced grooves of twelve-inch 45rpm pop remixes. They’ve been re-engineered and cut for maximum effect on the dance floor, and are usually overflowing with bass information and mixing board trickery. Although these can be a bear for cartridges to track I’m still amazed at the delights and oddities that I continue to discover in these old pressings—and way long after assuming I’d extracted every sonic treasure. Take for example, Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” (I hear groans). The depth and detail in this recording have evolved steadily upward with the improvements in LP playback equipment. In the case of the RPM 9 Carbon it was all about the detail exhibited from the dense crowd of background partyers. There was enough specificity and transient snap that I was ready to do a head count. (And then go find the party’s bartender.) The vibes solo was also richer harmonically, more stable and articulate. And the blazing horn section could now be broken down into individual instruments, not just white sheets of sound. Similarly David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” the Nile Rodgers-produced twelve-inch remix, sent chills down my spine with its percussive energy, smirking sax-play, and every searing note that exploded forth during Stevie Ray Vaughan’s famous guitar solo.
Another example was Joan Baez’s cover of “Let it Be” from her live concert LP Diamonds and Rust in the Bullring, a wonderful remastering and pressing from Analogue Productions. Accompanied by the gospel-inflected piano, organ, and backing chorus, this was the sort of emotionally open performance so filled with artistic conviction that I was whisked into the appreciative audience, where the sense of the live event was evident in the ambient immersiveness of the recording and the assuredness of Baez’s terrific pitch control and lively vibrato.
There are no blatant weaknesses to this turntable, rather just some very minor subtractions. In subtler ways it lacks the final level of dark harmonic ripeness in the lower octaves of certain super-’tables. The palpability and the full palette of dynamic action and tonal color during Stravinsky’s Pulcinella [Argo] seemed slightly attenuated. The low-level resolving power that finds spaces between notes was more apparent on my own front end. Finally, I could spot some general soundstage foreshortening and a modest hint of treble constriction from orchestral strings, cymbals, and tams, but to be fair, the choice of cartridge needs to be factored into this impression at least as much as the turntable/tonearm combination. Probably more. The Blue Point Special is a good one and a good value, but to be fair it’s no Palo Santos Presentation.
The Pro-Ject RPM 9 Carbon continues the brand’s outstanding run of sonic and technical improvements in affordable vinyl playback. In fact, throughout my evaluation it never seemed out of its league, even facing the heady heights of upper-crust setups, including my own much pricier kit. Interested parties should also know that the RPM 9 Carbon is a worthy addition for the long term—it’s got enough resolution and sheer musicality to ensure that audio upgrades elsewhere in the chain can be confidently purchased without fear of outdating the Pro-Ject. Without qualification, the RPM 9 Carbon is a terrific package, certain to give a great many lucky owners years of vinyl-spinning thrills.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Belt-driven turntable
Dimension: 17.4" x 7" x 12.8"
Weight: 24 lbs. + motor 4.5 lbs.
Prices: $3000 with SuperPack
FINE SOUNDS GROUP/SUMIKO AUDIO
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710