Analog Corner #293: VPI HW-40 40th Anniversary Edition turntable & FatBoy tonearm

Judging by VPI's new HW-40 direct-drive turntable (footnote 1), middle age well suits the company that Harry and Sheila Weisfeld started 40 years ago in their Howard Beach, Long Island, basement.

Harry Weisfeld began his career as an audio manufacturer with the HW-9, an isolation base for Denon's DP-80 direct-drive turntable. (You could say the introduction of a VPI direct-drive 'table completes a circle.) Next came the DB-5 "Magic Brick," a wood-encased block of laminated ferrous metal said to act as a "sink" for stray electromagnetic radiation. Audiophiles around the world bought these and plopped them atop their amplifiers, swearing they heard an improvement. They still do both! (footnote 2)

The HW-16 record cleaning machine followed, an improved version of which is still manufactured and sold. For you youngsters out there who don't remember, the original HW-16 had its velvet-lipped suction channel built into the lid, and there was no water collection tank inside: You gently closed the lid and hoped the distance between the record and the lips produced the correct pressure. Not exactly ideal. The sucked-up fluid just drained into the chipboard box. If you were lucky, it evaporated before it saturated the chipboard and turned it into a soggy mess. No one was that lucky.

But VPI made improvements, and older 16s were upgradeable to the HW-16.5—Art Dudley made the first one and wrote about it in The Absolute Sound, and VPI put it into production—which have the now-familiar spring-loaded, velvet-lipped nozzle as well as an internal catch basin for the vacuumed-up liquid.

VPI introduced its first turntable, the HW-19, in 1981, a year before Sony introduced the CDP-101, the world's first commercially available CD player: The music business and the high-performance audio industry began its mad scramble to kill the LP (although, since the cassette was well on its way to doing that, the introduction of the CD was more a final nail in the coffin than a fatal stab). VPI, along with a few others, chose to ignore digital and continue making turntables, just as some of us continued—in magazines such as this one, on street corners, and in hysterical letters to the editor—advocating for the LP. My vinyl advocacy was mocked at CES more times than I can remember.

Forty years later, the basement workshop in Howard Beach is just a memory—VPI is now based in New Jersey—and Sheila Weisfeld sadly passed in 2011. CD sales continue plunging, and this year revenue from new vinyl record sales will surpass that of CDs. Add the value of used LP sales and it's a physical media wipeout! No great surprise to me or to Harry Weisfeld. Why? We listened and preferred what we heard from records!

Who's laughing now?
The new HW-40 direct-drive turntable is not VPI's most costly, but in terms of design, execution, and value, it's the best VPI turntable yet.

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Bundled with a JMW-12 "Fatboy" gimbal-bearing 12" tonearm, the HW-40 costs $15,000 in its introductory, limited-edition version. (I'll come back to that below.) That's half of what VPI's first direct-drive turntable, the Classic Direct of 2013, cost in its day—yet the new 'table uses the same cogless, BLDC (Brushless Direct ThinGap motor, manufactured by ThinGap LLC of Ventura, California), adapted for VPI under the direction of the company's director of electrical engineering, Mike Bettinger.

The motor-drive electronics, designed by Bettinger and made by VPI, have also been improved, starting with the company's changeover from a switching power supply to a linear one. Also in contrast to the Classic Direct, the HW-40's power supply is built into the chassis. They can do that because the HW-40's linear supply doesn't produce difficult-to-suppress electronic noise.

120acorn.motor1

Subplatter bottom showing brass bushing surrounded by rotor ring.

Bettinger visited my home when the 'table was delivered, bringing with him a display sample of the HW-40's newly designed and highly simplified machined-aluminum motor housing with integrated subplatter/rotor. This assembly, which also marks a change from the Classic, allows for the platter to be removed for shipping. The entire motor housing is flanged and incorporates a five-bolt pattern so it can be securely bolted to the plinth's aluminum top plate.

Removing the subplatter/rotor reveals the circular ThinGap stator core, made of 100% nonmagnetic material, with its coils of almost invisibly tiny, solid-copper, square-cross-section wire arranged in an overlapping "V" and embedded in a composite structure. Bettinger pointed out that this design is far more rigid than having the coils mounted on printed circuit boards, as done on direct-drive designs from other makers (read: Technics). The design is said by ThinGap to "significantly reduce" torque-ripple effects: a periodic increase or decrease in output torque as the output shaft rotates. (The same motor is used, albeit in a belt-drive implementation, in my reference Continuum Caliburn turntable.)

120acorn.motor2

ThinGap stator in the center of which is the inverted ball-topped spindle bearing.

The HW-40's subplatter/rotor spins on an inverted bearing, central to which is a hardened steel ball atop a steel spindle shaft (similar to what VPI uses in its more conventionally driven Avenger or Titan turntable), the latter rigidly secured to the motor housing—as is the encoder that monitors the rotor rotation. (The Hall Effect commutation devices, which tell the computer the locations of the motor poles, are mounted deep at the stator's bottom.) A brass bushing at the center of the subplatter/rotor fits over the spindle, and the steel ball makes contact with a PEEK (polyether ether ketone) thrust pad. Bettinger told me that to drive the motor, the system produces a 10kHz pulsestream that hits each of the coils: "Basically you are ringing a bell every time you do that." If the structure is not simple, he said, it can produce all sorts of harmonics and stored energy that get reflected back into the platter. It's sort of like a voice-coil, he said, with a platter sitting on top of it.

Like that of the original Classic Direct Drive, the HW-40's well-damped platter is precision-machined from an aluminum alloy billet and weighs 18lb. For its part, the entire integrated drive-system assembly with subplatter/rotor and flanged housing weighs 25lb.

VPI's drive system uses a ring encoder that provides 2460 pulses per revolution to precisely monitor velocity as well as the platter/motor position. The HW-40 direct drive system is claimed to achieve 93% efficiency and a torque of 2.68 Nm/s—that's high—so that, despite the platter's high mass, it both accelerates to full speed and decelerates to a stop in 1 second.

The software allows for fine-tuning the application of speed corrections to the servo in order to minimize the effects of vibrations and system-generated noise. According to VPI, this fine-tuning was accomplished by monitoring the table's output while playing unmodulated-groove test records, all while making adjustments via the software. The goal was to minimize or eliminate "any perceptible evidence of the motor drive signal."

Observational methodology—listening to music—was also used in the tuning process with a large selection of well-known high-quality recordings of strings, pianos, and vocals, as well as those known for producing vivid spatiality and well-defined room-sound decay.

You may be asking yourself, if VPI uses an even better version of the motor used in its $30,000 turntable in its $15,000 turntable, what's been cheapened to account for the price differential? The answer is nothing, actually. In fact, this "half-price" turntable is better in every way, in my opinion, than the Classic Direct.

VPI says that back in 2014 it paid $4000 each for those ThinGap motors—and that doesn't include the costs of R&D implementation. Using the usual audio-industry metric of retail being five times the parts cost, that's $20,000 retail for the motor alone! No wonder the Classic Direct sold for $30,000!

This time around, perhaps partly due to the vinyl resurgence and VPI's growing worldwide presence, Mat Weisfeld ordered a lot of Thin Gap motors, at a considerably reduced price. While the HW-40 Anniversary model reviewed here, which sports glossy rosewood side panels, is a 400-unit limited edition (that's already close to being sold out), the standard HW-40 will not be a limited-production model.

Speaking of which, this limited-edition version includes a really nice dustcover that in the future will be an extra-cost accessory—this in addition to the above-mentioned Fatboy arm, which is not intended to be swapped out for tonearms from other makers. Subsequent HW-40s will have a removable armboard as standard; the Fatboy will be available as an option, or the buyer can use the tonearm of his or her choice.

Solid construction
Yes, the improved motor/platter system is the main attraction, but VPI has done a great deal more here to produce what I believe is its best-ever 'table. Plinth construction on this large-footprint (21.75" × 17" × 10"), 70lb assemblage is impressive (though its appearance is no better than that of the Classic Direct) and features a solid machined top plate of 0.75" 6061 aluminum finished in a textured black paint finish, internally damped with an MDF sheet.

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The HW-40's improved footer assembly.

What's considerably different and better here is a new, Bettinger-devised footer system. Each foot terminates in a large aluminum block that bolts firmly to the plinth's innards and isolates the player both vertically and horizontally. Each foot's thick bottom pad is of a metal-particle-flecked material Bettinger wouldn't identify—but he said it absolutely would not compress over time despite the turntable's high mass. An integral elastomer cylinder connects the aluminum block to the foot itself. (While the feet are height-adjustable to a small degree, VPI recommends leveling the platform you put the turntable on. That's good advice with any turntable.)

This is the first VPI turntable I've reviewed that provides a high degree of isolation from the surface upon which it rests. Despite the cones, feet, inserts, bladders, and what have you that VPI has used over the years, this is the first one where, if you tap (or bang!) on the platform, nothing gets through to the stylus. According to VPI, two years of work went into producing this level of performance using a combination of mass loading, mechanical stiffening, selective damping, and a combination of elastomers.

In and of itself, the top plate is still somewhat lively, but compared to my memory of the Classic Direct, the HW-40 is better damped, letting through only a subdued, quick-to-settle "pop" when the top plate is struck. Bettinger told me that the outer frame is well-isolated, too. I was able to corroborate that: Tapping on it produces nothing through the speakers.

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Measurements
The HW-40's speed accuracy and consistency numbers bettered those of the already fine Classic Direct, though the differences aren't significant. (The HW-40's frequency chart is more symmetrical and aesthetically attractive, footnote 3.) Compared to the excellent measurements of my reference belt-drive Continuum Caliburn turntable, these are three times better—for one-tenth the price! That said, as with flat on-axis speaker response, these measurements do not tell the sonic story.

The new Fatboy 3D-printed gimbal-bearing 12" tonearm
The latest iteration of VPI's 3D-printed resin tonearm features ultrahigh-precision gimbal bearings (which, as I recall the story, Harry Weisfeld obtained from his neighbor Bell Labs/Lucent Technology when it was sold and downsized), a new, large-diameter, supersmooth-rotating VTA/SRA tower, and a new azimuth adjustment feature: Loosen two Allen-head screws located where the tube enters the aluminum sleeve adjacent to the bearing yoke, and the tube easily rotates.


Footnote 1: VPI Industries, Inc., 77 Cliffwood Avenue, #5D, Cliffwood, NJ 07721. Tel: (732) 583-6895. Web: vpiindustries.com.

Footnote 2: I have routinely been measuring the effect of the VPI Brick when I measure amplifiers, but have yet to find any reduction in the levels of hum components in the noise floors.—John Atkinson

Footnote 3: You can see the Classic Direct's chart at here.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
JRT's picture

...for another interesting review.

volvic's picture

Figured I'd get in and post something positive before Tony Kaz comes in with his hoarding sermon. I love the looks of this thing and no, I have not heard it. Nice to see VPI coming out and continuing to make great products. I do miss my HW-19 and wish VPI would reissue it with the option of different armboards. The VPI SDS for the price was a thing of beauty - they should bring that back as well.

funambulistic's picture

I heard this 'table about 18 months ago and it was, by far, the best vinyl playback I have ever heard. In fact, the system the dealer assembled was the finest my ears have ever been exposed to. I would have purchased the lot but, unfortunately, I did not have the $100K or so on my person (not to even mention the $20K for the VPI plus cartridge). As such, I am saving and dreaming...

Glotz's picture

I have a HW-19 in modern regalia and to see this, let alone hear it, would be the penultimate version of that design. The direct drive system is so slick.

This is the table I would own on lottery money, outside of the new SAT turntable system.

That being said, I still believe that VPI has to do some vibration control modernization to keep the table truly inert. The SAT (among others) would appear to be 'proof' of that.

Nonetheless, the next 'table I will buy in 2021, will be the VPI Prime 21.

tonykaz's picture

33.3 collectors are not hoarders.

A 33.3 album is a capsule of Culture.

Folks like MF, the Jazz Shepherd, Joe Bussard are curators of Period Specific Cultures.

I collect Classical music dating from the entire 33.3 vinyl era.

Sermons are delivered by the Guru that says other formats sound like "shit" as Mr.MF just said on Mr.Micallef's YouTube Video, they don't.

Vinyl is maintaining a modest niche marketplace acceptance considering the immense size of the actual market. Analog vinyl 'believers' are something like the Hesidics of NY or the Amish or any of the many niche groups of passionate aficionados populating lifestyle avocations of folks with disposable incomes. I kind of admire them, especially if they don't insult.

Vinyl is just another format, it's never been as good as tape and will never be as widely useful as the formats in use today.

The Gaslighting should not be tolerated.

I admire Mr.MF's encyclopaedic knowledge about his vast collection of recorded music and I understand his listening ear/brain arrangement being tightly tuned to all things 33.3 .

Tony in Venice

Glotz's picture

Let Tony say whatever he wants to say!

While I dig Volvic and all of his comments, Tony is very eloquent and wise. I need to hear Everything he wants to say!

volvic's picture

When he vanished from these pages and wasn't contributing his wisdom, for a short period I openly asked, "where is Tonykaz?"

I trust I never insulted as that is not in my nature and if I offended anyone I must apologize. However, I am a firm believer in making a point and moving on but that's just me.

Tonykaz forgive me if I am taking your quote out of context but you did once say that vinyl is a hoarding hobby;

"Today, Vinyl is a Collecting and Hoarding hobby based on it's history of being part of the Audiophile Hobby." from Steve Gutenberg on great Writing, Submitted by tonykaz on January 22, 2019 - 5:28am

Did I read this quote out of its context? Apologies if I did.

JHL's picture

And yet 'all Opinions [sic] must be tolerated' as rights or something.

tonykaz's picture

What you just wrote here is an opinion.

Of course, opinions are important.

Especially informed opinions.

I feel certain that you will be angry with anyone that gaslights you, ( when you discover it ).

When everyone agrees on everything, only one person is doing the thinking.

Think it thru, make your contributions.

Tony in Venice

ps. Stereophile 'Comments' is giving your thoughts a Global Voice, probably the first time in anyone's life that it was possible. This is like an Audiophile version of BBC World News!

JHL's picture

...I was uncertain about the difference between the all-important opinion - one de facto near unto a sacred right - and the contrary, intolerable gaslighting *then* imagine how complicated it all must be now.

I imagine some ideas are just more equal than others...

Enrique Marlborough's picture

I like the shape of the record clamp. However, for $15,000, they are enough for an OL Sovereign with an OL Enterprise, and there are a few dollars left for a good record weight.

Ortofan's picture

... for $3K you could opt for a different turntable whose isolation, according to MF, is "perfect".
This other turntable has "gracefully articulated detail and an overall smooth yet not soft sonic picture" and "most importantly the presentation is top-to-bottom coherent."
MF went on to say that this other turntable's "top to bottom performance was suave, sophisticated and made for totally pleasurable listening with every kind of music" and "its presentation of dynamic gradations was impressive."
MF summed up his review by stating that "you’ll appreciate its sonic performance, high build quality and outstanding cosmetics."
Is the VPI turntable in any way five times better?

dial's picture

Love their first offer the original VPI 19 (1978 !), looks like the one that Denon never made. The only table I could buy from them as I was ruined by covid 2019 (like Jelco, sob sob, bad year for vinyl lovers and the worst is yet to come !) is the Cliffwood. But I love their JMW-10 tonearm (except as usual I can never use it with my (two times) vintage Orsonic AV-1 headshell (actual design named AV-101b has lost his fingerlift and doubled his price !). So to finish (thanks for reading), VPI is for me one of the best turntable manufacturer.
And you can buy their beautiful clamp separately for 149 $.

shawnwes's picture

This sounds like the Lada of RCMs...

"The HW-16 record cleaning machine followed, an improved version of which is still manufactured and sold. For you youngsters out there who don't remember, the original HW-16 had its velvet-lipped suction channel built into the lid, and there was no water collection tank inside: You gently closed the lid and hoped the distance between the record and the lips produced the correct pressure. Not exactly ideal. The sucked-up fluid just drained into the chipboard box. If you were lucky, it evaporated before it saturated the chipboard and turned it into a soggy mess. No one was that lucky. "

Mike Bettinger's picture

Michael, Thank you for your clear description on my efforts to create an exceptional new Direct Drive motor design. The electronics, the power supply and the the tuning of drive followed my experience and instincts, not to forget the design of the isolation system. The HW-40 Anniversary table was a great challenge and I gave it my all!

Matthew.852's picture

Mr. Fremer, thank you for an interesting review. You mentioned that you used a digital oscilloscope to set azimuth. Can you share your procedure and methodology in setting the azimuth using an oscilloscope.

gpdavis2's picture

Very much looking forward to the HW-40 with changeable armboard at a more affordable price. As a Denon DP-80/DK-300 user it would be interesting to compare if I decide I would rather have a new TT than a new (used, but new to me) car.
As for hoarding, it is difficult to 'hoard' anything that has thousands of copies available. The new, very limited additions of LPs (a thousand pressed), perhaps. But, I do not own 'collector stuph'. I either use it (in this case listen to) or it is soon gone.
As usual, MF has written an excellent review.

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