Launched in 1991, Pro-Ject Audio Systems has grown to become one of the biggest turntable manufacturers in the world. The Austrian company’s catalog of decks is extensive, running the gamut from affordable entry-level models priced in the hundreds of dollars up to flagship designs that sit comfortably in the five-figure range. Products aside, what makes Pro-Ject interesting is that the company started at a time when CD sales were increasing exponentially and the new format had already replaced both vinyl and cassette tape as the medium of choice for music playback. With hindsight, it’s clear the reports of vinyl’s death were grossly exaggerated. Not only did it survive, but today, once again, records outsell CDs.
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Pro-Ject has just released the Debut Pro turntable. My review sample was an international model, configured with the Pick it Pro cartridge, and sells for $1099 CAD in Canada, and €750 in Europe. In the United States, the Debut Pro comes preinstalled with the Sumiko Rainier cartridge and is priced at $999 (all prices in USD, except where stated).
The original Debut appeared in 1999 and has undergone several updates since then; most notably, with the release of the Debut Carbon, replacing the original all-aluminum tonearm with one constructed with carbon fiber. The Pro sits at the top of the Debut range, befitting of something designed to celebrate an anniversary. Priced several hundred dollars higher than the next-in-line Debut Carbon Evo turntable, one could argue the Pro no longer represents entry level—for someone looking to get into vinyl I’d be more likely to direct him or her to one of the other Carbon models, which are priced lower, before I’d suggest spending a grand just to find out if he or she likes playing records. Then again, why shouldn’t an anniversary edition represent a step above entry level? Besides, a Debut on steroids is an enticing proposition for someone tempted to burrow a little deeper into the high-end rabbit hole.
At first glance the Pro looks similar to its Debut siblings. Look a second longer, however, and there are some big differences. What immediately catches the eye is the jacked tonearm with its handsome, beefy-looking nickel-plated bearing block and counterweight. All the Pro’s aluminum components are treated with a nickel finish, giving them a harder surface and increasing their durability. With the newest Debut, it’s reassuring to know that with its premium components and superior fit and finish it will last for years.
Another notable change on this deck, for the international market, is the all-new Pick it Pro moving-magnet cartridge. Made in Denmark by Ortofon, the Pick it Pro features an elliptical stylus and has an output of 4mV at 1kHz. The recommended load resistance and capacitance are 47k ohms and 150–300pF respectively, and the recommended tracking force is 1.8–2.2 grams. Pro-Ject describes its sound as “lively and robust,” and it’s the perfect companion to the Debut Pro’s 8.6″ one-piece tonearm. The tonearm combines an inner aluminum layer that provides damping with an outer carbon-fiber layer that improves rigidity. Azimuth and vertical tracking angle can be adjusted by loosening two grub screws on the tonearm’s nickel-plated base, so the arm height can be continually fine-tuned.
Prior to the arrival of my review sample of the Debut Pro, I’d never used a carbon-fiber tonearm. The arm on my own turntable is a Thorens-modified Rega RB250, whose basic, all-aluminum design is premised on its iconic big brother, the RB300, which dates back to 1983. Handling the two tonearms couldn’t have been more different. The Pro-Ject’s arm is incredibly light, and it took some practice to get a feel for it. The Rega tonearm is decidedly heavier, and, unsurprisingly, feels sturdier overall. I preferred the Rega’s lever, which felt more robust, although it didn’t take long to adjust to the Debut Pro’s arm. Even after using the Pro-Ject for several weeks, I was amazed, every time I handled it, that the arm almost seemed as if it wasn’t there.
The Pro is a belt-driven turntable whose motor is decoupled from the plinth using a newly developed suspension system. Two belts are supplied—a large flat one and a small round one—that wrap around different-sized pulleys. With the flat belt around the small pulley, it operates at 33⅓ or 45rpm, and speed change is controlled electronically via a small silver toggle switch on the front left of the plinth. The round belt goes around the large pulley to play 78s. The platter is made from die-cast aluminum, into which a thick ring of thermoplastic elastomer has been inserted on its underside to help minimize vibrations. On top, a felt mat is included. As for the plinth, it’s a piece of MDF that’s apparently been hand-painted eight (!) times. On the underside of the plinth there are three substantial, height-adjustable aluminum feet, a vast improvement over the (admittedly far less expensive) Pro-Ject T1 Phono SB turntable I recently reviewed, which offered no such adjustment.
Although I didn’t receive one for this review, the Pro-Ject Record Puck Pro ($99) is another new product being introduced alongside the Debut Pro. Made of aluminum, it is treated with the same nickel finish to match the rest of the deck and has a felt pad on the underside, so it won’t mark your labels. The purpose of a stabilizer such as the Record Puck Pro is to better couple the record to the platter and to help with playback of warped vinyl. I’ve never used one, so I’m not sure how well they work.
Pro-Ject has put together an incredible marketing campaign for the Debut Pro on their website. They’ve included beautiful photos and some video to show off the high quality of this turntable. However, as clichéd as it sounds, the deck looks even better in person. It’s terribly unassuming, which is probably why I didn’t pay it much attention on first arrival. With time, I grew to admire the deck more and more as it sat prominently in my listening room. Perhaps Pro-Ject was on to something by painting it eight times, but even the plinth—an otherwise boring piece of MDF—is rather attractive with its clean matte finish. With its nickel-plated components, the Pro manages to look simultaneously conventional and modern. Much like the T1 Phono SB, the design of the Debut Pro will still look good in 20 years.
I used a Lehmannaudio Black Cube phono stage with the Debut Pro and linked the two using the Pro-Ject Connect it E cable that is included with the turntable. This in turn was connected to a Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amplifier with a pair of generic RCA cables. A set of Ultralink speaker wires terminated in banana plugs sent power to a pair of KEF R11 tower speakers. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner-regenerator.
As I mentioned, Pro-Ject describes the sound of the Pick it Pro cartridge as lively and robust. While I’ve never made a habit of letting a company’s marketing department do my reviewing job for me, it’s tough to deny that’s what the Debut Pro and Pick it Pro bring, sonically. The turntable sounds vibrant and has an energy to its delivery that is captivating. Normally this sort of wow factor wears off after a while, but with the Pro that wasn’t the case, for me. In fact, when I switched back to my own Thorens TD 160 HD turntable, I initially found myself underwhelmed.
Perhaps this is what surprised me most with the Debut Pro. When I reviewed the T1 Phono SB last year and compared it with my own turntable, the Thorens was in another league relative to the Pro-Ject. Given the massive discrepancy in their prices—$399 for the T1 Phono SB versus $2900 for the Thorens—this shouldn’t have been a surprise. With the Debut Pro, however, the gap in performance between it and the Thorens rig wasn’t nearly as big. The Thorens still offered a more detailed, powerful sound, but the Pro was in no way embarrassed by it, an impressive feat given the significant difference in their prices.
For example, listening to the soundtrack of the film Amadeus (LP, A&M Records SP 91001), the dynamic swings of “Confutatis,” from Mozart’s Requiem, were delivered with vigor—the choir sounding especially powerful as it conveyed the sense of urgency and fear. Meanwhile, “Dies Irae” is fierce, driving music; the Debut projected the choir’s intensity with a good sense of scale, while producing a wide soundstage and a tangible sense of depth. Requiem is a wonderfully dynamic—and dramatic—piece of music, and the Pro-Ject conveyed this emotion commendably. I ended up listening to it several times while I had the Debut Pro in my system.
Switching to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (LP, Columbia Records CS 8163), “So What” sounded phenomenal on the Pro-Ject. For lack of a better word, the soundstage was simply believable; the musicians sounding natural as they were drawn in sharp outline at the front of the room. The bright, shiny tone of the saxophone seemed to wander from falling in line with the left speaker to just beyond its outer edge, while the piano was positioned behind it, conveying a palpable sense of depth behind the speakers. The bass was full-bodied and finely detailed, and it helped establish a larger soundstage and a more three-dimensional space at the front of the room. The drums filled out the right side of the soundstage just as the piano had done on the left, and, closing my eyes, I could imagine being there to see this legendary performance being recorded at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City in 1959. Listening to this album, I began thinking that the Debut Pro could be the only turntable most people would ever need.
Moving on to Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on a Hill (LP, Anti- 86741-1), the ambience of “Twilight,” a song set against a backdrop of crickets that makes it sound like it could have been recorded sitting on a porch in the country at, well, twilight, was clearly communicated through the turntable. Once again, the open, spacious sound that was, admittedly, created in a studio was convincingly captured. The doubled vocals and guitar sounded larger than life, while occupying a notably wide and deep soundstage. This wasn’t due to anything the Debut Pro was imposing on the music; rather, the turntable was merely passing along what was on the record. For example, on “The Last Hour,” the vocals and guitar were a bit more scaled down but still managed to be even more spotlit than on “Twilight,” as they popped out more from the mix. All of this was ably revealed by the Pro-Ject. Although I consistently found the turntable to have a spirited, energetic sound, it did a pretty good job of letting the music speak for itself without editorializing too much.
Returning to an album I used in my review of the Pro-Ject T1 Phono SB, I put Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs (LP, Island Records LC 0407) on the aluminum platter. It had been some months since I’d reviewed the T1 Phono SB, and also I’d physically moved the system to another location during that time, so comparisons between the two were difficult at best. However, based on my listening notes, I feel confident saying that this record was at least as enjoyable on the Debut Pro as it was on the T1 Phono SB, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising given it costs more than twice as much. I was impressed with the clarity and openness that I heard on “Clap Hands.” Waits’s spitting pirate drawl was exceedingly clear, almost like the man was in the same room. Once again, the Debut Pro consistently conveyed the energy of whatever was played through it, such as the toe-tapping, infectious rhythms of “Jockey Full of Bourbon.”
On “Time,” also from Rain Dogs, the bass was weighty and warm, adding to the perception of spaciousness in the music. The Debut Pro’s detailed character also meant that the sounds of the strings of the acoustic guitar were precise while the body of the instrument was warm and full like the bass.
Waits’s gravelly baritone is well captured on Rain Dogs, and although it doesn’t overshadow the band, it’s undoubtedly the focal point of the music. It isn’t entirely consistent though, as demonstrated on “Diamonds & Gold” where his voice doesn’t sound as full and lacks the sheer sense of space and presence it has on other tracks. The point here is that the Pro-Ject capably uncovers these differences and gets out of the way to reveal what’s in the grooves.
Cueing up another Waits classic in the form of Alice (LP, Anti- 86632-1-SLE), I was treated to a rich, balanced, and vibrant sound from the violin and cello on “Flower’s Grave.” Meanwhile, the soundstage on “No One Knows I’m Gone” was expansive, with the musicians spread across the room, each one presented such that I could almost see outlines indicating where they were positioned. On the crowd-pleaser “Kommienezuspadt,” the baritone sax steals the show for me, emerging from the back of the soundstage behind the right speaker, only to take center stage and become the central focus of the track. The clean presentation of the Debut Pro with its quiet background made all of this readily audible.
Although the Pick it Pro did a nice job of tracking the grooves in my record collection, it struggled on the tune “Limit to Your Love,” from James Blake’s self-titled debut (LP, Polydor Records B0015443-01), released in 2011. This song features deep bass that becomes almost subterranean. During these passages there was a clear and continual static crackle that could be heard from the right speaker. Initially I thought maybe the record was dusty, so I wiped it off and listened again. The crackle was still there, but once again only showed up when the bass rumbled. Still thinking that it might be the record that was the problem, I played it again on my Thorens TD 160 HD with the recently added Sumiko Songbird cartridge and the static from the right channel was gone. I’m not sure why the Thorens handled this tune more cleanly than the Pro-Ject, but it was likely the cartridge that made the difference. In the Pick it Pro’s defense, the Sumiko Songbird cartridge, which retails for $899, costs almost as much as the Debut Pro turntable and its cartridge together. I should also emphasize that I never heard this problem with anything else that I played on the Debut Pro; nor do I know if the Sumiko Rainier cartridge supplied with the US models would have the same issue.
With the Debut Pro, Pro-Ject Audio Systems has introduced an outstanding product to celebrate the company’s 30th anniversary. Companies often launch flagship products to mark special occasions, but what I like about this turntable is that it’s in keeping with the company’s tradition of making high-quality vinyl playback accessible to the masses.
Although the Debut Pro sits a rung above entry level on the high-end ladder, its asking price seems like a bargain given all that it offers. For the money, one gets a European-made turntable fitted with an excellent cartridge, plus a gorgeous tonearm made from aluminum and carbon fiber, with nickel-plated parts throughout. Furthermore, the Debut Pro offers an excellent platform to experiment with cartridge upgrades and better phono stages to elevate its performance even more, making for a package that could easily serve as the backbone of an analog system for many years. Even for a tweaky audiophile, the Debut Pro is likely the only turntable one would ever need—so recommending it is a no-brainer for me.
. . . Philip Beaudette
- Speakers: KEF R11.
- Phono stage: Lehmannaudio Black Cube.
- Integrated amplifier: Bryston B135 SST2.
- Analog source: Thorens TD 160 HD turntable, Rega Research RB250 tonearm, Sumiko Songbird moving-coil cartridge.
- Speaker cables: Ultralink.
- Power conditioner: ExactPower EP15A.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems Debut Pro Turntable with Pick it Pro Cartridge
Price: $1099 CAD.
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
90 Royal Crest Court
Markham, Ontario L3R 9X6
Phone: (905) 513-7733
9464 Hemlock Lane North
Maple Grove MN 55369
Phone: (510) 843-4500
Fax: (510) 843-7120