VPI Industries Traveler turntable Stephen Mejias, May 2014
Over the last few months, I've had a great time listening primarily to digital files through headphones and powered loudspeakers, but I still prefer listening to LPs played on a good turntable. My preference has only a little to do with sound. For me, listening to vinyl isn't only fun, it's important. More than any other music format I've enjoyed, vinyl soothes my mind, strengthens my spirit, makes me feel connected to other people, places, and times.
I reviewed the original VPI Traveler turntable in November 2012, and while I quickly fell in love with its smooth, coherent, dynamic sound, I was less impressed with its overall appearance. Rather than appropriate the purposeful, considered look and feel of other VPI turntables, the Traveler looked almost cobbled together, as though it had been hurriedly fashioned from spare parts. As far as I could tell, however, the 'table's modest looks had no negative effect on its outstanding sound.
Still, not long after I'd reviewed the Traveler, VPI began implementing subtle changes in its appearance: revised logo, altered feet, different platter mat . . . Whenever I saw it at a show or dealer event, the Traveler looked somehow new. I began to wonder what was going on, but the dealers and sales reps with whom I casually chatted offered no concrete explanation. Running changes continued over the next several months, and culminated at the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where VPI's young new president, Mathew Weisfeld, told me the revisions were meant to address the 'table's cosmetics, as well as improve its durability and ease of use. With those improvements came an increase in pricefrom $1299 to $1499, without phono cartridge.
I bet you know what's coming nextthat great, familiar refrain: It was time to do a Follow-Up.
Current-production models of the VPI Traveler are easily more attractive than the original model I reviewed. VPI's logoformerly a tacky plastic badge affixed to the front of the chassisis now discreetly and expertly laser-printed on its top panel. The original model's four feetshiny aluminum cones with rubber-compound surface contactsgave the Traveler a solidly stable foundation, but looked as if they'd been swiped from some other, more modern-looking turntable. The new black rubber feet look specifically designed for the Traveler. According to Mat Weisfeld, they not only create an even firmer foundation, they provide greater reliability. The original Traveler, it was found, did not travel easily enough: If the user attempted to move it without first lifting it, the rubber-compound surface contacts were easily dislodged from the shiny feet.
The original Traveler came with an unusual platter mata rubbery thing with a web-like surface very reminiscent of mesh shelf liningaffixed to the platter with a gummy, sticky substance not at all ideal for supporting valued LPs, as users discovered who attempted to remove the mat. The Traveler now comes with an attractive and more traditional rubber mat that can be easily removed or replaced as the user sees fit.
Making the Traveler friendlier to overseas customers became a priority when its international sales surpassed VPI's expectations. The company equipped the Traveler with a power supply that supports both 110V and 240V. "It was tough having to keep changing the production line from US Travelers to overseas models," Weisfeld said. "This gave us the ability to make the Traveler universal." In addition, VPI moved the motor assembly an hour forwardfrom the nine o'clock position to the ten o'clock positionand made the power switch more accessible, moving it from the 'table's left side panel to its top surface. I had appreciated the inconspicuous placement of the original power switch, but I have no problem whatsoever with its new location; and while I recall that the original model started and stopped on a dimelike a sports car, in factmy new sample always starts with a bouncy rumble, and comes to a slower, more gradual stop. However, having reviewed the original model in a completely different system within a completely different room, it's impossible for me to say whether the new motor runs more quietly. The old sample ran quietly; so does the new one.
Finally, VPI replaced the tonearm's sapphire gimbal bearings with harder, low-friction, ABEC-5 ball bearings. The original bearings were too easily knocked out of place during shipping, explained Weisfeld, and could be damaged if the user tried to adjust the vertical tracking force (VTF) by rotating the tonearm's counterweight instead of correctly using the knurled knob at the tonearm's back end. "The new bearings are impossible to break," he said. "All of the changes were inspired by customer and reviewer feedback and [reflect] our efforts to . . . supply a high-quality, American-made product."
Despite bumps along the way, the Traveler has brought VPI great success. It has won a number of awards from the press, including Stereophile's Analog Component of 2013 (tied with Spiral Groove's SG1.1 turntable; $31,000), and has introduced the New Jersey company to a wider, more varied audience that, Mat Weisfeld says, includes non-audiophiles, college students, and even women. I don't doubt him.
A few weeks ago, Uncle Omar and I set up the new Traveler in his system while Ms. Little and Auntie Katie were in the kitchen baking oatmeal-raisin muffins. It was an idyllic Sunday afternoon. If you've ever set up a turntable, you'll have no problem whatsoever with the Traveler; and if the Traveler is the first 'table you've ever set up, you'll be entirely prepared for the task: Simply follow VPI's instructions, take your time, and be careful.
Cartridge was Ortofon 2M Red moving-magnet; phono cable was Kimber Kable's perfectly quiet TAK-Cu ($385/1.5m), but there are also some excellent affordable options out there, such as AudioQuest's Wildcat ($89/1.5m) or Pro-Ject's Connect-It ($99/1.23m). VPI provides everything else you'll need, including a small, user-friendly digital VTF gauge. (Earlier Traveler models came with the fussier Shure SFG-2 beam-balance gauge.) We used the supplied gauge to set the 2M Red's VTF at 1.8gm, and verified the results with my Audio Additives gauge ($79, footnote 1). Less than an hour later, just as the ladies were pulling the muffins from the oven, Omar and I first dropped needle into groove. Very soon after, jaws dropped to floor.
With the Ortofon-equipped Traveler in Omar's system, we heard obvious and significant improvements in the sound. Omar was most impressed by the VPI's tighter, weightier bass, while I most enjoyed its vastly wider dynamic range. Silences were quieter, and musical climaxes were produced with greater ease, clarity, and control. Cymbals sounded cleaner and clearer, with faster attacks and longer decays, and without the slightest hint of unnecessary grain or edge. After we'd devoured a couple of muffins and a side of Beach House's excellent Teen Dream (LP, Sub Pop SP845), Omar sat back and sighed. "That was completely and thoroughly enjoyable. I felt like I was right in the middle of the music." The Traveler's smooth, coherent, relaxed sound was much as I remembered, and while the Ortofon 2M Red was indeed right at home in the system, I suspected that, partnered with a more ambitious cartridge, the Traveler could provide even greater drama and scale.Stephen Mejias