Just when you thought turntables were a long forgotten relic from the olden days, it seems that every manufacturer is pumping them out all over again. The vast majority of the recent releases however (outside of Technics of course) have come from the Hanpin factory, and are largely reworkings of their established DJ-5500 aka super OEM unit. But not the Denon DJ VL12 Prime, for this is a different factory entirely. Briefly covering this — DJ manufacturers largely don’t have their own manufacturing, and instead subcontract factories in the far east to do the work for them. Most use the tried and tested Hanpin factory, but Numark and Denon DJ (and Gemini in the past) use Yahorng.
But the VL12 is no super OEM, and is designed and built mainly from the ground up. There are some familiar parts, but we’ll get to that.
THE USUAL DISCLAIMER
At DJWORX, we review gear and write a lot of opinion. We don’t do walkthroughs, or write detailed explanations about how things work. That’s the job of the manufacturers, to deliver manuals and tutorials. So be sure to visit the Denon DJ site for learn all about the VL12 Prime and read the manual too. Once you’ve done that, you can read our opinions about how we feel about what it does.
IN A NUTSHELL
The VL12 Prime is a new turntable that complements the SC5000 Prime and X1800 Prime units. It has nothing new fangled and fancy function wise, but has been reimagined to be an alternative turntable for DJs that want something different. It has all (well most) of the usual features, but has the addition of the LED ring around the platter and some new isolating feet. There’s so much more than that, so let’s get to it.
“Different” is the first word that comes to mind, for the VL12 definitely does some things its own way, but others it does rather conform to established norms. It does however remind me very much of the old Vestax A2s, both in design and features.
If you look from the top only, it’s pretty much the same layout as any other turntable in the marketplace, with the addition of the pitch range controls and an LED ring around the platter. It seems that the 40+ year old Technics workflow is a very hard one to break away from.
But get yourself at eye level, and you’ll see the very obvious differences. Firstly the orientation of the deck is quite a shift from everything else out there. Allow me to explain — 99% of DJ turntables are designed to be used in regular orientation, with the long edge to the front, the tonearm on the right, and the cables hanging out of the back. But the VL12 is different in that to access the LED/torque controls and to keep the cables at the back, the whole turntable needs rotating 90° to battle position.
Now, if you use your turntables in regular orientation, this does mean that the controls aren’t accessible on one deck, and the cables come out the side on the right hand side. Luckily the cables are recessed, and the supplied ones are right-angled too so there’s no issue with pushing your turntables up to your mixer. And I’m pretty sure that the controls are a set-and-forget affair anyway. I see no deal breaker here.
The other unusual touch here are the inset feet. Traditionally turntable feet are in the corners of the chassis, but the VL12 Prime has then inset by 20mm on the long edge and 35mm front and back. Other than aesthetics and differentiating the VL12 from the crowd, I’m not seeing any real benefit other than having more places to easily run cables. Oh the recessed feet did allow me to squeeze the full Prime setup onto my custom table in the Worxlab. Having DJ’ed in some tight locations, that’s a big win for me.
I will leave this section with a comment about aesthetics. While the VL12 Prime is obviously a looker, it’s a real mixed bag in terms of style. Back at NAMM 2016 (a full two years ago now), we saw a stealth mode dark prototype, and universally fell in love with it. It looked stunning, but by the time of DJ Expo 2016, it had developed a mixture of cheaper looking chrome and anodised parts, and now has a mixture of dark and light side panels, emblazoned with the Denon DJ logo. While I wish it still had its dark parts, deciding on chrome or anodised would have been better. Sticking with black would have pleased me more, but I guess that’s down to personal taste.
On a tenuously related note, there’s no lid, and no way to fit one with hinges. At least the ever-brilliant Decksavers have just the thing for the VL12s.
But when all is said and done, the first impression is very good indeed. The VL12 is unique in many ways — some iffy, but largely good.
The first thing I always do when installing a lump of review gear is to shake it. This test definitely sorts out the wheat from the chaff, and in the case of the VL12 highlighted that I need to work out more. It weighs in at a hefty 27lb, and is comparable to the PLX-1000 and STR8-150, with the Technics coming in a couple of pounds lighter.
The top is brushed black steel, held in place with enough screws to make me wish there were less — a full 19 on the faceplate plus 4 either side. They obviously have a function, but take a little away from the overall look. But they certainly do make it feel secure. Interesting side note — in a bid to deter the casual intruder, Denon DJ has gone all Torx screws on the VL12. As if that would stop the trusty Worxdriver.
The chassis is a heavy slightly rubberised affair. Without breaking out the Torx bits on the Worxdriver, the base is VERY solid, like hurt your hand when you hit it solid. I’m told it’s an exoskeleton — I like technical terms like that.
The platter gets a lot of weight added to the back of it via a hefty layer of rubber. This isn’t for fake weight, because a platter just doesn’t need it, but is to help with feedback isolation, as is much of the design of the VL12 Prime.
Another note on the platter — while the current super OEM derivative turntables stick the usual platter dots, the VL12 Prime has ridges (like the Numark TTX before it), notably with smooth areas that makes using the platter edge for pitch control less of a cheese grater affair.
The rest of the components feel no worse or no better than the rest of the market. The buttons are brightly backlit hard plastic, but the quartz reset and range buttons could do with being a tad brighter.
A comment about the “reinterpreted, dual function (lock/rest) support” — I don’t like it. I get the idea, and in principle it’s a good one. But the execution means that it has the potential to spring right off the rest back onto the vinyl (experience shows this to be the case). I’d probably get used to it though.
Something I’m missing is a start/stop break adjust. Thanks to 5kg of startup torque, the platter spins up and stops within 0.3 seconds, making long spin downs impossible unless you use the power off, which then turns your brightly lit deck (which is the USP of the VL12 Prime) into a black hole. I’m probably getting picky (but you expect that of me right?), and those used to doing this on 1200s and similar won’t have a problem.
One thing I do like that isn’t widely publicised is the inclusion of two different target lights. The chrome one emits a cold light, and the black one has a warmer LED. It’s a nice touch, that also lets you customise your experience.
No, not the nightmare inducing horror film, but the key differentiator of the VL12 Prime from every other turntable available off the shelf. Via other inMusic group company products, LED lighting has become quite the thing. The Numark Lightwave speakers in particular floated our boat in a much bigger way than expected. And this type of feature has made it to the VL12 Prime turntable.
There’s nothing especially complex about it — a ring of LEDs sits under the edge of the platter, and the colour (full RGB plus an ice white) and brightness (off, dull, bright) can be changed via recessed controls on the front… well my front — it depends on the orientation of the turntable.
But as glorious and lush as the LED ring is, I feel that there’s a massively missed opportunity. The one thing that really drew me to the Lightwaves was how the LEDs interacted with the music. Be it a pulse or as a meter, the LEDs were more than just show. If only the VL12s did the same thing — it would have been completely epic.
ABOUT THE TONEARM
When the VL12 Prime was first announced, there was much chatter about it being a super OEM (which it is not in the accepted Hanpin/DJ sense of the phrase), but also that the tonearm was just like older turntables from Gemini. Now I naturally adopted a defensive role on behalf of Denon DJ because I couldn’t prove one way or another if it was an old or new tonearm.
Now I’m not about to go out and buy a secondhand Gemini turntable for the sake of a review. But in all the photos I can lay my hands on, the VL12 Prime tonearm really does look to be more or less the same model as old Gemini turntables like the PT2400 and PDT6000. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad tonearm at all — in testing it performs as well as any other S arm I’ve used, but isn’t a patch on straight arms for stability. If pushed with scratching, it will skip. Even with a lot of weight, the height adjustment at max, and the normally unskippable Ortofon S-120s installed, it wasn’t difficult to make it skip with vigorous scratching. It has got better over time, but that’s down to adaptation of style.
I think the issue is partly me — I’ve become so used to straight arms over the years that S arms just seem unstable by comparison. For those DJs that use DVS in relative mode as standard, it doesn’t really matter at all. But if you’re still playing all-vinyl sets and trying to pull off more adventurous tricks, you might struggle more than you’d like with the VL12s. I know I did.
But for mixing, it’s absolutely fine. In reality all tonearms are fine for mixing if set up correctly. I’ve heard of issues with loose tonearms. Just tighten up the gimbal screw on top and it’s fixed. With the amount of transportation that these go through, I’m not surprised that things get loose.
Outside of the LED ring, the other key feature of the VL12 Prime is feedback isolation. This is bass vibration that works its way back to the headshell and turns into a dreadful howl. There have been all manner of inventive ways to reduce it from concrete slabs and half tennis balls, and more technology driven solutions such as MK Stands feet.
But the VL12 Prime has been specifically engineered to reduce the need for extra solutions by building extra damping into the turntable itself. As mentioned previously, the platter has a full rubber backing, and the baseplate appears to have a big slab of noise absorbing material. And let’s not forget the aforementioned feet — they’re especially squidgy and designed to reduce feedback.
It seems to me that the easiest way to see if it all works is, like the MK Stands feet review, to stand it straight onto a sub and see if or when the feedback kicks in.
Cranking up the volume yielded queasy stomachs and a sense of disorientation as the bass boomed while shaking the whole building (it’s a small building). But not a moment of feedback occurred — no howl or skipping needles, just rock solid and physically painful playback. I consider this a very big win for the VL12 Prime.
The downside of this mix DJ friendly isolation is with the squidgy feet themselves. They cause a good amount of movement when scratching. I’m used to my assorted turntables staying put when in use, but the VL12s have a definite wobble about them which may in part be a reason for my small issues with scratching.
So we’ve already touched on my issues with hands-on techniques. I found that I can scratch, but it’s not hard to make it skip.
So when all is said and done, it’s the ability of the VL12 to play and mix records that matters. Much of the feature set is set and forget — low or high torque and LED colour isn’t likely to be something that you meddle with mid set. You’re unlikely to swap target lights out either.
For the readers who set a lot of salt by numbers and specs, the important one tends to be wow and flutter. Technics was legendary in having a stated 0.01%. Many audiophile decks can’t hit this number. Most DJ turntables are quoted at 0.1-0.15%, but the VL12 offers 0.05% (Reloop now quotes 0.01%), a number that should prick a few ears up.
Annoyingly, I wanted to use my recently discovered Dr Feickert Platterspeed app and 7″ vinyl combo to test the accuracy of the claimed 0.05% wow and flutter spec. Sadly with the advent of iOS11, this no longer works, or ever will again by the sound of it. I have however read on an audiophile forum that the VL12 Prime has been measured at 0.05%.
To clarify, I’m not talking about pitch resolution when I quote these numbers — that’s something else that’s quoted in similar numbers. Unfortunately I have no info on pitch resolution, and without a readout on the deck itself, it’s hard to get an accurate machine (as opposed to software) reading.
I’ve never had much of an issue with holding mixes on any DJ turntable I’ve owned. And it’s not different with the VL12 Prime either. I was able to lock doubles of LPs from beginning to end and hold long mixes too without issue. This in part lends to my lack of care for numbers — I let my hands and ears decide, and in the case of the VL12 Prime, I found no problem. Like the PLX-1000, Technics fans may not like the precision of the digital pitch compared to the step-free nature of the older analogue ones. You’ll just need to try it for yourself to decide.
Now here’s a weird one. The pitch fader has no centre click (not a necessarily a bad thing), but it also has a centre light that only comes on when you press the reset button. So unless you put your trust in the target light, or use DVS to get a screen reading, you can never be 100% sure of zero pitch without reset being enabled. This is not like the SC5000 Prime, where the centre light comes on at 0%.
A related side note — in recent times, it seems that some audiophiles have been looking at DJ turntables as capable listening units. And from my VL12 research, said audiophiles seem to be quite happy, which is a tough thing to achieve.
Rounding off, the VL12 Prime performs exactly as it should. Scratch performance is good while mixing is great. Isolation however is the real star here. And visually, using the VL12 Prime is a unique experience.
For me, the VL12 Prime sets out to do more than your average turntable, but is essentially a box ticker for Denon DJ. The star of the Prime show is the SC5000 Prime, and everything else in the range is likely to be in the shadows in comparison. So rather than push boundaries and deliver new features, the VL12 Prime simply allows Denon DJ to fill a booth with Prime gear, and in style.
I find myself in a quandary though. I’ve been spoiled by the Numark TTX1 and more recently the Reloop RP8000, and have got very used to having every conceivable feature available to me for the best part of 15 years. So when I step up to a very expensive turntable that misses all the things I’ve become accustomed to, the omissions stand out more than the features. And these are features that appear in competitive decks at a cheaper price too.
But put a pair or VL12s in front of most people accustomed to other turntables, especially Technics, and I’m sure that they’re going to be very happy indeed. As has been proven time and time again, the majority of the DJ world seems happy with the 1200 and its relatively limited feature set, so why stray too far from that established format? The orientation is a weird one for some, but I welcome it.
The VL12 Prime however strays far enough from the Technics blueprint to make it worth a look. The problem however is with price. There are some strange regional pricing anomalies right now — for example, the VL12 Prime is $899 vs $699 for the Pioneer DJ PLX-1000, whereas in the UK, just £30 separates the VL12 Prime (£629) from the PLX-1000 (£599). So in terms of comparisons, it’s a hard call. Speaking strictly from a UK perspective, the VL12 Prime and PLX-1000 are £160-190 more than the new Reloop RP-7000 MK2, which really does tick 95% of most DJ’s boxes and a few that the VL12 Prime doesn’t tick at all.
But when all is said and done, the VL12 Prime is a welcome breath of fresh air in a market hell-bent on simply reproducing the venerable 1200. From a certain perspective i.e. top down it does try to do that, but it definitely brings enough differences in looks and features to be a worthy addition to the DJ turntable market.