Letters • July 2013

Stillpoints "best utilization"

July 29, 2013


As a follow up to your excellent review, I would appreciate your advice on the best utilization of Stillpoints.

I have a Classé CP-800 preamp, a Classé CA-2300 power amp as well as a Meridian Sooloos Media Drive 600, Media Source 600 and a Classé CDP-202 CD player. I also have a Classé CA-5200 amp and Anthem D2v processor and Paradigm Sub 2 primarily for movies. My turntable is a Clearaudio Master Solution. My speakers are B&W 802Ds, B&W HDM1D (center) and B&W Series 800 wall-mounted surrounds. The interconnects and speaker cables are Nordost Heimdall. I also use Quantum Qx4 and Qbase.

I am currently using Ultra SSes under the speakers and Minis under the preamp and Meridian units to great effect . I'm using the LP1 on my record deck -- as the motor is separate it's not possible to use Stillpoints under the deck.

I will be getting a loaner pair of Classé CA-M600s to try in place of the CA-2300 from my local dealer in a couple of months. Apart from that I don't envisage any other changes to my system. The combination of the Stillpoints and the newer Classé units have made a really significant improvement to my system -- it's much more musical now and has a much greater clarity to the sound also. I'm very pleased with it.

I'm going to purchase more Stillpoints over the next nine months or so. I intend using SSes under the power amps and under the center-channel speaker and Minis under the lighter units. The SSes won't fit in my rack.

I'm wondering if using Ultra 5s instead of SSes under the 802Ds would be worthwhile in my setup, taking into account the very significant additional cost. As I'm living in Ireland, I am unlikely to get them to try out for myself prior to purchase.

I am using Hi-Fi Racks support units with their separate isolation platform for the turntable. I imagine that Stillpoints Minis under the platform would not be very effective as they would not be directly under the turntable. Is this correct?

John Butler

I think that your plans are spot on. The greater electrical potential of the power amps makes them natural candidates for the Stillpoints approach, while getting the center speaker onto the same support technology as the main speakers will be a huge step towards overall integration and coherence.

I think that you would be surprised just how big a step up the Ultra 5s represent over the Ultra SSes -- and the latter can be repurposed for the power amps. So yes, I would definitely consider Ultra 5s under the 802Ds, directly coupled via their threaded adapters.

Likewise, you are correct to assume that placing Stillpoints under the turntable support would not be the most cost effective or sonically beneficial approach. I don’t know the Hi-Fi Racks isolation platform, so all I can do is refer to my own Master Reference and its support arrangements. I use an Acapella Audio Arts platform, similar in concept and form to the Symposium platforms. The aluminum top-plate interfaces nicely with the Clearaudio’s twin chassis, and whilst I have experimented with additional couplers from various sources, I have yet to find a practical or compelling solution. So my advice would be that in order to improve the performance of the deck, you’d need to look at upgrading the support as a whole, relying on the turntable’s structure to deliver the necessary coupling. -Roy Gregory

Burning XRCDs

July 24, 2013


My wife just posed a question that I thought was interesting because (a) it is interesting and (b) because I have no clue as to the answer.

When we burn a copy of a CD and play that copy on the CD player, for the most part it seems to sound the same as the original disc. But what about if you burn an XRCD? Will the high resolution still be captured on the burned disc? Will it still have the same sonic attributes as the original?

Sheldon Simon

With XRCDs (and the various later iterations, including XRCD2 and XRCD24), the things that make them special fall into two main categories: mastering and manufacturing. The sonic fingerprint of the mastering should come through if the discs are ripped and burned. Manufacturing refinements include the use of a high-precision laser to cut the Red Book-format glass master with technology that produces more precise pit lengths. Also, the stamper is created directly from the glass master, eliminating two steps in the production chain but allowing only a limited number of discs to be produced from each stamper. Obviously, when you burn a CD-R, you wouldn't be doing these things, so their benefits would not be realized. -Marc Mickelson

Tubes, horns, and a "silly" record

July 19, 2013


I just read your Newport Beach show report, and I want to thank you, first, and have a question, second.

It was great spending time with you and your friend Frank, and I really appreciated the enthusiasm you both shared about the High Water Sound room.

I just need to say this, and, please, this is not intended to be abrasive, ungrateful or to create any semblance of offense. Why would you speculate about a 9-watt state-of-the-art amp that was driving an extremely sensitive world-class speaker and a record you didn't hear? I guarantee you would have pissed yourself if you would have heard that "silly" record on the system even in my room. Spending a lifetime playing drums -- a 1957 set of Ludwigs with all vintage Zildjians -- I have an idea what drums sound like. I definitely would not ever consider a system that carried a price as the one you heard and could not fully reproduce the full sonic pallet trapped within those precious grooves. I had quite a few amazing percussion records in that room, and if percussion is what you wanted to hear, I wish you would have asked. Please remember, I played music you and Frank requested to hear or were selected by our conversation. Never were drums/percussion discussed.

Thank you again for all your kind words. As you told me how candid you are, I am also.

Jeff Catalano
High Water Sound

Thank you for reading my blog. Also, thank you for being so frank with me. I can appreciate your comments. You're right -- I didn't hear the Sheffield Drum Record, nor did I hear any Frederick Fennell LPs on Telarc. I like the Fennell LPs, but as seldom as I play them I sure didn't want to hear them during my show vacation. However, along with some mono LPs, next year I'll bring along some torture discs to see what you can do with them. It should be fun and informative for both of us.

Having said that, I have owned and borrowed a number of tube amps. While none of them was single ended, I don't consider the Marantz 8B, the Quad 2s, and the McIntosh '240 bad examples of tube design, and the same for the currently made Luxman MQ88. In all cases, none of them had quite the tight bottom that even a modest transistor amp, or a Technics or Yamaha receiver, has, not to mention a modern high-end solid-state amp. I think these are all fabulous amplifiers, and I hated to see my friend take the Luxman home with him. The way I see it, tubes do what tubes do and transistors do what transistors do. I am also no stranger to horns, having grown up around my dad's Altecs and my uncle's JBLs. I also know that the output impedance of a single-ended amp is far higher than that of any push-pull amp with a decent amount of feedback. Your sound was indeed magical, but if, in fact, your amp succeeds where all other tube amps have fallen short, I need to hear this before I can assume it. I'm not knocking any part of your system, but I am a skeptic who comes to this hobby with decades of listening experience. I base my opinions on my experiences, not what magazines say.

Regarding the price of the system, I tried very hard to not let the price of any gear affect my judgment at the show. I've had many experiences both positive and negative with high-end gear, and today's price tags have had little to do with those experiences. -Robert Pincus

"Should I pursue a new DAC or leave well enough alone?"

July 17, 2013


I wrote you several weeks ago regarding the KEF Blades. I am happy to report that they are now settled in and sound fabulous. I am still playing around with placement, but feel I have narrowed things down very well. You were correct that these speakers require precise placement. And I have found that being closer to the back wall than I would prefer has not been all too detrimental. These are truly amazing speakers.

My attention has now turned to my DAC. In my quest to eliminate the "weak link in the chain" I am giving consideration to replacing my DAC. The dealer here in Charlotte is not only an Esoteric dealer but also a Jeff Rowland dealer. I read with interest your review on the Jeff Rowland Aeris DAC. I was quite surprised to learn that it has no AES/EBU connection. I mostly understand your explanation why the designers left this connection out. What does confuse me is whether or not I should be using such a connection myself.

My current setup is an Esoteric A-02 amp, Esoteric C-03 preamp, Aurender S10 music server, and an Esoteric D-07x DAC. The AES/EBU cable I now use is Nordost Odin, speaker cables are Odin, all interconnects are Nordost Valhalla and Valhalla 2, and power cords are Valhalla. I have an Odin power cord on the power supply. Michael Taylor stood in my room and told me to do that first. Man, was he ever correct. Given your past with Nordost, you better than most are aware of the investment made for this level of cable lineup.

My dealer is advocating that I look at the Esoteric D-02 DAC. I am very interested in the EMM Labs DAC2X, although he strongly recommends against it. He referred me to an online review that was not all too kind to the DAC2X. The Esoteric should be much better -- it costs a lot more. I'd like to move the needle forward without buying yet another compact car. Writing these $20,000-plus checks has become old. I'd love to consider a DAC that does not really break the $15,000 level. The EMM Labs DAC2X and the Rowland Aeris both fit that category.

All of this leads me to your review on the Rowland DAC, which sounds like a really well-engineered unit. But I am really bothered by this lack of an XLR connection. It makes me question if my current setup is all wrong. Frankly, I question if I am wandering too far off the path anyway. The system sounds amazing right now -- better, in fact, than most any room I've visited at the last three audio shows I've attended. Maybe this is all a fruitless exercise, but the same suspicions led me to buy the Blades and I am so very happy with them. I see the D-07x as now being the weak ling in the proverbial chain. I once again am faced with uncertainty. Should I pursue a new DAC or leave well enough alone?

Paul W. Fleek

I'm glad that the KEFs are meeting your expectations. Don't underestimate how long they go on improving with use, which might mandate further refinement in positioning -- even if it is only by a millimeter or two.

Now, on to your XLR and DAC anxieties. The audio industry as a whole just loves the notion of a silver-bullet solution to any give problem. Manufacturers love the great stories they can spin, reviewers like the authority it gives their views and readers love the certainty they bring. Don't be fooled: There are no silver-bullet solutions in hi-fi! It is not what you use but how it's used that counts. Don't get sucked into the question of whether a DAC or source component does or doesn't have an XLR (or any other connection option). All that matters is how the unit in question works connected into your system with whichever cables it uses. So, the Rowland DAC either will or won't offer an improvement, using the RCA-to-BNC cable that will suit your setup.

Should you listen to the Rowland? Absolutely. It's a very different animal from the Esoteric, while it also offers an interesting possible upgrade path. Whereas the Esoteric is a dedicatedly digital component, aiming to maximize the sonic benefits of the digital formats, the Aeris has a far more analog character, instead acting to minimize digital weaknesses -- a path it treads with considerable skill. Flow, musical momentum, phrasing and instrumental color -- all things one normally associates with vinyl -- are things the Rowland does really well.

So, my suggestion would be that it is time to take stock. First, let the KEFs settle in and enjoy the benefits they bring. Second, install the Rowland DAC into the system (make sure you use an Odin cable) and compare what it does to the Esoteric. That should tell you what direction to take. If you like what the Rowland does, it offers the ability to drive a pair of 725s directly to excellent effect. It is one of the very few DACs I've heard that will work better than a good line stage in this scenario. It does impose some switching and control limitations that you need to assess, but in financial terms it would give you a three-in/three-out situation.

If you prefer the nature of the Esoteric, before rushing to change the DAC, I'd look at two other areas: the power amp (because the KEFs are so critical in this respect) and I'd also look at adding an external clock to tie the DAC and server together. This second course could be seriously beneficial, especially if you get a chance to try it in your own system. Don't overlook the quality of the clock cables. My experience with dCS suggests they are just as critical as the main digital feed.

Finally, on the subject of cables, I'd like to think that Nordost and/or your dealer would look very kindly on an established Odin customer, so if it became necessary to swap your AES/EBU for a BNC- or RCA-terminated digital lead, you could expect an excellent exchange rate. -Roy Gregory

Sonic benchmarks

July 12, 2013


Given music as performance art occurring in a specific context, there are too many variables to ascertain identity between two performances, much less between a performance and its reproduction. Let's simply stipulate that a given performance will never be reproduced, electronically or otherwise. Yet, if you listen carefully to enough pianos played on enough different days, you may come to a familiarity with the sound of "a piano" played live. Allowing the absence of performance identity to preclude use of live music as a benchmark is the straw man poster child for the perfect being the enemy of the good.

Listeners familiar with the sound of live music say that some stereo systems reproduce recordings in a way that sounds more like live music than other stereo systems. For a reviewer to claim component X "sounds more like live music" than component Y is a viable and informative means of comparison as long as he can articulate the differences he hears in a way his readers understand. But we don't need a review to tell us the difference between a harmonica and a saxophone: There is enough commonality in the human hearing mechanism for a live-music benchmark to be a meaningful referent for describing reproduction systems. Whether having a benchmark matters in your priority scheme of sonic goodness is for you to gauge, but there is one to be had.

Tim Aucremann

With "There is enough commonality in the human hearing mechanism for a live-music benchmark to be a meaningful referent for describing reproduction systems" I think we largely agree. As I pointed out in my initial response below ("Live music versus reproduction"), audio reviewers do have "a conception" of live sound in their heads when they evaluate audio equipment. However, as the reader who prompted my mini diatribe seemed to imply, I don't agree that a strict comparison of the sound a piece of audio gear makes to live music is practical or worthwhile. -Marc Mickelson

Live music versus reproduction: "more to say"

July 9, 2013


There's perhaps more to say about the difficulty of making a recording mimic live music convincingly [see below], be the music unenhanced, as is most classical and a good deal of jazz, or amplified. Let's say that you're strolling past an open window from which emerges the sound of a grand piano. However good the recording and the sound system on which it's playing, you'd have little difficulty determining that you're listening to a recording. Were the grand piano and pianist in the room -- a large, elegantly appointed room -- you'd likely know that too.

Given the finest recording equipment, the most sophisticated of production values and the best of intentions, a recording is a thing unto itself. It enters the listening space's acoustic with its own set of acoustic properties. In listening to a recording, we listen to sound within a space imposing itself on another very different space -- that of the room. Given this inalterable condition, it's the rare recording that the passerby is likely to take for live. Not that that's a problem. Discophiles, even those of us afflicted with audiophilia, relish recordings for what they are, not for what they cannot be.

Mike Silverton

Still more on Stillpoints

July 4, 2013


I've just read Roy Gregory's Stillpoints review. I currently have Ultra SSes under my B&W 802D speakers and Ultra Minis under my Classé CP800 preamp and my Meridan Media Drive 600 and Media Source 600. Because I am using Classé power amps and they are too heavy for Minis, I was keen to read Roy's review before proceeding with further purchases. I also have the Ultra LPI, which I use on my Clearaudion Master Solution turntable.

The added complication is because I live in Ireland I have to pay up front for the units with a promise from the dealer that I can return them if I don't like them. Needless to say this hasn't happened!

The improvement has been pretty staggering, and the Ultra Minis made a huge difference. My first step was to put the Ultra SSes under the speakers. I'm very impressed and will gradually increase the number of Stillpoints units as budgets allow. I'm going to use Ultra Minis where possible and Ultra SSes under heavy amps.

John Butler

Stillpoints strategies

July 3, 2013


Your Stillpoints review is another excellent piece of audio writing. Your descriptions of how the component under review works and sounds are clearly written but so dense in their content such that I have to read and reread.

I would like to describe what I have done with Stillpoints and then ask you a few questions. I have put Ultra SSes under all the electronics, although from your article I now realize I need to treat the line conditioners as well. The positions of the Stillpoints have not been optimized, but there have been clear sonic benefits to date.

I am up to treating my speakers, which are stand-mounted TAD CR-1s, an excellent high-technology speaker. The upper, speaker portion, weighing about 100 pounds, is bolted to the lower stand, weighing about 35 pounds, with a single machine screw. I am about to put Ultra LPIs between stands and the speakers, with the technology pockets against the speaker.

My questions:

  1. Having the speaker bolted to the stands provides security against the speaker sliding or tipping. However, my perception is that such a rigid mechanical connection might interfere with the action of the Ultra LPI; that is, the speaker-Ultra LPI interface should allow freedom of movement to best dissipate vibration. In order of decreasing mechanical coupling between the speaker stand and speaker, I can (1) only engage three threads of the bolt going into the speaker, thereby limiting the mechanical contact; (2) file off only the threaded portion of the bolt going into the speaker so that an unthreaded length of bolt sticks up into the speaker, which allows movement of the speaker but prevents its sliding; or (3) do not couple the speaker stand and speaker together with any bolt and just be extra careful to prevent sliding or tipping.

  2. My preamp, amp and DAC/CD player are all quite heavy, so it is not obvious to me where the transformers are located for purposes of optimizing the placement of the Stillpoints. Any suggestions for locating them, short of taking apart the enclosures and inspecting their innards?

  3. The speakers have provisions for spikes, which I have not installed yet. Is there any benefit to installing the spikes in addition to the Ultra LPIs?

Michael Goldin

Thanks for the positive response -- and the idea of using LPIs between speakers and stands; I never thought of that one but the lower stack height certainly makes considerable sense, while I suspect that the gently curved edge profile will really work with the TAD's shaped cabinet.

Taking your questions in turn:

  1. I'd keep solid connection between the speaker and stand to a minimum. The easiest solution is to avoid using the securing bolt at all, but if the mechanical arrangements allow, then leaving it in place, but loose is a good halfway house. That might involve shaving the threads where they pass through the stand, or enlarging the hole in the stand, maybe using a longer bolt with or without a washer (glued to the bolt head to stop it rattling).

  2. Locating transformers can be a tricky task, but it is worth working from two bits of evidence: the position of the AC inlet and the fixings on the underside of the chassis. The AC inlet is not always adjacent to the transformer, but it can act as an indicator. Toroidal transformers are generally fixed with a large central bolt, where frame-type transformers usually employ a square of smaller bolts, one in each corner. If in doubt, you can always ask the manufacturer.

  3. Spiking the stands has two benefits: It ensures absolute stability and solid grounding for the stand, and it allows you to get the speakers absolutely vertical and set their rake ankle precisely -- both critical with the TADs. However, not all spikes are created equal, and if the speakers are being used on a carpeted floor I'd consider the use of Track Audio stainless-steel spikes (available in a range of metric and US sizes). In my experience these offer two benefits: They sound better and make it far easier to achieve precise adjustment -- which possibly explains or at least contributes to the better sound; if on a hard floor, then consider Stillpoints Ultra SSes with the appropriate threaded adapters. It's an easy trial to make, and I think you might be surprised by the results. Bear in mind also that whether spiking or Stillpointing, you will be lifting the speaker away from the floor, so you may well need to rebalance the bass/position of the speaker relative to the wall behind.

I hope that helps, and good luck with the "final steps" on your personal journey to a coherent support strategy. They always seem to make the biggest difference! -Roy Gregory

Live music versus reproduction

July 2, 2013


I was interested to read your review of the Esoteric K-01. I have been using one of these players for two years now, an upgrade from their P-05/D-05 transport and DAC, which it comfortably outperforms.

What I always find missing from audio equipment reviews, and the reason why I take virtually no part in high-end audio these days, is the comparison of a piece with live acoustic music. This surely is the gold standard of any audio equipment.

The reason I chose K-01 over other high-end players was the effortless way it approached live music in speed, transparency and instrumental timbre. By comparison I found the Ayre player somewhat dry, the EAR Acute too euphonic and the Krell SACD player a tad hard and forced. I am in daily contact with live orchestral and chamber music, so what I look for in audio equipment is a seamless and effortless transition between the two (sadly, a comparison that in the UK at least appears to be way beyond the horizons of most reviewers).

In this respect K-01 is in a different league.

Julian Musgrave

The comparison -- or lack thereof -- in my review of the Esoteric K-01 seems to be a hot topic right now. I have to say that I have issues with a strict comparison of the sound a piece of audio equipment makes to live music, which is more a theoretical than a practical standard when it comes to evaluating audio equipment.

First, what you're listening to through an audio system is not live music. It has been recorded, sometimes with subpar equipment and techniques, and then reproduced through a collection of electronics, cables and transducers that represents a convincing compromise at best. Second, given that we are almost always not present during the recording of the music we're listening to, we wouldn't know how it sounded before it was captured, so a comparison to it would be conjecture at best. There is one CD -- Warren Zevon's Learning to Flinch -- whose recording I attended, sort of: I was present at one of the shows from which the CD's material was culled. Even in that case, I can only make the most vague connections between the concert I heard (and remember well) and how this CD sounds when reproduced. Again, I'm comparing two very different things, no matter if the musical material is identical.

I also question (though not completely condemn) the value of live music as a sonic benchmark to begin with. While live classical concerts mostly sound pure and unambiguously real, amplified folk, jazz and rock can sound equally great, just good or truly dreadful. I remember a Proclaimers concert I attended in Milwaukee many years ago whose sound was so awful that it was impossible to understand what Craig and Charlie Reid were saying to the audience, let alone what they were singing. And this wasn't due to their Scottish accents, but rather to the horrible PA system. This was certainly live music, but even the very best recording of that concert wouldn't tell a listener much about the system with which he was hearing it.

All this said, I do think that all conscientious audio reviewers have a conception of live music in their heads as they evaluate and describe the sound of a piece of audio equipment, and it certainly aids in understanding what they're hearing. However, at its best, reproduction still lags far behind the live event in terms of bandwidth, dynamics and sheer output capabilities, just to name a few areas, and audio reviewers need to be mindful of this as well. -Marc Mickelson

Stillpoints thanks

July 1, 2013


I just wanted to say thank you for Roy Gregory's Stillpoints review. I recently bought some Ultra Minis and Ultra SSes for my system, almost without reading a review, just a recommendation from a dealer. I took them initially on a home-trial basis and they were not going back once I heard the difference they made.

I have four Ultra SSes under my Simaudio Moon 700i and four Ultra Minis under my Marantz SA-7S1. I have not figured a way to put any directly under my turntable, which is an Avid Acutus SP. Maybe I can put it on a platform supported by Stillpoints? Granite? I don't know.

I neglected to mention that I have the Stillpoints Ultra LPI as well. It works as well as the Acutus screw-down clamp, with extra convenience. When not in use, it sits over the transport section of my Marantz. It has tightened up the sound in both places.

John Hutchinson

Like you, I bought a set of Stillpoints Ultra SSes based on no prior experience or research. I use them with my TW-Acustic Raven AC turntable, where they replaced original Stillpoints, which came with the 'table. It took all of two seconds to hear the difference. The music emerged from a deeper blackness and displayed greater detail and focus. My 'table rests on a Silent Running Audio rack, which is a very effective vibration sink, and the Ultra SSes, as Roy describes, seem to draw the noise out of the equipment and dissipate it more effectively than their predecessors. Like you, I'm very happy with my purchase. I can't imagine using my turntable without the Ultra SSes.

If your turntable has built-in feet that you can't remove, you could probably use the Ultra 5s under each of them (provided the Ultra 5s are large enough in diameter for the feet). That way you'd get intimate contact between the Ultra 5s and your turntable's feet. If this won't work, a platform of MDF, granite, acrylic or Corian with Stillpoints underneath would surely work, although I'd still opt for the Ultra 5s alone. -Marc Mickelson


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