Arriving with an arm and cartridge plus phono and headphone amplifiers, Paul Rigby reviews the budget turntable, VPI’s Nomad
“We created the Nomad right after we released our $30,000 turntable, the Classic Direct. We got a bit of, ‘Ah, there you go, VPI doesn’t care about us entry-level people any more.’ Also if we did make a $1,000 turntable there was a thought that it might dilute the brand. But we thought…lifestyle. The Nomad is for the person who wants that audiophile experience but who can’t afford the phono amp and the headphone amp and everything else and who also wants to fit it into a small apartment.”
This, according to Mat Weisfeld, is why the VPI Nomad turntable exists, to exploit the lifestyle sector and to take advantage of the current vinyl vogue: yes, vinyl is rather fashionable at the moment. Designed by himself alongside his father and VPI co-founder, Harry Weisfeld, the Nomad is a direct descendent from the company’s Traveler, “The Nomad is more what I envisioned for the Traveler. The latter was supposed be our entry-level design but it was too complicated and wasn’t entry-level enough. It was over-engineered for a turntable in that price range. I’m glad things happened the way they did because I learnt a lot from it.”
The resultant, belt-driven, Nomad (spanning 470x109x343mm and weighing 5.9kg) is a ‘value for money’ package that includes a VPI 10” arm, an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, a built-in non-removable and non-defeatable phono amplifier and headphone amplifier. All constructed within a single, elegant chassis. The company is considering making the phono amp defeatable and removable in future iterations.
During the running-in process. I did notice a certain amount of mechanical noise from the pulley/motor but that didn’t concern Weisfeld, “At this price range, there is detectable noise but there is less concern about that than, for example, if this deck where in the $4,000 price range. We do use shielding and dampening materials to help to reduce noise migration, though,” said Weisfeld.
The plinth and platter are made from a strengthened MDF composite, which is fitted with a Hurst motor, the same type as used in the Scout turntable, “The original bearing was going to be plastic because we were going to include a pair of iGrado headphones,” said Weisfeld. “But then we thought, ‘What the hell are we doing? We’re a turntable company. Everyone has headphones and they’ll probably give the headphones away anyway. I’d rather remove those and use the budget for something else.’ That meant that we swapped the plastic bearing to an aluminium bearing similar to the Scout Jr. It helps with the speed stability.”
The 10” arm, meanwhile, aids tracking error reduction, although the company has found packing it a bit of trial. Future Nomads may revert to a 9” version, “The current model is a tough gimballed yoke arm made from aluminium with a hard Delrin plastic bearing. The Ortofon 2M Red is pre-installed with no set-up. We were looking at the Grado Gold but there was potential hum from the Grado: not good for an introductory customer,” said Weisfeld.
The bespoke phono amp is geared towards Moving Magnet only and is loaded specifically for the Ortofon 2M series in general but the Red specifically, “It has the perfect synergy for it. Although, a recommended upgrade would be a Ortofon Black stylus with a Red body (costing around £380), to keep costs down. If you did put a Grado Gold on there, then it would still sound good but wouldn’t be as jiving as the Ortofon.”
To create the phono and headphone amps, VPI looked towards the electronics suppliers who helped to create the company’s turntable motor speed controller, the SDS. Was VPI concerned about the headphone amplifier’s performance? “A little bit,” confirmed Weisfeld, “but I didn’t want the headphone industry to think that we were coming after them. I said, ‘Let’s make sure that it delivers the sound that we want but if it isn’t up to the same level as the big hitters in the industry then that’ll be fine too.’ Originally, I didn’t want to make it but price was a problem. The other issue was the internal fit. So we looked at Schiit, PS Audio and others but we had to do our own to keep in budget.”
In terms of connections, the rear of the deck features RCA connectors for direct connection into a pre- or integrated amp and a grounding connector and socket for the external power supply, a wall-wart. The top-mounted push power button sits adjacent to the motor flywheel while speed changes demand that the belt be moved to a new pulley.
Set up normally requires the simple addition of the arm’s counter-weight, aided via a pre-marked point on the arm. Our tests showed that the supplied Ortofon 2M Red suffered from stylus misalignment, however, so Henley Designs (www.henleydesigns.co.uk) kindly supplied a replacement.
Reviewing the Nomad turntable is not straight-forward. You cannot just compare this £999 package with another turntable of a similar value and see who wins the head-to-head. The Nomad is, I repeat, an all-in-one, one-stop package not a turntable in isolation. Because it arrives with a headphone stage, it doesn’t even require a pair of speakers. Hence, my initial aim, to compare it with my superbly engineered Michell TecnoDec was flawed. The Michell costs around £900 including arm only. Similarly equipped to the Nomad, the Michell would cost considerably more than that. As such, sporting a newly fitted 2M Red cartridge, the TecnoDec was, unsurprisingly, sonically superior, even coupled with a basic Cambridge 540P MM-only phono amp (now replaced with the 551P at £70), providing more finesse in the airy upper mids, a complex soundstage and tight bass. Instead, I turned to the Rega RP3 for a more sensible comparison.
The Nomad’s built-in phono amp did require more gain than the reference Cambridge 540P phono amp to reach appreciable volume levels. Beginning with the prog rock track, Yes’ Yours In No Disgrace from The Yes Album, despite a lack of extension in both the midrange and treble areas, compared to the RP3, the Nomad had great pace and animation, providing a real party atmosphere and fully embracing the rock dynamics.
The soundstage was a little constrained, with reduced air and space yet the vivacity of the Nomad was obvious. The VPI design offered a rollicking bass guitar, driving the track forwards backed with a forceful suite of meaty percussion.
Moving to Holst’s The Planets and Saturn – the Bringer of Old Age, conducted via Karajan, while the overly controlled soundstage restricted the emotive string section somewhat, when heard alongside the RP3, the strong and powerful brass parts of this track were both impressive and predatory in their presentation, providing a true wallop that pinned me to my chair.
Turning to the built-in headphone stage which offered superior gain to the phono amp, I did notice some slight noise during higher volumes, especially during the quiet periods of classical pieces but nothing too disturbing and certainly nothing during rock music tracks. Sonically, although lacking in finesse and depth, the headphone stage was lively with good instrumental separation and plenty of energy during Yes’ prog track. Upper mids and treble were not particularly extended but the headphone stage remained a ‘fun’ listen. That conclusion was also reached during the dynamic flavours of Holst’s classical piece which, despite a lack of maturity and clarity within the upper mids, provided an overall sense of musicality.
The turntable does suffer from relative restrictions in both upper mids and treble but I suspect that the featured phono amp is to blame here. VPI’s wish to make this unit removable and defeatable is a wise move. Nevertheless, aimed principally at the lifestyle market, the Nomad package remains excellent value for money in terms of its facilities and its plug-an-go set-up. Ideal as an introductory, headphone-based, vinyl system, the Nomad is sonically fun to listen to, providing plenty of joie de vivre that will delight many vinyl fans.
VPI NOMAD TURNTABLE
Tel: 0131 555 3922
Good: musicality, value for money, plug-and-go
Bad: veiled upper mids, restricted treble, phono amp
Rega RP3 turntable
Michell TecnoDec turntable
Cambridge 540P phono map
Cambridge 651A amplifier
Spendor 5R/S3 speakers