ISOLATION SYSTEMS

There is no need to explain to anyone that using good antivibration feet or platforms under a pair of loudspeakers may project into how the speakers measure and sound. But how does it come that using similar devices under a power amplifier may affect the power output of the amplifier? And why the very same devices may improve the sound of D/A converters or power distributors? This article is not a review - rather it outlines different paths that you can follow to improve the performance of your audio system. Often the effect of isolation devices is nothing short of magic.

This article has no ending as it is expanded with new isolation devices every time Audiodrom has an opportunity to test them.

REV 0 - Original text  - 04.2015

REV 1 - Nordost Sort Kones - 10.2015

REV 2 - Stillpoints - 06.2017

REV 3 - Ansuz Darkz - 04.2020

REV 4 - Stillpoints Component Stand SS & Townshend Seismic Podiums - 07.2020

REV 5 - HRS Systems - awaits publishing


Isonoe Isolation systems

Earthquaking

The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook... (Psalm 18:7)

I have been into hi-fi and high end for last 20 years. You know, as time progresses a reviewer is less and less surprised by what he (or she) hears and becomes less excited about new things coming as they actually are (usually) not game changers. New models of speakers, cables or converters are like an endless river - they are coming and leaving, they cause some ripples but they do not change the river's flow. 

If I skip the teenage years of audiophilia, I got really heated up only twice during last 10 years. For the first time when Audiodrom started to review power conditioners and power cords. The original idea of testing few power cables resulted into a huge test of dozens of aftermarket cords that was published in our comprehensive Power Up! series of reviews. It was the moment when I fully realized how essential effect on the sound the way we power our components had.

Similarly, when Audiodrom started to review aftermarket antivibration feet it was just a peek into a not very interesting voodoo area of the high-end. Oh boy, were we totally wrong! More and more we discovered the effects of different antivibration philosphies and more and more we were stunned by vast (not always) improvements in sound.

Then again, there is no need to explain to anyone that using good antivibration feet or platforms under a pair of loudspeakers may project into how the speakers measure and sound. But how does it come that using similar devices under a power amplifier may affect the power output of the amplifier? And why the very same devices may improve the sound of D/A converters or power distributors? This article is not a review - rather it outlines different paths that you can follow to improve the performance of your audio system. Often the effect of isolation devices is nothing short of magic.

 

IsoST: Výprava za chvěním

High End Energy

The whole thing - the hi-fi - is about energy transformations. Mechanical, kinetic, electromagnetic, acoustic, heat, light - perhaps just nuclear energy is missing in our hobby. The audio chain is an open system with a lot of interactions with environment - it is difficult to foresee how EM interferences or particluar room settings will affect what we will be hearing.

The trick is that the laws of physics do not count with energy annihilation, the energy can be conserved or transformed but not wiped out. How can we remove peaks in the acoustic response? By transforming the sound waves into heat with the help of absorbers. what can we do with light? We can transform it into an electric signal in an optical converter. Where does the power dissapear in Class A amplifiers? It is transformed into heat and dispersed by heatsinks. It is a closed energy chain.

There is not much we can do with what is inside an audio component; let's assume that we purchased it for we liked how it sounded with no intention to rewire it or rebuild its chassis. This applies to source components, amplifiers, DACs, power filters, laptops or speakers. What we can do is to look on the way how the component interacts with its surroundings. Think about examples like antivibration decoupling or floating of turntables, changing the component's power cord, placing speakers on spikes, or putting heavy weights on top of the components. Or you can check what aftermarket component feet can do for you.

 

AudioQuest Q-Feet

Isolate!

The common sense says that the components must be isolated from each other and from anything else. This belief is rooted in analogue world - the floating turntable is less prone to needle skipping the same way as the industrial stamper must be decoupled from floor not to induce tremors in the workers. The more the component 'floats' the better the sound will be, the logic says. Or not?

The principle of soft isolation is used by most devices. Some typical examples may include different Sorbothan pucks or Q-Foot from Audioquest, American Vibrapods, Bright Star Audio Isonode or Black Ravioli BR Pad. Just search internet and there are dozens of similar devices that should help your audio float. Some may help, some may harm. I only see two issues with the soft feet:

First, if the bias of nice looking accessories is excluded (laser cut logos look so nice), the same effect can be ensured by using daily life items at a fraction of the price: rubber and cork washers and plugs, felt lining, foam balls, springs, sand boxes and bags, different gels... there are hundreds options out there that cost nothing so it is a big playground for experimentation. Yet, if you really encounter a properly designed set of antivibration feet, I can guarantee you that all your DIY stuff will be disposed right away.

 

Vibrapod

 

Second - the more relevant - issue is the principle of the soft feet. It is like trying to prevent wicking moisture in the walls of a house. Common sense says to isolate the house walls and cover them from outside with tar not to be in contact with soil. Well, it works until the mositure somehow gets behind the tar - and you bet it will get there somehow. Then the tar prevents the moisture to leave the walls. The same is with vibrations in hi-fi.

 

Solid Tech SST

 

Any soft feet’s task is to prevent the resonances to travel between the component and the surface. Stomp on the floor and the floor’s vibration will not be seen by the component. Play some throbbing music and resonances of speakers will not mechanically leak into the electronics. That’s fantastic, isn’t it? Well, it depends. For a turntable the rather floating decoupling is needed otherwise the pick-up mechanism picks also the mechanical resonances from surroundings. Similarly some commercial CD players may be sensitive to a resonating rack or shelf. Amplifiers and D/A convertors – not speaking about a power filter - should be less or not at all sensitive, in theory.

The problem is that it is not a stomping audiophile who generates the resonances, the enemy is within the system – the music itself. The mass of compressed air travels and penetrates deep into all components, no matter whether they rest on some kind of feet or are hanging in the room on nylon strings or levitate on magnetic pads. It is naïve to think that aluminum case or sorbothane feet prevent 40Hz wave to enter the electronics. There is only one way to fix this, though impractical: place the electronics in a different room than speakers.

So what happens if we place an (already) resonating component on soft feet? The resonances will stay trapped in the case and will be gradually dissipated through the PCB’s, wiring and mechanical parts. This way the soft isolation feet appear to be the worst case scenario, because they will impair the temporal domain of the music playback.

 

Stein Music

Temporal disorder

Let’s take any loudspeakers. I am always surprised at how much we try to to make them sounding flat. Ask the nearest passionate audiophile about what he thinks he hears in his listening room and you’ll be presented a measured frequency response with negligible deviations from a reference dB level. And if this is unachievable by room’s acoustic treatments then an electronic room correction device is called to arms. I do not object to achieving the flat frequency response at all, yet I see it as one of many factors that contribute to a good sounding audio system. We have discussed this topic in our article MEASURING SPEAKERS - HOW FLAT SHOULD A FLAT LINE BE? If the measurements should tell you something more it is needed to add cumulative spectral decay plot and impulse response, as minimum. Unlike the frequency response they include an extremely important parameter: time. 

 

Dalby Audio

 

Music is a dynamic event, changing every millisecond. Should the playback be identical to the program on a disc or a record the signal should only be present at your ears for exactly the same time period as it is on the medium. This is of course nonsense, the playback chain and the room add hundreds of phase shifts, smears, energy losses and energy build ups. By reducing those distortions we are getting closer to the original, and the last thing we want is to store energy in the system so that it could be released milliseconds or second later.

Badly damped speaker enclosures may ‘ring’ seconds after the tone burst is over. The wooden floor that resonates in the rhythm with music. A big wardrobe in the rear corner that works like a giant passive subwoofer. And the soft isolation feet. Most of the energy that is absorbed by them cannot be drained otherwise than returned back to the electronics a fraction of second later. This causes smears, blurred transient response, fluttery or dull treble, or losing definition in bass.

 

SSC Netpoint

 

Some soft isolation feet try to fight this energy accumulation. Disc of Silence or Isolclear by Solid Tech, or AS Puck and Netpoint by SSC are such examples. Solid Tech uses an isolation pad suspended on springs, SSC uses strings or membranes. Both the solutions work fine, none drains resonances effectively away from the electronics nevertheless. 

 

Cardas Myrtle block

 

How about wooden blocks? Although wood is much harder than foamed materials its function depends on how it is tuned. Yes, tuned. The wood sounds which can be easily tested by hitting wood blocks of different sizes and wood types. Each resonates, some more tunefully than the other. Soft woods are like any other soft material, hard woods may yield interesting results when placed under the electronics – think of Cardas nd Ayre myrtle blocks. With the wooden block the resonances are not damped (unless the wood resonates at the very problematic frequency that you want to tackle), rather they are overwritten by the block’s own signature sound. This is the reason why wooden instruments now sound so ‘woody’ in your system. The problem is that a saxopohone sounds woodier too. Some woods, like bamboo, damp the resonances quite well thanks to its fibrous structure. So my experience says that with any wooden isolation blocks and feet it takes a lot of experimentation which may or may not give a good result at the end. Most after market wooden accessories are colorants a sort of, unfortunately.

Imagine that you are a top athlete. Would you wear a cotton sportswear that absorbs some sweat and then stops to convey the moisture, or a syntetic windstopper that makes you swim in your sweat after first 200 meters? Modern sportswear works like a membrane that lets the moisture out and does not let the outside weather in. With isolation feet the principle is the same. You don’t want to prevent the internal resonances to get out, you don’t want the external resonances to enter the system. The goal (and challenge) is to drain the resonances away and don’t let them get back.

Some isolation and anti-vibration devices can do exactly this. Let’s see how they can catapult your audio into a completely new performance level.

 

Finite Elemente

Gravity

I use to read at audio forums: Your system is not expensive enough to hear the things. Or, your system is too expensive so you don’t know what to listen for, like every snob. It’s like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Still, improvements in sound with right feet that are properly placed are easy to detect. It is true, however, that one has to have a bit more than standard acoustics and electronics that do not mask those improvements by their own flaws.

Once we leave the kingdom of rubber and foam absorbers we enter the kingdom of metal. The king is old and liked almost universally – it is a metal spike. The spikes are cheap, easy to get, easy to mount, and they work. I do not know any audiophile who would not live with the spikes under his loudspeakers at least for a while. The idea behind the spikes is simple – the weight of the speaker is focused onto a tip (usually four or three tips for one speaker). Thus the force from the tips to floor is much higher than it would be with flat feet and the resonant frequency of the whole system shifts. How? It will depend on the floor or the contact base for the tips. Non-resonant materials (concrete, sandstone, etc.) are usually splintered by spikes under the load of heavy loudspeakers so one can choose from harder materials that have their own resonant frequency, depending on their size and thickness (granite, marble, glass, steel or different composite materials). The result must be tested and cannot be foretold, with maybe the glass being an exception – it sounds bad in 99% of cases, no matter where it is. It is pitiful that glass shelves are used by many manufacturers of lifestyle furniture. In hifi, however, nice looking materials are usually the worst option.

A ceramic ball revolution

German Finite Elemente arrived to the aftermarket isolation feet with a clever solution. They were not the first to employ a ball instead of the spike but their Ceraballs commercionalized this approach effectively - if it is possible to talk about commercionalization in such a niche like audiophile market.

The idea is quite simple: the energy exchange between the component and the base works in both directions but well designed hard feet should be as much as one-directional as possible.

Finite Elemente Cerabase

 

In real use the load on the Finite Elemente Ceraball is mostly axial so it can’t really prevent a part of the energy bounce back. Yet, the part that is ‘drained away’ to the part that is ‘returned’ is much better, at least much better than with the spiked solution. To prevent damping the ball should be as hard as possible, hence ceramics.

The offer of Finite Elemente starts with one-ceramic-ball budget feet like Ceraone, Cerapuc and Ceraball. The last one became, contrary to its quite high price (50€ per piece) quite popular because it worked well. The step-up models like Cerabase Classic, Compact, and Slimline, employ three balls each to distribute the axial load in the radial fashion.

The ‘Ceraball effect’ on sound is a positive one and I have never encountered a set-up that would not have profited from it. Expect better transient response, better dynamic behavior, improved attacks, longer decays, more transparent soundstage and more precise imaging. The magnitude of the improvement is dependant on many other factors but if you just give it a try and replace the loudspeaker spikes with Ceraballs you should notice it immediately. Once heard there will be no way back and you’ll be another victim of the ceramic ball revolution. 

 

 

If I move all the soft and springy feet into a ‘ for beginners’ box, then the Finite Elemente’s Ceraball will find its place in the box for ‘ intermediate’. The Cerabase goes from one ball to three, and is a significant upgrade which elevates the performance of your system even further. The multiball solutions have become common since then and before I move on with the very best of them I would like to take a small detour: let’s take a look at how to place the feet under the electronics.

Revolution within the revolution

American Nordost is known as a cable expert. Yet they have a range of quite effective decoupling solutions, marketed like Sort Kone and Sort Füt. They took the Ceraball’s principle (one ball axially) and added another degree of freedom – the ball can move radially to some extent thanks to a loose metal element which is placed between the plastic cone and the ball. This way the piece of gear that is placed on Sort Kones ‘floats’ and dispenses vibrations better than the Ceraball. 

 

Nordost Sort Kone

 

There is even more to it. Nordost found out that the the resonant energy drain can be influenced by the material the metal element and the ball is made of. Thus the Sort Kones come in several grades:

Sort Kone AS – aluminum element, steel ball (70USD/pc)

Sort Kone AC – aluminum element, ceramic ball (84USD/pc)

Sort Kone BC – bronze element, ceramic ball (140USD/pc)

Sort Kone TC – titanium element, ceramic ball (365USD/1pc)

 

Nordost Sort Kones

 

A big box full of Sort Kones spent 3 weeks with me so I used them in any imaginable combination in my system. There were also high-tech looking Sort Füt feet that combine aluminum and bronze with 3 ceramic balls and are to be used under speakers. Unfortunately my Bowers Wilkins 802 Diamond do not support swapping of feet easily, and because the Sort Füt have no plain surface I could not use them under the speakers. I tried them with their tips up under electronics and to my ears they were pretty much comparable to Ceraballs. The inverse placement that I used is not recommended by Nordost and by now you should already know why.

 

Nordost Sort Fut

 

I will be now more specific about what I heard with the Sort Kones in some combinations. To asses the sound I used my (then) Accuphase set up of a preamplifier, power amplifier and SACD player, powered through Nordost’s modified Thor power distributor. I also tested the Sort Kones under speaker cables (plenty of them were on hand due to a running mega-test) and it was quite interesting to hear how some of them were sensitive to this type of support.

Changing the sound

Before I began I formulated a logical approach: I will try the AS feet under all components first, then the TC. The difference in sound should set the lower and upper quality limits between which the rest of the Sort Kones, the AC and the BC, will have to fit. Like with many other assumptions in audio this approach proved not to be workable at all. After several days (!) of swapping the Sort Kones forth and back I made 3 learnings:

1)      The exact placement of the Sort Kones under a component is crucial.  To generalize, the best sonic paybacks were usually achieved when the Sort Kones were placed under: transformers, IEC inlets, active outlets of the power distributor, and mechanical parts like SACD pick-up. It became also clear where not to place the Sort Kones: under the original feet they made harm, rather than an improvement.

2)      The number of the Sort Kones under a component is also quite important. The best number for stability is three, which is the best for your pocket too. One also has to consider that the height of the Sort Kones cannot be adjusted so if your rack (or a component’s base) is not absolutely flat, it will be very difficult to level the component on more than three cones. The bad news is that the best results I mostly achieved with 4-5 Sort Kones under one piece of equipment.

3)      There is no relationship between the performance and the price, at least after if you make the evaluation properly. Going up with the Sort Kones, from the AS to the TC, surely improves the sound short-term, yet the result may not be listenable long-term for the sound may become too pristine and over-accurate. Of course your ears will be the final arbiter.

To illustrate the above points I will now describe what I heard with my SACD player. All the Accuphase’s top models (DP-78, DP-85, DP-600, DP-700, DP-720) do have similar internal architecture: dual power transformers at the back, an IEC inlet on the right, the optical pick up in the front middle.

 

Nordost Sort Kone AS

 

3x AS. With this placement, under both transformers and under the pick up, the sound was great. Comparing to the original feet the sound become more organized and contoured, and the bass gained extra energy. When I put three Finite Elemente’s Ceraones in the identical placements they still managed to better the original feet, yet the sound lost fine microdynamic contrasts and became rough to my ears.

 

Nordost Sort Kone AC

 

The AC Kones instead of AS Kones improved the dynamics and contrasts, the music had subjectively quieter backgrounds and longer decays. Instrument separation improved too. I liked this combination.

 

FT2 AC INVERSE

 

With the very same 3x AC Kone placed as pictured, the sound became ‘slower and smeared’, as if the music had to pass through a viscous matter. The dynamic drive was partially lost and my engagement with the music dropped. When I removed all the Sort Kones and let the SACD player rest on its own feet, the sound improved.

 

FT2 AC AS

 

The 3x AC Kone plus 2x AS Kone. The additional two AS Kones were placed at the spots where I felt the best contact with the player’s base. The player, already resting on the 3 cones understandably exhibited a slight ‘flexing’ of its base so the aim was to support this unevenness.

By doing so I could not detect any improvement to sound until I started to increase the playback volume. With the 5 Sort Kones I could play much louder than before and the sound remained composed and controlled. The attack was not softened and the decays not disturbed by the artifacts, possibly caused by resonances, that were present with only 3 feet under the player. 

 

FT2 BC

 

The 3x BC Kone. The sound became harmonically richer as if the feet added some extra aliquots to the tones. However, the decays were maybe too long, the piano was too colourful, the transients were more liquid and less accurate, as if the fragile balance between the tonality and timing was impaired. After listening to the BC’s one full evening I decided they were not really an improvement in the right direction.

 

FT2 TC

 

The 3x TC Kone. Wow, what a change! Is this the ultimate solution? I know, readers expect me to formulate similar words of praise, but I have to disappoint. The titanium and ceramics combination had something to it – especially tonality became more vivid and colourful, not in the BC way, rather it became more natural and accurate. As if everything became more organic with the TCs. However, it was not a qualitative leap, rather a small step when compared to the cheaper Sort Kones. Quite interestingly, when I complemented the three TCs with another 2 ACs (like I did with the AC/AS combination) I heard no difference. To me the Sort Kone TC is an extremely good product that follows the law of diminishing returns: the substantial extra cost delivers a little better performance.

A never ending ride

The 3x Sort Füt upside down. The sound was similar to TCs. I appreciated a tad more detailed presentation on some recordings, though not on all. The Sort Füt were not designed for electronics and they are too tall for such application, however I can imagine to use them on sides of an amplifier platform, for instance. Other than that they may work well with speakers. 

 

FT2-SF

 

From what I described the best fitting Sort Kone mix for my player was the 3x AC and 2x AS combination. I did the same exercise with the preamplifier and found that – once again – the Sort Kones did their job the best under the IEC inlet and the transformer. This led to an assymetric placement where tehe 3rd Sort Kone was used to balance the two under the IEC and the transformer. When I moved any of the feet by 2-3 centimeters the sound lost focus a bit.

It seems that by combining different types of feet in certain placements one can manipulate sound to some extent. The trick is to persevere and find the combination that hits the proverbial sweet spot. I also found that a 50Hz range is the most prone to feet manipulation, perhaps because it is the AC mains frequency.

To make the long story short I found that – with the preamplifier – three TC Kones were giving me the best satisfaction. The sound was dynamic, detailed, and alive. Coughing of the audience was realistic as was the piano that was strong, ringing and had vivid colors, no matter how loud I was playing. Which is another interesting phenomenon – increasing the average listening level by as much as 5dB just by using aftermarket component feet is a remarkable achievement.

FT2-TC-PRE

 

Replacing just one TC for any other Sort Kone was a step back. As of the trinity of the TCs refused an intruder, the sound was worse than with all three TCs replaced. Going back to the three ACs the sound became subjectively more ‘sticky’, slightly veiled, and dynamically flatter. With the three ACs the impression of observing the music through a dusty pane was even stronger. Once I experienced the clear view it was impossible to go back to the dirty one. Call it a highend trap.

Both the Ceraone and Ceraballs were inferior to the Nordost’s Sort Kone solutions. With the Finite Elemente the sound was more diffuse, had softer transients, and just a bit more compressed dynamics. I was also consistently noticing that whenever the Ceraballs were under the electronics the soundstage got deeper in a long narrow “U” shape. This was rather attractive with most reordings, and not so attractive with solo instruments recorded at a dry booth acoustics. The Cerabase had not exhibited such coloration - I will be back to it later.

 

FT2-NORDOST-SORTKONES

Stabbed in the back

The so far smoothly running review process had become much wilder once I sorted out the source component and the preamplifier and moved on to the power distributor. My modified Thor rests on something that is best described as blunt spikes resting on concave polymer cups. Placing the Thor on the three AC Sort Kones was heard as no change, bordering very slightly with detoriation. The sound became less powerful in fortissimos and became disorganized earlier with increasing playback volume.

With the three TCs the music was more distinguished and I could detect better colors of cello, or weightier and fuller double bass with improved contours at the same time. The real surprise was yet to come, however.

The bronze Sort Kones BC became forgotten in the course of the review process for they never excelled. Before I finally packed them I put them under the power distributor, for sheer completeness of learnings. I was not ready for such a surprise. The bronze feet transformed the sound in a single a gigantic leap; the Harry James ensemble suddenly materialized in the room with all the blazing horns, saxes and trumpets, the drum rolls became explosive and trained the speaker cones with huge dynamic swings. Also the top end got alive with shimmering cymbals and new-found details and decays. I could hear players breathing, I could sense the bass moving my shirt. All these wonderful things remained there no matter how loud I played the music, until my ears started to protest due to high SPL. I got back to the experiments with the other Sort Kones but no matter which combination and number of ACs and TCs I tried I never quite achieved the richness and completeness of the BCs. Also adding any other Sort Kone to the three BCs impaired the sweet balance.

It seems that there are improvement areas in hifi that are unexplored in full. Yet the very areas can significantly contribute to our listening experience. The experiments also prove that leaving any biases and prejudices behind really helps; it is only the result – not the price or promo materials – that tells us what is good in our systems and what is not.

On the other hand it would be unfair to wave off expensive devices just because they are expensive, hence only for highend snobs. Let me take you to the realm of some really expensive feet that not only meet the expectations, they surpass them. 

FT3-Stillpoints-family

Mechanic diode

They look high-end at first sight. They look high-end at second sight too. The Stillpoints supports are deceptively simple stainless steel devices that feel heavy in hand and feel heavy on any expenditure list:

Ultra Mini – load up to 25 kg - 135€/pc

Ultra SS – load up to 450 kg – 266€/pc

Ultra 5 – load unlimited – 745€/pc

The Stillpoints take the original idea of hard ceramic ball between two metal pieces a bit further. As we discussed already, the energy transfer happens both axially and radially, there and back. Stillpoints try to break the return path for the energy and only allow to drain it away from electronics.

The solution of Stillpoints uses several layers of ceramic balls of different sizes (in more sophisticated arrangements as price progresses) that are placed radially towards the perimeter in aluminum and Delrin segments (Delrin is a DuPont polymer material). The whole feet assembly is encapsulated in the outer stainless steel “cockpit” that cannot be opened without tools. The goal is to allow the resonance to travel from the tip to base and further to the shelf or floor, and prevent them bouncing back.

I had lived with two sets (2 x 2 x 4) Ultra Mini and Ultra SS feet for two months, this period slightly overlapping with the Nordost Sort Kones. When the Stillpoints arrived all the listening tests with the Nordosts were already finalized and the system was “mechanically equalized” to my full satisfaction. I did not expect any further improvements, perhaps only some minor fine-tuning. I started with swapping all the 3 bronze Sort Kone BCs under the modified Thor conditioner for 3 Ultra Minis.

A train the the room

The Chesky Records testing disc features some nicely recorded environmental noises, and Freight Train Crossing is one of them. Don’t expect anything else than a field recording of a freight train passing the microphone, the sound that si presented with massive and deep mechanical rambling and screeching. Depending on the electronics and speakers that are in use, the train is heard as sometimes more sometimes less intense noise that makes the walls of the room resonant. With the Stillpoints Ultra Mini in place the sound of the train seemed quieter than usual, so I had to add 2-3dB (!) to achieve the same perceived loudness in the room. Then the train blowed its horn. I knew the horn would blow, I heard it many times before in the very same listening chair. This time I jumped up to ceiling – it was as if the real train was passing right in fron of me. Incredibly dynamic sound!

Okay, it was time to place the Sort Kones back. I loved what I heard but the moment passed without a surprise. I swapped to the Stillpoints and, again, my heart stopped. Come on, with three pieces of stainless steel?

After this is I spent days and days by trying the Stillpoints in many different combinations under all my components, I took them with me to a studio, to friends, to anywhere I went. No matter where they always delivered – the articulation got improved, the transient attack got improved, the subtlety of resolution got improved, the dynamics got improved, the music sounded more resolved and cleaner. With some Reference Recordings disc my amplifier is taxed by as much as 220 watts of transient power. The max reading I got with Dynaudio Confidence C4 II (250 Watts) and Bowers & Wilkins 802 Diamond (235 Watts). If I played any louder the sound started to collapse. With 3 Stillpoints Ultra SS under each speaker I could not find the volume setting when I would not like the sound. When I caught a glimpse of the amplifier’s VU meters they read 330W one Friday evening. Without congestion, everything fluid, resolved and under control.

 

FT3 Stilllpoints line

The Stillpoints Ultra SS

The Vaquero track (Opus 3 Showcase, Opus 3) features a steel guitar. With the Ultra SS’s under the speakers the guitar got more visual, it was more accurate and sang better. It was like on the clear winter day when you see pine cones on the tree hundred meters away. The accuracy was not a trade off here, there was no thinning of the sound, the bass and timpani were as weighty as they were before, yet they became more vivid in the soundstage. Without the Stillpoints the sound got polluted by some smog, as if the formerly sharp contoured lines were a hair out of focus. With the Stillpoints the transient bass pulses of Sade’s No Ordinary Love (Love Deluxe, Sony/Epic , 500598-2) were amazingly deep and resolved at any volume setting. So deep that my spouse ran upstairs to tell me that the glasses in the kitchen were moving in cupboards.

If you place the Ultra SS feet under electronics you don’t need a blind test to tell the difference. The with/without difference was also clearly heard if the Stillpoints were replaced by something soft, like sorbothane pucks. It also became clear soon that the Stillpoints do not like combinations with other feet and that (with some rare exceptions) worked best without any soft padding below them, no matter how thin. The latter is intuitive – if the energy should just pass through the feet and away from the components, there should not be any springy material that would conserve it and return it back a millisecond later. So a combination of Stillpoints Ultra SS with SSC Netpoints  was worse sounding than SSCs alone.

The Stillpoints Ultra SS versus the Finite Elemente Cerabase

This was a crucial comparison for me as the Cerabases are my resident supports under the speakers. For the final comparison I chose two tracks from Audio Lab label’s treasury. The label made some exquisite audiophile grade recordings back in 70’s and these are now available on Octavia Records hybrid SACDs. Usually they are simple jazz numbers, with instruments recorded uncompressed, DR 16-18.

For example, The Dialogue (OVXA-00008/SCD-1) is a energetic duel of a drum kit and an acoustic double bass, recorded on four microphones. Don´t be That Way (OVXA-0003/SCD-1) adds a piano and five saxophones. With the Stillpoints Ultra SS’s the bass showpiece was firm, with fast attacks of plucked strings and deep vibrations of the instrument’s body after that. The initial attack was a tad softer and more natural than one usually heard on audiophile samplers where the instrument usually gets some treatment with compression. The pieces of the drum kit were amazingly accurately locatable within the soundstage and the whole set had palpable three-dimensionality that did not change with the playback level. I also could point my finger and say this is the tenor sax, there is the alto, the piano is oriented this way… It could hardly get better than with the Stillpoints in place. I wished the Cerabases had been at least comparable. Why? Ask my bank account.

The Cerabase sounded more robust against the Stillpoints. It was as if the musicians were just a bit closer to me and had thicker contours. The stage was not different but its inner resolution was a tiny bit less clear. This was heard especially on highs that lead the spatial information and which brought cymbals that were shimmering with more nuances with the Stillpoints in place. The difference was not large and to arrive to these findings it took endless shuffling with 80kg speakers with the help of my spouse.

With the Bowers & Wilkins, specifically, I would like to add that it was not only important which feet were installed but also where they were installed. The least effective they were at the place of the original feet. The best result I git when two Stillpoints supported the metal edge in front and the third one balanced it at the rear of the speaker. In this position also the Cerabases sounded their best. Luckily I could easily live with one or another set of feet under the speakers, although I admit that the Stillpoints were a pinch of salt better.

 

Stillpoints

The Stillpoints Ultra SS versus the Ceraball versus the Nordost Sort Kones

Well, any discussion about whether and how replacement of a component feet can have an affect on how it sounds ends with the Ultra SS. It is not just different, it is a transformational and dramatic change.  Comparing the Ultra SS to the Ceraball is loss of time; the Ceraballs sounds fuzzy in lows and their soundstage as if was defomed into a long-legged V. I have no explanation for how the Ceraballs resculpt the depth of the soundstage but they do, no matter where and how I placed them.

The duel of the Stillpoints Ultra SS with the Nordost Sort Kone TC was much more interesting. With the Ultra SS under the preamplifier the sound became so much better articulated and vivid that the Sort Kone TC could not compete. But there was something else that left me completely puzzled. The Accuphase A-60 power amplifier has precisely calibrated digital VU meters that show its momentary power output on the fly. With the Stillpoints Ultra SS under the preamplifier these VU meters showed 6dB lower peak value than when the Ultra SS were removed, and no, I did not touch the volume knob. I left Ciao (Harry James, Sheffield) on repeat in the player and swapped the Stillpoints with the Sort Kones several times, always with the same result. Then I disconnected the speakers to remove the major source of resonances in the room and performed the same exercise again with the very same result. Even without listening, just by looking at the Accuphase’s peak voltage meters, I could reliably tell when the Ultra SS were under the preamplifier.

The Ultra SS did all the good things to the sound – they sounded cleaner, more accurate, and more assured. However, subjectively they also as if drained some low end energy away from the playback chain. For example, the deep bass in Arabian Desert Groove (Charly Antolini, Knock Out 2000, Inak 9053 CD) lost a bit of its seismic energy. The piano in Dvorak’s Dumky, though wonderfully focused and diabolically contoured with the Ultra SS, became a tad less rich and colorful. I acknowledge that the Sort Kones TC were slightly ‘smeared’ and less pristine sounding in comparison, but also less technocratic and a bit more real thing.

The Stillpoints Ultra Mini

The most modest looking Stillpoints Ultra Mini appeared to be a good compromise, at least in the context of my system. They did not have so perfect highs like the Ultra SS, yet they managed to keep a big part of the air and resolution of the SS and preserved the physical weight of the bass. I would love to have everything, the color, aliquots, deep bass and crystalline highs, but whathever I did with all the different feet on hand and no matter how I combined them the Ultra Mini seemed to exhibit the best synergy with the preamplifier.

Interestingly the things were different with the SACD player. Any Stillpoints combination introduced extra spark, speed, clarity and other accentuation but the sound became maybe too precise, too sparkling and too clean. It took me three days of going back and forth to end up on aforementioned combination of the Sort Kones (3x AC and 2x AS) which sounded balanced to my ears. I also noticed that while the SACD players was firmly anchored on the Stillpoints it was a kind of floating on the Sort Kones which allows some radial movement. Can this be a reason? Perhaps the rotating disc in the player’s transport asks for different distribution of (supposedly bigger) forces in its chassis than rather stationary amplifiers or power conditioner.

Ansuz Darkz - forged by gods

Ansuz Acoustics, located in Aalborg, Denmark, is not a new name in business (see Nordost, Raidho, and Aavik for reference; all benefit from cutting-edge solutions of the Ansuz’s masterminds, Michael Borresen and Lars Kristensen). The guys in Ansuz are huge proponents of “mechanical grounding” through their modular Darkz feet.

The Darkz are, once again, a variation on the hard ball between hard surfaces. The Ansuz team went a step further and in collaboration with Aarhus university tried to achived extra grades of hardness with the help of a particle accelerator.

Ansuz Darkz front

The Darkz are a composite of three metal rings, one above other, that interact via three balls in between each two rings. Each Darkz feet thus employs 2x3 balls. Then there is a central segment that holds the while assembly together. The balls can slightly move to sides so the whole system is allowed to float in all directions. Despite the Darkz are quite heavy they feel fragile in hand as everything is moving, yet not disintegrating.

Depending on the surface treatment the Darkz are available as C2 (anodized aluminum), D2 (hardened aluminum), and a T2 (even more hardened aluminum surface). The top of the range is occupied by the Darkz T2 Supreme (the Darkz T2S) that use three titanium rings, each treated slightly differently. Ansuz claim that it takes 60 hours for the particle accelerator to achieve the final specification of the surface.

Are the Darkz anti-Stillpoints?

The distributor (RP Audio) shipped several sets of the Darkz T2 and T2S. I used them everywhere I could, except the speakers. My speakers are ‘mechanically grounded’ with the help of a custom solution that includes modified Finite Elemente Cerabase feet, unfortunately not removable. I could work around it but doing so the concentric tweeter/midrange driver of my TAD speakers would change its relative position to my ears and would interact with the room acoustics in a different way. So the different sound it would be, but not thanks to the Darkz.

I would not say that the Darkz’s effect is far from the Stillpoints, they preserve, let’s say, 80% of the Stillpoints’ goodness. This means that the sonic contribution of the Darkz is clearly heard from a first bar of a music. The improvement is substantial and as transformative as with the Stillpoints. Try it and if you fail to notice a difference in sound then it is time for you to stop investing into audio gear. The Darkz improve everything; the bass is tauter, the spatial information more precise, the soundstage expands to the sides and to the back, and the sound becomes more articulated, vivid and colourful, like it happens with the Stillpoints. Yet the Darkz can elevate this performance even higher. 

Ansuz Darkz feet

The Stillpoints make the sound more present, more brilliant and transparent at the same time. The music through the Stillpoint as if had better immediacy, better 'thereness'; with them horns are raspier and violins more stringy. The Darkz, though in the same rank of accuracy, sculpt the sound in a bit different way. They turn down the spark of the Stillpoints a shade or two without sacrificing the smallest bit of transparency, and make the music fleshier at the same time. With the Darkz the music is more relaxed and full of vivid colours, yet still extremely resolved and with an otherworldly rhythmic drive. The sound seemingly exhibits bigger dynamic headroom as if suddenly your amplifier doubled its power reservoirs. Are the Darkz better than the Stillpoints? Well, try for yourself, I would say yes, they are. However, make this investment only when you think you won't be changing electronics or speakers any soon. The Darkz are expensive and if you still plan to replace some other component then I assume it is better to increase the budget for e.g. a new amplifier rather than buy a compromised one and place it on the Darkz.

Watching the Darkz

I spent several weeks with the Darkz and there was not a single piece of equipment that would not benefit from them. I loved what they did with my subwoofer's sound, the bass got tighter and punchier. The function of the Darkz, that is decoupling the subwoofer from the floor, was easily demonstrable - when I placed my hand on the floor next to the sub I could feel much less vibrations than without the Darkz. But I will be back to this because right after the Darkz another fantastic decoupling device arrived.

High end is about exploration so I did not resist and tried the Darkz under power cables. Two Darkz under my Synergistic Research Atmosphere Level 2 power cable (the one that connects the wall socket and the power conditioner in my system) made me do a quick calculation whether the family budget could afford them. They were like revelation, virtually everything improved. Not that the power cable was just thrown on the floor before - it rested on Ceraballs - still the difference was remarkable.

Ansuz Darkz

On the other hand I failed to hear any holistic improvement with the Darkz under the Shunyata Research Denali power conditioner. I could hear slightly better delineated frequency extremes but also slightly less fruity midrange. This is not a failure for the Darkz, neither the Stillpoints nor the Sort Kones showed no positive affect on the Denali. I assume that the Denali is sensitively tuned as a whole and these changes cause a kind of imbalance.

Isolation platforms

The guys in Stillpoints never sleep and continue improving their offerings. When a huge (and heavy as hell) box full of the new Stillpoints Ultra 5 V2, Ultra 6’s, and Ultra Bases landed at my doorstep I knew that I would be getting into financial troubles soon. One piece of the Ultra 6 steals a thousand € from your pocket and you will need 3-4 to balance just a single component. The hierarchy is clearly given with the Stillpoints – the bigger and more expensive, the bigger predator. So the Ultras ate the Stillpoints devices that were lower in food chain for dinner. The main difference vs the original versions is the fullness of the sound. If ever someone complained that the Stillpoints are maybe too accurate then the improved models are highly musical while maintaining the razor-sharp resolution.

However, I am not going to rave about the feet again, rather I will focus on a Stillpoints component stand that was included in the package too. This wonderfully coincided with other two types of platforms that visited my listening room, from Harmonic Resolution Systems and from Townshend Audio.

The Stillpoints Component Stand SS

The SCS-SS (circa 2,300€) allows for any piece of equipment to be placed on floor (or any other flat surface). This is very useful in case of heavy and bulky power amplifiers, but may come as a benefit for any other piece of electronics. It is not designed for speakers, yet if you insist it can be used this way too.

The design of the Component Stand SS is derived from the ESS rack, here in much simpler incarnation. There are two versions of it – the one with 3 arms and the other one with 4 arms. The number of arms has nothing to do with load – both platforms can support basically any weight – rather with how many supporting points for your electronics you need. Also keep in mind that having the extra feet in the 4-arm stand will further improve the audible effectiveness of the assembly.

 

Stillpoints Component Stand SS

The all standless steel SCS-SS is cleverly designed: there is a central hub to which the arms are affixed/bolted at any angle you prefer. The arms have grooves into which any of the threaded Ultra SS, Ultra 5 and Ultra 6 Stillpoint isolators can be slid and fastened at any position along their length. This actually means that with the SCS-SS stand any device that does not exceed the width/depth of more than 70cm can be supported, so no problem even for D’Agostino mammoth monos. The good thing is that the necessary Ultra Bases are included in the package with the Component Stand SS – the feet of your choice must be purchased separately.

To what extent does the SCS-SS improve the sound? It will depend on which of the Stillpoints the user will affix to it. Then the descriptors that I use few paragraphs earlier would apply here too. But unlike the feet that are an update to the original feet of a device, the Component Stand SS replaces both the component feet and the shelf or floor on which the device is placed. To date I do not know a more effective solution for how to place your electronics on a floor or on a cupboard. I am fully aware of me saying ‘electronics’ rather than ‘loudspeakers’ – for the latter there is another remarkable solution which I will get to in a moment.

I cannot stress enough how important is to properly support amplifiers, sources (no matter whether analog or digital), DACs, power distributors and other gear. The effect of the SCS-SS can be described like that sonic landscapes that would be normally spatially fuzzy, tonally washed out or dynamically dull, will jump into life and become defined, vibrant and vivid. If you like the introspective American/Rubin series of Johnny Cash then you should like Greg Brown’s Over and Under too. With the Stillpoints platform supporting my SACD player all the strings (guitars, mandolin and fiddle) exhibited impeccable transient speed and instrumental decays, while the fundamentals remained strong and tonally full. I could hear the strong contribution of the bottom end that got tighter and punchier with the SCS-SS and this way its previously slight smear that contaminated the midrange too just vanished and cleaned up the rest of the spectrum. If you don’t like racks (like me) then the Stillpoints Component Stand SS is a final solution for your problem.

Townshend Audio Seismic Podium

Pete Townshend has been consistently improving his now twenty years old idea of an ideal platform that would isolate the speakers completely from the floor. The inspiration came from the car industry and his “Seismic Platforms” achieve the isolation by placing damped springs in the corners of a steel platform. The platforms exist in several stock sizes (1,300-1,700€) and Townshend Audio is ready to accommodate your special request and make the platforms in customized sizes if needed. There are also special Sesimic Stands, Seismic Bars and Seismic Corners so that virtually anything including furniture could be efficiently isolated from the floor.

 

Townshend Audio Seismic bars pods

The latest version of the Seismic products improves over predecessors in two important aspects: the podium got much closer to the floor (which is important not to change the tweeter position relative to your ears if a customer is replacing spikes or speaker’s feet with the Seismic Podiums) and the pods in the corners can be adjusted for load and level without necessity to disassemble everything (by turning the top part of a pod tension of the spring suspension inside can be increased or decreased).

 

Townshend Audio Seismic podium

I have not tried all the Townshend Audio seismic products yet, but I was lucky enough to test two Seismic platforms under speakers, and following this super-positive experience I agreed with Townshend they would make a custom-built platform under my subwoofer – the one that I have been using for last 3 months in my system. I am tempted to check what would the Seismic Podiums do under electronics but the special way I have my components placed prevents me to do so and still achieve a reasonable A/B testing methodology. So my findings will be limited to the use with the speakers and the subwoofer.

The sound of the Seismic Podiums is all about focus and silence

Don’t expect the focus that makes sound brittle, nor the tube-like lucidity. In fact the focus of the Seismic podiums is very “un-hi-fi”.  You know, when a piano player is onstage 3 rows from me then I hardly ever focus on whether the imaging is right. Why should I, can it be more 3D than having a real person with a real instrument in front of you? I take the ‘imaging’ as granted and rather focus on music. And this is the perspective that the Townshend platforms offer – it is free of typical hi-fi artifacts and wow effects, and its images are not hyped versions of reality – rather it lets you forget that there is any kind of hi-fi.

With the speakers on podiums (vs Cerabases) the piano played by Cyrus Chestnut in Reckless Blues on Madeleine Peyroux’s Dreamland) became more present in the room. The sheer nonexistence of perceived bass bloom and smear removed the last bits of any imaging unspecifity, those that I was not aware of until the Seismic Podiums were employed. Youn Sun Nah’s Calypso Blues from her Voyage album has an intense double bass melody that I could play louder with the Podiums without hearing any negatives in the track’s spectral balance or spatiality.

 

Townshend Audio Sesmic Podium 2

Townshend Audio Sesmic Podium 3

Townshend Audio Sesmic Podium 1

Similar benefits were heard with the Seismic Podium under the subwoofer. It improved the bass accuracy and timing. The energy of the cabinet with a moving woofer was sucked by the corner pods obviously, as I could feel significantly less vibrations when I placed my hand on the subwoofer. When seated I also clearly felt that the floor is trembling less under my feet. It happened to me more than once that I actually stood up and went to check the subwoofer whether it was on, and because it always was on I touched the woofer’s cone (which fires to the floor) if it was moving. It was and I could hear the subwoofer in the music, but I could not sense it through the feet or through the armchair I was sitting in. The resonances simply disappeared or they were suppressed to a high degree at least. I used Android MyFrequency app’s accelerometer placed on top of the sub to check whether I could measure the difference. No matter how sensitive or insensitive this app is this is what I got:

 

Townshend Audio Evidence

The resonance suppression like this is beyond the capability of the Ceraballs, Stillpoints and virtually any hard isolation device that I had tried. But can’t we achieve the same with sorbothane and other soft dampers that I disregarded earlier in this article? The difference that I hear is that the Townshend Audio Seismic Podiums don’t have any side effects like most soft isolators do. The moral is: those resonances that I felt with feet and palms travel through the floor and enter the electronics, including speakers. They can be picked up by sensitive circuits and crossovers, and I am not mentioning turntables. Now, when the floor is dead silent with the Seismic Podiums under speakers, aren’t we a step closer to what was encoded in the files or cut in grooves?

A floating ending

This ending is a floating one as this article expands over time (you have probably noticed me referring to different electronics in my system in the course of this lengthy multireview).  I kind like this as it always makes me go through what I already wrote about some isolation devices and recalibrate the benchmark. The exploration of how the resonances in an audio system can be manipulated to the benefit of the sound  is a wonderful journey. Skeptics will not change their religion (perhaps until they experience it for themselves) and the rest of us will be happier.

 

AUDIODROM WOULD LIKE TO THANK TO ALL THE IMPORTERS, DISTRIBUTORS, AND RESELLERS, FOR THEIR KIND SUPPORT. THE BIGGEST THANKS GO TO:

Platan Audio, Hlohovec / Bratislava, tel. +421 905 409 802 (Stillpoints, Finite Elemente, HRS Harmonic Resolution Systems, Synergistic Research)

Perfect Sound Group, Praha, tel. +420 722 960 690 (Nordost Sort Kones)

RP Audio, Ostrava, +420 737 366 831 (Finite Elemente, Ansuz Darkz)

Audiostudio s.r.o., Olomouc, tel. +420 608 752 475 (Townshend Audio)