Raising the bamboo curtain: three affordable support solutions that showcase the latest hot material.
f hi-fi, like everything else, has hot topics, then the current favorite fascination seems to be the issue of equipment support. So often relegated to the afterthought category of accessories, equipment supports have finally started to emerge from the budget-allocation twilight zone to take their proper place in the system hierarchy. Together, they constitute the systems infrastructure -- the ancillary elements that define the working environment for the equipment. Or, to put it another way, the best ancillaries cant make bad equipment sing, but bad ancillaries will limit or even destroy system performance just as surely as night follows day. And amongst those ancillaries equipment racks occupy a special place, partly as a result of function and partly as a result of price.
But racks? Racks are a different matter entirely. Not only do most people require some form of equipment support, even if the units themselves are going to be inside a closet, the resulting purchase crosses the all-too-visible demarcation between hi-fi and furniture. Whats more, while its eminently possible to spend a small fortune on a high-end, high-tech rack, its considerably easier to buy one for less than the price many of us part with for a single set of interconnects. Consider again the issue of system infrastructure and it should become clear just why equipment support is such a hot topic amongst those who know -- and it should be shooting straight to the top of your list, if it isnt there already. Not only does your rack have a fundamental (although often unrecognized or unidentified) impact on the performance of your system, its one area in which you can actually achieve a coherent, total-system solution within an affordable budget.
Getting the problem the right way up
ne of the biggest issues preventing people from taking equipment support as seriously as they should is a basic misapprehension, lodged firmly in the semantic context surrounding the product category. Since day one the terms "support" and "isolation" have been used almost interchangeably, leading the audiophile community to the not-unreasonable assumption that racks work by isolating the equipment on them from the outside world. Wrong! Whilst isolating equipment does affect its sound -- and some rack manufacturers concentrate entirely on this aspect of performance -- the issue of external interference pales into insignificance when compared to the problems caused by internal energy generated within the equipment itself. Basically, every single electrical component within a circuit vibrates -- transformers hum, capacitors charge and discharge, everything else shakes, rattles and rolls as it passes signal or current -- and whilst the level of energy generated is (in most instances) low, it is right where the signal is. That energy needs to be dissipated effectively, yet most equipment sits on rubber isolating feet, leaving the structure of the unit itself to deal with the energy. Ironically, the more massive and solid the structure -- exactly the characteristics expected of high-end equipment -- the less able it is to dissipate energy evenly, and the more likely it is to store it and release it at distinct frequencies.
The answer is to provide an "exit strategy" -- meaning a route out of the equipment and into a supporting surface specifically designed to deal with dissipating that energy. Okay, this is a simplified scenario, but that is how Stillpoints, Symposium, Vertex AQ, finite elemente, HRS and a host of other, successful (and expensive) racks work -- and work so effectively. It also explains why welded steel frames with glass shelves -- the default budget option -- might look elegant but sound terrible. If you dont believe me, suspend one of the frames and give it a tap with a hammer: it will still be ringing long after youve given up waiting for it to stop.
In fact, there has been an affordable, versatile racking solution available for some time. The well-regarded Quadraspire system might cost more than simple welded structures, but it has a lot going for it -- not least the fact that it started life as a modular furniture system long before the hi-fi fraternity discovered it. Its stylish, highly configurable, available in two depths, three footprints and enough finishes to satisfy interior designers, and it actually sounds rather good. This final -- and most important -- attribute can be laid at the feet of two aspects of the design: structure and materials. MDF shelves are spaced apart by legs that screw together and clamp them, resulting in a complex structure with multiple parts of differing dimensions. The shelves are shaped and grooved to help dissipate resonance (and avoid the dominant "thud" that is so characteristic of MDF), while the legs/spacers are available in a whole range of different heights and are manufactured from aluminum rather than steel. Conical feet are functional and attractive -- although personally Id like to see a concave-profile, carpet-piercing version. Otherwise, simplicity is the name of the game, keeping the options open and the price down.
The Quadraspire racks -- the smaller Q4 and the larger, heavier-duty Sunoko-Vent T (SVT) -- have undergone a steady process of refinement and evolution, each step along the way adding a degree of operational or sonic finesse. But recently, the company has taken two significant steps that together signal a step-change in performance. The first was increased machining of the shelf undersides to further disrupt the structure. The second and more significant step was the adoption of a new and significantly superior shelf material, one that I suspect youll be seeing a lot more of.
What makes bamboo a magic material?
n these increasingly eco-aware times, bamboo has a lot going for it. As a material, its incredibly strong, has a naturally random, fibrous structure and can be easily machined and shaped. As a resource, its not only one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet, its carbon dioxide absorption is such that it ingests more Co2 whilst growing than is expended in its harvesting, processing and exploitation. In short, its tractable, available and carbon neutral -- and if you farm the right type you dont even impact on Panda food supplies.
No surprise then that bamboo has been turning up in an increasing number of products, with everything from flooring to bicycle frames taking advantage of its remarkable properties and eco-friendliness. All of which would make its use as a shelf material an entirely laudable decision. However, in a niche market that embraces potentially toxic materials, class-A operation and the profligate use of increasingly rare and expensive metals, Im not sure the tree-huggers are over-represented. What we want to know is what bamboo can do for the sound of our systems -- and the answer to that, dear readers, is quite a lot. Indeed, its potential is really only limited by our imagination. As you are about to see, shelves for equipment racks are springing up nearly as quickly as the wonder weed itself, while speaker cabinets and other applications are hot on their heals.
For audio applications, bamboos appeal lies both in its own structure and the way in which it is processed into useable sheet form. The plant grows as long, closely knit fibers, with a micro-porous structure, an inherently random formation that makes it an excellent broadband dissipater. But in order to create sheets of useable size, the bamboo poles that are harvested must be cut into narrow strips, maybe 20mm (7/8") wide and 4mm (1/4") thick, that are then laminated together into large, flat sheets. This randomizes the structure even more, as well as introducing a further lossy element in the shape of the glue holding the whole shooting match together. If you want an analogy, an MDF shelf is like a slab of cast concrete, while a bamboo shelf is more like a brick wall, but one where each brick is a different length.
From a purely selfish, reviewing point of view, the beauty of the Quadraspire solution is that its possible to simply substitute the new bamboo shelves for the old MDF ones, while everything else stays the same. Thus we can hear exactly what the shelf material is contributing.
The proof of the pudding. . .
irst things first: lets look in a little more detail at the way the Quadraspire racks are put together. The heart of the system is the shelving, which comes in three forms. Once you choose which shelf you are using, that defines the footprint of the rack, and Q4 (another rack in the Quadraspire line) and SVT shelves cannot be mixed. A picture is worth a thousand words and you can see the various components in the accompanying images, but here is the description as well.
The Q4 was the original shelf and happened to be just about the perfect size to take an LP12 -- which is what first attracted the hi-fi fraternity. It also established the elegantly curved and chamfered shape that makes the Quaraspire products instantly identifiable. The standard Q4 shelf is 590mm (23 1/4") wide and 395mm (15 1/2") deep, but the inset legs mean that the available width between the uprights is only 490mm (19 1/4"). Each shelf is 15mm (2/3") thick and will support an 80kg (176-pound) load. Flip it over and youll see a complex series of deep, curved grooves cut in the underside. These are designed to help break up the resonant behavior of the shelf.
The legs are machined from solid aluminum and come in two sizes: 19mm (3/4") diameter with straight sides and 32mm (1 1/4") diameter with a waisted profile that echoes the curves on the shelves. They are available in black or silver finishes and six different heights ranged between 100mm (4") and 326mm (12 3/4"). Each leg has a male thread extending from one end and a corresponding female receptacle in the other. The threaded extension is not a piece of stud, but is an integral part of the one-piece machined leg. To build the stand you start from the top. Each leg also has a top cap -- a machined aluminum disc with a threaded extension. Slip the threaded post through the top shelf from the top side and then simply screw a leg of the appropriate length on to the exposed thread, tightening it up against the shelf. You get a pry bar that inserts into holes in the side of the cap to help get things tight. Once you have legs in all four corners, slide the next shelf over the threads and repeat until you have all the shelves in place. It sounds obvious, but make sure you have them all the right way round and the right way up: with a front and a back, a top and a bottom. Doing the whole thing upside down, Ive lost count of the number of times Ive turned a rack over only to discover that one of the shelves is out of kilter! The final step is to install the short stub legs that terminate with the spikes. These are 80mm (3 1/4") tall and simply screw into place in the same way as the other legs. There are also options for flat feet or casters, but for serious audio systems Id go with spikes every time (along with solid skates to protect floor surfaces if necessary).
Loosen the spikes a few turns, make sure that the knurled lock rings are free to turn and you are ready to stand the rack on its feet. Before you do so, its worth just checking that all the legs are nice and tight -- and then, grasping the rack by the legs (not the shelves) simply lift it and stand it upright. Generally, the racks are light enough to do so easily on your own, but if in doubt or if placing the rack on a polished surface that needs protectors, enlist a second pair of hands. Once in place, the rack can be leveled, loaded and then the level checked again. The spikes have a hole drilled through them that accepts the same pry bar as the top caps, making precise, incremental adjustments really easy, while the same bar and the large-diameter locking rings make fixing everything in place just as simple and precise.
So far so good. With six different leg lengths and six finishes, the Q4 offers a versatile and attractive solution for storing hi-fi components. Unfortunately, its biggest limitation was also part of the attraction -- its compact footprint. As a result, the Q4 is also available with deeper shelves (dubbed Q4L) that add an extra 75mm (3") to the front-to-back dimension. The problem is that the same equipment that demanded the deeper shelves also weighs a lot more, and whilst the load allowances on the shelves was perfectly adequate, the thin-edged profile suggested otherwise. The real solution was the creation of a bigger brother, dedicated to audio applications -- the Sunoko-Vent T, the rack whose sound Ill be describing shortly.
If you took a Q4L and simply beefed it up, youd get close to the SVT. It has the same footprint, but the shelves are now 25mm (1") thick with a 120kg (265-pound) rating. In each corner of the shelf there is a thick brass ferrule to provide an interface between the legs and the shelf and prevent over-tightening that would crush the shelf material and impair the sound. The ferrules offer a vital interface between shelf and legs, ensuring that their contact isnt too intimate but that the rack as a whole remains stable. Along with the thicker shelves came the 32mm (1 1/4") legs described above, the combination delivering greater stability while the profiling of the uprights added both elegance and eliminated another set of parallel surfaces. All told, the SVT doesnt look nearly as dainty as the Q4, but then, by the time youve got it loaded up with tube amps, thats actually kind of reassuring.
Two other aspects of the design reflect its audio aspirations. The multiple slots cut in each shelf reduce mass as well as disrupt the structure. Flip the shelf over and youll see a pattern of grooves milled into the underside of each slat. These further differentially divide the "lands," making this a far more extreme version of the grooves that decorate the underside of the Q4 shelves. The open slots also provide necessary ventilation, allowing you to keep shelf spacings and thus overall rack height to a minimum. The SVT is also available in a double-wide (six-legged) version -- the SV2T -- an option that allows the easy accommodation of todays complex, multi-source systems without resorting to multiple racks. SVT and SV2T shelves can be combined to create non-symmetrical structures.
Clearly, theres a lot more here than meets the casual glance, and those niceties dont come for free. A typical four-shelf SVT rack will set you back £1000 -- or $1800 in the US. Thats not exactly beer money -- although it looks like quite a bargain compared to the high-end options from the likes of Stillpoints and HRS.
. . .is in the eating
ith multiple leg and shelf options, I was able to construct two identical SVT racks, one with bamboo shelves and the other with MDF. They were used for detailed comparison in both full-system mode, supporting source and amplification, and in a source-only setup that allowed for far swifter changes. Listening involved a wide range of different material, with comparative sessions mixed with longer periods spent listening to one rack or the other -- although as time went by that rack became, more often than not, the bamboo version, so obvious and consistent was its sonic and musical superiority. However, for descriptive purposes, Ill confine myself to discussing the Previn/LSO recording of the Shostakovich 5th Symphony [RCA/BMG 74321 24212 2]. This mid-price CD issue combines a great performance and challenging dynamics with middling-quality sonics -- exactly the sort of material that a great system should be able to get a grip on, clearly demonstrating its abilities over lesser setups. In this case, the system consisted of the dCS Paganini transport feeding the Jeff Roland Aeris DAC, either connected directly to the Rowland 625 power amp or via the VTL TL-7.5 Mk III preamp.
I started with the equipment directly on the standard SVT MDF shelves -- exactly the way in which most users would listen. Results were actually pretty good, with decent levels of musical communication and a relatively unobtrusive sonic thumbprint. Remember, this has been the best-performing (semi-) affordable rack out there for some years. But critical listening will quickly reveal that that superiority to the competition reflects two things: the lousy performance of most traditional racks and the fact that the Quadraspires faults are at least evenly spread. With Previn and the LSO, the thickened and slightly thuddy bass quality is clear, as is a glassiness every time the violins hit a fortissimo, gelling them into a single, homogenous entity that seeps inexorably into the center of the soundstage. Overall dynamic range and expression are both compressed, as is the color palette, which is distinctly beige. Sounds bad, huh? Not nearly as bad as the competition, believe me. Instead what it really reflects is the potential for improvement. The SVT might be the preferred budget rack, but normally when I listen to this disc its playing on a system thats sitting on Stillpoints or finite elemente racks costing many times the price of the SVT. I know whats possible.
First step was to place couplers under the equipment, bypassing the factory feet. In keeping with the budget-conscious spirit of the exercise, I chose the myrtle-wood blocks available from Cardas and Ayre. Inserting three of these between the transport and DAC and their supporting shelves (operating in source-only mode here) the improvement was out of all proportion with the cost. The soundstage was broader and both it and the acoustic space were better defined. Low-frequency texture and tonality were significantly improved, especially the sense of bowing from double basses, while the glassiness and migratory tendencies of the violins were significantly reduced. But most important of all, the shape and timing of the piece were dramatically improved. Banishing, or at least severely diminishing, that thuddy bottom end allowed the bass figures that drive the first movement, from opening to dramatic finale, to really pulse and breathe, bringing a life and vitality to the performance that was previously lacking. Simply adding these wooden couplers elevated the performance of the standard SVT to a significant level, establishing a really good, basic benchmark.
But the best was yet to come. Shifting the electronics (and couplers) onto the bamboo shelves produced a far more impressive improvement. Yes, you need to use the couplers to really appreciate the benefits, but given their ratio of cost to contribution, that should be a no-brainer anyway. Once the source components were correctly supported on the bamboo shelves, the musical impact was not far short of revelatory. Right from the opening bars, the significant improvement in transparency, the blacker background and wider dynamic range were startlingly apparent in the increased musical drama and tension. The broader, deeper soundstage stepped away from the speakers, giving the performance a sense of spatial and expressive independence. Bass instruments gained shape, tonality and texture, with far easier separation of overlapping instruments like bowed bass and tuba. The upper strings extended properly, to occupy their seating, with the contrasting tonality of violin and viola and the way Shostakovich loves to pass melodies and phrases between them and the oboes both easier to appreciate and musically more effective. Woodwind interjections and brass punctuation were much easier to identify, as well as making more musical sense.
But for all the impact and drama thats so immediately impressive, again the real benefits come in the realm of timing and phrasing. The tempo of the performance as a whole becomes more natural and persuasive, the sense of Previn controlling and directing it much more apparent. The notion of being able to "hear" the conductor might seem odd, but its central to any great large-scale classical performance -- and any system thats trying to reproduce it. The bamboo shelves bring plenty of sonic benefits to the system, but their real strength lies in the way they enhance clarity and separation whilst simultaneously binding the orchestra and the space around it into a single, coherent whole. The evenness and uncluttered organization with which they underpin the proceedings simply makes it much, much easier to concentrate on the message in the music, rather than trying to unravel whats actually happening.
Just to underline that fact, I decided to take things to the next level by substituting Stillpoints Ultra SS's for the myrtle blocks. Bang! Suddenly the performance just came alive with color, impact, poise, energy and intent. But lets not forget that as impressive as the Ultra SS's are (and youll be hearing a lot more about them) its the rack thats acting as the foundation for that performance, providing exactly the firm footing they need to do their thing. After all, the two sets of Stillpoints come close in price to the complete four-shelf rack theyre sitting on.
Whats really important is the level of performance improvement to be had from what is already a better rack than most, simply by inserting some wooden couplers and improving the shelf material, and not just the scale of that improvement, but the fact that its so fundamental in nature. Even without the Ultra SS's, the wood blocks and bamboo shelves unlocked the musical performance of this recording and the very expensive electronics replaying it in a way that would be hard to achieve in any other way. It wasnt a case of detail or resolution; it was simply a case of making more sense of and revealing more of what was already there. In other words, the upgrade was all about actually delivering the performance that had already been paid for -- and doing it at a bargain-basement price! At the recent Bristol Sound & Vision show, Quadraspire were demonstrating a combined cable riser/coupler carved from the same bamboo material as the shelves. These are clearly "inspired" by the Cardas/Ayre blocks but slightly larger and more elegant of shape. The company promptly committed to supplying three blocks with each bamboo shelf, thus improving the performance of the stock rack at a stroke.
Just to make things even more interesting, as successful as the SVT is under exotic equipment, its even more effective with more modest electronics, where structural shortcomings mean the chassis-work can really use the help. Using a simple two-box system of EERA CD player and Icon Audio ST60 Signature integrated amp, repeating the procedure displayed even wider gaps in performance between the different support options. As outlined above, the four-shelf SVT costs $1800 with bamboo shelves (a three-shelf, double-width SV2T bamboo would be £1350/$2385). Given the musical contribution it makes, thats money well spent, even in a budget system -- especially given the way it grows with your investment, allowing you to get the full benefit of future upgrades. For those who already own a serious system (or a standard SVT rack), the bamboo Quadraspire should be considered a minimum standard if you dont want to handicap your signal at source.
A bargain is only a bargain if you can actually afford it
ut, as impressive as the Quadraspire SVT's qualities are, such sophistication when it comes to design and materials imposes a cost that will put its appealing performance beyond the budget of many, especially those buying starter systems. Can the magic material work the same charm at lower price points?
Atacama Audio has a solid reputation in the entry-level rack market. Their products are not currently distributed in the US, but they serve as an interesting example of just what is possible at more affordable price levels if you step away from accepted materials and aesthetics. Their well-established Equinox rack, a three-legged, stackable system using traditional glass-and-steel construction is pretty much the budget benchmark, having won multiple What Hi-Fi? awards (this is the UK mag that crowns our budget kings). But now Atacama have joined the dark side -- and strayed into the world of wood! Facing increasing competition, they've gone back to the drawing board, kept the bits they liked from the original Equinox design and improved it in other areas. The result is the Eris Eco 5.0 rack, a significantly refined design that builds on the Equinox foundation, sharing an identical footprint and basic structure. The base module supports two shelves, 200mm (7 7/8") apart, supported by three tubular legs, set on an equilateral triangular layout and welded together using narrow, 12mm (1/2") square section struts. Molded plastic caps accommodate spikes on the bottom or from the stacking shelf above, making for a secure and extremely stable setup. Those horizontal struts are far shallower than the ones used on the Equinox, noticeably reducing the weight of the Eriss metal elements. Additional levels can be added (up to five shelves) with a choice of 175mm (7") or 125mm (5") spacings.
The other big change is the shelves, which in case you hadnt guessed, are formed from bamboo. Each shelf is a substantial 40mm (1 3/4") thick, laminated from two layers of 20mm (7/8") material. Deep rebates in the underside swallow the horizontal beams, hiding them completely and also helping to break up the parallel sides of the shelf structure -- similar to the slots and grooves of the Quadraspire, although not nearly as complex. The metal struts support the shelves on small, soft polymer pads, while the equilateral footprint delivers an extremely generous 500mm (19 3/4") shelf depth, meaning that although this is a three-legged rack, you shouldnt have any problems with access to the sockets on the back of your equipment. Bowed fronts on the shelves help to soften the slightly blocky appearance of the Eris, and the metal work is available in four colors, but dont be put off by first impressions: it looks far better fully loaded than standing empty.
But the best bit is the price; a four-shelf Eris lists at £460, making it £100 more than a standard Equinox and £20 less than an Equinox fitted with laminated-glass shelves. Given the competitive nature of the market, or the possibility of buying it in conjunction with a system, and you might expect a further discount. That is seriously affordable, especially given that in a side-by-side comparison of the Eris and Equinox it should take about three notes for you to realize not just that the new rack is better than the old, but that it absolutely buries it on every musical and hi-fi parameter. The Eris delivers more scale, more weight, more color, greater musical fluidity and dynamic range, better shape and phrasing. This is the first entry-level rack that really delivers music -- period.
Of course, theres a little more to it than that, so lets look at the performance in detail -- as well as how to achieve it. Once again, coupling the equipment to the shelves is critical to really hearing what this rack can do, with the Cardas/Ayre myrtle blocks again doing the honors. Using either the dCS/Rowland setup or the more affordable EERA/Icon Audio combination clearly demonstrated the musical superiority of the Eris over the Equinox. Sly and Robbies first outing, Sly, Wicked And Slick [Virgin 0777 7 86874 2 9], demonstrates the differences perfectly. The opening track, "Rasta Fiesta," with its infectious carnival beat and virtuoso bass playing, is a vibrant and energetic experience, full of color and tactile playing -- at least it should be. With the Equinox, the music is flattened and one-dimensional, both dynamically and in terms of color. Its thin and jangly, confused and brash, lacking in drive, body and momentum -- and this is Sly and Robbie! Shifting the system to the Eris (not quite as simple as it might be, owing to the tripod structure and the central rear leg) immediately adds weight and pitch precision to the bass. Robbies explosive runs of slapped notes gain impact, shape and solidity as well as a sense of drive and pace. That extra bottom-end extension and stability open out the midrange space and bring color and character to the other instruments. The whole performance takes on a sense of presence and musical involvement that had previously been entirely absent. Middle-aged men dancing is generally not a good thing and shouldnt be encouraged, but this is one album where its hard to resist, as long as the system is getting everything in pretty much the right place -- which is exactly what the Eris achieves.
Comparison with the Quadraspire SVT quickly reveals the greater rhythmic subtlety and fluidity of the much pricier rack, its even broader tonal palette and expressive range. But given the price difference, the Atacama Eris is an awful long way from being disgraced. It might sound a little mechanical, a little less articulate than the more expensive SVT, but it trounces the musical performance of any of the glass-shelved racks at anywhere near its price -- or those costing quite a lot more in many cases. Copulaire might beg to differ, but their racks make the SVT look like a bargain! Anybody with their audio system perched on its own feet and sitting on glass might want to take a listen to the Eris. They could be in for a considerable shock.
Is more necessarily better?
ts tempting to put a lot of the sonic differences between the SVT and the Eris down to their construction and the material used for the uprights: solid, segmented aluminum as opposed to welded, tubular steel. Which makes Atacamas second offering even more interesting, albeit more expensive than the Eris. The Elite Eco 6.0 is another stacking rack, but this time it has four legs, a curved and tapered footprint and solid bamboo uprights to go with the bamboo shelves. It looks very different and it sounds different too. But lets start with the construction.
The shelves are formed from the same 40mm- (1 3/4"-) thick board as those used for the Eris, but without the rebates that accept the metal frames horizontal struts. The shape is rounded and organic, reducing parallel faces while offering both a generous footprint and good access for cables from the rear. Also worth noting is the cutout in the rear edge of each shelf. Atacama refer to this as a "cable separator," and like a lot of good ideas its also simple -- so simple that quite a few rack manufacturers will be asking, "Why didnt I think of that?" The idea is that you use the loop formed by the cutout to retain either your signal or power cables, whichever works best, thus providing the desirable separation between signal and AC. Its simple and effective and works best when you run your power cords through the loops. That way your signal leads will be suspended at distance in free space, and as near as makes no difference, theyll be at right angles where they do cross the power cords, which is exactly how it should be.
As Ive already mentioned, each shelf has four legs, formed from solid bamboo. These are held hard against the shelf by a steel stud running down their center, with a brass, cupped cap on top and cone at the bottom. The legs are asymmetrical in footprint and different front and back, further reducing the number of common elements or dimensions in the structure. The rack is built onto a base consisting of a standard shelf with four very short legs around an inch long. You simply stack the other shelves on top, the cones facing down engaging in the cups of the shelf below. The tip of each cone has a short thread attaching it to the body and allowing for a limited amount of leveling. Legs are available in three heights to offer spacing options, although with a choice of 125, 175 or 225mm leg lengths (5", 7" or 9"), the Elite is nowhere near as versatile in this regard as the SVT. But it too is available in a double-wide format, the Elite Eco 12.0 (available from late May 2012 onward).
If the structure and uprights are indeed major players in the sonic and musical performance of these racks, the way the Elites legs work bears closer scrutiny. The cup-and-cone arrangement that secures the legs also offers a direct path for energy, via the stud that connects them. But the clamping of the leg and shelf surface will also bleed off energy, creating a cascade effect as you pass from one level to the next. Its a very different arrangement from the Quadraspire (where the shelves sit on brass inserts that are in turn clamped by the legs) or the Eris (where the shelves are isolated from the struts by soft polymer pads). Whilst it is difficult to draw firm conclusions as to sonic impact, these differences are certainly worth noting for future consideration. Using our standard four-shelf configuration as a benchmark, the Elite Eco 6.0 will set you back £640 (which would translate to roughly $1150 using the same cost ratio as Quadraspire), sitting it squarely and rather neatly right between Atacamas own Eris and the Quadraspire rack.
Listening to the Elite is a fascinating experience. Not as immediately impressive as the SVT, it sounds smaller and more compact. In fact, these racks sound rather the way they look, the Quadraspire being broad, open and spacious with its clean lines and sharp contrasts, the Atacama much denser, more solid and rounded. But look beyond the slightly obvious appeal of the SVTs open and engaging presentation and you notice that the Elite has its own appeal. That compact sound comes from its added spatial definition and coherence; theres a single, contiguous acoustic space here with boundaries, which partly make it seem smaller. But both the space itself and your perspective into it are actually more natural.
The other place the Elite scores is with its tonality and phrasing. Again, the separation of the SVT gives more note-to-note definition, but the broader range of tonal color and richer, more natural harmonic structures revealed by the Elite favor the shape of a piece as a whole, its ebb and flow, rather than the individual waves.
Listening to the Shostakovich CD demonstrates the differences perfectly. Using the wood-block couplers, the SVT delivers a stark, left/right presentation, with excellent width and good detail. The Elite offers a narrower but deeper picture, with a richer tonal balance and a more holistic musical presentation. Stage boundaries are more clearly defined, especially behind the brass and percussion. Overall shape and phrasing, as well as the particular character of Previns reading (as opposed to, for instance, Petrenkos superb version on Naxos), are far more apparent, while the tonal separation of strings and woodwinds is also far clearer.
Once again, inserting the Stillpoints Ultra SS's promptly provided the cherry on the icing of this particular cake, adding transparency, a blacker background with a really inclusive sense of space and height. Along with that increased sense of presence, the drama and impact of the performance also stepped right up to the mark -- impressive given the high drama of the composition and its massive dynamic shifts. Of course, a set of Ultra SS's costs nearly as much as four-tier Elite rack, but again this is more an illustration of the possible than a suggestion of the practical.
Summing up the rack pack
here that leaves us is with a fascinating contrast. If the Atacama Elite presents music as an exquisitely scaled facsimile of the original, big on overall form and holistic character, the Quadraspire serves up an exploded view, long on clarity and inner detail. Which you prefer will likely depend on personal preference (or prejudice) as well as musical bias. Those who love acoustic music and search out minimalist recordings will likely settle on the Elite. Those of a more modern, pop or rock persuasion will almost certainly prefer the SVT. And between those extremes there will be plenty who jump one way or another based on looks, availability or color as much as sound. Make no mistake about it, these racks -- all three of them -- offer a step change in support performance at affordable prices. Across a key area of the market, they promise significant improvements in the musicality of more affordable systems, and not a few high-end ones too. Both the sophisticated and versatile Quadraspire SVT and the ultra-affordable Atacama Eris Eco 5.0 represent evolutions of existing racks and technology. The joker in the pack is the Atacama Elite Eco 6.0. Offering its own distinctive character and perspective, its also a first-generation product. Its tempting to speculate just how far a few developmental changes might take it. Rebating on the shelves and revisions in materials and sophistication of the spiking/coupling arrangements could well deliver significant gains. Dont be surprised to see some sort of bamboo coupler from Atacama too. Its such an obvious and cost-effective upgrade that its almost obtuse not to offer it.
But the really good news is that all of these racks are able to grow and evolve, both as designs and as products in place. Owners of the Equinox or Limited Edition Celebration rack can add layers from the Eris, upgrading support for key components, the same as Elite owners will be able to swap out elements should superior versions become available. The SVT owner can upgrade shelves from MDF to bamboo, alter column heights or even grow the rack sideways. Nice to know that these products that can have such a profound impact on entry-level systems can grow and evolve along with those systems!
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