The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XCIX: Final Dispatches from the Anti-Direct Drive League
"What direct-drive means is that the motor that spins the platter is directly coupled to the spindle. The advantage to such a design is that speed variation is reduced dramatically, which is a good thing. The disadvantage is that the motor vibrates, and the vibrations go right up the spindle, onto the platter, through the record itself, and right to the stylus. No one really makes direct-drive turntables anymore because we all know they suck. All of you who still think records are noisy, and that they pop and click too much... you were probably listening on a direct-drive turntable."
I wrote those words back in 1998, when this column was in its infancy, and Iíve been trying to live them down ever since. Not a month goes by when someone doesnít attack me for my views on direct drive turntables--views, of course that have been taken completely out of context. Hereís a question for all those people who have written comments such as this one, written by someone who called me ĎMarc Phillips of the Anti-Direct Drive Leagueí: ďI'm sick and tired of every idiot that has never bothered to study the slightest bit about mechanics and yet has the nerve to tell us that what science and experience has taught us is wrong and his dogma is right." That question, of course, is ďDid you ever read the rest of that article?" In the very next paragraph I say, ďIncidentally, that Rockport Sirius III I mentioned before set the audio community on its ears last year because yes, it's direct-drive... but trust me, a significant chunk of that $53,000 is spent on isolating that motor from the rest of the turntable."
Back in 1998, there werenít a lot of affordable direct drive turntable choices other than the Technics SL-1200 and those crazy-looking flying saucer turntables from Denon which to me sounded dreadful. But Iíve always stated that direct drive turntables werenít uniformly awful--they just required a lot of engineering (which, of course, means added costs) to do it right. On paper, direct-drive is the superior way to spin a platter. In execution, most of those affordable direct drive Ďtables did not address the proper way to isolate motor noise and keep it from reaching the platter. A lot of people, such as the members of the 1200 Army, didnít care about that--they preferred pitch stability over an airy, open sound that resembled live music, a sound that was more reliably produced by even the most modest belt-drive designs.
If youíve been reading this column since its inception, you know the story: Iíve heard plenty of direct drive turntables that sound magnificent, yada yada yada, and they all cost a lot of money. But something happened last year that finally convinced me that the future of analog playback may be, once again, direct drive turntables.
You may have heard of a little company called VPI. Iíve mentioned them a few times in this column. Located in Cliffwood, New Jersey and founded by famed turntable designer Harry Weisfeld, this company has been making quality turntables for decades. Over the last few years, however, theyíve been creating a lot of excitement--and a lot of market growth--as a result of their latest turntable lines. First, they introduced the Scout line of turntables, which offered a slightly different sound (better, in my opinion) than their older turntables for a more reasonable amount of money. Then they introduced the Classic line, which offered more traditional styling (i.e. big wooden bases) than the Scout line. These Classic Ďtables were so good that people who werenít initially fond of the VPI house sound--and I reluctantly include myself in that group--were suddenly trading in their analog rigs for the Classic 1, the Classic 2 and the Classic 3.
Since then, VPI is on a roll and is probably at least as responsible for the current surge in vinyl as Rega--at least in the US. Much of this is probably due to the fact that Harry Weisfeld is now semi-retired and has handed over the reins of his company to his son Mat. Mat, a marketing whiz who is still in his late twenties, left his job as a schoolteacher last year to become the new head of VPI. Once he took over the reins from his father, VPI started coming up with some sensational products, which were still designed by Harry, of course. One of the two new turntable products that interests me the most is the new Nomad, which comes with tonearm, cartridge and built-in phono stage for just $995. The answer to that audio forum chestnut--ďWhat is the best analog set-up for under a grand?--just became a little more obvious, although Iím still very fond of the SOTA Moonbeam.
The other interesting product, however, really blew my mind in terms of absolute sound quality. Itís the new flagship turntable for VPI, and it comes in at a cool $30,000, which is a lot more money than any of their previous models. Iíve now heard it at several trade shows and itís one of the finest analog playback systems Iíve heard, and Iíve heard almost all of them at this point. Each time I sat down and listened to the VPI Direct Classic, it offered that giant, solid and effortless sound that you only get from the finest audio equipment. The Direct sounded, for all intents and purposes, like one of the finest belt-drive turntables Iíve heard, even those lofty six-figure machines.
But, as you may have already guessed, the Direct is a direct drive design. Itís expensive, but the innovative ďcogless" motor drive--which is responsible for much of the amazing sound quality and motor isolation--costs VPI about $4000 a pop. So while $30K sounds like a fortune, itís notable that you can now get state-of the-art sound from a turntable that costs as much as a new car, as opposed to a turntable that costs as much as a new starter home in the suburbs.
Even though the VPI Direct Classic offers world-class performance, itís not the only direct drive game in town. Iíve been lucky enough to hear a Steve Dobbins turntable on more than a couple of occasions, and itís just as fascinating, although not nearly as well-known, as the VPI. One of my audiophile buddies back in Texas has one, and this is a guy who can buy the best of everything and does. I hadnít heard of Dobbins before my visit to my buddyís home, but once I heard his amazing turntable I made it a point to meet Dobbins at the next trade show he attended. By then, he was marketing the Ďtable under the name Kodo ďThe Beat" because, if I remember correctly, he had just entered into a manufacturing partnership with a larger company with more resources and so the name changed. Dobbins, who used to build these Ďtables one at a time in Idaho, doesnít consider his turntable to be a typical direct-drive since it contains many too design innovations, such as the fact that the only moving part is the bearing. But ďdirect drive turntable" is still the overall best description for this awesome 104 pound machine.
The Beat retails for slightly less than the VPI, one older review sets the price at $24K but Iím pretty sure the price has gone up since then. But for that price, you also get Steve Dobbins showing up at your house and setting it up for you. Heíll even show you how to get the most out of it, although my Austin buddy tells me that itís incredibly easy to set up and use. I canít tell you which Ďtable sounds better, the VPI or The Beat, but I would be an incredibly lucky man to have either one.
There are plenty of other noteworthy direct drive turntables out there. Brinkmann, a German company that has earned a reputation as one of the finest high-end audio manufacturers on the planet (I adore their 75wpc integrated amplifier) has come out with the highly-regarded Bardo which costs less than $10K in its most basic version. Grand Prix, famous for making very expensive yet very effective equipment racks, came out with their direct drive Monaco a few years ago at a price of about $20K.
You can also get extraordinary performance from vintage direct drive turntables from Micro-Seiki, Goldmund and the aforementioned Rockport--who seems to be concentrating more on their speaker line these days than coming out with a successor to the Sirius III I talked about back in 1998. Iíll even mention two wonderful direct-drive Ďtables from Technics, the SL-10 and the SL-15, which both make the SL1200 sound like a silly toy.
As you can see, Iím still not willing to give the Technics SL1200 its due. But I am willing to say that extraordinary sound quality can be achieved with a direct drive turntable, something Iíve actually known for many years. Iím sure that Iíll continue to receive angry emails about my 1998 comments, just like I still get angry emails about my 2006 comments on the SL1200. Words typed on the internet can indeed haunt you for decades. So here it is in print: DIRECT DRIVE TURNTABLES CAN SOUND AWESOME. I wonít be surprised if I own one before I die--after all, I did have an SL1200 for a year or two just so I could tell my detractors that I was familiar with it.
I wonít even confuse things further by bringing up idler-drive turntables, which spin the records via a cogged wheel on the underside of the platter. They were big in the old days, with such manufacturers as Dual, Thorens, EMT, Garrard and Lenco leading the way. There are rumors that VPI may build a new one, and perhaps that will be the last turntable I own.
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