Benchmark Product: VPI Avenger Turntable and JMW 3D12 Tonearm

You don’t need a crystal ball to anticipate the power and aplomb with which the Avenger delivers multi-facetted orchestral masterworks, from Danil Trifonov’s recent Rachmaninov, in which he off-sets Nézet-Séguin’s precision with playing that’s vivacious and stentorian by turns, to Previn’s Swan Lake, where even the most familiar passages are invested with a crisp and purposeful fascination. But it’s in the realm of smaller, more intimate works that this ‘table really gets to strut its stuff. Voices have always been central to the VPI’s performance envelope and the Avenger maintains and even extends that tradition, bringing a natural presence, intimacy and expressive intensity to vocals. When Vampire Weekend play ‘Oxford Comma’ you are left in no doubt as to Ezra Koenig’s utter contempt for the grammatical carbuncle (although somewhat ironically it’s the Brit’s that get the blame, when we abandoned the absurdity years ago!).

But perhaps the Avenger/JMW’s polished poise is best exemplified by Sol Gabetta’s vivid Cello transcription of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ from the Four Seasons. Her instrument is placed front and centre, directly in the path of the high-energy, high tempo playing of Sonatori de La Gioiosa Marca, their incisive, insistent bowing laying down a serious challenge to which the Cello responds with a virtuoso display of driven precision and energy. Impressive enough on most turntables, on the Avenger Gabetta’s playing takes on an almost physical presence, such is the concentrated vigour that the turntable drags from the groove. But where earlier iterations of the TNT those ingredients might have gone over the top, this ‘table releases the energy but with a grip and swagger to match the incredible display of musical technique. The Avenger ensures that she’s not just here, she’s here with some serious attitude and the ability to back it up.

VPI’s have always been big and solid sounding decks, throwing a huge soundstage, peopled with credibly dimensioned images, musicians that generate impressive energy and dynamics. That sense of scale and musical generosity has always made for extremely engaging and listenable performances, equally adept on rock, pop, jazz or classical. Older VPIs might not have been the most obviously detailed decks, but they generated coherent energy and a sense of musical purpose like few other turntables, getting all that energy in the right place, pointing and moving the right way. More recent decks like the Classics, the Prime and the Avenger have worked hard on noise-floor and speed stability, increasing both information levels and musical nuance. The laminated chassis, PEEK thrust pad and separate motor add a more intimate and explicit quality to the already inherently expressive musical performance of the Classic 4 lifting even the basic Avenger into serious high-end contention. VPI decks have always punched way above their price level and, drawing on all that accumulated experience with different materials and parts, the Avenger is perhaps the most impressive example of that to date. At a combined cost of $12,000 (+tax) for the deck and arm in basic form, it succeeds in making the competition look lightweight, expensive or both.

Arms and the man…

Despite the fact that I have the JMW tonearm permanently mounted on the Avenger (generally the 3D printed, 12” version) those extra arm-mounts are too good an opportunity to miss. I’ve run the Kuzma 4Point and 313 with considerable success but ultimately I settled on a pair of alternative arms. The Timestep T612 is a perfect partner – both sonically and temperamentally. With its curved titanium arm-tube, detachable headshell and 12” effective length, this is an arm that harks back to the likes of the Fidelity Research tonearms and the FR-66S in particular. Okay, the titanium tube brings a slightly different (and arguably more linear) character to the arm, as well as a lower effective mass, but the easy musical flow, dynamic range, presence and spatial coherence that characterised the FR arms is all present and correct. As befits a modern update, it offers greater resolution and extension at the top end, but its easy-going musicality and detachable headshell are right up VPI founder Harry Weisfeld’s alley. It makes for a handsome, high-value combination – and that’s up his alley too.