It may be a bit of an oxymoron to describe the VPI Classic Direct Drive as the best turntable I have never heard. There is, however, a certain method in my mangled syntax. I don’t usually describe a product as a sonic breakthrough—especially a turntable. After something like half a century of living with analog audio—going back to my father’s Rek-o-Kuts—I have heard steady improvements in sound quality from the best products of a given day, but they have usually been limited and incremental.
Far too often, the sonic benefits have not existed at all. A new turntable has often been larger, more complex, and more expensive, but the fact that it sounds somewhat different than its predecessor or than the turntables of other manufacturers has not made it more musically realistic or better sounding. Once the novelty of a slightly different mix of sonic nuances wears off, it is just one more good turntable.
Worse, a few products with prices approaching or sharply exceeding the $30,000 cost of the VPI Classic Direct turntable have sonically underperformed. Awkward engineering, over-creative approaches to the laws of physics, complex and unstable setup, and uncertain reliability may be acceptable facts of life in a classic car—and possibly even in a rebuilt classic turntable—but they make no sense at all in an expensive, modern high-end product.
What is striking about the VPI Classic Direct is that it is relatively compact, draws on classic turntable engineering concepts, and really does make a massive and immediately apparent sonic difference. Moreover, VPI has produced a far more refined 12" version of its unipivot tonearm, drawing on 3D printer technology to create a much more neutral-sounding tonearm wand that has no parts and is one continuous piece of lightweight epoxy resin (aside from the metal socket for the unipivot bearing).
The 3D printed ’arm tube gets its name from the additive manufacturing (or “3D printing”) process used to produce it. 3D manufacturing allows VPI to create a single-piece structure from headshell to rear stub that is designed and made to provide a totally even mechanical resonance response. VPI indicates that the ’arm is produced in shapes that can’t be machined and the wall thickness, the form, the structure have been varied so the resonant character of the ’arm can be set as is appropriate for a device that has to be rigid and yet not resonate. 3D printing also ensures that production is uniform and repeatable over a long production run.
The VPI Classic Direct is a major departure for VPI, which has had decades of real success in refining belt-driven units. It may look like an ordinary turntable, but it took years of effort and a partnership between VPI and a company with specialized motor design and manufacturing skills to develop a three-phase motor with an innovative new stator design that can eliminate the cogging and other problems of direct-drive turntables.
The Classic Direct uses a specially engineered direct-drive motor platter and motor assembly weighing some 40 pounds that easily drops into the turntable base, has virtually no cogging or vibration, and drives a remarkably heavy and inert platter. This integrated motor and platter assembly has a VPI-designed computer-controlled motor that is manufactured and handmade for VPI in the USA.
The Classic Direct uses the platter as a rotor and has an extremely demanding set of tolerances for the inverted bearing design that has been proven in other VPI turntables and uses a PEEK (poly-ether-ether-ketone) bearing surface for minimum friction. The assembly has no mechanical contact in the horizontal plane and VPI claims it has the lowest noise drive and bearing-design architecture possible.
The motor itself has a proprietary non-cogging drive system that uses the platter as the rotor and is servo-controlled, with an active feedback loop that measures and directly controls the speed of the platter to yield consistent and accurate playback. This allows it to achieve a speed accuracy of greater than 0.01% for both the 33 1/3 and 45-rpm speeds.