The Fifth Element #16
Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.
Shut up he explained.
—Ring Lardner, "The Young Immigrunts" (1920)
And you are shocked—shocked—to learn that "Shut up he explained" is something of a catchphrase in our household (footnote 1). Hold that thought.
My wife has wonderfully sensitive hearing, and she calls them as she hears them. We once attended a stereo-shop open house, and were asked, "What do you think?" I thought the sound was uninspired and uninspiring, but I nonetheless uttered a benign platitude. She grimaced, shook her head, and said, "Sorry, something is wrong." The owner looked pained, but went away to check the setup. Within moments he had powered the system down, and was correcting a relative phase inversion (one speaker hooked up in opposite electrical phase from the other). He did come back to thank her, which was nice.
Anyway, a few weeks ago my wife came home after working late, and while she and I were eating dinner, two rooms away my daughter was listening—not at all loudly—to Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat. My wife cocked her head and observed, "I've never heard that particular [vocal] swoop quite so clearly."
I chortled triumphantly. "While you were at work, a new isolation platform arrived for the [Marantz SA-14] SACD player [see Sidebar—Ed.], and I set it up."
"Oh, just shut up," she explained.
My wife loves music but has a low tolerance level for audio tweakery and very expensive gear. The $21,000 price tag for the Wilson Benesch Chimera speakers was merely "appalling." The Halcro dm58 amplifiers' $25,000 was "obscene." On the other hand, the first time she heard a Custom Power Cord Company power cord (the A/B test track was from Encarnación Vázquez's Cuando Dos, Urtext JBCC 013, one of my 2003 R2D4s), her response was, "I wish I could say that you guys were all full of poop, but that really sounds much better."
I value her reactions in large part because she has absolutely no emotional investment in a tweak's working or not. As important, just because something sounds different, she's not willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that it sounds "better." Cases in point I can recall include the SACD of Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations ("Is there something wrong with the system?") and a cryogenic-process experiment on an Arturo Delmoni CD ("It sounds like he's playing a viola in the fifth position").
Please note that, except for the CPCC power cord, which she was aware of and initially scoffed at, the cited instances were all blind listening. So her hearing from two rooms away the enhancement in resolving power and lowering of noise floor that I believed I heard after setting up Symposium Acoustics' Ultra isolation platform was quite gratifying.
The Ultra platform is a component-sized shelf (review size: 19" wide, 14" deep, and 3.5" thick). The top and bottom are aluminum, while the middle is made up of several unequal-thickness layers of vibration-damping material. It comes with a set of three aircraft-aluminum blocks, each about the size of two stacked dominos, to couple your component to the platform by bypassing its (presumably) compliant feet. The Ultra platform was designed primarily to drain vibrational energy away from your component, rather than to provide isolation from external vibrations or footfalls.
Despite clear evidence to the contrary, some people still maintain that factors such as vibration control cannot affect digital playback. Apart from the evidence of the ears of people who can hear, the science is indisputable: The Compact Disc is an analog medium that recovers by analog means data that are later treated as though they represent digital data. Just as the case with an LP turntable, attention to vibration control will yield sonic dividends. Superabundant proof of that pudding can be found in any trade journal devoted to optical-media manufacturing engineering: the ads for the ritziest glass-mastering setups boast air bearings. And no vinyl anywhere in sight. Huedathunquet.
When I later had time to rearrange things so I could use the Ultra platform with the set of Symposium Rollerblocks I already had, the improvement was even more noticeable, and totally without any adverse side effects, as far as I could tell. However, if I had to pick only one, it seemed that the Ultra platform alone lowered noise and enhanced resolution more than did the Rollerblocks alone.
The Ultra platform with three large couplers retails for $599. That is a fair chunk of change, but it seems worth it, given the entirely subjective sense of ease it brings to listening. And, it's future-proof. So, should everyone go out and buy one? Not necessarily. I place a higher priority on speaker location, assisted by computer software, if need be; next, room acoustical treatments; and then, adequate wall current and power cords. But if all those are well in hand, by all means place your order for the Symposium Ultra.
What these measures have in common is the reduction of nonmusical content—noise—in your system or listening environment. Not to make things dead, but so that you hear more of what's in the recordings.
Footnote 1: A little birdie informed me that there is something of a betting pool in the august precincts of Stereophile's editorial offices, with odds being laid whether any particular column I file will include the Casablanca reference "Shocked—shocked!" So now we have a wonderful meta-moment: I am shocked—shocked!—to learn that there is gambling going on in Stereophile's offices!