Associated Equipment:
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Amplification
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The Stillpoints Component Stand
Taking Isolation to the Nth Degree

 

May 2006



  

When pressed by audio enthusiasts for advice about how to significantly improve their systems, I recommend investigating state-of-the-art isolation devices before even thinking about swapping into ultra-priced components, investing in mega-buck AC power cords, or entering the snake pit of ever-multiplying cable choices. Although some of the audio world sees isolation as a tweak, it is more accurate, and useful, to see it as the foundation of a system - as central as the supporting structure of a home or building, and as essential to performance as wheels, tires, and suspension on a sports car. Ask any resident of Tokyo or San Francisco if earthquake-proof building techniques are a mere tweak. Put Buick suspension, wheels, and tires on a Porsche and it will handle like a Buick

Although beyond the immediate evidence of our senses, it is fruitful to conceive the physical universe as composed of intertwining and interpenetrating patterns of vibrations. Our goal in high-fidelity music reproduction is to re-create, electrically and mechanically, those specific patterned vibrations that contain musical meaning, and clarify to the utmost these wanted vibrations by separating them from the ubiquitous and unwanted vibrations that do not. The better we can isolate those physical and electromagnetic patterns of vibrations, the more convincing our illusion of musical reproduction will be. Although we tend to create an artificial boundary between the mechanical/physical world and that of the electromagnetic realm, it is closer to the facts that the two realms are a continuum and can and do interpenetrate, modify, change, and affect each other.

Grasping the effectiveness of isolation is made easier by conceiving isolation products as filters, and charting the level of unwanted vibration related to frequency. A mechanical-electromagnetic system of isolation that attenuated unwanted vibrations by 150 dB from DC to 500,000 Hz would be ideal perfection. The problem is that no isolation system can yet achieve that level of attenuation. Physical isolation systems focus on the bass area, from DC to roughly 250 Hz, the prime area of vibratory interference to our systems. It appears clear that interference in the low-bass and subsonic region is the worst offender.

Place anything upon the Earth and it will be subject to the myriad physical vibrations traversing our planet, from the fundamental resonance of the Earth itself, to the low frequency vibrations caused by seismic activity, the effects of winds, tides, and the common noises – traffic, trucks, railroads, and jet airplanes - of our technological society. Our listening spaces sit in the middle of this pervasive low-frequency earth-borne interference and add the vibrations of furnaces, refrigerators, air conditioners, and other devices to make the problem even worse. And, of course, once the loudspeaker starts injecting physical energy into the listening room, the interference is compounded.

We have all used isolation devices, even if unconsciously. The plastic or rubber feet on all our components are isolation filters, as are our speaker spikes, rudimentary in effectiveness though they may be. Perceptive listeners, particularly those running turntables, have probably also noticed that components sound different based on what they are placed upon. Indeed, the isolation of turntables was the initial inspiration for the development of isolation products for general use throughout a system. The improvement in the effectiveness of isolation has evolved over the years through the development of products like the pointed, cone and spike-like products and the various soft elastomer-based pucks and footers, leading to the watershed air platforms and ball bearing-based isolation devices. These latter two types extended the filtering turn-over frequency down into the subsonic region and increased the amount of attenuation of low frequency interference. The best devices filtered both the vertical and horizontal components of the interfering energy.

"Don’t it always seem to go/You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

The corrupting and pernicious effects of this low–frequency contamination are most obvious when it’s gone. Listening to a system effectively isolated from source to loudspeakers by state-of-the-art isolation devices and comparing that to the non-isolated system is analogous to the difference between a photograph made by a tripod-mounted camera whose shutter was controlled by a remote cable release to one made by a near-sighted, caffeine-addled photographer with a terminal case of the willies. The most obvious corrupting effects of structural-borne vibration are blurring, smearing, and homogenization: an overall loss of focus and rendition of detail.

The best isolation devices offer a wholesale improvement in all aspects of sonic reproduction: more information is passed and the quality of the information is more accurate. There is an across-the-board gain in clarity, resolution, the timbre of instruments, and their coherent placement in a believable sound field. There is a tremendous increase in low-level detail, dynamic and rhythmic flow, and accurate tracking of volume levels, along with an increase in dynamic punch. In short, these are the very kinds of things that lure music lovers into high performance audio in the first place and are the salient qualities that commonly separate “mid-fi” from high performance or “High End” products.

The direct result of the pernicious effects of vibratory interference is an overall effect similar to that of intermodulation distortion, understood in its largest sense: affecting not only two different frequencies, but also dynamic levels, transient response, and the overall integrity of each sonic event. The first thing to go from components awash in the seismic soup is the rendition of low-level detail – footroom. What state-of-the-art isolation products offer is a far more accurate retrieval of the complete shape of each musical sound event – the initial transient, the release of the sound’s harmonic information directly tied to its pitch, the ‘bloom’ of the full note into its acoustic space, and finally its decay. Equally important is the increase in the quality of the silence between notes, leading to clearer rendition of tempo, rhythm, emphasis and de-emphasis of notes, punctuation and phrasing. This clarity and accuracy is maintained for all the instruments playing. Once you stop shaking each component in the system, it’s amazing how clear and natural they can sound.

First-time experiences of a completely isolated system tend toward the epiphany for most listeners: many long-time searchers for their ‘perfect’ system remark that for the first time they are hearing what they’ve always wanted in a hi-fi system and have been unable to find in their frustrating odyssey of component changes, cable experiments, immersion into the High End, and innumerable tweaks. Long-time users of the most effective isolation products often experience a radical paradigm shift, leading to one or all of the following understandings:

1): the sound of a non-isolated component is a pale shadow of its ultimate potential.

2): the isolation product, thus, is more important than the component itself.

3): when properly isolated, systems sound more similar than different: the good things they do are remarkably alike, and there is little correlation to price.

4): assembling a system without taking isolation into consideration is more than peering “Thru a Glass Darkly,” it’s “Listening Through a Blanket Deafly.”

5): those miscreant High End manufacturers who continue to promulgate enormous mass as the indicator of performance quality either were not listening during high school Physics class when Newton was being studied, think Newton is a cookie, or read only his crazed theological ramblings.

6): isolating the speakers is as important as isolating a turntable.

7): the boundary line between High End and mid-level components is often erased by incorporating isolation into a system.

The Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things

Owning a turntable immediately qualifies one as a permanent member of The Society, as does owning a stand-mounted speaker, or a floor-stander supplied with spikes. I personally have followed the evolution and improvement in isolation devices over the years with keen interest, having experienced some watershed listening moments. One was the arrival of air platforms over a decade ago: a $1,000 turntable mounted on a Townshend Seismic Sink platform musically and sonically out-performed an $8,000 turntable rig mounted on a high mass, lead shot-filled steel rack. Then there was the “Eureka!” moment when I first heard my reference system completely isolated, from source to loudspeakers.

The Stillpoints Universal Resonance Dampers have been my reference and default isolation devices since their arrival on the market in 2003. I gave them the “Most Wanted Component” award that year. (See review: http://www.stereotimes.com/acc120802.shtm) These original Stillpoints devices, a volcano-shaped cone with a white ball-bearing inserted, snowball-like, into the volcano’s crater, and touching 5 additional bearings encased and damped within a semi-flexible calyx, were expanded in user flexibility and in performance through the addition of the Adjustable Height Risers, a larger diameter ‘cup’ into which the Stillpoints could be threaded. These permitted height and leveling adjustment, a more stable base for unwieldy components, more clearance of component feet, and additional isolation. In addition, threaded rods were made available, permitting direct connection of the Stillpoints to a component. The resulting downward-facing volcano led to the release of the Inverse Riser, similar in size to the Riser but inverted, optimizing the interface between the Stillpoints’ exposed bearing.

The relentlessly inventive and curious folks at Stillpoints have not been idle. The company’s ERS cloth isolates components from electromagnetic interference; their ESS Rack incorporates isolation and damping into a shelved component rack. The Stillpoints Component Stand extends the original Stillpoints devices to a higher level of sophistication, and offers an upgrade path permitting the finest discrimination and effectiveness. Although I was completely satisfied with the original Stillpoints, with their ‘x’ level of effectiveness, one’s curiosity ultimately begins to ask: "If x level of isolation is this good, what would 2x, or 5x, or 10x sound like? Just how far can you go? Is there such a thing as too much isolation?” The Stillpoints Component Stand offers an answer to those questions.


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