I first visited Monmouth County in central New Jersey in December 1981. I had joined a company called Perkin Elmer Data Systems which was based in Oceanport, New Jersey and was sent there, with a British colleague, for two weeks to learn all about the products which I was going to be selling. This was the unglamorous end of business travel believe me – two weeks in the Travelodge in Neptune (a town near Oceanport) in December is not a great advertisement for the jetset lifestyle. Over the next decade and a half I visited head office many times and became very fond of that part of the USA. What on earth has this got to do with high fidelity turntables you might ask. Unbeknownst to me, not long before my first trip there, a married couple called Sheila and Harry Weisfeld had started a small business in Cliffwood New Jersey, a few miles north of Oceanport on Route 35. Initially producing record cleaning machines, the business grew and progressed into making turntables. Today VPI Industries is a well respected manufacturer of audio equipment, specialising, in their own words, in affordable analogue replay systems and ancillary products to support that goal. Harry is still active in the business although Sheila sadly passed away a few years ago, but their son Mathew (always known as Mat) has now taken the lead role, and has recently been joined in the endeavour by his wife.
A few years ago I bought for myself one of VPI’s entry level turntables called the Traveler which had been gaining some excellent reviews. It was a straightforward belt-driven design with a 10 gimballed tonearm. The plinth was red and it was a strikingly good looking thing, which sounded far better than one might have expected for a machine at that price point. I eventually sold it on but have had a great deal of respect for the VPI brand ever since, so when the chance to host the Prime Signature for review came up I was only too delighted to seize the opportunity.
The first thing to say is that this is a big device. The courier struggled to my front door step with two separate boxes. The big one had a declared weight of 27kg and the smaller one 10kg. Attention to detail matters, and the first thing that struck me was the meticulous way both boxes had been packed. The smaller one contained just the platter, which tells you something about the mass of the whole unit. In the larger box was the plinth, which is made of a thick aluminium plate sandwiched by a layer of composite material either side. The review sample was finished in a metallic black gloss but there is also the option, at extra cost, to have it finished in a red rosewood veneer, which looks gorgeous in the pictures. The edges are curved, with a recess for the separate power supply and motor housing on the left and the arm mounting mechanism on the back left of the top plate. The structure is supported at the four corners by conical feet, again a mixture of composite and aluminium. When it was sitting on the top shelf of my Quadraspire XL rack (onto which it fitted very neatly), the bottom of the Prime Signature reminded me of the business end of the Saturn V rockets which powered the Apollo series of moon expeditions. The bearing housing at the centre completed the illusion.
The JMW-10-3D Reference unipivot arm is wired internally with Nordost cable, and again was metallic black with a contrasting polished steel counterweight. As the name suggests, this is a 3D printed device, which is the first such thing I have encountered in hi-fi, and it is an absolute peach. Setting up proved very straightforward and VPI included an alignment tool and an electronic stylus weight gauge in the box. However, I would hope that your friendly dealer would take care of all that for the you. Adjusting the vertical tracking angle is easier than on any arm I have encountered before and there is provision for setting anti-skating although the VPI manual suggests that this will not be needed.
This is probably a good moment to compliment the manual. Printed in colour on A4 paper, it is well written, copiously illustrated and very easy to follow – an exemplar which some other manufacturers would do well to mimic. Unlike many turntables, including my own Linn Sondek, VPI allow the user to choose their own RCA cables to connect the player to a phono stage via a pair of gold plated outputs on the rear of the plinth, and there is of course an earthing point alongside them too.
If you have not used a unipivot arm before, your first few time operating the JMW10 may be a bit unnerving. The whole mechanism wobbles like crazy until the stylus makes contact with the record, at which points it tracks the grooves perfectly. Lining it up prior to lowering (I always use the mechanical system on offer rather than trusting my hand) is a skill to be remastered with the VPI but it swiftly becomes second nature. The quality of this arm is such that I think it will do justice to any cartridge you care to pair it with.
The cylindrical power supply and motor tucks in to the recess on the left of the plinth and the belt is then threaded round the platter and onto the spindle atop the motor housing. Speed change is achieved by moving the belt to the appropriate position – no push button speed changing here. The IEC socket is also housed here. With cables attached to my Gold Note PH10 phono stage and a Shunyata Venom NR2 mains cable plugged in (a standard IEC cable is supplied in the box), I was ready to start listening.
Regular readers will know that I have a repertoire of albums which I use regularly for review. These always get played but then I tend to choose music as the mood takes me on any given day. The usual suspects are Love’s Forever Changes, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Acoustic Live by Nils Lofgren, and either Meddle or the evergreen Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. Then I will also try some modern pop by George Ezra and Lana Del Rey, some jazz (I am learning to love a lot of the ECM label’s excellent catalogue) and some classical recordings on the DG, Decca and RCA Living Voice labels.
The user experience is very straightforward. Place a record on the supplied and VPI branded felt mat on the platter, lower the supplied centre weight onto the spindle and press the power on button on the motor unit. The motor must have tremendous torque because he record is spinning at the chosen speed in a matter of seconds. Then comes the wobbly unipivot arm moment. As soon as the stylus on my Gold Note Machiavelli Red MC cartridge hit side one of Meddle I knew that I was going to enjoy my time with the Prime Signature. The music issuing forth from my Harbeth C7 XD speakers was glorious. Timing was spot on and that essential boogie factor was irresistible. I suddenly realised that four hours had passed in the blink of an eye, which is always a sure sign that I am engrossed in the music.
The weeks during which the VPI graced my rack were some of the most musically enjoyable that I have had for quite a while. Despite the completely different design principles behind the Prime Signature it played music in LP12 fashion, with verve and excitement, well balanced with deep musical insight. Bass was full, fast and tuneful, while the all-important midrange was deeply expressive and totally engaging, while the high frequencies were delicate and as light as gossamer. The Prime Signature is a deeply musical record player.
With all that said, we come to the question of price. Affordable is of course a highly subjective term but if, like me, you consider vinyl to be your favourite source and the rest of your system is optimised for record replay, then the VPI Prime Signature represents astonishing value for money. It feels like it has been built to last for generations. And yet it retails for under £6,500 here in the UK, which given the quality strikes me as astonishingly good value.
So what are the negatives? Really, the only thing to be aware of is that there is no dust cover for the Prime Signature – there are third party companies who will provide custom built acrylic covers but at a price. I simply kept a very soft cloth and soft brush nearby and kept dust at bay using them. You will also need a decent sized space on which to stand the player. As I said, it sat atop my XL Quadraspire fine but check the dimensions of your rack before buying. And that’s it – everything else about living with this device is positive.
Let’s finish this review where we started, in New Jersey. My erstwhile employer has long since gone, but VPI Industries is still flying the flag for the Garden State. To quote another well known native of Monmouth Country, the VPI Prime Signature was Born In The USA but it is the good fortune of music lovers everywhere that this magnificent musical instrument is available to us all.