Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO Turntable Review
Jay Garrett samples the latest evolution of this analogue best-seller…
Debut Carbon EVO Turntable
AUD $879.00 | NZD $949.00 (All finishes)
Heinz Lichtenegger's Pro-Ject 1 turntable was launched in 1991 and proved an instant sales success thanks to its honest and unpretentious design, decent performance and bargain price tag. Fast-forward eight years later, and the affordable audiophile market welcomed the Pro-Ject Debut. Making its first appearance in 1999, it was designed to be an entry-level turntable at a time where LPs were still called records and music was played on Compact Disc – unless you were a geek already messing around with MP3s. The original deck sported a pressed steel platter, MDF plinth and a bundled Ortofon OM5E cartridge bolted to its aluminium tonearm. This no-frills design rightly won its fair share of praise as well as becoming one of hi-fi's best selling products, ever.
My first Pro-Ject was a bargain 1 Xpression, more-or-less a hot-rodded Debut as it came with a tapered carbon fibre tonearm and 2.2kg aluminium alloy platter while retaining an MDF plinth and plain-yet-attractive styling. Personally, I still love its design as it eschewed what some lead us to believe to be requirements for quality vinyl playback. I'm talking about a suspended subchassis and overly-complex tonearm arrangements that demand hours of pin-point aligning accuracy. If that's your thing, then more power to you – but this deck showed us that there was a larger audience out there who simply wanted to enjoy their LP records…
Why this trip down memory lane? Well, the latest Debut Carbon EVO seems to share more with the 1 Xpression than the original Debut. That said, it does appear that Pro-Ject has been slowly elevating its Debut class turntables from the initial pared-down options to a competitively-priced mid-ranger. Available in black, red or white gloss, our review model came wrapped in a beautiful blue satin finish; other no-cost satin options are black, white, green and yellow, and there's also a classy-looking walnut finish if you so desire. It comes loaded with the very decent Ortofon 2M Red moving magnet cartridge, although USA buyers get a Sumiko Rainier as standard.
In Australia and New Zealand, buyers can also opt for the Debut Carbon Acryl, the same as the Carbon Evo but sporting an Acrylic Platter (AUD $1,059 / NZD:$1,149)
After the swish grown-up finishes, the second thing that grabs your eye is the one-piece 8.6-inch carbon fibre tonearm with a lowish quoted effective mass of 6g, meaning it's perfectly tailored for moving magnet cartridges. The 1.7kg steel platter is acoustically damped by an integrated thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) ring, and its belt is spun by a motor with an improved mounting. I was told that Pro-Ject took inspiration from more advanced TPE damping and high-mass sandwich constructions to come up with a new motor and suspension solution for the Debut Carbon EVO. Speed control comes by way of a rocker switch that flips between off in the centre position and 45 or 33.3RPM at either side.
Pro-Ject says the deck's signal-to-noise ratio is 68dB, with wow and flutter figures of ±0.17% at 33rpm and ±0.15%, at 45 – that's hardly Technics SP-10R territory, but not bad at the price. All in, the Debut Carbon EVO tips the balance at 5.6kg, measures 415x118x320mm (WxHxD) and sits on a trio of heavy-duty metal, height-adjustable damped feet.
One thing that any Pro-Ject owner can attest to is that you can go from unpacking to spinning your first LP in moments. Mercifully for vinyl newbies, the cartridge comes already fitted, so it's a case of slipping the belt around the pulleys and carefully dropping the platter over the spindle. You then add the tonearm bias weights, and Robert is your mother's brother. It even comes with the brand's own Connect-IT E shielded RCA cable and dust cover. Naturally, those inclined to tweak can do so, and should you swap the cartridge for another brand, there are options for adjustment. I dialled in the recommended 1.8g of tracking force for the 2M Red.
As soon as the retro-tinged You Ain't The Problem from Michael Kiwanuka's Danger Mouse-produced eponymously titled third album started, the Debut Carbon EVO welcomed me for an unstrained yet engaging listening session. This sensibly-priced turntable, arm and cartridge combination has a lush midband that's warm without being woolly. Such treatment makes Kiwanuka's already dreamlike soundscapes seem even more ethereal. The British artist's multi-layered tracks also showed the turntable's ability to reveal texture and detail without getting entangled in difficult sections, partly because of the way it presented that soundscape with an impressively expansive vista.
The bundled Ortofon moving magnet is an excellent match for this turntable, as they share a similar temperament and character.
The Pro-Ject deck is also able to dig lots of valuable music out of the groove if you want a more involved listen. Fleetwood Mac's Dreams showed this vinyl spinner's dynamic capabilities off nicely, even though the Debut Carbon EVO might not come over as instantly analytical as Rega's RP2. There was a good weight to the lower frequencies, and a fine line in rhythmic expression was on-show as it tracked bassist John McVie's little skips, stops and passing phrases.
Feed it with a more low frequency-driven track such as Massive Attack's Inertia Creeps, and you soon find that this little Pro-Ject refuses to shy away. Instead, this gutsy deck revelled in supplying a joyous amount of bottom end which soon had my reference Focal Aria 906 loudspeakers bouncing even when fed by the usually even-mannered Naim Nait XS 3. Here it also displayed decent stage depth that comfortably moves it further away from typical budget fare. Bass wasn't as taut as with pricier turntables, but I still got plenty of enjoyment from the tuneful bottom end.
The sense of separation in Paul Simon's Homeless was nothing short of breathtaking for this price point. The record player used that low-frequency richness and clear midband to present this acapella piece in an authentic and enthralling way. The natural timbre of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo singers and the vocal stylings of Simon were well contrasted. This clarity of performance also shone a light on the unit's speed stability, which is noteworthy because I couldn't detect any unwarranted modulation or errant vocal wobbles.
During TalkTalk from A Perfect Circle's Eat The Elephant LP, the upper register was well-defined, and the whole piece had an effortless balance. The musicians got enough elbow-room in a soundstage that easily reached beyond my speakers, so were able to perform without tripping over one another. Later on in the album, the piano-led DLB again relied on the EVO's open midband and easily separated the piano from the closely harmonised synth. This track falls straight into the heavier-hitting Hourglass that enters with a nightclub-esque synth pad before driving forward with upfront bass. The multiple layers of synthesiser caused the Pro-Ject no issue. Instead, the result was a powerful and detailed sound. Even when the mix got loud, the deck was confidently controlled, pinning Maynard James Keenan's vocals centre stage without any signs of distress.
Was it a faultless performance from the Debut Carbon EVO? Well, no. Not quite. To my ears, it doesn't have the greatest midband insight at the price, nor the tightest grip in the bass. Yet it's still a great all-rounder and, unlike some rivals, majors on all the most important aspects of vinyl LP – passion, emotion and fun.
Despite its relative beer-budget price, Pro-Ject's Debut Carbon EVO sounds closer to a mid-level turntable than a super-budget one – and that's its genius. A self-assured sound with no nasties, allied to an easy-going yet engaging personality will win it many fans. Factor in the ease of set-up and use, and if you're in the market for great vinyl value, you simply must hear it.