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.
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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.
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