Listening #18

A grainy film is said to exist that proves the viability of a mechanical antigravity device. The inventor, a native of Syracuse, New York named Harry W. Bull (footnote 1) placed his so-called "bootstrap machine" on a bathroom scale, focused a borrowed home movie camera on the dial, powered up the machine, and watched as the numbers spun backward. This event, and the development work that led to it, were the basis for a series of articles—and a subsequent exchange of heated letters—in Popular Science magazine. The year was 1935.

Here's another one: A Venetian scientist named Gianni Dotto, whose colorful life included paratrooper training for Mussolini's Army, a stint as director of Alfa-Romeo's racing program, and a prestigious position at Sloan-Kettering, claimed he could cure cancer with a CAT-scan-like device that emitted a low-voltage but extremely high-current (30,000 amps) electromagnetic field. The Dotto Ring reportedly worked by realigning polarized DNA molecules, thus correcting and restoring the vitality of those cells. As a secondary attraction, the Dotto Ring was also said to levitate (see Bull, above, footnote 2). That all happened in the early 1970s, which, with what I'm about to relate, suggests to me we're on a 35-year cycle.

Radical science, unconventional technology, anomalies engineering, weird stuff—whatever you call it, most people love it, whether we come to the party dressed as believers or as debunkers. And audiophiles? We're the luckless settlers of Philip K. Dick's "A Game of Unchance," victimized by a steady stream of carnies, one after the other. We've had magic dots, magic rocks, magic bricks, magic paint, magic varnish, magic alligator clips, and a little battery-powered personal fan sort of thing that "improves" our CDs by spinning them really fast before playback time. A carny might call that The Tilt-A-Whirl Effect.

But for every ten or so outright howlers, a product of unconventional technology comes along that actually works. Doug Blackwell's "Magic Brick," which VPI sold as the db-5 Back-EMF Damper, really did make some amplifiers sound better, probably by acting as a sink for stray magnetic fields given off by very large and not always very-well-made power transformers. Mana stands do indeed make turntables and CD players sound better, by resisting stored energy and shrugging off airborne vibrations in a strange but observable way. And, yes, Shun Mook Mpingo Discs can have a startlingly obvious effect on some audio components, although I'm gosh-darned if I know why.

Now here comes another very unusual tweak, and while I don't really understand how or why it works, I'm convinced that it does—at least some of the time.

State Technology Research, a new company in Skokie, Illinois (footnote 3), says that a major culprit in bad music reproduction is the addition of "time-displaced, diffused energy" to the original signal, owing to the unique and uncomplimentary distortions created by each link in the home playback chain. STR has decided to do something about that, and that something is a correction process they call state collimation. Through state collimation, time-displaced soundwaves, or the electrical signals that represent them (STR says it works on both, an observation I can't help but squint at), are put back on the right track. They are focused, if you will, as by a collimator of the optical sort [according Merriam-Webster, a device for producing a beam of parallel rays (as of light) or for forming an infinitely distant virtual image that can be viewed without parallax—Ed.].

STR's David Cornwell and Robert Grodinsky have codeveloped a series of products to do this collimating, which they call, unsurprisingly, Collimators. They come in four basic types, with variations within each category: Component Collimators, Speaker Collimating Caps, Speaker Collimating Stands, and Collimating Pillars. Prices range from $425 to $950.

That last one looks like a wooden speaker stand, or perhaps the sort of platform meant to hold a Swedish Ivy (Pilea nummulariifolia) of medium size. It stands 44' tall, and is completely clad in the "black ash" veneer that English audiophiles seem to find so pleasing. All its surfaces are unmarked by openings of any sort—there are no switches, no controls, no connections that I can detect—and, at 28 lbs, it seems heavier to me than if it were fashioned from nothing but plain old wood. I think there's something inside.

Scientific Test No.1
I keep a couple of very strong rare-earth magnets around the house, which are useful for clamping small pieces of wood together during fine woodworking projects—the kind I wish I knew how to do—not to mention for picking up dropped parts in a crowded engine compartment. They came to mind because I was told that the STR Collimators are "magnetically powered."

Simply stated, and with no need for elaborate equipment or the ability to use it, my test consisted of me taking one of my magnets out of the toolbox, approaching the 44" Collimating Pillar, and trying to get the magnet to stick to it. I could not. Not at any location.

Scientific Test No.2
I picked up the phone and called STR.

David Blair, a bright fellow who's represented a number of audio products over the years, is STR's sales representative. He described the Collimators' inner workings: "These are series circuits, cut into a dielectric. The power source is a neodymium magnet, and there are conductive elements—magnetic elements—scattered throughout the inside.

"The 44" pillar has 104 pieces inside, enclosed within a composite of layers: ranger board, glue, ranger board, and so forth. We've found that, in determining the number of layers surrounding the circuits, odd counts are more musical than even counts."

I still didn't get it, so I asked for more, and got it: "The circuit itself is an 11-sided conductor; which is to say, there are 11 facets that are CNC-machined into the wood."

Well, that cleared it up for me! Now all I had to do was to spring a canny assault of my own: "How do they do what they do to the sound?"

"How they accomplish this, we do not know. But Mitch Cotter is on the trail." Mitch Cotter, for readers who are younger than I—which seems like just about everybody these days—is an audio engineer who developed an especially nice series of phono products back in the 1970s, including a superb and still-competitive moving-coil step-up transformer.

Confronted with my reluctance to blandly state "They don't know how this stuff works," Blair gave me a little more background: "Seventeen years ago, an amplifier circuit was breadboarded that sounded absolutely beautiful. Then the thing was built, and it sounded terrible. So we asked ourselves, 'What's wrong?' And we began to realize that an audio component was the scene of many complex interactions that we didn't understand." That, Blair says, was the reason STR's Robert Grodinsky—another name familiar to audiophiles of A Certain Age—left manufacturing for a while and turned his firm, RG Dynamics, purely toward research.

Blair says that they've just arrived, in the past five years, at a point where they believe they can control the phenomenon.

Footnote 1: You in the back: no snickering!

Footnote 2: Stop that!

Footnote 3: State Technology Research, 4448 West Howard Street, Skokie, IL 60076. Tel: (847) 329-8999. Web: