VPI Prime Scout turntable

We got our wish. Phonograph ownership is once again depicted as commonplace, even hip, in popular films, TV shows, and ads for other products. Turntables and LP jackets show up in photos in Elle Decor and Vanity Fair. New LPs are sold in stores in nice neighborhoods, and in malls with Cinnabon franchises and J.Crew stores. A shockingly high percentage of new record releases in which normal people are interested, and a few in which they are not, are now available on vinyl. For the first time in decades, I receive occasional gifts of new LPs—presumably because they're once again easy for nonenthusiasts to find and to buy—and the very few CDs I've received in the past few years have been homemade.

We got our wish, but now there's a new challenge: When our hip, nice, Vanity Fair–reading, J.Crew-wearing, normal friends remember that we've been blowing this horn for dickity-seven years, and they come to us to ask, Which record player should I buy? . . . what are we to tell them?

As long ago as the 1990s, I gave friends the same advice they probably heard from other people in my line of work: Buy a Rega Research Planar 3. If they were financially comfortable, I suggested a Rega Planar 9 or a Roksan Xerxes. If they were comfortable and had a tweaky streak, I suggested a Linn LP12. But in 2005, when I was assigned to review for Stereophile the VPI Scout—a turntable-plus-tonearm package that then sold for $1500—it impressed me as a solidly good alternative to my usual recommendations. The Scout sounded bigger and a little less light than my other choices, and was musically competitive, with good momentum and flow and a decent sense of impact. Perhaps best of all, it was easy to set up and use, evidently reliable, and nontweaky.

A dozen years after the Scout's introduction, New Jersey–based VPI has replaced it with the Prime Scout ($2199 with tonearm). This nudges the original model more in the direction of the VPI Prime, which designer and company president Mat Weisfeld describes as their "curvy, easy to use sonic powerhouse." And so the question becomes: Can the heavier, more expensive Prime Scout inspire as much love as the original Scout?

At first glance, and despite their functional similarities—both models are belt-driven turntables with solid plinths, outboard motors, and unipivot tonearms—three things distinguish the Prime Scout from the Scout: an apparently larger, curvier plinth; a platter machined from aluminum rather than acrylic; and a better-executed, better-finished tonearm.

The Prime Scout's plinth measures 19" wide by 14" deep—the same as the Scout's, though the original was closer in shape to a plain rectangle. The Prime Scout's plinth is more fancifully shaped, with a more generous cutaway for its outboard motor pod. As in the original, the plinth is cut from MDF—1.5" thick for the Prime Scout vs 1.375" for the Scout—and its bottom is reinforced with a steel plate about 0.125" thick. The plinth rests on four tapered and compliantly mounted Delrin feet about 2" in diameter at their thickest and standing 2.25" high.

The platter bearing is built on a brass-lined well with a polymer thrust plate and a bore that's approximately 0.65" in diameter. This contains a steel bearing axle that's fitted with a ball bearing on its bottommost surface, and is machined with a Jacobs taper near the uppermost part of its 3.75" overall length. The very top of the axle is 0.25" in diameter, and is threaded to accept a screw-on Delrin record clamp (supplied). The tapered portion of the shaft mates with the bore of the 1.25"-thick aluminum platter.

The Prime Scout's 300rpm, AC synchronous motor is housed in an aluminum pod 4" in diameter. Built into the side of this housing are a pushbutton on/off switch and an IEC socket for the supplied power cord, and it's topped with a Delrin pulley with separate steps for 331/3 and 45rpm playback.

The Prime Scout's tonearm is the latest version of VPI's JMW 9, a unipivot design with an effective length of about 9.5". Supporting the tonearm, and preassembled to the Prime Scout's plinth, is a mounting collet of the usual sort, rigidly fastened to the plinth. Central to the collet is a height-adjustable support pillar topped with a sharp, slender (0.045"), upward-pointing spike that serves as the male portion of the arm's unipivot bearing—the JMW is a reverse-missionary (or, if you prefer, cowgirl) unipivot—along with an aluminum-alloy gantry that supports the arm rest and cueing mechanism.

At the pivot end of the JMW 9's 0.375"-diameter aluminum armtube is a cylindrical bearing housing, made of aluminum alloy, about 1.5" in diameter. This is contained within an aluminum ring, to which two outrigger weights (think: tightrope artist) and a counterweight-support tube are integral. Inside the top of the bearing housing is the small (perhaps 0.2" diameter), conical, steel bearing cup that accepts the aforementioned spike. The steel counterweight is cam-shaped: it rides on its support tube with most of its mass at the bottom, but it can be rotated and locked in place to shift the armtube assembly's weight one way or the other, thus adjusting cartridge azimuth. (Azimuth can also be adjusted by loosening two locking screws and rotating the aluminum ring and outrigger weights that girdle the bearing housing.) The downforce is set by moving the counterweight fore or aft; the counterweight is uncalibrated, but VPI includes an electronic stylus-pressure gauge of quite decent quality.

VPI is well known among hobbyists for its distinctive point of view regarding tonearm setup: They have long believed that most tonearms, including their own, sound best without the use of antiskating mechanisms, be they of the magnetic, spring-actuated, or thread-and-weight variety. The lead wires of VPI's unipivot arms exit the top of the bearing housing and describe a generous loop before terminating in a push-on Lemo connector, which itself leads to a junction box on which are mounted a pair of RCA jacks. VPI continues to recommend that the user dress these leads so that they exert a slight spring force against the arm, in the direction of the record's lead-in groove. That said, the JMW 9 supplied with the Prime Scout was the first VPI unipivot I've reviewed that also comes with a thread-and-weight antiskating mechanism, for those who want more (force, that is). Like the arm's counterweight, this mechanism is uncalibrated.


Installation and setup
Setting up the Prime Scout turntable was a simple matter of placing the plinth and the motor pod next to one another, and the platter and its mat on the bearing axle, then installing the drive belt and plugging in the motor. One could consider the Prime Scout a true turnkey record player, if not for the work required to install and adjust the JMW 9 tonearm—and even that wasn't too terribly difficult. At the end of the day, the most tedious of the tonearm chores was installing the cartridge and adjusting it for proper overhang and lateral tracking angle—things one would have to do with any arm of any design, save for those players that come bundled with pre-adjusted cartridges. Even so, the cartridge-alignment jig supplied with the Prime Scout is clear and easy to use.

Of the chores that remained, the only one that seemed to have the potential to frustrate the newcomer was getting the bearing's spike and cup to line up properly when putting the removable tonearm tube-bearing cup assembly in place: On many of my own attempts, the spike found not the center of the cup but a ridge on the cup's outer edge—made evident by the fact that the arm simply would not balance properly. The only cure: Repeated attempts.

Miscellany: I admit, for aesthetic reasons if nothing else, that I didn't like the Prime Scout's platter mat, which appears to be made of felt laminated with a polymer-like skin on its underside. This thin (0.06") black-and-white mat is decorated with a very large rendering of the VPI logo and the words made in usa, encircled by a ring of 50 white stars. While I've never reacted to it one way or the other on the many recent occasions I've seen these mats at hi-fi shows, the graphics are jarring, and just a bit gaudy in a domestic setting. It also made me cranky when I noticed that the Prime Scout's mat is bigger than its platter, the former overhanging the latter by about 0.15"—but then, after trying two other mats I had on hand and discovering that they, too, overhung the platter by more or less the same amount, I realized that this was a case of the VPI's platter being smaller than average, presumably to keep the LP flat by leaving the its thicker outer edge unsupported.

And that brings me to the Prime Scout's record clamp, which is intended to be used in the manner of virtually all such things: by first placing a soft rubber washer (supplied) over the record spindle before lowering the record onto it, thus raising the very center of the record-label area just enough that pressure applied by tightening the screw-on clamp will push the disc's grooved area down into more or less intimate contact with the mat.

VPI Industries, Inc.
77 Cliffwood Avenue, #5D
Cliffwood, NJ 07721
(732) 583-6895

woodford's picture

Thanks for the insightful review- really, I mean it- but now one is forced to ask, how you’d describe the differences between a KT 88, 6L6, and EL34? Or more precisely, between at 6L6 and EL34?

Or, even more precisely, an EL34 and a KT77.

I get the EL84 reference.

mrkaic's picture

It is not very hard -- look up the data for these tubes (e.g. http://www.audiomatica.com/tubes/6l6.htm). You will find a lot of technical data, for example maximum plate voltage.

KT88 -- max plate voltage is 800 V
6L6 -- max plate voltage is 500 V

You can also define some tube models in SPICE and simulate the circuits. I love running SPICE, it is a lot of fun. Every audiophile should try it.

woodford's picture

that's interesting.

i'm interested in sound quality differences as well.

mrkaic's picture

Sound differences depend on the circuit and lots of other things. You cannot talk about the sound of a particular tube in isolation. It depends on the grid voltage, plate voltage, the quality of transformers, circuit topology etc. There is no simple answer.

If someone gives you a simplistic general answer, like KT88's are brighter than EL34's, then ask him: how many amplifiers have you designed? :))

tonykaz's picture

is that how I'd describe myself?, is that how we'd describe JA?

I suppose so. If I had to go out and buy a Turntable, I'd buy an original LP12/Ittok/Asak, even with it's original ( and quite horrible ) tone arm cable arrangement. I'd have it for old times sake, just a decoration.

But my last turntable love was for the turntables that Shela Weisfeld was selling me in 1985ish.

If I were to buy a playable turntable, I'd buy this Scout. It'd have a Sumiko MMT tonearm and I'd have plenty of Koetsu phono cartridges.

I'd have a complete record cleaning station set up and I'd build a sturdy record rack system. Phew

I'd also have about $10,000+ per year budget for Acoustic Sounds Vinyls.

I'd have Chad Kassem as a friend and entertain the hell out of him. Chad is the King of Vinyl, these days. He's exactly the kind of person I hang around with, he'd love my peerage and my straight talking and thinking peerage would love him. He's our kind of guy.

I'm not gonna buy into Vinyl, it was the only game in town back in the day.

Red Book MQA is just around the corner, it'll fit in the palm of a person's hand, it resonates with the Global Population.

Perhaps I've lost my "tweaky streak"

Tony in Michigan

ps. it's almost like the charm of vinyl today is Acoustic Sounds

Ortofan's picture

... a Technics SL-1200GR turntable with a Music Hall Mojo cartridge.

johnnythunder's picture

Belt vs. Direct. S Tonearm vs. unipivot. I would bet that the VPI has a more organic warmer sound vs. a clearer tighter sound of the Technics. It's certainly an alternative in the price range. Impossible to say what is "better" for the money.

Ortofan's picture

... the operating speed is not accurate or stable?
The $2200 VPI has worse speed accuracy and stability than a $500 Onkyo.
Why doesn't Stereophile test for tonearm resonances, as does Hi-Fi News (UK)?

Glotz's picture

And that's okay.

Dudley vs. Fremer - CAGE MATCH ONE NIGHT ONLY!
Apples vs. Oranges... for after the post-fight disappointment!

I think it would be killer to own both, or at least one direct-drive and one belt-drive. They each have their advantages. It's all about personal preference.

mrkaic's picture

"Turntables and LP jackets show up in photos in Elle Decor and Vanity Fair. New LPs are sold in stores in nice neighborhoods, and in malls with Cinnabon franchises and J.Crew stores."

Since when is being mainstream something to venerate? Is attaining repressive petit bourgeois respectability a subliminal goal of supposedly rebellious and individualistic audiophiles? :))

dalethorn's picture

"Since when is being mainstream something to venerate? Is attaining repressive petit bourgeois respectability a subliminal goal of supposedly rebellious and individualistic audiophiles?"

I think what most of us want is for the tech to spread, to become more popular, so the audiophile companies have lower levels of development and supply to draw from, which would result in lower prices and more variety on the higher end.

avanti1960's picture

The text says "you place the plinth and the motor pod next to each other..."
How does one align the pulley centers for proper belt tension?
Is the position of the motor easily repeatable if we need to move the turntable on occasion?

Rijichert's picture

Per Prime Scout manual and confirmation from VPI support, soft rubber washer and the record clamp are used as an alternative to the mat, not in justification with the mat. Placing a record on a mat requires VTA adjustment to accommodate the angle change due to the added thickness of the mat. A record placed on a mat does not need to be clamped.