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How much do you really need to spend on a new turntable? As I've found from our reviews of record players from $100 to $1,000, there are great products at every level -- but like most things in life, paying more will give you more. If you can split the difference and spend around $500, some excellent designs exist out there to tempt any vinyl fan. One of my new favorites is the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO.
I compared the EVO to another turntable in this price range, the Fluance RT85. Both outdo cheaper models with solid build quality and step-up features, but in the end I preferred the Pro-Ject over the Fluance -- it sounded more musical and felt more pleasing to use. The EVO combines excellent playback quality with a selection of extras that you won't see even on some more expensive players like the Rega Planar 3.
The original Debut Carbon has enjoyed accolades ever since its appearance over 10 years ago. The new EVO version ($500, £449 and AU$879) is a worthy update and one of the best ways to spend up on a record player.
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO packs in the audiophile-friendly features. It includes a one-piece carbon fiber tonearm, adjustable feet and an electronic speed selection (no more removing the platter, more on that shortly). In addition, Pro-Ject offers nine different finish options, including forest green and canary yellow. My review sample came in high-gloss red.
The turntable includes a suspension system borrowed from the higher-end X1, supporting a hefty 3.7-pound aluminum platter. The platter has been dampened with TPE (thermoplastic elastomer) lining the edge, which contributes to the turntable's impressive weight. Rapping with a knuckle on the platter still made it resonate however, even with the felt slipmat on, and especially towards the middle. Doing the same thing on the Fluance's acrylic platter didn't ring at all.
In the US the EVO comes pre-mounted with the Sumiko Rainier phono cartridge (little brother to the Olympia), while in the UK and Australia it's fitted with the Ortofon 2M Red. Note that all of my listening tests below were of the US version; the UK and Australia versions will sound different.
Though the carbon fiber tonearm looks spiffy, the fact that it's one piece can make it a little more awkward to use. The finger lift (the jutty-out bit at the end of the tonearm) is a little too flat and broad, making it trickier to grab than other models.
The Pro-Ject deals with speed changes in an innovative way: with a three-way power rocker tucked underneath the plinth. The three positions -- Left 33 ⅓rpm, Center Off and Right 45rpm -- aren't marked however, so you'll need to exercise your muscle memory when turning on the player.
The turntable comes with two cables. One is flat, which you'll probably use all of the time, and the second is a rounded cable for people who have old 78s. The company also includes an admittedly attractive RCA cable in the box, but tweakers may still want to upgrade to a better one later.
Tactility -- removing the record from its sleeve, putting it on the platter, picking up the tonearm, placing the needle in the groove -- is arguably more than half of the experience when you're playing records. The Pro-Ject may not quite feel like true a high-end player, but it was definitely more fun to use than the Fluance.
Compared to the Fluance's plastic-y lever the Pro-Ject's knobbed lever felt a little more like you'd expect in a product costing half a grand. If you haven't used a Pro-Ject 'table before, the way you have to rest the tonearm vertically takes some getting used to -- you can't just swing the arm back over to the right.
When the two turntables were actually spinning records, it was the Pro-Ject that that most closely evoked the spirit of listening to vinyl. It had a relaxed, full presentation that wasn't as tiring as the Fluance could be.
The Ortofon 2M Blue that comes with the Fluance is an exciting-sounding cartridge, and with the right material it can make you want to get up and dance. Compared to the Pro-Ject's stately performance, Velvet Underground by Jonathan Richman sounded like a completely different recording on the Fluance -- bass was deeper, tambourine crisper and there was a greater degree of slapback echo from the right channel.
By the same token the Fluance can sound too forward with some tracks, while the Pro-Ject offers more of a sense of space, which is especially great for big room sounds like Nils Frahm's Spaces. The Pro-Ject enhanced the record's ambient qualities, making the room seem like it extended deep into the space in front of me. The Fluance made the recording sound more detailed but it was also two dimensional -- it seemed to exist only on the plane between the speakers. Spaces is not exactly an edge-of-your-seat kind of recording, so the Pro-Ject's more relaxed approach worked better here.
I heard the Fluance's forwardness again on Nick Cave's Red Right Hand, and here the bass also threatened to become boomy. Unless you have a mellow sounding system, the Fluance RT85 seems like one upgrade too far. The OM10 cartridge in the less-expensive Fluance RT82 is a well balanced cartridge, but the step up to the 2M Blue in the RT85 will be too much for already-bright systems. The Pro-Ject again showed better balance and a finely honed delineation between Cave's baritone and the deep bassline.
I tried my reference Rega Planar 3 with the Ortofon 2M Blue and while it offered a similarly forward balance it was more tempered, not steely like the Fluance could be. The Pro-Ject with its Sumiko Rainier still sounded better, however. And when I switched the Rega's cartridge to the Goldring E3, I again preferred the Pro-Ject, which demonstrates how tightly integrated the EVO's cartridge/turntable combination is.
The Pro-Ject EVO offers excellent playback, looks great and is a lot of fun to use. It's built well and the ability to adjust the feet makes leveling a painless process. The EVO may not be perfect -- the ergonomics of the tonearm take a little getting used to, for example -- but this is nonetheless a great way to get back into vinyl, or to upgrade from a starter table.