Ever-presents are a rarity in audio systems – and are almost unheard of in those systems used by reviewers. Yet ever since I graduated from an LP12 in the early ‘80s, first VPI’s turntables and then their tonearms have been a constant presence in my life, starting with the HW-19 Mk III and progressing through a range of TNT and then Classic models, right up to the present day. With three systems running 24/7, two of them feature VPIs: a Classic 4 mounting the (inevitable) 12” JMW tonearm and, the subject of this review, the Avenger. Looking at the startling ’Black Star’ aesthetics it would be easy to assume that this, the base model in the company’s three-legged flagship series marks a serious change in direction, but in fact the Avenger represents the next logical step in what has been an utterly logical and linear developmental path.
The key to VPIs line (and their longevity) is the clarity of thought behind it and the elegant simplicity of its execution. My original HW-19 is not only still going strong, but it has also been periodically upgraded over the years, the latest external power supply being the most recent addition. The fact that the power supply introduced for the Avenger interfaces seamlessly with a model that’s almost 40-years young should give both potential customers and competing manufacturers serious pause for thought. That straightforward practicality is the bedrock on which the VPI turntables have been built and on which their consistent and consistently impressive performance rests, the living embodiment of incremental advance and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It may not be immediately apparent, but the thinking behind and design of the Avenger can be traced directly back to VPI’s earliest products.
One of the company’s earliest designs was a plinth system for Japanese direct drive turntables, featuring a laminated, suspended chassis. Having then built a belt-driven platter to mount in that plinth, it wasn’t long before the motor doing the driving was offered in a separate, mass-loaded standalone housing. Combine those elements with the PEEK thrust pad, inverted bearing and decoupled (as opposed to sprung) feet first introduced with later TNT models and you have the central helix of the Avenger’s DNA. Not surprisingly, the actual execution of the various parts has evolved, being steadily refined over the years, but the building blocks are all distinctly familiar.
Starting with the chassis, the 45mm thick aluminium/acrylic laminated material was first seen in the TNT HRX. Likewise, the conical Delrin feet, topped with threaded industrial isolation inserts that allow both decoupling from external vibrational energy and easy levelling of the deck. Although the original versions stood on three small ball-bearings to ensure stable, point contact, the minimal interface allowed them to ‘walk’ over time, and current versions now rest on an embedded O-ring. The platter, its inverted bearing and the cylindrical motor housing have all come directly from the late model TNTs and that in turn makes the Avenger compatible with all of the TNT accessories, from the external power supplies (although the latest model power supply was introduced alongside the Avenger) to the peripheral record clamp, the screw down centre clamp and the record weight.
By now you might be wondering if the Avenger is just a model re-fresh, an exercise in re-styling an existing product to respond to the vagaries of fashion? But if the big difference between the Avenger and the last TNT is the shape of the chassis and the shift to three legs, the motivation that drove the move was anything but stylistic. Whilst the TNTs might not have been everybody’s cup of Joe, the one thing that nobody could argue with was their size: they were not small turntables, the external motor drive, with or without additional flywheel(s) and the need to accommodate 12” tonearms made for a beast of a record player. So much so that a small industry sprang up dedicated to delivering racks and platforms capable of supporting the monster, while it was practical reservations that drove the development of (reversion to) the Classic models. Yet despite its extensive footprint, the one thing that the TNT never cracked was accommodating two tonearms. Well, the times they are a changin’ and if the size of record players has expanded at the same rate as Western waistlines, the ability to support more than one tonearm has become pretty much mandatory on any serious deck. Ironically, VPI was one of the first companies to take the need to mount multiple cartridges seriously. It has long offered its own solution to the issue of mono or 78 replay in the shape of the JMW tonearm, with its interchangeable arm-tops, a system so effective and easy to use that it has become essential to my reviewing activities. But audiophiles are nothing if not excessive personalities so why have one arm that does the job when you could have two?