Almost a year ago The Ear published my review of the VPI Prime Signature turntable, which you can find here. In summary, I found it to be an excellent machine, with fine build quality and excellent sonics. Here we are, an eventful 12 months later, and I have had another VPI machine in my system, this time the more affordable Prime 21+.
You will see from the accompanying pictures that the Prime 21 and the Signature are obviously closely related – indeed the entire family of VPI players are variations on a central theme. Of course looks are a matter of personal preference, but I really like the way these VPI machines look. Sitting atop my Quadraspire XL rack, the Prime 21 looked purposeful and it makes a clear statement; that vinyl replay is important to me. It has real presence. The Prime 21 is not such a heavy weight as the Signature, and ships in a single box. None the less, it is a hefty device (weighing in at just over 20kg) with a big footprint, so if you are tempted to acquire one just make sure you have a shelf large enough for it.
As with the Signature, the quality of the packaging in which the Prime 21 ships is exemplary, and VPI include not only an alignment protractor but also a good quality electronic tracking force scale. The A4 printed instructions are also extremely comprehensive and easy to follow.
In addition to overall weight reduction compared to the Signature, the Prime 21 ships with a slightly less sophisticated 3D printed gimbal bearing tonearm. We shall return to that in a moment. My review sample was fitted with VPI’s own Shyla cartridge, which is made for VPI by Audio-Technica, and which is based on that company’s highly regarded ART 7 moving coil, with some VPI specified changes, particularly to the damping. The Prime 21+ package includes the Shyla cartridge.
I am not a seasoned turntable fettler so I always approach the set up phase for a visiting machine with some caution and not a little trepidation, and I did need a video call with John Carroll of the UK VPI distributor Renaissance Audio to guide me through the arm installation procedure. In addition to getting the arm settled properly on board, there is also a knack to shaping the wire from the arm to help set up bias and anti-skate. John patiently talked me through this phase. After double checking that the tracking weight was set correctly, making sure that the separate motor was correctly placed on the left hand side of the plinth and that the supplied Nordost cables were plugged into the Prime 21’s output sockets and my Gold Note PH10 phono stage, I was ready to go.
Unlike earlier Prime designs, the 21+ ships with a grey felt mat. During my video call with John Carroll we discussed this but he felt that actually the deck sounds better with the record clamped directly to the polished top surface of the platter, and that the mat is deployed between listening sessions to keep dust off the platter. I tried it both ways and decided that Mr Carroll does indeed know his stuff I felt the mat removed detail from the replay of all the discs I tried with it albeit only very slightly. By the same token, I only once played a record without using the central clamp, which screws down onto the spindle and is key to getting the optimum performance from the deck. I should also add that adjusting the VTA to accommodate a mat (or a different cartridge should you wish to use one) is as easy on the VPI as I have seen on any tonearm.
It also worth mentioning that speed change between 33 and 45 on the Prime 21 is not a press button job. It simply requires moving the belt between two different positions on the drive motor spindle. It takes less time than it took me to write, so is very easily accomplished.
If all that sounds a bit daunting I suggest that you arrange for your friendly VPI dealer to come and help you with the set up. If for any reason that isn’t an option, just take your time and go one step at a time. Without giving the game away too early, I think that the minor amount of hassle will soon be forgotten once you start to play records.
And my goodness, did I play a lot of records. I have my usual half dozen reference discs, which I tend to play in all my reviews, but as so often happens when I really start listening, I started to pick records at random and listened to an eclectic mixture of classic rock, pop, jazz, blues and classical. I try not to just use audiophile recordings and pressings, great though some undoubtedly are, but also regular pressings such as most of us have in our collections. The Prime 21+ did them all proud.
What I found with the Shyla equipped Prime 21 was that it really is genre agnostic. It digs out huge amounts of information from those precious grooves and delivers music with panache and genuine authority. I rocks like crazy when fed the right material but can also render delicate acoustic music with finesse and an appropriate lightness of touch. The quoted frequency response of the Shyla cartridge is 15Hz – 50kHz and on some of my better recordings it was not hard to believe. Gary Karr’s double bass on the 1981 recording of Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor was a real spine tingling listen, the richness of tone, the sonority of his instrument was simply gorgeous. But ‘60s and ‘70srock music came across brilliantly too. The recent 50th anniversary pressing of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Deja Vu was breathtaking. From the same era one of my favourite albums is the Beach Boys Surf’s Up. The complex title song was a genuinely engrossing experience, the Shyla conveyed not just the music but the emotion in a way which I found utterly engaging.
So have Mat Weisfeld and his team at VPI come up with another winner here? I rather think that they have. Given the purchase price of the Prime 21+, it is unlikely appeal to those who use vinyl only occasionally, and there’s no shortage of excellent alternatives to be considered. However, to those for whom vinyl is a primary music source, this machine has a huge amount to offer. It feels reassuringly solid, and every detail has been meticulously designed. The Shyla takes an already excellent cartridge and embellishes it, and is very highly recommended. Despite my lack of confidence in set up, it was very reassuring to be able to get the help I required from the UK distributor. The Nordost cables that came with the Prime 21+ are also very well suited to the cartridge, and although I did briefly try a third party set I decided that the Nordost gave me the all that I needed. If I was in the market for a new turntable, I would feel compelled to put the VPI Prime 21+ on my shortlist, and I have a sneaking suspicion that its alround capabilities and its delightful musical character would push it to the front of the queue.