OSAR Selway & Magruder audio/video racks
Experienced audiophiles know the answer: Examine and tweak the setup. I've heard systems consisting of state-of-the-art components that sounded lackluster and lifeless because they were just tossed together, with no thought of keeping signal-carrying wires away from AC leads, or with excess speaker cable looped into coils and stuffed in a corner—two oversights that cost next to nothing to remedy. I've also heard modest systems that gave me U-R-There goosebumps simply because their owners had lavished meticulous attention on the details.
One detail that's easy to overlook—but has almost never been overlooked in the best systems I've heard—is the support and isolation of the equipment itself. These days, we have many choices when it comes to audio racks. "Too many," some grouches would say, but I'm happy to see how many handsome, well thought-out support choices are out there. Among the niftier of these are OSAR's Selway and Magruder series of racks—they aren't complicated or all that exotic, just logical and well built.
The last and greatest art is to limit and isolate oneself.—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Things have improved tremendously in the last decade. I remember when the only choices were pretty, but heavy, wooden furniture that had a tendency to store energy and release it (audibly) into the equipment resting upon it, or "pro-style" racks that clamped components by their faceplates into walls of electronics that would have looked at home in a recording studio. I guess that was the idea, but they, like the other racks available at the time, actually had a negative effect on sound quality—and for the same reason. Linking all your gear together into one massive pile is convenient, but mass stores energy. Unfortunately, it's not an infinite sink: Sooner or later the stored energy must be released, and the heavier the mass, the lower in frequency that release. The problem with this is that we humans are pretty good at detecting aberrant information within the music band.
If you've never actually heard how a big ol' hunk of cabinet can put an overlay of mush onto the musical signal, you're probably thinking that I'm showing my age here, talking about how sensitive turntables are to their environment. But while it's true that turntables can be notoriously sensitive to what they're placed on, CD players, and even amps and preamps, are also affected. You can hear it for yourself by supporting a light plywood shelf on three Tiptoes (or three tennis balls, if you have no Tiptoes) and doing an A/B comparison. Play a CD with your player resting on a credenza, or something similar; next, play the same track with the CD player on top of the plywood shelf. If you hear what I've heard when I've done the same comparison, you'll hear the music as livelier and lighter, with greater differentiation between the individual instrumental and vocal lines. There'll be more contrast between the music and the silence. Or, if you don't want to go that far, the sound will be "cleaner."
Are these differences "day and night"? No, but they're certainly audible—and, once heard, certainly desirable. You could just put all your gear on plywood shelves on the floor, supported on Tiptoes or tennis balls. That's certainly an inexpensive option—but it's also inconvenient and ugly. Comedienne Rita Rudner refers to men as "uncivilizable"—no better, really, than "bears with furniture." The problem with the shelf/Tiptoe/floor option is that you won't even have the furniture. Go ahead, get an audio rack—maybe Rafi Zabor will write a novel about you.
Of course, not all audio racks are created equal. Some wobble. This creates other problems—some audible, some just cause for alarm. Ideally, a rack should be rigid enough to keep any external vibrations from adding to those that occur naturally within the component. But how do you do this with a rack containing multiple components? Won't the vibration from the motors or transformers in one piece be transmitted into the others?
Yes, unless the rack's designer has taken this into consideration. Many have—a frequent answer is to isolate each shelf from the support structure itself. Different companies take different approaches to this, but OSAR's Kim Howard has taken it to a clever extreme: What seems to be one three-shelf rack is, in reality, three separate racks that nest together to give the appearance of a single unit. Each component sits on its own rack, but the system remains compact, and as unobtrusive as three high-end components are going to get out in the open. Simple. Elegant, even.
The whole worl's in a state o' chassis!—Sean O'Casey
What is an OSAR, anyway? My American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, says it's the plural of os (big help!), which is the same as esker, which is "a long, narrow ridge of coarse gravel deposited by a stream flowing in or under a decaying glacial ice sheet." Oh.
It's also an acronym for One Serious Audio Rack, which it is.
Each part is made of a one-piece steel frame handsomely powder-coated in black. The frames can be filled with lead shot, sand, or a combination of the two, which further damps the structure. At the top of each frame, just under the shelf support, is a decorative "faceplate"—a strip of wood available in oak, cherry, or four "marble" finishes: Forest Green, Midnight Blue, Ruby Red, or Starfield Black. Each shelf rests atop its frame on Sorbothane hemispheres (standard on the Selway series), each capable of supporting 80 lbs. Or you can order your stands with Sorbothane pucks (standard on the Magruder series) capable of supporting 200 lbs per shelf. If you prefer, OSAR also sells brass cones ($49.95/set of three). The shelves are a rigid laminate of 16-gauge steel and MDF, with a durable, black powder-coated finish. The stands all have massive, threaded brass spikes that allow you to level the stands and anchor them solidly to the floor. If you'd prefer your floors unperforated, OSAR sells brass floor protectors ($16.95/set of four).
The Selway and Magruder series differ primarily in their proportions. The Selways are generously sized for standard audio components, while the Magruder 2106 is a hefty amp stand perfect for larger, heavier power amplifiers. The taller Magruder 3425 is sized for a large direct-view television monitor.
By the way, if you're having trouble keeping track of all the options, OSAR's website [no longer active in 2005—Ed.] is extremely helpful in illustrating the differences and options and can point you toward a nearby dealer. It's a good 'un.
Stand shadowless like silence, listening to silence.—Thomas Hood
While the audiophile mantra seems to be "Everything makes a difference," I can't say that I hear important changes every time I slip something new under my components. This isn't to say that others don't, but simply that, for me, the most important thing is that I allow my components to be relatively uninfluenced by their environment by putting them on a good support. After that, I find most audible differences between cone shapes, materials, etc. to be on the "ask me if I care" order of magnitude. I have dear friends and respected colleagues who feel differently, as you might. Tha's cool, as long as I don't have to pretend to (footnote 1).
So, do I hear a difference between the shelves supported on the brass cones and those supported on the pucks? Ummm, mostly no—with one exception. With preamps, power amps, and DACs, I felt as if I was watching paint dry as I compared the different support options. Not much choice between them, in my opinion. If I did detect differences, they were of the "I think I hear something" variety—and I decided a long time ago that that sort of difference wasn't worth worrying about.
But, much to my amazement, I found that I preferred the brass cones under digital transports by a scootch—but consistently and repeatedly. Music sounded more open and somewhat more lively with the cones. Taking it further, I tried the Black Diamond Racing cones (see J-10's review in the June 1998 Stereophile, Vol.21 No.6) and liked them even better—music sounded even more open, without sounding overly excited. These cones seemed to be more in control. I'm not trying to say the difference between the Sorbothane and the cones was immense—it wasn't. It was just noticeable enough that I had a preference. And remember that the sound with either support was much better than it was on just any old piece of furniture.
That means that I currently have the Sonic Frontiers "Iris" Transport 3 sitting on the OSAR shelf, which in turn is resting on BDR cones (#2s, as it happens, but I can't say I heard any difference between the 2s and the 3s in this context), themselves sitting on the OSAR's frame. All this, I must confess, is altogether tweakier than I like to think of myself as being.
As to how the OSAR racks sound in general, let's just say they do what a good rack is supposed to: they get out of the way of the music and let each component sound like itself, without an overlay of grain or mush. This means, for the most part, that the gear on them sounds more open, lithe, and quiet.
The OSAR stands are strong and rigid—they'll support a lot more weight than you'll be able to manhandle onto their shelves, even with help. There's a generous amount of room on top of each stand, as well as between shelves when you nest them, so your equipment has lots of room and oodles of breathing space—always a good thing.
I even like the way they look. At first I found the "faceplate" a little off-putting, but that passed quickly; now I think it adds a splash of color to what would otherwise be yet another plain-black audio component. Don't get me wrong—the OSAR racks aren't going to win any style awards at the Milan furniture show. But they have a sort of butch integrity to their appearance that I find quite appealing—especially with the darker faceplates in Forest Green, Midnight Blue, and Starfield Black.
The only problem with the OSARs is that, by their very nature, they're a little pricey. After all, each three-shelf rack system employs almost twice as much in the way of materials and labor costs as does a standard integrated unit—possibly more. But you can spend more on stylish furniture that doesn't function as well (and you can spend less on several other well-designed racks that also deliver solid performance). One lesson I learned a long time ago is to never try to put your wallet in somebody else's slacks—each of us brings his or her own set of priorities to a purchasing decision.
You pays your money and you takes your choice.—Punch, Vol.X, p.16 (1846)
The OSAR Selway and Magruder racks go a long way toward satisfying my priorities. They have a demonstrable positive effect on the sound, and, indeed, rank among the best-sounding racks I've tried. They are made well, are capable of supporting any piece of gear I could imagine putting on them, and are even stylish, in their macho, Harley-Davidson, built-like-a-tank way. Although they're certainly not cheap, I think they offer good value. Whether or not they're for you depends on how many priorities we have in common, but they're well worth seeking out and considering.
Footnote 1: I'm not going to say that there aren't sonic differences between stands—there are. Some support systems, such as the pricey but amazingly effective Vibraplane, seem to operate on a level that leaves everything else in the dust. (See reviews in Vol.17 No.5, Vol.18 No.11, and Vol.20 No.5.)