All about the The Well Tempered record playing system – doing it differently
We’ve previously focused on specific components within the Well Tempered range but now want to introduce you to the complete Well Tempered Record playing system options; Do you get an even better result by choosing to run with a single designer’s vision, and is the end result more than the sum of the parts? Plus we’ll make a direct comparison to digital.
We also want to make a direct comparison with digital; you’ll be well aware that with any analogue system there are a lot of variables but by looking at a complete record playing system from the one designer, we’ve got a consistency that allows us to then make a valid evaluation relative to a similarly priced streaming system.
It’s kind of cool to do this with Well Tempered because they are different and there’s some really interesting stories behind the designs.
The Well Tempered range is relatively simple; 5 turntables, 3 phono stages and 2 cartridges. The trick is so work out how to get the best sound at a level that works for you.
Let’s start with the turntable that encapsulates the essence of the Well Tempered ethos – the Simplex II. The Simplex II has all the elements that make Well Tempered turntables special – the unique bearing and belt system, the tonearm with an actual golf ball suspended in silicon fluid that eliminates bearings and all the problems that go with them, a baltic pine ply plinth and acrylic platter. I’ve written much more about it here.
Because it includes all of these critical features the Simplex II is an excellent platform on which to look at all the cartridge and phono stage options.
Lateral thinking in action
There is a complete lack of pretension with all Well Tempered designs. The turntables use actual squash balls as feet simply because they sound better and it costs a lot less than engineering conventional feet. They have even listened to the various grades of squash ball to work out which sounds best. The same logic applies to the use of golf balls with the tonearms, dispensing with resonant plastic dust covers, plinth materials and the unique polyester thread belts. No gold plate or expensive logo badges. Other brands try to make a virtue of over engineering to justify cost but with Well Tempered every choice is simply about getting better sound by the most cost effective and smart route possible. Lateral thinking in action.
You may have read the argument that the turntable is the primary source of sound quality and while tonearm, cartridge, power supply and phono stage all contribute to the end sound their role is somewhat less. This doesn’t apply to Well Tempered because the turntable is treated as a complete system with each model having it’s own tonearm included.
One of the reasons I want to start with the Simplex is that even if it is considered the WTL ‘entry level’, for a lot of our clients it still represents quite a stretch, and the other WTL branded components will be seen as upgrades. So you are just as likely to go step by step rather than consider buying it all in one hit. But as they say, life is short…
If your amp has build-in phono stage and you opt for a budget cartridge the Simplex II is still absolutely thrilling in every analogue way – you’ll hear stuff that simply was never there before on your records, the surface noise is greatly reduced and you’ll find yourself singing along or even bouncing around the room. Easy to set up, easy to use and everything gets better from here.
Although it doesn’t look like much, the tone arm on the WTL Simplex II is amazingly capable and if you fit a better cartridge to it, the whole system will immediately respond.
The sharp end
The WTL ‘TLC’ moving magnet cartridge is specifically designed to compliment the inherent performance of the turntables. More detail, less noise, and a real sense of pace and involvement. The TLC is a modified Nagaoka MP150 which is already a very good cartridge in it’s own right. The improvements to damping and suspension result in a more articulate and involving presentation which builds on the Simplex’s strengths.
The team behind the Well Tempered range listen to some seriously high end systems. This informs the design decisions at the level of the Simplex II and TLC. You can jump from one end of the range to the other and still hear common elements. With the TLC as a deliberate cartridge choice, you have started to look at the turntable as an integrated system for playing records, and get a consistently reliable and superior standard of reproduction.
Rather than stepping through a series of incrementally better cartridge options, the leap from the TLC to the new Kauri MK2 moving coil is massive. With any other turntable at this level I might have reservations but again, the tonearm design is key. Tonearm/cartridge matching is seen as a bit of a black art with factors such as mass and compliance and geometry all feeding in to whether a cartridge will even work. But the silicon damping and almost infinite variability of adjustment allowed for in the unique Well Tempered tonearm design mean we don’t even worry.
The sound of the Kauri MC when fitted to the Simplex II is everything that makes analogue great – an immersive, rich and detailed panorama. In the past we’ve recommended the Dynavector cartridges as ideal matches for the Well Tempered but the Kauri II takes us even further in terms of building on the virtues for the design. The character of the Kauri is not dissimilar to the Dynavector but in the context of the Simplex II the Kauri is effectively as good as it’s possible to get. This is what we call synergy.
There’s a definite stratification in the world of audio – there are many products that work well, do what they say they will and are competent and reliable. But above this there are the true luxury components which are undeniably special. The WTL Kauri Mk2 is in this territory and in combination with the Simplex II you will experience, not just a hint of the high end, but actually be there.
Putting it all together
We normally think of a turntable as a complete working component and in many cases this is true. However some amplifiers have phono stages built-in, but many more don’t and there are plenty of good reasons why this is so. Cost and compromise being the most obvious. A separate phono stage is a worthwhile investment for any turntable owner and with Well Tempered there are presently 3 options:
The RIAA is a proven and affordable design intended for use with the better moving magnet and high output MC cartridges.
The eponymous WTL Phono Stage has, up until a few weeks ago, been my go-to phono amplifier and remains what I see as easily the highest performance for the money option. You can read about it in depth here.
‘Bill’s Phono’ is, as the name suggests, Bill Firebaugh’s personal ideal, the culmination of a lifetime in analogue design. It’s a significant component in both size and performance. When I listened to the WTL Phono stage it seemed hard to work out how it could be made better but now I know. Bill’s Phono improves on every aspect although to be fair, there’s a consistency of character – but you will immediately notice greater precision and ease, a more defined and quiet background.
In the context of our narrative centred on the Simplex 2 turntable, the RIAA is the obvious choice with any MM cartridge. That said, I’ve found the combination of a superior MM and the better WTL Phono to be particularly seductive. As a value for money middle ground it’s hard to beat and this has been my personal choice for some time.
With the arrival of the new Kauri MC and the competition of the digital front from Lumin it’s become obvious that we really want a complete analogue system that’s got the potential to be jaw droppingly great.
So to this end I’ve put together the full Well Tempered system with the Simplex II as the platform, the Kauri and Bill’s Phono Stage. And yes – as a fully matched source system it sounds every bit as good, if not better than I’d hoped.
One thing that really gets me is how easy this has been to put together. There’s been a lot of mystique created around the world of turntables and their set up. But with Well Tempered I had to consciously un-learn much of the dogma and just follow the simple instructions in the manual. And it really does work. It’s only a little more hands on than setting up many digital components and actually much more tolerant; this is the nature of analogue in that it’s the variation of interacting properties whereas digital is often either on or off and nothing in between.
These 3 individually excellent and similarly priced components – turntable, cartridge and phono stage combine to deliver a sound that’s expansive, balanced and involving with none of the problems and artefacts that we have to put up with in lesser systems.
The relatively simple designs impart high levels of reliability and don’t go out of tune. Adjustment is easy but no where near as critical when compared to conventional designs.
I do understand that you will be reading this with the knowledge that I sell these components. But I’m also an enthusiast at heart and have a big record collection of vinyl albums and singles, and still get a real charge out of both new music and hearing the old stuff sounding better than I remember. I’ve listened to and written about many components over the last few years and given the common ground I’ve found with other writers and feedback from clients I’d like to think that you’ll appreciate that any recommendations are genuine.
But out of everything I’ve listened to recently – including significantly more costly components, this Well Tempered combination is staggeringly good. I’m listening to recent LPs and hearing great swathes of information that simply was there before, including the same album delivered by some pretty formidable digital systems. But it’s the relaxed, easy analogue sound that you hear about that’s suddenly filling the room in a way that anyone can appreciate.
What’s really surprising is just how great a leap in performance we’ve got from what we previously had, to this. Earlier reviews of many individual components will often try to quantify and qualify what we hear and often you’ll be able to identify specific qualities that make one component better than another. But now with an entire matched analogue system it’s a whole new world.
Perspective – independant reviews.
It’s not just me – read this review on the original Kauri on an older WTL Amadeus.
She was sitting down in her listening chair answering a text on her phone when the music started playing. Before the first song was done and she finished typing her text, she threw her head up and shouted out “Wow!” She put her phone down and spent the next 3 hours in wonderment and amazement (as did I) and, at one point, she looked over at me and said, “You have made a lot of changes in your system”–(see I told ya)–“and every one made it sound better than before. But this is the most dramatic improvement you have ever made at one time.”
Bear in mind we’ve got the MK2 – there have been a host of improvements made and it’s considerably better again. Then factor in the experience with the two better WTL Phono stages.
Also check out this YouTube video – again we’ve got an independent commentary on the Well Tempered turntables in general (the Amadeus JR is one step up from the Simplex 2 but it deals with the overall ‘sound’ of the WTL options)
Take both of these independent reviews, think about the improvements in version and consider that by investing in a matched system you’re getting a lot more of the designer’s intended sound and you’ll be getting there.
It’s also worth knowing that this Well Tempered system is more than just one person’s design – The Well Tempered turntables are designed by William Firebaugh in the US with significant input from Frank Denson in New Zealand, and are manufactured under licence by Consonance in China, so you literally get the best of all worlds in terms of design, refinement and efficiency of production. Frank’s connections with Dynavector are also likely to play into the Kauri.
I’ve come to the conclusion that when anyone mixes components they are almost always using one to compensate for the shortcomings of another and also are having to deal with both physical and electrical matching issues. There’s an expression about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and in the same way I think we can happily take the benefits of designers with long and proven track records when choosing a system.
Analogue isn’t an obsession with the past either – all of these components have been developed and improved in an environment where Digital has also made considerable progress and brands from both camps are competing for your attention. If you have a record collection then why not take the chance to hear it in a whole new light?
One thing I have carefully considered is if it’s possible to achieve the level of sound quality that I’ve been describing to you by going down another route; having spent a good deal of time listening I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that there is something special going on with this particular combination and while it is possible to improve upon it, the only route is to move up within the WTL turntable range – and/or bring the KLEI cables into the mix. But that’s a whole other story in itself.
What Well Tempered’s better turntable options do is actually pretty simple to explain – they all share the same core design and bearing but deploy greater resources to the plinth, more rotational mass to the platter, and longer, more sophisticated versions of the fluid damped tone arm design. All these factors reduce distortion, improve resolution, isolation and tracking by a clearly audible measure. The price increments between the models are no more, and often less than that of the other parts of the turntable system. And with the performance gain offered by each model, the improvements between the downstream components are progressively magnified.
Enjoying the qualities of WTL system aren’t dependant on having a wildly costly high end amplifier and speaker system either. It’s a fundamental principle of audio that if you put better sound in, you’ll get better sound out and we’re getting some amazingly good and affordable components happening with NuPrime and Sonus faber that will deliver exactly the sound as it’s described above. All my listening has been done on mid level NuPrime AMG series and the little stand mounted Minima IIs.
This may well be described as the ‘sweet spot’. A happy coincidence of value and outright performance that defies the so called ‘law of diminishing returns’ and gives you a deeply rewarding experience. Lumin use this same term to define the place of the T3 Network Player within their range and, given it’s in a similar ballpark in terms of cost, I’ve been thinking about how it compares – especially given that the consensus is that they produce some of the most ‘analogue sounding’ digital components.
If you have access to identical recordings in both formats, I have to go with the Well Tempered analogue system – while there’s obviously some record playing artefacts such as a little surface noise the Simplex 2 and Kauri deliver in no uncertain terms. In fact I’m a bit taken aback by just how much.
The big BUT is that there’s a whole lot of new music I’m listening to I don’t have on vinyl. What digital might give away in outright quality for a similar price it makes up for in terms of access. And the rate of improvement we have experienced with digital over the last few years is undeniable. It’s not an either/or choice.
In part I think this is still due to the development curve for the respective formats; digital has simply not been around for as long. But having also been exposed to a lot other analogue systems I know there is a lot more variation within the format and it’s become obvious to me that Well Tempered get it right in a way that many others struggle with. And as we said at the start, it’s precisely because they do it differently.
In 2023 there is still a place for analogue and with a complete Well Tempered system of turntable, cartridge and phono stage delivers a superior level of sound quality and relative ease of use. The certainty with which it does this that is attributable to consistency of design and purpose that comes from choosing to run with a single brand. This magnifies the individual qualities of the components and the end result is compelling.
The same principles apply up and down the Well Tempered range and each combination represents the best analogue sound available at any given price level. While all represent significant investment, you do get to enjoy something that’s undeniably special and a true expression of the very best of analogue design.