Symposium Acoustics Isis Shelf
And Rollerblock Jrs.
by Rick Becker
Click here to e-mail reviewer
Peter Bizlewicz, President of Symposium Acoustics, may well be one of the most dangerous men in High End audio. I wasn't exactly prepared for this when I requested a set of Rollerblock Jrs. for review. My previous experience with Symposium products was a private demonstration for myself and two other journalists at the Montreal Son & Image show several years ago.
There, the presenter had assembled a 47Labs system on a variety of Symposium products and proceeded to deconstruct the system, removing the various sets of original Rollerblocks and shelves from one component at a time. The result was a perceptibly degraded system. Then, he reconstructed the original system by adding the Symposium products back in, one at a time. This time, the results were more perceptible, as our familiarity with the system had grown over the course of almost an hour. Pretty neat, I thought! But these products were designed and built as if they were going to the moon, and priced accordingly. And the difference I perceived in the unfamiliar 47Labs system was not much different than what I thought I had achieved with my home-brew suspension tweaks.
A couple of years passed, some less expensive competition for the Rollerblocks hit the market, and Symposium responded with a new generation of more affordable products. Time to look into this a little more seriously, I figured. I requested the Rollerblock Jrs., but after a lengthy phone conversation with Mr.
Bizlewicz, I received a package containing not only the Jrs, but the Rollerblock Series 2, the new Isis Platform, the Svelte Shelf, plus a set of tungsten carbide upgrade balls for the Jrs. A little quick math in the head to figure out all the permutations and combinations of components, and I soon realized that I had enough testing to keep me busy for six months--on top of my regular 60 hour workweek! But this is not what I meant by calling him dangerous.
For some reason in the heat of August I had put my inexpensive Sony DVD player into my big rig. It was not as refined as my reference digital playback, but it wasn't bad, either. I decided to cut the shrink-wrap on the Isis shelf and see what it would do to this entry level DVD player. I might as well start and the bottom and work my way up, I thought. It improved the sound, as advertised, but still it was nothing great. I added a piece of slate to the top of the DVD player to give the Isis shelf more mass to play with. No difference.
With no great expectation I put the Isis under my Muse model two dac. The music got better by a big step. There was more separation of instruments, less noise or hash. The bell on Lyle Lovett's "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" was rich and had a clear decay. On James Taylor's "Traffic Jam" from his "Live" album, the hall echoes and audience clapping at the opening of the cut and close were clearly revealed. For the longest time I thought this album was recorded at an outdoor venue--probably because that was how I first experienced him in person. I won't be fooled again--as another song goes.
This was the best I've ever heard this CD at home.
Movin' On Up
With a relatively pleasing success under my belt, I opened up the stainless steel clad Svelte Shelf, and substituted it for the Isis. The notes had even faster attack and the music was more dynamic. I heard even deeper into the soundstage. The bass was tighter and fuller at the bottom. (I was using the Coincident Speaker Technology Partial Eclipse Mk II loudspeakers for these tests, which I measured to below 30Hz at the listening chair. See review in this issue). It did not extend the bass any deeper from what I heard before, but it certainly cleaned it up, thereby allowing the notes with their attack and decay to appear more rich and textured.
Reverting back to the Isis for James Taylor's "Steamroller Blues" his voice seemed a little more recessed. There was less air on top and the image was less transparent. And oops!
I forgot to switch the Plinius into class A operation--admittedly an easy mistake in what was one of the hotter summers on record. That evening, with the Isis under the tuner, Hearts of Space, Program #635, took me down under for some didgeridoo music that floated throughout the hood with the windows cranked open.
Putting the Rollerblock Jrs. on top of the Isis shelf underneath the Muse
dac, I tested the effect of combining products under a single component. Now, I'm not a big classical music fan--my favorite symphony is the Lone Ranger Symphony--but I've been to enough memorial services to know what a violin sounds like. So I popped in "Music For A Glass Bead Game" with Arturo
Delmoni, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting with John Marks, the producer of the CD, at the Home Entertainment show in New York this past June. I was moved to tears. The system had achieved such extreme focus that I could hear the most subtle intonations in this intriguing collection of violin pieces, which strangely appealed to the abstract expressionist in me.
My brother, a global cowboy out of Tucson, blew into town and had a brief listen to this system. He is no audiophile, but he figured out pretty quickly that the Coincident loudspeakers and whatever else was going on, was something pretty special. In fact, I wondered myself, at this point, if my system was good enough for the
Coincidents. The system had reached its highest level of resolution ever, with the addition of the Isis shelf and Rollerblock Jrs. under the
dac. The bass on James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" was as tight and deep as I recall the larger and more expensive Coincident Victory loudspeakers at the Montreal show
I had a strange experience later that night with the Isis, Rollerblock Jrs and dac all sitting on
top of the tuner. The Hearts of Space program sounded better than the week before! No chemicals added! The shelf seems to absorb vibrations from components below it as well, although for best heat dissipation, I wouldn't make a long-term practice of this setup.
Later that week, after listening to Sonatas of Faure and
Franck, another fine Delmoni performance from John Marks Records, I swapped out the standard balls in the Rollerblock Jrs. and put in the Tungsten Carbide Grade 25 balls, a $75 upgrade. They were noticeably heavier than the standard balls, although to the naked, untrained eye, they looked pretty much the same except for a slightly bluish tint. I put on the Delmoni CD again. The notes coming from the violin strings were honed to such a sharp edge that Zorro would have loved them! If there was a flawed note on that recording, it must have slid by while I was sipping my Mt. Dew. I am also not an expert at piano like my friend and fellow reviewer Art Shapiro, but I felt like I was looking right under the hood at those little hammers. We're talking immediacy here!
On Lyle Lovett's Church the gospel singers at the back of the soundstage were much clearer, although the soundscape did not appear any deeper. In Lyle's "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" the bass was more clearly defined and a few hertz deeper, fleshing out the deepest notes more fully at the lower limit of the Coincident Partial Eclipse Mk
The Tungsten Carbide balls made Bruce Springsteen's song Human Touch more focused, and Patti Scialfa's voice was more distinct in the mix. The drums at the back of the soundstage were clearer; cymbals had more precise attack and decay and the kick-drum actually had texture instead of thud. The upgrade balls took the barrage of sound and let you see every brick in the wall. Sustained notes floated in space--a very
large space, to be sure. In "57 Channels" the echo refrain was pinpointed at the back of the soundstage and was as precise as I've ever heard it.
On the Burmester CD3, Hugh Masekela's "Stimela" was so alive that I could understand the African lyrics of the back-up singers. And the following cut, "Poem For Chinese Drums," was as solid and tuneful as could be. Subtle sounds from the back of the soundstage were very clear, precisely locating different drummers and revealing the musical interplay among them, which permitted far greater appreciation of their music.
But all is not perfect with the Tungsten Carbide upgrade balls in my system. On BB King's
Blues Summit CD, the focus was too intense and gave me a slight headache listening at a
92dB to 96dB level, which is higher than usual for me, but seemed to befit the music. The Tungsten Carbides can take you right to the limit, but a difficult recording can push your system over the edge.
The Analog Trials
On the analog side of the system, I was also reviewing the Extreme/Phono None-Felt turntable pad, but I decided to interrupt that trial with the Symposium shelves. My setup starts with a solid maple shelf, on which rests a large round 1/2 inch thick aluminum plate with three machine screws threaded into it to allow for leveling. (This plate was originally part of a
12 inch reflecting telescope my brother manufactured when he was in high school). My Linn turntable sat right on the aluminum disc.
For these trials I added about seven foam toilet gaskets on top of the aluminum disc to protect the stainless steel Svelte Shelf. Since the Linn has fairly hard rubber feet, and a soft masonite bottom, I did not use metal couplers. Linda positioned the gaskets and Svelte Shelf as I carefully lifted the Linn.
I lowered the arm onto Blood, Sweat and Tears' self-titled album. "Oh My G-d" as I bathed in the bloom of the opening notes that hung there right in the room. There was plenty of focus the first time through, before I installed the shelf, but everything got richer sounding and the piano, especially, fleshed out. I could actually taste the music. When this record was pop back in the last millennium, it was midrange mush on a car stereo for me. Now, it was nearly full range music with a real human voice and intricate interaction among the musicians that I never new was there. I felt like a Born Again Rock 'n Roller!
Swapping in the Isis Platform and playing side B, it was clear that the Isis gives up some bloom, some palpability, and maybe a little depth of field to its bigger brother. But that is as it should be. The Isis costs less and weighs less. But you pay for something and you very definitely get something in return with the Isis. When I took out the Isis, the music was more homogenous; the focus had dropped a significant notch.
The bloom seemed like a fuzzy cloud around the notes, obscuring them, rather than the notes themselves having the bloom. This was particularly evident on sustained notes of the organ solo at the beginning of "Blues Part II" on the BS&T album.
Now, reversing this sequence the results were much the same, but what became evident was a greater improvement going from the Isis Platform to the Svelte Shelf than from the foam gaskets to the Isis Platform. Step two was larger than step one. Also, I noticed the bass had tightened up a bit. My Linn Valhalla does not have the Circus upgrade bearing, so this benefit was certainly appreciated, and could save me hundreds of dollars.
Rollerblock Jrs. vs. Isis Platform
Sunday night again and it's "Pipedreams" time on WXXI-FM (Is it football season, yet)?
Round One: I slid the Isis Platform under my Sony tuner (which has been upgraded with the addition of a shielded captive power cord). The blue synthetic isolation pads I've been using for years were left in place, under the Isis Platform. The improvements were essentially the same: space became more 3-dimensional; there was more hall sound, and focus improved a fair amount.
Round Two: out with the Isis Platform and in with the Rollerblock Jrs. This time there was a much larger improvement in all the same areas.
Round Three: Rollerblock Jrs. on top of the Isis Platform. Better still!
Round Four: I loaded the Muse DAC on top of the tuner and the image softened a bit. Lesson: Do not stack or mass load your components on Symposium products.
Round Five: Added Tungsten Carbide upgrade balls to the Rollerblock Jrs. The focus improved even more and the attack of the notes was right at the edge of being
too much! I switched to a rock station with lower signal strength and the music was too grating with the hard balls. Then I found a stronger rock station and the music was more listenable.
Round Six: Removed the Isis Platform and used only the Rollerblock Jrs. with the Tungsten Carbide balls. The focus was still as good as with the Isis in place, but it backed away from the edge of irritability. The soundstage receded slightly, but this combination (with this component, in my system) was very enjoyable.
Round Seven: In a rush to play a CD during breakfast, I put the DAC back on top of the tuner (which was on the Rollerblock Jrs. with the hardballs) and found the clarity seemed to carry right on up through the tuner to the
Lesson: Do not stack your components on Symposium products. It may be good for the guy on top, but it's not much fun when you're the guy in the middle.
In one of many phone conversations and e-mail exchanges with Peter
Bizlewicz, I alluded to the separate power supply of my Convergent Audio Technology preamplifier which sits on a piece of slate on the floor. Before the sun could set thrice, I had a Mini-Isis and became an unofficial member of the Symposium R&D Team. (Don't I get a T-shirt? Or a hat)?
I took all Symposium products out of the system and listened to James Taylor's "Steamroller Blues" again. Liquid, warm, musical and familiar. My toes were tapping.
I added the Mini-Isis to the power supply and the focus picked up a significant notch. I especially noticed the cymbals and the harder attack of notes.
I removed the Mini-Isis and added the Isis beneath the CAT preamplifier itself. This gave me not only more focus, but also a deeper soundstage and more palpable sound. The cymbals were more natural; both attack and decay, and were easier on the ear.
Next, I kept the Isis under the CAT and added the Mini-Isis to the power supply. The mid-bass became noticeably tighter, the soundstage deeper still, and the soundstage was richer, fuller and more defined.
Then I removed the Mini-Isis and added the Rollerblock Jrs. to the power supply. The mid-bass became even tighter and the focus was better yet.
Next I screwed up and failed to make an accurate notation. (I hate it when that happens). I think I then added the Rollerblock Jrs between the Cat and the Isis, and added the Mini-Isis beneath the power supply. This gave me more attack on the cymbals, and the experience of a great guitar solo.
Then I removed both the Isis and Mini-Isis, leaving only the Rollerblock Jrs. beneath the CAT preamplifier. The focus softened
just a bit, the music became a little more liquid and the pace and rhythm became really prominent. This combination didn't give up much, so if you have to go with only one product, I'd recommend the Rollerblock Jrs.
Covering The Bases
Next, I put the Isis under the Muse DAC and left the Rollerblock Jrs. under the CAT preamplifier. The focus became really sharp with this combination--right to the limit of comfort for me. The voices in the audience on James Taylor's "Live" album were really pinpointed.
Then I spread it out even more, adding the Mini-Isis under the CAT power supply. The soundstage seemed a little deeper and the music a bit more palpable. Basically, it seemed that having something under more components is the best way to go. But this is not the end of the story. I put on "Two Rooms", a tribute album to Elton John, and many of the songs were too bright or too sharp, so I removed the Mini-Isis and the music softened just a touch to a level that was still crystal clear. Apparently, it is possible to
over-Symposium your system.
Oldies But Goodies
Just for kicks, I dug up my old Musical Design SP1 preamplifier. (It is too cool looking to think of selling). Using the 20 amp Romex line, I installed it in the system. It was the best I've ever heard it sound, but the highs were definitely rolled off, and it was fuzzier than the CAT on the maple shelf
without any Rollerblock Jrs. I then installed the Rollerblock Jrs. under the Musical Designs preamplifier and the focus of the music improved by a very considerable amount. The violin and cello on Arturo Delmoni's
The Glass Bead Game were precisely pinpointed on the soundstage, but the tonal balance of the SP1 did not improve. The Rollerblock Jrs. did not turn the SP1 into a CAT, but oh, that
Swapping the Mini-Isis for the Rollerblock Jrs. under the Musical Design preamplifier, the focus improved considerably, but not as much as with the less expensive Rollerblock Jrs.
Another spin of Springsteen's 57 Channels indicated that the rear of the soundstage remained narrow even with the help of the Mini-Isis. Nonetheless, both the Isis Platforms and the Rollerblock Jrs. seem to work their magic across the price spectrum of components in terms of improving the focus of the music.
Got Change For A Dollar?
So, which should you buy? Well, there are the physical differences to consider as well as the effectiveness of each product. The Rollerblock Jrs stack higher than the shelves or platforms, and they require more air space above them to place the component on top of them--preferably
wide-open. If you have tight clearances on your rack, it may be much easier to just slide the components straight in on top of the shelves. The Rollerblock Jrs., by the way, were very easy to place under components--even the very heavy CAT preamplifier. I did not try them under the Plinius power amp, as that would require a three-person operation in very tight quarters in my set-up: two to lift and one to place the shelf or Rollerblocks.
A shelf or platform works best under a turntable for obvious reasons, but other components, even a CD player, would work fine under the Rollerblock Jrs., which give you the biggest improvement for your dollar. And as I found out, using these products under various components had results that varied with the component, and results that were cumulative when combinations of the Isis Platform, Svelte Shelf and Rollerball Jr. were used. It is a matter of fine-tuning your system, and as I learned, it is better to err on the soft side than to over-do the system with Symposium products. The good news is that if say the Rollerblock Jrs. were
too much under one component, (not very likely), they might be just right under another.
In fact I began to think of these products as making change for a dollar. You give Symposium your dollar and they give you back a bunch of different shelves and Rollerblocks. Some products might give you a 50 cent effect, others a quarter and still others a dime or nickel. Since these values are "effectiveness", you have to place them under the proper components in your system to tune your system to your personal preference. And of course, you can add the Rollerblock Jrs. or Svelte Shelf or whatever, one component at a time, as your wallet allows.
I got very lucky one morning. I was lamenting the loss of focus in my system after swapping my VR-4 loudspeakers back into the system for the final Check/Double Check in the review of the very fine Coincident Partial Eclipse Mk II loudspeakers. Sitting in my listening chair, chewing on a rather large mouthful of high fiber cereal, I glanced down and saw the Mini-Isis lying beside me on the floor. Nothing ever improves when I'm sitting in that chair, so I got my butt up and put the Mini-Isis back under the CAT power supply. The result was pure magnificence. I still didn't have the ultra-fine inner resolution of the
Coincidents, but the Mini-Isis made an important improvement in the resolution, bloom and palpability of the total package that made me feel like I was eating Frosted Flakes.
Who was that Masked Man?
And why is Peter Bizlewicz so dangerous?
Consider this. Suppose you were thinking of spending a thousand dollars on a new cartridge or turntable, and you discovered that putting a Svelte Shelf under you present turntable for $259 (without couplers) produced a benefit that made you forget about upgrading the stylus or turntable.
You've just saved yourself $700+ and probably not spent the thousand dollars at your local dealer. Or suppose you spent a thousand dollars on a bunch of Symposium products and discovered that you really didn't need to upgrade to that $10K pair of speakers. Coming from zero dollars and thinking of spending a couple hundred dollars seems like, well, spending a couple of hundred dollars, and the Symposium products seem pretty expensive. Thinking of spending a thousand, or ten thousand dollars on a new component and discovering that you can achieve the desired results with maybe a few hundred, and the Symposium products I've tested here are an incredible value.
Now, you can take the $700, or $9,000 you've just saved and divide it in two, and send half of it to me for my Triumph Motorcycle Fund. Or you have some other options. You can choose to upgrade your components based more on style than on Stereophile ratings or product reviews, knowing that if the component isn't quite right in your system, you can tweak the system to some degree with the Symposium products. This should take away some of the fear of making that next purchase. Now see, Peter isn't such a Bad Guy after all.
Where Do I Go From Here?
You may have noticed that I didn't compare the Rollerblock Jrs with the Rollerblock Series 2 that I also received, but have not yet unwrapped. I also did not test the shelves under my speakers, or Rollerblocks under my CD transport. Or various other combinations, thereof. After two back-to-back 80-hour workweeks with these reviews in addition to my day job, I need to relax and go climb a mountain in the Adirondacks this weekend. Part II next month.
This review, plus the JPS Labs and Coincident Speaker Technology review were all due in the October issue, so feel free to read them all to appreciate the complete transformation my system has undergone in the past six weeks...
Linn LP-12 turntable with MMT arm and Audio Technica 160-ML cartridge
Sony CDP-X77ES player as transport, Illuminati D-60 cable, Muse model two DAC
Sony ST S550ES tuner with Fanfare FM-2G antenna
Convergent Audio Technology SL-1 Signature Mk III preamplifier
Plinius SA-100 Mk III power amplifier
Von Schweikert VR-4 loudspeakers
Coincident Technology Partial Eclipse Mk II loudspeakers
JPS Labs Power AC In-Wall cable and power outlet
Interconnects: 18 gauge military spec wire with Apature locking RCA's
Loudspeaker cable: military spec wire, various gauges, depending on the loudspeaker
Rollerblock Series 2+ (includes Tungsten Carbide balls) set of
Rollerblock Jr., set of three $169
Rollerblock Jr+ (with Tungsten Carbide balls) set of three $219
Isis Platform $189
Svelte Shelf, 19 x 14 inches, with Couplers $289 / without couplers, $259
1209 Pines Lake Dr. West
Wayne, NJ 07470
Voice: (973) 616-4787
Fax: (973) 616-7848