Debutantes Wear White
Pro-Ject’s Debut Carbon EVO landed on my doorstep in what seemed like mere minutes after I’d been asking Managing Editor Eric Franklin Shook, “They want me to do a turntable review? But why not Dave, or Marc?” Though my serious journey into vinyl has only just begun this year, the Pro-Ject table was the perfect place to start. I’ve had a quick succession of lent tables, cartridges and phono stages in-house in the last few months, and under the careful tutelage of the rest of the PTA team, and some of my friends in LA who are vinyl-cutting engineers, my knowledge has been growing exponentially for all things groovy. I have had vinyl on the brain.
Words by Grover Neville
Pro-Ject’s Debut Carbon EVO is the newest iteration of their most popular turntable, this time with the works added: new motor suspension, height-adjustable damped aluminum feet, a new steel and TPE-damped platter, and a Sumiko Rainier cartridge. This is a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon table taken to a whole new level.
One of the curious things I’ve noticed about hi-fi is a distinct disconnect between price and what I like to call “thinking inside the box.” No, this isn’t a Tony Robbins-style self-help metaphor designed to motivate you to walk over hot coals–we all know alcohol-based aftershave is too popular for that to ever be safe. Thinking inside the box refers to the unboxing experience, and although this table comes in at a light-on-the-sticker-shock price of $499, the unboxing experience beats some of the multi-thousand dollar gear I have in house at the moment.
The packaging came out like an elaborate puzzle—the word unravelling came to mind—and in a seamlessly logical manner. The instructions and plinth on top, then the belt and motor and finally the platter cleverly tucked in the bottom, not in order of height or weight, but in order of assembly. Pro-Ject has crafted an experience which is more IKEA furniture than Lego erector set. I didn’t have to take all the parts out of the box and spread them across the floor to figure out how to put everything together.
Once assembled–a simple process which involves putting on the belt, slipping on the platter, and by far the most difficult part, popping on the platter–the Debut Carbon EVO is ready to rock and roll. Mine came in a very fetching white color, though every color I saw in the catalogue was gorgeous in a distinctly understated way. Muted colors and matte finishes with a grain-free and smooth texture elevated the EVO to something a few notches above your standard deck-style table. The form-factor said familiar, but the fit and finish told me premium. Down to the speed selector buttons, rear RCA jacks and gorgeous carbon tonearm, I had several $700-1000 tables in my house that didn’t feel as reassuringly built as the Pro-Ject.
Belle of the Ball Bearing
Popping on a few of my favorite records immediately revealed one standout trait of the Pro-Ject Carbon EVO. It is dead quiet. Not simply compared to other deck-style tables, but even the skeletal plinths in the Rega or Clearaudio style. Upper treble and midrange came across as exceptionally damped and holographically present and organic. Bass was solid, with less warmth than I would expect from this style of table, and what was present was quite linear. For a turntable of this price, my expectations were exceeded in areas I did not at all expect, areas which normally ask a much higher price and a much fiddlier setup.
My basic iPhone speed tests indicated that the Pro-Ject Carbon EVO was tightly in range, and I didn’t detect any bothersome wow or flutter in my listening with familiar records. The sound was whisper quiet in the high range, with a clarity and detail that rivalled some $1000 tables in my setup. Treble had no hint of either sterility nor of excess warmth, it was much like Goldilocks’ favorite porridge, just right. Midrange, especially upper midrange, wase a very special balance between precision and what many term musicality, but what I think of as transient decay. There was not hardness, nor softness, but merely a smooth and clear decay characteristic with loads of detail and minimal smearing. I was mightily impressed by the 500-5Khz region, there was definite magic happening in my setup, even with drier solid state amplification.
In the low mids and bass is where trouble began though, as I later discovered, not with the Pro-Ject table itself. My initial impressions were of a woofiness and a lower-midrange thickness, a coloration I found altogether unpleasant. Even after swapping out phono stages from the Mola Mola Makua to the warmer, bass-ier Modwright PH9.0 I was a little disappointed at the results. It was less that the bass was thin or inaccurate, it was simply lacking in heft, punch or presence. I, a bit dejected, continued to listen for a day or two and swap out upstream gear.
In a fit of insanity I decided to fit an Audio Technica AT-VM95EN cartridge to the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO. This, my dear readers, is where the story becomes most interesting. Much like the Arthurian legend of the Lady of the Lake, this cartridge swap threw me the fabled blade I needed to strike down the terrible villain of bass-less impressions I had made on the Pro-Jects, well…basslessness.
Although the Audio-Technica is by no means Kardashian-esque, it does have a little bigger bottom than the Sumiko Rainier that was fitted originally. On the flip side, the Rainier was sweeter, juicier and clearer in the highs while also being less bright. Hmmm. With my setup kitted out with tube gear that lent a little extra bass, the Sumiko proved the clear winner, helping to rein in and control any excess thump, while with the AT, things felt overall linear, but less engaging in the high range and without that oh-so-sweet upper mid clarity that the Rainier did. If I had my druthers I’d probably pick a nicer cartridge than either to match.
This, however, is a $500 table we are talking about–including the cartridge. Is plopping on a megabuck cartridge really worth it? For myself, admittedly going into my first winter as a serious vinyl junkie, the answer seems easy. Yes. The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO rewards me with several other, more expensive cartridge swaps courtesy some mastering and cutting lathe friends of mine. VM15’s anyone? Seriously though, I was mightily impressed by the fact that the Pro-Ject kept rewarding me when it seemed that other tables had reached their limits. Different cartridges always benefitted from that whisper quiet high end and upper midrange clarity that I had found so addictive about the sound with the stock cartridge. TPE damping at work, I suspect.
Again, I admit to being a mostly virgin vinyl enthusiast, but what experience and knowledge I’ve been lucky and humbled to absorb from vinyl mastering guys, our very own Dave McNair, and other members of PTA and the hi-fi world, has shown me enough that I feel confident saying the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO offers quite a lot of value for the money. As we head into the chilly months, I’m looking forward to what honestly feels like a hi-fi second puberty. It’s disorienting, emotional, obsessive, and erotic, and losing my turntable virginity was more confounding, less thrilling and placed greater demand on my manual dexterity than I anticipated. Cartridge setup is a task. With all that said, the Pro-Ject has kept the tubes glowing and brought the fun consistently as I journey through the dark arts of vinyl. Winter is coming and I know where I’ll be. Inside with a turntable.