Having spent the best part of three days between customers and other distractions like telephone calls, lunch and coffee; listening to and comparing the Royale 400 with the Versalex, I'd like to share our initial impressions. This is in no way an exhaustive comparison as we decided to keep the music selection limited to a few tracks from a handful of records.
To the Mods. I hope you allow this post. Although I'm a registered dealer, these are my personal thoughts as a personal owner of WT products to assist other readers of this rarest of decks and in no way offered as a sales pitch.
Listening was carried out in our storefront with the 'house system' of Naim NAC282/HC/250-2DR Shahinian Arc2 on Fraimlite. Also used was Dynavector L200/HX100(prototype kindly loaned by Pear Audio) a Rega Osiris and a Consonance Cyber 10 Signature valve amp, so a reasonably broad spectrum of amplification. Phonostage used was Cyrus Signature/PSXR-2. Both decks played atop the WT table for the Royale 400 and a Dynavector XV1-t swapped between the two.
I'm not going to make comparative comments on the amps as all the same conclusions were drawn.
Having had the Versalex/XV1-t in my personal system for 12 months now I feel I'm pretty familiar with its strengths and weaknesses (no many of the later as any owner out there would already know). This, coming from an LP12/Radikal/Aro/Cadenza Bronze.
First up, a recently purchased copy of Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, Analogue Productions APRJ-7079. Track; Blue 7.
This great but simple mono recording sounded both rich and vibrant on the Versalex, with great rhythm but on the Royale 400 what sounded like a great recording was transformed into an awesome performance such was the startling lift in dynamics and expression. Also evident was a noticeable increase in soundstage in all directions with much greater grip and weight to all components but not in a 'hear me!, in yer face' way just more realistic. The often-overused cliché of a performer 'being there' was quite apt. Both Marc and I agreed it sounded much louder which of course it couldn't have been; such was the increase in dynamic range, which bodes particularly well for those like myself who often listen in the small hours and very low levels.
Next was Creedence Clearwater Revival's On the Bayou, Fantasy 8387 Steve Hoffman remastered QRP pressing. The title track has a wonderful rhythmic quality and swing, which isn't overly rehearsed to sound sterile and mechanical but loose and organic. Again the 400 comprehensively bettered the Versalex in this important aspect whilst retaining the dynamic lift.
Lastly Richard Thompson, one of my all-time favourite performers (seen him more times than any other act) and songwriters. Front Parlour Ballads on Diverse Records DIV009LP Track: The Boys From Mutton St.
Well, I like to think I know how he both sounds and performs (I own the same Lowden L27f guitar purely by chance) and with the Royale 400 I was totally blown away by how palpable he sounded but more than that how moving his playing and singing was, talk about goose bumps? Chord change after chord change got me time and again, frankly this was by far the best I've ever heard this album, neh, the best I've ever heard him outside of being live! Incredible.
What the Royale 400 is not is a completely different sounding deck from the Versalex in the way that some manufacturers or designers seek to appeal to every different customer's tastes. This, I believe is William Firebaugh's ultimate expression of his unique design philosophy. Tonally they sound more similar than they differ. It's the dynamic and musical expression that takes a significant step forward to a level I've not previously experienced. I've read comments that suggest that Bill has gone against a principle of making affordable high-end decks such is the cost of this thing. I don't subscribe to that. (I remember selling the WT Reference in 2001 for £4675; Naim’s prices have exactly doubled in that period and they have economies of scale too. The 400 in real money terms is no more expensive then and the Reference is trounced by the Versalex, let alone the Royale 400). No, I believe he realised that to achieve this level of performance with his current design ideas it takes this deck to achieve his goals.
Ah yes, cost. Well yesterday Pear Audio announced the UK pricing and considering we are now in post Brexit Britain I'm happy to inform that the deck itself is as predicted give or take at £10995 and the table at £2995, considerably less than the £7K initially suggested. We can all thank John for that one!
XV1-t has suffered a price increase to £5995 due to the slump in the pound.
All up the package is £20K. I say package, as I believe it should be considered such. Anyone spending this level on the deck and rack should consider the XV-1t and nothing lower imho. I'm sure it will prove to be very competitive, following in the Versalex's footsteps as a 'giant-killer'.
Tomorrow we intend one more comparison, Versalex/XV-1t vs Royale 400/XX2, just for fun. Cost wise, not a lot in it now that the Versalex is £3795.
The Versalex of course ripped up the rulebook in so many ways and in particular the one that suggests spending far less on the cartridge than the deck. Pa! The ‘t’ absolutely shines in a way it didn't on my Aro: sorry to those who have done that; as good as it is, the Aro's limited bandwidth holds back so much imho.
I very briefly tried the XX2 on the Royale 400 and it didn't grab me I have to say so a longer listen is definitely in order. Could it be that Bill has broken another 'rule' here? The ‘t’ on the Versalex sounds better than a lesser cart on the Royale 400?
So, it could be the best deck we've ever heard, it certainly is the biggest. In my last post I said there was no way I could house such a deck or even demo it at home, damn! So I got my tape measure out and was shocked by what i discovered. My setup at home sits on a 5-tier Isoblue rack, 3 components with an empty shelf between each and the deck on a Audiotech wall shelf. The Isoblue is actually 5mm wider!
Of course it nowhere near as deep but such is the depth of the amp that it has to be well clear of the skirting. In situ the Royale 400 will protrude a mere 2.5" more and I can loose the less than pretty wall shelf. Sod it, it's going home before John asks for it back though unlike those look-alike Naim boxes, there'll be no passing that one by without be noticed!!
I hope to go into more of the technical details that set the decks apart in another post with pictures of the hidden bits no-one's seen before.
Subject to a prolonged home demo I'm seriously considering stocking and becoming the first UK dealer to do so.