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as reviewed by John Zurek
I think the planets must have been lined up just right that day. I took a break from the grind at work and went for a walk. The Goodwill store is just down the road, and I thought what the hell, maybe they will have some of those cheap CD racks Iíd been looking for. You have to find some way to save money in the audio game. I found a few of the racks, in good shape, for 99 cents no less. Might as well check out the used vinyl stack. Nothing, but as I made my way to the checkout I saw something curious in the cornerósome of those big-box compilations, classical warhorse stuff. Might as well look.
I was expecting some no-name conducting the Longines Symphonette Society. Wrong. This looks promising. It is Time-Life, but these look like 180-gram pressings, the best protective sleeves, and not one shows any sign of being played! Bartok, Stravinsky, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Mendelssohn, List, Provefiev, Debussy. The cast? Guarneri Quartet, Boston with Charles Munch, Fritz Reiner and my Chicago favorites, Leontyne Price, Van Cliburn, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, all heavyweights. And the kingly price for each box set? $3.99. I grabbed them all. Then the cashier tells me itís half-price Friday. A buck ninety-nine each? For once, Iím living right.
I go back to the office. My wife had left a message. I call back. A huge box has arrived, she says, from some company called VPI. I canít believe it. After almost a year of lobbying VPI (with help from Dave Clark) for a review sample of the Scoutmaster turntable, it has finally arrived. What a day! I pick up some champagne on the way home
The next day was Saturdayóenough time to set up the new record player. It didnít take long. VPI includes an alignment jig, and the instructions are decent, though I would have liked some illustrations. The hardest thing was setting the VTA. Once that was accomplished, things went smoothly. I was determined to take my time, even though I was dying to listen. About an hour and a half later, much of that spent leveling my rack, I was ready.
First impression? Mama Mia, I wasnít ready for this! It was just heavenly. My trusty, tricked-out VPI 19 jr was not in the same league. Hell, this wasnít even the same sport. From the VPI website:
The Scoutmaster combines key features from several of VPI's most successful tables. It uses the Aries 2 platter and inverted bearing, a larger version of the steel Scout motor assembly with new fused IEC socket with new 300-RPM motor, and a dual Scout chassis with a steel center. The table stands 19" by 14" and weighs 48 pounds.
This is a good-looking turntableóutilitarian, yet sexy. The huge aluminum adjustable cone feet are a great feature, but also look hot. The finish is not glossy, but it doesnít show fingerprints or dirtóone less thing to clean. The table doesnít use flash where it isnít needed. It does, however, use high-quality parts where required. This is the mark of superb engineering.
I used the ĎMaster with three different phono stagesómy venerable but excellent Black Cube, the killer Cary 302, and the overachieving Wrightóand the astounding (Iím not kidding) Phoenix Gold cable that Myles Astor turned me on to. The Scoutmaster sounded great with all of the phono stages, but it really shone with the Wright. Both the Cary and the Wright are tubed, but have a neutral rather than a romantic sound. The Cary has fewer faults, but the Wright communicates with more feeling. I did most of my listening with the Wright, though Iím still working on some noise problems. Also in the mix were the excellent Ginko Clara-Vu dust cover and Mini-clouds. These are indispensable if you buy a Scoutmaster.
What about the JMW 9 tonearm? Without going into a lot of technical details (you can look at Myles Astorís review for those), I think the JMW 9 matches the Scoutmaster perfectly. In fact, I think that is why this turntable package succeeds so wildly. It took a while to get used the unipivot design. It floats delicately on the head of tungsten pin, and oscillates gently as you lower it. No worries, just be very, very careful when you first use it. It seems perfectly natural now. The other tonearms Iíve used since seem heavy, almost ham-handed. Iím also starting to wonder why other tonearms have a bajillion parts. The elegant, simple design of the JMW 9 does the trick.
The Scoutmaster has a consistent, exciting sound. From the first needle-drop you hear (donít hear?) a silent backgroundóno rumble, none of the low-frequency crap you hear from a lesser product. The resolution of low-level detail is killer. The overall portrait has energy and transparent neutrality. Imaging is solid, and the table projects a huge soundstage that is even from front to back, sidewall to sidewall and beyond. The pace is great, low- and high-end extension impressive. Gone are the days of polite-sounding VPIs. This is the new generation. The Scoutmaster gets out of the way of the music and boogies.
Iíve listened to a lot of live music, from a different perspective than mostóon stage. Is this the ultimate in near-field listening? I think so. From on stage, I could hear every nuance of strings, oboes, tubas, piccolos, you name it. Sometimes I could hear all that a grand piano or string bass had to give. Even with electric music, what I heard on stage was incredible. Itís just not the same thing you hear from the audience (although at times the stage mix can be horrible). This is very close to what I heard and felt with the ĎMaster. Itís all about communication, about feeling the music.
Because I got that wonderful gift of LPs the day the Scoutmaster arrived, I decided that it would be appropriate to concentrate not only on those recordings, but on selections I had actually performed as part of an orchestra:
Bartok, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, Chicago Symphony, Fritz Reiner. You hardly ever hear a good celeste anymore. Seriously, when Bartok combines the sound of unison piano, xylophone, and celeste, you hear an other-worldiness, like a nineteenth-century synthesizeróhaunting and beautiful. The Scoutmaster lets you hear both the overall texture and each instrument. Iíve only been able to hear this live prior to the ĎMaster.
Wagner, overture to Tannhauser, Boston Symphony, Erich Leinsdorf. Although Iím not the keen Wagnerite that the wayward Austrian corporal was, I enjoy a dose now and then. The way Wagner wove complexities between winds and strings always fascinates me. As with most Wagner, there is magic at work in this pieceóthe wanton dance, the spells, the joyful strains, culminating in that grand sound that Wagner does best. He can stir your soul. He certainly stirred mine on this occasion. I felt that poor old Tannhauser was forgiven before he died. The Scoutmaster rendered orchestral crescendos with solid authority. It also truthfully portrayed the oh-so-important low-level microdynamics that give the sense that the music is being performed right there.
Prokofiev, Symphony No 1, Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy. At a time when everyone was experimenting with atonal music and twelve-tone rows, Prokofiev stayed with (or should I say regressed to) pure classical form. He was a neo-classicist, not to be confused with a neo-conservativeóa Haydn of the twentieth century, not a Dubya. The theme is stated immediately by the strings in the first movement, and PRAT is very important to bring this across. Did the Scoutmaster succeed? Without a doubt. It let the music shine through. And the second theme? Just like the first, with a bassoon echoing the statement. Lovely.
I love (almost) all types of music, so I need a component that plays Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Mahler, Zappa, Louis Armstrong, Miles, Monk, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Lucinda, Taj Mahal, Chick Coreaóyou get the picture. Does the Scoutmaster qualify? Yes! It has no prejudices. It treats all music with the respect it deserves, and then some. It excels at emotion, raw and pure. The current generation of VPIs has made a huge leap in the analog world by communicating the essence of music. If I could buy LPs of the music that is only available on CD, my CD player would be long gone. And I love my CD player. How did the Scoutmaster perform in other respects? In six months of use, it was flawless.
The competition? I havenít heard them all, but the ĎMaster smokes all of the turntables Iíve heard in its price range, and mind you, this is the plain-Jane Scoutmaster, not the gussied-up model with the SDS and outer ring. Someday I hope to try those options.
Enough with the gush fest. I love this turntable, yes I do. Itís the finest piece of gear Iíve had the pleasure to review. It is a bargain all by itself, and with the JMW 9 tonearm, it is a super bargain. I canít recommend it enough. Charlton Heston is the last guy I would normally quote, but Harry Weisfeld, you can get this turntable back when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. For the first time ever, I bought the review sample, and Iím keepiní it for a long, long time. John Zurek
VPI Scoutmaster Turntable