VPI Industries Traveler turntable Page 2
Like VPI's popular Scout turntable, the Traveler stands on four aluminum cones, but trades the Scout's steel-ball tips for rubber-compound surface contacts. A small name badge is applied to the Traveler's low front panel. I would prefer a more discreet screen-printed or etched design on the top of the plinth; as it is now, the badge seems an afterthought that I was often tempted to peel off. Otherwise, the Traveler has a solid, no-nonsense appearance. It looks like a machine.
Like all VPI products, the Traveler is manufactured in the US, using as many US-made parts as possible. Even better, it's made in New Jerseyjust like me.
The Traveler comes packed with everything you'll need to successfully set it up and mount a cartridge on it: two drive belts (one is a spare), two sizes of hex key, a spanner wrench, three sizes of cartridge-mounting screws with washers, a cartridge-alignment jig, and a Shure SFG-2 stylus-force gauge.
Nevertheless, my first attempt at setting up the Traveler was not entirely successful. Following the instruction manual, I placed the Traveler atop my Polycrystal equipment rack, made sure the 'table was level, placed the platter on the bearing shaft, screwed the aluminum spindle into the shaft, tightened the spindle with the wrench, fitted the rubber drive belt around the platter and motor pulley, connected the supplied AC cord to the Traveler's rear socket, and gently slid the tonearm assembly into place. All that took about two minutes. Then I got to the part about mounting the cartridge. Which is when I got scared and decided to take a break.
I spent the next few weeks learning how to properly mount a Dynavector DV 10X5 moving-coil cartridge on my Rega P3-24. (Read all about it in this issue's "The Entry Level.") When I'd mastered that fine art, I brought my newfound skills to the Traveler. Working leisurely and deliberately, I disassembled the Traveler, started over, and managed to have the 'table ready to go in almost exactly one hour. It wasn't at all difficult, and I feel certain I could now complete the job in about half that time. The Traveler's manual is written in clear, simple English, includes helpful illustrations, and offers encouraging little asides such as this: "Time is better spent listening to records than setting anti-skate on a 10" tonearm." Wise words.
Once I had the Traveler set up, all I had to do was to run a pair of interconnects from the 'table's RCA outputs to the Parasound ZphonoUSB phono preamp's inputs. My first choice of interconnect was Kimber Kable's PBJ, but with the PBJs in place and the volume control of my NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier set at a normal listening level, I heard very strong radio-frequency interference. The unshielded PBJ is particularly susceptible to RFI, so I tried Kimber's more expensive, more conventionally shielded Hero interconnect. With the Heros in place, the RFI was less prominent but still far too strong to ignore. I tried XLO's pretty, purple UltraPlus interconnect. No dice. Then I tried AudioQuest's Sidewinder. This reduced RFI to a level I could stand, but I still wasn't happy. Finally, I ran a length of cheap RadioShack Megacable speaker wire (catalog #278-1273, $24.99/50') between the Traveler's and the Parasound's ground terminals. Now, with the AudioQuests in place, my system was dead quiet; I did all of my listening with the Sidewinders. Later, for a laugh, I removed the ground cable and tried using RadioShack's stereo patch cables (catalog #42-487, $6.99/3' pair) to connect VPI to Parasound. Worked like a charm. Go figure.
Listening to records
I had used Drake's Take Care (LP, Cash Money/Universal Republic B0016280-01) to adjust the Traveler's arm height during setup. Since that record was already on the platter, I decided to begin my listening with its title track. Right away, I noticed several interesting things. First, the song's opening piano parts sounded far more delicate, natural, and controlled than I'd ever heard. Rihanna's voice shared that delicacy, had impressive texture, and was large and solidly placed at the center of the soundstage. While the LP's normal surface noise was as audible as ever, that noise was noticeably distinct from the music, as if the Traveler were somehow brushing it aside to the edges of my listening room, leaving more space for pure, clean sound between my speakers. Bass was more forceful than I'd anticipated, but never intruded on the rest of the music. And, at around 3:15, I was shocked by the amount of space surrounding Gil Scott-Heron's overdubbed vocals and their accompanying reverb trails.
I listened to Take Care from beginning to end, all the while astonished by how something so familiar could sound so new. The finger snaps that keep time throughout "Shot for Me" were crazily present, forceful, distinct, and fun to follow. In "Make Me Proud," the starts and stops of Nicki Minaj's rapid-fire rapping had eye-blinking impact and precision. In "Marvins Room," the clarity of such low-level details as subtle breaths, pauses, and sighs allowed me to more easily sense the sadness and desperation in Drake's tone. Similarly, the Traveler's outstanding low-end control and awesomely silent backgrounds helped make sense of the rumbling synthesized bass and warbling electronics in "We'll Be Fine," turning into music what I'd previously heard as mere sound.
I shook my head, reached for my cell phone, and began sending delirious text messages to audiophile friends. And while I was wary of too quickly jumping to conclusions, sharing my thoughts allowed me to focus on an aspect of the Traveler's sound that would persist throughout the review period: It had the confident, relaxed fluidity of open-reel tape.
Whenever I've heard reel-to-reel tape, I've been impressed by the format's drama, impact, immediacy, presence, and, most of all, its seamless fluidity. Music simply flows into the listening room undisturbed, with no hint of mechanical edge or artifice. The expense of restoring an old tape deck and building an entirely new music library has always been enough to erase any thoughts of experiencing that same sound in my home. But with the VPI Traveler leading my system, I wouldn't need an open-reel player: I could get a taste of that smooth, easy fluidity right from my LPs.
"Intoxicating, almost magical." Indeed.
Against the Regas
Initially, I compared the Traveler with my Rega P3-24, both 'tables equipped with a Dynavector DV 10X5 moving-coil cartridge ($450). That comparison didn't last long: The Rega was no match. Compared to the Traveler, my dear old Rega ($1270 without cartridge; now discontinued) seemed little more than an expensive toy, sounding small, distant, and vague. The Rega conveyed all of Drake's words but not his desperation. And while I'd always appreciated the P3-24's warm bottom end, that warmth now sounded soft and dull when compared to the Traveler's clarity and control. Through the Rega, "Pablo's Heart," from Four Tet's There Is Love in You (LP, Domino WIGLP 254), sounded loose, ragged, and frenzied, as if the 'table had to struggle to keep the highs and lows moving together in time.
Next, I compared the VPI-Dynavector combo with Rega's new RP3, equipped with its standard Elys 2 moving-magnet cartridge ($1095). The RP3 sounded significantly cleaner, leaner, and more engaging than my P3-24, but still lacked the VPI's clarity, presence, and authority. Replacing the Elys 2 with the Dynavector DV 10X5 enhanced the Rega's scale, immediacy, and impact, but not quite enough to match the VPI.
Through the Traveler, "Woman Left Lonely," from Cat Power's Jukebox (LP, Matador OLE-10793), was easily the best reproduction of that recording I've heard: spacious, open, silky smooth, and well controlled, voices and instruments occupying distinct spaces on a wide, deep soundstage. Musical timing and flow were also excellent. There's a brief passage in this song when the voices, guitars, and keyboards drop out, allowing the drums and bass to gently sway together. If the timing isn't right, the passage can sound a bit confused or disjointed; the drums and bass stretch too far apart and the melody is lost. The VPI, however, kept time perfectly, held strong to the melody, and allowed the song to roll along smoothly and confidently.
For its part, the Rega-Dynavector combo sounded just a bit faster and hurried, less at ease. And while the Rega did a fine job of distinguishing voices and instruments within its shallower, narrower soundstage, the VPI-Dynavector did a better job of infusing those voices and instruments with purpose, meaning, and life. Chan Marshall was brought more clearly into my listening room [swoon!], and images in general were rounder, fuller, more three-dimensional. Interestingly, the Rega consistently produced the more aggressive, more precise imaging, with seemingly faster transients, for an overall sound that was snappy and exciting. But the Traveler's more leisurely, deliberate way of making musicits smooth, easy sound and steady, confident pacekept me listening longer, wanting and needing to listen to LP after LP after LP.
Whatever makes you happy
Too often we're afraid of doing what makes us happiest, afraid of even spending the time to figure out what would make us happy. And that's a shame. We fail to realize that, by making ourselves happy, we make those closest to us happy. Love can be a selfish thing.
When Mathew Weisfeld was a child, his mother, Sheila, discouraged him from becoming too deeply involved in high-end audio. Rather than persuade him to join the family business, she encouraged him to follow his dream of becoming a teacher. Sheila, too, had been a teacher (of high school English), but had given up the profession to raise a family and join Harry in leading VPI. Sheila was soon answering customers' phone calls, taking orders, processing invoices, and building a strong dealer networkall while packing lunches. She loved her work and loved her family. To anyone who had the pleasure of speaking with her, that much was obvious.
In January 2009, Mathew Weisfeld accepted a full-time position teaching high school technology, but insisted on continuing to help out at VPI in whatever ways he could. It wasn't until his mom became sick that Mathew took on a more active role with the company. After school, he'd go straight to the factory to answer calls, respond to e-mail, and learn more about Sheila's everyday tasks.
For a time after Sheila passed away, Harry Weisfeld found little pleasure in the businessthe fight against cancer had taken its toll on him, toobut Mathew knew that, in order to keep his mother's memory alive, the family would have to keep VPI alive. He convinced his father to build a turntable that would be affordable enough for younger listeners, yet good enough for the most demanding audiophiles. His mother would be proud.
From time to time, I'm drawn into boring conversations about the relative sonic merits of CDs and LPs. To me, it's never been about sound. I prefer LPs because they make me happy. A part of me wishes I had accepted Sheila Weisfeld's offer, back in 2008, to listen to a VPI turntable, but another part of me is glad I waited until now. I can't imagine a happier way of listening to LPs than with the VPI Traveler. At $1299, the Traveler isn't merely reasonably pricedit's a remarkable bargain, built to last a lifetime. And it's made with love, right here in the US.
At least 10% of Traveler profits will go to Girl Scouts of the USA, and to the Lustgarten Foundation for research into a cure for pancreatic cancer.
Happiness breeds happiness. Loss has again inspired beauty.