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Pro-Ject Essential III review

The Austrian manufacturer’s third generation of its award-winning budget turntable series. But is it still essential?

Pro-Ject Essential III
(Image: © Pro-Ject)

Our Verdict

The Pro-Ject Essential III is a worthy addition to the Austrian company's esteemed range of “audiophile entry-level turntables”, offering a variety of carefully engineered components that work together to deliver an impressive sound. Having to spend more money to get a version with a built-in phono pre-amp is a little frustrating, but on the whole this is an impressive record player that should do justice to your precious vinyl.

For

  • Lively sound
  • Sophisticated aesthetic
  • Several colour options

Against

  • Standard has no phono pre-amp
  • Others are quicker to set up

Back in 2017, Pro-Ject set tongues wagging in the audio industry by launching a special edition of its then-new Essential III turntable to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' classic album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Emblazoned with fragments of Peter Blake and Jann Haworth's iconic cover artwork, it naturally went down a storm with fans of the Fab Four. But what about the turntable itself – did it do justice to this most sacred of music milestones?

Pro-Ject's Essential turntables are streamlined to deliver maximal sound quality at minimal cost. The company's founder Heinz Lichtenegger explained: “By allowing the buyer to focus on the features they cared about, and not pay for features they wouldn’t use, we were able to design a very high-performance European-built player for music lovers on a tight budget.” 

Coming four years after the multi-award-winning Essential II range (2013), the Essential III series (from £249/$340/€287) comprises six different variants. In this review, we are focusing on the standard variant.

Pro-Ject Essential III review: Design

Heinz Lichtenegger wasn't lying when he said that Pro-Ject wanted users to focus on the features they cared about; with the Beatles graphics removed, there really isn't much to look at here. There are no visible controls to speak of – the power switch is situated underneath the unit, while changing the speed from 33 to 45rpm is achieved by manually adjusting the drive belt – which means you're left with just the plinth, the platter and the tonearm. That's not a complaint, though; indeed, the minimalist aesthetic gives the Essential III an air of understated sophistication, especially if you opt for the black, white or walnut finishes (the red is a little too 'look at me' for our taste).

Both the plinth and the platter are made of a resonance-insensitive MDF, with the latter being topped by a high-quality felt mat. As for the tonearm, it's an 8.6-inch single-piece aluminium number with sapphire bearings and a pre-mounted Ortofon OM10 cartridge. An upgrade on the Essential II's OM5E cartridge, the OM10 comes with a finer, rounded stylus that's designed to get deeper into the groove, providing more detail. We'll delve into the turntable's sonic ability in the 'Sound' section further down the page.

Pro-Ject Essential III review: Features

As Mr Lichtenegger suggested, the Essential III is devoid of any kind of gimmickry, with the majority of its 'features' geared towards making the turntable sound as good as possible. Earlier on, we spoke about the resonance-insensitive MDF that the record player is constructed from – well, to further minimise vibration, the Essential III is powered by a super-smooth DC motor and also stands upon three decoupling feet that isolate it from the surface it's placed on. Elsewhere, there's a diamond-cut aluminium drive pulley, plus a newly refined platter bearing that has lower tolerances and a higher degree of precision than the one found on the Essential II.

The standard Essential III does not come with a phono pre-amplifier built-in. However, you can get one by ordering the Essential III Phono version of the turntable (£359/$492/€414). Other variants in the range include the Essential III BT (which comes with Bluetooth connectivity) and the Essential III Record Master (which is equipped with a USB connection for burning your vinyl to a computer).

As for set-up, it's fairly straightforward (no thanks to the slightly ropey manual), though you will have to install the drive belt, add the counterweight to the tonearm and fix up the anti-skate system, so expect it to take around 15-20 minutes in total.

Pro-Ject Essential III review: Sound

To find out what this turntable is made of in the sonic stakes, we grabbed a copy of Dire Straits' shedload-selling 1985 album Brothers In Arms. OK, it's probably not a record we'd play in the car with the windows rolled down these days, but there's no denying its musical virtuosity and that made it perfect for this particular job.

As the opening track, Money For Nothing, gravitated towards its epic crescendo of crashing drums, thunderous guitar riffs and spacey synth lines, the Essential III delivered a truly grandstand performance for the price, full of energy and oomph. The track's deep, growling bass was curtain-twitchingly fulsome, but never once drowned out Sting's high-pitched wail, thanks to an impressively detailed high range.

Pro-Ject Essential III review: The Alternatives

Pro-Ject's output isn't restricted to budget turntables, and its Juke Box E Bluetooth Turntable (£429/$589/€495) is one of the best mid-priced manual decks you can buy. An entry in our list of the best turntables, it offers a slightly more robust plinth than the one found on the Essential III, great sound quality, not to mention a unique two-way Bluetooth feature that enables you to stream music to it as well as from it.

Prefer something automatic? The Sony PS-LX310BT is a bargain at £194/$267/€224. Ridiculously easy to use, this Bluetooth spinner will pair with up to eight devices at once, offering a range of up to 15 metres. It doesn't sound too shabby for the price, either.