Critical Mass Systems Center Stage 2M
Live musical performance is an enriching experience that, by in large, cannot be replicated through any other means. The price of admission is an incredible bargain, considering the impactful, often unforgettable effect such an experience has on the mind, body, and soul. It is a unique consequence of the human condition, a product of immense influence and power, able to move both individuals and the masses to life-motivating consequences. Sounds daunting (and perhaps a bit overly dramatic), but I sense most would agree that more than a modicum of truth lies within.
I can attest that, for the varied professional musicians on the stage and in the studio creating these performances, it's rarely anything less. Sure, we have our somewhat mindless commercial jingle studio gigs, etc, that help pay the bills. But even for us "old" guys getting up there to play Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 for the one-hundredth time, the moment always finds a way of transforming us, the psychoacoustic experience offering yet another slightly new perspective into the aural journey. It really never gets old.
Personally, I consider participation in high-end audio more an essential craft than from a hobbyist's perspective. Although there are clearly countless windows of casual (often late-night) listening, my wife (also a professional musician/professor) and I reference our home audio system largely for the evaluation of recording and performance projects, dissecting the minutia of musical variables we must consider while practicing, performing, teaching, and mixing. Our gathering of audio pieces has been carefully done with reference to our ideal professional performance experiences (and of course, ever mindful of budget!). This has taken some years to accomplish, and not without many trials & errors. Finding synergy among fine audio components is not unlike the synergistic gathering of fine musicians – All having earned their place, yet with no guarantee they will intuitively move as one.
Like many audiophiles, my attention to 'the ensemble' has been primarily on electrical components (power, sources, speakers, conduits, etc.), with only an afterthought given to vibration control (racks, platforms, footers, cable risers, etc). In hindsight, a less glamorous but far more logical approach would give vibration control first consideration in the architecture of an audio system. Initially investing in a solid foundation of pieces that address unwanted dynamic electromechanical energy – Not to merely muffle or insulate this energy, but be rid of it – Seems a prudent approach towards fully realizing the potential of subsequent audio investments.
I am admittedly late to the party when it comes to experiencing Critical Mass Systems Center Stage isolation footers. I came to initially know of and admire CMS vibration control designs (rack systems, shelves, footers, filters) via my friendship with speaker artisans, Damon Von Schweikert and Leif Swanson of Von Schweikert Audio, as well as friend, audiophile extraordinaire, and fellow Enjoy the Music.com (Senior) Reviewer, Greg Weaver. Congruently, it was through readings and discussions by and about Critical Mass Systems founder and Chief Executive Officer, Joe Lavrencik, that I came to further respect the revelatory significance of CMS vibration control designs within high-end audio.
I found his white paper explanations on the validity of thermodynamics, and applications in material science to achieve drainage of unwanted entropic vibration, isolation, damping, et al, all enlightening and intriguing. The case was convincingly made for the significant influence of audio platforms, racks, and footers in the realm of vibration control, to the degree that they must be considered firstly and foundational within the architecture of highly resolving audio systems.
Earlier this year, I reached out to Joe and asked if I might have the pleasure of auditioning his latest version of the Center Stage footer – the Center Stage 2M ("M" referring to MAXX), which was introduced this past Fall. Initially created in September 2017, the first Center Stage iteration was followed a year later by the Center Stage 2 improvements. If there's one thing I have learned about Joe and his professional curiosities (and I have learned much!), is that he is not one to rest on laurels. A true scientist for the audio arts, his savvy curiosity and deep commitment to musical truth continuously question the current state of sonic affairs, asking, "Yes, but can we get closer...?"
Follow The Science
"I'm a purist. What I do is take an audio component up to its engineered limit. There's a design potential within each audio component and CMS wants to realize that. Thus, our objective is to provide as pure an audio signal path as possible, so that when it comes through your loudspeakers, it reproduces, as close as possible, reality. You get the sense of being there at the recorded event."
The reality of live musical performance. With this model, obviously I was compelled professionally to experience first-hand the fruits of this objective, specifically via the Center Stage 2M footers. Sure, it can be said that most high-end audio designers have a vision of live music as their guide (I'm even familiar with one that posits a sonic objective of "better than live music," however one might define that). Yet, understanding the specifics and applying the psychoacoustic variables of live performance is the ultimate challenge in defining the mechanical science that authentically reproduces recorded music.
At its core, audio engineering must honor a truth-to-source balance among the five parameters of sound: Pitch, Intensity, Duration, Timbre, and Space. In particular, space, as heard within a 360-degree live event, experienced wholistically and viscerally as vibrational energy generated artistically, working as a trifecta among the physical and emotional properties of venue, musicians, and audience, is the parameter that defines all others. Within highly refined audio components, this must be electromechanically manifested through an amalgam of engineered constructs working synchronously to place the listener in the middle of the recorded venue, surrounding them at the moment, making them a part of the moment.
Within Enjoy the Music.com 's review of the Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor Special Edition speakers (May, 2022), I offered the following statement:
"It is simply not enough for recorded music to be tonally, timbrally, and dynamically representative of live music. These properties must be framed within an enveloping myriad of subtleties not immediately perceived as relevant, yet are essential to providing a complete capture of the now that defines "live." Fine audio components that help move a complete system towards this objective are usually deemed unforgettable, setting new references in high audio art."
Along with the Endeavor SE speakers, I indeed found the CMS Center Stage 2M footers to be, in fact, one of those fine audio components. Oft times, what we don't know or even seek to know doesn't affect us. However, in my particular case, arbitrarily installing the CMS Center Stage 2M during the midpoint of my VSA review rose the presentation to a level I was neither prepared for or thought possible with my current system.
Over the years, I have been aware of the profound effect various isolation footer designs can have on an audio system. Primarily and apologetically (mostly to my components), this awareness has been through other's systems, as I've only experimented with incomplete sets of one or two designs. And with still another apology extended, I have not yet upgraded from my current 16 yr. old Apollo five-shelf component rack.
I Know, I Know....
The variations in height can offer flexibility where space is a concern. The footer material is non-compressible, so there is no practical weight limit for any size, although Joe states that "there is a good/better/best performance aspect," with the 1.5" offering the best performance overall. He also advises that four vs three footers must be used to gain optimum control of chassis vibration.
Thankfully, Joe has made available a plethora of technical narratives on the internet as to design, function, and, to some degree, material layering, of the Center Stage footers. To this end, I encourage the reader to familiarize themselves with the following 'white paper' reference. Within this information, Joe provides the following summative description of the Center Stage 2M:
"Rather than approaching the problem of reducing vibration using new untested methodologies, we decided to use the advancements we knew worked well with loudspeakers. We used tested design fundamentals resting within the discipline of material science to determine the correct sequencing of the Center Stage2M materials. We established the proper proportions of the materials. And, we added damping in the very last stage in an amount that would eliminate the internal noise of the product and the component without rolling off the top end of the acoustic envelope."
Further: "Center Stage 2M helps components reach their engineered potential in 3 ways: First, they mitigate vibration coming up from the surface below them. Second, they cancel out their own noise. This very difficult accomplishment ensures truth to source material and truth to component engineering design. Third, they transfer entropy out of the component by 'draining' this excess vibrational energy away in the form of heat. This latter feature requires time and is the reason for the extended settling process. This catalyst is designed to change the prevailing state of equilibrium in the reaction, to establish a better state of equilibrium, and to permanently hold that better state of equilibrium."
This latter process of settling or adjustment warrants further explanation...
Patience Is A Virtue
The settling-in period is generally 7 to 10 days, but it can be longer. Joe recommends giving the system at least 14 days before assuming it has reached equilibrium (Playing a system 24/7 is not necessary, but the more playing time the better). During this time, the soundstage will begin to reconstruct itself by gently tipping upward and downward as it establishes a new and better equilibrium point, minimizing the obstructions of entropic vibrational energy.
Placement of the footers should be just inside or to the side of the OEM footers. Contact must be directly with the bottom of the component chassis – never on the stock footers.
When first introducing CMS Center Stage 2M footers to your audio system, Joe advises starting with your digital source component(s), then moving forward from there (Currently, Center Stage footer designs are not available for turntables, although can be used for independent platter motors). In this way the process serves as an instructional guide that increases understanding as to the capacity of your source component(s) to reproduce the original musical event.
In that I felt my VAC Statement 450S iQ amplifier was in a more vulnerable position due to its placement on the floor (via a Butcher Block Acoustics 1.75" isolation platform), I chose to begin here by placing four Center Stage 2M 1.5" footers under the amplifier's lower chassis. I held up on the 1" footers for the initial acclimation period, as I wanted to assess changes exclusive to the 1.5".
The second evening found the presentation moving markedly thin, soundstage and dynamic spectrum narrowed. Sources seemed two-dimensional in space with little variation in depth. All had a general hi-fi quality. Stage, noise floor, transients, et al, waffled noticeably, but not necessarily to a dramatic level. By this point, the system had been performing for 24 hours and was at what I considered its greatest disruption point in sound quality.
Evening four began to display a forwardness in midrange, beyond what had been present before the insertion of the CS2M footers. There was also a return of crisper leading edges in upper range transients, though the overall tenor of the presentation remained somewhat flat and uninvolving.
By the sixth evening, many sonic attributes began to flesh out, including mid-bass and lower frequencies. Stage depth and width expanded beyond what had been present prior to the footers. Further, transient speed and an overall crispness to mids and upper frequencies had expanded beyond that which had been present before installation.
Returning on the 10th day was, in a word, an "awakening." This was no snake oil trick or self-inflicted sales pitch, but a genuine quantum leap in fidelity, with perhaps the largest revelation being an almost non-existent noise floor. Along with a pitch-black background and increased ambient air, familiar reference sources introduced previously unheard personality and convincing authenticity, bringing forth an exciting energy and sense of realism to the musical experience.
There was a life to the performance that surrounded and enveloped beyond what I had previously known with my system. This speaks volumes to the metamorphosis, as the introduction of the VSA Endeavor SEs only a couple of months prior had already brought a new-found live performance reality through their revolutionary design. Now it was not only musical sound that moved with and surrounded the listener, but visceral performance energy suspended within the recorded venue. Finally, low frequencies had not only been extended, but were timbrally authentic, taut, and balanced within the frequency spectrum.
Critical listening through the 14th day noted small, but obvious, improvements in microdynamics as well as complete elimination of glare or smear in some of my hard-to-discern references that test information density.
After 14 days, I added the set of 1" Center Stage 2M under the VAC Statement 450S iQ top chassis and ran the same acclimation calendar. After approximately a week's time, and perhaps more subtly, stage depth and width further expanded, placement of sources crystallized more succinctly, and midrange timbral distinctions rose to the surface of most references. Additionally, transient speed across the frequency spectrum absolutely locked-in, with an undeniable dynamic punch and coherency that this system had not previously produced.
Now at just over six weeks since the introduction of the first set of Center Stage 2M footers, a new level of musical transparency and reality, along with a sense of gravitas previously unheard, has been achieved within our audio system. Everything hangs in the recorded space in which one is placed directly center – Every recorded source has a crystalline presence that seems to have an uncanny physicality. I, for one, would never have suspected my current ensemble of audio components (which are no slouches by any stretch) capable of reproducing recorded music at such a level.
Be it Redbook, SACD, LP, every reference experience left me in almost disbelief that something resembling an accoutrement could literally change the entire sonic landscape, again keeping in mind that only the amplifier's two chassis have been subject to experiment. All I can say is, amazing!
Clearly, a complete set of CMS Center Stage 2M footers influencing the entire signal path would offer an even more revealing, more homogeneous result of much larger proportions, as they are designed to do so. You can be assured that, at some point, I look forward to a complete signal path of Center Stage 2M footers.
It is acknowledged that CMS Center Stage 2M footers are not inexpensive by traditional footer standards. However, these are clearly not standard after-market footers, but rather an entirely new component in high-end audio that actually performs far beyond its price point. Simply stated, the return on your investment is phenomenal.
Anything beyond, and attention is shifted to the audible manifestation of said technique and less on the natural unfolding of musical sound. Herein lies what I feel is Joe's greatest accomplishment in the CMS Center Stage 2M design: It not only provides a drainage system for entropic/excess energy to be moved out and away from components, allowing them to exclusively contribute only that which they were designed to provide, but at the same time eliminates any unwanted vibrations imparted by the footers themselves that would otherwise negatively affect the music, thereby helping focus on the natural intentions of reproduced musical sound. Brilliant!
If you really want to hear what your components can contribute to the audio gestalt, you need a means to hear only their intended design outcome without being colored by external factors. Every other audio piece of the puzzle in support of that component should prove a clear and clean conduit and no more. In only this way can one truly know all a component is capable of contributing – to know if it's the right 'musician in the ensemble'. It stands to reason that footers upon which the component rests play a critical role in this revelation. To this end, it is a fact that Center Stage 2M footers do not have to be applied to über-high-end components to be valid and appreciated. Certainly, the more refined the design, the more profound the improvements. However, moderately priced pieces will demonstrate amazing improvements as well.
There are many products in high-end audio that capture those "15 minutes of fame," as Andy Warhol once predicted. And then, there are those whose influence in the audio world continuously shakes the rafters, offering a quantum leap forward in the capture and authentic reproduction of live music, destined to be an essential consideration within the finest audiophile systems. It's time you knew what your audio system is truly capable of. The significance of the Critical Mass Systems Center Stage 2M footers cannot be overstated, and must be assessed in a familiar home audio environment to be truly realized and appreciated.
An investment of both time and money at the foundation of your audio system via Critical Mass Systems' Center Stage 2M footers will reap benefits difficult to believe unless personally experienced. Once you have, however, I can pretty much guarantee there's no going back.
Center Stage 2M (0.8): The Center Stage 0.8 is 1.5" in diameter with a height of
13/16" (38mm x 20.6mm). +/- 5 microns and is recommended for all front end components under 100 pounds. Single foot weight is 2 ounces.
Center Stage 2M (1.0): The Center Stage 1.0 is is 1.5" in diameter with a height of
1.0" (38 mm x 25.4mm). +/- 5 microns and is recommended for use under cool running amplifiers positioned in racks away from loudspeakers as well as under front end components weighing over 100 pounds. Single foot weight is 3 ounces.
Center Stage 2M (1.5): The Center Stage 1.5 is 2" in diameter with a height of
1.5" (50.8mm x 38mm). +/- 5 microns and performs even better than the 0.8 and 1.0 versions and is especially helpful for amplifiers positioned close to loudspeakers and amplifiers that benefit from increased ventilation. Single foot weight is 10 ounces.