The Road to Isolation, Bright Star's Way
|The Road to Isolation, Bright Star's Way|
|1 July 1999|
As an entirely personal matter, tweaks to audio hardware fascinate. The furor has subsided somewhat, but not too many years ago, objectivist scorn greeted certain audiophile usages. Anyone, for example, who spent more than a couple of bucks on wires was the very model of a fool departing from his money. But these are only items for which hardware and electrical supply stores provide the basics, e.g., lamp-cord speaker cables and $3 jacks (vulgarian jargon for interconnects). The very thought of floor-coupling spikes under one's speakers lay quite beyond the pale, over the top, off the wall and out the picture window. Likewise high-end power cords, line conditioners, and of course -- drumroll, maestro -- isolation devices. My goodness, how times have changed! With hobbyist print and webzines the measure, reviewers reporting impressions outnumber by far those who put measurements first, followed by some terse, desultory comment on sound.
The nay-sayers to subjectivity are not without credentials. Roy Allison, one of the industry's great innovators, once assured me that the cheapest CD player is quite good enough. Excepting his own tops-of-the-line, Roy judged most high-end gear wasteful of liquidity. Peter Walker, Quad's founder-designer, attempted to prove to audiophiles by means of a clever test that what went into his amplifier came out unscathed. Walker's innovation -- strapping a number of Quad amps together to measure cleanly as one -- applied a novel turn to the old objectivist battle cry: an amp that measures well performs well. The differences one hears among amps are either wish-fulfilling fantasies or purposeful product colorations. To no avail: Walker's electrostats remained high-end cult items, his amplifiers, not. Remember the flap surrounding Bob Carver's infamous Stereophile bet? The jury, audiophiles all, were obliged to agree that Bob had tweaked one of his cheap solid-state amps to mimic to perfection an expensive tubed equivalent -- if memory serves, a Conrad-Johnson. On the strength of that contest, tube-like counterfeits remained the core of Carver's line. To purist dismay, of course.
I spent several years at Fanfare writing Random Noise, a column in which, inter alia, I warred from the Hirschian-Aczelian barricades with such high-end proselytizers as Michael Gindi, who at the time beat the drum for Wilson speakers. I now own what I then disparaged, the 5.1 version of the Wilson WATT/Puppy and hope soon to comment in this space on the WATT/Puppy 6, which, if what I hear is true, I'll probably want to acquire. (Actually, it was the WATT sans Puppy I heard at Dr Gindi's.) In the great turncoat tradition of joining those whom one cannot beat, I've become an ardent high-end tweak. I look at it this way: if I'm a victim of wish-fulfilling fantasy, send on the pillow geishas and never mind the condoms.
Yet there's still much to decry in high-end enterprise, particularly among peripherals. I can think of no activity short of palmistry where Buyer beware! makes greater sense. Scot Markwell of The Absolute Sound lent me a Bright Star Audio air-suspension platform for my CD player, the Mark Levinson No. 39. I was more than happy to audition its merits owing to my respect for Scot's ears and opinions. The Big However: Bright Star's main man, Barry Kohan, is the chap whose economical toilet-paper tweak appeared in Sam Tellig's Stereophile space. Tellig reported that a slice of toilet paper between speaker and stand produces in certain cases an audible amelioration in performance. I responded with a derisive yelp, right there in the privacy of my crapper. On this evidence alone -- Scot had yet to recommend the platform -- I swept Kohan and his product line off to the fringe of this curious pursuit you and I, gentle reader, persist in adoring. My disdain was short-lived. In brief, lent platform in place, I got in touch with Barry, and here I sit in my study tapping out these thoughts, not 30 feet away, a full Bright Star rig.
The Levinson No. 39 CD player's Bright Star installation antedates that of the amps by several days. (My collection consists of a few thousand CDs. Would that their cases had narrower spines! The No. 39 features its own very good analog volume control, obviating the need for a preamp.) The Bright Star loaner upon which the player sat has been returned to Scot. In its place, in an attractive "dark granite" speckle finish, we’ve three pieces, starting from the bottom: at 19.5 x 17 inches, the upgraded version of the air-suspension platform, yclept (deep breath) Air Mass Pneumatic Isolation Mount, consisting sandwich-wise of two sections, between them a valve-accessed rubber bladder, hand pump supplied. On this, a Big Rock isolation platform for which the user provides the sand filling. On the plinth-lidded Big Rock, the player, and on the player, a heavy slab called Little Rock Isolation Pod. Air Cushion, Big Rock, player, Little Rock.
I've learned from experience that a weight atop digital gear affects how it sounds. I proved this to my own (scientifically indefensible) satisfaction when I was using Theta digital separates. I began with a desk encyclopedia and moved up to a barbell disc. The Theta transport seemed at the time the most responsive to these makeshift tweaks. The Levinson piece develops a bit of heat topside, a condition which the close-fitting Little Rock Isolation Pod, with its five small rubber feet (four in the corners, one at the center) exacerbates. I certainly liked what I heard but became anxious for the player's longevity. Kohan's directions suggest replacing the rubber feet with cones should temperature prove a problem. And so I have. Five McCormack Tip Toes, the large ones, points upward, raise the Isolation Pod about 1.5 inches off the player's surface, which has returned to its customary warmth. I first tried five McCormack Soft Shoes, of a rubbery compound originally developed at the military's behest to suppress ammunition vibration in tanks. I listened to the rig with pod removed, back in place with Soft Shoes, and prefer what I hear Tip Toe modified. Never mind that the player, with its multiple platforms and five shiny cones, ensconced between a pair of vertically exuberant Levinson No. 33H amps, looks like something off the set of an old Flash Gordon serial. My interior-designer wife, the beauteous Felicia Marie's, comment? "Oh dear." Ever the soul of brevity! (My listening room is our living room. If the woman didn't love me, you'd not be reading these words.)
There's nothing ambiguous about the differences I hear with the player's Bright Star combo in place. They're large and ameliorative, and yet I hesitate to quantify them for fear of misplacing emphasis, so let's keep it vague. Let's also bear in mind thatany perceived improvement to sound defies quantification. One percent might as well be 110%.
I hear a presentation in sharper focus. Lest you interpret sharper as harder-edged, I'm also aware of a smoother sound-picture overall, especially rich in the bass up through the midrange, yet mightily detailed. Improved focus of course suggests a better dimensioned soundfield. When an already clean window becomes cleaner still, one looks upon a view all the more alluring (unless, as with a poor recording, one's window faces a landfill). The WATT/Puppies' low end, which the 33H's have elevated to astonishingly good, is better defined and possibly better extended. A perceptible reduction of smear diminishes the system's fatigue-inducing aspects. I'd like to sayvanquishes utterly, but prudence suggests keeping top-tier encomia in reserve for whatever lies in store. After all, I thought the system prior to this full-tilt Bright Star inclusion remarkably good. Apropos of euphoria, a reminder of an earlier tweak to the player: an API Wedge Ultra line conditioner and pair of API power cords (player to Wedge, Wedge to wall), about which I've written with enthusiasm here in ST.
The really, really big Big Rocks for my Levinson 33H's measure 14 x 25 x 4.5 inches. They appear to have been configured for these 200-pound brutes, which occupy the plinths as if hand-in-glove. But, in truth, were not: originally dimensioned for the Cary CAD 805, they also work with Jadis and VTL amplifiers. Again, the user provides the sand -- lots and lots of sand, a Sahara of the stuff! In setting the groundwork for this review, I mentioned to Barry Kohan that the 33H is about as inert as amps get and questioned whether I'd hear much of a difference with his Big Rocks in place. Intellectually (or what passes for intellectually under this hair) as well as from experience, I was prepared for what the CD player's Bright Star trio brought to the soundfield. I was similarly prepared to accept nil difference with the amplifiers' Big Rocks in place. For tubed amps, yes, isolation makes sense. But for solid state? Well, forget about assumptions. Playing again several hatART CDs I've been listening to lately for a label report in La Folia, it delights me to say that the improvements I'm hearing with the 33H's atop their Big Rocks are at least as obvious as those I remarked prior to the platforms' appearance in the chain. With a superior recording like the Clusone 3's Rara Avis [hatOLOGY 523, Michael Moore, reeds and melodica; Ernst Reijseger, cello; Han Bennink, drums], your reporter enters canned heaven. The recording engineer is Peter Pfister, one of the best. A superb disc has become the closest thing to tangible as I've heard in this room. It's a question of remarkably good ratcheting up to extraordinarily good. The trio has achieved virtual corporeality by comparison to a lesser state in which they lacked that nth degree of dimension. I'd also been playing recently, purely for the pleasure of it, the 1958-60 Epic recordings in a Sony Classics reissue of Schumann's four symphonies with George Szell's Cleveland Orchestra. Again, that sense of heightened palpability, of lifelike presence. The impression persists thorough a great many CDs the naming of which would unnecessarily protract the expression of a most favorable opinion. I mention tubed gear above in connection with the need for acoustic isolation. I cannot conceive of tubes providing a more convincing midrange than I'm hearing via Levinson, Bright Star assisted (and, again as mentioned earlier, Wedge Ultra assisted). It ought to be clear -- who knows, even to double-blinded objectivists -- that acoustic isolation is no small thing.
The Big Rocks under the 33H's are called CAD (after their original Cary destination) and go in this Dark Granite finish for $225 each. Similarly finished, the CD player's Big Rock 2, Air Mass 2S, and Little Rock 2 Pod list respectively for $149, $299, and $199. A Black Granite surface raises prices but slightly. The difference, for example, in the Big Rock CAD is $25. All told, it's a pricey tweak, and this isn't Bright Star's top of the line. But then, excepting toilet paper, most everything in high-end audio costs like the very devil. Is this the place to confess that my speaker cables are heavy-duty zip cord? April Fool, they're Nordost SPMs (talk about expensive, likewise superb). Lets not even think about what these WATT/Puppies cost.
It's only money. Enjoy!
(7/14/99) POSTSCRIPT. I'm obliged to amend an impression. We're back at the Little Rock atop the Levinson CD player. In order to deal with the heat, I told you that I elevated the Little Rock with five large McCormack Tip Toes (1.5 inch alloy cones). I also mentioned that I prefer the Tip Toes to McCormack's Soft Shoes (1-inch-tall rubbery pucks). No longer so.
I've replaced the five Tip Toes with nine Soft Shoes (three rows of three) and much prefer what I'm hearing by way of coherence. The Soft Shoes bring the Little Rock a half-inch closer to the player. That may account for some of the improvement. Using nine of them to form a symmetrical grid makes for a very secure, inert coupling with the player's lid, this I can say for certain, though I'd be bluffing were I to attempt the physics of the thing -- or, to be honest, any of Bright Star's efficacy. I can only say it works, as of now a tad better yet.
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