Listening #18 Pageth 2

Scientific Test No.3
Eventually, perhaps even understandably, I said to hell with all that (footnote 4) and just listened.

In fact, in a roundabout way, I began listening two years ago, when David Blair brought a prototype Collimator to my house. He didn't tell me what it was: The thing looked like a 2'-square ceiling tile. David and I listened to some music together, then he shooed me out of the room while he brought in and fussed with the ceiling tile. Then he had me come back in and listen again. For all I know, the tweak and its position and alignment were completely irrelevant, and David had banished me from my own room so he could clean all my speaker-cable connectors, or perhaps conduct a ceremony invoking the cooperation of some minor demon of hell.

I pause here to recount a cute story that you may already know: In the early 1970s there was no shortage of religious kooks who took it upon themselves to warn record buyers that rock'n'roll was the devil's own tool, and would surely lead to the destruction of America if not stamped out cold. (Said destruction seems to be on back-order.) Somehow, one of these extremist ministers scored a brief interview with noted gun collector David Crosby. Reverend Nutjob sprang his own canny assault: "You invoke demons when you make your records, don't you—so the innocent listener will be enslaved!" "Sure, man," came the reply. "We do that in the studio all the time. Otherwise the records don't sound as groovy." The interviewer lacked the wits to see he was being joshed, and Crosby's "admission" became the basis of a religious tract, a copy of which I used to own.

Back to the real world: David Blair let me back into my own room, which was awfully decent of him, and I sat down to listen. And I heard a difference for the better. The specifics escape me, lo these two years on, but I remember that the music sounded more natural, a little more "together." Dig it, as David Crosby would surely say.

Fast-forward to January 2004, when David Blair brought the final, finished products over for a listen. He had five items with him that day: the 44" Collimating Pillar, plus one pair of Component Collimators and one pair of Speaker Collimating Caps. The Component Collimators measure 9.5" by 8" by 1.5" each, with a trio of metal rings glued underneath for feet, and are intended to be placed directly above or directly below something like a CD player, turntable, or preamp. Speaker Collimating Caps are exactly the same except without the feet, and can be placed right on top of a floorstanding speaker (or, in the case of my Quads, right on top of the part that contains the electronics—a tricky fit, but doable).

It was, to some extent, a repeat of the earlier performance: After listening together for a while, Blair kicked me out of my room and wouldn't let me come back in until everything was just so. When I returned, there were Speaker Collimating Caps on my Quad ESL-989s, one Collimator under my Linn LP12 turntable, another atop my Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player, and a Collimating Pillar centered between my speakers. It was a black ash extravaganza.

Your mind will follow
I almost hate to say it—partly because it's a performance area that isn't all that important to me, and partly because this sort of thing is such a tiresome old canard in audio reviewing—but the biggest difference I heard with the STR Collimators in place was a marked improvement in stereo imaging.

Ironically, given the level of engineering that has gone into their dispersion performance, modern Quad electrostatic speakers are not imaging champs in the strictest sense. Though not as limited as their forebears, my modern-day ESL-989s present a deep and well-defined "stage" only to one or two listeners who are seated between them with their heads pointed in the right direction: a mildly persnickety affair.

So you can imagine my surprise when I re-entered the room and heard—well before I got to my listening seat—a cohesive and convincing illusion of a stageful of performers stretched out in front of me. It was, in that one sense, the cliché-come-true of a sonic hologram: Even standing up, even from a position way outside the seating area, I could hear performers staying put, where they should be, and their perspectives remained more or less the same regardless of where I moved. And while I won't pretend for a minute that I'm immune to being preconditioned by what a salesman tells me to expect, I assure you that no one had suggested that I would hear anything of the sort.

Okay. David Blair had my attention.

Blair arrived here late one Friday and had to leave fairly early the next day—the morning of which I heard my Quads do the hologram thing—so I was left to play around with the STR Collimators for weeks on end. Predictably, I began taking various Collimators in and out of my listening room, to see what would happen. One of my first such "experiments" was to take everything out except the two Speaker Collimating Caps. I listened, then took those out—and found that I preferred the unCollimated system, hands down. With the two Speaker Collimating Caps in place, music sounded less dramatic and convincing and involving.

Ah-ha, I thought. Maybe the Collimating Pillar is good, and maybe the Component Collimators are good, but these speaker things just made a poo in my room.

I called Blair to share my findings so far. I told him I liked the sound of my system when all the Collimators were in place. Then I started to tell him about my experiences with just the Speaker Collimating Caps, but I didn't get very far. "You tried it with just those two in place? Well, I'll bet that sounded terrible." I said that it had. Blair told me that, as with the number of layers encapsulating each collimation circuit, systems of STR Collimators work only in odd numbers: ones, threes,, you know the rest.

Back to work. In the weeks that followed, I made a few more observations:

• With five Collimators in my system, music had a slightly better sense of flow and momentum than without. That was in addition to their more obvious spatial enhancements.

• With five Collimators in my system, I had an occasional and very slight sense that my system's power and drama were diminished. Mahlerian peaks were less so. Hmmm.

• I heard no evidence of changes in timbre or in frequency extension; ie, my system didn't "make more bass" with the Collimators. Neither did it make less.

• During the review period, my dreams were untroubled by thoughts of the diabolic—although, now that I think about it, my CD player kept skipping every time I tried to play Bill and Charlie Monroe's "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul"... (footnote 5)

What's goin' on?
Once again, I have to wonder: Does this product really operate the way its makers claim? (No offense: In almost 50 years of life I've directed that skepticism at everything from Orbit toothpaste, the first dentifrice packaged in a reusable plastic rocket, to Mobil "detergent gasoline.") Or is something else at work here? Once again, the answer is a hearty and heartfelt "Darned if I know." But I think the idea is interesting, and the products themselves are worth checking out.

Allow me to bloviate on tweaking in general: Music—even very loud music—is fragile information, and its reproduction is dicey and prone to being spoiled by subtleties. Ours is a hobby of gaining great strides in artistic pleasure through the application of very small changes—but our faith in our own viability as experimenters leaves us open to hucksters, just as hucksters of a different sort (spiritualists, psychics, et al) prey on the faithful. My advice is to try whatever strikes your fancy, as long as your dealer has a return policy that's liberal, liberal, liberal.

And don't confuse skepticism with closed-mindedness. As a fan of physicist Brenda Dunne and the groundbreaking work she's performed at the Princeton University Anomalies Engineering Lab, I would never reject a theory just because it strikes me as nutty. But I remain convinced that the best application of radical science to home audio would be the creation of wormholes of practical size and safety, so I could travel back in time and converse with the 17-year-old Art Dudley, in an effort to rediscover the joys of listening to records without a lot of unnecessary baggage. It would also be fun to see me with all my hair again—and I could warn myself about Anne-Marie Burrell.

Footnote 4: Please note: I have used that epithet in its correct form—not the hell with that, which makes no sense whatsoever.

Footnote 5: Just kidding!