SDS first will give you the biggest bang for your upgrade dollar. The ring is great but having to replace the platter makes it a pricey upgrade.
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It would have to be the platter/bearing. Sonically this would give you the biggest improvement as the newer inverted bearing/acrylic platter is a big jump over the old bearing. Moreover, it has a provision to further upgrade by way of the outer ring which will improve your sonics to another level. While at it change to the HR-X record weight with the ring. The SDS is essential but I would put it last. It will not give you the same sonic improvement the platter/bearing and outer ring/HR-X record weight would.
I have an Aries and have in the past pondered the same question, but I have a good friend with a TNT who has tried both, and have benefitted from his experience.
The acrylic platter and outer ring combo yield a more neutral sound than the cork/lead/acrylic platter, and the bearing on the former is quieter. The older platter, however, is warmer and some may prefer its sound in certain systems.
In short, the acrylic platter / outer ring combo are not necessarily better, just different.
Gmuffley - Are you sure the new plattler doesn't weigh as much or more than the original? Just going from memory, which is dangerous, but I thought I remembered the new one feeling heavier. Perhaps this was only with the ring clamp installed.
Taters - The way I went was SDS then Platter & ring, Am still running the stock motor and plan to keep it. As all three tweaks are designed to do the same thing but in a different way (provide the most consistent speed possible) I suspect that whichever change you decide to make first will be the one that provides the most significant improvement.
Raquel - I wonder if some of the warmer sound you mentioned is related to the new versus old center weight/screw arrangement. When I bought the new center weight VPI told me to keep the old one as it sounds warmer and some may prefer it.
Taters, the motor upgrade is available from Elusive Disc, Music Direct, and VPI themselves. The upgrade is the motor only, not the housing and power cord. The $695 must have been for the complete assembly, which you don't need. There is also a motor/flywheel combo available for $900 which should be an even bigger upgrade than the motor alone. As for the original question, I think a used SDS would be the beter choice only because the platter/bearing/ring clamp/weight will probably have to be bought new (>$1000). The SDS comes up used quite often and are as cheap as $600.
I have a friend who bought a demo VPI Aries TT with VPI 12in. tonearm for CAN$3500. He also told me that the motor is noisy from day one, the rubber drive belt is lousy(transmitting all the noise and vibration to the platter) and the speed of the TT is not accurate. He is not happy with it at all. It is amazing that an expensive TT like this has all these problems in the first place. If you really follow the upgrade path as suggested, you will spend alot of $$$ and still end up with a second rated TT.
My advice is do not do any upgrade now. I will sell the VPI ASAP and buy another well designed TT instead when you have the $$$.
The noise you are referring to is caused by a dirty, or worn out belt. clean it with wipes. Put the newly cleaned belt in a plastic pouch with corn starch or foot powder. Shake the pouch and take belt out and re-install. This should be done at least every 3 months. However if belt belt in already yellowish in color, it is time to replace. The newer nitrile (black) belts are much better but needs to be cleaned too.
I'll leave it to others to note the virtues of the various upgrade paths on the Aries, but one unmentioned benefit of the SDS will be for the first time, you'll have precise correct speed on your Aries, which without the SDS is probably just slightly off.
The Ramp down of voltage should also help with the motor, regradless of which one you have, or opt to use. Mark