Listening #66

The subject comes up every now and then: Audio reviewers don't write nearly enough negative reviews. One old attention-seeker on Audio Asylum went so far as to characterize Stereophile and our would-be competitors as "happy face" magazines—a joke in which he seemed to take tremendous pride—simply because we hand out a lot of As and Bs. By that logic, assuming that a certain percentage of underachievers is inevitable in any population, our schools aren't handing out nearly enough Fs. (I have a suggestion for where they can begin.)

The fact remains that most of the audio reviewers with whom I'm friendly, and a few with whom I am not, go out of their way to install review samples intelligently, listen to them carefully, and report every characteristic that they hear, good, bad, or indifferent. We all enjoy good products. And if you want to know the truth of it, we all enjoy bad products, too: They're fun to write about. It's the okay products that make me want to buy a revolver and blow out my brains: the ones about which I have no choice but to say, Yeah, it's well made, it's reasonably priced, and it sounds good—maybe even great—but I have no interest in owning it.

That's the question: Good, bad, or indifferent, would I consider buying it? I don't think I've ever failed to speak up when a review sample has been so compelling—in its performance, its quality, its uniqueness—that I've wanted it. Do I really have to spell it out when I don't? Must I draw little frownie faces in the margins of those reviews, to spare a few dozen people the drudgery of actually reading an article that doesn't pretend that the world is black and white? God almighty, I hope not.

That said, now let me tell you about an entire category of audio merchandise in which the products often perform well, and where they are even, on rare occasions, somewhat reasonably priced—yet I would never again buy a single one of them, howsoever effective might be. That's the category of isolation products.

My reasons for deciding so are arbitrary but solid: I don't like them. Whether I need them or not, I don't think I should need them. With each passing year, I am more convinced that it is a domestic audio system's job to fit my home, not the other way around. My style of living encompasses the notion that furniture should be well crafted, functional, durable, easy to clean, at least reasonably easy to move when the need arises, and, above all, handsome. That excludes every single audio stand I've ever seen, bar none.

I'm king of a house! And a bush! And a cat!
When I was younger, I was more susceptible to the suggestion that I should buy a stand for my turntable, simply because I needed something to put between it and the floor: I didn't own much in the way of furniture, nor did I generally know, care, or even think about furniture until I was well past 30.

Where did the idea come from that I needed a special turntable support? From Linn Products, Ltd., of course, which for three decades has been a fount of sterling certainties and the occasional bit of rubbish. As examples of the former we have the notion that the source component is of primary concern, and the belief that a product's ability to play notes and beats in an engaging manner is far more important than its sound per se—both incontrovertibly true and somewhat revolutionary. In the latter category are such gems as "Unipivot tonearms are useless for playing music" and "The best way to clean your records is to let the stylus clean the groove, then clean the stylus." (For the ninny who came up with the latter, purgatory shall be a restaurant in which they let the forks clean the plates, then wash only the forks.)

In fairness, Linn's observations on turntable supports have never been driven by profit—Linn doesn't make audio furniture, and has been associated with companies that do only peripherally, through their distribution channels—and seem to have been offered in reaction to a status quo that Linn saw as horribly wrong-headed. To wit, the Scottish company has long believed, and continues to believe, that a good turntable will always perform better on a light, rigid platform than on a comparatively massive one. I've agreed with that point of view for years.

The first specialty turntable platforms to cross my radar were little more than welded steel frames perched on spiked feet and supporting thin wooden platforms by means of even more spikes. Sound Organisation made the first such thing I saw, followed by a bevy of imitators, chief among them Target and Audiotech. I bought one of the latter for myself, and for years it remained the only home furnishing I had selected and bought for myself, rather than liberated from a curbside or accepted as an act of charity. Today my Audiotech is obscured by a great drooping houseplant: It looks too silly and fiddly to use for much of anything else in my living room.

Variations on the light'n'rigid theme followed soon thereafter, most notably from the now-defunct British firm Mana Acoustics. Though I never ceased wondering why they came only in black, Mana stands were better looking than Sound Org's, and differed in that their frames were of L-section rather than square tubular steel, thus allowing a certain amount of flexure. Moreover, the Manas' isolation frequency could be made progressively lower with the addition of more and more units, like Yertle the Turtle.

I continue to keep my primary turntable on a Mana Reference Table topped with two extra Mana Mini-Tables. That arrangement continues to improve the performance of every turntable I've placed on it, from the Linn Sondek LP12 to the Well Tempered Record Player to my current Thorens TD 124. As a special surprise bonus, record players are less susceptible to footfall disturbances when I use them on my Mana, as compared with other furniture in my home. In that respect, the superficially similar Audiotech didn't even come close.