William Firebaugh, designer of Well Tempered Lab turntables (WTL), is a firebrand. He began his unique designs, both turntable and tonearm, in the late 1970s while an engineer at Ford Aerospace.
The innovations – tonearm without a bearing, unique turntable bearing, a tiny filament as a belt, which is dental floss in all but a name, a platter that falls to one side when not spinning, and all sorts of ‘anti thinking’ made him a bit of an ‘enfant terrible’ in the early days of high-end audio.
My first experience with WTL was twenty years ago with lots of listening sessions at a colleague’s house and his Well Tempered Lab Record Player. I was interested and it was interesting. The sound was very musical, with balanced dynamics, and very accurate instrumental timbre. I was intrigued by the arm, with a paddle in goop (actually, Dow-Corning 200 silicone fluid) in lieu of an arm bearing. The bearing on my Rega RB2000 tonearm takes the skill and expertise of three engineers to get the exacting tolerances just right. Firebaugh went a different route. Truly!
‘Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.’ Einstein
Firebaugh’s reasons for his innovations are many and technical, and all to with the intricacies of analogue geometry and physics.
Some of the intricacies on the Simplex appear as eccentricities through the conduit of affordability (USD$1,999).
The main visual that you won’t see on any other manufacturer’s turntable is a golf ball that sits in a tub of silicone near the counterweight(s). A nylon filament suspends the golf ball from a post via a rubber grommet. One twist in the nylon filament is enough to initiate anti skating. And rotation of the grommet will accomodate cartridge azimuth. Set screw adjustment of the silicone cup allows for changes in damping and vertical tracking angle. Firebaugh’s arm is directly coupled through the golf ball. He based his ultra thin arm (filled with very fine sand) on Danish research from the 70s. Firebaugh digs low mass, highly damped arms.
Four squash balls cut in half act as support for the MDF sandwiched plinth (the fit and finish is excellent). Ensure a totally level surface for your Simplex as the ‘feet’ are not adjustable. A servo controlled motor drives the platter via the aforementioned 0.004” polyester filament (audio and motor controls are completely separated). 33/45 speed is changed via pulley position. A rocker switch on the rear is for on/off along side RCA jacks for your preferred phono cable. The spindle is quite long and will accommodate all sorts of clamps. WTL does not provide a clamp.
Setting up the plinth, platter, armrest, the polyester filament ‘belt’, etc, is a doddle, via the detailed manual. Interestingly, several other reviews suggest that the turntable was delivered to the reviewer and setup by the distributor. Living in Victoria on Vancouver Island this was not possible. We were alone, very alone.
Getting your dealer to setup your purchase will alleviate any of the difficulty we experienced during setup. Read on.
My incredible wife is the man of the house, at least where setting up IKEA furniture, turntables and cartridges are concerned. She even swapped out a dead LED on my Antipodes DS Reference Server as I watched in awe, pathetically from the safety of my listening chair! Me? I play the flute, conduct, teach, listen and write. After 35 years together, I think I’ve got her convinced that’s enough.
Setting up the Simplex’ arm turned out to be tricky. Firebaugh makes the two point contact with the head a cinch for cartridge setup (Charisma Audio MC-2 Moving Coil Cartridge). But the cup height/post height/nylon filament/silicone level/golf ball depth took a long time to get just right. Jan cried ‘Uncle’ and we jetted in a pro from a local shop. He’s a top notch setup guy. It wasn’t long before he was cursing a little, too.
It took some time, but the pro came through – lots of trial and error. ‘Well, what did you expect? It’s analogue, you have to suffer for your art.’ Sure, and setting up a Graham or Tri-Planar tonearm is no cakewalk, either. But, SIMPLEX!
In any case, success was achieved. After the geometry was tweaked and tweaked again (each change is followed by a wait while the golf ball settles into its bath) the turntable and arm worked perfectly. There’s an arm rest (height adjustable), but no arm lift – just a finger lift, which created no stress or problems.
In older and more expensive WTL ‘tables, the arm’s business end had a machined paddle sitting in the silicone. It looked amazing. Clever, unique and classy. And this is my only gripe, which you may discount on aesthetic grounds: Even though the sound of the Simplex echoed much of what I can remember from my colleague’s great WTL setup, I had a difficult time getting over the visual of a golf ball at the end of what I consider a superb, elegant arm. I’m sure YMMV.
The (very) good stuff.
Enough of the setup and my aesthetic complaint. Others more adept will setup the arm in a breeze and may find the golf ball to their liking. It’s certainly ingenious and has become Firebaugh’s favourite damping mechanism. Especially getting rocking good sound from such a relatively inexpensive bit of kit.
The turntable was new out of the box. I broke in the MC-2 cart for 50 hours, and the time did double duty on the turntable.
The Simplex has a very dynamic sound. Vivid, kaleidoscopic, even. Great records like Espagna literally lept off the turntable into washes of beautiful sound. WTL uses a foam mat as a support on the platter. It’s a static nightmare. It pulls off with every record. Buy a felt mat or take the manufacturer’s suggestion and go without the foam. Sound was similar with and without the mat.
There was an admirable coherence between registers. Bass was deep and defined. A USD$3600 analog set up (‘table and cart) is not getting you into Rega RP10 territory or VPI Avenger at more twice the price, cartridge dependent, but the WTL struck a musical balance between tessituras. No frequency shouts in the treble or bloat in the bass. And a mighty good midrange. Full of richness and detail.
The Simplex certainly played to the cartridge’s strengths. The original LSC of Reiner’s Chicago 1812 Overture was splendid, once again in macro dynamics but also in the separation of instruments – the divided strings in the quieter sections of Tchaikovsky’s potboiler was beautiful. Instrumental timbre was easily recognized, even with instruments of the same family playing in proximity of range.
Doug McLeod’s Come to Find sounded exceptional. First, it’s an exquisitely recorded LP and the performances have an artistic honesty that are difficult to replicate on a recording. It sounds like a live set with superior musicians who have been writing quality blues for years. The WTL honoured the exceptional musicianship and captured the subtle rhythms under McLeod's unique baritone. The string bass on this LP is pretty stunning in its realism – you’ll hear that on the Simplex – the resin, the attack (no matter the weight), the decay, etc. To quote the reviewer’s analogue party line, ‘lots of there, there’. The ‘presence’ and ‘immediacy’ we vinylphiles crave are strengths of the Simplex.
For USD$1,999, you are taking a step into a rarefied world. Firebaugh’s world. There must be well over 150 manufacturers producing turntables with standard arms and mainstream design cues. I’ve seen mountainous platforms, counter rotating platters, masses of cheap, shiny chrome, thick belts, thin belts, arms of all angles, air bearing arms, tangential tracking arms, and lots more. With Well Tempered Labs, you are investing in Firebaugh’s thorough scientific practice and his company’s implementation.
If you’re adept at turntable setup and appreciate the aesthetic, then this value turntable is an easy recommendation. Match it with a good cartridge (Firebaugh tried 21 different styles to ensure an easy match and mating to his arm) and you’ll be enjoying your collection anew. In technicolour.
Further information: Well Tempered Lab