Test Report: Pro-Ject Debut III USB turntable

The Short Form
$449 / SUMIKOAUDIO.NET / 510-843-4500
Snapshot
The Debut III USB provides an excellent (if time-consuming) solution for moving your precious vinyl treasures into the digital domain
Plus
• Easy to set up and get running • Excellent transfer quality • Recommended Audacity recording software works well
Minus
• Unlike with CDs, analog transfers happen in real time • Editing and track naming have to be done manually
Key Features
•Built-in phono stage and digital converter •Factory-aligned Ortofon cartridge •Matte black finish •16 1?2 x 12 1?2 x 4 1?2 in; 15 lb

For purist audiophiles, converting precious analog records into a digital format has about as much appeal as drinking a fine Cabernet on the rocks. Yet many of us with large collections of vinyl LPs want to be able to appreciate these treasures even when we're away from our fancy rigs. Once a record has been saved as a digital file, you can burn it onto a CD, transfer it to an iPod, or stream it to different parts of the house over a home network. The trick has always been in making that move from analog to digital without having to jump through too many hoops.

Traditionally, the most common method for doing this has been to copy the LP to CD using a standalone CD recorder, and then rip it to a computer's hard disk using its CD drive. I've done this myself for many years with excellent results, although it is time-consuming and cumbersome. What if you could remove that intermediary step? There are a few turntables on the market with a USB output to connect directly to a computer, but the performance of most of these is pretty iffy. Not surprisingly, they're aimed at listeners who aren't going to nitpick too much about the sound quality of the transfer.

Regular S&V readers may recall that last summer, I checked out the standard version of Pro-Ject's Debut III turntable, which I described as "a tremendous bargain" that gets "all of the basics right." The Debut III USB is essentially the same model, but with an analog phono stage and a digital-to-analog converter attached that will run you an additional $150.

SETUP

Just in case you missed that earlier review, the Debut III is a simple but well-engineered manual two-speed turntable that comes with an Ortofon OM 5 E cartridge already installed. This means that anyone can get the turntable up and running in just a few minutes with a minimum of fuss. All you need to do is remove the two screws that hold the motor in place for shipping, install the belt and platter, and then attach and adjust the counterweight and anti-skating weight, and you're ready to go. A small switch under the front left corner turns the motor on, and you can change the speed from 331?3 to 45 rpm by moving the belt to a larger step on the motor pulley.

In the 'table's USB configuration, a box holding the phono stage and the digital converter is slung under the back of the plinth, and it switches on and off with the motor. The signal from the tonearm is fed directly into this box, which includes line-level analog and USB digital outputs. The analog signal can be connected to any component with an appropriate input by using the included cable, and Pro-Ject throws in an RCA-to-3.5mm minijack adapter so you can connect it to devices like table radios or computer speakers with iPod-friendly minijack inputs.

The Debut III doesn't come with recording software, but Pro-Ject recommends Audacity, a free cross-platform audio editor (audacity.sourceforge.net). While Audacity is easy to download and use, interactive tech support is pretty much nonexistent with freeware like this. But a good resource is audacityteam.org, which features an Audacity users' forum, Wiki, and plug-ins.

Once you have the Audacity software loaded, simply connect the turntable to any available USB port on your computer, and the correct driver will install automatically. I used my laptop running Windows XP Pro, but Pro-Ject says the Debut III USB will also work fine using Mac OS X or Linux. With Audacity up and running, you'll need to make a few adjustments from the default settings to set it up for a 2-channel input, but once configured, the software is pretty easy to navigate. The default setting records at CD quality (44.1-kHz sampling rate with 16-bit resolution), but this setting is widely adjustable.

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