What Hi-Fi (UK)
VPI Prime 21+
VPI’S Prime record player has been something of a favourite of ours since we reviewed it back in 2015. Since then, it has become one of our go-to recommendations for anyone wanting a true taste of high-end vinyl replay without a five-figure budget. The new Prime 21 (the number signifies the model year) aims to build on that solid foundation with a series of changes aimed at improving performance, ease of use and cosmetics.
There are two versions of this deck. The ‘+’ model we have on test here includes the brand new VPI Shyla moving-coil cartridge (custom made by Audio Technica) and the company’s Weisline tonearm cable (manufactured by Nordost). The base version of the 21 comes without these two options and costs £4500.
Ringing the changes
While this deck is instantly recognisable as a Prime, VPI’S changes have resulted in a smarter but more conventional deck. The most obvious difference is to the tonearm, which now has a gimbal bearing design rather than the lesscommon uni-pivot of the original. This new arm is a 10.5-inch, 3D printed design that feels less fussy in use than its predecessor. It’s easy to set up, and the bearings feel smooth.
Another obvious generational change is to the Prime’s feet, which are now the same isolating designs as used on the company’s £15,000 HW40 deck introduced last year. These should make this deck less susceptible to external vibrations than before.
The 43mm-thick curvy plinth looks much the same as on the previous model, but is now made up of a 3mm aluminium top plate on an MDF base, rather than having a steel plate tacked onto the underside as before. There’s now a choice of two plinth finishes: the original black or a rather nice walnut option for the MDF section.
The detached AC motor unit has also been tweaked. It still has the same substantial high-mass aluminium casework to control resonances, but the internal control circuit has been updated to help speed stability. The speed change from 33⅓ to 45rpm is done manually by moving the belt from one step on the motor pulley to the next. An electronic option would be preferable, but this works well enough.
That chunky platter is still machined from 6061 aluminium bonded and has a damping plate made of MDF. The whole lot weighs in at a substantial 9kg.
There’s now a felt mat supplied for the platter, but you can still use the deck without it – and we’d be tempted to do so, as the sound is a little clearer and more sharply etched when used this way.
The screw-on record clamp remains unchanged and is well worth using for the improvement in focus and sonic authority it gives the 21’s presentation.
VPI claims that this turntable package can – provided you’ve set up a record player before – be up and running in around 20 minutes and, as we hook it into our reference system, that proves to be the case. Our ‘+’ version comes with the cartridge already fitted and aligned. In performance terms, this moving-coil is certainly good enough to compete with similarly priced alternatives.
Anyone familiar with Prime turntables will find the 21’s sound instantly recognisable, but with improved clarity and precision. This is an immensely confident record player. It sounds big and bold, but underpins that with a pleasing level of subtlety when the music demands.
We start with Orff’s Carmina Burana and are impressed with the VPI’S sonic scale and authority. It’s rare to find a deck at this level that sounds so composed and controlled. There’s plenty of detail and it’s organised in a musically cohesive, open and convincing way.
We love how this record player renders large-scale dynamic shifts and backs them up with a thrilling sense of power. There’s plenty of punch when the music demands, but also an ability to track low-level instrumental strands.
Stereo imaging is good too, with an open and expansive soundstage layered with carefully placed instruments and voices. Importantly, things don’t become jumbled when the music erupts. Those familiar with Carmina Burana will know that it has no shortage of dynamic excesses and dense instrumentation.
We switch to Light A Fire by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and this VPI continues to shine. While it doesn’t quite have the rhythmic snap of Rega’s similarly priced Planar 10 (see p45) or the sheer drive of Vertere’s DG-1 package (p44), neither of those alternatives sounds quite so solid and authoritative.
Power with insight
On the track Kinky Reggae, the bass is firm and deep, and Marley’s voice comes through with clarity and passion. There’s punch here, coupled to a sense of power and a degree of insight that puts this deck among the class leaders.
This is a hugely capable and rounded package that has a wide range of sonic talents along with fine build, easy set-up and plentiful accessories. The Prime turntable has taken a big step forward.