VPI makes the Cliffwood turntable in-house in New Jersey. They are so proud of it that they named it after their hometown. The included Grado Green cartridge is made in Brooklyn, NY. AudioShield’s AS300 Tabletop Dust Cover is made in the USA of clear acrylic.
VPI Cliffwood Turntable with AudioShield AS300 Tabletop Dust Cover
- Practically plug n’ play setup
- Custom Grado Green-based cartridge
- Designed and made in the USA
- Fully manual operation
- Laid back tonality
- Dustcover must be purchased separately
- Available in three styles of vinyl wrap for the plinth
Sheila and Harry Weisfeld founded VPI Industries to make turntables in Cliffwood, NJ, over 40 years ago. To put that in perspective: when VPI opened, the CD was still about half a decade away! VPI began as a family business and remains one to this day. Mat Weisfeld currently runs VPI with his wife Jane. Mat is a tireless brand ambassador, regularly exhibiting at major shows and personally demonstrating VPI’s turntables at dealer events. VPI designed the Cliffwood to be accessible, both in cost and setup simplicity, to a much wider range of vinyl lovers than their other turntables, such as the Prime Signature. VPI offers three factory options for the Cliffwood: a different tonearm, counterweight, and external speed control. The review ‘table did not have those options.
Puzzlingly to me, especially given the Cliffwood’s task of exposing new audiences to VPI turntables, the Cliffwood does not include a protective cover. VPI does not even offer one! With a young child and two cats, I was not comfortable with a naked turntable, especially given the Cliffwood’s exposed drive belt. VPI recommended AudioShield as VPI’s accessory partner. AudioShield was founded by VPI alum John McGurk to make acrylic dustcovers in the USA for VPI turntables. AudioShield sent me their AS300 Tabletop Dustcover ($299) for this review to complete the turntable. That brings the as-tested price to $1200.
Platter Type & Size:
11.5″ machined aluminum, 7 lbs, oil bearing
Cliffwood Tonearm (machined, damped aluminum)
VPI/Grado Green moving iron
600 RPM AC
Motor Pulley Accuracy:
Average RMS Distortion:
1.25” MDF wrapped in Truffle, White, or Black vinyl
19″ x 14″ x 6”
VPI’s manual introduces the Cliffwood as “a high-end entry-level turntable”. While I normally recoil from the phrase “high end”, here VPI’s oxymoronic coinage seems apt. The VPI Cliffwood’s platter, tonearm mount, and tonearm look and feel like finely crafted precision parts. However, the plinth is less impressive looking than the mechanical parts.
The biggest, shiniest feature of the VPI Cliffwood is its thick aluminum platter, which has polished and grooved edges. VPI includes a nice felt logo turntable mat as well.
The 9” damped machined aluminum tonearm has a gimbal bearing and fixed counterweight. Azimuth, tracking force, and tracking angle are pre-set, and VPI’s manual is silent as to how to make these adjustments. Presumably, if needed, your VPI dealer or VPI themselves could assist. The cueing lever has a nicely damped action.
VPI fits a co-branded Grado Green cartridge to the tonearm at the factory. The Grado Green is a moving iron cartridge, which is a fairly rare design. The only others known to me are Soundsmith and vintage Bang & Olufsen. The Grado Green has a three-piece OTL cantilever and an elliptical diamond stylus.
The motor is mounted in the plinth and drives the platter through an exposed belt. To switch from 33 to 45 RPM, one physically moves the belt to a thicker section of the pulley. In theory, that might be annoying and shorten the life of the drive belt. In practice…we don’t have any 45s, so it was of no consequence here. VPI thoughtfully provides two drive belts, so if one breaks the music needn’t stop.
My review sample’s MDF plinth was wrapped in “truffle” pattern vinyl ostensibly intended to look like wood. However, the contrast in depth, richness, and movement between the vinyl pattern and our custom walnut media cabinet did not flatter the plinth. Perhaps this finish would look better on a painted or non-wood surface. VPI also offers the Cliffwood with black and white vinyl wrapped plinths.
Build quality was generally good. The left RCA jack was slightly loose on my review sample, but it worked fine. There was no additional noise on the left channel and channel matching did not seem affected. VPI includes a ground strap terminated in a spade lug on one end that fits the ground lug on the Cliffwood.
AudioShield forms the AS300 Tabletop Cover from three pieces of clear acrylic: a curved front/back/side panel and two side panels. The side panel edges appear to be trimmed and polished by hand. The AS300 envelops the Cliffwood’s plinth. The AS300 has three cutouts: hand-holes on the sides and a larger exit for cabling in the back.
VPI engineered the Cliffwood for idiotproof, no-tools-required setup. VPI’s packaging held the parts securely and opened in a logical manner. The tonearm and platter are factory installed. Just unwrap, place, connect signal and ground cables to the phono preamp, wrap the drive belt around the pulley and platter, and plug in. When you first start the motor the drive belt self-levels, which is a visually neat trick. Total time from sealed box to first needle drop was only a few minutes, and the bulk of that was routing the IEC power cable down the cabinet.
During setup, our daughter was fascinated by the pulley and spinning drive belt. While listening, I noticed our two ferocious mini-lions staring at the belt, too. Good thing we had a protective cover when the Cliffwood was not in use!
For this review, our iFi iPhono preamp was set to 47kOhm impedance loading, 200pF capacitance loading, 40dB gain, and Standard RIAA equalization. I think I got lucky with signal/ground/power cable routing on the first try because there was no hum.
VPI recommends 20 hours of break-in. Generally, “break-in” instructions are one of those weird boutique audio affectations that are best ignored, but at least VPI’s recommended “break-in” is not too long. The main difference I noticed after a few weeks of use was that the motor and bearing became quieter. The VPI Cliffwood still had a little more mechanical noise than our usual turntable, a vintage Bang & Olufsen RX-2 with a Soundsmith SMMC3 cartridge, likely because Cliffwood’s pulley and belt are exposed. The noise was not bothersome in use. All records are kept clean and were brushed with a carbon fiber brush before each needle drop.
As with most current audiophile turntables, spinning black circles on the VPI requires extensive human interaction. The cueing lever helps with needle drops, but when a side finishes there is no auto-return.
The VPI Cliffwood has a laid-back sound that was overall easy to enjoy but wasn’t the last word in detail. I’m not sure if the bass is a little hyped up or the treble is a little rolled off, but regardless the overall tonality is tilted warm of neutral.
French duo Air specializes in down-tempo, vaguely electronica musings with enough musical interest to merit critical listening but enough of a groove to put on the background and use as a soundtrack to life. (Not coincidentally, Air is well represented in soundtracks, NPR segues, as background music in trendy eateries decked out in millennial pink, etc.)
“Twentyears” is a box set retrospective of a musical career that broke out with 1998’s “Moon Safari” and grew from there. While the CDs include some rarities, the two records focus on their hits.
At low volume, the VPI Cliffwood sounded round and mellow on “Le Femme D’Argent,” “Moon Safari,” and “Talisman.” However, when I increased the volume the bass lines begin to drone a little bit while midrange detail starts getting masked by the copious bass. The VPI Cliffwood added a hint of chestiness is added to male vocal in “Venus.” The more spare “Alpha Beta Gaga” sounded great through the VPI Cliffwood, with a head-bobbing, toe-tapping, would-whistle-along-if-I-knew-how musicality.
This record, like a lot of my vinyl collection, was a hand-me-down from my mom. It was pressed in the former USSR and appears to be a high-quality pressing. I suspect the original master was intended for the bandwidth and dynamic range of a 78 because the orchestra has that 1920s silent movie sound.
This record is one you listen through to get a taste of a majestic performance. The VPI Cliffwood extracted a warm, rich sound from these Soviet grooves that stayed just on the comfortable side of boomy. Despite being a mono record played on a stereo cartridge, surface noise remained admirably low.
However, the image wandered from center a little bit on more exposed piano sections, such as the beginning of the third movement. That suggests to me maybe some frequency response differences between the left and right channels of the cartridge. I also noticed a slight tonality difference on inner grooves compared to outer grooves. The lower registers of the piano grew a bit harder and steelier towards the center of the record.
This record is another family heirloom of sorts, complete with Mom’s maiden-name autograph on the cover in Sharpie. The catalog number is SMAL-2835, which dates it as a 1971-1973 pressing. From its condition, it was in heavy rotation long before I nabbed it. Nevertheless, the VPI Cliffwood persisted despite the record’s imperfections.
Through the VPI Cliffwood, cymbals and horns were slightly subdued on the title track, but there was a nice forward drive. On “Fool on a Hill” the Cliffwood pushed finger cymbals a little back in the mix while giving the flute a beguiling shimmer. “Your Mother Should Know,” “Penny Lane,” and “Hello Goodbye” fell into a sweet spot for the VPI Cliffwood, coming through with honey-toned richness that only got better as the volume went up. However, “I Am the Walrus,” “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” and the various loops that make up “Flying” seemed to lose a separation between the layers: more “familiar song wafting in the background “than “sit up and pay attention.”
On paper, an American turntable with an American cartridge playing an American orchestra reading American music from an American composer (albeit on a German pressing) should be a match made in heaven. However, the Grado Green’s somewhat languid tonal balance resulted in a loss of clarity and detail on this record.
The VPI Cliffwood sanded down the bite of brass instruments, while high woodwinds had almost a little too much air. Tympani strikes boomed through the room a little too long, with slightly dulled initial impact. The soundstage was wide but a little flat. To be fair, here I am ultimately comparing a $95 cartridge to a $350 cartridge.
“Ten” is a formative record for me, and the 2009 vinyl remaster is one of my favorite black circles to spin. While the original mix (which I practically burned through on CD as a middle-schooler and beyond) is my favorite way to enjoy “Ten,” the Brendan O’Brien remix on vinyl is a close second.
For some reason, my vinyl adventures with “Ten” always start on Side B. “Oceans” dripped with musicality on the VPI Cliffwood. I had to turn up the volume a little to get the vocal clarity I wanted, but Ten is one of those records that was cut to be played loudly. The O’Brien remix of “Porch” just cranked, with a nice sense of space around the guitars swirling front and center. The cymbals riding on top of “Garden” seemed to lack a little bit of air in their decay, but otherwise, the track sounded really great. Flipping over to Side A, the VPI Cliffwood imbued the intro to “Black” with just the right mix of quiet and tinny guitar and vinyl surface noise, while providing a satisfying heft to the Hammond organ.
The VPI CLIFFWOOD is a warm-sounding, all-American turntable.
- Beautifully machined tonearm and platter
- Ease of setup
- Sure-footed tracking performance
- Warm tonal balance (sometimes)
- Dustcover included
- More upscale plinth finish
- A choice of cartridges depending on sonic tastes
You have to admire VPI’s accomplishment here: they designed a turntable with some very high precision mechanical parts, build it themselves in New Jersey alongside their much more expensive turntables instead of subcontracting production and sell it through a dealer network for around $1,200 in completed form (with Audioshield dustcover). I was also very impressed that VPI was able to ship a turntable with cartridge premounted and have it work – and well! – out of the box without needing to “tweak” anything. No force gauges, alignment tools, or knurled Swiss hex keys required.
The major downside is that VPI likely compromised on the plinth finish to meet their target price. I am no fan of the “truffle” faux wood grain vinyl wrap. Also, the Grado cartridge has a distinctively warm, laid back sonic signature that may or may not match your sonic tastes or your existing system. Due to the plinth finish and the cartridge’s sonic signature, I would hesitate to buy a VPI Cliffwood sight unseen or unheard. However, if you’re in the market for a new turntable in this price range, the VPI Cliffwood is worth a trip to audition. Take your favorite records and hear for yourself if it makes that magic for you.