AOM Logo February 1999

The VPI HW-19 MK-III Turntable

Anthony Kershaw
HW-19 Mk. 3

VPI has just celebrated its twentieth anniversary producing fine analog audio equipment. The audio press has been agog about their products for much of that time, and with good reason. Compared to some of the Euro exotica (eighty pound platters spun magically by floss on a platform spouting the reliability of a rain-soaked Jag), VPI owner and chief engineer Harry Weisfeld’s designs seem almost simple, even boring. This would be a foolish assumption. The greatest care is taken in every step of Weisfeld’s design and manufacturing phase, the benefits of which are reliability and enviable customer service married happily to seriously good sound.

As we approach the Millenium, the turntable is in its renaissance. New Jersey-based VPI was instrumental in putting it there. During the eighties, naive generation Xers pronounced the turntable dead and buried. And why not? After all, the CD pushers bellowed perfect sound forever. My mind was changed after a lovely relationship with a Rega Planar Three. What changed yours?

The Rega is the finest entry-level turntable I know, although there are some who think Projects and Synchros might test my resolve on this issue. The good news is that all are inexpensive, but what if you want better and have the funds available? Incremental jumps of thousands can land you in much deeper analog water, joining you inextricably with gigantic mechano sets. There are quite a few turntables that strike a happy median between budget and full-blown, but where to start? Very reputable companies abound, Basis and Wilson-Benesch as examples. However, VPI jumps to mind, and for simplest of reasons. Upgradeability. After one’s initial investment for a basic HW-19 Junior ‘table, the audiophile (for US$500.00) can make the significant jump to MK-III status. The upgrade is substantial in hardware: suspension switches from Sorbothane to springs, these supporting a new plinth of Lucite and steel, and a heavier platter. The next step is to convert the MK-III to MK-IV (this includes a heavier platter, new springs and bearing), the extrovert then topping it off with a cherry – the SAMA (Stand Alone Motor Assembly). VPI’s very happy state of affairs is the perfect cure when suffering from the upgrade bug. With VPI you can have your cake now and eventually eat it, too.

Audiophilia’s HW-19 MK-III was ordered about a year ago. Piano black was optioned for the finish (a superb look that adds US$200.00 to the base price). Time passed and the Rega remained, serving up music in a small but dynamic package. A couple of months later, Sheila Weisfeld, Harry’s charming and equally involved wife and partner, called to say the MK-III was on its way. The huge box arrived unceremoniously in my garage, courtesy of Canadian UPS. Although the box was unwieldy, excitement and anticipation made cartage into the listening room a one-man job. Unpacking was easy and all hardware was placed by VPI in logical order (even the belt comes pre-powdered). A word of advice, though – label all packing materials carefully. Once the parts are out of the box, the mayhem of left over bubble wrap, plastic, Styrofoam and cardboard is quite overwhelming!

If you follow VPI’s clearly written directions, setup is quite a simple procedure. The manual introduces the ‘table, offers some preliminary remarks, then, in folksy style, guides the buyer through all the steps. To obviate footfalls and the like, VPI suggest placing the table on a wall-mount shelf. I concurred, and used the largest Target manufactures, the PSW1. I experienced no unwanted feedback using this device.

My particular ‘table was shipped with the Audioquest PT6 tonearm, VPI’s preferred medium mass, inexpensive option - they feel this particular model is a good match for the MK-III. The Audioquest arm was also in use on Andrew Chasin’s VPI Aries for some time. Its sound reproduction has given much pleasure. Recently, Mr. Chasin replaced the PT6 with Weisfeld’s superb JMW-10 tonearm. Only then were the former’s sonic shortcomings revealed (brighter treble and constricted soundstage, with less impact and definition in the bass registers). I found the PT6 an excellent match for the MK-III; it was easy to install and sounded smooth, but only after critical adjustments with VTA. I adorned the tonearm with the wonderful Benz Micro Glider cartridge (0.88mV). I thought this a good match and in keeping with the fiscal restraint of the overall setup. It worked a treat. Contrary to Audioquest’s suggestion, I used their stock phono cable. Their stopgap wire did work well, however.

The large footprint of the MK-III is as impressive as its build quality. The tank-like construction and attention to detail will give the purchaser much confidence in the product’s longevity. Dimensions with the dustcover are 21½" wide by 16¼" deep by 6½" tall; weight is forty-eight pounds. VPI offer a warranty of two years parts and labor. Operation is simple, giving this reviewer an ease of task not present on many high-end items (some competing ‘tables have platters that must be started manually). Starting the MK-III platter is as simple as depressing the small, sprung button on the plinth’s left side. The noiseless, precision AC synchronous motor gets the platter up to 33 1/3 in a blink (for 45 r.p.m., remove the motor cover and flip the belt up one notch on the motor pulley).

To clamp, or not to clamp? That is the question, and one answered emphatically by Weisfeld. While clamps are seen rarely on turntables from the British Isles, Weisfeld believes they are the best devices to dampen LP resonance. After spending six months with two of his models, consider me convinced. VPI supplied their three-piece, bottom-of-the-line clamp, which includes a rubber washer, clear plastic puck, and a small, screw-down Delrin™ knob. It lived up to Weisfeld’s beliefs (the upper echelon, one-piece VPI clamp yielded little difference on this MK-III setup). With the record at eye level, I could maneuver the plastic knob easily so that the pressure ensured the record was in total contact with the platter. Do not over torque, though, or you may "dish" the vinyl.

There are conflicting philosophies on the thick, Plexiglas dust cover. The manual made mention of using it "… to shield against acoustic feedback". A recent chat with Weisfeld suggested a change of heart. Personally, I always think of dustcovers as sources of feedback, to be avoided at all cost. It is best if you do not attach it - simply, use it as cover when the table is not in use (highly recommended to keep the piano black finish somewhat clean).

Associated Components

Analogue:VPI HW-19 MK- III/Audioquest PT6/Benz Micro Glider .88mV, Rega Planar 3/RB 300
Preamplifier: Audio Research SP9 Mk. II
Power Amplifiers: Atma-Sphere M-60 Mk. II Reference monoblocks, Sonic Frontiers Power 1, SimAudio Celeste Moon W-3.
Loudspeakers:Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Solo
Cables: Interconnects: Audioquest Emerald, Kimber PBJ, Wireworld Polaris III. Loudspeaker: van den Hul M.C. The Sky-Line Hybrid. Audioquest stock phono cable.
Accessories: Black Diamond Racing Cones (Nos. 3 and 4), LP#9 stylus cleaner, Target PSW1 wall shelf and Target stand, Seismic sink, BBC boards.

With a plethora of outstanding turntables and arms available for purchase, the analog lover’s world can be filled easily with beautiful sound. When feeding on the ascending food chain of turntables, I have observed an incremental improvement in transparency, bass impact and accuracy, coupled with a smoother treble presentation. These all help in uncovering a more complete musical experience. Nevertheless, entry-level ‘tables, when partnered with a fine cartridge, can deliver an accurate portrayal of instrumental and vocal timbre. If you have listened at length to a Rega Planar 2 or 3, Basis 1400 or VPI’s Junior, you may have experienced this phenomenon. The HW-19 MK-III borrowed on superb timbre and paid it back with many of the noted improvements. And while it did not compete in the rarefied air of a Clearaudio or VPI’s benchmark TNT, it stood its musical ground admirably.

The benefits of prospective ownership were showcased on the first album I played (for reviews of all but digital, I always choose Reiner’s miraculous interpretation of Alborada del Gracioso – the Classic Records reissue of LSC-2222). In comparison with lesser ‘tables, the MK-III shone a very musical light over the soundstage and captured the string basses of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with better definition - even the notes from their low C extensions could be heard more clearly. It also separated the instruments and the space between them within the vertical and lateral planes of the soundfield. This presentation was typical on many LPs and was very becoming.

One of the real benefits of finer ‘tables is the way they define vinyl truth. Records I once thought to be bright, muddy or just plain bleak, announced themselves as contenders. That most 180-gram reissues sound good on the entry-level tables is not in doubt, but many of the paper-wrapped domestics of the seventies leave much to be desired. Original copies of Carol King’s Tapestry (ODE PE 34946), Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark (Asylum 7E-1001) and Diamonds and Rust featuring Joan Baez (A & M SP-4527), sounded very good to excellent, the respective ladies’ voices sounding rich and resonant. I have always heard these vocalists as but one track in an orgy of over-dubbing. The VPI defined all the tracks and made each album worthy of musical and audiophile interest. These albums do not displace their reissue counterparts, but the lower noise floor quietly offered by the MK-III, resulting in diminished groove noise, pops and clicks, made my involvement in these pressings complete.

More qualities that are truthful could be heard on some journeyman classical issues. Deutsche Gramophone, an archive of enviable artistic reputation, is regarded by many to have produced some of the worst pressings. Incredible performances such as the von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Shostakovich Tenth Symphony (DG 139020), sounded like the Dirigent’s personality, bright and brash. Interestingly, many other DGs now sounded as good as the legendary performances they enshrined. Two releases by cellist (now conductor) Mstislav Rostropovich sounded divine. His amazing version of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations (DG 139044) is considered a landmark performance. I have heard this recording on many turntables, and the VPI’s rendition was among the best. The recording of the introductory theme sheds some light on the differences between it and lesser ‘tables; a slightly sharp French horn follows the gentle and beautifully phrased opening melody, the sharpness never before having been in evidence. The intonation problem also appeared when it was played on Andrew Chasin’s Aries turntable (with the PT6 arm). As such, ‘tables like the VPIs - devoid of resonance and with a low noise floor - exacerbate the horn player’s plight. Score one for accuracy. This very slight horn blemish is the only mark on an otherwise error-free performance. Indeed, Rostropovich is spectacular, relishing the dizzying highs of his brilliant technique and in the burnished tone of his instrument.

Rostropovich’s tone is also heard to beautiful effect, although in a subordinate role (second cellist with the Melos Quartet), on the DG release of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major (DG 2530 980). Benjamin Britten’s comment about the Quintet’s slow movement ("…the most beautiful musical movement.") is made more apparent by the timbre and interpretation of the players. Score another for the tonal balance. This amazing tonal quality continued on classical records of every conceivable style. The HW-19 MK-III also rocked and rolled, swooned and swayed on Level 42’s Running in the family (Polydor 831 593-1) and Bonnie Raitt’s superb DCC reissue of Nick of Time (LPZ-2025). These records, and many more, gave proof that the MK-III should be considered reference quality, a work of art from inveterate tweaker Weisfeld.

A recent discussion with Mr. Weisfeld over brunch uncovered many facets about this very interesting man. From VPI’s significant accomplishments and Weisfeld’s reputation for astute business acumen, I expected to meet a man with an ego busting through his cape and Canali! No such thing. It was refreshing to hear a real audio visionary without the trappings of eccentric pomposity. In fact, Weisfeld was polite and unassuming, almost shy. Weisfeld’s products imitate their designer. They are uncomplicated, eschewing the fussiness that so many turntables seem to flaunt. His HW-19 MK-III is the perfect example of a product that flaunts both ease of use and quality of sound, allowing the music lover to experience either the beginning, middle or end of their analogue journey. Very highly recommended. [Look for a follow-up to this review in the coming months –Ed]

HW 19 MK-III Turntable
Manufactured by VPI Industries Inc.
77 Cliffwood Ave #3B, Cliffwood, NJ, 07721, USA
phone: (732) 946-8606, fax: (732) 946-8578
Price: US$1250.00 (turntable only)
Source of review sample: Manufacturer Loan
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