VPI HR-X turntable & JMW12.6 tonearm Page 2
The HR-X's bottom end was also the best I've heard—taut, powerful, and articulate, with superb pitch definition. The bass drum on Antal Dorati and the London Symphony's reading of Borodin's Polovetsian Dances (Mercury Living Presence SRI 75016) was a great example. Even my "Golden Imports" pressing was thunderous, exploding from deep in the soundstage and background ambience to pressurize the space around the orchestra as the waves radiated outward. Hearing this disc on the HR-X was the first time the bass drum had really felt right to me. It had been deep before, and powerful, articulate, controlled, etc., but never quite right. The closest I'd heard prior to the HR-X was the SACD version played through the two-piece EMM SACD transport and DAC, but even then, the bottom-end transients were not as powerful as with the HR-X, nor as well integrated with the orchestra and surrounding ambience.
The HR-X's handling of dynamics was one of those fundamental changes that, be it realism or simply a more intense musical connection with the listener, moves an entire system to a new level of performance. I've been gradually digitizing favorite albums to listen to in the car or with my iPod, and the HR-X has been a revelation. LPs that I'd thought of as sweet but not particularly dynamic came to life with the HR-X and Lyra Titan. Even a murky, nearly unlistenable 1984 reissue of Ahmad Jamal's Poinciana (Chess CH 9162) took on a bit of transparency and life, at least with respect to Jamal's piano and Vernell Fournier's snare and cymbals. A later Jamal compilation album, Genetic Walk (20th Century T-600), which was already pretty dynamic on the TNT V-HR, became even more so with the HR-X, and the three-dimensionality created in the mixing was much more dramatic as well.
I dug out John Sebastian's eponymous LP (Reprise 6379) and cued up the solo acoustic "You're a Big Boy Now." In my December 2001 review of the TNT V-HR, I noted that it seemed more natural, more detailed, and more complex than my previous TNT—in other words, it improved on the TNT's traditional strengths. The HR-X was a different experience. There was still the flowing, natural ease, the notes against a deep, black background, and even more detail and tonal complexity. But now there was also a live-sounding snap to Sebastian's guitar strings, and to his slight exhalation when he'd begin a note.
Harry Weisfeld has succeeded in his goal of reducing the TNT's warmth, though some listeners might see it as a case of "be careful what you wish for." But the HR-X allowed me to hear what was on the record, for better or for worse. A beautifully recorded album, whether of an opera, a symphony, a jazz club, or a studio rock production, sounded incredible with the HR-X and Lyra Titan. Rich, detailed, dynamic, natural—all of the audiophile superlatives could be heaped on something like the fabulous AcousTech 45rpm reissues of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Willie and the Poor Boys from Analogue Productions APP 8397-45), or the vinyl reissue of Ray Brown's Soular Energy (Pure Audiophile PAA-002).
On the other hand, some of those old favorite 1970s and '80s rock albums sounded crudely compressed through the HR-X, and the ones with juiced-up upper midranges were often hard and edgy. Still others had ringing, over-accentuated transients, I suppose to compensate for the lack of real dynamic range, and the HR-X laid these bare with brutal honesty. At one point, I spent a couple of days trying different cable combinations in an effort to smooth things out, with no success. The HR-X allowed me to clearly hear the distinct Band-Aid effect that each cable superimposed on the sound, and that none of the changes really touched or altered the sound's basic characteristics.
Losing the overriding warmth had another interesting result: It allowed the HR-X's smaller, more localized tonal anomalies to be heard. The HR-X sounded neutral on the very bottom, and both its power and articulation extended as far down as the source material demanded. A little higher, from the midbass up into the midrange, the HR-X seemed a bit lower in absolute magnitude than the deep bass, though not enough to be discontinuous or make the 'table sound cool or lean. The upper-bass-through-midrange region was also quite smooth and well-balanced within itself, just not as spectacular or as powerful as the bottom end.
The HR-X also put a bit of extra emphasis on the upper midrange—but again, not enough to draw attention to the region or make it sound hard or edgy. There was just enough extra to move the center of the soundstage slightly forward, and to add a bit more sparkle and projection to most instruments' dynamic transients. The HR-X's treble region was very clean and airy, and seemed quite extended. I particularly noted how well the combo of HR-X and Lyra Titan reproduced naturally recorded cymbals, giving them a dimensional, airy feel and just the right balance of ring and shimmer. The top end was, however, down a bit in amplitude, particularly with respect to the slightly spotlit upper midrange. One example I noted was that the triangle on the flip side of Borodin's Polovetsian Dances, Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'Or Suite, wasn't as loud or as distinct with the HR-X as with the SACD played through the EMM gear—exactly opposite the situation in the midrange and low end.
The combination of the powerful bottom end, the spectacular dynamics, and the slightly spotlit midrange added a touch of pizzazz to the midrange—and, hence, to the overall performance. It's tough to definitively pin these colorations on the HR-X–Lyra combo rather than on the cartridge, phono stage, cables, or even the recording itself, but I did try several combinations and found the sound to be consistent throughout. I also tweaked the setup exhaustively, but again, the basic characteristics of the HR-X's sound remained unchanged.
These anomalies were small, and were revealed only because the HR-X established such an impressive new standard in performance; the net effect was hardly "bad," but quite captivating and entirely consistent with the character of the music itself. Were I a conductor, acoustician, or recording engineer, I'd probably kill to be able to create this sound, regardless of whether or not it was perfectly neutral.
As its name suggests, VPI's HR-X turntable is not just the next step forward in the TNT series, but represents Harry Weisfeld's efforts to address the fundamental shortcomings of the earlier line. Those efforts have been successful—the HR-X is better than the TNTs in every way. It's simpler and more user-friendly. It's also smaller, prettier, more luxuriously appointed, and even better built than the TNTs. Most significant, it eradicates the sonic attributes that some listeners have complained of with the TNTs—their pervasive warmth and liquidity, their slightly smoothed, softened dynamic transients. The HR-X isn't perfectly neutral, but it's much more so than the TNTs have been—and more so than any other turntable I've auditioned.
In the past, I've thought of turntables, tonearms, and cartridges as a system, all working together and interacting to produce a sound. The HR-X struck me as something different: a stable, inert, and nearly neutral platform that simply supports a cartridge and lets it do its job. It isn't a perfect turntable, but it's the best I've ever had in my system, and I'd be shocked if it's not among the few very best turntables available today. $10,500 is a lot of money, but the HR-X is a lot of turntable. If you're serious about vinyl, you owe it to yourself to hear an HR-X. Very highly recommended.