Finite-Elemente Pagode Master Reference HD07 equipment rack

About once a week, I hear about some new audio accessory heralded by breathless claims of stunning performance gains that "you've got to hear for yourself." Most of these I ignore, and of those I do consider, nearly all wither when subjected to logical engineering analysis. Every so often, however, one of these wonder widgets finds its way into my system.

That's what happened with Finite-Elemente's equipment racks and component feet. The first time I heard the claims of sonic improvements, I didn't give them much thought, even when they were validated by the generally sane Allen Perkins of Immedia, Finite-Elemente's US distributor. And I was intrigued when a Master Reference rack began to appear in the "Associated Equipment" lists of Stereophile's own maybe not so sane but usually reliable Michael Fremer—but again, I quickly forgot about it.

What I didn't know was that a number of unrelated events and factors were lining up: Trish's ideas about décor, the size and weight of my audio components, architectural issues, an upcoming dinner party, and the immediate availability of a loaner sample, to name a few. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, my components were perched atop a nice assortment of Finite-Elemente Ceraball, Cerapuc, and Cerabase equipment feet, all arrayed within a Pagode Master Reference HD07 equipment rack.

Pagode Master Reference HD07
The Pagode Master Reference HD07 is a stylish, airy, four-shelf equipment rack with T-section aluminum uprights and shelves of Canadian maple. Its appearance inevitably drew positive comments from guests—even Trish thought it looked nice "for an audio rack." The ones who really flipped for it, though, were some of my mechanical-engineer coworkers, who were mightily impressed by its clever approach to vibration control.

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The Master Reference covers all the basics: the structural elements have the right geometry, appropriate materials are used, and there are even three layers of "mechanical diode" spikes. But what really intrigued my friends were the tuning-fork–like "resonators" embedded in each of the shelf supports. They immediately recognized their purpose: "Sure—you do a modal [vibrational] analysis, then use these to suck up energy at the resonant frequencies."

Which is what Finite-Elemente does. Each rack is characterized and loaded up with typical gear, and the spectrum of the rack's resonances is then noted. Based on these data, the combination of resonators that best damps the worst resonances is mounted in the frame for each shelf. FE's tool chest is evolving, but at press time they were mixing and matching six different types of resonator, tuned to absorb energy at different frequencies between 220Hz and 882Hz. FE references test data showing that 90% of self-generated kinetic energy and 70% of imposed kinetic energy can be converted to heat by the proper combination of resonators.

Ceraball, Cerapuc, and Cerabase
Finite-Elemente also addresses vibrations within the components themselves, but by draining them off rather than absorbing or damping them. Here again, they decided on the spectrum of resonant frequencies to be addressed, then engineered the most effective conduit possible. A structure will respond to vibrations with some mix of transmittal, reflection, and absorption, and the details of that response will be determined by the materials and geometries chosen, and by the characteristics of any interfaces. FE chose a mix of simple shapes and materials that allow them to predict and tailor the overall response—sort of like a mechanical transmission line.

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The three models of Cera footers—the Ceraball ($135/4), Cerapuc ($450/4), and Cerabase ($795/4)—all share a basic structure of radially symmetrical metal end pieces separated by a super-hard ceramic element. The specifics differ somewhat, with the smallest model using aluminum end pieces and a single ceramic ball, the larger one stainless-steel ends and either a ceramic puck or three of the balls. All have some sort of elastomer damping to prevent wobble and chatter; the larger models come with different attachments that allow them to replace existing component or rack feet.

Do they actually work?
The Pagode Master Reference HD07 rack really did work—at least with components that had an onboard power supply. Each such component I tried, from the lightest line stage to massive, two-chassis CD players, sounded better sitting on the FE rack than on my Bright Star or Merrill stand. Their focus, resolution, and dynamic precision were all slightly but consistently improved; my listening comments were peppered with such phrases as "faster, cleaner dynamics" and "sharper, more dimensional images."

Alain Lombard and the Paris Opéra-Comique's recording of Delibes' Lakmé (LPs, Seraphim SIC-6082) was a good example. As I moved each component in turn onto the HD07 rack—the VTL TL-7.5 line stage, the Sutherland PhD phono stage, and finally the VPI HR-X turntable and tonearm—the image of soprano Mady Mesplé became clearer and more solid. Her vocal nuances were more apparent, and I was able to better hear the trailing edges of her phrases. The rear and sides of the soundstage opened up a bit as well, and the space surrounding the performers seemed more transparent.

Repeating the exercise with two different digital systems and Dire Straits' "Private Investigations," from Love Over Gold (CD, Warner Bros. 23728-2), produced a similar result, but what I really noticed was the improvement in detail resolution. As each component moved onto the HD07, a bit more low-level detail emerged from the background. Distinguishing the multiple echoes around the scuffing shoes traversing the stage was one great example; another was the emerging presence of several different, distinct effects around Mark Knopfler's speaking voice.

None of these was a huge, jaw-dropping change, but they were consistent and repeatable. In terms of magnitude, putting a component on the HD07 rack was roughly comparable to what I get from demagnetizing a cartridge or cleaning all of my connectors, but more than what I hear after carefully redressing my cables or orienting my power cords' polarity by ear.

On the other hand, installing a set of Ceraball or Cerapuc feet under a component was a huge, jaw-dropping change. The differences were the same—improved focus, transparency, resolution, and dynamic precision—but their magnitude was much larger. Slipping a trio of Ceraballs under the VTL TL-7.5 wasn't like demagnetizing a cartridge; it was like upgrading to a really good moving-coil. And dressing cables? Forget it—this improvement was like replacing all of my freebie and Home Depot wire with a good set of high-end cables.

Like a kid in a candy store, I kept adding more and more Cera feet. The effects were similar with each step, and similarly dramatic. The biggest improvements came when I slipped Cerapucs under my VTL Ichiban power amplifiers and between my turntable stand's steel frame and marble top plate. The soundstage became significantly cleaner and the picture snapped into focus. Images inflated from two dimensions to three. The performers on Lakmé felt more like real performers in a real space than like a portrait. And when I played the Oscar Petersen Trio's Return Engagement (LP, Verve V3HB-8842) I noticed several dramatic improvements. Dynamic transients sounded 10–20% bigger, and the piano had much more inner detail and complexity and a richer, more distinct tonal balance. The bass was more powerful and much tighter.

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Other installations produced results that weren't quite as spectacular but were still impressive. I tried the Cerapucs under Halcro's dm10 preamp and dm58 power amps, the digital rigs, the Sutherland PhD, a couple of other line and phono stages awaiting reviews—even under my Thiel CS6 loudspeakers. With the exception of the Thiels, where the Cerapucs didn't seem to make much difference, the results were similar, clearly audible, and uniformly positive. I also found that replacing the Ceraball feet with the larger Cerapucs did result in an improvement, but the increment wasn't nearly as large as that associated with the initial installation of Ceraballs.

Adding another set of Cera feet, or moving another component onto the Pagode HD07 rack, always improved the system's sound. The same was true for mixing the rack and the feet. The improvement due to the Cera feet was as large when I installed them between the component and the FE rack as when I put them between the component and a different rack. Moving a component onto the FE rack improved its sound even if it was already sitting on a trio of Ceraballs or Cerapucs. And for the coup de gras, replacing the HD07 rack's spike feet with heavy-duty Cerabases moved the system's performance up yet another notch.

Final analysis
Finite-Elemente's Pagode Master Reference HD07 rack is stylish, well-built, and improved the sound of components placed on it—even reference gear such as the Halcro and VTL electronics. Their performance wasn't a lot better, but noticeably and undeniably so. The downside is that, at $6195, the Pagode HD07 costs about three times as much as other nice, similarly configured racks. Considering its appearance or its sonic improvements alone (and Trish's approval not withstanding), I might find it hard to justify the cost—but for me, the combination is worth it. Whether or not someone else will think so is another matter, but if its $6195 price doesn't automatically rule out the Pagode HD07, it's definitely worth checking out.

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The Ceraball, Cerapuc, and Cerabase equipment feet are another story. They made components sound a lot better. They, too, are expensive relative to their competitors, but excellent values in terms of improvement per dollar. Fully equipping my reference system represented a retail cost of about $2200, but the improvement—to about $100,000 worth of gear—was huge. And after I'd heard my system with the FE feet in place, there was no going back.

At the other end of the scale, $135 for a set of four Ceraballs is reasonable for even a modest system, and again—the improvement should be profound. Regardless of how much your system cost, I wholeheartedly, enthusiastically, and absolutely recommend that you try a set.

Finite-Elemente's Pagode Master Reference HD07 equipment rack works, and their Cera component feet work very well. And yes, you've got to hear the difference for yourself. This is one outlandish claim you don't want to ignore.

COMPANY INFO
Finite-Elemente
US distributor: Immedia
1101 Eighth Street, Suite 210
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 559-2050
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