Golf balls and squash balls, what have I gotten myself into? Literally! When Bernard Li, CEO of Charisma Audio, delivered the Well Tempered Lab Amadeus 254 GT table to me, I immediately questioned the sanity of my decision to embark on this review. The turntable itself is absolutely gorgeous. With its post-industrial look and aluminum top, the Amadeus captivated me momentarily, but as soon as Li started to assemble the $7800 Amadeus the alarm bells started to sound off in my head.
Words and Photos by Richard Mak
The acrylic platter was the first question mark. Acrylic has a very strong sonic character of its own, and I’ve never been a fan. I also noticed the platter seems to rock back and forth in the idle position, which made me question the stability of the design. Then there are the squash balls. The table literally uses four of them sandwiched in between the plinth as the primary isolation mechanism. The tonearm has a bottom pivot made of half a golf ball suspended on a bed of silicon. Finally, the pivot of the tonearm seems to change position every time you move the arm wand, so we are really getting off to a bad start!
“Trust me on this,” Li said. “Just listen to it”, said Li. Well okay, I guess.
I have worked with Li on many occasions, and have written numerous reviews on his products. Li has been an industry veteran for over 40 years, and he was also a writer many years ago. I have a deep appreciation of Li’s musical taste and the product lines which he carries. His Charisma line of cartridges has earned my respect, so I took a leap of faith and pressed on with the Well Tempered Lab review.
The Well Tempered Story
The Well Tempered Lab Amadeus 254 is not a new product. It is the latest culmination of a series of refinements based on a line of tables that have won many audio magazine awards in the past. The photo doesn’t do the table justice as it is absolutely gorgeous.
The plinth is made of two 8mm thick solid aluminum which encapsulates dual multi-layered plywood. In between the two plywood layers, you’ll find four double yellow dots sandwiched in between which serve as isolation suspensions. The squash balls remind of the Gingko Audio Cloud 14B isolation platform, which also uses rubber balls as the primary isolation mechanism. I still remember Gingko Audio performed a double-blind test at an audio show, and I was one of the few audiences who were able to repeatedly identify the improvements in sound when the platform was deployed. Needless to say, they work remarkably well as isolation devices.
The bottom of the plinth of the Well Tempered Lab Amadeus houses four rubber isolation feet embedded in an aluminum enclosure. They are adjustable to accommodate fine leveling. Once the base plinth is leveled, the four squash balls go onto their corresponding location and the upper-level plinth is placed on top.
The Amadeus 254GT houses an ingenious triangular Teflon bearing cup proprietary to Well Tempered Labs. In all conventional bearing designs, a round bearing shaft sits in a round cup machined to tight tolerances, in some cases to the magnitude of 1/1000s of an inch. But according to Well Tempered Lab, the bearing shaft will be subject to one point of contact on a microscopic level despite the tight tolerances. The force exerted by the belt will pull the bearing toward this single contact point, resulting in microscopic instability.
The instruction manual specifies that the pointed corner end of the triangle must be pointed towards the motor spindle. Once aligned, the bearing will have two contact points resulting in zero clearance and a high degree of stability. In my review sample, the triangle tip already pointed towards the motor spindle and therefore required no adjustments. Once the platter is in place, it will lean on one side in the idle position, but as soon as it spins it will find the balance on its own and rotate with stability with two points of contact on the bearing.
The Well Tempered Lab turntable is optimized with an in-house tonearm, hence the Amadeus 254 GT came pre-mounted with the 10.5” version of the LTD Tonearm. The LTD is, of course, the famous “golf ball” tonearm. Earlier versions of the tonearm actually show an entire golf ball as the pivot, but on the LTD the golf ball has been cut in half and it acts as the bottom part of the pivot which sits in a bath of silicone. You can no longer see the golf ball unless if you lift the arm out of the silicone well.
Well Tempered Lab refers to the LTD as this:
“A Symmetrex design, where the center of gravity of the tonearm assembly is well above the rotational pivot of the ball and the ball is immersed in approximately 30% in the damping fluid. When the stylus encounters heavy modulation in the grooves the increased drag causes the tonearm to rotate down thus gently increasing the tracking force maintaining a secure and stable condition for every cartridge.”
Fancy terminology aside, the LTD is essentially a torsional suspension tonearm where the rotating pivot is suspended in mid-air using a monofilament line. The design reminds of the Schroder tonearm, which to this day remains as one of the liveliest tonearms on the market. On the Schroder, the arm wand is suspended using three strings on a single point. On the LTD, it is suspended on each end of the inverted golf ball with a single monofilament line. The Schroder is dampened by neodymium magnets, whereas the LTD is dampened by a bath of silicone.
The LTD tonearm offers adjustments on azimuth, vertical tracking angle as well as anti-skating. As it turns out, the LTD is actually one of the easiest tonearms to adjust. Azimuth can be adjusted by simply rotating the ring which the monofilament line rests on and has just enough tension to allow for ultra-fine adjustments. I find it much easier to adjust azimuth on this tonearm versus any other torsional suspension design, including my favorite Schroder Reference tonearm.
The entire tonearm assembly is supported by a central column held in place by a set screw. Loosen the set screw and you can adjust the height to accommodate VTA changes. The owner’s manual has no mention of anti-skating, but you can increase or decrease the force, simply by increasing the twist on the strong. Using my AnalogMagik software, it was determined that no anti-skating force was required, so I basically maintained one turn on the ring which was the amount specified in the owner’s manual.
There is one caveat emptor, the LTD tonearm, as stated clearly in its owner’s manual, does not provide for overhang adjustments. Well Tempered Lab “stands by this design conviction.” The headshell is set at a fixed position, determined by the factory, and you cannot move the cartridge forward or backward. You also cannot change the pivot to spindle distance. Since there is no industry standard when it comes to the stylus position, the actual landing position of the stylus relative to the null point on traditional template geometries can be thrown out the window. This does not mean your setup is necessarily “inaccurate,” it only means the location of the null point with minimal distortion will fall at a different point relative to the traditional Baerwald, Lofgren, or Dietrich Brakemeier’s Uni Geometry.
The proof is in the pudding, so I decided to forgo debating with Bernard Li about alignment geometry and simply followed the instruction manual. I mounted the all-new Bernard Li-designed Charisma Signature One Cartridge onto the LTD arm, and off to playing music I went. But not so fast…the silicone damping fluid is has a thick viscosity, almost like honey. When it is first placed into the well it takes hours for it to settle, otherwise, the azimuth may be tilted too much by the unevenness of silicone fluid. So I curbed my enthusiasm and went to bed early.
The Morning After
By morning, the bed of silicone had subsided to absolute flatness, still like water but thick as honey. I must confess, with the squash balls and honey-like silicone, I was expecting the sound to be muddy and muffled. But I was wrong. I was DEAD WRONG.
Lets begin with the tonality. For this I focused mainly on human voices as I went through a dozen or so albums, but let’s use Tom Jones’ 2010 Praise and Blame album as the reference. (By the way, Praise and Blame has sky rocketed in prices as soon as it went out of print, you’ll be lucky to find one at $100. But even at $100, the quality is well worth the money and the music is fantastic.) On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is warm, fat and fussy and 10 is analytical, shrill and hard sounding, I’d say the Well Tempered Amadeus is at a 4.5. Tom’s voice showed excellent clarity with deep throatiness with a sense of warmth.
It is not as warm sounding as the Linn Sondek LP12, or the Nottingham 294, or even an TW Acustic Raven AC which sits beside the Amadeus for direct comparison. I find all three to be warmer and darker than the Amadeus. Yet the Amadeus doesn’t veer towards the other end of the spectrum: I find my JC Verdier La Platine to have less body, and my Micro-Seiki RS5000, Kronos Sparta, and Brinkmann Bardo to have cleaner lines and a relatively analytical sound compared to the Amadeus.
The same came be said of Joan Baez’s studio album Farewell Angelina, or the live recording Diamond and Rust in the Bullring. I find her voice to be slightly warmer than neutral, but this could very well be the Charisma Signature One cartridge. That means if a more analytical sounding cartridge is thrown into the mix, the balance may tilt back to neutral. A slightly warm tonality is a positive trait in my book, since it makes the sound of voices and instruments sound more natural and organic. But if it veers too much towards that direction, the lines which defines the holographic image becomes fussy and blurry.
Thankfully the Well Tempered Amadeus doesn’t do that–in fact, quite the opposite. Arvo Pärt’s monumental work “Tabula Rasa”, is the perfect example of a composition that can be greatly affected by the choice of audio equipment. It’s a deeply melancholy composition with emphasis on two solo violins on the backdrop of a prepared piano and chamber orchestra. I pulled out Deutsche Grammaphone’s rendition with Neema Järvi conducting the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, with Adele Anthony and Gil Shaham on the violins. The Amadeus delivered the utmost clarity on the violin to convey the dark emotions, which prevents it from being drowned out by the chamber orchestra.
The violins had a liveliness that resembled a live performance, with just the right amount of texture and clarity which allows the listener to distinguish the fine lines within the holographic image. Part uses the thunderous sound of the prepared piano by inserting metal screws with felt into the strings, resulting in a deep and disturbing effect which reaches the lower octaves. This brings a high contrast to the violins, generating a climatic effect which sends lower bass notes across the room and allowing you to feel the harmonic decay of the piano. I have heard “Tabula Rasa” on turntable combos which veered too much towards the bright and analytical end of the scale, rendering both the violin and piano strings metallic while the decay of the thunderous piano is cut short, robbing the performance of the emotions which Part was trying to convey. The opposite is also true, if the violin is fat and blurry, it loses the liveness required to stand out from the fore.
In fact, I’d say “liveliness” is one of the strongest traits of the Well Tempered Amadeus 254 turntable and the LTD tonearm. I define “liveliness” as the ability to deliver great extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum, rendering high dynamic contrast with the holographic image with a tonality that resembles real instruments. This is well demonstrated by Haya Band’s SIlent Sky album, their second high quality vinyl release which was nominated for “Best Cross Border Music Award” at the 21st Golden Melody Awards. Haya Band combines Mongolian musical instruments such as horse-head fiddle with pop/electronic instruments. The song “Ongmanibamai” is a perfect demonstration of the Amadeus and LTD’s liveliness, evidenced by the live presence of Daiqing Tana’s holographic image standing right in my living room, with the backdrop of the horse head fiddle and percussion, each occupying their rightful location in the acoustic space with deep colors and contrast.
In my experience of handling over 2500 turntable setups, I know that the tonearm plays an important role in the liveliness of the presentation. During the time when the Well Tempered Lab LTD tonearm was in my possession, it sat beside eight other world class tonearms so I would certainly be remiss if I did not do a direction comparison. The performance of the LTD tonearm is very similar to the Schroder Reference, which is clearly the most lively tonearm in my possession. I do not believe it is a mere coincidence that both of them are essentially torsional suspension design, which probably contributed to the lively characteristics of both arms.
This lively characteristic is often a tonearm’s Achille’s heel. A lot of unipivot tonearms are very lively sounding, but they fall short when the musical passages become complex such as in grand orchestral symphonies, soundtracks or heavier rock or pop. Fortunately, the LTD tonearm did not disappoint. Just like the Schroder Reference, it maintains stability with even the most complex of passages. I listened to Pink Floyd’s Pulse album and listened to all eight sides in their entirety, and I must admit, I do not listen this type of music on softer sounding tables as they tend to smudge out the lines and project a blurry sonic image. The Amadeus maintained a rock solid composure, delivering a solid bottom end usually accustomed to tables with much heavier platters. No, the bass is not as dynamic or as solid as my Micro Seiki RS5000, but this is understandable given just the platter of the RS5000 is heaver than the entire Amadeus table. But the bass performance is no less than with my JC Verdier La Platine or the TW Raven AC. It is adequate enough for me to enjoy the entire Pink Floyd Pulse concert without feeling the need for more oomph or dynamics.
The one album which I enjoyed the most, even more so than all four of my own turntables, is Max Richter’s Voices. Richter takes you on a journey of mourning, for humanity’s inability to live up to the universal declaration of human rights expressed through music. From piano to cello, to techno, from deep bass to ocean waves, I was riveted for an entire hour and played all four sides. It makes the current predicament in North America all the more sorrowful. The album and its powerful pungency grabs your attention and expresses the painful feelings of my heart when I see racism and bigotry.
“Chorale” seems to be climax of the composition, as it builds up slowly with voice and violin, almost a processional as waves of deep base slowly gets stronger and stronger. I was amazed at the Well Tempered Lab Amadeus’ ability to render details and clarity amidst complexity, delivering analytical elements yet without sounding analytical, conveying the melancholic and somber mood of the recording which climaxes with deep crescendos, yet maintaining a natural and organic tonality.
I do have one small complaint against the Well Tempered Amadeus 254. The arm lifter rest far above a level position and the arm wand needs to be lifted by a lot in order to sit back onto the arm lifter. But the action involved will disturb the silicone bed so much that the pivot of the arm will be moved out of position, changing both the azimuth and the VTA–enough to affect the sound. The easy solution is to simply rest the arm beside the armrest rather than lifting it onto it.
Over the course of nine months, I listened to hundreds of albums on the Well Tempered Amadeus and my appreciation for it grew by the day. Slowly I came to appreciate all the subtle but well thought out design elements which have gone into the table, and the combination of seemingly bizarre elements which create a sound I have come to appreciate and love.
Halfway through the review, I was distraught and almost broken by a suicide in the family. I did not listen to music for months as I struggled with waves of conflicting emotions. It was a dark and painful time. But as I resumed playing music, many of the tunes which moved me to tears were played through the Amadeus 254, the LTD tonearm and the Charisma Signature One cartridge. In fact, I chose this combination to play these songs as I simply love the sound of the combo.
This whole review exercise is a humbling experience for me, it reminds me that our cognitive biases can influence our beliefs and sway the decisions and judgments we make. I casted many doubts on the design and the materials employed by Well Tempered Lab. But on this occasion, my open-mindedness handsomely paid off. I would not hesitate to give this turntable, tonearm and combination my strongest BUY recommendation. A job well done, on a grand scale!
Review items: Well Tempered Lab Amadeus 254 & LTD Tonearm
Charisma Audio Signature One Cartridge
Preamp: McIntosh C1000 Tube
Power Amp: McIntosh MC3500 x 4
Speakers: Peak Consult Dragon Legend
Phono Stage: Tenor Audio P1
CH Precision P1 x 4, X1 x 2
Turntables as comparison: Micro Seiki RS5000, JC Verdier La Platine Vintage x 2, TW Raven AC
Tonearms as comparison: Schroder Reference, DaVinci Master Reference Virtu, DaVinci Grandezza,
Acoustical System Axiom Anniversary Limited Edition, Glanz MH-124S Premium, Primary Control, Rossner & Sohn Si 1.2, Graham Phantom 2 Supreme B52 12”, Reed 3P, Supreme Analog Tangenta
Cartridge as comparison: Lyra Olympos, My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum, and BC, Kondo IO-M, Ana-Mighty EMT TNT15, ZYX Optimum 1 Ohm Special Edition