Pro-Ject Audio Systems is largely responsible for vinyl being back where it is today. Heinz Lichtenegger is celebrating his 20th birthday with his company these days.
It was 20 years ago today… Sorry, but as a true Beatles fan this was the first sentence that came to my mind when I had to deal with the 20th anniversary of the Austrian company Pro-Ject Audio Systems.
However, in this case it was not Sgt. Pepper who gave the band the order to play, it was Heinz Lichtenegger, who with his turntables was responsible for keeping vinyl alive for a long time, and in the meantime has a market share that is not to be despised.
And this is despite, or perhaps even because, the CD, which actually set out to kill off the vinyl record, is now itself gradually disappearing and streaming in the most diverse forms as well as mobile devices are conquering the mass market.
A company launched against the spirit of the times
Even the audio CD could not convey the feeling of a good record, and it’s not about the sound at all, but rather about the overall appeal of a record. This begins with the high-quality cover and continues when playing the record with all the necessary handling. Here you don’t consume, here you enjoy. And even the best high-resolution audio file cannot convey this special magic. Here a high-quality cover that you can hold in your hands, on the other hand a few bytes on a hard drive…
Partly responsible for the fact that vinyl is once again highly valued
Products from Pro-Ject Audio Systems are certainly responsible for the fact that vinyl is still a hot topic, not only among audiophile music lovers, but increasingly among a very young clientele.
With his philosophy of providing first-class music reproduction at the lowest possible cost, Heinz Lichtenegger has made vinyl affordable even for beginners. Heinz Lichtenegger is therefore justified in claiming that, with his solutions, he has prepared a market for many other suppliers that would probably not exist without him.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems – 20 years in review
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary we asked Heinz Lichtenegger for an interview. Not an easy task at all. Not that Heinz Lichtenegger doesn’t like to talk about his products at all times, quite the contrary. Rather, it is precisely this – please don’t misunderstand – quite missionary urge of the passionate music lover to inspire as many people as possible for the hobby of hi-fi that makes a relaxed conversation so difficult.
The biggest enemy of Heinz Lichtenegger’s conversation partner is his Blackberry, which rattles incessantly. Even after all these years, Lichtenegger has made it a point to be almost constantly available not only for all his international distributors – Pro-Ject Audio Systems now exports to over 80 countries – as well as specialist dealers in Austria, but above all for end customers.
But somehow we managed to do it, although what you read below is probably less like a normal interview. You don’t have to ask Heinz Lichtenegger any questions, when it comes to his passion for music, hi-fi and his products, he is unstoppable anyway…
sempre-audio.at: Mr. Lichtenegger, thank you very much for taking the time for us today. I know it is not that easy. Let’s go straight to the topics, because there are a lot of things to talk about these days. Let’s start with a journey back in time, about 20 years. The whole market is dominated by the audio CD.
Heinz Lichtenegger: You can’t say that. Not 20 years ago, because that was the time of upheaval. In 1991, when we started with the record player, the CD had just come out – as I said, it was just the upheaval of the market.
sempre-audio.at: And almost the whole industry was enthusiastic about it…
Heinz Lichtenegger: Not so much music lovers, but the industry did a lot of advertising. And as so often, the industry simply told the customers nonsense. We have experienced this many times before, with the VHS cassette, Beta-Max, Video 2000… And as so often, the worse system survived. It was the same with the CD.
There were approaches for a high-resolution CD, but they just didn’t do it. The industry tried to sell the customers nonsense, as they so often do, and that they now have the panacea. At some point, people realised that it’s not quite like that, and that eventually led to the trend again, that the real music lovers very soon started listening to records again.
sempre-audio.at: You are already anticipating all further questions… But let’s stay again a bit with the beginnings. As I said, the industry was of course fully committed to the audio CD. How did it happen that a small company in Austria suddenly started to produce record players?
Heinz Lichtenegger: That’s quite simple. My whole business idea is to bring the hobby of hi-fi closer to the consumer. I was a hi-fi freak and actually they declared me crazy in my small community of Zistersdorf because I bought boxes instead of a “Zünder” for 10,000 Schilling at that time.
From then on, I was more or less known as the crazy one, and I tried to make people understand that it’s a beautiful hobby, that it’s relaxing, and that it gives a lot of motivation, a lot of strength. And I’m really talking about consciously listening to music and not just fast-food MP3s in the background, as is still done far too often today.
Consciously listening to music is simply a wonderful thing, a cultural asset, an invaluable activity that gives you an incredible amount of strength. And that’s what I wanted to bring to people’s attention.
But because I came from a very modest background, financially, six children and all of them studied, there was no money.
And so we wanted to produce more or less high-quality hi-fi with the smallest means, and at that time that was only possible with the record, because the CD was in its infancy and was first of all very expensive and secondly not good. And the software was also prohibitively expensive. People threw away the disks and there was the software on it for free.
So what was the obvious thing to do when I put together a small hi-fi system for my friends? Then I took a record player, an amplifier and a loudspeaker. But not one with umpteen equalisers, and not with any VU instruments, and not any racks or anything else that you always had to have at that time with the huge hi-fi towers, but small, fine hi-fi systems for the same money that also played incredibly well.
There were also products like the Thorens 166 or Dual 505, which were solutions that cost 3,000 shillings, but were simply fantastically good.
But with the appearance of the CD, all these manufacturers had problems producing the devices so cheaply, because now the quantities were missing, and then suddenly the whole thing either cost twice as much or the Japanese wanted to make us happy with some plastic bomb scrap. The good things from Dual were then at some point at double or triple the price, they then brought some DD 280 plastic bomber – they got worse and worse. And that meant I had nothing left to sell.
I already had a small hi-fi studio at that time, because consulting for my friends became more and more of a business. And all the friends for whom I put together a small hi-fi system were simply thrilled, and they said, more, more, more….
So more and more friends came to me. At some point I made a profession out of it, because it also meant work.
As I said, at some point I had nothing left to sell, but I certainly didn’t want to build record players at that time. I dreamed of a small, cheap record player, and then one day there it was.
It came from the Czech Republic, and was more or less a “throwaway product” from the Tesla company of the time.
A friend of mine came to Austria at that time, because her mother worked in the Austrian embassy, and she sang there and had after-show parties. And there she played with the little record player. When I saw it, I knew that was exactly what I wanted. I then got hold of this disposable product, modified it according to my ideas and adapted it. Being a record player freak through and through and having seen quite a few things, I knew of course where the mistakes were. But the basic concept already existed in principle in the 70s. And this existing basic concept with all the improvements in detail then led to the Pro-Ject 1, which means that I actually came to it by chance, it was not a plan!
Above all, I had completely different problems at first. With much, much effort, I had to convince the Czech business people that they would continue to build me this record player, which I had modified, in small series, whereby they declared me to be completely crazy, because this was just at the time when the Iron Curtain had fallen and they were in the process of cannibalising, selling and smashing the factories.
Of course, they tried to establish new product groups, because white goods products already didn’t stand a chance at that time. They had long since been produced much more cheaply in China and elsewhere, and they no longer wanted to produce record players. Fortunately, I was able to convince some of them to produce small series according to my specifications. And that was on the basis of this NC500 – that was the name of the record player.
In 1991, in the middle of the year, I sent one of these modified turntables designed by me to Stereoplay. Mr. Kress was a very, very critical journalist at that time, very feared because he didn’t let himself be guided by anything. There were ten turntables from all the well-known manufacturers, I was the only one that, as he wrote, was close to top class 1. So much better than anything else, although we only cost a fraction of that. And of course that was the first international step, which made the product famous. After that, it was unstoppable, because very many music lovers were looking for exactly that.
A lot of people were looking for a simple turntable that does nothing but play, and for as little money as possible, a high performance. And that is exactly the philosophy with which I started my business 30 years ago.
To make as simple, reduced equipment as possible, but made of high-quality materials, the main goal being good sound reproduction and not chrome strips and not gold plugs or the like. Nothing for the eye alone, many devices simply have far too many elements on them that nobody needs…
sempre-audio.at: …and of course that is reflected in the price.
Heinz Lichtenegger: Of course it is directly reflected in the price. You pay for something you don’t really need. The philosophy of Pro-Ject is simple: to produce a high-end product for the least possible money. And that in Europe. We try not only to manufacture the equipment according to technical aspects, but we also really listen to it. This means that when a product is ready, i.e. theoretically ready on the drawing board, samples are made and then it is listened to intensively once.
Then it’s returned and a new sample is made, and that goes on until the technical data and the sound match – although it usually never quite matches anyway, because what measures perfectly doesn’t necessarily mean that it also sounds perfect.
A record player is actually like a musical instrument, you often don’t know why it’s so good or why the sound is like that. It’s a mix of materials, like a loudspeaker or a musical instrument, it’s just this right mix of materials that makes up the whole, and it’s so complex that you can’t really understand it empirically through measurement.
But to come back to the point: We have kept this philosophy until today, that is, we always try to have an incredible price/performance ratio in the respective price class, of course, we also try to be “pretty” in the meantime with the expensive turntables. We try to offer high-gloss black lacquer finishes, acrylic, but always with an eye to keeping it simple and plain. We don’t have any huge logos on it, you know at first glance that it’s a Pro-Ject…
sempre-audio.at: …even without a logo, that’s true. It’s a typical, very distinctive design.
Heinz Lichtenegger: Yes, even without a logo! It is simply made in such a reduced way, and that is exactly what has made us so successful on the world market. The price/performance ratio, the fantastic sound, and also the direct beautiful quality of workmanship without frills.
sempre-audio.at: You have already mentioned an important point that has always impressed me about your company: the fact that you still manufacture everything in Europe and have not been tempted to move production to the Far East like so many others.
Heinz Lichtenegger: Yes! There are two reasons for that. Firstly, I believe that if you produce intelligent products with a high added value, that this will definitely be possible in Europe in the future. And then there are also economic advantages. The calculation is not quite as simple as many imagine. Of course, the Chinese kill you with the price, but if you do the math, it’s not that cheap. The batch sizes are insanely high. At the moment we have about 60 different models, you have to consider that we don’t only have the normal models in the series and in the different colours, but we have 110 V and 50 Hertz, 110 V and 60 Hertz, 100 V… we have different plug-in power supplies, and we have different requirements in different countries.
This results in an incredible number of models. To produce that in China, 50 pieces for Japan in yellow, where the north has a different number of volts than the south… Crazy!
We can only do that with a partner who is extremely flexible, and I have to praise our colleagues in the Czech Republic for their flexibility. We have had many difficult times, it was not so easy at the beginning. Especially at the beginning, when not all black was black. It’s incredibly difficult to define what Black really is to someone who hasn’t cared about things like modern design for twenty years, and not just a stinging yellow, but that Black is a deep black.
And also to understand our quality standards in detail, that was not so clear at the beginning.
Today it is perfect. We have ISO 9001 in the factory, and every product is individually tested, runs for four hours on trial, and even the cheapest turntable for 199 euros is not a batch control, where one in a hundred is taken out and checked, but every single turntable is tested for four hours.
But that’s only possible here. I wouldn’t be able to do all that in China, I’d have to make an incredible effort to produce the products the way I have today, and I’d have to make an insane effort in terms of personnel, and have people from Europe there to watch over the people on the spot, all of which is, in short, rubbish…
And I have much shorter transit times, the containers don’t have to swim 45 days from the Czech Republic to Austria, the lead times aren’t 60 days and the batch sizes for me are 2,000 pieces. This individuality has also made it possible for me to offer such a huge programme, which means that today I have an optimal turntable for every taste.
And that’s immensely important, because one person wants a futuristic design, another wants classic with a cover, another wants the phono box built in, the next wants me to build in a limit switch, although in my opinion that’s nonsense. But anyway, some people imagine it…
But we have all that. And that was only possible because I have a partner who can produce everything in small individual batches. That would not be possible in China. I also have the further advantage that the property belongs to me, i.e. the intellectual property remains with me, I don’t have to worry about the Chinese reproducing the whole thing more or less in the night shift in, for example, “gagerl-yellow” or poison-green.
sempre-audio.at: Over the years, your products have ensured that there is a lot of movement on the market. Other manufacturers who had long since left or completely new ones have jumped back on the bandwagon and are producing record players again. And there are also models that are quite similar to yours…
Heinz Lichtenegger: Yes, there are many similar models on the market. Today, of course, over the years – we know the figures – the CD has been declining very strongly and streaming is on the rise… Of course, the record does not have an endlessly large market, but it does have a market of just under 5 per cent, and that is a relatively large volume, although you have to bear in mind that “relatively” expensive products are also sold here.
The average price of DVD and CD players was basically a mockery at the end. And with turntables, we see a trend that people like to buy expensive turntables again.
Why is that? I can say that clearly, because we have sold hundreds of thousands of turntables in the last 20 years, many of them entry-level models. And many people have fallen in love with the hobby of “listening to records” again, and instead of buying a 200 or 300 euro record player, they buy one for 1,000 euros. That was also the reason why there are so many record player manufacturers again. Many simply live off us, because there are a lot of customers who now buy a second or third turntable, and there are now more than 30 or 35 manufacturers on the world market who tend to be in the price segment of 1,000 euros and up. In the price segment of less than 1,000 euros, there is actually hardly any competition.
sempre-audio.at: What impresses me the most is that if you look back at history and follow the development, Pro-Ject products were considered the “cheap” segment for a long time, which was also laughed at. Especially by the competition, which, as you rightly said, plays in a completely different price range. In the meantime, many parts from your factory can also be found on their products and are suddenly no longer “cheap”, but high-end…
Heinz Lichtenegger: Yes, of course! Sure, we have a great reputation. We now produce certain parts for various manufacturers, and we also have a high market share in high-end models. Whereas high-end for us actually starts at 1,000 euros, you really do get a record player that is almost 95% perfect. And the really expensive turntables cost 5, 6, 10,000 euros with the competition, which you can get here for 2,000, 2,500 euros. An unbelievable price/performance ratio. And that, of course, has brought us more and more reputation. It must also be said that the two EISA awards, which we won as the only manufacturer for analogue technology, we also won with the high-end models…
sempre-audio.at: I think it’s fair to emphasise that a bit more. You are the only Austrian company that has won an EISA award so far.
Heinz Lichtenegger: (laughs) …has ever received one, yes, that’s right! It’s the Oscar of consumer electronics, if you can put it that way… This award is given annually in different categories and normally only the really “big ones” in the industry receive these awards. But, we also received it…
And actually, we were the first ever to receive an EISA award for turntables. That’s why the record player category was reintroduced, because we made the record player so important on the market again. At EISA, there is an award for many important product categories. And for a few years now, this has also been analogue again. And… we have already succeeded twice. So we are not only the only Austrian company to have won an EISA award, we have even won it twice. (Laughs) But in both cases we succeeded with our more expensive models.
sempre-audio.at: I confess, the Pro-Ject 1 was also my first self-bought record player. Well, much, much earlier there was a Philips portable radio with record player… (laughs) … but I don’t think it really applies. What impressed me about the Pro-Ject 1, or to put it another way, what kept me from buying a record player for a long time, was the thought that I would have to tinker around with it. And I just wanted to listen to music. Nevertheless, I bought the good piece, more or less took it out of the package, screwed two parts together, and the thing played…
Heinz Lichtenegger: That was always one of my ideas, too. The thing that drove me crazy was the prayer rug philosophy in the 80s during the heyday of high-end record players. That is, the turntable only played “optimally” when it was pointed in the direction of, I don’t know, northwest Scotland, the prayer rug was unrolled, and only at full moon at two in the night. That can’t be it.
So with the Pro-Ject 1, and also with all the current Pro-Ject Debut models, but also the much more expensive models, I tried to make turntables that play well even if you are not a guru.
It’s very easy to set up, you can just take it out of the box, and many of my turntables also come equipped with a very high-quality cartridge. It’s more of a plug and play product. Of course, it’s not a CD player, so you do have to screw a few things, remove the transport lock, and find the right contact pressure. But compared to other turntables in the high-end range, this is mostly a piece of cake.
sempre-audio.at: Speaking of the high-end sector: In the last few years, we have already touched on it a bit, the products have gone up a bit, although they are still far away from some other manufacturers as far as the price point is concerned.
Heinz Lichtenegger: Yes, of course! There are two reasons for that. First of all, you are always researching. We try to improve the product, i.e. we make state of the art designs, we also try to venture into new production techniques, for example, we have now developed a new top model with the Pro-Ject Signature, and of course we are working with the most modern diamond cutting machines, and altogether with completely new processing methods, which we are basically trying out here for the first time, in order to use them in the longer term also in the low-priced models of our product line-up.
The turntable, for example. The turntable of the Signature is made of a very special aluminium alloy, and for a turntable of this size and made of these materials, you need completely different machines in production. You have to switch to completely new technologies, because most of the turntables we have produced up to now have been made using the steel die-casting process. These are turned turntables. You have to work with very expensive, extremely precise machines. For example, the Pro-Ject 1 is now available again in the classic version, which has a small platter from the Signature. Without Signature, that would not have been possible. With the Signature, we learned the technology, and we more or less continue that with the affordable models.
Here I’m also trying out a new idea, a multiple sub-chassis, for example, and this idea of the sub-chassis will then be found in other designs. First, we try to develop a high-end solution, then it’s a matter of “downgrading” it, i.e. trimming it to be as cost-efficient as possible, but without losing anything in terms of quality, so that it can then be used in low-priced model series. Another example is the tonearm of the new top model. The Signature uses a single-point bearing for the tonearm. The result was so surprisingly good that we wanted to use this principle in other models as well. And where can you find it….
sempre-audio.at: …in the Pro-Ject Essential!
Heinz Lichtenegger: Exactly, in the Essential, the most affordable turntable. The result: fantastic. We were able to make a new turntable for 199 euros, which actually has a world-class tonearm, and that wouldn’t have been possible without the Signature, because that’s where we really tried it out for the first time. As I said, the high-end models serve to push the level of turntable technology further and further, but also to make the smaller models better and better.
sempre-audio.at: Let’s make a very hard cut, away from the turntable to your latest baby….
Heinz Lichtenegger: (laughs) Box Design!
Heinz Lichtenegger: You can only understand box design if you also understand the sentence that was already the motto of my turntables. Namely: try to produce audiophile sound for the music lover for the least amount of money possible. And now with the introduction of streaming, with the introduction of digital music that is on the net, with the introduction of the iPod, there are completely new possibilities. The world has changed completely and, of course, I want to use these new technologies to bring music of the highest possible quality to the customer again, but conversely, I also want to get the beginner, who has not yet really got to grips with music, to come to real hi-fi. Today’s music listeners are MP3 listeners or at least iPod listeners, which means I have to catch them where they come from.
And they don’t come with 44 cm devices, they are far away from that dimension. These customers don’t understand when they see classic hi-fi solutions, especially in the high-end segment, why devices have to be so big. But… this generation of people is very interested in music, they are interested in music, but they connect some 99 euro THX 1000 watt plastic speakers to their computer, which have nothing to do with good music.
I developed Box Design for this clientele. Box Design is micro-small, for example, the stereo integrated amplifier of the series is the smallest amplifier in the world, but it makes unbelievable sound, because we work according to the principle “less is more”, we do without pure “wattage”. Whereby, we actually “build in” more watts than these 1000-watt plastic bombers, but just “real” watts that also play really well. and with such a “20-watt amplifier” and with two good loudspeakers, I can simply play back really great music from a PC, for example with our USB box or with our dock box and an iPod, which is already very close to audiophile music.
If anyone listens to that, they get a taste for it. If anyone listens to the boombox, it will always be background music. And that’s why Box Design has become important for me, because with these micro high-end components we want to attract a completely new audience for the hobby of hi-fi or conscious music reproduction.
sempre-audio.at: With your second company AudioTuning Vertriebs GmbH you are one of the leading distributors in Austria, if not the leading one. This means that you have a direct line to the specialised trade. Is this idea understood by Box Design and does the trade react accordingly? This concept also requires a different approach to the market.
Heinz Lichtenegger: I have always been very progressive in terms of sales, especially since I started with AudioTuning as a classic high-end company. I didn’t sell expensive products, but I was always pushed into the high-end corner because I never sold mainstream products.
That’s what made me successful. The people who sold the mainstream existed for a few years, and then the next person came along who made the mainstream even better. But in the niche, you were never tangible, and people were excited about the products we offered.
The products were never expensive, and I was also one of the first to say goodbye to the classic distribution form (high-end distribution form) and to go into the large-scale distribution form and try to work with them.
Also to give this form of distribution more or less the understanding of hi-fi. For me, it didn’t matter which flag was on the shop, for me the person of the salesman, the music enthusiast, was always important, and if he was okay, then he got the goods from me, i.e. I was the first to deliver high-end goods to the wholesale form of distribution, and I believe that this is also the right concept, because only this makes the goods visible and thus creates demand, from which the specialised trade then ultimately profits.
We want to follow this path with Box Design, too, and in the near future we will of course try to work together with the IT industry much more.
Funnily enough, it works even better on the Internet than in the specialised trade, where I don’t actually want to sell, because you can never present this great sound feeling on the Internet like you can in a good shop, where the customer can listen to the sound. But you also have to say that the internet has the advantage that the internet makes fewer mistakes. In other words, there is no risk that the customer will come to a “specialist dealer” who presents the products so badly that the customer will not buy them. Unfortunately, that still exists…
And as I said, we soon opened up to the Internet and sell a lot of our Box Design products via the qualified Internet trade, but we also try to push Box Design to good specialist dealers and also to popular specialist dealers, i.e. not only to high-end dealers who have their little hi-fi studios in the back alley somewhere, but also to popular dealers who also sell normal mainstream goods.
sempre-audio.at: I think this is very important for the entire hi-fi industry. That it finally comes out of the niche again and is present everywhere.
Heinz Lichtenegger: It is a cultural asset to listen to music consciously. The industry, the whole consumer electronics industry, has gone extremely in the direction of fast food, that is, listening in the background. That’s an old thing. And a good hi-fi system is so grateful because it is actually the cheapest luxury a person can buy today.
sempre-audio.at: And above all a lasting luxury.
Heinz Lichtenegger: Yes, above all a constant luxury. If you buy a loudspeaker today, it will still be a good loudspeaker in 10 or 20 years. A pair of Nike shoes costs 100 euros, you need new ones every few months. And so 400, 500 euros are gone right away. A speaker for 500 euros is fantastic, and it will last for the next 20 years. So it’s an unbelievable price/performance ratio…
sempre-audio.at: So this conscious listening is…
Heinz Lichtenegger: …immensely important! My Box Design products are like small high-end devices. It’s like a Krell amplifier, only in micro format. They can do everything that high-end products can do, they are just much cheaper, much smaller, but they are easy to use, they are not overloaded with controls. You only buy what you need, because you can put it together the way you want, depending on the box. You buy an amplifier, a docking station, a speaker. And that gives you a relatively inexpensive start. Then you buy a CD player, a streamer, or if you have more inputs, a switch box, or if you have headphones, a head box. You can build up the system nicely, and only buy the components you really need. It couldn’t be simpler… (laughs)
sempre-audio.at: You only have to hear it once…
Heinz Lichtenegger: Yes, that is still the best argument for HiFi. Whether classical high-end or our micro components. The parts can do insane things. You just have to show it to the customer and you’re ready to go.
With the Box Design SE series, which will be called S-Line in the future, we also have an upgrade to completely different dimensions. That means we also want the customer to be able to work his way up at a reasonable price. And I think it’s easy for the dealer to exchange a unit, that will remain the same over the next few years. We will continue to have upgrade models in the future, so that the customer can continue to develop and always enjoy his hobby of hi-fi. And what could be better than developing products with which you can give people pleasure?
About Pro-Ject Audio Systems
Pro-Ject Audio Systems was founded in 1991 by Heinz Lichtenegger. While the consumer electronics industry was moving towards “digital” and the audio CD was triumphant, Pro-Ject Audio Systems was focusing on record players and thus “analogue”. This was the cheapest way to provide people with high-quality music reproduction. Today, Pro-Ject Audio Systems is the clear world market leader in the field of record players and can point to a broad product range. Pro-Ject Audio Systems also offers a wide range of electronics, the Pro-Ject Box Design Series, and loudspeaker systems. Pro-Ject Audio Systems sees itself as a complete supplier with the goal of inspiring as many people as possible for the wonderful hobby of hi-fi and offering them a real stereo experience at attractive prices.
|Pro-Ject Audio Systems