Some people back in the '60s actually did go out and buy brand new Chevrolets powered by the 409 cubic inch motor of truck descent. It was the glory days of the muscle car and there was no substitute for cubic inches. More was better. But not everyone could afford a big mill. Many turned to hot rodding older engines. It is like that in high-end audio, today. Lots of us read about gear we canít afford. And some of us grumble because we think if we see the ads, read the reviews and savor the sonic bliss, we are entitled to the product. It isnít necessarily so. Advertising might induce lust, but it does not constitute entitlement. Consequently, we turn to tweaks to level the playing field with our more well-heeled brethren.
My tenure as a reviewer has been punctuated with reviews of such tweaks, particularly those dealing with vibration absorbing devices. One such device was the successful Isoplatmat turntable mat from Sound Dead Steel, a British company. At my request, Les Thompson, head of SDS, made up a number of 3" squares using the same sandwich of visco-elastic polymer between dissimilar thicknesses of stainless steel. I did a follow-up review (click here) and found the squares produced remarkable results in numerous applications ó just as this material has done for equipment manufacturers who have used it in the chassis of several components. Think Arcam and dCS.
For whatever reasons, not the least of which has been the combining of Sound Dead Steel with a larger company, the Sonphonon squares have not been developed or promoted, at least on this side of the pond. Two reasons come to mind. First, it is relatively inexpensive to make these squares, and secondly, trans-Atlantic shipping would be relatively expensive due to their weight.
My friend Austin Jackson of Boston Audio Design was intrigued by the success I had using the Sonphonon squares in conjunction with his own TuneBlocks (which I have also reviewed and given a Blue Note Award). Since he is quite knowledgeable in the ways of materials, engineering and small-scale manufacturing, I suggested he pick up on the idea and run with it. He already had a supply of stainless steel squares he was using in conjunction with the TuneBlocks, so he ordered up a second set of thinner gage and proceeded to make his own visco-elastic polymer sandwiches. He sent me enough samples that, in combination with the SDS squares, allowed me to treat my entire system with the plates, from source to loudspeakers.
I first compared the TunePlates with the Sonphonon squares under the spikes of my Kharma loudspeakers. Normally these spikes dig into the floorboards beneath the broadloom carpet. As is typical here in the Northeast, my house has a basement beneath the living spaces. The results were virtually indistinguishable, which is to say "excellent." If youíve read my earlier review, you knew this was coming. For verification, I removed the plates and sank the spikes directly into the floor. The degradation of focus was immediately apparent. The music did not plummet into the realm of mid-fi ó the Kharmas are a well-respected loudspeaker, after all. But there was enough of a degradation to make me want to put the TunePlates back under the spikes, especially considering the modest cost in relation to the price of the loudspeaker. Keep in mind that the rest of my system is all resting on one or more vibration absorbing devices so the overall presentation is quite solid to begin with.
Back To Square One... Almost
But what if I didnít have all those tweaks in place? What if I just had a decent rig set up on ordinary stuff like a carpeted floor and simple wooden shelves? Sound familiar to you? I didnít go to the extreme of stripping out the ERS paper and removing my proprietary tweaks on the digital circuitry, but I removed all the Symposium Acoustics shelves, Boston Audio TuneBlocks and SDS squares from virtually everything in the system. The letdown was substantial and immediately apparent. No way could I be content paying for this level of components and receiving what seemed more like entry-level high-end sound. The bass was flabby, sibilance increased, focus dropped across the spectrum and timbre of such telltale instruments as bells revealed the shortcomings. There was still music coming from the system, and I still enjoyed the music... at least for a little while. But it was impossible not to yearn for the clarity to which I had been accustomed.
A rough estimation of the shelves and footers in use in my system (with four source components, a preamplifier, monoblock power amplifiers and a pair of loudspeakers) would be about $1700. Certainly, it would take a significant leap of faith or trust in a reviewer for an audiophile to go out and spend that kind of money all at once, however less it might be than the next big component under consideration. But it is not unreasonable to try such devices under a single component. So with the system stripped bare I slipped the TunePlates under just the loudspeakers and nothing else. There was an immediate improvement in most things important to listeners, but the most obvious was the tightening of the bass. It is important to note that like most of the vibration absorbing tweaks Iíve examined, the TunePlates primarily affect the focus of the music. They do not shift the tonal balance or make your loudspeakers sound like those of a different manufacturer. But just as with focusing a lens of a camera, you are able to see the subject more clearly and notice detail with greater accuracy. With music you hear sharper attack and faster decay, with subsequent improvement of pace and rhythm. Songs in foreign languages and unfamiliar dialects of the English language are more easily discerned. Better soundstaging, tighter bass and more articulate treble miraculously appear. Did it get me all the way back to the starting point of my fully tweaked rig? Obviously not, but maybe a third of the way. With the tweaking of just one component, you will hear the direction to proceed in as more funds becomes available. With the judicious application of vibration absorbing devices, you can significantly level the playing field and raise the focus of your rig to world-class levels. It is no accident that the number of products available for this purpose, and the use of these products at audio shows, has dramatically increased in recent years.
Functionality And Aesthetics
With a lot of audio gear, functionality and aesthetics are largely unrelated until, perhaps, you reach the sublime reasoning I presented in my Decorating for Music III article. With the TunePlates, functionality and aesthetics are more tightly entwined. Obviously, they are pretty flat, being about 3mm thick. This bodes well for their use under the spikes of loudspeakers and speaker stands in that it doesnít perceptibly change the listening height of the drivers. From a visual standpoint they are also neutral with a high level of fit and finish. It might be a nice idea to have one side anodized black as an option for your decorator, but this would probably raise the price for the benefit of the few. I expect spraying them with a coat of flat black primer would not be too difficult for most of us. The brushed stainless steel finish, aside from looking very classy, kept the spikes of my Kharmas from sliding around on the surface, unlike the unfinished prototypes from SDS. The wear and tear of testing the TunePlates in my own rigs as well as the rigs of two friends took its toll in the form of light scratches and a couple of dimples caused by the heavy loudspeakers. In more civilized use they should remain quite unobtrusive and even the slight blemishes I endured are not noticeable except under overzealous scrutiny. Itís primarily about the music, after all, not a concours díelegance.
The flat nature of the TunePlates also benefits their use between a loudspeaker and the speaker stand itself without drawing much attention to the application. In one instance where a friend was using little plastic cones between his Acoustic Zen Adagio Jrs and the stands, the combination of the cone and the TunePlate was superior to just the TunePlates. As always, you will have to experiment a bit to find what works best for you. Likewise, in two-part loudspeakers such as the Von Schweikert VR4 jr. the TunePlates should prove exemplary when used between the bass and mid/tweeter modules, absorbing vibrations trying to migrate in either direction. The Sound Dead Steel website also suggests using the material between the loudspeaker and the stand and between the stand and the floor for maximum benefit.
Under typical components, the TunePlates proved most effective when used in direct contact with the underside of the chassis, rather than under the feet of the components. This requires combining the TunePlates with some other kind of small riser. Since I was already endowed with other footers, I simply put the TunePlates between the existing footers and the bottom of the chassis. Inevitably, the focus improved even further. I always took care to avoid protruding screws to ensure the surface contact between the TunePlates and the chassis was maximized. Another concern, especially with tube gear, is to not block ventilation slots on the bottom of the chassis. Because of the size of the TunePlates, I sometimes had to compromise the ventilation a little bit. Placing the TunePlates directly under heavy transformers maximized the stability and keeping the triangle as large as possible also helped in that regard. I expect this methodology paid sonic benefits over less careful positioning, but I simply went with common sense and didnít really test the alternatives. Component stability should always be a primary concern when balancing expensive and potentially dangerous equipment on three points.
I used a variety of footers, including even simple blocks of wood to raise the TunePlates into direct contact with the chassis. While the wood blocks worked, more sophisticated footers worked even better. Each had its own very slight sonic signature. Wood was different than rocket grade ceramic balls. Tungsten carbide ball bearings were slightly different than ordinary steel ball bearings. And of course TuneBlocks are slightly different than RollerBlocks and both are slightly different than Stillpoints. The difference between various footers was slight in comparison with the overall improvement of the combination of footer and TunePlate. Whatever footers you already own will most likely be greatly enhanced by the addition of the TunePlates. Since the possible combinations are endless, you will have to experiment a bit with what you have. But the result of adding the TunePlates will be fairly obvious and certainly worth the cost and effort. You can always move your lesser performing footers to more peripheral components or to a second system. Likewise, when the TunePlates are surpassed by some future innovation, they too will still be useful in some other application. The good news is you are not going to wear them out.
With the rig stripped of tweaks I validated my earlier experiences by starting with my Manley Mahi tube power amplifiers resting on a Formica covered shelf. Since this amplifier has built-in spikes in its overall design, I then added four TunePlates beneath the spiked feet of each monoblock. Next, I used just two TunePlates on a stack of three ceramic tiles that held the TunePlates in direct contact with the bottom of the chassis and kept the feet off the shelf. And finally, I used a TuneBlock with ball bearing under each of three TunePlates with each monoblock. Each of these steps increased the focus and musicality of the rig a little bit more. In fact using the TunePlates and TuneBlocks under the tube-powered Mahis improved the music even more than using just the TunePlates under the spikes of the Kharma loudspeakers. Vacuum tubes are susceptible to vibrations so there are perhaps larger gains to be made here. But even with the separate solid-state power supply of my tube CAT preamplifier, there were improvements to be realized by using vibration-absorbing footers.
As I have in the past, I urge you to try vibration-absorbing devices under each component to evaluate the benefits. I also urge you to evaluate these devices with your system stripped of other such devices under other components. Since there is a cumulative effect when each additional component is improved with vibration absorbing devices, there is also a diminishing return as more and more components are treated.
One component you cannot go wrong with is a Linn LP-12 turntable. As Iíve said before, the combination of the Boston Audio Mat 1 and the SDS squares, or in this case TunePlates, will literally transform the turntable and take it up to the next level. While my older Valhalla model without the Circus bearing is vastly improved with the addition of the Mat 1, TuneBlocks and TunePlates, the cost of these three tweaks results in a level of musicality that I feel is unmatched by the latest modifications offered by Linn that take the table well into a five figure price range. In fairness, the system in which I heard the new Linn at the Montreal show last spring was an all-Linn solid-state system, while my rig is largely tube based. Nonetheless, if you own a Linn and a light bulb did not just go on in your head, please check your circuits.
The Supporting Cast
Aesthetically, when used under a component, the TunePlates are out of sight unless your components are mounted at eye level or you spend a lot of time crawling around on your floor. The rig will take on the look of whatever other footer you use to support the TunePlates and componentÖwhich brings me back to the issue just discussed. If you already own vibration absorbing footers, simply combine them with the TunePlates. While the Boston Audio Designs TuneBlocks are the best footers Iíve come across, whatever brand of footer you already own will probably be sufficient for use with the TunePlates.
To back up this claim, I pulled out a set of Boston Audio Designsí Mini-TuneBlocks, which are actually cylindrical and considerably smaller in volume. Putting on Brucknerís monaural recording of Mahlerís 1st, I panned from left to right to see if there was a difference between the channel supported by the big TuneBlocks and the channel supported by the minis. There certainly was a difference, but that was the only certainty. Was it due to different room acoustics from the asymmetrical room? Was the difference due to the difference in my hearing in each ear? Or were the wires from each channel crossing in different patternsÖor all of the above? Clearly, my methodology was flawed. Preferring the sound from the right channel, I went monaural and proceeded to swap in and out the different footers to support the same set of TunePlates on the same monoblock amplifier. Now I was getting somewhere!
My larger cubical TuneBlocks were clearly superior to the smaller, cylindrical minis. Not by a huge amount, but the extra mass of the graphite big block clearly had a positive effect, imparting more body and greater focus to the music. Remembering back to the Montreal show last year, I pulled out two boxes of Xindak footers for comparison, continuing to use the TunePlates as a constant.
The first was the VT2-RP, which uses a cylindrical base of red sandalwood and a special ceramic ball. (It is most likely a rocket grade ceramic ball, but they probably donít want to remind us that they, too, have rockets). The music with the VT2-RP was warm and inviting giving the music and space a unity and wholeness that was distinct from the graphite footers. The factory recommendation printed on the packaging was to use this model with CD players that have less focus and impart less body to the music. And I suspect they are quite correct about this ó which would be very beneficial to less expensive components.
Next, I tried the Xindak VT1-GP, which uses a cylindrical graphite base and the same special ceramic balls. From the comments on the packaging, this model is aimed at the higher end products in our hobby. The presentation of the music shifted more in the direction of the larger TuneBlocks with greater focus and more dynamics. The physical volume of the VT1-GP falls about mid-way between the older cubical TuneBlocks and the new cylindrical minis ó just eyeballing them, without doing the measurements and the math. Each of the Xindak products seems very competent and each is targeting a different application, as noted. I will try to get back to them for more critical listening in the near future.
At this point I brought out the newest form of TuneBlock, the larger TuneBlock SE cylindrical version that has perhaps 10 percent greater volume than my original cubical ones (which remind me of David Smith sculptures and should therefore command higher resale value on eBay in my not-so-humble opinion). The new SE version comes supplied with cryogenically treated tungsten carbide balls ó just what I needed to go along with my cryogenically treated listening room in typical Rochester winters! Testing the SE in combination with the TunePlates under the preamplifier with stereo playback, the larger cylindrical TuneBlocks allowed more musical body to flow through the preamplifier than my older cubical ones. As for the cryogenically treated tungsten carbide ball bearings, the benefit was slight when compared with ordinary tungsten carbide bearings and required very critical listening ó not the sort of listening that leads to musical enjoyment. The addition of the TunePlates was much more significant than the value added by the cryogenically treated tungsten carbide balls. The larger mass of the SE presumably offers more absorption of micro-vibrations by the carbon graphite than smaller versions of TuneBlocks.
The TunePlates, with the visco-elastic layer performing a similar feat by converting micro-vibrations into heat, do so in closer proximity to the actual electronic signal path. It is no small amusement for me that not only are the TunePlates more effective than the more distant (from the signal path) TuneBlocks, but they are also less expensive. Of course, as I found, the combination of the two is superior to either one used alone, and also raises the total cost. I often wonder how beneficial some such technology might be if it were applied inside the chassis, either supporting the tube sockets, the circuit board, or embedded within it. It is a very interesting adventure.
The TunePlates, when used directly under the spikes of my floorstanding loudspeakers, contributed a uniform improvement in focus that belies their modest cost. When used in direct contact with the bottom of the chassis of electrical components, particularly with source components and tube gear, the results can be even more impressive with side benefits of improved pace, rhythm, timing and dynamics. Additional footers are necessary for this purpose. The combination of the TuneBlock SE and the TunePlates is, quite simply, world class. But even with more modest footers, the TunePlates, when used throughout the system, will take your current equipment to heights you never thought possible. That alone could save you many thousands of foolishly spent dollars. It might also endow you with enough bravado to pull along side that guy in the 409 and with your engine rumbling, sing a few bars of another song from The Beach Boys...
Sheís my little deuce coupe
--- "Little Deuce Coupe"
Type: Resonance control
TunePlates measure 3 inches square by 3mm thick and cost $39 each
TuneBlock SE are $299 for a set of three and include cryogenically treated Tungsten Carbide bearings.
Boston Audio Design