Music in the Round
The Wilson Benesch Circle Turntable and ACT 0.5 Tonearm
Made to Measure
Wilson Benesch is a relatively new force on the analogue scene in North America, although they are highly revered at home in the U.K. They are a firm founded on engineering knowledge of high-tech materials, precise analysis of the problem at hand, and innovative solutions. Their web-site's first sentence about the Circle spoke volumes: "The primary function for any turntable is to provide a platform for measurement of a moving object, the vinyl ". They go on to state that the design philosophy behind the Circle is set-and-forget, combining the precision of high-performance materials with classically simple aesthetics. I have to say that visually, Wilson Benesch has succeeded in creating an outstanding piece of industrial design art. After some contemplation, I would call the Circle a Rega Planar 3 as Frank Lloyd Wright might have revised it. With the platter removed, the whimsical interplay between the masses on the surface of the upper plinth is very pleasing. The constant and consistent reliance on the motif of the circle is amusing and clever. That it should serve the purposes of engineering is even more remarkable. The fine satin finish on the black composite plinth and machined aluminum cylinders gives the immediate impression of a unique piece of sculpture having crossed paths with a precision laboratory instrument. I believe that this is exactly what Wilson Benesch has intended.
A Plinth to Stand On
The overall impression I have of the Circle in action is stability; particularly of pitch and tracking. The high performance Papst motor and power supply are silent in operation, transmitting no vibrations to finger tips lightly placed on the upper surface. It is a powerful motor too, bringing the acrylic platter up to speed with no lag. I never heard any pitch variations in three weeks of intensive auditioning. A short, round-section rubber drive belt is the only physical connection between the motor pulley and the sub-platter. Changing the belt position on the pulley provides for both 33 1/3 and 45 RPM operation.
The phosphor Bronze
plain bearing, though quite humble in comparison to that of the
Immedia RPM for example, proved totally satisfactory in this
application. The spindle and bearing-well are machined to a very fine
finish and very close tolerance fit. The spindle is lubricated with
only a few drops of light oil and spins on a tool steel ball at the
bottom of the bearing-well. Whatever noise the bearing might produce
is effectively drained away into the massive machined aluminum disk in
which it is mounted. A new level of background 'blackness' was
achieved on every record I played. As a devoted Well Tempered Table
and Arm user, it is rather painful for me to admit that my old standby
has been bettered in this respect. I can console myself however, by
looking at the Circle's arsenal of high-tech stealth gear needed to
surpass one of the best.
The ACT 0.5 tonearm is really the most interesting part of this package. Wilson Benesch claims that their mastery of carbon fiber composites gives them a virtual carte blanche in developing their tonearms. They are unconstrained by previous engineering ideas and the shortcomings of conventional materials. The armtube is formed from an interwoven matrix of carbon fibers, said to have superior damping characteristics when compared with other, non-woven carbon fiber tubes. Interestingly, the armtube bears a resemblance to the SME V, or for those looking upwards, the RB300 with its one-piece design. The arm pillar is mounted in the centre of an aluminum puck with an Allen-head set screw deeply recessed in the side. A very significant part of the design is the way in which the armboard has been isolated from the plinth. Two parallel shafts of carbon fiber protrude from the central housing forming a cantilevered support for the substantial mass of the armboard. One look tells you that there won't be much interplay between stylus vibrations and those originating in the plinth. I have no doubt that this method of isolation combined with the designer composite armtube has a significant effect on the clarity with which the Circle speaks.
A Tough ACT to Follow
As I started to balance the arm and cartridge, a remarkable thing happened: I could feel the arm bearing come alive in my hands as I approached the specified tracking weight. This is the only way I can describe it! The kinematic bearing is that sensitive.
Another surprise was how easily and accurately I could set the azimuth for the Lydian. A slight rotation of the counterbalance on its shaft caused the longitudinal axis of the tonearm to shift in the opposite direction. I was able to set the azimuth by ear, very quickly locking-in a wide, stable soundstage.
Setting the proper VTA was a different matter. There simply wasn't enough adjustment range available. I could get very close to the best setting, but with the arm pillar dropped right onto the armboard the VTA was still a couple of degrees higher than I would have liked. This, however, did not have a significant effect on my overall impression of the sound of the Circle.
The OEM cueing control is only good at best and is really only suitable for lifting the stylus out of the groove. The rounded underside of the armtube rolls around on the cueing bar in such a way that precise groove selection is almost impossible.
The noise floor, even with a low output cartridge like the Lydian, is exceptionally deep and black. The 1980 RCA Red Seal pressing of Takemitsu's Waves [ARL1-3483] is hardly state-of-the-art, and yet the expanse of RCA Studio A spread before me, populated with living, breathing musicians.
It was easy to play records, one after another because of the superb resonance control designed into the Circle. Vinyl clicks and pops faded softly into the inky background and exceptionally noisy vinyl was rendered much more palatable. Even the flinty edge of Robert Lucas's voice on Usin' Man Blues [Audioquest AQ-LP1001] was controlled without losing any soulful impact. His Dobro slide guitar hung in the sonic space between my Quads so convincingly that I could almost see his fingers moving.
The Water Lily Acoustics recording, Saudades [WLA-CS-16] was a revelation of what purist Blumlein microphone technique can achieve in terms of depth of soundstage and lateral imaging. These improvisations on South American rhythms exhibited a purity of timbre and realism when played on the Circle that was thoroughly engaging. Listening to this record left no doubt as to how accurately I had set the azimuth and overhang on the Lydian - the Circle is a superb groove-measuring machine. In the grips of the ACT 0.5, the Lyra Lydian tracked the most complex high treble percussion passages with a new sense of composure that bordered on indolence. Without a doubt, the tonearm's one-piece armtube contributes greatly to a feeling of wholeness and continuity in any instrumental or human voice. No part of the midrange or treble is highlighted by spurious resonances, and this allows the listener to relax deeply into the music.
Alas, large-scale orchestral recordings proved to be the downfall of the Circle. The redoubtable Symphony No. 1 by Shostakovich [RCA/Classic Records LSC-2322] simply lacked the heft and drive in the midbass that I had become accustomed to. In similar fashion, the Circle's portrayal of Holst's The Planets [Previn - EMI ASD3002] exhibited a general lack of dynamic impact which soon led to a feeling of disengagement and catcalls from the assembled cognoscenti.
If you listen primarily to vocals, soloists and small ensembles, you may find, as I did, that the Wilson Benesch Circle/ACT 0.5 is a superb analogue playback system - just hold the Shostakovich.
Turntable/ACT 0.5 Tonearm
Manufactured by Wilson Benesch Ltd.
Falcon House, Limestone Cottage Lane, Sheffield England, S6 1NJ
phone: + 44 (0) 1142 852656, fax: + 44 (0) 1142 852657
web: http://www.wilson-benesch.com, e-mail: email@example.com
Source of review sample: Extended Dealer Loan
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