Meet Mat Weisfeld, President of VPI Industries
Earlier this month, our all-analog coverage counterpart AnalogPlanet announced the release of the Nomad, a brand new entry-level turntable from American hi-fi manufacturer VPI Industries. For $995, The VPI Industries Nomad turntable includes a built-in phono preamplifier, unbalanced output, a set of Grado Labs iGrado around-the-neck headphones, headphone output, and an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. This instant listening package was the brainchild of Mat Weisfeld, son of company founder Harry Weisfeld. Mat Weisfeld is now the President of VPI Industries. I had the opportunity to visit the factory and ask Weisfeld a few questions just before the official announcement of the Nomad.
Ariel Bitran: So is it Mat or Mathew?
Mat Weisfeld: Mat works.
AB: Why Mat?
MW: I was usually Mathew when I was in trouble with my mom.
Empire and Kenwood gear surrounded Weisfeld in his youth. He remembers kicking in the woofers of his dad’s Raven speakers, not to his father’s amusement. When he became old enough to help at VPI, mother Sheila Weisfeld pushed her son away from the company so he could focus on his teaching careerthe profession she left once VPI grew wings. While Harry Weisfeld designed turntables and record cleaners, Sheila Weisfeld handled customer orders and kept the business alive. Sheila Weisfeld died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. While sitting shiva for Sheila, Harry asked Mat, “Matt, you’re in this too. What do you want to do?” He replied with hiring suggestions and quality control advice for VPI. Harry was talking about the roast beef, but his son’s interest was not ignored.
Mat Weisfeld suited up and shipped off to CES 2012 to represent VPI and familiarize himself with the industry. The younger Weisfeld admits, “I had no idea what I was doing,” but when he received a Product of the Year award for the VPI Classic III from Stereophile, he says he realized Mom and Dad had created something special.
On the return flight, Weisfeld drew up the design for the Traveler turntable, and returned to work alongside his father, but movement was slow. Harry, who normally cabled the tonearms, was absent and grieving. Friend and New Jersey neighbor Steve Leung of VAS Industries stepped in and began cabling tonearms while Mat Weisfeld took on managerial responsibilities. Harry Weisfeld has since retired, and Mat Weisfeld became the president of America’s top hi-fi turntable manufacturer. Harry Weisfeld is still around, giving input on turntable design, offering wisdom when his son has a question, and listening to the factory’s in-house system. When I visited, Harry indulged in a recently purchased ATR reel-to-reel, the last Ampex rebuild from Mike Spitz before his passing.
The VPI factory is based in Cliffwood, New Jersey, in a cluster of warehouses. Ten on-site employees work in the two warehouse divisions. Mat Weisfeld recently purchased four more units in the business park, an additional 5000 square feet, which have yet to be utilized.
Sheila Weisfeld ran a paper only office. Mat Weisfeld has since updated the office with computers and power outlets.
Leo has worked at VPI for twenty-seven years, ever since the introduction of the HW-19. Here he builds the Classic III.
Igor who commutes from Brooklyn is responsible for assembling parts and building record cleaning machines.
While talking to Leo and Igor, Mat Weisfeld burst from the office with a scream, “We got the feet!” They were missing feet for their Scout 1.1, Scout 1.2, and Scoutmaster turntables, which held back a shipment to a French distributor. Weisfeld blamed the missing feet on the part suppliers who had been unable to meet VPI’s growing production schedule.
The missing parts problem has repeated across different models for the past two years. While it has led to frustration, it has also led to creativity. This past summer, VPI ran out of pumps for their HW-16.5 record-cleaning machine. Months passed and no pumps arrived. In response, Weisfeld built the MW-1 Cyclone, a pump-less $1000 record cleaning machine that spins records from their perimeter rather than the center, which Weisfeld claims evens out pressure exerted on the LP when pushing down with the cleaning brush. As another reaction to the missing parts, Weisfeld hired a programmer to develop inventory-tracking software to recognize when pieces for their turntables are in short-stock. Coordinating inflow of parts to match their amped production schedule is still a challenge, but Weisfeld says operations are improving.
AB: On an average day, how many turntables are built?
MW: We just keep making them. If we had to, we could make 20 Travelers in one day.
AB: Would that be the only VPI turntable you make in that day?
MW: That would just be Jan. He’s the Traveler guy. This year is different. This is our first full year where we’ve had better supplies and been on top of everything. We’re able to produce a lot more. In the past to make ten Classics would take all week. Now we can do five or ten in a day.
AB: What do you attribute to those improvements in production time?
MW: Mass production. We’re making a lot of pieces. Little things here and there have made production flow much smoother.
AB: How do you guys make these realizations?
MW: Failure! With vinyl coming back, we were getting orders, and we just couldn’t fill them.
AB: What’s the lead time for a Traveler?
MW: Traveler can sometimes be same day. We always keep them. We know they’re all going to go eventually so we keep making them. This past summer, I had them working as if it was Christmas. Harry was getting concerned, “What do we do with all these tables?” ‘Don’t worry, they’ll go,’ I said. And they have. All the old tables we stocked in the summer are already gone, and we’re restocking them.
AB: Do you feel any pressure from your dad?
MW: Oh yeah. He has his moments, but it’s really good to have him around.
AB: What are his concerns? What are your concerns?
MW: He didn’t feel there was a need to go to the young audience. He looked at it as, “We’re high end. Let’s stick to the old guys. College kids can’t afford this stuff.” I’m always and still looking at the idea of bringing hi-fi to the next generation. Even if college kids can’t afford it right now, they will.
Matt admits that the $995 Nomad turntable might be a little high for a college student, but VPI Industries will offer a 20% discount if the buyer can confirm enrollment at a university. Weisfeld stripped down the Traveler to make the more affordable Nomad. The Nomad tonearm, built in-house, is a derivation of the Traveler tonearm but with the top and bottom bearings removed. An MDF platter and chassis replaces the Traveler’s aluminum platter and chassis. The table was designed in conjunction with Mat Weisfeld, Harry Weisfeld, and their Computer Assisted Design (CAD) team.
Like his father’s previous designs, the Nomad is built for upgrades. One can upgrade his or her Nomad turntable to include a Traveler tonearm or aluminum platter. Likewise, the Traveler is also undergoing upgrades. In its first year on the market, the Traveler suffered from durability issues, user error, and a lack of aesthetic grace. The cheap-looking plaque on the old Traveler has been replaced with a laser-etched logo. A new textured paint no longer flakes. Packaging for shipment is improved. Gimbaled bearings replace the sapphire bearings that popped out too easily when users misused the counterweight. Stephen Mejias plans to do a followup on the upgraded Traveler.
With only two years at the helm of America’s top hi-fi turntable manufacturer, the inexperienced Mat Weisfeld has made significant changes: two new turntables, a new record cleaning machine, and an amped up production schedule. He’s also added a 3D-printed tonearm to the catalog and utilized social media to increase sales. After posting a picture of a prototype Classic III in Rosewood to the VPI Industries Facebook page, he got eight phone calls to purchase the turntable in this unreleased finish. He’s transitioning VPI into a world where not just zany audiophiles want a new, quality turntable. Through mass production and more affordable products, Weisfeld wants to make VPI more available for normal peoplepeople who listen to Maroon 5, Passion Pit, and Linkin Park, Weisfeld’s tunes of choice. Just as his father passed the tradition onto him, Weisfeld’s more affordable turntable designs are inviting a new generation of listeners to high end audio.