When I first heard that VPI was developing a rim drive system, I was somewhat bemused. Like most audiophiles of the Baby Boomer (or older) generation, all of my early turntables Garrard, Miracord, Dual used the idler drive system, with a spring-loaded rubber drive wheel engaging the inside rim of the platter. Of course in those pre-audiophile days they were also automatic changers. Remember when multi-record box sets e.g., complete operas and symphony collections were numbered for changers, with Side 1 of a 3-LP set backed by Side 6, etc.? My LP collection is loaded with those, and they are a bit of an annoyance in these more enlightened non-changer days.
But as my interest in and understanding of higher-end audio grew, I became dissatisfied with idler drive changers. Though still a budget-limited graduate student, I wanted a single-play table, which led me to investigate belt drive and direct drive tables. At that time the direct drive tables I could afford were all Japanese, and most of the belt drive tables were European. By then I was also into my brief years as an audio salesman, and developing a set of assumptions about turntables that has largely persisted ever since. The idler tables, by the very nature of their motor-to-platter interface, had less than ideal rumble and wow & flutter. The cheaper Japanese direct drives often had "cogging" issues wow & flutter of the drive motor being transmitted, together with any motor noise, to the platter, since the platter spindle was the central rotor of the drive motor. Moreover, those tables' massy S.-shaped arms were not generally well matched to the high-compliance moving-magnet cartridges Shure, ADC, Micro-Seiki I was using at the time. So I made the leap, replacing my trusty old Dual 1019 with a sleek, inexpensive single-play belt-drive Dual 510 with a straight low-mass arm sporting a Shure V.-15 Type III cartridge. The belt drive "die was cast," and every turntable in my system for the last 35 years Dual, Thorens, Townshend, Michell, Versa Dynamics, Basis, to my present VPI Aries 3 has been belt-driven.
This little trip down memory lane inspired my tongue-in-cheek subtitle to this review. But I assure you that apart from the basic fact that a rotor contacting the platter is what makes it spin, the VPI Rim Drive has nothing in common with those old idler drives. Rather than a little rubber wheel spring-tensioned against the inner rim of the platter, VPI uses a heavy-duty six-inch aluminum drive rotor with a rubber surround to contact the outer rim of the platter. VPI honcho Harry Weisfeld says that this system delivers an "almost perfect energy transfer" between motor and platter. To that I say "amen brother."
The Rim Drive is a variant of VPI's single-motor flywheel. The motor pulley turns two small belts (guess we can't get rid of 'em entirely) to turn the drive rotor that contacts the platter. As with the single-motor flywheel, use of the Rim Drive requires that the table also be equipped with the $1200 VPI Synchronous Drive System (SDS). The SDS, a line isolator which regenerates turntable speed to eliminate wow & flutter caused by variations in incoming line voltage, is also needed to change playback speed, as it is no longer possible to change speed by manually moving belts to a different-sized pulley.
To The Rim Drive Stage One
What differences did I hear after going from the single-motor flywheel to the Rim Drive? I'm reluctant to quantify subjective listening impressions, but I'll give it a try. In past comparisons, I had thought that going from the basic motor/belt setup to the flywheel upgrade resulted in a more compellingly energetic presentation of the music. Leading transients, especially, had more snap, more impact. But that's not the whole story. More accurate speed enlivens the entire presentation, be it voices, massed strings, woodwinds everything sounds more "alive" and involving. I guess I would quantify the degree of those changes at about a 10% overall improvement. With the Rim Drive turning the Super Platter, I heard a roughly equivalent degree of improvement over the flywheel. That's substantial, and given the very fair exchange offered by VPI (more on that below), making the change was a no-brainer. But it wasn't quite the "cosmic" change I had psyched myself up to expect. I knew the Classic platter would arrive eventually, so I was patient. After all, a 10% improvement in what was already a superb-sounding table was nothing to sneer at.
The Classic Platter
A brief aside about appearance, I've always liked what I think of as the "refined industrial" look of my Aries 3 with the aluminum layer sandwiched between black acrylic layers. This is all within the base and the aluminum flywheel spinning above the black-finish motor assembly, with the JMW 10.5i arm also in the same aluminum tonality. Now, with the shiny aluminum platter replacing the dull-black-toned acrylic Super Platter, and that big aluminum drive rotor juxtaposed against the Classic platter, this is one boss-looking turntable. The Classic platter is slightly thicker than the acrylic VPI platters, so I had to raise the arm at the pivot in order to get VTA right. I accomplished that simply by using the arm's VTA-on-the-fly thumbscrew; there was no need to reset the arm on its base.
The new setup made a great visual impression. But in audio, handsome is as handsome sounds. In this case handsome sounds glorious! That mind-blowing epiphany that I hadn't quite reached with the Rim Drive/Super Platter happened within seconds after I lowered the stylus onto the "Infernal Dance" episode of Stravinsky's Firebird (45 rpm single-sided Classic Records reissue of the incomparable Dorati/LSO Mercury Living Presence recording). That is one of my half-dozen or so favorite orchestral recordings, and I have played it countless times. But this time was like reviewer clich้ alert! hearing it for the first time! Yeah, really. Stravinsky's ffff smashes were fully, viscerally felt, not just heard. Again, as I described earlier with the Rim Drive/Super Platter combination, the entire musical presentation became livelier and more open but to an even greater degree with the Classic platter.
Those vinyl epiphanies were by no means limited to classical orchestral music. Great-sounding "audiophile" LPs in every musical genre revealed similar increased clarity, impact and tonal beauty Reference Recordings' Nojima Plays Ravel; the Classic Records 45 RPM Mingus Ah Um; Mobile Fidelity's Muddy Waters: Folk Singer and 45 RPM Patricia Barber Verse I could go on and on. But the enhanced listening experience happened with every LP I played. One startling example was a pretty dull-sounding mono Angel LP of Walter Gieseking playing Debussy Preludes, which was suddenly far more engaging. In fact, the extraordinary improvement in reproducing all types of piano music with this rig is especially exciting. I think convincingly reproducing the sound of piano is the most difficult challenge for any audio system. My rig was already one of the best I've heard on piano, and now it is notably better.
A word about the LP/platter interface. In the Part 3 "Accessories" chapter of my series on putting together a reference system I described the sonic improvements that resulted from adding the carbon fiber Millennium M-CD-Mat to the Super Platter. The Classic platter comes with a thin rubber mat. I spent some time comparing the two mats, and found that I didn't consistently prefer one to the other. I think this outcome reflects the differences between acrylic and aluminum. While neither the platter exhibits any ringing or other unwanted resonances, the acrylic does yield a slightly "deader" presentation compared to the liveliness of the aluminum. Thus the aluminum platter doesn't need the additional energy and detail provided by the Millennium mat. I've decided to stay with the supplied rubber mat and pass the Millennium mat along to a friend whose table needs more help in that area.
A customer who already has the standard acrylic platter can order a replacement Classic platter and matching bearing for $800, plus return of the old platter. A customer who already has (like me) the Super Platter can exchange it for the Classic platter for $150 to cover shipping and refurbishing of the old platter.
OK? On to the Rim Drive. The Rim Drive upcharge at time of turntable purchase is $600 (the same as for the single-motor flywheel). An upgrade from the standard motor is $600 plus return of the standard motor. A customer who (like me) already has the flywheel can exchange it for the Rim Drive for an additional $150. And remember that the Rim Drive also requires the $1200 Synchronous Drive System.
BTW, I understand from Harry (though I have not heard it) that in addition to the current lineup of VPI turntables, the older flagship TNT tables work beautifully with the new Rim Drive/Classic platter combination. I'll take his word for it; Ive never known him to make unsubstantiated claims. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in the Rim Drive also order the Classic platter. Based on my listening, although the Rim Drive will improve turntable performance with a standard acrylic or Super platter, the additional improvement with the Classic platter is major. That combination is the way to go.
Every TNT-6, Super Scoutmaster, and HR-X can be retrofitted with this new drive system.
Available in Single/motor flywheel rim drive for Aries, Scoutmaster, and TNT 1 to 5 turntables.