I first met Harry and Mat Weisfeld, of VPI Industries, at the 2016 Montreal Audio Fest. They’d driven north from Cliffwood, New Jersey, with a truckload of turntables, and had proceeded to pepper a number of MAF rooms with them. Over the next two days I ran into the Weisfelds a number of times, and spent an evening chatting with them in the lounge of the Hotel Bonaventure’s restaurant. Harry and his son Mat are exceptionally good conversationalists, and were as enthusiastic while on duty during the show as they were over beers that evening.
It stands to reason that the Weisfelds are audio enthusiasts. There can’t be that much money to be made in specialty audio -- unless you’re in the midst of a long-lasting love affair with the reproduction of music, you’d self-immolate in short order.
As I strolled from room to room, I had plenty of time to browse VPI’s catalog of turntables in the flesh. At MAF they had just about every model they make, from the Avenger ($10,000) down to the entry-level Cliffwood ($900). But over three full days browsing, I found myself returning again and again to the room that housed the Prime Signature ($6000 USD), the top model of VPI’s Performance line.
A year and a number of e-mails later, look what landed in my listening room.
Hey there, big fella
Perhaps the strongest impression the VPI Prime Signature makes on first viewing is that there’s a heck of a lot of it. This turntable takes up a substantial amount of real estate: 21.4”W x 15.75”D x 11”H. A standard 18”W x 14”D platform won’t come close to accommodating it. I placed the Prime Signature on a 25”W x 19”D platform of my own construction, made from two slabs of 0.125”-thick stainless steel backed by Dynamat damping compound, with a center layer of 0.75”-thick foam board.
Setup went smooth as silk. The Prime Signature came very well packed in well-organized layers, all parts falling comfortably to hand as needed. Included accessories of note are a custom-made, well-thought-out cartridge-alignment jig and an electronic stylus-pressure gauge.
The platter is shipped in a separate box, which renders the box containing everything else quite reasonable in size. My only quibble with the packaging is that the turntable’s outer carton is made of cardboard only one layer thick. With something this heavy (66 pounds total), fragile, and expensive, I’d feel far more comfortable with, at the very least, a double layer of cardboard.
Wait -- did I just call the Prime Signature fragile? Disregard that -- there’s nothing dainty about this ’table. Every part -- the main chassis, the motor, the platter, and hell, even the tonearm -- feels overbuilt, as if to last forever. It all has a mil-spec vibe. The main bearing is huge. The platter is solid. The motor chassis feels as if it was just unbolted from a log splitter. With its solid build and low center of gravity, the Prime Signature radiates tank-like stability and a businesslike professionalism.
Yet despite the foregoing portrayal of a brute force product, the Prime Signature has considerable elegance. The crazy-thick slab of aluminum that runs horizontally through the center of the plinth provides a pleasing contrast with the black-clad slabs of MDF above and below it. The proportions of the plinth, rising from the substantial conical feet, draw the eye in toward the massive, glistening platter, which is topped with a felt mat emblazoned with the VPI logo. VPI’s JMW 10 3D tonearm continues the vibe of elegant precision: the arm is 3D-printed, which is cool and all, but it’s the arm’s base that really sizzles -- it’s mounted on a massive column, with a large indexed knob atop the column to permit quick, repeatable adjustments of vertical tracking angle (VTA) while a record is being played.
What’s he building in there?
Setup time: Unpack the plinth from its Styrofoam nest, lift it out, and place it on its side. Attach the feet, then disgorge the platter from its separate carton. Lower tab A into slot B. Next up is the motor, which nestles nicely into a recess in the plinth. Important note: Remove the tiny rubber condom from the tonearm’s unipivot spike. Rushing ahead, I missed this step, which meant I couldn’t get the arm seated properly on the spike. Frustration ensued, but after a viciously strong espresso I saw my error. Now, slam on the drive belt, and it’s done like dinner. I’m always a bit nervous setting up a new turntable, especially given the combination of huge mass and butterfly-wing fragility, but the Prime Signature was a breeze.
VPI makes clear its disdain for antiskate compensation, stating in the Prime Signature’s owner’s manual that “VPI does not support the need to have anti-skate but does respect the customer’s interest in having it enabled.” Despite this unambiguous declaration, VPI provides two routes to implement varying levels of antiskate. First and most obvious is the standard string-and-weight attachment that hangs off the rear left of the arm assembly. Hook up the thread to the rear of the tonearm and Bob’s yer uncle. The second, somewhat nonintuitive method is to vary the level of twist in the wire that exits from the arm’s pivot point. Far be it from me to contradict a well-written owner’s manual, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of trying to guess how many extra twists I should add to accomplish the required amount of antiskate force.
So, confronted with two different ways to exert antiskating forces, neither enthusiastically endorsed by this turntable’s manufacturer, I did what I’m paid to do: puttered around with both. I couldn’t hear much difference using either. Music in the inner grooves, where you’re most likely to hear the effects of skating, remained clear in both channels, whether or not the string was attached to the arm. Twisting the tonearm wire with complete disregard for scientific method or repeatability netted the same null results. I continued to mess around a bit with the antiskate systems through most of the listening period, but ultimately stopped worrying about it.
While in a lifetime of playing records I’ve learned never to trust a cueing mechanism, I far prefer that any such device I use be damped. The JMW 10 3D’s cueing mechanism is not. No matter. Having dropped a number of cartridges with audibly disastrous consequences, I always gently lower the cueing arm, and continued to do so with the VPI. We got along famously.
Vertical tracking force (VTF) is adjusted by moving a counterweight to and fro on the tonearm stub. The weight is secured with a nice, easy-to-manipulate thumbscrew, but finding the weight’s perfect position could be a bit frustrating. The tiniest movement generated gross changes in VTF. I found it best to use both hands: one to brace the position, using a finger on the weight and a thumb on the stub; and the other to actually move the weight. That way, I wouldn’t overshoot my target.
That tonearm weight is also used to adjust azimuth, which on a unipivot tonearm isn’t fixed: Swing the weight to one side and it pulls the azimuth in that direction. Trouble is, it’s hard to adjust azimuth without also changing the VTF. The JMW 10 3D has two outrigger weights that protrude from the side of the bearing housing; once you get the azimuth in the ballpark, you can use these weights to make fine adjustments. All in all, the JMW 10 3D is a well-thought-out tonearm, and its degree of adjustability elevates the Prime Signature from a well-made, solidly built turntable to a precision instrument.
The Prime Signature’s high-torque, 300rpm, AC synchronous motor is a chunky little guy, and it spins up the 20-pound platter in a manner more fitting a direct-drive ’table. Push the power button and the belt emits a squeal as it initially slips a bit, then is up to speed in about two seconds. Finding that little squeal somewhat disconcerting, I began using the screw-on record clamp (included) to give the platter a startup spin to more closely match the pulley’s speed. Which is a good idea anyway -- it avoids that initial yank, and helps extend the belt’s working life. The motor’s only oddity was the small pop it made when switched off. It was very low in level, but varied in volume depending on the gain applied by the phono stage. With my Roksan Shiraz cartridge (~1mV), the pop was barely noticeable; with the Top Wing Blue Dragon (0.2mV) it was much louder, but still not loud enough to bother me.
The Prime Signature’s standard finish is a functional, tough-looking, semigloss black (an optional wood-veneered finish is also available). This fairly attractive finish is not a smooth piano lacquer -- it is actually a vinyl wrap over the MDF -- but it doesn’t show every mark, either. At no point did I worry about scratching the finish, and in the time I spent with the VPI I never left a visible mark, even though I set a number of items down on the paint: a Little Fwiend tonearm lift, various hex keys, bubble levels, etc. Like the rest of the Prime Signature’s build quality, its black finish is businesslike and inspires confidence.
The JMW 10 3D arm’s unipivot took a little getting used to. When I first lifted the arm off its rest, its signature unipivot wobble didn’t exactly inspire confidence. It was like trying to pick up a limp noodle. But it didn’t take me long to adjust to it -- after the first day of use, the sensation didn’t register as even slightly odd. There’s much to be said for a well-designed unipivot -- primarily that it’s hard to imagine a more frictionless interface than the sharp point of a single needle resting in a cup of tempered steel.
Fire it up
It’s almost a given that a turntable will have its own sound. I can’t imagine raising the concept of repeatable neutrality to the level of a virtue in playing LPs, where everything -- the humidity, the ambient temperature, gravitational waves, cotton vs. synthetic clothing -- colors the sound in some way. My system often sounds different from day to day, even when nothing in it has been changed or swapped out, and for the most part I’m cool with the inconsistency. LPs and the system on which I play them are living, breathing, human artifacts. So it’s no wonder I find it hard to maintain a consistent baseline. Added to the Rube Goldberg gimcrackery that is a vinyl playback system is the lack of standardization among turntables, cartridges, tonearms, even the LPs themselves.
I’m not really selling you on the format here, am I?
Anyway, I’ve come to terms with how all this stuff fits together into a constantly mutating system, and I’ve tried a number of turntables, each of which has had its own sound, its own audible personality -- some more than others, that’s for sure. I’ve stuck with my series of Pro-Ject RPM turntables over the last decade because they’ve sounded the closest to neutral that I’ve heard and could afford. But I think the VPI Prime Signature may have usurped my RPM 10 Carbon as the Lord of Neutralia.
This is an extremely good thing. As I stated a minute ago, there are so many different ways for colorations to enter the vinyl playback chain that having a dead-nuts-neutral base on which to pile any number of mechanical oddities is vital. And as I’ve listened to the Prime Signature with three different cartridges, three different phono stages, and a number of different phono cables, that’s what I’ve discovered. Whatever change I make to my vinyl playback system, I can immediately hear it through the VPI, and immediately hear the characteristics of that change.
But that doesn’t tell you much about the actual sound of the VPI -- which is how it should be with any great source component. Change anything in today’s system and I’ll be able to tell you, without hesitation, what’s changed. The contribution of the Prime Signature was never in doubt.
An example: Just recently, I installed Furutech’s Monaco record clamp in place of the VPI’s spin-on unit. Instantly, the VPI told me that I’d gained some midrange lushness and a small dollop of high-frequency extension. Swap the stock clamp back in and I was back to baseline. How handy is that?
The VPI’s sound -- or lack of it -- began with a good, strong grip on the midrange down to the upper bass. I’ve become enamored of the latest half-speed remastering of Ghost in the Machine (LP, A&M ARHSLP005), the next-to-last Police album. Stewart Copeland is a drum-thrashing machine, particularly in “One World,” where he snaps off crisp snare strokes that jump out from the rest of the instruments. He whales away on that drum as if it owes him money. Despite the heavy-handed way he batters his poor snare, Copeland also rattles off a whole bunch of other percussion delicacies, and repeated listenings to this track with various ancillary components produced a consistent impression of depth and intricacy. Those whomping snare strokes? The initial connection of stick on skin leaped from the speakers, closely followed by just the right amount of overhang -- not a hit and release, but close. Instead of a one-dimensional crack , the Prime Signature clearly relayed that nanosecond gap between the initial stroke and the resultant reverberation of the snare wires. It took several listenings for me to grasp this subtlety, but it was there for me to discover. The combination of the Prime Signature’s rock-solid foundation and the JMW 10 3D’s unflappable grip on the groove regularly excavated these kinds of newfound details from familiar recordings.
That snare drum, that kind of catch-and-release detail combined with a solidity of image, portrayed music as a cohesive performance rather than a series of disconnected images. I’ve been floundering around trying to figure out the provenance of an excellent reissue of Joni Mitchell’s Blue (LP, Reprise/Warner MSO 2038). It’s pressed in Germany, but beyond that there are no clues of its origin. Regardless, it’s a nice, thick pressing, and it sounds fabulous. I listened to it a dozen times throughout my time with the VPI, and kept coming back to it when I wanted to get a better handle on what this ’table was contributing to my system’s sound. “This Flight Tonight” has it all -- rich guitars, a dense and satisfying melody, and the purity of purpose that comes from Mitchell’s clear, soaring voice and meaningful lyrics. Mitchell’s acoustic guitar is mixed in with Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel, and while it’s hard to sort out the two instruments -- they’re playing the same chords with the same timing -- the Prime Signature seemed to untangle them.
Detail retrieval is great and all, but it’s only a means to an end; it shouldn’t be an end in itself. That end is musicality, which to me is a composite of all aspects of the recording coming together to make me happy when I listen to music. So retrieval of detail, while important, is far down on my list of must-haves. What’s paramount for me is an absence of grit, grain, and abrasiveness in the upper midrange and lower treble. Which is why I’m so happy with this reissue of Blue . From my other copies of this album I hear a whole bunch of frying bacon on the peaks of Mitchell’s voice, and that makes my teeth hurt. This new German remaster is clean in that regard -- I don’t have to listen past it. But that’s the pressing, not the ’table.
Second on my list is cohesiveness of performance. I don’t want to hear isolated images -- which doesn’t mean I’m against imaging. Rather, I want to hear musicians working together, and the system through which I’m listening to them shouldn’t split them up in order to provide me with pinpoint-imaged sources of the sounds they’re making. In “This Flight Tonight,” Mitchell’s voice formed a tight, well-defined central image, and the VPI kept the guitars tight and just to the right, seemingly in the same performance space. As if that weren’t enough, the Prime Signature conveyed a delightful sense of timing, of rhythmic bounce. As Mitchell and Kleinow worked their strings, I could clearly sense movements of Mitchell’s head as she sang, a sympathetic counterpoint that dramatically added to the realism of this dramatic song -- and thus to my enjoyment of the music.
Allow me to anthropomorphize for a moment. The wide, solid, low-slung Prime Signature looks as if it means to dominate and control any record that comes within its grasp. When I dropped an LP onto its meaty platter and screwed down its beefy, no-nonsense clamp, I could almost hear the record sigh in submission. Then there was that little squeal as the motor imposed its will on the belt and spooled up the platter. The Prime Signature didn’t take no shit from nobody. When it belted out snappy rock, it controlled the performance without mercy. Up to Here (LP, MCA MCA-6310), the Tragically Hip’s first full-length album, is the one on which they found their voice. My original 1989 Canadian pressing is a marvel, sounding crisp, extended, and rich, and this bully of a turntable made it snap to attention. In “Another Midnight” there’s crisp electric guitar beautifully offset by a silky rhythm guitar, and riding over those is Gordon Downie’s sensitive, emotion-filled singing. The VPI imposed its will on this track but was never heavy-handed. The music just spooled out of the groove, and that wonderful rhythmic timing helped keep the turntable’s tight grip from sterilizing the overall sound. There was control, but the Prime Signature never sounded constipated. The tight grip on Gord Sinclair’s bass stood in stark contrast to the way the VPI reproduced just the right amount of richness in the overtones of Downie’s voice.
There was little overt bloom in the Prime Signature’s bottom end. It was controlled and deep, with no added overhang -- essentially, the VPI was as good as it gets down low. My favorite low-end test of late is “Gravity’s Angel,” from Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak (LP, Warner Bros. 25077-1). Electric bassist Bill Laswell times many of his notes to match up with the kick drum -- together, they present a sound like a force of nature. Tight and redolent with impact, the bass forms a solid foundation on which the music builds in layers, forming an ominous landscape on which Anderson’s deadpan voice rambles away. For what, on the surface, seems to be a sparse piece of music, there’s an absolute ton of stuff going on. Tibetan prayer bells, odd-sounding synth lines, Peter Gabriel’s backing vocal so far down in level its easy to miss -- the Prime Signature decoded it all for me, in the process delivering a magnificent soundscape that spread in front of, behind, and to either side of my speakers.
I’m a little in awe of VPI’s Prime Signature. Each time I approach it, I see it again as if for the first time and give a little start. It’s not the most beautiful turntable out there. It’s not the biggest, and it’s certainly not the most complicated. But all that said, the Prime Signature radiates competence. Although it’s just this side of being overbuilt, there’s nothing extraneous -- no frippery, nothing that doesn’t need to be there. Instead, it’s well engineered and practical in every aspect of its design and functionality. At $6000, it’s also a bargain.
My own Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon, descended from a long line of other RPMs before it, is also a bargain ($3499). Here in my room I have two smoking-deal turntables at two different price points. They’re so wildly different in construction, form, and design that it’s nearly impossible to find similarities between the two. The Pro-Ject radiates elegance and slickness of manufacture. In contrast to the VPI’s brute-force approach, it’s better finished, and packed full of technical innovation. That said, the JMW 10 3D tonearm is, far and away, superior to my RPM 10 Carbon’s 10cc Evolution tonearm in its adjustability.
Although the VPI costs almost twice as much as the Pro-Ject, they sound more alike than different. The Pro-Ject is also extremely neutral, and as such is a fantastic ’table around which to build a high-end analog system. But a good, solid listen showed that the VPI builds on the Pro-Ject’s strengths in nearly every way. The Prime Signature threw bigger, more realistic, better-organized soundstages, had tighter bass, and was more neutral through the top of the audioband.
As well it should, at $2501 more than the Pro-Ject. While the VPI is the better turntable, the Pro-Ject is the better value. I could live happily with either, but the gear-head corner of my brain really lusts for the Prime Signature.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned in the time the VPI Prime Signature has cohabited with me is that, eventually, the constant urge to upgrade must come to an end. Perhaps, at 55, I’m finally starting to grow up. More than any other component, the Prime Signature has made me think, Is this it? Could this be the last turntable I’ll ever buy? After I’m eventually planted by my family, will my daughter (she’s now seven), in cleaning up my estate, have to decide what the hell she’s gonna do with a massive, 66-pound turntable? I sure hope she likes LPs.
Stay tuned. I have a decision to make.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog sources -- Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable; Ortofon Quintet Blue, Roksan Shiraz, Top Wing Blue Dragon cartridges
- Digital source -- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Phono stages -- Aqvox Phono 2 CI, JE Audio HP10
- Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifier -- Bryston 4B3
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L, Focus Audio FP60 BE
- Speaker cables -- Nordost Tyr 2
- Interconnects -- Nordost Tyr 2
- Power cords -- Nordost Vishnu
- Power conditioner -- Nordost Quantum QBase QB8 Mk.II
- Accessories -- VPI Cyclone record-cleaning machine
VPI Prime Signature Turntable
Price: $6000 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
77 Cliffwood Avenue, #5D
Cliffwood, NJ 07721
Phone: (732) 583-6895