The Pro-Ject Debut III captures a surprising amount of the essence of music, and that overrides any of its minor faults. If you’ve been waiting to get into analog painlessly, have a bunch of records gathering dust, or want a good inexpensive front end for a second system, you owe it to yourself to check out the Pro-Ject Debut III. I don’t know of a turntable and cartridge combination that sounds better for less.
As good as the Debut III is at its price, the Pro-Ject RM-5 paired with an optional Blue Point No. 2 high-output moving coil is a major step up in sonic performance—and well it should be at about triple the price. Compared with the Debut III package, the RM-5’s superior tonearm, less resonant platter, better isolation, and optional Blue Point No. 2 resulted in music that was much more engaging and exciting. The soundstage was less two-dimensional and had better focus, with more separation among the performers on the stage. Freddie’s trumpet was richer, and subtle details like the air behind the mouthpiece, the spit in the trumpet, and the blat of its bell were more evident. The Schubert Trio sounded less congested on fortissimos and had sharper, clearer transients. Harry James’ big band had more body and air around the instruments, as well as significantly better tonal balance. Bass articulation, solidity, and control on the RM-5 combo were on another level altogether. The sound improved still further, especially in clarity and focus, when I used Pro-Ject’s Ground-It Deluxe platform. As with the Debut III, experimentation with isolation pucks and platforms is likely to reap big sonic rewards.
Adding the Speed Box II increased the overall performance of the RM-5 far more than the Speed Box’s modest price would Pro-Ject RM-5 Vinyl Lives! The Absolute Sound June/July 2007 53 suggest, bringing more life and rhythmic drive to the Paganini and making everything sound more precise. Attacks and images were sharper and backgrounds were blacker, while the pitch stability of the RM-5 now rivaled that of a good CD player— one of digital technology’s strengths. In short, the addition of the Speed Box II is the first upgrade I’d make on the RM-5.
The only design element the RM-5 appears to share with the Debut III is that its motor is also suspended by a heavy-duty elastic band fitted through a cut-out in the plinth. With its teardrop plinth, aluminum cone feet, carbon-fiber arm with Swiss bearings, and detachable interconnect, the RM-5 appears to have borrowed heavily from the higher-end RM-9.1. While it lacks the RM-9’s added mass, acrylic platter, superior isolation, and more refined arm, the RM-5’s sound bears a strong family resemblance to its larger brother—and that’s a big compliment!
The arm on the RM-5 is essentially a scaled-down version of the arm on the RM-9.1, but has a headshell bonded to its thinner carbon-fiber arm tube, as well as different Swiss bearings. It is at home with higher-performance cartridges, and optional counterweights are available for heavier cartridges. When coupled with the Blackbird, the RM-5’s performance improved across the board, but it couldn’t match the Blackbird’s ease and smoothness in the larger RM-9.1 ’table, nor its dimensionality, dynamics, bass control, and focus.
The RM-5 and Blue Point No.2 make a formidable combination in the sub-kilobuck sweepstakes, and the carbon-fiber arm is a pleasant surprise. Whereas this combo does not provide triple the performance of the Debut III, it brings forth more of the fine details that make listening more engaging and rewarding. Its sound is far closer to the bigger Pro-Ject ’tables and worth the extra coin.
Only a few words are in order to supplement my previous review of this fine ’table. One of the biggest advances of the RM-9.1 and the Blackbird over the RM-5 and Blue Point No. 2 is that the hall comes much more into play and the stage takes on added dimensionality. The overall sound is more relaxed and natural, but is also more dynamically explosive and engaging. On the Shostakovich, the strings still had bite, but now came out of a blacker background and floated on a cushion of air. The performers were better separated across the width and depth of the stage. The brass in Harry James’ big band had that ping and weight one associates with the real thing, and the bass and percussion were not only more incisive but also in better tonal balance. For just under two bills, the RM-9 and Blackbird are a great combination and quite the deal.
How does one take the basic design of the RM-9.1, which was one of TAS’s 2006 Products of the Year, and make it even better? Add more mass, better isolation, less weight on the bearing, and a longer arm. The result is a sound that sucks you further into the performance. My first thought was, “Yeah, that’s more of what I’m used to from a reference ’table!” Compared with the RM-9.1, music reproduction via the RM-10 was more refined and had greater impact, sharper focus, and more bass solidity and articulation. The noise floor was lower; Joni’s voice was more seductive; the Shostakovich was more thrilling; and instruments had a bit more body and air. One hears more fine details, including added ambient cues from the hall. Everything was more natural sounding and “tidy,” as if someone had cleaned the window on the soundstage. Although these sonic improvements over the RM-9.1 are far more subtle than those you hear when moving from the Debut III to the RM-5, or from the RM-5 to the RM-9.1, they are still appreciable.