You don’t have to listen real hard to hear the difference between the Debut Carbon and the RM-1.3. With the first tune I played, “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” from Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, the difference was obvious — but it wasn’t immediately apparent which was better. On the Carbon, “Heaven” sounded really, really clean. Wonder’s vocal floated almost supernaturally in the center between the big Krells, clearly distinguished from the dense arrangement. The soundstage spread evenly and naturally from right to left. On the RM-1.3, the midrange seemed comparatively de-emphasized, and the treble a little soft; Wonder’s vocal wasn’t quite as clear. Yet the instruments seemed to have more precise placement in the soundstage with the RM-1.3. The background vocals, which are in some cases panned far to the right or left, also seemed even more hard-panned. Overall, I preferred the sound of the Carbon.
The bass was another matter entirely. On the Carbon, the grooving synth-bass line sounded extremely precise, but on the RM-1.3, it sounded fuller and more satisfying, especially in the midbass, where most notes of the electric and upright basses lie.
This difference was even more apparent when I played Velvet Darkness, a 1976 record that dropped then up-and-coming fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth incongruously in with a jazz-funk rhythm section. The guitars and keyboards were much more vivid and clear on the Carbon, but the RM-1.3 got the fat, funky ’70s rhythm just right. I decided to get the bass out of the place by playing Steve Khan’s Evidence, a reverb-heavy recording consisting mostly of multitracked acoustic guitars. Khan’s take on “In a Silent Way” would sound gorgeous even as a 96-kbps MP3 played through $10 earbuds, but on the Carbon it sounded mega-gorgeous. I wouldn’t say the Carbon reproduced more detail than the RM-1.3, but it definitely sounded livelier. And more coherent: It was easier to make out the individual guitars in the mix. I had to wonder how much of this difference in sound was due to the cartridges — the RM-1.3 comes fitted with a Sumiko Pearl, a moving-magnet unit in the same price range as the 2M Red —and how much was due to the ’tables. So I installed the Pearl on the Carbon to get an idea. These comparisons are tough because it takes several minutes to swap cartridges and readjust the tonearm. However, it appeared that more than half of the midrange and treble magic I heard with the Carbon could be credited to the 2M Red, while the differing bass characteristics originated in the turntables themselves.
With its stock Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, Pro-Ject’s Debut Carbon gave me a clean, vibrant sound quality that reminded me quite a bit of the $1,999 Rega RP6/Exact cartridge combo I recently reviewed. That the Debut Carbon can approach the RP6’s performance at 20 percent of its price is remarkable, to say the least. Its sound isn’t perfect — rock fans might want more oomph in the bass — but if I were buying a budget table tomorrow, this is the one.
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