11 October, 2010

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 09-10-10 (HiFi 德 VPI Classic vs Aries)

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 09-10-10

Showroom Audition: Ernest Audio HiFi 德
Talk Vinyl: VPI Classic vs Aries


A Classic is born
I was chatting one day with my friend Keung and we talked about VPI turntables. He expressed some interest in the Scoutmaster, and I was interested in the newer Classic. Spontaneously I called 阿明 of HiFi 德 and arranged an audition on this day after yumcha.

A little more on VPI and the TTs. I have not always taken to the sound of VPI. More than 10 years ago I heard a low model VPI (forgot model) with a Rega arm and did not like the rather mechanical sound (perhaps it was the setup). However, later, as heard at jeffr33's place, a Scoutmaster was lively and dynamite, and that had caused me to re-evaluate its offerings. VPI is a curious company that is highly eclectic in its multifarious approach to TT design. Many people still swear by the suspended HW-19, one of the company's huge early successes. VPI's reputation has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years coincident with the introduction of its unipivot JMW arm series.

After selling well for many years, the Scoutmaster has been eclipsed by the same company's Classic. The Classic has been in existence for a while, and had undergone small modifications, but it is quite different in design as well as appearance from the Scout and Aries series (including the similar flagship HR-X). Due to the popularity of the Classic, HiFi Duck does not even stock or demo the Scoutmaster.

One of the reason why the Classic is so hot is due to several awards in TAS, including Harry Pearson's endorsement as Editor's Choice 2010 :

"...The Classic, correctly named, has been made even better with a few quite small changes, which give it an even smoother sound. These are tiny changes, but consistent with Harry Weisfeld’s mechanical bent. The man is always on the lookout for a sonic improvement, no matter how slight. Oh yes, the changes, as told by HW himself: “I grounded the motor with an aluminum heat sink, the platter was changed to one piece of aluminum rather than two pieces, with a damping ring attached to its bottom (to make it quieter), and the arm increased by 6mm “for lower tracing error and better tracking.” And the price remains the same. You yourself can do a bit of improving if you opt to pay for the stainless-steel version of the Classic’s arm ($200), which I recommend for cleaner sound from your cartridges, and $700 for the stainless-steel record clamp that fits over the outside edges, the best way of the LP. The speed stability is so good thanks to Weisfeld’s design (based on earlier turntables, those from the golden age of same) that I think you can get by without the SDS speed control device (at $1200), which makes speed changes easier than does adjusting the Classic’s belt. A steal at $2500, this one does not suffer by comparison with the Clearaudio Statement and has prompted me to retire the much-loved Scoutmasters..." (note that in the full article, not available on the web, HP also quoted designer Harry Weisfeld's tall claim that the Classic may be his best creation regardless of price, but keep in mind HW likes to say that kind of thing). It should be noted also that HP's huge praise also elicited all kinds of comments on the net, in avguide (TAS) forum itself, including allegations of over-praise.

TAS' sister magazine HiFi+ also has a rave review from Roy Gregory, but the review I enjoy the most for its fastidiousness was from Germany (6moons).

Sibling Rivalry
So much for background. As the Scoutmaster is not available, 阿明 proposed to compare the Classic with the Aries. Based on his experience, he said that should offer some insight on how the Classic fares against its sibling. The VPI arms differed slightly in length and two different cartridges of roughly equivalent price were used. The gears are as follows:

-VPI Classic/JMW 10.5 arm(upgraded steel arm with VTA adjustment device)/Clearaudio Symphony
-VPI Aries 3/JMW 9 arm/Transfiguration Axia
-Clearaudio Reference Phono
-VTL preamp 5.5 II
-VTL power monoblocks MB-450-II
-Rockport Grand Mira II

We listened to several LPs. Heard as a whole, the system was hard to fault, no matter which turntable was in use. Matched with the excellent VTL tube products (which have a modern tube sound that I love; no soggy stuff!), the Rockport Mira's delivered superbly clean sound across the frequency spectrum. Here I must say HiFi 德 has always been very good at system setups. They have reliably provided some of the very best sounds at various hifi shows (same cannot be said of most of the majors). And this setup impressed all of us too.

Transfigured
As it was, the Classic combo was a little steadier in sound, a shade warmer and more solid. The Aires 3 combo sounded a little more extended and more refined. While part of this may be due to the difference in TT/arm, the difference in cartridge likely plays a major role too. What was definitely evident was that both setups bear similar sonic signature: supremely composed and rock solid; fast and explosive, as well as nuanced and refined, as the music demanded, all delivered with excellent rhythm and pace (PRaT). Here, I wonder whether HW's naming of his products are entirely appropriate. The Classic is mighty, as dynamic as the Aries, whereas the Aries is definitely not a brute (Aries is a Greek God of the violence and blood-lust of savage war = Mars in Roman; witness Holst's The Planets)! Suffice to say I enjoyed both setups more than a lot of hugely expensive vinyl setups I have heard:-)

Given the price advantage, for those who favor metal platters (many like whlee and me) and a classic look, the Classic indeed looks like a bargain.

A note on the Clearaudio Reference Phono. Thanks to Andy's loan, I actually got to test this at my home some time ago. While it is not a bad phonostage, to me it is not truly exceptional and lacks character (I certainly prefer tubes). Its gain is not exceptional too for such a high-priced product; I was unable to use it with my Ortofon MC-3000 (0.13V).

Knowing I was intrigued by the character of the Axia, whlee reminded me that my last experience with Transfiguration was at Lincoln's home, which had a very refined sound that I still remember. I'm sure I shall investigate this brand further.

阿明 told us just that morning An Indian customer came in to buy a small Clearaudio TT (I forgot the Emotion or the Performance) to take back to his country. But then he saw the Classic, compared the two and walked away with the much larger and heavier VPI, worrying about the over-weight charges!

阿明 also told us that the VPI Classic is selling like hotcakes in Germany (remember the 6moons review), and Germany probably produces more mid-end and hi-end turntables than anyone else. This should tell you a lot about what knowing and frugal Germans think about their own products. Personally I have always thought most of the German turntables (as well as other hifi items) underachieving and over-priced. I am glad the Germans themselves think so.

Man of Action
I would like to thank 阿明 for setting up the demo (and for finding about about the intriguing anti-skating on the Clearaudio Concept). 阿明 is superbly knowledgeable about the products he sells. For once, here's a man who is all action, not all talk. And whatever he is not sure, he immediately jumps on it and finds out, no bull-shit. I nominate him MAN OF ACTION OF THE YEAR.

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