St. Jerome may have developed the concept of “good, better, best” in the fourth century, but it was Sears Roebuck who applied it brilliantly to merchandising in the nineteenth. Alongside a “good” product in their groundbreaking catalogue were costlier “better” and “best” ones, allegedly offering higher performances. With the resurgence of analog during the past decade, several companies now offer multiple ’tables spanning the entry-level and mid-priced segments. Pro-Ject is perhaps the largest producer of enthusiastgrade turntables in the world, and I count eight Pro-Ject ’tables under $2500 that Sumiko imports into this country. What does one gain in terms of sonic performance as one increases the turntable, tonearm, and cartridge budget from entry level to $1000 or $2000 or $3000, and where does the point of diminishing returns set in?
To help answer these questions, we selected three of the most recent Pro-Ject turntable offerings for comparison and paired with cartridges to roughly hit those price points: the entry-level Debut III with its pre-mounted Ortofon OM-5E cartridge ($299); the modestly priced RM-5 ($649) with a Sumiko Blue Point No. 2; and Pro-Ject’s new flagship ’table, the RM-10 ($2499) mated with Sumiko’s Blackbird cartridge. I was interested in determining how they stacked up against the Pro-Ject RM-9.1 and Blackbird rig that departed on the same day that the others arrived.
The Pro-Ject ’tables have several physical attributes in common: Their fit and finish is quite good; all the arms allow for adjustment of both VTA and azimuth; and antiskating is set using a hanging weight from a nylon thread around a notched post on the arm. To help in the comparison, the same records were spun on each ’table, including Mark Knopler’s Shangri-La [Warner Bros.], River Road [Opus 3], Harry James’ big band in Still Harry After All These Years [Sheffield Lab], Joni Mitchell’s Wild Things Run Fast [Geffen], Freddie Hubbard’s The Body & The Soul [Impulse/Speakers Corner], Yehudi Menuhin performing the Paganini Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 [EMI/Alto], Schubert’s Trio Op. 100 [Harmonia Mundi], Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 [Mercury/Speakers Corner], and many others.
For those accustomed to digital sound, the Pro-Ject Debut III is likely to be a revelation. If you’re coming from the world of MP3s, you will undoubtedly be stunned by how much more music you’ll hear through the $300 entry-level Pro-Ject Debut III turntable and its pre-mounted Ortofon OM-5E moving-magnet cartridge. Simple vocals on LPs like Shangri-La and River Road had a warmth and naturalness on the Pro-Ject that are absent in far too many CD players, while subtle details, like the leading edge transients of a strummed guitar, were captured much more realistically than on any MP3. Though bass was not quite as extended on the Pro-Ject as on many CD players, it was richer. Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet had a lot of the musical timbre one associates with the real thing. Instruments were spread laterally across the stage, and though the sound of massed violins on the classical selections was less steely than on any digital player I’ve heard in this price segment (and many beyond), there still was some thinness to their sound. It’s fair to say that the Debut III’s limitations were more obvious on classical music than on rock, pop, or jazz.
With the cartridge already installed, this ’table is very easy for even a novice to use. In just a few simple steps, you’re off and spinning. The Debut III is also quieter than you might think with a surprisingly low level of groove noise as long as your LPs are in pretty good condition. Although I could not make a direct comparison, I believe the performance of the Debut III is comparable to that of the slightly more expensive MMF 2.1LE that is made in the Pro-Ject factory for Music Hall. Their plinths look identical and employ the same approach to decoupling the motor, which is suspended via an industrial-grade elastic band fitted into a cut-out in the plinth. This effectively and ingeniously floats the motor, helping to keep mechanical resonances away from the stylus and groove. Unlike the MMF 2.1LE, the Debut III has a one-piece integrated headshell and aluminum arm tube. I preferred the Pro-Ject’s tonearm, but liked the somewhat richer tonal balance on massed strings of the Music Tracker cartridge on the Music Hall better. In any case, both ’tables are incredible values.
One can improve the Debut III’s sonic performance very easily by switching the stylus on the OM-5E to a higher performance one in the Ortofon OM series. (The Debut III can even play 78s if you use an Ortofon 78 stylus and an optional motor pulley.) I tightened the bass up quite a bit by using a Gingko Cloud 10 platform, but you might experiment with less costly isolation pucks to get much the same effect. The inexpensive Pro-Ject Speed Box MkII also made a noticeable improvement in clarity and pitch stability.