There are almost two reviews here; the Prime Signature in its own right, and the Prime Signature viewed through the medium of the original Prime. Both are equally valid ways of thinking about the Prime Signature.
Starting with those approaching the Prime Signature from new, what you are met with is an extraordinarily confident presentation. The Prime Signature always has its feet on the ground, and presents a sound that is solid and stentorian in its depth and range, but also possessed of a sense of musical structure and remarkable midrange openness and, although it sounds almost paradoxical following the use of words like ‘solid’, filigree beauty at the top. It’s hard to think of this in musical terms, and wind up thinking of its performance more like Gaudi’s still unfinished La Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcalona. If you’ve seen (or seen pictures of) this stunning architectural work, you’ll know it rises up from a solid base to produces endlessly fascinating and diminishing towers diminishing to points. Structures dance around other structures; it’s bewildering, complex, and one of the most organic looking structures man has ever made. And the VPI Prime Signature has something of the same properties to the way it makes music. Sounds rise organically out of a solid, near noiseless foundation. It’s closer to listening to just the record than most turntable replay systems at anywhere near the price. In fact, the one that gets closest to the Prime Signature here, is the Prime itself.
Audio reviewers use LPs a bit like test discs. We play the same recordings over and over again, because they contain useful passages that show us what a product is doing. For example, I use an old Decca SXL of the D’Oyly Carte and the LSO playing The Pirates of Penzance because few recordings I’ve heard since give a better sense of stereo image placement and stage width, depth, and height. The problem with all that is we end up listening to those pieces so comprehensively that they become almost musically bankrupt. The Prime Signature is like the musical reset button, which makes these recordings come back to life, for the reasons you used them in the first place.
Yes, the Prime Signature does all the hi-fi things, and does them exceptionally well, in fact. There is a sublime sense of midrange honesty that comes through on small-scale, predominantly acoustic recordings like Beck’s Sea Change [MoFi], but there’s also a wealth of dynamic range that comes across when listening to ‘It’s All Right With Me’ from the Marty Paich Big Band album The New York Scene [Discovery], and there’s endless detail on offer from any of the excellent Chasing The Dragon direct-to-disc cuts. The soundstage too is excellent, with great depth and even height on offer in the aforementioned Decca disc.
More than all this, however, is that the Prime Signature retains that elusive property that VPI got so right on the Prime, and the Classic before that: It makes music enjoyable. I know that sounds a bit odd – no one buys audio equipment that makes music sound bad – but there are a lot of systems that make a big, elegant, and sophisticated sound that no‑one in the world could actually sit down and enjoy, where as the Prime Signature makes a big, elegant, and sophisticated sound that makes you want to pull out those old Led Zeppelin albums and play them at a decent lick. Yes, if your record collection comprises two copies of Cantate Domino and one of Jazz at The Pawnshop, the Prime Signature’s sonic credentials will please you every bit as much as other great decks, but if you view such audiophile confectionary as meaningless fluff, this will make those Fall records sound fun when you need a bit of sonic abuse. This comes because the Prime Signature is both fundamentally pitch stable, and because it has a truly outstanding sense of rhythm and timing.
Like the standard 3D arm, the 3DR works well with almost any cartridge, but is particularly good with Benz, Dynavector, Lyra, Ortofon, and Soundsmith designs. That covers most of the bases today, but a surprising number of VPI decks end up sporting cartridges, and do so for a reason… they sound great together. The best part of this, however, is the 3DR retails the 3D’s ability to wring the best out of lower-end cartridges but not hold back more up-market designs. And also as with the 3D arm, it has an almost seamless frequency response, with the unipivot’s natural tendency for mild roll-off at the extremes ably countered by the turntable design, the Prime Signature and its attendant 3DR arm strike such a perfect balance it makes you wonder why you need to move beyond this level.
Moving to the second part of the test, the best way of viewing the Prime Signature as a Prime owner is thinking of this like the dating game. Imagine you are dating a witty, intelligent, and beautiful girl who could easily be a model. You are invited home to meet the family, only to discover that her sister is brighter, wittier, and models clothes for Victoria’s Secret. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Prime – it remains one of the best turntables you can buy at anything close to the price – but once you try out the Signature, you are in sexier sister territory. You aren’t settling for second best with the Prime, but the Prime Signature just gives you that little bit more, all round.