World Premiere Review!
Louis Motek is a scientist who thinks about electricity beyond the wire. He's up there in that class of audio savants with Ted Denny of Synergistic Research, the late Jack Bybee, Rick Schultz of the former High Fidelity Cables, and likely a few others. A look at his website will tell you a lot about him. To call him an engineer borders on insult, but he's one of those, too. He works with an actual electrical engineer at LessLoss, Vilmantas "Vil" Duda, who presumably keeps Louis from violating any laws of physics. Like other innovators in high-end audio, Louis has developed a legion of followers. One of them in Germany is responsible for tuning me into LessLoss.
I was grateful for the opportunity to review his Firewall 640X, Firewall for Loudspeakers, Entropic C-MARC Power Cord, and Bindbreaker footers back in March 2022. As much as I recognized the brilliance of those products, the review samples were not for sale and I moved on to my Montreal and Axpona show reports. More importantly, I enrolled on the LessLoss mailing list to keep abreast of his future developments. Louis is a transparent CEO. The "insiders" who sign up for his newsletters know about his developments in advance of the release of the finished product and he offers them Early Bird Specials when he finally nails down his designs.
With great interest, I read about the development of the BlackGround, now in v2 edition, a "highly advanced ambient field conditioner [which] unlocks the mysteries of sublime interaction between solar activity and high-end audio system performance." You can read about that on their website.
Subsequently, another product, BlackGround DIY was developed. The "BlackGround is an innovative new DIY technology developed by LessLoss which comes in simple modular form. One such device relates any tapped AC or DC voltage to ground. This special relation elevates sonic performance to unprecedented levels. Any signal can be used, including line-level signals, speaker signals with high current, or even power voltages. No current flows through between the BlackGround's two contact terminals, so no power is consumed."
The BlackGround DIY was named "BlackGround" by Jens Thorsen in Denmark who was selected among many entrants in the product naming competition Louis had set up among his fans. It was released on November 18, 2022, with a price of $446 including free worldwide shipping. Early Bird Special pricing was 20% off that on a single unit and with orders of four, they included a fifth BlackGround free.
I've been paying attention to the development of grounding technology from Computer Audio Design and more recently, Synergistic Research. The BlackGround DIY was interesting, but I envisioned needing a half dozen or more units entwined among my components. That kind of wiring complexity wreaks havoc on a reviewer who is frequently swapping out components.
The day before the launch of BlackGround DIY another email announced the development of the BlackGround 10X, a plug-in unit incorporating ten BlackGround units in a single wood chassis. The simplicity of this unit was appealing. I thought about it for an hour while my morning coffee kicked in, then fired off an email to Louis requesting a review sample. He responded within an hour.
Louis communicates freely. One of our first interactions was a long Zoom call before my first LessLoss review. And he is a man who gets things done. He had a sense of urgency to get out a review of the BlackGround 10X that was a perfect fit for Enjoy The Music. We love World Premiere reviews and personally, I thirst for unique, groundbreaking products. I was still cranking away at my Capital Audiofest Chronicles but figured I could get it into the January issue if my editor, Steve Rochlin, would leave the light on for me. It was Game On!
But there were other complications. Louis emailed later that evening that the BlackGround 10X would not fit into the plastic flight cases he uses for his Echo's End DAC. The speaker binding post for linking multiple BlackGrounds protruded too far. He would have to ship it in a cardboard box that required custom fitting with protective Styrofoam. He must have been up all night as 17 pieces of custom-cut foam fit like a jigsaw puzzle, tightly enclosing the prototype BlackGround.
Sometimes aggravation is the mother of invention and Louis emailed the next day telling me he had come up with an elegant banana plug insert that would eliminate the need for the protruding binding post. Since I was only going to receive one unit, this was not a problem for me. (More on this, later.) Here's a photo of the new banana plug inserts.
Then, instead of three-day overnight shipping from Lithuania, it took over a week. I figured NATO commandeered the UPS truck to deliver munitions to the Donbas. It arrived in perfect condition without a single crunched corner or bullet hole in the cardboard box. Have you hugged your local UPS driver lately?
After listening to most of the CD to establish a baseline, I brought the BlackGround into the room and placed it on the subwoofer about a half-meter in front of the equipment rack. I hit 'play' not knowing what to expect — after all, it is totally out of the signal path of the components. Louis had forewarned me that the effect of the BlackGround fades in slowly when first engaged and fades away slowly when it is removed. The bloom, however, vanished immediately. The soundstage narrowed but became much deeper. There was more inner detail, not because notes were more resolved, but because a lot of noise had been eliminated. The performers were more recessed--farther behind the plane of the speakers. Oh-oh. This was a pretty mixed bag, at first.
The effects began to settle in--or was I just getting used to it? Eventually, the soundstage opened up and became better defined, moving closer to the plane of the speakers. When I replayed "Human Touch" (the first song on the CD) after listening to the entire CD, it was apparent more bloom was coming into play again. It was evident that the positive effects of the BlackGround were building, but instead of leaving it in the room all night, I returned it to the kitchen to see if the effects would also dissipate overnight in its absence.
Sure enough, when I went to play the CD the next morning in the absence of the BlackGround, the beneficial effects were gone and I was back to Square One. I brought it back into the listening room again and placed it on the subwoofer for an hour while the rig warmed up and I checked my emails. Like magic, the music got better in all the same ways it had the previous night, confirming what Louis had initially alerted me about. It is not a component you can A/B test rapidly because the change does not happen like flipping a light switch. But give it an hour to settle in and the effect is very obvious... and very welcome.
Next, I placed the BlackGround on top of my CD player (used as a transport for the LampizatOr Amber 4 DAC that had been reviewed in July 2022.) The LampizatOr DAC was on the shelf above it. With the BlackGround nestled into the rack, the music continued to improve with more inner detail emerging, particularly with many of the obscure lyrics. Bruce Springsteen is not noted for having the clearest diction. He swallows a lot of his words. But I was understanding a lot more words and hearing a lot more tonality and musical nuance than ever before, particularly in the bass. It wasn't that the bass was jumping out at me any louder or was distracting — I was able to hear more tonal color (timbre) so the music was a lot more interesting.
Buffalo Bills 20, New York Jets 12
The second "mistake" happened when I put the BlackGround in the rack. I disconnected a supplementary power strip from the dedicated line which accidentally disconnected the subwoofers. Then I plugged a fresh power cord into the dedicated line but accidentally forgot to connect it to the BlackGround. So even that session was with the BlackGround disconnected — a detail I was not aware of at the time. The absence of the subwoofers was negligible for two reasons. First, the music did not contain content lower than the Kharma speakers can play on their own.
Secondly, the improvement in sound quality caused by moving the BlackGround closer to the components masked the absence of the room tone contributed by the subwoofers. The lesson learned here was that proximity matters with the BlackGround.
I swapped power cords around to power the subwoofers through the Synergistic Research power conditioner and made sure the BlackGround was plugged directly into my dedicated line. The power conditioner was in the other outlet on that same dedicated line. I let it cook for a couple of hours before it was time for Hearts of Space.
Hearts Of Space
After Hearts of Space, the station resumed its normal classical music format. And WOW! Sound quality jumped — close to what I had been expecting. The Hearts of Space program had been pre-recorded and it must have been a poor recording — at least in comparison with the classical music from the hot-rodded FM tuner.
My classical CD collection is practically non-existent, but I found a compilation CD of classical music my audiophile buddy, Tom, had made for me in 16-bit/44kHz. I can't play SACD in my rig, but I've heard SACD played in Tom's system. Tom's Red Book compilation CD was sounding much better than any SACD recordings I've heard on his system. When I shared this finding with Louis, he replied:
"This perfectly corroborates a sentiment I have always had, and that is that Red Book fine quality recordings often sound better on well assembled systems than their often re-mastered SACD counterparts. SACD relies on 1-bit converters for playback which always have the tendency to make things like choirs and strings sung and played by humans sound rather more like synthesizers and samplers. With parallel resistor DACs playing back PCM data, now you're getting human music."
What's Going On? More Cowbell!
You might think dynamics would improve. They do, but the music doesn't get louder. Softer tones become more evident. You can better hear the notes fade away into silence. You might think your hearing has improved. Before installing a BlackGround, you might have turned the volume up to hear more detail in the music; now you can relax and experience the details manifest from a quieter listening environment.
The third major revelation was the sense of physical space. The soundscape was considerably deeper (but not wider) than before. The speaker baffles are nearly 6' from the front wall so I normally have good depth in my soundscape, but now it went much deeper. And everything plays wide in my room with the system against the very long wall so this dimension is not relevant. Instruments, singers, and orchestra sections were more firmly positioned.
The air of the recording venue was cleaner and more transparent. Subtle room tone cues were more evident, creating an acoustical environment in my room that was profoundly more real. It was this improvement in the way stereo tricks our brain into thinking we are hearing live music that makes the BlackGround 10X so dramatically appealing.
The rig still sounded like my rig. Tonal balance and transparency retained a familiar character. It's not like I swapped out my amp or DAC for something new, or changed the drivers in my speakers. If you pretty much loved your system before, you will love it even more, now. But if something was wrong before, adding the BlackGround will not fix it. It will reveal where it needs to be fixed. It will be ruthless only to the degree of the offending component.
I was worried that the BlackGround 10X might have too much of the same relaxing effect that I found with some of the previous LessLoss products I reviewed, but that didn't happen. It was relaxing in that I was using less mental energy to figure out the lyrics, locate musicians in the soundscape, and sort out the interplay of musicians or sections of an orchestra. But it did not lull me to sleep or disinterest me in the music. On the contrary, the bouquet of musical qualities drew me deeper into the performances leaving me with energy left over to explore the music at higher emotional and intellectual levels, rather than struggling to just hear the music.
Well, "struggling" is too strong a word, but you get the idea. Nuances like Patti Scialfa harmonizing softly with Bruce Springsteen on "Human Touch" or Wilson Phillips' three-part harmony on their cover of Elton John's "Daniel" come to mind, but it wasn't just occasional moments it was everything I listened to! I grew up with rock 'n roll, but with the BlackGround, I was surprised at how intrigued and mesmerized I became with classical music.
Some Practical Considerations
"Note: there is a slow 'spreading out' effect, and it seems to spread exponentially slower the further the device is from the gear. So if you compare the following A and B, you'd probably clearly like B better overall: (A) 10x Power Base placed right next to your DAC, but only for two hours. (B) 10x Power Base placed 2 meters from your DAC, but it had been there for two days."
This dispels my thought that the BlackGround 10X would not be suitable for a system spread out on the floor between the speakers like I sometimes see at shows. But it adds the knowledge that it must stay there for days before it reaches maximum effect. Louis suggested that with a system spread out over a large area, the most effective location is to place it near the DAC or phono stage. Or if it must be elsewhere, simply exercise patience and let the effect build strength.
I also found the BlackGround worked well when I stood it on edge and leaned it against the rack, but the best results occurred when I placed it horizontally just above or below a source component in the rack.
What about using it on house circuits?
I bring up these details about my power delivery system because Louis (and other cable manufacturers) stresses the importance of having clean and sufficient power to achieve optimal results. (Check out this interesting and educational video on the LessLoss website on this topic. It is one among many.) I'm on my third upgrade of power cables over thirty years and I've found this to be true. Likewise, the BlackGround 10X is not a product for beginners. You need to have a reasonably good system already in place to justify spending this kind of money for the BlackGround 10X.
That said, many (if not most) audiophiles do not have the luxury of a dedicated line. How does the BlackGround perform if you have to use a typical 15A house circuit? I was able to easily answer that question. But let me say first, if you can't install a dedicated line, I very strongly urge you to at least install a high-quality audiophile-grade duplex outlet in the house circuit you use. I've had very good results with Synergistic Research outlets over the years and more recently, the Audience Hidden Treasures duplex. There are lots of others that will likely improve your system, as well as YouTube to show you how to install one.
The house circuit duplex behind my rack has a standard contractor-grade duplex and a plastic wall plate. I plugged both the power conditioner and the BlackGround 10X into it and let it settle in for several hours. In comparison with using the dedicated line, the results were disappointing, losing maybe 25% of the sound quality gained from adding the BlackGround. But that is still 75% of the gain I experienced when adding the BlackGround to my dedicated line. Simply adding an audiophile-grade duplex outlet to the house circuit would have certainly improved those results. (It's an easy, high-value upgrade.)
If the BlackGround 10X reduces the noise so well, do I still need
a power conditioner?
Do footers improve performance?
In my previous review of LessLoss products, I was able to compare them with an early version of the LessLoss Bindbreaker footers ($639/set of three). In that review, the Bindbreaker produced mixed results depending on the component it was used with. It outperformed the MiG SX when used under my solid state DAC, however. I suspect it would do very well with the BlackGround 10X also, but I didn't have them on hand to try.
So, yes, footers can improve the resolution even further, and doing so does not risk making the music irritating. Rather, it makes the music sound more like the experience of live music. Do you need footers? The BlackGround 10X is such a huge leap forward that I expect you can live happily without them. But just knowing there is an upward path with the addition of footers will likely be a huge temptation. Sorry (not really).
Vacuum Tubes Versus Solid-State
Switching over to my 16-Watt, parallel 300B monoblocks, letting them warm up and settle in for a half hour, and adjusting for input sensitivity, the music revealed many of the same improvements brought to the system with the solid state amp, but also some obvious differences. With the BlackGround 10X, there was now a greater difference in sound quality between the AGD amp and the tube monoblocks. The tube amps exhibited even more transparency, resolution, micro-dynamics, and tonal color. The bass, however, became thinner and not as deep as it seemed before (even with the subwoofer still engaged.) The subwoofer would have to be readjusted.
Bass notes were tighter and more tonality was revealed, just not as deep or as loud as before. This suggests a lot of noise had been removed from the bass region. The big plus in using the BlackGround with the tube amps was the enhanced emotional connection with the music. I was compelled to listen more actively. This was an unexpected and welcomed surprise as this is why I've been a tube fan from the beginning. The music gets so real you can almost hear the performers sweat.
I also loaned the BlackGround to my good friend Tom, who is kind of like a brother to me. And as brothers are, we often disagree. He can be quite the contrarian when I loan him review samples, but more often than not, he comes around to agreeing with me. He wrote back the next morning:
"I think that what I'm hearing is a somewhat higher level of realism on well-recorded tracks, leading to a greater level of involvement with the music. In particular, there seems to be more of a sense of space around the instruments, and a more 3-dimensional sound stage. I find that I am paying more attention to the music and less to the quality of the reproduction. My reservation is that I don't have an easy way to go back and forth between having the LessLoss box in the system and not having it. If I pull the plug, some of that realism goes away, but not all of it. You said that the LessLoss box still has an effect on the system even if it isn't plugged in, so what I really should do is remove the box from the room and listen again. I have very little time today for that sort of listening."
Later that day he found some more time for listening and wrote:
"Now I'm taking advantage of the extra time to listen to a couple of LPs with the LessLoss unit in the system. The Neil Young LP "Live at Massey Hall 1971" sounds great! I get a better sense of being in a large concert hall."
So, he pretty much came to the same conclusions that I did over a short 2-day trial period. [After the review was initially submitted, he confided that he had taken advantage of the Early Bird Special and ordered one. –RB]
When I went to Tom's house to retrieve the BlackGround I first sat and listened to several cuts that I had been using extensively. It sounded more like real musicians playing music right in his room than most of the rigs I've ever heard in my life. And as you see in the photo above, he was using footers also. We removed the BlackGround and within a couple of minutes began replaying the same music. There was an immediate erosion from a sense of hearing almost live music to hearing a mere recording. As I left his dedicated listening room with the BlackGround in hand I felt like the Grinch stealing Christmas.
What's Really Going On?
In an email, Louis addressed the concern of skeptics, like my friend Tom, who is an electrical engineer and software designer. Louis wrote:
"Skepticism is directly related to the depth of one's reading. The erudite becomes quieter and quieter. But there are always new cynics. The cycle continues. Some join the fruits of the discoveries. Some continue circling around the campfire in the cold, shouting disgraceful nonsense."
Skip this next paragraph if you are voodoo intolerant.
"My vision is to restructure peoples' thinking about what is even possible in audio. I think there is a direct tie between the mysterious phenomenon of cable burn-in (and even re-burn-in once it is moved) and the BlackGround. I think both are part and parcel of the exact same phenomenon. When a cable develops a magnetic field around itself, in real time it is creating similar conditions that the Earth creates for the subatomic particle bombardment from the cosmos to be funneled to the polar regions where we usually see the Northern lights. Surely the magnetic field of the Earth is at fault for this. And since we know this, why shouldn't the magnetic field of a conductor do the same? Makes perfect sense to me."
The science behind the BlackGround is explained on their website here, beginning about halfway down this very long page. Reading it took me back to my freshman year in college when I took science courses. Of course, there weren't so many elements on the Periodic Table back then. And OMG had not yet become slang, much less atomic particles streaming through space at nearly the speed of light. You might also find it helpful to read the web page on the BlackGround v2 where initial experiments to learn more about the field effects are described, here.
The Value Proposition
Yet, most of us seek to improve our systems by trudging along the upgrade path, purchasing ever more refined versions of the same components that now come with upwards of five or six-figure price tags. Sometimes we branch off into a novel delivery path like CDs or digital streaming or re-discover LPs which requires a whole new set of expensive components. Every upgrade comes at a significant cost as old gear is tucked under the bed or sold off at a fraction of its original price.
Sometimes we take baby steps with special footers, turntable mats, or fuses that are at first seen as voodoo, but slowly gain acceptance as people become willing to risk small sums in search of big returns. Eventually, the word gets around and innovative tweaks appear in ever more expensive versions, sometimes becoming product categories in their own right. A set of cones that cost $35 in 1992 was merely a seed that has grown into six-figure equipment racks today.
The LessLoss BlackGround DIY is another such seed and the BlackGround 10X is a more effective and mature version. Call it voodoo if you wish, but it is a breakthrough technology that supplements and goes far beyond existing power conditioners. I have heard what it can do and I am buying a production version to replace the prototype. Over the years I have learned that one of the best ways to compete with components that cost way more than I can afford is with voodoo. The BlackGround 10X is voodoo supreme.