Welcome to what I like to think of as a pinnacle of editorial writing in my small world, as it combines two of my favourite things to do: Have a glass of whisky, and kick back to listen to a couple of albums. A pastime I’m sure some of you out there can identify with. How on Earth did I stumble into such remarkable luck to turn this into a monthly article moving ahead? It’s possible because of the forward-thinking mind of Edward Ku at Element Acoustics. Ku understands that there is a cultured crossroads where being an audiophile, and having a deep appreciation for the finer things in life intersect. It’s not just about the gear, or the music, but that space in between where living takes place, and this new series will do my best to discuss whisky, and a piece of gear paired together by Ku for my (our) enjoyment of life. This inaugural instalment sees VPI Industries’ new Scout Prime, kitted out with Mobile Fidelity Electronic’s Master Tracker Moving-Magnet cartridge mated to Canadian distilling icon Crown Royal’s award-winning Northern Harvest Rye. I hope you’ll enjoy reading along with my experiences, as much as I enjoy writing them for you.
Choosing a Canadian rye to ponder the merits of an American turntable, tonearm, and a Japanese-built cartridge was a stroke of balance on Ku’s part. Not only do the price points of this analog front end ($2,790 CAN/$2,200 USD – Master Tracker $875 CAN/$690 USD) reasonably align with the Northern Harvest in the whisky-pricing scheme of things (currently $34 CAN/$27), so too does the rye’s flavour match up with the smooth, powerful, warm sound of the Scout Prime, and Master Tracker. Keeping the countries of origin separate too, lends an objective flavour to the whole experience. British writer Jim Murray, who’s Whisky Bible is often seen as the chronicle of record on whiskies, awarded the Northern Harvest his World Whisky of the Year in 2016, and Best Canadian Whisky in 2017, and 2018. Titles not to be dismissed, and accolades which when initially lauded onto the Crown rye, caused availability to vanish, and prices to skyrocket to almost $200 CAN/bottle on auction sites. Like the VPI, the Harvest is fairly straight-ahead in it’s flavour, with only a touch of complexity hinted at initially, and coming more to the fore after time is spent paying further attention to what it is capable of eliciting in one’s palette.
I’ll start first with the rye, as it was disarming initially due to its reputation as an award winner, and when it first hits the mouth I must admit a bit of a surprise because it’s quite different from the standard Crown Royal I grew up with, and was expecting a turn of flavour on. A number of reviews online refer to cloves, caramel, apricots, and vanilla, and while these were definitely present in the discourse between my taste buds, and the Northern Harvest, there was also a baked-bread, toasted patina to it intermingled with pepper, brown sugar, a hint of cinnamon, and of note: Heat. There’s a raw edge to the smoothness that adds fire, and when mixed with the oak-infused caramel also present mid-swallow makes for a mouth feel that’s warm, full on the back of the throat without any thinning, and had me taking larger sips than usual, as it was so satisfying with more to surround the tongue. I tried it with a small amount of distilled, room-temperature water, as well as on the rocks, and found it suited my tastes best with just the touch of water, which opened up the nose ever-so-slightly allowing for a mild softening to the initial contact. At 90 proof, it’s a bit stronger than most ryes in Canada, and while not the last word in refinement, or complexity – which tends to separate the great whiskies/ryes/bourbons from lesser siblings in my experience – at roughly $35 CAN it is above par in ticking boxes such as smoothness, taste/aroma, and mouth feel which makes it an amazing value in my books.
While I was busy making my notes on the Harvest, I usually allowed myself a tumbler (or two) before turning my undivided attention each evening to the Scout Prime. While not exactly a stock VPI configuration as the ‘table was outfitted with a 5 mm pure copper mat (which was made for Ku by a local Vancouver VPI enthusiast), I feel it’s demonstrative of the model as I’ve heard it a number of times at trade shows, in multiple system configurations over the last several months. I will say that the copper platter-top does enhance the sound that’s already there – imparting not only a very slight warming to the overall tonal balance, but also further transparency, and clarity to the upper registers, and midrange as well as a noticeable increase in density to the bottom end – building on what the fine engineers at VPI have already achieved – and once again, I’m reminded what a difference the mat chosen to go with a turntable can make (Read my audiophile turntable-mat shootout HERE). The Scout Prime, with its 6061 aluminum platter, oil-bath bearing, AC synchronous motor, and JMW 9 tonearm, and base always draws me in with excellent bass definition, a slightly forward midrange that has punch, and visceral impact along with nicely extended, non-fatiguing highs. All things in my estimation that anyone with the a black-disc spinner both covets in their own ‘table, and listens for when auditioning a potential purchase. In my experience the best units have theses traits, and build an exponentially stronger foundation from there in their capabilities at expressing – or translating if you will – musical-playback complexities, emotional intimations, and lifelike presence to the recorded performances.
I’m an ardent fan of Moving-Magnet cartridges – their sinewy, muscle-flexing dynamics with the right tonearm, and ‘table can be addictive – but I found over the years as I spent more time exploring the analog world of recorded vinyl playback that I it was the sound from Moving-Coil cartridges that not only spoke to my bass-driven passion for electronica, and rock, but also to the subtlety, and complexity of jazz, acoustic, and classical music. As a result, I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time with ‘tables, and tonearms kitted-out with MC cartridges. A shame really, as spending time with the MoFi Electronics Master Tracker (their new, and current top-tier MM cartridge) reminded me again just how great high-output cartridges – 3 mV with the Master Tracker – can sound. With a Micro-Line profile stylus, a V-Twin dual magnet generator, OCC (ohno continuous cast) copper coils, and billet-aluminum body, the MoFi cart on the VPI gave everything a serious dose of oomph. Dynamic drive, organic, and lifelike presence from every LP fronted by this combo through both my personal system of a valve-based phono integrated amplifier, and high-efficiency speakers, or the Pass Labs XP 17 Phono/XP12 Preamplifier/X150.8 Power Amplifier/Totem Signature One system I have for review was inspiring, and had me pulling album, after album out during listening sessions.
Summing up the weeks I spent with the Northern Harvest rye, the Scout Prime and Master Tracker is not difficult because all were so easy to live with, to enjoy, and to explore. Like the Harvest, the VPI/MoFi combo satisfied me on multiple levels regardless of what I tried it with: water, ice, and neat in the rye’s case – rock, acoustic, electronic dance music, jazz and classical in the case of the analog source. Both are neither the most expensive, or the most affordable in their respective classes, but both surprised me, entertained me, delighted me, and reminded me that there is great value for money to still be had in both the world of whisky, and high-end turntables/cartridges.
- VPI Prime Scout w/JMW Memorial Tonearm
- Mofi MasterTracker Moving Magnet Cartridge
- AudioQuest Wind interconnects
- AudioQuest Oak speaker cables
- AudioQuest NRG-10 AC/mains cables
- Pass Labs XP-12 Preamplifier
- Pass Labs XP-17 Phono
- Pass Labs X150.8 stereo power amplifier
- Totem Acoustics Signature One loudspeakers/Totem stands
- Audio Note Soro Phono SE Signature integrated amplifier
- Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE loudspeakers
- Audio Note Lexus/AN-V interconnects and speaker cables
- Audio Note ISIS AC/Mains cables
- PS Audio P10 Power Regenerator