WOW & Flutter, so what is it about?

Forty years ago marked a pivotal moment in audio history: the introduction of the CD format. This innovation heralded the end of what many consider the golden era of vinyl records. Some might argue that this transition was justified, given the inherent drawbacks of vinyl. Vinyl records are bulky, heavy, challenging to produce, easily damaged, and inherently flawed, with a maximum capacity of only 20 minutes per side. One could humorously suggest that vinyl is a medium designed for masochists.

However, these numerous disadvantages are eclipsed by a significant advantage – the quality of sound. When a high-quality vinyl record is played on excellent equipment, the resulting audio experience can be transcendently superior to that of its theoretically more perfect digital counterpart, the CD. This unique characteristic of vinyl, offering an almost heavenly sound quality, is something that was perhaps not fully appreciated back in 1983. It underscores the enduring appeal of vinyl records, which continue to be cherished by audiophiles and music enthusiasts despite the technological advancements of the digital age.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of devices and formats we would have today if not for CDs. What would turntables be like today if all those true engineers from those times hadn’t been brutally forced to change their plans.

In today’s market, the majority of turntables, with a few notable exceptions, can be described as being in a ‘Baroque’ state. This refers not to their musical capabilities, but rather to their aesthetic and marketing approaches. In the past, turntables were primarily evaluated based on their technical parameters and quality of performance. Now, they are often marketed much like pieces of furniture, with emphasis on dimensions, weight, and stylized descriptions that may not necessarily convey meaningful information about their audio quality.

In this contemporary landscape, it is common to find turntables being declared as the ‘best in the world’, a claim made without substantial backing or rigorous testing. Designers and manufacturers seem to have the liberty to make bold claims, and there appears to be a lack of critical verification of these claims. This has led to a situation where consumers often accept these assertions without skepticism.

The focus seems to have shifted significantly from the core values of expertise and engineering to the more superficial aspects of design – the equivalent of prioritizing gilding and ornaments over sound quality and functional integrity. This trend raises concerns about the true advancements in turntable technology and the genuine value being offered to audiophiles and music enthusiasts.

At the same time, we could talk endlessly about our phone or car in numbers. So, it’s not that society is becoming idiotic, but for some reason, in the world of vinyl, a cult of the “quack” has flourished, possessing magical knowledge from the last century.

It’s time to demystify this!

I always repeat this and will not change my opinion – a turntable is a simple device, no matter how complicated it appears (or seems to be). It has only two functions:

Function 1 related to the drive – spinning the platter (which I will focus on)

Function 2 related to the arm – not interfering with the cartridge (I have already written about this)

Both of these functions are subject to the degrading effect of mechanical disturbances. What’s more, they are often the source of them.

Mechanical disturbances were already described by Poul Ladegaard in his 1977 article titled “Audible effects of mechanical resonances in turntables” (thanks PAWEŁ for providing the material).

[Link to the article]

The author includes the following in mechanical disturbances: arm resonance, humming, WOW & Flutter.

Let’s focus on the hero of this short text – WOW & Flutter, or swaying and trembling. Of course, it’s about the sonic effect of the turntable’s imperfection as a whole device, meaning that the sound fluctuates at a lower frequency (up to 4Hz), i.e., WOW, and a higher frequency (above 4Hz), i.e., flutter. Since we are examining the sonic effect, W&F is not only about the drive but the whole thing, which I will elaborate on shortly.

WOW can be heard, flutter affects aspects of the sound not directly audible (attack, sustain, crystallinity, interaction with the environment, fading of sound, etc.).

How to examine W&F? In ‘those’ times, the only available and at the same time the best way to study this phenomenon was to analyze the sound as a result of playing a uniform signal (1000 Hz or 3125 Hz) from a so-called test vinyl record. This signal was examined with dedicated devices, processed, and some information came out of it. Such records were and perhaps still are produced. The problem is that these are not some magical records made on ‘better equipment’ or in a laboratory. They are cut and pressed just like all the others. The magic factor slowly fades away..

Let’s return for a moment to the mentioned document – The author professionally describes what was obtained in the charts when examining W&F through a test record. He proves that the W&F distortions resulted from:

  1. Eccentricity of the record (did I mention that records are terrible?)
  2. Ovality of the track
  3. Arm resonance
  4. Hum (problem with ground)
  5. Drive imperfections (to a negligible degree).

The author’s unequivocal conclusion in examining W&F through a test record and relating the result to the quality of the drive is as follows – the audible W&F disturbances only to a small extent concern the drive, hence it is difficult to relate the result to the drive.

Already in 1977, experts knew that examining the drive by playing a test record was pointless, yet until recently, ‘tools’ for such tests were still being developed. What’s more – there are ‘experts’ who still examine drives in this way and issue opinions about them. My thoughts on this are obvious.

Summarizing the ‘test record’ method – why shouldn’t we trust the W&F measurement results?

  1. Each test record is different and has different distortions
  2. Each test record is created on a different drive, so it is at best as even as that drive
  3. There is no one standard device that can analyze and interpret distortions (even if there were, it would be useless due to the above points)
  4. Most of the distortions that are analyzed are not related to the drive
  5. There is no clear, standardized way of examining W&F

So, how can we check if our ‘turntable’ is okay?

We need a method that is based on a single hardware, system, and software platform. A method that analyzes not the sound but the drive itself (to eliminate imperfections of the record and the arm). A method that is up to date with modern times.

It turns out that we have great devices equipped with gyroscopes at our disposal. I’m talking about smartphones. There are quite a few applications for smartphones that can successfully check our drives.

Just place the phone on the platter (preferably on a flat weight from above), start the drive at 33.3 RPM, and wait a moment. The application will check everything and we get the result in the form of numbers and a graph. And these data are in no way related to sound! Only and exclusively the drive.

But to be clear – it’s not all rosy. Firstly, different applications calculate W&F in different ways. Secondly, phones have different internals, so to have comparable results, you would need to run around with the same phone and app. Thirdly – phones have a problem with showing the average speed (the one that should be exactly 33.33 and 45), so in this place, you need to supplement with either a strobe disc or USE A TEST RECORD (yes, I know I just equated them with mud). Using a record, we can catch the ‘average’ and determine whether the platter is spinning too fast or too slow despite the fluctuating signal.

A small digression here – test records are pointless for testing W&F, but for other tests and experiments, they are very much appropriate😊

What do the applications test?

As a result of the analysis, we get:

  1. The average speed value (this is usually the largest number on the screen). This is something with which phones struggle (I mentioned this earlier).
  2. WOW or Wow&Flutter.
  3. A graph with a zoom option (a nice feature).

My favorite apps:

For iOS:

This is definitely the best application on the market because it is the only one that tests both WOW and Flutter. Besides, it has a database, works on a single hardware, system, and software platform, so it’s FANTASTIC.

For Android:

It only tests WOW, so the values are better than on iOS (apparently better). It does not have a database. In my opinion, it shows the average speed better (but that may be a matter of the device itself).

What the applications show in the results:

  1. The large number is the average speed (in red).
  2. The small number (the one in yellow) is precisely WOW or W&F.

With the average speed, it’s clear – it should be on point. Sometimes on Facebook, you see pictures from the calibration of various equipment – a photo of a computer screen with the pointer on green😊 with a caption that it’s perfect. It’s like capturing a bird in flight and claiming it’s levitating😊. Just as well, that pointer could be swinging from left to right, but a well-captured moment gives the illusion of perfection. That’s why W&F is more important and says more about the quality of the drive. W&F is measured over time and the number we get clearly speaks about the quality. The smaller the W&F, the better.

The limit on Android is 0.02%, on iOS it’s 0.05%

The apps also show graphs. In the case of iOS (screen on the right), the graph flattens the further the average speed deviates from 33.3.

On the other hand, in Android, the graph scales, and we might get the impression that the results are terrible. However, it’s worth looking at the scale on the left, and then everything becomes clear.

An example of an extremely good drive on the left, and a ‘so-so’ one on the right. On the right, you can probably already hear Keith Jarrett flying on the Hammond instead of playing the piano at the Köln concert😊.

Since the iOS app has a database, it’s worth taking a look at it as it makes for interesting reading.

As of today (August 6, 2023), there are already 10,914 entries. Entries can be sorted either by average speed or by W&F. If we use the latter, the crème de la crème appears before our eyes.

  • The best result is 0.05%
    • EMT 927F
    • Technics SL-1000 MKII
    • AMG VIELLA V12 (the only belt-drive in the top rankings and my absolute idol!)

There’s a dominance of direct drives. It’s also noticeable how already aged turntables have outperformed modern ‘high-ends.’ After 40 years, nothing surpasses them, and only one can match. Respect for the engineers at AMG!

What do we have next in belt-drives (they constitute about 10-12% in the top 50, the rest are DDs from the era):

  • 0.06%
    • Micro Seiki
      • RX 5000
      • DD-8
  • 0.07%
    • VPI Prime
    • BennyAudio Odyssey (Prototype) – 10/2023
    • Micro Seiki
      • DD-5
      • RX 5000
  • 0.08%
    • Micro Seiki RX 5000
    • Nottingham Analogue Spacedeck
    • Rega RP 10
    • Kuzma Stabi S
    • JC Verdier
    • Scheu Analog Custom
    • Kronos PRO
    • Benny Audio Immersion
    • Dr. Feickert Twin

This lineup doesn’t include any random turntables. It should be noted that these are the best (like the best lap in a race) individual entries, and additionally, I assume, recorded by the manufacturers themselves.

BennyAudio Odyssey is at the absolute forefront! Only one currently produced belt-drive is better – Respect for AMG!

Benny Audio Immersion is a notch below and has distinguished company😊

In summary. There is hope in vinyl. It’s not super great, we are still in some aspects far behind the 80s, there is still a lot to do, but the most important thing is that it is getting better. Like in Abelard Giza’s sketch about the church – the industry is changing at its own pace, slowly, step by step, tup tup tup. as long as it’s in the right direction 🙂