Andrew Chasin -- I have long admired the turntable designs of VPI’s Harry Weisfeld. From the entry-level HW-19, in its myriad incarnations, to the state-of-the-art TNT Mk.IV, each design embodies ingenuity, deceptive simplicity, and striking beauty. As a devotee of the analogue faith, I have also admired Weisfeld’s steadfast commitment to vinyl playback – a commitment which has withstood the best of times and the worst of times throughout the LP’s checkered past and present.
The Aries is another in a long line of Weisfeld success stories. Utilizing the same platter, bearing, and separate motor assembly as VPI’s TNT Mk.IV, but foregoing the latter’s air suspension, the Aries is, in the words of Weisfeld, a “mini TNT”. With a smaller footprint and a substantially lower price than the TNT, the Aries is an attractive alternative for those who long for a high degree of the elder sibling’s sonic magic, without its imposing cost or physical presence.
As was the TNT before it, the Aries is a marvel of visual and industrial design. Its massive platter, composed of lead, aluminum and acrylic, floats gracefully over a rounded plinth constructed from two-inch thick MDF. A ten-gauge steel plate is bonded to the underside of the plinth for the purposes of damping and stabilization, and the plinth is finished with three layers of polished black polyester. The bearing utilized in the Aries is machined to the highest of tolerances and features Rulon bushings, a stainless steel shaft, and a tungsten-carbide thrust plate. The left side of the Aries’ plinth contains a rounded cutout into which its separate motor assembly is placed (the assembly is one inch shorter and four pounds lighter than that used in the TNT), maintaining the turntable’s reasonably-sized footprint without the need to couple the motor to the plinth. As Weisfeld and others have known for some time, decoupling a turntable’s motor from its plinth prevents the former’s inevitable vibrations from being transmitted through the plinth to the stylus – a device which is, after all, unable to differentiate between motor-borne vibrations and those resulting from the LP’s microscopic groove modulations. In the case of the Aries, the motor assembly is tethered to the platter using a rubber drive belt, the latter coated with talcum powder to ensure a relatively constant frictional force against the rotating platter.
Eschewing vacuum hold-down, VPI instead opts for a mechanical clamp which couples the vinyl LP to the Aries’ platter via its threaded spindle. Although the VPI clamp is quite effective at coupling vinyl to platter, as well as flattening mildly warped records during playback, the sound of the Aries (and, I suspect, other VPI turntables) is markedly improved through the use of Black Diamond Racing’s “Round Things” record clamp, soon to be the subject of a full review in this journal. Both the VPI and Black Diamond Racing clamps require that a small washer-like rubber ring (supplied with the Aries) be placed over the spindle and against the platter to prevent any “dishing” of the vinyl disc as the clamp is secured. Curiously, no mention of this small device is made in VPI’s otherwise excellent documentation.
Unlike several of VPI’s other models, the Aries contains no sprung or air suspension. Instead, four height-adjustable, aluminum cone footers (the tips of which are hardened steel balls), in conjunction with a neoprene damping material, act to isolate the Aries from its environment. According to VPI, the neoprene is not quite as effective an isolator as springs, but it provides “greater focus and tighter bass.” While the Aries’ lack of a true suspension mandates careful placement, the result is a turntable which, in stark contrast to the Rube Goldberg-like machines offered by other turntable vendors, is trivial to setup and maintain.
Setup of the Aries can be accomplished in mere minutes. Installation of the platter is a matter of simply aligning the white dot on its bottom with the corresponding dot on the spindle’s top plate, and lowering it onto the spindle. Although the dot on the bottom of the platter is not visible once the platter nears the spindle, approximate alignment is readily achieved and is more than adequate, according to VPI. With the platter successfully installed, the turntable is then placed onto its support, and the separate motor assembly positioned within the round cutout on the left side of the plinth. The aggregate turntable/motor assembly is then leveled by whatever means the support allows (be it threaded spikes, air bladders, etc.), with final adjustments being made with the Aries’ variable-height cone footers. All that remains is to couple the motor to the platter by wrapping the belt around the motor’s pulley and the platter’s outside edge. Although the outside edge of the platter is grooved to presumably accept the belt, VPI claims that the belt need not ride in a groove for correct operation – once the platter begins to rotate, one simply allows the belt to find its “natural” location on the platter’s rim. Maintaining the Aries is just as uncomplicated as its setup – merely ensure it remains level, and re-talc the belt periodically – nothing more need be done.
Careful placement of the Aries is required if it is to be adequately isolated from the vibrational turbulence of its environment. I chose to use an Arcici Lead(less) balloon with an Air Head isolation base for the purposes of this evaluation. With four independently adjustable air bladders (through high-quality Schrader valves), the Air Head is ideal for leveled support and isolation of a turntable like the Aries, which has a grossly uneven weight distribution caused by its appreciable left-placed motor assembly. The Air Head’s air bladders also appear to be highly immune to leakage – few times throughout the many months that the Air Head supported the circa 85 lb. Aries did its bladders require a small puff of air to restore their optimum level. The Air Head proved highly effective at isolation, with even the deepest of bass notes failing to cause any noticeable acoustic breakthrough. I have little doubt that Steve Klein’s passive or active Vibraplanes would also serve the Aries well, although their lofty price tags would seem somewhat prohibitive in the context of this relatively affordable super-table.
In typical VPI fashion, several upgrades are available for the Aries, each purporting to take the turntable to a higher level of performance. The outboard flywheel, said to provide substantially better isolation of motor and platter, can be added at a cost of $1000. VPI believes firmly that the flywheel is the most substantial Aries upgrade, going so far as to recommend that it be purchased before a top-notch tonearm like their own JMW. It should be pointed out, however, that the flywheel will compromise the small footprint of the Aries, requiring another six inches of space to the left of the plinth.
The separate power line conditioner or PLC, whose goal is to feed the Aries a pure 60Hz sine wave, free of the fluctuations normally found at the typical wall outlet, can be had for approximately $600. An improved version of the unit is said to be in the works, a prototype of which is to be shown at Hi-Fi ’98 (price yet to be determined). The Aries as tested sported neither the flywheel nor the PLC, the latest revision of the latter to be the subject of a future review.
The VPI Aries lends much credence to the belief that it is the turntable, not the tonearm or cartridge, that is of supreme importance when it comes to the faithful extraction of an LP’s embedded analogue signal. While the Audioquest PT-6 tonearm and Benz-Micro MC Gold phono cartridge used for this evaluation are both budget overachievers, they are more likely to find their way into a relatively modest analogue front end than one with state-of-the-art aspirations. Yet under the expert guidance of the Aries, the performance of both the PT-6 and MC Gold was elevated to a level which was quite unexpected – leaps and bounds, in fact, ahead of their performance when partnered with lesser turntables. Little wonder that VPI highly recommends the budget Audioquest arm for use on both the Aries and TNT if VPI’s own JMW proves financially prohibitive.
If forced to summarize the sound of the Aries in one phrase, it would have to be “a vanishingly low noise floor with no obvious colorations.” The vinyl roar which I took for granted with my previous reference (the sometimes sonically-excellent but frustratingly-fussy Linn LP12) was reduced to near-inaudibility by the Aries, allowing fine nuances and subtle musical detail, once obscured, to be revealed for the first time. Fine pressings, such as many of the Classic and Decca Records reissues, portrayed an almost ghostly background silence, prompting several listeners (myself included) to liken this quality of the Aries’ presentation to that of the digital medium. I have little doubt that the Aries’ exceedingly high signal-to-noise ratio owes much to the physical separation of motor and platter, although its high-tolerance bearing and nearly-imperturbable, low-resonance platter are also likely contributors.
Besides serving as a topic of fervent audiophile discussion, the Aries’ almost eerie quiet served the music exceedingly well. From the brilliant pianissimo passages of Chopin’s Ballades (Arthur Rubinstein, RCA LSC-2370) to the subtle shadings of Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole (Decca SXL-2312), the Aries’ ability to simply factor vinyl’s all-too-common noise out of the musical equation was, in my experience, second to none.
The euphonic colorations inherent in decks like the Linn LP12, such as an elevated mid-bass, and an overly ripe midrange, are simply things of the past with the Aries at the head of the playback chain. Whether it the gravely, southern-inflected delivery of a Muddy Waters blues (Folk Singer, Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-201), or the warm caress of a Janis Ian folk ballad (Breaking Silence, Acoustic Sounds APP 027), the Aries’ midrange timbres, textures and tonality were spot-on. Although some may miss the warmth and sense of body that a bloated midrange and upper-bass convey, they are, after all, distortions (arguably pleasant ones) and have no place in a playback system whose goal is faithful reproduction of the musical source.
As with other components which value truth over beauty, the Aries’ unwillingness to tell a sonic lie did prove to be a double-edged sword. Recordings which were decidedly sub-par, but nonetheless listenable on lesser turntables, often proved intolerable, each flaw laid to bare by VPI’s precision analogue instrument. The Aries’ veracity aligned with this reviewer’s belief that a component which faithfully delivers its input signal, warts and all, will, in the long term, prove more satisfying than one which diminishes the quality of all recordings to a common level of sonic mediocrity.
The Aries appeared to exhibit none of the artifacts one normally associates with ill-controlled resonances or undesired energy storage – namely, transient smearing, loss of inner detail, or lack of low-end definition. In fact, I have yet to hear a more finely detailed and articulate presentation from another analogue or digital source, this holding true even at the frequency extremes, where digital’s theoretical superiority is said to exist. Furthermore, the Aries’ portrayal of dynamic contrasts was nothing short of stunning. Transitions from ppp to fff, and back again, were as nimble and precise as changes on the gearbox of a fine German sports car. Nowhere was this more evident than during the opening and final movements of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (Athena ALSW-10001). Rachmaninoff certainly did not go quietly into that good night with this, his last and most dynamically challenging score. The Aries tracked the schizophrenic volume changes in this brilliant music with nary a loss of control, precision, or detail, delivering the finest account of this superb recording I have yet heard. Microdynamics fared just as well as those on a larger scale, the Aries never shortchanging the more subtle, yet equally important, low-level changes in volume at the heart of much classical and jazz repertoire.
While there are those who claim that analogue is severely bandwidth-limited and incapable of reaching the highest highs and the lowest lows, my time with the VPI Aries proved quite the opposite. Indeed, with the appropriate source material, the Aries astounded with its ability to effortlessly communicate frequencies from the subterranean to the stratospheric. The sub-30Hz bass notes on Enya’s Watermark (WEA 24-38751), for example, were easily negotiated, sounding as thunderous and well-defined as the associated equipment and listening room would allow. The deep bass passages contained on Keith Johnson’s brilliantly engineered Arnold Overtures (Reference Recordings RR-48) and Holst’s Hammersmith (Reference Recordings RR-39) were also rendered superbly by the Aries, each challenging, but never conquering, Weisfeld’s impressive creation. And what of the Aries’ presentation of the high frequencies? As with the low end of the spectrum, the top end elicited by the Aries was extended and finely-filigreed, with neither an unnatural sparkle nor an excitement-robbing dullness. Top-end air and detail were exceptional, the Aries delivering a superb rendering of instruments high in frequency, such as bells, cymbals, and triangles. The brushed cymbal which closes All Roads to the River from Janis Ian’s Breaking Silence, had a natural sheen and nearly-endless shimmer which was nothing short of spectacular. The snare drum deep in the soundstage on A Sussex Overture from Arnold Overtures, was crisp, tight and bathed in appropriate amounts of hall ambience, as was the struck wood block on the same track, whose realism proved startling.
The question remains as to the Aries’ place among its similarly-priced competition. My previous reference, the Linn LP12/Valhalla, is, when set-up adequately by a Scots-trained tweakologist, capable of superb sonics. Unfortunately, the Linn is more colored in the mid-bass than the Aries (and other top turntables for that matter) and leans decidedly towards the warm side of neutral. Furthermore, the LP12’s initial magic is soon lost as its sprung suspension slowly, but quite surely, drifts from its optimal set-up. As for upgrades, Linn has admirably continued to make them available. In some cases, however (most notably the Lingo power supply), their cost has rivaled that of the turntable itself.
The somewhat quirky but beautifully engineered Well-Tempered Turntable elegantly and uniquely solves many of the difficult problems associated with vinyl replay. But while it can sound quite exceptional, it is finicky to set up (especially its tonearm) and, as with the venerable Scottish deck, ultimately fails to achieve the same level of sonic neutrality and background silence as the Aries.
There are, of course, other turntables in and around the Aries’ price range which are worthy of consideration, notably the Rega Planar 9 and entry-level offerings in the Basis 2000 series. While I have yet to audition either of these at length, only the Basis would appear to offer anything like the Aries’ near lab-instrument build quality, advanced use of materials, and modular (read upgradeable) design.
Although the Aries may be viewed by some as the poor brother of the TNT, it is, in some ways, Harry Weisfeld’s crowning achievement. More than simply a product of trickle-down technology, the Aries is a true advance of sorts – a product which offers near state-of-the-art performance at a real-world price. The Aries’ lack of coloration across the frequency band, coupled to its standard-setting background silence and ease of set-up and maintenance, make it an easy recommendation for those who would rather listen to music than adjust springs, pumps or attempt to defy gravity. As with the HW-19 and TNT, the Aries is a benchmark product at its price point, one which will call this reviewer’s system “home” for years to come.
Further information: VPI Industries