If your last experience with vinyl was way back when the compact disc was displaying it’s dominance as the popular audio media format or if you have only known digital sound formats, we have some good news. For the past several years vinyl records have been making a comeback by showing increasing sales figures while CD sales continue to sag. Of course while we don’t expect that the vinyl record sales will ever approach the status that they enjoyed in the past, the continued upward sales trends do tell us something – more and more people are retuning to or discovering the vinyl media.
So you’re probably wondering – how is that good news? The increasing sales figures mean that more and more artists are releasing their music on vinyl and if you are already a vinyl addict, you have more music to choose from on vinyl. You may be still wondering – how does that help me? With more and more people discovering the vinyl media, it means that there is a growing market for entry-level turntables and where there is a market, there is competition for a share of that market. Competition is good, it translates to better prices, offers us more choices and companies strive to deliver better products to get that edge on the competitors. One only has to look at the number of companies that are now offering several turntable models that span from entry-level to mid-priced units. One such company is Pro-Ject Audio Systems, which arguably is the largest supplier of consumer grade turntables. The Pro-Ject Audio Systems line of turntable products are imported and distributed in Canada by Planet of Sound Distribution. In this review I evaluate the entry-level Pro-Ject Debut III turntable which retails for $379 in the flat black finish. The Debut III is also available in a glossy finish ($429) in seven different colours: black, white, silver, red, yellow, blue and green.
If you are new to records you should be aware that there can be a lot of issues with them. Most of them are typical of what one would expect from any analog media source – surface noise, dust, static and lets not forget rumble as well as wow and flutter. In addition, there is also the inconvenience of having to physically turn over the album every 20 minutes or so. Another nuisance can be the special care and attention that the records will inevitably require – they will need to be stored properly and they will also require the occasional cleaning. This may all seem like a lot of work and let me assure you that it sure can be. When I think of the effort required for even modest record collections and good vinyl playback, the phrase that comes to mind is “a labour of love”. Your reward for all that hard work – more music, warmth and naturalness which are far too often absent from digital media sources.
Like most entry-level turntables in this price range, the Debut III is no-frills and entirely manual. For those of you who are not familiar with turntables, a manual turntable comes equipped with a power switch to start the turntable and a lever to raise and lower the tonearm – that is about it. For instance, after placing a record on the platter, the motor is turned on by flipping the power switch (hidden on the underside of the plinth), manually positioning the tonearm over the record and lowering the tonearm to begin playback. After some 20 minutes or so, you will manually need to lift the tonearm off the end of the record as there is no automatic return mechanism. Furthermore, should you ever get the urge to spin a 45, there is no simple switch that you can flip. To change the playback speed of the turntable you need to lift the platter and manually move the belt to a different step on the motor pulley. All of this is very simple to do, but worth mentioning for those unfamiliar with manual turntables. I should also mention that a manual turntable is generally able to achieve a higher quality sound than an automatic turntable.
Pro-Ject has arguably been the leader in providing inexpensive entry-level turntables of good quality for the past several years. The Czech-built Debut III is the latest iteration of its popular entry-level offering. It comes packaged as a complete turntable which is pretty much ready to play out of the box. The turntable comes equipped with the Pro-Ject 8.6 tonearm and is fitted with an Ortofon OM5e high-output (4 mV) moving magnet cartridge. The Ortofon OM5e is a modest OEM cartridge which can be easily upgraded by simply swapping out the stylus. The 1.3 kg platter is constructed from sandwiched sheet-steel and is topped with a removable felt mat. It is worth noting that a steel platter cannot be used with a moving-coil (MC) cartridge. However, an upgraded acrylic platter is available from Pro-Ject for the Debut III if you’d like to use a MC cartridge. The design of the turntable has been well thought out as is evidenced by the way that the motor is decoupled from the plinth using a rubber band suspension to help reduce vibrations. The plinth is constructed from MDF and rests on four shock absorbing feet. The plinth of the tested turntable had a matt black finish and for a little more money you can purchase the Debut III in a number of stylish colors or in a high gloss finish. For an entry-level model, the fit and finish of the Debut III is impressive and cosmetically it can fit into most environments so the WAF (wife acceptance factor) should not be an issue. The acrylic clear plastic dust cover rounds off the turntable and is removable. The total weight of the turntable is 5.5 kg and the overall build quality is good.
Setup of the Debut III is fairly simple given that the tonearm and cartridge have been factory installed and aligned. After reading through the instructions that are provided there are a few simple setup items that need to be completed. These include removing a couple of screws which secured the motor, arm balancing and placement of the anti-skating weight. Following the instructions, a novice can setup the turntable in under twenty minutes.
If this is your first turntable, you may not already have a phono preamplifier so you will need to budget for one. We used the Pro-Ject Phono Box II ($169) – an op-amp based preamp that offers a gain of 40 dB for moving magnet cartridges and 60 dB for moving coil cartridges. To evaluate the Debut III we listened to a number of musical selections that ranged from some great European pressed classical recordings to modern releases on 180 gram vinyl. For those accustomed to listening to lossy digital media formats, the Debut III is likely to be a revelation. You will find yourself listening more and hearing more music. Relative to a CD player in the same price range and playing the same tracks, the Debut III was more musical and enjoyable – a welcome trade for the superior extension at the extremes and the resolution that the CD player had to offer.
When evaluating audio gear, one of the first albums I usually listen to is Steely Dan’s Aja. I use Aja to check for accurate reproduction of vocals. The album also offers fine percussion, especially the snare drum. The Debut III did a very good job of reproducing the vocals. However, on the title track I like to listen for Timothy B. Schmit’s backing vocals which at times seemed a little difficult to locate.
Another album I like to use is Joe Jackson’s Body and Soul. With a little luck you can often find a 1984 pressing of this album in used record stores for just a few dollars. This is an excellent recording, full of rich detail and where the music and vocals decay very naturally. Other cues to listen for are the cymbals which should be very crisp, deep bass guitar and rich resonant sound from the piano and saxophone. Again the Debut III did an excellent job with the vocals and the music which was dynamic and with strong images. Where the Debut III was lacking the most was in the bass notes which sounded loose. Also, at the high end of the audio spectrum, the cymbals were not as crisp as they should be.
In general, the Debut III offered quiet backgrounds and added no unpleasant colorations to the music. There was a wide soundstage with good depth and impressive solid images. Playing on the Debut III, music had good rhythm and dynamics which made for a natural and involving performance. Of course there have to be some compromises for a turntable in the price range and this is evident at the extremes of the low and high response. While the bass was pleasant and natural, the low bass notes seemed less controlled and loose which is not surprising from an entry-level offering. While the Debut III will not be able to compete with higher-end tables, it does a great job of creating a pleasant performance that keeps you engaged to the music and that makes it easy to look past any of its minor faults – especially at this price.
The Debut III is an affordable and great-sounding entry-level turntable that provides exceptional value. The beauty of the Debut III is that can be used by vinyl virgins or analogue addicts (and everyone in between) to fill many different roles – your first turntable, a turntable to resurrect your old collection or perhaps a good inexpensive turntable for a secondary system. One thing is for certain, you will be hard pressed to find a better sounding turntable and cartridge for less.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
Distributed in Canada by Planet of Sound Distribution, 613-731-4439
Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable
Price: $379 (flat black), $429 (glossy finishes)