The Setup Challenge
These options do create one problem, although this problem occurs in varying degrees with all turntables and tonearms, and is generally most serious with the best ones. Setup is critical. If you are not experienced, make sure you have a friend or a dealer who is, and that he or she will put real effort into helping you. A certain amount of experimentation and tweaking is almost inevitable, and the proper set-up gear is necessary. One key, if simple, tool is a reliable level (small bubble levels are often erratic, and hard to read).
VPI’s manual can take you most of the way, and you are unlikely to have problems if you have any prior experience, but the protractor for adjusting the distance between the tonearm’s base and the record spindle in the center of the platter is a bit awkward to use, and so is the cartridge alignment gird at its end. Once again, having VPI, or a serious analog high-end audiophile, or a really experienced dealer set up your cartridge can be critical. With turntables this good, you can hear every tweak or shift in cartridge alignment.
I found that the new VPI tonearm that came with the Avenger Plus did a great job of minimizing resonance problems with both moving-coil and moving-iron cartridges. I tried it with the Lyric Clavis, Grado Statement, Ortofon A95, and Soundsmith Sussurro II, and it did very well with all my test records. Its VTA/SRA adjustments also work fine if you want to fine-tune them while you are actually listening, although I am prone to leaving the setting in a good “average” position rather than tweaking for each record.
Some other tonearm set-up features you should be aware of, and that mattered in setting up the Avenger Plus for this review:
- Keep the tonearm set-up height parallel to the record, and use the higher side of the manufacturer’s recommended tracking weight. I’ve found over the years that this preserves the record better, as lighter tracking weights have problems with demanding grooves.
- VPI provides for an anti-skating adjustment, but recommends slightly increasing the tracking weight as a substitute. I’ve played around a lot with such adjustments over the years, and I concur with VPI. Many others don’t. Like all such setting, this is worth exploring for yourself.
- Pay really close attention to the azimuth adjustment instructions. You may find in some cases that you can hear improvements, however, if there is a slight tilt in the tonearm towards either side. A good dealer will use a scope to make sure you get the best possible balance between channels.
- There is a new dual pivot adjustment option for the tonearm. I was doubtful about this at first because I thought there might be excessive friction between the pivot and the thrust pad it slides over, but the dual pivot does help stabilize the arm and ensures slightly more stable sound quality.
- These aspects of setup sound more complicated than they are, but they occur in some form in every good turntable/tonearm. Moreover, once setup is complete you can more of less forget about adjustments. One more tip, however: Keep the turntable power supply away from your phono preamp. It is a higher-power unit and can produce some hum and noise if you seat it too close to high-gain phono electronics.
The “Analog Ritual” Challenge
If you are new to the most demanding analog front ends, I should mention the need to adopt a proper “analog ritual” in playing each side of every record—if you want to get the best results. Every experienced record lover already knows this, and has his own variation on how to prepare the record for play. But, if you’re new to analog—and fortunately more and more younger audiophiles are—be aware that there isn’t lot of point purchasing this level of turntable, tonearm, and cartridge if you don’t properly prepare the record and record player.
Every variation of the analog ritual requires regular use of a good stylus cleaner. You will also need to use a record cleaner nearly each time you play a given side. A good record brush can be a partial substitute, but playing dirty records will generally create greater noise and distortion than the differences between good and great turntable setups.
You also need to use a good centerweight, and, in the case of the VPI turntables, the VPI Periphery Ring Clamp that fits over the periphery of the record and clamps it down to the platter. Even if the record appears to be perfectly flat, the Periphery Ring Clamp will slightly improve the tonearm’s ability to track, the consistency of the sound, and the coupling between the record, pad, and platter.
All of this “analog ritual” may seem a bit complicated initially, but it only involves a few minutes of activity at most. It preserves your records—as well as getting the best sound out of them—and becomes part of the fun after a day or two. (It also does at least a tiny bit to get you out of the couch-potato status, where you just sit there streaming digital music, holding your remote or iPad on your lap, and do nothing more than twitch your increasingly fat fingers.)