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October 2009
Superior Audio Guilty Pleasures

A Reviewer Builds His Reference System Part 2
Infrastructure Improvements Reviews of the JPS Labs cables, Analysis Audio outboard crossovers, Bybee Golden Goddess Interconnect Bullets, Ginkgo Audio isolation platforms and power conditioning.
Review By Wayne Donnelly

Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

  The first chapter in this three-part series, as seen at this link in the August Superior Audio, narrated my transition from the San Francisco Bay area to Chicago, and focused on the core components of my system, with full reviews of the VTL TL-7.5 Series II line preamplifier and the Spectron Musician III Mk. II amplifiers configured as monoblocks. This article reviews infrastructure products that have delivered important improvements in connectivity, component isolation and power conditioning.

 

Connectivity
When I initially set up my Chicago Loop apartment, all of my interconnects and speaker cables were Jack Bybee's Golden Goddess designs.  Those remarkable-sounding hand-built cables — the interconnects  incorporating Bybee Slipstream Quantum Purifiers and gold +/silver - ribbon conductors; speaker cables using Bybee's Large Gold Quantum Purifiers with high-purity copper conductors — had surpassed all contending cables I was able to compare, many of them high-priced, from a number of highly regarded brands.

The Bybee cables sounded just as good in Chicago as in California — except for a problem that arose from my new location in the heart of a major city. The Bybee cables were not shielded. Surprisingly, that had not been a problem when I was living in Silicon Valley, although that area is frequently cited as being beset by RFI/EMI noise contamination. But my 12th floor Chicago digs in the downtown canyons were truly under never-ending assault from such noise, both airborne and through the electrical grid. So I decided to find well shielded interconnects that could play in the same ballpark sonically with the Bybee cables. I talked to colleagues and industry acquaintances, did a lot of reading, and finally decided on alternative interconnects and speaker cables.

 

JPS Labs Superconductor 3 Interconnect & Speaker Cable
(1-meter RCA $999; 1-meter XLR $1099; 8 foot speaker with WBT bananas $3099; Aluminata jumpers $400 for set of four)

JPS Labs CableRather than copper, silver, gold or combinations of those metals, JPS cables employ a proprietary alloy called Alumiloy. The Superconductor 3 interconnects are not extremely flexible —you can't nearly kink 'em — but sufficiently so that I had no trouble making all necessary connections. The speaker cables are similar — less flexible than the Bybee cables I had been using, but again not problematical.

After a week-long burn-in on my trusty audiodharma Cable Cooker, I installed the Superconductor 3 cables throughout the system. The first thing I listened for was whether the hoped-for improvements in the system's noise floor were evident — and they were. The occasional low-level sounds of radio broadcasts were now completely absent, and the system's backgroud with nothing playng was noticeably "blacker." That mission accomplished, I started listening for other cable-related factors. One of the first things I noticed was that the system's spatial resolution had gained slightly in layered depth, as well as image location specificity. The broad and deep soundscape I was accustomed to had become slightly wider and deeper; and on a well recorded CD like Alison Krauss and Union Station Live, I could aurally "see" the location of each band member ranged across the soundscape. I heard similarly exciting location cues on symphonic and chamber music recordings. Tonally, the sound of the JPS cables was remarkably similar to that of the Bybee cables they had replaced. The Alumiloy conductors sounded very much like the gold ribbon wire used in the Bybee Golden Goddess Interconnects — clean, fast and neutral, with just the right touch of harmonic warmth.

The Superconductor 3 speaker cables delivered similarly good results. My Analysis Amphitryon loudspeakers have bi-wire terminals, so initially I put the JPS cables on the woofer panels and the Bybee speaker cables on the ribbon tweeters. After a few days, I decided to take out the Bybee speaker cables — again, to see if the system noise floor could be further improved — and put in the JPS Aluminata jumpers. These jumpers are very rigid, and must be bent into the desired form. The result was gratifying — another slight but discernible gain in overall quietness, as well as deeper and tighter bass response.

A few months ago I went from a single stereo Spectron Musician III by adding a second amplifier and configuring the two as monoblocks. That setup requires that conventional speaker cables be connected to the hot (+) side of both speaker terminals on the amplifier. Around the same time I learned that Spectron and JPS were considering having JPS produce premium Remote Sense speaker cables. (The Remote Sense concept, unique to Spectron, extends the amplifier's feedback loop all the way to the speaker, so that any nonlinearities in cables are corrected in the amplifier's output. The Spectron amplifiers sport Neutrik Speak-On twist-to-connect output terminals in addition to the conventional Cardas terminals. I called Joe Scubinski, who told me he was prototyping two Remote Sense cables, the best of which would also use Superconductor 3 wire. Joe agreed to send me a set for audition.

It took a while after I installed the new cables before I could make a fair comparison with my original Superconductor 3s. Because my Cable Cooker does not have an adapter for the Speak-On interface, I had to burn in the new cables the slow, traditional way of just playing music through them. Finally, after about three weeks of nearly 24/7 low-level play, I was ready to compare Superconductor 3 in the standard and Remote Sense versions. It was not much of a contest. With the Remote Sense cables in place, leading-edge transients were faster and more impactful, and bass response was deeper and even faster. I heard no negative trade-offs. This result seems clearly to validate the Remote Sense concept, since the only difference between the two cables is the amplifier/cable interface. I had tried the original Spectron Remote Sense cables three years ago, but had rejected them in favor of the Bybee cables. But those originals were fabricated from off-the-shelf copper wire. The lesson here, for Spectron users, is that all things being equal, Remote Sense works beautifully and should be checked out.

I recently learned that Spectron and JPS, for business reasons that I am not privy to, never finalized a deal. I understand that Spectron is now working with another vendor (I don't know who) to develop Remote Sense cables. When those are available, I will certainly audition them. In the meantime, I am very happy to live with the JPS prototypes. And Joe Scubinski tells me that if anyone wishes to order Remote Sense speaker cables from him, he can supply them. Interested readers should contact the two companies for details on price and availability.

 

JPS Aluminata Interconnects
(1-meter RCA or XLR is $2999)

I had been hearing great things about the pricey top-of-the-line JPS interconnects, but I ignored the scuttlebutt for several months. After all, the Superconductor 3 cables were sounding fabulous, and I wasn't eager to drop big bucks for what could surely be only minor improvement. But a friend who is also a JPS dealer kept saying that adding Aluminatas even in one location — say, the preamp-to-amp link — would notably improve the system. Still, I resisted. What finally made me sit up and take notice was hearing that Art Dudley, my old editor at the late and much lamented Listener Magazine, had given the Aluminatas an immoderate rave in a Stereophile review. (I am not a fan of that magazine, but I have long respected Artie's good ear and comon sense integrity.) In the Listener days Art was highly skeptical, to say the least, about high-priced wire, and Listener ran articles on making cheap but good-sounding DIY cables. If that guy was dazzled by the Aluminata cables, and not totally freaked by their price, I figured they must be really special.

So I asked Joe Scubinski at JPS if I could audition a couple of pairs of Aluminata interconnects, and they soon arrived. After a week's burn-in on the Cable Cooker, in they went — initially only on the preamp-to-amp connection. Jaw-dropping time. The system noise floor had been so lowered by the Superconductor 3 that I really hadn't expected a significant incremental improvement from the Aluminata. But there it was — noticeably even quieter. I wondered briefly if I was falling prey to "more expensive must be better" — one of the more pernicious hallmarks of that dreaded affliction audiophilia nervosa. But after swapping back and forth a couple of times, I confirmed that the Aluminata ICs did indeed make the system even quieter than before.

That enhanced sense of quietness allowed even more very low-level detail to emerge, but in a very natural, non-spotlit way. In addition, every other benefit that the Superconductor 3 had delivered so well went up another level. Spatial precision became a little more concrete; bass response was now even deeper and tighter; and high frequencies became more relaxed and open-sounding — beautifully extended but not bright. No, these three-times-more-costly Aluminata interconnects were not three times better than the Superconductor 3 — we all know that in high-end audio, after a certain level you pay higher prices for smaller gains — but they were definitely better enough to make the investment worthwhile for this perfection-seeking listener. After a few deep breaths and a check of my bank balance, I ordered enough Aluminata for the entire system. I've never been sorry.

Interestingly, I understand that the Superconductor 3 and Aluminata interconnects use the same Alumiloy conductors. The big difference is in the shielding. The Superconductor 3 had been impressively quiet in my heavily RFI/EMI-contaminated environment, but the further improvements the Aluminata interconnects brought were substantial. I especially love having them in my turntable-to-phono stage link, but they have enhanced the sound of my digital sources and tuner as well. The Aluminata ICs are bulkier than the Superconductor 3 (though equally flexible); the reason for the bulkiness is the JPS Particle Aluminum Shield, available only on the Aluminata cables. These are by far the best-shielded — and best-sounding — cables I have ever used, and any perfectionist audiophile who can afford them should check them out — whether or not system noise pollution is an issue.

 

Analysis Audio Outboard Crossovers
($4800; Bybee SE Internal Bullet upgrade is $2500)

These passive crossovers are designed only for the wonderful planar/ribbon Analysis loudspeakers imported from Greece. But the crossovers themselves are the brainchild of Mike Kallelis of Analysis Audio USA, the North American importer and distributor, who is himself a talrnted engineer. Now, my Amphitryons ($28k per pair) sound glorious with the original inboard 6 dB/octave first-order crossovers. I bought them and gave them a 2006 Blue Note Award and my love affair with them has not cooled; I still haven't heard any speakers I would rather live with, including several big-ticket heavyweight contenders. So the rationale for the outboard crossovers is not remedial — the stock speakers have no crossover-related issues that need "fixing." Rather, they take an already great speaker to yet another level.

The crossovers occupy MDF enclosures measuring roughly 5 x 12 x 9 (HxDxW in inches). Both input from the amplifier and output to the speakers are via the same terminals used on the speakers. Those terminals are the only things I don't like about Analysis. Functionally, they are five-way binding posts, but they are spaced a bit too close together, they are round rather than hexagonal and therefore hard to tighten effectively, and if removed, the tightening nuts look virtually identical on both ends, so it's hard for my bad eyes to discern which end should be out — and if you put them in wrong it's hard to get a solid connection with the WBT banana plugs on the speaker cables. I'm seriously considering replacing all of them with WBT or Cardas terminals.

Like the stock crossovers, the outboard crossovers are first-order. I don't recall all of the details on the components in them, but the heavy-duty capacitors are Mundorf Silver. Mine have something else, which is for now unique. For our 2008 Blue Note Awards I named the Bybee Golden Goddess Speaker Bullets. As I said then, those pricey ($4200 per pair) little devices, which attach at the end of the speaker cables, are the most dramatically effective —revelatory, actually — plug-in accessories I have ever encountered. Mike confirmed that there was space available inside the crossover enclosures, so we contacted Jack Bybee and ordered eight of his SE Internal Bullets, which are used in in his plug-in Golden Goddess SE Speaker Bullets, to be installed at the outboard crossovers' output to the speakers. (Bybee restricts sales of those devices to OEMs; they are not available for modifications. Mike Kallelis has an OEM relationship with Bybee, and the crossovers are an OEM product.)

If a customer orders the outboard crossovers when purchasing the speakers, Mike Kallelis will make the necessary modifications before shipping the speakers. That requires removing the original internal crossovers. In my case, since I originally purchased the stock Amphitryons, a retrofit was required. I did not want to take down these seven-foot-tall screens, repack and ship them to New Jersey — which would also have been very expensive just for the shipping — and risk damaging the speakers, even though they are shipped in wood crates. So, instead, I bought Mike a cheap round-trip ticket on Southwest and he came out on a weekend and performed the necessary surgery.  Removing the internal crossovers, rewiring the speakers and installing the outboard crossovers took a bit less than half a day, and I was ready to embark on the lengthy task of burning in the new crossovers.

Mike had warned me that those big Mundorff capacitors would require many hours of playing time to burn in fully, and I knew from experience that the Bybee devices also require substantial burn-in time. With that knowledge, I was not concerned when the speakers initially sounded worse rather than better with the outboard crossovers in place — somewhat closed-in on top, with slower and less impactful bass, and a loss of soundscape size and image specificity. Those qualities cleared up in about 40-60 hours of playing time (and again, I left the system going 24/7, even playing very softly while I slept, for nearly a month). At about the 100-hour mark the system began to bloom again, and I started to get an idea of how the new crossovers would improve system performance. But even after that, I continued to perceive incremental improvements over the next three to four months.

Some time later it suddenly dawned on me that I could have shortened the burn-in process considerably if I had put the crossovers on the Cable Cooker, with speaker cables at the input and output ends. I probably could have had the system performing at the three-months-out level in a couple of weeks — although, of course, I wouldn't have been able to listen to the speakers during that time.

Once burn-in was complete, I was very happy that I had made the investment. When I had decided to add the Bybee Internal Bullets to the crossovers, I was thinking that I might be able then to sell the original plug-in Speaker Bullets and recoup some of the cost of the crossovers. So I tried removing the plug-in Bybee Bullets to see how good the sound was with just the internal Bybees in the crossovers feeding Aluminata jumpers to the speakers. The resultant sound was superb, but after a few days I couldn't resist reattaching the plug-in Speaker Bullets — which meant I now had doubled up on the Bybee elements. I have been incorporating Jack Bybee's amazing devices, both with internal component modifications and Bybee cables and plug-in accesories, for nearly 15 years now, and I have learned that their effects are cumulatively beneficial. So it was no surprise to find that a double shot of Jack Bybee's most advanced devices at the end of the system's signal path made things even better than with just one set of Speaker Bullets.

Traditionally the major rationale for outboard crossovers is to eliminate the resonances that can physically affect crossover components, especially from the woofers. Such resonances can be hard to overcome when the crossovers are inside a box speaker. There are numerous ways of reducing such vibrations; two of my favorite past speakers, the Eggleston Andras and the Meadowlark Blue Heron 2s, and many other high-end loudspeakers, at least isolate the crossovers in separate compartments under the speaker cabinet, as well as using various damping materials. Because my Amphitryoens are dipole planer designs, they have no resonating boxes. Moreover, the frames are quite sturdily built, and the woofer panels and ribbons attach to the frame with a rubber surround that further eliminates driver-generated vibration. Even the stock internal crossovers are pretty free of resonance artifacts. That being the case, the outboard crossovers need to provide serious additional sonic benefits in order to justify the price.

I give the Analysis onboard crossovers a big thumbs-up and Mission Accomplished (though I don't have an aircraft carrier to hang a sign on). Adding the standard outboard crossovers to these $28,000 speakers represents roughly a 17 percent upcharge; going whole hog for the crossovers plus the Bybee Bullets takes the price up 26 percent. Even at $35,000 per pair, the Amphitryons bring me more musical satisfaction than anything I have heard even at two or three times that price.

It is very hard to quantify the qualitative improvements I hear now, especially since after making the change there is no way to go back and A/B the upgraded speakers with the originals. But having lived with them for two years before the change and a year afterwards, I have no doubt that the change was worth making. Every audio checklist factor one typically cites in these reviews — tonal purity, harmonic completeness, transient speed and precision, bass depth, slam and pitch definition, high-frequency openness and extension, spatial verisimilitude — is now clearly enhanced. Every listening session draws me instantly into the music, nourishing my soul. And when my critical duties mandate shifting into left-brain analytical mode, these speakers are a fantastic reviewer's tool, allowing me to discern the most subtle differences among other components and accessories. My "window into the sound" is pretty damn clear!

 

Bybee Golden Goddess 'Super Effect' RCA and XLR Interconnect Bullets (both $2495 per pair); Bybee EL RCA Interconnect Bullets ($890 per pair)

First, some general information. The two Golden Goddess products use the same SE Internal Bullets as  the Bybee Golden Goddess Speaker Bullets referenced above and discussed in conjunction with the Analysis outboard crossovers in the previous section. Their primary function is to eliminate 1/f noise, a form of quantum mechanical noise caused when electrons flow through conductive materials. This noise is not audible to the human ear, but it negatively affects the beauty and musicality of program material. Eliminating 1/f noise allows music to play back with more natural immediacy and impact, without the subtly degrading electronic "haze" that otherwise overlays even the most high-quality audio systems.

These new Bybee products also perform a subtle but valuable time-alignment function. High frequencies propagate through cables at a slightly faster rate than do low frequencies. All of three Bybee Golden Goddess SE Bullet products incorporate a 21-picosecond dispersive delay that realigns those high and low frequencies to give musical signals a more coherent presentation. While the human ear cannot perceive a 21-picosecond misalignment in isolation, this restoration of timing can be heard in the more impactful and coherent reproduction of program material. The SE internal devices used in the Golden Goddess SE Bullets are custom-fabricated using gold, silver and platinum. Each GG SE RCA Bullet has a 3-inch carbon fiber tube, with an Eichmann RCA plug and jack at each end, SE Internal Bullets on both the + and - legs, and 14K gold ribbon wire. 

When Jack Bybee told me, about a year ago, that he was developing a product for interconnects that would do what his Speaker Bullets had done for speaker cables, I knew I had to audition them. Even though, as described above, the JPS Aluminata interconnects were performing brilliantly, and had gone a long way toward transforming my system's noise floor to a new degree of quietness, I still felt that I was missing some of the "magical" musicality that my former unshielded Bybee interconnects had contributed. Jack sent me a couple of pairs to audition, and after a one-week burn-in on the Cable Cooker I initially installed one pair, at the inputs of my (before the monoblocks) Spectron amplifier. I tried the other pair alternately from the CD player and phono stage links to my preamplifier. Lovely as the system had sounded, I knew almost instantly after adding these GG RCA Bullets that I had been right about missing something. With the RCA Bullets added to the Aluminata interconnects, the magic was back, in spades! I have already discussed the remarkable benefits of Jack Bybee's signal purification technology. The best way I can think of to boil it down it is to say that these products move the system's sound away from  sounding "electronic" and toward pure musicality. I bought the two audition pairs, and after going to monoblock amplifiers, bought another pair. The RCA Bullets now reside at the inputs to both amplifiers and at the preamplifier's CD input.

The Golden Goddess SE XLR Bullets are intended not only for perfectionist audiophile systems, but also to improve the fidelity of the recording process itself, from basic signal capture through mixing, mastering and manufacturing. Connected at the downstream end of microphone or interconnect cables, the SE XLR Bullets are designed to provide an unprecedented degree of quietness, coherence and tonal fidelity in any recording or playback environment.

Each SE XLR Bullet has a carbon fiber cylinder, five inches long and two inches in diameter. A Neutrik female XLR connector is set into the receiving end of the cylinder. At the other end, a short length of premium cable, with reinforced strain relief, terminates in a Neutrik male XLR connector. Jack Bybee tells me that it took him a long time to figure out how to build those devices and keep the price in the same ballpark as the RCA Bullets. I wanted to try them because I wanted to use balanced interconnects between my Ray Samuels Emmeline XR-10B phono stage and preamplifier, in order to take advantage of the common-mode noise rejection of balanced cables. In late spring of this year I received a pair, "cooked" them for a week and installed them. Same lovely old song — while the phono sound had been quite satisfying, and quiet, with the JPS interconnect, I got the predictable improvements in beauty and musicality with the XLR Bullets.

I do not make live recordings, so I have no way of testing whether the XLR Bullets are as effective in that environment as they are in a playback system. But Jack Bybee has taken them for beta testing in a professional recording environment, and he forwarded to me some informal e-mail comments from noted record producer Cookie Marenco after she used the XLR Bullets in her studio. With more than 20 years in the music industry, Cookie Marenco’s creative and technical skills have touched almost every aspect of the business. She is widely known for the quality of her audio engineering skills and for drawing out passionate performances from the artists she produces. She has engineered or produced 5 Grammy-nominated records, several Gold records and an Academy Award-winning documentary. Her artist credits include Max Roach, Kenny Aronoff, Tony Furtado, Charlie Haden,  Ralph Towner, Ernie Watts, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Chanticleer, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Her production and engineering skills can be found on projects for Monterey Jazz Festival, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Marinfest, Midem, Hard Rock Cafe, Windham Hill Records, Verve, Rounder Records, Om Records, Sony, Warner Bros. and others.

"When we tested the Bullets on the piano, we noticed a smoothness to the high notes that we never believed existed.  Several of us heard the difference.  We replayed the test many times to make sure of what we were hearing.  We're looking forward to trying out the Bullets in every place in the recording chain from microphones to mastering inputs."

"I had another opportunity to put the Bullets to the maximum test the other day.  I was mixing a project at OTR that was recorded at the artist's home studio on Protools.  Always an adventure!  While there wasn't apparent clipping issues, the sound appeared distorted, midrange exaggerated and really horrible.  I tried the usual method of running both stereo channels through my Millennia Origins and equalizing as usual.  The sound was better, but still quite annoying, so, I thought to run the Bullets into the Millennia before the signal arrived back at the board. We were all amazed, including the artist.  The immediate improvement was astounding!

I then tried using a Bullet in the same config with the lead vocal, which had run to the edge of what the Neumann 87 could handle.  Again, very beautiful sound.  I have my ideas of what changes the sound made, but, before I say all that, I must first thank you for letting me test these wonderful units."

 

"We were recording a solo harp for a few days.  More than the piano, the harp can have fine distortion characteristics that I had always attributed to the artist's performance of the 'pluck'.  After 2 days of recording, I asked the artist to perform the same piece and I inserted the Bullets into the Neve preamps coming from the BK 4012 silver cable config i use for the piano.... Everyone agreed in the room that the sound was brighter, slightly louder and much smoother.  The upper end distortion seemed to be gone.

This wasn't a well prepared test, but getting used to the 'old' sound, then hearing the same instrument with the same mic and same performer with no physical moves on the board...  it was impressive.  We all felt it enhanced and improved the sound of the harp. More noticeable than the piano, in fact.

The harp would be a good instrument to test on in the future.  I wonder how many harpists there are in the world?  Every harp player should carry these Bullets to recordings!!!!

 

Unfortunately, we are not likely to find many recordings that use the XLR Bullets, even after results such as those described above. Generally, pro sound folks just won't spend the money for a product at this price point. But we can dream....

The EL (Entry-Level) RCA Bullets are designed to provide Bybee signal purification at a much lower cost than the Golden Goddess products. Physically, they resemble their costlier siblings. Each EL RCA Bullet has a 3-inch-long carbon fiber tube containing a Neutrik RCA plug and Cardas RCA jack. A Bybee Slipstream Purifier is placed on the positive leg, and high-purity copper wiring is used.

The EL RCA Bullets work well in all applications, but Jack Bybee especially recommends them for phono cables. However, the low-level signals generated by photo cartridges would require an excessively long burn-in to reach optimal performance. Before placing the EL RCA Bullets on phono cables, Jack recommends a 100-hour burn-in in a preamp-to-amp connection or on a cable burn-in appliance. I heartily concur.

My phono preamp has RCA inputs and both RCA and XLR outputs. I wanted to try the EL RCA Bullets at the phono input from the turntable; as described above, I have XLR connection from the photo preamp to my line stage. Upon installing these lower-cost Bullets, I did in fact quickly perceive a subtle but definitely worthwhile "Bybee effect" here as well. And that was after all the other upgrades I have been discussing in this article. I think there are few systems, at whatever price, that would not gain in musicality from a judicious application of these moderately priced EL RCA Bullets. I added another pair to my tuner connection, abd the suberb broadcast sound of Chicago's great classical FM station WFMT predictably improved — so much so that a visitor who came in onr day while the tuner was playing asked me for "the name of that beautiful CD." Alright!

 

A Final Comment On Connectivity: Continuity And Coherence
After integrating all of the products covered in this section, I feel that I have achieved a remarkable degree of continuity and coherence in my system's signal path. Let me explain. The Spectron amplifiers and the Analysis outboard crossovers are wired internally with JPS Labs wire. This wire is available selectively to OEM customers, NOT to modifiers or DIYers. As a result, my entire signal path flows through wire, cables and accessories from JPS  Labs and Bybee Technologies. Obviously, I could at this point do only limited comparative testing. But I believe strongly that this consistency provides valuable continuity that enhances the remarkable sense of coherence I hear from the system.

 

Isolation
Anyone who takes this hobby seriously soon learns how important are component isolation and vibration control to getting the best out of an audio system. It's really quite extraordinary that even behemoth, virtually unliftable amplifiers lose some of their expensively engineered performance from even very tiny degrees of vibration. Consequently, isolation and vibration control products comprise one of the biggest segments of aftermarket accessory sales.

After nearly four decades as an audiophile, I'm not sure I could even remember all of the devices — all made and purchased — that I have tried over the years. Racks, cones, pods, pucks, balls, blocks, platforms. Made from many different combinations of metals, plastics, rubberr, graphite, vinyl, air — well, you know. If I still had all that stuff I could probably fill a small closet with it.

When I arrived in Chicago my equipment rack was the Arcici Suspense Rack I had purchased some 13 years earlier. Conceptually, this is a very ingenious and effective design. Virtually nonresonant acrylic shelves, dampened by Sorbothane support disks, are suspended via metal rods from a massive steel plate that sits atop four wheelbarrow inner tubes that can be inflated with a hand-held bicycle pump from valves on the front of the rack. In that way every component in the rack is effectively air-suspended, as is the turntable sitting atop the rack.

Over the years this rack has required constant tweaking. The valves leak, usually not quickly but enough that maintaining effective air suspension requires re-pumping every few days. And a few years ago I had to replace all of the inner tubes with new ones. These days, given my poor eyesight, trying to judge just the right degree of inflation (too much pumping up reduces the effectiveness; the key is to inflate just enough). So I thought the rack could use a little help.

Back when I was using the big VTL tube monoblocks, they were way too large to fit into a rack, so I placed them on individual Arcici air-suspension platforms. I also, typically, had numbers of separate component power supply modules sitting on the floor. But after going from the big VTL amps to the Spectron amplifiers, which are easily accommodated on a component rack, I decided to keep everything off the floor. In California I had maintained a small separate system upstairs in my bedroom, surrounding my big flat-screen TV. The components in that small system had resided in a sturdy Sanus  rack with rigidly fixed shelves. I decided to add that rack to the main system, which allowed me to get everything electronic off the floor.

I knew, though, that given the high power of my amplifiers and the excellent bass output of my speakers, that I needed very good isolation support for the components. I didn't want a hodgepodge of footers, but rather a solution that would be consistent in effect and appearance. And I didn't want to have to spend a fortune. After a good bit of research, review reading and conversation, I finally decided on what to do.

 

Ginkgo Audio Vibration Control Platforms
Cloud 10 (18 x 14 x 2.5") $329
Cloud 11 (18 x 16 x 2.5") $449
Cloud 11 for VPI Aries 3 turntable: $599
Mini-Cloud (3 support balls, no platform) $100

A Ginkgo platform comprises a dimpled base that enables the user to place precisely solid, firm balls roughly the size of a racquetball to support a solid plastic platform on which the component rests. The number of balls needed depends on the weight of the component — roughly one ball for every 10 pounds supported. When I received my first shipment from Ginkgo, I couldn't resist a smile. Years ago I had jury-rigged more than one similarly conceived device using racquetballs and tennis balls — and they had actually worked pretty well.

As you can see from the dimensions, the Cloud 11 is two inches deeper than the Cloud 10, and has a thicker, heavier platform. I put 11s under my Spectron amplifiers as well as under both chassis of my VTL 7.5 preamp, which weigh @ 40 pounds each. Cloud 10s support my CD player and (with a little extra weight added) the VPI  SDS speed controller for my Aries 3 turntable. I have used the Mini-Clouds (3 ball/footer combos, no platform)  under my tuner and outboard power supplies. Finally, a Ginkgo platform designed specifically for the Aries 3 sits under the turntable.

Those placements were done one at a time, which enabled a succession of before-and-after comparisons. I must say that I was (agreeably) shocked at the degree of improvements in the system wrought by these simple structures. The most noticeable effect, in virtually every case, was a gain in transparency. I had not thought my system sounded congested, but when that congestion was eliminated, music sounded distinctly clearer and more beautiful. Spatial cues were far more precise, and imaging from a very good recording could be almost holographic. Bass response grew quicker, tighter and more impactful, and transients at any frequency gained a more sharply defined leading edge.

I also like the security of having my components sit on substantial surfaces, in no danger of having a small footer dislodged. And I like the visual consistency of the platforms. (They are available in clear or black plastic; I opted for the black.)

A word about the Mini-Clouds: I find those inexpensive supports a fine improvement over placing the component directly on a shelf. But when I replaced a set of them with a Cloud 10 under my VPI SDS — where I hadn't thought vibration control would make much of a difference — the sound of the turntable immediately improved in transparency, bass control and high-frequency openness. Go figure. So I suspect that before long the Mini-Clouds will be replaced by platforms.

The dedicated Aries 3 Gingko platform has beautifully isolated my turntable. Recently, however, I have been evaluating the new VPI rim drive motor (review in progress), which is a bit longer than the single-motor-flywheel drive, and the Ginkgo platform is just barely wide enough to support that rig. So I ordered a 1.5-inch-thick hard maple butcher block to more comfortably accommodate the VPI setup, and now have the butcher block shelf between the Ginkgo platform and the turntable. It was easy enough — I just added two more balls to support the extra weight of the butcher block. And, as I suspected, the combination of the Ginkgo isolation and the slight harmonic warmth from the butcher block is bringing me even more pleasure from my LPs than before.

 

Power Conditioning
When I reviewed the Bybee Wire Power Purifier (see the Blue Note Awards in this issue), I described having my original Bybee/Curl Pro power conditioner updated with the same Bybee SE Internal Bullets I discussed earlier in this article. That excellent-sounding conditioner now serves all of my front-end and source components. In addition, virtually everything in my system uses Bybee power cables.

When I originally planned this series of articles, I expected to provide a fairly lengthy discussion of the ExactPower  EP-15A, two of which reside in my system. But several weeks ago I received a letter stating  that the EP-15A is now discontinued. A full review is now irrelevant, but I will discuss the virtues of this product more briefly.

The acquisition of the EP-15A units was prompted by the discovery back in late 2007 that my Chicago building has a chronic overvoltage electrical service. During the day the incoming AC typically ranges between 123 and 127V, which is far from ideal but well within the tolerances of most well designed audio gear. But in the evening, when I do most of my serious listening, incoming AC is typically in excess of 130V — and that is not healthy for audio electronics. Over the long haul, that much excessive voltage as potential to prematurely degrade parts and lead to expensive repairs.

I selected the EP-15A primarily because it was a voltage-regulating design, able to take incoming AC from 95 to 140V and regulate that to produce an output of 120V to all outlets. The EP-15A also supplied 10 AC outlets, divided equally between analog and digital — the latter with special filtering. In use, the voltage regulation works perfectly, and the unit's RFI/EMI filtering was quite useful in combating that kind of noise contamination. I also felt that putting the EP-15A units (I have two, because a single EP-15A, with a total rating of 150 W, would occasionally clip and shut down when the system was playing very loudly.  But it was clear to me that the EP-15As made a useful contribution to the overall sound quality of the system as well.

In my current setup, the EP-15As  are plugged directly into the wall. The Bybee/Curl Pro, which has separate circuits for analog and digital components, is plugged into the EP-15As, analog side into one and digital side into the other. The two Spectron amplifiers also plug into the EP-15As, one amp into each unit.

I was sorry to learn that this fine product is now discontinued. It is an attractive and well made unit. Anyone looking for a good power conditioner, especially if voltage regulation is needed, would be well advised to look for it on the used equipment auction sites.

 

Click here for part 3 of Building A Reference System.

 

Manufacturers

www.JPSlabs.com

www.AnalysisAudioUSA.com

www.BybeeTech.com

www.GingkoAudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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