We look at the new, affordable, and impressive bluetooth centred product: the iFi Zen Blue. We revisit another star when it comes to Bluetooth performance – the D-Stream WAMP-200SB digital integrated amplifier.
Getting Better Bluetooth
Bluetooth has a lot going for it as a wifi system – it’s simple, works almost anywhere and is as close as we come to a universal standard that works across brands, operating systems and regions. Yet the simplicity and ubiquity of bluetooth means it’s often seen as a compromise option. The arrival of a new and affordable bluetooth centred product – the iFi Zen Blue at just NZ$270 – will change this way of thinking. And it’s prompted us to have another look at one of the unsung heroes in our range that’s also a star when it comes to Bluetooth performance – the D-Stream WAMP-200SB digital integrated amplifier.
But let’s first talk about the new. iFi have been around for a while and have built up a suiteof small and reasonably affordable digital components – DACs, headphone amps and accessories. The new Zen Blue stands out in the iFi range for several reasons:
*It’s the first of a new generation of products with input from renowned audio designer John Curl The sprinkling of audiophile pixie dust over the Zen Blue may not have any impact on the mass market but for those of us that value sound quality, I can assure you from my own listening that this is a level of quality from Bluetooth that you will not have heard before and even better, it has applications in many different systems.
*The actual design and build quality of the Zen Blue is way ahead of anything else at this level – the sleek metal casework and solidity have me wondering how on earth they do this for the price.
*Finally the connectivity and how this allows us to better exploit the Zen Blue’s abilities are outstanding.
The Zen Blue is primarily a Bluetooth receiver but has both analogue and digital outputs. What sets it apart from everything else is the quality delivered from both (noting that there is switching between them).
It is by definition a DAC and so has the ability to convert the digital Bluetooth signal to analogue and does this with a high performance Sabre DAC chipset. Thus making it perfect for direct connection into any analogue system. It even comes with some quite reasonable connecting cables.
If you’ve wanted to take a leap into wireless connection from your smartphone to your system, but haven’t wanted to either change the actual components, or been reticent about either quality or simplicity of operation, the Zen Blue is the solution you have been waiting for.
It also features a new 4.4m balanced jack output option. This has applications with some active speakers and specialist amplifiers.
The internal DAC is very good, and it’s highly likely that in many lower cost or older systems where the amp may have both analogue and digital inputs (think almost all home theatre products) , that the Zen Blue delivers the highest performance via analogue.
Where the Zen Blue absolutely shines is when connected to a high quality system with digital inputs – especially the coaxial (RCA) option. Bluetooth has not been an option with many better amps and DACs, in part because of concerns of quality compromise relative to wired connections or networked wifi.
The evolution and proliferation of Bluetooth standards means for many designers it’s just too hard to include. When you see what iFi have done this becomes clear – ‘All current and future Bluetooth® audio formats are supported. This includes Qualcomm’s aptX and aptX HD, LDAC and HWA, hi-res Bluetooth® codecs created by Sony and Huawei respectively, AAC, Apple’s favoured format and SBC, the standard Bluetooth® codec.’
So yes – it will work in virtually any setting. And with the rapid improvements in the quality of streaming via Spotify, Tidal, Apple and more, there is no better time to make this jump. Not forgetting also that for music that you choose to buy and store, the levels of resolution are often well above CD.
The Zen Blue is, by a considerable margin, better than our previous solutions in every regard which is all the more impressive given the modest difference in cost.
Consider these specific applications:
Our very best DACs – the NuPrime Evolution and DAC-10 – don’t feature Bluetooth. But when connected to the Zen Blue via coax the sound quality from iPhone is remarkable – the music is free flowing and detailed. If it weren’t for our exposure to some truly high end digital options such as the Nativ Vita, I would be quite happy to have this as my primary digital source.
Both the NuForce DDA-100 and NuPrime IDA-16 are awesome digital amplifiers that don’t have Bluetooth – again, the Zen Blue is the perfect fit. Add to this a long list of other quality DACs and amplifiers such as Meridian, Wadia, Rotel, Cambridge and many more, and you can start to see the possibilities.
All this said, there are a couple of things the Zen Blue doesn’t do. The whole idea behind Bluetooth is that it’s a relatively simply system to use that ‘pairs’ with your smartphone.If you want multi-room or multi-source abilities then we should be talking about networked wifi systems and that’s a conversation we’re happy to engage in.
And if you want the performance of the Zen Blue into your speakers but have reservations about your existing amplifier, let’s look at the D-Stream option.
In a classic case of convergence both the Zen Blue and D-Stream WAMP 200 SB have little aerials and could be mistaken for modems. But the D-Stream, as well as having Bluetooth and several other inputs, both wireless and connected, is also a fully fledged amplifier that will outperform many existing analogue amps. Just as it’s easy to underestimate the performance of the Zen because of both low cost and size, the D-Stream is often overlooked in favour of bigger or more costly solutions. But its finish and build quality is even higher than the iFi and it offers control of all features via front panel or ap.
So – if looking to add the simplicity and performance high quality of bluetooth to an already capable system the Zen Blue is exactly what you need.
If wanting Bluetooth at this level, AND upgrading the overall performance of an older amplifier (not to mention a host of other features), taking the next step up to D-Stream makes even more sense.
Here are some end user reviews from Amazon – the D-Stream consistently gets 5 stars.
I took a chance without much knowledge of this product. I hooked the D-Stream up to my ELAC UB5 speakers and streamed some tunes from Tidal in high resolution.
All I can say is – it’s been quite a while since I have been this pleasantly surprised. The amplifier in the D-Stream is legit! I had to hear it to believe it. This is an amazing product for the money.
That’s one small amp for man, one giant leap for sound!
I really like this amp/streamer!
I’ve had it about a month now and have used it with Kef LS50 speakers (8 ohms), Elac UB5 speakers (4 ohms) and wharfedale Diamond 230 Floor standing speakers (8 ohms) and have enjoy the sound of all three sets of speakers hooked up to this. It’s clear, detailed, the bass is never boomy, and I never get tired of playing music on it (tidal hifi and Qobuz). Really, the sound of this thing is amazing!
I did have an issue with the remote not working. I reached out to the seller and they were very supportive. They even sent me a replacement right away without waiting for me to return the first one. The second on had no issue with the remote. Tops in customer service, I wish more companies were like them.
I’m giving it 5 Stars because it’s that good!
I would recommend you give it a try, worth the money!
Sound quality is my priority. The WAMP 200 is round & warm (not-digital sounding), but authoritative in bass. Very green – I notice no heat waste. Totally Wired reviewer says: “On sound quality alone, the innovative D-Stream WAMP-200SB stands as the best sub-$1000 amplifier I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.”
Well said. Very versatile with Hi Def streaming (wireless or Ethernet), Bluetooth, Toslink (electronically isolated), and analog line in. Front panel controls, remote and IOS controls all intuitive and effective. Set up was easy and sound is improving each day (warmer). I opted to leave power on constantly to accelerate maturation; seems to draw very few watts and produces zero apparent heat. Would be great if Version II has headphone out. Impressive product even in current configuration.
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.
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.
Between them, Frank and William know more about turntables, cartridges and how to get the best out of analogue records, than I could ever hope to describe. For over 30 years Frank has encouraged my efforts and gently mocked me when I’ve taken wrong turns, but there is no-one in the audio industry I have greater respect for.
Last year I was sent a pre-production version of the new Well Tempered Phono stage – despite running the incorrect power supply to it, and being told next to nothing about how it should sound, what I heard made an indelible impression. Since then I’ve been waiting, sometimes impatiently, for the finished production units to arrive.
As a lifelong music and vinyl enthusiast, and owner of a good number of excellent phono stages over this time, I have to say the wait has been worth it. In both absolute performance and value for money (the WTL Phono is very reasonably priced and I’ll go into why this is so further into this article), it is quite simply the best phono stage I have heard.
This is an assertion that obviously warrants qualification but bear with me and I’ll explain why…
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.
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 integratedor 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 runningbenchmark 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.
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 endsystem 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 – percussionof 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 bythe 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 cartridgesand amplifiers than the Dynavector.
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 anda 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 theperformance 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 havea 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.
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.
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.
Having just pumped out an in-depth 5500 word review that’s taken a good two months of listening, writing and editing, it’s quite a relief to finally hit ‘send’. Our typical client tends to hold on to a component or system for 20 to 30 years and often they will really stretch financially to make it happen, so it’s important that you have as much information as possible.
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.
The Nativ Vita has become the best addition we’ve ever made to our home music system. It has literally transformed our listening experience and opened out new avenues to go down. Here we share more of what we’ve learnt about this way of listening to music, plus Carolijn’s article for another point of view…
Welcome to the new year. In between some great beach walks (that’s the mouth of Blueskin Bay on a beautiful Christmas day in the pic above), we’ve been busy with exciting components and systems that are going to make this coming year so much more enjoyable for you…
We’ve lived with the Nativ Vita for just on eight weeks now – if anything we are more enthused by the Vita than at first when I wrote our introductory page. As you might expect, we have learned a lot and have also enjoyed an encouragingly positive response from clients including a surprising number of sales. It’s become obvious that Nativ are on to a winning concept with the Vita – let’s look at some aspects that add to the original assessment.
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 togethera system – even then it’s a challenge to decide what we call it – a stereo or musicsystem, 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 desirableattribute – 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 electronicsand 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.
Hifi is about seduction, is it not? After all music is emotionally charged. As a woman in the HiFi industry, I see a lot of contradiction. In the western oriented milieu it occupies, emotion is considered effeminate and seduction is largely in the male domain. Much Hifi therefore, has been designed to counteract the feminine, emotive aspect; to put the macho in its construction. Moreover, to construct an image of HiFi that belongs to the man cave and HiFi forums, with jealous possession.
Over the years we have seen this image shoot itself in the foot and unhappy Hifi buyers who sought to play an ego-enhancing game. HiFi is a word that can’t seem to escape this connotation, and one that is stuck in the time of ‘Mad Men.’ The HiFi industry grapples with its own identity.
Oh, how we at Totally Wired have disliked this incongruous image, long rallied against it and sought out others of like mind! For us, ‘music systems’ better describe what we sell – that is ‘systems’ that produce ‘music,’ and music is loved by everyone. This has broad scope because it covers the ‘how’ you like to listen to music, and the ‘why’ you like to listen to music. In other words, what a music system does for you. And there we come back to seduction.
By now you’ll be wondering where I’m going with this. That place is the now, the Anthropocene, where humankind collides with nature and simulacra dulls our senses. Yet the ineluctable pull of music endures. In response, inspired engineers, alongside imaginative visual designers, are producing engaging music systems to meet new yearnings, ones with longevity and small footprints. It is our job to research the HiFI quagmire for the best options, and in the case of separate components compose the particular music system that will enthral you.
Wireless loudspeakers in exclusive Nordic design: Vifa
Late 2017 we were introduced to the Danish Vifa music systems. These are single unit “portable, wireless, wifi, bluetooth loudspeakers” – there’s no simple word that describes them. The Vifa story is one of a company who in 2014 boldly re-invented themselves for ‘the now.’ They had an 80 year history of making some of the the most sought after drivers for loudspeakers. As Wiki will tell you, “a speaker driver is an individual loudspeaker transducer that converts an electrical audio signal to sound waves.” This is the Vifa technical heritage, and one, that given the quality and reputation of their product, could happily have continued with, but they chose to take a new path.
Vifa clearly challenged themselves to use the mastery they had to develop new drivers, along with the environment (cabinets), they were placing them in, the amplifiers to power them, and the digital processing to control, with the end goal of being optimal for music reproduction. To our experienced ears they succeeded.
With the digital wave providing new ways of sourcing music Vifa were able put their technical prowess into specially developed speaker drivers, and place them in single unit designs that people could simply send their music to – or radio stations, podcasts, Spotify, or whatever their digital source could store or access. Your options are wide open.
Vifa designers looked to their Nordic environs, even reached into the Nordic psyche, to visualise sound producing objects with tangible appeal. Objects that, in their words, give ‘timeless sound experience,’ and furthermore, that ‘the listening experience’ was the key to the solutions they arrived at. Their starting point, they say, was respect – for materials, details and for the user. Art, interior, textiles are visible in their creations.
So what does all this mean? To us, who give counsel on music systems? To you, who look for inspirational objects in your life? For us both, who seek music listening devices to live with, and enjoy? Firstly, it is our objective to provide you with what you desire; and to give you choice through a defined range of selected options determined by our experience and knowledge. Vifa is noteworthy and comes with our recommendation. Here is my review.
It is their distinctive character that first captures attention. These do not match the perception of HiFi. For a start, they are individual, portable units for unencumbered, mobile lifestyles; for individuals to own, and to share as they wish. Yet their textile outer imbues a sense of home and interior comfort. The strong cast aluminium frames with tactile satin-matt finish, exudes security, and to give authenticity the ‘vifa’ brand name is stamped in. Aluminium, of course, is chosen for its light-weight strength. Both textile and frame appear highly durable. To take them further away from looking like electrical appliances the most used control buttons, and indicator lights are embroidered into the front fabric. Lesser needed buttons are within easy reach on the back, indented and engraved for touch control. Understated and refined.
Yet our inner psyche likes interconnections and Vifa have been mindful of this. The wool fabric of the Vifas remind our us of warm soft jerseys, and with the embroidered buttons, reminiscent of early loudspeakers. The shape and carry handles of the Oslo and Copenhagen harken back to early portable radios.There’s no doubt the Helsinki will have you thinking Dior-esque handbag. There really is delight in these products that inspire Disney-like imagination, and that is where the art of Vifa comes in. They weave modernism with environment. They truly are products of this Anthropecene era. Take the smallest of the range, the Reykjavik – think bleached driftwood and sand, time-worn river stones, gems exciting prospectors, the shape of your palm, and the sense of touch through your skin. Now add to this cutting edge technology that enables extraordinary 360 degree sound through a small unit that works hand-in-hand with your mobile device.
So if you want a little bluetooth speaker in your life you’ll find no more pleasurable a one than the Reykjavik – and that pleasure carries over if buying it as a gift. The same goes for the other two portable models, Helsinki and Oslo. The mobile Helsinki with luxury leather strap (optional shoulder length on available), has unabashed vogue appeal, whereas others may prefer Oslo. Oslo evokes city apartment living and warm summers evenings on balconies and decks. These are music systems in their own right giving you choice in where you can listen to music, in seamless concert with bluetooth sources, on your own or when socialising.
Here I’m going to jump to the largest of the range, Stockholm – one of the two in the Vifa Home series. Vifa have five models in total – Portable: Reykjavik, Helsinki and Oslo; Home: Copenhagen and Stockholm. All named after Nordic cities of course, and they certainly do reflect clean Scandinavian deign.
The Home models are exactly that because not only can they bluetooth, they can Wifi, AirPlay, and multiple units can connect to form whole house systems. Of all the range Stockholm is the only one that does not have an inbuilt battery. Its big, so needs to be plugged into the power. Saying that I have no trouble picking it up and moving it around the house. On first sight its long shape suggests sound bar- but it is so very not! Listening to Stockholm tells me that its long shape is really like having pair of good stereo speakers in a single unit – that is why it is long. Not so it can perform tricky sound processing but so it can play music – in stereo. Like a good pair of stereo speakers there is imaging, ie. the (blah), HiFi term that describes hearing left and right dispersion of sound as well as merging into the centre. In other words emulating how things sound when at a live performance. You can place the individual instruments and vocals, and have a sense of space. This is what makes Stockholm a credible music system.
And one worthy of your attention – should you be after a sub-$3000 system for listening to your digital sources, most especially if simplicity appeals in an ‘anti-HiFi’ kind of way. The other reason to look at Stockholm is if you are thinking multi-room. The Vifa ‘Home’ app make it so easy, and the sound and style of the Vifas are light years ahead of the other boring wireless contenders. The Vifas are unobtrusive and don’t dominate your life, or aesthetically a room,
The Stockholm cabinet while wide is not very high and very little deep – I won’t go into specifics as you can jump into our webpage for that or jump over to the Vifa site. The various designs of the Vifas are individually all encompassing with every aspect of each one optimised for its purpose and size. All manner of technical challenges in building high performing loudspeakers are met. Stockholm produces the full array of high tinkly details down to deep warm depths, instruments are clearly picked out (pianos sound beautiful), voices fully nuanced, and there’s powerful low thumps when the music has them. Both the Stockholm and the Copenhagen are capable enough to be main music systems in your home, fill large rooms and can come alive at party volume – within reason, of course.
The rechargeable battery and carry handle which Copenhagen have means it is more easily moved around and placed. It too produces the kind of sound quality described above, and with its ease of use is my ‘go-to’ for playing music at home. Vifa homes will typically have a Stockholm, a Copenhagen or two, along with family member’s choice of portable Vifas.
The Vifas are without a doubt sumptuous, and have an aesthetically seductive appeal which alone is enough to make anyone want one. Yet even after months of having them in the house I still find when one is playing I do a second take thinking it is one of the larger music systems going. They fill our large room that well, and somehow, as if by magic these single unit systems produce music with clarity and fullness, separating out the sounds and instruments beyond what you would expect. I’d suggest to anyone thinking of a new music system or bluetooth companion to cast your eye over the Vifas and step into the HiFi Anthropecene.