The Essential II Digital is a plug-and-play turntable with a difference. Its built-in phono stage features an optical output that means it can feed a digital signal to all manner of modern-day soundbars and wireless speakers.
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Pro-Ject has become well known over the past decade, primarily for its excellent Debut entry-level record players, but also its more ambitious, stylish RPM range. The Essential II Digital sits closer to the Debut models in its design and build.
It has a glossy rectangular plinth – available in black, white or red – that houses the bearing, the motor with a pulley stepped for 33/45rpm, the tonearm and the built-in phono pre-amplifier. An on/off switch sits on the left side.
The platter simply slips onto the bearing and a silicone belt is stretched around the platter and over the pulley to drive the turntable. A felt mat is supplied to pop on top of the platter.
Fitting the belt can be a little frustrating because of the platter’s shallow depth, but you shouldn’t have to do it often. Very much on the upside, the pulley sits next to the platter, rather than beneath it, so switching speeds for 33 or 45rpm records is super-easy – simply hook a finger around the drive belt and pop it up or down the pulley.
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The tonearm is a short, 8.5-inch aluminium model that looks very similar to, if not the same as, the one used on the Pro-Ject Debut S. The counterweight features a useful tracking-force dial, and there’s a nice long finger-lift too. As with many Pro-Ject tonearms, it uses a simple weight for its anti-skate mechanism, which I’ve always found adds some visual interest but can be a little fiddly.
Fitted and pre-aligned to the tonearm is an Ortofon OM 5E moving-magnet cartridge worth just over £50. You can’t replace the stylus, but its price is low enough that this shouldn’t really be a worry.
The phono stage is underneath the plinth towards the back-right corner, and sports an RCA stereo phono output, a ground connection and that S/PDIF optical socket that puts the “Digital” in this turntable’s name.
The Essential II Digital comes with a lid, which can be easily removed – although unless you get the screwdriver out to take off the hinges, the fittings are left sticking up from the back when the lid isn't in place, like a couple of ugly antennae. The lid’s chamfered front edge gives the overall effect of one of those turntables that used to sit atop a midi-system in the early 1990s, so I’d be tempted to ditch it, take off those hinges and get into the habit of dusting regularly.
I also found that the deck slid around a bit if I pressed the on/off switch too hard; the whole package is very light in weight and the felt-bottomed feet don’t do much to offer any friction. In general, the Essential II Digital looks and feels a little cheap, and can't quite match up to the impressive Flexson VinylPlay.
Setting up the Essential II Digital is perhaps a tiny bit more than “plug-and-play”, but not by too much. Once you’ve fitted the platter and drive belt, all you need to do is add the anti-skate weight to the tonearm and set the counterweight to the correct tracking force for the cartridge. Pro-Ject doesn’t supply a tracking-force gauge for that last step, but offers decent instructions for how to get to roughly the right force.
I hooked the Essential II Digital to a variety of systems, but mostly the Leema Acoustics Elements integrated amp, which allowed me to connect the optical and analogue outputs simultaneously and switch between them at the touch of a button. For a while I also ran the Pro-Ject directly to a pair of Dynaudio Xeo 2 wireless speakers, making for a very neat 21st-century vinyl setup.
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The sound quality through both outputs is solid. It’s warm and full-bodied, helping to convey those properties for which vinyl is so loved. This is no weedy-sounding deck.
It lacks a little treble openness and subtlety, though. On Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop’s beautiful “Soft Place to Land”, Hoop’s vocals are more nasal and clipped than they should be, and when Beam chimes in with the harmonies the two voices muddy together a little too much.
However, at this price you have to accept some sonic compromises, and the Essential II Digital still does a good job.
If you’re looking for a digital-ready, plug-and-play record player, there aren’t too many options – but this is a pretty good one. Its warm, unsubtle sound won’t be for everyone, though.
The Flexson VinylPlay sounds more exciting and feels better built, but it lacks a digital output (other than USB). The Pro-Ject is also a far better option for anyone who regularly changes between 33s and 45s.
A solid digital-ready vinyl spinner that just lacks a little subtlety.