Vinyl Epiphany with the VPI Avenger Turntable and KEF Blade Speakers

A few weeks back, I received an intriguing email from Dipinjeet Sehdev, my contact at KEF America, regarding a special speaker installation at a private residence in New Jersey. Little did I know that I was in for a treat so rare, I can count the number of times I have found myself in a similar situation on one finger.

When I arrived, Harry Weisfeld, the founder of VPI Industries, greeted me. It turns out that Harry and his son Mat Weisfeld—VPI’s current president—have put together an audiophile’s dream space in an unassuming residential home near the Jersey Shore.

The two turntable mavens make great company, and what they showed me over the course of a day helped me understand the appeal of vinyl records. Almost all the listening involved KEF’s flagship Blade speakers, set up in an ideal environment—far better than any showroom or audio-show demo I’ve attended.

The highlight of the daylong session was the Avenger turntable. Harry took me on a tour of his record collection, noting that I was the first writer to hear the brand new vinyl spinner. The Avenger’s design features something I have not seen before—magnetic drive. The twin, stacked platters share a spindle, but they turn independently of one another.

You can gee the gap between the top and bottom platters. A belt-drive motor spins the lower segment while magnets link the top and bottom.

A belt-drive motor spins the lower platter, and embedded magnets in both platters allow the lower to spin the upper. The result is a physical decoupling of the drive motor and the record platter, which improves overall performance. The Avenger will debut at the 2015 Capital Audio Fest in Washington DC, taking place August 28-30.

The costs involved with high-end vinyl playback mount quickly; the Avenger I heard employed a $10,000 Atlas phonocartridge. Additionally, the McIntosh C2500 preamp ($6500) is a nice piece of tube-based kit, which fed its signal to VASCitation 2 tube-based monoblock amps ($3000 each). A pair of KEF Blade speakers ($25,000) converted electrical impulses into sublime audio.

Here’s a close view of a dual-chassis VAS Citation 2 monoblock amp.

What surprised me most during the day of listening was the fidelity of the records Harry played. It was a lot like entering a time machine that transports the listener back to the original performance. Before long, I got the point: There’s been surprisingly little progress over the past six or seven decades when it comes to audio quality. Great stereo imaging, deep bass, and crystal-clear highs are all things that have existed for a long time.

Sitting in the room’s sweet spot provided a chance to travel through seven decades worth of stereo recordings.

In terms of discovering the fidelity of familiar older recordings, one of the biggest surprises was “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul and Mary. The vocal harmonies and the bass came through with startling clarity; it’s hard to believe the group recorded it almost 40 years ago.

In a fantastic audio demo, the system often becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. Ideally, a great system offers such flawless presentation that you are never drawn out of the music. I stayed in that zone for most of the day, with only the occasional scratch and pop providing a distraction.

The Blade is KEF’s flagship speaker, and it is a slick piece of transducer technology. It aims to offer full-range audio reproduction (when factoring in-room response) while maintaining the aural advantages of a point-source transducer. Indeed, KEF claims the Blade is “the world’s first Single Apparent Source loudspeaker.”

The Blade moniker refers to the speaker’s shape, which is tall, deep, narrow, and curved. The narrow profile and a rounded front baffle prevent baffle-edge diffraction from interfering with the concentric driver’s output. Meanwhile, four side-mounted 9″ dual-opposed woofers—in a force-cancelling configuration—handle bass.

When you hear them in an optimal setting, there’s no denying that the KEF Blades are reference-class speakers. When used in a traditional 2-channel configuration, they deliver pure audio excellence. Track after track, the Blades served up an aural experience beyond my expectations. Nevertheless, the gap between the KEF Blades and a properly dialed-in system based on subwoofers, satellites, and an AVR was not as far removed as you might think. The law of diminishing returns is (almost always) in full effect when dealing with audio gear sporting five-figure price tags.

The bigger surprise (to me) was how spending big bucks on analog reproduction results in audio playback that truly competes with high-quality digital files. Frankly, before I met Harry Weisfeld, I was a skeptic regarding vinyl’s ultimate potential. Now, I no longer think of vinyl as intrinsically audibly inferior to digital. On a rarefied system such as the one he demoed for me, analog records provide comparable fidelity to a hi-res digital file

Harr Weisfeld, founder of VPI industries, changed my view on vinyl record’s potential for achieving sublime levels of audio fidelity.

An example of an album I do not own and would ordinarily not listen to.

I often ponder the role of production versus gear versus the listening room in achieving exceptional audio reproduction at home. While all three elements are important, many demos leave me thinking the gear is not necessarily the most significant.

However, if you do experience vinyl played back on such a rarefied system, you discover the medium holds more audio information than its specs would indicate. Whether you listen to digital or analog audio, it is hard to beat the experience of hearing a properly set up high-end 2-channel system. That is especially true when such a system is located in a listening room optimized for the task. Ultimately, I hope I get another chance to visit Mat and Harry’s New Jersey audiophile oasis.

Another look at the mighty Avenger turntable.