Pro-Ject Debut III record player Page 2

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's Continuum (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.5 speakers 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!

Footnote 1: Connors, my favorite jazz guitarist, is a greater influence on my piano playing than any pianist.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
US distributor: Sumiko, Inc.
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 843-4500