While some formats come and go — let's say 8-track, Beta, or HD DVD — some others remain tenacious despite repeated attempts to "kill them off". Vinyl has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years due in part to the evergreen popularity of hip-hop and the rise of the "superstar" DJ. Second-hand vinyl can be very cheap, and usually in good condition if you find a decent shop, and as a further justification some recordings will simply never be released on CD or any other digital format.
If you have a significant collection of LPs and are looking to convert them to CD — or even for listening on your iPod — then Pro-Ject may have the product for you. The Debut III/Phono USB not only features a phono pre-amp for easy playback through an amplifier but it connects directly to your computer.
Despite looking grey in the photos, the Debut III is definitely black. And none of that horrible piano-finish nonsense either — just a textured matte black.
Despite its unassuming looks, though, it's actually quite elegant. The only unusual thing is the "fisherman's friend" counterweight, but even that doesn't detract from the clean look of the product.
The platter itself is steel, which is fairly resonant — a no-no for a turntable — but it's to be expected at this price. The supplied felt matt was a little thin, but after-market mats are cheap at around AU$10.
Set-up is a little more tricky than the average budget turntable — references to armtube stubs and antiskating prongs will have you flipping back and forward through the manual — but anyone who's ever put together a piece of Ikea furniture won't have any problems.
Like any good turntable, the Pro-Ject can be easily upgraded. Putting in a new needle cartridge is straightforward, and the steel platter can potentially be replaced with a high quality acrylic model if required. Our only minor concern is that the wires connecting to the cartridge are quite thin and repeated cartridge replacements could damage them.
The new Pro-Ject differentiates itself from other turntables in the company's range by being the only model to feature a USB output. This is designed to make it easy to transfer your vinyl to CD or even to simply play your records through your computer's sound system.
In conjunction with the USB output is the phono pre-amp, which means you can easily connect it to a home theatre system. Other turntables require an outboard pre-amp — such as the Phono Box USB MK II which this pre-amp appears to be based on — and by including it on-board it saves users the added connection hassle.
The turntable ships with the Ortofon OM 5 E — a good-quality, budget cartridge built by one of the most popular manufacturers of DJ accessories.
The extra money spent on a system like this, versus a budget model, also allows the implementation of several audiophile-level features. These include sapphire thrust-pads in the bearings and a "decoupled" motor which is suspended from the chassis to prevent vibration creeping into the sound
Performance — Playback
To borrow mercilessly from the Icecream Hands, the sound the Pro-Ject delivers is sweeter than the radio. Bass is tight and controlled and treble detail is open and lacking in sibilance. We found that the turntable liked most styles we subjected it to, with the set being equally comfortable with Gershwin symphonies and growling math-rock.
To test that old "vinyl vs CD" chestnut we compared Arcade Fire's Funeral on both CD and vinyl. The LP version demonstrated silkier treble and there was a greater sense of space in the recording overall. The CD seemed flatter in comparison, but Win Butler's distorted vocals did have more immediacy and less "grain" on "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)".
During our testing we noticed the output is quite low in comparison to a CD player so you may need to hoist the volume knob significantly. In comparison, the Ministry of Sound's budget MOSTT1000P deck was louder, but then it missed some of the subtleties that the Pro-Ject captured.
Performance — Recording
Connecting the turntable to a PC was a straightforward matter — the Pro-Ject has a printer-style USB port. The PC recognised the turntable as a "USB audio codec" and installed the driver, making it our default sound device.
As the package doesn't include any software you'll need to supply your own. We used the free Audacity sound editor but we've also had good results with CFB Software's LP Ripper and LP Recorder. Expect to pay about AU$90 for both programs, but the advantage is that the Ripper will automatically detect each track and chop them up into MP3 files for you.
The recordings we made were of a good quality, and with very little noise. However, one small thing noticed was that there was a faint, high pitched whine heard through the phono output when the recording button was pushed. More than likely the pre-amp was picking up interference from the PC's processor, but this didn't impact on the recording.
The USB output isn't the best feature of this turntable, and while it simplifies connection to a computer it doesn't make it easy. You'll still need to know your way around a recording program and how to change between your computer's soundcard and the turntable's on your PC. If you're nodding now then you may find the USB port useful.
Even if you don't use the USB feature, the pre-amp facility is still a great inclusion. The turntable as a whole is well-built and a joy to use. However, if you already have a receiver with a phono input or a dedicated phono amp then you probably don't need it — look instead to the Project Debut III or the new Project Genie RPM 1 and save yourself $300. If you want to record one of these decks to a PC you can then use the tape outputs on your amp instead of the newfangled USB output.