Meatloaf, Marijuana, and You And black vinyl too.
Before writing about the latest VPI turntable and tonearm, I need to get a couple of things out of the way.
First of all, Harry Weisfeld, who is the head honcho over at VPI, and his wife, Sheila, have been friends of mine for 15 years. Back when I was single and we all lived on the same major landmass (Long Island), Harry and Sheila even had me over for dinner. I never told her this, but up until the time I met my wife, Sheila's was pretty much the best meatloaf I ever had. Besides that, Harry and Sheila are both sweet, honest, hard-working people, and if you think I shouldn't write about Harry's products because I feel that way...well, go ahead, it's a free country. But then, I'd suggest that if you knew what goes on behind the scenes elsewhere in the industry (a well-known reviewer who gets his marijuana for free from a couple of different hi-fi manufacturers is the first example that springs to mind), you might not be so touchy.
Second, you should know that during the time we've been friends, Harry's turntables have not been my turntables of choice. I own a Linn. Harry knows that. Hell, everybody knows that.
So maybe one thing cancels the other, or maybe it doesn't. Who cares? I love turntables, I love Harry and Sheila, and I thought it would be interesting to see if I love Harry and Sheila's turntables, circa late 1999. So...
Like all of Harry Weisfeld's turntables, the VPI Aries is pretty big and heavy compared to the Linn, Rega, Oracle, and others from the graduating class of the early 1970s. The VPI's platter alone - separately machined discs of acrylic and stainless steel, bolted together and balanced as one - weighs more than a whole Linn LP12. And the Aries' plinth is a 2-inch-plus slab of high-density fiberboard with a steel bottom plate, measuring a little over 22 by 16 inches. By comparison, the Linn Sondek is only slightly longer than the VPI is wide. Four chunky conical feet support the Aries' plinth, and the tip of each is machined to accommodate a press-fit steel ball - like a big ballpoint pen - to enhance isolation. Each cone fastens to the plinth via a threaded rod/rubber decoupler, reminiscent of the Roksan Xerxes' suspension "blobs."
The platter bearing, a chunkster in its own right, is machined out of brass, with a tungsten carbide thrust disc and a liner made out of Rulon II, a polymer which is suited for accurate machining and which has self-lubricating properties similar to those of Delrin. The tool steel bearing shaft is a half an inch in diameter, with a captured chrome steel ball at its business end. At its other end, the shaft fastens to another, slimmer shaft, which protrudes through the center of the platter and forms the record spindle (it's threaded to accept the standard VPI record clamp). That shaft and a small but thick subplatter are machined as one.
Per Harry's usual practice, the armboard is cut from solid acrylic, and it fastens to the plinth using chunky oval-head screws and washers that wouldn't be out of place on a Fender Vibro-Champ. Compared to VPI's other turntables, though, the Aries' board is pretty small: just a 4-inch diameter disc. To turn its platter, the Aries uses a Hurst AC synchronous motor. This is stuffed into a robust aluminum cylinder, which is intended to sit within a U-shaped cutaway on the left of the plinth - close but not quite touching. The motor shaft is topped with a machined Delrin pulley, and the pulley and platter talk with one another via a thin, round-cross-section belt. The capper - literally and figuratively - is a machined aluminum "flywheel" which slips onto the pulley before the belt is installed. It's intended to increase the pulley's moment of inertia and thus smooth power delivery - and although the effect is subtle, it's an audible improvement. Cool!
The JMW-10 tonearm, so named because of its 10-inch stylus-to-bearing length, is a unipivot arm with provisions for a variety of adjustments - and with a great many clever design touches. From the headshell back, most of the arm tube is machined out of aluminum bar stock; the rest of the tube and most of the arm's upper bearing housing are beautifully milled from stainless steel. In a manner reminiscent of the Naim Aro, the internal wiring (Harry uses Discovery Cable) exits from the upper bearing housing and terminates in a miniature electrical connector, for quick arm tube (and thus cartridge) swapping.
All unipivot tonearms need a low center of gravity, in order to enhance stability during record play. They all need some way for the user to adjust lateral balance, too, in order to compensate for different cartridge sizes and maintain proper azimuth with respect to the record's surface. Harry Weisfeld's design addresses both needs in one simple, elegant stroke: At the very bottom of the upper bearing housing is a weighty stainless steel ring, held in place with a setscrew, and separated from the arm by a pair of rubber O-rings. Part of the outer edge of the ring is machined away to create a flat spot - and of course that portion has less mass than the rest of the ring. Normally, that flat spot is aimed straight ahead, toward the arm tube. But by loosening its setscrew and rotating the ring a little at a time, the user can tilt the arm to one side or the other: Rotating the ring so that the flat portion is off to the right will tilt the headshell toward the left, and vice versa. (It's calibrated, too.)
The lower bearing/arm mount assembly is a relatively big, complex looking thing, made mostly out of aluminum and perching off to one side of the armboard proper. The "male" part of the bearing (which is the stationary part; in the VPI, the "female" is the moving part) is made out of tool steel, sharpened to a wicked point. A clever, calibrated height adjustment mechanism is integral to the arm base, and this is fine-pitched and smooth enough that changes in arm height - and thus vertical tracking angle - can be made while playing a record. But that's not to be taken as an encouragement to do any such thing: Harry Weisfeld says he created it solely for the benefit of "serious" audiophiles - a category which seems to exclude Harry himself and his own refreshing "Don't go nuts with this stuff" attitude toward hi-fi.
Controversially (I know, I know - it's hard to imagine a sweet, geeky pastime like playing records as being fraught with controversy), the JMW-10 tonearm has no real anti-skating provision. Keep in mind that the need for such a thing exists only with pivoted tonearms whose headshells are offset by some significant degree, relative to the arm tube itself. The amount of friction encountered by the stylus in the moving record groove is a factor as well - but the root cause of skating is that offset: Because the end of the arm is at a different angle from the stylus-to-bearing line, a sideways force vector is created when the tip contacts a moving surface underneath. (When properly installed and adjusted, straight-line trackers, such as the Eminent Technology and Clearaudio arms, don't exhibit skating forces, and don't require anti-skating.)
How does the pivoted JMW-10 get away without anti-skating? The answer has to do with its uncommonly long arm-length. The reason pivoted arms have offset headshells in the first place is because these arms trace a relatively tightly curved line across the record's surface - a line which, sadly, differs from the way the records were cut in the first place. Angling the headshell helps minimize that discrepancy and provides a stylus alignment which is at least acceptably correct everywhere, from the outermost groove to the innermost.
But! The longer the pivoted tonearm - the farther you place its pivot from the record - the closer it comes to tracing a straight line across the record. So the headshell of a long arm doesn't need to be offset as drastically as that of a short arm. Consequently, it will exhibit less in the way of skating force, and require less in the way of anti-skating.
Less, yes. But none? In deference to the need for at least some anti-skating, Harry Weisfeld instructs the user to dress the arm's lead-out wire just so, to provide the requisite force. At least superficially, my observations confirmed this: With the downforce set at close to nothing and the arm all but floating freely, the outward pull on the arm at various "settings" is easy to see.
Still, you might ask: If making a tonearm longer is such a good idea, why doesn't everybody do it? Are there any drawbacks? Sure. First, all other things being equal, a long tonearm is more massive than a short one. And mass is a factor. Second, a long tonearm obviously requires a long turntable.
Well, this is as good a place as any to step back and visualize how VPI's turntable and tonearm work together, in the greater context of how all such things (seem to) function.
I've harped on this theme 'till I'm blue in the face, but the fact remains: The only acceptable movement in an ideal record player is the unerringly steady pull of the groove of some impossibly flat, straight record across the stylus tip of a cartridge that's being held perfectly still. Thus, any degree of physical modulation in that groove would make the cartridge generate electricity (music), and nothing else would.
Like I said, that's an ideal - an impossibility. But even in a real-world product, relative movement between the tonearm and the record platter is unacceptable: It distorts the information and screws up the music - usually in musically influential ways (pitch relationships are distorted, musical timing is skewed, and melodies and tempos are consequently difficult to make sense of, howsoever subtly). But relative movement happens all the time, when the tonearm is allowed to resonate one way and the platter another. And don't tell me the answer is to keep everything from resonating at all: Everything resonates, whether you want it to or not; damping just changes the nature of that resonance. (That, among other things, is why attempting to "improve" someone else's record player by damping one or another part of it is often counterproductive.)
What does that have to do with Harry? His turntables have always been big: not clogged up with a lot of stupid goo or other such exercises in futility, but big nonetheless. In fact, pretty darn massive.
And so, too, is Harry's first tonearm. Even beyond its effective mass of 11 grams, this is an unambiguously heavy arm, by anyone's definition... So could it be that Harry's is the only real, sensible, ideal mate for Harry's turntables? Is this longer than average tonearm just the thing that these larger than average turntables have been aching for all along - in sheer terms of the fact that they behave similarly from a materials resonance point of view, and so they tend to work with each other instead of against?
I don't know.
But I'll tell you: The first record I tried, with my Lyra Lydian cartridge doing the honors in the JMW-10, was Martha Argerich Spielt on Deutsche Grammophon (Speakers Corner reissue). Beginning with the Chopin Scherzo in C-sharp minor, I was honestly shocked: The performance was dynamic and surefooted in a way I'd never heard before from my hi-fi. The idea of force in Argerich's playing was put across better: The contrast between the most forceful chords and phrases and the more delicate cascades of notes was really startling - and after a while I came to realize that I was more relaxed in my listening because the Lyra cartridge was tracking just perfectly well, and there wasn't the slightest hint of hi-fi strain, even on the muscle-chords.
Was everything milk and honey? Honey, it wasn't far off. The Aries' timbral balance is different from that of the LP12/Aro combination - the latter sounding a little more "open," the VPI making chords sound a bit richer, thicker, and more tonally complex. Which is right? Beats me.
But pretty early in the game I learned that the Aries/JMW-10 combination isn't all things to all records. Take Procol's "New Lamps for Old," from the sadly overlooked Exotic Birds and Fruitcollection: On this number, the Linn outdoes the VPI on those Linniest of all traits, the sense of momentum and musical flow from note to note. The Linn makes the song more inviting and involving in this regard. The VPI is still pretty good - just less effective than the Linn at reanimating this kind of simple, broadly paced melody. But the VPI turns in a big, dynamic performance - again, richer than the Linn, though still well detailed: Mick Grabham's Cropper-esque guitar lines pop out nicely when you play this record on the VPI (especially in the second verse).
So I also learned: The VPI really likes classical music - the bigger the better, it seems. Take the Classic Records reissue of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Heifetz . Played on the VPI, from the first seconds you hear: a (realistically) dark, rich solo violin; instruments spread much farther apart from one another in my room than I've ever heard before; an excellent sense of "feel," inasmuch as the intensity changes in Heifetz' playing sound natural and convincing...
The VPI also makes good sense of pitches. From the first time the contrabassoon enters and holds a steady note in the background, you can understand it - and you can easily tell what note that note is supposed to be.
Soloist and orchestra alike sound solid and right. Players dig right in at times, but never sound coarse. All in all, this record shows the VPI combo at its best: I was pulled in completely - and I didn't want it to end.
The Jayhawks' "The Man Who Loved Life" comes across sounding fine but slightly less convincing musically than with the Linn, the VPI again lacking a bit of momentum compared with the Scottish deck. The big VPI also lacks a kind of "snap" that the Linn teases out of the groove with seeming effortlessness.
But the 45rpm single of XTC's "Grass" sounds big, lithesome, and appropriately dreamy on the VPI. The bass notes have a lovely, juicy sense of pitch, and they pop out of the mix in an appealing way. The sound is well balanced from bottom to top, and the music flows in a manner that is at least moderately engaging and satisfying. On the Linn, it's - wait a minute: The Linn doesn't do 45. Chalk one up for the Yanks.
On the VPI combo, the acoustic guitar that opens Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Helplessly Hoping" sounds compressed and unplucky - but only because that's the way the recording sounds (on anything). Then the voices come in and your knees go weak: Three beautifully pitched, believably textured, and startlingly present and dynamic voices soar over that muddy guitar and hold your complete and undivided attention for every recorded second. And on the middle-eight, when Crosby comes back in (through the left speaker) with his rich "They are three together," the effect is so nice that you could almost forgive him for "Almost Cut My Hair," years of substance abuse, and fathering Melissa Etheridge's children with a turkey baster. The Linn does no better - and if you leave the needle in the groove long enough to hear the deep electric bass notes that open "Long Time Gone," you may in fact wind up preferring the VPI.
Okay, so most of what I've described so far is very, very good. But in the months I had the VPI combo at my disposal, the Lyra wasn't the only cartridge I tried. In particular, I gave my good ol' fashioned Denon 103 a ride in Harry's arm. On paper, at least, this sounds like a good idea (low compliance cartridges love high mass arms in much the same way that dogs love pickup trucks). Was it in real life?
Was it ever! Boy, does this arm love this cartridge! You get all the bennies described above, plus an even greater sense of pitch certainty - and more body and solidity to instrumental and vocal sounds.
Yet there's no loss of detail or delicacy or "air" for all this added chunkification. The tremolando in the opening bars of Bruckner's Seventh (Steinberg and the Pittsburgh on a weird but satisfying Sine Qua Non LP) sounds more man than machine (good). And the breathtaking tone and peerless intonation of the late violinist Michael Rabin (and thanks to reader Dan Niehaus for turning me onto his recordings) is revealed as such on the Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (from the Seraphim album In Memoriam).
The VPI tonearm also has provisions for fluid damping - for keeping unwanted arm movements to an absolute minimum by introducing a thick, viscous oil to the bearing. (The oil, which is slightly thicker in consistency than honey, is supplied with the arm; the bearing is engineered to hold a certain amount of it in a drip-free trough, which surrounds the bearing's point of contact.) Sure, I tried it...
And when I tried it with the Denon, I was surprised to hear how much bigger everything got. I can't imagine why, but it was so.
But to my ears, the oil also makes everything sound more "hi-fi." Dynamic contrasts seem almost greater - but I believe they're in fact rendered with less naturalness and "ease." Instrumental sounds are cleaner, but also less warm and timbrally rich. And, for the most part, pitch accuracy and overall musical involvement suffer, in my opinion. If an underdamped cartridge is a mistake, I'm proud to be more Goofus than Gallant: I also find it more musically convincing. After almost two weeks with the damping oil, I cleaned it out with a bunch of Q-Tips and went happily back to damplessness.
Now, some miscellany:
The hardest thing about setting up the VPI Aries is lifting the platter out of the carton. Everything else is a breeze - and Harry should be congratulated on both the quality of the packing materials and the general goodness, friendliness, and insight contained in his instruction manuals (true of turntable and tonearm alike).
Attention, Mana table owners: This turntable won't fit on a standard Mana. The only answer I can see, save having something custom-built, is to use an outsized "Stage" platform between the upward pointing spikes and the VPI's pointy feet. (Want to guess what I did?)
A dustcover is not standard: It's a $350 option. I didn't get one with my review sample, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that it's big. Plan ahead.
VPI's build quality is excellent, and the piano black finish of my review sample was flawless and stunningly pretty.
My only real gripe has to do with turn-on thumps, which were plainly audible through my system. A different suppression cap, maybe...?
I was surprised to note that the VPI turntable/tonearm combination exhibited no more and no less surface noise than my Linn LP12/ Naim Aro combination. I don't know why - I guess I just expected some degree of difference, given the very different designs and materials I was listening to. But: nope. Go figure.
The cartridge alignment jig that comes with the JMW-10 is brilliant: One end of it fits over the spindle, and the other end snugs right up against the arm mount - solid and unambiguous.
Relative to the above: As it turns out, every cartridge I tried wanted to be way out toward the end of the headshell - and one cartridge ached to be right at the end, with no adjustment room to spare. This can obviously be addressed by adjusting the arm at its mounting (or by rotating - or replacing - the round armboard), but in an effort to make sure the neophyte owner can get this product up and running right out of the box with minimal fuss (and an average cartridge), VPI might want to make sure that these adjustments are set in the middle of their ranges when the arms and 'tables leave the factory.
I can't really think of anything else. In most ways, this combination is more to my taste than anything else I've heard from VPI. And in every way, introducing the VPI tonearm to the VPI turntable makes it into a record player I could picture myself owning and loving. I'd tell you that, in particular, I like the VPI Aries better than the VPI TNTwhich is in fact how I feel, in an off-the-cuff sort of way - but that would be foolish. I've never heard them side by side. And I've never heard the JMW-10 on the TNT. Perhaps that's all that was keeping me from loving the TNT. Then again, maybe I'm right, and maybe this hobby has more to do with taste than truth - more than we've been willing to admit publicly, at least.
I won't bother pretending otherwise. Besides, I'm glad to see two of hi-fi's best people make two of hi-fi's best products. The Aries/JMW-10 is a world-class record player, and a tribute to the good names of everyone involved.