Issue 81


Old School:

VPI HW-19 Mk 3 Turntable
By Jerold O’Brien


Venture Electronics Monk Plus IEM’s
By Kyle Dusing

Journeyman Audiophile:

Rotel A14 Integrated and CD14 CD Player
By Andre Marc

TONE Style

Podium XL from HiFi Racks

The Bubble Sofa by Roche Bobois

Snap Power Light Outlet

Orvis WW1 Wooden Propeller

WireSkin Wine Bottle Carrier

42mm Timex + Red Wing Chronograph

Jackson Pollack Puzzle


Spin the Black Circle: Reviews of New Pop/Rock and Country Albums
By Bob Gendron, Todd Martens, Chrissie Dickinson, Andrea Domanick and Aaron Cohen

Jazz & Blues: Eric Hofbauer Quartet, Steve Slagel, and More!
By Kevin Whitehead and Jim Macnie

Bob Gendron’s Rock Reissues You Shouldn’t Miss

Gear Previews

GamuT Zodiac Speakers

MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A Speakers

Exogal Comet DAC


GamuT Di150 Limited Edition Integrated Amplifier
By Jerold O’Brien

SVS SB-2000 Subwoofer
By Jeff Dorgay

Esoteric E-03 Phonostage
By Greg Petan

Franco Serblin Lignea Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Plinius Hiato Integrated Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

VPI Prime Turntable
By Jeff Dorgay

Atoll’s HD120 and MA100 Amp and Pre
By Jeff Dorgay

VPI Classic Two Turntable

Back in Issue 46, I was enamored enough with VPI’s Classic One turntable to give it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.  Even more, I purchased the review sample to make it a permanent reference, and after two years, the Classic One is my go to table, when I just want to hang out and listen to records without fuss. I enjoy it so much; it’s the only table in my home system.

Due to increases in raw materials cost, VPI has had to raise the price of the Classic One from $2,695 to $2,995, yet it remains a stunning value – offering build quality and sheer musicality that has few, if any peers at it’s price.  After two years of daily listening, the Classic One, and now the Classic Two feel more like a “greatest hits of analog” product, combining the virtues of a couple of my favorite turntables into one easy to use and easy to set up package. The sheer weight of its presentation reminds me of an idler wheel Garrard or a Thorens TD-124, without the rumble and noise issues. The Classic 2s overall warmth is highly reminiscent of a mid 80s LP-12, without a heavy dose of OCD to keep it running.

The Classic Two’s overall aesthetic is no nonsense. With a simple, basic black plinth surrounded by either a black oak or walnut frame, and perched upon miniature versions of their HRX turntable’s feet, it is devoid of accouterments. The Classic Two eliminates all pretense and gets down to business playing records, with every penny invested in design and build quality. This is a table you will be able to leave your kids without worry.

Inside the box is everything you need to get your Classic Two up and playing records right now. A classic Shure balance beam tracking force gauge and cartridge alignment protractor saves time and money, not to mention gets you about 95% of the way to perfect performance. For most, the enclosed tools will make you more than happy. Maniacal audiophiles willing to invest in a more precise tracking force scale and alignment protractor will be able to take the Classic Two to an even higher level of analog clarity.

An adjustable VTA collar on the tonearm is what makes the Classic Two a Two. The Classic One has a fixed adjustment for setting VTA, while the Two lets you adjust VTA on the fly, like the rest of the tables higher up the VPI range. Though some swear by this, I’m still not one to set VTA on the fly. But what is exceptionally handy is the ability to use the fine vernier adjustment to not only set, but also easily re-set VTA adjustments. Those with multiple tonearm wands can now switch between cartridges with total ease and consistency. That’s the magic of the Classic Two and the reason you want to pony up the extra thousand dollars.

I suggest music lovers that stick with one cartridge until it is spent and don’t fiddle with their turntables settings will be just as well served by the Classic One, and maybe spending that extra on a better cartridge, VPI’s SDS motor controller, or one of their outstanding record cleaning machines, if you don’t already have one. While some claim the Classic One sounds better because of its fixed VTA adjustment (possibly a touch more rigidity in the tonearm tower/bearing assembly) a side-by-side comparison of a Classic One and Classic Two with identical cartridges did not reveal an audible difference.

For a full description of the Classic One’s sound, click here. But to summarize, both the Classic One and Two produce a big, weighty, full-bodied sound. Utilizing VPIs JMW-10.5i tonearm wand with copper internal wiring. Those seeking even more performance should ask their VPI dealer about upgrading the table to the 10.5i armwand with Nordost Valhalla internal wiring.

Small details aside, the VPI Classic Two is one of the finest turntables available for $3,995. As with the Classic One, we are proud to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2015.

– Jeff Dorgay

VPI Classic Two Turntable

VPI’s Classic One set the standard for analog performance at its price a few years ago when introduced and one is still in service at TONEAudio as a reference component, recently revised by Harry Weisfeld to accommodate an Eminent Technologies tonearm.

The Classic Two builds on the success of the Classic One, with the primary difference being the ability to adjust the VTA on the fly while the record is playing, giving the analog enthusiast more control and adjustability than the One does.  Sound quality is very similar, so if you are a more monogamous audiophile who tends to stick with a single setup, the One may be all you need.  But, if you love to change and tweak your system on a constant basis, the Classic Two is the way to spin.  It will make your adjustments much easier to execute.  -Jeff Dorgay

VPI Classic Two Turntable


VPI Classic Direct Drive Turntable

In audio, like in so many other things, the seed of a great idea often sprouts before the technology of the time is able to fully express the concept. The direct-drive turntable is a perfect example. Many know of the legendary Technics SP-10 broadcast turntable, though few have heard one. Those who have will remember the remarkable pitch stability and the rock-solid bass. Today, they are coveted and being rebuilt around modern tonearms and cartridges possessing much more resolution than what was available back in the 1970s and ’80s, and to good result. However, the cost is high and there are a finite number of spare parts—not to mention precious little support. Great as the SP-10 is, owning one today is much like owning a vintage sports car: It’s a ton of fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but God forbid you need it repaired in a hurry.

Enter Harry Weisfeld

A visit to the VPI factory in New Jersey with company founder Harry Weisfeld reveals a massive collection of turntables. Weisfeld is particularly well versed in direct-drive models, especially the classics. His collection includes, among others, the Denon DP-80 and JVC TT-101, as well as other Technics tables. “I believe direct drive is the way to go when it’s done correctly,” he says. “I’ve always been a huge fan of the concept, but you can’t get a belt or a pulley perfect, no matter how hard you try. A belt-drive turntable consists of multiple mistakes and you’re always dealing with multiple tolerance errors. Direct drive eliminates these issues.”

Discussing the cost of the new Classic Direct, which is priced at $30,000, Weisfeld reflects on the SP-10. Because of the manufacturing complexity required to produce the SP-10, he says that, if new examples were being built today, they would be fairly comparable in price, even from a company like Technics.

Weisfeld says that the Kenwood L-O7D and Micro Seiki DDX-1000 were the impetuses for making his own direct-drive table, a process that began in earnest in early 2011. One of the engineers at a firm that produces finely machined parts for VPI, as well as military hardware, and who is a known audiophile, started a major discussion with Weisfeld about the “toughest part of a turntable to manufacture.”

The engineer quickly responded that the motor was the toughest challenge, which led to another series of discussions resulting in the design we see here in the Classic Direct, where the platter is actually the main component in the motor. In this case, the motor in the Classic Direct is an AC motor, which Weisfeld prefers over DC motors. He smiles and says, “An AC motor knows where it is, and a DC motor only knows where it was.”

The secret here is that a three-phase motor is used, eliminating the cogging effect that always plagues direct-drive designs. This uneven power delivery results in a slight unsteadiness to the music at worst and a shrinking soundstage at best. These issues are a thing of the past with the Classic Direct, as my listening quickly reveals.

Fortunately for Weisfeld, building the first Classic Direct was a labor of love for the engineers involved—it was strictly a fun project. Reflecting on the nature of the company building the motor, Weisfeld laughs and says, “The reason I won’t tell you who makes the motor for us is not a security reason; they just don’t want to become a supplier for other manufacturers.” He then proceeds to show me all of the measurement data that went into the design, from prototype to final product. “These guys measure everything, and they are thorough.” Case in point: Noise level on the Classic Direct is lower than minus 100 dB—impressive.

Blacker than Black

Initial playback of the Classic Direct at the New York Audio Show this past May was exciting, but the prototype, made using a Classic 3 chassis, didn’t really work aesthetically with the 12-inch tonearm, which Weisfeld felt was essential to the ultimate sound of the table. “So we had to do one more round of plinth design,” he says. “But the drive system was final at this time.”

The proof is in the listening. Forget all the audiophile clichés about inky-black backgrounds. The Classic Direct has a complete absence of background; it’s eerily quiet, like listening to a high-resolution digital file with the life of analog. We start our listening sessions with some vintage classical test pressings from the Classic label, and I’m immediately transfixed. There’s something dramatically different here.

Music simply emerges from the dimly lit room through Weisfeld’s reference speakers, the JBL DD6600 Everests. With dynamic range like few others, the Everests highlight the Classic Direct’s ability to remove itself from the equation and pass the music from the record groove through the speakers without interruption. The Everests sound surprisingly coherent, more like a pair of electrostatic speakers (of which Weisfeld and I are both big fans). I am spellbound by how natural pianos and violins sound in this system.

I’m so taken aback by the cleanliness of the tone that I don’t notice the cartridge mounted to the 12-inch 3D-printed tonearm, which is standard issue with the Classic Direct. It’s a Shure M97, the same one you can buy from Music Direct for $100. Weisfeld smiles again. “It’s my daily driver,” he says. “When I mounted a JICO stylus on the M97, it changed the sound completely, and it tracks like crazy. It saves wear and tear on my Lyra Atlas.”

Fortunately, the unipivot design of the VPI tonearms, with removable arm wands, makes it easy to swap cartridges—for vinyl aficionados with multiple cartridges in their collection. An additional 12-inch 3D-arm wand can be purchased for $3,000, while a standard one machined from aluminum is only $1,500—a perfect match for cartridges on the less-spendy side of the equation.

Getting in the Driver’s Seat

Once I’m acquainted with the Classic Direct, Weisfeld swaps the Shure for his favorite (and mine), the Lyra Atlas. But first we listen to Dave Brubeck’s classic track “Take Five” on tape. Quickly switching back to the Analogue Productions 45-rpm version reveals precious little loss, only in the ultimate dynamics of the vinyl not being able to stretch on the quickest transients as fast as the tape, but the soul of the music on the Classic Direct is incredibly well represented. Timbre and tonality are perfectly captured, along with the airiness of the cymbals and the rock-solid character of the piano. Weisfeld has clearly met his design goals in this respect.

Then, once we move back to the beginning of the journey with the M97, the core values of the music are still intact. Timbre and drive are especially compelling, but now after hearing the tape and the Atlas, there is cloudiness to the overall presentation. Regardless, the Shure sounds far more exciting than I’ve ever heard it before and light years beyond what it sounds like on my Technics SL-1200.

Auditioning a string of familiar rock recordings reveals the same things: a larger soundstage, wider dynamic range and a new sense of being able to peer deeply into the music—all of which are now available with the Classic Direct. The triangle in Joni Mitchell’s “Down to You” not only has an incredibly well defined space, but the decay is breathtaking, and it just seems to hang in the air forever. The rest of Court and Spark, though I’ve heard it countless times, infatuates me as if hearing it for the first time again. That’s what makes a high-dollar component special—and the Classic Direct delivers the goods in every aspect.

Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” blazes through loud and clear. While the Classic Direct’s speed stability doesn’t reveal itself as much when rendering Jimmy Page’s guitars, it speaks volumes with the sheer attack of John Bonham’s drums. They goes from fantastic to truly explosive, and the rest of this recording goes well beyond speaker boundaries, forming a coherent and convincing musical image.

A quick spin of a 45-rpm maxi single of Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” reveals the inner detail in this multitracked tune, which I’ve never heard as clearly. And while the Classic Direct’s major strength is tonal purity, its incredibly low noise floor uncloaks treasure in even the most highly processed records. In this case, backing vocals, synthesizer and percussion tracks are all more evident, with their own distinct placement in the soundstage, where they have always seemed somewhat vague. You don’t have to limit your musical taste to acoustic music to really hear what the Classic Direct can bring to your system.

Two Years in the Making

After a year and a half, the design of the Classic Direct was final and all that remained was sorting out the ultimate form factor. While so many of today’s mega tables feature an excess of bling, the Classic Direct keeps it simple and straightforward. Much like the aesthetic of the Eames Lounge Chair, this table is a classic in the ultimate sense of the word, rendered in a form factor you will not tire of.

The platter of the Classic Direct is the rotor, eliminating any errors resulting from motor-shaft coupling and taking advantage of VPI’s inverted bearing as the common support for the rotor and platter. Simplicity combined with 21st-century technology wins the day—and the tolerance between the platter and the rest of the motor is only .001 inches.

This assembly is a sealed unit that weighs approximately 40 pounds and is in separate packaging from the base, requiring that the user merely connect power and gently slide it in with the supplied handle. As the saying goes, there are no user-serviceable parts inside. Weisfeld tells me that this motor is built to outlast the owner, because “we don’t want to have to fix them.” (The motor, that is.)

Historians of the direct-drive system may be quick to comment that this approach has been tried unsuccessfully before, but this time it succeeds brilliantly, hence the engineering time and resulting cost of this table. VPI’s proprietary coil technology forgoes the standard wire-wound stator found in most motors, using slotted copper laminations instead. This allows for higher coil density, in turn giving the Classic Direct tremendous torque, even for a direct-drive design. Yet, it was designed to start rotating very slowly, another aspect of successful motor control.

VPI’s familiar outer-ring clamp is the final piece to the puzzle, and if you think you can get by without it, guess again. The clamp firmly anchors the outer edge of the record to the supplied mat, making sure it contacts the platter fully, eliminating the need for one of those fancy record flatteners. It also minimizes vertical stylus excursion, thus maximizing the soundstage. The rest of the table is straightforward, with 33- and 45-rpm speeds controlled by blue illuminated buttons on the left side of the plinth.

Worthy of the Name and the Price Tag

Record after record reveals the same thing: The VPI Classic Direct is one of the world’s finest turntables. If there is a flaw in its presentation, I am not able to expose it, no matter what kind of music is played.

Crazy as it might sound to the uninitiated, $20,000 to $30,000 is really the sweet spot for what I consider a “destination turntable.” I’ve spent more than my fair share of time with six-figure tables, and much like a Ferrari, they offer a level of performance unattainable by any other means, but they are just so far out of reach to all but the most affluent audio enthusiasts that it’s not even a consideration. The ratio of $150k turntable owners to $150k system owners is tipped well in favor of the latter, so for a certain breed of audiophile, a $30k table is not out of the question, especially if you are trading up from something else.

And I must confess that my experience with this range is healthy, having lived with tables from AVID, Clearaudio, Kronos, SME and VPI, just to name a few. As much fun as it always is to proclaim something a game-changer, running down the path of adjective excess, I’ll keep my description of the VPI Classic Direct, well, direct.

It’s solid and quiet in a way I’ve never experienced, even compared to the mighty Continuum, the silly Onedof and the massive Clearaudio. If pitch stability is something you crave, there’s just something about a direct-drive turntable, even a Technics SL-1200, that grabs you instantly. The Classic Direct just has much more of it, and it’s mated to a world-class tonearm to complete the package.

The presentation of the Classic Direct is remarkably close to that of a master tape on a great open-reel deck, which Weisfeld just happens to have next to his equipment rack for his own comparisons. He smiles. “This truly was my inspiration for the Classic Direct,” he says. “Now a piano sounds like a piano.”

I have purchased products from all over the world—and have been doing so for most my life—but I have to confess some American pride here. We in the United States now have a manufacturer building a turntable that not only competes with the best tables that the world has to offer but that also excels beyond many of them.

This is why we bestow our overall Product of the Year award to the VPI Classic Direct turntable.

– Jeff Dorgay

VPI Classic Direct Drive Turntable

VPI Traveler Turntable

My analog journey has encountered numerous VPI turntables through the years, and they have always provided satisfying sounds and steadfast mechanical reliability, beginning with the HW-19, now out of production.  The company’s current Classic-series turntables are enjoying rave reviews around the world—our publisher is certainly enjoying his.  After I spent some time with the Traveler at this year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF), it became clear that VPI has not merely created an entry-level table with a VPI badge; the Cliffwood, N.J.–based manufacturer has built a reasonably priced table with the same solid engineering and build quality that goes into the rest of its lineup.

With the resurgence of vinyl underway, there are more and more turntables being offered in the entry-level arena.  But to be honest, I have not been that impressed with many of the sub-$1,500 offerings.  Maybe it’s just the audio dinosaur in me, but many of them seem a bit spindly.  Sure, I’ve gotten them to make nice music, but I always seem to find myself left with an incomplete feeling telling me all is not right in Recordsville.

The VPI Traveler hits a different chord at this price point.  Unpacking its heavy shipping container tells you there’s more than a toy packed within.  And packed well it is.  I can’t foresee even the most ham-fisted shipper damaging the Traveler during shipping.

Parts unpackaged, the assembly process goes off without a hitch.  Those experienced with turntable setup will find Traveler’s setup a breeze.  In less than forty-five minutes, this turntable was making great sound in my listening room, with no need to tweak things further.  Beginners will find the instruction manual clear and detailed.  A little focus and Jedi patience will have you spinning your favorite LPs in no time.

High Points

This table’s level of fit and finish is of a very high order.  Machined-metal parts are smooth and polished, the paint on the plinth’s top plate is high grade and the platter feels like it’s machined from billet.  In fact, it’s made from aluminum damped by stainless steel, a great way to break up any resonances that may occur.  Spinning the platter reveals a high-quality spindle-to-bearing interface, indicating top-notch machine work.  It seems to continue spinning forever when you shut the power off.  The non-removable platter mat is made of neoprene rubber and provides additional damping.

This philosophy continues with the plinth, which is an aluminum top plate bonded to a thick acrylic base—impressive compared to the usual machined MDF or plastic that is typically used for plinths in this price category.  A set of rubber tipped cones allow for leveling the Traveler.  Combined with the solid plinth is a 10-inch tonearm instead of the ubiquitous 9-incher on most other tables, which gives the Traveler a leg up by minimizing tracking angle distortion.

The next thing one notices is the Traveler’s gimbaled design, a departure from the VPI norm, as the company usually makes unipivot tonearms.  However, VPI claims that the Traveler’s friction levels are nearly as low as the brand’s more expensive unipivot designs.  The Traveler’s arm moves smoothly and freely in both the lateral and vertical directions.  The counterweight and tracking-force adjustment is another finely machined affair and easy to operate during setup.  The tonearm is equipped with a VTA on-the-fly adjustment that works beautifully and without fuss.  Finally, the signal goes from the arm through a proprietary connector feeding a pair of RCA jacks fitted to the rear of the plinth.

VPI does not supply a dedicated tonearm cable with the Traveler, so users are free to experiment with cabling options between the turntable and phonostage.  I advise caution here, because the wrong type of cable can seriously compromise the sonic results.  If possible, try one of the current tonearm cables on the market available with RCA jacks on both ends; these cables usually make an extra effort to minimize cable capacitance, resulting in better transference of the delicate phono signal.

Taking Care of Business

Sticking with the winning formula in TONEAudio’s RMAF room, listening began with the $599 Ortofon Rondo Red low-output MC cartridge, which brings the combination of turntable and cartridge to $1,900—not exactly spare beer money, but a fine investment nevertheless.  I tried two different interconnect cables with excellent results: the AudioQuest King Cobra ($249/pair) and, for the more budget-minded, the KAB Jazz ($33/pair).  In the end, I preferred the AQ cable on most material, but the KAB is a well-made product, providing great shielding from RF and decent audio performance.

First up was Stravinsky’s The Firebird (Mercury Living Presence, London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati conducting).  The Traveler/Rondo Red combination provides a convincing sense of hall ambiance, while simultaneously placing the sections of the orchestra firmly in place.  Once the music reaches full gallop, the Traveler delivers the music’s swell and crescendo with the requisite delicacy and impact, with the woodwinds sounding exceptionally natural.

Next up, in a more delicate vein, is Trio Galanterie’s Eighteenth-Century Music For Lute and Strings on AudioQuest records.  The Traveler captures the interplay of the cello, lute and violin on this recording with complete intimacy, like a concert for one.  The Traveler presents the fundamentals and overtones in a harmonically rich fashion, with strummed, plucked and bowed instruments—not an easy task, but one that is performed exceptionally well here.

Changing genres, the latest Charlie Hunter recording, Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead, is a self-released limited-edition album featuring Hunter on seven-string guitar and Scott Amendola on drums.  This live-in-the-studio outing will challenge any arm-cartridge combination with its dynamic close-miked drum sound, biting guitar and punchy, resonant bass.  Again, the Traveler/Rondo combination turns in an ace performance.

Ralph Towner’s “Piscean Dance,” from his Solstice album, is another studio jam/duel possessing great dynamic swings.  The crystalline but completely natural sound of cymbals and snare drum, while Towner’s signature twelve-string guitar weaves in and out of Christensen’s rhythmic patterns, underlines how well this modestly priced table handles complex music without losing its soul.

Both Eric Bibb’s Friends and John Mayall’s The Turning Point underscore the Traveler’s ability to combine bass weight with fundamental midrange body and tonality.  The Traveler’s rock-solid pace gives a sense of presence rarely accomplished by an analog front end at this price.

Past Meets Present

Fully impressed with the Traveler so far, I decide it’s time to try something off the beaten path.  A NOS Acutex 412 STR cartridge would put any tonearm to task, as this high-compliance cartridge usually works best with ultra-low-mass tonearms.

Set to 1.5 grams, the combination sailed through the most-difficult passages at my disposal, proving what great all-around performance the Traveler offers:  It should be just right for most MM or MC cartridges.

So Take a Trip to Your VPI Dealer!

Combining robust construction, a high level of fit and finish and an excellent sonic presentation, the VPI Traveler establishes a new benchmark for its price.  VPI left no stone unturned, from getting the basic record-playing ability right to employing clever engineering.  And you can order it in a variety of colors (for an extra hundred bucks).  Whether you are just getting into the world of vinyl, adding a second turntable to the stable or are replacing a turntable that has left you wondering if there’s more to be had for your money, I highly recommend the Traveler.  Have a few less lattes per month, or perhaps even skimp on record purchases for a few months, to make the very reasonable leap for this remarkable table.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

I was equally curious to see how much of the essence of VPI’s more-expensive Classic One could be incorporated into the Traveler.  The Classic One is a linear step up in the VPI range and its roots are readily apparent.  The Traveler resembles the Classic much more so than it does the Scout/Scoutmaster series.  Using both tables side by side through the Audio Research REF Phono 2 SE, with matching Dynavector DV-20X2L cartridges ($850), the main differences between the two are in bass weight and low-level detail retrieval.

Listening to the biting guitars on the anniversary remaster of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness reveals more punch from the Classic, but the Traveler is no slouch for the price.  Comparing the Traveler to my late-1980s LP12 is like getting out of a Triumph TR6 and getting into a Porsche Boxster:  Everything feels much crisper and more defined overall.

The overall tonality of the Traveler is remarkably similar to the Classic, and when not playing records with ultra-wide dynamic swings, one might be easily fooled.  The DV-20X2L is an excellent match for this table, for those looking to take their analog experience a step further.  I had equally good results with the Sumiko Blackbird high-output MC, another favorite of mine in the $800-to-$1,200 range, proving that this table is not embarrassed in the least by a cartridge costing almost as much as the table.  This level of performance makes the Traveler an excellent long-term turntable choice.

We not only recommend the Traveler highly, we have purchased the review sample.  It will become a reference component in gear editor Bailey Barnard’s new system, so we can indoctrinate him in the ways of the LP.  -Jerold O’Brien

The VPI Traveler Turntable

MSRP: $1,299


Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Aleph 3
Speakers Harbeth Monitor 40.1
Cable  Audience Au24
Power Audience