Sunday, July 06, 2008

Photos of the Day - My Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable

Today, for no reason whatsoever, I'm posting photos of my current turntable. This is a Pro-Ject Debut III, a popular entry-level table. I bought it for $300, which is a steal when you're talking about hi-fi audio. Most turntables don't start to become interesting until you pass $1,000. That's just the table itself; a good phono cartridge is essential, as is a good phono pre-amp, and various tweaks and upgrades. Yep, analog music is a pricey hobby. It's truly a labor of love.

I've made a few upgrades to the Debut III. The standard-issue steel platter has been replaced with a clear acrylic platter, which deadens much of the outside sound and significantly improves sound quality. It also happens to look terrific - I really need to attach some blue lights to the back, so it can glow in the dark. You'll also notice all the gold - that's one of my personal tweaks, just to make the table look cooler. I used a can of gold spray paint, which has been the secret weapon in my artist's arsenal for a decade. Much of my artwork from 1998-2001 revolved around cans of gold spray paint.

The phono cartridge is another major upgrade. Pro-Ject Debut III comes with an Ortofon OM-5E cart attached, but it's barely adequate. In fact, it's a pretty terrible cartridge, enough to make you question why you didn't save up for a pricier table like the Pro-Ject Xpression III or RM-5. If you buy this turntable, upgrade the cart as quickly as possible. Have your dealer attach the new one in the store if you have no experience switching carts.

My cart is a Denon DL-160, a moving-coil cartridge that sells for $180. Sounds expensive? For a quality phono cart, this is still squarely in the "budget" range. It may seem like a lot of money, especially if your idea of playing music is switching on your iPod. In the world of analog music, you get what you pay for. And the Denon DL-160 is a fantastic cart. It will bring out details and depth of sound you never knew existed, and the sound is warm and silky smooth.

As music formats go, the vinyl LP is superior the CD and digital music. If you join the vinyl revival, you'll want to be able to prove that point to your doubting friends. So if you purchase a Debut III table, the acrylic platter and DL-160 cart will win your friends over. Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue have never sounded better to my ears.

And, yes, it is true that you will find an even better sound - more depth, larger soundstage, greater range - with more expensive turntables. But thanks to the fiscal management of Bush/Cheney and the Republican Party, the once Almighty Dollar is hobbled and broken. And all these wonderful turntables are becoming more and more expensive, thanks to currency exchanges. Which means your price point for the next level of tables is hovering around $1,000.

You will get what you pay for, but you also have to be a real dedicated audio junkie before you shell out that kind of money. At some point, you have to be practical about playing that Led Zeppelin IV that you paid three bucks for. So if you're curious about vinyl records ("vi-curious?"), then the Debut III is a good place to start the journey. You'll discover in time whether you get the "tinkering bug," whether the high-definition audio of analog speaks to you, whether you truly enjoy searching through used record shops like a pirate.

If you really get hooked, there's a whole crazy universe for you to discover. Tinkering, tweaking, and did I mention vaccuum tubes? Ah, yes, the glorious vaccuum tubes. My two next upgrades for my table include a Speed Box, which regulates the speed of the motor, tightens the sound, and allows me to play 33's and 45's at the press of a switch; and the Tube Box II, a phono pre-amplifier which includes two vaccuum tubes to enrich the sound. After that, time to purchase a pair of speaker stands (the kind you can fill with sand), and a new cabinet, one that's lower and can fit all the components of my ever-growing entertainment system.

It never ends, does it? But it's worth it, kids. Analog music really is worth it.

P.S. If you're curious about those brown squares supporting the table and the Marantz stereo (a 1977 classic I picked up for $65!), that's another one of my crucial tweaks. Because the phono cartridge's needle picks up everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - in your local environment, you need to isolate your components from vibrations and unneeded sounds. Everything that shakes and rumbles through your area, be it walking feet, the slamming doors, even cars driving down the road a quarter-mile away, muddies your sound. You need to decouple and isolate your system to get the most out of your sound.

There are many ideas you can try for little or no money, and this is a great way to discover if you have the tweaking bug (turntables are just like hot rods this way). What I used are vinyl floor panels (for kitchen tiles), cork board, and foam drawer liner. These can all be had very cheaply, and were also a good source for making your own platter mats (you won't need a mat with an acrylic platter).

The turntable and stereo receiver are set on a sandwich of vinyl floor panel, with alternating layers of cork and foam inside. This dramatically reduces outside noise, and greatly sharpens the sound of the music. There is greater seperation between instruments, each sound is more disctinct, there is greater depth in the background, and drumming is especially punchier, sharper, and more detailed. I wouldn't be boasting of this if it hadn't worked so well. It really improved the sound of my records enough to qualify as a major upgrade. By also moving the speakers two feet away from the wall and raising them off the ground, I've managed to add a couple thousand dollars to the sound.

So that's my final bit of advice for you. Before you decide to run off to the store and spend enormous sums of money to "upgrade" your sound system, give these tweaks a try. You'll achieve fantastic results and save your wallet in the process. You'll need that money when the Bush Depression hits.

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