I can’t give you any meaningful estimate of the improvement in dBs (if such a thing is even measurable), but the difference was clearly audible on record after record. What matters even more, however, is the emotional impact that hearing more of the music makes in the best recordings. I am a chamber music fan. I like smaller acoustic jazz groups, and want them to sound as musically real as possible in my listening room. I want to hear the same detail and life I hear in a live performance.
Speed stability and pitch were superb as well. The VPI Classic Direct consistently provided a cleaner and more detailed sound with good recordings regardless of whether I was listening to Chopin and Bach piano and harpsichord recordings or some poor hapless orchestra fight its way through the semi-glorious excesses of Saint Saëns’ Third Symphony. (Really, was his mother frightened before his birth by a steam calliope?)
The VPI was exceptionally clean in the deepest bass, although this was a bit harder to detect than the improvement in the midrange. The bass was both tighter and deeper. Most importantly, the differences between bass frequencies and the detail in bass transients were clearer in both the midbass and deep bass.
You don’t need the Telarc drum spectaculars to hear this improvement. It is audible on any good pop or jazz recording with significant bass, or on organ music and full symphonic music with deep bass content. Cleaner bass also helps in the midrange where bass detail and control not only keep excess bass energy from masking the rest of the music, but also help improve soundstage detail in louder musical passages.
And yes, the new tonearm also made a major difference. As is the case with all good tonearms, you do need to very carefully align it to get the best sound. Let me stress, however, that my experience suggests that any good protractor will provide a reasonably good overhang adjustment, and 12" arms have very little tracking error and really don’t benefit from side-thrust compensation when a touch more tracking weight will sound more natural.
The real problem is make sure the counterweight is properly set up, that the cartridge is properly aligned, that azimuth and stylus rake angle is adjusted to produce the best sound, and that the turntable is carefully leveled with a record on the turntable. (It is also a really good idea to check the stylus alignment in the cantilever with a microscope. Stylus misalignment is rare, but it happens.) I’d also strongly advise using the VPI stainless steel HR-X center weight and periphery ring clamp. The ring clamp is centered by the platter, not the record, and the combination provides a much more level surface from even a seemingly flat record as well as better damping of recording noise.
Once the new VPI 3D tonearm is aligned, its new epoxy-plastic wand works synergistically with the turntable. The ’arm is also extremely clear of any low-level coloration, and this makes it exceptionally revealing at all frequencies and able to take advantage of the Classic Direct’s low noise floor. I have a collection of Accent label LPs that I obtained while working with NATO, and these have served as some of my references for years. The Classic Direct and 3D tonearm showed me that these Accents were ever better than I thought.
The Classic was also good enough for me to have a little innocent fun with several of my audiophile friends. I had a number of DACs in for review and I have a number of records clean enough so you really can’t hear pops or LP surface noise, at least over most of the record. A properly loaded Soundsmith Sussurro can be remarkably “flat” in the sense that the sound is easy to confuse with a CD or digital download. I got away with presenting the result as a really high-quality digital recording about half the time.
My favorite moment was when one of my more analog-oriented friends grudgingly admitted that digital had finally come of age. This led another friend to lecture him on the fact that digital had really been superior for years. Both were listening to an LP, admittedly one selected so the limits in dynamic range would not be apparent.