VPI Avenger Reference Turntable

Taking Analog to Its Logical Extremes

Equipment report
VPI Avenger,
VPI MW 12-3D
VPI Avenger Reference Turntable

The Sound
The best part is that patient and exacting setup of a truly great turntable like the Avenger Reference—and going through the “analog ritual” necessary to get the best out of it—does pay off in sound quality. Moreover, it allows such a turntable to minimize the impact of room, furniture, and placement, which generally colors the sound of analog front ends.

The Avenger Reference can get excellent sound quality out of your records even under very demanding placement and listening conditions. I normally help minimize room, furniture, and placement problems by keeping my phono gear in a separate “hi-fi equipment porch,” separate from my listening room and speakers. I also place my turntable on a rigid heavy metal table that has spiked feet and rests on a thick carpet and pad placed over a cement floor that is decoupled from the wood floor in my listening room. Aside from a doorway, there is also a brick wall separating my equipment room from my speakers.

All very well for me, but not practical for some 99% of the world’s audiophiles. Accordingly, I put the Avenger Reference through something approaching a worst-case test. I placed it and the phono preamp in front of my speakers in my actual listening room during part of my auditioning for this review, and I played my usual annoyingly loud sonic spectaculars at levels where I could feel the resulting sound vibrate the room.

I can’t say that the resulting sound and fury had no effect on the Avenger Reference, but the VPI did far better in coping with these worst-case conditions than the other turntables I’ve tried this test with. (Several clearly vibrated the record and tonearm at peak levels, and in one design the arm actually skipped grooves.) I can’t conceive of any real audiophile ever locating and using his turntable in such a way, and the Avenger Reference will never be a DJ unit, but I still feel this test is a “worst-case” demonstration of just how well a ’table can address one of the most critical problems in real-world analog front ends.

I also made far more functional comparisons with the VPI Classic Direct and earlier model of the VPI 3D tonearm I use as my own reference. I’ve kind of coasted in my own analog setup in recent years because the Classic was so good. In fact, I found over time that it was good enough to consistently convince some of my most dedicated digital audiophile friends that analog LPs could be both a real pleasure and real competitor to even the best digital front ends.

I can’t argue with them about the fact that records have more technical limits than digital discs or streaming, although digital has limits as well. Analog tape and analog LP mastering do impose limits in distortion, restrict dynamic range, and alter frequency response. The best turntable/tonearm combination cannot compensate for the fact that the cartridge introduces a significant amount of its own character to the music. But, I have found that when it comes to the actual aesthetic enjoyment of music, a good record and phono front end still have enough merit to win over most dedicated “digiphiles.”

This was certainly my experience with the VPI Classic Direct, which costs substantially more than the VPI Avenger Reference and is now custom-made for special order because of the limited supply and complicated build. It proved to be equally true of the VPI Avenger and its new tonearm. You do come much closer to the “silence” of digital with the best “extreme turntables.”

The other differences between a very good and a great turntable are subtle. They can’t overcome the noise level of the LP, and they are at their best in a dead-quiet room, but the differences are always there. In simple terms, you become aware that you are hearing more of the music. It is cleaner and has more natural life and more natural instrumental detail. The sound is also more consistent, particularly in both softest and loudest passages.

Much does depend on the cartridge, whose colorations impose the most obvious limits to sound quality in a phono front end. A great turntable/tonearm can, however, allow the cartridge to do its best. With proper setup, the Avenger Reference got the best out of both my older Lyra Clavis and Grado Statement cartridges, my brand-new Ortofon A95, and my Soundsmith Sussurro II. Using different cartridges with a turntable and tonearm is a good way to test its neutrality and impact on sound quality, and the new VPI tonearm got more detail and consistent tracking out of the Lyra and Grado that I had previously heard. Equally important, it allowed the new Ortofon A95 and Soundsmith Sussurro II to show just how much progress cartridge designs have made in recent years.

The Ortofon A95 was as smooth as any moving coil I’ve yet heard, had an excellent soundstage, and a level of depth with really good recordings that I had not heard from other moving-coil designs and frankly did not expect to hear. As my previous reviews have shown. I’m a great fan of the Grado and Soundsmith moving-iron designs, and I have used both as references. The Soundsmith Sussurro II proved to be a major advance over the first Soundsmith Sussurro, which I’ve used as a reference for several years. It was notably smoother and more consistent in both tracking and sound quality, had some of the best lower midrange and upper bass I’ve ever heard, really good upper midrange and treble that preserved the air in good recordings without any touch of hardness, and provided a wide but well-defined soundstage with excellent center-fill and depth.

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