Well Tempered Reference turntable Page 2
The Reference's performance excelled in several respects. One was really obvious: its stability. This showed up as superb pace and timing, and in images that were absolutely stable in their size and placement within the soundstage. In comparison, some other 'tables I've used—even VPI's omnipotent TNT IV—sounded a bit uncertain at times. The piano image on Artur Rubinstein's recording of Brahms' Piano Concerto 1 (RCA/Classic LSC-1831) was a good example: rock-solid with the WT, but with the TNT or Immedia RPM-2 it seemed to move around a bit and change size with volume and pitch—its own, and that of the surrounding orchestra.
The WT's pitch stability was actually superb. Notes were solid and true, from a clean leading edge through a dense, well-balanced mix of fundamental and harmonics, and on to a natural decay. The combination gave instruments and voices, indeed the entire performance, a satisfying solidity and density. Rubinstein's piano on the Brahms disc showed this off, but a really great example was Laurindo Almeida's guitar on the LA4's Just Friends (Concord Jazz CJD-1001), particularly the opening of the title cut. Each note started with a snap and built into a rich, steady ring.
Another component of the WT's vivid sound was its reproduction of macrodynamic gradients, particularly in the midrange. The difference between the softest and loudest passages always seemed a little larger than I was expecting; as a result, crescendos were a bit more spectacular. Even commercial rock albums like The Lonesome Jubilee had an immediacy and a clean, explosive sound that were reminiscent of a direct-to-disc recording.
The WT's reproduction of large tempo changes was also excellent. Differences between fast and slow passages—between a languid oboe line and a staccato burst of massed, plucked violins, for example—seemed a bit larger. Two tracks in which the tempo shifts gears midway and the song takes off are "That's All," from the Ray Brown Trio's Soular Energy (Concord Jazz/Bellaphon LELP 111), and "We Belong Together," from Rickie Lee Jones' Pirates. With the WT, those speed ups didn't just occur, they reached out, grabbed me, and slingshot me along.
As the music moved up or down from the midrange, the WT's solidity, snap, and punch gradually diminished. On the Martinon/Paris reading of Prokofiev's Symphony 7 (RCA/Classic LSC-2288), the cellos and woodwinds were dynamic and well defined throughout. Conversely, a descending bass line near the opening slowed, decreased in size, and became increasingly indistinct as the pitch descended. The situation was mirrored on the top end, where triangles, piccolos, and the highest piano notes were rolled off a bit and noticeably less precise than, say, a flute or violin.
I mentioned the WT's excellent portrayal of images. It did an excellent job with the overall soundstage as well. Its perspective was slightly more distant than that of the VPI or Immedia—as if my seat had been moved back a section. The actual soundstage was also a bit recessed, beginning slightly behind the plane of the speakers, and was somewhat shallower than the other turntables'. It was very wide, however, and maintained its width unusually well to the very back of the stage. The stage rear was wonderfully illuminated as well, and images—even in the far back corners—weren't diminished in size or the least bit blurred.
The WT slightly exaggerated the upper-bass/lower-midrange region, giving it a warm tonal balance. Cellos in particular, and the upper end of double basses, had more weight and bloom than they should have. On both Soular Energy and the LA4 disc, there was an obvious change in the weight and bloom of Ray Brown's bass as he traversed the instrument's range.
The WT had a faint overall texture, a slight gauze woven into the fabric of the music. It wasn't huge, obvious only in direct comparisons with the VPI TNT or CDs. The most noticeable effects were a slight obscuring of low-level and inner detail and a loss of fine microdynamics. It wasn't as easy to distinguish individual instruments within an orchestral section as with the TNT, or to follow a low-level countermelody beneath a louder passage.
Because of the loss of low-level detail, the air around images didn't seem quite as alive as with the VPI 'table. The interface between images and the surrounding space was distinct with the WT, but not quite as natural as with the TNT. Listen to the horns at the back of the stage on Jaime Laredo's performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto 3 (RCA LSC-2472). With the Well Tempered, they were nicely placed and surrounded by a cushion of air—just not quite as tangible as with the VPI.
This isn't to say that the WT was a slouch at resolving detail. On "Sweet Jane," from the Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session (RCA/Classic RTH 8568), the WT clearly resolved the rimshots' cascading echoes as they bounced around the church. It's just that the VPI allowed similar, lower-level echoes that trailed the other instruments and voices to be heard, and lent additional complexity and detail to the images themselves.
Comparisons and value
The Well Tempered Reference acquitted itself well in comparisons with the VPI TNT IV. The Reference had a big, vivid, musically engaging sound, a warm, liquid character, and uncanny stability. It was a delight to use and, overall, an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable turntable. Its stability bested that of the VPI TNT IV, but it couldn't match the TNT in some other areas. The Well Tempered wasn't nearly as neutral, or as articulate in its resolution of detail. The WT also couldn't match the TNT's soundstage depth, image dimensionality, or reproduction of air between and around images.
The WT handled large-scale dynamic and tempo transitions superbly, but fell short of the TNT's resolution at the finer end, capturing fewer of the lovely little subtleties that give a voice or instrument character. Finally, the WT excelled in the midrange, but the TNT's performance extends much further toward the frequency extremes.
My notes on the WT are full of superlatives; my notes on the TNT describe additional detail, subtlety, and increased musical involvement. But remember: at about $9500, the TNT IV is nearly twice as expensive.
I also compared the Well Tempered to my Immedia RPM-2 'table/tonearm combo, and came away preferring the WT. The WT sounded more stable, locking an orchestra and all its sections firmly in place in the soundstage. With the RPM-2, the orchestra sometimes seemed to be floating a bit. The Reference also produced denser, more tangible images, and overall a much more vivid, vibrant presentation. On Mellencamp's The Lonesome Jubilee, the WT had a lot more slam, impact, and...well, swing than the RPM-2.
Although the WT's tonal balance was overly warm, I preferred it to the Immedia's, which erred on the other side—a bit too cool, even pale and harmonically threadbare at times. The bass runs in the Prokofiev Symphony 7, for example, were a bit better defined with the RPM-2 than with the WT setup, but waaaaay down in amplitude. Cellos, too, lacked weight and body, robbing the orchestra of its foundation and power.
Two caveats: First, my RPM-2 is the original version and several years old. It's a nice 'table in itself, but not representative of current models, which list for about $7500. Second, my head-to-head comparisons were done using the Grado Reference, which isn't a good match for the Immedia. Fitted with the Clearaudio Gamma, my faithful old RPM-2 is a very good-sounding turntable. It wasn't, however, as natural or as musically engaging as the Well Tempered/Grado setup. The Immedia/Clearaudio combo sounded more detailed and better delineated instruments within an orchestral section, but seemed to do so by highlighting the edges of notes and images rather than capturing the inner details themselves.
The Well Tempered Reference is an unusual, clever bit of engineering and an excellent turntable. Its strengths are its simplicity, ease of use and optimization, stability, and vivid dynamic sound. Compared to the best I've heard, regardless of price, its major shortcomings are an obscuring of low-level and inner detail, and a tonal balance on the warm side of neutral.
I would spend the additional money for the TNT IV—but then, the sort of subtleties that the TNT does better figure very highly on my audio scorecard, and the value of my LP collection dwarfs the $4000 difference in price. However, I unhesitatingly recommend the Well Tempered to someone considering spending about $5000 on an analog rig, particularly if their listening tastes seemed to be a match for its strengths and personality.
I've Got the World on a String is the perfect match for the Well Tempered. Armstrong's voice is warm, rich, and enveloping, with a great sense of body and weight. The simple arrangement and staging played to the Well Tempered's strengths and downplayed its weaknesses. The images were all dense and rock-solid, the overall effect luscious and honey-sweet. The warm tonal balance and slight character dovetailed nicely with the recording, making it, if anything, even more intimate and enveloping.
"I've got the world on a string, sitting on the rainbow
Got the string around my finger, what a life, Mama, I'm in love."
Rube Goldberg, meet Louie Armstrong.