A record player works according to a set of principles wildly different from those on which other audio components are based. The LP groove and how it affects the stylus function at the level of the micrometer, or millionth of a meter (0.000001m); given the delicacy of those effects and the relatively blunt instruments that must read and amplify them, it’s a wonder they reproduce any recognizable sound at all, let alone the sonic delights that can come out of even a budget turntable, tonearm, and cartridge.
While the physics by which the analog system produces music are well-known and well-understood phenomena, in my opinion there isn’t a heck of a lot of leading-edge research dedicated to its advancement. Although some manufacturers do actually measure the turntables they design and build, my experience has been that most do not. As I said, the general principles of analog playback are well understood, so the game plan is usually quite straightforward: add a bunch of mass to the plinth and the platter, suspend or otherwise isolate the plinth from vibrations from the outside world, find or design and build a good tonearm, and use as smooth-running a motor as possible. The rest is in the details. Of course the designers also need to listen, listen, listen. I’d wager that, quite often, the results don’t reflect the efforts that went into it, and back to the drawing board they go.
I remember monkeying around with a well-regarded turntable that I couldn’t get to sound good no matter what I did. It sounded thin, somewhat shrill, and lacked any semblance of bass. After I’d tried all manner of supports, cones, pucks, and jellies, I plonked the thing on a thin piece of ultrarigid plywood. Suddenly, it sang. No other support worked for me with this turntable. I suspect that it had been designed by ear, and that perhaps its designer had used just this type of support during the fine-tuning.
Analog is like that -- it’s hard to standardize for the huge numbers of variables that go into making a complete LP playback system. Barometric pressure affects the sound. What you’re wearing affects the sound. Analog borders on sorcery.
So it’s no wonder there are so many hugely disparate methods of concocting a combination of turntable and tonearm. Some manufacturers flounder around, trying new approaches with almost clockwork regularity, but a few grand old companies have spent years consistently churning out the same product with gradual but continual refinements. There may be tons of different ways to skin a cat, but once you’ve got your cat-skinning thing figured out, why change it? Well Tempered Lab has been producing turntables since the 1970s, and knows how to skin the proverbial cat. They also measure what they build, which is especially reassuring.
The Well Tempered Lab Amadeus ($2850 USD) has its roots in the venerable Well Tempered Turntable of yore. I once helped a buddy set up his WTT, and I was astonished at the elegant simplicity of the thing. It was well built but not overbuilt; it had panache but wasn’t showy; and it featured a boatload of outside-the-box thinking. It was one very cool turntable. The Amadeus, a sample of which I contemplate at this very moment, is an incredibly odd creature, a product developed clear out of the ether, without preconceptions.
Some of the best minds in audio use found objects or simple items to good effect. Gilbert Yeung of Blue Circle Audio is a prime example. He uses copious amounts of silicone to mount components to the chassis of his products. Silicone is cheap, it isolates from vibration and it glues stuff down, so why not use it?
The Amadeus’s tonearm pivot is a golf ball.
Assuming I’ve accurately reverse-engineered their thought processes, Well Tempered Lab was looking for a round pivot for their tonearm. This pivot would need lots of surface area, and it would be nice if it were textured in some way. And if this pivot were internally well damped and made of, oh, I don’t know, perhaps rubber in a constrained-layer design, that’d be great as well. Why spend money tooling up to build something when it already exists? The golf ball is a stroke of brilliance.
That tonearm pivot (the golf ball) is suspended by a loop of monofilament nylon -- fishing line, actually -- from a girder-type crane structure. The thread is attached to each end of a rod that extends horizontally through the upper part of the golf ball. By twisting a pivot where the line converges, you can adjust the azimuth of the tonearm -- while the record’s actually in play, if you’re dainty about it.
The really clever part is that the lower half of the golf ball is submerged in a bath of thick silicone that’s just a bit more viscous than honey. The result is a tonearm that’s wonderfully, optimally damped. Lift the arm off its rest and you’ll feel a fair bit of resistance from the silicone damping. Drop the arm from above the record and it floats down at a controllable rate -- just a little faster than I’d be comfortable with for an unassisted descent, but not much. Should you desire more damping, simply release a setscrew on the side of the ’table and raise the damping cup so that more of the golf ball is submerged in the silicone. Brilliant.
A bit more about that silicone. As I said, when you lift the tonearm off its rest, you can feel the resistance -- but to see just how much damping that fluid exerts, try to move the golf ball itself. I grasped the ball, expecting to feel it float sluggishly along in the direction of the force I was exerting. But it barely budged, responding to increasing pressure with increased resistance. While there’s some truth to the idea that the damping should be applied at the cartridge end of the tonearm, the overall rigidity and high degree of stability afforded by the Amadeus’s pivot presents an extremely good alternative.
The tonearm itself looks like a simple tube, but it’s filled with sand for additional damping. There’s no headshell per se, and the mounting holes don’t employ slots for fore-and-aft adjustability of the cartridge. At first I was somewhat perturbed -- I couldn’t see how to adjust and align the cartridge.
Turns out you can’t. The two nonadjustable holes make it impossible to fuss with the mounting position. According to WTL, the cartridge should be mounted in the assigned holes without regard to the frustrated grumbling of your alignment protractor. I’m not sure how you feel about this, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Still, the proof is in the listening, right?
The stylus’s vertical tracking angle (VTA) is easily adjusted by loosening another setscrew and raising or lowering the entire superstructure that supports the tonearm. Adjusting the VTA may necessitate a reappraisal of the height of the damping cup and its effect. If you’re fussy, that is. Antiskating, too, is easily managed: by varying the amount of twist in the fishing line.
The Amadeus’s tonearm is a near-perfect closed system. With the fishing-line design, there’s absolutely no friction in the horizontal or vertical plane -- even less than with a unipivot. Stability on all axes is excellent, and I found that it tracked warped records with aplomb.
Besides WTL’s counterintuitive cartridge-mounting philosophy, just about the only functional criticism I can levy against the Amadeus is its lack of a cueing device. However, I found that I didn’t need to worry about cueing -- the damping made it super-easy to manually raise and lower the stylus without my palsied hand knocking things awry. I later found out that a cueing device is available from the factory as an option.
The Amadeus’s platter bearing, too, is really special. When you insert a round spindle in a round hole, the two parts will make actual contact at only one point. Think about that for a second, because it’s somewhat counterintuitive. Just as three points define a plane, so the Amadeus uses a triangular bearing sleeve, and so the ’table’s round spindle, under tension from the drive belt, makes contact at two points: a stable arrangement.
The platter is acrylic, and the plinth is made of two pieces of constrained-layer-damped MDF; each of these materials has a good, solid track record of working well in these contexts, and their resonant frequencies are well known. The motor is mounted directly to the plinth (albeit decoupled by a foam gasket and a damping pad), which I was a little leery about -- other ’tables I’ve heard that have such an arrangement have suffered from motor noise being transferred through the cartridge and, ultimately, the speakers. I listened for this artifact in the Amadeus’s sound and heard no noise.
Sometimes it’s fun to anthropomorphize. If components could speak, what would they say? As the Well Tempered Lab Amadeus exorcised sonic frippery, it’d say, “You don’t need that layer of haze around the music, and you definitely don’t want that thick, flabby midrange, that’s for sure. Let me get rid of that. There -- isn’t that better?” That’s the Amadeus in a nutshell.
The Amadeus was exceedingly good at delineating images in space without overhang or slop. Further, it was quick quick quick. The Amadeus seemed to respond to the musical signal in a manner much more direct and linear than any other turntable I’ve experienced. Of course, there was more to such a response than the turntable itself. The tonearm must provide a stable, nonresonant home for the cartridge. The cantilever must respond to the movements of the stylus in the groove. And everything else in this closed system should remain as close to a stable, unmoving point as is possible. And it was here that the Amadeus seemed to succeed. That wonky-looking Rube Goldberg arm did exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Despite their penchant for slow, opiate-drenched ballads, I’ve been a fan of the Cowboy Junkies since I first heard The Trinity Session (LP, Latent Latex 5) many years ago. Even their less well-regarded albums, such as The Caution Horses (LP, RCA 2058-1-R), manage to pull me deep inside the music. One evening I cued up their cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” and settled in for a listen. This is a sparse arrangement with lots of space around the instruments, which are exceptionally well placed on the soundstage. The Amadeus added its own unique spin on this track, rendering a discrete halo around each instrument. The mandolin gained body and harmonic clarity, perversely sounding both more real and more present in acoustic space. Each strum of the strings was crystalline and well defined in a manner that I found most intoxicating.
The lyrics to “Powderfinger” are haunting. The story seems to center around a young man watching some sort of gunship approaching his home on the river. There’s some shooting, and . . . I’m not certain exactly what happens, but it’s not good. The Cowboy Junkies’ version, with its somnambulatory vibe and the flat, matter-of-fact delivery of the harrowing words makes those words seem even more ominous.
Of course, listening to music is an exercise in six degrees of separation, so out came Young’s own Rust Never Sleeps (LP, Reprise XHS 2295). I rarely listen to the electric side of this album, which is just too thrashy and thin-sounding for my tastes. While the Amadeus really told it like it was, it didn’t ram the truth down my throat. Despite the poor quality of my LP’s pressing, I was still more than happy to listen to Young’s version of “Powderfinger” and right through the whole side. You can’t polish a turd -- all of the instruments were gummed together in one harsh-sounding mess -- but regardless, the music won the day. In retrospect, I think Young’s electric music perhaps should sound exactly as the Amadeus rendered it.
I’ve written before about Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) (LP, A&M SP-6-4928). My copy is pressed on wafer-thin colored vinyl, usually the kiss of death for sound quality. But my stars! This thing rocks! “Colours Fly and Catherine Wheel” is beautifully written and performed, and in my books epitomizes the perfect pop song. The bass line lopes along beside the main melody, informing the entire track with an airiness that’s missing from much of today’s pop. That bass line was well served by the Amadeus, which was astonishingly deft in its handling of the music’s low end, although it did trade off a tiny bit of the ultimate in bass thrust for an increase in speed and articulation. I’d way rather have quality than quantity down low -- you can always get some extra bass with speaker placement, but you can’t tighten up flabby bass if that’s what’s on the recording.
The Amadeus was up for a challenge. I threw on Miles Davis’s Filles de Kilimanjaro (LP, Columbia PC 9750), another thin, punky Canadian pressing. Of course, the music is wonderful, and despite its poor pressing pedigree, this record actually sounds fantastic. FdK is fairly sparse electronic noodling overlaid with Davis’ signature trumpet sound -- sparse, but there’s more to it than that. Each musician plays his own inner tune; they rarely come together with a melody, and it can get rather messy at times. The Amadeus sorted out the instruments individually, which isn’t exactly easy. Take “Tout de Suite,” in which the electric piano (I just love that classic Rhodes sound) uses the same frequencies as the drums and sax on this track. Keeping them all distinct in space is a neat trick, and here the Amadeus shone. The image of each instrument was knife-sharp, with plenty of space around it.
I’ve talked about the Amadeus’s speed and agility in the bass; now for the upper registers. While the WTL certainly showed up crisp recordings for what they are, it didn’t intrude on my listening pleasure, nor did it push detail down my throat. Classic Records’ reissue of Neil Young’s Greatest Hits (LP, Reprise/Classic 48935-1) is a wonderful remastering job, and they’ve done a smashing job of cleaning up some good old-fashioned rock’n’roll. “Down by the River,” on side 1, is Young at his noodling, jamming best. It also has really crisp sound with some razor-edged guitars, and the Amadeus made no bones about slamming every harmonic overtone through the signal chain and right into my ears. I listened repeatedly to this track while the Amadeus was in the system, and I listened loud. The fact that I could play it at ludicrous volumes and enjoy it immensely tells me that the Amadeus’s sound was, most emphatically, not bright. Nope, it was just truthful -- and in the service of music, I like that.
In comparison to digital, there’s a lushness to the sound of LPs. I’m not going to open that can of worms and attempt to tell you why, or which is more correct, because I don’t care. I prefer listening to LPs, and that’s the way I’ve biased my main system. With its all-tube front end, I can listen for hours on end without the slightest ear strain. Bringing the Amadeus into my system was an eye-opener. While the Well Tempered Lab retained all of the fun, delicious, human qualities of vinyl, it also banished a thick layer of mungus that I hadn’t realized was there. Now, on the face of it, that’s good news -- the Amadeus got me closer to the music -- but it made me reconsider the rest of my system. The equipment that I’d biased toward my reference turntable may need reevaluation. An example was Audio Physic’s Virgo 25 speaker, a pair of which just went back to the distributor. The Virgo 25 has a crisp, detailed sound that leaves no place for a bright component to hide.
Now, the sound of the Amadeus was in no way bright or edgy, but it was much more revealing than the sound of my Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable. I consider the WTL’s presentation of music much more correct than the Pro-Ject’s, but I would need to rethink my entire system if I were to buy an Amadeus. A change of cable or cartridge might be enough. I don’t think I’d pair the Amadeus with the Virgo 25s, but then again, I like my music rich and lush; those who lean toward accuracy and detail might well be enchanted by such a combo.
Another consideration for those thinking of buying an Amadeus is its appearance. The rectangular MDF plinth is painted an honest matte black, and it’s quite tidy, but it’s not exactly elegant. There’s no doubt that most of the time spent developing the Amadeus went into its engineering and sound quality, and not such frippery as gloss finishes or mountains of polished acrylic. I’m not about to criticize that approach, that’s for sure.
Whichever way you slice it, the Well Tempered Lab Amadeus is a cohesive, well-made, wonderful-sounding turntable that’s worth every penny of its $2850 asking price.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog source -- Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable, Roksan Shiraz cartridge
- Phono stage -- AQVOX Phono 2 CI
- Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifiers -- Audio Research VT100, Blue Circle Audio BC202KQ
- Speakers -- Audio Physic Virgo 25, Definitive Technology Mythos STS
- Speaker cables -- Nordost Frey
- Interconnects -- Nordost Frey
- Power cords -- Nordost Vishnu
- Power Conditioner -- Quantum QBASE QB8
Well Tempered Lab Amadeus Turntable
Price: $2850 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Well Tempered Lab
P.O. Box 2650
Christchurch, New Zealand
Phone: +64 3 379 0743
4261 Highway 7, Suite 86
Markham, Ontario L3R 9W6
Phone: (905) 470-0825