There are door prizes and there are door prizes. Audio shows have been doing them for years — free shirts, free cables, maybe a plinth or an amp or maybe even a pair of speakers. At this year’s Capital Audiofest, they’re doing all of that — and also, doing it all together. That is, Alta Audio, VPI and Luminous Audio are teaming up for a Full System Giveaway.
The package includes:
- 1 pair of Alta Audio Rhea loudspeakers ($4,750/pair)
- 1 VPI 299D Limited Edition stereo amplifier ($4,000)
- 1 VPI Scout Jr turntable, with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge ($1,600)
- Full set of Luminous Audio speaker cables, interconnects and power cords ($1,800 total)
Oh, did I mention that I got to hear it over at Harry Weisfeld’s house back in May?
I did — photos are all over this post.
My assessment — this is a lovely system. I was very impressed by the simplicity of the whole system — vinyl-only, of course, but then why would you need more?
The system was warm, non-fatiguing, and remarkably full-sounding. Really, this was a very accomplished set up, and is far better than what the vast majority of my friends currently listen to. But lets pull apart some pieces.
The Rhea speakers are not the most expensive in the Alta Audio lineup, and represent their “entry” in the floor-standing category. There’s a ribbon up top, and single mid/woofer for the everything else, with a small port rather low to the floor. The design is “transmission line”; “the difference between Alta XTL and a standard transmission line is that we tune the cabinet at multiple frequencies, not just one.” The cabinet itself is robust, constructed in a way they call “DampHard”, which minimizes resonances and the use of padding/bracing, techniques that can radically cut down the ability of the speaker to produce a clean, un-muddied bass signature.
Sounds good in theory — and in the room, I heard nothing that would lead me to say the approach wasn’t working. Bass was tight, and a bit rounded the way that “tubes are”. There was plenty of detail in the mids/lower treble that let me hear into the recording, and nothing was particularly annoying or distracting — this is a “good thing”, as these tend to be interesting, but fatiguing — and this presentation was anything but fatiguing.
Moving on to the amplifier; I was immediately reminded of several vintage tube amps I’ve seen and fiddled about with many years ago. Which is probably telling — since Harry Weisfeld told me that this new amp, which they’re calling the 299D, is pretty much just that same vintage Scott design, but built with modern parts (and the relevant tweaks and adjustments that are now part of the state of the art). I’ve never been a EL34 sort of guy, but I can certainly appreciate a tube amp that won’t destroy your wallet if and when you’re ready to roll new tubes in. The amp is good for about 38 watts per channel, and if you’re feeling squirrelly, you can flip a switch and roll in some KT88 tubes for about the same output level (40 watts). There’s also a switch to take the amp from ultralinear into triode mode, if you’re looking for an even more luscious sound.
The amp is a Limited Edition — VPI has absolutely no intention of getting into the amplifier business. This was a one-off, done in partnership with the Weisfeld’s old friend Steve Leung, and when the initial run of 100 units is gone, they’re gone.
The amp has bias meters on the front (it isn’t auto-biasing), and also includes an integrated phono stage, good for a fixed 45dB of gain (think MM, or high-output MC cartridges — you’ll want an external SUT for the 47kΩ phono input on any LOMC carts). The dials and knobs are chunky, but not obscene, and the tube cage can be removed to show off all the glowing bits. Full tube complement includes four EL-34, four 12AU7 and one 5AR4. There are two sets of outputs, one pair each for 4Ω and for 8Ω speakers, and there are three additional inputs beside the phono.
I’ll be honest. I really love this little amp. And by little, I mean 50lb+ table top beast. This is pretty much everything I want in an amp of this sort — it’s retro, it’s got functionality, and it sounds damn good.
The turntable is also from VPI — the Scout Jr. Mat was calling this the “budget reference”, and I think he’s got a point. The table incorporates some very sophisticated technology:
- Machined 1” thick 6061 aluminum platter. Damped internally.
- Platter rotates on an oil bath bearing and fitted to shaft with a #2 Jacob’s Taper for a concentric rigidly mounted coupling.
- The bearing has a PEEK thrust disc and machined graphite impregnated brass bushings using a Thompson Engineering 60 Rockwell case hardened shaft.
- 600 RPM AC synchronous motor is contained in a separate steel housing and drives the platter with smooth, quiet operation.
It also includes a VPI record damping mat.
The cartridge is a 2M Red from Ortofon, a cartridge I tend to think of as more of a workhorse than anything “too fancy”, but that tonearm is pretty slick:
- New 9” vertical Yoke type Scout Jr. Tonearm with lateral turntable-type bearing.
- Pivot to spindle: 223mm
- Effective length: 240.7mm
- Effective Mass: 10.6g
- Overhang: 17.7mm
- Offset angle: 22.85 degrees
- Average RMS distortion: .36%
- VTA adjustable arm mount.
- Damped stainless steel armtube.
- Very pure copper wire, twisted with special insulating jacket.
The table’s look-and-feel is unapologetically plain — “bling” that’s not really VPI’s schtick at this level. Rather, the goal is sound quality, presented in a reliable package, and one that won’t break the bank. In my opinion, they’re on the right track — you want “classic” retro styling, they have that in their Classic Line; you want “modern”, the Prime and the new Avenger will take you that path. The Scout is the onramp. Said another way, this is the turntable you buy after you’ve outgrown an “entry-level” turntable. As for me, I’m all about that aluminum platter! Oh, I should also note that, like much of VPI’s product line, the Junior has a host of available in-line upgrades — like a bigger platter, a more powerful motor, a uni-pivot tonearm, an external flywheel drive, and upgraded feet — all are available to take your initial investment up several notches before you “need” to cash in on a new turntable.
The only thing I didn’t really get a chance to see and hear at the Weisfelds’ house was the cable loom coming from Luminous Technology, so I’ll defer on that score. Harry had the system wired up with a full AudioQuest loom during my tour.
So, time for the big finale.
I was very impressed with this setup. I think the system is elegant, and shows a fine, musical presentation that has impressive frequency extension, coherence, and exceptional listenability. Aside from a distinct aversion to digital (and who needs that, anyway?), there is nothing lacking in this setup. Each element, from speaker to turntable, is more than just a hint retro, and that plays directly into my own expectations and personal biases in the best kind of way.
I really can’t believe they’re giving this system away.
The 2016 Capital Audiofest will be July 8-10, at the Hilton Hotel at Twinbrook Metro (1750 Rockville Pike, Rockville, MD 20852). Tickets are available online.