The Best Things in Life Are (Almost) Free: IKEA's Aptitlig Chopping Boards

by Roy Gregory | August 13, 2014

or all you slackers who’ve been asleep at the back, one of the current hot topics when it comes to system performance is equipment support and understanding why racks and their associated paraphernalia work -- and in some cases work so astonishingly well. What your system sits on has a very real and in some cases remarkable influence over its performance. But that realization is only part of the battle. Turning that knowledge to your advantage? That’s quite another thing.

With reviews in process that cover both the Hutter racks from Germany (used in isolation and in conjunction with the Track Audio isolation feet) and also the latest offerings from support stalwart HRS, there’s plenty of life left in this particular conversation, but so far we have established both a general strategy and a list of things to avoid -- things which in many cases are exactly what many an audiophile has been using.

The traditional view is that equipment support is all about isolating your fragile audio circuits from the deleterious impact of structure borne mechanical energy. In fact, even a fairly cursory series of experiments will clearly demonstrate that this is rather less than half of the story. The most damaging mechanical interference is the result of energy generated within the equipment itself -- and generally trapped there by the soft rubber feet that most manufacturers fit.

So, the first priority when it comes to equipment support is providing a secure mechanical ground, an exit path for internal energy generated by the equipment itself. Having provided that ground path, you also need to provide somewhere for that energy to go. That’s why the supporting surface is so critical to the performance of your audio equipment. At the other end of the rack, isolation is important -- just not as critically important as we’ve all been led to believe. In between you need to provide some kind of rigid, non-resonant structure to join the isolating feet to the support surfaces and their mechanical couplers that actually contact the electronics.

Now take a look at what the market has to offer, especially in its more affordable areas: a host of welded steel structures that ring like bells, with shelves made of glass (that also rings) or MDF (that has more of a thud). The crude spikes fitted on most racks at least allow you to get them stable and level, but beyond that these products mainly represent a performance limiter for the systems sat atop them.

The problem is that the sort of sophisticated solutions provided by the likes of finite-elemente, Stillpoints, SRA or HRS don’t come cheap, and faced with a typical multi-box system to support, any total system solution can work out expensive -- even if it does prove to be seriously cost effective. What exactly are you supposed to do while you save up for the rack of your dreams? What the audio world really needs is an affordable, available and versatile interim solution, something capable of transforming the performance of more mundane racks without costing an arm and a leg.

Well, for once there’s an answer, it’s cheap, it’s easy and it comes from those universal purveyors of all things domestic and affordable -- IKEA. The Aptitlig chopping board has a typically unpronounceable name -- and the potential to transform audio systems for a cost that, in hi-fi terms at least, can be considered negligible. What makes this new addition to Ikea’s kitchen range so special? The fact that it is made from bamboo. That might not seem that exciting, but take a look at my earlier review of the Atacama and Quadraspire racks, both of which offer optional bamboo shelves, and you’ll get a good idea of just how capable this magic material is when it comes to supporting audio components.

Magic -- isn’t that a bit over the top? Consider this: it’s cheap, it’s fast growing, it’s incredibly strong, and once formed into boards it’s easily machineable. Best of all, even taking transport and manufacturing into account, bamboo products are carbon positive. That means -- assuming that you actually believe in global warming and climate change -- bamboo absorbs more carbon dioxide growing than is produced harvesting and processing it. Pretty neat, huh?

What makes bamboo so effective in the audio world is its structure and the process that allows us to turn what is basically a massive fibrous grass into a flat board. The bamboo itself is formed from long bundles of cellulose fibers, bound together by lignin, a natural thermoplastic resin. The closer to the surface you get, the greater the density of those fibers. The result is not unlike natural carbon fiber, but considerably heavier. Take that structure and cut it into strips that can then be stacked face to face to create a single flat board and you have a random, composite, variable-density material -- which is just about ideal for dissipating mechanical energy effectively without converting it into a single, dominant resonant frequency the way that glass or MDF does. Great in theory -- how does it work in practice? Better than you are going to believe -- which is exactly why Atacama and Quadraspire have made it central to their product lines.

IKEA offer the Aptitlig chopping board in three different sizes. The smallest is a petite 9.5" x 6" x 0.5"; the middle-sized version is 17.75" x 11" x 0.65"; and the largest is 17.75" x 14.25" x 1.25" -- that might have been purposely chosen to suit audio equipment. The smallest slab is ideal for the likes of power supplies and the smaller DACs or peripherals that go with computer audio sources and headphone listening. The medium Aptitlig fits perfectly under the likes of entry-level Arcam, Rotel or Cambridge components, neatly fitting their footprint. But the star of the show is the largest board, the Butcher’s Block in IKEA speak. The same width as the medium one, it is both deeper and thicker, allowing it to more comfortably accommodate deeper units, but the real bonus is that extra thickness. Rather than being a single layer of bamboo strips stood on edge (as in the small and medium boards) the large one is a three-layer construction, with a core of vertically bonded strips faced top and bottom with horizontal ones at right angles, making for an even more labyrinthine and random construction. It also weighs nearly twice as much as the medium version, allowing considerably greater scope for dissipating energy -- a difference that’s easily heard.

Of course, the Aptitligs will only do their thang if you actually get the energy out of the electronics in the first place -- and that means using couplers. Top choices would be Stillpoints Ultra Minis (still the best value in the whole Stillpoints range) or Nordost Sort Kone ACs, but either involves spending real money. Keeping things basic, just buy an extra Aptitlig and sacrifice it to the saw gods to create a set of rectangular blocks. If you use a medium board, then dimensions of 1" x 1.5" will work well, allowing you to stand them on edge to clear the units’ feet. Just make sure that you have nice flat faces as close contact is critical to performance. If that seems like too much hard work, then Cardas and Ayre both offer small wooden risers that will do the job too. You’ll need three blocks per component.

Once you’ve completed the DIY and you have a board and wooden blocks for each component in the system, it’s time to party -- as always, best done with a friend. While one (or two, if necessary) lifts the components -- with the power off -- the other slips the appropriate board beneath them, between each unit and its supporting shelf. After that it’s simplicity itself to position the coupling blocks, one under the power supply, one under the transport if it’s a CD player and the other to balance the unit. If it’s a DAC, look for the PSU, digital section and the analog output stage. For power amps look for the PSU and output stages. You are just looking for the biggest sources of vibration or most critical elements. That usually means the biggest transformers or the most vulnerable signals.

Either way, it’s not hard to hear the benefits (or otherwise) of relocating the couplers, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Initially just go for the obvious, allowing a nice, quick change between the system on its original supports and with the bamboo boards in place. You could insert just one board (with couplers) and see what it does, but while that’s in keeping with the traditional audio approach, I’d argue that it’s an error. The system’s support should be treated as a single entity, and as such you should "float" the whole replay chain in one go if you really want to hear what it does to the sound. That way you get the benefits of superior support and consistency in one hit -- which makes the value for money offered by the Aptitlig boards even more obvious.

You mean I didn’t mention the prices? Silly me: $4.99, $9.99 and $14.99 respectively. That means that you can float a three-box system on the large boards for a little less than $50 -- and in hi-fi terms that really is the next best thing to free, especially when you take the sonic benefits into account.

What are you going to hear if you use bamboo shelves and risers to lift all of your electronics at once? Much the same results as I reported in my review of the Atacama Audio and Quadraspire racks -- but to recap for those who missed the earlier installment: Using a basic two-box system (Simaudio Moon 260D Neo CD player and 250i Neo integrated amp -- good, musical solid-state performers that set the performance benchmark at their relatively modest price points and just love the KEF LS50s I was using with them), I started out by listening with the player and amp supported on standard MDF shelves, resting in a typical welded steel rack. Once the system was warmed up and I was good and familiar with its sound, I started ringing the shelving and support changes, using the two larger IKEA Aptitlig options, along with bamboo block couplers.

One musical example will suffice: Eliza Gilkyson’s fabulous cover of "Before the Deluge" from the Jackson Browne tribute, Looking Into You [Music Road Records MRR CD 018]. On the MDF shelves the sound was firmly anchored in and between the speakers, a flat soundstage and flat dynamics robbing Gilkyson’s voice of character, richness and color, the guitar accompaniment of body and physical shape. Replacing the MDF with the thin, single-layer Aptitlig board and bamboo couplers produced a pretty remarkable change. The guitars stepped away from and behind the speakers, gaining body and harmonic complexity, while Gilkyson’s voice gained its instantly recognizable and characteristically husky tone, as well as a sense of physical presence and volume. Although the stage extended wider and deeper than before, the voice and instruments set back into it, the improvement in transparency, focus and microdynamics made for a more immediate and, above all, far more natural presentation, with space for the rest of the band and a fiddle, with texture rather than a long, drawn-out whine. Bass went deeper and was clearer, with better separation and shape, which largely accounts for the significant improvement in scale and acoustic definition. That’s a huge musical improvement for $20 and a bit of loose change!

At 11’ deep, the medium-sized Aptitligs are not ideal except under the typically narrow chassis used by most budget electronics. Even then, they’ll tend to sit well inside your rack footprint. But if money is tight in the context of a starter system, especially one where the electronics are perched on domestic furniture rather than a purpose-built rack, it’s hard to think of a more cost-effective solution or upgrade -- unless of course you look at the larger, three-layer Aptitlig with its near 15" depth. This will prove far closer to the ideal dimensions for more than a few racks. As the photographs show, it’s a shoe-in on my SoundStyle "mule": other makes might not be quite so inch-perfect, but the results will more than compensate.

The three-layer boards and bamboo couplers take everything that the single-layer Aptitlig did and extend it -- significantly. Bass goes deeper, the stage is bigger, the body and richness of voice and guitars have significantly more shape and are far more natural. The texture of bow on fiddle strings becomes apparent, as does the low-level subtlety in the production. But the really big improvement is in terms of tempo and the way the song breathes. Now it takes its time, is more thoughtful and considered -- and much more musically engaging as a result. Likewise, shifts in the position of the couplers are have far more obvious musical impact, and you are really going to hear when you’ve got them just right.

When something this simple and this affordable can make such a profound musical difference I’m never quite sure whether to laugh or cry. If you still haven’t investigated the world of equipment support, IKEA’s (inadvertent) entry into the market means there’s never been a better, easier or more affordable opportunity. And don’t go getting snobbish about the IKEA brand. Just because the cost of your preamp would furnish a whole house from the blue-and-yellow shed, don’t think these benefits won’t apply to you. I recently heard what a system’s worth of the larger Aptitlig boards could do to a pair of large Krell monoblocks driving some Focal Stella Utopias, fed from a CEC/Jeff Rowland front-end and wired throughout with Nordost Odin. Everything had already been raised on Stillpoints Ultra 5s, but the IKEA boards transformed the sound.

That’s what’s really frightening: As big a benefit as the Aptitlig delivers with homemade bamboo couplers, it’s only the tip of a sonic iceberg. Use the boards with Sort Kones, Stillpoints or some other more sophisticated coupler and you’ll really begin to hear what your system can do.

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