The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon tonearm.
Heinz Lichtenegger happily admits that 22 years ago he was regarded by anyone with business sense as crazy.
At a time when CDs ruled and most turntable sales occurred at garage sales, he bought a factory that made them.
To Lichtenegger, making turntables made perfect sense. ''They were getting expensive, because no one was making them any more,'' he says.
World-class: The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit.
''Models that had cost €300 [about $470] new were fetching €600 second-hand. And customers at my hi-fi shop in Austria wanted turntables - not entirely because they sounded better than CD players, but also because the music was free - records were being given away. So I started making them and selling them to customers and friends.
''At the same time, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Europe, lots of factories in the Eastern Bloc were closing or converting their businesses, and machinery to build high-quality turntables became very cheap,'' Lichtenegger says.
Instead of just machinery, he bought an entire turntable factory that was on the brink of closing. It was in the Czech Republic, and Lichtenegger, now 52, retained the workers who went with it. People with their skills and experience were almost impossible to find.
Sound vision: Heinz Lichtenegger.
The little company he formed, called Pro-Ject, is now the biggest turntable manufacturer in the world, and certainly the most successful one in the Australian market. Demand for his turntables is burgeoning.
It wasn't just fortuitous timing; Pro-Ject aimed squarely at the budget segment of the market and hit the bull's-eye.
''Anyone can build a €5000 turntable, but making ones that cost less than €1000 is hard,'' Lichtenegger says. ''That's why the Chinese copies don't work very well. The Czechs are very skilled electro-mechanical engineers and the people at the factory have 30 years of experience making turntables. It's a very hands-on job that requires skill and patience. The final alignment of the tonearm has to be done by hand and I have found that only females have the delicacy in their sense of touch to do it finely enough.''
The upside for buyers is that current €1000 turntables are giving the kind of performances that in the 1980s cost €5000. ''You get a lot of product for the money,'' Lichtenegger says.
In Pro-Ject's first year, production was about 500 units, and many of these were sold in Lichtenegger's own shop. He says the big break came when a leading hi-fi magazine published a comparison of 10 turntables costing less than €1000 and the Pro-Ject, the cheapest of the lot, won. Word spread quickly.
His first big export order followed in 1993, from Australia.
''Alex Encel called me and ended up up ordering a container load. It took me a few minutes to adjust to what he'd just said. It was impossible for me to think of sales in that sort of volume. Then I whooped and jumped around the office, and then I had to work out how many turntables would fit in a container,'' he says.
''Australia became my biggest export market and remains one of the strongest. But turntables move in waves. After Australia, the first big wave was England, followed a few years later by Germany, Austria and France, and a couple of years ago, America started waking up.''
Turntables now make up about 5 to 6 per cent of all audio source units being sold in the world, compared with 8 per cent for CD players. Lichtenegger is confident that turntables will reach 10 per cent in just two or three years. (By far the biggest-selling source units are streaming devices.)
He says buyers are from all age groups and all demographics, but young people are especially keen.
''As mainstream audio increasingly becomes about streaming compressed music from the internet to a single speaker, so there is a counter swing back to true fidelity again. People are buying organic foods and natural ingredients, they want beautiful furniture and iPads, and they're moving back to true fidelity. With fine music, turntables are regarded in much the same way as a fine glass is regarded for special wine.
''And they're fun.''
Pro-Ject builds 100,000 units a year and sells to 80 countries. Lichtenegger acknowledges that its success has generated a lot of competitive activity, both from new manufacturers and from some of the grand old brands of the business being reborn.
''That's a good thing,'' he says. ''More activity means more business for everyone.''
Pro-Ject employs more than 400 people in its factory, 350 of them making turntables and 70 making Pro-Ject's other important line: high-quality audio products a fraction the size of traditional, 44-centimetre-wide components made by almost everyone else.
This dates back to the time when turntables ruled hi-fi systems. Go into any hi-fi shop today and you will see amplifiers, CD players, tuners and whatever else all the same width - 43 to 44 centimetres. This was so they could be stacked, with a turntable on top, which had to be that wide to accommodate a 30-centimetre (12-inch) record and the tonearm at its side. Later, racks were designed for this width. So the now standard 44-centimetre width for hi-fi equipment is dictated by a component that is no longer in widespread use.
These days, take the top off almost any 44-centimetre-wide component and you will see a lot of unused space.
Pro-Ject has designed much smaller components that pack as much power as the bigger gear, but take up a lot less space.
''There is no reason for audio components to be that size these days,'' Lichtenegger says, ''and yet everyone seems to stick with that size. They're calling me a crazy man for doing it differently.''
They've called him that before.
By the way, a container holds about 1500 turntables.
Aussies in the groove
Importer Alex Encel says the vinyl revival is alive and well in Australia. ''Our humble country ranks as one of Pro-Ject's top markets worldwide, he says. ''It's the top-selling turntable brand in the country, and worldwide it outsells the main competition about four to one.''
Pro-Ject has 14 turntable models on the Australian market, ranging from the fully manual Essential II at $429 to the imposing, 22-kilogram sorbothane-damped Xtension 10 at $3999. All are supplied with a tonearm and cartridge.
On the curious naming of his company, with a hyphen between the Pro and the Ject, Lichtenegger says: ''It was my huge project to make turntables popular again, yet I was sure I would get no international protection for the name Project. But for Pro-Ject, yes, because it's unique.''