Review By Rick Becker
In my rather rave review of their Mat 1 carbon graphite turntable mat, I hinted that Boston Audio Design's brand new TuneBlocks were also something quite special. I first tried them under my Linn turntable in the process of reviewing the Mat 1. The bass became tighter still, and the tonal richness of the music eclipsed the previous standard set by the combination of Stillpoints on a Symposium Acoustics Svelte Shelf.
My old Linn Valhalla, without the Circus bearing upgrade, is on a solid oak shelf mounted firmly to the wall behind my loudspeaker. This shelf provides sufficient isolation to allow me to jump on the floor without causing the cartridge to skip. But these would be macro-vibrations. Where the Mat 1 and the TuneBlocks shine is in the realm of micro-vibration, where the resonances within the vinyl or the resonances on circuit boards and component chassis blur the electronic signal that brings us the music.
Design and Ergonomics
I affectionately dubbed them the Big BAD Blocks. These blocks are 2" square and 1.5" high. A conical pit is drilled into the top with a countersink bit. The ball bearing is retained by this pit with more than half of the sphere still above the surface of the block. The TuneBlocks are also available in a 1" high version, and come standard with conventional chromium steel ball bearings. In the early stages of causal listening, I didn't notice any difference between the 1" version and the taller XT, but I surely give my vote for superior performance to the extra cost tungsten carbide balls. Austin Jackson of BAD also sent along a set of rocket grade ceramic balls, but these seemed to suck some of the life out of the music when used with the TuneBlocks.
Tungsten carbide ball bearings were previously the bearing of choice in Symposium Rollerblocks until they came out with a new Super Bearing, but in the TuneBlocks, the bearing's job is to simply transmit the vibrations from the component into the block where they are absorbed by the molecular structure of the carbon graphite. The ball contacts the component at a single point on the bottom surface of the chassis, but it contacts the carbon graphite block in a circle where the spherical bearing rests in the conical cavity. It does not rock ‘n roll and therefore it is not critical to place it on a smooth portion of the chassis' bottom. If the top of the ball lodged in a ventilation hole or slot, it didn't seem to make any difference. The component rests firmly on the TuneBlocks and does not wobble or slide when operating the component. It imparts a very secure feeling. In fact, on numerous occasions after the blocks had been in place for a period of days, I noticed that they would actually "stick" slightly to the surface of the wood shelf or ceramic tile, a phenomenon that may have something to do with the heat created in the block and the protective coating.
(I asked Austin why he didn't drill a pit with the same sphericity as the ball bearing, thereby allowing a hemispherical contact with the bearing. Basically, he thinks the greater force of the ball contacting the cone in a circle improves the transmission of the vibrations).
Carbon graphite, by the way, is an entirely different animal than carbon fiber and the two should not be confused. Feel free to read their White Paper on the Boston Audio website for further details. Carbon graphite is basically what we know as pencil lead, yet the TuneBlocks are capable of supporting hundreds of pounds. And while pencil lead is dusty, a special (and difficult to apply) coating keeps the TuneBlocks clean to the touch. The need for a coating was the cause of much research, according to Austin. Finding the right coating was vital for transmitting vibrations to the carbon graphite without distorting the frequency response of the music.
Aesthetically, the carbon graphite blocks are reminiscent of some of the large sculptures of David Smith back in the 1960's, but on a micro level. You might also think they descend from the Bauhaus school. They fit nicely beneath practically anything that's out there and blend in with both silver and black chassis…or red, or green, or whatever you might have. Moreover, they are relatively easy to position. The 1" high blocks fit nicely under components without calling attention to them. The taller XT version is more conspicuous, perhaps aiding in ventilation a bit more, and provides better performance to offset the visual disjunction between component and shelf. Of course, the larger the component, the less obvious will be the gap. Just be sure you have enough clearance if you have an equipment rack. The protruding ball adds another 8mm or 5/16 inch to the height.
Listening… Under the Preamp
I began my critical listening using only one set of the taller TuneBlocks XT with the tungsten carbide balls, which I placed on a solid maple shelf beneath my CAT tube preamplifier. They replaced the Symposium Acoustics Rollerblock Series 2+. I continued to use a ceramic tile between the chassis of the CAT and the TC ball of the TuneBlocks. The music immediately sounded even more focused than with the Rollerblocks, but it also sounded dryer, without any trace of the sweet sound that tubes typically provide. It was a mixed bag, however, because they also yielded a tremendous increase in the depth of the soundstage that was thoroughly enjoyable. The tweeter was also an immediate benefactor with no splash or glare exhibited at the top end.
Remembering that the TuneBlocks are not designed to roll like Rollerblocks, I removed the ceramic tile between the TC ball and the bottom of the chassis. Well.... I mean, Wow! The extraordinary focus remained but the music came back to life with the air and bloom contributed by the tubes. The music was not quite as sweet, nor was the bloom quite as glossy as with the Rollerblocks, but the notes were really steady and the focus was as dialed in as I've ever heard in my system, emerging from a very deep noise floor. Tonal balance was very flat with tight bass at the bottom and smooth controlled treble at the top which served the music beautifully without calling attention to these extremes.
Still, I was not quite satisfied with (or adjusted to) this new sound. So I added a set of ceramic tiles beneath the TuneBlocks. This improved the transparency even more, while the focus remained excellent. (In my book, improving transparency is like taking your sunglasses off, while improving focus is like putting your prescription eyeglasses on).
Replacing Buddy Guy with Bruce Springsteen, and cranking the CAT up two more notches to the 11 o'clock position, the superior focus became even more apparent and the tightness of the bass was very impressive on "57 Channels." It didn't seem possible that I could play this song so loud and have such tight bass with only 20 watts per channel. And the distant refrain "57 channels and there's nothin' on" from the deep left side of the soundstage was the clearest I've ever heard it.
Placing one of the short TuneBlocks on top of the transport seemed to squeeze another small gain in focus out of my system, so I loaded up the set of short TuneBlocks with the standard chromium steel bearings. This set replaced the Symposium Rollerblock Jr. set that resided between the Muse DAC and the Sony transport. In this position, the carbon graphite blocks probably worked in both directions — absorbing vibrations from the transport above and the DAC below. (The DAC remained supported by Stillpoints with Risers, ball downward on ceramic tiles). The music not only increased a bit more in focus, but the dynamic contrast became a lot more prominent. I felt like I was listening to the Von Schweikert VR-4jr being driven in bi-amp mode by the wonderful Red Planet Labs multi-channel amplifier — the excellent combination I reported on in December, 2004. The music was crisp and clear from top to bottom, making the music sound like I had replaced my humble Manley Mahi monoblocks with a much more expensive and much more powerful set of amplifiers. Yet as mighty as the Mahi-Mahis seemed to be, when I took the music up to about 100dB at the listening position, the sound started to degrade. But I didn't have to back off much, nor give up the near concert level performance, to appreciate the very significant improvement brought by the TuneBlocks.
Before this experiment, I was thinking my venerable Muse DAC was a little dated at the frequency extremes. Not so, any more. Equally important, the musicality of the system did not suffer from the increase in focus. And the initial dryness I experienced with the TuneBlocks under the CAT was now completely eliminated. This illustrates, once again, the importance of using some kind of vibration dampening device under everything in the system to achieve a synergistic solution to resonance control. There is nothing wrong with starting with just one set, but be aware that improved clarity in the middle of your system may reveal the need for greater clarity upstream.
At this point, I began to compare the different devices under the transport, which was stacked on top of the DAC. I listened to the first part of each movement of Mahler's First Symphony with the TuneBlocks with the TC balls this time, then replaced them with the Symposium Acoustics Rollerblock 2+ with the ceramic tiles, and repeated the Mahler. With the Rollerblocks there was more transparency with slightly better focus in the midrange and more pinpoint imaging on the soundstage, but there was also more energy in the treble and a slight ringing, and the music didn't seem to go as deep in the bass. Then I swapped out the ceramic tiles for the stainless steel plates supplied by Symposium. The treble was no longer as bright, and the slight ringing was eliminated. The focus improved slightly and the tonal balance was better. The soundstage seemed more transparent than with the TuneBlocks, but not as deep.
Continuing with the Mahler, I installed the Stillpoints, point upward, without the ceramic tile on top. The result was slightly better focus and more pinpoint imaging than with the Symposium Rollerblocks, and a tighter deep and mid-bass, but the sound was a little dryer. With the Stillpoints still in place I switched reference recordings to the Chinese drums for ten minutes, and they sounded very good.
I then switched back to the TuneBlocks with TC balls, and the Chinese drums became more palpable, with more texture. There was also better focus at the far end of the soundstage. The clicking of wooden drumsticks had sharper attack and better timbre. The decay of the drumbeats was more evident, lasting longer, and having better focus. Overall, the performance had more life. The bass didn't go any deeper, but there was better timbre top to bottom, which made the deepest bass more believable.
Coming full circle and switching back to the Rollerblocks, the Chinese drums were very good, too. In fact, it was hard to tell the difference at first. But the deep and mid- bass were not as focused as with the TuneBlocks, and the timbre was not quite as believable. Ultimately, I was not drawn into the music quite as far as I was with the TuneBlocks. Switching genre's to Bruce Springsteen, again, the system rocked nicely with the Rollerblocks still in place.
But coming back to the TuneBlocks with the TC balls, it rocked more nicely. (Pardon the double adverb). In the midrange and treble there was slightly better focus with commensurate improvement in pinpoint imaging, but the bass was significantly tighter and really propelled the music along.
Continuing with Bruce, I popped in the Stillpoints one more time. The music was still great, but a little dryer, as I had discovered before. The bass was tighter than with the Rollerblocks, and the soundstage was a little more compressed from the rear toward the front of the stage. What really stood out about the Stillpoints was the tonal balance seemed laser flat and extremely smooth.
A System Approach:
All in all, these are three fast horses that deserve to run in the Kentucky Derby. Any one of them should make a very significant improvement with your components. Which one will work best under your preamp or DAC will ultimately depend on the character of your specific component, and ultimately, the rest of the system. This leads me to the next phase of my review process. What could be learned by treating an entire system (or most of it) by each of these three different technological approaches to resonance control?
First, I set up the system with TuneBlocks equipped with TC balls, with big sets under the CAT preamp and Muse DAC, short ones under the Sony transport, and two short ones under each monoblock, supplemented with a Stillpoint under the input tube, which was the lightest part of the amp. I listened to Buddy Guy's Damn Right I've Got the Blues. Pretty damn good, all the way around.
Then I switched in Stillpoints through out the system. I should point out that these were not the Stillpoints I reviewed a year or more ago. The new Stillpoints I have been using for this review have a fifth rocket grade ceramic ball in the second tier of balls housed inside the footer. A silk-screened logo on the turned silver bottom replaces the stick-on label and adds a more professional look to the product, although it is not visible in use. The Risers, which further enhance the benefit of the Stillpoints far in excess of their additional cost, remain unchanged. On the basis of my initial perception when I first installed the new Stillpoints, I would have to say that it is an improvement, providing slightly more enhanced focus. My subsequent long term listening turned up no reason not to like the new version. It is an excellent product which, when used in conjunction with the Riser, provides a means of leveling a turntable or CD transport.
In switching from a TuneBlocks supported system to a Stillpoints supported system the sound became smoother, the bass was just as tight, tonal balance was virtually identical, and the soundstage was just a bit more pinpoint. But the music lost the bloom that was present when the system was on TuneBlocks. In a blind test, I might guess that the TuneBlocks supported system was a near-world class tube system, and the Stillpoints supported system was a near-world class solid-state system. The difference reminds me of a Stereophile show in New York where Bobby Palkovic presented his Merlin loudspeakers in two adjacent rooms — one solid state, the other with tubes. It was a very educational experience. The difference between his two rooms was larger than what I experienced between the TuneBlocks and the Stillpoints in my system, which is to say that the difference is a matter of degree, not an order of magnitude.
Switching back to a largely TuneBlocks supported system, I verified my findings. It was more tube-like, had more bloom, had a deeper soundstage, and sounded a little more dynamic. It was more like a live performance and less like a studio recording. Less precise, perhaps, but more engaging.
With the Symposium Rollerblocks, I was a little short on ammunition. I placed the Rollerblock Series 2+ under the CAT preamplifier. Then I made two sets of rollerblocks from a single set of Rollerblock Jr. by using the two sets of cups with two sets of tungsten carbide balls from the TuneBlocks on hand. Small ceramic tiles provided a smooth surface between the TC balls and the bottom of the Muse dac and Sony transport. Having maxed out my supply of rollerblocks, I left two short TuneBlocks and a single Stillpoint under each monoblock. With this combination, the system gained some liquidity or smoothness over the TuneBlocks, but lost some focus in the bass. The midrange, however, was really right! And the soundstage was deep and spacious, if not quite as pinpoint as the rigs above. The system had that liquid tube sound that many find so inviting.
Memphis Soul Stew
So with three different technologies, I ended up with three different results. There was just one thing left to do. I couldn't avoid it at this point. I went into the kitchen and put on Linda's Chef's hat. It was time to play King Curtis and cook up a little Memphis Soul Stew. First, I placed a set of TuneBlocks XT with tungsten carbide balls under both the DAC and the transport. This tightened up the bass and revealed a higher degree of inner detail by providing a much lower noise floor. Working on the digital source, the TuneBlocks also maximized the timbre the recordings. Then I left the Symposium Rollerblock Series 2+ sitting on ceramic tiles, ball up with the stainless steel plate under the preamp because that seemed to give me the most inviting midrange and maintained the bloom and soundstage imparted by the tubes. And finally, under the monoblocks, I went to all Stillpoints, point up. This tightened up the bass a bit more, and added a bit more pinpoint imaging without taking away too much bloom or air. Ah, just right!
Well... maybe the soundstage could be a little deeper, but I'm obsessing…and thoroughly enjoying the music in the process. I still have my turntable to consider, and I could go with either the TuneBlocks or the Stillpoints. But I'll save that workout for another day. And lest anyone think I'm trying to placate the three manufacturers, consider that each of the three technologies has its particular strength and shortcomings. Each component in your system also has its own sonic strength and shortcomings. So, while each of these three vibration absorbing devices will likely give outstanding results with any decent component, I expect one of these three will be slightly better than the other two for any given component. And of course, your decision will be tempered by your own personal taste in how you want your system to sound. I hope I have given you enough insight to make an intelligent Best Guess, but in case you err, each of these companies offers a money-back guarantee…at least when you buy directly from the manufacturer. But be sure to check with the policy of your local dealer, if you have one.
Fine and dandy, you might be thinking if you've got some serious components like I've been fortunate enough to amass, but what about more affordable gear? To answer this question I pulled out my early 90's vintage Musical Design SP-1 preamplifier and plugged it into my system. At about 1/6th the cost of my CAT, there was a noticeable step down in quality, but a decent power cord and some HAL-O tube dampers kept it from hitting rock bottom. "Someday," I keep telling myself, "I'll send it back to John Hellig for some hot-rodding". The TuneBlocks made a significant difference over most of the tonal spectrum, but the mid and lower bass and the upper treble were a bit too rough or rolled off for the TuneBlocks to tame. It turned an entry-level preamp into a very good entry-level preamp, but it didn't bump it from Level 1 to Level 4. The quality has to be buried inside the component for the TuneBlocks to bring it out. If the music is not there to begin with, the TuneBlocks cannot enhance it. Most likely, they will make a very worthwhile improvement with entry-level gear, and continue to pay increasing dividends as you upgrade your components. It is difficult to imagine a component so perfect that it will not benefit from some kind of vibration absorbing device. And if I could imagine it, I probably could not afford it.
In proofreading this review, it occurred to me that I overlooked one important variable in my review process, being so obsessed with comparing the different vibration absorbing technologies. What about the short blocks vs. the taller XT? I asked Austin Jackson about this. He told me the taller XT version came about as a result of stacking two short blocks in the developmental stage. He felt the taller blocks gave about a 20% improvement with no additional cost for packaging, so he offered the XT model for a very modest up-charge. Not having a very good idea of what constituted a "20% improvement," I doubled back to the listening room to check this out myself.
I was already convinced of the value of the tungsten carbide ball bearing, so I kept those constant and switched two sets of short and two sets of tall TuneBlocks in and out of my digital front end — both the DAC and transport each time. It had been a couple of weeks since I had heard anything except Hearts of Space on NPR, so I had pretty much forgotten what things sounded like after concocting the Memphis Soul Stew. Let's just say I was blown away by my own system. The incremental improvements that I had garnered by shuffling the various vibration devices around under my components had faded from memory, but emerged like the view from atop a mountain after taking thousands of steps along a forested trail.
The taller XT blocks put me at the very peak of that mountain with gains of improved timbre and improved dynamics at the top of the list. Improvements in transparency and focus were noticeable to a somewhat lesser degree. That I didn't notice anything concerning pace and rhythm tells me that they were spot on. Switching to the short blocks was like descending from the peak to the col between two mountains. There was still an excellent view of the music, but the excellence of timbre and dynamics was taken down a notch or two. If you tried the short blocks and never experienced the taller XT, you would still live happily ever after, but be sure and ask yourself the question, "Why Not?" If your aesthetic sensibilities and the shelf height in your rack can handle the difference, I'd say go for the XT. Your TuneBlocks will not wear out as your system continues to improve in the future.
The TuneBlocks by Boston Audio Design are a simple design with outstanding results that should catapult this young company into prominence in the High End audio community. By lowering the noise floor, they allow the inner details to come through and the dynamic passages to explode. Improved timbre, in particular, brought the recordings much closer to real life. On both my analog and digital front ends, the bass extended deeper and tighter than I thought the components were capable of performing. And the benefits extended seamlessly across the audible spectrum without calling attention to anything but the music and the ambience of the recording. The increase in focus improved both the attack and decay of notes without drying out the music or depriving it of life.
Although it is not an inexpensive footer, it compares favorably with the best I've heard in this category, while costing significantly less. Its value, compared to the cost of upgrading a component, is outstanding, and it should breathe renewed interest into this under-appreciated category. At a time when the cost of components is rocketing skyward once again, the TuneBlocks allow you to keep pace by improving the components you already own. They are not only Fanfare for the Common Man, but high rollers, as well.
Type: Mechanical energy drain device
30-day money back guarantee.
TuneBlocks: $99 (set of three - 1 inch high)
TuneBlocks XT: $119 (set of three - 1.5 inches high)
Tungsten Carbide Bearing Upgrade: $50 per set
Boston Audio Design