Pro-Ject Debut III record player

In the January 2010 issue of Stereophile I gushed effusively about the $450 Marantz PM5003 integrated amplifier. Not only was I impressed with the sound, build quality, and features of this very affordable component, but, intrigued by how it might be combined with other gear to build a complete entry-level system for about a thousand bucks, I began to ponder other entry-level components that might nicely complement it. My goal here, of course, is to inspire a new generation of young audiophiles. I felt a turntable would be a good place to start.

Even Michael Fremer is 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, the bassist in my jazz quartet, Attention Screen. To my surprise, his Overcast Radio release in the Dubstep/Grime genre, "Midnight Sun/Vendetta" (45rpm single, Surface Tension STNSN002), is available on vinyl and as an MP3 download, but not on CD. I was recently discussing the surge in vinyl demand among our youts with Josh Bizar, of audio and music retailer Music Direct, who sees the potential for future revenue in this development. In his words, "Young people are buying entry-level turntables, and someday they may actually have jobs."

So I decided to review Pro-Ject's Debut III turntable ($349), 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's Continuum 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.

Pro-Ject Audio Systems
US distributor: Sumiko, Inc.
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 843-4500