VPI Industries Classic 4 Turntable

by Roy Gregory | May 28, 2012


Looking at some of the more ambitious, sophisticated or just plain ostentatious turntables out there, it’s hard to reach any conclusion other than that VPI ‘tables are somewhat short on "fancy." With a Bauhaus simplicity of appearance and operation that can on occasion border on the crude, they’ve always been long on sound engineering and form following function. But to dismiss them as basic or ill-considered would be a huge error; with a VPI product the sophistication is in the thinking behind it, the clarity of purpose embodied within it. These are products built to do a job -- just one -- and that job is to sound as musically satisfying as their price allows.

Harry Weisfeld, the man behind VPI, comes from a solid engineering background, a world in which installations that don’t work -- or that stop working -- end up costing you rather than making you money. It’s a lesson that he’s never forgotten -- and that too many of his competitors have never learnt. There are few if any companies that have been making turntable motor units for as long as VPI, doing it as their core business and doing it under the same and uninterrupted ownership. It almost goes without saying that none that I can name has been as financially successful -- a factor that reflects the longevity, reliability and performance of the products, as well as the incredible loyalty of a customer base that continues to grow.

Of course, those "other" VPI products have helped, but they also serve to reinforce the point. You only have to use a VPI record-cleaning machine to understand both why it sets the benchmark and how it demonstrates Weisfeld’s innate understanding of just what matters and what works. It illustrates an appreciation of the problems of record replay that comes from a devotion to the subject that borders on obsession. Harry never wanted to make a tonearm, but the inability of other sources to supply the quality of 'arms his customers demanded, in the numbers required, forced his hand. The result was the JMW, a unipivot design of such elegant simplicity and model versatility that even 15 years after its launch it still sets a standard of operational efficiency that other 'arms can only aspire to, anticipating as it did each development in record replay, be it fashion- or performance-led.

Want to run more than one cartridge? Tick. Want to adjust VTA, not necessarily record by record but to recognize the impact (and thickness) of 180-gram pressings? Tick. Want to run a mono cartridge? Tick. Want to use your own choice of dedicated tonearm cable? Tick. Want to be able to top-mount the 'arm on any deck? Tick. Want to be able to use a 12" 'arm on a conventionally sized plinth and armboard? Tick. You know what -- that doesn’t happen by accident. Harry has a collection of tonearms that exceeds even my own -- and I thought that I was anal-retentive on the subject! He’s used them, examined them and learnt from them, so that when called upon to design his own 'arm, he already knew those boxes he wanted to tick. The result was simple, effective and affordable -- at least in terms of other top-flight tonearms. But perhaps most important of all, it sounded great: musical, involving and dramatic -- all VPI hallmarks. No, there’s nothing accidental about VPI’s success or the sound and success of its products.

Hindsight is always 20/20

As I’ve already suggested, VPI’s turntables have always ploughed their own furrow. The original HW-19 was an object lesson in the application of simple engineering to what should be a simple problem. Having built on a design that worked astonishingly well, each subsequent refinement saw the studied application of mass and materials to the basic configuration. The result was a range of 'tables that undercut the opposition on price while exceeding them in terms of ease of setup, versatility and the sheer range of 'arms that could be accommodated. They generally sounded better too, but that’s part of another story.

When the TNT turned up (a name that derived from "The New Turntable" rather than any reference to its impressively explosive dynamic range) it set a whole new set of trends in motion. Built almost entirely from acrylic, here was a physically impressive, even elegant-looking beast that took all the positives of the HW-19 series and added a standalone motor, outrigger pulleys and, soon after that, a flywheel. Not to put too fine a point on it, the TNT made most of the competition look and sound pretty lightweight. Take a look around at the designs that were to appear over the next decade and wonder where they looked for inspiration. But as quickly as others were to jump on the various bandwagons that started rolling with the TNT, Harry’s sense of self-criticism was already sending him off in a different direction again.

First victim of his intensely questioning gaze were those outrigger pulleys, designed to both stabilize the suspension system and minimize platter-to-belt contact (and thus the transfer of motor noise). Weisfeld quickly came to the conclusion that the cure was worse than the disease -- the loss of speed stability that resulted was too great a price to pay for the lower noise floor that resulted. With the benefit of hindsight, this was the realization that was ultimately to culminate in the Classic turntables, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Out went the outrigger pulleys, replaced by the flywheel. Different, ever-stiffer suspension systems were introduced, until the suspension disappeared altogether. Those improvements in the noise floor were going to have to come from somewhere else. As the recipe got simpler, so simpler iterations started to appear: the Aries, the Scout, the Scout Master, each with a separate motor housing, solid plinth and a move towards ever-heavier platters.

The next big step was the rim drive, the belt going altogether and being replaced by a peripheral drive system similar to the old Garrard and Thorens idler-drive systems, but in this case driving the platter’s periphery directly, the idler itself being driven by ultra-short belts connecting it to one or two motors in a mass-loaded housing. The periphery of the platter gained a clamp system too, dealing effectively with rim warps, but more important, adding serious inertia to the system.

Looking back, you can see an inexorable pursuit of speed stability driving these developments, but even seasoned Harry watchers (it’s kind of ironic that the man is a twitcher -- or ornithologist to those unfamiliar with the term -- given the close surveillance to which those in the analog know subject his every movement) were not prepared for what came next.

Enter a Classic

The Classic 1 arrived, unannounced and unexpected, apparently through some time warp from the ‘70s. A record player of almost brutal simplicity, its large, walnut plinth, all right angles and hard edges, supported a ridiculously deep aluminum platter and a bare top plate with nothing but a pulley in the front left corner, snuck in so close to the platter it looked like another idler drive -- apart from the belt running round the silver wall right next to it. The simplified JMW 'arm, shorn of the complex vernier VTA adjustment added to the retro look, the whole resembling an AR XA on steroids. If it had been green and wrapped in torn fabric you‘d have been forgiven for thinking that here was the Hulk to the XA’s Bruce Banner.

But all was not quite as it seemed. Just picking up the Classic told you that. In fact, just picking it up quickly made you realize that this was one turntable about which it was (physically) dangerous to make too many assumptions. With an all-in weight of 45 pounds, there was clearly more here than meets the eye.

Let’s start with the plinth. The whole raison d’etre behind the Classic is to achieve the closest possible coupling between motor and platter, relying on the belt, bearing and plinth to prevent motor noise from reaching the stylus. To that end, the plinth is a 2 1/2"-thick laminated block of MDF, topped off with an 11-gauge steel sheet, the whole joined by silicon layers and pinned through with long bolts to create an incredibly rigid and inert lump. The motor is bolted directly to the steel plate, positioned as close as possible to the platter to keep the unsupported sections of belt as short as possible. The deep platter runs on a large-diameter inverted bearing employing VPI’s innovative PTFE thrust pad, an incredibly cost-effective design that matches the low noise and mechanical transfer of single-axis magnetic bearings. More surprisingly, rather than having the usual thin top and thick shoulders seen with most metal platters (think Thorens, Linn and a host of others) this platter is just one, big, solid lump, cast and then machined to an incredibly tight tolerance. What’s better than mass round the edge of the platter? Mass right across it! Talk about minimalist -- there isn’t even a mat, just a recess for the label machined straight into the top of the platter. Throw in the 10.5" Classic version of the JMW, derived in turn from the Scout’s 9" 'arm, and a set of rubber decoupled, height-adjustable feet derived from the TNT, and there you have it.

Taking everything into account, it’s hard to imagine how Weisfeld might have made the deck any simpler. From that, massive, solid platter, to the equally massive, solid plinth, there’s clearly no messing with the Classic. I mean, who would have dreamt of using steel in the construction? Steel -- that nasty magnetic material that’s a huge no-no in the aluminum-obsessed hi-fi industry! Yet steel it is, as the swift application of a magnet to the top-plate will confirm. But then, looking at the (affordable) price of $2750, including a genuinely excellent 'arm, the (stellar) performance capable of standing comparison with most of the serious contenders, and that’s exactly what this ‘table is -- a steal.

Marc Mickelson reviewed the Classic as his first-ever review for The Audio Beat, and if you think I’m overstating my case, just take a look at what he wrote -- and what he compared it to. This record player might break all the rules we’ve come to swear by; it might challenge our belief in isolation and high-tech materials; it might well challenge your sense of aesthetics -- but the one thing it absolutely challenges, and brings crashing down, is the accepted price structure for record replay. The only people who don’t or won’t recognize that are the ones with too much invested in expensive record players to contemplate this unpalatable truth. Yet truth it is, and not listening to the Classic won’t make it go away.

Just gotta scratch that itch

Having proved his point in no uncertain terms -- and to an extent that shocked even him -- Harry just had to gild the lily; this wouldn’t be hi-fi without the tweaking and tinkering. First came the Classic 2 -- the same mechanical elements as the 1, but with the full-blown JMW tonearm, complete with VTA adjustment on the fly and internal wiring options -- quickly followed by the Classic 3, which was when things started to get really serious. The plinth gained an additional 1/2" layer of machined aluminum plate, bonded to the steel top plate. This not only increases the damping effect of the sandwich as a whole, adding another differential material, damping layer and extra mass, but the neatly beveled edge improves the appearance of the ‘table significantly. At the same time, the plinth has acquired a more rounded profile and a flawless piano-black finish, which really lifts the perceived value and quality of the player as a whole. Yes, I know it’s only paint, but these things do matter, and sitting the review model beside my original 1, the difference is huge.

To further increase speed stability, the peripheral record clamp is supplied as standard. What’s better than mass round the edge of the platter? Mass right across it and round the edge as well! You also get the TNT record weight, giving you three clamping options to play with -- weight only, clamp only or both together -- as well as no clamping at all. If you are not actually using the peripheral clamp to hold the edge of the record, you can still get the benefit of its extra inertia by sitting it on the shoulders of the platter, below the record’s supporting surface. Once again, Weisfeld’s simple pragmatism wins out, offering the end user all the benefits without limiting the options. Even the 'arm got an upgrade, with a new, internally damped stainless-steel armtube and Nordost Valhalla internal wiring as standard. This extends through the termination box, where it can be connected to either RCA or XLR sockets as required.

But isn’t this review of the Classic 4? Well, yes, but then the 4 really is just the 3’s big brother. With all the same constructional and aesthetic features found on the 3, the 4 adds a wider (3 1/2"), deeper (4 1/2") plinth that will accommodate not just 12" tonearms on its substantial, separate armboard, but a second tonearm with a mounting equivalent to 9" base geometry across the rear of the platter. Of course, as well as the extra versatility offered, the 33% increase in footprint translates to even more mass, which, as you are depending on the plinth to sink energy from the motor and bearing, can be no bad thing. Just as important, the broader stance gives the deck a more planted, less piled-up appearance, the wider plinth providing a better visual balance for the depth of the platter. In its Classic 4 guise, there’s no escaping the fact that this is one handsome turntable -- reflected in the way it has consistently reduced visiting members of the audio community to the kind of stroking, cooing softies it normally takes a Labrador puppy to produce. I always loved the Bauhaus industrial chic of the TNT, but even I have to admit that the Classic 4 is prettier, more domestically acceptable and a lot easier to accommodate.

All those upgrades don’t come cheap, and the price of the Classic 3 has climbed to $6000, with the Classic 4 adding a further $2000 to that (although that does include the JMW 12.7 tonearm). Whilst that moves the deck firmly outside "absolute audio bargain" status enjoyed by the Classic 1, the changes have also transformed it from budget esoterica into a genuine high-end contender, and at that price it still represents a serious bargain. The Classic 4 has now replaced my much-loved TNT, bettering the one-time flagship model (that honor now rests with the HR-X) sonically and in terms of practicality. That’s no mean feat; not only is the TNT a remarkably durable and impressive ‘table in its own right, especially when coupled to the rim drive, but it is also a significant bargain when compared to other high-end contenders. To produce a record player that sounds better, looks better, is easier to work and easier to work with -- and to do it at around half the asking price -- that’s impressive. Now you know why the Classic so richly deserves its moniker. This one is going to run and run.

Ready, steady. . .

As I’ve already intimated, setting up the Classics is simplicity itself. The 4 demands a little more space, but beyond that, it really couldn’t be much easier. All you need is a large, level shelf on which to place the plinth. Add the platter, belts and peripheral clamp, check the level, using the feet to adjust as required and plug in the power cord. That really is as much as the turntable requires. After that it’s all down to mounting the cartridge(s) and setting up the tonearm(s).

However, there are a few other things you can do to improve the record player’s performance still further. The first is to invest in the SDS power supply. This external unit, with its dial-up speed adjustment and electronic switching for 33 and 45, doesn’t just add ultra-precise pitch control, it also improves the sound significantly, adding low-level information, focus and transparency, as well as additional stability -- all through smoother running of the motor. Yes, it adds $1200 to the already spiraling price, but it’s money well spent and it can always be added later if the flow of funds has already burst its banks.

The second is to look at what the ‘table is sitting on. Given that the plinth is being used as an energy sink, providing it with an effective mechanical ground will seriously improve its efficiency -- and the sound of the player. Direct coupling the plinth to something like an HRS or Stillpoints ESS rack will be a revelation, but any well-designed dispersive support will work. SRA and Symposium platforms spring to mind, but I’m sure that there are plenty of others out there. The finite-elemente Master Reference racks work beautifully, but even the bamboo shelves of something like the Quadraspire or Atacama racks will show a distinct benefit over glass or MDF. And lest you think this is just another cost that VPI has passed on to the end-user, this advice applies to all solid-plinth decks, with or without separate motor housings. I used the Classic 4 on the top level of the latest-generation ESS rack, supporting it on a Stillpoints Component Stand with four upward-facing Ultra SS feet. Clarity, dynamic range and definition as well as the blackness of the backgrounds all improved dramatically over the already impressive sound of the 'table stood on its own four feet. It’s the direct coupling that counts, so even if you are using a fairly basic support shelf, adding a set of Stillpoints Ultras (they’ll screw in right where the original feet were attached) will get you a long way towards where you want to be, whilst still maintaining the leveling facility.

Third -- time and care taken in the leveling and setup of the turntable will pay a generous sonic and, above all, musical dividend. You can work with the tools provided and what you have already got in the house, but it really is worth spending the extra on a set of dedicated analog and general system setup tools. The bare minimum should be a precision spirit level, digital stylus balance and a decent strobe. There’s (a lot) more detail in the sidebar below, but as regards the review, just bear in mind that the Classic 4 is a precision measuring device in its own right; as well as telling you what’s in your records’ grooves, it will also tell you just how competent your setup is.

The review deck arrived equipped with the standard JMW 12.7 tonearm in primary position, but with a Jelco SA-750E mounted across the rear, as well as an armboard for my Tri-Planar Mk VII UII. The Jelco is an interesting choice. Its silver/bronze finish and S-shaped armtube give it a real Japanese retro feel that fits right in with the Classic 4’s aesthetic, but the real appeal lies in its detachable headshell. For owners wanting to retain an existing, high-quality 'arm (instead of the usual JMW 12.7) the Jelco delivers the interchangeability that so many modern 'arms lack -- and it does it at a very approachable price. Combined with Lyra Dorian stereo and mono cartridges, it acquitted itself surprisingly well, losing out on detail, but giving little away when it comes to overall musical flow and shape.

But having said all that, with the 12.7 in primary position, the Tri-Planar quickly replaced the Jelco, allowing a permanent home for the Lyra Titan i, while the JMW played host to the Clearaudio Goldfinger, Allnic Puritas and vdH Condor -- as well as other cartridges besides. With two top-flight 'arms mounted, cartridges aligned and raring to go, it’s finally time to report on the sound of the Classic 4.

Living Stereo all over again

Despite VPI’s deserved reputation for making products with performance to match the competition at prices that undercut them -- and the Classics 3 and 4 are no exceptions to that rule -- it’s ironic that the heir apparent in VPI’s range should have to take such a long, hard look over its own shoulder. The simple, unavoidable fact is that the Classic 1 is an awfully hard act to follow -- especially at three times the price. The Classic 4 needs to add a lot of performance to justify that price hike.

Traditionally, this is where the hi-fi industry reaches for that old chestnut, the law of diminishing returns. I’ll have a lot more to say on that subject shortly, but essentially, I don’t accept the premise. Either a product is worth the money or it isn’t. The right product in the right context should easily justify its additional cost -- even if that cost is three times the price of the unit it’s replacing. The Classic 4 is a case in point. Whilst it is undoubtedly appealing to potential purchasers to wonder just how much of the 4’s performance you get from a 1, if you apply the right measure to the question -- the scale of musical quality and communication -- then the answer will be, "Not enough." Having had both turntables side by side for an extended period, I can tell you that once you’ve gotten used to the 4, there’s no going back.

But if the Classic 1 is such a great ‘table (at least according to the reviews) how come there’s so much room for improvement? Because what makes the Classic 1 so great is that it gets the fundamentals right -- fundamentals that escape some really expensive players altogether. It’s great because it’s different; because it’s different, its sonic attributes are different too, with a different set of strengths and weaknesses. The 1’s great contribution to musical reproduction is rooted in Harry Weisfeld’s obsession with rediscovering the speed stability that used to be the Holy Grail of turntable design. It brings a solidity and absolute rhythmic and dynamic authority to music that escapes all but a very select few turntables -- and with it comes the expressive range and musical communication that sets it apart not just from its price peers but from most ‘tables, period. There are exceptions (the Grand Prix Audio Monaco and Kuzma Stabi XL4 are obvious examples), but by and large the Classic 1 exists in a field of one, especially when price is taken into account. In some respects, the most logical contender might be the idler-drive Garrard, with its direct, dynamic and dramatic presentation, but in this instance the Classic’s trump card is its far lower noise floor. Where better then to start describing the ways in which the 4 takes on the task of improving the breed?

Running a fully loaded Classic 4, complete with SDS power supply, elevates the musical presentation possible from the 1 to quite a different plane. It’s a bit like comparing a fully primped and puffed cat-walk model to a skeleton; they might be about the same height and width (and not that far off in weight), but which would you rather watch? Perhaps more to the point, which would you rather be getting up close and personal with -- because when you listen to your system, that’s exactly what you should be doing with the performers? On that score, the Classic 4 isn’t just any cat-walk mode; she’s definitely Kate Moss.

Time to listen to some music. Let’s start with Argenta and the National Orchestra Of Spain performing Falla’s Nights In The Gardens Of Spain [Decca SXL 2091], an early "narrow band" pressing. Listening to the record on the Classic 4, immediately after playing it on the 1, the differences are both immediately apparent and musically significant. Right from the atmospheric opening bars, the greater presence, immediacy and sense of acoustic that come from the 4 are far more effective, the subtle change in tempo from ancient to modern that accompanies the piano’s entrance more apparent, more marked in its impact on the orchestral gait. How and why are these apparently small differences (at least in quantitative terms) so musically important? Let’s look at what’s actually happening and where those differences come from in a bit more detail.

With the 4, the extent of the soundstage -- the air around and above the orchestra -- is far more apparent. The almost percussive bass punctuation has more attack, the jagged insistence of the bowing is more obvious, and so is its separation from the timps once they enter. In the same way, the harp and piano are separated, tonally and spatially, so that you are not just aware of their effect in chorus, but how it has been achieved, making the transition to the piano’s first real theme a natural, almost organic outgrowth, rather than a simple instrumental entrance. All of these observations are indicative of two things: a lower noise floor and the natural corollary to that, better microdynamic resolution. The quieter, blacker background lets you hear the space and the placement of the instruments much more clearly, but it also reveals the shape and texture, the tonality and harmonic identity of instruments that grow out of those intimate microdynamics, the tiny shifts in pressure, weight, or wind that allow players to express themselves. Everything else you hear --the weightier bass, its greater impact, the richer tonal pallet and more vivid orchestral contrasts -- are built on these two closely related factors. In quantitative terms the differences are quite small, but collectively they add up to a dramatic change in the both the quality and realism of the performance. The music makes a lot more sense, its portrayal is a lot more convincing and the orchestra sounds like a much better orchestra.

But we’re not done yet. How about another pressing of the same record? In this case, it’s an early Alhambra edition [SCLL14000] and it’s not even a fair fight. The increased immediacy, tonal and spatial separation, energy and attack of the earlier pressing lifts the recording again, by at least as much as the difference between the two ‘tables. The sense of acoustic space, the different instrumental sections within it, the way the composer and conductor use them to create the musical whole; the sheer poise and delicacy of the piano, its unmistakably percussive nature, but the skill with which that’s tempered by the sensitivity of the playing; all these things combine to make this not just a good orchestra, but a good orchestra on a very, very good day -- and the engineers were clearly on a bit of a roll too. As good as the Decca is, the Alhambra is simply in another league, as it should be given that it’s an earlier pressing and would cost you considerably more.

Which is the point of this particular comparison. When it comes to the Classic 4, it’s not just the return on investment that’s impressive, it’s the nature of that return. This 'table doesn’t just let you hear more, it makes so much more music out of what you hear. If you heard Gonzalo Soriano tinkling the ivories on the Decca pressing, you’d conclude that he was a capable, even impressive performer. But what the Alhambra reveals is the depth of his understanding and emotional connection with this music. Or rather, that’s what the Classic 4 reveals about the Alhambra. I have never had any other record player at home that makes the musical differences between different pressings so apparent -- and it’s a quality that extends to the differences between different performances of the same work too.

Without hearing it, it’s hard to gauge the profound effect of the expressive quality the Classic 4 releases from the grooves of your records. Of course, it’s something that all record players do to some extent, one of the trump cards they hold in the (bizarrely) ongoing contest with digital. The Classic 1 is no slouch in this regard. Indeed, the very turntable used for these comparisons is now residing in Chris Thomas's system, lodged in a house that hasn’t seen a record player in 15 years. Why? Because so much of the debate about what this or that digital replay system does or doesn’t do (and boy, do we spend time on that debate) relates directly to what seems inherent in vinyl replay. About time, I reasoned, that CT remembered what spinning records is all about -- the good sides and the bad. But the great thing about debate is that it’s two-way in nature, and talking to Chris about bossa rhythms and playing highlighted a quality in the Classic 4 that I was well aware of yet hadn’t quite pinned down. It was there, but I wasn’t entirely sure what "it" was.

Take the album Bossa Nova Pelos Passaros by Charlie Byrd, in this case an Alto repressing of the Riverside original [Alto AA 018]. Based around the classic Charlie Byrd Trio, with Bill Reichenbach on drums and Keter Betts on bass, it’s a familiar lineup and a familiar sound: crisp snare and cymbal work offsetting the delicacy and shape of Byrd’s phrasing, while Betts underpins the whole. The bass is a little wooly and indistinct, but that’s about par for the course, and the Classic 1 keeps the bottom end in pretty much the right place. At least you think so until you play the same disk on the 4. Suddenly, it’s the drums alone that are doing the timekeeping while Byrd weaves his rhythms in and around their beat. What I suddenly realized is not just that the bass notes had more shape, better pitch and the instrument now had a definite height and location -- I’d noticed all that already! The real difference was the bass’s change in role. No longer a simple bit-part player, providing a steady backdrop to Byrd’s exquisite guitar, suddenly Betts was far more active, his instrument winding around the rhythm in sinuous contrast to the lead instrument sitting so clearly center stage. Now there were three distinct, evolving rhythms, the bass carving its own lines, meandering in and out of step in its own dance with the guitar. Now the reason behind the almost metronomicaly obvious stick work became apparent; someone had to provide a reference for the other two!

That change in quality at low frequencies isn’t just about timing or definition, it’s about placement and purpose; it’s about why Betts puts the notes where he does, and how he shapes them. It’s about direction and it’s about motion. We are all so fond of talking about rock-solid bass, hearing it on movie soundtracks and dance floors, that we tend to forget that notes and phrases are all about the passage of energy, the way a player transits through the pattern. What the Keter Betts example shows is not just how profoundly important the musical impact of these changes can be -- in this case transforming both the sense and artistry of the album -- but what it takes to achieve this end.

What I’ve just described is nothing more or less than the musical impact of effective grounding. A turntable is a mechanical device. Its stylus literally measures almost unimaginably small deviations in a passing groove. Giving it a stable basis to work from translates directly into the intelligibility of the signal. That stability takes two forms and the Classic 4 aces them both. The first is all about draining spurious energy, whether generated by the player’s moving parts or intruding from outside, away from the stylus-record interface. The second is about keeping the groove velocity constant -- and I’ve already spent a lot of time on that. The structure of the Classic 'tables in general, and the extras that go into the 4 in particular (the bigger, more massive plinth and peripheral clamp) deal directly with both concerns. It also explains just why you need to have the SDS, and why the 12" 'arm makes such a difference. After all, once you realize the vital importance of a stable relationship between groove and stylus, reduced tracing distortion takes on a new and critical importance. Listen to a really good parallel-tracking 'arm (and believe me, they’re not easy to find) and you’ll hear music that breaths with an almost effortless ebb and flow. A good 12" 'arm -- even a good 10.5" like the JMW or Kuzma 4Point -- gets an awful lot closer than any 9", whilst escaping the mechanical issues that bedevil passive linear trackers.

Take a Classic 1 and add VTA adjustment to the 'arm, a peripheral clamp and SDS and you’ll get it a fair way along the road towards a Classic 4. It’s an enticing upgrade path that makes the 1 an even bigger bargain, but there’s no substitute for the more effective plinth construction, the bigger footprint and the 12" tonearm that only come with the 4.

Back to grounding. The importance of the noise floor and the dissipation of spurious energy are easy to understand. The importance of constant speed, especially under load, is a little less obvious -- at least in the way it relates to what we actually hear from the system. If the speed varies, then the relative pitch of notes will change, but also the size of the step between them, both in terms of pitch and loudness. Poor speed stability destroys the pitch relationship between one note and another, but also obscures their relative energy, the other key variable through which a musician shapes and adds emphasis to his or her playing. In the same way that poor electrical grounding produces a haze that collapses depth and spatial separation, poor speed stability obscures or diminishes the expressive range and contrasts in the music.

My favorite grounding analogy is the high jumper. How high that jumper goes depends to a large extent on the quality of the ground beneath his takeoff foot. A good solid footing will lead to a decent jump and clearing of the bar. But if the foot slips, the jumper is almost bound to fail. Now put a soggy mattress at the takeoff point and see what happens. That’s grounding, and that’s how it affects the dynamic range of your system. The better your ground, the better your dynamic range. Now imagine the same jumper making 20 jumps over the same bar at the same height -- but with you altering the takeoff surface for each and every jump. How many successful clearances would you expect? More to the point, how consistent do you think those 20 jumps would be? That’s the high-jump equivalent of poor speed stability.

So, having looked at the specific problems the Classic 4 addresses, and how exactly it does the addressing, the fact that it excels in revealing the human agency, the expressive quality in recordings, should come as no surprise. Nor is it a quality that’s limited to classical or acoustic music. Let it rip with some good old rock’n’roll and you’ll not be disappointed. Listen to Nick Cave’s peon to his doomed love affair with PJ Harvey (The Boatman’s Call [Mute Records Stumm 142]) and you have to wonder how it is he’s still wandering the streets. Even the nominal love song "Lime-Tree Arbour" is underpinned by an undulating bass line that surely takes its inspiration straight from the current that swirls in the Styx. The piano lines drip with intensity and pain, a pain that leads in a seemingly inexorable arc straight into the downward spiral of "People Ain’t No Good." An uplifting experience? Not exactly -- but poignantly beautiful and affecting? Definitely.

You don’t get much more synthetic than Yello’s Flag [Mercury 836 778-1], yet played on the Classic 4 the rhythmic switchbacks and slabs of synth bass are positively motive, while the careful layering that goes into the cut-and-paste collage of sounds, real and synthetic, just adds to the interest. "The Race" is a track that used to get wheeled out with regularity when audiophiles (or dealers) wanted to show off their systems. Believe me, I doubt very much they ever heard it sounding like this. It’s not just the weight and impact of the track, it’s that the whole thing (and pretty much anything in its path) is in a state of constant motion. "Gotta dance" doesn’t even start to cover it.

Sonically, if you want to encapsulate just what the Classic 4 is all about, you can do it in a single word -- life. What it does is reveal more of that life in your recordings, and because of its versatility, its interchangeable armwands, its sound mechanical design that allows you to really optimize all aspects of analog setup, it allows you to reveal that life from just about any recording, any type of recording you might want to play. Early mono, microgroove jazz? Drop on my second armtube, the one carrying my mono cartridge, and away we go. A 180-gram repressing of Cannonball Adderley In The Land of Hi-Fi [Emarcy MG 36077] next? Adjust the 'arm height to compensate for the thicker record and I'm spot-on for that too. The Cure’s classic Seventeen Seconds [Elektra 60784] -- that’s a toughie! I could run with the Titan that’s waiting to go in the Tri-Planar, or alternatively I could replace the Goldfinger armwand on the JMW. For once, the actual mechanics of record replay can be reduced to a few moments, ensuring that the system is going to give you everything that’s on every record you play. Live with the Classic 4 and you realize just how compromised most record players really are -- and just how gravely audible those compromises can be. If you exist on an exclusive diet of 180-gram audiophile pressings, then you needn’t worry too much. But if you live in the real world, trawl the record bins or Internet for hidden gems or have a large existing collection, the Classic 4 will be a revelation.

Which brings me to the bottom line. Ask yourself, What is it I want from my hi-fi system? There are a lot of answers to that question and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that they all involve music. But if you want a system that lets your records talk to you, that mines the musical sense and message, the emotional investment buried in their grooves, you could do a lot worse than start with a VPI Classic 4. There are players that are undoubtedly more detailed and almost certainly those that are more accurate to the fact of the music, but few if any that can so clearly tease out its sense or sensibility.

Time to be honest with yourself. There are as many ways to present recorded music as there are people doing the presenting. Harry Weisfeld has been ploughing his own furrow, and it’s been unusually straight -- straight to the musical horizon. It’s been quite a journey, and it’s one that I’ve traced most of the way, since the arrival of my first HW-19 Mk IV. I’m guessing that whatever Harry has fixed his gaze on we share as a goal. He regards the Classic 4 as his best turntable to date, and I’m not going to disagree with that view. In fact, I’d go further than that. The Classic 4 is one of the most musically rewarding turntables I’ve ever used, which, considering a fully tricked-out example (including a set of Stillpoints Ultra SS feet), will set you back less than $10K, makes it a fraction of the price you’ll be asked to pay for any of the credible competition. The Classic 1 might be a bargain of monumental proportions, but it really only hints at what you can expect from its bigger, broader and considerably better brother. Understand what’s going on here; follow that logic to its ultimate conclusion and you might just find yourself somewhere you never thought you’d be: close enough to the end of the hi-fi odyssey that it’s the music that matters rather than the equipment.

When I suggested you compare the Classic 4 to Kate Moss, it wasn’t an accidental choice. Definitely different, a little bit offbeat, even kind of scary, la Moss enjoys one thing that set’s her apart from most other models: a timeless quality that has delivered astonishing longevity and an almost unprecedented love affair with her audience. Like I said -- time to be honest about what you really want from your system.

Price: $8000
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

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

Associated Equipment

Analog: Lyra Titan i, Skala, Dorian and Dorian Mono; Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement; van den Hul Condor; Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono cartridges, Connoisseur 4.2 and Allnic H-3000V phono stages.

Preamplifiers: Lyra Connoisseur 4.2L SE, VTL TL-7.5 Reference Series III.

Power amplifiers: Jadis JA-30 and Jeff Rowland 625 stereo amplifiers, VTL MB-450 Signature Series III monoblocks.

Loudspeakers: KEF Blade, Marten Coltrane.

Cables and power products: Complete looms of Nordost Odin or Crystal Cable Ultra from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum Qbase 8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum QX2 and QX4 Power Purifiers and QV2 AC Harmonizers.

Supports: Racks are finite elemente HD-04 Master Reference racks and amp stands along with a 26"-wide Stillpoints ESS. These are used with equipment couplers throughout, either Stillponts Ultra SS's or Nordost SortKones. Cables are elevated on Ayre myrtle-wood blocks.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the Feickert protractor and Aestetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine.

Everything counts in small amounts

When it comes to setting up turntables, precision is everything. There’s accurate and then there’s really accurate. You can use any old spirit level and the supplied tonearm jig, but these are areas where it is generally easy to make substantial improvements that you’ll really hear in the end results. These comments apply to setting up any turntable, but the Classic 4’s musical clarity, and clarity of musical purpose, make the benefits even more apparent than usual.

To really do the job properly, you’ll need all of the following:

Spirit level – Home Depot have a whole range of basic levels, and you should make sure that you have one of their three- or four-foot-long ones for general leveling of racks. However, when it comes to leveling a turntable, what you need is a machinist’s level. These precision devices are used for setting up machine tools and are available from specialist suppliers. They can cost several hundred bucks -- although there’s a busy trade in secondhand examples, so you can often pick them up cheaper than that. Google the term and you’ll find plenty of options. The real deal should specify its accuracy -- look for 0.0005" -- and common names are Starret and Grizzly, the latter’s Model H2682 being a good buy, with a span of 8" and a price of around $70. Don’t forget to measure the level of the platter -- not the plinth!

Does this level of accuracy really make a difference? Just think about the bearing and the platter spinning on its shaft. If that shaft isn’t vertical, you introduce a sideways moment from the platter and that will dramatically increase friction and thus noise -- noise that will be read as signal by the stylus. So yes, it really does make a difference. (Absolute level makes a difference to CD players too, so don’t neglect those either.)

Stylus balance – The tonearm with really accurate down-force graduation is still to be built. Many 'arms, including the JMW supplied on the Classic ‘tables, have no down-force graduation at all, while the popular Rega-based designs lack all but rudimentary solutions. VPI supply the Classics with the venerable (and notoriously inaccurate) Shure gauge, which is barely acceptable for setting an initial value. There are those who will argue that that is all you need, as tracking force should be set by ear, and I’d agree -- up to point. Final adjustment should be by ear, but generally those will be tiny, tiny steps away from a given starting point -- and knowing precisely what that starting point is matters, especially given the cost of current top-flight pickups. I don’t know about you, but I want to be certain I’m getting the best out of my cartridge -- and not risking accelerated stylus or record wear.

There are a lot of affordable electronic gauges on the market these days, but my favorite is the Clearaudio. Not only does it have a massive weighing platform and easily-read display, it runs on AAA batteries. Believe me, that’s the clincher. Picture the scene: it’s late at night, your new cartridge is almost set up as you champ at the bit for those first sweet notes, only to discover that, not only are the batteries in the stylus balance flat, but it uses some bizarre watch-type cells that you need to order off the Internet! AAAs? You don’t even need to step outside the front door -- just raid the nearest remote control for a double whammy: not only will your stylus balance be up and running, but disabling that pesky remote will improve the sound of your CD player too.

Alignment protractor – The Classics all come with VPI’s single-point alignment protractor, and it is possible to do an okay job using this if you take care, but a really good universal protractor like the Feickert will deliver clearly audible benefits. How audible? A few years back, I ran an analog-setup demonstration at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (along with Dennis Davis and Richard Foster) using a TNT/JMW combination. Part of that demo was to show the difference between three identical cartridges, one set up "normally" using the VPI jig, one set up "just so" with the same jig and the third set up using the Feickert protractor. Even under show conditions the differences were shockingly apparent. So yes, not only will a really good protractor make a difference to the ease and precision of your cartridge setup, it’s a difference that will be clearly audible.

The Feickert is the current darling of the analog community, retailing for a not inconsiderable 250 well-spent dollars. It is simple to use and allows selection of Lofgren, Baerwald or Stevenson tracing curves. It is also genuinely universal, easily accommodating every 'arm I’ve thrown at it, from 9" to 12". In fact, it is capable of working with any arm from 8.6" to a whopping 17.7" -- and you just know that someone, somewhere is working on something out around that length!

However, an even more extravagant contender has recently emerged -- the Acoustical Systems Uni-Protractor, a combination of stellar engineering and precision manufacturing that starts at around $800. This could be considered a Feickert on steroids, with a similar operational approach but precision niceties such as a range of spindle adapters to ensure snug fit and a choice of curves or separate protractors specific to individual tonearms. I haven’t played with one yet, but when/if I do, I’ll be reporting in. Meanwhile, the Feickert looks like the thinking audiophile’s choice.

Strobe – Setting speed accurately isn’t a matter of guesswork. In fact, having your ‘table running at the right speed is just as important as having it running at a constant speed. There are a number of good strobes on the market, the best being the ones available from Clearaudio and KAB. Both come with the battery-powered handheld strobe light that’s essential to achieving accuracy, but my favorite is the KAB for the wide range of discrete speeds it incorporates into its clever design. Especially if you listen to anything outside of 33 or 45 RPM discs, it really is indispensable. If current LPs are your thing, then the Clearaudio is excellent.

But an even better alternative exists. Dr Feickert offers a free iPhone/iPad app that uses the internal microphone to assess turntable speed -- just search the App Store for PlatterSpeed. You’ll need a test record with a 3150Hz tone on it (its included on the Analog Productions test disc, or you can buy it pressed on a 7" disc from Feickert). Simply play the disc and position your handheld device in a steady position in front of the speakers; the display will show you the actual frequency being produced as well as the platter speed in RPM. Obviously one needs a turntable with a pitch control, but using the micro-step settings on the SDS, getting the speed absolutely spot on is a cinch. Currently, non-Apple devotees need not apply, but then if you are smart enough to use a record player. . . .

Cartridge demagnetizer – The final indispensable analog tool is a cartridge demagnetizer, a clever device that banishes residual magnetic fields from the generator inside your MC cartridge’s generator -- just don’t use it with a moving magnet! Available from Aesthetix (as a small standalone device, or built into their phono stages) or Gryphon (in the shape of the cleverly named Black Exorcist), either option is effective, and once you’ve heard the results you’ll quickly label it essential.

-Roy Gregory