VPI HW-19 turntable Anthony H. Cordesman May 1986

Anthony H. Cordesman returned to the HW19 Mk.II in May 1986 (Vol.9 No.4):

I'm not quite sure why turntables inspire more passion than electronics or speakers, but somehow they do. Perhaps it's the Hiberian-Slavonic legacy of Ivor the Tempestinateapottenbottom, or the Sicilian heritage of Robert the Irascible, but many audiophiles find ranking turntables more important than listening to them. The status of owning the best seems more important than the music.

Several Important Caveats:
• First, and most important: while some of the sonic differences between the best turntables are important, they are not as important as the differences between cartridges and speakers; they may not be as important as the differences between tonearms. If you can't afford the very best cartridge and speakers, you needn't buy the very best turntable.

The fact that Linn Sondek's advertising has made a British cult out of buying a comparatively high-priced Linn turntable—even for comparatively low-grade components—has no justification other than profits for Linn. The fact is that Acoustic Research, Ariston, Mitchell, Micro Seiki, Mission, Onkyo, Rega, Sonographe, Systemdek, Thorens, and Walker all make very good and quite musical turntables at very reasonable prices. No one need sneer at cheap analog record players like the Dual 505-II; the sonic returns diminish rapidly after you've spent enough to buy an Acoustic Research EB-101 (or ES-1) or Sonographe SG-3.

• Second: there is something a little pathetic about the audiophile who wanders endlessly through the wilderness searching for heavenly guidance as to whether Goldmund, Oracle, SOTA, or VPI is top dog. The truth is that all these manufacturers make a fine product. If most of these same audiophiles devoted equal attention to upgrading any of these makes of turntables to the latest model, buying the most suitable associated arm and cartridge, and ensuring proper setup, he or she would be much happier and get far better music.

• Third: the best CD players are now even closer to the best turntables, tonearms, and cartridges. You may need to consider this in allocating your budget. Neo-Luddites and digital crackpots aside, CD can now survive direct comparison using top-ranking recordings that exist in both CD and analog (see elsewhere in this issue).

Take a CD like Jazz at the Pawnshop (Proprius) or River Road (Opus 3), and use it to compare any analog front end you want with such CD players as the Mod Squad version of the Meridian Pro, or the Discrete Technology. You still lose some of the euphony, warmth, and sweetness of cartridges like the Kiseki and Koetsu—but no one has ever argued that these are technically accurate transducers. You will get from CD the sweetness, air, and depth to match some of the other top cartridges, like the Monster Cable Alpha 2 or the van den Hul MC-10.

This said, there are still sonic differences between the sound and features of the best turntables, differences worth your consideration when you make your choice. Further, if you have the money, the best turntables are still worth buying. Far more of the best recordings and performances are only available on records. Even if you accept the alarming idea that the purpose of a turntable is to enjoy music—rather than to watch manufacturers and reviewers fight—the best available turntable front end is still a cost-effective part of the best possible system.

The VPI HW19 Mk.II
You will already have gathered that I feel the VPI HW19-II ($885) is a superb turntable. Let me go further: I feel it is unquestionably the best buy in high-end turntables, very close to the SOTA Star Sapphire/acrylic Supermat combination. Harry Weisfeld continues to make steady improvements: the Mark II has an improved turntable platter, a better belt, a slightly better motor, and more shock-resistant tuning of its suspension. You can also buy a acrylic top plate ($115) that improves the VPI's looks and produces slightly more life and air. If you want to gild the lily, buy the new VPI Power Line Conditioner ($300): it makes the same improvement in the HW19-II's stability and signal-to-noise ratio as it does in the SOTA's.

The HW19-II retains all of the virtues I described in my original review (Vol.8 No.4). It is now, however, more than "a straightforward turntable design that offers you a solid middle ground between the sonic virtues of the SOTA and the Oracle." It sounds better in enough small ways to clearly outperform the SOTA Star Sapphire, even with Supermat. The VPI provides better and more extended bass than the Oracle Delphi II, better dynamics and musical life, and equally good upper octaves. The HW19-II is equivalent to any of the Goldmunds I've heard, although I can't speak for the latest production runs.

The HW19-II also continues to improve in finish. It now matches the SOTA in quality of styling, although neither approaches the superb sculpture-like look of the Oracle Delphi II. It also remains easy to set up—perhaps the easiest of all turntables for anyone wanting to swap arms. Suspension adjustments are only needed for a few of the very heaviest arms (footnote 1), and the HW19-II stays set up if moved. It can be moved without tightening of bearing retainers or special shimming.

Only the SOTAs, and possibly the Goldmund Reference, exceed the VPI HW-19's ability to perform well in virtually any location on virtually any furniture. Vulnerability to acoustic breakthrough is notoriously difficult to measure, but I generally move turntables into some of the standing wave areas in my listening room and let all hell break loose to see what feedback develops. The HW19-II is now greatly improved over the early models of the HW-19; it's highly resistant to acoustic feedback.

As for features, the VPI HW19 Mk.II uses a heavy-duty AC synchronous motor with good compatibility to any 60Hz line, and has enough torque for fast start-up and avoidance of stylus or record-brush drag problems. I wouldn't say that its powerline compatibility is audibly better than the SOTA's or Oracle Delphi II's in any way—I played around for some time with some trick computer power supplies to vary voltage and frequency supply, and all three did very well indeed. The point is that they did do splendidly. Other turntable designs give you slight changes in sound character with even small shifts in AC line quality.

You get a superb platter with the HW19-II, with no charges for deluxe mats. The platter is machined from a block of 1"-thick acrylic with a six pound ring of lead on the bottom. VPI claims it's equivalent to a twenty pound aluminum platter. More importantly, the VPI platter follows the precedent set by Goldmund, and now the SOTA Supermats: it uses a platter whose surface material roughly matches record vinyl, which allows tight clamping and damping of the record without air pockets or resonance. The lead weighting is heavy enough to provide good speed stability, feedback resistance, and excellent bass.

The VPI also uses a clamping system which may help explain its sonic superiority to the regular SOTA Sapphires and Oracle Delphi II. The spindle is threaded; a small, internally-threaded knob screws down over a plastic clamp that locks the record to the surface better than the Goldmund or Oracle devices. It's surpassed only by the SOTA vacuum system. The result is excellent coupling of the record to the turntable, and a remarkably flat playing surface. The VPI HW19-II seems to do a better job of damping external resonance than the SOTA Star Vacuum without Supermat—a considerable tribute to the quality of the VPI design.

Like all good turntables, you get a well-machined spindle and bearing. If you raise the turntable up on wooden blocks, you can even, from the bottom, alter the bearing height for VTA/SRA adjustment. If this sounds a bit inconvenient, it is superior to trying to guess at the height adjustment of tonearms without a precise VTA/SRA adjustment, is slightly superior in terms of geometry, and allows you to make adjustments while the record is playing—with any tonearm (footnote 2).

The VPI uses a very heavy (36 lb) floating chassis with two layers of 10-gauge steel bent and welded together. It is as well damped as any other turntable I've tried to excite in my living room (footnote 3)—including the super high-mass Micro Seikis. The base is ¾" solid walnut, and the overall result is the heaviest and best-built suspension-turntable assembly I've seen for under $2000.

Like the SOTA, VPI uses a four-point suspension. It is tuned to about 3.5Hz; VPI feels this makes it resistant to building vibration, subsonic air conditioning noise, etc. The fact remains, however, that the SOTAs seem more immune to such effects, and can take far more furniture movement. The SOTAs are so good in this respect that they remain the product of choice for anyone who has problems with furniture movement and vibration, or floor movement and room vibration.

I have already described many of the sonic differences between the VPI HW19-II and the SOTAs. I should emphasize, however, that the best turntables are very hard to characterize sonically, except in general terms. So much is dependent on the interaction between the elements of the turntable system, including cartridge, arm, tonearm mounting board, and placement, that there is no clear way to separate the sound of a turntable from the other variables.

In broad terms, however, the VPI is very flat from deep bass to the highest octaves. It is live and dynamic, without exaggeration or the kind of presence-region rise that I still hear in the Linn. It reaffirms the importance of a top-quality turntable by sharply reducing what most of us think of as record noise, and by providing most of the real-world advantages in signal-to-noise and dynamic range available from the best compact discs. With the exception of the SOTA Star Sapphire with the acrylic Supermat, it is the most consistently neutral and musical turntable that I have heard.

As for soundstage, the HW19II is as good as you can get. It allows records to provide notably more natural depth and hall effects than the Oracle Delphi II, which tends to bring performances slightly forward. The SOTA sounds slightly farther back in the hall, and its soundstage is slightly smaller and not quite as good in depth. Cartridge and tonearm differences in both timbre and soundstage are clearly revealed.

Only the SOTA Star Sapphire/Supermat combination is occasionally more transparent; this seems to occur in those cases where vacuum clamping has a special advantage. The Oracle Delphi II occasionally seems more detailed in the highs, but this may be more a function of its loss of deep-bass information rather than better resolution in the highs.

The VPI HW19-II not only has more convincing and solid bass than the Delphi---the latest version of the HW19-II provides a bit more smoothness than the Oracle Delphi II, and slightly more convincing midrange dynamics. This is a reversal of VPI's midrange performance before the HW19-II appeared. The VPI's upper octaves are distinctly better than the "live," but less detailed, upper midrange and highs of the Linn, and the VPI's bass pitch is far more convincing than that of the Pink Triangle.

I have already mentioned the VPI Powerline Conditioner in discussing the SOTA. Once again, it is a useful accessory, but not a vital one. The $300 cost is only worth it for audio purists, those who need a wide range of speed variations (including all flavors of "78" RPM), those with real powerline problems, or who are exceptionally sensitive to pitch or speed variations.

The VPI Powerline Conditioner eliminates the impact of transient voltage spikes, low-level voltage swings, RFI, and short-term frequency variations, by substituting a digitally generated waveform for the standard sinewave from your power company. It stabilizes voltage inputs of 70 140V at 125V, and has a front panel frequency control that varies turntable speed from 50Hz to 99.9Hz within 0.02%. Even if you have a good AC line, the Powerline Conditioner will still help lower the apparent turntable noise level, improve the bass and transient attack, and open up the soundstage slightly. It can be used with most other turntables and CD players, provided they draw no more than 25 watts.

The SOTA, VPI, and Delphi also work synergistically with the new air bearing arms. The Eminent Technology Two, for example, provided outstanding performance with all three turntables (there is a special mounting kit for the Oracle). In fact, I'd urge you to audition this combination. I've not had the opportunity to test the new SME or the latest Goldmund arms in my system, but the few people I know who've experimented have all felt the Eminent Technology to be at least as good, and $700 to $2200 cheaper.

More generally, tonearm choice is at least as important as turntable choice. The tonearm often has more immediate effect on sound quality than the relatively small sonic differences that emerge between turntables like the VPI, SOTA, and Oracle. A tonearm produces more shifts in the midrange in terms of speed, resonant coloration, and soundstage characteristics. Tonearm choice can also be critical in terms of bass performance—few tonearms can really reproduce the deep bass.

Make sure the cartridge you love will work well with the tonearm you love in the turntable you choose. Ironically, the best tonearm I know in terms of the ability to switch cartridges (the Dynavector 507 with the Grado or Audioquest plug-in heads and a top quality tonearm interconnect) will only work on the VPI. While it's a more minor point, the SOTA's dust cover will not clear many tonearms; the optional dust cover on the VPI ($40) will clear virtually all tonearms.

The VPI has relatively low vulnerability to acoustic breakthrough, but I have heard slight improvements in transparency and bass by moving it a few inches further away from the wall or by shifting it over the surface of vibrating furniture. Placement in an area away from standing waves or high bass energy nodes will improve the sound more significantly.

To sum up, the improved HW19-II is the "affordable" choice in high-end turntables. It costs about half as much as the SOTA Star Sapphire with the acrylic Supermat, outperforms the Oracle Delphi II, and is at least as good as the versions of the Goldmund Studio I have heard so far. I would not sell my grandmother, BMW, or another top-ranking turntable to buy one, but if you're looking for a new turntable, this is a product I'd be sure to audition.—Anthony H. Cordesman

Footnote 1: Though then, in my experience, the changes are much more difficult than with the SOTA.—Larry Archibald

Footnote 2: If only Stereophile had an in-house graphic artist, the illustration of AHC lying on his back adjusting the VPI platter up and down to get the right VTA would be priceless. An alternative would be to have an automotive hoist installed in your living room to make the job of getting underneath the VPI a little easier.—Larry Archibald

Footnote 3: Surely this calls for another cartoon. Sorry, I couldn't resist.—Larry Archibald

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