Consonance Wax Engine – Updated

All about the updated and improved Wax Engine turntable – a collaboration between Consonance Audio and Well Tempered Labs. We introduced you to the Consonance Wax Engine turntable around 5 years ago. It quickly became our best seller and redefined what we thought of as entry level. Given the whole idea of analogue and owning a turntable based system is to enjoy better sound than digital, there is every reason to take things further than might have been the case in the past. 

A good turntable system is going to last a lifetime and can be easily improved over that period so the logic of doing it once and doing it right is obvious.

Digital hasn’t been sitting on its hands with far better DACs, improved streaming and storage quality. So the benchmark for analogue has shifted upwards. The original Wax Engine matched this and the updated version has taken us substantially further again – and remarkably remains at NZ$1695 including GST

If you aren’t familiar with the brand, Consonance warrants an introduction – as part of the Chinese Opera Audio company  since 1994 Consonance has produced a number of very good analogue and digital components including turntables and tubed products – these have effectively flown under the radar in New Zealand but have built up a solid following in both Asia and Europe. There is a significant connection for us – Opera Audio assemble the Well Tempered turntables and electronics and the new Wax Engine benefits from both the experience gained building Well Tempered and design input from the WTL team. The company is the largest supplier of analogue equipment and also is the distributor of Dynavector tonearms and cartridges throughout China.

The key improvements made to the latest version of the Wax Engine are a new tonearm, and the main bearing, platter and drive system (which are lifted straight out of the Well Tempered range).

Because most audio components are a bundle of parts and technologies it can be difficult to attribute sound quality to any specific part. But with the new Wax Engine the inclusion of the Well Tempered bearing and drive system has allowed us to not just hear improvements made but also allows a better appreciation of the original parts of the design.

Understanding the Well Tempered system is essentially a series of ‘light bulb’ moments where we break out of our conventional mindset and take the conceptual jump required.

The bearing is a case in point. It’s a round peg in a triangular hole which at first glance shouldn’t work at all. But it does and here’s how…

Assembling the Wax Engine – spindle and bearing detail.

Every turntable platter rotates the record around and there is always a bearing of some description. Most are based on round spindle in a closely fitting round hole with bearing surface at the base. This is where it gets messy – most of the tolerances involved are at a micron level (ie fractions of a millimetre), but this is very much where the action is when playing music – your stylus is catching modulations in the groove at this level.

There is no such thing as perfection so there will always be a slight eccentricity in the way the spindle rotates and with metal to metal contact, even when mediated by oil, this creates measurable noise. Most bearing/platter/spindle systems are also inherently out of balance when you look at their metre of gravity – while the sleeve of the bearing is tight, there has to be slop to allow rotation. The conventional solution is to engineer to tighter tolerances which raises the cost but wear is inevitable so the performance is always going to fall away in the long term.

The Well Tempered bearing is different. It literally has slop built in as a feature rather than a fault. The steel spindle fits loosely in a triangular hole cut in a small piece of teflon – and rests against two sides, the tension from the belt, pulling it towards the motor.

The end of the spindle is pointed and fits in a small hole, again a teflon pad at the bottom at the base of the bearing – with a little oil. So there are three points of constant contact between the metal of the spindle and the softer but very slippery teflon. There is no metal to metal contact.

This does two very important things – it removes the wobble and eccentricity inherent in conventional designs and at the same time reduces noise (which is a by-product of friction).

The previous version of the Wax Engine used a conventional silicon belt which ran around the outer part of the platter. This is replaced by the Well Tempered belt which performs the same function but is as unconventional as the bearing assembly.

It’s a very thin polyester filament with a diameter of 0.1 millimetre. William Firebaugh, the Well Tempered Chief designer has experimented with and measured hundreds of belts of various types. None have the excellent characteristics of the Well Tempered belt. He has also tested the durability of this belt with a test of fifty days continuous operation with no degradation.

The only downside of the extremely thin belt is that they are quite easy to misplace – but In addition to being a superior belt, the material is widely available and easy to replace. And you get a wee stash of spares with your Wax Engine.

The platter itself is a new translucent acrylic. In addition to having desirable mechanical properties, this material is relatively heavy resulting in increased pitch stability. Unlike the previous version the platter is augmented by a carefully matched mat.

Combine all these elements and you’ll hear a significant performance improvement over and above the high standard already set by the original Wax Engine (and Consonance LP6.1) I could hear an immediate and dramatic drop in surface noise, a corresponding unveiling of previously lost detail, especially in the run out grooves of each track. The bass is both taunt and extended like the original but even more so.

The skeletal plinth construction is the most obvious. If you examine this part of the design closely you’ll see it consists of 3 engineered metal box sections, bolted together in a ’t’ shape to accommodate mounting of the motor, platter and tonearm. This is firmly placed on 3 adjustable oblate hard rubber feet for exceptional isolation. The Wax Engine approach combines extreme rigidity and damping to eliminate plinth colourations – in this regard, when combined with the new bearing/platter combination, I think that the Wave Engine is a remarkable piece of engineering.

The new Wax Engine tonearm.

The Wax Engine tonearm is also conceptually distinct.

The Uni-pivot concept have known advantages but also well recognised problems. So rather than the conventional  needle point bearing commonly used, Wax Engine features a proprietary low friction brass bearing in the horizontal mode and ‘pre loaded stainless’ in the vertical. What will throw some people is the perceived slack in this bearing arrangement – but this a feature, not a fault and contributes to the sound. And it won’t surprise you that some of the same design team are involved.

The new Consonance tonearm takes this even further – the bearing is now suspended in a substantial yoke which also serves a mount for the anti-skate adjustment – this was previously done using a weight and mono-filament. The new system is more accurate and consistent.

This is a serious tonearm by anyones standards and will make the most of many higher quality moving magnet and moving coil cartridges – the important adjustments of overhang, tracking force, anti-skate and arm height (VTA) are all easily accomplished. Fine tuning of the latter is especially easy and worthwhile.

So just how good is the sound?

You could consider the Wax Engine almost a part of the Well Tempered range and so this is our point of reference for sound quality but there are two important points of physical difference that influence this – the plinth and tonearm.

The new Wax Engine offers a level of sound quality directly comparable with the Well Tempered Simplex 2 – itself the subject of recent improvements. The Wax Engine is taunt and fast with a more immediate presentation. The Simplex is warmer and more analogue with a tonality that seems to be attributable to the ply plinth – if I were critical I’d say it has a more intentional colouration whereas the Wax Engine seeks to peel back the layers and eliminate the extraneous.

The Wax Engine is certainly closer to our best digital setups – and I mean this as a compliment. With digital there is a lot less variability in terms of setup – not just of the turntable itself but all the variables around cartridge and phono stage selection. And the Wax Engine seems to hone in on the consistency of sound that I’m appreciating with  components such as the NuPrime Evolution DAC.

When adjusting the Wax Engine Tonearm, you are only changing one parameter at a time and so it’s very easy to zero in on the optimum. The nature of the Well Tempered Tonearm means that some adjustments also affect others – especially the amount of damping – and so there is a bit more of an iterative process involved which can be daunting for some users.

I’ve set up a lot of both models and do find the Wax Engine the faster and more intuitive to get running well. It’s certainly far better in this regard than any suspended model.

The previous Well Tempered advantage of delivering more detail than the Wax Engine has evaporated with the bearing and platter transplant – if anything the lower cost Wax Engine gives the impression of doing more because of the heavier and more rigid metal chassis delivering a pacier and more solid sound.

The tonearm on the Wax Engine does amazing things with moving magnet cartridges – our own preferences being the Nagaoka and Well Tempered TLC models (which in itself is derived from the  Nagaoka MP-150). When combined with a quality phono stage the entire package delivers a sound that I find to be quite remarkable, getting right to the heart of the music and offering a different but no less valid perspective from our reference level turntables – for a fraction of the cost.

Like the Wax Engine, the Nagaoka cartridges have particularly good characteristics around reducing surface noise. But this is about much more than reducing the seemingly inevitable clicks and pops associated with playing vinyl – especially older records. Hearing an absence of noise isn’t that easy but what is obvious is the enhancement of low level detail – much that was previously obscured suddenly becomes clear. The side benefit of this is that it makes the improvements between the various cartridge choices much more obvious – in each case as you move up, you literally get more music from your records with no downside.

The Wax Engine with new acrylic platter, Well tempered TLC and Phono Stage.

There are two scenarios for where the Wax Engine will find a home. The first and most obvious is where you want a turntable to fit within and existing system. You quite probably play both digital and records and want a turntable that at least matches or betters  the sound quality of digital and delivers a similar level of user-friendliness. The Wax Engine does this.

The other way to look at the Wax Engine – and gain the most from it – is where it’s set to be the heart of an analogue system. The ways in which you can make it better – cartridge choice, phono stage and interconnecting cables can all factor into the whole. The addition of the Well Tempered drive system has taken the Wax Engine to a whole new level and I find it difficult to conceive of a situations where the turntable would be a limiting factor.

In recent reviews of other analogue components I’ve almost always started with the Wax Engine as the testbed. This proved to me just how good the inherent design of the original Wax Engine was – and now it’s even better. The relative cost of the Wax Engine when compared, not just with other turntable options, but with many phono cartridges and stages makes this all the more remarkable. And because it’s so easy to set up and so responsive to improvements made around it, I really do consider it to be a genuine high end turntable.

The cost of the best analogue components can be daunting. The Wax Engine cuts through much of this and I can honestly say that if I were choosing a turntable system for myself the Wax Engine would be the centre of it – The purity of the design and quality of engineering appeal to my sensibilities and the level of performance I’ve experienced, even when compared to rather more costly options, make it a compelling choice.

On a purely economic level, when looking at an analogue system, the savings made on the Wax Engine make it practical to consider better cartridge and phono stage choices than would otherwise have been possible –  the benefits of these choices can be considerable in term of both value for money and absolute performance.

So let’s consider two system options within a range of possibilities.

  1. Wax Engine, Nagaoka MP110 cartridge, Cambridge Solo Phono stage – $2225
  2. Wax Engine, Well Tempered Labs TLC cartridge, WTL Phono Stage – $4600

The first system will sound great – the entry level cartridge and phono stage are both quite remarkable and you’ll enjoy a full and rather exciting sound with plenty of verve.

The second system builds on this in two ways – the far better cartridge is much more revealing of detail and cleans up the slightly unruly nature of the MP110 while losing none of the immediacy. The WTL Phono Stage works at a completely different level to the Cambridge providing a markedly more lucid interpretation delivered with far more power and depth – the difference here is greater than many people think possible.

The fact that the Wax Engine can make these differences as obvious as they are, attests to the inherent quality, especially the lack off colouration and low noise floor allowing more information to be heard – as good as the WTL Phono Stage is, it needs the raw material to work with and this is what the Wax Engine provides.

Needless to say you can progress from the entry level option to the better one over time, so unlike many audio components, you are not locked in to a level of performance. Having an extremely well built and inherently reliable turntable as a base means you’ll always have these, and quite probably even better options, open to you in the future. It’s the closest we come to audio as an investment rather than a commodity.

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.

The new Cambridge Solo is the perfect introduction to analogue at just $295 inclusive.

The Well Tempered Labs RIAA ($610) is all about bringing high end analogue performance to the masses. The RIAA Phono stage is gusty little box. It is specifically designed for moving magnets such as Ortofon, WTL’s own TLC cartridge or high output MC cartridges like the Dynavector 10X5.

The Dynavector P75 MK4 ($1250) has been the go-to phono stage in New Zealand since it’s introduction in 2003. Over time we’ve seen a series of significant upgrades and now we’re thrilled to introduce you to the MK4. The new Dynavector P75MK4 is the most substantial re-working of the design with by far the greatest advance in performance.

The new Well Tempered labs Phono Stage($2100) 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.

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