Heinz Lichtenegger discovered the magic of vinyl records at a very young age by listening to his older sister’s turntable. He later decided to turn his passion into a career, starting as a salesman for hi-fi material in the 80s. Convinced that analog sound could not and should not disappear due to the competition of the CD, he started manufacturing affordable audiophile turntables in the late 90s. Pro-Ject was born and became one of the major names in the world of hi-fi. Today, Pro-Ject is the largest audiophile turntable manufacturer worldwide.
Can you explain the explosion of vinyl records during the past few years?
The vinyl revival has been going ever since we started. As we introduced the first PJ one, many people were amazed and started collecting records again (which was easy in the 90s as everybody was giving them away): Then it came in waves – Austria, Germany and the UK joined the market towards the end of the 90s, followed by Scandinavia and France in 2005. The US market picked up 3 or 4 years ago which was a great push to the overall vinyl revival. There are many reasons for this enthusiasm. Obviously, sound quality is the most important feature of a vinyl record but the object itself is also very important. We live in a world where everything is becoming virtual and the sensation of holding an actual object is fundamental. The CD is less tactile, less stable and offers a lesser quality. A record is an object we like to watch, touch, feel and, of course, listen to. There is a desire to go back to an analog support, to swim against the current in a world which is going faster everyday. Restaurants against fast food chains, small boutique against major structures, harmony against compressed sound.
How do you see the future of vinyl?
I see a bright, positive future for LPs. Streaming services and analog support will keep evolving while the CD is declining. To have a record collection is a way to live your passion for music and many people want to show how much they love music. It is simply a great and fun experience and more people enjoy it everyday. It’s not most of the population but at least 20 % which is already a lot and there’s no doubt that this number will get bigger over the years.
Why did you choose to establish your factories in Czech Republic?
Czech Republic is ideal! It’s close to my home, there are good people with lots of experience in electromechanical design. Of course it’s much more expensive than China, but the flexibility, the quality of materials and the level of detail cannot be found somewhere else. It’s a fantastic partnership and all the transport and communication is easy and fast.
Have you ever considered acquiring a vinyl factory?
No, because this is a completely different job. It implies different mechanics and different perspectives. I grew up with turntables, I know everything there is to know about turntable design but I have no experience in vinyl production. There are people who are very good at it and who are doing an excellent job.
How many people are currently working for Pro-ject?
We now have 3 factories, together with the logistics, design, marketing and administration in Vienna, it adds up to about 500 people.
Which model has been your best seller so far?
Without a doubt, the turntables from the Debut series.
Is it a challenge to build quality turntables at such a competitive price?
The lower the cost the more difficult it gets. It’s quite easy to make a correct high end turntable, which is why you find many small companies manufacturing good tables. Yet, when the goal is to go under 500 euros it is necessary to be very meticulous and all the cheap competition which comes from China makes too many mistakes, which is a thing customers realize in the long run. You need a lot of experience to create a magic product like Debut Carbon or RPM 1.
What makes each Pro-Ject turntable so unique?
The main idea is that each model should benefit from a design that is both simple and technically flawless. The goal is to focus on the sound first and then the shapes comes after. It is also very important to make sure the turntables are upgradeable, which is why almost all of our models are fitted with RCA plugs so it is possible to upgrade the cable. The vertical track angle (VTA) and azimuth can also be adjusted so the user can upgrade the cartridge etc. It is very important to mention that we do not use a set formula to design our turntable. There are many ways to obtain a good result. Lightweight, energy, the type of drive, the sub-system chassis, the turntable mass, we are the only company who offer all of these choices.
Who is the typical Pro-Ject customer?
There isn’t one typical customer. Our goal is to reach out to everybody’s taste in sound and aesthetics, which is why we have so many different models. The one common trait between all Pro-Ject customers it that they are all music lovers with an understanding of sound quality and who can appreciate the pleasure and the magic analog sound can deliver.
Which product are you most proud of?
All my designs are my babies, it’s very difficult for me to choose one in particular, besides my preferences change from time to time. To be absolutely honest, if I absolutely have to choose one, I would say the the MAIA integrated amplifier is my favourite. This product is just perfect to start in the stereo world. It’s a great introduction to digital sound, a catalyst to turn someone into a real audiophile. Its a typical Pro-ject product, it sounds great, it’s user friendly and does everything a modern customer needs (phono, analog, digital, Bluetooth and USB streaming). It’s also the perfect compromise because it delivers a great sound due to its high end components and not because it unleashes a crazy amount of power.
A 25 Watt amplifier in a 20 m² room is more than enough for a hi-fi beginner.
The Box Design series is very comprehensive yet keeps expanding and surprises people with new products. How is it possible?
We see hi-fi stereo as a domain full of promises. Mainstream focus on plastic products which are increasingly invested in Bluetooth transmission, wireless speakers and sound bars, which means processed audio and mono sound (these products are stereo but offer an experience closer to mono due to the fact that everything is condensed in one box). We want to offer products with linear and natural amplification and this is what we do on different levels to answer various customer needs. Today we already have the largest program of true hi-fi stereo components of any company in the world in order to enable each of our customers to choose his/her perfect system. In the near future you will see more integrated products like the Maia and Maia DS which feature a wide array of functions in a single box.
Are there any new Pro-Ject projects you can talk about?
There are some, yes. We noted that there is a large potential to reach new customers who are interested in the products because they love an artist then realize how much better the music sounds with our products. So they want to enjoy truly audiophile components. Cooperation with famous brands such as Klipsch allows the world of analogue sound to reach more and more people and I am happy that Son-Vidéo is supporting this idea.
Can you tell us about the audio equipment you use at home?
I have a very wide choice of music at home. My collection is made up of 25 000 records and fills my entire house. I listen to rock, jazz or classic operas. If you look at the new brochures, you can see various albums I chose specifically for each model in the photo because at the end of the day, it’s all about music.