30 years have come and gone and Pro-Ject seems to be entering its prime with a wide selection of new CD players, network players, and some of the most impressive turntables that the company has ever built. The Pro-Ject Debut PRO may not be the most expensive turntable in its arsenal — but it’s certainly the most important.
Pro-Ject sells the most audiophile turntables in the world and the list of OEM turntables that it produces for other manufacturers is quite extensive. If you notice certain similarities between Pro-Ject’s Debut lineup and other manufacturers who are focused on the market below $1,000, you don’t need to have your eyesight checked.
Pro-Ject has the distinct advantage of making most of their components in-house and the R&D resources to develop better sounding turntables for less money. When you run a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, you can experiment with different materials and setups and get the final product to market much quicker; even with the current supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic.
Nobody has their manufacturing capabilities or ability to create high-end parts and tonearms at levels that would bury most companies.
Rega probably comes the closest, but their focus has also turned like Pro-Ject on other product categories where they can complete the circle and offer the consumer a one-stop shopping experience.
Pro-Ject is also part of the McIntosh Group here in America where it can be packaged with Rotel, Sumiko, Sonus faber, and McIntosh products through a vast dealer network that only enhances its appeal.
The Pro-Ject Debut PRO is the natural competitor to the Rega Planar 3; one of the most popular and best-selling audiophile turntables of the past 30 years and having spent considerable time with both — it’s starting to look like a very different race.
Both turntables are the best options at $1,000 and you really can’t go wrong purchasing either one. The Rega sounds slightly quicker; agile might be a better way of describing it — but that’s where the race ends for me.
The Debut PRO is better at everything else; we’ll get to that later on.
One of the greatest failings of the Hi-Fi press over the past few decades has been our inability or even reluctance to provide proper context for consumers.
How a product behaves or interacts with other components within a similar price range and how you might build a system around it. I’ve been quite focused on that for the past few years with our “Audiophile System Builder” column and it should not come as a shock that I think the Pro-Ject Debut PRO belongs in a myriad of systems between $3,000 to $10,000 — its performance is that good if you can stretch that far at the top end.
Pete, Roger, Keith, and John definitely had the opportunity to shine on the Debut PRO but that’s a slightly different topic.
I recognize that I’m doing this in reverse order, but who is this turntable designed for?
That feels like an important question to ask at this point in the game.
Turntables below $500 constitute the largest share of the market; a category once dominated by Pro-Ject, now features some fierce competition from Andover Audio, Rega, Audio-Technica, U-Turn Audio, Fluance, and others.
The rebirth of vinyl turned a corner in 2021; consumers purchased tens of millions of new records here in North America and the impact has been considerable for manufacturers of turntables, phono cartridges, tonearms, and vinyl-related accessories.
Record Store Day has become a holiday for consumers; those of us who are obsessed with vinyl playback line up in the cold, rain, and extreme heat to purchase overpriced limited edition releases from labels looking to capitalize on ten years of growth.
Standing in line during Record Store Day 2021 (there were 3 opportunities to empty our bank accounts during the pandemic) here in New Jersey, I took a poll of the first 30 people in line with me.
I asked a rather diverse group of people what they currently owned and how much would they spend on a new or replacement table.
$500 was the typical answer from the younger vinyl listeners; Pro-Ject tables were owned by 4 of them, along with Audio-Technica, U-Turn Audio, and Rega.
The older audiophiles in the group owned Technics, Pro-Ject, V.P.I., Thorens, and Rega.
When I asked if they would ever consider spending $1,000 on a new turntable, almost everyone said that it was a strong possibility and that it would likely be their ceiling because spending more on music was far more important them.
Based on their willingness to brave the intense heat and the thickness of the bags they carried out of the record store in Red Bank — I think there’s some validity to their position.
The Pro-Ject Debut PRO is very likely to be at the top of the list for all of them.
There are some similarities between the Pro-Ject Debut EVO and the PRO but the differences that make the Debut PRO $500 more are not small and there is a wide gap in their sonic performance.
Not Grand Canyon wide — more like Evil Knievel Snake River wide.
The Pro-Ject Debut PRO Turntable extends the tradition of the Debut collection with a new striking design, featuring a satin black and brushed-nickel color scheme that really makes the table stand out. Pro-Ject is not offering different color options for the Debut PRO so those looking for a Ferrari yellow finish or forest green are out of luck.
In a departure from the other turntables in the lineup, the new Debut Pro features an all new 8.6” tonearm that features a one-piece carbon fiber wrapped aluminum arm tube for excellent rigidity and reduction of resonance.
One of my biggest complaints about older Pro-Ject Debut turntables was the construction quality of the arm and how it felt during operation; I suffer from a slight tremor after a serious medical event in 2009 and I was always nervous operating them due to the weight and how loose it always felt in my hand.
A heavy-duty, nickel-plated machined aluminum bearing block ensures the tight tolerance tonearm bearings move freely, allowing the tonearm to track precisely across the entire surface of the record.
The new arm feels far more rigid and I did not suffer the same level of anxiety in daily operation. I do prefer the head shell hook of the Rega tonearms which are easier for my large fingers to use but Pro-Ject has designed a much better tonearm for the Debut PRO that worked flawlessly.
The Debut PRO also features a die-cast aluminum platter with integrated TPE damping that is a much higher grade platter than what Pro-Ject has offered in the past.
I’m a bigger fan of die-cast aluminum platters than glass ones and I think Pro-Ject has a superior product than Rega in that regard; the sound has greater density to it and I found that once I substituted a cork platter mat for the supplied felt one, music had greater presence overall and the bass impact was much firmer with all genres of music.
In another new change, the tonearm height and azimuth are now both adjustable, allowing for the use of a wider range of cartridges. The Sumiko Rainier phono cartridge is included with the Debut PRO and is pre-mounted and precision-aligned at the factory.
Height adjustable leveling feet with integrated resonance damping, electronic speed selection, a detachable acrylic dust cover and a premium semi-symmetrical phono cable (Connect It E) round out the Debut PRO’s robust feature set. Pro-Ject has also included the tools for proper alignment and setting the tracking force.
The Debut PRO with the Rainier spent most of the review process connected to the McIntosh MP100 Phono Preamplifier, Croft RIAA Phono, and the Cyrus Audio i9-XR Integrated Amplifier. I also ran the table directly into the NAD C 316BEE V2 and Rotel A12MKII Integrated Amplifiers.
I also swapped out the Rainier for the Goldring E3 and Ortofon 2M Blue to see how the table reacted to very different sounding cartridges; I wasn’t surprised that the performance improved with better cartridges and the tonearm is a very solid platform for experimentation.
An IsoAcoustics ZaZen II Isolation platform was used underneath the turntable in every scenario.
My expectations for a $500 turntable are very different in comparison to a $1,000 turntable, and I really expected the Debut PRO to deliver much better sound quality than my U-Turn Orbit+, NAD C 588, and Rega Planar 2 tables when used with the same electronics and loudspeakers.
Listening to Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, and Dexter Gordon, I was struck by the presence of musicians within the soundstage, the low end impact with every single loudspeaker at my disposal, and the overall uptick in resolution.
Compared to the Rega Planar 3, the Debut Pro is a much richer sounding deck with slightly less energy from a pace perspective. Rega puts a lot more emphasis on timing and pace, but also at the expense of midrange warmth and low end impact.
Horns have slightly more bite with the Planar 3, but the Debut PRO delivers those same instruments with greater color and depth. Both the McIntosh and Croft phono preamps really breathed some light into each recording and the Debut Pro benefitted from the extra top end extension and energy.
Some will interpret that as “dull” sounding, but the Debut PRO is anything but. With the more open sounding Goldring and Ortofon cartridges, the table delivered the same level of resolution and clarity of my custom Thorens tables restored by Vinyl Nirvana.
Vocals were rich, clean, and slightly forward sounding which I wanted to hear from this table; the Rainier is a good cartridge that does almost nothing wrong but it’s definitely not as punchy as the 2M Blue or E3.
The warmer tonal balance works better with more neutral sounding electronics but I wouldn’t start from scratch if your system sounds good to you in that regard. I would stick with a neutral sounding phono preamp if the rest of your system leans that way.
I was tempted to swap out the Ortofon 2M Black on my TD-160 Super for the Rainier, but I don’t think too many listeners are going to update the $995 Debut Pro with a $700 phono cartridge.
Another aspect of the Debut Pro’s performance that really surprised me was its low end impact with Rammstein, The Who, Rush, Metallica, and Daft Punk; most entry-level tables deliver tight and dynamic sounding bass, but it never really comes across with sufficient impact.
The Debut PRO hits rather hard with bass-heavy music and if your system can deliver it — you will experience it. I’ve never felt that way about the Planar 3 which always sounds really quick and detailed in the low end, but rather lightweight.
Pro-Ject has also built a turntable that is remarkably quiet; none of my systems exhibited any level of hum and I could barely hear the motor at all and the platter exhibited excellent speed stability.
Is there a lot of daylight between the $999 Pro-Ject Debut PRO and tables in the $500 range? Having spent the better part of the pandemic listening to the competition, I would say that Pro-Ject have done something really unique with the Debut PRO that isn’t the flashiest looking table in the category.
It’s an excellent platform for listening to records and a well-designed table in every respect. That you can make it even better with a cork mat, different phono cartridge, and not spend a fortune — that’s a rather great option at a time when everything is more expensive and you have to watch your shekels.
Would I buy the Pro-Ject Debut PRO for myself and be happy with it long-term if I owned nothing else?
I think that’s going to happen this year. I hated sending it back because I know I barely scratched the surface of its capabilities within the context of a $10,000 system I used.
Do you need to spend more than $1,000 on a turntable?
If that’s your ceiling — this is your table.
For more information: pro-jectusa.com/product/debut-pro/
Where to buy: $999 at Amazon | Turntable Lab
May 24, 2022 at 3:08 pm
Very nice writing, Ian.
I am still a tremendous enthusiast for Pro-Ject and for two primary reasons. Their across the board quality and Mr. Buzz Goddard. Mr. Goddard has been so very kind and helpful in the past and present in my purchase of a turntable a few years ago and what I am shopping for in the hope fully very near future.
I just got a Q-Up for my Essential III Sgt. Pepper ‘table and will install it this week end. If it really does work as advertised and does NOT do a Ralph Kramden on the tone arm, that will take care of my primary nitpick on a manual turntable.
As for the ‘table in your review? Gorgeous. I prefer the look of acrylic platters so a looker such as this might never be in my home. That is a subjective item that is so far keeping me from the Automat A1. No upgrade to an acrylic platter but it IS fully automatic and I prefer that over manual.
The Debut Pro’s cartridge also looks cooler to me than the one that came on my Essential III. Shallow toad that I am, looks are, dare I say it…Essential to me.
Not being one to constantly try out new cartridges (I would make a poor tubed amp owner!) I would still prefer the act to be really easy if ever I decided to try some thing new/better or just replace a worn out unit.
The black colour of the Debut Pro is nice but I prefer “piano black” to flat-ish paint every time. Harley-Davidson and their hideous “flat paint” comes to mind although the Debut Pro is not nearly as offensive as HD’s primitive primer paint so-called, “murdered look” is. UGH!
I have yet to find my late ’70s commemorative collection of Elvis Presly 45s, so the sweet looking toggle for speed selection, whilst much appreciated would not see much use from me. But it looks so cool!
I am ramblin’. So then, a most excellent write up and should you decide to purchase one I shall be at once both happy for and envious of you.
May 25, 2022 at 5:43 pm
I currently have a rega planar1
Can I up grade the cartridge without changing the tone arm
May 25, 2022 at 12:49 am
Hi Ian: very interesting review. I have been dancing around the Debut Pro for a while and you kind of were on point on my main concern: the phono cartridge. Is this table compatible with the Audio-Technica VM540ML? or which one is similar to a microline stylus?
May 25, 2022 at 1:46 pm
Hello: Very good review. I enjoyed the this one… or the next one up approach rather than the more typical this one and others of a similar price type of reviews. You know it’s a meaningful review when you want to hear the products and don’t even need them.
May 30, 2022 at 9:12 pm
My only want for this would be an arm with a detachable headshell to facilitate cartridge swapping. Also, Ian….was it a Pro-ject cork mat you subbed or something else? Great review, btw.