VPI HW-19 turntable Guy Lemcoe August 1992
In spite of its weight, the box sitting in Stereophile's receiving room seemed innocent enough. Little did I know its contents would add immeasurably to my enjoyment of analog playback and send me scurrying to Nicholas Potter's (footnote 1) in search of fresh vinyl. I've owned a VPI HW19 Mk.III for several years now and, in addition to the fine job it does as a record player, I've always been impressed by how easy it is to retrofit with the latest Mk.IV improvements sent from Cliffwood, each upgrade resulting in noticeably improved sound.
Well, Harry Weisfeld has done it again with this latest rabbit from his hat. It must have come to Harry in a euphoric state (no doubt induced by late-night LP-listening) to make available to his many customers who don't own a TNT a couple of that statement product's features; ie, the bearing and platter. The platter, which has four times the inertia of the older one, made the box heavy, but the combination of the two transformed, in one fell swoop, the performance of an already excellent record player into an exceptional music-making instrument.
Inside the box, nestled neatly in the styrofoam, were the components which enabled this transformation: a 1½"-thick, 20 lb, lead-impregnated (four layers, bonded via glue and bolts), precision-machined acrylic platter; an improved bearing identical to the TNT's; four coil-spring suspension assemblies, two silver and two gold, wound in opposing directions to counteract the minute effects of chassis torque generated by the massive platter's rotational forces; a new drive belt; mounting hardware; and an intelligent, easily followed set of instructions.
Once I'd unpacked the parts, it took a little over 30 minutes to complete the modification. I encountered no problems whatsoever. Owners of the HW19 Jr. (or those who use Sorbothane pucks in place of the Sr.'s spring assemblies) should finish in half that time, as no adjustment of the suspension is required (footnote 2). The rest of us will be on our hands and knees, Allen wrench in hand, adjusting the suspension from beneath the turntable (if you were smart enough to place it on a Arcici Lead Balloon or other similar stand, footnote 3). Installation of the new bearing well is similarly straightforward and simple.
The new platter and spindle have white dots to ensure proper placement of the former on the latter. This is easier said than done, however; the dot on the spindle is impossible to see as you begin to lower the platter on it. And, since the dot on the platter is on its underside, lining up the two is not exactly precise. (I used an upper corner of the base as a landmark and aimed both dots at it.)
Get a good grip on the platterthis sucker is heavy. You don't want it to get away from you, especially if you've left your tonearm in place. You'll notice the ends of three setscrews protruding from the label area of the bottom of the platter. These serve as mini "Tiptoes," balancing the platter on a small subplatter (machined integrally with the bearing). Spurious acoustic and/or mechanical energy is thus routed from platter to chassis, where it can be benignly dissipated. These setscrews are factory-set and should be left alone.
Though the platter is grooved to accommodate the TNT's two belts, it's not necessary to run the HW19's single drive-belt in a groove; I'm told it makes no sonic difference. (I could hear none.) However, if you feel more comfortable with the belt running in the groove, a minor suspension adjustment can be made. For an additional $100 you can order the upgrade kit with the latest TNT Mk.II plattera composite of ½" acrylic bonded to an inch of aluminum. This new platter, besides being machined to closer tolerances, is said to enhance bass articulation and treble smoothnessas if improvements were necessary in these areas!
With the new platter sitting twice as high as the old, it became necessary to raise the Eminent Technology Two tonearm in its mounting post to get the correct arm height relative to the record surface. In fact, I had to raise it to the max and crank the VTA up 2° to get it right. But what if I needed to adjust the VTA downward? A distress call to VPI brought relief in the form of a promise from Harry that a new, thicker ET 2 armboard would be sent to Santa Fe as soon as VPI received them from the machinist (footnote 4). Impatient as I am, I had to listen to my records now, without benefit of VTA adjustment, thankful that at least the VTA was skewed in the right direction for the Monster Cable Genesis 2000 cartridge I was using, which likes its nose tilted down slightly.
If you've read the rave reviews of the HW19 over the years, you know it's been hailed as one of the best buys in audio, especially when coupled with the ET 2. This combination has set new standards in analog playback on a "real world" budget. Dynamics, soundstaging, bass extension, detail resolution, transient speed, and harmonic "rightness" are but some of the outstanding characteristics of this record-playing ensemble. Only a handful of 'tables do better; many don't even come close.
With the availability of the Mk.IV upgrade kit, the HW19's achievements are even less accessible to the competition. How? By extending the performance parameters of each of the above strengths into areas heretofore reserved for the megabuck darlings of the audio elite (in which circle I include VPI's TNT). One of the initial impressions I received cueing-up the first record was a sense of the music arising from a background as pitch-black as the dry, haze-free Santa Fe night sky, where, on a clear evening, you can see deep into the galaxy. The effect is as if your eyesight has been honed to a greater degree of resolution, enabling you to pick out more and finer detail, clearer spatial relationships, color (from stars thousands of lightyears away!), a heightened sense of scale, and a restful perspective.
If you substitute the aural sense for the visual in the above characterization, you'll have a good idea of the Mk.IV upgrade's sonic effects on musical events and their effect on you. Previously veiled, minute performance details and nuances of instrumental tonal shading are revealed as intimate and necessary elements of the overall musical experience. The squeaking of a chair, the turning of a page of music, the inhalation of breath, the clicking of keys on a clarinet, sax, or flute, the release of a piano's sustain pedal, rivets dancing on a jazz drummer's cymbalsthese are just a few of many types of minutiae to which I refer. Each adds believability to a musical event and tangible cues as to the performance, its participants, and venue.
The upgrade's bass performance, as defined in terms of pitch definition, extension, and tautness, was extraordinary. I dug into my record collection and brought out records I knew had exceptional bass energy: 12" 45s, movie soundtracks, and reggae. Each record was a revelationwhat I'd considered acceptable bass in the past was replaced by a low end I hadn't thought my system capable of (footnote 5). I thought I knew Cat People (MCA-3763). I was wrong. Never before has this music assumed such an ominous tone, or exhibited such dynamic range. I literally jumped on several occasions while listening to this blockbuster. Ya want bass? Give this one a listen through a system with good extension, control, and speed.
Soundstaging was exemplary, reaching deeper and stretching wider than before. The rear and side walls of orchestral venues were clearly defined on those recordings which captured the effect. Studio recordings took on a you-are-there presence only hinted at before. Linda Ronstadt never sounded more saturnine on "Adìos," a favorite cut of mine from her 1989 collaboration with Aaron Neville, Cry Like a RainstormHowl Like the Wind (Elektra 60872-1); Brian Wilson's background vocals repeatedly sent chills up my spine. Separation of the two voices was excellent, and image specificity was rock-solid. The ability to maintain integritymusical holism, if you willwhile "exposing" often disparate elements in a musical arrangement, is a rare quality in any component; it's even rarer in modestly priced ones. Your upgraded HW19 will, given synergistic components downstream, demonstrate this ability. If it doesn't, you'll have to look elsewhere to find the weak link.
Trying to define harmonic rightness is like asking a jazz musician to define his or her art. Chances are, he or she will just ask you to listen to the music. Similarly, if you've had any exposure to live music, you'll know when something sounds right or noteven from another room. This experience was repeated again and again in my apartment after I installed the upgrade. Not only were instrumental and vocal signatures unmistakable in the listening room, they sounded rightin the kitchen! The essence of what makes music so exciting and involvingthe tonal colors and shadings of the various instruments (including the human voice)is conveyed, via the current HW19 Mk.IV, in an uncompromised, realistic, and intimately involving way. The rhythm of the music, its pace (or lack of it), is handled with similar aplomb. No sluggard, thisit "bops" with the best of them. The Mk.IV's handling of transients was unequaled in my experience.
Want to give your system and your ears a workout? Try Kraftwerk's The Mix (Electrola 1C 164-7 96650 1). Turn the volume up a notch and prepare to be bombarded with the snap, crackle, and pop of high-energy, Teutonic synth madness. The (admittedly artificial) notes begin and end with the speed of a whipcrack. But don't get the idea that the Mk.IV is only good for bombast, show, and effect. Nothing could be further from the truth. The characteristics which make it an outstanding record-playing device apply equally to chamber music, string quartets, and solo piano recordings. There's an ease about its information retrieval which relaxes the listener, whatever kind of music is being played. If the music excites the listener, that also is a sign the VPI is doing its job (footnote 6).
The final analysis?
A big thumbs-up to Harry Weisfeld and his Mk.IV upgrade for the HW19. I suspect the HW19 Mk.IV will be the last purchase for many music lovers who appreciate the joys of vinyl but have put off the purchase of a state-of-the-art turntable. Whether they buy it ready to put on a stand, or build up to it from the HW19 Jr., the Mk.IV's rewards greatly exceed its cost. It's ironic that, as new vinyl enters its midnight hour, analog playback devices have reached an unprecedented level of excellence. It's sad to see LPs consigned to collector status, a labor of love for a few specialty labels.
But cheer up, you vinyl junkies. Millions of LPs smile at you from bins in used-record stores. Right now is perhaps the best time ever to buy them. And, if you slap 'em on the Mk.IV platter, they'll love ya for it! Remembera digit is a digit, but a groove is...well, groovy. Congratulations, Harry; your "baby" has just jumped up a class in "Recommended Components."Guy Lemcoe
Footnote 1: This excellent used-book store, just off the Plaza, is the only place, outside of the occasional garage sale, to find used records in Santa Fe.
Footnote 2: In the former case, there's no suspension to begin with. In the latter, the suspension has effectively been eliminated.
Footnote 3: Harry Weisfeld recently advised me that this setup step is now unnecessary. Just screw the new spring assemblies all the way into the base and live happily ever after. The subchassis will be the required distance below the surface of the base.
Footnote 4: The new armboard is a beautifully machined, 1"-thick, beveled (four sides) slab of highly polished black acrylic (to match the existing top plate) which raises the ET 2 arm the proper height to get full use of its easy VTA adjustability. It looks great, and the ET 2 looks noble sitting on its new thronea real touch of class.
Footnote 5: Mirage M3 loudspeakers, driven by VTL Deluxe 140 tube amplifiers and a VTL Ultimate preamplifier.
Footnote 6: With analog I find it possible to react emotionally to the music while remaining physically relaxed. With a lot of digital, I find it difficult to relax physically, even when the music encourages it.