As Record Store Day rolls around for its 11th year, there seems to be no end to people’s fascination with vinyl and turntables. It seems almost anachronistic in today’s age of online streaming and portable convenience, but all the evidence points to physical media still going strong.
It’s this juxtaposition of old and new that sits at the heart of Pro-Ject. Founded in 1991, just when turntables were going out of fashion, the brand now produces a wide variety of turntables - from entry-level plug-and-play machines, through decks with phono amp and Bluetooth built-in, to top-end traditional turntables - in its quest to get everyone listening to vinyl.
We visited the company’s main headquarters in Wilfersdorf, Austria. The vast new purpose-built building is designed for multiple uses: offices for 25 employees, a showcase for Pro-Ject’s collaborations and limited edition turntables, three listening rooms (small, medium, large), a warehouse capable of storing 250,000 turntables and a shop.
But the beating heart of Pro-Ject’s turntables lives where it has since the very beginning: the seven-storey monolith of a factory in Litovel, Czech Republic. Once the site of the state-run Tesla brand (the very first Pro-Ject 1 turntable was basically a modified Tesla NC-500), it’s now where every single turntable in Pro-Ject’s varied repertoire is built from scratch.
From woodwork (MDF) to paintwork (everything is sprayed, buffed and polished by hand), from inspecting and assembling the turntable to matching the motor to each deck – every floor is a hubbub of activity, with some 400 employees all dedicated to the art of building a turntable.
Because Pro-Ject still uses the original machines left by Tesla (which is impressive enough), it can also supply all the parts used in any Pro-Ject deck from the past 27 years – all the way back to the 1.
As Pro-Ject’s founder and owner, Heinz Lichtenegger, talks us through the turntable-making process, he emphasises the focus on high-quality materials. Get the core materials right, and you're on your way to making a high quality - and great-sounding - turntable. Being able to oversee and control the entire production chain from start to finish is also important to Heinz.
More recently, Pro-Ject has invested in a modern facility nearby, where 24 CNC machines take care of all the higher-precision parts (which then get sent to the main factory to be assembled). There are plans to renovate the Litovel factory (which they will always hold on to as part of the company's legacy), but expanding production is very much on the cards for Pro-Ject.
It's why the brand new headquarters (opened last summer) was built. The huge, open space offers a base for Pro-Ject to operate out of, while its glass walls and custom-built demo rooms give the company a place to show off - and test - its products.
Each of its three listening rooms is kitted out with a complete turntable-based sound system based on the size and the appropriate price range, with the largest room housing an impressive wall-to-wall vinyl record collection.
The HQ, which is about an hour north of Vienna, is open to the public, too - so anyone can come in and try out the latest kit.
It's clear that, despite also producing compact CD players, digital amplifiers and network streamers, Pro-Ject's true passion lies with vinyl. Some of its turntables even come with a platter made out of recycled vinyl records - they're ideal as they have heavy mass, are "very resonance-free" and have a "perfect contact" with the record and the clamp.
"Once you have a high-mass turntable in your system with big speakers, you'll never go back," says Heinz. We're inclined to agree.