Wilson Bensch Circle Turntable Reviewed
No puns about ‘squaring the circle’, ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’, ‘circle jerks’ or any of that stuff: the most-obviously named turntable since the Revolver is exactly the dream Wilson Beneschwatchers hoped it would be. Its shape, its simplicity, its performance and, yes, its name say more than any witty header. After tormenting the poor for years with its original, primarily-carbon-fibre turntable and ACT One tonearms and price tags of the mid-to-high four-figure variety, WB has come up with a front-end so populist in its pricing, packaging and presentation that it inspired over 100 visitors to place firm orders at the Hi-Fi Show.
It’s that seductive. There have been round-chassis’d turntables before, decks which look ‘plinthless’ and are therefore so compact and so boldly utilitarian as to exile any thoughts of gilding said lillies. But the Circle has an added extra, and that’s Wilson Benesch’s track record (yup, two LP-related puns in one phrase…). Admittedly, WB’s reputation rests on its high-end achievements, and audio is notorious for fostering the belief that high-end brands can down-size/down-grade with ease. Only to fail. The question begged, then, must be: Is the Circle a proper Wilson-Benesch design?
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As the company states in its pitch, the Circle is “simple, solid and highly functional.” Unlike its dearer, suspended sub-chassis sibling, the Circle is designed to be cretin-proof. And as the company is no stranger to alternative materials and the applications thereof, it’s no surprise that the user-friendliness and modular construction relate directly to both the physical design and the materials chosen, without compromising either. I’m not kidding about the simplicity: Craig from Wilson Benesch had the package up and running in under 30 minutes, . (Compare that to the three hours required by a couple of Linn employees to set up an LP12.) And when he came to collect it, he just picked it up, separated the top chassis from the lower and stuck it in the footwell of his car.
Another Wilson Benesch is “Just add mains!”, which is pretty much all that’s required of the end-user. Forget bounce tests, set-up jigs and the like. By avoiding the use of a sprung suspension, the Circle emulates such other elegantly simple dependables as the Rega Planars 2 and 3 in being entirely predictable and generally stable, rarely if ever requiring the need for periodic pain-in-ass tune-ups. But some isolation is necessary, whatever you might be told by certain designers who argue that mere rubber feet are enough…when we know that all they’re doing is cutting costs.
In the case of the Circle, a modicum of isolation is achieved by the combination of various materials and a basic structure which requires absolutely no adjusting at all. You simply assemble the various parts, the sub-chassis which contains the bearing, arm-board and everything else resting directly on top of the base-plate which holds the motor and on-off switch. It’s that simple, and the company probably isn’t exaggerating when it says that – not counting the arm and cartridge – the record set up time for a Circle is in less than five minutes from the time of opening the box. (OK, OK, so a Planar 2 is quicker…) Where you get to play anal audiophile is with your choice of equipment rack or shelf. I used a well-loaded Hi-Fi Newsstand with MDF shelves, and suffered only from the occasional bounce when my son bounded in the room.
Wilson Benesch’s knowledge and experience with the original carbon-fibre-laden Turntable and arms have led to decidedly clever use of a mix of metals, polymers and what are described as ‘advanced composite uni-directional carbon fibre rods’, the latter visible underneath as the struts which locate the aluminium outrigger pillars relative to the central bearing housing. The cylindrical metalwork is precision-machined in-house to a deliriously high standard using CNC equipment, enabling WB to meet tolerances which suggest that a Circle sells for more than it does.
MDF is used for the two large black chassis sections, the material chosen for its stability and low cost. And, frankly, it’s one of those materials which, if finished properly, doesn’t betray its humble origins. Best of all, as speaker designers looking for cost-effective baffles have learned, MDF is dense and dead and its way of dealing with unwanted energy enables the motor to be isolated from the upper chassis section without the use of springs. In common with the big bucks Wilson Benesch Turntable, the Circle uses tool steel and phosphor bronze for the plain bearing. Cost considerations prevented the use of a mixed-material platter, so the company opted for a decidedly Pink Triangle-like polycarbonate platter which can be used or with the supplied (and recommended) felt mat.
Read more about the Circle turntable on Page 2.
Papst’s high performance motor and the OTT power supply, as used in the dearer model, have been replaced with an Airpax design; there’s the possibility, however, that a superior, retro-fittable option might be made available at a later date. Given WB’s penchant for creating products which evolve without leaving the owner in the lurch, it’s a safe bet that a Super Circle will one day be a reality. And given, too, the huge price differential between a Circle and the Wilson Benesch Turntable, there’s plenty of scope for step-by-step upgrading with prices which are self-determining for customers with inflexible budgets. Already mooted are an outboard power supply, an economy phono stage and a ‘turbo’ version of the Circle wherein all of the MDF will be replaced by carbon fibre. Remember: all will be easily retrofittable, so don’t use these future options as excuses to put off a purchase.
Little details show that the Circle is a lot more than a basic motor and bearing housing bolted to a board. The motor’s case incorporates a polymer sandwich to reduce the chance of resonant energy from the motor drive reaching the base. The bearing and arm board structures are similar in design and are linked by the aforementioned 13mm solid carbon fibre rods. The result is a low mass, stiff, yet highly-damped assembly achieved without the use of the advanced composite structures found in the Wilson Benesch Turntable. It attenuates the low frequency energy from footfalls (less violent than an energetic seven-year-old’s, that is) as well as the 60Hz motor noise, from working up into the mid-band.
Then there are the looks. I swear: everyone who’s seen the Circle has been impressed, doubly so when the price is mentioned. (At the show, one visitor said to Craig, ‘I don’t know your brand – are you Italian?’ To which he replied, ‘Ee, ba gum, I don’t think so.’) It simply looks ‘right’. It’s small, in itself a virtue beyond price for those with cramped quarters, and there are absolutely no rough edges. The feel is that of quality, of craftsmanship, without a single whiff of cost-cutting. And the new A.C.T. 0.5 Tonearm – wow! It shaves a couple of hundred quid off the regular arm by virtue of a lesser cable and captive leads. But you still get that drop-dead gorgeous carbon-fibre arm tube, the sleek machined pivot housing and enough of a taste of the flagship front end to make you feel like it’s the wisest investment this side of a pair of Sennheiser HD414s.
So, to answer that question: is the Circle a ‘proper’ Wilson Benesch turntable? I’m afraid that the answer is gonna piss off Craig and the boys. The Circle is good for the price. Yes, the Wilson Benesch Turntable will see off a Circle, but then I’m of the school that any suspended deck (or, if suspensionless, the blessed with the kind of mass which induces hernias) will see off any stiffy. But then you look at the prices. A Circle arm costs an exquisitely low 795, hence my belief that it’s too good for its own good. The ACT 0.5? A positive steal for the same 795. And then there’s the slightly modified version of the Matrix cartridge called the Ply, which comes with a Circle-plus-ACT 0.5 for an all-in price of 1995. By my reckoning, that’s a couple of hundred quid off the price of a Matrix, at 600.
Listening involved the complete 1995 package, feeding at various times the Roksan Caspian integrated amp, Audio Analogue Bellini/Donizetti and Krell KAV-250p/250a pre-power combinations, EAR’s 834P phono stage, the Musical Fidelity X-LP phono stage and Quad 77-10L, Tandy LX-Pro 5 and Opera Platea loudspeakers. Source material ranged from some not-even-remotely-mint mono Capitol recordings recently acquired at record fairs to brand-new 180g pressings from DCC and Classic.
Yes, there is an audible noise floor with the Circle, just as there is with any suspensionless deck not benefiting from a Slate Audio-type plinth. But it was actually lower than that of my refurbished idler drive units and it stayed buried once the music started. Then, whoosh! The sound opened up like Spielbergian clouds, billowing out from even the teensy Tandy speakers. The Circle creates a wide and deep stage which extends smoothly and consistently in all directions, not unlike a DTS-derived soundstage observed from the back of the circle of speakers. Even mono discs enjoyed a dose of spatial steroids, the sound filling the space between the speakers. This was particularly evident with the insane klezemer breaks in the middle of Mickey Katz songs, a veritable/virtual party in one’s lounge, with each musician enjoying a much less obstructed shot at your ears.
Bass wasn’t as extended or controlled as that which entertains owners of the WB Turntable, but it was more then enough to provide a convincing rather than overwhelming foundation for all but the most ponderous of material. Still, it had far more mass slam than might be expected of a budget deck; I was reminded of the impact which accompanies bass derived from a Townshend Rock. At the other end, the treble was smooth and detailed, with enough of a sense of ‘air’ to remind us why absolute transparency is a worthy goal.
Then you focus on the mid-band, on vocals so vivid that you’d swear you could feel the warmth – if not quite smell a drink on Dino’s breath. Given that a 795 turntable is likely to be paired with a system made up of natural ‘filters’ – i.e. small speakers – the mild limitations down below will not negate the meritorious mid and treble. The set-up does favour pristine discs and isn’t as clever at dealing with surface noise as the top-of-the range Turntable, but it simply makes you want to hear what a Circle with a carbon-fibre plinth might do.
If you feel we’re drifting away (Dobie Gray, 1973) from the realms of affordability, then think Circle-plus-Rega RB300-plus-a good budget m-c cartridge or one of Grado’s little gems. Now we’re on the right side of a grand. And, without venturing into the world of vintage turntables and possible bargains at boot fairs, like the apocryphal Garrard 301 for a tenner, I cannot name at present anything within spitting distance of the Circle for sub- 1000 analogue ecstasy. And 100 show-goers demonstrated their unanimity by buying ’em .
I think I’ve just spotted one of next year’s Award Winners …
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