VPI Industries • Classic Direct Turntable

"It speaks with a voice of such power and substance that it elevates records as a musical source to an even higher level."

by Roy Gregory | July 11, 2014

PI record players are proof that Darwin was right. Over the years they have evolved so inexorably (and in many cases, rapidly) that any given iteration only seems to survive a single production run before another refinement is incorporated. That those refinements have nearly always been for the better (which in the world of audio is not something that can be taken for granted) simply underlines the essential rigor in the basic designs and the continuity of thinking that informs the ever-inquiring mind of paterfamilias Harry Weisfeld. Leaving aside the multiple belts, flywheels and idlers that could at one point be festooned around the TNT platter, the other governing principle has been a quest to refine the basic ingredients: to determine what actually matters -- and eliminate what doesn’t. A number of significant developments have served to improve performance whilst challenging conventional wisdom. At the same time, evolution through simplification has seen the price/performance equation tilt dramatically in favor of the customer, making the latest generation of VPI products even bigger bargains than the models before.

Price: $30,000
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

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

Notable steps along this pathway include the adoption of PEEK thrustpads to reduce bearing noise; the prioritization of speed stability over mechanical isolation (eliminating complex suspension systems along the way); the return to heavy one-piece aluminum platters (often with stainless-steel damping plates incorporated); the rigid coupling of motor and main bearing to a single chassis to ensure a stable and consistent relationship; the separation of azimuth and tracking-force adjustment in the JMW tonearm, along with the provision of VTF optimization through threaded inserts in the counterweight stub; the option to eliminate bias-force adjustment (because 'arms often sound better without it); the ability to swap entire tonearm wands, preserving the exact setup of the 'arm and cartridge; the ability to adjust VTA on the fly in sufficiently small and repeatable steps to be meaningful.

It’s quite a list, and all together they add up to the background against which the Classic Direct and the new 3D tonearm must be viewed. I am not going to wade through each one in detail -- simply because I’ve already done that in the Classic 4 review -- but each has played its part in the steady ascent to the performance peak on which the latest Classic design is perched. The entire journey has been long, eventful and refreshingly devoid of wrong turns or missteps: there has also been an air of inevitability about this final destination, even if there are some fascinating twists in the end of the tale. The final step may have been heavily trailed and taken its time to arrive, but it’s here at last, so here goes.

What goes around comes around

ew people will remember this, but Harry Weisfeld has always had an interest in (and sneaking regard for) the potential of direct-drive turntables. Indeed, VPI’s very first product was a suspension base to improve the performance of the then-popular Technics direct-drive decks. The crucial importance of speed stability got lost in the rush to adopt suspended-subchassis designs and the improved isolation they delivered. But isolation isn’t everything, and whilst those decks did sound considerably better than the direct-drive competition, there was more to it than just the suspension system. Indeed, it wasn’t long before we were all pouring design effort and money into ways of improving their speed stability without compromising their noise performance. Yet despite the ready acceptance of the vital role played by electronic power supplies and the rise of rigid designs with standalone motor pods, when VPI launched the Classic 1, a budget deck with a one-piece plinth supporting a massive precision-turned platter and close-coupled belt drive from a fixed motor, it was close to heresy -- especially at the extremely approachable asking price. Suddenly, Weisfeld was questioning the accepted budgetry wisdom of turntable design, the logic that said that a sophisticated plinth and isolation system for the motor, normally involving exotic materials, was a prerequisite for high-end analog performance. Instead, he simply bolted a quiet(ish) motor to a heavy, sandwich plinth which also supported the massive metal platter, relying on the structure of the plinth to sink unwanted energy from the drive system, while the sheer rotating mass, the stable relationship between motor, belt and platter as well as the lack of lossy interfaces (sprung motor mounts or soft record mats) would deliver superior speed stability and dynamic range. One quick listen was all it took to demonstrate that he was spectacularly correct in his assumptions.

With such a simple plinth/motor unit, the cost of production plummeted, allowing VPI to include a simplified version of the clever and superb-sounding 10.5" JMW memorial tonearm into a genuinely affordable package -- a package that delivered unprecedented musical performance and authority for the price. As time passed, the inevitable happened and the Classic 1 spawned more ambitious and costly derivatives, culminating in the larger and even heavier Classic 4, with its two-tonearm capability. But even this deck, a product that when launched was capable of challenging some of the very best and most expensive designs around, was still far from expensive -- at least for the performance on offer. Sneaking in under the five-figure price point, including the excellent JMW tonearm, it was around a third of the price of anything that got even close.

The Classic 4 remains a stunningly good ‘table, but the emergence of decks like the Spiral Groove SG1.1 and the Hartvig Signature TT have offered alternatives that cost enough more to pitch a convincing case without resorting to the loony-tunes price levels asked for products like the Continuum or TechDAS 'tables. After all, if a new deck costs three to four times the price of the Classic 4 -- and looks prettier or at least more complex -- then surely it has to be better, right? The realities of the audio market mean that cost and credibility really do go hand in hand, meaning that the Classic 4’s place at analog’s top table was coming under increasing threat, a factor that, whilst it didn’t drive the development of the Classic Direct ‘table, certainly makes the arrival of this new and significantly more ambitious Classic model timely indeed.

Directly to the point

utwardly there’s little to distinguish the Classic Direct from a Classic 4: the same oversized piano-black plinth supports the familiar, tall aluminum platter and a JMW unipivot tonearm. But look a little closer and you’ll notice the absence of belts and the grooves in the platter to seat them, along with the pulley that drives them. Instead, you get three pushbuttons with neat blue peripheral LED illumination, labeled 33, 45 and Stop. The 'arm is all black and has morphed into a new, more muscular shape, but more of that later.

The real differences with the Classic Direct lie under the skin, and they’re apparent as soon as you open the boxes in which it arrives. Flip up the lid on the familiar carton containing the plinth, and nestling in the foam insert is something that looks like a Classic 4 that’s had its middle removed. The basic plinth employs exactly the same sandwich construction, 2 1/2" of MDF bonded to a sheet of stainless steel with an interleaving layer of dispersive weave, the whole lot topped off with a 1/2" plate of aluminum. But in place of the standard blank face of the 4’s aluminum top slab, broken only by the centrally located bearing, there’s a massive well carved out of the plinth, around 9" in diameter and nearly three inches deep. A recessed lip running round the inner edge of the top plate has locating wells for four small polymer isolators. In the middle of the well winds a ribbon cable and edge connector -- and that’s your lot.

It’s when you open the platter box that the fun really starts. The first thing you see is a massive T handle, beneath which is packed the upper surface of the platter. Screw the handle onto the threaded spindle in the center of the platter and lift. As it comes clear of the foam bed you realize that, rather like hooking a salmon when you thought you had a brown trout, you’ve got hold of not just the platter but the cylindrical motor housing that is hanging from its underside. Now the giant well in the plinth starts to make sense. Assembly consists of positioning the plinth, installing the polymer isolators and then placing the motor/platter module next to it, so that you can connect the ribbon cable that carries the power and switching signals. Next, lift the motor/platter unit using the T handle and, folding the ribbon cable around its circumference, lower it gently into place (there’s a key groove for proper alignment, a bit like you find on an octal tube base). Connect the compact external power supply (around a third the size of VPI's old SDS) to the coaxial connector on the rear, level the deck and you are ready to go.

The sheer simplicity of this process does somewhat detract from the sophistication of the hardware involved. The integrated motor/platter unit weighs in at 27 pounds; hence the handle -- which also serves to keep your mucky fingers off the polished edges of the platter. The platter itself contributes 18 pounds of that mass, the remainder being the direct-drive motor system and its housing. The platter rests on VPI’s established PEEK thrust pad, inverted bearing, the self-lubricating, soft interface making for incredibly low friction and mechanical noise. The motor uses the platter itself as the rotor (and flywheel) surrounding it with a PCB stator, to create a zero-contact drive system, an arrangement that I first came across in the Rockport Sirius III. There it was combined with a biaxial air bearing, but VPI’s elegant inverted design gets surprisingly close in terms of noise performance at a fraction of the price. Servo control and active feedback help create a non-cogging drive, while the flywheel effect of the heavy platter ensures stable speed and helps to eliminate hunting or the jitter effects that undermined the performance of earlier direct-drive systems. The motor drive (including its all-important and extremely sophisticated control system) is sourced entirely in the US.

vpi_classic_direct_quote_1.jpg (21775 bytes)All of which sounds pretty good on paper, but what does it mean in practice? VPI quote speed accuracy of greater than 0.01% with vanishingly low flutter and noise figures. Those are certainly impressive numbers, but the real benefits can be heard in the performance -- and can’t be heard in the ‘table’s structure. Employing the old turntable hand’s tool of choice, I placed my stethoscope at strategic points across the plinth and heard -- nothing, nada, nix. That’s a first. Normally with turntables you can pick up some noise at some point in the structure, but not this time. Of course, I couldn’t listen to the platter, being as it was spinning, but that raises an interesting question. Very low noise levels from the motor -- and nothing that moves is ever totally silent -- will be effectively blocked from reaching the plinth by the polymer isolators that support the drive housing. Doesn’t that just trap that noise inside the drive system itself? Well, there’s one way to find out: lift the platter unit, remove the isolators and see what happens. So I did, with interesting results that I’ll discuss a bit later in the context of the sound as a whole.

The plinth itself is supported on the same decoupled feet supplied with the Classic 4. These tapered Delrin cylinders stand on a trio of tiny, embedded steel balls and allow height adjustment through the 1/4 x 20 threads with which they attach. Past experience suggests that while the VPI feet are serviceable, substituting them for something better can be operationally and sonically worthwhile. My real issue with the standard feet is the size and flexibility of the decoupling elements. These make precise leveling a bit hit and miss as the course threads and twisting motion required to adjust them allow the elastomer material to absorb the torque -- and then slowly release it, undoing all the care and attention you’ve just invested. Winding the feet down also introduces a degree of instability as the plinth rests on the tiny quarter-inch thread. It works but it’s something that can be readily improved, with the likes of the Nordost Sort Füt or a Track Audio TT Isolator. Both these feet have a large-diameter body that screws up hard against the base of the turntable. The level is then adjusted using the internal mechanism of the foot itself. Which works better will depend on the nature of your supporting shelf/rack. The Sort Füt is a coupling device that will ground energy out of the plinth into the supporting structure. The Track Audio TT Isolator is, as the name suggests, a decoupler with a degree of in-built isolation. Given the low-noise motor drive used in the VPI, in most cases I’d opt for the Track units, which are both more affordable than the Sort Füt solution and also more aesthetically consistent with the ‘table, their cylindrical form and polished stainless-steel construction chiming perfectly with the CD/3D combination. Buried in the body of the TT Isolator is a fine-pitch, 20mm thread and locking ring that make leveling a joy. You even get a pair of pry bars so that locked really does mean locked. The clever concentric Delrin and O-ring isolation element is effective without introducing any unwanted slop, and the whole thing stands on a shallow cone. The result is easy to use, super stable, attractive and musically beneficial. Best of all, it even reduces the ‘table’s footprint a little, meaning that it will fit far more comfortably on a wider range of racks. With the Track feet (or something similar) installed, the footprint for the Classic Direct measures out at a still substantial but at least slightly more manageable 21" x 15 1/2", with the actual contact points being set in another 3/4" from each edge.

Armagideon time

hich brings us finally to the most obvious visual difference between the Classic Direct and its predecessors, in the carefully sculpted shape of the JMW 3D tonearm. You can’t really confuse the two, given that the 3D is the first black tonearm to emanate from VPI -- and it’s not just the armtube that’s black, but the whole kit and caboodle, offset by tasteful silver highlights in the shape of the counterweight and low-slung outrider weights. But for once, that obsidian exterior is a question of Bauhaus economy rather than stylistic flourish. The thing that sets the 3D tonearm apart from previous JMW versions is that the whole armtop, from headshell to counterweight stub, is a single-piece construction, formed using 3D printing technology. Built up layer on layer from a resin-based material, the technique allows the use of shapes and structures that were previously impossible to produce. So, if you look at the 3D armtube you’ll see that it flows from a flat-faced, triangular section immediately behind the headshell to a perfect cylinder where it meets the bearing housing. What’s more, the bearing housing and the counterweight extension beyond it flow onwards in a single, unbroken piece, devoid of joints or seams.

But to grasp the full implications of the technology, let’s look at an example from another field. On a recent visit to the Sheffield University Mercury Centre for Advanced Manufacturing Technology and Production (the subject of an upcoming visit piece) by way of an introduction to the world of additive manufacturing -- the technically correct name for what most of us refer to as 3D printing -- our guide showed us a chess piece. It was a rook, maybe an inch and a half tall, molded in resin, with all the normal features: nice crenellations and patterned stonework on its walls. Then he showed us another the same size, only this time there was a tiny spiral staircase running up the outside of the tower; there were soldiers on the top of the castle and windows in the walls -- and if you looked through the windows you found the tower was hollow and the rooms inside had people in them too! That’s what 3D printing can do. He followed that up with a series of solid shapes constructed on the basis of complex geometrical matrices, "grown" from resin but also metals. The implications are enormous and seriously far-reaching.

Which brings us back to the VPI armtop. By combining Finite Element Analysis (FEA) with the structural flexibility and internal complexity possible through additive manufacturing, it was possible to create a physical form that optimized the damping and mechanical behavior of the 'arm to an extent that designers could only previously dream about. Just take a look at the revised finger lift to get a sense of what the new approach threw up in terms of problem areas and solutions. It’s not just about the shape or vibrational characteristics either: the depth of insight delivered by the FEA along with the range of options possible through additive manufacturing allowed the 'arm to be not just stiffer and better behaved, but its effective mass and weight distribution could also be optimized, while the way the part is grown eliminates any material or manufacturing inconsistencies. The sculpted shape combined with a constantly varying wall thickness makes for an 'arm with an impulse response that’s as flat as a barroom pool table -- and the VTA adjustment will let you take out the slope! That makes it a win-win-win situation, with the only parts being added to the armtop being the screw in bearing cup and the outrider weights.

The new armtop drops straight onto the existing JMW bearing and VTA base, retaining the same LEMO connector and termination box -- and thus all the same operational elegance that makes the JMW such a joy to use. However, there are several significant differences between the new 'arm and the older, tubular metal models. The first is that the counterweight runs on a thicker stub than before, meaning that older counterweights cannot be used on the 3D 'arm. Also, the offset collar originally used to set azimuth has been eliminated in the move to a one-piece structure, meaning that the outrider weights are now fixed. As a result, the 3D 'arm is supplied as standard with the Soundsmith Counter Intuitive device, making precise setting of VTF and azimuth simplicity itself. Finally, the armtube is much thicker on the new 'arm at the point where it meets the armrest, meaning that the cradle needs to be substantially bigger.

The good news is that owners of existing JMW 12" and 10.5" tonearms can buy the 3D armtube, complete with the necessary cradle and counterweight, as an upgrade ($3000 and $2500 respectively -- around 60% of the price of the complete 'arms). Okay, so you’ll be sitting that glossy black armwand on a silver base, but it actually still works all as a piece and it’s an upgrade that’s well worthwhile in sonic and musical terms. The Nordost internal wiring option remains available and at $200 should be something of a no-brainer.

Getting the CD/3D up and running

nce you have the Classic Direct and 3D tonearm (CD/3D) assembled and wired into the system, there’s still a way to go. VPI recommend running the deck for 20 hours before it achieves full performance. I’d say that’s a minimum. I’d run it for at least four days -- and whilst I was about it I’d be burning in the internal tonearm wiring, especially if it is the optional Nordost variety. Running in internal 'arm wiring? What you need is a dummy cartridge body that allows you to attach the output of a CD player to the cartridge tags on your tonearm (and the lead-out wires to a line-level input -- not your phono stage!). That means building one from a redundant cartridge body, a fiddly proposition but one that’s well worth the effort. Once you hear the difference you’ll realize that the wiring in many of the expensive tonearms currently in equally expensive systems has never run in; how could it, given the signal levels and usage it normally sees?

With alternative feet, motor mounting options and the new armtop to consider, the Classic CD/3D offers a rather more involved challenge than most turntable reviews -- and that’s before you get to the clamping options. The Classic 4 comes with both a record weight and a peripheral clamp (that also doubles as a platter mass ring). Both are effective and I’ve developed a strong preference for running a central weight on the record label and the peripheral ring below the record on the lip of the platter, where you still get the flywheel benefits even if you don’t need to iron out a rim warp. The Classic Direct motor is another matter: although the Classic CD/3D platter is profiled to accept the peripheral clamp there’s no missing the fact that the ‘table sounds better without it installed. Adding the mass ring also adds a heaviness and lack of agility to the sound, making the musicians sound almost clumsy in comparison to the straight platter/central clamp setup. The peripheral clamp remains the only really viable route to rim-warp replay, but the direct-drive motor and platter no longer need its help when it comes to speed stability and musical articulation, making it a useful accessory rather than a sonic necessity.

One way in which the 3D armtop doesn’t vary from its predecessor is in its bias arrangements and preferences. The thicker counterweight stub arrives with a slim Delrin anchor installed between the bearing housing and counterweight, a nylon filament hooking over the falling-weight bias device mounted on the termination box. It is simplicity itself to disconnect -- and that’s exactly what you should do. Decide for yourself, but as with previous JMW 'arms, I far prefer the sound with the bias device disengaged, side force applied by the simple expedient of a twist in the leadout wires that link the armtop to the termination box. There’s a fluidity and sense of rhythmic precision running the 'arm "neat" that brings a lucid, unforced grace to the performance. Hook up the bias weights and you introduce a mechanical, cluttered quality to the music, diminishing its expressive range and rhythmic integrity.

If the difference is so obvious, why do VPI even bother with the bias adjustment? Originally, JMW tonearms were supplied without the falling-weight bias option, opting for the twisted-wire solution, but criticism from listeners who preferred to trust their eyes and expectations over their ears generated a post-production fix, a comfort blanket for those who cleave to the status quo. For those who trust their own judgment I say, "Suck it and see." What you’ll discover is that the bias device sounds just like the afterthought it looks like. Remove the thread’s anchor altogether and you can even get the counterweight closer to the pivot if necessary, reducing the arm’s moment of inertia for better tracking along the way.

However, there is one important caveat to all of the above. The one instance in which the bias can deliver a musical benefit is when playing 45rpm discs. So for those of you with a collection of 45rpm audiophile reissues or original 12" singles should consider leaving the anchor in situ so that the bias can be set specifically for the higher platter speed and engaged as required. The simple loop-and-post arrangement makes that perfectly possible and something you should certainly consider if 45rpm records play a part in your listening.

Finally, one way in which the 3D 'arm does differ from its predecessor is in the tools available for optimizing setup and cartridge alignment. The 3D comes with the same basic triangulated single-point protractor (I used the SmarTractor instead) and lightweight aluminum tube to aid in azimuth adjustment. But that’s where the similarities end. Gone is the nasty Shure stylus balance, replaced with a diminutive electronic alternative. Now, electronic stylus balances are not the exotic items they once were, but this one is very nice indeed. Compact and simple, it is stable in operation, has a nice, sturdy stylus platform and is simple to read and use. My only complaint is the use of a watch battery. I’d prefer an AAA (on grounds of late-night availability -- just reach for the nearest remote), but then you can’t have everything and small size and large batteries aren’t exactly compatible. I’ve already mentioned the inclusion of the Counter Intuitive azimuth/VTF device, but there are also a pair of small weights running on a threaded shaft protruding from the rear of the main counterweight, offering yet another fine-tuning option if required. As yet, there’s only one size of counterweight, but I had no problem balancing the Lyra Dorian, the van Den Hul Condor or the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, cartridges that cover most of the range when it comes to mass. The headshell slots are also longer, allowing greater fore and aft latitude. That might not seem like a big deal but on the JMW armtops, I was having trouble getting some cartridges far enough back in the slots for the SmarTractor’s IsoDIN curve. Given how much better that sounds than the Lofgren/Baerwald alternatives, that’s important to me -- and it should be important to anybody buying (or supplying) a record player at this price.

So to summarize: the musical performance I’m about to describe is delivered by the Classic Direct running with a central record weight, no peripheral clamp or bias force applied and the Track Audio TT feet substituted for the originals. The 3D 'arm is equipped with the standard (Discovery) internal tonearm wire, although I used Nordost Odin or V2 tonearm cables to connect the tonearm’s termination box to the Connoisseur phono stage. As well as the Classic 4, I also employed a standard aluminum, Discovery-wired JMW 12" armtop and a pair of Lyra Dorian cartridges for direct comparison purposes. All cartridges were aligned to the IsoDIN curve.

Listening in

irect-drive decks with audiophile pretentions aren’t the rarity they once were, when the likes of the Goldmund Studio was very much one of a kind. These days, direct drive is all the rage, helped in no small part by the astonishing performance delivered by decks such as the Grand Prix Audio Monaco, a turntable that proved to be something of a revelation when it first appeared. Compact, elegant and beautifully engineered, it served up a timely reminder of what the words "rock solid speed stability" really mean -- and what they really mean for record replay. The musical impact was apparent on any type of music, but if you doubted its significance, all you had to do was pull out a piano recording and it was game over. The various VPI Classics, with their close coupled drive system, got remarkably close -- especially considering their price points -- but with the Classic Direct, Weisfeld has finally hit the mother lode.

Like the Grand Prix before it, the VPI had me playing a lot of piano music -- not because it suits the ‘table particularly, but because it makes you realize just how bad most other record players make piano recordings sound. The reasons for that cut right to the heart of speed stability and what it brings to the party. Sure, those long chords with their interminable decay show up any inconsistencies with all the relish of a headwaiter lifting the lid on some celebrity chef’s pičce de résistance, but this is much, much more significant than that. Intuitively, the very idea of speed stability suggests rigidity and control, the imposition of almost march-like pattern and regularity: in practice, the opposite is true. Whether as a result of the system or the listener’s subconscious (and I suspect it has a lot to do with the latter) increased speed stability brings with it increased expressive range and freedom. While it’s hard to be adamant about such things, the more I listen the more I conclude that this has to do with security more than anything else -- and that’s absolutely a mental state.

A picture is worth a thousand words and so is an example, so perhaps I should use one. Of all the piano discs I played, the one that stands out was an Argerich recording of the Ravel G-major Concerto (with Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker) [Deutsche Grammophon SLPM 139349]. Captured in 1967, the 26-year old Argerich is at the height of her expressive powers, with delicate fingering that couples cool control with astonishing dexterity. Unfortunately, although the recording is good, the pressing leaves something to be desired. It might not plumb the depths of the oil-starved ‘80s, but it’s a world away from the tulip-labeled heyday of the German giant. Having said all that, isn’t the whole point of having a better record player to release the music trapped by less-than-wonderful recordings and pressings? That’s exactly what the Classic CD/3D does. The extent to which it achieves it is just as remarkable as how it achieves it.

But let’s start at the beginning. The percussion clap that opens the Ravel has barely died away before you recognize the first crucial difference in what you are hearing. We often talk about bringing the performance and performers into the room. It’s a vivid image of a vital aspect of system performance -- but it is also slightly misleading. Particularly with acoustic music -- or any music that is actually captured within a coherent acoustic space -- what we’re actually doing is not creating a sense of people in the room with us, but superimposing a space within a space. Rather than the recording being superimposed on the listening room, it should bring its own acoustic boundaries with it. Of course, we all spend a lot of time talking about stage width and sidewalls, height and depth, but like most things audio, this is all a question of degree. Some systems establish solid acoustic boundaries with an almost reach-out-and-touch quality. The fact that many of them do so irrespective of what’s actually on the recording raises my suspicions; besides which, I think that this has more to do with the air within the boundaries than the boundaries themselves. After all, you can’t hear a brick wall! There’s no doubting the attractive sense of presence and immediacy that comes from the vivid portrayal of enclosed air, but is it real?

Back to the Ravel: as I said, it’s not a bad recording, but it’s no Living Stereo -- in either the RCA or the literal sense. Yet, as soon as you hear that percussive slap, you know that it is happening in a different space with a different acoustic signature. The character of the venue, if not its precise dimensions, is immediately apparent -- instantly you are in another place. That level of transparency to the signal, of resolution and sheer clarity is remarkable, but it is only the first part of the process. What’s really impressive is not the way the CD/3D establishes that shift in space, but the way it maintains it over time. As instrumental voices populate the soundstage they are absolutely anchored in place. Likewise, the extent and character of the acoustic is totally stable: once established it remains constant and unwavering. This consistency might not seem like such a big deal, but believe me, once you’ve heard it, you realize just how much the images and acoustic space generated by most record players subtly weave and shift as the performance progresses. It’s no small thing because this is all about creating an illusion, about suspending disbelief, and if our brains are going to accept that there really is an entire orchestra and a Steinway D there in front of us, you’d better believe that it knows they don’t wobble or shift around.

Of course, there’s no escaping the whole vexed issue of record concentricity in this equation, and as players from Nakamichi and Sony have shown over the years, correcting for this by shifting the platter or the 'arm can have extraordinarily beneficial effects -- almost as beneficial as really good speed stability. Does that mean we shouldn’t worry about perfect pitch because so few records are perfectly concentric? No, because these are two separate but related problems. Yes, I’d love to fix both, but even fixing one will transform your listening -- as the Argerich Ravel so ably demonstrates.

Written between 1929 and 1932, the G-major concerto spans impressionism and modernism. Its three movements offer starkly contrasting moods and place massive demands on the soloist. The first is full of Ravel’s sumptuous orchestral colors and vivid contrasts, the coupling of harp and piano so typical, yet here both complementary and separate. The piano part demands incredible poise and delicacy, yet an almost explosively instantaneous response to shifts in pace and density. The poise and clarity of Argerich’s playing (not to mention Abbado’s orchestral support) are remarkable. The sensitivity displayed in the placement of notes, the pacing of phrase, the rapid sprays of color that explode on demand, pull you into the performance. The jazz-like motifs that flicker and tantalize, almost like Gershwin peeking in on proceedings, are both starkly exciting in their contrast and yet fully integrated into the piece. Many systems soften the sound of the piano: better systems reveal its percussive character and crisp leading edges; but with the Classic CD/3D it sings -- and when required it dances too. Which makes the seismic shift to the somber mood and almost classical pathos of the second movement all the more dramatic, the weighty eloquence of the playing all the more impressive, given the delicacy and vivacity that’s gone before. There’s an almost sensual calm to the music, so different to the vivid and frenetic wash of the first movement. Which brings us, inevitably, to the short, sharply brilliant and almost modernistic, pell-mell chaos of the third. Here, you could argue that Argerich lacks the sheer bravado of a Michalangeli, but actually I find it perfectly scaled, balancing that contrast between the first two movements perfectly.

So, by now you are probably asking what this in depth wallow through the late Ravel piano repertoire has to do with the VPI Classic Direct? The answer is -- everything. This record has been in my collection for more than a few years and it has played on more than a few ‘tables, including the Classic 4. But none has released this performance in the way that the CD/3D has. I’ve always had a soft spot for the early Argerich recordings, but this was a revelation, not just a diamond in the rough, but the equivalent of unearthing the Star of India, ready cut, polished and mounted. This isn’t just about uncovering a side of Argeric I’d never experienced; it was about discovering a whole piece of music and understanding just why it is so popular. That’s the thing: with lesser record players, recordings and the performances they contain can pass you by -- but not with the Classic Direct. The Ravel is a piece with which I’ve previously always struggled, to the extent that despite having multiple recordings it has never really connected and, scanning the upcoming concert program, it’s a work I’ve always skated past. Well, not anymore. Since the arrival of the VPI CD/3D, it’s gone straight to the top of the "must-hear" list, and that’s the beauty of this ‘table. It succeeds on the most basic level of all -- sheer musical access. The Ravel, a piece that had always flickered and died as far as I was concerned, its appealing moments lost in the lack of overall sense and shape, suddenly found its voice. Same work, same record, different day -- or more importantly, different turntable.

What is it about the sound of the CD/3D that makes it succeed where other ‘tables fail? In this instance we really can isolate the drive in the complex equation that constitutes a record player. The Classic 4 I listen to on a daily basis uses the selfsame plinth, and the JMW armtop and cartridge are interchangeable, allowing me to compare the 4’s belt-drive (with SDS power supply and peripheral clamp) to the Classic Direct’s, er, direct drive. Now, the 4 is pretty close to the top of the tree when it comes to speed stability and dynamic range, but sit it beside the CD/3D, using the same ancillaries, supports, 'arm and cartridge and there’s no avoiding the realization that in comparison it sounds soft. In fact, the CD/3D does to the 4 just what the 4 normally does to other 'tables, but far, far more emphatically. VPI’s new flagship has an absolute authority and sense of purpose that leave the belt-drive of the Classic 4 sounding vague and lacking in purpose. This sheer musical confidence and clarity are what make the core in the composition and performance so accessible. It stamps its superiority over the belt drive on the other Classics (and, one suspects, on all other belt-drive designs) with a ruthless consistency that becomes more and more compelling the longer you listen. But that certainty comes from the natural sense of being right, the sort of authority that might seem arrogant -- yet is easily forgiven because it is so clearly based on what’s obviously correct.

It always helps if these blinding moments of audio revelation are supported by more than just blind faith. A little logic goes a long way when it comes to Damascene conversions, and in this case that logic is itself so obvious that you wonder why we never realized it long ago. As Weisfeld points out, in any drive system, tolerance errors are cumulative. The math is inescapable: The more parts you have (bearings, motor axles, pulleys and belts) the greater the cumulative error and the lower the speed stability. Many years ago, that grand old gentleman and turntable builder John Michell demonstrated how, if you wanted to build a really concentric bearing, you should manufacture all of its parts on a single machine, an approach that improves (he’d have said, "guarantees") concentricity. With a concentric direct-drive system like the one used in the Classic Direct, that is exactly what you can do. Not only do you have a two-part (one fixed, one moving), single axis motor system, overall tolerances can be radically improved through good practice. This is as conceptually simple as it gets. Of course, the actual engineering and construction of the direct drive are another matter.

A new 'arms race?

ust as I can compare the musical insight delivered by the CD/3D as opposed to the Classic 4/JMW, so I can break down the contribution of the constituent parts. When it comes to tonearm comparisons, the differences between the JMW armtube and the new 3D version really are night and day -- and that’s not just down to the inky-black, grainless background delivered by the inky-black armtop. Just handling the two different 'arms comes as a shock. It’s not just the obvious difference in weight -- the fully loaded JMW weighs in at 582 grams (around 19.5 ounces), the 3D at 408 grams (13.6 ounces, nearly 6 ounces lighter) -- it’s the way the two 'arms actually feel in your hand. If you’ve ever picked up a really good carbon bicycle frame you’ll know what I mean: an alloy frame feels rigid, almost zingy, but something like the lugged-carbon construction of the Colnago C59 has a calm, coiled power about it, a controlled stiffness that promises direct energy transfer, without ringing or chatter. The 3D possesses exactly that smooth, even-yet-muscular quality -- and that’s exactly how it sounds. The original JMW is no slouch, with an excellent sense of integration, unimpeded musical purpose and natural drive. The 3D makes it sound small, congested and colored. Big, bold, solid, rich and incredibly dynamic, the new 'arm offers better tonal and spatial separation, more natural musical colors and expression. Much of that grows out of that black, black background, lack of grain and seamless top-to-bottom continuity, all qualities that heighten dynamic and tonal contrasts, low-level resolution, spatial focus and separation.

The 3D 'arm is just quieter: quieter in the sense that it is less intrusive and less limiting -- you don’t hear it in the music, either in additive terms or as a limitation on weight or energy. It’s also bigger and a lot more solid, with a sheer presence and dynamism that seem to add energy to the music -- although in reality it's just letting more of the signal’s natural energy through. Playing the two 'arms back to back (each with carefully optimized VTA), there really is no comparison, the 3D bettering the standard 'arm in every way, irrespective of the musical material. In fact, in this case, the more familiar the track, the more astonishing the difference. Let’s use that old audiophile favorite "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" (Paul Simon, Graceland, the Sony 180-gram reissue [Sony 88691914721]) as an example. The 3D spreads the voices of the a cappella opening wider and deeper, with a more natural left-right balance, greater weight, stability and presence. The individual voices are far more distinctive and breathe much more naturally. The song falls into a natural flow, so that when Simon’s vocals enter, the character contrast between his familiar voice and the Ladysmith singers is much, much more apparent. His delivery is also more fluid, flowing naturally into the established rhythm of the song. Frankly, he sounds like a much better singer, his phrasing and the sense in the lyrics both easier and more telling. Once the track proper starts, the two guitars are obviously separate, both tonally and in space, while the drums hit with the explosive solidity of a cannonade. Rhythmically, things really swing, with a pace and purpose that bring even more life and energy to the track, culminating in the power with which the brass tuttis embellish the chorus. You may think you’ve heard this track -- and most of us have, many times -- but believe me, you haven’t heard it like this.

Go bigger, to the Basie Big Band or the Vienna Philharmonic, or smaller, to the likes of Janis Ian or Lhasa, and the benefits are just as stark. You can’t miss the power and presence that the 3D 'arm brings to proceedings, the clarity and extension of its bottom end, the weight and explosive dynamics. But what you start to realize is that its real power lies in its unimpeded musical flow, a quality built on the sheer stability of the Classic Direct platform. The dynamics, weight and substance are great, but what makes them work is the way they reveal the structure of the music, the way their energy and life flow through the track. Sinuous and lucid, the 3D makes the other 'arms I use sound hesitant and mechanical. Its performance is significantly more natural -- not just tonally or dynamically, but expressively. The way people sing and play simply makes more sense, because the musical patterns are much more recognizable -- recognizable from life. It’s a function of removing the 'arm’s structure and mechanical signature from the equation, revealing what really does lie beneath: it’s also an object lesson in just how intrusive most "high fidelity" actually is.

Owners of 10.5" and 12" JMW tonearms should hear the 3D armtop at their earliest opportunity. Of all the steps that have been taken in the odyssey of VPI turntable and tonearm development, this is, along with the direct-drive motor, the most fundamental. Unlike the motor, it is also a retrofittable upgrade -- and one that should be right at the top of your list. Of course, the differences I’m describing are in the context of the Classic Direct ‘table, which brings us right back to the motor’s contribution, but rest assured that I’ll be looking at the impact of the 3D armtube on the lesser decks in due course.

Menu de jour or a la carte?

he CD/3D performs this trick of illuminating the performance without robbing it of life or color. It is vivid rather than sterile. Which brings me back to the question of security. The absolute confidence with which we accept the position of the performers makes it easier to accept the illusion of the performance. The astonishingly low noise floor of the Classic Direct ‘table and the incredible dynamic resolution of the 3D 'arm in turn allow you to "see" deeper into the layers of music and musical expression. It’s almost as if with other ‘tables there’s an energy threshold above which a musical event has to rise in order to become apparent. The result is a hesitation or shifting in the precise placement of notes, when they start, their duration and their overlap with others. The turntable and tonearm impose a grid, to which the music conforms. But lower that noise floor, increase the dynamic resolution and discrimination in the way that the CD/3D combination does and suddenly the range of placement options increases dramatically. The actual difference in measurable terms may be tiny, but in terms of timing and pattern, performance and expression it’s huge. That’s what transforms the Argerich recording. It’s not just her playing, but the piece as a whole: the sensitivity of her lines, the relationship between phrases, but most of all the relationship with the orchestra. Likewise, the Paul Simon: what sets it apart and elevates it is the sheer humanity that is revealed by the 3D tonearm. These are differences on a micro level, but they are also the very fabric and texture of the performance, the understanding within Ladysmith Black Mambazo and between the instrumentalists. Graceland was always an album that consisted of Paul Simon and backing band: with the Classic CD/3D that reality is even more apparent and in some ways all the more impressive.

I mentioned the four small polymer isolators that sit between the direct-drive motor unit and the Classic plinth, and it’s finally time to talk about their influence. The logic of their presence escapes me and that’s what drove me to remove them, and, boy, am I glad that I did. Just as I’d expect, the result is a further drop in noise floor but a far more obvious increase in sheer clarity and temporal insight. Back to piano and the shape and weight of notes just stand out, bringing a precision to their spacing, the shape of phrases and a new sense of purpose. Bass notes gain texture and shape, as well as an increase in energy and forward momentum, with an almost forensic definition of pace and rhythm.

These are not small differences, so I raised the issue with Harry Weisfeld. True to form, he was well aware of the difference and listens both with and without the isolators, but he characterizes the change in a different fashion. For him, listening without the isolators -- au naturelle, if you will -- is more accurate, more transparent and offers higher resolution. But it is also far more demanding of record quality. If you listen to an exclusive diet of audiophile repressings and clean originals, then you’ll love the results, but the downside is that run this way the ‘table can be unforgiving of lesser records and recordings. If you play a wider range of music and especially if you have a large collection that you’ve owned for years, you’ll find that listening with the isolators in place delivers more consistently enjoyable results for most listeners.

As soon as he said this, I knew exactly what he meant and I agree -- up to a point. As I suggested earlier, making the comparison is easy: lift the platter and motor with the special tool provided and have a second pair of hands whip out the little blur grommets. Replace the motor and off you go -- except that you’ll need to adjust the VTA to compensate for the slight drop in the platter’s height and that’s the key. Grommets in, the sound is slightly rounder, but it’s also reassuringly solid and bouncily engaging and energetic. Remove the isolation grommets and you gain clarity and focus at the expense of energy and life -- until you correct the VTA. Drop the 'arm by just the right amount and all that energy, life and musical purpose come back, heightened by the clarity and precision that help define each note. The fact is, at least according to my observation, that the CD/3D is more transparent and more accurate, more detailed and more musically engaging if you run it without the isolation grommets in place: but only if you get the VTA spot on. That’s the price you pay for the increased resolution and transparency. It’s not just transparent to the recording; it’s transparent to the state of tonearm alignment and setup too -- and that means you’ll need to trim the VTA with care for each and every disc. That’s something I do anyway, so it’s no hardship as far as I’m concerned, but even I have noticed that the results are far more critical than ever before. Unless you are prepared to take this level of care (okay, I’ll admit that it’s almost OCD), then you should probably just leave the grommets in place. Audiophiles being what they are, I can imagine that most CD/3D owners will try the difference at least once. Just be honest about your own tolerance when it comes to the palaver of playing records and the preferred option will be clear. Even if you do opt to pull the isolators, it really is just the glaze on the cherry on the icing on the cake of what should already be a pretty revelatory listening experience. The real importance here is the light their presence (or removal) throws on just what the direct-drive motor contributes to the musical performance and how it does it.

"Just one waff-air thin mint?"

n one sense, this debate around the motor isolation grommets encapsulates a wider and ultimately far more important question. Resolution and transparency have all too often been the flip side of life and musicality. In a world where different is often seen as better (rather than just different, or in a wider context, actually worse) we should never forget to ask, How much is too much? It’s not just a technical question, but a value-orientated one too. With a next generation of audio equipment buyers, many of whom cannot afford to leave their parents homes, spending $30,000 on a record player -- any record player -- seems ludicrously out of touch.

VPI has always stayed firmly on the highly musical/high-value side of those equations, delivering body and presence, musical energy and sheer fun at an approachable price, rather than the pinched and almost academic "perfection" sought by others. A Porsche or a Ferrari might perform admirably on a racetrack (supported by the inevitable collection of expensive parts and the posse of mechanics to fit them). In comparison, the VPI decks always seemed like track-day specials: most of the performance in a package that costs a fraction as much and that gets you there and back as well -- and to work the next day if need be. If engineering is about deliverable, reliable performance, the strong streak of practicality that runs through every VPI product shouldn’t be allowed to obscure their innate elegance. So where does that leave the Classic Direct, a product that costs three times the price of the next model down the range?

The Classic Direct turntable and the matching JMW 3D tonearm mark a radical departure in terms of price as far as VPI is concerned. Yet both are also utterly logical extensions of the long and clearly defined developmental path the company has been following. Is this much too much? In performance terms, absolutely not -- and crucially, especially with those isolation grommets in place, for all the sonic advances it embodies the CD/3D stays convincingly the right side of the musical-satisfaction divide. As to the price, that will depend on your own particular circumstances and a weather eye cast in the direction of the competition. We seem to be passing through a period of paradigm shift at present, with a host of recent source components delivering significant advances in musical performance at prices that whilst they remain expensive are considerable less than the stratospheric levels reached by their immediate predecessors. In digital terms I can point to the Wadax Pre 1 Mk 2, the Neodio Origine, the dCS Vivaldi (remember, you don’t have to have all four boxes) and the bargain-basement Rowland Aeris DAC.

When it comes to record players I’d list the Spiral Groove SG1.1, the Hartvig and now, I’d add to that list the VPI Classic CD/3D. How does the newcomer stack up? Despite its apparently humble origins, have no fear, the CD/3D is right at home in this company. There’s also the Kronos deck, reviewed by Paul Bolin, although I only know it by reputation and from shows (an unreliable source of information). The SG1.1 I know much better, but I’ve still never had it at home. The Hartvig I’ve spent considerable time with and admire mightily for its unforced neutrality and resolution, its deft way with detail and texture, its ability to cut into the shape and sense of a performance. It renders music as a thing of great but slightly fragile beauty. In contrast the VPI delivers broader dynamic range and does so from a foundation of absolute temporal and spatial authority. It’s no slouch when it comes to tonal accuracy either, but I’d love to hear what the JMW 3D could bring to the Hartvig’s performance. However, what the VPI 'arm couldn’t provide, what needs to come from the turntable itself (and what I’m beginning to believe that few if any belt-drive decks can) is the total stability in the musical picture that stems from the Classic Direct’s drive system. Its sound is direct and substantial, its instruments and voices carved from solid and planted in space. It speaks with a voice of such power and substance that it elevates records as a musical source to an even higher level. This isn’t about detail or definition (although the CD/3D excels in both regards) it’s about solid, unwavering presence. It’s the sort of presence that your mind simply accepts, offering the exactly the foundation and pattern it needs to recreate the musical event, allowing it to appreciate all that detail rather than having to wrestle it into place.

As it stands, the Classic Direct is by far the most impressive ‘table I’ve used at home, helped in no small part by the sheer excellence of its 3D tonearm. The turntable delivers a ghostly quiet noise floor that is fully exploited by the astonishing resolution and neutrality of the 3D armtube. But binding the two together is that magic ingredient -- absolute speed stability. It’s not just that you can hear when and where a note starts, it’s that it starts exactly when it should -- and you’d be surprised just how noticeable (predictable?) that is -- and just what a weight it is off of your mind. Interestingly and in common with the Hartvig and the Spiral Groove, the VPI also marks a move towards practical simplicity and deliverable performance -- and away from the seemingly ever more complex solutions previously being offered. In true VPI tradition, this is a record player to sit back and enjoy. Indeed, you can enjoy it on many levels: you can marvel at the elegance of its engineering or its Bauhaus simplicity, its sonic attributes or its sheer musical authority. Or you can simply enjoy your music like never before, with a clarity and confidence that offer premium-seat access to every performance.

At the end of the day (or even in mid-afternoon) that’s what hi-fi -- and this record player in particular -- is all about. The VPI CD/3D might have been a long time coming, but it is definitely, like the man said at the end of Ice Cold in Alex, "Well worth the wait!"

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 turntable with SDS; VPI JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms; Lyra Titan i, Scala, Dorian and Dorian Mono cartridges; Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge; van den Hul Condor cartridge; Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono cartridges; Nordost Odin tonearm lead; Connoisseur 4.2PLE phono stage.

Digital: Wadia S7i and GWSC-modified 861SE CD players, dCS Paganini and Vivaldi transports, Metronome Technologie C5 DAC.

Preamps: Aesthetix Janus Signature, Connoisseur 4.2.

Power amps: Aesthetix Atlas Signature Stereo, Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks, Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum S2 integrated amp, Naim NAP 300 stereo amp, VTL MB-185 Signature Series III monoblocks.

Speakers: Avantgarde Trio, Coincident Speaker Technology Pure Reference Extreme, Wilson Benesch Square Five, Raidho C1.1, Focal Scala Utopia V2.

Interconnects and speaker cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream or Ultra from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QRT QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Racks are Hutter Racktime or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo. These are used with Nordost SortKone equipment couplers throughout. Cables are elevated on Ayre myrtle-wood blocks or HECC Panda Feet. Nordost Sort Füt units were used under the speakers.

Acoustic treatments: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of the LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices. These remarkably simple yet incredibly effective acoustic panels have become absolutely indispensible when it comes to hearing what the system is actually doing.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the Feickert protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix 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. The Dr. Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.

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