Pros: Price, tone arm, looks
Cons: Upgrades get spendy, need to spend another $300 to make it shine
I've been into vinyl previously but in the mid-90's, sold my high end VPI table and never looked back. I ended up recently with a bunch of new records and nothing to play them on, and decided to test the vinyl waters again - there is much more interesting and better sounding choices now than there was ten-15 years ago when record companies were fleeing record sales. Now it seems everyone is into vinyl - one positive thing I can thank the hipsters for.
Reviews all pointed to the Pro-Ject Carbon Debut as the "it" entry-level table - the minimum you had to spend to get the quality that equals or perhaps surpasses good digital. With a headphone only system now, I needed more than just the out-of-the-box system that comprises the Pro-Ject- it comes with a great tone arm, a decent platter, and a good starter phono cartridge, but no phono stage.
I found a good buy on a used model, which had the upgraded acrylic platter ($129) and upgraded Speed Box motor ($129), all for the same price as the standard model ($399), It came with the Ortofon 2m Red cartridge, but I needed a phono stage so after much online research, I narrowed down to two choices - Schiit Mani or the Hagerman Labs Bugle 2. Fate intervened and I managed to source a great deal on a used iFi iPhono unit, normally $400 but used for $220. It was a lot to spend in some senses, but super glad I bought this, as it raises the level of performance far above what can be found for $200. It came in handy later too when I needed to adjust the capacitance/loading to reduce some of the siblance I heard initially.
Out of the box, the Pro-Ject sounded - well... average. Not the equal nor the better of my more expensive Sony HAP1ZES player. I played with the VTF, adjusted the load capacitance, and it helped bring the sound closer to what I was expecting. But...still heard some top end haze, bass was just "ok", and depth and soundstage felt compressed. Not the vinyl sound I remembered, and I was surprised at the surface noise on records too - even after a good scrubbing on a vacuum cleaning machine.
Reading up, I suspected the 2m Red was the culprit - it's a starter phono cartridge that sells for $100 and while it gets good reviews, those who have gone up the Ortofon 2m range reported much better sound. The Blue 2M was $230 - seemed odd to spend almost half the table's cost to upgrade the stylus, but I did it and was rewarded handsomely. Surface noise dropped considerably. Bass was significantly increased, much more impact, slam and heft. Everywhere else was improved - soundstage, rhythm, bounce, top end... the Red felt like it was smothering so much of what the Blue was revealing. I know you can go much higher in the Ortofon range, but for me, that will await another table upgrade first (probably a VPI scout).
So, with the benefit of an upgraded cartridge, the platter and motor upgrades, and a killer phone stage, I'm into the Pro-Ject setup to the tune of about $800 and change. There aren't many tables I've found at that price new, though a few used. With each upgrade, the Pro-Jct seems to reveal more of its capability so I am impressed that it has kept up, and with these upgrades, I finally get the amazing vinyl sound I recalled from my older system. I can also see what a better table is likely to get me - more of everything except surface noise.
So I think the Pro-Ject is a great starter table, but don't think you can drop $399 and be done -more likely it will cost you $800 all in. Save your pennies and buy the better phono stage first along with the cartridge upgrade, before doing the platter and speed box upgrades.
I listened to this on my Woo Audio 6SE (tube upgrades), powering either the Audeze LCD3 or Sennheiser HD650, and some rather spendy cables (Cardas headphone cables, Acoustic Zen Ref II Silver interconnects, Cards Golden Ref AC cables, and Foundation Research AC filters - probably $3k in cables - these were holdovers from a much more exotic hifi system sold off after converting to headphone only - your mileage may vary based on your own cables and filters)