VPI re-imagines the turntable, and creates a new product category with the Player
When I speak about record collecting with the under thirty-five crowd, initially many of them see vinyl as a low-fi medium, much like cassette tapes, and 8-tracks. This impression was created by dusty hand-me-down turntables, and record collections of which most have unkempt and dirty grooves. Along with many of the new records purchased during the “2008 vinyl resurgence” being played on these un-serviced thrift-store turntables, many more will find their way to the affordable shopping-mall Crosley suitcase models. It quickly becomes understood as to why vinyl wasn’t being appreciated for its natural high-fidelity attributes.
Words and Photos by Eric Franklin Shook
For many of the youth, the kitsch of vinyl ownership was formed as an aesthetic irony. American youth found it fashionable to incorporate the romantic habits of a twentieth century, now long gone in a post 9/11 world. It was now cool to be subtly nostalgic of traditional Americana without waving the patriotic flag of the establishment. With American males donning Civil War style beards, and plaid shirts, the youth fashion culture gave way to vintage lumberjack and barbershop aesthetics, all the while a sartorial parody of the previous generation’s idea of masculinity. This fetish-sizing of an American lifestyle promised in childhood, however nowhere to be found in present day, was a major player in the rise of the vinyl fad — and yes it was a fad.
I’m fine with the vinyl resurgence having less than honorable beginnings. Ask any hipster on the street if they are a hipster, and you’ll be met with protestations and denial. Go to your local record store and ask any hipster with vinyl in hand, “What do you like about vinyl?”, and they’ll tell you plainly “it’s the sound.” Ask them next, “What do you listen on?”, and nine out of nine times it will be a Crosley suitcase turntable, or a “vintage” thrift-store turntable on it’s last legs. This answer doesn’t exactly jive with what us audiophiles know to be the reality of proper vinyl playback. What millennials are having is indeed a lo-fi experience. But as time goes by during this resurgence many of today’s vinyl collectors — who got into it ironically — soon found themselves experiencing something unexpected as more affordable hi-fi turntables entered the market. Entry level hi-fi turntables are now fashionable as decor pieces and making regular appearances in tech blogs, YouTube channels, and within the mandatory reading material of millennial hipster sub-culture.
Enter Player One
Carving out what could be an entirely new — and ultimately stopping point for many in the vinyl resurgence — is the VPI Industries‘ Player turntable. A ready-to-play, all-in-one turntable; in the sense that all you need is wall power and a pair of headphones to start enjoying your vinyl collection. For some, this could be the only and final component needed for their listening habits. No speakers, no receivers or amplifiers, no extra cables to go hiding behind the furniture, and for others — the VPI Player is just the beginning. More on that later.
The VPI Player represents one of two entry-level offerings from the most heralded manufacturers of turntables in the world. Made in the USA, the VPI Industries Player shares it’s architecture with the more affordable VPI Cliffwood — a model than does not offer the built-in phono preamplifier or headphone output of the VPI Player.
Quirks and Features
I fall in and out of love with turntables. I think I am more critical of their mechanical actions and quirks over those digital components where the only tactile interaction is the pressing of a face-plate button or rubbery remote. From my experience, turntables have the tactile attributes I associate with musical instruments, and in many ways, they are exactly that, an electrified musical instrument. Let those little vinyl fingers strum the needle, and take me away.
The VPI Player is part of VPI’s performance line of turntables and is only a bigger brother to the VPI Cliffwood, but in more than a few obvious ways. Starting with its added built-in phono preamp, and headphone output. All reside in what is essentially the same vinyl wrapped MDF chassis as the Cliffwood. The VPI Player is likely a quieter table by comparison to it’s Cliffwood sibling, due to the MDF plinth housing a headphone amplifier, and phono preamp. All of that added bulk and rigidity results in less outside vibration noise making its way into the cartridge.
As far as I can tell, the inverted ball bearing, 11.5” / 7lb aluminum platter, and 600 RPM motor/pulley assembly are shared with the VPI Cliffwood. The Player, however, is pre-fitted with the popular and capable Ortofon 2M Red, an upgrade from the Cliffwood’s custom Grado Green cartridge. The Ortofon cartridge is mounted to an all-stainless 9” Gimballed/Yoke bearing tonearm that is specific to the Player model, whereas the more affordable and scaled down Cliffwood uses an aluminum substitute.
The built-in phono preamplifier is a Mike Bettinger design that runs full time. Yes, other turntables on the market do offer a defeatable phono preamp switch, but this table aims to be as user-friendly as possible, and including such a switch would inadvertently disable the headphone section of the Player, and we wouldn’t want that happening now would we. If you want a turntable without a Mike Bettinger designed phono preamp, buy the VPI Cliffwood, and save yourself some money in the process.
The built-in headphone amplifier is simple to operate as it only requires powering on the unit, and plugging in your headphones, as long as they are of the 1/8th (3.5mm) type. Considering the length of 1/4 headphone plugs, and the lack of depth to the VPI Player’s headphone amplifier, it all comes to reason as to why the Player only includes the smaller headphone jack. Is it a deal breaker? No. There are ways around this, as all iPhone users are now familiar with dongles.
Sound and Comparison
I found myself immediately reaching for the classics. Artists like Bob Marley and Isaac Hayes kept me busy for at least two days. Moving on to jazz greats like Thelonious Monk, Eddie Harris, would leave me looking to modern rock and hip-hop to round out a journey through my record collection.
The Headphone Amplifier
Listening to Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ live album through the VPI Player’s headphone amplifier feeding a pair of Acoustic Research AR-H1’s, I found myself perched on high with the volume level at only halfway. Unexpected was the power on hand from the VPI’ Player’s headphone amplifier. I am glad to know that this is not a weak point for Player as it would definitely be a make-or-break moment for the Player if it wasn’t up to snuff when playing more advanced headphones. Listening to the album all the way through a few times, I felt that what was once a familiar performance had a rich detail that was neither harsh or brittle. Tones were natural, and dynamic actions as punchy as I’ve ever heard them.
Listening to Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter The 36 Chambers, again with onboard headphone amplifier, this time through KOSS’s Porta-Pro headphones, I was thoroughly impressed by what this all-in-one could do for what could be some of the best every-man headphones on the market. Bass was controlled and detailed beyond any experience I’ve previously had with them. Vocals were full of character and focused in what would be a rare occasion of sound-stage for such a bargain set of cans.
The Phono Preamplifier
Listening to Big Green Sound Machine’s album Runnin’ For The Ghost, through a Peachtree Nova 300 that I have in for review, pushing a pair of Vandersteen 2CE Sig MkIIs, I noticed that the massive horns in this album have a glow to them that I’ve seldom heard on other turntables further down in market price. This glow and tone I usually associate with female vocals, but on display here, is more ghostly in the good way. Ironic for the album title I know, but it’s true.
Looking for something with more subtlety, I reach for Dom Flemons’ newest vinyl release Black Cowboys, and “oh boy!” do I find everything I am looking for. Acoustic bass and tenor vocals on vinyl are thrilling in every way possible. My previous experiences with this album on digital border embarrassment. I crank the volume and reach for the live acoustic performance and among the silences, I notice the slightest fault, it is a noise. I lift the needle and crank the volume further. A subtle motor noise that I know I would not encounter unless otherwise cranking this album out to its punishing hilt. I guess nothing can be perfect, but this minor fault hadn’t show up until now, and is something I will get over with ease considering all of the Player’s greater attributes. Moving the player from one home outlet to another did present some improvements in noise performance, but none eliminated it completely.
On The Road
During my time with the VPI Player, I had many chances to take it out on the road. In all instances, the look and feel of the Player’s mass-rich construction made a positive impression. Many said, it looked serious before even hearing it. When demoing it with a system I had in for review in the spring of 2018, many were shocked to learn what great sound their own vinyl contained. I urged attendees to bring their own records and listen first hand to what they already had in their possession. Read more about those experiences here: The Hi-Fi Roadshow at Gravity Records.
Admittedly, taking the VPI Player out on the road and putting it in the hands of people who have little-to-no experience with turntables wasn’t good enough. Of course, they would be wowed, but I felt the VPI Player was good enough to impress those who work with turntables for a living and had never walked away from vinyl in the first place. Enter Neu Romance, a DJ partnership of serious vinyl collectors with a focus on romantic dance music, with strong roots firmly planted in ‘70s era soul and disco. During our spring The Vinyl Emporium: Record Sale & Swap event, the Neu Romance collective was tasked with providing tunes for event attendees. Being one table short, I jumped at the opportunity to insert the review sample VPI Player into the mix, without know exactly what would happen. My only instructions to other DJ’s were, “Just don’t break it.”
Chico Scott of Neu Romance noted right away that the VPI Player was extracting more detail from all regions of the sonic spectrum. This could be heard on the house speaker system, but to a greater extent through the Sony headphones running on the mixer. I prompted Chico to give the built-in headphone amplifier of the Turntable a listen, as it may prove better than the mixer being used to DJ the event. Shaun Jermaine Smith (also of Neu Romance) commented that the VPI Player was bringing a richness to the bass that most professional turntables render in a more hollow way.
For all who used it, their initial presumption was that the VPI turntable would be delicate in the hand, much like the plastic record players from the ‘80 and ‘90s. Soon after spinning a few 33s and 45s, all came to the conclusion that the VPI Player was built like a tank and spirited with a soulful sound.
The VPI Player strikes me as a new category of product in terms of hi-fi tradition. It straddles this murky line between turntable and all-in-one. I say that because of its built-in headphone amp. I don’t recall ever meeting a true hi-fi turntable with stand-alone listening capabilities. When has a turntable like this been delivered from a serious player in the hi-fi game? (pun intended)
The VPI Player creates a new rung in the ladder of hi-fi, and not just because of its feature set, but due to its build quality, use of costly materials, and turntable pedigree. It’s not exactly entry level in terms of price and performance, so for that reason, it may be that next (or final) step for those who really love their first hi-fi turntable and now are looking to upgrade and dig out more sonic goodies from their record collection.
The VPI Player could be a solid endpoint for some buyers. As I would not scoff at anyone who decided that the Player was far enough down the rabbit hole. It is good enough that one does not need to see its ownership as temporary. The Player delivers on everything the twentieth century promised the vinyl and hi-fi experience to be, for just $1,500 USD.
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- NAD 316BEE V2 Integrated
- Vandersteen 2CE Signature Mk II
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- Acoustic Research AR-H1
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- TOP SECRET (see Dr. Andrew S. Collen)
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- Pangea Speaker Stands