Best Cartridge Upgrade for Pro-Ject Debut Carbon

In this article, I will review the top 5 cartridge upgrades for the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon. And then, I will narrow down the list to the one that stands out as the very best choice.

A cartridge upgrade is the most effective way to take the sonic performance of the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon to the next level. It can absolutely transform the turntable.

Personally, I have two turntables that are more or less comparable with the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon in price and performance. An AT-LP120 and a Rega Planar 2. I recently upgraded both of them with better cartridges. And I was amazed.

The increase in sonic performance that can be achieved with a cartridge upgrade blew my expectations.

The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon comes standard with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. Which is a good cartridge for a turntable in this price range. But there is a lot more sonic performance left on the table that can be tapped into with a higher end cartridge.

When researching the best cartridge upgrade for the Project Debut Carbon, I have focused on cartridges from about $200 to about $500.

I think cartridges below $200 will give to small of a bump in sonic performance from the originally fitted Ortofon 2M Red to justify an upgrade.

And cartridges above $500 starts to get a bit overkill for a turntable in the Debut Carbon’s price range.

So from $200 to $500 seems like a good sweet spot. It is also in this price range that we find most of the popular cartridge upgrades for the Debut Carbon.

If you plan to upgrade the Debut Carbon to a higher-end turntable down the line and carry over the cartridge, it might make sense to go above $500. So one cartridge on the top 5 list below is above $500.

After many nights of research and comparing the findings from my research with my own experience with cartridge upgrades, the cartridges that stand out as the top 5 cartridge upgrades are listed below.

Top 5 cartridge upgrades for the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon:

1 Ortofon 2M Blue
2 Ortofon 2M Bronze
3 Grado Prestige Gold
4 AT VM540ML
5 Ortofon 2M Black

I will review each of them in the sections below. And then pick the one that stands out as the best choice.

1. Ortofon 2M Blue

The Ortofon 2M Blue is the Ortofon 2M Red’s bigger brother and the Ortofon 2M Bronze’s little brother. So it sits right between the Red and the Bronze. It shares body with the Red, but has a higher end stylus.

TypeMoving Magnet (MM)
Output Level5.5 mV
Channel Separation25 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47 kOhm
150-300pF
Recommended Tracking Force1.8 grams
Stylus ShapeNude Elliptical
MountStandard

Pros

  • Good tracker
  • Detailed
  • Precise
  • Outperforms its little brother, the 2M Red, by quite some margin

Cons

  • Regarded as quite bright and analytical by some vinyl enthusiasts
  • Not a good choice if warm smooth sound is your preference

Click here to check price on Amazon.

2. Ortofon 2M Bronze

The 2M Bronze sits just below the top of the range 2M Black, and above the 2M Red and the 2M Blue. Its stylus is interchangeable with the 2M Black. The 2M Bronze is one of those cartridges that the vinyl community seem to give nothing but praise.

TypeMoving Magnet (MM)
Output Level5.0 mV
Channel Separation26 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47 kOhm
150-300pF
Recommended Tracking Force1.8 grams
Stylus ShapeNude Fine Line
MountStandard

PROS

  • While its smaller brothers, the Red and Blue, seem to have a bit of a love or hate relationship with the vinyl community, the Bronze is widely accepted as a very good high-end MM cartridge across the board
  • Known for great dynamics and openness.
  • Engaging.
  • Shares body with the 2M Black
  • Possible to upgrade for a Black stylus for even better sound when the stylus is due for replacement

CONS

  • Might be slightly on the bright side in some systems for people that prefer warmer sound. But this can easily be balanced out with a good preamp choice.

Click here to check price on Amazon.

3. Grado Prestige Gold

The Grado Prestige Golds are hand assembled in Brooklyn, with some builders having over 25 years of experience. Known as one of the sweetest and smoothest sounding MM cartridges on the market today.

TypeMoving Magnet (MM)
Output Level5.0 mV
Channel Separation35 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47k Ohms
Recommended Tracking Force1.5 grams
Stylus ShapeElliptical diamond
MountStandard

PROS

  • Price is at the lower end of the spectrum
  • Loved by many for its warm and pleasant sound character
  • Deep bass
  • Hand made in NYC

CONS

  • Regarded by some as a bit boring as details might be sacrificed for warmth and smoothness throughout the frequency range.

Click here to check price on Amazon.

4. AT VL540ML

Dual magnet (MM) cartridge with MicroLine stylus. 
The VM540ML replaces the discontinued and very popular AT440MLa/b.

TypeMoving Magnet (MM)
Output Level4.0 mV
Channel Separation28 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47k Ohms
Recommended Tracking Force2.0 grams
Stylus Shape2.2 x 0.12 mil MicroLine
MountStandard

PROS

  • Price is at the lower end of the spectrum
  • The go-to higher end MM cartridge for many vinyl enthusiasts
  • Huge following in the vinyl community
  • Good tracker

CONS

  • Hard to find any major cons for its price
  • Regarded by some as being a fraction on the bright/analytical side in some systems

Click here to check price on Amazon.

5. Ortofon 2M Black

The Ortofon 2M black sits on the very top of the Ortofon 2M range. Just as its smaller brother, the Bronze, it is one of those cartridges that seems to receive nothing but love and praise from the vinyl community and vinyl enthusiasts across the board.

TypeMoving Magnet (MM)
Output Level5.0 mV
Channel Separation26 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47 kOhm
150-300pF
Recommended Tracking Force1.8 grams
Stylus ShapeNude Shibata
MountStandard

PROS

  • One of the best MM cartridges on the market. Period.
  • Will work perfect on the Debut Carbon tonearm
  • You will never think about a cartridge upgrade again

CONS

  • High price
  • Nothing if you have the money to spend

Click here to check price on Amazon.

Discussion

There are two routes to take when selecting a cartridge upgrade for the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon.

The first one is simply to move as far up the Ortofon 2M range as you can afford.

The other one is to go for another brand if you want a cartridge with a different sound characteristics than the Ortofon 2M cartridges.

Moving up the Ortofon 2M range

The quickest and safest tip I can give on upgrading the Debut Carbon’s cartridge is to go as high on the Ortofon 2M range that you can afford. Blue, Bronze, or Black.

The Ortofon 2M range is one of the most (if not the most) selling cartridge ranges in the world and is highly regarded by the vinyl community and stereophiles around the globe.

The Ortofon 2M cartridge range is also what Pro-Ject engineers developed their carbon tonearm with. Moving up the very cartridge range that the engineers designed the tonearm for will guarantee a hassle free upgrading experience. It is a low risk approach.

The Ortofon 2M Blue

The 2M Blue shares body with the originally fitted 2M Red. So, it is possible to upgrade from a Red to a Blue by changing to a Blue stylus and keeping the Red body.

The problem tho, is that the 2M Blue stylus is almost the same price as a complete 2M Blue cartridge (body and stylus). So there is not much to save on buying only the stylus.

Another thing is that the 2M Bronze, that is next on the list, seems to have a much better reputation in the vinyl community for being a true high-end great sounding cartridge. A lot of vinyl enthusiasts seem to be on the fence about the 2M Red and 2M Blue. But in love with the Bronze.

The Ortofon 2M Bronze

While the 2M Blue shares body with the Red (but has a better stylus), the Bronze will give you both a higher quality body and stylus compared to the Red.

The Bronze actually shares body with the very expensive Black, so if you select the Bronze, you can upgrade the stylus to a Black one to achieve full 2M Black performance down the line.

The Ortofon 2M Black

The Black is the top of the line MM cartridge from Ortofon. It is absolutely awesome. But it starts to get expensive. For the regular Debut Carbon vinyl spinner it is probably too expensive to be considered a great choice.

But for those that are thinking about upgrading the turntable at a later stage (and transfer cartridge) it might be a good investment to go straight for the Black.

Moving to another brand

If you don’t want to move up the Ortofon 2M range, the best and most popular options (based on my research) is to consider a Grado Prestige Gold or an Audio-Technica VL540ML.

Grado Prestige Gold

The Grado Prestige Gold is a natural choice if the 2M range sounds too bright for your taste, and you want something warmer and smoother sounding.

I considered the Grado Prestige Gold when I upgraded my Rega Planar 2, but had to eliminate it from my list because it is often reported to be problematic on Rega tonearms. I could not find evidence that it gives the same problems on the Carbon Debut tonearm, so it should be a safe choice for the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon.

Audio-Technica VL540ML

The last cartridge on our list is the Audio-Technica VL540ML. I chose this cartridge myself when I upgraded my Audio-Technica AT-LP120. As it would be easy to fit it to the AT-LP120 tonearm.

The VL540ML is a great cartridge with more or less the same sound character as the Ortofon 2M Blue and Bronze. But I see no real reason to choose this one before a cartridge from the Ortofon 2M range for the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon. As the tonearm is design for the 2M range and upgrading within that range is more likely to be hassle-free than moving outside the 2M range.

Conclusion

Based on the reviews and discussion above, the Ortofon 2M Bronze stands out as the overall best cartridge upgrade for the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon.

To me, that is a quite easy choice to be honest. If you have the budget.

  • It will provide the solid bump in sonic performance that we are looking for and that the turntable is capable of
  • It is loved by Stereophiles and the vinyl community
  • It includes both a better body and stylus over the standard fitted Ortofon 2M Red
  • It can be further upgraded with a 2M Black stylus to become a full blooded 2M Black
  • It fit within the $200 t0 $500 sweet spot
  • It will provide for a hassle free upgrade on the Carbon tonearm which is designed for the Ortofon 2M range

Click here to check price on Amazon.

Cartridge break-in time

Be aware that a new cartridge needs time to break in and sound its best. It might take about 50 hours or so of vinyl spinning before the “suspension” has soften up and the cartridge performs as designed.

So be patient.

A cartridge upgrade will usually deliver much better sound than the cartridge it replaces from the get-go. And from there, the increase in performance will become greater and greater during the first weeks and months.

Balancing

Different cartridges have different sound characteristics. The same is true for phono preamps.

The Ortofon 2M range that is discussed a lot in this article has a quite neutral sound character. But might, depending on the preferences of the ears listening, lean a fraction towards bright and analytical in some stereo systems. It is highly down to personal preference and we are talking tiny nuances here.

Anyway, there is a “tool” available to push the Ortofon 2M range towards a warm and smooth sound character if that is what you want. It is called balancing and basically means that we use a preamp with a warm sound character to pull the whole system in that direction.

A very good phono preamp that will pull the Ortofon cartridges towards warmer sound is the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2. It is a tube phono preamp that has a warm and silk smooth sound character.

For more information on good preamps for the Ortofon 2M range, feel free to check out this article where I cover this in depth.

Resources

Magnetic Cartridge (Wikipedia)

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon (Pro-Ject Audio Systems Home)

Ortofon 2M Cartridge Range (Ortofon Home)

Grado Cartridges (Grado Labs Home)

Audio-Technica MM Cartridges (Audio-Technica Home)

  • Tom
  • September 15, 2019