Pro-Ject’s spanking brand new affordable turntable is an all-round beaut.
I’M SURE PRO-JECT Audio Systems of Austria needs no introduction. It’s a well known and highly regarded brand throughout for their affordable turntables and phonostages – turntables for everyman and every budget.
Pro-Ject products are designed and made in Europe, with factories in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and they even make most of their essential parts (bearings, motors, tonearms) themselves. In recent years they have produced, along with a vast and ever-expanding range of turntables, the excellent ‘Box ‘range – miniature amplifiers, DACs, phonostages, iPod docks and the Pro-Ject Tuner Box, of which I am particularly fond – but really it’s the analogue equipment for which they are a trusted name. From the budget ‘Essential’ models, through the ‘Debut’ and gorgeous ‘Classic’ range and up to the ‘RPM’ models (which start with the entry level Genie RPM1.3 and go up to the stunning RPM10.1 Evolution) there really is a deck for everyone, and there is frankly no excuse not to own a turntable.
The original Debut turntable was released in the late 1990s, and sold very well, perhaps seen as an alternative to budget decks from the likes of Rega. It featured an MDF plinth, a pressed steel platter and a simple aluminium tonearm fitted with an Ortofon OMB 5E moving magnet cartridge. Various incarnations of the Debut followed – all retaining the original’s reputation for excellent sound quality, as well as value for money. And now we have the beautiful little Debut Carbon.
Build and Features
The gloss-coated plinth is constructed from MDF, is available in seven colours – the black review model was very attractive and I have seen the red in person and can vouch for its attractiveness also – and it sits on four nice energy-isolating feet. The Debut Carbon is belt driven via a synchronous motor. The motor is mounted to the plinth – located underneath the platter – and is suspended by a sorbothane arrangement to lessen the likelihood of vibrations and rumble and other interference making its way to the sensitive tonearm and cartridge and consequently to your speakers and ears. (During the review period I noticed no motor hum – or indeed belt/pulley noise).
The on/off switch can be found under the front left corner of the platter, a design idea I like very much. Speed change is manual so to change the speed from 33rpm to 45rpm, you need to remove the platter and move the belt, but of course for a couple hundred bucks or so, Pro-Ject’s own ‘Speedbox’ can be added for convenience (this will change the speed electronically at the flick of a switch, so to speak).
The two biggest changes to the Debut are the tonearm and the platter. The new tonearm is an 8.6-inch carbon fibre design, which is more solid and rigid than the previous version’s aluminium arm, resulting in less reverberation and colouration and therefore, giving the best possible sound. The effective arm mass is 6 grams, so you’ll want to take that into account when buying a cartridge, and here Pro-Ject have made things easy by supplying a cartridge ready-fitted, in this case an Ortofon OM10 (or for a few more dollars, you can get a deck fitted with an Ortofon 2M Red). I’m a fan of the OM10 as I think it’s an excellent budget moving magnet cartridge and its elliptical stylus can easily be upgraded for further sonic improvements. (I must admit I’ve never been particularly taken with the appearance of the OM range, though of course looks aren’t everything.) The arm assembly itself overall does feel a little lightweight, but does not give any impression of cheapness; in fact build quality is superb.
The platter is a fairly heavy 300mm pressed metal job, larger than before, supposedly to help with speed stability, with a felt mat to separate your precious vinyl from the metal. This is my one reservation with the Debut Carbon, because the platter rings when you tap it, even with the felt mat in place, and this strikes me as a little contradictory – after all, why go to all the effort to isolate resonances then put a ringing platter under your records and consequently the cartridge? At this price, though, I’m not going to argue with Pro-Ject, and nothing I heard indicated any serious detriment to the sound. I see an acrylic platter upgrade is available for those of you who like to tweak, and imagine this could have at least some sonic benefit.
Other features include a stainless steel main bearing, wall-wart power supply, separate RCA phono cables (these are pretty good quality but, of course, you can use your favourites instead) and a clear lid. Incidentally, with the lid on the turntable measures 415W x 118H x 320D (mm) and weighs 5.6kg, so it has a fairly small footprint and should therefore meet with approval from other members of the household.
Setup and Listening
Setting up the Debut Carbon is pretty easy – it isn’t quite ‘plug’n’play’ but it damn near is. Take everything out of the box and place the deck on a level surface, put the belt around the sub-platter and the pulley then fit the platter and you’re ready to set up the tonearm. All you need to do – and the instructions are very clear and easy to follow – is to attach the counter weight and adjust it accordingly, then slip on the anti-skate and, if possible, check the cartridge weight with a set of scales just to be sure. Once you’re happy, plug everything in and you’re ready to start listening to some lovely vinyl.
I connected the Debut Carbon into my Unison Unico SE amplifier’s excellent built-in phonostage, and music was fed to my Spendor speakers.
I’m not familiar with the previous versions of the Debut, but I did own Pro-Ject’s super budget Genie turntable for a while. Fitted with an Ortofon OM3e cartridge I was extremely impressed with the sound quality of the little deck (if you could call that minimalist design a ‘deck’) so I had high hopes for the Debut Carbon.
First onto the platter was The Modern Lovers’ John Cale-produced self-titled LP from 1976 – a kind of entertaining pre-punk-rock album that was actually recorded in 1971-72, with distinctive vocals from singer and main-Lover, Jonathan Richman. As Richman cried out “1-2-3-4-5-6!” and the band kicked into full swing for the first track, ‘Roadrunner’, I knew straight away that the Carbon was something special. The music was snappy, with great pace and timing and a lovely rhythmic energy which got the old involuntary toe and finger taps going. As the album progressed, I was impressed with the low noise floor and the cartridge’s relative tolerance of surface noise was most welcome. Bass was a little reserved but still pretty satisfactory. Image separation was good and the soundstage decent enough, and while the Carbon didn’t have the lightness of touch, transparency or tonal definition of say, my Well Tempered setup, there was a reassuring rightness about the presentation. I was grateful, also, for the way it presented my 180g re-issue of the Soft Boys’ 1980 album Underwater Moonlight which, despite being a great British post-punk album, is a pretty bad pressing and I haven’t – until now – been able to decide whether to keep it or fling it over a rainbow. It’s a fairly noisy pressing, a bit squashed-sounding with a nasty high frequency glare in places so I don’t play it much, which is a shame because the music is quite cool – very English, almost psychedelic punky rock which apparently inspired bands like REM and Yo La Tengo. I am happy to report that the Debut Carbon gave a rousing performance of the record and while all the nasty noisiness was still present, it was suppressed enough that I could really enjoy the music.
One Fair Summer Evening is a country album by Nanci Griffith, recorded in an intimate Texas club in August (summer) 1988. I couldn’t resist putting this on to see what the Debut would do with Griffith’s delicate – yet confident – sweet-country-gal vocals and I wasn’t disappointed. She sounded lovely and, backed by warm and rich sounding acoustic guitars, I got a good impression of the little venue with its attentive audience and it really did feel like a summer night; all that was missing were the sounds of crickets, evening lawnmowers and children playing outside. Griffith’s sweet voice hung firmly in between the speakers, flanked by the other musicians, giving a good indication of the turntable’s imaging abilities.
Cracking into some Jazz, I listened to Duke Ellington’s Duke’s Big 4 from 1974, featuring Ellington (piano), Joe Pass on guitar, Ray Brown on bass and, possibly my favourite jazz drummer, Louie Bellson. This is a corker of an album and the first track, ‘Cotton Tail’, is like a jazz version of speed metal with a brilliant drum solo near the end from the electrifying Bellson. On the Debut Carbon this track was slightly closed-in sounding when compared to the Well Tempered, but still had worthy speed and agility with excellent depiction of textures and timbres, particularly with the speedy guitar playing and Ellington’s nimble piano fingering. Bass didn’t extend particularly low but I could easily pick out and follow Brown’s remarkable neck work, so I considered it adequate enough. Again, I was impressed with the rhythmic energy displayed by the turntable, and although the all-important drum solo lacked some of the excitement, low end depth and the last degree of realism that I’m used to, it was still immensely enjoyable.
I had a good old rummage through my records while the Pro-Ject was here and found nothing that the turntable couldn’t handle. Perhaps the sound lacked a bit of low end depth, low level detail retrieval and resolution, but any flaws were swiftly overlooked – you’d have to pay a lot more to get those things anyway. I even played one of my few classical records – Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I do not claim to be a fan of classical music and in fact some of the more intense and complicated stuff gives me a fear but this record ($1 from an op-shop, excellent condition – score!) is quite nice and relaxing and it was certainly so on the Debut Carbon. I could make out all the instruments which were set on a decent soundstage and I even got a bit of a sense of the vast hall in which the recording must have taken place. It was a good, full-bodied performance with no harsh treble or any unpleasantness whatsoever.
All talk of imaging, soundstages and detail retrieval aside, what really mattered was that I could sit back and enjoy my music without a care. The simple little Debut Carbon plays music and plays it well and that, frankly, is what matters.
Here’s an idea: don’t get your kid an iPod for Christmas – get them a turntable and some nice new vinyl. The Debut Carbon is ideal and at least they will get some exercise getting up to turn their records over. If they don’t prefer vinyl to MP3s after hearing the Carbon then I’ll eat my pants.
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon is fairly even-handed across the frequency ranges and is a confident performer which, I am sure, will way out-perform many CD and digital players costing even several hundred dollars more. Importantly for this price point it is fun, rhythmic and has enough detail retrieval to keep prospective owners happy for years; moreover, build quality is top rate. The supplied cartridge is excellent but I wager that the superb little carbon tonearm will accommodate many other makes of cartridge with much higher price tags than the OM10.
I have absolutely no qualms about giving this turntable my highest recommendation, for music lovers, those new to vinyl or those wishing to re-visit their dusty old collections. It would almost be a crime if these turntables did not sell like the proverbial hotcakes. ANDREW BAKER