Alas – the impossible happened. My faithful, heavily modded Technics 1200 is no more. The culprit? The internal power supply – more specifically, a shorted electronic component which in turn caused irreparable damage to the motor.
The Technics SL-1200 is arguably one of the most popular, widely used, and respected turntables ever made. And, since it was discontinued in 2010, second-hand prices have begun rising dramatically. Not wanting to pay the price for a second hand 1200 to repair mine, I began looking at other options.
Enter the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon – the latest in Pro-Ject’s Debut line of affordable, great-value turntables, the Debut Carbon is a minimalist turntable featuring a carbon fibre tonearm, low-noise, low-vibration motor, and Ortofon’s 2M Red cartridge. And that’s if you opt for the basic model – upgrade to the Esprit for an extra £100, and you get an acrylic platter and electronic speed control – all for £425… Is this too good to be true? let’s find out.
Packaging And Setup
The turntable comes partly disassembled, neatly packed into a strong, fairly large box for safe transport. Lift the flaps and you’re greeted by a bag containing the accessories – manuals, anti-skate weight, RCA leads, etc. The dust cover is next – held by 2 cardboard supports and wrapped in a cloth bag to protect the finish.
Next comes the plinth – sitting snugly in 2 foam blocks. Again wrapped in a cloth bag, with a piece of cardboard keeping the sub platter from falling out and spilling bearing oil over rest of the package. Last but not least come the power supply (with a selection of plug adapters which can be used depending where you’re located in the world), and the main platter.
Setting up the turntable is, supposedly, relatively simple. After installing the belt and the main platter, the tonearm needs to be balanced and the correct tracking force set using the supplied counter weight. Anti-skating comes in the form of a tiny weight, hung from a peg at the back of the arm from a piece of fishing line.
This is my first major gripe with this turntable – the anti-skating is terrible. Sure, it works – but that little weight constantly falls off and is a nightmare to reattach. A slider, like that found on Rega arms, would be much preferred – and given that this is a turntable aimed more at the casual consumer, I’m surprised Pro-Ject didn’t opt for this approach.
The final step is to attach the cables (the power and RCA with its associated ground) to both the turntable and your amp/phono stage. Once done, you’re good to go.
Being a minimalist turntable, usage is as simple as it gets. If you opt for the standard Carbon, changing speeds is done manually by removing the main platter and moving the belt between 2 pulleys on the motor. However, opt for the Esprit, and speed control is electronic – controlled by a single button on the plinth. Press the button once and the platter spins at 33.3 RPM – a further press and you’re on 45. Holding the button in for 2 seconds switches the motor off.
For 78 playback, you’ll have to change to the included 78 belt, and set the speed controller to 45RPM. If you intend to play 78s, it’s worth noting that a 78 stylus is not supplied – Ortofon’s Stylus78 stylus is a drop-in replacement that works with the included cartridge.
The tonearm is completely manual – no automatic start or lift here. I was impressed with the tonearm lifter – when dropped, the tonearm lowered gently onto the record and there was no tendency to move from the position the arm was in when it was dropped.
Upon spinning my first record – Skid Row’s ’18 and life’ – I noticed significant inner groove distortion. In fact, it was enough to make the record unlistenable. Strange, I thought – the record is mint, the turntable is level, and all adjustments are correct. It turned out the pre mounted Ortofon 2M Red cartridge was misaligned from the factory. Using the supplied alignment protractor, i re-aligned the cartridge and things improved – slightly. Even the azimuth (the vertical angle of the stylus in the groove) was off and required adjustment.
While once correctly setup the sound did improve, I was still left unimpressed to say the least. The first thing I noticed was an intrusive low-level rumble that seems to be a common issue with Pro-Ject tables – even their higher end models. The background noise was clearly audible during quiet passages, and it was noticeable even during louder passages. Reoiling the sub platter bearings helped a little – though much of this sound is caused by the motor, and the method used to mount the motor to the plinth. With the platter spinning, the resonating hum of the motor was clearly audible at close range – amplified by the plinth itself.
The second issue was excessive inner groove distortion. No amount of alignment or adjustment could shake this distortion. As is to be expected with a standard pivoting tonearm, the distortion was more audible towards the centre of the record – however, here it was so evident it rendered the last tracks of an album almost unlistenable.
Issues aside, the Debut Carbon put in a performance in line with its price tag. I’m in no doubt that this is in part thanks to Ortofon’s 2M red cartridge – a fantastic budget cartridge that offers great sound staging, 3-dimensional imaging and the ability to convey the lush, warm sound of vinyl. Spin Roger Taylor’s ‘Fun On Earth’, and the guitar solo during ‘Say It’s Not True’ hung in the gap between the speakers, with just the right amount of reverb. Bass was tight, too – the drums in ‘One Night Stand’ hitting low and hard.
Switch to Queen’s ‘A Day At The Races’, and the Debut Carbon delivers the piano in ‘You Take My Breath Away’ perfectly. It struggles when the harmonies get tough – that inner groove distortion becoming hugely prevalent.
Speed was steady at both 33.3 and 45 – even during sustained piano notes, there was no noticeable wow/flutter. However, when running at 45RPM, the motor resonance becomes an even bigger problem – the frequency of the motor noise rising due to the increased speed of the motor. This further increased the rumble during playback – coupled with distortion this made listening to 45 singles an unpleasant experience.
This is a difficult summary to write – having read the rave reviews of both this and other Pro-Ject turntables, I expected more. Much more. What i got for my £425 was a “plug and play” turntable with an incorrectly aligned cartridge and a bad case of rumble, both of which factors that bring out the worst in the vinyl medium. To add to that, I found myself having to reinstall the anti-skate weight after every few records – that is, once I’d retrieved it from its favourite landing spot in the cable mess at the back of my hi-fi rack.
Sure, the Debut Carbon brings some great features to the table – carbon fibre tonearms are often reserved for luxury high end turntables, not budget offerings. And if, like me you have an extensive singles collection, electronic speed switching is a lifesaver. But features are nothing without high quality sound to back them up – and, in my experience, Pro-Ject’s Debut Carbon needs a lot of improvement in this area.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the motor on my Debut Carbon developed a rattly bearing after just 2 weeks. So it’s back to the dealer with the Carbon, and the search for the perfect budget turntable continues. Until the next time…