Pro-Ject Audio Systems have rightfully gained a reputation in the market for manufacturing elegant turntables. Their approach is refreshingly simple, with bells and whistles removed in favour of high-quality components delivering the best possible performance at each price-point.
I’ve tested the Pro-Ject Essential II before and was impressed with the performance given the relatively low price. Naturally, when the opportunity came to test out the next model up, I was keen to discover what you get for digging a little deeper into your pocket.
Right out of the box there are a number of obvious material upgrades that make the Debut Carbon feel higher-end. Firstly, the base is thicker and made from MDF instead of particle board (although the new Essential III does feature an MDF board – albeit thinner than the Debut). Secondly, the platter on top is metal instead of particle or MDF board, which ultimately adds weight for smoother rotation. Unlike the Essential range, the belt drive system is contained underneath the platter.
One of the most impressive upgrades is the tonearm, which is made from carbon-fibre — a material usually reserved for much higher-end turntable offerings. The carbon tonearm is similarly light in weight to the aluminum Essential II/III tonearm, only more rigid and robust with better resistance to resonance. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the tonearm comes factory fitted with an Ortofon 2M red cartridge worth £95 (or $99) at the time of writing alone.
Add into the mix a more sophisticated belt drive design boasting a decoupled motor, and it’s clear to see this is a turntable with some impressive specs while retaining an affordable price tag.
How does it sound?
For the playback test, we pulled out a copy of Alt-J’s first album, An Awesome Wave. This album has some great dynamics for a modern record with plenty of texture and detail. Right up front, the Debut Carbon offers a rich, impressive sound with a solid, strong bass and plenty of crisp high-frequency detail. The sound is confident and bold with a little more finesse than anything from the essential range. On quieter, sparse musical arrangments, the Debut’s improved speed precision really shines through, and to my ears, there is much less in the way of subtle frequency variation that can sometimes stand-out during quieter passages. The tracking overall is solid as a rock, with all the components working well together with impressively low distortion and great detail at this price point.
Make no mistake, the Debut Carbon is a seriously impressive turntable for the price. First introduced in the 1990’s, Pro-Ject has steadily improved the model over time, and while there’s undoubtedly now a lot more competition, the Debut Carbon still holds up as one of the best affordable turntables.
If you’re in the market for your first turntable and you think this might be more than just a casual hobby, I’d strongly suggest saving your pennies for the Debut Carbon over the Pro-Ject Essential. The Essential range turntables are great, but the Debut Carbon just has the edge and will last you much longer before you’ll start getting the itch to upgrade.
If I were to pick fault, it would be the slight stiffness of the dust cover, which can feel a little difficult to lift without taking the base with it, but that really is nitpicking. A little (carefully applied) WD40 would fix this in no time. The Debut Carbon represents superb design and performance at this price-point. It’s a true modern classic.