Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviewers' ChoiceFew turntables come with names longer than Pro-Ject Audio Systems Debut Carbon Evo, but much information is encrypted in that long handle. Pro-Ject, of course, is the Austrian firm that makes turntables in its factory in the Czech Republic. Debut indicates that this model is a member of Pro-Ject’s wide entry-level line, Carbon that its tonearm is made of carbon fiber, and Evo that it’s the latest generation of the Carbon arm. Pro-Ject describes the turntable as embodying “the epitome of Pro-Ject’s philosophy: high performance, clean aesthetics, and superb value.” Strong claims -- but Pro-Ject has a long-established rep for making turntables that have all those qualities.

Description

The Debut Carbon Evo ($499, all prices USD) is about as simple-looking a turntable as can be imagined: On the top deck are only the platter and tonearm, and nothing interrupts the side surfaces of the plinth, which is available in many finishes: satin real-walnut veneer, white or black in gloss or satin, gloss red, or satin finishes of yellow, blue, or green. My review sample came in the walnut finish, which was handsome indeed.

Pro-Ject

Several things distinguish the Evo from the previous Debut Carbon. The platter is now lined with a nonresonant thermoplastic elastomer (TPE), to increase its mass and thus the flywheel effect, to reduce wow and flutter. The feet, borrowed from Pro-Ject’s X1 model, are metal damped with TPE, to better isolate the Evo from external, surface-borne resonances, and are height-adjustable. And to protect the platter from the Evo’s own internal vibrations, Pro-Ject’s new mounting system isolates the motor from the plinth.

The Evo is of moderate size at 16.3”W x 4.5”H x 12.6”W, and tips the scales at 13.2 pounds. It comes with two drive belts -- a flat one for 33⅓ and 45rpm, and a small-diameter round belt for 78s -- each belt to be looped around one wheel of a double pulley. If you want to play 78s, remove the 3.75-pound platter of steel, remove the flat 33⅓-45 belt, and replace it with the round 78 belt. The platter’s speed of rotation is selected using the power/speed rocker under the plinth’s lower front edge: push up on the left side of this switch for 33⅓rpm, or up on the right for 45 or 78rpm. Also included is a heavy-duty dustcover whose hinges attach to the plinth in a way that makes it easy to entirely remove or install the cover.

Pro-Ject

On the little area that passes for the Evo’s rear panel are the RCA jacks for the supplied phono cable, and between them a knurled knob for the ground post. To the right, on the bottom of the motor housing, is a jack for the output of the 15V universal power supply. This wall wart comes with interchangeable connectors for AC in the US/Canada, the UK, and the EU. The phono cable is one of the nicest I’ve seen in an entry-level turntable; it would do justice to a model costing twice as much.

The straight, carbon-fiber tonearm has an effective length of 8.6” and an angled headshell. It’s typical of its type in being extremely light, with an effective mass of only 6gm. As I’ve found with other carbon-fiber arms, it’s wise to grip the finger lift gently but firmly, so the tonearm doesn’t fly away from you and bounce the stylus all over the record surface. This can be a problem, as carbon fiber tends to be slick; caution is advised. The main bearing is stainless steel, with a brass bushing -- not the fanciest or most esoteric, but perfectly fine for an entry-level ’table. My only gripe is the design of the finger lift, which is angled toward the back of the arm; it looks spiffy, but I found it inconvenient for so light a tonearm. A lift at a right angle to the side of the headshell would be more useful.

Pro-Ject

In most of the world, the Debut Carbon Evo comes with a preinstalled Ortofon 2M Red moving-magnet cartridge. In the US, where I live, it’s supplied with Sumiko’s Oyster Rainier moving magnet cartridge ($149 if bought separately), which I thought highly of when I reviewed it for SoundStage! Access in July 2018: “The Oyster Rainier offered a lovely, warm sound with a wide range of recordings, but could still kick up its heels as required. It handled warped records with aplomb, and LP surface noise was minimal, even from records I can’t get entirely clean.” I went on to say that it would be on my short list of cartridges when I looked for another. And should you wish to upgrade, all you need do is replace its elliptical stylus with one designed for Sumiko’s Oyster Olympia or Moonstone cartridges, and adjust the vertical tracking force (VTF) and antiskating. Caution: Sumiko does not offer for this cartridge a stylus designed for the much wider groove of 78rpm discs (3 mil, vs. a nominal 0.7 mil for LPs and 45s). If you play 78s with the Oyster Rainier, do so knowing that they may not sound as good as they should, and that you might damage the stylus. The Oyster Rainier’s frequency range is specified as 12Hz-25kHz, but with no ±dB tolerances, consider those the absolute extremes of frequency reproduction. The cartridge’s signal/noise ratio is good at 68dB, as is its channel separation of 25dB/1kHz. The recommended VTF is 20mN (2.0gm).

The Evo’s specifications are typical or better than typical in almost every instance. Separate figures for wow and flutter (i.e., slower and faster variations in platter speed that cause audible frequency “wobble”) are given for the two primary speeds: ±0.19% at 33⅓rpm, ±0.17% at 45rpm. The same for speed drift: ±0.6% at 33⅓rpm, ±0.7% at 45rpm.

Pro-Ject

Unlike many turntables at this price point, the Evo does not include a phono stage to raise the cartridge’s output to line level. Pro-Ject notes that they offer a number of outboard solutions.

Setup

Like many of today’s audio products, the Debut Carbon Evo doesn’t come with its full owner’s manual, which can be downloaded from Pro-Ject’s website. But the one-sheet Setup Guide makes setup easy -- in fact, its illustrated instructions may be the best I’ve seen. The steps are in logical sequence, each shown in an image of adequate size. From opening the shipping carton to playing a record took me no more than 20 minutes. Even if you’ve never set up a turntable, half an hour should be more than enough. Well done, Pro-Ject.

But download the full User Guide as well. I’m big on having all the information about a component that I can find, and the Evo’s manual is a gem. It has excellent illustrations and descriptions of all features and components, as well as such minutiae as how to adjust azimuth (i.e., the stylus’s verticality to the groove). If you use the supplied Oyster Rainier cartridge, the azimuth shouldn’t need adjusting. But if it does, do yourself a favor and have a qualified technician do the adjusting.

Pro-Ject

The only fiddly step is setting the VTF and antiskating. Setting VTF is fairly typical: balance the tonearm, set the VTF gauge to 0, then adjust tracking force to 20mN (2.0gm). The antiskating force is provided by a small weight attached to a very thin thread. The loop in the thread must be placed over the second depression in a small stub that extends from the tonearm’s gimbal parallel to the tonearm. You might want to use a magnifying glass, and tweezers for the thread.

Listening

After a period of playing records to break in the Sumiko cartridge’s stylus cantilever, I began my critical listening with “So What,” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (2 180gm, 45rpm LPs, Columbia/Legacy/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-45011). At the beginning of the cut, the stereo soundstage has a hole in the middle that was common for that era (1959), with all instruments hard right or hard left -- except for the bass, which is nondirectional. Davis’s trumpet and John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone are to the right, with Bill Evans’s piano at lower right, behind and below them. Cannonball Adderley’s alto sax and Jimmy Cobb’s drums are hard left. However, near the end of the track, the trumpet is centered on the soundstage and the instruments come together. Overall, the Evo did a fine job of reproducing all of this, imaging with precision and an easy, engaging sound. Davis’s and Coltrane’s occasional flubs came through loud and clear -- no veiling of details. The Evo seemed to add or subtract nothing from the sound -- quite a compliment for an entry-level model.

I often use as a reference track “Money for Nothing,” from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, also in a 45rpm mastering (2 180gm LPs, Warner Bros./Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-441). I always marvel, at the start of this track, at the wide left/right separation of the tom-toms, with snares and cymbals firmly at center. What I didn’t remember -- or hadn’t noticed before -- was that, once past the opening, the drum kit takes its place in the middle, with no outrageous effects. Mark Knopfler’s searing lead guitar and the equally hot synth line were reproduced by the Evo with all their fire intact -- no blunting of the top end. Knopfler’s voice was centered and well out in front of the instruments. The reproduction was in line with the ample drive of this music -- nothing particularly easy or engaging, and presented as aggressively as the song itself.

Pro-Ject

“Four Brothers,” from the Manhattan Transfer’s 1978 Live album (180gm LP, Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UMOB 1-022), tests the resolution of any tonearm-and-cartridge combination with its fast-paced “vocalese” -- lesser turntables sometimes have trouble clearly reproducing these four singers. Not the case here. Every word was intelligible, regardless of which of the quartet was singing, or how fast his or her words flew by. The backing band on this album was hot, with deft performances that can often create problems. Again, not the case here -- the Evo tracked these instruments precisely. My copy of Live is not pristine -- I bought it used and have cleaned it as well as I could -- yet the Sumiko Rainier didn’t pick up an abundance of surface noise, clicks, or pops. As I said in my review, it’s a pretty forgiving cartridge.

Next up was Mel Tormé singing Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up,” from Mel Tormé and Friends: Recorded Live at Marty’s, New York City (LP, Finesse W2X 37484). These two exceptionally well-recorded gigs took place in the early 1980s, when Tormé’s artistry and voice were possibly at their peaks. The first thing I noticed was something I hadn’t before: As the music begins, there’s the barest hint of feedback from the PA system. It’s quickly silenced, but the Evo laid it bare. Tormé sings the first verse, then turns it over to his double bassist, Jay Leonhart, who romps through a really difficult solo, his instrument front and center on the soundstage. The Evo tracked this without overhang. Tormé likes the solo so much he exclaims, “I gotta hear that again!” -- and Leonhart obliges. Tormé and pianist Mike Renzie then break into an extended, J.S. Bach-inspired scat duel. Tormé’s scatting was as precise as his interpretation of words, and the Evo brought both out clearly.

I thought it was time I pulled out Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel to listen to “You’re No Good” (LP, Capitol ST-11358). From the first notes, it was evident that the Sumiko Oyster Rainier liked to put out bass. And Ronstadt’s voice, which sometimes approaches stridency, was well modulated here. The part I always pay close attention to is the close, when, behind the electric guitar, bass, and drums, starting very quietly and rapidly building, come the strings in an arrangement by Gregory Rose, playing a single, eerie note before the climax of descending notes. As often happens when I listen to a good record player, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Impressive.

Pro-Ject

Finally came Dave Brubeck’s Time Out (LP, Columbia PC 8192), one of the two or three best-selling jazz recordings of all time. I often play “Take Five,” written by Brubeck’s alto-sax player, Paul Desmond. It begins with drummer Joe Morello playing an interesting repeating pattern in 5/4, and with the Evo I got the sense of just how large was Columbia’s 30th Street Studio -- a deconsecrated church whose former sanctuary, now a studio, measured 100’L x 100’W x 55’H. There was a major sense of air around the sounds of Morello’s drums, as if they were off on their own someplace far from the piano, bass, and sax. The bass again dug really deep, surrounded by lots of air. The positioning of instruments in this track is fairly interesting: the bass is at center, piano at left, sax and drums to the right -- those positions were all accurately reproduced by the Evo. This recording was the state of the art in 1959, and it holds up well today. The Evo let me hear it all.

Comparison

I was interested to hear how the sound of the Rainier-equipped Evo would compare with that of my Dual CS5000 and the Rainier’s big brother, the Oyster Moonstone, which retails for twice the Rainier’s price. I was impressed. I played “Come Rain or Come Shine,” from a recently acquired LP by the vocal quartet the Hi-Lo’s: Back Again (Pausa 7040). The Hi-Lo’s were formed in 1953, sang until 1965, and in 1978 reunited to make this album, released the following year. Their name came from the fact that two of the four men were quite tall and the other two short, and because the group -- a bass-baritone, two baritones, and a high tenor -- could together sing very high and very low pitches. Their style influenced such groups as The Manhattan Transfer, The King’s Singers, and the Beach Boys. On Back Again they’re accompanied by a fabulous big band, arranged and conducted by the talented Canadian Rob McConnell.

Pro-Ject

I could instantly tell that these two cartridges were related. Through the Dual-Moonstone, the top end had more energy -- highs were a bit more crystalline -- but the mids and bass were fairly similar through both Oysters. Both cartridges were also extremely easy on my ears, and each could dig out fine detail. Overall, stereo separation was somewhat better from the Dual-Moonstone, guitar runs were slightly more distinct, and the Moonstone seemed to respond more quickly to musical changes. Soundstages, too, were a touch deeper, with the band placed well behind the singers. But the Evo-Rainier duo was no slouch: mids and lows came pretty close to matching what I heard through the Dual-Moonstone, the sound falling short only in the highs -- tenor Clark Burroughs’s high notes, in particular, were somewhat closed-in and muffled, and stereo separation wasn’t quite as good.

Conclusion

The Debut Carbon Evo is the first Pro-Ject turntable I’ve reviewed, but I hope it’s not the last. One reason I’ve stuck with my Dual CS5000, now 35 years old, is that I like that it lifts the tonearm at the end of a side and stops the platter -- I’m lazy. But the Debut Carton Evo is so fine a turntable for the price that its lack of convenient auto-stop would not be a deal killer for me. Its combination of absolute ease of setup, rock-steady platter speeds, amazing tonearm, and its overall look comprise a package that’s an incredible bargain, and a fine addition to an Access-approved system. Its low price belies the high quality of its engineering and construction. It’s a winner.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Turntable -- Dual CS5000
  • Cartridge -- Sumiko Oyster Moonstone
  • Phono stage -- Simaudio Moon 110LP v2
  • Preamplifier -- Linn Majik-1P
  • Power amplifier -- NAD C 275BEE
  • Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 powered subwoofer
  • Phono cables -- Dual (captive with CS5000 turntable), Pro-Ject (supplied), both RCA
  • Interconnects -- Straight Wire
  • Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research (14-gauge), terminated with Dayton Audio banana plugs

Pro-Ject Audio Systems Debut Carbon Evo Turntable and Sumiko Oyster Rainier Cartridge
Price: $499 USD.
Warranty: One year, limited.

Pro-Ject Audio Systems USA
6655 Wedgwood Road N., Suite 115
Maple Grove, MN 55311-2814
Phone: (510) 843-4500

Website: www.pro-jectusa.com