After a few years tailing V.Y.G.E.R.s at various hi-fi shows, I noted with great relief the recent arrival of the company's "sane" offerings. Probably named after the plot maguffin in the first Star Trek movie, something which should be held against it, V.Y.G.E.R. arrived with air-bearing everything: pumps, vacuums, Jules Verne-ian hardware, improbable dimensions and eye-watering prices. With the entry-level Timor and the magnetically-shod Baltic M, it's as if someone slapped the designer upside the head and said, "Get real." Which he did.
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Two entry-level models, though, place V.Y.G.E.R. (yes, pronounced "veejer" like in the Trekkie opus, and thus further evidence of a less-than-taut grip on maturity) in a market with offerings at roughly a tenth of the price of the debut model. And here the competition includes SME, Basis, VPI and so many others.
V.Y.G.E.R boss Pino Viola, though, is feisty, and he attacks everything with a warlike enthusiasm. He clearly knows his way around machine tools, has specific ideas about how an LP should spin and intends to make his wares accessible to a far greater number of music lovers than those who can afford the comical Atlantis or Indian-uber decks.
For the Baltic M and the less robust Timor, the complicated, air-sucking stuff has been chucked out, leaving us with a blessed example of less is more engineering. The two are so alike that the following description includes the Timor's differences in brackets.
Baltic M consists of a triangular chassis machined from 40mm (30mm) solid blocks of aircraft grade aluminum, with a tonearm base fitted to the side, itself machined from a 20mm solid block of the same material. This is left in natural metal and engraved with the model name, while the main chassis and motor housing are offered in metallic red, blue, silver or anthracite pearlescent finishes. The chassis rests on three adjustable, absorbent feet. Here you find the primary difference between the Baltic M and the Timor: the former's feet incorporate a magnetic suspension system, while the latter's do without magnet isolation.
Fitted to the center of the triangular chassis is a sealed housing with two fitted, sintered three-point bronze bearings, supporting a 7kg (5.5kg), 40mm (30mm) thick machined aluminum platter with a gloss black acrylic mat. As I found out, it attracts fingerprints the way Paris Hilton attracts paparazzi.
Drive is via a belt around the platter, and here I found the only operational hassle: although I've been assured my experiences are isolated, I found it tricky to prevent the belt from riding up and down the platter, even by only as much as the diameter of the belt itself. Sound seemed not to be affected, and three different strobe discs showed no speed drift, but it is disconcerting. Perhaps one day V.Y.G.E.R. will wax specific about the precise location of the outboard motor housing and pulley, and about height matching. Until then, let your dealer install it.
Within the nicely-finished external housing is an electronically commutated three-phase, brushless, high-torque motor, with "motor commutation and speed selection, supervised by an eight-bit micro-controller." On the top is a three-way toggle for 33/off/45 speed select and a fine-tuning control, and the power via a 100V-240V (50/60Hz) wall wart feeds into its base. The chunky Baltic M has dimensions of 510x430x180mm (WDH), but it weighs 26kg to the lesser deck's 22kg. Both come with a slip-on record clamp, while the Baltic M comes supplied with an SME 312 and the Timor has a Rega RB300. In both cases, these are arms that are above reproach in their price categories. Here, they're all but freebies.
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This deck christened my new SolidSteel two-tier table (also Italian!) and was fed into both the Copland CTA405 integrated amp and the McIntosh C2200 pre-amp/MC2102 power amp. Speakers included Sonus faber Guarneri and Rogers LS3/5A. A mere five minutes in charity shops had recently rewarded me with mint UK pressings of the double The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, and - hurrah!!! - the pic sleeve seven-inch single of Mr. Big's "To Be With You," all for 1.25.
Using Air-Tight, Transfiguration Orpheus and Blue Angel (ruby cantilever) m-c cartridges, I explored the differences between the V.Y.G.E.R., the Kenwood L-07D and the SME 20/12. To my everlasting delight, the Italian upstart more than held its own, although not in the way I'd expected: conditioning led me to think its isolation would allow it to slaughter the virtually suspension-less Kenwood, with lower noise floor and wider dynamics, but it didn't. Neither could it approach the SME in that area.
But the Baltic M did produce sound with superb sturdiness and low-end punch, its bottom octaves as firm and controlled as the SME's, if lacking the SME's extension. Because of this, it sounded a bit light in comparison, particularly evident with the percussion on The Ballad of the Green Berets. My newfound treasures, though, wouldn't tax the bottom octaves quite so much, so I tried all three discs in succession and concentrated on the all-important midband, on openness, three-dimensionality and other areas where vinyl pees all over CD.
In terms of stage dimensions, the V.Y.G.E.R. cannot compete with the stage width of either the SME or the elderly Kenwood, but its front-to-back depth is something to behold. Absolute stage width aside, one is still able to wallow in the wide open spaces of the Orbison and Robbins recordings, which date from the era when stereo was new enough to inspire engineers to go for the Cinerama effect. With the more congested presentation that is "To Be With You", the Baltic M excelled instead through delivery of all the woodiness of a hard-strummed acoustic guitar, and the blended vocals were nothing short of gorgeous. This carried through to the crystal-clear voice of the Big O, as well as the resonance of Marty Robbins.
Sonically, I can only criticize the V.Y.G.E.R.'s slightly less quiet handling of tracing noise than the much dearer SME, as it has no trouble matching the L-07D in this area. Typically, the tradeoffs are minor, so that one only has to listen to this turntable and weigh against one's personal preferences the narrow but deep soundstage, the deliciously tight but slightly truncated bass and a noise floor unlikely to worry CD devotees. But more than anything, the deck just looks so terrific, some might buy it for that reason alone, even if its price is in the 3400/$7000 region.
Only minor reservations from this confirmed SME user: I'm concerned about the lack of specific instructions for motor positioning and I hate that glossy platter ... and not just because it's a fingerprint magnet. On the upside, the Baltic M is handsome, well-made and sounds just dandy. Oh, and it's Italian, which in my world is worth five bonus points