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Pro-Ject Debut Carbon review: Pro-Ject Debut Carbon USB turntable

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System

In this highly digital age, I am going to assume a relative lack of familiarity with turntable terminology. Old hands, forgive me.

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8.0

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon

Pricing Not Available

The Good

High-quality audio performance. Excellent built-in phono preamp. USB connection for recording via computer. Fine looking.

The Bad

Poor documentation. Default Windows USB Audio Device drivers make wrong settings. Identifies as both a USB input and output.

The Bottom Line

The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon USB turntable provides very high-quality vinyl playback and useful digital transfer of vinyl to computers, but is let down by inadequate documentation.

Here it is in 2013, and I'm looking at a turntable, the main home entertainment signal source device from the late 19th century until the late 1980s. They haven't disappeared, and are indeed making a modest comeback if we can judge by the reappearance of "phono" inputs on mid-priced home electronics.

Just as the CD was cementing its dominance in 1990, the Austrian firm Pro-Ject Audio Systems started building turntables for vinyl playback, taking advantage of (then) low-cost manufacturing in (then) Czechoslovakia. It has a reputation for producing audiophile-quality turntables at reasonable prices.

Now for some real turntable nitty gritty.

The Debut series is a step above entry level, and has recently been enhanced with an improved suspension on its motor to reduce noise, and the use of a tone arm with a carbon tube. That is said to increase rigidity while reducing mass, allowing the arm to better follow the grooves on vinyl disks. It comes with an Ortofon OM10 cartridge pre-fitted. This is a moving magnet cartridge (higher output than moving coil), and has an elliptical stylus fitted. Pro-Ject recommends a tracking force of 1.5 millinewtons (or grams, as we used to say in the old days).

The output voltage of moving magnet cartridges is around three orders of magnitude lower than that of a CD player (around 2.5mV versus 2 volts), and the sound is encoded on vinyl in accordance with the RIAA EQ curve, so that bass is greatly reduced in amplitude and treble greatly emphasised (up to 20 decibels). So a standard turntable needs to be connected to a phono preamplifier (sometimes built into a regular amplifier) to provide the counteracting EQ and to boost the signal up to near CD levels.

This turntable has the phono preamplifier built in so it can be plugged into any regular analogue audio inputs. It also has a digital-to-analogue converter, configured as a standard USB audio device (it has a USB Type B socket).

This model costs AU$150 more than the non-USB version of the turntable, so if you don't need to record to a computer and already have a decent phono preamplifier in your system, you can save some money.

As a turntable

Setting up the turntable was very easy, as far as setting up turntables goes. They are all a bit fiddly. You install the belt from the pulley to the "hub" upon which the turntable platter rests using a little plastic tool (you do not want finger grease on it). The pulley has two different diameters to provide for 33rpm and 45rpm operation; you change speeds by moving the belt to the other reel. Pop the counterweight on the end of the tone arm. Carefully rotate it until the arm balances perfectly flat. Adjust the calibration ring to zero, and then wind the whole counterweight in to show 1.5.

Then you install the anti-skating weight. This is on a fine nylon thread, which hooks over a lever at the rear of the arm, suspending the weight above the body of the turntable. With most turntables, the force vector imparted on the stylus by friction with the surface of the record is at a different angle to a line drawn between the stylus and the tone arm mounting point, so there's a net force toward the centre of the record. The anti-skating fixture applies a counter-force, keeping the force relatively even on both sides of the groove.

The perspex lid slips neatly onto two rods from the hinges. A chunky external 16-volt (AC, so you can't use some random replacement) wall wart provides power. The body of the turntable is made from MDF and is finished in what looks like a nice gloss enamel, which can be had in several colours. The review unit was a striking bright red. The platter is made of a fairly heavy-pressed metal, and is covered by a thin felt mat.

The review unit had the wrong manual in the box: it was the manual for the non-USB version, so it insisted that you have to plug the turntable into a phono input. Actually do that with this one, and you'll overload the input. You can download the proper manual from the Australian or international websites.

Plugged into the line level inputs of my audio system, the turntable worked well. The sound quality was excellent, and the output levels were reasonably high.

There was no audible rumble, even with the subwoofer going. The unit tracked the highest levels of my Shure Audio Obstacle Course LP. On a good range of classical and (relatively) modern music, the tone was balanced. There was no wow (slow-speed variations) on piano, nor flutter (high-speed variations). Quality was entirely dependent on the quality of the LP, which is of course highly variable.

Changing speeds involves removing the platter and moving the belt from one reel to the other and then replacing the platter. That does kind of discourage whipping out the old 45s for a quick play, but the turntable worked well with them also.

Analogue-digital conversion

You can use the turntable to record onto your computer by using the analogue outputs, but the USB connection seems the more sensible way to go, since you're not only keeping all analogue audio well away from the stew of electrical fields within a computer, but you're also employing AU$150 worth of Pro-Ject's own phono preamplification and analogue-to-digital conversion.

It acts as a standard USB audio input device. The (proper) manual gives a quick sketch of setting the unit up with Windows XP, Windows 7 and Macs. And if you believe it, then it's simply a matter of plug and play. Or plug and record, rather.

With both a newish Windows 7 desktop and an older Windows 7 notebook computer, the Windows updates and drivers installed fairly quickly, but there were two problems. First, I no longer had output sound. For some reason, the turntable also installs itself as a USB audio playback device, and both computers changed the default output device. That's easy enough to fix — if you know enough about Windows to get into the Audio Devices control panel.

The second problem was that the sound was absolutely awful, and the reason was obvious. The level was way, way, way too high, and even the quiet passages were clipping (ie, hitting the hard limits of the number space provided in digital audio), and so were grossly distorted.

Again, the solution isn't difficult. You just open up Manage Audio Devices from the control panel, select the "Recording" tab and find the item shown as "Microphone/USB Audio CODEC", double click on it, select the "Level" tab and drag down the slider control. A long way down. We were attempting to record "Freedom of Choice" by Devo, and rather than "100", the correct setting was around "5". Later, I tried some Gershwin on piano, and it needed "3" to avoid clipping.

But there was another problem: the computer was recording in mono. Exploring further, in the same Properties dialogue under the "Advanced" tab, the default format was set at "1 channel, 16 bit, 44,100Hz (CD quality)". Well, yes, it is CD quality, except that CDs are stereo. Change this to "2 channel, 16 bit ...". While you're at it, go to the "General" tab and rename the device from "Microphone" to "Turntable". You'll appreciate it in six months, when you've forgotten all this.

Once the settings are made, they stick, so next time you plug in the turntable, it'll work fine.

I also tried the turntable with a new Windows 8 notebook, and it did much the same, except that the level was OK even though the slider was up much higher. I still had to alter it from mono to stereo (and even with its tinny little speakers running, it sounded much better for the change), and change the audio output device to something that produces sound.

As it happens, I use a different USB audio input device for my various measurements: an M-Audio Fastback Pro microphone preamplifier. This device, in combination with its driver software, works well with the volume set at "100" and automatically sets the sample rate, bit depth, number of channels and device name appropriately. It isn't impossible.

That said, the main problem here is that the turntable documentation doesn't help you with this stuff. Once done, the turntable was a beauty. It sounded great and delivered just about as good a signal to a computer as you could hope for. You will need to supply your own recording software. Consider something with click and pop removal. If you're going to convert to MP3 or CD, preserving for digital eternity every bit of surface damage on a piece of vinyl is something to be avoided. The open-source (and free) Audacity is pretty good here, once you work out its idiosyncrasies, and it has a decent enough click-removal algorithm.

Conclusion

It's a pity that this turntable, which does such a fine job, could well represent a totally baffling experience to many users who want to record. Windows doesn't make it obvious as to how you fix these things, although once you know how, it's easy enough. The turntable comes with a stereo RCA to 3.5mm stereo adapter. Perhaps some people just end up plugging the analogue output into the line input on their computer and allowing its crappy on-board analogue to digital converter to do the job.

Thankfully, now that you've read this CNET Australia review, though, you'll know how to make maximum use of a fine turntable.