VPI Avenger Direct Turntable & 12" FatBoy tonearm

Founded in 1978, VPI Industries appears to be one of the most successful turntable manufacturers in the world—certainly in the US. The New Jersey–based company sells turntables, tonearms, cartridges, record clamps, plinths, record cleaning machines, and a phono preamp. But that's not all. The company offers VPI-branded pillows, candles, mugs, stickers, T-shirts, and a tell-all company history, 40 Years on the Record.

And talk about turntables! From the entry-level $1499 Cliffwood to the top-of-the-line $104,000 Vanquish (found under the website's "VPI Luxury" page, accompanied by the adage, "Settle for Nothing but Extravagant"), VPI is clearly and rightfully proud of its analog achievements.

Like many successful small businesses, VPI is a family affair. Cofounder and designer/engineer Harry Weisfeld designed the tables that established the company's reputation. Sheila, Harry's late wife and VPI cofounder, was an important presence; her expertise in audiology and speech-and-language pathology gave her a skill set unusual in the industry and made her a principal contributor to VPI's success. Harry and Sheila's son Mat Weisfeld is the current designer and CEO; his wife, Jane, is VPI's office manager. The 15 employees work at the company's Cliffwood, New Jersey, HQ to manufacture every VPI 'table from 95% North American–made components.

Harry Weisfeld is a longtime, fervent record collector. His analog dreams started with buying vinyl and shellac as far back as the 1950s. He still collects LPs (no "vinyls," please) and has a special fondness for Sonny Rollins's Way Out West, Jo Basile's Hit Broadway Musicals (Audio Fidelity AFSD-5972), Eydie Gormé's albums on the Coral label, and anything on Norman Granz's Pablo Records, home to natural-sounding '70s and '80s records by Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass, Sarah Vaughan, Milt Jackson, and Count Basie, to name a few.

"My first record was a mono Louis Armstrong, and I still love his 'Shadrach Meshach'—amazing music," the elder Weisfeld noted in an email from his Watchung, New Jersey, home. "I began building audio gear with a Dynaco FM 3 tuner and went from there. I was originally an electrical and mechanical engineer and a sheet-metal contractor. I learned all I know about making things from 15 years working with sheet metal union workers in New York City. I learned a lot [about] how things work [and] get built and how to not go bankrupt."

Early on, Weisfeld was a devotee of the grand era of American-made muscle cars; he raced a 1966 Dodge Coronet 500 powered by a 426 hemi (the same car my father drove back in Charlotte, North Carolina). That American power aesthetic would later influence the brawny, chromey look of VPI's upper-tier turntables. A hardcore audiophile from his school days, Weisfeld experimented with hi-fi equipment of all persuasions. "I remember audio equipment, but I don't remember people!," he told me. "I went through Dahlquists, ElectroStatic Solutions (ESS), Acoustic Research, Dynaco, an Acoustic Research, a Garrard 301, Micro Seiki tonearms, a Denon DP-80 turntable, on and on," he elaborated. "Not to mention cartridges: Shure, Stanton, Goldring, Decca. Oh so many Deccas, and Pickering, ADC, so many ADCs. I still love the ADC XLM MK-2, one of my favorite cartridges of all time."

Weisfeld was a frequent visitor to the Sea Cliff, New York, home of The Absolute Sound founder Harry Pearson. There, in the mid-1970s, Weisfeld encountered the Keith Monks Record Cleaning Machine. Believing he could make a record cleaner that was more affordable and easier to use, he fashioned the HW-16, introduced circa 1980. It remains in production, an exceedingly popular product—indeed, one of a handful of analog products currently produced that can legitimately be called "classic."

VPI's other early products were record weights and isolation platforms, the latter made for specific record players, including Denon and JVC direct drives. Sometime in the early '80s came the notorious DB-5 "magic brick": a slab of wood encasing plates made of ferrous metal; the aim was to damp vibrations while also providing some magnetic isolation.

Harry introduced VPI's first turntable, the HW-19, in 1981; it would be produced in four iterations. The HW-19 was followed in 1986 by the TNT (footnote 1). The current VPI lineup consists of 14 'tables, 12 tonearms, two VPI-branded phono cartridges, and some accessories.

The Avenger Direct turntable ($36,000), the subject of this review, comes with the 12" gimballed version of the 3D-printed FatBoy tonearm (footnote 2; $4500 when purchased separately), the aluminum JMW Full VTA Base ($1500 separately), a direct drive assembly/motor, a machined aluminum platter, a vented chassis, a stainless steel Periphery Ring Clamp ($1300 separately), three air-suspension Feet ($3450 separately), a VPI-branded alignment jig ($75 separately), a poly-weave platter mat, and one Signature record weight ($185 separately). For this review, VPI graciously supplied their Weisline tonearm cable by Nordost ($780/pair) and the VPI Shyla MC cartridge ($2000, named for one of Mat and Jane's daughters), built by Audio-Technica and modeled on that company's flagship ART Series, with an anodized aluminum body, boron cantilever, line-contact diamond stylus, and an output of 0.5mV. For another perspective on the Avenger Direct, Ortofon lent me the Verismo MC cartridge ($6900).

The Avenger Direct's massive, 18½" wide × 17" deep × 10" high aluminum-sandwich, War of the Worlds chassis is based on the tripod-spider design of the Avenger Reference. "The chassis is made of sandwiched acrylic/stainless steel/acrylic, silicone-sealed and screwed together, making it very, very dead," Harry told me. Three massive, 2¾"–wide stainless steel posts stabilize the massive chassis. Three machined-aluminum cones are set into 3½" Delrin/ball-bearing isolation bases. A rubber grommet between the cone and the Delrin provide even more isolation. Yet another layer—a special acoustic pad—sits below the Delrin disc, Weisfeld noted. The resemblance to the Avenger Reference extends to functionality: Both 'tables employ up to three arms at a time, of any length or manufacture.

The motor drive, platter, and tonearm used in the Avenger Direct were key elements of the VPI HW-40 40th Anniversary Direct Drive 'table, which Michael Fremer reviewed in Stereophile's January 2020 issue; many tonearm and platter specifications are common to both 'tables.

The 2" high, 21lb Avenger Direct platter is machined from a solid billet of 6061 aluminum, internally damped with a disc of wood-composite fiber covered in black mica and "locked in with silicone," Harry told me in an email. "Hitting a VPI platter is like hitting a pillow with a sausage."

A subplatter 5¾" in diameter × 1" high drives the main platter. "The subplatter/rotor spins on an inverted bearing, central to which is a hardened steel ball atop a steel spindle shaft, ... the latter rigidly secured to the motor housing—as is the encoder that monitors the rotor rotation," Fremer wrote in his HW-40 review. On the Avenger Direct, that ball is chrome-hardened, rated 60 on the Rockwell scale. The subplatter bearing turns on a polyether ether ketone (PEEK) thrust pad fixed to a phosphor-bronze bushing.

"This is the most solid and least error-producing system in the business," Weisfeld senior said. The Avenger Direct uses the same basic motor—the same rotor stator—used since the Classic Direct, but the way that motor is driven changed with the HW-40. In its earlier implementation, the motor was driven as a brushless, direct-current (BLDC) motor; in the later direct-drive 'tables, including the Avenger Direct, it is implemented as a PMAC (permanent-magnet AC) motor, "driven sinusoidally as a three-phase AC motor," Harry wrote in an email. The motor-drive system is servo-controlled by an active Texas Instruments–based feedback loop. A magnetic strip with 2500 magnetic elements on the platter is read by a magnetic head; that information is fed back directly into the drive system to correct errors. "The drive is so powerful you can put your finger on the side of the platter while running and it does not slow down," Harry wrote. "With no cogging, when the platter turns there is no vibration."

Weisfeld emphasized that this is no off-the-shelf implementation of a third-party direct-drive motor. "ThinGap supplies the stator and rotor—the bearings, assembly, shaft, entire housing, drive and monitoring gear all have to be bought or machined," he said. "What you buy from ThinGap is essentially a paperweight that cannot turn or even stand on its own."

Three small buttons on the lower tank of the chassis turn the power on and off and set the speed, 45, and 33 1/3.

Once you get past the turntable's imposing chassis, eyes are drawn to the Avenger Direct's 3D-printed 12" FatBoy tonearm, said to feature precision gimbal bearings, and the 2¾" wide × 2" high rotating tonearm tower, which enables oh-so-easy, on-the-fly vertical tracking angle (VTA) adjustment. Instant gratification. The 12" armwand3 sits in a Delrin/stainless steel arm rest. VPI makes their own cueing lever, also of stainless steel. Past the tonearm's gimbal and two-part stainless steel/aluminum collar and bearing housing (which utilizes ABEC 9 bearings by Lucent Technology), a screw-threaded butt end holds a stainless steel counterweight, encircled by two rubber rings for peripheral damping. Vertical tracking force (VTF) is set by rotating a small black knob at the butt end of the tonearm, which moves the counterweight forward or backward on a plastic sleeve. Easy to use and precise, it's one of the most efficient VTF methods I've seen.

Back to the armwand, which is 3D-printed from liquid resin set into a UV- and heat-resistant stainless steel tube. "When this company in Ohio 3D-printed the tonearm, we attached an accelerometer on it," Weisfeld recalled. "It was a 1.5dB resonance, three cycles wide. There was nothing there. It's quiet. That's why we use it. Instead of a tube, it's a million strands of stainless steel, all glued together and laser formed. It's a collection of thousands of little tubes. It takes 11 hours to print one tonearm tube and headshell, one laser line at a time. Then a carbon fiber piece goes in the center of the armtube, which makes it incredibly stiff."

Azimuth is adjusted by loosening two Allen-head screws on the tonearm near the rear bearing collar, allowing the tonearm to rotate. The tonearm specs out at a pivot-to-spindle distance of 300mm, an effective length of 313mm, an offset angle of 17.37°, an overhang of 13mm, and an effective mass of 11.9gm. The FatBoy includes an adjustable, 5/8"-thick, 6061 aluminum armboard. An extra 12" FatBoy tonearm, complete with base, junction box, and armboard, adds $6500 to the price. Nordost Reference wire is used throughout.

Footnote 1: It's important to note the timing. The Compact Disc was introduced in the US in 1983—the year cassettes overtook LPs as the recorded-music medium with the highest US revenues. 1986, when the TNT was introduced, was the last year LP sales exceeded CD sales. Within seven years, LP sales would fall to less than $11 million, from a peak of $2.5 billion just 15 years earlier. This is the climate within which VPI thrived.—Jim Austin

Footnote 2: VPI also makes unipivot versions of the FatBoy tonearms.

FredisDead's picture

something to the effect that it was nice to once again be on good terms with the magazine. Anyone care to fill in the details? I don't remember anything but very positive reviews as to every VPI table ever reviewed.

johnnythunder1's picture

and brutally honest take down of that short lived, poorly engineered Shinola turntable that was made by VPI? Or did I miss another review of a VPI product? If I recall, Fremer raved about their top of the line direct drive tt so who knows? Could be many things.

Mat Weisfeld's picture

Not sure about where the review is but that was a learning experience in working with a lifestyle company. They had the right goals and ideas... and I'll leave it at that. Either way, that table had its day, and when it ran its course everyone moved on in their own direction.

Mat Weisfeld's picture

There were some miscommunications that initially led to some frustrations. Sitting down, talking, and listening to music led to everyone getting on the same page :)

Phoenix Engineering's picture

Hey Mat-

Good to see you chime in; maybe you can clear up another miscommunication?

The review said the following:

In its earlier implementation, the motor was driven as a brushless, direct-current (BLDC) motor; in the later direct-drive 'tables, including the Avenger Direct, it is implemented as a PMAC (permanent-magnet AC) motor, "driven sinusoidally as a three-phase AC motor," Harry wrote in an email.

The HW40 used a controller from Elmo Motion Control (Gold Solo Twitter series) and did not drive the motor as a PMAC type, it used block commutation not sinewave drive. The review goes on to say the Avenger Direct uses a TI controller. So, did you change the controller between the HW40 and the Avenger Direct or does it use the same Elmo controller and block commutation? The quote above would imply that only the Classic Direct (ca 2013) used BLDC drive and newer tables (including the HW40) used sinewave drive, which the HW40 clearly does not. I confirmed with Elmo MC via e-mail in 2019 that the Gold Solo Twitter is not capable of sinewave drive or FOC. Can you please clarify.

If there is a new controller, is there an upgrade path for the HW40 users?

Phoenix Engineering's picture

The torque spec they publish is somewhat dubious and contains the same typo as the HW40 (torque units are Nm not Nm/sec). The ThinGap TG231 motor is capable of 2.68Nm of torque for 1 second max and it takes 40A at 12V (~500W) to achieve this. On the HW40, this was limited to .74Nm at start up by the 50W power supply (and in software) and the torque during normal operation was 0.0068Nm, about the same as most modern belt drives. Not sure why they chose a 500W motor to drive a platter that requires ~30mW during normal operation.

It's interesting that they changed the drive electronics but kept the same magnetic ring encoder. The HW40 used an off-the-shelf industrial controller from Elmo Motion Control (Gold Solo Twitter) and employed block commutation which can produce torque ripple (cogging). It was also quite noisy electrically, producing 36VPP squarewaves at 10kHz with no filtering (class D output, I could actually hear a high pitched whine at start up). The TI controller should be better with sinewave drive (hopefully they got rid of the class D output stage).

The RLS magnetic ring encoder produces 80 pulses per rev for speed control, but the read head can synthesize 32 counts out for each input pulse producing the 2560 PPR they claim. The HW40 measured the speed once per second so the count for 33.333 RPM was non-integer (2560/1.8Sec=1422.222 counts/sec) and the speed was always going between 33.351 (1423) and 33.328 (1422) on the unit I looked at. Hopefully, the TI controller uses a different time window or can work with fractional counts.

I wonder if the early adopters of the HW40 will have an upgrade path to the new controller?