Hard-core vinyl fetishists may see it as the ultimate example of the race to the bottom ethos, but the iPod is the de facto music player for most people. Thing is, some iPodders have a closet full of records or they’re just now getting into vinyl. So it’s no wonder the market for USB turntables that make it easy to transfer analog to digital is booming. Playback has looked at a couple of budget models, and sure, they’ll get the job done. But judged as turntables, they’re mostly middle-of-the- road products—that is, not up to your highest sound quality standards. That’s right, turntables have a “sound,” and the better ones are better because they pull more music out of the grooves while reducing apparent surface noise, clicks, and pops. That’s where the Pro-Ject Debut III USB turntable comes into the story; it’s a sweet sounding record player that also rips vinyl.
The plain vanilla Debut III turntable was favorably reviewed in Playback’s November 2007 issue, and the Debut III USB is much the same, but with connectivity options that make it a whole new ballgame. For example, on the back side of the ‘table you’ll find there’s a USB 1.1 jack, and instead of the usual turntable cable, the Debut III USB sports stereo RCA output jacks! What’s up with that?
Stated simply, this turntable has its own built-in phono preamplifier, so it can get hooked up with anything with line-level inputs: integrated amplifiers, receivers, boom boxes, and yes, your computer (with an RCA to 3.5mm adaptor).
The turntable also converts its phono cartridge’s analog output to digital format, sending the zeros and ones out via the USB jack, and providing digital audio data compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. You do need editing software, however, and Sumiko, Pro-Ject’s importer, recommends Audacity, which is available as an open source download.
The LP-to-digital transfer process is pretty straightforward, but if you want to explore Audacity’s editing features, you can diddle and tweak the sound in the digital domain for hours on end. As for me, I went for the direct approach and left the sound as is.
I compared the sound of original CDs to my Debut III USB digital transfers burned to the CDs of the same music. On “So What?” from the digitized Miles Davis Kind of Blue LP [Columbia Records] vs. Sony’s Kind of Blue CD, the differences weren’t subtle. The Sony CD had a brighter, more immediate sound; the Debut III USB-generated CD was a giant step closer to the sound of the vinyl Kind of Blue. But as I switched back and forth between the burned and factory CDs, I noted the Sony CD was dimensionally flatter and had a “canned,” constricted quality compared with the Debut III CD. I also ran the same sort of comparisons with “NSU” from Fresh Cream [ATCO], Cream’s first record. The differences between the two “NSU” versions were less obvious, and I sometimes misidentified which was which. So sure, depending on the condition of the LP, you can make very credible transfers with the Debut III USB and play them as CDs or import them into iTunes or make MP3s.
Then again, if you already have a decent sounding turntable, the nice folks at Pro-Ject have a Plan B alternative—the Phono Box II USB ($179). It’s a phono preamp/analog-to-digital converter/USB box—or think of it as a Debut III USB sans the turntable.
The Pro-Ject Debut III USB is a ripping success, ideal for those who want to do quality vinyl-to-digital transfers, and, oh by the way, also want a really good, basic high-performance turntable thrown into the bargain.