The Well Tempered Labs Phono Stage @totallywirednz

The WTL Phono Stage

The new Well Tempered Labs Phono Stage is the product of several lifetimes in high end audio. The WTL Phono allows MM cartridges to bloom and involve in a way I’ve never heard before and also works it’s magic with low output moving coil cartridges. In both absolute performance and value for money it is quite simply the best phono stage I have heard. This is an assertion that obviously warrants qualification but read my review and I’ll explain why…

From the Wise Ones

The new Well Tempered Labs Phono Stage is the product of several lifetimes in high end audio – the primary designer is William Firebaugh, Chief Engineer at Well Tempered Labs (WTL from here on in). But there is also input from Frank Denson in New Zealand who, through his association with William, Dr Tominari from Dynavector Japan, Jonathan Davies (Australia) and Opera Audio in China, quietly stands at the centre.  Frank has made this remarkable product happen. It is quite simply the best phono stage I have heard.

From Well Tempered Labs - the Phono Stage and Versalex turntable @totallywirednz
From Well Tempered Labs – the Phono Stage (NZ$2100) and Versalex turntable.

The design is, even if you lift the cover and look inside, deceptively simple. Let’s start with William’s own explanation pulled directly from the manual…

‘The necessary break points for the RIAA equalisation are distributed throughout the circuit in order to ensure optimum overall time response of the circuit as well as ensure the necessary frequency response. Normally the RIAA equalisation is effected with an arrangement of interconnected resistors and capacitors. Since the RIAA recoding process requires that the treble frequencies be substantially boosted relative to the bass frequencies, control of the time response is an important requirement.

The MM/MC Phone circuit employs state-of-the-art operational amplifiers. Using these devices ensures a low noise, high gain, stable and predictable design result.

I prefer using resistors of the carbon film type although metallic film resistors might have an edge for noise characteristics. I prefer capacitors with polypropylene dielectric.’

What this all means may not be self-evident to you so we’ll step through the three sections.

The process of making vinyl records is quite different from digital and the standards were set decades ago. In order to make both recording and playback work as a physical process, the frequencies of the original recording had to be significantly skewed – and then on replay this process has to be reversed. Doing this is a major part of phono stage design but for the most part, designers have simply adopted an orthodox approach and not surprisingly this means a lot of phono stages really don’t sound that much different from each other.

Go a step further and think about the broad range of frequency that records can store and cartridges can play back – effectively from 0hz to well over 60 kHz from even modest setups and how this is often truncated to a 20hz -20KHz range which has been arbitrarily set as both what we should be able to hear and a de-facto standard for most audio equipment.

Then consider that within these ranges the treatment of the signal may not be evenhanded – where this gets more conceptually difficult to grasp is the relationship of frequency (pitch) to time. Lower frequencies travel more slowly than high, and over the broad frequency range this creates a real issue – the sound will effectively be smeared, and as a simplistic example, the bass will be out of time with the treble.

William is one of the very few (and maybe the only) analogue audio designers to seriously address this and just in the same way that his turntables adopt novel and unconventional ways to solve issues of resonance and noise, this phono stage deals with both time and frequency rather than just the later.

This is why the Well Tempered phono stage makes such an immediate first impression – it does things in a markedly different way that gets us much closer to the original performance.

The second and third parts are more about component selection. The quality and choice of op-amps as solutions for amplifying music has improved dramatically over recent years, essentially as a by product of digital’s exponential development. The Well Tempered Phono stage takes advantage of this by using the very best available – this feeds into the end cost but I’ll explain shortly how the value side of things is maintained.

Inside the Well Tempered Labs Phono Stage @totallywirednz
Inside the Well Tempered Labs Phono Stage.

We then get to the section on the sound of the individual resistors and capacitors used in the circuit – this is something many designers of esoteric components make their primary selling point, and while I’m happy to believe that everything makes a difference (especially given my own experience with cables and connectors), this has to always be looked at as a ‘nice to do’ part of the process – each little part may well add to the end cost. So this has to be looked at in terms of the final product – does the sonic benefit justify both the cost and selection time involved?

That said, if I’m going to trust anyone to make these evaluations it’s people like William and Frank who have consistently delivered better sounding products.

Taken as a whole, the unique design and the cumulative effect of multiple small but significant component selections add up to an obvious and worthwhile performance advantage.

Design is one thing, manufacture is another. High end audio has long had an uneasy relationship with sometimes brilliant design but costly and inefficient implementation, often by extremely small (essentially one man) operations. This is often compounded by the need to sell products which means the ‘look’ and marketing end up being a big part of the end price.

The connection between Well Tempered Labs and the Opera Audio company based in China solves this issue. I know there can sometimes still be some bias towards different countries but China operates on a scale and level of efficiency that few in the west can grasp – they have a heritage of craftsmanship and a relationship with music that goes back in millennia, and a thriving audio industry that dwarfs both our local and most internationally recognised brands.

The fact is that just about every electrical component in a New Zealand, UK or US made audio product comes out of China or Asia. Building components at the source location therefore just makes sense if you are able to do it. So Well Tempered works with Opera who take care of building The WTL Phono Stage.

The physical design is intentionally straight forward – it’s a rectangular black metal box, no bigger or smaller than it has to be to accommodate the internals, and is finished to a standard above utilitarian, but not needlessly glitzy. The RCA sockets and connections are similarly non-branded but I have no doubt they have been selected with both sound quality and reliability as a priority. Thus you benefit directly from the economies of scale, with lower component and manufacturing costs. We also see a level of consistency and reliability which small operations struggle to match in the real world.

The two parts – innovative design and efficient manufacture come together to give you both sound quality and value.

For all this The WTL Phono Stage exists in a world where the percentage of people that will have both the means and the inclination to invest in serious analogue playback is limited. Yet the enjoyment provided is up there with the most hedonistic pursuits – but without the consequences. Within this small but enthusiastic market we are effectively a community where, if word of a better way of doing things gets around, we can all benefit. Which, in part, is why I’m going in to such depth.

Set up and matching.

Setting up the WTL Phono stage is very simple – the connections are straight forward with RCA in and out, and a press fit earth terminal that accepts bare wire. The 24 power supply is rather larger and heavier than usual and has a snuggly fitting 3 pin socket that locks in place. On the bottom there are two sets of dip switches  – one for each channel.

The first 3 switches on each block set the gain (how much the WTL amplifies the sound) and so you are able to adjust for a wide range of cartridges both moving magnet and coil. I found the second and slightly higher setting to be best with the Nagaoka MP150 we first connected – it’s not often we have the luxury of being able to adjust gain with MM and it certainly proved worthwhile.

The next 3 switches adjust the loading impedance which is primarily a feature used with MC cartridges although the is a 47K ohm setting which is the accepted standard for MM.

It’s worth noting William’s comments in the manual on this – ‘there are many factors that contribute to the optimum loading of phono cartridges that include cable, preamplifier etc and we recommend starting with the lowest impedance setting closest to the manufactures recommendations’

‘In my experience, MC cartridges loaded with 47K ohms yield and excellent result and 47K is what I have used for some time now.’

For use with our low output MC – the Dynavector DV17Dx we set the gain to 1300 and impedance to 150 ohms – this gave a similar level of output to the Nagaoka MM and there were still 4 higher available gain settings. In other words the WTL Phono stage has more than enough output to match any low output moving coil cartridge AND drive any integrated  or pre-amplifier to it’s optimum level.

There is a perception that you should exactly match cartridge and phono stage specifications in order to enjoy the best sound but this paints a simplistic picture.

As you have read above William has a preference for a much higher input impedance when listening to MC and if we look at another example with the NuPrime Evolution One power amplifiers which have an extremely high input impedance, there is certainly a good case to be made for this approach.

Often you’ll be told to select the option that sounds best yet when you try, it can be difficult to actually hear a worthwhile difference. I to, have found that fine tuning cartridge loading to be so subtle as to have just given up. But with the WTL, these selections have become much more obvious. The only conclusion we can come to is that with it’s higher resolution and transparency, we have crossed a threshold. As a by-product of this, I also re-assessed the set up of my turntable and found that it is even easier to hear small changes to the physical parameters such as arm height, damping and tracking weight. The end result is not just better performance through the sound of the phono stage, but a significant overall lift because it is now possible to fine tune in a meaningful and repeatable way.

William also recommends that you employ as good as possible interconnect cables with The WTL Phono Stage. For the output side we have found Keith Eichmann’s KLEI interconnects to be the best choice and with a range from around $350 to more than the cost of the phono stage there is plenty of choice. On the input side a little more experimentation may be warranted. Many turntables have their own cables and outside of upgrading the RCA plugs there may not be any options to change these.

The Sound of WTL Phono.

It’s always good to have a well regarded and long running  benchmark from which to make any comparisons and the Dynavector P75MK4 serves this role – there is a relationship between the two designers and so we have no conflict in terms of outlining what the WTL does better, especially when many Well Tempered turntable owners are also Dynavector clients.

The WTL Phone Stage with the Consonance Wax Engine turntable @totallywirednz
The WTL Phone Stage with the Consonance Wax Engine turntable – our moving magnet testbed

On moving magnet the WTL is dramatically better and it’s in this setting that both my pre-production and first listening of the finished unit is based.

With both higher quality moving magnets such as the Nagaoka MP, Ortofon 2M ranges and specialist cartridges such as the WTL TLC and high output moving coils such as the Dynavector DV10X5 & 20XH, there is absolutely a case for a superior phono stage.

The lower cost of these cartridges (when compared with most worthwhile moving coil options) is not a reflection of constrained performance but simpler construction. With the better units the stylus profiles are every bit as good as much more costly cartridges and the higher output delivers much better noise performance. MM cartridges are often better in terms of tracking ability and broad compatibility with various tonearms.

The WTL Phono allows MM cartridges to bloom and involve in a way I’ve never heard before – albums sounded like they had a completely remixed and improved production with entire threads of vocals and instrument lines being clearly revealed. There is pace, yet the music sounds more relaxed and flows with no hard edges (except where intentionally delivered). Percussion is remarkable with drum hits gaining impact but also seeming to be more realistic and organic – i.e. we hear the sound of a wooden drum stick hitting a skin rather than just an impact. The difference between a real drum kit and performer is distinct from the electronic version – yet the latter is even more clearly carried in the production and you can hear nuance that simply wasn’t there before.

The MM performance really stunned me – there were clearly things going on in there that were not previously revealed in a much more costly setup of both turntable and low output MC via the Dynavector P75MK4. Not only this, but both surface noise and any background hum was appreciably lower and it seemed that setup and matching was much easier.

Well Tempered have a history with Phono stages – the lower cost RIAA is still a current model and the TTP – a two box tube based design that was also MM only will have helped in providing a base to work from.

The easy switching between gain settings with the The WTL Phono Stage is immensely useful with MM – not only to deal with the varying outputs but also to work with the differing input sensitivity of preamplifiers. We are now able to fully optimise and gain a full dynamic range which rivals any MC system. This should be of particular interest to anyone with an Ortofon 2MBronze or Black.

The sound-staging is also remarkable. Again this has always been a selling point for MC over MM yet The WTL Phono Stage changed my perspective as to what is possible with even quite affordable moving magnets such as the Nagaoka MP-150. Combined with the extra dynamics afforded by correct gain setting and the remarkable lucidity, The WTL Phono Stage made me seriously question the higher end system we’ve assembled.

For a great many listeners, the results with a MM or high output MC will be all you could ever want. On a purely economic level, I’ve always appreciated the lower cost of many MMs and ease of stylus replacement. It is also clear that the combined cost of a good MM and the WTL at $2500-$3000, is less than that of many MCs and phono stage, and what I hear suggests that the former is by far the better option. Especially if you factor in the cost of stylus replacements over time. Remember we are always looking at an analogue combination as a whole – turntable, cartridge and phono stage (plus the connections).

The WTL makes the gradations between MM cartridges more obvious than I have previously found. There is a vast difference laid out between Nagaoka MP110 and 150 with the latter proving to be far more sophisticated in it’s rendition. The WTL TLC while based on the MP150 shows a much more articulate character and by turn the latest MKII version of the Dynavector DV10X5 delivers a cinematic soundstage by comparison.

All this taken into account, the potential with a high quality MC is greater again so the next question is how does the The WTL Phono Stage handle this relative to the Dynavector? In our own system, the match of the DV17DX cartridge and P75MK4 has been effectively optimised by the unique PE – Phono Enhancer – mode. And up until now, that really did seem as close to ideal as it was possible to get.

The Well Tempered again improves on the Dynavector P75 but in different ways.

The WTL Phono has a warmer overall sound with a more organic and realistic bass – percussion  of all types is better handled with greater depth and impact and a far more convincing sense of texture.

Vocals are more intelligible – the P75Mk4 gives the impression of pushing vocals forward but I can now understand that the different bass qualities highlighted by the WTL provides a more realistic overall balance.

Surface noise is definitely reduced with the WTL – the sound is more relaxed yet still has immediacy and bite when required. In some analogue systems I’ve heard surface noise effectively placed in the outer parts of the sound stage but with the WTL it is uncannily absent – I’m not quite sure what is going one here as the low level detail, especially the fades at the end of tracks are revealing a lot that I’ve never heard before.

The work done on the temporal front of the design is markedly more obvious with MC – the relationship between different instruments where each is voiced over different frequencies – for instance bass and lead guitar – is presented in a way that just makes far more sense. The musicians are playing together in terms of timing and it’s much more apparent that they are distinct instruments yet part of the same performance.

Subtle changes in tempo are much more obvious – be it a drummer shifting up a notch or the bass line being produced by a human rather than a machine.

As with MM the range of gain settings is broad and easy to change – you can do this quite happily while playing with no obvious clicks. And there is a truckload of gain on tap – as much as twice what we found optimal with the DV17DX and little NuPrime HPA-9 preamplifier. Overall the WTL will work with a broader range of cartridges  and amplifiers than the Dynavector.

Versalex turntable, Dynavector DV17DX cartridge and The WTL Phono Stage @totallywirednz
Versalex, Dynavector DV17DX and the Phono Stage – analogue dreams made reality

Most importantly we have established that even with Dynavector cartridges and running in PE mode, the WTL Phono is still appreciably better. For other cartridges and in normal or MM mode the improvement is greater again.

None of this implies any sort of criticism towards the P75MK4 – it is a stellar performer given it’s cost and with each iteration the P75 has become markedly better.

But the way the WTL improves things in the time domain is obvious – the way the music flows and  a greater sense of ease is one part but also the treatment of the leading edge of notes. The slight sense of edginess with the P75 is translated into a more nuanced and detailed approach.

On top of this I strongly suspect the more robust power supply and greater possible gain contribute to the impression of greater depth. The WTL has a linear supply whereas the P75 has a very special switching circuit, and while the P75 has predominantly small surface mount components, you can see larger more conventional parts within the WTL – William’s selection preferences and greater budget are likely to also play a part in the sonic differences.

There are some real paradoxes when comparing the new WTL Phono Stage with the Dynavector P75MK4. I get the feeling the Dynavector has been intentionally optimised for low output MC. But the WTL does amazing things with Moving Magnets that leave it for dead and in many ways take the performance of these lower cost cartridges to a level above the P75MK4 with many coils.

The WTL does certainly respond to low output coils of higher quality but the performance advantage over the P75 in this regard isn’t quite of the same magnitude – but this has to be taken in the context of this review only considering the DV17DX and P75MK4 in PE mode. It is highly likely that in other contexts the magnitude of the  performance jump will be at least the same if not higher than I’ve found with the MM comparison.

The Dynavector also makes LPs sound more consistent with each other – now I have another reference it appears that the P75 has a distinct colouration that overlays the sound of every record. The WTL stands in contrast by laying bare the differences in production values between records.

I’ve been listening to a very broad range of LPs while evaluating The WTL Phono Stage – some older (30+ years) LPs while revealing much detail that I simply never remember hearing are also sounding somewhat thin and compressed when compared to new pressings and productions. In part I feel that modern recording techniques – especially the software that is often used, have advanced recording quality. The standardisation of 24+ bit recording while obviously digital is enabling some fantastic productions from an incredibly broad range of artists.

Remembering that the whole analogue recording process does involve a level of manipulation because of the mechanics of vinyl production and the RIAA standard, the approach taken by William Firebaugh is proving advantageous to even digital masters.

And as I’ve suggested, the way in which the WTL works almost sounds like a new interpretation or re-mastering with many recordings – the difference is that great. While we don’t have  a directly comparable phono stage or a master recording on hand to test the veracity of this idea, I do, in many cases have a reference back to the actual performances of the same bands and artists when seen live. It may come down to a gut feeling but for me, the WTL is the best I’ve heard yet in this regard. And by a good margin.

Unlike another product which I’ve recently reviewed that also has a distinct ‘live’ sound, the WTL is much more transparent and isn’t creating an overlay or character that gets in the way of the music. It does make the differences between productions more apparent rather than less but for the good ones that’s stunning. For the lesser ructions you’ll still get something but maybe not to the same degree.

That said, the unexpected reduction in surface noise is a real boon for record on even the most scrappy records. I’m really not sure why this seems to be a feature of the sound and normally this world suggest some kind of filtering but none is evident.

Unlike many other new components we have listened to the warm up period for The WTL Phono Stage doesn’t seem to be that obvious. This may have been obscured by changes we made between turntable systems and the changes of setup prompted by the greater resolution, but the qualities that convinced us in the first instance remain consistent. I do suspect that we are hearing subtle improvements in low level detail over time but the relative (and deceptive) simplicity of the circuit with fewer but high quality than many digital components would account for this.

The power consumption of the WTL is modest – just 20 watts so it barely runs warm and should be left on continuously unless the system is not going to be in use for a week or more. The lack of any switching is a fairly clear indication of the designers intentions.

While the Phono comes with a dedicated 24v power supply included, Well Tempered have released a new turntable power supply intended for the Amadeus 254GT, Royale and Versalex called the ‘Ctrl’ which has a 24v connection for the Phono and may well deliver even higher performance.

Conclusion.

The new Well Tempered Labs Phono Stage sets new standards in both value and performance. The unique implementation of RIAA processing provides a new and better interpretation of vinyl record replay which is, paradoxically, most striking when applied to moving magnet systems. In doing so it causes us to question the assumption of placing precedence of the cartridge over the phono stage.

On top of this, The WTL Phono Stage also works it’s magic with low output moving coil cartridges, and with an extremely broad range of easy to adjust settings, is compatible and indeed optimal with virtually any phono cartridge and amplifier on the market today.

The WTL Phono is our best performing phono stage offering you real material value for money and build quality. It delivers exactly what the Well Tempered Labs promise – ‘new music from your records’, making analogue both relevant and viable for any enthusiastic music listener.

The Well tempered Labs Phono – NZ$2100 including GST and and delivery.

John Ransley

Our Phono stage range…

Take your choice - Cambridge Solo, WTL RIAA, Dynavector P75Mk4, WTL Phono Stage @totallywirednz
Take your choice – Cambridge Solo, WTL RIAA, Dynavector P75Mk4, WTL Phono Stage