The SmackDown Report: Tweaks, Voodoo and Magic

Impressions Submitted By BAAS Member Dan Rubin

Screenshot 2014-05-10 17.38.17BAAS members met on Saturday, May 3, at Leslie’s excellent digs in Orinda to listen to a selection of audiophile tweaks. If you are anything like me, you have a drawer full of tweaks you’ve tried over the years. Some may have stuck and others were quickly abandoned. I’m often unsure of whether the change is an improvement or just a change, but it’s part of the fun of the hobby, right?

Attendance was healthy and I think I can confidently say that everyone had a very good time. The system was Leslie’s Vandersteen 3 speakers driven by a Conrad-Johnson Premiere 140 stereo tube amp, Premier 17LS tube preamp, and Ayre QB-9 USB DAC fed by Transparent USB cable from a PC running JRiver and playing WAV files. Leslie’s room has some Synergistic Research HFT devices in place.

Alón treated us to a surprise warm-up exercise, which I will get to later. First, the tweaks we considered:

  1. Synergistic Research ART system, consisting of 1 Vibratron, 3 Bass Stations, and several Satellites, as well as the HFT dots that were in place. Leslie also has a Synergistic FEQ device, but my notes don’t show any evaluation of that.
  1. SHAKTI Electromagnetic Stabilizer (aka “the Stone”) and the VPI DB-5 (aka “Magic Brick”)
  1. Supports/Cones:
  • Synergistic Research MiGs
  • Nordost Sort Kones (titanium and bronze models)
  • Stillpoints Ultra Minis
  • Magico QPods

We used a few musical selections, but for various reasons one selection got a lot of play, especially in first half or so. That was Suppé, Light Cavalry – Overture, Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Karajan (on DG).

The results below reflect what I heard from the vocal members of the audience. As always, nothing was unanimous. We were careful in our methods but not overly rigorous.
Screenshot 2014-05-10 17.27.41
Synergistic ART system. There was a generally positive response to this collection of products. Listeners stated they heard more top end, greater presence; the system seemed louder (levels were identical per the preamp) and there was a better-organized soundstage. Some of you will recall a session at Jason’s a few years back with Ted Denny of Synergistic Research. That demo of the ART may be been more illustrative of the ART’s effects. It impressed Jim Forte so much that he purchased the products, which he supplied for this demo.

Next up: the SHAKTI Electromagnetic Stabilizer (aka “the Stone”) and the VPI DB-5 brick. The VPI brick is a wood-encased ferrous metal block designed to absorb stray electromagnetic radiation. The SHAKTI has three internal trap circuits (Microwave, RF and Electric Field) to absorb the broadest spectrum of EMI. With both of these products, you place them in contact with a component’s chassis, typically directly above the transformer. We used them with the Ayre DAC and also gave them a try with the CJ gear, though we had only one of each device to test.

My impression is that a fair number of attendees did not hear a difference with these products, or did not care about what they did hear. One change that was mentioned was a shift backward of the Streisand vocal selection we were auditioning.

Screenshot 2014-05-10 17.26.38An illustration of how challenging it can be to evaluate tweaks as a group exercise with someone else’s system: BAAS member Drew, who is a musician, had some very keen observations of what he was hearing. After sharing his thoughts on the SHAKTI-VPI products, Jason suggested that Drew move to a different seat location in the room. We listened some more, after which Drew basically said that all bets were off with respect to his earlier impressions. Moral of the story: there’s no substitute for hearing things in your own home and system, and evaluating over time. My $.02

Last up were the supports/cones, which were provided by Jason. We used these products under the DAC and preamp. Here the differences seemed to be more obvious to the group. I think most preferred the Nordost Sort Kones to the Synergistic MiGs and the Stillpoints, citing bass definition, cymbal bloom and decay and other improvements. However, the Magico QPods stole the day, presenting the greatest change to the sound of the system and the most enthusiasm for what that change was.

With this last set of tweaks, there were a lot of combinations to play with. For example, Jason tried substituting one of the Titanium Sort Kones with a Bronze version. We preferred the Titanium (lucky for Nordost; see pricing below). The last thing we tried was putting the Stillpoints and then the MiGs under Leslie’s CJ power amp. And then Jason experimented with the orientation (up or down) of the MiGs. The conclusion? It’s worth the effort to experiment with these variables; system synergy and personal preference will be huge factors in the outcome.

Back to Alón’s warm-up surprise. He played us an early Dave Brubeck Quartet recording on LP, but we didn’t know anything about the vinyl system (Leslie doesn’t have a vinyl front end). Alón asked us to close our eyes, listen deeply, and then made a switch of some kind and played the same selection a second time. Most attendees preferred the second test, with comments such as less stressful, easier, more open soundstage, fuller, richer, perhaps not as emotionally engaging. There were a couple of people who preferred the first version (the above-mentioned Drew and yours truly): the first play had a woody/wooden sound while the second seemed plasticky. And then…the reveal: Alón was playing this LP on an ION Quickplay LP USB turntable, tone arm, cartridge, and phono stage bundle, which listed for $49.99 (!) and which he purchased at Bed Bath & Beyond (!!) for $25 (!!!) during their after-Christmas clearance. The switch he made was moving the ION’s wall-wart from a direct-to-wall connection to plugging it into his PurePower 1050 AC regenerator. Whether or not you consider that a tweak, it certainly was audible. My takeaway on the ION was not anything like “giant killer,” but I did feel that – remarkably, somehow – some of vinyl’s virtues came shining through.

Screenshot 2014-05-10 17.27.01After the main event, we had lunch on the deck and then came back inside. Alón did a show-and-tell with the ABX evaluator he recently purchased for BAAS from the legendary Frank Van Alstine. We’re all looking forward to taking it through its paces in a BAAS session sometime soon.

I hope you will share your impressions of the Tweak Smackdown in the comments below.

 

 

PRICING OF PRODUCTS WE LISTENED TO

  • Synergistic Research ART System: around $3K for a basic room treatment, but the components can be purchased a la carte and there is a lower-priced system also available
  • Synergistic Research HFTs: $299 for 5-pack
  • Synergistic Research Frequency Equalizer (FEQ): $995
  • Shakti Electromagnetic Stabilizer: $230
  • VPI DB-5 “Magic Brick”: no longer in production
  • Stillpoints Ultra Minis: $125 each
  • Synergistic Research MiGs: $150 for set of three
  • Nordost Sort Kones: BC (Bronze) $140 each, TC (Titanium) $365 each
  • Magico QPods: $1310 for 3-pack
  • Ion All-in-one plastic Turntable, with Arm, Integrated Phono Stage and Ceramic Cartridge: $50

Comments

  1. says

    Hey Dan,
    Great write up, thanks! I left the all-in-one Ion with Leslie so she could finally pull her albums out of storage.
    Observation regarding my turntable tweak of switching its wall wart from wall power to my AC Regenerator – I find that anything I plug into the pure clean and steady 120V AC sounds more natural and at ease, showing the true sonic signature of the component, be it a $25 turntable or a $23,000 preamp. In fact, I feel that the higher the quality of the tested component, the more obvious the change. You and Drew described the first playing of Brubeck as woody and the second (when plugged into the AC Regenerator) sounded “plastic-y.” Well, that’s perfect, because all preferences aside, you both nailed it, since when you said that, I had not yet revealed what I was playing it on. The truth of this record player is just that: it is Plastic! The plinth, platter, even the tone arm… all plastic. So if my clean, regenerated AC reveals the truth, that’s exactly what you picked up. Good ears, you guys! Thanks to all for a great event. Jason, I covet your Q-Pods!
    Alón

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