Brilliant Corners #15: Well Tempered Lab Amadeus 254 GT turntable

Photo by Michael Stephens

Last May, during a visit to High End Munich, I was ushered into an exhibitor's room with much ceremony. Other showgoers had been shooed out so that I, a reviewer at an important magazine, could listen to the hi-fi undisturbed. The room featured obelisk-shaped "statement" speakers, monoblocks with enough tubes to light a cafeteria, and a wedding cake–sized turntable, all connected with python-thick cables. All of it cost as much as a starter house in coastal Connecticut.

The room's proprietor asked me to choose from a small stack of LPs. I went for Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else, a wonderful Miles Davis record in all but name. I know it as well as any other piece of recorded music. When the system began to play, it was doing all the audiophile things expected of an expensive hi-fi. But while I recognized the notes, I struggled to recognize the music. Something was clearly, obviously amiss. The rhythmic emphases and stresses that convey music's meaning and emotion were landing in the wrong places. If you had told me that each musician was playing by himself in a soundproof booth without headphones, I might have believed you. The short-term effect of this was confusion; the longer-term effect was boredom. "Sounds pretty great, doesn't it!" the proprietor announced. He might have actually winked at me.

I wish I could tell you this experience was unusual. In fact, it happens to be entirely, depressingly common, and not only under audio-show conditions. Of course, anyone who's struggled to install a system in an unfamiliar room knows that it takes real knowhow and skill to assemble components that sound great together and position them effectively. But all things being equal, these experiences suggest that more goes into a musically satisfying component than the usual sonic superlatives: soundstages as wide as an Iowa cornfield, transients sharp enough to shave with, colonoscopic levels of resolution, filling-loosening bass. You know: the stuff we usually talk about when we talk about good sound.

Given the manic rate at which many of us in this hobby "upgrade" our gear, it might be worthwhile to ask ourselves whether "good sound" is what we're actually after. Will an even wider soundstage or blacker silences raise a lump in your throat or at least get you to put down your phone and listen? Or could it be that what we're spending all this time and money to achieve is the sheer excitement of being 8 or 11 or 15 and losing our minds to Shuggie Otis or Beethoven or The Go-Go's on a cheap pair of headphones?

For worse or probably better, our excitable teenaged brains are long gone. But what I'm getting around to suggesting is that some components are obviously, consistently better than others at making listening to music engaging. And that this quality happens to be far more crucial to long-term satisfaction than the usual checklist of sonic tricks. It might be fun to name this quality "avidity" or "euphony" or even "meaningfulness," but for the sake of being clear let's call it by the imperfect term "musicality."

And here's the thing: You can't design musicality into a component if you aren't aware that it exists. If the pinnacle of your listening priorities is high resolution or plenty of deep bass, well, that's what you're likely to get.

All of which is to say that it's a fine idea to avoid people who insist that things are simpler than they are. Chances are they have their hand in your pocket or are at least trying to convince you, and themselves, that there's nothing left to accomplish. Don't believe them.

Well Tempered Lab Amadeus 254 GT
Digital media have now been around for four decades and change, but records still connect me to recordings in a deeper, more satisfying way. So it feels counterintuitive to observe that when it comes to musicality, contemporary turntables and tonearms make up one of the least-accomplished product categories. While sounding terrific, many current-production record players I've heard are only average at enabling engagement. I wouldn't be the first to suggest that the reason many listeners still use vintage (read: pain-in-the-ass) decks—like the various models from Garrard, Thorens, EMT, Lenco, Linn, and Technics—isn't that they sound better but because they excel at communicating the excitement of reproduced music.

Perhaps one reason for this is a lack of genuinely new ideas. For more than a few of today's turntable makers, the strategy for improving a unit's performance seems to be to add mass. Just look at some of the product lines out there: More than a few culminate in washing-machine–sized contraptions that look like they are intended to squash vibration into silence. If only things were so simple.

In a recent column in Stereophile, Michael Trei wrote that turntable designers tend to belong to one of two camps: the obsessive machinists, who excel at execution, and the deep thinkers, who come up with fresh ideas. If that's true, then Bill Firebaugh of Well Tempered Lab may be the deepest, or at least the weirdest, thinker out there. His basic design, which has been in continuous production since 1987, dispenses with almost all the accrued wisdom of his predecessors and manifests a starkly different approach to playing records (footnote 1).

Though Firebaugh's ideas have been described in ample detail elsewhere, a few things about them are worth repeating. While working as an engineer at Ford Aerospace, Firebaugh came across a paper published by Danish electronics company Brüel & Kjær that described the ideal tonearm as having the lowest possible effective mass and being mechanically damped to eliminate sideband distortions. Firebaugh observed that while plenty of companies manufactured low-mass tonearms, almost no one made damped ones. In setting out to address the problem, he took aim at the two most critical parts of a record player, on which designers usually lavish the most expensive and exotic parts. But instead of employing heroic materials to fashion bearings for the tonearm and platter, he simply did away with them.

On the Amadeus, the tonearm is suspended from a gantry by a twisted polyester filament, with its pivot point—a golf ball split in half—partly submerged in a bath of silicone goo. Meanwhile, the platter-and-spindle assembly sits in what might be described as a partial bearing: a triangular hole cut in a Teflon sleeve. The hole is larger than required so that the round, hardened steel spindle makes minimal contact with only two sides at a time, while pressure from the belt—another polyester filament—keeps the spindle aligned inside it. Synthetic motor oil keeps the spindle turning smoothly.

Firebaugh designed his record player for his own pleasure, while questioning nearly everything about how turntables and tonearms are put together. One of the most fascinating—not to mention entertaining—things published in this magazine is his conversation with Gordon Holt from 1987. Even if you're not considering a Well Tempered Lab product, the conversation is a revealing look at the mind of a brilliant, unconventional, and often ornery engineer.

There's much more to say about Firebaugh's design, but what matters most for our purposes is his description of the problem he was trying to address. Speaking about an AR turntable he owned, he said, "It didn't have that nice, sweet, musical sound, and I wondered, 'What's going on here anyway?'"

According to importer/distributor Mike Pranka (footnote 2), while the Amadeus 254 GT record player ($8750) is not the most expensive model in the Well Tempered Lab product line, it represents the most successful implementation to date of Firebaugh's ideas about phonography. It's definitely the most attractive: The roughly 35lb deck—composed of two plywood plinths capped in textured gray aluminum, separated by four regulation squash balls, and topped with a clear acrylic platter and a cork mat—looks miles more sophisticated and finished than some of its science-project–like predecessors. The outboard speed controller allows fine tuning of speeds at 33.33 and 45rpm and is discreetly handsome and small. Nearly every visitor to my home during my time with the Amadeus remarked on the turntable's good looks.

Another two aspects of the Well Tempered might not be immediately obvious. The most delightful, at least to me, is Firebaugh's decidedly American frugality. Though he used the then-new technology of fast Fourier transform analysis to design his record player, he relied on cheap, widely available objects like squash and golf balls; in interviews, he liked to draw attention to their incredibly precise manufacturing tolerances. Furthermore, Well Tempered Lab, now headquartered in New Zealand, has its products manufactured by Opera Audio in China, which helps keep its products' prices comparatively modest.

The second is that the LTD tonearm's integrated headshell does not permit overhang or zenith to be adjusted. (Azimuth, however, can be set elegantly and precisely.) Firebaugh insists that the ultimate effects of overhang and zenith are negligible. Given the mental anguish expended on cartridge alignment in certain corners of this hobby, this detail makes some people apoplectic. But as the 'table's user manual tartly puts it, "Some alignment protractors may well disagree. However, the Well Tempered Lab stands by their convictions."

Footnote 1: You can find several early pieces about the Well Tempered tonearm, the earliest dating to 1985, here. Also see Brian Damkroger's 1999 review of the Well Tempered Reference turntable. Also not to be missed is Art Dudley's much later coverage at and

Footnote 2: Well Tempered Lab. Email: Tel: +64 3 379 0743. Web: US distributor: Toffco, 8116 Gravois Rd., St. Louis, MO 63123. Tel: (314) 454-9966. Email: Web:


Ortofan's picture

... Technics SL-1200G fitted with a KAB fluid damper.

JohnnyThunder2.0's picture

This spins too and is direct drive like your Technics comparison. It also does a great job with whites.

JHL's picture

Good one, Johnny.

Ortofan's picture

... Technics turntable?

Have you read Joe Grado's writings on the subject of turntable drive systems?

JohnnyThunder2.0's picture

Well Tempered Lab Amadeus 254 GT? Seems more pertinent than anything involving your non-sequitur of a comparison.