After completing my recent review of the VPI Industries Scout Jr. Turntable, I was impressed to move forward with some of its convenient upgrades to bring it more up to par with my reference system. I briefly report here what I did and the benefits thereof with some food for thought thrown in for good measure.
First of all, I had the great pleasure of visiting VPI in New Jersey, getting a private tour, and spending some valuable time with VPI President Mat Weisfeld and his father Harry, who kindly not only played/demonstrated the amazing Avenger turntable with its Magnetic Drive Assembly, but even installed different cartridges on it so I could hear the difference in sound quality. That was a real treat, and very informative.
I upgraded three components for the Scout Jr. (it thus became an upgraded Scout). Price as tested USD$2,750.00 (incl. arm and cartridge):
1. Platter. I moved up 2 levels; from 1 inch to 1 and 3/8 inches in width (there is a 1 and 1/4 inch and a 2 inch also available as options).
2. Arm. I moved up a step to the newly redesigned 9” JMW Scout Tonearm, which uses a unipivot bearing (as opposed to the gimballed/yoke bearing). Once a cartridge is mounted on the arm, the arm can be taken off in a snap; useful for reviewing purposes: if for example, one wanted to compare cartridges on the fly, one could have several arms on hand mounted with different cartridges in advance.
3. Cartridge. I moved up 3 levels to the Ortofon 2M Black (about $750 retail versus $100 for the Red that comes with the Scout Jr.); the very top of the Ortofon 2M series; it contains a Shibata diamond stylus. (Harry Weisfeld had installed one on the Avenger for me to hear; I was extremely impressed with the sound quality — I particularly remember the amazing, natural sound of timpani. Many thanks, Harry.)
One thing I learned (the hard way) when I set up my upgraded turntable: a vinyl rig is very sensitive to physical movement and this new arm is more sensitive than the original; when vinyl is playing don’t disturb your audio cabinet (taking things out or in), don’t jump around the room (or let your kids do so) — let it be. Placing a secondary base underneath the turntable with extra footers as suggested by the Scout manual is well advised. I had an extra shelf from my audio cabinet that I used for this purpose together with ‘Tenderfoot’ Herbie’s footers (platinum-cure silicone blend) thus doubling up its support, and that worked like a charm to minimize such trouble.
The cartridge upgrade in particular — right from the start — provided for an extraordinary level of new detail in sound quality. The cartridge, however, required some burn in; the sound was at first edgy and emphasized the higher end of the frequency spectrum. I waited a week by which time it smoothed out and blossomed with fullness and density.
[And for total vinylphile/audiophile immersion, let platter rotate for twenty minutes before playing an LP and let that first side play silently before serious listening begins! – Ed]
The upgrades overall resulted in a very significant improvement in sound quality. Some LPs were now competing very favorably with some of my favorite digital recordings. Examples include the LP ‘Aja’ by Steely Dan versus its ripped CD version. And some LPs were downright stunning, such as ‘Stravinsky: The Firebird’, Antal Dorati (Conductor), London Symphony Orchestra (Mercury Living Presence) (Recorded in 1959). That one in particular had a sound quality that I don’t think I have ever heard before on my digital rig. The density of instruments and imaging alone in The Firebird mesmerized me, and the details and transparency exposed of everything from strings and flute to brass and percussion (and even quiet spots) were out of this world. Bravo to the upgraded Scout for showing off this LP in such an impressive way; particularly since this was the first LP I have ever bought in about 30 years.
The blurring of vinyl versus digital
The most fascinating experiment I did astonished me, confused me, and is a testament to the fine qualities of both vinyl and digital. One very fine LP I still had (on loan) in my possession (thank you Audiophilia colleague, Henry Wilkenson) was the 45 RPM, ‘Swing’s The Thing’, Illinois Jacquet (Verve Records (1956), Numbered 2014 Limited Edition 200g 45RPM 2LP set Mastered by George Marino at Sterling Sound from the Original Analog Master Tapes). I used it against two alternatives: (1) a new 24/96 PCM digital download (2014, from Verve Reissues). (2) A ripped version of the above mentioned LP into a (uncompressed) FLAC 24/96 PCM file using the ADC converter in the PS Audio NewWave Phono Converter while playing the LP on my upgraded Scout as the source for the rip. My conclusion: I could not tell the difference in sound quality between the LP playing, and the 24/96 copy I made; and both (in my opinion) were easily on par or better than the 2014 digital download. Don’t get me wrong, the download was outstanding, too, and, of course, there were no cracks and pops and other distractions. But the download had a smoothness, a silky softness which while sounding so pleasant and nice on the ears, did not have the instrumental density and punch of the others.
A non-trivial difference between ripping an LP and playing the LP: When you rip an LP, you do not have to deal with the possibility of some humming/buzzing from your speakers since your system is not being used in the process, they do not show up in the recording: ‘ripping’ an LP is a private conversation between your turntable and your computer via my PS Audio NuWave and USB cable. I found this a wonderful surprise; I hope you do too. The two worlds, ‘digital’, ‘vinyl’ are blurring in fascinating ways that are challenging us all. I expect to experiment further with these kinds of issues and report on them at a later date.
In any case, thank you VPI for getting me back into the vinyl–and digital–groove in ways I never could have imagined before.
Further information: VPI Industries