Well Tempered Reference turntable
Got the string around my finger, what a life, Mama, I'm in love.
Life's a beautiful thing, as long as I hold the string
I'd be a silly so-and-so if I should ever let you go."—Ted Koehler
I was basking in Classic Records' reissue of the Louis Armstrong Verve classic I've Got the World on a String (Verve/Classic MB-4035), and it occurred to me how well this album—or even its title alone—captured the essence of the Well Tempered Reference turntable/tonearm combination.
Since their debut in the mid-'80s, Well Tempered Labs has been most closely associated with their first, spectacularly unique product: their string-, er, filament-suspended tonearm. To quote J. Gordon Holt: "Remember Rube Goldberg?...Well, the memories of those of us who remember Goldberg's drawings in the Sunday comics were stirred by our first glimpse of the Well Tempered Arm's strings, paddles, and knobs. This is certainly the most outlandish contraption that has ever graced a SOTA or VPI turntable." (Footnote 1)
The WT arm is weird and ungainly, true. It's also elegant in its simplicity and versatility. It should be a case study in a Machine Design class for the simplest way to meet a set of simultaneous, overlapping design requirements
WT's "world on a string" tonearm may get all the attention, but the turntable (footnote 2) is a bit of engineering equally elegant and unconventional. The spindle bearing, in particular, is another Rube Goldberg device. The spindle isn't fully captured in the bearing, so if the platter is nudged while at rest, it flops alarmingly to the side. This has rattled more than one visitor to Casa Damkroger/McKenzie. My friend Eric had just set a precious, newly opened LP on the WT when it listed suddenly to starboard. He snatched his record back to his chest and backed up, saying, "Um...I'm sure it's okay...I've never seen a turntable do that before." Bonnie always felt sorry for the WT when it went akimbo. "It just looks so forlorn and violated," she'd sigh.
Not to worry. The bearing is just another elegant, simple, unorthodox solution to a problem. The bearing consists of five Teflon points that protrude into a silicone-filled well. Four enter from the sides of the well and are spaced 90° apart—two at the top of the well, on the side near the motor, and two at the bottom, on the opposite side. As the platter spins, the spindle is held firmly against the Teflon points. The fifth point protrudes from the bottom of the well to support the spindle's weight, and the silicone lubricates the contact points and helps damp vibrations. Neat.
The arm and turntable have been refined considerably over the years and the model line has grown to three turntables and three tonearms, topped by the $5495 Reference combo. Upgrades to the arm (available separately as the Reference Arm for $1995) include: a larger-diameter, fiber-reinforced epoxy tube; a two-layer, internally damped fluid cup; a larger paddle assembly more rigidly attached to the arm tube; upgraded wiring; and a three-piece counterweight.
Major improvements to the turntable itself include the Fountainhead plinth, which uses alternating layers of synthetic granite and Isodamp; and the Black Damped platter, in which the platter's underside is hollowed out and filled with more Isodamp (footnote 3). Both were originally upgrades for the WT Classic, and their inclusion was the genesis of the Reference model. The Reference adds in-line AC filtering for the motor and the 3"-diameter Reference clamp. Like everything else about the WT, the screw-down clamp and dished platter work beautifully—easily as good as any vacuum hold-down system I've used.
System and setup
I did most of my listening to the Well Tempered Reference with the turntable fitted with Grado's The Reference cartridge, a Sonic Frontiers Phono One, and Synergistic Research Resolution Reference shielded interconnects. Most recently, the system has also included a Sonic Frontiers Line 3 line stage, Thiel CS7.2 speakers, and Mark Levinson No.20.6 monoblocks, with Synergistic Research Designer's Reference from the Phono 1 to Line 3, balanced JPS Superconductor 2 from pre to power amps, and MIT's MH-750 Shotgun speaker cables. The WT was set up on a Bright Star Gibraltar Two rack, a super-stable, sand-filled design that incorporates an air-suspension base and, in this case, a Bright Star Big Rock sandbox as its top plate.
Assembling the Reference 'table and arm was straightforward—all necessary tools, fluids, and widgets are supplied, and the instructions are clear and easy to follow. There were some minor annoyances, however.
First, when the arm is locked down, it provides for only a narrow range of adjustment of overhang and tracking angle; and any major adjustment (ie, changing cartridges) requires disassembling the 'table to loosen the tonearm's locking nut from underneath.
Second, the supplied protractor made it difficult to accurately set overhang. The cartridge is set on the spindle, putting the stylus well above the protractor—which is down on the platter. True, you can hold or prop up the protractor, but a guide that allowed the stylus to rest directly on it would make the process easier. Some means of fine-tuning the tracking force would be another nice touch; the arm's textured surface makes it difficult to precisely locate the counterweight.
Enough nit-picking. Once the WT is roughed in, it's an absolute delight to fine-tune. The simple, independent adjustment of VTA, damping, antiskate, and azimuth make it—unquestionably and by a wide margin—the easiest arm to optimize I've ever used. If you want an education in the sonic effects of cartridge adjustment, spend some time with a WT arm. When you get a cartridge dialed in with the WT, there's absolutely no doubt that it's right. Every arm should be this simple to adjust.
Use and listening
The Reference performed flawlessly, with nary a glitch, and, once aligned, it stayed aligned. But though I found that the WT was easily and infinitely adjustable, it was not a perfect match for every cartridge. It worked beautifully with the Grado, very well if not quite as well with two different Benz-Micro LO4s, and not at all with a Clearaudio Gamma Gold. The Gamma is a dynamite match for my Immedia RPM-2 turntable and tonearm; on the WT, it sounded washed-out, congested, and lifeless.
Footnote 1: Stereophile Vol.8 No.4, August 1985, p.51. In the years since JGH wrote these words, WT has improved the arm's adjustability even more. Arm height is now finely adjustable via an Allen wrench inserted into the top of the arm post. Damping, too, is easily and finely adjustable. The fluid cup is threaded—using very fine threads—into the arm base, so rotating the cup moves it vertically with respect to the suspended disc, thus varying the damping.—Brian Damkroger
Footnote 2: Originally reviewed by Arnis Balgalvis in Stereophile, Vol.11 No.3, March 1988, p.94.—John Atkinson
Footnote 3: The Fountainhead plinth and Black Damped platter were reviewed in Stereophile in, respectively, Vol.17 No.10 and Vol.16 No.4.—John Atkinson