There is something vaguely disturbing about the idea of an $8000 turntable and arm combination. That's more money than a lot of audiophiles have invested in records through the years. Total overkill! Or so it might seem. But the entire history of analog disc reproduction, from the first LP to the present, has been one of seemingly open-ended discoveries—of subtleties nobody ever imagined were frozen in those tiny grooves, of levels of quality no one ever guessed the medium was capable of. Yes, newer LPs are a lot better than the first ones, but that is only to be expected in any technologically advancing field. What is amazing about the LP is that, 40 years after its introduction, we are still finding out that all of them, from the first to the latest, are better than anyone could have imagined. An improved phono unit doesn't just make the latest release from Wilson Audio or Reference Recordings sound better, it does the same for every LP you own!
Oh, I talk a good game when it comes to the whole music-lover-vs-audiophile thing. But I admit that when it comes to record players, I'm just another hardware junkie. I love turntables and tonearms for more than the musical enjoyment they give me. Turntables and tonearms are my favorite toys.
Trends in turntable design shift back and forth over time, each "advance" turning out to be a mostly sideways move. Over its long history, VPI's founder and designer, Harry Weisfeld, has moved the analog goalposts back and forth as he's refined his thinking. His early turntables were mostly standard spring-suspension designs of normal size. By the time Weisfeld produced his fully tricked-out TNT model, which was originally designed to stably hold the heavy moving mass of Eminent Technology's ET2 air-bearing arm, he'd moved to a massive, oversized, sandwiched plinth with isolating feet at the corners. He first used springs and, later, air bladders originally designed to cushion a tractor-trailer's load, and which he'd found in a trucker's supply catalog. Via an O-ring, the TNT's outboard motor drove one of three pulleys that protruded from holes in the plinth, and attached to a T-shaped subchassis that, in turn, drove the other two pulleys via two additional O-rings.
VPI Industries' TNT turntable and JMW Memorial tonearm have evolved through several iterations over the last two decades. Some changes have been large, such as the deletion of the three-pulley subchassis and the introduction of the SDS motor controller. Others have been invisible—a change in bearing or spindle material, for example, or the way the bearing attaches to the plinth. And, as longtime Stereophile readers know, I've been upgrading and evolving along with VPI, most recently reporting on the TNT V-HR turntable (Stereophile, December 2001).
There is something refreshingly no-nonsense about the design and construction of this turntable. It looks as if someone just said, Okay, this, that, and the other thing need to be done. Let's do it. And then they did it. In appearance at least, it is about as simple a design as you're likely to find. What sets it apart from other simple designs is that this one is built like a battleship! Everything is heavy-duty (notto mention heavy), from the 10-lb, lead-laminated aluminum platter to the ¼"steel-reinforced subchassis.
On May 21, 2008, five months after purchasing my very first turntable (a Rega Research P3-24), I decided that my obsession with LPs had grown to the extent that I could no longer function without a good record-cleaning machine. I'd done some research and found that the device best suited to my life and wallet was VPI's time-honored HW-16.5. I was certain, anxious, determined. But that morning, when I gave VPI a call, the line was busy. When I called again in the afternoon, the line was busy. When I called again in the evening, the line was busy.
I'm a tinkerer. From homemade audio isolation and room-treatment products to a local area network (LAN) connecting my Macintosh laptops, I'm always building or modifying something. One of my latest projects is a combination of parts swaps and custom-machined bits to better adapt the ergonomics of my exotic Italian Bimota motorcycle to my distinctly un-Italian 6'3" frame. But regardless of what I'm into, I can't resist the urge to tinker.
"I've got the world on a string, sitting on the rainbow Got the string around my finger, what a life, Mama, I'm in love. Life's a beautiful thing, as long as I hold the string I'd be a silly so-and-so if I should ever let you go."—Ted Koehler
"Hello, I'd like to apply for a Federal Grant? For what? Oh, to design and build a new, high-tech, very expensive turntable. What's that? It plays records. Yes, that kind of turntable. Of course they still make records. Why? How much time do you have? Oh, I forgot—you're a federal employee, you have all day! Well, I didn't mean to insult you. It was a joke....No, I'm serious about the turntable. You do? What kind of music? When are they from? RCA Record Club? Classical Music? 1950s and '60s? Yes. I'll give you $5 each. I know it's generous, but... How much money do I want for the grant? Coupla hundred thousand dollars. No, our turntables will never be used to play Marilyn Manson records—Marilyn doesn't do vinyl. It's in the mail? Thank you. I'll come get the LPs tonight."