ProJect Receiver Box – Pithy Little Green Box or Just Too Small?

Made in China but "Engineered" locally: How most Mid-Fi is made these days / Packaging this mirrors the design philosophy - unboxing the Receiver Box S / Boxed-in, tilted-up, and fine motor skills required - Hooking up the Receiver Box S / Concluding thoughts on a tiny package - Receiver Box S in a nutshell

The deceptively small, but incredibly well-built (& heavy) Pro-Ject Receiver Box S, sitting next to my Android phone.

The deceptively small, but incredibly well-built (& heavy) Pro-Ject Receiver Box S, sitting next to my Android phone.

Made in China but "Engineered" locally: How most Mid-Fi is made these days

Just about every major brand does it this way these days: design it in Europe, the U.S., Canada, Japan, and then send the drawings to China where they will make it cheaply and allow for a decent profit (even adding the cost of shipping, import duties, etc.). It’s a pretty dirty model because in China, as well as India, like most countries in the Southern hemisphere, really, labor laws, health requirements, safety regulations, and consequently worker pay is far less of a burden than in the troublesome but more democratic / open societies of the North. The latter of course are the only ones that can pay for the stuff at inflated prices, hence the cycle exists. Naturally, the drive to push down costs on the manufacturing side and to raise prices on the consumer end is significant, and this leads to abuse.

Pro-ject, being headquartered in Austria, takes a different approach. Being located near the former Easter Block, they manufacture in those countries, in The Czech Republic, for example. Sumiko, the US importer of the Pro-Ject has a nice story about how this came to be on their website. Anyhow, this is a better model because it keeps manufacturing closer and so it is also less costly to ensure quality control over the process. Skilled labor is also less costly because the cost of living is lower, and while working conditions and environmental concerns  aren’t as good as they are in more Western countries, they are considerably better than in the Far East. So from a green perspective, it’s a considerable improvement.

Pro-Ject primarily makes turntables, but I already have two of those that I am quite happy with, so I decided to purchase the utilitarianly-named $400 “Receiver Box S” and a pair of equally simplistically named “Box 5” speakers (review also pending).They are distributed by Sumiko, here in the US, and then re-distributed to several other major outlets like Music Direct and Audio Advisor. You can read all the specs of the Receiver Box S on Sumiko’s website. More importantly, does it measure up on the quality and performance  side as well?

Packaging this mirrors the design philosophy - unboxing the Receiver Box S

My fist impression when I pulled the diminutive box from the larger packing box that everything came in, was how heavy it was. It surprised me, because I’ve held books that are larger, and this little box is about the size of a 3” binder filled with a ream of paper. It is about that weight too. It’s a simple box, not flashy like some of the more gaudy stuff I’ve had in-house with fancy graphics that almost scream false advertising. No, this was a plain, white and light-green colored (nice touch) box.

Inside, things are packed rather tight, and one guesses that this is to keep the packing materials to a minimum – almost as if the Euro-green police was watching over their shoulders. This is good: tighter packing also reduces the need for Styrofoam inserts that aren’t good for the environment at all. Actually, there is no Styrofoam at all.

The cables and remote are packed tightly in their own little box and the receiver is in a separate box, solidly sandwiched between two tiny mattresses of regular foam (probably also not ideal for the environment, but at least it’s not Styrofoam. There are three different power cables, covering most of the electrical plugs in the Western world, so this box isn’t just shipped this way to the US. This is smart cost-cutting and avoids making too many different versions for each market.

OK, but here’s my first gripe: an external transformer. I hate these things. It ends up dangling behind cabinets, gets in the way of dusting, and requires more cables. Now I understand that they wanted to keep the Receiver Box S small, but I still hate these things: more junk to weigh down the cable jungle behind my gear – it just doesn’t fit in nicely with my thoughts about simplicity and convenience that I know consumers want. I realize there may be a sonic benefit to keeping that noisy transformer separate, but it’s a pain, nonetheless. Sorry.

While I’m at it: here’s my second gripe: the remote. It’s one of those super-mini jobs that looks like it belongs rather with a do-everything computer sound card, or those $20 DVD-CD players you find at Wallmart. Half-the size of a credit card, and three times as thick, this plastic clicker is going to get lost in no time. Being this thin, it also doesn’t have room for regular batteries so it’s a coin-battery that clicks in with a plastic clip that won’t last more than a few years, after which I’ll be using scotch tape to hold it in. It looks too complicated as well, with tiny buttons that don’t feel very good under my fingers, either. I’ll talk more about how it works later, but for my testing I’m going to primarily use my Logitech Harmony remote – and yes, folks, this Austrian-Czech little box is supported!

Aside from these gripes, everything looks very good, well built, and solid. The main Receiver Box S unit is pithy, that is, it feels heavy and solid. It is also incredibly small. This is by far the smallest receiver I’ve ever had in house. If you need something you can park on a CD rack, this little guy is ideal (provided you have room for the dangling transformer behind it). As the picture at the beginning demonstrates, this is one tiny package. This thing is compact.

The front is also minimalist and clean. I suppose it could have benefitted from a volume knob, but that would have increased cost and possibly required additional padding inside the box. The LCD is tiny, but when you turn it on, the important info is larger – not see-across-the-room larger, but it’s functional from a reasonable distance. Speaking of distance, the remote’s range is impressive, and is well beyond the readability range of the LCD. The display is also in color – a nice touch, though hardly necessary – I’m guessing this wasn’t an expensive add-on but it certainly ads a bit of flair. Overall, it's a very nice looking package with simple easy to figure out controls (well expect for the remote, but I've already said enough about that). Gota love that compact size - it's smaller than I had expected. Let's hope it lives up to the hype.

So let’s hook this little guy up…

Boxed-in, tilted-up, and fine motor skills required - Hooking up the Receiver Box S

Things around back are pretty tight. I’m not liking this. I know this little receiver is going for minimalist design and size, but this maybe too much of a good thing. Before I hooked anything up, I could already see problems. I pulled out my cable box and found the thickest cables I could find.

Let’s hook up the RCA cables to the first input, “IN1”, first. I tried a number of thick cables without issues, although my lockable Vampire RCAs did get in the way of some boutique 3.5mm stereo input cables. Of course, folks buying the Receiver Box S may not be using the thickest cables, and those that have those, like me, will likely also have others. Hooking up the Antenna is pretty straight forward too, and most antenna cables are about the same size as the connector, so while it was all tight, it did fit. Overall, the left side of the Receiver Box S wasn’t going to be too much of a problem, but the other side…

OK, now I know space is tight back here for a reason, but the speaker cable connectors were a real pain to work with. This was a disappointment because I liked the fact that they weren't plastic cheap binding posts like you find on most budget gear, or worse clips like on the comparable entry-level Musical Fidelity V90-AMP (review coming as well). I tried different combinations, and most of them were problematic. This was partly due to the proximity of the binding posts to each other but it was also just plain irritating binding post design. This made my choice of speaker wire rather limited.

Spades: In short, even don’t bother; it just isn’t going to work. If you connect them to the rear-most binding posts, you need the wide-spade variety. The problem with those is that they are likely to stick out a hair and this could very quickly cause a short. Then, when I opted to pry one side of each spade into the bare-wire holes, the cables stuck out way too much and I couldn’t lay the Receiver Box S flat on a shelf anymore (see the picture - the whole thing was lifted up). Of course, just as before, with metal sticking out from the sides, the chance for a short are high. So Spades need not apply.

So what about bare wire? Not ideal either. First of all, you have to make sure you trim it neatly so that it doesn’t stick out. Unfortunately, with the bare-wire holes going from top to bottom, the same problem arose: there’s no way to lay this receiver flat on a shelf. I suppose with a very small cable that is easily pliable, this might work, but that then excludes most everything on the higher end, even Kimber, which are my cables of choice.

There is another problem with this whole situation that I also found irritating: the binding posts are so close together and so hard to turn with even my mid-sized fingers, that tightening around a cable was unbelievably hard. I suppose a pair of needle-nose pliers would have helped, but it just shouldn’t be so hard. At the very least, the binding posts should be in a single row, and not two  right next to each other, because they simply cannot be fastened easily – even the gripping part of the binding post is slippery. I’m sure a little more usability-testing would have addressed this.

Bananas: finally something that worked. The Receiver Box S really only works with Bananas. It’s a nice snug fit and it avoids any chance of shorting anything. I tried a few and they all worked easily. Even big honking ones like my Monster Z cables worked fine because they come straight off the back – as long as your cables are not much thicker than standard binding posts and they don’t angle to one side, they should work fine.

Of course, that's all fine as long as the bananas are singles and not pairs. Since the binding posts are so close together, this distance is not a standard paired banana width. If your cables are paired, that won't work either. So yes, bananas work well, as long as you have the right kind. The power connector is rather close to the binding posts as well, but it’s narrow and slim and won’t be impacted by bananas. Whew!

One more thought about the cable mess. It’s often the case with entry-level and small gear that the weight of heavy cables can tilt the component. I really had to use my stiffest, heaviest cables for that to even be an issue, and it went away once I added the other cables. This amp is small, but heavy, and for most folks using smaller, lighter cleanly-terminated cables, these details about cables shouldn’t be an issue.

Concluding thoughts on a tiny package - Receiver Box S in a nutshell

This was a mixed bag, in my opinion. I like the small, simple, utilitarian concept and the neatly packaged box, which are all very green-ish. However, for usability, I have some reservations. 

First of all, the remote need not be so chintzy. I’m sorry, but it’s just not of the caliber as the rest of the Receiver Box S. Pro-Ject is billing this as miniature Hi-Fi and I agree that it certainly feels like it. However, the remote simply doesn’t match. At the very least it should have accepted AAA batteries, and not those irritating coin-cell batteries. PS Audio, Bel Canto use slightly larger, yet still very nice remotes, and I don’t see how this remote is Hi-Fi in any way. On the other hand, I’m thankful that my Harmony Remote supports the Receiver Box S. While I’m sure that the credit should probably go to Logitech rather than Pro-Ject, at least it doesn’t make me feel like I bought some off-brand piece of gear.

Then there’s the cables issue – this will be a problem for a select number of folks, particularly those like me who like to change things out regularly. I can forgive them for the outboard transformer – most small integrateds do this. I know that in small packages it’s also hard to fit all the connectors on the back and still allow standard sized cables – and truth be told, I’m glad they didn’t require adapters/converters. That said, the choice of binding posts is a disappointment. Come to think of it, even the more common plastic ones would have been an improvement.

Anyhow, these my initial thoughts on the Receiver Box S. I didn’t find any other reviews out there (at least not English language ones), so I thought I would do one myself. I hope it helps folks make an informed decision. I will follow this up with a review of how it sounds next – and if this first part gave you pause, I can already tell you that performance-wise, this little box was able to rock the house. Stay tuned…