Listening #140 Page 2

The penultimate distinction is Firebaugh's latest choice in drive belts: He has switched from a flat neoprene belt—which usually was installed with an intentional twist—to a polyester filament only 0.004" in diameter. (Human hairs range in diameter from 0.0003" to 0.007".) A thread of any sort must be knotted in order to make a belt. So it goes; Firebaugh says that the grooves in his motor pulley—one each for 33 1/3 and 45rpm—have been sized and shaped to account for that.

The final distinction: In recent years, Well Tempered Lab, which is now based in New Zealand, moved all of its production to a factory in China, which is where my sample of the Amadeus Mk.II was made.

Settling in
I know how it sounds—nylon filament here, polyester thread there, wiggly arm here, tippy platter there—but the fact is, like every other WTL product I've tried, the Amadeus Mk.II was easy to install and adjust. That quality of ease was aided and abetted not only by the goodness of the aforementioned owner's manual, but by the fact that the Amadeus Mk.II is supplied in a professional-quality carton with three tiers of foam packing, in which all parts are sensibly laid out.

Naturally, a record player with a suspended tonearm and a semi-gyroscopic platter will do its best on a level surface, so I began by getting the plinth squared away on the top surface of my Box Furniture rack, right next to my Garrard 301 turntable. That done, I fastened a cartridge to the WTL tonearm's headshell—I began with my well-loved Miyabi 47—then set the arm aside while I installed the damping cup, the tonearm support, and the tonearm rest, and ensured that the platter bearing was properly oriented. With stylus guard in place, I looped the tonearm's suspension filament around its adjustment collar, slid the twin counterweights into place (the rearmost weight allows downforce to be dialed in precisely, while maintaining the ideal proximity between the pivot and the main weight), and aimed the pivot over the damping cup. Patience, caution, and the good sense to begin by lowering the damping cup out of the way all helped me get the thick damping fluid from syringe to cup.

The only chores that remained were installing the platter (easy), installing the belt (tricky, since the belt is difficult to see, but I got it right on the second or third try), plugging in the wall-wart power supply (as easy as it sounds), and setting downforce (challenging, as one would expect with any tonearm whose vertical movements are regulated by a substance with the viscosity of cold honey). Because overhang and offset angle are not adjustable, I was spared those chores—a point to which I'll return. On the other hand, I was astonished at the smoothness of the Symmetrex arm's azimuth adjustment, which I found could be easily done during record play.

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The Amadeus Mk.II was pleasant and easy to use, but not without idiosyncrasies. On rare occasions—usually after a record had been hastily set in place or removed—the platter would indeed tip away from the motor, but it always righted itself when powered up, and the polyester drive belt was elastic enough to survive such stress. Something else that augured against hasty record removal was the staticky foam mat, which clung to every record like a cattle rancher to the federal teat. That got old after a while, so I switched to an Auditorium 23 Hommage mat ($250) that WTL distributor Mike Pranka supplied for me to play around with. I preferred the sound with the latter on my platter, and never again had to peel a mat from an LP.

Most challenging of all, if hardly daunting, was the Symmetrex arm's behavior during cueing. Again, prescience is not required to see that an arm that hangs from a loop of fishing line yet also rests in a cup of silicone will have a distinctive feel, especially to those used to more traditional record players. I acclimated quickly, my only concession to orthodoxy being my insistence on bolting in place the headshell's optional finger-lift—this in contradiction to the recommendations of Mike Pranka, who has posted YouTube videos of the finger-lift-less cueing technique he prefers (footnote 3).

Music
Like other WTL products of my experience, the Amadeus Mk.II had a musically involving sound—good timing, very good momentum and flow—combined with the sorts of spatial accomplishments and lack of obvious colorations that I associate with more traditional high-end audio products. The WTL player was, in many ways, a fine all-arounder, and while it didn't have all the drive and touch and sheer grunt of my combination of Garrard 301 turntable, Auditorium 23 arm mount, and EMT 997 tonearm, it nonetheless managed to sound compelling with every record I threw at it.

Examples? A new reissue of Glenn Gould's performance, with Vladimir Golschmann and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, of J.S. Bach's Keyboard Concerto 7 in g (Columbia ML 7001, part of a nice new boxed set of Bach-Gould recordings from Speakers Corner), sounded especially nice on the Amadeus. Listening to the well-known Andante, I was impressed by the way the WTL player communicated the power of Gould's left hand, and by its portrayal of the scale of the piano and orchestra. The strings, though chuffier and less sumptuous in this mid-1960s Columbia release than in the finest Decca and EMI recordings, had an acceptably good sense of drive, and the Amadeus pulled just as much color from the groove as my Garrard 301-based player.

During the Well Tempered player's time here, I was also in the throes of a Brit-rock nostalgia fest, spending lots of time with such guilty pleasures as the Stranglers' "Skin Deep" (extended single, Epic TA 4738), the Belle Stars' "Sign of the Times" (extended single, Stiff BUY IT 167), Sparks' Kimono My House (Island ILPS 9272), and, perhaps most shameful of all, Electric Light Orchestra's II (United Artists UA-LA040-F). None is a very good-sounding record, the last having an especially annoying crunch (footnote 4)—yet the Amadeus Mk.II had a combination of qualities that made their high-frequency sins in particular just a bit easier to take, without seeming to exert an overall dulling. My inner geezer was impressed.

Throughout my listening, I heard nothing untoward that might have been laid at the doorstep of tracing distortion. That said, and with respect, I admit some qualms regarding the Symmetrex arm's lack of adjustability for lateral tracking angle. For example, after installing my Miyabi 47 cartridge—which exhibits a fairly typical stylus-to-mounting-hole dimension of 9mm—I observed an overhang of zero mm. That was unsurprising in light of my observation that the Symmetrex's effective length (arm pivot to stylus) and mounting distance (arm pivot to record spindle) were precisely the same (footnote 5). Judging from remarks on the blog portion of the Well Tempered Lab website, Bill Firebaugh considers minimal overhang a reasonable approach to minimizing tracking-angle error at the innermost part of the groove; as for the high tracking error such an alignment will inevitably produce at the outermost portion of the groove, Firebaugh suggests that there is an inverse relationship between the tracing distortions and the linear velocity of the groove being traced. In other words, in the view of WTL, high tracking error is of little consequence toward the outer edge of the record.

Be that as it may—and I confess some doubt as to the magnitude of the relationship—I'm more comfortable when a phonograph designer provides a reasonable means of making tracking error as small as possible over most of the record surface. I have a considerable interest in this topic—kindled, in large part, by the original research of fellow Stereophile contributor Keith Howard (footnote 6)—and it is my understanding that only through a combination of overhang and offset angle, both values having been precisely determined in accordance with the tonearm's effective length, can playback of consistently low distortion be achieved. As it is, I'm troubled by the Symmetrex's combination of zero overhang with an offset angle that is more or less correct for a traditionally aligned arm of this length. Furthermore, this perceived shortcoming could be addressed simply enough by making the length of the Symmetrex's arm wand adjustable at the point where it intersects with the damping mechanism—perhaps by using a grub screw at that junction.

A final note
For the Amadeus Mk.II—and for all other turntables they currently offer—Well Tempered Lab offers an optional premium power supply called the DPS ($400). This nice-looking outboard box, more or less the size of a small meat loaf, has a single 100mA, 12V DC output for a Well Tempered turntable, and a pair of 500mA outputs for whatever other 12V accessories the user has on hand. In my system, I was hard-pressed to hear much difference between the stock power supply and the DPS: The latter may have increased the focus of the sound by a small degree, but that's a big may. In my opinion, the extra-cost Hommage mat made a bigger improvement for less money, so that toy would top my list.

Bill Firebaugh, who retired from Ford Aerospace in 1988, remains one of phonography's most notable innovators—and a manufacturer of exceptional integrity and humility. As evidence of the former, I offer the fact that there has never been a Well Tempered CD Player; as for the latter, Firebaugh's reputation is well summed up by something he told me earlier this year: "A phonograph record is one of man's greatest inventions; I consider myself to have found one tiny piece of the puzzle."



Footnote 3: For more video documentation of Mike Pranka's leisure pursuits, click here.

Footnote 4: That's a shame: Apart from a bit of dullness in the sounds of some instruments—probably the result of Ping-Ponging tracks on an older tape machine—the ELO's first, eponymous LP sounds quite good, especially in its UK version (Harvest SHVL 797).

Footnote 5: To the best of my ability to measure such things—which, given a tonearm whose exact pivot point is difficult to locate, is somewhat dodgy.

Footnote 6: Keith Howard, Arc Angles: Optimizing Tonearm Geometry," Stereophile, March 2010, Vol.33 No.3;.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
btrussell44's picture

Art - thank-you very much for your esteemed opinion on a fairly new member of the new, redesigned generation of Well-Tempered turntables.

I was especially interested and gratified to learn from your comments that the Amadeus MkII apparently has much (or all) of the musicality of one of the old generation 'tables you reviewed several years ago. I'm pleased that this superior 'momentum and flow' character hasn't been lost despite all of the design changes.

I was also very interested to learn your perspective on the controversial aspect of Well-Tempered's tonearm's unique geometry.

My keen interest in the matter of tonearm geometry has come about because my experiences with the original Well Tempered Amadeus model has me mystified. I bought my Amadeus new a little more than a year ago. Initially upon setting up my turntable, I installed a brand-new Dynavector MC cartridge. But music played with my new cartridge suffered from severe distortion, especially on amplitude peaks. After a great deal of investigation into setup it seemed unlikely that my problem was related to a manufacturing defect, so I concluded that the cause of the distortion must be the cartridge. To test my theory I installed an Audio-Technica MM cartridge that I had used successfully on another turntable. But mounted on my Amadeus it too suffered from distortion - fortunately, a good deal less serious than the Dynavector - but still unacceptably high. One thing led to another, and after a great deal of sleuthing and several emails back and forth to the Canadian Distributor I learned that my tonearm's effective length (EL) - I measured mine to be at 260 mm - was almost a half-inch too short. The distributor assured me that the proper EL for my model's tonearm was 270mm (he confirmed this by measuring some that were set up in his showroom). I was impatient, so rather than ship my tonearm to the distributor to be repaired, I changed my tonearm's EL by sliding the tonearm wand inside its rubber collar (located within the silver flange on top of the golf ball) - forward 10 mm. Now my tonearm's EL was precisely 270mm. By the way, I can easily adjust my tonearm very precisely - to within a fraction of a mm. As a warning to others who might attempt this, I should say that this adjustment must be done with some care so as not to bend the wand, which is somewhat narrower than a standard pencil and made of a soft alloy of aluminum. In my experience the most tricky thing in this adjustment procedure wasn't altering the length, but ensuring that through the adjustment process the golf ball and the tonearm mounting bracket remain perfectly parallel.

Here's the mystery. In 2009, in response to a query, Bill Firebaugh posted a memo stating that the correct overhang for a cartridge installed on the Amadeus was a half-inch. All of my cartridges installed on my Amadeus MkI (with the adjusted 270mm EL) have overhangs of (estimated by eye) very approximately a half-inch. So, based on your article's comments, it appears that the Amadeus MkII uses a different geometry than the MkI. Presently, because I am still unsatisfied, I am thinking more and more that I should obtain a Feikert protractor to do a Baerwald or Loefgren alignment. The slots in the tonearm mounting plate are somewhat oversized and have enough 'free play' to allow for a couple of degrees of offset adjustment. It should be noted that the cartridge mounting flange isn't fixed in place, it can be adjusted (via a philips head screw underneath) but the manual solemnly warns against this. But, precisely adjusting the Feickert might be problematic because, as Art noted, locating the tonearm's exact pivot point might be difficult or impossible. Parenthetically - I should remind people that course adjustments of overhang can be made risk-free by any owner because the fluid reservoir in the original Amadeus is about 1 cm wider than the golf ball, so the arm from which the golf ball is suspended can be swung fore and aft a few mm, and thereby altering the pivot-spindle distance, to compensate for discrepancies in the mounting hole to stylus distance among various cartridge makes and models.

davip's picture

I've thought about auditioning and buying this turntable on the basis of its novel, engineering-based approach to vinyl record replay. Two things (1 and 2 below) have stopped me, however, and I'd like to detail those here in the hope of getting a response from the manufacturer or (better) the designer -- a response that the poor chap with the misaligned arm in the comment ahead of mine didn't get.

1. So, for all its engineering prowess this turntable (and presumably others in the WTL range) can leave the factory with the pivot-point of the arm off by an extraordinary half-an-inch, leaving the end-user with a distorted, non-hifi sound that very likely damaged his records to boot. And when that end-user describes his experience here on the very page of this very favourable review the response from WTL (or indeed Firebaugh) at the time -- and now four years later -- is Nothing. Is this some kind of joke? What flaky outfit would behave like this for a few-$1000 piece of audiophile hardware unless it was sourced from somewhere known for mediocrity in both product execution and customer support -- which brings me to:

2. The actuality of '1' above is effectively grist to the mill of '2'. That is, that the WTL Amadeus is cheaply-made, poorly quality-controlled gouging from a Chinese company that are laughing all the way to the bank and doing little to merit the price charged. $4000 for the Amadeus? Really? And they can't even put the arm together properly? I respect what Wm. Firebaugh has done here immensely, and as a self-funded scientist I would be the first in the line to say that ingenuity should always be rewarded, but how much of that $4K is Firebaugh getting and how much is the manufacturer Opera making? Of course, they make the table so they should get a big slice of the revenue, but how much does this turntable actually cost to make when you consider the squash-ball feet, the 1" plastic-housed motor, the golf-ball bearing, the fishing line belt, the plastic platter and the plywood (sorry, 'medium-density fibreboard') plinth? This is $20 in parts at best, and poorly-assembled parts at that -- yet it sells for 200x that cost. This shameless gouging takes on an interesting hue when you look at the competition: for ~ 50% of the Amadeus' cost you can buy the Clearaudio Performance DC (minus cartridge) -- a turntable with adjustable (metal) feet, a magnetic main bearing, a magnetic arm-bearing (properly adjusted), an aluminium-sandwich plinth, and all assembled in Germany -- where labour prices will be substantially higher for Clearaudio than in China for Opera.

Frankly, I don't care how good the WTLs sound -- this sort of practice switches me off a manufacturer completely, particularly when they or the designer can't be bothered to show up to answer for the poor results of their hardware. The even-more rudimentary WTL Simplex should be a $500 turntable, not a $2000 one.

It used to be that you got Real engineering when you bought a turntable 30+ years ago, as I did when I bought my STD 305M as a teenager -- aluminium plinth, bitumen-damped steel subchassis, foam-damped sprung suspension. These days, all you get is a turntable with the motor, bearing, and arm all bolted to the same piece of MDF for your few-1000 $ (e.g., pick any from McIintosh, AnalogueWorks, Project, Funky, Mobile Fidelity, etc., etc.). WTL were the breath of fresh-air here, but not with this pricing and quality-control. Rega take the same 'bolt-it-all-to-the-plinth' path, and making your plinth out of foam and the platter out of Al2O3 won't stop your 'Vibration Measuring Machine' measuring its own vibration mostly as a consequence, as recent Stereophile investigations with a stethoscope on their plinths have shown.

This isn't ranting for it's own sake -- I'm seeking a new turntable to replace the STD that I foolishly long-ago sold (for "perfect sound forever"), and I find much that is wrong with the design and execution of most every turntable I look into. That Scottish STD handily spanked its brother the LP12 on audition all those years ago, and while Linn still carry the sprung-suspension turntable torch their modern pricing takes gouging to an altogether new-high, a kitted-out LP12 now costing £20K+ -- 100x more than when introduced.

I thought the behaviour of the record companies in modern record-reissiung was bad enough (e.g., see comments in: https://www.analogplanet.com/content/analog-corner-79), but the turntable manufacturers seem little better...

Depressing
Dave P

davip's picture

And after contacting WTL, these plywood-and-squashball merchants had this to say:

"...Given that the original review was in 2014 and we have always had the policy to never reply to reviews or comments [good or bad] your comments have gone unnoticed. However in the event of any problem we do have a network of very fine distributors who can quickly react to any issues if need be and we in turn do our best to back them. I sincerely doubt that I could ever convince you that any one involved in bringing William Firebaugh's designs to the audio fraternity is "laughing all the way to the bank" but you do Opera Audio our manufactures a great disservice they are a small privately owned company and their contribution to WTL goes well beyond profit, yours faithfully, Frank Denson. WTL

No further correspondence will be entered into"

No explanation, no consideration (or even acknowledgement) of the problem described by the above buyer, no anything (and I didn't even ask why painting a Nagaoka MP-150 black and calling it an WTL necessitates a three-fold price increase). No anything. Just gouging.

I don't support any manufacturer with this sort of attitude
No WTL for me

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