By Todd Whitesel
Behind the scenes of vinyl’s re-emergence and resurgence have been a number of companies that have refused to give up on the medium, pushing onward with new turntables, cartridges and accessories to ensure that we record lovers have an enjoyable playback experience. For those who put their turntables away back in 1984 and stuck it out with CDs, there’s a whole new world of vinyl playback gear to explore. On the other hand, if you held true to your LPs but your old ’table ain’t what it used to be, the news is even better. Whether you want to get back into vinyl or just see how good your records can sound on a well-designed turntable, Sumiko Audio has a very appealing solution.
Sumiko Audio is a distributor and manufacturer of high-end audio equipment and the sole U.S. distributor of Pro-Ject Audio Systems, whose line includes seven turntables and a variety of accessories for vinyl playback. Pro-Ject makes it easy — and affordable — for the newbie to join the vinyl ranks as well as help rejuvenate the collections of longtime aficionados. I recently was sent one of their entry-level turntables, the Debut III, and their Phono Box II phono preamplifier, for review. Pro-Ject actually offers three versions of the Debut III: the standard version in matte black; a multicolored version available in blue, yellow, green, piano gloss black, red, silver, gloss white or champagne; and the Debut III USB, with an onboard phono preamplifier, analog-to-digital converter and USB port to facilitate recording directly into a computer’s hard drive.
I received the Debut III multicolor model finished in a gorgeous, glossy red, which contrasts nicely with the black turntable platter and tonearm. Each Debut III comes with a pre-mounted Ortofon OM-5E moving magnet phono cartridge, a well-respected cartridge that retails for around $55. A dust cover is also supplied.
The Phono Box II is one of Pro-Ject’s micro-components: The silver-and-black beauty is barely larger than a deck of cards, measuring just 4 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches and weighing 1 lb. 4 oz. The little amp can accommodate moving magnet and moving coil cartridges via a switch on the unit’s back panel and comes equipped with gold-plated RCA phono jacks and outboard power supply. Its small size makes it easy to fit in with any setup.
Out of the box
Pro-Ject has taken nearly every step to minimize the setup of the Debut III. With the cartridge already installed, the most difficult task is out of the way. The deck comes partially disassembled, requiring very minor assembly out of the box. After removing two transport screws from the side of the top motor mount, all that’s required is fitting the drive belt around the hub and motor pulley.
The hub has two grooves, the top being for 33 rpm playback, the lower groove for 45s. Simply place the belt in the desired groove. The steel platter fits over the spindle, and a supplied felt mat fits on the platter.
The next two steps — adjusting the cartridge downforce with the counterweight and adjusting the anti-skating force — need better directions than those in the instruction manual, which are too vague for me. I found this Youtube video very helpful, particularly if you’ve never tried to loop the anti-skating weight’s thin filament into the stub groove at the back of a tonearm. It’s a bit like tying a fishing knot with very thin line. But those are minor quibbles, and after getting the dust cover in place on the hinge prongs, I had the Debut III ready to go in less than an hour. The turntable has line outputs and ground wire hard-wired at the back, so you’ll just need to connect the left and right channels to their respective outputs — in this case to the Phono Box II’s left and right ins. Then, connect the cable supplied with the Phono Box to its respective left and right outs; feed the free ends into an empty port on your amplifier or receiver, plug the outboard supply into the back of the turntable and you’re ready to spin a record — well, almost. Make sure the Phono Box’s switch is set to moving magnet cartridge and the the turntable is on a level and stable surface. The Debut’s four padded feet provide built-in damping. Just keep it out of harm’s way from things such as direct sunlight, heat vents and the like.
The Pro-Ject Debut III couldn’t be easier to use, but it is a manual-operating turntable, requiring that a user turn on the power, place the tonearm to the desired location, and remove it when a record is done playing. Oh, my. Simply place a record on the platter, turn on the Debut at the switch located on the plinth’s lower side, front left, lift the tonearm with the armlift and set it on the LP.
Before I share some words on my listening experience, I’ll note that the Debut III multicolor sells for $379 and the Phono Box II for $159. Frankly, I was expecting the Debut to have a far less robust build than it does, but it’s a solid, well-engineered turntable with great looks. The finish is very striking, which makes it a visual treat, as well. At 14 pounds, the Debut has some heft, and the dust cover is, again, more than I expected — nothing flimsy about it.
One hotly contested topic in the audiophile world is break-in. Does a component need a certain degree of “warm-up” before it starts giving best results? I put the question to Michael Fremer, senior editor of Stereophile magazine and noted vinyl guru. He told me, “There is some bearing break-in after which it gets a bit quieter, but the biggest break-in is for the cartridge, which takes about 40 hours of play.” So those of you expecting miracles from the start need to be patient and let the cartridge settle in.
The Byrds’ 1968 classic The Notorious Byrd Brothers was brought to life again a couple years back by Sundazed Records, in mono no less. Hearing this recording through the Debut gives an appreciation for Chris Hillman’s underappreciated bass playing, whose lines are agile and clear.
Rhino Records’ 180-gram reissue of Van Morrison’s Moondance continues to make its run through my system. I was particularly taken by the saxophones on “Caravan,” which sound almost live through the Debut III, as if the horn players are going to step out from the speakers and into the listening area.
One of the hottest recordings in the audiophile world is Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen. I happened across a near-mint copy at a thrift store and like to break it out for unsuspecting friends and listen to their response. My favorite cut on the album is “Joan Of Arc,” where Warnes is joined by Cohen. The recording has a spaciousness and depth that have to be heard to be appreciated. Cohen’s low, almost grumble, vocal is haunting played against Warnes. Also notable is Vinnie Colaiuta’s drumming and drum sound, here. As I suspected, the song sounded superb played through the Debut, whose greatest strength seems to be getting into the grooves and digging out the nuances as well as capturing the natural decays of voices and instruments. You’ll hear more of everything in each recording.
Another longtime favorite record is Uriah Heep’s Demons And Wizards. I own several copies and played them all through the Debut III. Whether it was the 180-gram Earmark reissue or my original Bronze Records pressing, I heard dozens of little details that aren’t so much buried in the arrangements as previous equipment of mine was not capable of such extraction. Hearing the sinister laughter that bubbles up on “Rainbow Demon” is one of many subtleties that came to life through the Debut III.
My phono preamplifier for the last several years has been Parasound’s Zphono, a semi-compact unit for which I paid $125 and which goes for about $200. The Zphono has a reputation as a budget amp with performance beyond its price tag. I went back and forth between the Zphono and the Phono Box II and came away liking them both — a lot. Each offers clean, detailed sound. The Phono Box II has excellent mid-range, while the Zphono seems a tad stronger with bass. Flip a coin, and you’d do well with either. At its price, the Phono Box II is very competitive.
The Debut III turntable surpassed my expectations at every level. I’m sure it can be made even better with an upgraded cartridge. The Phono Box II pre-amp offers performance that belies its diminutive build and will have you scratching your head wondering how such a little box can bring forth such big sound. If these two products represent Pro-Ject’s entry-level phono gear, I’d love to hear one of the company’s mid-range or upper-end pieces. Until then, both the Debut III and Phono Box II are excellent values and highly recommended. Try ’em, and you’ll likely be hooked or re-hooked on records forever.