Stillpoints • Ultra Mini, Ultra SS and Ultra 5 Footers, and ESS Equipment Rack

". . .if you haven’t heard your system on Stillpoints, you probably haven’t heard your system."

by Roy Gregory | July 1, 2013

he original Stillpoints "isolation device" has become almost iconic, with its instantly identifiable shape -- part cone, part cylinder, topped off with that exposed, large-diameter ceramic ball. Its novel approach and stacked ceramic balls set it apart from the crowd and so did its performance, quickly establishing it as the benchmark product against which other cones would be compared. That original design still stands up today, but our understanding of both equipment supports and the Stillpoints product line have moved on -- considerably.

Prices: Ultra Mini, $125 each; Ultra SS, $249 each; Ultra 5, $699 each; ESS rack, starting at $8620.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Stillpoints, LLC
573 Country Road A, Suite 103
Hudson, WI 54016
(651) 204-0605

The advent of a more sophisticated understanding of microphony and the part played by mechanical energy in signal degradation has brought us to the somewhat belated realization that isolating equipment from the outside world is all well and good, but the real problem lies inside the equipment itself. Every single electrical component is shaking, rattling and rolling along with the music. The power transformer vibrates at the frequency of the AC supply -- right in the middle of the critical bass range -- the power-supply components vibrate as they charge and discharge, and capacitors, resistors, ICs and output devices in the signal path all vibrate as they pass that signal. Those vibrations might be small (or not so small, in the case of transformers and reservoir caps), but they are right where the signal is, poised to do the greatest possible damage. What’s more, we compound the problem by sitting our equipment on soft rubber or plastic feet, an arrangement that traps all that self-generated energy inside the chassis, where it churns around until it slowly dissipates as heat.

If the original Stillpoints were styled as isolation devices, how come they worked so well? Precisely because they acted to bypass those soft feet, providing an extremely attractive exit path for that internal energy, into itself and the structure it was sitting on. That depended partly on the chosen materials and the ceramic interface, partly on the shape of the original design, with its broad, flat base, features that have carried over into the latest range of Stillpoints designs, further augmented by a number of important developments, even if the company's philosophy seems awkwardly balanced between two stools. Functional descriptions still cling to the terminology of isolation, while the products themselves now talk about "vibration control." Control of what and how? It seems strangely equivocal when you consider just how emphatically the products perform.

Evolving the species

he most important development in the Stillpoints DNA is a move toward what the company terms "technology pockets." A concept first seen in the original but now-defunct Component Stand, essentially these are miniaturized, self-contained versions of the original Stillpoints stack of ceramic balls, but now containing twice as many individual balls, arranged in four layers rather than two. They come in two different versions: a tiny one compact enough to be used in standoffs for PCBs or inside small equipment feet, and a version using larger balls that is found in the larger feet and also the ESS rack. The other major change is a move away from aluminum alloys for equipment supports, replaced in all the existing supports with a select-grade stainless steel that is used to sandwich the technology pocket, the steel housing offering a better impedance match to the chassis material of most equipment.

The Ultra Mini is the smallest and most affordable of the Stillpoints vibration control devices. At 1.25" tall and only 1" in diameter, it is tall enough to lift most equipment, short enough not to lift it so high you’ll need a new rack and narrow enough to ensure that there are no problems when it comes to positioning. The narrow top cap is coupled to the broader base by a standoff-type technology pocket, and although the top section is free to turn, that doesn’t afford any height adjustment. Like all Stillpoints feet (or couplers) it is usually available in sets of three or four -- until you reach the largest Ultra 5, which is priced and packed individually.

The Ultra Mini is normally supplied with its own integral base, to which it fastens with a 6-32 thread, but it can also be ordered as a "head only," no base and either 8-32, 1/4x20 or M4 threads to attach directly to equipment. The real significance of this is that it can be used to replace screw-in feet on equipment (if the thread is correct) or screwed directly into the Grids of an ESS rack, of which more later. In this guise, the Ultra Mini costs $100 each.

The Ultra SS -- originally named with its "SS" suffix to differentiate it from a now-discontinued aluminum version -- is the nearest equivalent in the range to the original Stillpoint, price-wise at least. They are a clever and versatile evolution of the original, combining the HardHat cap and technology pocket from the Component Stand with a squat, drum-like housing, both top and bottom being machined from stainless steel. The nose of the HardHat, with the shallow slope of its shoulders, provides a decent contact area, while the 1/4x20 thread on which it sits offers a small amount -- but normally just enough -- vertical adjustment for leveling purposes. At 1.5" tall, with another 0.3" in adjustment, the Ultra SS will clear most feet fitted to equipment, even tall ones, but the added overall height is just getting to the point where it might cause problems if space in your rack is tight, so time to get out the tape measure! Also note that for best performance, the adjustable HardHat cap should never be screwed down tight into the body of the technology pocket -- I normally screw it down and then back off a half turn. If in doubt, Stillpoints offer a laminated card feeler gauge with each set. Just remember that if you slide the Ultra SS underneath a unit, that motion can turn the cap and inadvertently close it. Likewise, if you use Ultra SS on a threaded base or the ESS Grids, turning the body of the coupler for leveling while the cap is in contact with the supported unit can have the same effect, so it’s always worth one last check.

The big daddy of the Stillpoints support range, the Ultra 5, at 3" in diameter and 2.25" in height, features two-piece construction and sandwiches five technology pockets. Its profile looks like an Ultra SS seen through a fisheye lens, with the same sloping shoulders and slight overall taper, but in this case the contact patch is a massive 1 3/4" in diameter, occasionally making positioning under base plates studded with fixing screws an issue. To work properly the Stillpoints need a solid, flat interface with the component sat on them. Any unfortunately positioned nuts or bolts will reduce the coupling, reduce the performance and cant the equipment out of level -- all of which you want to avoid. The other thing to bear in mind is the sheer weight of the Ultra 5; the Ultra SS weighs in at around half a pound, despite its compact dimensions. Each Ultra 5 is within a whisker of three pounds! Put a quartet under each of four pieces of equipment and you’ve just added 48 pounds of stainless-steel ballast to your rack.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Ultra 5 is boxed and sold individually. Given the couch-potato tendencies of some audiophiles, schlepping home several boxes of four could provide a life-threatening workout; it's definitely better to spread the load. Finally, overall height of the Ultra 5 is 1.75", so these babies are definitely greedy when it comes to vertical space.

By now you’ll have twigged that only the Ultra SS offers a leveling facility inherent in its design. In order to deal with this, Stillpoints offer the $69 Ultra Base, a 3" diameter disc that is 0.5" thick at its center and can be screwed onto either an Ultra 5 or Ultra SS, using the system-standard 1/4x20 threaded stud, or the underside of an Ultra Mini using a threaded adapter. It works, but it adds significant additional height to each device and the narrow thread does little to inspire confidence in the overall stability of the combination, either in terms of lateral movement or retaining its level, as there is no provision to lock the height setting. On the whole I generally tend to avoid using the Ultra Base unless it’s unavoidable or in certain particular circumstances -- but I’ll be coming to that.

So, do they actually work?

hat covers the hierarchy of basic Stillpoints support products, a range of options that covers the almost affordable to the ruinously expensive -- and that’s before you factor the ESS rack into the equation. The obvious question is, Do they actually work? -- immediately followed by, Are they actually worth the money? The short version is pretty simple: yes and yes. But this wouldn’t be an audio review if the short version were considered acceptable. However, in one sense at least this is no ordinary review and the form it takes reflects that fact. Yes, the Stillpoints products work, and yes, moving up the support hierarchy brings performance benefits fully commensurate with the difference in price. But -- and it’s a big but -- only if you deploy the products properly. So, while I will talk a little bit about what the Stillpoints do, the bulk of this review will actually cover how to ensure that they deliver on that performance potential.

But first let’s talk about sound. When I’m presenting the TAB System Optimization seminars, one of the really big steps upward in performance comes when, having already bypassed the feet under the equipment using wooden blocks, we substitute trios of Ultra Minis. The increase in transparency and focus, the drop in the noise floor, the increase in dynamic range, resolution and the range of tonal colors is nothing short of dramatic -- "Is this the same system?" dramatic. And that’s before I point out the improvements in ensemble playing, physical presence, the sense of rhythm and tempo, the relationship between the instruments, how good the track sounds -- hell, how good the musicians sound. That’s the difference that a properly executed support strategy can make -- the difference between a decipherable recording and a living breathing event, a presentation that you have to work out and one that just draws you in. You see, I can throw as many hi-fi clichés at you as you like and the Stillpoints pretty much cover the bases, but what’s really significant is not the sonic differences these products make, but the musical ones; the fact that the performance presented by your system sounds more musical, more engaging and much more immediately involving.

Now, I can demonstrate that in a hotel room using Ultra Minis. Add in Ultra SSes or Ultra 5s and you just get more of the same. The Stillpoints supports work, and so far they’ve worked every single time I’ve used them, irrespective of the system or the nature of the equipment involved. But in part at least, that is because I always use them in the same way, employing the same strategy and priorities when it comes to floating the system. If you don’t follow the rules, don’t employ the proper care when it comes to installation and don’t observe the proper priorities, you will reduce the musical benefits -- or even nullify them. And that’s not something you want to do, because properly deployed, the Stillpoints products can move your system significantly down the musical road to where it needs to be. They also deliver the kind of performance boost that only comes from constructing superior system architecture. This is not an upgrade you can get from buying a fancy new source or different speakers. This is about working with the fundamentals of system infrastructure, and Stillpoints can be a key building block in that process, helping define the physical environment in which your system operates, isolating (and preserving) the signal, rather than just the equipment.

The system-support roadmap

o when it comes to getting the best return from Stillpoints (or any other equipment supports), system strategy is critical to success. The sharper readers amongst you will have noticed that in referring to the System Optimization seminars scenario, we place Ultra Minis under all of the equipment simultaneously. That is absolutely key to understanding their contribution. But what is also key -- and what I haven’t pointed out yet -- is that the speakers are already supported on Stillpoints. The lessons to be learnt here are general and underpin pretty much everything else. First, coherence is king. If you want to get the most out of Stillpoints then use the technology right through the system. Second, it matters in what order you float things -- and it’s not the order you might think!

Where should you start? Remember, what we are talking about here is the draining of spurious energy from the equipment within the system. To achieve the best results, you need to target that energy specifically and you need to provide somewhere for it to go. So before you even put Stillpoints into the system, look at what they will be sitting on, because that’s what is going to have to deal with the energy that they present. The worst possible scenario is a welded steel rack with glass shelves; the frame will ring like a bell (just strike it if you don’t believe me) and the shelves will bounce energy straight back into the couplers -- and then back into the equipment. Better -- much better -- are clamped-construction racks using MDF or wooden shelves, with bamboo being a particularly good option. For the seminars I normally look for a Quadraspire rack; with its screw-together aluminum uprights and shaped-and-grooved shelves it provides a perfect dispersive structure to bleed off the energy so effectively drained from the system, and it works a treat with the Stillpoints. The provision of an appropriate structure is an absolute prerequisite for success.

But even once you’ve ensured the correct supporting rack, that’s not your first port of call. That’s the speakers. Remember, we are talking about excess mechanical energy, and where in the system do you find the highest levels of that? In the speaker cabinets! So the first components you support on Stillpoints should be your speakers, because the greatest problem offers the greatest opportunity for a solution, because the speakers are the window through which you view the rest of the system. So, if you want to hear what’s happening further down the road, you’d better make sure your speakers aren’t obscuring the view.

Of course, putting Stillpoints under your speakers requires a height-adjustment facility if you are going to retain the ability to set attitude and rake angle, both essential to achieving optimum performance. Even the adjustable caps on the Ultra SS are unlikely to offer sufficient range of movement. You could use the Ultra Base, but again the actual range of movement available isn’t huge and the long-term consistency of the setup is also questionable; the Stillpoints turn so easily on the narrow thread of the Base, while its course pitch actually makes fine adjustment less precise than I’d like. Instead, and assuming that your speaker is threaded for spikes or other feet, I far prefer to screw the Ultras straight into the cabinet itself, using the extensive range of metric- and Imperial-thread adapters that Stillpoints supply. That limits you to Ultra SS or Ultra 5 under speakers, but I’d recommend those anyway.

If you are using stand-mounted speakers, then the Stillpoints should be placed between the speaker and the stand, which brings the Mini Ultras back into the equation, and they are certainly worth considering under smaller speakers. This also illustrates our next golden rule: Always place the Stillpoints technology as close as possible to the supported unit to deliver the most effective drain. Each step you remove it from the primary interface, the less effective it becomes -- true whether you are supporting a speaker, an amp, a turntable or a CD player.

Once the speakers are supported on Stillpoints, you will almost certainly have to adjust their positions. Draining energy from the cabinets usually results in cleaner, faster, deeper bass that normally means pulling the speakers forward slightly to achieve the ideal balance in the room. At the same time, the overall reduction in boxy coloration allows the music to step away from the speakers themselves, delivering a more independent soundstage, but also a more expressive performance with much better musical ebb and flow, a greater sense of the music breathing. Basically, you are hearing less speaker and more music; again, that applies whichever supports you employ, although it has to be said that in this regard, the Ultra 5s are spectacularly and, in my experience, universally successful. Expensive they may be, but in the context of a $20,000 pair of speakers, the cost-to-performance benefit makes them an absolute bargain. And remember, they’re not improving the performance of the speakers, just allowing them to deliver on the potential they already possess -- and that you’ve already paid for!

Picking your way

ith the speakers sorted, it’s time to turn to the electronics. The first step should be ensuring that the basic rack is sufficient to purpose, as outlined above. Assuming that’s the case, then where should you start? Most audiophiles presented with a set of "isolation cones" would head straight for the CD player or possibly the preamp, if it is a tube device. In fact, if you think about the mechanism itself, and why we started with the speakers, what you should really be doing is looking for the highest levels of mechanical energy in the system -- and those are at the opposite end of affairs. Power amps, with their large transformers and reservoir caps, are major sources of vibration, so in equipment terms they’d be your starting point. But in system terms, you can take things back another stage entirely. If you are using a (hopefully star-grounded) distribution block to feed your system -- and you should be -- then lifting that on Stillpoints should be your first priority. Why? Because the AC supply is a massive source of mechanical vibration that gets fed straight down your power cords and into your equipment. By lifting the distribution block you create a drain or barrier between the AC supply and your system. But what’s even better is that because the whole system is connected to the distribution blocks, every electronic item gets a benefit from this single step.

After the AC supply, your order of application should simply follow the potential energy in the system: power amps, external power supplies, preamp, source components -- in that order. Whether the electronics use tubes or not is largely unimportant to this calculation. Not only do solid-state devices generally use far more components, but those components are often more closely coupled to PCBs, the chassis or heatsinks, making them more prone to modulation by mechanical energy as well as more easily mechanically grounded, so the impact of Stillpoints on solid-state equipment is often even more apparent than it is with tube electronics.

Interestingly, if you do reverse the order of application and start at the front-end of the system (at least in signal terms), then you will still hear considerable differences, but here we enter the realm of when is something just different as opposed to better. Start with your CD player and you’ll certainly hear a lower noise floor along with greater transparency, focus and dynamics. Voices will be more clearly separated in space and from the instruments around them. But what you won’t get is the improvement in rhythmic integrity and expression, the overall pattern of the music and the sense of a single acoustic space that you get if you start with the distribution block or power amp. In other words, the musical importance of the changes is much greater if you follow the power, rather than follow the signal. Follow the signal and the hi-fi benefits will be obvious, but they won’t make any real musical sense until you float the rest of the system, finally reaching the power amp and AC distribution.

Which then raises a question: if Ultra 5s are so much more effective than their lesser brethren, does it make more sense to buy them for one unit, or Ultra Minis for the whole system ($2100 for a set of three Ultra 5s will buy you the best part of 18 Ultra Minis, enough to place three under six items of electronics). The answer is simple: It’s always better to float the system as a whole, and Ultra Minis under everything will easily outperform Ultra 5s under any single item. What is interesting is that when it comes to floating the system as a whole, if you do it by stages, you’ll notice that you get consistent benefits as each extra set of supports is inserted, but inserting the final set creates a disproportionate jump in performance. Suddenly, everything in the performance locks together, the whole event making much more sense. That’s not because that last item you lifted is more critical than the others; it is because it’s the last in the chain and, as I said earlier, coherence is king.

What that also means is that using Ultra Minis under your electronics and Ultra SSes under the speakers is fine -- because the technology employed is identical. Likewise, having floated an entire system on Minis, if you then want to start upgrading to Ultra SSes or even Ultra 5s, that’s also fine, as long as you follow the priorities I set out earlier. The one proviso I’d always make is, don’t let the technology under the electronics get ahead of the speakers, so Ultra 5s under the amps and Ultra SSes under the speakers is a definite no-no. If you are upgrading, what do you do with the redundant supports? Spread them around the other electronics. The reason the Ultra 5 works so much better than the Ultra SS is because it’s got five pockets to the SS’s one. So three Minis is the minimum number you can use under a single chassis, but four (or even more) will always be better.

Where should you position the Stillpoints? Again, this is dictated by the guiding philosophy of mechanical grounding. Look for the biggest sources of mechanical energy and place the supports directly beneath them. In the case of a CD player, that means one under the power supply, one under the transport and the third positioned to provide a stable tripod. Under a power amp, it would be under the power transformer and probably (assuming it’s a dual-mono design) one under each output stage. Adding the fourth support follows the same logic and don’t be afraid to place two supports close together, under a large transformer for instance. The beauty is that it is simple to experiment with placement and the results are easily heard, especially in a fully floated system. So lift everything first and then refine the placement of the supports.

Climbing higher: the ESS rack

o far so good: we have a clearly defined hierarchy of performance and cost benefit, as well as an equally clearly defined strategy to achieve the best possible results. But the next step in the Stillpoints range arguably upsets that carefully stacked apple cart. Enter the elaborate, elegant but costly ESS rack. Remembering that the technology pockets that contact the supported equipment most directly are the ones that are most effective, the ESS is essentially a sophisticated modular framework designed to underpin that initial interface or layer of supports/couplers. If what the Stillpoints Ultras sit on affects their performance, then the ESS should provide the best possible foundation.

The structure of the ESS consists of a pair of pylons, based on stainless-steel verticals and machined aluminum outriggers. High-tensile cables run from the top outriggers to the bottom ones, anchored to technology pockets, with further pockets in the legs to accept the adjustable feet. A pair of horizontal, heavy-gauge aluminum tubes link two of the pylons, the whole creating an incredibly stable H-frame that can be leveled via four Ultra Bases screwed into the legs. Early racks were supplied with HardHats in this position, and it is one place where I’d definitely upgrade to Ultra Bases, for both aesthetic and practical reasons. The shelves are locked against the vertical wires using small Allen grub screws located in the end of their crossbars and concealed under cosmetic caps, allowing near-infinite adjustment of spacing. The cross spars are machined from solid stainless steel and each one contains three technology pockets. In the original design these interfaced with clear acrylic shelves on which the equipment was placed, meaning that each shelf was drained by six pockets, the resulting energy being dissipated in the structure of the rack.

Further complicating things is the fact that the rack’s framework is available in three different heights and three widths and will support as many shelves as you can cram into the available space, so the range of options (and prices) is almost unlimited. But to make things even more complicated, although the acrylic shelves remain available, there is now an alternative in the shape of the open Grids that are intended to accept Ultras threaded directly into them.

Let me explain. The original rack design dates from the same period as the Component Stand and original Stillpoints cones and is based on the same isolationist thinking. Its skeletal construction was certainly complemented by the transparent shelves, but as soon as you realize that you want to contact the supported system far more intimately, those shelves become an unnecessary barrier to performance. Even if you put additional Ultras between the electronics and the shelf, the shelf itself forms an impedance barrier between those Ultras and the technology pockets sunk in the crossbars. It wasn’t long before some bright spark unbolted the shelf, screwed a set of Ultras straight into the technology pockets on the bars and then needed advanced orthodontics after his jaw hit the floor! The problem is that the bars are quite far apart and the technology pockets sunk in them are far from ideally spaced or positioned to support most equipment. Remember too that the placement of your Ultras has a significant impact on system performance, and the fixed-position pockets totally remove any positional flexibility.

The solution arrived in the form of the Grids, a typically elegant piece of engineering. Used in place of the acrylic shelf, four solid stainless-steel rods are cleverly strung in a double-X configuration, linking the six technology pockets in the two crossbars. They are anchored in place by 1/4x20 studs sticking up from the pockets and are simply placed in position. The arm of each X has a pair of 1/4x20 threaded holes drilled through it and these are used to position couplers, affording a much greater degree of positional flexibility whilst retaining the direct-coupled arrangement, with nothing but stainless steel or ceramic between the equipment and the vertical wires. The Grids are supplied with the same HardHats as found on the top of an Ultra SS, but can be used with full Ultra SS couplers, Ultra 5s or even Ultra Minis. The Grid/coupler combination also allows for leveling of individual components within the rack.

Where the ESS/Grid combination falls down is in two particular regards. Firstly, although it offers greater placement flexibility for couplers than the crossbars alone, it still doesn’t offer enough fine positional adjustment. More often than not, getting something that even approaches ideal positioning means placing the equipment off-center on the "shelf," some one way and some the other, which leads to a somewhat higgledy-piggledy or random appearance. Secondly, because its original design stance was focused on external energy, the deployment of technology pockets is not necessarily the most cost-effective arrangement possible. The coupler-Grid-pocket arrangement produces an effective cascade, but how much more effective would a cheaper, solid crossbar be, the cost savings and technology pockets redeployed into the couplers on which the equipment actually rests?

Removing the acrylic shelves from the equation, whilst undoubtedly beneficial from a sonic point of view, has one other down side. Having built the main frame of the ESS, getting all those independent crossbars at the correct heights and level with each other is a real bear -- especially as the Grids demand properly parallel surfaces if they are to sit correctly and couple properly. My advice? Start with a tape measure and get everything close before you try and get it just right with a spirit level. Even then, some levels just seem to refuse to cooperate, and there have been times when I’ve been on the verge of hurling the ESS into the rent in the time space continuum it so clearly borders, such is its disdain for the normal logic of geometry! In those cases I’ve resorted to using an old acrylic shelf to set level and then remove it. Fortunately, for most of you this would be a one-time activity, with occasional re-spacing over the years. It’s well worth watching Stillpoints’ instructional clip on their website and then taking it slowly.

Finally, don’t overtighten the grub screws that fix the height of the crossbars -- even though you are entrusting the safety of your precious equipment to the junction. Do so and you’ll kink the cable, making fine adjustment all but impossible. In practice, it’s remarkable how little force is required to lock the bar in place. In all the years I’ve used the Stillpoints racks I’ve only suffered one slippage, and then one corner of a level dropped around half an inch -- probably because I forgot to tweak it up after initial leveling.

By now you might be getting the impression that I’m disappointed with the ESS rack, but nothing could be further from the truth, and I’ve been using various iterations of the ESS for around seven years. It might not be perfect, but it is a lot closer to perfection than the competition. It is also modular, meaning that as improvements occur, they’ll be retrofitable, so investment now doesn’t get declared redundant as soon as the next improvement occurs. And, like all truly modular racks, it can grow with your system. But there is no denying that it represents a substantial financial step up for anybody working his way up the Stillpoints performance hierarchy, and if you are coming from the bottom of the range, the costs involved in adding an ESS to a full suite of Ultra SSes or Minis (racks start at $8620 for a 28" tall, 20" wide, three-shelf unit with grids and HardHats, rising to $12,745 for a 42" tall, 26" wide, five-shelf unit in the same spec) begin to look hard to justify -- especially if the choice was upgrading to all Ultra 5s on your existing rack.

So, to really understand the logic behind the ESS, we have to look at it in top-down terms. For the customer who already has a whole system on Ultra 5s, it’s a no-brainer, extending the established technology and its associated performance benefits about as far as you can take them. Alternatively, as a one-time purchase, rather than an extension to a step-by-step upgrade path, the ESS again offers a one-stop solution that delivers one of the finest equipment support systems currently available. In either scenario, the ESS makes a strong case for consideration.

One reason that I have dwelt on the structure and setup of the ESS at such length is that it is far from a standard rack when it comes to installing a system. The basic leveling and other considerations are familiar, but the skeletal open-frame "shelves" make positioning even moderately heavy equipment on the rack a definite two-man job. Likewise, repositioning the Ultras mounted in the Grids should always be done with two hands, one spinning and one below to prevent a tumble.

The upshot is that the ESS introduces more of a signature to the sound than the Ultras used in isolation. It is marked by a concentration of clarity, leading-edge definition and dynamic range at the expense of some tonal color and harmonic development. But it is going to be a good rack that reveals any shortcomings in the ESS and the queue of contenders is distinctly on the short side. I have arrived at hybrid solutions, using Ultras or other couplers on different racks that offer a fuller and warmer balance that some listeners would find preferable, but the musical swings are always matched by the performance roundabouts, meaning that every benefit comes with its associated cost. The best alternative I’ve found so far comes from LeadingEdge, but that puts the ESS in a class of two. (A disclosure: my wife Louise did work for both LeadingEdge and Stillpoints. The preliminary work for this review predates that involvement, and she is no longer involved with either company.) Even with a couple of serious contenders waiting in the wings, that’s a pretty select group. Besides which, at these prices, a little constructive criticism is to be expected, especially as similar issues with the competition suggest that there’s much more to be discovered on the subject of system support.

Aiming for the summit

he full Stillpoints support system, with an ESS rack under the electronics and Ultra 5s supporting everything, will reveal a level of performance from most systems that the owners never thought possible. It is a comprehensive and beautifully engineered solution that might be expensive but delivers full value in terms of musical performance. It is undoubtedly at the forefront of current system-support solutions -- and the company is making serious efforts to consolidate that position, rather than simply resting on its reputation. The Ultras are impressively consistent performers, irrespective of price level or the system being supported. The ESS is an ongoing project, but its modular nature ensures that early adopters don’t suffer.

From their very first product, Stillpoints have challenged the accepted status quo and our understanding of not just how equipment supports work, but how important they are -- and how much budget we should allocate to them. The current range is versatile, cost-effective and offers remarkable performance. In fact, if you haven’t heard your system on Stillpoints, you probably haven’t heard your system, and if such a thing as a benchmark support system exists here and now, then this is surely it. Of course, the great thing about benchmarks is that they set the standard, a standard that’s there to be beaten by future developments from Stillpoints or their competition.

As fortunate as I am to enjoy the considerable benefits of ESS racks and Ultra 5s on a daily basis, I can’t help feeling that the real jewel in the Stillpoints crown is actually the Ultra Mini. This diminutive but perfectly formed coupler offers genuine Stillpoints performance at a price point that none of the competition can match. As such, it gives a whole range of budget-conscious audiophiles the opportunity to realize that not only are their comparatively modest systems a whole lot better than they thought they were, but that their upgrade strategy probably needs some serious revision. If you are aiming to build a skyscraper, you had better have a solid set of foundations, and that’s exactly what Stillpoints offer.

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 turntable with JMW 12.7 tonearm, Lyra Titan i and Dorian Mono cartridges, Zu Audio Denon 103 cartridge, Nordost Blue Heaven tonearm lead and Tom Evans Audio Design The Groove+ phono stage, Nordost Odin tonearm lead and Connoisseur 4.2PLE phono stage.

Digital: Wadia S7i CD player; dCS Paganini transport, DAC and uClock; Wadax Pre 1 digital control unit. Krell Cypher CD/SACD player.

Preamps: Avantgarde XA Pre, Connoisseur 4.2, Siltech SAGA C1 Control Amplifier.

Power amps: Avantgarde XA Power, Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks, Jeff Rowland 725 monoblocks, Siltech SAGA V1 Voltage Amplifier/SAGA P1 Current Amplifier, VTL MB-450 III monoblocks.

Speakers: Crystal Cable Absolute Arabesque.

Interconnects and speaker cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream or Ultra from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QRT QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Acoustic treatments: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of the LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices. These remarkably simple yet incredibly effective acoustic panels have become absolutely indispensible when it comes to hearing what the system is actually doing.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the Feickert protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.

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