World Premiere Review!
VPI Industries Voyager MM / MC Phono Stage Amplifier
VPI's new MM / MC phono stage delivers a spatially refined, detailed, and realistic musical
Review By Ron Nagle
disc recording became a reality in 1982 and the Sony
Corporation advertised "Perfect Sound Forever". And so vinyl LP recordings
were destined to die a slow death. Or was it? Indeed production of new music on
black plastic slowly slipped away as digits did the dirty deed. Many an
audiophile rode the ‘wave of the future' and many an audiophile turned
analog into digital audio-files. And this brings us to my World Premiere review
of VPI Industries' Voyager phono amplifier.
Personally, there's a certain metallic tincture to that
vaunted digital medium. The phrase I coined back then was "Aluminum Violins", and inevitably aligned myself with Absolute Sound publisher
Harry Pearson. It seemed back then that both of us smelled a rat with the new CD
format. But at the inception, who then would have thought a tiny stone scraping
along a plastic groove could recall so many pleasant memories. You could go back
in time at some point and consider the VPI Voyager vinyl LP turntable as a time
machine helping to transport us to a better place.
VPI Industries was founded in 1978 by Harry and Sheila
Weisfeld. Their first product was a record weight in two different sizes. That
same year in December they introduced another product, a turntable isolation
base. However, it was the introduction in 1981 of the VPI 16 record cleaning
machine that placed the firm on solid economic ground. Not so incidentally, 2018
marks the company's 40th anniversary. Today, the company's day to day operations
have been handed down to son and company President Mathew Weisfeld. This leaves
Founding Father Harry Weisfeld the freedom to be the creative mind that drives
OK, we need to have a talk, about the bolts of the body main and things around the back.
In 2017 Harry Weisfeld hired an Electronic Engineer named Mike
Bettinger. He admired Mr. Bettinger's award winning Arion Amplifier so much that
he purchased that amplifier for his personal use. The Voyager Phono Amplifier is
the high performance device that evolved from this collaboration. It has two
independent phono inputs, so it can accommodate two different cartridges if
mounted on separate tonearms. This makes switching between two tonearms and two
cartridges very easy. It provides both Moving Magnet and Moving Coil cartridge
amplification along with variable cartridge loading. As you would suspect all of
this is housed in a black metal box. The dimensions measure 15.5" x 13" x 4.5" (WxDxH) and shipping weight is 10.5 lbs. The face panel is available with
a black finish or the standard matte aluminum. The amplifier's front panel has
an oblong opening exposing a second panel. All gain and load and input settings
are made using controls in this sub-panel. Within this recess are two push
buttons labeled input 1 and input 2. These push buttons will select either
Moving Coil or Moving Magnet cartridge amplification. Internally, gain and
loading are accomplished using high reliability small signal relays.
Up front there are two larger knobs that can serve two
functions. Each can select cartridge loading resistance in Ohms or in Pico farads.
They allow loading for input 1 or input 2. That might be for either a moving
magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC)
cartridge. The standard 47 kOhm load for MM cartridges is built in and not
variable. If you chose the MM input then capacitive loading is select-able. You
can apply, 100pF, 200pF or 270pF. The MC cartridge resistive load is select-able
between 100 Ohm, 500 Ohm and 1 kOhm. Gain is fixed at 42dB (MM) and 62dB (MC).
There are five indication LEDs on the front panel. Left to right they are, input
1, input 2, MM, MC, and Mute. On the right are two push buttons to select, MM /
Around back: All the input and output connections are single
ended RCA jacks, six in total. Two are for left/ right phono input 1 and two
jacks for input 2; the last pair of RCA connections is the Voyager output to a
power amplifier. Lastly there is chassis ground lug and the IEC Mains
The VPI Voyager is a two-stage design, The first stage
utilizes a JET-based input stage providing the interface with the cartridge, and
the gain and drive for the 75 microseconds. Also, passive equalization network
for the high-frequency RIAA equalization is employed. The design is
intentionally symmetrical and single-ended. Both stages are based on
precision matched cascoded Linear Systems JFETS that are servo controlled.
Cascode references are supplied by precision low noise reference devices. The
second stage provides an additional 24dB of gain plus provides active feedback
for tracking the low-frequency portion of the RIAA curve. The power supplies are
unity gain voltage reference designs that facilitate fast response and low
Cut To The Chase... The Sound
Let me take this in two parts the Voyager has two separate
inputs. First at Input #1, that's my Ortofon 2M Silver (silver wire) MM
cartridge with 5.5 mV out into a 200pF load.
Instead of mentioning all the mediocre vinyl records listened
to during this review, I'll focus on only one really good
representative album and a single track for both cartridges. An early mint
pressing Gaucho by Steely Dan [MCA 6102] side A the second track "Hey
Nineteen". Unexpectedly, and right out of the preamp packing, you hear
attention grabbing dynamic contrasts that impart a sense of pace and
excitement. I crank up the volume and the recording has me singing along
repeating a phrase. The sound between my loudspeakers is very three-dimensional,
with imaging being both wide and deep. The personal effect is hard to describe
yet very convincing. If you will imagine watching a meteor shower on a dead
black night, you might unexpectedly see very brief flashes of light. There is a
similar effect like a single note from a plucked steel guitar string. It lasts a
split second, and then it is gone. It emerges out of a black space between my
speakers as if by magic. I am describing a very fast transient sound from
a very silent electronic background.
Also want to mention one odd finding. Switching capacitive
loading of the MM Ortofon 2M cartridge between 100 pico farads and 200 pf
causes a large shift of the relative amounts of bass and treble. The frequency
change is to a greater degree than any phono amplifier in my experience. As a
matter of fact, it almost functions like a tone control. Increasing cartridge
loading from 100 pf to 200 pf produced a frequency shift upward that enhanced
the mid-range and treble frequencies. Conversely, at 100 pf there was more of an
emphasis on bass.
Input #2, Denon 103. MC Cartridge 0.3mV
@ 100 Ohms
This Denon 103 cartridge is probably the most ubiquitous
moving coil (MC) ever made. Let's duplicate that first go round, back to the
Steely Dan recording "Hey Nineteen." Once again a delightful wide open
window on the performance. Imaging is open laterally but image depth not quite
as deep as my reference six valve Tavish phono stage. If ever you read a
description referring to "music layered over a black background", then
this is partially due to the amplifier's electronic circuit's noise level.
This would be more noticeable with a low output MC cartridge. Here's where the
analog experts at VPI mentioned to me more than once, as they are justifiably
proud it is actually dead quiet. Once again, the Voyager transient speed imparts
a real sense of excitement. The Denon103 cartridge has a deeper more defined
bass response than my Ortofon Silver 2M MM cartridge this adds a greater sense
of power displayed on a broad scale.
Ultimately, the results you get from your high-end audio
system are influenced by many factors. It is the legendary computer programmer's
axiom about GI = GO, meaning garbage in then garbage out. Fortunately, my job
was made very easy due to the strong character of VPI's Voyager turntable
being hard to ignore. This is high-tech solid-state, fast and quiet. All
at once (with the right material) portraying a spatially refined, detailed, and
realistic performance. If you were to survey all the phono amplifiers within the
market place, you would find that VPI's Voyager price is very reasonable and
approximates the mid-scale in value. If you have a collection of vinyl LPs or
are on your way to building one, my advice is to buy VPI Industries' Voyager
turntable. There are many wonderful things to love! You might be surprised just
how far today's phono amplifiers have evolved too. The last step in the
acquisition process might be to convince the household Minister of Finance of
the value proposition. It is well worth it!
Enjoy the music and from me, Semper Hi-Fi!