Track Audio Spike Kits
Doing the simple things very, very well.
iven the background of increased attention on (and understanding of) the issues surrounding the physical support of equipment, as well as belated recognition of just what a significant contribution a proper support strategy can make to system performance, perhaps its no surprise to find a new UK-based company throwing its hat into the ring. With Stillpoints, finite elemente and Vertex AQ having done so much of the spadework when it came to breaking down the initial skepticism and resistance, the time could be considered ripe for other companies to reap the benefits. Despite appearances, Track Audio is far from a me-too bandwagon jumper. In fact, appearances are deceptive on most levels when it comes to their products. There really is a lot more here than meets the eye.
Tracks first offering consisted of speaker stands, but stands that are a world away from the welded-steel-tube, powder-coated norm weve all become used to. As with most stands, the real secret of their performance lies in their legs. These offered a sophisticated, multi-material, modular design featuring multiple constrained layers to dissipate structural resonance. The columns are machined (like all Track Audios components) from solid billet, in this case diamond-turned 6000-series aluminum, each segment decoupled from the others in its leg by shallow Delrin elements, which in turn offer a male/female thread combination so that the metal elements never directly contact each other. The diameter of the columns and precision interfaces ensures stability, while the 12mm tooling plate (read, "really flat") top and base parts are carefully contoured to soften their appearance without compromising mechanical integrity. Each stand incorporates its own spirit level and is supported on three massive but beautifully executed spiked feet.
These stands are something of a tour de force, an object lesson when it comes to effective audio engineering -- and therell be a full review shortly. But theyre also necessarily expensive and serve what is becoming an increasingly niche market (although shorter models for subs and floorstanding speakers are also proving popular). Where Im going to start is with those spikes that Track Audio use on their bottom plates.
In the stands, the spike bosses employ a press fit, but Track Audio have sensibly adapted the basic concept to allow it to be screw-mounted to existing speakers, racks and the like. A rebated thread in the top face allows users to select from one of the three adapters supplied to mate with M6, M8 or M10 female ferrules, whilst a set of Imperial alternatives offers 1/4" x 28 UNF, 1/4" x 20 and 3/8" x 16 UNC. All of this is great, but I can almost hear readers thinking, Why should I bother, given that my speakers/rack come with spikes? Well, just as theres machining and machining, there are spikes and then spikes -- and believe me, these are the great, great granddaddy of all spikes. And they arent just big -- theyre clever too. Track Audio offer their Isolation Feet (a bit of a misnomer, but well let that slide) in two different versions: direct coupled or decoupled. Which you need depends on your situation, with the decoupled version claimed to work exceptionally well on suspended floors. More on that later; meanwhile, lets concentrate on that model and take a look-see inside.
Aside from the massive, 44mm-diameter body, the first thing you are going to notice here is the narrow spike with its concave profile, reminiscent of the cones supplied with Avalon speakers. Its very narrowness demands superior material in order to retain sufficient strength, while the actual profile is far more complex than first glance would suggest. The narrow tip is a steep cone with a fully radiused tip. Above that is a short parallel section and then, finally, the spike starts to gently flare. Its designed to penetrate carpets without forcing apart the base material and creating permanent damage, while the overall length and profile are also carefully calculated. The spike itself is housed in a Delrin cylinder, decoupled by one rubber O-ring round its neck and two more spaced up its shaft. A small screw in the top prevents the cylinder from dropping out, although once loaded, the O-rings are the only contact between it and the Delrin body, which is itself located in the stainless-steel "hub" by two more O-rings. That hub then screws into the main body, a locking ring of equal diameter allowing you to set its overall height.
Thats quite a mouthful, but a glance at the pictures should make things clearer. What you need to know is that the threads on the various parts, despite their large (close to 20mm) diameter, run incredibly smoothly. This means that, even without the locking rings tight and with the heaviest speakers, theres no loss of stability while making adjustments. Whats more, the very smoothness of the threads (in combination with the two Tommy bars supplied and the large diameter of the spike bodies) makes small, incremental changes easy to execute -- and you dont move things when everything is locked down. Ever had that infuriating "speakers not level when the spikes are locked, not stable when its level" experience? Its more common than you think -- and its down to materials and poor execution when it comes to the design and cutting of the threads. Smooth threads are everything when it comes to making small, precise adjustments and then locking them off securely without disturbing their setting.
Each foot allows around 15mm of vertical adjustment, which should be plenty. Whats more interesting is that spring-loaded détentes in the central 8mm run of that travel allow you to make simple one-sixth-of-a-turn adjustments that are completely repeatable. So what? Well, once youve leveled your speaker, the click stops allow you to fine-tune the fore and aft tilt of the cabinet, and thus the listening axis, in easily repeatable steps, adding another dimension to the ease and precision with which you can optimize speaker positioning.
Now add up all the parts and youll see that each foot consists of 14 individual pieces that, with the exception of the O-rings, are all precision-machined in-house from certified material -- mainly 303 stainless steel. Thats an expensive business, but if you are serious about quality and consistency, thats what you have to do.
The review samples arrived as sets of four in sturdy wooden boxes. As well as the feet, each box also contained three sets of thread adapters and a pair of Tommy bars. Mind you, at $649 for a set of four feet, youve got every right to expect a lot; open that surprisingly heavy box and youll not be disappointed. Pick up one of the feet and youll be astonished by its density and sheer solidity. At around 500 grams -- or just over a pound -- each (for the slightly heavier rigid versions) these things feel more like anti-tank rounds than audio components. Turn the threads and the smoothness of the action will surprise you, whilst the confidence-inspiring fit and finish will leave you with one of those stupid grins on your face. Spike shoes for use on wooden floors are available separately at a cost of $119 for a set of four. Beautifully contoured with really good, deep wells, again theres more here than meets the eye. Each well is actually a Delrin insert, adding another material interface, while the felt on the underside of each disc comes from a top-quality UK source. Its yet another example of the sheer attention to detail and quality that goes into these products.
Audio jewelry? Bien sur, monsieur -- but this is jewelry with a purpose, and that purpose is doing an apparently simple job better, and an important part of that is making it easier. Anybody who has used a cheap allen wrench and then swapped to a Bondhus equivalent will know exactly what Im talking about. Likewise, anybody who has used cheap generic spanners and then tried some SnapOns.
In comparison, Track Audios rigid-coupling spike seems almost brutally simple. In this case, the complex Delrin spike housing is dispensed with, replaced with a single massive spike/thread element. Unfortunately the increased wastage more than makes up for the reduced number of parts, at least in cost terms, so these are priced the same as the decoupled versions, whilst offering exactly the same operational niceties and versatility when it comes to interfacing. There are also matching solid stainless and feltless spike shoes to go with them, again available separately.
Tot up the options and youll see that they run to four in total if you mix and match the spikes and shoes. Add to that the fact that the rigid couplers are around 8mm taller than the decoupled spikes and direct comparisons become even more complex, as the difference in distance between the bass driver and the floor will require a small adjustment in the position of the speaker to keep things optimum. Lucky for you, your diligent reviewer spent considerable time and trouble ringing the changes, so that I can report that in practice, mixing the rigid spikes with the decoupled shoes (or vice versa) undermines the musical performance significantly. Unfortunately, adjusting the speakers position is essential if you are to get a true read on the situation, making serious comparisons a two-man job, should they be necessary.
irst things first: having used Track Audio feet with a variety of speakers in a variety of different locations, theyve never once disappointed. I was ready for the ease of use and slick handling that they brought to the process of leveling the speakers and setting their rake angles; just handling them tells you all about that. What I wasnt expecting was the magnitude of the sonic improvement they wrought. Used with a variety of speakers (including Coincident Technology Pure Reference Extremes, Sonus Faber Cremonas and various Spendors and Focals) the Track Audio feet always represented an upgrade over the original items supplied -- in some cases significantly so. As to which version delivered the best results? Well, that depended on the circumstances, the speaker and to some extent the driving amplifier.
I started out with the various feet and spike shoe combinations underneath the Coincident speakers. Not only were these in residence in the listening room, their manageable weight and outriggers made the task of repeated swaps and adjustments comparatively easy. On this ultra-rigid floor there was no contest. Although both versions of the Track Audio feet offered clear improvements over the supplied contoured brass cones, the rigid versions delivered the greatest overall benefits, with significant improvements in focus, transparency, tonality and, most significant of all, the sense of musical purpose and momentum. Instruments were more readily identifiable and the texture and harmonics of individual notes far more apparent. In comparison the brass cones sounded thick, heavy and congested, lacking leading-edge definition and robbing the music of dynamic impact and drama.
How big was the difference. Big. Take Neil Youngs "Safeway Cart" (from the Sleeps With Angels CD [Reprise 45749]) as an example. The Track Audio spikes brought a sense of shape, power and energy to the music, a propulsive quality that kept things moving forward, full of purpose and intent. The improved separation and sense of shape made Youngs guitar solo more vivid, with greater texture and starker contrast to the throbbing weight of the rhythm track. It sounded not just like a better band, a better song and a much better guitarist -- it sounded like they meant it. In comparison, the brass cones sounded dull, turgid and monotonous. "Drive" or "rhythm" can be emotive terms when it comes to describing audio performance. One mans "musical intent" can be anothers "overt exaggeration," so lets be clear about this; when it comes to Beethoven, I like Kleiber conducting and I like the very different view offered by Klemperer. Musically, theyre both valid. But if it says Kleiber on the label I want it to sound like Kleiber -- and thats what the Track Audio spikes delivered. They raised the expressive bar, allowing each recording to sound more like itself, and thats no mean feat.
The performance of the decoupled spikes and shoes was more interesting. Compared to their rigid brethren, they lacked the sense of easy clarity and sheer musical energy, with a more rounded and comfortable presentation. The lack of musical direction and intent meant that the rigid spikes clearly won the day, but the decoupled versions had one ace up their sleeves; when it came to musical phrasing there was a remarkable fluidity to their presentation that marked out bars and wove together musical strands with a deft grace that is so often absent from hi-fi systems. Which brings us to the question of the driving amplifier; the direct comparisons described above were carried out using Jadis JA-120 monos, which are no slouch when it comes to musical shape and phrasing. In that context, the influence of the decoupled spikes was altogether too much of a good thing, the rigid versions delivering greater insight and immediacy without undermining the overall structure of the music. But as I suspected, later substitution of the ultra-crisp and clean Lavardin IS Reference actually benefited from the more mellifluous presence. Its an extreme example (and not an amp/speaker combination Id normally recommend), but it does show how the Track Audio spikes influence can tailor the presentation of a speaker/amplifier combination -- for better or worse.
Moving to the upstairs listening space, with its suspended floor, the preferences were indeed reversed, exactly as Track Audio suggested they would be. Here, the rigid spikes introduced a lumpiness to the midbass and a glare to the upper mids that moved things from clear to stark and purposeful to clumsy. The decoupled spikes delivered a far smoother and more integrated sound, without the lumps and bumps that made the rigid spikes sound initially impressive but wearing over time. Once again, their sense of shape and phrasing came to the fore, this time their ability to bind the music together and make sense of the performance outweighing the flashier and more immediately dramatic presentation of the rigid version.
All of the above listening took place on wooden floors that necessitated use of the matching shoes. Stepping onto carpet, thats where youll really appreciate the narrow, penetrative profile of the Track Audio spikes. Setting up the Sonus Faber Cremonas on the dubious surface provided by a hotel-room floor and its dodgy carpet, the slender tips sank home without any extra encouragement, delivering a positive, stable footing that made leveling the speakers simplicity itself, as well as achieving the optimum rake angle this model requires. The speakers are supplied with two long cones for the front and two short ones for the back, designed to achieve that goal, but their rounded tips were hopelessly inadequate when it came to penetrating the carpet, while their short threads had nowhere near enough adjustment to achieve any measure of stability. With the Track Audio spikes installed, even moving the speakers backwards and forwards or adjusting toe-in was easy and precise, so cleanly did the spikes penetrate the carpet. In this instance, those spikes werent just a nice touch; they were an essential tool when it came to achieving any sort of representative setup or sound.
y now youll have gathered that Im mightily impressed by the engineering, practicality and performance delivered by the Track Audio spikes. They are undeniably pricey, but then one look at the material content and execution will more than justify the cost, while the performance -- both operational and musical -- underlines the fact that the surface interface provided for speakers cant be considered the afterthought it often so clearly is. These spikes will make a clear and worthwhile contribution to the performance of most high-end speaker systems. Dont think of them as a final tweak -- the cherry on your audio cake. Instead, you should consider them an important -- even fundamental -- part of establishing the optimum conditions of operation for your shiny, expensive speaker system. Without them -- or a credible alternative from the likes of Stillpoints -- you simply wont be hearing what those expensive speakers are capable of.
Whilst its impossible to cover every eventuality or situation, the solid-floor/rigid-spike, suspended-floor/decoupled-spike rule of thumb offers a decent starting point. If your system tends to the high definition but slightly mechanical in its musical presentation, then you might want to experiment. One other thing you might want to consider is the aesthetic impact of the Track Audio spikes. They are large and theyre shiny and, visually speaking, theyre anything but discrete. That modern, high-tech appearance is hard to ignore. Installed on the Coincident Pure Reference Extremes, they alter the whole style and appearance of the speaker -- very much for the better as far as Im concerned. The blond wood and ceramic drivers work well with the polished stainless steel, creating a precise, modern feel that suits the speaker, its sound and my décor. The same might not be true of your speaker or your listening room.
Which brings us to what many might consider the best news of all. Few listeners would consider spending upwards of $1200 on spikes to fit on the bottom of $3500 speakers -- and few dealers or reviewers would suggest it. So how about $119? Thats the price of Track Audios replacement spike sets. These are like-for-like alternatives to the nasty bits of pointy steel that came with your speakers. You dont get the massive, stable bosses that support the Isolation Feet: you dont get the large-diameter threads, the decoupling option or the three sets of thread adapters and the Tommy bars to lock everything solid. What you do get is a set of eight spikes, available in the same three metric and US threads as their big brothers, machined to the same impeccable standards from the same certified stainless steel. The matching, beautifully machined lock nuts, circular plates with spanner flats, run on generously long and beautifully smooth threads, while the spikes themselves have the same slender profile that make the Isolation Feet such a joy to use.
Already being supplied as standard by at least one high-profile UK speaker manufacturer, these are a more affordable and far more discrete option than their chunky bigger brothers. They may surrender the sheer ease of use that you get from the Isolation Feet, but they still turn far more easily and can be adjusted much more precisely than the standard items, while those sharp tips and long threads ensure stability, even through a carpet laid on wonky floorboards. At this price (the M8s are $129, while the much bigger 3/8" UNC and M10s cost $149), theyre a no-brainer. Install them and youll get a better setup much more quickly and easily -- and that translates directly into better sound.
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