Saturday, January 16, 2010

Audiophile Audition Review

I want to thank John over at the exclusive rights to reprint this great review!

VPI 30th Anniversary Classic Turntable
with JMW-10.5i Special Edition Tonearm

I still think that perhaps performance could have been improved with an even more expensive cartridge; however its characteristic lack of drive seemed to carry over regardless of cartridge and/or equipment changes.

Published on January 03, 2010

VPI 30th Anniversary Classic Turntable
with JMW-10.5i Special Edition Tonearm
SRP: $2500

VPI Industries, Inc.
77 Cliffwood Ave. #3B
Cliffwood, New Jersey 07721-1087
732-583-6895 (voice)
732-946-8578 (fax)


Basic Description

Table. The turntable is adorned with a wood plinth that comes in black oak or walnut veneer. The isolator feet are large, black and plastic with a rubber grommet/washer separating them from the base, and twist for leveling purposes. The platter is cast aluminum, very heavy and is 1.875 inches high. It is designed to work with a standard plastic clamp that twists on the spindle (included) as well as an upgraded center weight ($150). The outer edge of the platter is machined to accommodate the VPI periphery ring clamp at $600. [An alternative to vacuum tables that several makers now offer...Ed.] Other options include a dustcover ($300) and a speed controller, the SDS, at $1200.

According to the manual, the motor pulley is aligned to within +/- .0005” when tested at the factory. It has three rungs for each 33 1/3 and 45 rpm allowing for slight differences in tolerance with the belt and is solid mounted AC synchronous. The bearing is inverted. As you can see from the image, there is also a rubber separator between the motor portion and the rest of the table. The top is a black powder-coated metal that looks to be about .125” in thickness. This sits atop the solid wood that can be viewed from underneath the table. There is an IEC outlet jack on the back so the power cord can be easily changed.

All tables are run-in for at least four hours before shipping according to the manual and the specifications of the table are: wow and flutter less than .02%, rumble less than 80 dB, weight 48 pounds, 20.75” W x 15.75” D x 10” H; three year warranty.

Arm. This arm does not have a dial on the top to adjust VTA “on the fly” (which the standard version has). Also, its base has been simplified to reduce cost, yet maintain as much of the performance of the more expensive arm. The wiring is by VPI. The arm is a uni-pivot design with a separate RCA block for use with any interconnects and allows for any possible adjustment including azimuth, VTA, and anti-skate. Fluid damping is available for cartridges that require it. This arm is 10.5” versus the 9” arm length that is common. Assuming I used the tracking error calculator spreadsheet that is available here correctly, the difference yields about a 25% improvement in average distortion (due to error) and more than 40% improvement in maximum distortion (due to error). This translates to approximately .32% average and .37% maximum error.

Associated Equipment

Bowers and Wilkins 703 loudspeakers, NAD C355BEE, Sonneteer Sedley Phonograph Preamplifier, Clearaudio Virtuoso Cartridge ($875), Grado Reference Platinum Cartridge (~$300), Marantz TT-15S1 Turntable (for comparison), Audioquest cables.


The first request I made to review this table was in September of 2008. It is fitting that after a year or so later I finally had the table in hand! The unit is massive compared to the other turntables I've reviewed near and above this price point. The unit was mostly assembled when I pulled it out of the box, so there was a lot less to do than with other tables under review.

The Look. First I should comment on its appearance before I get into the process of setup. I opted to receive the Classic in the walnut finish (as I have a thing for wood tables). The base has the edges on the corner cut and probably for good reason considering the weight of this table and avoiding sharp edges. However, this makes the veneer on the edges (which doesn't match the sides exactly) look more like a laminate. Of the people who came through and saw it during the review I only had two diehard audiophiles lust after it—one for the look and one for the size. A friend said that he would never get this finish (but perhaps the black would be okay) and another commented that it made the table look cheap. A casual observer asked, “What's that big ugly table?” I don't want to harp too much on this as I can visualize this table in a rack looking quite attractive. The truth is that you run into the same problem matching woods of any type. If you opt for walnut, just make sure it will go with the rest of your stuff. On to the setup...

The Manual. The manual, much like the people whom I've spoken to at VPI, lectures more than it instructs—a trait I'm familiar with from people who know what they are doing and have known for quite a while. At a few points I found myself chuckling after reading some of the comments: “...the turntable is very heavy...if you need help, get it” and “requires a good solid shelf on a rack that doesn't sway in the breeze.” The good thing is it is straightforward and written in clear English. [Unlike so many AV manuals!...Ed.]

Leveling. VPI includes the Shure pressure gauge, an alignment jig and parts and tools necessary for adjustment of the arm and mounting the cartridge. After removing the table from the box I set it on a flat surface and removed the foam from under the platter. I looped the belt around the platter, plugged in the power cord and began the process of leveling. Because of the turntable's weight, it is necessary to pick it up slightly while turning the feet. I found that leveling the edges was slightly different from leveling the platter itself, so I made my adjustments from there. (It's always a good idea to level from the surface of the platter.)

Hookup and Alignment. VPI offers the arm with four different mounted cartridges (one from Dynavector and three options from Grado) ranging from $500 to $2500. If you go for this option then all you need to do is attach audio cabling and put the arm down onto the table. If not then there are detailed instructions on how to mount the cartridge, attach the leads and use the jig for alignment. There is a separate output cable box that includes a ground. With one phono preamp I tried there was no need to ground (as there was no hum) in the system, but with the Sedley I had to attach a ground. The arm looks well-made and mounting the cartridge was a piece of cake. The jig required a length adjustment and then aligning was also simply accomplished.

Anti-skate. Although a mechanical anti-skate (via string) is included, VPI recommends against using it—claiming that the twist in the tonearm wire (that attaches to the output box) is enough spring force to counteract the force towards the center of the record. The process to adjust the skate is fairly simple. Set the weight so the arm floats and swing the arm towards the center and release. Unplug the tonearm wire and add twist as necessary so that the arm swings back towards the edge. This is how I used the table.

Speed Accuracy. I used a strobe disc to check the speed. There are three different ridges on the pulley to adjust the speed. I started in the center ridge. Spin up is super fast—less than 3 seconds. The top rung was slow and the lower rung was fast. Speed accuracy was within specs at .1% from the center rung on the pulley.

Arm Height Adjustment. Adjusting arm height is accomplished with two setscrews on the base of the arm. There is a dial that will easily allow for raising and lowering the height later for VTA adjustment. Although it is not the dial that is found on other arms, it is almost as easy.

Tracking Force Adjustment. With the arm set to be parallel to the record surface, I adjusted force with the included Shure gauge. VPI recommends (as do many other manufacturers) going towards the higher end of the range of tracking force. There is less damage to the record caused from slightly higher tracking than mis-tracking due to not enough force (especially with a uni-pivot arm on warped records). By the way, that is a good reason to get the optional VPI periphery ring clamp—it will help straighten those warped records and yield better sound (although not tested or verified). On the arm, the weight slides easily back and forth and is tightened up with a setscrew.

Azimuth. Included with the table is a six-inch aluminum rod that sits on the top of the headshell. This aids in seeing if the headshell is level with the playing surface (as opposed to using a mirror). A small ruler can help if you don't trust your eyesight. There are two ways to adjust the azimuth: The first is as simple as twisting the counterweight to the left or right while keeping its front to back position fixed (to keep tracking force unaffected). The other involves turning a ring on the tonearm under the arm portion. This requires loosening two set screws, however you don't have to worry about upsetting the counterweight.

Record Mat and Clamp. The VPI comes with a cushioned rubber mat and a small rubber washer and a basic clamp. If you intend to use the mat, I would leave off the clamp. I liked the idea of placing the record directly on the metal platter (with the washer) and using the clamp. The clamp twists easily onto the spindle and takes but a few seconds to get it on. I listened to records both ways.

Vertical Tracking Angle. The VPI simplifies the VTA adjustment better than other turntables that I've used. There is a small wheel on the base of the arm similar to a ship's wheel that makes raising and lowering the arm a piece of cake. I was able to have two fellow enthusiasts listen while I turned the wheel up a quarter turn as needed. I started low with the sound being a bit muffled and bass heavy. I then raised it to a point that there was improved high frequency, but not much difference. I slowly turned back until the sound started to change again and pushed it up again.

Listening Part I (Clearaudio Virtuoso Cartridge)

The top metal plinth of the Classic excites a resonance inside the tonearm that is very audible. Without a record playing, but with the needle resting on the surface, tapping anywhere along the top caused a “dummm... dummm” sound to be emitting from the speakers (similar to the sound of hitting a huge bell). It could be heard over the music as well. The motor section (which is separate from the main plinth) emitted the sound just as plainly. It is hard not to believe that even without touching the plinth some of the resonance would be present with the music although I never identified it as such.

I spent some time listening to this same system (speakers, electronics, etc.) with the Kuzma table/arm/cartridge combo that was previously reviewed, so I felt that it would be sufficient to show off the sound of the Classic table. As is my practice with most equipment I try different systems (if I can) to get the best performance (as in most audio systems matching can be more important than the price or absolute quality of some products). I selected a few records at random to start the listening.

I began with “Down Under” from Men at Work's Business As Usual. Right away I was struck with the amount of detail that was being revealed. I can understand why VPI packages their tables with Grado cartridges as these tend to sound a bit warmer and rounder in my experience. With the Virtuoso I felt there was too much top end and made a note to get a hold of a Grado cartridge to try after I settled in to my formal listening. The same combination with the other table (using the Virtuoso) wasn't nearly as spitty and sharp.

Using a uni-pivot is always an adjustment period for me, and for those who have never experienced it, you should make sure it isn't something that will be a negative in practice. I found that it was easiest to use the cueing lever, move the arm over, let it wobble a bit, and then lower it onto the record. By the time it hit the record it was not twisting. If you like to cue manually, then a firm grip is recommended and a slight twisting will occur as the arm is lowered to the record.

The next track I listened to was “Real Wild Child” from Iggy Pop's Blah-Blah-Blah. The sound from this record was neither recessed nor forward—just sort of there. Soundstage and imaging appeared accurate. Unfortunately, the sound wasn't really grooving/involving as I'd like. It didn't rock and it didn't make me want to continue listening either. On initial listening tests with another equipment combination (Jolida phonograph preamplifier and Krell Integrated Amp) the sound seemed disembodied and sluggish, but I had assumed that the table might be in need of the better phonograph preamplifier. It wasn't quite a lack of coherence, but it came across as blandness. Some of this quality was carried over to this second system, so I'm not sure what else besides the table was the cause. A fellow audiophile vinyl fanatic commented that he'd heard something similar from other high-mass tables.

At this point I felt I should change the cartridge as this was the only other variable that I could alter in an effort to make the Classic sound better. I had a Grado Reference Platinum that I thought might be a good starting point. It has the characteristics of the better wood-body cartridges, but at a lower price point. This table clearly deserves a better cartridge and if this sounded better in some ways, then that would be the solution. Had I known at the time that VPI was packaging the Classic with particular cartridges I would have asked to be sent one of those as well.

Listening Part II (Grado Reference Platinum Cartridge)

Compared to other tables changing the cartridge was relatively easy. The wood body cartridge was at home on the Classic in terms of its look. I was expecting to give up a little fidelity due to the price differential but the sound was less offensive. However, the slowness and lack of liveliness still made involvement difficult. I rechecked the speed with the strobe so I knew the table was not running slow, yet there was something missing.

I remounted the Virtuoso on the Marantz and set the tables up side by side for a comparison. In honor of the recently-deceased Michael Jackson, I put on one of the best pop albums of the 80s, Thriller. I used “Billie Jean” and went back and forth more than a few times. The amount of high frequency on the VPI was over the top—it almost sounded like white noise. Had I not checked the VTA with another disc, I would have thought there to be something amiss (or set wrong with the phonograph preamplifier). Bass was good and voice was locked in place, but there was a lot of sibilance. Surprisingly, the bass on the Marantz seemed better. The excessive high frequency sound was gone although there was still sibilance. Interestingly, what I was expecting (which was the Marantz to be the brighter sounding combination) did not occur, and although it wasn't as bright sounding as the VPI, there was still a good sense of space

Next up was “Toccata” from an old audiophile favorite, Fresh Aire III by Mannheim Steamroller. On the Marantz the high frequencies have nice delicacy, bass was not super-powerful but was tight. Involvement was good, but not special. On this track the VPI was mellow and had good tone. On this type of music the VPI was much better and was a more enjoyable listen than with the Marantz.

From Heart's Dreamboat Annie I played “Soul of the Sea.” The VPI had a bit of harshness on the vocals, guitar had extra clang to it and bass seemed a bit overblown. Balance was a bit of an issue. The Marantz offered richer mid-range, vocals sounded better, there was more top end (of the good kind) although there was a slight edge, and it was less than with the VPI.

With “Holding Back the Years” from Simply Red's Picture Book the Marantz sounded excellent. With the VPI there was a slight loss of resolution, but the mellowness that it offered might be what many people are looking for when listening to LPs.

For the last of my 80s kick I listened to “True Colors” from the album by Cyndi Lauper of the same name. The VPI presented the music pleasantly, with low listener fatigue. Like the last recording, the differences with the Marantz were in detail and portrayal of the top end—either you think this is an advantage or disadvantage depending on your listening taste.

Overall, I was a bit perplexed by the differences heard with the VPI table. I'm used to hearing strange frequency response anomalies with inexpensive speakers but not so with better quality audio components. Some recordings sounded highly listenable while others were not. Some of this was due to the recording, but that same record did not have issues with the other table/cartridge combination. The Virtuoso was not a great match with the VPI and the Grado seemed much better. A higher-end model might be a good compromise between a warmer sound and more detail and possibly, improve the involvement issues mentioned above. Still, some of the sonics seem to be attributed to the table, so careful matching should be observed and definitely a listen before purchase is recommended (as with any piece of audio gear).


VPI has thrown some of their previous design choices to the wind in creating the VPI Wood Classic. I haven't heard other VPI tables, so I can't comment on whether their implementation is better or worse in other models. They've gone from Acrylic platters to the cast aluminum (reminiscent of older designs from Thorens, etc), plinth design has changed and the motor is not separate from the table, but integrated into the plinth. I'll let the reader draw their own conclusions about these design choices.

In terms of sound I was not enamored with this table and its sheer size may prevent it from being an option for some prospective purchasers. I still think that perhaps performance could have been improved with an even more expensive cartridge; however its characteristic lack of drive seemed to carry over regardless of cartridge and/or equipment changes. Other reviews (although they are few and far between) have been positive about the sound of this table, so I am left a little curious. As always, ignore the hype, listen with your ears, and make an informed decision. If you've already invested in this table and are enjoying it, then happy spinning!

-- Brian Bloom

AUDIOPHILE AUDITION focuses on recordings of interest to audiophiles and collectors, with an accent on surround sound for music, and on all hi-res disc formats. Over 100SACD, DVD Video/Audio and standard CD reviews are published during each month, and our archives go back to January 2001.

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