Focal, Naim, isoAcoustics, and the Damnedest Audio Demo I've Ever Experienced

Playing in Room F210 on the top level atrium of Hall 4: Two pair of Focal Scala Utopia EVO loudspeakers ($39,995/pair) with lots of Naim electronics and cabling. Also in the system was a VPI Prime Signature turntable, but it wasn't in use when I was in the room. The key items in this room, though, were some footers: specifically, IsoAcoustics GAIA-Titan Theis isolators—not so humble after all, on second thought, since they cost $899.99 for a set of four. The loudspeakers—white and green—were arranged in alternate pairs, their acoustical centers shifted by a few degrees.

The six-shelf Naim Fraim equipment rack held a lot of Naim gear: an NDX2 streaming source ($7499) with an XPS2 DR power supply ($6599); a NAC 252 preamp ($11,999) with a SUPERCAP DR power supply ($7699); a 300 DR stereo power amp ($14,999) with its companion 300 PS power supply (included); a Stageline phono preamp ($695). Cabling—speaker and interconnect—was Naim's Superlumina. IsoAcoustics OREA pucks (starting at $49.99 each) were used under everything. An IsoAcoustics Delos isolated butcher block support was under the VPI turntable; the Delos will join the IsoAcoustics lineup later this year. Crucially, a custom-made, audiophile-grade, remote-controllable switch box lay on the floor to the right of the Naim Fraim.

Why two pairs of speakers? Because the green pair was equipped with factory spikes while the white pair stood on the above-mentioned vibration-isolating feet. The music could be remotely directed to one pair of speakers or the other via the switch box, allowing a direct comparison of the sound of the speakers with spikes and speakers with the isolation feet.

I sat down in a good seat and tensed up, as I often do at demos, expecting an unpleasant, difficult, public test. But when the music switched a few seconds in, the sound changed utterly. No subtlety here.

The soundstage flattened—in the sense of becoming less center-filled and curved around to the sides. Now it extended straight out beyond the edges of the speakers. When I say it flattened, I do not mean that soundstage depth collapsed. It didn't. Instead I mean that the sonic canvas, which previously had been a bit loose, suddenly stretched tight.

This happened when the sound shifted from the speakers with the spikes to the speakers with the footers. There was also a small shift in the center of the stage, because one pair of speakers was slightly shifted relative to the other, but that shift, while easily audible, was subtle compared to the other things that were happening.

The effect on the soundstage, described above, is, I think, a matter of taste. You might prefer the greater concentration of the image toward the center, as presented by the speakers with spikes. But the other major change I heard was an unambiguous improvement.

It's hard to describe timbre—hard to put this change into words. So let's just say that timbres changed—timbres of instruments and voices, radically and for the better. In addition, with the footers, voices stood out more distinctly from everything else that was going on sonically, especially in a pedestrian, very busy Michael Jackson recording.

The point I wish to emphasize is the size of the change I heard. If I were to quantify it it in terms of the totality of the sound, I'd say it was a 20% change. This was a far bigger change than in any cable demo I've experienced. It was much larger than the difference between two similar DACs. With volumes matched, changing amplifiers never makes this big a difference in the sound, as long as the amplifiers are well-designed and performing correctly. The only component changes that make a difference this big are transducers: loudspeakers, phono cartridges.

This was not a perfect test. The footers added a bit of height to the loudspeakers, raising the drivers by an inch or two. One pair of speakers was, as I've said, rotated relative to the other by a few degrees. But such small changes could not account for such a major change in the sound. It had to be the footers. I've asked for a set for a trial.

Photos courtesy of IsoAcoustics.

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

Amazing.

You'd think Focal would have the resources to properly 'support' their speakers and make that part of the design and manufacture process.

I'd love to see that question in an interview!

I am thrilled that you will review them. I wonder whet they will do to your Wilsons! You will really have to control height, etc. when you make the change. Of all companies, you'd expect Wilson to have worked out what to put beneath their speakers.

How embarrassing would this be: "Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria XLF, 200,000 dollars per pair, or 201,700 dollars with proper feet."

Thanks for the great reports!

Jim Austin's picture
I don't own Wilsons--nor do I have any in my possession. Jim Austin, Editor Stereophile
Anton's picture

Dang. I feel like I have a "reading familiarity" with Jason's room and was thinking of that when I replied.

Well, I still hope you AND Jason gets his hands on a set!

I read someone's enthusiastic initial review (was it Art?) in the last year or two in Stereophile, so I have been looking forward to these.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If JVS wrote this report, he would never use a word like "Damnedest" .......... JVS would describe his experience in a much more 'poetic' way :-) .........

Robert Deutsch's picture

I wrote about the GAIAs in the September, 2017, issue: https://www.stereophile.com/content/isoacoustics-gaia-loudspeaker-isolation-feet. They were also my 2018 Editor's Choice: https://www.stereophile.com/content/stereophiles-products-2018-editors-choices-2018

Anton's picture

I haunted their site forever after your review...you got them waaaaay ahead of release, amigo! They haunted me for a long time.

A fascinating product.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

There are several favorable reviews including videos posted online for isoAcoustics :-) ........

Richard D. George's picture

I heard a similar presentation at RMAF 2017 (I think). It was two pairs of Focals, but a slightly less expensive model. The impact of the feet was amazing.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Given that Art Dudley writes about these extensively in his June 2019 Listening column - the issue just out, which you can subscribe to for a whole $12.95/year - what I'd love to see is a comparison between support feet from different companies. Nordost has its Sort Füt, and did many demos similar to IsoAcoustics' in years past. Instead of two pairs of the same speaker, however, they simply chose fairly lightweight speakers, and switched between the manufacturer's stock spikes and Nordost's Sort Füt. Stillpoints also has some pricey feet for speakers that I've heard dealers rave about. I'd love to see all three compared.

Anton's picture

I think you'd be perfect.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Yes ..... It would be a great exercise to lift those Wilsons :-) .........

Richard D. George's picture

Thanks for your comments. I have an iPad subscription to Stereophile and the June issue just showed up. There is another informal review of the Gaia feet in a prior issue but I don’t remember which issue.

I was so impressed with the Gaia demonstration that I would tend to buy their product, but a comparison is good idea.

Richard D. George's picture

I forgot to mention that IsoAcoustics also has killer speaker stands. Dynaudio includes them with some of their professional desktop monitors.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

isoAcoustics has a video demo on their website comparing studio monitors with and without their speaker stands :-) ...........

cgh's picture

Jim, I used to scratch my head when I saw Nolas. I spoke at length with Carl about his design philosophy and came away even less convinced about the purported purpose. I just assume that logically the more powerful the excursion the more the "non spiked" versions would just smear out in time. Right? F=ma, a=a, qed?

It sounds logical that it is a matter of taste, but it also seems to be a property that could be built into the speaker itself if that is the goal of the designer.

ok's picture

..but many a difference in perceived sound could also be explained by different placing of the two pairs inside the room as well as between one another (distance from the floor and side walls included –no less for bass response among other things) Well, if some footers can do the trick, I guess that anything can.

avanti1960's picture

and resting on (presumably) a two layer composite subfloor- vs. acoustic footers resting on carpet. Too many variables to conclude that the footers are the reason for the change in sound quality.
It would have been interesting to hear a comparison between the spikes and standard plinth footers resting on the carpeted surface.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Amazon sells various isoAcoustics products ....... There are many reviews and answers to questions about isoAcoustics on Amazon website :-) ........

mtrot's picture

I heard this same comparison at the Focal exhibits at both AXPONA and RMAF last year. Yes, the two sets of speakers sounded noticeably different. But it seems to me that the different positions of the two sets of speakers could make a significant difference in the sound. What I have not heard is a demonstration in which they switched out the location of the two sets of speakers, i.e., move the green speakers to the inside position, or move the footers to the other set of speakers.

tonykaz's picture

This type of suspension will help to keep the floor from vibrating which hopefully keeps the People downstairs from complaining and therefore causing a Noise Violation Lease Breakage.

Are there any Engineers paying attention here?

Bass Capable Loudspeakers are Lease Breakers !!

So, how do you sell Deep Bass Capable Loudspeakers, you isolate the wobbly booming from migrating thru the dam floor ( or at least try ) before the new owners are FORCED to return the Dam Transducer system to the Dealer who should've known better in the first dam place.

Anyone that needs these Isolation devices is already limited to small loudspeakers and/or headphones.

It's Impossible for these pieces of compliance to "Improve" an Audio System's Performance any more that a Car's Engine Mounts improve the Engine's Performance.

Of course, Audiophile Psychosis easily overcomes Logic, lets hope that our Doctorate steps in with some "Tongue In Cheek" or a sprinkle of a few salts.

smelly ? , >))))))'> , Dirty Tricks , defective reporting needing calling-out.

Tony in transit

ps. Loudspeaker Manufacturers themselves can and do provide engineered solutions.

ps. No.2 ) I ask for our Editor in Chief to make a Call to Focal's Engineering people for an explanation. I'll bet a Table Cloth Dinner that one or more of the Driver mounting screws were not properly tight. --- I've seen this sort of thing plenty of times, including the Turntable Wars by Oracle back around 1985ish.

ps. No.3 ) Bad News : Munich Audio Show tolerates Product bashing : Focal's Loudspeakers are NO DAM GOOD without aftermarket rubber feet. I expect a Letter from Focal to appear in the Magazine's Letter to the Editor Section. This Demands Rebuttal.

Jim Austin's picture
Hey, at least it ain't politics. I'm a semi-skeptic with a physics PhD. I can say with certainty that it is plausible in terms of basic physics that footers that influence vibration transmission can alter the sound of a loudspeaker; if not, why bother with spikes? It is NOT plausible that the kind of changes I heard--dramatic changes to soundstage and voice and instrument timbre--could be caused by small differences in the location of the two pairs of loudspeakers, which were positioned symmetrically within a symmetric space (think mirror-image symmetry). Sure, they could have faked the demo--they could have done that in countless ways--but you need to be a cynic, not a skeptic, to think that would happen. You can expect to see these footers on standard equipment on certain high-end loudspeakers in the coming months. Jim Austin, Editor Stereophile
tonykaz's picture

Spikes on the bottom of Loudspeakers penetrate fluffy Carpeting to yield solidity.

Lets imagine a Surveyor's Tripod with it's spikes yielding reliable and consistent measurements. Or , put elastomers on the bottom of the Tripod, will consistent measurements suddenly improve or become wobbly? I can visualize a wobbly Laser Beam from compliant mounting.

We can also compare the Photographer's Tripod maintaining a Rock Solid foundation for a Sports Photographer's Long & heavy Lens. A solid Tripod will allow crisp images. Ask Manfroto to put elastomers on the bottom of their Tripods.

In the interest of Journalistic Integrity, I continue to request a Scientific Analysis response from Focal's Engineering people as should you. ( or maybe ask Olive at Harmon who is known to be accessible )

I'll accept Science, I'd mount accelerometers on the loudspeakers if I still had access to a Laboratory where I'd expect to find Solidly mounted drivers yielding improved performance over compliant mounting.

Tony in transit while asking Science to "Resolve"

ps. Of course, the Floor itself might have been vibrating at some low frequency un-noticed by observers and possibly un-mentioned by the Iso people. I stand by my Table-Cloth dinner bet.

Jim Austin's picture
You're making some unfounded assumptions. Loudspeakers aren't cameras. They aren't surveyor's instruments. Why not add optical scientific instruments into the mix? Laser spectrometers, say. Also electron microscopes. They don't work at all without proper vibration isolation. Do you also maintain that suspension doesn't affect how a turntable sounds? Loudspeakers vibrate on purpose. In particular, their cones move in and out. Newton I says the cabinet responds in an equal and opposite way. These are not cabinet panel vibrations--although that could be a factor, too--but back-and-forth inertia affecting the cabinet as a whole. The more sound power the loudspeaker puts out into the room, the more the cabinet is affected. So what happens to that energy? There's also moving air that, especially in the bass, couples to the surrounding structure. That energy can find its way back into the loudspeaker, dramatically out of phase. Will it actually? It depends on the room and how it's built. It depends on the loudspeaker's mounting structure. The point is that there's an interaction, which is modulated by the way the loudspeaker is supported. Put it on rigid spikes, you have one sound. Put it on rubber feet, you get another sound. Put it on some sort of turntable-like acoustical suspension and you get yet another sound. Put it in a room with less coupling and good damping in the walls and floors and it might make no difference at all how the loudspeaker is supported. But the effect is real, and large enough to impact the sound. Which is preferred s subjective. You may like the spikes better. But it's plausible that it affects the sound, so when you hear it, it makes sense to believe it. There's lots of nonsense in this industry. This isn't nonsense. I don't have time to continue this argument. Jim Austin, Editor Stereophile
tonykaz's picture

Our world is all about Noise Vibration and Harshness, it's the entire World of Home Audio.

Isn't nonsense ? Seems like you've already made up your mind, probably before talking to those Focal design People.

I too am letting this go, standing down but remaining doubtful and cautious.

Tony in transit

Jim Austin's picture
1. the impact of vibrations on the sound is totally plausible, not even unlikely, and 2. what I heard was not a consequence of the two pairs of loudspeakers being shifted a little, symmetrically, in a symmetric room. There are some things in this field that one ought to dismiss out of hand because they're obvious nonsense. This isn't one. Jim
ok's picture

This isn’t quantum symmetry or something we’re talking about; our face in the mirror is noticeably different than what other people perceive, though "almost" symmetrical and "merely" reversed. But most of all the green speakers are considerably shorter as clearly shown in the picture: this alone could sufficiently account for major differences in imaging and timbre –bass response, reflection pattern, interaction with taller counterparts etc. Everything matters; but the way exotic speaker footers actually work is not as obvious and intuitive as is the case of a turntable's or even an amplifier's positive feedback and shock protection. I also can’t help but wonder whether such a short pair of speakers could ever emerge as a clear winner in any sane contest against its high-heeled imposing siblings..

avanti1960's picture

and not necessarily with isolaters either. I owned a pair of decent spec 3-way tower speakers that sounded noticeably worse when using spikes (through dense berber carpet to a concrete floor) compared to non-spiked outriggers resting on top of carpet.
As it relates to this article, is the carpet doing the heavy sound quality lifting or the isolaters?

ok's picture

one thing that always amazed me about vibration control paranoia is that audiophiles go to unbelievable lengths of expenditure in order to isolate their devices from the surface below while on the other hand they don’t give a dime about massive airborne vibrations that plague their hardware from all other directions totally undisturbed. I have managed to get noticeably tighter bass –nothing more, don’t get excited– simply by putting a heavy vase of flowers straight on top of my amplifier’s case (already a solid one, mind you) and thus reducing all tangible resonances by a factor of 1000 to say the least. Just be sure to make water-clear to anyone interested that the flowers be left unsoaked no matter what..

tonykaz's picture

Good call, adding Mass reduces resonance Frequency which is part of the reason behind Large 125 Lb. Amps sounding Solid. ( a Vase would work equally but cost considerably less ).

Audiophile Nervosa begs for attention ! Speaker Cable Trestles belong on that Basement/Garage Gear System. ( a replacement for the traditional Lionel RR fantasies )

Still, all this silliness is harmless compared with the larger craziness in the larger world. Audiophile nervosa is an adventure to a world that defies logical evaluations ( if you like it to be so ), it has that "Alice in Wonderland" feeling of too many missing pieces of the puzzle with the wrong people making decisions.

Tony in transit

ps. looks like our Jana is making beautiful Video Art with John Darko. Two Thumbs Up!!! ( three if I had em ) The Darko transmissions now appears to be informed by Peter McKinnon, hmm.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be somebody will come up with NVH cancelling technology for the loudspeakers ......... NVH cancelling technology already exists with automobiles ....... Headphones already have noise cancelling technology :-) .........

audiodoctornj's picture

We find it so hard to believe that so many people are questioning the validity of the demo.

We have been sellng Isouacoutics for years after we heard a demo of a set of ATC SCM 19 monitors on stands with three footers placed between the stand and the speakers.

It was an easy demo place the pucks on the stands, place the speakers on top, play a piece of music and do the same demo without the pucks.

Three people all heard exactly the same thing. The footers work.

If you look at the patent is it very clear what these devices do.

The design of the footers is synrconizing the movement of the drivers which is back and forth with the movement of the cabinet which is now allowed only to move back and forth.

A spike foot still allows for movement which is both back and forth and side to side, you may not see the actual motion but that is what is happening.

As per why don't all speaker meufacturers don't include them is simple not everyone wants to spend additional money and these products would cost the manufactuer more than a set of simple metal spikes.

Dave Lalin, Audio Doctor NJ Isoaoustics dealers

avanti1960's picture

plinth outriggers resting on dense carpet? Since the isolaters are resting on carpet, what is their contribution vs. just speaker feet on carpet (which isolates from the floor and has compliance).

tonykaz's picture

Here I am noticing the NEW Schiit Class A Amplifier that the Audiophiliac is Showcasing in his latest daily video while pondering, hmm,mmm . This little Amplifier could be mounted on a Loudspeaker using Compliance Mounting Systems like Engine Mountings...
... creating Active Klipsch Forte or any other loudspeaker.

These Iso Compliance devices are DIY !

This is all about DIY, experimentation, hands on, tinkering, maybe discovering "nonsense" and maybe liking it.

That Focal - Naim, Iso Demonstration throws Sand in "my" Gears, "my" brain's experiences don't like it, have seen it before and doesn't seem to be allowing me to "let it pass" .

So, "I'm" a little too neurotic about all this.

"My Bad" as they say.

Tony in transit

BDP24's picture

I first heard about the IsoAcoustic GAIA from Harry Weisfeld of VPI. He had put them on his KEF Blade loudspeakers, and heard a significant improvement in sound. Harry is not affiliated with KEF in any way, as has nothing to gain by vouching for the GAIA. Though not spoken of much here in the U.S., the British hi-fi reviewers have found the UK-made Townshend Audio "Seismic" products to provide similarly improved sound.

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