VPI Classic 3 turntable & Classic-JMW tonearm Page 2
So up first was Paul Simon's newest album, So Beautiful or So What (LP, Hear Music HRM-32814). If Simon's flair for melody isn't what it once was, his poetry more than makes up for it. The musical landscape is dominated by instrumental and rhythmic references to world music, but the vibe is more Bookends than Gracelandexcept that now Simon is living it.
So many years have passed since I had a TNT, and so much equipment has come in and out of my listening room, that you'd be more than justified in being skeptical about what I found with So Beautiful or So Whatbut the first play of this album had me thinking that the Classic 3 sounded even faster, tighter, and more transparent than the TNT. It might not have had the TNT's ultimate weight, but its overall cleanness, rhythmic snappiness, and dimensionality made the Classic 3 a more exciting spin.
That was my original thinking, and nothing I heard later changed it, including finding in the record jacket a coupon for a free 24-bit/96kHz FLAC download of So Beautiful or So What (the vinyl is a much better value than the CD, even if it was cut from a CD-resolution file). After downloading the files to my Meridian Sooloos server, I compared the vinyl and high-resolution digital versions of "Love and Hard Times," a complex, cinematic effort.
The best the LP should have done was sound as good as the fileassuming the cut was from a hi-rez file to begin with. If it the LP was cut from a 16/44.1k CD master, it shouldn't sound as good as the hi-rez file. But I was listening more for tonal balance than for retrieval of detail. The comparison proved that the Classic 3 was a remarkably neutral, tonally well-balanced combination of turntable and tonearm capable of floating three-dimensional images as well as 'tables costing far moreand, of course, that the vinyl mastering was honest.
"Love and Hard Times" opens with an acoustic piano, then Simon's closely miked voice in front of it. Throughout the song, orchestral "sound effects" placed in space behind Simon's closely miked voice punctuate the melodic flow. There are strings and a silky-sounding acoustic guitar with a crystalline top end. The biggest difference between the two versions was the hi-rez file's slightly lower noise floor and greater transparency. The vinyl was slightly warmer, with images that were slightly less compact, and the overall sound was a bit more mechanical. But otherwise, the overall balancesand, more important, the listening experienceswere equally good. And this tune is the last track on the side.
Later I switched to the Soundsmith Sussurro, a low-output, wooden-bodied, moving-iron cartridge that Peter Ledermann codesigned with Frank Schroeder. It has a somewhat smoother, more liquid sound but greater transparency and blacker backgrounds than the Lyra Helikon SL, and sounds somewhat warmer in the lower mids. Those differences came through precisely as I'd heard them with these cartridges mounted in the Graham Phantom tonearm on the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn.
Compare an all-analog LP like The Nat King Cole Story (five 45rpm LPs, Capitol/Analogue Productions APP-SWCL 1613) with the very-good-sounding SACD and there's no comparison: the vinyl sounds breathtakingly more real. If you listen to the SACD first, you think, Well, how much better than this can it get? Then you put on the vinyl and find out. The SACD sounds like a very good recording. On the LP, Cole sounds alive on the other side of the mike.
The Classic 3 rendered well Cole's dry yet mellow voice without it blossoming in the bottom octaves or smearing in the upper ones. Sibilants were ideally sharp and cleanly rendered. In fact, this 'table's overall attack was masterful, with a precision and a clarity I can't recall hearing from the VPI Scoutmaster Rim Drive ($8200) I reviewed in February 2009, and a "blackness" to the backgrounds that I'm sure the Scoutmaster couldn't produce.
Assuming a recording contains such information in the first place, the best turntables float stable, three-dimensional stages with solid images that can appear well forward of the plane described by the speakers' positions. In great part, they can do this because of their ability to produce "black" backgrounds. The Classic 3 wasn't as quiet as the Continuum Caliburn at more than 20 times the price, but it came closer than any 'table I can recall that costs under $10,000without a tonearm.
Yarlung Records has issued two LPs from analog master recordings made with a single-point AKG stereo tube microphone. Both are transparent, reference-quality recordings of superb music performed in a concert hall. Cellist Antonio Lysy's At the Broad: Music from Argentina (LP, Yarlung 517V) and Petteri Iivonen's Art of the Violin (LP, Yarlung 0578V) are worthy of your attention for music, performances, and sound. Hearing either played on the Classic 3, you wouldn't know you were listening to a record, so free from mechanical artifacts and so black were the backgrounds.
The Classic 3 did microdynamics better than any other VPI turntable I've heard, and reproduced the tonality and textures on the Yarlung recordings so well that I was almost fooled into thinking I wasn't hearing a recording at all. The Continuum Caliburn can do this a bit more convincingly, but again, it's the difference between affordable and not.
The Classic 3's overall performance was in the same league as Brinkmann Audio's Bardo ($9490 without tonearm but with optional stainless-steel and precision-ground crystal platter mat and Brinkmann's screw-down record clamp, reviewed in May 2011), and I think its backgrounds were blacker than those of the Dr. Feickert Analogue Blackbird ($7995 without arm, reviewed in September 2011). On the other hand, the Blackbird is richer in the midrange, and in that regard its sound is closer to the Caliburn's.
Some might find the Classic 3 somewhat lean and "brash," but I think its clean, lively sound is one of its strongest suits. In any case, you can adjust that somewhat with damping fluid in the arm bearing. Use too much and it shuts down the sound, but apply it carefully and the tonal picture coheres.
Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean's Destination . . . Out! (LP, Blue Note/Music Matters MMBST -84165), one of the more unusual and uncharacteristic Blue Note releases, features Grachan Moncur III on trombone, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Larry Ridley on bass, and the great Roy Haynes on drums. The opener is a dreamy, dirge-like Moncur original, "Love and Hate." Engineer Rudy Van Gelder records vibes better than pianos, and here he's got McLean in the left channel, Haynes and Moncur in the right, and Hutcherson and Ridley at center. With either cartridge, the Classic 3 produced prominent instrumental attacks at the expense of the sustain, so the midband wasn't as lush as the Caliburn's; the sound of Hutcherson's vibes may have been more about the metal bars being struck than about the ringing of the resonator tubes, and Haynes's drum kit was more about the cymbals and less about the skins, but I was able to hear these differences only in direct comparisons with the Continuum. The VPI's images were also consistently somewhat larger, less solid, and more compact.
Most significant, in terms of both decay and microdynamics, the Classic 3 played on the same field as the Continuum Caliburn ($149,995 with tonearm and stand)and it costs $6000.
The Classic 3 is the fastest, most coherent-sounding VPI turntable I've ever heard. Its measured accuracy and consistency of speed were about as good as a belt-drive turntable can achieve, and its combination of a high-mass plinth, a superbly machined aluminum platter, a carefully damped and isolated motor, and the JMW-Classica fully realized version of VPI's JMW tonearmmake this remarkably compact, easy-to-set-up turntable one of today's great values in analog audio. I don't hear how you can go wrong buying one.