Even I am surprised at how hip it now is to play vinyl again, especially among the younger set. I was thinking about this when I listened to the new solo recording by Chris Jones, “Young people are buying entry-level turntables, and someday they may actually have jobs.” In the booming Vinyl industry.

So I decided to review Pro-Ject’s Debut III turntable , to see how it would fare not only in a revealing reference system, but also when matched with other entry-level components.

The Debut III is a complete “plug’n’play” record player that includes a Pro-Ject 8.6 tonearm and an Ortofon OM 5E moving-magnet cartridge. The cartridge comes already installed and aligned; all you need do is install the counterweight, set the tracking and antiskating forces, unlock the motor transport screw, and you’re ready to go. The instructions are clearly written; any mechanically challenged person who has never seen a turntable before should be able to set up a Debut III in 20 minutes.

I’ve had a lot of experience with turntables, having owned rugged, well-designed decks from VPI, Rega, Goldmund, Linn, and Thorens; the Pro-Ject fits nicely into this company. As I unpacked and set up the Debut III, I noted how well-thought-out and simple the design is, and how rugged and stable it seems. As I examined the Debut III, the phrase “cost-cutting to a price point” never entered my mind. The turntable is available in flat black ($349) or any of several custom colors (add $30): piano-gloss black, silver, glossy white, red, yellow, blue, and green. The paint on my attractive red sample reminded me of Porsche’s “Arrest Me Red” hue.

The Pro-Ject’s AC motor has a two-step metal pulley, for 33 and 45rpm (78rpm is available as an option), which drives the hub and platter via a flat-ground belt. To reduce the transmission of vibrations, the motor is decoupled from the fiber-board plinth, which sits on four shock-absorbing feet. The steel-sheet platter is fitted with a felt mat and sits on a hub with a spindle of chrome-plated stainless steel runs on a polished ball bearing in a brass housing. The ‘table’s power supply is separately housed.

The headshell and undamped armtube are cut from a single piece of aluminum. The inverted horizontal bearings consist of two hardened stainless-steel points, but the arm’s vertical tracking angle (VTA) is not adjustable. The phono cable terminates in gold-plated plugs. The Ortofon cartridge outputs 4mV, tracks at 1.75gm, and is recommended to be loaded with 47k ohms. Finally, the Debut III has an attractive plastic dustcover.

I fired up my Creek Destiny integrated amplifier and alternated between the Epos M5 and Monitor Audio RS6 Silver speakers. Finally, I connected the turntable to the aforementioned Marantz and Paradigm Atom v.5 speakers to compare this ca-$1000 system with the more expensive rig.

The first thing I checked was Debut III’s level of noise. Sure, when I lowered the needle into the groove, I did hear enough groove noise to remind me that I was playing an LP. No, it wasn’t the “music flowing from a silent black background” that I’d heard from Michael Fremer’sContinuum Caliburn turntable, but then, at >$100k, that ‘table is slightly more expensive than the $349 Pro-Ject. I did spend quite a bit of time analyzing the design of the Debut III’s motor-isolation system. Pro-Ject has designed an ingenious mechanism to “float” the motor above the plinth using a rubber O-ring, and it worked quite well. The motor didn’t touch the plinth, but still exerted just enough tension on the belt to turn the platter at a consistent speed. (I noticed no problem with speed consistency, even when playing piano recordings.) However, when I set the needle in the runout groove, turned the volume all the way up (well past ear-splitting levels), and set the platter rotating, I could hear a very faint low-level hum from the motor to tell me it was on. However, even when listening to music at loud levels, this motor noise wasn’t noticeable.

When I played complex and difficult music, two things struck me. First, I would have expected a turntable fitted with such an inexpensive cartridge (the Ortofon OM 5E lists for $55) to produce some smearing with torture-test records, or at least a hint of mistracking distortion. But there was no trace of either with the Debut III, even in comparison with my Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge, one of the best-tracking cartridges I’ve ever heard. Second, I expected an entry-level turntable with a starter cartridge to have some minor irregularities of tonal balance. After several months of listening to a broad range of recordings, I can conclude that, tonally, this record player was fairly close to dead neutral.

But it wasn’t the Pro-Ject’s tonal balance that most impressed me, it was the ‘table’s delicate rendition of transients. On “Melting,” from guitarist Bill Connors’ Of Mist and Melting (LP, ECM 1120, footnote 1), there’s a fairly busy syncopated drum passage by Jack De Johnette in which he gets an incredibly broad range of colors from his cymbals and snare. Every timbral detail, and his dynamic envelope, even when he strikes the cymbals and snare, was clear through the Pro-Ject. Pianist Eva Nordwall’s rapid-fire upper-register passages in György Ligeti’sContinuum (LP, Bis LP-53) were clear, consistent, and uncoagulated. And the electronic bleeps, bangs, and blurbles in “Reflections in the Plastic Pulse,” from Stereolab’s Dots and Loops (LP, Drag City DC-140), zipped and zagged with a forceful tunefulness that made listening to this uptempo rock waltz involving.

Linn toe-tappers should find the Debut III’s pacing satisfying, especially with electric music. The interplay of bassist Marcus Miller and drummer Al Foster in “Back Seat Betty,” from Miles Davis’ The Man with the Horn (Dutch LP, CBS H4708), was chuggin’, slammin’, groovin’, with no trace of overhang or disintegration between the musicians. The Pro-Ject also let me groove on Alvin Lee’s raunchy, dirty guitar solo on Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” from Ten Years After (LP, Deram DES 18009), which I find much more interesting than any of Cream’s versions of this tune.

The dynamic envelope of well-recorded jazz was also convincing through the Debut III. Jackie McLean’s wailing alto sax on Charles Mingus’s Pithecanthropus Erectus (LP, Atlantic 1237) was linear and natural. This same recording highlighted the Pro-Ject’s natural bass reproduction. Although I thought Mingus’s bass was at times just a tad woolly, overall his instrument sounded woody and natural, and locked in perfectly with the rhythm section, with no overhang.

Jazz recordings also spotlit the Debut III’s open, natural midrange. Eric Dolphy’s bass-clarinet solo on “God Bless the Child,” from Eric Dolphy Vol.1 (LP, Prestige 7304), emerged from between the speakers in holographic, breathy, timbrally perfect splendor. Voices, too, shone through the Pro-Ject—the three-part harmony on “Born to Rock,” from Buck Dharma’s Flat Out(LP, Portrait, BL 38124), had a silkily angelic quality that I never hear when Dharma sings with Blue Öyster Cult. High frequencies were also natural and extended. An acid test for string tone are the massed strings on André Cluytens and the Orchestre de la Société des Concert du Conservatoire Paris’s reading of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (LP, EMI Testament AEMI 2476). Through the Debut III they sounded gorgeous, with no trace of harsh, steely, or distorted quality, but plenty of extension.

The Debut III exhibited plenty of air with most recordings, unraveling quite a bit of detail. It was particularly adept at distinguishing among different instruments in dense recordings, whether it was Francis Poulenc and Jacques Février’s pianos on the former’s Concerto for Two Pianos (LP, EMI ASD 517); or the middle passage of “The Inexhaustible Quest for the Cosmic Cabbage,” from my favorite rock album, the Amboy Dukes’ Marriage on the Rocks/Rock Bottom(LP, Polydor 24-4012), in which Ted Nugent overdubs 12 electric and acoustic guitars, each playing a different line; with the Pro-Ject, I could easily follow each.

The Debut III wasn’t perfect. With other turntables, I’ve heard more ambience and hall sound from one of my favorite contemporary classical works (and the first record composer John Harbison ever played for me), Lukas Foss’s Baroque Variations, with the Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by the composer (LP, Nonesuch 71202). Gerd Zacher’s recording of Ligeti’s Volumina(LP, Candide CE 31009) tests the extreme frequency and dynamic range of a solo pipe organ, and I wasn’t as involved in listening to this disc as I’ve been with other turntables; it left me just a touch cold. Finally, there was a tendency for very densely modulated passages to coagulate and smear a bit through the Debut III, as I heard during the cacophonous tutti passages of “A Jackson in Your House,” from the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Great Black Music(LP, Actuel GET 368), and in the hairier passages of pianist Chick Corea’s solos on ARC, his collaboration with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul (LP, ECM 1009).

But I’m nitpicking. The album that put this turntable’s sound all together for me was Count Basie’s 88 Basie Street (LP, Pablo 2310-901). On “Bluesville,” the lower-register brass and woodwinds emerged from near blackness in silky bloom, as I noticed that Cleveland Estes’ walking bass line was woody and deep without a trace of overhang or coloration. From my notes: “I didn’t realize how great this album is.”

Using the same recordings, I compared the Pro-Ject Debut III with my Rega Planar 3 turntable, fitted with a Syrinx PU-3 tonearm and Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge, whose collective retail value (based on the last available prices) I estimate to be a bit over $2000. The Pro-Ject’s bass definition was almost as clean as that of my reference rig, if maybe just a touch plummy in the midbass, but the Debut III didn’t seem to extend as deeply in the low bass. The ‘tables’ sibilants and high-frequency extension were remarkably close. I felt that my reference ‘table projected a wider, deeper soundstage than the Pro-Ject, with more ambience and room sound. There was a better sense of flow and ease with the more expensive Rega combination; the Pro-Ject sounded relatively more mechanical. Finally, the overall patina of the music had a slightly grainy texture through the Pro-Ject that I didn’t hear through my reference rig.

I then hooked up the Pro-Ject to the Marantz PM5003 integrated and Paradigm Atom v.5speakers to compare this system (ca $1000 without cables or speaker stands) with the Pro-Ject Debut III, Creek Destiny integrated, and Epos M5 speakers (ca $3700). Overall, the entry-level system produced about 75% of the quality of the Pro-Ject–fronted system; there wasn’t as much bass weight or detail, but the sound was still balanced overall, with excellent transients and rich, fairly uncolored timbres.

Summing Up
Suffice it to say that the performance of the Pro-Ject Debut III startled me with the level of musical realism possible at this price. Its shortcomings vs more expensive gear were clearly audible, but the Debut III would be an excellent first turntable to suck an incipient if not quite budding audiophile into the hobby. So listen up, youts: Bag those MP3s and get into vinyl. But don’t be tempted to upgrade the cartridge on this baby—the Ortofon OM 5E is just fine. Instead, take the cash you’ve saved, buy a record-cleaning machine, and hit those used-vinyl stores and yard sales!

Pro-Ject Debut III record player Specifications

Sidebar 1: SpecificationsDescription: Turntable with prefitted arm and cartridge. Dustcover: yes. Nominal speeds: 33, 45rpm (78rpm available as an option). Speed variance: ±0.8%. Wow & flutter: ±0.12%. Signal/noise ratio: 65dB. Tonearm: Pro-Ject 8.6. Effective tonearm length: 8.6″ (218.5mm). Effective tonearm mass: 9.5gm. Overhang: 18.5mm. Supplied counterweight compatible with cartridge mass: 3.5–5.5gm. Optional counterweights available for cartridge masses: 6–9gm, 1.5–3gm. Cartridge: Ortofon OM 5E moving-magnet. Downforce range: 10–30mN.
Dimensions: Lid open: 16.2″ (415mm) W by 14.2″ (365mm) H by 15.8″ (405mm) D. Lid closed: 16.2″ (415mm) W by 4.6″ (118mm) H by 12.5″ (320mm) D. Weight: 12.1 lbs (5.5kg). Platter weight/diameter: 2.7 lbs/10.9″ (1.3kg/280mm).
Finishes: Flat black; add $30 for color. 



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