Debut III / Ortofon OM-5E
If your last experience with a turntable was back before CDs took hold, you might be surprised to learn that today's models tend to take a minimalist route. Gone are the quartz-locked direct-drive motors, automatic operation, and servo-controlled tonearms of the past. As with the other 'tables in our survey, the Pro-Ject Debut III is entirely manual, requiring you to turn on the motor with a switch hidden under the front edge, manually position the arm over the record, and lower the stylus. At the end of an LP side, you need to manually raise the arm, or it will play the lead-out groove all night. Should you get the urge to spin a 45, changing the Debut III's speed involves lifting up the platter and manually moving the belt to a different step on the motor pulley (an operation that's easier in practice than it sounds).
The Czech-built Debut III comes packaged as a complete system that's pretty much ready to go, with the tonearm and an Ortofon OM-5E moving-magnet phono cartridge installed and aligned. The OM-5E normally sells separately for about $50, and a nice feature is that you can upgrade it to one of the more senior members of the OM range in just a few seconds by swapping out the stylus. The supplied OM-5 stylus is a standard elliptical, while the OM-10, 20, and 30 styli offer progressively more refined profiles that should result in even better tracking and high-frequency detail.
For maximum value, the standard-model turntable ($299) comes in a rather utilitarian matte-black finish, but for an extra $30 you can get one of the snazzy, painted versions. Mine came in a striking fire-engine red, but a range of other bold colors is available. This is also the only one of our three turntables to include a dust cover.
For a budget model, the Debut III is impressive in both its overall look and its fit and finish. You can tell that everything has been carefully thought out - for example, from the way the motor is suspended on a rubber belt to reduce vibration transfer into the plinth - and when you consider nice little features like the azimuth adjustment on the tonearm, it's clear that the designers knew how to get the most from a fairly simple design. At 14 pounds, it's also quite substantially built, with a 3-pound steel platter to help smooth out any speed fluctuations.
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