I know I’m going to be chided for what I’m about to say but I love a turntable that looks like a turntable in the classic sense. By that I mean, a single chassis design (with a pianoblack base while I’m at it) and parts enclosed and internalized, rather than externals popping up on outboard pods, pillars, and modules. Many turntables today resemble an icy edifice reminiscent of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude; still others have a gimmicky comic-book sense of the surreal, as if some designer had channeled his inner Salvador Dali. To each his own. By my admittedly curmudgeonly standards, the $6000 VPI Classic 3 is well named—classic all the way. An old school, Lucite-free spinner.
Fittingly, the VPI Classic 3 takes the proven platform of Harry Weisfeld’s original Classic and Classic 2 efforts and essentially upgrades and hot rods the living hell out of them. The fixed (unsuspended) plinth is 1/2"-thick machined aluminum bonded to a 1/8" steel subplate. The subplate is in turn bonded to two inches of MDF. The result is not merely damping via mass but a sandwich of dissimilar materials, helping to eliminate resonances. The hefty footers have been redesigned for better balance and isolation. The platter is 18 pounds of machined 6061-T aluminum on an inverted bearing and stainless-steel damping plate. The base is a scrumptious piano-black.
The tonearm is the Classic 3—a unipivot design that’s been rigorously updated with a new stainless-steel arm tube, bearing assembly, mounting base, and Nordost Valhalla wiring straight through from the headshell to the Swiss-made LEMOs that plug into the terminal block. The arm offers turn-knob VTA adjustment. Overhang and rake are manually set by shifting the cartridge in the headshell. While there is no built-in tracking force gauge, any number of aftermarket devices can do this trick. (VPI includes the Shure gauge for good measure.) The floating unipivot design also makes the tonearm a dream for users who are inclined to make cartridge-swapping a way of life. Just pull the cable plug from the socket, slip off the anti-skating thread, and the entire tonearm/counterweight lifts off. The only thing faster would be a removable armwand, which VPI makes optionally available for all of its tonearms.
The Classic 3 isn’t just a ’table/arm combo but arrives as a bundle complete with VPI’s Periphery Ring Clamp (PRC) and HR-X Center Weight. The former is, as the name implies, a beautifully machined halo of non-magnetic stainless steel whose only contact point with the record is the outer lip that just kisses the vinyl’s edge before the lead-in groove. When it is used in conjunction with the HR-X Center Weight, edges and warps are effectively flattened, resonances dampened, and overall coupling of the vinyl to the turntable surface improved. Operationally, it’s a bit awkward to use, but its benefits are undeniable. And this tandem makes life easier for cartridges, all of which rely on seeing the flattest possible surface within the groove—all the more so for a unipivot tonearm, which, unlike it’s fixed bearing pivoted cousins, can tend to roll laterally with a record’s undulations. Short of a full-on vacuum system, the PRC is the way to go.
VPI maintains that thanks to the length and resultant geometry of the 10.5" tonearm little if any anti-skating is ever required. And, cleverly, the specific twist of the tonearm cable and its insertion angle into the adjacent five-pin plug actually compensates adequately for skating under most circumstances, says Weisfeld. However if more anti-skate is needed a mechanical system is also included. Finally, the Classic 3 arrives complete with set-up tools that include an alignment protractor for overhang, a narrow rod for assisting in azimuth adjustment, plus an extra belt.
Usability is superb. I liked the heft and substance of the 3’s component parts and the sure feel of its controls from the side-mount on/off toggle to the headshell lift and cue control. Changing speeds from 33 rpm to 45 rpm is a simple matter of slipping the belt down to the wider diameter portion of the pulley. In practice, the only set-up area that made me feel a bit ham-handed was azimuth. Setting it can be accomplished in two ways. The first option is to swivel an azimuth adjustment ring towards the side of the cartridge that appears lower; alternatively, you can pivot the counterweight ring slightly to the right or left. However, if you’re not careful that can alter tracking force as well. Check out the accompanying sidebar for a cool solution to this quandary.
The first step I take in evaluating a turntable is to listen for, hopefully, no evidence of startup chatter, motor rumble, or resonance from the chassis. The Classic 3 was, in a word, excellent in all these regards. The only rap I have is a bit of feedback I created tapping along the side of the base. It wasn’t perceptible during listening, but as always turntable placement is paramount in order to limit the nefarious effects of airborne or floorborne feedback.
Sonically the character of the Classic 3, to the extent that one can be isolated from the stylus/phono preamp interface, is fast, lucid, and responsive. Rhythmically the VPI has a charismatically upbeat, forward-leaning personality that will take a heavy groove like Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” [Atco] and lock onto it like a vise. In combination with the superb Parasound Halo JC 3 phonostage this playback system was almost chameleon-like in the way it discerned the finest gradations and differences between cartridges—from the rich slightly romantic Sumiko Palo Santos Celebration to the more sinuous, speed-addicted Ortofon 2M Black (not to mention the three Audio Technica models I review in this issue’s “Start Me Up”). This in and of itself demonstrated to me how little coloration the VPI adds to the sonic picture.
During Copland’s Fanfare from Atlanta Brass Ensemble’s Sonic Fireworks [Crystal Clear], I felt the Classic 3 revealed a special talent for pitch clarity and timbral detail in the lower frequencies as the tympani and bass drum began their bombing runs. There were no traces of mistracking in these wide grooves, just thunderously well-resolved impact. While my own SOTA/SME rig edges out the VPI in sheer hellacious impact and extension, the VPI played a very close second fiddle.
However, the highest praise I can give a turntable is the way it imparts unwavering tracking stability to a recording. With the Classic 3, music simply locks in and asks you to enjoy the ride. Whether it’s a flotilla of orchestral and choral images from the Bernstein conducted Carmen or a solitary arpeggio from Michael Newman’s classical guitar on the Sheffield direct-to-disc, notes appear cleanly struck, fully retrieved, and devoid of ambiguity. I noted this same effect when I listened to the SME 30/12 with the twelve-inch version of the SME V tonearm a couple years ago. It conveys the sense that the stylus has moved beyond merely riding the groove, transcending the mechanics and becoming an integral part of the record itself. A great piano recording like Nojima Plays Liszt [Reference Recordings] is an exemplary demonstration disc in this regard. Any turntable will allow you to hear the basic sound of the concert grand, but what the Classic 3 will do is let you hear the piano in its full and awesome power. It will impart the weight and breadth of the instrument on stage, the micro-dynamic delicacy and intense power of Nojima’s touch on the keys. Or the way the soundspace lightens or darkens as harmonics gather and disperse. On a track like Dire Straits’ “Private Investigations,” a song that emerges with all the twists and turns of a le Carré novel, the VPI doesn’t flinch in the face of weird ambient cues, vertiginous panning, and found-sound minutiae. Sonic complexities like these leave it utterly unruffled. Every detail is there, rock-solid, immovable, and alive within the soundstage.
The VPI Classic 3 is an exceptional effort by a company that knows the analog landscape like few others. With each spin it invites you to become reacquainted with every record in your collection. A class-leading product by any yardstick, and, simply put, a class act.
Soundsmith Counter Intuitive and E-Z Mount Screws
As if intuiting my problems with setting azimuth, Harry Weisfeld referred me to Peter Ledermann, president of Soundsmith, a cooperative of designers, mod-experts, and other resident electronics wizards. They’ve created the Counter Intuitive (CI)—a polymer damping ring that fits around the VPI’s existing counterweight and allows fine independent adjustments for both tracking force and azimuth settings. It comes with a self-adhesive scale that can be marked with a Sharpie to note settings for specific cartridges or armwands. Merely press the scale onto the counterweight, slip the Counter Intuitive around the scale, and you’re good to go. Ledermann recommends performing both tracking force and azimuth adjustments in the normal manner with the VPI counterweight. Only when those adjustments are as close to ideal as possible, should you begin moving the Counter Intuitive. Like I said it’s a fine-tuner. For azimuth, lightly rotate the ring to the right or left around the counterweght.
The other gizmo I can’t speak more highly about is the EZ-Mount cartridge screw set. Delivered in a set of four pairs (nylon, aluminum, stainless, and brass, plus nylon washers and stainless nuts), they have an easy to tighten knurled knob on top eliminating the need for tiny hand tools. Since they range in weight from 1.04 gram a pair for nylon to 6.24 gram a pair for brass, you can use them to add or remove mass to the headshell, depending on the cartridge and tonearm. All you need are your hands to install the EZ-Mounts, particularly on pre-threaded cartridge bodies, and they make cartridge alignment easy since they’re a breeze to untighten, move, and retighten. Genius.
SPECS & PRICING
Wow and flutter: Less than 0.02%
Rumble: Greater than 80dB down
Speed accuracy: Within .1%
Dimensions: 20.5" x 15.5" x 10"
Weight: 65 lbs.
VPI Industries , Inc
77 Cliffwood Avenue #3B
Cliffwood, NJ 07721
8 John Walsh Blvd., Suite 417
Peekskill, NY 10566
Price: Counter Intuitive, $50; EZ-Mount screws, $30