VPI Aries Scout turntable & JMW-9 tonearm Page 3
Now, for the records in my collection that actually contain music...
Listening to Actual Music
I started with a simple, direct song: "Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow," from Ricky Skaggs' and Tony Rice's 1980 duet, Skaggs and Rice (Sugar Hill Records 3711). (For those of you not familiar with this LP, it's a wonderful collection of 10 bluegrass, old-time, and gospel standards featuring only Rice and his voice and guitar and Skaggs and his voice and mandolin, with no overdubbing or trickery of any sort.) One song was all it took—one verse, if you want to know the truth—to know that the Scout/JMW combination did an excellent job of getting the notes off the record and weaving them into believable, convincing, rhythmically involving music. This player had a fine sense of flow, and did an equally fine job of conveying the way the two musicians lean into the beat on some numbers, as well as the more rhythmically intricate and unexpected temporal shadings in the solos that both of these masters perform.
In other words, the VPI combo did something that I used to consider the sole province of such generally low-mass, generally undamped British record players as the Linns, Roksans, Pink Triangles, and Regas: The VPI played music, and did so convincingly.
How did the sound of the VPI record player compare to that of my Linn LP12 turntable with Naim Armageddon power supply and Naim Aro tonearm? In general, the Scout/JMW combination sounded a little darker and thicker than the LP12/Aro, and a close listen told me that the British combo does a better job of clarifying the attack components of notes, especially in bass lines. But the sustain components of those notes—the bass content, if you wish—was more powerful and substantial via the Scout/JMW. Up to a point, this seems like a replay of the usual dichotomy between British and American record players, the former sounding rhythmic and quick but not so deep or spacious, the latter giving up some temporal precision for deeper bass and a bigger sound. The surprise was that the VPI player was not at all slow or ponderous or uninvolving in the way it played the music.
For instance, the wonderful XTC song "Senses Working Overtime," with its deep, sliding electric bass part, showed just how well the VPI package communicated the pitch and character of low-frequency lines while still sounding solid and very, very big. Yes, if I worked at it, I could hear that note attacks were a little duller than with my more expensive Linn/Naim/Naim front end. But I didn't have to work at all to hear more substance in the bass notes themselves—and, consequently, a greater sense of foundation overall. Same notes, same beats, same feelings, different presentation.
I wrote down a few thoughts while comparing the players with the Krips/LSO recording of the Schubert Ninth (Decca)—and, again, there's much to admire with both. My Linn does a somewhat better job of conveying the distinct leading edges of note attacks—the sudden burst of air at the beginning of each note—in the famous horn opening. String tone sounds stringier with the Linn/Naim, too, although whether that's more or less to your liking—or more or less realistic—is forever open to debate. For its part, the VPI sounded a little more open and spread-out, and just plain bigger, while being just as involving and emotionally convincing.
I kept hearing the same differences between the VPI and my Linn with many, many other records. Take the well known Barbirolli/Philharmonia disc of Elgar's Symphony 1 (Seraphim): This 1963 recording sounds rather old even for its day, and the Linn makes it more so while the VPI made it less so. The Linn gives a more midrangey presentation—although its midrange is more textured than that of the VPI, even at its best—and the Linn's presentation is spatially smaller, closer to sounding like a mono mix. The VPI seemed to broaden the response curve in both directions, and the soundfield was much bigger—man-on-the-street bigger, not something I had to strain my audioweenie ears to hear.
The VPI combo also sounded different from the Linn in its sense of scale and space. The Scout and JMW-9 did a better job of separating voices and instruments from one another, and overall created a bigger "stage" between the speakers. The Linn/Naim combo sounds smaller, with more of a chunky, mono-like focus that some may or may not prefer.