H.A.L. Square Footing And HAL-O Damping Instruments
Review by Rick Becker
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In the course of reviewing my collection of literature from recent shows, I stumbled on flyer from Herbie's Audio Lab advertising their various Cushy-Gel™
footers designed to absorb microphonic vibrations from electrical components. This had a familiar "ring". Like most of us, since my earliest involvement with high-end audio, I began experimenting with various isolation devices to improve the sound of my evolving system. Unwilling to spend dozens of dollars on various cones and platforms that were marketed at the time, I turned, instead to ingenuity and the art of Lost and Found.
Sorbothane hemispheres from an industrial supplier cost me $2.00 each without the fancy packaging. Bicycle tubes were $2.50. Toilet gaskets ranged from
$2 to $4 at a plumbing supply store. And all ranked high on the cost/performance scale. But the two most successful materials came as promotional advertising from the furniture industry. One was 3" cubes of viscoelastic foam used to promote Strobel Supplepedic mattresses (a marvelous mattress that allows me to stay up later at night listening to music). While the cubes compressed to about 1/4 of their original height, they still absorbed vibrations amazingly well. Their chief drawback seemed to be their uneven compression. Those under heavier, or warmer parts of the component compressed more than the others. The result was a Full-Tilt Boogie.
Clockwise from top: Combat Boot, Blue and
White Tenderfoot, US Nickel, Unobtanium grid footer on CD
The second successful material was a sample of honeycomb gel that was developed by a group of structural engineers who thought they could design mattresses using the principles of mechanical engineering. Well, if ever there was a product that needed improvement in this age of chronic sleep deprivation, the mattress should be in the spotlight. The honeycomb gel mattress failed to achieve lift-off in the furniture industry, but Strobel and its better-known competitor,
Tempur-pedic, are making definite in-roads in the mattress industry dominated by hundred-year-old innerspring technology. The honeycomb gel samples, roughly 3" square and an inch thick, not only sounded slightly better than the viscoelastic foam cubes, but they solved the problem of the Full-Tilt Boogie. I always thought,
"If only I had the time, I'd find a way to market these guys". Which brings me back around to Herbie's Audio Lab and the
H.A.L. Square Footing™.
Sure enough! Or so it seemed. Except it was in solid little squares. Steve Herbelin sent me enough Tenderfoot squares (1" x 1" x 1/2" for components ranging from 2 to 36 lbs) to outfit my lighter boxes and a set of four Combat Boot squares (2" x 2" x 5/8" for audio and video components from 10 to 120 lbs). He also makes a Baby Giant and Giant footer for components weighing over 1000 lbs. His proprietary Cushy-Gel (tm) material is a viscoelastic
elastomer. Four footers are recommended, one at each corner, with a fifth in the center if you like. Since the Tenderfeet were thinner than the feet of most of my components, I used them directly under the feet of the components.
Luck Of The Draw
The HAL footers came to the party right after my reviews of the Symposium Rollerblock Jrs. and Isis Platform (October and November issues) and my system was still outfitted with those products under almost everything--except the power supply for the CAT preamplifier. (I keep swiping the Mini-Isis Platform to slide under the DVD player and VCR in my video rig).
So, leaving all the Symposium stuff in place, I put a set of Tenderfoot (Tenderfeet?) under the power supply and re-cranked "Three O'clock Blues" from
Riding With The King (CD, Reprise 9 47612-2) with the Plinius dropped into
"Class A" operation to warm up the house a bit. The music was more liquid with the Tenderfoot, while all other properties remained basically the same. While the system was Nirvana-like in quality without the Tenderfoot, this addition was a pleasant and welcome surprise. It took a sound that was very neutral, focused and transparent, and added a touch of liquidity without sacrificing any focus or transparency. But keep in mind, this was one piece out of seven--and the rest were all enhanced with Symposium products.
Then I replaced the Tenderfoot under the power supply with the Symposium Mini-Isis. I lost the bloom that was added by the Tenderfoot, and gained even more focus than the system had without either the Tenderfoot or Mini-Isis. From my previous review of the Isis Platform, this was a predictable result. But what a nice discovery it was to learn that I could add a touch of liquidity or bloom, if I wanted.
I decided to strip all the Symposium products out of the system, except for the Isis Platforms under the Coincident Partial Eclipse Mk II loudspeakers. With the components only riding on maple shelving, I went for another ride or two with the King, but the system had lost its focus. It was still very musical, but it was very slippery and wet sounding. The bass was particularly fuzzy. And when the music became more complex, the lead guitars simply swallowed up the notes of the back-up musicians. Not so strangely, if you have read my Symposium Acoustics reviews, there was no loss of transparency with the Isis Platforms still under the loudspeakers. In fact, with the
decrease in focus, the pinpoint imaging and soundstage became less defined, and
more like the experience of live music in a club venue. Take your pick.
Square Footing The Black Boxes
I then added the HAL Square Footers under everything: transport,
dac, preamplifier and tethered power supply. I even managed to put the larger Combat Boots under the Plinius power amplifier using special techniques gleaned from watching "Spiderman" with Linda. This was no small feat, given the tight quarters. The focus improved a great deal, but it was not even close to the pinnacle reached with the Symposium products. Inner detail was still somewhat masked by the prominent guitars of Clapton and King. Nonetheless, the music was very liquid and very involving. On one song I noticed that the timbre of the piano had shifted slightly, but the rest of the music seemed pretty much intact.
At $215 for enough HAL footers to outfit my entire electronic chain, less the speakers, there is a generous overall improvement. Given the high quality of components in my rig, this is a respectable result. With lower quality equipment, the result might be even more pronounced. Also, with their high coefficient of friction and relatively small horizontal displacement when the component is accidentally bumped, the footers should be fairly safe to use under anything from turntables to televisions. You might also want to try them between the upper and lower modules of two-box speakers. My honeycomb gel footers worked very well with my Von Schweikert VR-4 loudspeakers, though not as well as the much more expensive Isis Platforms.
I couldn't resist the temptation to put my honeycomb footers back into the system for comparison with the HAL footers. The components exhibited greater horizontal shimmy with the honeycombs when pushed with my hand, much like with the Rollerblock Jrs., but coming to rest much sooner than the Rollerblocks did. The focus of the music improved another notch with the honeycombs, but still did not come close to the clarity I experience with the Symposium ensemble. None of this comparative listening was in any way painful. It is simply a case of "Good, Better, Best." As I noted earlier, using different products under different components may produce just the right liquidity for your taste and your system.
HAL Footers Summary
The HAL footers are a reasonable value, but do not expect miracles from them. Someone who can afford premium electronics should not think twice about spending much longer green for premium isolation products. But those of more modest means, or greater reluctance to spend large during this current economic dip, can likely increase their musical enjoyment with the
HALs. And when your ship comes in, you can rotate them to a son-in-law or a second system. They may also make perfect sense under a component that sees less use in your system, such as a tape deck or tuner. With their 90-day money back trial period, lifetime warrantee, and virtually indestructible nature, they are destined to become family heirlooms! And at $30 for a set of Tenderfoot, I was intending to suggest these as a perfect Christmas gift...especially if you have to mail it somewhere. But as fate would have it, in the crunch of Thanksgiving, the review missed the deadline for the December issue. Actually, this was a fortunate happenstance, since in response to my apology for missing the December issue, the ever-gracious Steve Herbelin offered to send me samples of his tube dampers to try out. He also sent me updated photos of the newest incarnation of the footers available in an expanded variety of premium designer colors, so be sure to check out his website.
Second, The HAL-O™ Damping Instruments
I suspect Steve did not know that the CAT preamplifier has ten small tubes when he made the offer. He even sent me two extras when I suggested I would also like to try them on my more modestly priced Musical Design SP-1. This was a display of confidence, on his part, I figured. I unbolted the roof of the CAT and hoisted it off, giving me my first sight of the entire interior of the preamplifier. Ken Stevens rolls his own parts so all the little electrical cans are white with CAT numbers on them, as you can see in the photo. What you can't see is all the impressive build quality and the heavy damping material applied to the sides and top of the unit.
The thin white line that seems to complete the
circle is actually the tube socket below the HAL-Os.
Steve sent a letter with overly detailed instructions for installing the HAL-Os. After reading it, I was almost too intimidated to install them myself. In reality they easily spread apart and slipped over the tubes. Only in the Musical Design where the tubes were close to each other and to the front face of the unit, did I have to stagger the HAL-Os, one high and one low. The HAL-Os come in a variety of sizes for even large power amp tubes, so be sure to check out their website, once again.
So, What Happened?
Well, the jaw didn't drop, but a Cheshire Cat grin came to my face as I listened first to Lyle Lovett's "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" from the CD
Joshua Judges Ruth (MCAD 10475). The opening lead guitar notes were the first clue, but by the end of the song I had the naive feeling that I had these dampers all figured out. Those first notes floated in space over a broader than usual area. And subsequently, I picked up on a greater sense of space between the instruments, sharper attack, and higher resolution of the decay of the notes. Cymbals and sibilance were more highly resolved. Even down in the bass the notes were more tightly focused. But it was listening to the music that kept the smile on my face. Rhythm and pace picked up and the notes slid out of the system like ice water in a babbling brook in a late winter thaw. (Sound in the forest seems clearer in winter than in summer).
I have heard this song maybe a hundred times, but the music had such a smooth, immediate presence that the song was over way before I wanted it to end. Grain? What grain? Something very good was happening here.
Ditto "Church" from the same album.
On Music For A Glass Bead Game (JMR 15) Arturo Delmoni's violin and Nathaniel Rosen's cello came through with such clear timbre that I would have sworn they were in the room, had not the soundstage placed them hovering over the Christmas lights on the shrubbery outside my front window. Mr. Delmoni seemed to give his 1780
J.B. Guadagnini violin multiple voices that I had not noticed on earlier listening. The enhanced resolution brought on by the HAL-Os allowed these subtleties to come through and gave me even greater appreciation of this intriguing CD.
James Taylor, on his Live CD (Columbia, C 2K47056), just about drew a speeding ticket singing "Traffic Jam". With the greater clarity on attack and decay, the notes seemed to fly by like never before. I skipped to "Steamroller Blues," listening at a lower-than-reference level since it was
12:30AM and Linda was asleep. The improvement of micro-dynamics and inner-dynamics, as evidenced by the crowd noise, portrayed the recording venue as much larger than I previously experienced. It was not just a larger soundscape, but also a more transparent and more focused soundscape.
A couple of days later I warmed up the rig with some Human Touch from Bruce Springsteen and some Buddy Guy,
Damn Right I Got The Blues. The notes were delicious and again, I heard these songs as never before, commanding my near complete
attention -- something that does not happen often in the weeks before Christmas with business, social and family pressure at a high level.
Getting down to serious business, I put on Bob Dylan Live, 1966. A huge Dylan fan in my earlier days, the opening song, "She Belongs To Me," sent goose bumps from neck to ankles. Listening largely in the dark, except for a few colored Christmas lights peeking in at me, it was a very small leap of imagination to the darkness of Prince Albert Hall with Dylan in a single spotlight. I could hear the space and feel the volume of the hall like I was 3rd row, center. This was not the first time I had listened to this album, but it was the first time I really heard it. Even the crude, confused mixes of the electronic set on disc two conveyed the electricity in the air as the audience tried to adjust to the idea that their folk hero was changing. The listening experience begged the question of how good this CD might sound with an upsampling
dac, but that will have to be another review on another day. For now, suffice it to say that the CAT with the HAL-Os was really singing.
The listening sessions mentioned above all took place with the CAT sitting on the Symposium Rollerblock Series Two. I lowered the CAT directly onto the bare maple shelf and replayed Dylan's
Leopardskin Pillbox Hat. The music congested with notes from one instrument bumping into and partially obscuring notes from another. The music became a gestalt experience rather than a tapestry of rhythm and beat woven together and painted with Dylan's singing. Backing up to "Visions of Johanna" on the acoustic set on disc one, the "you are there" experience was degraded to a documentary experience of the event--still very good, but something very important was lost when the Rollerblocks were removed.
I then backed down the ladder another rung and removed the HAL-Os. They came off easily, not having melted or glued themselves to the tubes. (Phew--one never knows for sure!) And I screwed the top back on securely--no room for excuses here. It took about twenty to thirty seconds to get a grip on "Visions of Johanna."
The transparency seemed to remain the same, but the focus went down another notch, for sure. More sibilance gave clear evidence that the decay of the notes was further blurred. The attack of the notes was not as sharp as with the HAL-Os in place, but this was less conspicuous than the blurred decay. The sound was not shabby, mind you. The CAT is a very respectable preamplifier, but it is unquestionable that both the Rollerblock Series 2 and the HAL-Os each make a very significant contribution and the synergy of the three together puts the music in the top echelon of systems I've experienced.
Check, Double Check
I reinstalled the HAL-Os, took a quick photo and screwed the top back down. The HAL-Os didn't completely eliminate the sibilance on the
"s"es, but they tamed it to a very considerable degree. The attack and decay tightened up and allowed much of the hall sound that I mentioned earlier to re-appear. Likewise, the graininess of the music diminished. The tonal balance was not shifted, but the improvements in the
timbre of the upper and lower extremes were more readily apparent than in the midrange. Jumping back to Dylan's electrical set, my toe started tapping as the notes and rhythm emerged from what was, earlier, a muddy recording. Likewise, the soundscape became much more distinct. Adding the HAL-Os back into the CAT was a very different experience from listening to the CAT with the HAL-Os after I had just removed the Rollerblocks. Adding the HAL-Os back in was a step up in quality; listening after removing the Rollerblocks was a step down. Ideally, I prefer the synergy of the three together. Nonetheless, it is easy to get used to the improvement in quality, and after a few days, the novelty of the improvement is absorbed into the enjoyment of the music.
Musical Design SP-1
In my early days in the high-end, I was quite reluctant to spend money on such fringe equipment as I've reviewed lately. (My friend and colleague, Art Shapiro, commented recently to me that I "sure have reviewed some weird equipment").
Call it what you like. Perhaps it is my basic satisfaction with the major components in my system that has let me to explore this fringe. But I try not to forget the humble stages through which my system has evolved. My Musical Design SP-1 preamplifier was the first
high-end component I bought, and I love it dearly for it's unique styling, if not its entry-level sound quality. So I brought it out from under the bed and tried it again in the context of my reference system. The footers helped a little, but not a whole lot. The sound was still somewhat dark and splashy with sibilance. Nonetheless, James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" from his
Live CD was still enjoyable with the SP-1 in the context of the big rig.
Then I added the HAL-Os to the SP-1, and they worked great! Doubling up the footers helped a little bit more. Still, the SP-1 did not achieve the finesse, soundstaging and inner detail of the CAT, nor did it shake the dark nature it previously exhibited. But the attack and decay improved and the splashiness of the sibilance was significantly diminished. Given the modest cost of a couple of HAL-Os, this makes for a very high value upgrade.
The Square Footing, of modest cost, is also of modest benefit. The Damping Instruments, on the other hand, are Big League. Operating directly on the tubes, where various shelving and isolation technologies are less effective, they have taken my system to a new high point. Obviously, I have not compared them to other tube damping products, but at their low cost, they represent a very high value, even if you have to shell out for ten of them. I'm not sure I would care for the look of them on the exposed tubes of a power amplifier, but it wouldn't surprise me if Steve Herbelin came up with something a little more stylish than the white Teflon ring--say silver or gold--in the near future. His website indicates a new high-temperature HAL-O model for the T-1610 power tube, and recent correspondence indicates the HAL-O will continue to evolve. I most appreciate Steve's willingness to hang in there with me, in spite of the missed deadline, and further expand my horizons with his HAL-Os. The lid is staying on my CAT.
And while the holidays may have passed, hear the echo of my greeting as we enter the New Year:
Holiday greetings to all, whatever your chosen religion. And may the appreciation of music help us all, even if only in some small way, to tolerate our ideological differences and live in peace.
At this point I would like to thank the boys in the band, without whose excellent contribution, this review would not have been possible:
Linn LP-12 Valhalla turntable with Sumiko MMT arm, Audio Technica 160-ML cartridge and None Felt turntable mat, on Symposium Svelte Shelf
Sony CDP-X77ES player as transport, Illuminati D-60 cable, Muse model two DAC on Symposium Rollerblock Jrs
Sony ST S550ES tuner with Fanfare FM-2G antenna
Convergent Audio Technology SL-1 Signature Mk III preamplifier on Symposium Rollerblock Series 2, power supply on Mini-Isis Platform
Plinius SA-100 Mk III power amplifier on Symposium Isis Platform on architectural slate
Von Schweikert VR-4 loudspeakers
Coincident Speaker Technology Partial Eclipse Mk II loudspeakers on Symposium Isis Platforms on architectural slate
JPS Labs Power AC In-Wall cable and power outlet
Interconnects: 18 gauge military spec wire with Apature locking RCA's
Speaker cable: military spec wire, various gauges, depending on speaker