TESTED: The Well Tempered Amadeus Turntable and Tonearm
Vinyl can seem like a miracle. The possibility of inscribing subtle musical information out to 40kHz and beyond on a disc and replicating the disc in massive quantities by plating and then pressing plastic is at once so seemingly basic and yet so effective that it can only be regarded as a gift from Nature. The Atomic Force Microscope has shown that the micro-scanning of surfaces with electromechanical probes can be extended even further into the microscopic than vinyl playback systems, giving the imprimatur of high-powered science to vinyl’s basic process. Vinyl playback has de facto become the prototype of the process by which we can search most deeply into the literal shape of the world around us. This development must have confounded the people who, upon the introduction of CD, began to make fun of vinyl as a “primitive” technology!
But precisely because the vinyl record is so good at encoding microscopically for playback the subtlest details of music, vinyl playback is susceptible to disturbances. Searching for micro-details of music will also reveal any irrelevancies at the micro-level. And because cartridges are detecting the shape of the vinyl surface by the stylus vibrating, the whole process is sensitive to extraneous vibrations in particular. Noise from the playback mechanism and noise from the energy put into the vinyl by the stylus as well as irregularities in the motion of the record can disturb the near perfection of the medium itself.
The Well Tempered Amadeus, the latest incarnation of the approach to vinyl playback that William Firebaugh introduced some twenty-five years ago, comes remarkably close to eliminating all those obstructive extraneous vibrations that obscure the real glory of the sound imprinted on the vinyl record.
One of the first records I heard on the Amadeus was Beecham’s Music of Frederick Delius on EMI/Capitol. Here was the magic of vinyl indeed. Made fifty years ago, seemingly unplayed since, the record shined forth in all its vividness. The conductor that Delius admired the most was all but present with his orchestra directly before me. Of course, this is a historic recording and there have been many reissues since. But tapes deteriorate, while vinyl is, to all intents and purposes, eternal. And the sound of Delius’ exquisite music here was as vital and beautiful as it had been fifty years ago.
Solidity, silence, stability, purity, clarity, all the things that characterize the sound of live microphone feeds were present in abundance. And the feeling was strong that one was hearing directly back to the sound one would have heard in the control room, or, given the quality of the recording, quite close to the sound one would have heard in the audience.
This feeling of directness and clarity without over-etching persisted with continued listening. My first audition had been at designer Firebaugh’s home, over his ultra-revealing prototype electrostatics. With other speakers and other systems back in my own listening rooms, the same experience prevailed, the same sensation of hearing the sound of the record with no added noise, without spurious additions and without any losses. On Water Lily Acoustics amazing Indian Architexture, the textures which give the recording its name were profoundly revealed, the intricacies of the complex sounds of the instruments and their relationships precisely revealed but with no hint of added edge. And the spatial information floated in air just as it should—and would in reality. (This is one amazing recording!) On Vanguard’s recording of Stokowski conducting Thomson’s The Plow that Broke the Plains I was again transported back through a window in time to when, as a child, I used to hear Stokowski conduct in concert—so vivid in its tone colors and transients (that banjo!) and yet unforced was the sound of the orchestra.
The tonal character of a vinyl system is mostly a product of the cartridge used, but the silence and solidity and purity of the sound are definitely attributable to the turntable/tonearm system. And it is worth taking a look at how these sonic virtues are achieved. Crucial to the silence is the present embodiment of the unique “zero clearance” bearing system that Firebaugh introduced with his first Well Tempered ’table years ago. This eliminates the possibility of chatter and vibration that any captive sleeve bearing is bound to have to some extent. Then there is the tonearm, which, like its predecessors at Well Tempered, is not restrained by any rigid coupling whatever. Rather it is held steady at audio frequencies by damping alone, with a plastic thread establishing its stable, static position. The damping element, the thing actually immersed in the damping fluid, looks in this case not like the disc used in earlier models but like a golf ball. It looks like a golf ball because it is a golf ball! The dimpled surface apparently gives just the right amount of interaction with the fluid. This absence of a mechanical bearing for the tonearm ensures that there is no chatter, no noise arising from bearings whatever, and the arm’s vibrational energy is terminated cleanly in the damping fluid. This really works!
One feature of the Amadeus is worth special mention: the ease of setup. Previous Well Tempereds, for all their sonic virtues, were difficult to adjust. The adjustments all seemed to interact with each other. This problem is eliminated in the Amadeus, the adjustments being straightforward and stable.
The Amadeus is not suspended in the ordinary sense of hanging or sitting on springs, but it does have isolation, the plinth being on rubber feet which sit on a sub-platform that has itself vibration-absorbing feet. Isolation can be improved, I found, by not using the fairly hard rubber feet on the plinth but rather by putting the plinth on the base with soft rubber balls between them, these being restrained from rolling via cardboard sleeves. You can do it yourself! Squash balls, as once suggested to me by Max Townshend, are ideal (c.f., my review of the Townshend Seismic Sink, Issue 95, reprinted here http://www.regonaudio.com/SeismicSink.html). The effect is cumulative. Use several layers, boards in between, if need be. Firebaugh tells me that he intends to offer the squash balls as standard equipment from now on. It is desirable to place the turntable on a firm support if one is to avoid some possible feedback effects at high volumes—higher than I would use, actually, by a good bit. If you need more isolation, you could use a Seismic Sink from Townshend, or if you wanted to go all out, use the Minus K Technology platforms, which isolate to an extreme.
The drive of the turntable is through a DC motor and a unique belt: a knotted piece of polyester sewing thread of a certain type. It is typical of Firebaugh’s substitution of ingenuity and experimentation for expenditure that he found such a commonplace and essentially free solution of the belt problem, which is extremely effective. The perceived speed stability of the ’table is admirable indeed. The belt/drive combination is clearly working to a fare-thee-well. The pulley is cleverly designed so that the knot creates no bump as it passes over the pulley, either.
The damping of the record by the mat is excellent. Banging on a blank area of the record with a screwdriver produced only a dull thud through the speakers, the result one is looking for here. (Noise abatement is most important at the frequencies of human hearing’s maximum sensitivity. What one wants from banging on things with hard objects, a full-frequency-range disturbance, is to hear dull thuds, with minimal content around 2–6kHz.) The Amadeus eschews the clamp system used in earlier Well Tempered ’tables, but the innocuous-looking mat will clearly do its desired job of soaking up the energy, especially the higher frequency energy, that the stylus puts into the vinyl as it plays the record.
The Amadeus has superb bass. Since the arm works entirely by damping, it naturally damps out the arm/cartridge resonance very well indeed. Running the Shure Era IV test record to find the arm/cartridge resonant frequency, one comes surprisingly close to finding no resonance at all. Associated to this is a bass response that has an extension and solidity that will come as a surprise. Only the Townshend front-end arm-damping system and the (prototype) Moerch, an isotropic tonearm, have been comparable in my experience of pivoted arms. (Linear trackers have an advantage since horizontal and vertical behavior are automatically decoupled.) The bass here is really exceptional.
At anywhere near the price point, it is hard to fault the Amadeus. The combination of superbly quiet, stable, solid, low-distortion playback with unusually good bass performance tends to dissolve the critical faculties in the pleasure of the music. Firebaugh’s substitution of brains for money, as I think of it (he would never be so immodest as to say such a thing of himself), carries this design a very long way towards perfect. And some of the things that one might suppose would be improvable in principle turn out, as far as I could tell, not to matter in sonic terms.
For instance, the plinth is quite dead in the mid to upper frequencies, where deadness really counts, as noted above. But it seemed to me not as dead as the more complex, heavier plinth of the Well Tempered Reference that I reviewed in Issue 142. How much effect does the somewhat-less-dead plinth have on actual listening? Not all that much, if any, as far as I could tell. Also, as noted, the isolation of the Amadeus from structure-borne vibration is not as close to total as one might like in certain applications. In my situation where I could put the ’table on a brick hearth, this did not matter, and as noted this issue can be dealt with if it does arise. Finally, a heavier platter is used in many designs, but I could not detect any negative aspects of the sound that could be attributed to the less-than-massively-heavy platter, even though in principle, heavier might provide greater speed stability under loads.
I want to remark on one question that has been raised about Well Tempered turntable/arm combinations in the past. This is the matter of dynamic linearity. In my experience, nearly every audio device that does not have rising distortion and noise with rising level at some point or another gets accused of being un-dynamic and unexciting. (My favorite example was the Sunfire Signature, which can put out pulse power of more than 2000 watts, being accused of lacking dynamic punch at the fortissimo level compared to low-powered SETs.) In this connection, I would like to put on my techno-nerd hat and point out that, as long as the displacement velocities are low—and here they are very low indeed—an object restrained from vibration by a damping fluid is a truly linear system. There is simply no mechanism by which the Well Tempered arm can fail to be linear in dynamic behavior. Nor is the sound in practice lacking in liveliness dynamically. What the sound is devoid of is added noise and distortion with higher levels. If this be “unexciting,” then make the most of it.
As high-end turntables go, the Amadeus is inexpensive. And it offers so much of the optimum performance possible at any price that one can only think of it as a wild bargain. In fact, there are important aspects of performance that I think would be hard to equal elsewhere and perhaps impossible to exceed. Certainly no tonearm has a quieter bearing than pure damping, for example. And the quiet of the platter bearing is also essentially total. One could spend a lot more money, but I would listen carefully to the Amadeus first. It is something exceeding fine, far beyond its modest price.