It’s one thing to find a great sounding stereo component but it’s another to build a complete system that makes the most if it.
In the first few months of this year we have brought you a wonderful range of new loudspeakers called Lumina from our favourite Italians – Sonus faber. And now you can also learn about a fantastic family of new network music players from Lumin, based in Hong Kong. Finally we can show you how to combine the two into a brilliant system.
First up, the new Sonus fabers. We’ve published two reviews – one of the smaller and remarkably affordable Lumina I’s which are a continuation of the classic Sonus faber ethos. Yet it’s the floor standing Lumina III which is the real surprise – these are quite unique in the Sonus faber range and break new ground in terms of the style of sound. I’ve found a lot to like with them both – there’s some fresh thinking from Sonus faber and the designs are both aesthetically and sonically appealing on many levels.
Lumin Network players
Lumin do for digital what Sonus faber do for speakers – design and build components that stand above both the mass and specialist audio markets. The reviews for all the Lumin products are stellar. But there’s a world of difference between reading about and actually listening to a new brand. What we have heard is utterly compelling.
It’s not often we’ve been this impressed with new components but Lumin really is next level and opens up a whole new set of possibilities for you.
The whole concept of streaming can take a little bit to get your head around and we’ve intentionally held off from many other components as we were unconvinced by the sound quality, the complication and compromise that we saw. Lumin solves all these issues.
The Lumins are best described as Network Players. That is they play either music you have stored or access music via streaming services such as Tidal and Qobuz and Spotify (which will soon be offering a high resolution option). And AirPlay is in the game as well.
A hugely important part of the experience, the free Lumin App is their vision of how to make music browsing and playback intuitive, visual, and tactile. So there are no front panel controls on the Lumins and only a simple display.
What really counts is on the inside – and the sound that comes out. There is a huge amount going on with both the internal workings and the resulting sound and the Lumin site is as good as it gets when it comes to explaining this with comprehensive, easy to understand descriptions and more reviews than any brand I’ve seen – everyone just loves what they hear.
What I can tell you is that Lumin works beautifully with the systems we’re putting together. And is producing a level of sound quality that easily beats anything we’ve been able to do before.
There’s an obvious comparison with NuPrime. But they are quite distinct in what they do and, if anything, are complimentary.
For anyone with a NuPrime DAC, IDA-16 or IDA-8, (or other quality DAC) there’s a Lumin component that’s going to transform your listening experience – the U1 Mini Network Transport (NZ$4000). There’s no obsolescence – the U1 Mini brings you into the world of streaming and the Lumin sound will make your entire system light up.
This is very much the traditional way to build up a high performance system. One piece at a time, carefully chosen. And it often works. Adding the Lumin U1 Mini to your present DAC is a very safe way to get into high performance streaming. It will also take you places you may not have expected. The better the quality of your present DAC, the greater the improvement you’ll experience with the U1 Mini.
Our own experience with the U1 Mini has been revelatory. We’ve documented our findings with many other brands of components and cables over the years and while we often found worthwhile improvements in performance it’s seldom that they are of either the magnitude or consistency that the U1 Mini has delivered.
In simple terms it sounds much better and does so across every type of music we’ve listened to.
What are we actually listening to? As someone with a large existing music collection – vinyl, CD’s and downloads, I’ve often questioned the logic behind streaming services. Lumin has changed this for us.
Tidal and Qobuz solve the quality issue – both offer CD or better quality, and between the two – Tidal being US based, and Qobuz having a more European focus, there is no need to consider either digitising LPs or ripping CDs as almost all titles you could ever want to listen to will be there. Or soon will be.
Spotify have also announced they will soon upgrade the quality of their service. Being a long time Mac user, AirPlay was the first way we used the Lumin. The results from this were the best I’ve heard, but it’s also become obvious that there are some limitations – while it’s excellent to get you up and running and also as a fallback option if there are any network or access issues, the step up in quality with either Tidal or Qobuz is obvious.
Tune In provides the best quality internet radio you’ll ever hear and is part of the Lumin app. It’s free and covers both New Zealand and the world.
We have retained our Nativ Vita touchscreen server as I do have a library of niche and high resolution music on its internal SSD. The Lumin seamlessly accesses everything on it via our network and it’s immediately obvious that anything we play has a lot more going on than when we had the Vita connected directly to the DAC. You can just as easily connect a SSD via USB into the back of the U1 Mini or access anything on your computer via your home network.
Initially I thought the U1 Mini was just the same as the D2 but without an internal DAC section. Same box, similar connections, same price. A classic rookie mistake. The U1 Mini is essentially the best bits of the NZ$11,000 U1 Reference series transport with an internal power supply (the U1 is a two box unit with an external power supply). Which is in turn derived directly from the flagship model S1. Again, read the reviews – there’s a pedigree here that stands above anything else we’ve dealt with before.
So what’s the difference between a network transport like the U1 Mini and a network player – the D2, T2 or X1?. It’s simply all in the DAC – the transport doesn’t have one so has to go into a digital input (the U1 mini puts out USB, Optical Coax, BNC and AES-EBU) but the Network Players have a hierarchy of ever more sophisticated internal DACs, and have both analogue and digital outputs.
These three Lumin models that include formidable DAC sections also have a very high quality volume control system and both fully balanced and more conventional RCA outputs. These are the best options for new systems, especially if you keep things simple and connect directly to a power amplifier (or two).
The Lumin D2(NZ$4000) does for digital what the Well Tempered Simplex 2 does for analogue – and then some. With the D2 you can build a stunningly simple and high performing system that gives you access to more music to enjoy than you could ever imagine.
The two models above the D2 take you even further. The Lumin X1 at NZ$22,000 including GST is the ultimate. Again, just start digging into the reviews and you’ll get the idea.
The Lumin T2 at NZ$8,000 gives more than a taste of the X1’s performance and build quality. The T2 hits the sweet spot for many of you. Well above entry level and perfect for matching with better quality amplifiers and speakers.
All you need is the Lumin Network player, a power amplifier, a pair of speakers and the few cables to connect them.
Making the most of Lumin.
What better amplifier to make the most of any of the Lumin options than the NuPrime AMG STA?
We have already explored the new AMG models in depth and the feedback from clients has been overwhelmingly positive. Add to this the two reviews by Christiaan Punter at HFA and you have a compelling case for this new amplifier. Here’s his conclusion.
“The AMG-PRA + AMG-STA form a beautiful combo, not only visually, but also in terms of sonic synergy, the preamp’s robust and full sound perfectly complimenting the power amp’s slightly leaner balance. The combined result is a musically always engaging sound that is solid and full-bodied, smooth and refined yet highly detailed and transparent, with perfect pacing, and great dynamics. Honestly, at 3200 euro, I haven’t heard a better amplifier, either integrated or separates.
As great as the combo is, the AMG-STA power amplifier really is the star of the show. On its own, it is capable of performing on a level that is well and truly beyond what might be expected from an amplifier at its price point. To be more precise: if the preamp already performs at a level that belies its price sticker, the power amp steals the show as it has the ability to perform on the level of amplifiers that typically cost multiples of its modest 1.595-Euro price. I am not kidding!
Combine the AMG-STA with a great volume-controlled DAC and you’ll have a nearly unbeatable system. Between single and dual amps, if ever there was a no-brainer decision, this is it. The pair simply raises the performance in each and every audiophile parameter, without harming the emotional involvement.“
I’ve highlighted the key sentence for you. The Lumin’s are great volume controlled DACs but there are even more reasons to select the AMG STA.
The Lumin network players are all full balanced designs and it’s strongly recommended you use this connection with them. The STA has it.
The AMG STA also has a far higher input impedance that almost all other power amplifiers – 1M(illion) Ohms, matched only by their flagship Evolution One Mono power amps – this is optimal for the Lumins.
The sound of bridged mono AMG STAs is better in every way than a single unit. As a combination with any to the Lumin models you’ll gain performance that’s directly comparable to insanely expensive systems.
The expressive nature of the Sonus faber speakers allow the Lumin/NuPrime combination to really shine. From the new Lumina I bookshelf and III floor standing speakers, through the Sonetto, Olympica Nova and Heritage ranges we’ve put together some magnificent systems that reflect the tastes and individuality of their owners.
The final link in this story are the KLEI cables. As a client recently wrote to us “Thanks again for sending up the KLEI cable. I tried my best to convince myself it was no better than my existing Wireworld Eclipse RCA cable but failed miserably. This KLEI is incredible. Seems to have all the space, depth and soundstage of a good Nordost cable while keeping the rich, musical tone and flow of Wireworld. They are genuinely astonishing. I think if more people knew about KLEI products and how they sound, they’d be banging down your door. I’d never heard of KLEI until I came across your website but they beat every other cable I’ve heard, at home or in shops, in my mere mortal price range at least.” Karel.
In the system options that we have outlined to you, there are 3 connections that will take the performance to the next level – the interconnect between the Lumin and NuPrime, speaker cables to your speakers and last but definitely not least, the mains cables.
That said, because all the actual components involved have significant warm up periods – a good 300 hours at least you may wish to start with entry level cables. It also takes a while to adjust to a new level of sound quality, deal with the operational learning curve of the Lumin App and get speaker positioning right. Over this time, the standard power cables provided with the Lumin and NuPrime will be fine. And our entry level Kimber cables rank highly in anyone’s estimation.
But when you are ready, the KLEI options will have the same transformative effect of any of the component choices. The AC mains cables are where you’d get the most immediate and cost effective performance gains and you have four choices from around $600. We’re more than happy for you to try any of these out for your self before making a commitment.
The KLEI interconnects – both analogue for the network players and digital for the U1 Mini are the next port of call. The KLEI QFlow7 balanced analogue interconnect is about as good as it gets in this setting. Then consider the speaker cables.
Hearing for yourself.
We presently have two full Lumin based systems here are ready for you to listen to. If you are one of our out of town clients we’re happy to organise a home trial – this effectively how we came to really appreciate Lumin, the NuPrime AMGs and KLEI cables ourselves. Now we can share the experience with you.
Heading into 2021 we’re looking for more of those moments. We have the means towards this particular end. First up are two components that have crystallised much of my thinking about how we listen to music and the qualities that are important when it comes to really enjoying what we hear.
Home. Our safe place, our place of sanctity, family HQ, escape. Whatever home means to you, home is where we revive our spirits, have a life that is our own, a place from which we look out to the world. Our daily routines help keep us stable and enjoying each day.
There have been ups and downs to this year, yet here in Aotearoa our ‘high social trust has resulted in a society essentially free of the virus.’ Happily, many have rediscovered home life and it is nice to see that music listening is part of that. Our own habits have changed and we’ve made the most of new technologies like streaming, podcasts and bluetooth, along with our ongoing love of analogue. Such things have played a big part in our coping with the new situation that the world found itself in. Studies have shown the benefits of listening to music. For everyone both music and being connected aid our sense of well-being. We certainly found this ourselves.
There was some initial anxiety in our household as due to our rural living, being reliant on mobile data and hotspots for internet connection some adjusting was required to handle the increased data use. Work-wise that was achieved and then, for entertainment came the challenge of being able to stream to our out-dated but much loved Loewe television. We mostly still use our Cambridge blu-ray player but in July came Idiot Prayer – Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace and the International Film Festival that we wanted to stream. John’s tenacity at finding solutions got us there so we were able to to enjoy these visually while connecting to our NuPrime amplifiers and Sonus faber Sonetto speakers for sumptuous sound. Our favourite of the Film Festival was the quirky Dinner in America – a feel good film with a ‘kickass’ soundtrack.
We hope that you too managed to find ways of enjoying your time at home. It is a pleasure for us to help you in these endeavours so with the festive season and summertime on the horizon we have a few thoughts to share…
First up for the festive season some loudspeaker Specials –
MONITOR AUDIO SPEAKER SPECIALS
There’s only one downside to running a home show room – you very quickly run out of floorspace. Even a representative range of loudspeakers covers a lot of models between our two core brands – Monitor Audio and Sonus faber. So at some stage we do have to send some of our favourites to new homes and this is as good a time as any to do it. Plus we have a NuForce multi-channell amplifier that’s been traded in too. Perfect timing as a real Christmas treat for you!
Tivoli Audio celebrates 20th anniversary 💝
In the year 2000 the original Tivoli Model One was taken into hearts and homes the world over. Today it remains unrivaled as the table radio for broadcast listening. The 2020 versions have been re-engineered so that the woodwork has an even better finish, and the electronics have been improved to give greater precision to the tuning as well as taking the sonic performance even further. These up-dated models also have better power supplies that minimise interference and come in biodegradable, environmentally friendly packaging.
To celebrate their 20 anniversary Tivoli Audio has produced a limited-edition Model One BT in a high gloss lacquer coated walnut finish. Commemorating this special occasion atop the unit reads 20th Anniversary in mother-of-pearl inlay. The knobs and tuning dial have been crafted out of wood and coated in high gloss lacquer to match the radio’s cabinet. There will be only 1600 worldwide and we have some coming. A special gift or a collector’s item these are $549 and orders can be taken now.
Danish company Vifaare long-known and respected in the Hifi world for loudspeaker drivers. After 80 years in the business they changed tack and began producing a range of single music units – bluetooth/wifi speakers including portable speakers of varied sizes and multi-room speakers.
Much of the best in home audio are also ‘best kept secrets’. Not intentionally but the specialist manufacturers are not often on the radar of magazine reviews etc. Mass market players play spurious commercial games that are particularly intense in the lucrative fields of headphones and bluetooth speakers. Like Tivoli Audio, Vifa use natural materials in classic designs, utilising best quality parts and build practices along with the kinds of technology today’s users are looking for. Whenever we play a Vifa we are enamoured with their sound. A sound that is light-years ahead of many of the ‘big names.’ Vifa speakers are 21st century multi purpose players designed for humans. Carolijn describes Vifa as ’sound objects with tangible appeal’.Here is her review.
A new addition to our personal living is the cute ‘Helsinki ‘ which we use in the bedroom for streaming radio and podcasts. The larger ‘Copenhagen’ is our go-to for taking to parties where music is needed. It can fill a big room with clarity. The little ‘Reykjavik’is proving to be popular as a gift as is the big ‘Stockholm’ for households as the main hifi system. Something in the Vifa range could be just what you’re looking for.
Analogue therapy 🥰
We’ve noticed that the holiday season is when many of you cast your eye over your turntable system looking to see how it could have new life breathed into it. We know how you love your analogue system as we love ours so we always keep in touch with some of the best analogue companies passing what we learn onto you. On our analogue page you can find information on turntables, phono stages and cartridges. Often at year end it’s time for a new styli or cartridge, or perhaps you would like to treat yourself to an upgrade in the system. If you’re not sure just ask John. Few in the industry has his level of expertise so he is sure to suggest what is best for your particular system.
Our online shop makes purchasing easy for you. You’ll find Tivoli radios, Vifa bluetooth sound systems and some of the more popular home audio components and accessories – wherever you see our online shop logo on a product page this option is available. At our online shop you can now use POLi secure bank transfer payments. Pyewacket Cat loves helping with packing and gift wrapping 🙂 Any of our products can also be ordered by email or phone.
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$280 – 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.
We’re happy to have your enquiry or order by Email
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.
We’re happy to have your enquiry or order by Email
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.