Listening #47 Page 2
Damp, damped, damping
The best, most effective record players are those that are designed holistically, of course—and a distinctive tonearm will work well only on a turntable whose own distinctions are cut from the same theoretical cloth. So it goes in the Well Tempered line, where the clever application of damping is the order of the day. (As we've seen countless times, anyone can bolt the working bits of a record player to an enormously massive slab of something or another and call himself a "designer"—yet to do so is usually to suffer the distorting consequences of stored energy, the delayed release of which is sometimes mistaken for "deep bass.") The plinth of even the cheapest WT Turntable makes generous use of constrained-mode damping, with three separate sheets of MDF separated by layers of an elastic sound-deadening material. (The 'table's exterior surfaces are covered with a glossy black laminate.) The player's hollow feet are also said to function as resonance-control devices, albeit on a small scale. The machined acrylic platter is designed for use with a threaded acrylic clamp, and intended to act as a sink for unwanted vibrational energy in the LP itself. (Well Tempered neither supplies nor recommends a felt mat.)
Yet the WT Turntable's most distinctive feature remains its main bearing—the heart of the design, in every sense. Rather than ape the traditional axle-and-ball approach of virtually every other record player—some of which, it must be said, are brilliantly well executed in their own rights—Bill Firebaugh started from scratch and came up with a five-point, silicone-bathed bearing that works with the force vector of the motor drive belt to achieve remarkable levels of speed consistency and noiselessness.
The WT Turntable bearing begins with a machined polymer well, the bottom of which incorporates a single, small thrust pad of Teflon. Then, rather than using sleeves to restrict the movement of a bearing axle, four more Teflon nubs are installed: two near the bottom of the well, spaced a little less than 90° apart, and the remaining two near the top, arranged to point in the opposite direction of the bottom two.
The bearing is attached to the plinth so that its two lower nubs point toward the motor pulley, the two upper nubs away from it. The well is filled with silicone fluid—lighter in viscosity than the stuff the tonearm uses—and then a nicely polished steel spindle, approximately a half inch in diameter, is added to the mix. If that spindle were allowed to rattle around in the bearing well like a pencil in a coffee cup, you'd see about 1/8" of slop between the two. But because the spindle is attached to a platter, and the platter is fitted with a belt, and the belt is stretched onto a motor pulley, the spindle is pulled completely upright and held there during use, its lowest extremity pushed against one pair of nubs, its upper extremity pulled against the other pair of nubs—and the whole thing working with minimal friction and noise. The fact that you can grab hold of the platter of a WT Turntable and tip it toward you signifies nothing: Unlike other bearings, this one is designed to be at its best under dynamic conditions—not when it's sitting still.
The Well Tempered Record Player
Distributor George Stanwick and I have been friends for years—if that sort of thing makes your psyche's underpants ride up your crack, you might want to skip ahead to the next article—and he and I have spent the better part of two years playing with the idea of his bringing an entry-level Well Tempered Record Player to my home in Cherry Valley, New York, which is less than two hours from George's place in Hagaman, New York. Finally, in early July, we got around to it.
The Well Tempered Record Player ($2433) combines the most basic versions of the company's tonearm and turntable (footnote 2). The tonearm in my sample was just as I've described it above—but little more. Downforce was adjustable with a movable counterweight of the usual sort. Vertical tracking angle could be set by adjusting the height of the post that supports both the beam from which the arm is hung and the damping-fluid cup beneath it. Azimuth was controllable with a knob that tightened or slackened one of the monofilament strands. Antiskating was nonadjustable. In fact, antiskating was provided only inasmuch as the inward movement of the arm tended to twist the converging nylon strands—energy that could be released only by twisting them back in the other, outward direction. Don't laugh—it worked. And it was more sophisticated than others I've seen.
The turntable, for its part, was also as described, built around the thinnest plinth (just under 2.5"), the thinnest platter (just under 1"), and the smallest clamp (the same diameter as that paddle, suspiciously enough) that WTL makes. The motor unit is the same for all three models in the line—the other two being the Well Tempered Classic ($3945) and Reference ($6578).
In terms of setup difficulty, the WT Record Player was partway between a Rega P3 and a Linn LP12. In fact, the 'table was a breeze to assemble, and installing the tonearm was child's play. The most challenging chore was aligning the cartridge and adjusting the downforce—if only because, each time I lifted the arm in order to change something, I then had to wait for the arm's paddle to settle back into a neutral position. Still, the job wasn't completely vexing—and I was delighted that the design allowed for easy use of my aluminum Dennesen Soundtraktor, which remains a useful and unambiguous tool some 20 years after I bought it.
There's no getting around it: The WT Record Player was an exceptionally musical product. And because that adjective seems to induce seizures in audiophiles who've allowed themselves to be convinced that our hobby requires a "vocabulary" in addition to the one that God and the English have already given us, let me be clear: musical doesn't mean that a product has rolled-off highs or a warm midrange or softened details or anything else like that. Musical means musical. It means that the thing plays music, not just sound (footnote 3).
In other words: Forget the audiophile jargon. Forget the neurotic concerns that generations of fatuous, self-important critics and shopkeepers have tried to infect you with, and just listen to the music. You could be deaf to every other audible attribute and still notice that good products play music more convincingly than bad products do. They sound more like music.
So it goes with record players. A really good one seems to just pull the groove under the stylus tip in such a steady, stately, unperturbed way that the sound you hear has all the flow and momentum you experience when a flesh-and-blood musician plays an instrument or sings a song. I've never heard an unmodified Linn or Rega that failed in that regard. Ditto most Roksans, Pink Triangles, and the smallest and simplest of the recent VPIs that I've heard—such as the amazing and very cost-effective Scout. And so it was with the Well Tempered Record Player. Its sound was easier than most to appreciate, understand, and enjoy as music.
If you have any lingering worries about those nonrigid bearings and what they might do—or fail to do—in terms of the music's pace, rhythm, and timing, I assure you: The WT Record Player was superb in that regard, and gave up nothing at all to my LP12-Armageddon-Aro package. On "Blue Railroad Train," from Tony Rice's Manzanita (Rounder 0092), the WT Record Player nailed—I mean nailed—the rhythmic insistence of Sam Bush's mandolin chop: The song was faultlessly involving. The same went for the more broadly paced but no less downbeat-dependent title song from Television's Marquee Moon (Elektra 7E-1098)—and "Friction" as well, where the Player also brought a fine level of insight to the way Fred Smith's electric bass propelled the beat. But with that track, the WT Record Player really differed from the Linn in how it made Tom Verlaine's and Richard Lloyd's electric guitars fairly leap out of a very black, silent background. By contrast, the Linn was messier, with less in the way of contrast.
The WT Record Player also did more than the Linn to tame the sibilance of Tom Verlaine's vocals ("Broadway looked so...mediaeval!"), which was certainly a good thing. But then it also slightly diminished the realistic clatter of Jerry Douglas's Dobro on the Tony Rice cuts. (Which raised the reasonable question: Which is righter? The answer: We have no way of knowing.) And after using the Player with my Miyabi 47 for a couple of weeks straight, I was left with the unshakable impression that no other tonearm in my experience has done as good a job of handling that very energetic cartridge.
For one listening experience in particular, all those qualities came together with yet another: The fact that changing playback speed on the WT Record Player is a simple matter of moving its drive belt from one segment of the motor pulley to another (footnote 4). I've mostly ignored the current wave of multidisc, 45rpm reissues from the major vinyl specialists, owing to the flaming hoops I have to jump through in order to play 45s on my LP12-Armageddon deck. But the one that I have bought—Speakers Corner's four-LP edition of Mendelssohn's Symphony 3 (LSO/Maag, Decca SXL 2246/45)—sounded amazing on the Record Player: Silences were black, dynamic peaks were clean, spatial placement was dead stable, and tone and presence were the best I'd ever heard from my system. At the risk of slinging an audiophile cliché, it was like hearing this recording for the first time.
A note of concern: The WT Record Player's acrylic platter has a drastically concave profile—the center is a full 1/8" lower than the rim, with a gradual curve between the two extremes. This allows records to be held securely, polymer against polymer, by means of the threaded clamp supplied. But I was curious to see that LPs thus clamped into place also assume a concave shape, and wondered about the dual effects of stressing the vinyl and presenting the phono cartridge with continually changing azimuth and VTA.
A few other complaints: The Record Player ran slightly fast: about 0.3% at 33.3rpm. Still, that wasn't enough to keep me from playing along with Tony Rice on the Manzanita album, with my guitar in standard (equal temperament!) tuning. The motor unit needs either taller feet or a better means of dressing the cable that runs underneath, as the latter tends to foul the former and prevent it from sitting level with the rest of the turntable. The too-tall, too-tight arm clip is a disaster: For a design in which a displaced arm requires significant time to settle back into correct alignment, the user would be much better served by an arm rest that approximates the arm's playing height (with an average-size cartridge) and does not restrict its position in terms of azimuth. And I'm as distressed by the price of the optional dustcover ($150) and its optional (!) hinge kit ($35!) as I am to see such a spare and elegant-looking turntable spoiled by such a dumpy-looking lid.
But I love literally everything else about this product—especially the way it sounds and the way it plays music. The Well Tempered Record Player will rank as one of the very few products that I'll really miss when it's gone, and which, at the same time, have been complete surprises in that regard. What have I been missing all these years?!
Footnote 2: Corey Greenberg reviewed an earlier incarnation of the Well Tempered Record Player in the July 1991 Stereophile (Vol.14 No.7).—Ed.
Footnote 3: In professional bluegrass circles, I've often heard bandleaders use the same word to describe different players: A musical soloist is one whose playing has real musical content—good senses of melody, harmony, rhythm, and tempo—as opposed to merely impressing with speed or volume.
Footnote 4: Well, it wasn't quite that simple: By merely slipping the belt over the biggest part of the pulley and switching on the motor, all I accomplished was to coax the belt back onto the smallest part before the platter had made a single revolution. Switching to 45rpm meant moving the belt and spinning the platter once or twice, slowly, by hand, in order to scoot the belt down lower on the big acrylic rim.