Black Diamond Racing The Shelf

At the 1994 Summer CES, I was sitting in ProAc's room listening to Vangelis's Blade Runner score, when a couple of guys walked in carrying a shiny black board. "This is pretty interesting stuff," one of them said. "Want to hear it?"

Oh, why the hell not? I thought, jaded and tired from new product overload. One of them hit pause on the Audio Research CD-1 and lifted it off its shelf, while the other substituted his board for the one on the rack. Setting the CD player back down, the first chap hit play.

Everyone in the room sat bolt upright in disbelief.

"Do that again!"

They did. We still boggled. Every person in the room—not some, not most, but everyone—heard a qualitative difference when the new platform was introduced into the system. Speaking for myself, I have grown quite used to hearing differences in such things as the quantity of bass or the spatial presentation in imaging. I'm not blasé exactly, just not surprised when such changes occur. But this, it seemed to me, was quite different. Not only was there greater silence between the notes and space between the players, but the inner mechanism of the music was thrown much more sharply into relief. When we switched to jazz, the players were playing together, not just at the same time. Astounding stuff, even to a roomful of audio pros.

"What is that?"

"It's a new shelf I've developed. I'm D.J. Kasser and I sculpt furniture from carbon fiber—somebody suggested that I make some hi-fi supports. I didn't know what I was getting into, so I just built a shelf. But when I started taking it around and listening to it with audiophiles, I got an education in a hurry. You wouldn't believe how much development and listening went into this version."

Maybe I would at that—that big a difference couldn't have happened by chance. I begged, pleaded, and implored for samples and several months later, they showed up.

Carbon fiber is an interesting material: strong, light and extremely rigid. Its tensile strength is five times greater than that of steel. It is utilized in the Stealth Bomber, Formula One racing cars, America's Cup boat hulls, and a variety of high-tech sporting applications such as skis, sail-boards, and mountain bikes. One of the properties of carbon fiber that makes it seem ideal for audio applications is that it actually inhibits parasitic resonant energy. Many manufacturers have embraced the material: Wilson-Benesch utilizes it in turntables, tonearms, and, most recently, cartridges; Sennheiser has begun incorporating it into headphones, as in the HD-580 Jubilee; and the Well Tempered Reference Tonearm sports a carbon-fiber armtube.

What stunned me when I received The Shelf by Black Diamond Racing ($450) was its mass. It's heavy—nearly 11 lbs for an 18" by 14" platform. Since one of the raisons d'être for carbon fiber is its lightness, this seemed horribly wrong. The carbon-fiber shell must be surrounding something extraordinarily dense to achieve such a weight in a shelf that size. I'd be curious as to: a) the substrate material and b) the rationale for this construction. D.J. Kasser prefers to remain silent on the construction details, however.

Shelf design has relied heavily upon the assumption that mass is to be avoided. While The Shelf flies in the face of this design brief, I can't deny that it works well in practice. The day I received it, I substituted it for the platform on my wall-mounted Archidee turntable stand. When I sat back down to listen to the same disc I had been listening to before the change, my wife yelled from another room, "What did you do to the system?" Yes, it was that radical. As I'd heard before, there was a marked increase in perceived silence. Blacker black, if you will. The low-level cues that define the air surrounding instruments or that illuminate the spaces in which the recordings were made became much more prominent.

But what my wife heard—all the way down the hall and in another room—was the way that the performers suddenly inhabited my room. Audiophiles frequently speak of their systems as a window that looks onto the original performance, but I've always been somewhat uncomfortable with this analogy. If that's what our system is, then what is it that we accomplish when we make improvements: apply Windex? The Shelf kicked that analogy's glass—we moved a lot closer to the musicians or, if you prefer, brought 'em home with us.

Since then, I've played around with a lot of equipment support shelves, such as Townshend's Seismic Sinks, Bright Star Bases, Symposium Sound Foundations—all of which also afford many similar advantages to The Shelf. It's hard to rate them on an absolute scale, since none are unflawed, but I keep returning to the carbon-fiber The Shelf—although at $450 each, they don't come cheap. I suspect that there work to be done yet in refining the design philosophy of any equipment support, including this one. But for the moment, when I want to really hear what a component is doing—as free as possible from the effects of its environment—it ends up on The Shelf.—Wes Phillips

Black Diamond Racing
D.J. Kasser Enterprises Inc.
125 South Greeley Street
Milwaukee, WI 53201
(414) 747-8733