Listening #66 Page 2

Aesthetically speaking, no one would confuse a Mana table with the work of Gustav Stickley or Harvey Ellis; viewed out of context, I doubt if many people would mistake a Mana table for any kind of indoor furniture at all—and I can't say I blame them. Perhaps I'll have the black paint stripped off of mine some day, after which I'll finish it with a sort of faux-verdigris patina: Then my Mana might at least resemble good-quality outdoor furniture. Until then, I can just tolerate the way it looks.

Give my regards to the Earth's core
Mana Acoustics may be gone, but the demand for isolation lives on. This, in fact, is such a healthy corner of the perfectionist audio market that its growth doesn't seem to be hampered by critical naysaying—a hypothetical example of which might be "Isolation from what?"

An excellent question. Let's round up the usual suspects:

airborne vibrations
structural vibrations
gross disturbances (footfalls)
geomagnetic storms
Rayleigh waves
sarcasm

Airborne vibrations constitute the irony at the heart of phonography: The process is vulnerable to ruination by its intended outcome. One can imagine how any data-storage and -retrieval system that uses moving parts must be protected from unintentional movement, and the threat posed to such a device by sound waves is more than imaginary. (All of us who've played in rock bands know how common it is for the wires on the underside of a snare drum to rattle, often quite loudly, in sympathy with loud notes played by some other instrument—electric bass in particular, Mr. Atkinson!)

All right, then: Imagine the relationship between a moving record groove and a diamond stylus at the end of a tiny aluminum tube: on the one hand a hurtling roller coaster of peaks and valleys, on the other an axle held precariously in place by inconstant forces from at least three different directions. Then along comes an airborne mechanical shockwave that threatens to disrupt that relationship—unless a way can be found for that wave to displace the system as a whole, thus keeping unsullied the relationships among the moving parts within the system.

Can you imagine a platform underneath that system—anything at all—that might provide the requisite give and take for the player's working bits to be effectively isolated from the shockwave, yet that could still hold the player firmly enough so that it didn't simply fall toward the center of the Earth and back out the other side?

That's a tall order. At best, the suspensions of turntables so equipped may isolate records and tonearms and cartridges from interference at some sound frequencies—but certainly not all. At worst, a comprehensively effective barrier to airborne vibrations throughout the audible spectrum may exist only in the imagination. To carry on with our phonograph example, the only practical answer for some may be to increase the mass of the stylus—along with the forces that hold the stylus in place—or to remove the player from the sound-charged environment altogether. The drawbacks, which may or may not be acceptable, are obvious.

On to structural vibrations, which I daresay can be dealt with more effectively than the airborne sort. From our hobby's first stirrings, the audio marketplace has seen the phases (I resisted saying fads) of isolation products in this field of endeavor follow a sort of a pattern:

dense high-mass platforms
low-mass metal platforms with spiked feet
individual metal cones
high-mass metal platforms with spiked feet
platforms loaded with magic goo (Sorbothane, et al)
platforms with air bladders (ie, inner tubes in a box)
platforms filled with sand
ceramic cones
carbon-fiber cones
ball-bearing supports
weird little wood supports
dense high-mass platforms
repeat...

Of the above, individual metal cones, mass-loaded (usually with lead: now there's a smart idea) metal platforms, sand-filled platforms, and ceramic cones have thoroughly failed to impress me. At one time or another, with one kind of gear or another, I've heard the rest do at least something to the sound (excepting carbon-fiber cones, which I don't believe I've tried). If the furnace of your imagination continues to be stoked by one of the "technologies" listed above, take heart: I guarantee you'll have no trouble finding a positive review of it online. I must say, however, that what most scares me about those reviews is that they tend to portray the product's benefit as the ability to make recorded music easier to withstand, as if music were an ailment or a severe beating. Whenever you find yourself thinking in such terms, it's time to put your records away or seek counseling.

I went out for a rug and I never came back
Ten years ago, when we lived in Oneonta, my wife sent me out to buy a piece of carpet remnant for the mudroom. Instead, I came home with an oak console table: a nicely made faux-Mission thing that I spotted among the dented floor samples in the markdown area. I fell in love with it, and I've used it as a support for CD players, preamps, and amplifiers in my main system ever since. I think it sounds fabulous.

When Jud Barber of Joule Electra sent me a VZN-80 output-transformerless (OTL) amplifier to write about, he also sent me a custom-size Grand Master isolation platform ($2395), designed and made by Critical Mass Systems, to go with it (footnote 1). Normally I don't like reviewing more than one unfamiliar product at the same time, and I daresay I've even made a name for myself for refusing delivery of products that I neither requested nor expected. In this case, however, I went along with it: I knew that the Joule VZN-80 was way too big to fit on either the upper or lower level of my oak console, yet I also knew that the amp's operating temperature was high enough to cause concern for the well-being of the nice floor and even nicer rug in my main listening room. The Grand Master could stay.

So here the Grand Master was, and here it is: A 21" by 22" chunk of something that stands a half a foot tall and weighs a whopping 55 pounds. After I returned the Joule, I got in touch with Joe Lavrencik, owner of Critical Mass Systems, and asked what he would have me do. Joe suggested that I try the Grand Master platform under other audio components, to which end he sent me a variety of interface blocks: neat little squares and circles made of various combinations of materials, intended to maximize the relationship between platform and product.

Let me tell you a little about Joe Lavrencik—and, by definition, people in the isolation-product industry who aren't Joe. The guy is a saint: an intelligent, soft-spoken man who would sooner jump off a cliff than make extravagant claims on behalf of his products. (This is not to imply that everyone else who makes and markets isolation products is more interested in capitalizing on audio trends—usually surrounding this or that "new" material—than in doing any real engineering work, although that certainly applies to some.) I was happy to try Joe's product, if somewhat doubtful that I'd like it.

I began by placing my very heavy Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player on the central resting area of the Grand Master, which looks like a single, solid piece but is said to be a sequential arrangement of filters representing different frequency bandwidths. If you're wincing in expectation of the usual "So many veils were lifted / so many octaves of bass were added / the soundstage got so much deeper that I peed in my pants/suffered a cerebral hemorrhage/hollered at my wife to come hear it even though I didn't need to because she could hear the difference from the neighbor's house across the street," don't worry. But there was an audible difference in the sound. The nice thing was, the difference was for the better, and it affected the music more than the sound: Performances were simply more compelling, a little more like real music. In a way, the music even sounded sloppier—more like it does in real life—and not tidied up in that fussy high-end manner.

It was, in other words, an improvement, albeit a humble one. I was impressed.

Over the days that followed I tried various other components on the Grand Master. The results were usually pleasing, and sometimes confounding. It made zero difference that I could hear in the performance of my Shindo Masseto preamp or Shindo Cortese amp, yet the improvement it conferred on the small, passive Audio Note AN-S8 step-up transformer was among the most obvious I heard. But one thing the results never were was disheartening. The worst the Grand Master did was nothing, and that was rare.

The most remarkable performance example I can think of was when I removed my Thorens TD 124 Mk.II turntable from its home atop the Mana stand and placed it on the Critical Mass platform. By this time the Thorens included the Schopper nonmagnetic platter, brand-new EMT 997 "banana" tonearm (review to come), and the even newer Ortofon SPU Synergy A-type phono cartridge—a mildly strange-looking combination that may be the most involving record player I've owned.

The Thorens sounded at least as good, and quite possibly better, on the Critical Mass platform as on the Mana stand, and much, much better than during its brief time on my beloved oak console—itself a failed experiment, as even I can admit. Most of all, the Grand Master was more effective at filtering out footfalls than anything else I've tried—itself a nearly counterintuitive shock, given that the central support area of the platform seems so dense, so inert, so...well, it doesn't really look as if it's doing anything, but I guess it is. With the Thorens on the Grand Master and the Grand Master separated from my hardwood floor by only four small conical feet, I found that I could literally jump up and down anywhere in that room and displace the stylus not one bit.

The last refuge of the modest
Sorry: I was only kidding when I alluded to geomagnetism—although I'm fascinated not only by the research suggesting that migrating birds can detect and use the presence and direction of magnetic lines, but by the rapidity with which the scientific community has accepted the debate itself, from the first serious papers that appeared on the topic less than 20 years ago. Maybe there's hope for those old nerds after all.

Rayleigh waves are another matter altogether. I find the topic—and its potential relevance to sound propagation in spaces of finite size—equally fascinating, although research linking the two is nil, and measured observations of the phenomenon at high enough frequencies and low enough amplitudes to be meaningful are scant. Still, hope springs eternal.

Attitude is everything. Musicians, athletes, artists, teachers, leaders, and even salespeople know that, and those of us who would excel at bringing entire libraries of musical art to life within our homes should at least try to embody all of those types. So I'll try a little harder to clean up my act, even as age and experience only harden my resolve that life is too short to spend my money on anything that isn't a thing of lasting worth and beauty, howsoever effective. That goes for tables, too.



Footnote 1: Critical Mass Systems, technical inquiries: 69 Windsor Drive, Oak Brook, IL 60523. Tel: (630) 640-3814. Web: www.criticalmasssystems.com. Sales: Half Note Audio, P.O. Box 503, DeKalb, IL 60115. Tel: (847) 232-1267. Fax: (847) 994-1087. Web: www.halfnoteaudio.com.
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