Pro-Ject’s first turntable, the aptly named ‘1’ launched the company to high acclaim in 1991, when vinyl was rapidly fading into obsolescence in the eye of the general consumer. A strange time to start manufacturing turntables you might think. But the foresight of founder Heinz Lichtenegger is, in hindsight, rather smart, given the massive resurgence in the format.
By 1999 when the company was firmly established with almost a decade of products under its belt, the £109 Debut range was introduced, marking an important landmark in the company’s history. Though earlier ranges still live on in name and technological evolutions have come several times over, and hundreds of models both at the lower and upper ends of the market have come and gone since. But it was the Debut that arguably put Project on the map, as it became something of a gold-standard reference and remains a constant in the mid-budget record player arena.
The Debut line improved incrementally over the coming decade until 2012 when the Debut Carbon brought technology from some of Pro-ject’s higher-end models to the lineup. Not least of which was the carbon fibre tonearm, an extremely stiff and lightweight single-piece arm tube with integral headshell that brought with it excellent resonance control. There were platter upgrades too, and later models with inbuilt electronic speed control, phono stages and USB analogue to digital conversion hardware.
The next evolution of the Debut range is now upon us, nearly 20 years after the first Debuts rolled off the production line. The aptly named Debut Carbon EVO evolves the Debut Carbon line with the latest premium materials and a range of nine plinth finishes in satin, high gloss and even walnut veneer. The complete complement of finishes are high-gloss black, red and white, and satin black, white, gold & yellow, green, steel blue and a walnut veneer.
The Debut Carbon EVO (the Carbon hereafter) is a traditionally-designed manual turntable. Its plinth comprises a rectangular slab of MDF in your chosen finish, the fibreboard material chosen for its anti-resonance properties. Various routings conceal wires and screws beneath, and the bearing and motor plates on top resulting in a neat and clean aesthetic. A hinged dust cover is also included.
The drive system comprises an in-house designed and manufactured AC drive motor with an onboard frequency generator to facilitate electronic speed control. It appeared from my testing that at 33RPM at least, the electronics ramped up the motor speed at startup for a faster startup time before dropping back to the correct speed. Irrelevant in listening of course, but an attention to detail nonetheless.
The motor is mounted via plate damped with TPE isolation rubber, effectively absorbing unwanted vibration that may otherwise be transmitted through the plinth. This is somewhat effective though vibration is amplified by the dust cover, the microphonic impact of which makes the motor audible up close. With the dust cover removed one must have an ear to the plinth to hear any vibration, though it is there.
The speed control electronics sit in an enclosure beneath and offer electronic switching between 33.3 and 45RPM with the included flat drive belt set on the upper part of the drive machined aluminium pulley. The Carbon can play 78s too, though doing so requires you switch to the included thinner drive belt, installed around a second machined location on the pulley. You then run the deck at 45RPM, and the increased diameter of the pulley gives you 78RPM. It’s nice to see this feature included, especially as there is a drop-in replacement 3-mil stylus to track 78s with the factory-fitted 2M Red cartridge.
The plastic subplatter remains the same as prior models and rides in a stainless steel bearing with a bronze bushing. It’s smooth and quiet with minimal resistance in rotation. Supported by the subplatter is the main platter of steel construction with an added TPE rubber damping ring on its underside, topped by an included felt mat.
Rated specifications are 0.17% and 0.15% wow and flutter for 33RPM and 45RPM speeds respectively, though no reference is given to determine the measurement standard used to obtain these figures. Speed drift is rated at 0.50% and 0.60% for 33 and 45RPM respectively, again with no given reference. And also without a reference is the quoted signal to noise at -68dB.
The turntable sits on three large and very nicely machined two-part aluminium feet, with M6 threads captive in the plinth making them fully height adjustable, giving at least 10 mm of safe adjustment range. This makes it easy to get the turntable perfectly level which you should for best performance.
Turning to the arm and we find the same 8.6-inch single-piece carbon fibre arm tube with integral headshell and finger lift as before. The arm offers fully adjustable overhang at the headshell and adjustable azimuth (the vertical alignment of the stylus in the groove) at the bearing base. This gives far greater scope for cartridge upgrades than lower-end decks in Pro-Ject’s range. Though all can be upgraded, most are preconfigured to their reinstalled cartridge and provide little room for adjustment which in turn limits the weight and stylus position of the cartridges you can fit. This is not so with the Carbon, which is more flexible in the available choice of suitable future upgrades.
Already aligned from the factory are one of two preinstalled cartridges, depending on the region in which the turntable is purchased. UK models and probably other European models too get an Ortofon 2M Red in line with previous Debut models. The 2M Red (a £90 retail value if purchased separately) is a moving magnet cartridge equipped with a bonded elliptical stylus. Users have a simple upgrade path at a later date by switching out the stylus for the 2M Blue stylus which brings a nude-mounted Elliptical tip as a drop-in replacement without the need to re-align the cartridge itself.
It’s not a secret that I am no fan of the 2M Red. I find it a below-average tracker with a tendency to splatter and distort unless the setup is impeccable, and even then its high-frequency ability leaves an awful lot to be desired. I find it is easily shown the door by other cartridges below its retail price and thrashed by some equivalently priced alternatives. On its own, I would never recommend it as being value for money nor a worthwhile investment.
Plus, it has one of the worst stylus guard designs I’ve ever encountered, whereby the tiny stylus guard clips to the rear of the stylus assembly by a fragile plastic clip that weakens each Time the guard is used. My review sample had some miles under its belt and the clip on the stylus guard had given up the ghost, causing the guard to fall off in shipping. The stylus was wrecked as a result. A new stylus (and cover) were supplied. But if you buy one of these, take care not to dislodge that guard as you remove the packing.
With all that said, as an included cartridge the 2M Red can be ‘good enough’, certainly to get you started. It’s better than no cartridge at all, and for some can be a perfectly adequate listening experience until they experience something better. It tracks at a nominal 1.8 grams so won’t noticeably wear your records, and despite its less than stellar tracking ability it’s reasonably forgiving of worn, dirty or otherwise less than perfect vinyl.
I will begrudgingly admit too that the 2M Red is, at least in theory, a great match for the Carbon’s arm. The resonance frequency works out to around 9.61Hz, which is a whisker away from the commonly accepted 10Hz. In practice, the 0.39Hz difference would make no difference.
Back to the Carbon, but continuing on the cartridge theme for a moment. It’s worth noting that installing a moving coil cartridge is a bad idea. The steel platter is ferris, and the strong magnets of a moving coil cartridge will find this a most attractive proposition. So attractive in fact that they are likely to come together with surprising force, and with complete disregard for the stylus and cantilever which will inevitably be damaged in the battle between magnet and rubber suspension.
Steel is used due to its cost to weight ratio which allows a heavier platter to be constructed with a higher inertial mass, and thus a higher flywheel effect than would be achievable using aluminium or a combination of materials for the same price. It is one of the compromises that is made to achieve the Debut’s selling price. It’s not an ideal platter material not only due to its ferris properties but also its resonance and tendency to ‘ring’ at frequencies well within the audio band. If you fit an acrylic platter upgrade you’re good to go, but the stock platter and a moving coil is a non-starter.
The arm’s effective length is 218.5 mm with a specified 18.5 mm overhang and an effective mass of just 6 grams putting it into ultra-low mass territory. The arm rides on sapphire bearings within a nicely machined bearing housing and is wired with “high-purity” copper wiring from the cartridge pins to a metal shielded termination box mounted beneath the plinth.
That box provides a pair of RCA jacks through quality gold-plated connectors and a grounding terminal. Pro-Ject’s low capacitance, fully shielded and semi-balanced’, Connect-It E phono cable is included in the box.
So too are a 15V universal DC power supply with a selection of adapters for country-specific outlets, the two aforementioned belts and an adapter for records that have been ‘dinked’ and have a large centre hole. You also get an Allen key should you wish to remove the pre-mounted Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, a paper alignment protractor to facilitate mounting a new cartridge and some documentation.
The turntable is well packaged with the turntable itself and the dust cover wrapped in individual cloth bags. The subplatter comes preinstalled, held in place by a triangle of cardboard to prevent oil spilling from the bearing should the subplatter fall free.
Setup is about as simple as it gets. The included flat belt is looped around the subplatter and then to the smaller flat recess at the top of the pulley. The platter can then be situated atop the subplatter and the mat added to complete the drive system.
The arm uses a traditional counterweight with a graduated adjustable dial. The included counterweight is suitable for cartridges weighing up to 8.5 grams. You simply slide the counterweight onto the rear stub with the marked adjustment dial facing forwards and rotate it back and forth until the arm floats in free air between the rest and the platter with the stylus protector removed.
You then align the zero of the dial with the anti-skate prong above while being sure not to move the counterweight itself. With the 0 mark aligned, rotate the counterweight inwards to set the recommended 1.8 grams of tracking force for the Ortofon 2M Red, or 2 grams for the Sumiko Rainier cartridge depending on your country of origin.
The arm employs an anti-skate system whereby a hanging weight is looped through a supporting stem and hooked onto the rod at the rear of the tonearm, just above the counterweight stub. The hanging weight provides the needed sideways pressure to counteract the centripetal force that tries to pull the stylus inwards towards the record centre as it spins, thereby keeping the stylus centred within the v-shaped groove.
I find this method of anti-skate primitive and best left in the last century. But it does work and it’s easy to set up. For both of the pre-installed cartridge options, the thread of the weight must be looped over the central of the three slots in the weight support rod. The thread is extremely thin and getting the tiny loop over the rod can be a challenge, but with care and a steady hand, or in my case luck and a lot of foul language, you’ll get there.
Finishing the setup is then only a matter of connecting the turntable to power and suitable amplification, that being a moving magnet phono stage. The 2M red for all its faults is a forgiving cartridge when it comes to setup and loading. Those new to the hobby won’t have any trouble getting it to track as well as it’s ever going to, and it should partner well with any amplification that it is likely to encounter.
The dust cover attaches via the two preinstalled hinges. These can be adjusted to increase or decrease tension and do a fine job of stopping the cover falling suddenly, which would inevitably cause the turntable to skip. The cover lacks the typical rubber bumpers on its two front corner though with hard plastic in their place, which could mark the plinth if the cover is dropped. This is a minor gripe but most dust covers have had plinth protection for years and contrary to audiophile expectation some of us do keep the dust cover installed because if you situate your turntable and speakers correctly you shouldn’t hear a difference.
Once everything assembled the Carbon is traditional yet smart in looks. The power switch has moved to the underside at the front left corner à la latest Rega. Clicking the switch to the left activates 33.3 RPM and to the right activates 45, or 78 with the optional belt fitted. The centre position stops the motor. Like most belt drives, significant belt and motor wear can be spared if you change records with the platter spinning. I encountered no problems doing this on the Carbon, where some belt drive turntables, particularly cheaper ones can stall or throw the belt off the pulley if you so much as brush the platter while it spins. The drive system also has sufficient torque to allow a record brush to be used.
Build quality is good across the board with no play in the central bearing or the interface between platter and subplatter. There is a little play in the arm bearing and this, coupled with the unusually low mass of the arm itself lends the arm a more delicate feel than the RB220 of Rega’s equivalent Planar 2 or even the arm of Super OEM turntables like the AT-LP5X.
The Pro-Ject arm is however perfectly well made and free moving in all directions. I never had any tracking issues, nor malfunction of the arm lift or drifting of any of the adjustments made during setup. This is a ‘set it and forget it’ arm, and while it probably won’t take the abuse that a Rega might if the turntable is to be subjected to such mishandling you’d probably best consider something automatic, or go down a digital route as a manual record player probably isn’t for you.
Turning to the sound and I ran the new stylus through a pile of records before any serious listening took place. When I settled in for a proper listen I first spun the “pure analogue cut” edition of Queen’s ‘News Of The World’. I’m usually quick to scorn many so-called ‘audiophile’ album releases and ‘super deluxe’ editions, as more often than not they’re purely ploys to part fools (or genuinely devoted fans) from their money. But when it comes to Queen I’m too easily parted from silly amounts of cash and this pressing was no different. At least it was worth it, as it’s one of the best pressings of the album out there in my opinion.
It is a hot pressing though and quickly gets the better of any badly-behaved cartridge or poorly matched arm/cartridge combination. The Carbon was able to give enough detail to easily pick out the occasional dropouts in the 40-year-old analogue masters. But when ‘We Are The Champions’ reaches its heights things become messy with distortion in the highs and loose bass with a hint of mis-tracking evident.
It’s not all bad news though. Feeling the Carbon might not favour classic rock but instead something a little easier on the ear, I pulled Damien Rice’s ‘O’ from the shelf. The album opens with the track ‘Delicate’ which is exactly as promised by the title; but does build to a crescendo during which the Carbon demonstrated impressive imaging ability and portrayed accurately the room acoustics in which the instruments and vocals were recorded, along with perhaps a reverb effect or two. There was plenty of detail throughout in the acoustic guitar, most of which is played with a finger-picking technique whereby the sound of the fingers and knuckles occasionally contacting the top of the guitar’s body was apparent.
Suffice it to say then that the Carbon is best suited to a more chilled taste, rather than rock, metal or anything heavier. It seems to have a lot of bloom in the lower bass and lower mids, the culprit of which I struggled to ascertain. I did wonder if this might be responsible for the subtle mis-tracking I observed above. Given the theoretically ideal resonance figure afforded by the cartridge and arm combination, I simply chalked it up to the 2M Red and moved on though it could be a characteristic caused by resonances within the arm itself, hence e a-composite of carbon fibre and aluminium being used on higher-end models. Whatever the cause may be, it means the Carbon suits acoustic and vocal-oriented music, and Jazz of course, more than it does rock, metal, or loud mainstream pop.
I’ve seen mention of the original Carbon models and Debut predecessors suffering excessive rumble. I didn’t have any issues with audible motor noise in listening, though it’s certainly true that the motor can be heard from a foot or so away in a quiet room with the dust cover closed. The motor noise doesn’t survive the journey to the stylus, besides the faintest note if you raise the volume to an obscene level and your speakers or headphones can reproduce 50Hz accurately. The Carbon is not the quietest turntable but any motor noise is largely drowned out by vinyl roar, which is mostly a byproduct of the choice of cartridge and can also be attributed somewhat to the centre bearing and perhaps the tonearm bearing.
Like any product, the Carbon has its pros and its cons. On the one hand, it’s a smart and well-finished turntable with mostly excellent build quality across the board. The drive system is solid with a smooth-running motor, electronic speed control with an AC regenerator on board, equivalent to many of the high-cost external power supplies you might buy for a higher-end deck. A dust cover shouldn’t be taken for granted and is a welcome inclusion and the isolating feet befit something much more expensive.
On the other; play in the arm bearing and primitive anti-skate let down an otherwise cleverly engineered arm. And the choice of platter material seems an odd one to me, and limits the upgrade path to cartridges that the arm is otherwise more than capable of supporting.
For me the real letdown is unfortunately the supplied cartridge. Try as I might I can neither see nor hear what so many do in the 2M Red. It lets the Carbon down with lacklustre tracking and a loping, blundering bottom end becomes a splattering mess when things get tough. It may suit your taste in music, or you may have better luck with it than I. But I’d rather see a price reduction and a plastic protractor in the box, with some comprehensive instructions guiding first-timers through the process of fitting something better.
Because when you do fit something more competent the Carbon comes into its own. It may have its foibles but so does every audiophile-inspired manual belt drive turntable regardless of cost. But it is a solid turntable capable of great performance.
I had the same issue with the VPI Nomad. It came supplied with the 2M Red. I always had inner groove distortion despite hours of tweaking it. I upgraded to the 2M Bronze and it was like night and day. Not only was there a noticeable improvement in the overall sound but the inner groove distortion is no longer an issue.
For me the bronze is where the 2M range starts. Still beaten by Audio-Technica’s equivalent (and cheaper) offerings but a great cartridge nonetheless.