Pro-Ject Tube Box Phono Stage Reviewed

Pro-Ject Tube Box Phono Stage Reviewed

The Slovakian-made Project phono stage uses tubes and looks far more expensive than it is. It also delivers up to 60 dB of gain for moving coil cartridges and adjustable input impedance settings via a dipswitch set on the bottom of the unit

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Awash as we are with terrific phono stages, it's still possible to welcome another contender - especially at the bargain end of the scale. You lot already know and love the Slovakian brand Pro-Ject for having ensured a steady flow of affordable turntables. Now, like Musical Fidelity and Creek, the company is making a ludicrously cost-effective and physically minuscule series of electronics; the Tube Box is the phono stage in the range.

Additional Resources
• Read more Denon DVD-Audio and SACD player reviews here.
• Read audiophile source component reviews here including SACD and DVD-Audio players, turntables, DACs, CD transports and more.

It's a little gem, too, pushing all the right buttons for audiophiles - whether impoverished or well-heeled. It's simply adorable, if such an adjective can be applied to a black box. The dimensions are a meagre 5x6x3in (WDH), with an external wall-wart supplying 16V DC. Ribbed (like a condom!) on the top and sides, the Tube Box's back panel sports rugged, gold-plated phono sockets for input and output, an earthing post and a socket for the mains adapter.

A hint of luxury comes in the form of the 3/8in thick Perspex face-plate, held to the chassis with Allen bolts. It bears a large on/off button, a bright blue LED to indicate power on, and two windows so you can view the valves that give this box its name. You should note that there's a mesh section at the top for easy access to the valves; release two screws and the mesh slides back. You will be taking advantage of this. Trust me.

What makes the Tube Box so appealing to me is its user-friendliness. (Remember: this is a phono stage, not a step-up for use in a phono input. You connect the Tube Box to a line level input.) I revelled in the blessedly simple adjustment method to suit the various cartridges I tried. Flip over the unit, and there's a basic DIP switch set-up with eight tabs, plus a small chart. You flip the little switches to provide settings for 47k Ohms moving magnet cartridges, or moving coils at 1k, 220 or 100 Ohms. Yes, a knob on the front would be nice, but we're talking about a phono stage - a damned good phono stage - for £299.99.

Competition and Comparison
You can compare the Pro-Ject Tube Box phono stage against other models by reading our reviews for the
EAR 324 phono stage and the Manley Steelhead phono stage.  You can also find information on a wide array of products in our Source Components section.

Pro-Ject states that the unit's THD is 0.05%, the MM gain is 40dB and the MC gain is 60dB. It also tells us that the noise floor is 89dB for the MM setting and 79dB for the MC. There's also a subsonic filter operating at 18Hz, with a slope of 18dB/octave. RIAA EQ is said to be better than 0.25dB from 20-20kHz. All good stuff. But, damn, is this baby noisy, whatever the spec.

Tube noise, that is. Now I know that some of you are fine with 'illusions'; we all have areas where we don't mind being lied to, e.g. some men wear lifts to appear taller, and I don't see the government banning padded bras. Valve noise is one of those little wheezes, like pre-Dolby hiss, that makes a system sound more, well, analogue. So it was off with the mesh and in with a selection of 'killer' tubes from my spares box. And here's where you can have hours of good, clean fun, because the valves in the Tube Box - branded 'Pro-Ject' and probably Slovakian - are ECC83s: common as muck, and thank goodness for that.

Read more on Page 2

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At this price, you can afford to experiment with better tubes or ring-type tube dampers, as there's just enough space to allow you to fit them. You will need the assistance of someone with tiny fingers to get the tubes out in the first place, but it's worth it. With some mil-spec 12AX7As and some Sicomin dampers, I got the noise wa-a-ay down.

With a reference in the form of the EAR 324 at 10 times the price, you expect 'universality', so I was delighted to find that even an Ortofon SPU could be serviced by the Pro-Ject. The best matches, though, amongst the moving-coils were all medium-output models, like the Koetsu Urushi Black. The MM input clearly demonstrated more headroom, and it just adores Decca, er, London Jubilees.

If the unit has a sound independent of the actual ECC83 used, it's a nice, dry lower register, with just enough richness to justify an upgrade from the sublime little NAD PP2 phono stage. It also sounds impressively 'large', with a wickedly wide soundstage and better-than-average front-to-back depth, as demonstrated by the remastered Vanguard folk titles from Cisco. Voices were especially life-like, and full marks go to any product that can do justice to Baez' clarity and quavering. Detail is impressive, but much low-level information can be swamped by tube noise, so expect to tweak this if you don't want to regret its purchase.

That's because it fits perfectly into its price category, so it will be on your short-list. The main challenger is Musical Fidelity's phono stage in the new X-Series, and my personal sub- 500 reference remains the astounding EAR 834P. But if 300 is all you can muster, this is an intelligent way to spend it.

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