How much do you need to spend to get a ‘proper’ turntable? UK distributor Henley Audio reckons the Pro-ject Debut Carbon Evo qualifies, describing it as ‘an affordable record player with high-end characteristics’.
If so, then affordable means £499 / US$499 / €569, complete with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge (Sumiko Rainier in America). Not silly money. High-end characteristics? Well early in the review process it sounded fabulous via Klipsch RP-600M II speakers and a Musical Fidelity M2si amplifier. A £2k trio that was really swinging Michel Petrucciani’s Live In Montreux.
Which boded well, but one LP maketh not a good turntable. So I put the DCE (as we’ll refer to it from now on) through its paces to see if it delivered on its early promise. I also tried an Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge to see what difference it made (you swap the Red stylus for the Blue). This article focuses on the 2M Red option, a shorter 2M Blue review will follow.
The low down
Forget fancy plinths, strobe markings and the like. The DCE is a no-frills deck, the money spent on the engineering according to Pro-ject. The 2M Red cartridge comes pre-installed, negating setup duties (hooray). Pro-ject’s £45 Connect-IT E phono cable is supplied as part of the package. As is a dust cover, a necessity for me but not all manufacturers seem to agree. There’s no phono stage though, so use the one in your amplifier (if present) or choose from the myriad external options.
The review turntable was finished in a lovely Satin Steel Blue. Also in satin are Black (ok), White (nice), Fir Green (hmmm), and Golden Yellow (yep). Gloss options include Black (nice), White (also nice), and Red (epic). Or go traditional with Walnut (where’s my pipe?) Your preferences may vary.
The plinth is MDF, used for its acoustic damping properties. Three black metal feet are adjustable to make levelling the deck easy. And the one-piece 8.6” tonearm is made from carbon fibre, which Henley says is unusual at this price level.
The 1.7kg platter has a thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) ring underneath to damp vibrations. Speed control is via a rocker switch under the front-left corner of the turntable. Left for 33rpm, right for 45rpm. Should you need 78rpm, don slippers, remove the platter and change the belt.
Finally, several accessories allow you to pimp the DCE’s ride. Including three record mats – cork, cork/rubber or leather. There’s an acrylic platter. A turntable support. A record clamp. Even a VTA spacer to raise arm height for different cartridges. Tick all boxes and you’ll need a mortgage; better to buy further up Pro-ject’s range in the first place. But, the ability to selectively tweak the deck could be useful.
Overall the review DCE looked smart and discrete; testosterone-fuelled monster deck it ain’t. It’s also nicely built for the price.
The IKEA factor
The DCE comes disassembled, meaning you have to put it all together. A task that felt daunting, but Pro-ject’s instructions are excellent. Following them methodically I had the DCE up and running in under 30 mins.
A key aspect is setting the right downforce for the cartridge, achieved by rotating the counterweight until it reads 1.8 grams. My stylus scales confirmed the setting as accurate
At which point listening commenced, first through the Klipsch speakers and MF amplifier (both £700, plus a £220 Pro-ject Phono Box S2 Ultra phono stage).
The initial impressions were reinforced. ‘Cariba’ from Nigel Price’s Wes Reimagined mixes superb guitar work with two saxes, hammond organ and drums (plus supporting strings). The DCE presented the busy mix with confidence, detail aplenty, musicians clearly positioned in a broad array in front of me. And boy did it swing (again).
Tonally it was pretty neutral, allaying fears the 2M Red might sound slightly bright, as I’ve found in some previous encounters. Actually the cartridge was doing well, letting me hear everything going on. Analysis proved difficult, the music demanding attention.
Switching to digital, streamed via a NAD CS1, was interesting. Slightly increased clarity, the musicians better delineated. A cleaner tone. And a marginally more up-front sound. Think alternate takes on wine from the same grape variety; zingy Kiwi sauvignons versus their more subtle French counterparts. So it was here. Some might prefer the precision of digital, some the more relaxed approach of analogue. And yet. Switching between them highlighted the differences. With longer listening the similarities were more notable.
That slight doubt over the 2M Red resurfaced on Elton John’s Captain Fantastic….. As the song built, things got louder and busier. Allowing harshness to creep in; refinement was lost. Was it the cartridge, or just the recording showing its limits? Something to check with the 2M Blue later.
No such problems on Respighi’s Airs & Dances by Neville Marriner & the ASMF. The DCE captured the orchestra beautifully, musicians spread in a broad sweep across the soundstage, the music taking me with it as it ebbed and flowed gracefully. Strings were tonally sweet, not strident. The same music streamed via the NAD CS1 sounded almost identical, the LP’s gentle surface noise the main differentiator.
Finally ‘Us and Them’ from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which is in my musical DNA. A very intricate mix, the DCE managed to dig out plenty of detail. When the swelling chorus arrived the sound lost some composure though, that coarseness creeping in again. And yet, there it was on the digital version via the NAD CS1 as well. Clearly it was the recording this time, not the reproduction.
The digital version did sound better though; extra clarity and a stronger, more prominent, bass. Whichever, I got lost in the music, implying any differences weren’t that important.
Switching it up
Time to stretch the DCE with a Prima Luna EVO 300H amplifier playing into Graham LS6 standmounts. A five-figure system that’s ruthlessly revealing when fed the wrong diet.
The DCE took it in its stride, sounding more expansive with its better playmates. The Respighi was more eloquent, the music rising and falling with gusto, the enlarged acoustic spreading the orchestra out concert-hall wide. To be fair the NAD CS1 did an equally impressive job, sounding all but identical. Again, only the tell-tale surface noise stood between them.
Turning to Alfred Brendel playing Schubert’s Piano Sonatas in A Minor, the composer’s trademark dynamic forces unleashed by the DCE were impressive, as was the full tone of the piano. A lovely piece, reproduced well.
Then back to DSOTM, with ‘Us and Them’ revealing even more detail, and a soundstage with better front-back layering. It all sounded more lifelike, the performers playing in a real room. The strident chorus was tamed slightly but still wasn’t ideal. In trying to ameliorate it I switched mats to a cork one, which helped a bit; the sound was more cohesive, a degree of haze removed.
Indeed the change to cork brought more life to the sound overall, so it stayed. Unlike a heavy record weight, which added heft but also made the sound slightly leaden. It went.
Overall the DCE held its own. The price mismatch negates it as a pairing – you’d spend more on the source – but playing in exalted company showed the DCE for all it was worth. And it impressed.
In our Marantz / Elac starter system
Finally to our starter system – the Marantz PM6006 amplifier and Elac DB 6.2 speakers (£650 together). The amplifier has a notably light tonal character; add in the 2M Red and might it become too lean & mean?
Not a bit of it, indeed it was the NAD CS1 streamer that played the clarity card. The differences between digital and analogue were laid bare with this system, more so than the others. Bare being the operative word, Nigel Price’s ‘Cariba’ was more balanced through the DCE, the NAD CS1 leaching a little tonal colour from the sound in comparison. The NAD may have been more impressive but not always in a positive way.
‘Slow Train’ by Hans Theessink confirmed the findings. Clarity and precision to the fore on the streamed version, a more relaxed but very engaging rendition from the DCE. Proponents of either approach will point to the differences as validating their own position. Me? Life’s not that dichotomous. The DCE certainly had me glued to the sofa with its take on Hans. The extra insight of digital was also welcome. Overall, the DCE sounded at home leading this system, fitting in seamlessly.
Understated in Satin Steel Blue, those wanting more visual pop can explore the Debut Carbon EVO’s alternative finishes (yellow has me enthralled). Build quality is nice, a distinct step up from budget decks. The carbon-fibre arm in particular feels well-engineered, with no discernible play in the bearings (it looks the part too).
The 2M Red gained my respect, it’s much more than just a bundled cartridge to get the starter going. Even if my hunch says the DCE can handle better, something Henley reinforces in suggesting the £319 Ortofon Quintet Red as an upgrade. I’m looking forward to trying the 2M Blue.
The DCE’s sound is balanced, with much to admire and little to decry. It’s also pretty neutral, allowing the differing strengths of the three systems above to come through. It adds little character of its own, always a good sign.
So is the Debut Carbon EVO a ‘proper’ turntable? It’s an arbitrary question, everyone setting the bar at different heights. To these ears it’s a definite yes though. The acid test was when it sounded great fronting the expensive Prima Luna / Graham system; no mean feat. The Debut Carbon EVO is also a great place to start building a vinyl system though. Enough to make a Hifi Starters Best Buy Award something of a formality. There’s just one remaining question – red pill or blue pill?!
See here for more information on the Debut Carbon EVO.