The new Well Tempered Labs Phono Stage is the product of several lifetimes in high end audio. In both absolute performance and value for money it is quite simply the best phono stage I have heard.
I’ve got a little list… there is such a thing as too much choice and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the alternatives. So we did the Kondo thing and asked ‘what sparks joy?’ Components with an identifiable and unique character that can deliver benefits in almost any system are what we all want, so here are our 10 best for 2019.
Music brings happiness to everyone. Treat yourself, your family or loved one with a new addition to your home whether it be a bluetooth or WiFi speaker, a new radio, a music streaming system, a new touch screen control centre – scroll on down to find inspiration in our selection of gift ideas, click on the links to find out more …and remember we’ll do a special gift wrapping for you at no extra charge.
Expressing your individuality – 2 different system choices:
In a one-size-fits-all world where every phone is basically the same, few things can be more individual than your choice of system to replay music in your home. The downside of this is that our choices can seem bewildering. So I’ve been doing some serious thinking about how we put together a system – even then it’s a challenge to decide what we call it – a stereo or music system, an AV media or surround system? Digital, analogue or both?
It’s become obvious that the old rules that were arbitrarily applied to system design just don’t work any more. Linn had a hierarchy of components starting from source but how does this work when the source is an iPhone? Wattage used to be the go-to specification for choosing speakers and amplifiers but with modern living loudness is hardly a desirable attribute – quality is what counts.
And if you have an existing system, will be the best solution be to upgrade a single component or just to replace as a means to the end of better sound?
With all these considerations in mind I’ve decided to highlight 2 quite different system choices that we’ve been enjoying over the last few months. Working from home has allowed us to spend much more time listening and really coming to grips with how components will perform in your own environment.
The first system centres on the new little French designed D-Stream WAMP-200 SB digital amplifier. This is a completely modern take on the idea of an entry level integrated amplifier and while intended to be a very simple to operate, there is a depth of features and flexibility that simply didn’t exist at any price a few years ago. That, and it sounds insanely good for very little.
The D-Stream hardly even looks like an amplifier – it’s a sleek and compact clamshell with two rear mounted wifi aerials that suggest in a completely reasonable way that this is essentially a network component first and foremost. So while the physical input and output array on the rear panel is modest, this is more than supplemented by wifi, Bluetooth and LAN connectivity and the entire world of possibilities that come with steaming services and shared music collections.
The D-Stream not only opens up all these channels for you, it is more than capable of making great sound with a wide range of speakers. Because it sounds so good, it will make low cost speakers sound better and allow you to build an easily affordable system that doesn’t skimp on quality or features.
But at the same time I’ll point out that the low cost of the D-Stream enables you to select speakers that are better than you might have otherwise allowed for. When carefully set up and connected in the same way we would with a high end amplifier, the D-Stream WAMP 200 SB is the literal giant killer.
As our suggested system, I’ve matched the D-Stream with a pair of rather nice trade in speakers – the Quad 12L.2s which have just come in – these shelf mount speakers have a generous and rich sound which builds on the D-Stream’s clarity and evenhanded presentation. Together they are easily our best sounding entry level system for just $1400 complete.
Now let’s take things up another level – System 2.
There is absolutely a place for a carefully put together component system where each part is purpose built. Because I’m continually evaluating new components I want a baseline system of high transparency at a realistic price point that reflects what I know many of you can afford. Simply put, I want to know that you’ll be able to hear what I do and that you’ll be able to trust what I write.
So I’ve put together a complete system where no individual part is more than $3000 and most are much less – this approach gives a huge degree of flexibility. Each component stands as what I’d hope is best in its class so you can look to put any one of them in your own system.
I’m intentionally using both analogue and digital sources, and the aim is to be able to appreciate both in equal measure.
On the analogue side, we have the Consonance Wax Engine turntable, fitted with the new Dynavector 10X5mk2 high output moving coil cartridge. The digital foil for this is the NuPrime CDP-9 player and DAC – this deals not only with CD but has multiple digital inputs allowing you to stream in from smartphone, network, TV and more.
In keeping with the ethos of separate components we have NuPrime’s remarkable little HPA-9 analogue preamplifier. This is the unsung hero in the NuPrime range – resolutely analogue and running in pure Class A, you couldn’t ask for a simpler product that sounds great and even has an excellent phono stage built in. Originally intended as a headphone amplifier (and there are 3 outputs for this), I’ve found it to be a supremely capable preamplifier that adds quality and drive to almost any system.
Match this with the proven STA-9 120 watt power amplifier and you have a combination that will make the most of almost any form of music coming and and drive any speaker system you wish to connect. And don’t forget the STA-9 can be easily bridged so you can upgrade your system to two mono 280 watt power amps at any stage in the future.
We’ve been completely spoilt for choice with new speakers lately – the new Monitor Audio Silver series or Studios would be obvious choices for this system. But we’ve always loved what Sonus faber do and right now the Chameleon T’s are by far our best value speaker proposition – these are a full sized floor standing speaker the combine the essential ‘voice’ of Sonus faber with the efficiency, depth and solidity you’d expect with two bass drivers in a generously ported cabinet that stands around 1m high. Throw in a choice of Italian racing red or beautifully finished walnut side panels and you have a speaker system that looks every bit as good as it sounds.
Combined with the NuPrime electronics and the Wax Engine turntable, the Chameleons do pretty much everything you could ever hope for – above all they produce the kind of sound that you can just fall into – rich and warm but always involving enough to keep you coming back for more.
Good as all the individual parts are, it’s the connections that make them work and turn it into a functioning system. The timely arrival of a new generation of cables from Keith Eichmann delivered a transparency and balance that is difficult to describe but easy to understand once you hear it. As it stands, this system includes two of the new ‘special’ gPower3 AC power cables, a couple of pairs of the the new QFlow3 analogue interconnects, a set of 2m QFlow7 speakers cables plus the matching bi-wire jumpers. And from the turntable we use a custom made Mogami interconnect with the KLEI Absolute Harmony RCA plugs – this ensures a complete absence of hum which is often the by-product of in -ine power supplies.
It says something about how I regard the importance of connections that when we do a quick add up of all the cables used, if considered as a component, they are the most costly part of this system. Sound crazy? My question to you would be what do you think would make this system perform at a higher level for less? We could change individual components, but would they really improve the system as a whole? And anyway, it would be easy enough to select Keith’s entry level KLEI cables which deliver a remarkably consistent performance – this would quickly bring the total back in line with the individual components.
The nature of component systems is that they are often built up over time – so you may only take one or two parts of the above system as being relevant to you. Think of it as a bit of a real world testbed.
What you’ll find striking is that you could migrate from the little D-Stream system in my office, to the NuPrime 9 based system above, and then to the boots and all Well Tempered/Nuprime Evolution set up, and not feel short changed at any step. Obviously as we go up there are marked improvements in qualities such as detail and precision, a vast increase in available power and dynamics. But each gets to the heart of music and is genuinely enjoyable. We’re not about audio elitism – I’m happy to work at the level you are comfortable with and will do my best to put together the best sound at whatever that happens to be.
Consonance Wax Engine Turntable $1695
Dynavector DV 10X5Mk2 $1100
NuPrime CDP-9 player and DAC $2800
NuPrime HPA-9 preamp $1250
NuPrime STA-9 power amplifier $1250
Sonus faber Chameleon T speakers – on special – were $5000+ Now $2700 (red panels) $3000 (walnut)
KLEI gPower3 AC cables 1m $750
KLEI QFlow3 Interconnects $900
KLEI QFlow 7 Speaker cables 2m $1575
KLEI Q7 Bi-wire jumpers $320.
At the same time as I’ve been writing this, my partner Carolijn has been working through the new Vifa range of wireless speakers from the remarkable little Reykjavik (just $429) though to their elegantly proportioned Stockholm ($2700). Read her take here.
All about the new Monitor Audio Silver 6G 300 floorstanding speakers, the new Well Tempered Simplex turntable, your best choices in the Tivoli Radio range and wrap up of Cambridge’s latest disc players.
Back to the beginning – making your records sound better. Your best choices for cartridges and phono stages.
The delivery of the flagship Well Tempered Royale 400 to a client and impending arrival of the new Simplex II turntable has got me thinking about analogue and how it fits in to the modern music listeners life. There is obviously still interest and enthusiasm for vinyl and as well as turntables, we continue to install and send out a steady stream of styli, cartridges and phono stages.
A well set up analogue system is a thing of beauty and will give you many hours of enjoyment and relaxation. Having your turntable sounding great does take a little bit of investment and effort but there are few things in the world of audio that will respond as well to even small improvements.
Let’s investigate several ways we can help you get more out of records – the phono cartridge, phono amplifiers, plugs and cables. And talk alittle bit about record care.
The whole idea of listening to LPs is that it’s going to be better and more rewarding than digital. As digital has improved dramatically since the inception of CD, the competition to an analogue system has got tougher and we expect more. But the good news is that modern analogue is up to this challenge.
In the first instance, the quality of new LPs is the best it has ever been. It may seem counter-intuitive but the rise of digital has made production much easier and lower in cost. What used to only happen in purpose built studios can now be done on a laptop. And within studios technology has also raced forwards so the level of production we’re hearing on most new releases is far better than the days of cassettes and vinyl.
Add to this the greatly improved standard of pressing of records – just about every LP I’ve bought in the last few years has been thick, flat and clean – and you have a recipe for real analogue enjoyment that is a completely modern alternative rather than just some nostalgia trip.
This is not to say there isn’t still a place for preserving, collecting and playing old vinyl – as an archival format goes it still takes some beating. With a new cartridge, phono stage and maybe even turntable, you’ll get far more out of your records than was possible when they were originally pressed.
The stylus and cartridge are very much the business end of any record playing system, being in direct contact with the LP and converting the physical movement of the stylus into the electrical signal which flows through your hifi system. So your choice of phono cartridge will have an immediate and direct bearing on the sound you hear.
And your choice is broad – from the entry and mid level Nagoaka models at around $200, the specialist Well Tempered items, to the state of the art Dynavector Moving Coils, we’ve got the perfect choice for almost every turntable and level of expectation.
Until you have owned a Dynavector Moving coil cartridge it can be a little difficult to explain just how good they sound. Having worked my way through many different cartridges at home and installing even more on clients turntables, it’s the Dynavector that always makes analogue magic. The sound is unfailingly rich and engaging. Read our just-updated page covering the Dynavector range here.
The Well Tempered TLC is based on the Nagaoka MP150 which is a recommendation in itself (and in both directions). This is your best MM option. Well Tempered also make a very special MC cartridge with a a New Zealand connection. – The Kauri.
The Nagaoka MP series are easily the most popular choice for the budget minded – although in similar price territory to the Ortofon range they offer much more – it’s a richer, fuller, more upfront sound yet with less surface noise. It should also be noted the replacement cost of Nagaoka styli is much less than the Ortofons.
With all cartridges and styli there is a working life of between 1000 to 1500 hours – you might be able to squeeze out a bit more but chances are you’ll be doing no favours to your records and the sound will be less than involving – if you haven’t been using your turntable much lately this will be the reason why. While just replacing the stylus is the default option, the best this can do is take you back to where you started. Why not take the opportunity to upgrade by slotting in a more modern and better sounding design?
The next step for vinyl enthusiasts is a phono stage – the importance and performance gains to be had by selecting a better phono stage or amplifier are easy to underestimate. Until you hear them.
Having the personal experience of stepping through a broad range of both cartridges and phono stages it has become obvious that the effect of the latter is at least as much as that of a cartridge. And that the benefit of improving both is cumulative – i.e. you’ll get better value and sound from your turntable system by considering both, either at the same time or by taking a stepped approach.
While replacing a cartridge or stylus is usually a ‘must-do’ because of either wear or damage, an old or inbuilt phono stage will slog away forever so can be put on the back burner. Yet it all goes back to our original proposal that the whole idea of listing to records is to enjoy better sound. Even our lowest cost phono stage – the new Cambridge CP-1 – is better than just about any built in unit and from there the performance gains leap away.
The NZ made Pure Audio Vinyl is by far the best we have heard. Everything we love about analogue is there – it’s open and transparent, powerful and dynamic when the music lights up, yet unnervingly quiet so you’ll hear the finest details as tracks fade away. The build quality is luxurious – for any moving coil cartridge owner, the Pure Audio will be a once in a lifetime purchase that maximise the performance of any model and can be customised to suit.
The Dynavector P75MK3 is the most popular phono stage in New Zealand – the obvious first stop for any Dynavector owner. Read more about this here.
The NuPrime HPA-9 is a really interesting option – more than just a phono stage and only $150 more than the Dynavector, it’s a brilliant analogue preamplifier and headphone preamp.
It is at its best with Moving Magnet cartridges and can do things in terms of connection and matching that no other phono stage can come close to. You can connect it directly to any competent power amplifier and even just with digital sources, I’ve heard very few preamplifiers of any breed or cost that compete on sonics and certainly none that do on price. It may take a little while to get your head around the NuPrime HPA-9 but if you have an interest in better sound you most certainly should learn more.
While you might think that Well Tempered products are in the upper realms of cost, the WTL RIAA phono stage at $660 is wee ripper. What makes the Well Tempered phono stage so special is the sound – it’s a wonderfully solid and warm presentation backed by real power and drive. We don’t know the back story behind the design but it’s immediately obvious that this phono stage gives a full scale analogue performance from even modest cartridges. It comprehensively blitzes anything else we’ve tried at this level.
The WT phono stage is easily the biggest and best value upgrade for almost any turntable fitted with a moving magnet cartridge – the logic of placing more resources in the phono stage than cartridge has always been compelling to us – styli and cartridges wear out and need replacement to maintain sound quality, but a good phono stage lasts a lifetime and makes easily affordable cartridges sound far better than they have any right to.
Here’s a great little trick for anyone who is keen on a do-it-yourself upgrade. The new KLEI Harmony RCA plugs from Keith Eichmann do amazing things for sound quality and you’ll just need 2 for a turntable.
When I first tried the original Eichmann Bullet plugs on my own Linn I couldn’t believe how much better they were than the expensive looking metal bodied plugs. The new Harmony plugs are far better again and even the most costly models (the Absolute Harmony Plugs) are just on $100 for a pair. (they come in packs of 4 but if you’re also buying a new cartridge or stylus at the time I can break a pack up).
And of course if the plugs are an ear-opener, the interconnect cables when used either with a turntable with RCA sockets or a phono stage take things a whole lot further again.
Just to re-iterate the most important part of record care – it’s a worn or damaged stylus that damages records first and foremost. After this a lot comes down to handling and the obvious. Don’t pinch the edge of records between your fingers, make sure your hands are clean, keep LPs out of the sun and away from heat.
For really cleaning records, there’s nothing to beat the Nitty Gritty systems – http://www.nittygrittyinc.com/index.html. While costly, they transform even brand new records and really do the business with older discs. The reduction in noise plus the dramatic increase in detail has to be heard to be believed. As a long time owner I’ve never regretted buying one.
As a much lower cost alternative, we also have the Nakaoka 152 Rolling cleaner. With no fluids and a mysteriously sticky roller that can be cleaned and used again and again, this gets all the scunge off your records without any fuss.
There is a new version (the 1000) which is pictured and due to arrive shortly but I do still have a couple ofthe original 152s which are very similar. The results from the Nagaoka are very close to the Nitty Gritty and it’s actually a lot easier to use – highly reccomemnded.
Once clean (or from new) the Nagaoka Anti-static record sleeves are and essential for keeping your LPs pristine – we’ve got plenty of packs (50 in each) for just $65.