Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviewers' ChoiceAccording to Wikipedia, “Cliffwood is an unincorporated community located within Aberdeen Township in Monmouth County, New Jersey, United States.” As of the 2010 US Census, the population of Cliffwood’s ZIP Code Tabulation Area, 07721, was 2974.

Possibly Cliffwood’s greatest claim to fame, at least among audiophiles, is that it’s also the long-time home of VPI Industries, a manufacturer of highly regarded turntables and record-cleaning devices founded more than 40 years ago by Sheila and Harry Weisfeld. Harry still runs VPI, along with his son, Mat. Recently, they decided to pay tribute to the company’s hometown by naming their entry-level turntable “the Cliffwood.”

Cliffwood

VPI proudly proclaims that all their turntables are made in America—in New Jersey—by a small group of dedicated turntable pros. Their line ranges in price from the Cliffwood at $1000 (all prices in USD) to the Reference series, whose top model, the Vanquish, goes for an astounding $95,000. Obviously, as Access is dedicated to reviews covering the best of the entry level, our subject is the Cliffwood.

Description

Cliffwood turntables are about as basic as they come, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Cliffwood is a good-sized table (19″L x 14″W x 6″H), with a solid plinth that’s constructed of MDF and wrapped in one of three vinyl coverings: black, white, or a dark grey-brown that VPI calls Truffle. The only control is a push-on/push-off power switch at the lower left of the plinth surface. The complete turntable weighs 12.9 pounds—7 pounds of that is devoted to the 11.5″ aluminum platter. The wow-and-flutter specification for the 600rpm motor is said to be 0.1%. The feet, unlike those of many other turntables, are not shock-absorbing, so it’s best to mount the Cliffwood on a stand designed specifically for a turntable.

The 9″ arm is made of aluminum; it’s straight with the cartridge mounted in such a way as to create the necessary offset. The headshell is not removable. There’s a cueing system that operates silently and smoothly to raise and lower the arm from the disc. I asked Mat Weisfeld if VPI designed the arm in-house. “Yes, we had previous issues with a different type of gimbal arm, and this round, we wanted a rock-solid arm that a new turntable customer could easily use without breaking it. I think we nailed it!”

I also asked him about the use of aluminum for the arm and platter. He responded, “The arm and platter NEED to be made of some type of metal. When we decided to make the Cliffwood, which was meant to be a more cost-effective high-end alternative, we wanted to highlight the use of metal in both the arm and platter since those are usually the first places others would cut the corners.” My Cliffwood was equipped with the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, which seems to be the flavor of the season with many manufacturers.

Cliffwood

The back of the turntable contains the usual pair of RCA pin jacks plus a connection point for a ground/earth wire. In addition, there is a socket for a standard grounded AC cord. It’s interesting that while most manufacturers use the low-voltage wall-wart power supplies, VPI has chosen to build its power supply within the turntable. This was another point I brought up with Mat, who said with some passion:

We tried it [a wall wart]. I don’t know how anyone can stick with it. The wall wart is terrible for a customer and grounding their table. They work great for laptops, but any company that uses wall warts, learn from my mistakes: NEVER use a wall wart! It made life easier from an international shipping standpoint, but it was a 50/50 change. The system should have a ground, [but]wall warts don’t have that third pin. At Capital Audiofest six years ago, every table with a wall wart had grounding hum on the 2nd floor but no hum on any other floor!

VPI doesn’t supply the RCA interconnects or the ground wire, so you get to roll your own. I used a 0.5m pair of Dayton Audio interconnects plus some 24-gauge hook-up wire I had in my stash for the ground/earth connection.

The packaging for the unit is among the very best I’ve seen. It holds the turntable firmly, and there’s no possibility of it jostling around. The owner’s manual is terse but provides all one needs to get the unit up and running. The Cliffwood comes with a one-year limited warranty. I enjoyed knowing my unit was built and tested by “Vincent.” Hats off to you, Vincent, you did a fine job!

VPI

When I unpacked the turntable, I was surprised it didn’t include a dust cover. I asked Mat why and he answered, “We don’t believe they are that necessary, and none of us [his family] ever uses a dust cover at home. No dust cover also reduces the final retail price for the customer.” He noted that they are available through third parties if the buyer wants one.

Setup and operation

Turntable manufacturers have made giant strides in terms of turntable setup these days. Turntables have always had a reputation for being “fiddly”—i.e., for requiring a lot of steps to get them up and running. Not the Cliffwood. I opened the box, followed the manual’s instructions to remove the custom-fitted foam insulation and set the Cliffwood on my shelf. I took the stylus guard off the cartridge, removed a twist tie that held the arm to its mount, plugged in the interconnects and the power cord, and attached the ground/earth wire. The cartridge and even the counterweight are installed at the factory. I did check the preset tracking pressure (15mN or 1.5 grams) and determined that it was somewhat high at about 2.25 grams. I loosened the Allen nut in the counterweight and adjusted the force with my Shure SFG-2 stylus tracking force gauge. Adjusting the counterweight took only a couple of minutes. Mounting the drive belt was a breeze as there are ridges on the side of the platter into which the belt positions itself—absolutely no craziness is involved. That was all there was to it. It took no more than ten minutes.

VPI

Operation couldn’t be much simpler—put the record on the platter’s felt slip pad, make sure the pulley is set correctly (there’s a smaller spindle for 33s and a larger one for 45s), switch on the power, use the cueing device to lower the stylus—and sit back and enjoy. I did follow VPI’s directions, which suggest that you give the Cliffwood at least 20 hours of break-in time. In that time, I only actually listened to one cut briefly so as not to color my reactions. I wanted to wait until the turntable was totally ready.

Listening

No musical instrument I know of has a broader frequency range than the piano. And few non-amplified instruments can present such a wide dynamic range. That’s why I started my serious listening to the Cliffwood with a 1979 Deutsche Grammophon LP of Lazar Berman performing the original score of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (DG 2531096). The first thing I found was that I needed to clean the disc better: during quiet passages, the surface noise was noticeable. However, the overall dynamics were good, with thundering bass notes and nearly crystalline highs. The soft passages were handled with delicacy and attacks and releases of the strong chords were nearly instantaneous—there isn’t much in the way of hall acoustics present on the recording.

Cliffwood

Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue album from 1959 (in this case, a Mobile Fidelity 45rpm pressing, MFSL 2-45011) is considered by many to be possibly the best jazz recording of all time, as well as Davis’s personal masterpiece. The tune “All Blues” is described in the original liner notes—by the group’s pianist on the date, Bill Evans—as “a series of five scales, each to be played as long as the soloist wishes until he has completed the series.” Davis is using his famous muted trumpet for his solos; Cannonball Adderley adds some fairly straight-ahead jazz to his; John Coltrane’s tenor is a bit more, shall we say, “experimental” in tone. The listening experience was, in a word, wonderful! The original Columbia recording was masterful and the VPI’s reproduction on my system made it seem as if the sextet had gathered in my music room. The sound was detailed without being fussy. The 45rpm pressing brings out all the nuance in this album. This recording really liked the Cliffwood/2M Red combination.

There are few chants in rock as plaintive as Sting’s “I want my . . . I want my MTV” from “Money for Nothing” (Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms, Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2-441). Boy! Did it ever come out in full form with the Cliffwood/2M Red. The image of the drums in the opening, of course, seemed almost 20′ wide, and the bass had physical slam. Yet the sound of the muted cowbell beating along in the left channel was noticeable—frankly, I’d not recognized it before. As I’ve noted in past reviews, the 2M Red likes to rock, and it does so admirably on this song when coupled with the Cliffwood.

There are many great female jazz singers, but one I believe is often overlooked is Ohio’s Nancy Wilson. A great example of her artistry is the album But Beautiful (Capitol ST-798) and the song “I Thought About You.” She is backed on the album by the Hank Jones Quartet: Jones on piano; Grady Tate on drums; Ron Carter, bass; and Gino Bertachini, guitar. Wilson could go from a breathy whisper to a gospel-based fortissimo in a second. On this album the instrumentalists are spread out behind her, with Hank Jones’s piano directly behind. As this is an album consisting mostly of ballads, the lack of drums isn’t a factor. Her voice was reproduced in all its glory by the Cliffwood/2M Red, and the group was placed just as they should be. Nice recording, nicely reproduced.

VPI

The Manhattan Transfer has always been one of my favorite groups, so I next went to their The Best of the Manhattan Transfer (Atlantic SD 19319) and “Four Brothers.” This is a great uptempo song that shows off the chops of both Man Tran’s members and their backing group. There are lots of transients here from the band: trumpet bursts, a staccato bass line, and a Count Basie-like piano part. The four singers each take a solo and then go into close harmony. Everything was reproduced with clarity and precision by the VPI. I could hear individual voices clearly differentiated during the harmony parts, but I could also just sit back and listen to the four voices working as one.

Comparison

I sat in my music room/office pondering what tune to use for this comparison. Frankly, I was tired of using the same old songs. I wanted something that rocked, had a lot going on musically, and had strong vocals. I chose the Kiki Dee Band’s “I’ve Got the Music in Me,” from the band’s eponymous 1974 album (Rocket Record Company/MCA MCA-458). I pulled it out of my cabinet, cleaned it, and put it on my Dual CS5000 turntable (vintage, used prices vary greatly) with Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge ($299.99). If you’re not familiar with it, the tune starts with a strong, fast but simple bass note, cymbals, and Ms. Dee’s strong vocals. It builds in volume and complexity with a wall-of-sound behind her: piano; electric piano, organ, horns, strings, what sounds like a zither, and goodness knows what else thrown in along with the insistent drum rhythm. The CS5000 and Moonstone offered a somewhat restrained performance—almost mellow in tone, but it still had me tapping my feet. The transients were just that, a quick attack and release.

Then I put it on the VPI Cliffwood with Ortofon 2M Red and let it fly. I had to adjust the volume as the output of the Ortofon is greater than that of the Sumiko. What struck me immediately was that this was not a mellow performance. There seemed to be a fine gauze over the Dual/Sumiko’s reproduction, while there was none of that with the VPI/Ortofon. The bass slam was substantial and the rhythmic reproduction was spot on. The VPI/Ortofon combo was more dynamic than the Dual/Sumiko duo—and it’s much more of a rock’n’roll animal.

As much as I like my Dual/Sumiko, the Cliffwood/Ortofon tandem easily turned in the superior rendition of the song.

Conclusion

This is only the third of the nearly 20 turntables I’ve reviewed for SoundStage! that costs $1000 or more. That’s because I’m a notorious cheapskate and find it difficult to spend that much on anything. However, with the VPI Cliffwood and Ortofon 2M Red, I admit I may have to change my opinion. I’ve heard the 2M Red on several tables I’ve reviewed, but I’ve never heard it sound this good—it’s always struck me as a bit rough around the edges. Not here. The Cliffwood’s arm is a piece of perfect outward simplicity that works as well as any I’ve tried. The motor is silent and turns at exactly the right speeds. The turntable’s appearance is also totally innocuous—a plus as far as my wife is concerned. And despite its lack of suspension, I never had a problem with the arm jumping out of the groove when I walk by it.

VPI

A thousand dollars is a considerable sum, especially for someone who’s new to vinyl or just wants to dip their toes in the water. This turntable would suit not only a newcomer, but also an experienced vinyl lover on a budget who wants something outstanding. If you want performance that will win you over from the very first tune, and you have about a grand to spend, the VPI Cliffwood is the turntable for you.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Analog source: Dual CS5000 turntable with Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge.
  • Phono stage: Simaudio Moon 110LP v2.
  • Preamplifier: Linn Majik-1P.
  • Power amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
  • Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer.
  • Phono cables: Dual (captive with CS5000 turntable).
  • Interconnects: Straight Wire Chorus, Dayton Audio.
  • Speaker cables: Acoustic Research (14 gauge) terminated with Dayton Audio banana plugs.

VPI Cliffwood Turntable with 2M Red Cartridge
Price: $1000 USD.
Warranty: One year, limited.

VPI Industries, Inc.
77 Cliffwood Avenue, Suite 5D
Cliffwood, NJ 07721
Phone: (732) 583-6895

Website: www.vpiindustries.com