Gramophone Dreams #8 Page 2

Mat Weisfeld, the President of VPI, told me, "The Scout was originally named after Sheila Weisfeld, since she was very active in the Girl Scouts. After her death, we had made the Traveler in her memory, but the Traveler was not easily upgradable and had the inboard motor. The Scout Jr. was made to replace the Traveler, and serve as a 'table to celebrate Mom's life rather than her passing."

The Scout Jr. record player ($1600) offers, at a reasonable price, the ability to play now—and then, later on, if you so desire, you can opt for a slew of upgrades, including: the 1 3/8"-thick platter from VPI's standard Scout ($400); JMW 10" unipivot tonearm ($2200); JMW 10" 3D-printed tonearm ($3000); HR-X Feet ($500); and Prime Feet ($450). I haven't tried any of those, but I can tell you this: Don't underestimate the quality of the Scout Jr.'s stainless-steel tonearm or silky-smooth, non-inverted, oil bath platter bearing: They're the main reasons I felt I had to tell you about this deceptively "more-than-entry-level" record player.

The Scout Jr. is very nearly plug'n'play phonography. It comes equipped with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge already mounted and aligned, attached to a tank-sturdy tonearm with gimbal bearing, this in turn mounted on a steel-reinforced plinth of 1.25"-thick MDF. On my sample, the tonearm's balance weight, which sets the VTF, had already been tightened at precisely 1.6gm—which is the Ortofon's minimum recommended tracking force. Cartridge VTA and SRA are set in the old-school way: slide the arm pillar up and down, then tighten a setscrew. The Ortofon 2M Red in my review sample sounded better than I'd ever heard that cartridge model sound (see below), so I didn't touch the VTA or SRA. The cartridge's azimuth setting was also dead on, and locked tight with two hex-head setscrews that allow the user to rotate the front section of the armtube within its slightly thicker rear-section collet. Direct from the factory, everything on the Scout Jr. was set better than good.

Finally, all I had to do was find a secure, shake-free, level surface to set Jr. on, then fine-tune the leveling of the plinth by turning one or more of the four aluminum cone feet in their threaded sockets until the bubble in my bubble level (not supplied) was precisely centered. (There are 164 good reasons to get a turntable perfectly leveled, so take your time to get it right; ultimately, it's the platter you want level, so check that again later with the level placed near the rim of the platter.)

Next, I simply lowered the 1"-thick machined-aluminum platter onto the bearing spindle; placed the separate rubber-footed motor assembly in its cozy niche on the left-hand side of the plinth; stretched the black rubber band around the motor's grooved capstan and the grooved platter edge; and installed the thin foam platter mat.

I added a black disc and almost immediately thought, Wow! I have never heard an Ortofon 2M Red sound this good. It was richer, deeper, and more organic sounding than I had ever heard it. Usually, I find the sound of the 2M Red a little brightly lit and unsupple, and also generalized and not finely detailed. It was the opposite of that on the Scout Jr.

When I installed an Ortofon 2M Black, the results were the same. I played Schola Antiqua's Tenth-Century Liturgical Chant in Proportional Rhythm: Masses for Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, directed by R. John Blackley (LP, Nonesuch H-71348), and those free rhythms of long and short notes took me immediately to that dreamy place I love to visit. The Chapel of the Good Shepherd seemed bigger and more solid than it had with the 2M Red. Space and air felt more tangible. The decays of the voices' tones were long, easy, and sensual—exactly like the slowing of the Scout Jr.'s platter, which took between two and three minutes to go from 331/3 to 0rpm. (Maybe there's a connection?) I imagine that a bearing on which a platter spins easily, with obviously little friction, also has a low noise floor—which lets the recorded ambient information expand and decay longer before being absorbed into the bearing's white noise.

I'm extremely familiar with Ortofon's 2M Red and 2M Black, and it seemed to me that the Scout Jr.'s tonearm and silky platter bearing made both cartridges play deeper, richer, and darker than I'd ever heard them. I also found that this slight darkness made the kinds of spacious music I like sound more relaxed and enjoyable. But could it truck like the Doo-Dah Man?

I've only recently begun to appreciate the charm and artful ease of the Grateful Dead, whose American Beauty (LP, Warner Bros. WS 1893) seems to be a good barometer of system quality and proper cartridge alignment. Playing this album to test the Scout Jr.'s basic sound quality, I used Schiit Audio's Mani phono preamp and the Line Magnetic LM-518IA integrated to drive Dynaudio's excellent Excite X14 speakers. Every song was creamy rich, detailed, and as easy-flowing as R. Crumb's Mr. Natural. The Jr.'s slight darkness and seductively quiet spaciousness are what I believe set it apart from other turntables that cost less than $2000. It made LP playback seem less mechanical and more sophisticated.

I Hate Comparisons
How do the Acoustic Signature's WOW XL and TA-1000 and VPI's Scout Jr. stack up against other turntable-and-tonearm packages in their price range? I hate questions like that, but I will try to answer because I know it helps everyone (including myself) put audio products in perspective. The Scout Jr. and WOW XL are quieter, richer, and more transparent sounding than my Technics SL1200, the Pioneer PLX-1000, or the Thorens TD 124. The Scout Jr. and WOW XL were a bit slower afoot than all of those, and had less rhythm, tempo, pacing, and boogie factors than, say, a Linn or a Rega. Neither had the finesse or strong bass of something like a Dr. Feickert Analogue Woodpecker ($6500) or a VPI Classic ($3000). What both did have was the considerable ability to be quiet and sophisticated sounding: to let me play one record after another and almost never think audiophile thoughts.

The Scout Jr. specialized in a type of certified American organic-ness that I found very appealing. It made the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and the Electric Flag more appealing than they already were. The Jr. could make budget cartridges like Ortofon's 2M Red and 2M Black sound like a discounted Lyra. In contrast, the Acoustic Signature WOW XL plus TA-1000 exuded a sort of E-Class German precision that could really sort out complex music, and the WOW XL's perfect accuracy of speed showcased the finer complexities of Bach and Bart¢k while retrieving hyper-rich ambient textures and blowing mice out of 16' organ pipes. The XL made the Soundsmith Carmen sound like a discounted Kiseki.

So go now . . .
Look under the mattress. How much you got? $1500? $4500? I promise to always go to extreme lengths to find and report on reasonably priced audio gear that will let you enjoy your music and forget about audiophile neuroses for a long time. Therefore, I swear: Both of these phonographs play music in an easy, truthful, inspiring manner. Both do all the audiophile tricks—they're quiet, detailed, and tuneful, with great bass. Either will make you feel as if you've purchased a high-quality record machine commensurate with its price. Most important, either will make you feel entitled to buy lots and lots of black discs—and make you proud that you are a stylus-cleaning record hound.

Speaking of which . . .

RTOM Moongel
I was at another of those password-required, secret-handshake audio soirées. This one, called Walterfest, took place at a seaside mansion with an underground tunnel, English-style gardens, and a spectacular widow's walk. The complete history of Fairchild turntables and Neumann cartridges was on active display. Field-coil RCA horns with either selenium or Tungar rectifiers in their power supplies provided the exotic sounds, while the Chairman of the Board and the Queen of Soul generated musical pleasures. It lasted three days.

As I was leaving, my host looked around nervously, then slipped into my hand a little blue pillbox. Drugs! I immediately thought, or . . . a cartridge! But when I got in the car and looked at it. The cover said, "MOONGEL DAMPER PADS: Non-toxic, cleans with soap and water." When I got home, I called Walter and inquired about the pads' purpose. He said, "Drop your stylus gently onto it—let the tip sink all the way in. It will clean the diamond perfectly!"

Wow! Dang! And it sure as hell does. Moongel is a sticky, wiggly, translucent blue gel sold by RTOM ($6.50/4 pads) to damp ringing and resonances in snare-drum heads. But if you lower your cartridge gently into its quivering mass, it strips all the fuzzy, crusty sea urchins off your Shibata or line-contact stylus.

I was concerned that Moongel might muck up my diamonds or lube up my LPs, so I've been closely studying its effects with a powerful magnifier. I am no longer worried, but I am deeply impressed. Nothing has ever cleaned my styli this well—or, apparently, this safely.


fetuso's picture

Very entertaining reviews. I only started getting into vinyl again about 4 months ago and I'm enjoying it immensely. I'm already thinking about an upgrade of the music hall mmf 2.2 that I bought. You made that new VPI sound good enough to eat for dinner.

deckeda's picture

Thanks for the tip! I have the Onzow Zerodust which performs similarly, apparently. But I'll for sure be trying this less expensive stuff too.

Pity the Traveler. So much favorable ink was spilled on it but it never seemed quite sure of its place, with design revisions and price hikes, especially in light of the Scout Jr. I suppose lessons learned there begat Nomad.

georgehifi's picture

"Everyone in the room can hear the difference when I swap one phono cartridge for another. Same thing happens with loudspeakers etc etc"

Is it not more that because these two items in the audio chain are the least two flat measuring items there are? And one of which has very questionable channel separation as well.

Cheers George

torturegarden's picture

After reading this the other day I ordered a pack of Moongel which came in the post this morning. Wow! It really does work quite well, and it's inexpensive. I'll be recommending it to everyone I know that has a TT. Thanks.

avanti1960's picture

looks like a height gauge for setting the tonearm height.
i am interested, thanks.

volvic's picture

cartridge alignment protractor, used to get the right overhang for cartridge.