Why go to direct-drive after years of belt-driven systems?
Cartridges are velocity-sensing devices—if the speed is not dead on you begin with a problem! After studying the operation of belt-drive ’tables for 30+ years and the sound of direct- and rim-drive ’tables it was determined that the only way to get perfect (or as near to perfect as possible) speed accuracy was to go direct-drive. Spending many years listening to Denon DP-80s, JVC TT-101s, Kenwood LO-7s, etc. hardened my viewpoint on this.
No machining accuracy can make up for the fact that in belt-drive you deal with motor-shaft error, motor-pulley error, belt elasticity, and platter and bearing run-out and roundness errors. While on their own they are small, when added together it is impossible to get as accurate a speed as with direct-drive. All these errors compound and produce more errors in the belt motion. The DD is roughly three times lower in speed error than any belt- or rim-drive we have measured, with numbers running around +/-0.008% and noise levels near –100dB.
What are the key differences from your previous reference turntable—the TNT—in features and what were the main goals behind the changes in terms of improving sound quality?
For years, the VPI reference ’table was the TNT, which became the HR-X, and later the Classic 4. The TNT and HR-X were the best we could build assuming that the way to drive a platter for lowest noise would be to use a non-electromotive source, a flywheel. What was not realized was that the errors involved were affecting the speed stability.
Yes, we had low noise but the speed stability was just okay, not great, and definitely not in the world-class range. As we got better at making the parts, the speed became more and more accurate but never reached the level of the direct-drive. Finally we measured the speed accuracy of a number of non-VPI so-called top-line ’tables, all belt-drive, and all were in that HR-X class, very, very good but not state of the art.
Why didn’t you add a fancy suspension system like some of your competitors?
Stability is the key with all rotating devices. Suspensions that flop around may do a great job isolating from one type or another of outside disturbance, but in the end if you isolate from audio frequencies you will get the best sound and the best speed stability. We have used springs, air bladders, and now elastomer isolation. We find the elastomer offers the customer very little problems and isolates from the speakers in all ways necessary. In the VPI listening room we have the Classic Direct sitting between two JBL Everests with four 15" woofers and the feedback level is near zero!
Why is there no outboard motor control unit?
All the functions of the motor are incorporated in the motor body. You do not have to pay for exotic boxes that do nothing but try to justify increases in cost. Since the incoming wave is purified, digitized, and rebuilt into a perfect three-phase sinewave all those fancy boxes are unneeded.
If you were advising an audiophile how to audition the improvements in sound quality, what records would you choose? What should they to listen for?
Listen to the Reference Recording Gershwin, An American in Paris. Stunning piano recording that the DD reproduces with the power, stability, attack, and decay of a real piano. My son plays; I have a piano in my house; and this is as close to the real thing as I have ever heard. Actually any of the Acoustic Sounds reissues with piano will reveal exactly what the DD does. Same with the Heifitz RCA recordings, the violin rolls down to zero output with no wavering. For impact get a copy of Take Five, the 1960s Columbia super jazz recording and you will see what speed stability really means.
Why still a unipivot tonearm after experimenting with regular bearings?
For the ultimate in information off a record, nothing beats a well-made unipivot. There is no friction in the vertical or lateral planes so the cartridge is not moving the mass of the ’arm and fighting the bearing friction. Don’t be fooled—no matter what you spend on bearings there is some bearing friction that only gets worse with time. Plus the unipivot, in our design, let’s you change armwands in seconds, which is very useful for the advanced audiophile/music lover.
Why new materials?
The 3D printed ’arm is such a huge leap beyond the regular making of an ’arm with its metal and aluminum and magnesium parts all ringing at different points, all creating reflections of the signal in the ’arm and telling the cartridge to play it twice. The 3D ’arm is dead quiet because it has no reflections. Its resonance is 1dB high and 3Hz wide—almost literally nothing. It is self-damped and light enough that the cartridge does not have to lug it around.
Does tonearm length really make a sonic difference?
The 12" ’arm really is smoother than the 10" ’arm and much smoother than the 9" ’arm. All the BS over the years about how a 9" ’arm can potentially track better, or is more rigid, does not translate into sound quality in the end. We have made them all, and the 12" consistently beats the other two in listening tests.
The 3D ’arm seems to work with everything! In the listening room we have a Lyra Atlas, a Grado Reference, an Ortofon Windfeld, a Sound-Smith Hyperion and strain gauge, and an Ortofon 2M Red mounted on 3D ’arms and they all work and sound wonderfully.
RCA vs. XLR outputs?
Balanced is better for noise rejection, but other than that RCA is fine if you do not live in a noisy environment. We have both set up, and it is a personal choice. Both can sound wonderful.
What is your opinion of the merits of side-thrust compensation or “anti-skate”?
I never use anti-skate adjustments in my own listening. I can always hear it working since the record hole is almost never centered. This means the anti-skate adjustment is working full time to engage and release at different rates, not for me.
What level would you recommend for leveling the turntable?
A 12" Sears bubble-level is really hard to beat!