VPI Industries Avenger Direct Turntable Highlights
- Obscene level of build quality.
- Robust Direct Drive motor system.
- 3-point pneumatic isolation system.
- Can be fitted with up to 3 tonearms.
- On-the-fly adjustable VTA.
- Comes with 12” “Fatboy” gimbal tonearm.
Turntables are amusing mechanical devices. They range from the most basic rubber-band-operated platter-spinners to the most elaborate “Rube-Goldberg-esque” fantasy contraptions. The VPI Avenger Direct Turntable certainly makes a concrete visual and performance statement but doesn’t bother extending itself to the realm of the ridiculous. What in fact the crafty folks at VPI have done with the Avenger Direct is to take each element of what makes a turntable successful at its task and refine all of those to their practical limits. No more, no less.
VPI Industries is a bit of an American institution when it comes to audio. Founded in 1978, the company has diligently and continuously been manufacturing and developing new turntables from its Cliffwood, New Jersey headquarters ever since. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was that recent little incident involving a global pandemic where the company temporarily halted all turntable production, pivoted, and began producing hand sanitizer, offering it nationwide free of charge to anyone who needed it.
As a family-run operation, VPI can be nimble, experimental, and occasionally, just plain crazy. Their current product lineup consists of 15 tables starting with the $1,499 Cliffwood model all the way to the $104,000 magnum opus Vanquish turntable. And they have recently introduced a series of VPI-branded phono cartridges, co-designed with Audio-Technica.
The company was founded by Harry Weisfeld (lead designer/engineer) and his late wife Shiela. Now, Harry’s son Mat is the current CEO and lead designer, but patriarch Harry is still very much involved. If you attend one of the major audio shows on the calendar, odds are you will encounter Mat, Harry or both running around pre-show helping exhibitors with their VPI turntable setups and usually hosting a room of their own with unique speaker and electronic setups.
The Avenger Direct turntable we have in for review is an amalgamation of VPI’s longstanding Avenger “tripod” turntable design with an updated direct drive system from the recent HW-40 Anniversary turntable. With the included 12” “Fatboy” gimbal tonearm, the Avenger Direct is a beast of a platter-spinner, and at $36,000 it is targeted at the serious vinyl enthusiast who is expecting the very best. Let’s take a closer look!
Direct Drive Turntable, with provision for up to 3 tonearms.
33.3 and 45 RPM.
12-inch 3-D printed “FatBoy” gimbal tonearm.
Aluminum and Acrylic (25 lbs.)
18.5” W x 10” H x 17” D
Record weight, VTF scale, Power cord, Allen key, tonearm weight.
vpi, direct drive, turntable, avenger, vinyl
Looking like it just landed from another planet, the VPI Avenger Direct turntable certainly looks like nothing else out there. Taking its inspiration from the Avenger Reference table, the main body of the Avenger Direct consists of a multi-layered sandwich of acrylic, stainless steel, and acrylic bonded with silicone and screwed together into a very inert structure. The three substantial posts that anchor the main chassis are also multilayered constructs that each terminates with a machined aluminum cone set into 3.5” Delrin/Ball\-bearing isolation bases.
There are an additional two layers of isolation at this crucial support point. A rubber grommet is placed between the aluminum cones and the Delrin, and additional acoustic padding is set below the Delrin disk. The triple support posts allow for the installation of up to 3 tonearms that can be of any size and from almost any manufacturer.
The Avenger Direct’s powerful direct drive motor is an evolution of what was found on the original Classic Direct turntable and further refined in the HW-40 Anniversary turntable. It currently uses a permanent magnet AC motor driven sinusoidally as a 3-phase AC motor and is servo-controlled by a Texas-Instrument-based feedback loop. This works with a magnetic strip within the platter that is comprised of 2,500 magnetic elements. These are read by a specialized magnetic head that feeds its information to the drive system to help compensate for any errors and eliminate the potential for “cogging.” The direct drive motor system is completely designed in-house using stators and rotors supplied by an outside vendor (ThinGap Inc.). When I spoke to Mat Weisfeld on the phone about the direct drive system, he told me that the motor is powerful enough to resist slowing down if I were to press my finger on the side of the platter while it was running. I can confirm that my finger became too uncomfortable from friction before I could noticeably slow the platter movement by pressing against it.
Speaking of the platter itself, it is all of 2” high and 21 lbs. of machined billet aluminum. On the inside it is dampened with a round of composite-wood fiber, black mica, and silicone. The platter is driven by a 1” high by 5.75” in diameter sub-platter/rotor spinning on an inverted bearing. The three lighted buttons on the main chassis body are for power off, 33.3 RPM speed, and 45 RPM speed respectively.
The 12-inch appropriately named “Fatboy” tonearm has an integrated headshell and wand. This particular segment of the tonearm is a completely 3D-printed piece. The material used to produce the headshell/wand section is a combination of liquid resin and strands of stainless steel, all laser formed over an 11-hour period to produce a single wand. A carbon fiber liner then goes inside this already very inert wand to increase its overall stiffness. All internal wiring is sourced from Nordost.
Beyond the wand, the rest of the tonearm uses precision gimbal bearings, and the attached tower section has an integrated knob that allows for on-the-fly VTA (vertical tracking angle) adjustment. The back end of the tonearm has a substantial stainless-steel counterweight with rubber-damping rings around it. Turning a black knob on the tail of the tonearm moves the counterweight thereby adjusting the VTF (vertical tracking force). Both VTA and VTF adjustments feel smooth and are easy to make.
If azimuth adjustments are needed, there are two small Allen screws just beyond where the wand meets the metal collar of the tonearm. Loosening those allows the wand to move. While the Avenger Direct does have a manual peg-and-wire anti-skate mechanism, VPI recommends not using anti-skate and running the VTF 0.2 grams heavier than the recommended cartridge spec. Either way, you have the option to experiment with both to see which works better.
If you find yourself so inclined to add a second or third 12” “Fatboy” tonearm, additional tonearms with full arm-boards, base, and junction boxes can be ordered for an additional $6,500 per arm.
I assembled the VPI Avenger Direct turntable as per the instruction manual and installed the Audio-Technica ART20 phono cartridge (review forthcoming). After about a week of experimenting, I elected to go with using the provided anti-skate mechanism and running the cartridge at the recommended 1.8 grams of VTF. The cartridge behaved well with consistent tracking and no skipping. In my case, I found that running the cartridge heavy and with no anti-skate caused occasional mistracking on the inner grooves of some classical LPs.
The associated equipment I used in this review included the following:
In some respects, this is the hardest part of the review to write. Not because there was anything bad about the VPI Avenger Direct turntable, there wasn’t. It is, for all practical purposes, the finest turntable I have ever had the pleasure of using and listening to. But beyond that, it is one of the finest mechanical devices, of any sort, that I have interacted with. All through the act of assembling and balancing the turntable, cueing the tonearm, and adjusting the VTA and VTF, the action of everything just worked smoothly and screamed solidity. It honestly makes most other turntables I’ve used seem like toys by comparison.
The 3-D printed “Fatboy” tonearm looks and feels like an engineering marvel. Decidedly “overbuilt” to match the rest of this table. Looking at it makes me wonder what VPI could come up with if they put their minds to building a linear tracking system. Just the tactile experience of putting on an LP, setting up the record weight, and cueing up that tonearm became a special event that I looked forward to with increasing frequency.
I pretty much stuck with using the Audio-Technica ART20 cartridge exclusively after the initial installation and upon hearing how good the match was after dialing everything in. I also was a bit leery at the idea of pulling and installing those delicate cartridge wires multiple times on such an expensive turntable. I was very happy with the overall sound and didn’t want to mess anything up! The following are some of the more memorable listening moments that I had with the Avenger Direct.
London Philharmonic Orchestra “Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2”
Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2, London Philharmonic Orchestra Conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, RCA Victrola, 1965, LP.
A very dynamic and impassioned performance. The Avenger Direct/ART20 combination relayed all the nuance and power from this particular LP in equal measure. The London Philharmonic sounded full and spacious with plenty of detail coming through from the various strings and woodwinds. I have other LP releases of this Symphony that comparatively sound too thin for my liking. Details like the sounds of the high strings and horns occasionally shriek. Not on this one. This release has a nice pleasing balance throughout the midrange, and the highs are warm and smooth but still with plenty of detail. Better still, the bass from the string sections and drums are felt as well as heard which just adds to the fun factor when I raise the volume. The dynamic swings on this LP are pretty broad, making for some challenging grooves for the cartridge and tonearm to track. Needless to say, they posed no issues for the Avenger’s “Fatboy” tonearm. For an older recording, the soundstage was very wide and involving when heard over the ATC SCM100ASLT speakers (link) that I had here at the time. All in all, it’s a great old record and it gave me great joy and satisfaction to listen to it on the VPI Avenger Direct.
Roberta Gambarini “Easy to Love”
I was unfamiliar with Ms. Gambarini’s vocal work, but I had gotten her double LP “Easy to Love” for review and it sounds absolutely stellar on the Avenger Direct. The Avenger/ART20 combo delivers her immaculately clean-sounding vocals on “Lover Come Back to Me.” Ms. Gambarini’s voice is dead-centered and a little forward in space, rendered very smoothly and with great dimension. Both the fantastic-sounding piano and drum solos on this track are happening at an almost “jackrabbit” tempo. The piano has a great ring and decay to its notes that have been captured in the recording. The drums have an excellent snap to the skins and the cymbals sound properly metallic when brushed, instead of just sounding like a mash of hiss. On the track “Centerpiece” the dueling scat that Gambarini performs with guest vocalist James Moody is a treat to listen to. Smooth, breezy, and super appealing. And when she hits and holds the very highest notes, it doesn’t sound piercing or irritating in the least. Kudos to the VPI for helping make the music seem that much more visceral.
Tony Bennett “This is All I Ask”
Having just lost the great Tony Bennett, I felt compelled to dig out my favorite of his albums and I kept it on steady rotation on the VPI. With “Keep Smiling at Trouble” Tony Bennett’s vocal opening was reproduced with that smooth, warm tone that I always associate with his performances. The backing orchestra (featuring the Ralph Sharon Trio) properly swings in support with the VPI/AT combination pulling out loads of instrument detail from the grooves and delivering it in a very balanced manner. The slower more romantic “Autumn in Rome” comes across with a huge soundstage, with the details of the background singers and the harps filling the space behind his voice fully. The song may be at a slower tempo, but the power of Tony’s pipes still comes through unrestrained. No noticeable distortion can be detected when Tony vocally pulls out the stops. Columbia’s Classical LPs can be knocked oftentimes for sounding bright or thin. Not so for Mr. Bennett, here. The Avenger Direct and the AT ART20 cartridge bring out all the big, lush, warm swing that runs completely through this album. The tracks “The Way That I Feel” and “This is All I Ask” are perfect examples of Tony Bennett at his best. Cool, classy, confident sincerity blended with sophisticated orchestration. Individual instruments like a singular piano, guitar, or flute fill perfectly punctuating his vocals. All in all, a little bit of brilliance to remember him with.
Christian McBride “Conversations with Christian”
This is a great two-album set by a bass-playing virtuoso who gets to stretch out with several guests performing various genres of music. A favorite track is “McDukey’s Blues” where McBride is trading bass licks with the late George Duke on keyboards. The two performers sound fantastically in sync, the Avenger Direct and ART20 getting all those thick, punchy bass plucks sounding solid and weighty and with plenty of string detail still coming through. George Duke’s keyboards deftly weaved in and around McBride’s bluesy bass lines, sounding appropriately funky and tight. On “Consider Me Gone” guest vocalist Sting’s slightly ethereal voice is nicely pegged dead center of the soundstage with excellent body and clarity to his lyrics. McBride’s stand-up bass sounds consistently good here as it does throughout the album. This turntable and cartridge combination does not skimp on, or overly bloat the bass. Very solid, detailed, and enjoyable.
Buddy Guy “Stone Crazy”
Probably the purest example of Buddy Guy’s playing and performing captured on record. Listening to this LP on the Avenger Direct easily puts the original Alligator CD release I have to shame. “Outskirts of Town” encapsulates the whole album for me in a nutshell. It has so much more body and warmth to the sound than the comparatively flat-sounding and dimensionless CD pressing I have (which I always thought was sorely in need of a remaster). The dynamics sound so much more alive on this LP like I’m right there in the studio with Guy and his band. His singing on this track goes from lightly conversational to plaintive wailing at the drop of a hat and I feel like I can hear just about every distinct inflection in his voice through the VPI. The reverb from the recording studio also clearly comes across as he sings too. And then, there’s the guitar playing. I’ve seen Buddy Guy perform live a handful of times, and this has that unrestrained aggression of a live Buddy Guy concert and not that of a “produced” album. There is this most wicked of guitar solos squarely in the middle of this track where Guy abruptly pauses, emits a somewhat sadistic cackle, and then jumps right back into the solo. The VPI/ART20 combo wrings all the detail and emotion possible and gets it to the speakers to convincingly commit them to the air.
Lew Tabackin/T. Miyama and his New Herd “Vintage Tenor”
Part of a series of Direct to Disc recordings that RCA did with Victor Corporation of Japan. I love collecting oddball stuff like this on vinyl and the fact that it sounds a step above in terms of sound quality is always a bonus. Big band recordings can sometimes sound irritating if something is off either in the recording or in the playback chain. The Duke Ellington standard “Cottontail” exhibited no signs of that affliction, sounding both sprightly and alive via the Avenger Direct and the ART20 cartridge. Lew Tabackin’s tenor sax sounded full and clear, right up front with the supporting brass sparkling behind him. Plenty of sheen to their massed sound but again, not fatiguing or grating at all with all those horns coming on.
André Previn Shelly Manne & Red Mitchell “West Side Story”
A textbook tight and grooving trio of piano drums and bass. Bernie Grundman and the folks at Craft Recordings have remastered and re-released some true gems from the Contemporary Records catalog and this is another one. André Previn’s piano and Red Mitchell’s bass are predominantly in the left channel while Shelly Manne and his drum kit are in the right. The whole album is so nicely recorded for its age and the trio sounds and feels like it is right in my room when listening to “Jet Song.” The Avenger Direct and ART20 cartridge reveals every dimension of Previn’s piano playing that he cares to expose. His piano seems more vivid and has more body to its sound than a lot of more recent vintage piano recordings I’ve heard. The bass playing sounds thick, juicy, and almost palpable. String details are super clear when rendered from the VPI. The drum kit sounds especially solid and dimensional. The cymbals, whether struck or gently brushed, come through with an authenticity to their sound. Their instrumental rendition of “I Feel Pretty” positively swings with great interplay between the three players. As cliché as it sounds, this turntable and cartridge combo (again) is putting me in a situation where I feel I am in the studio listening to these guys lay this all down. More than any other platter spinner and cartridge combination that I have come across.
Various Artists “Heavy Metal”
Just for the fun of it, this album seemed appropriate to spin on the big, bad Avenger Direct. While not of the highest fidelity, a little classic (read obscure) hard rock and metal is good for the soul, and it sounded a bit better than I expected on this turntable that looks like it could have come right out of this movie. The Linkwitz LX521 speakers I had in the rotation at the time were also surprisingly simpatico with this music. Donald Fagan’s “True Companion” is always a favorite place to start, sounding smooth, slick, and a bit ethereal. The song had a bit more body on it than I remember hearing on my Technics SL1200 with the same cartridge. The synthesizers and keyboards sound fuller overall. Steve Khan’s guitar solo had plenty of bite and aggression to its sound and yet it didn’t overwhelm the triangle that was playing along with most of its solo. Donald Fagan’s vocals sounded a little on the thin side, but they always have on this album. Nazareth’s “Crazy (A Suitable Case for Treatment)” sounded especially good on the VPI table, with great definition, solid vocal placement, punchy basslines, and a hard-hitting kick drum. Sammy Hagar’s “Heavy Metal” sounds positively dynamite with that classic crunchy guitar sound and his unmistakable voice front and center.
The VPI Avenger Direct, along with the mounted Audio-Technica ART20 MC Cartridge, were connected to a Rotel RQ-970BX phono stage. The output was then captured at 24-bit 48 kHz resolution to a TASCAM HD-P2 digital field recorder. The results were analyzed on my computer workstation using a Lynx E22 soundcard and SpectraPLUS audio analysis software. The Wow & Flutter test tone is from the Analog Productions Ultimate Analogue Test LP. The cartridge frequency response and crosstalk test tones are courtesy of the Denon XG-7005 RIAA System Test LP. Complete cartridge results will be published in an upcoming separate review, but we felt including the basic frequency response and crosstalk measurements here was appropriate as the cartridge and turntable form a playback system.
Speed accuracy measurements are courtesy of the RPM PRO smartphone app. For the measurements, the phone was situated on the exact center of the platter allowing the phone’s gyroscope to make the most accurate calculations.
The 33-1/3 RPM Wow & Flutter test, above, shows no flutter out to the extreme ends of the spectrum which is outside the imaginary diagonal line that would be drawn from the peak down to the 3,050 Hz point and 3,250 Hz point.
For the 33.3 RPM accuracy test, the VPI Avenger Direct showed a consistent final speed of 33.33 RPM which translates to a 0.00% speed error. I repeated this test three times and the results were all identical.
For the 45 RPM accuracy test, the VPI Avenger Direct showed a consistent final speed of 45.01 RPM which translates to a +0.02% speed error. I repeated this test three times and the results remained identical.
The frequency response results for the Audio-Technica ART20 MC cartridge show a commendably flat and consistent response from both channels across the bandwidth. At the most, the test sample had a -1dB deviation in both channels from 20 Hz to 750 Hz. The crosstalk results on the lower traces also demonstrate excellent channel matching. The results translate into a channel separation of 23dB at 1 kHz, 25dB at 5 kHz, and 28dB at 10 kHz.
If listening to vinyl is your primary mode of music enjoyment, and you aren’t currently putting a kid through college, stop messing around and order yourself a VPI Avenger Direct. You won’t regret it.
- Oh, for Pete’s sake, look at the thing. It’s incredible!
- It’s built like it will survive generations.
- Powerful Direct Drive motor system. No rubber bands!
- Can accommodate up to 3 tonearms.
- “Fatboy” gimbal tonearm is elegant and a joy to use.
- An optional 78 RPM speed setting.
For me, if there was ever a “Holy Grail” of turntables, the VPI Avenger Direct would for all practical purposes be it. Yes, I know that there are hundreds of very interesting and very cool turntables out there that would compete with this all-American beast. But until I at least get around to sampling some of them, the VPI Avenger Direct sets a supremely high bar. As it should for its mission and asking price.
The design and engineering involved in putting this thing together are beyond impressive. The direct drive system on this alien-looking device feels about as accurate as an atomic clock and seems strong enough to drive a mill wheel! The tonearm is a thing of engineering beauty and is a joy to dial in and use. The entire construct feels as solid and immobile as the rock of Gibraltar. The rock itself is actually less impressive as it doesn’t play music! I lucked out that both the Avenger Direct and Audio-Technica ART20 cartridge made for a superior-sounding pair. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise as that’s the company VPI works with to help design and produce its own Shyla and Goldy cartridges.
For most people, $36K is not a whim to go dropping on a turntable and VPI builds and sells several fine turntables at a variety of price points to satisfy many a vinyl buff. And while the (over) the top-of-the-line Vanquish turntable system is very much a statement piece, the Avenger Direct is more of a benchmark. It very much embodies everything you could possibly do to wring every last bit of analog goodness from the grooves of a record. And aesthetically, it’s a lust-worthy piece of gear to boot.
Would I give up digital for it? Not on your life. I stopped with the “Which sounds better, analog or digital” argument long ago and I enjoy both formats for different reasons. So, until such time as I pass on to the hereafter and the Almighty invites me over for a listen to his stereo set, the VPI Avenger Direct is by all accounts the finest turntable that I have ever used, and it will be a benchmark that I will judge all other elite turntables against going forward. It is obscenely cool!