Stillpoints And ERS Paper
by Rick Becker
Sometimes reviewers make mistakes, and I am no exception. In my Montreal show report I raved about the high quality of sound coming from the Merlin loudspeakers. It was the best sound I had ever heard them deliver. The other components in the system were of equally high standard, and I thought it must have been a synergistic match-up. But what I missed was the point of the whole room-the Stillpoints and ERS paper, to be more specific. Allan, Director of Sales and Marketing, was quick to jump on me. What I failed to notice were the high-tech cones hidden under all the components and special paper that was casually placed about in strategic places. What resulted from our conversation was enough product samples delivered to my doorstep to really get a grip on this special technology. If you think, at this point, we are stepping into voodoo or rocket science, you are not far from wrong. But if the idea of saving thousands of dollars on the next upgrade to your system appeals to you, read on.
The importance of vibration control is well known in almost every category of component. Loudspeakers come with massive walls, internal bracing, and separate compartments for each driver, crossovers mounted in their own compartment, or on the outside or even completely external to the loudspeaker -- all in an effort to isolate and reduce the effects of unwanted vibration. Loudspeakers come with spikes to "drain" away cabinet resonances, or are bolted to stands to minimize cabinet vibration. Likewise, electrical components often have massive cabinets and circuit boards that are dampened to reduce internal vibration caused by the flow of electricity through the circuits as well as vibrations caused by the presence of music. Even cable technology is increasingly focusing on the tightness of connections and minimizing vibrations. The humble HAL-O tube dampers I use in my preamplifier are yet another example of the importance and value of vibration control.
One of the driving forces of technology, and perhaps even Western Civilization, is the simple question "What if...?" Like many people in our hobby, I have experimented with a wide variety of Sorbothane, gels, air bladders, cones, wood blocks, sandboxes and so on. Something of this nature was usually better than nothing. But we have been blessed with more than a few inventors who have a penchant for taking things to the extreme. Peter Bizelwicz of Symposium Acoustics, whose Rollerblocks and vibration absorbing shelves I reviewed last year, I deemed to be one of the most dangerous men in high-end audio. And now, Stillpoints appears on the scene with one similar and one dissimilar new product. I'll start with the Stillpoints.
At first glance, the Stillpoints look like an enlarged tip of a ballpoint pen. The ball is actually a rocket grade ceramic ball bearing, perhaps 5/8" in diameter, housed in a conical Delrin body. Peering into the ¼--20 threaded hole in the base of the cone, four other smaller ceramic balls are barely visible, suggesting a set-up similar to the hub of a bicycle, where a ring of ball bearings rides in a machined (and sometimes polished) race. But rolling a finger across the exposed ceramic ball on top reveals quite a bit of friction, indicating that the purpose of the pyramid of ceramic balls is not to dissipate energy in the fashion of various rollerblocks, but to transmit it to the four other ceramic balls within the cone. At this point, I became hopelessly baffled, and diverted my efforts to listening tests.
Measuring about 1 1/8-inch high, the Stillpoints fit inconspicuously beneath components, raising them very little above built-in feet. This, of course, is good news for people with tightly spaced equipment racks. The friction I mentioned above, also translates into fairly stable equipment when pushing buttons, unlike the rollerblocks which allow the components to sway back and forth. I say "fairly stable" because stability depends on the mass of the component and the resistance of the switch. The power supply of my CAT preamplifier, for example, although quite heavy, also has a highly resistive power switch, which required care to avoid pushing the unit off the Stillpoints. Likewise, with the lighter Manley Labs Mahi monoblocks. In both instances, I have been able to adjust my behavior without significant inconvenience. With components operated by remote control, obviously, this is no problem at all.
There was a significant improvement in clarity every time I placed a component on the Stillpoints. My jaw did not "drop", as I have experienced similar results before with the two Symposium Acoustics Rollerblocks. But "clearly", the Stillpoints are in the same league of excellence. The improvement seemed to be the equivalent of a major component upgrade, whether the Stillpoints were placed under my $300 tuner, or my $6,000 pre-amplifier. Nothing seemed immune to the beneficial effect of the Stillpoints, no matter what the priced point.
When I first discovered and became fascinated with the high-end, I listened to numerous brands of components and loudspeakers that touted their ability to produce highly accurate sound. In most instances, this bleeding edge of technology produced bleeding ears. I will not name names, because some of these companies have faded from existence, while others have evolved with much more successful products. Perhaps the taming of the CD has been a major contribution to this effort.
It was only gradually that I left the security of "warm" components and came to embrace the virtues of accuracy. The big attraction, for me, was cognitive intelligibility-being able to understand the lyrics of unfamiliar songs without having to listen over and over again to figure them out. Of course, pace, rhythm, tonal balance, and timbre to some extent, were important to me, but a funny thing happened on the road to increased focus. Pace and rhythm seemed to fall into place and become much less of an issue in the enjoyment of the music. When the sound becomes more focused, less mental energy or concentration is needed to understand the lyrics, and I can enjoy the totality of the vocals and musical instruments more. When the loud notes are tightened up, the softer ones hidden behind them suddenly appear. The soundstage becomes deeper and more clearly delineated, and suddenly, we have this new dimension of ambient cues to enjoy, which brings us even closer to the experience of "being there."
"Yeah, yeah," you say. "I have heard all that before. I have got the megabuck big rig with all the recommended components and it sounds incredible. I do not need any tweaky roller-skates under my equipment." Some people never have a "What if…?" experience. They believe in the axiom that "you get what you pay for," or they buy into the persuasion of advertising. But I don't have enough fingers to count the number of "incredible systems" I have owned-each one being eclipsed by the addition of a better component, or some new "tweak" that has improved the focus or transparency of the system. I can gobble them up like popcorn.
The most obvious orientation of the Stillpoints, to me, was to place them on the shelf, ball upward, with the component on top, much like the Symposium Rollerblocks I have been using. Moving the position of a Stillpoint to directly below a heavy part such as a transformer, seemed to be more beneficial than arbitrarily placing them in as large a triangle as the component would permit. Since the ball only contacts the bottom of the component in a small area, obstacles such as screw heads, ventilation slots and uneven bottoms proved to be less problematic than with rollerblocks. And with the ball upward, there is an inherent stability that made installing and moving them around exceedingly easy. With multiple sets at my disposal, I was able to place virtually every component on one or more isolation devices. The benefit is cumulative and synergistic, improving not only the focus, but the transparency as well. With the Kharma Ceramique 2.2 loudspeakers in my system, the improvement in focus with each additional set was readily apparent, and at no time did the sound ever go "over the edge" into irritability. Nor did the addition of the Stillpoints shift tonal balance. They simply improved the focus of the sound, yielding the additional benefits of improved soundstage delineation, depth, layering of instruments and so on as I mentioned above.
After playing with the Stillpoints by themselves for quite a while, I finally broke open the accessory to the accessory. You've probably been wondering about that ¼--20 threaded hole I mentioned earlier. That's where you screw in the riser that spreads the footprint of the Stillpoint from about one and
13/16-inch to just under three inches. Unlike the bottom of the Stillpoint, which is a flat circular surface, the base of the riser is a circular ridge with a diameter of about two and
15/16-inch, so the riser actually contacts the shelf with a circular line, rather than a circular surface. The riser, while only a third of the cost of the
Stillpoints, takes the Stillpoints to the next level. In fact, since I've been reviewing these products, the demand for the risers has increased to the point where they now can be manufactured in larger lots, thereby lowering the cost.
It Ain't Over Till It's Over
Just about the time I was ready to wrap up my original review, Steven R. Rochlin, my favorite Enjoy the Music.com™ editor (Editor Steve sez: compliments will get you anything :-) ), comes out with another review of Symposium Rollerblocks and shelves that not only clarified and simplified my review of a year earlier, but broke new ground, proclaiming improved performance by inverting the Rollerblocks, i.e., placing the stainless steel plate on the shelf, rather than on the bottom of the component. This I had to try for myself. I reversed the Series II Rollerblocks under my CAT pre-amplifier, and sure enough, ol' Steverino was right! And the bar was raised another notch.
I hit the "delete" button on my original review and started playing with the Stillpoints again, this time using them point down on the stainless steel plates borrowed from the Rollerblocks. Sure enough, they improved another notch and once again seemed to be on a par with the Symposium Rollerblocks in the inverted position. Adding a Symposium Svelte Shelf, and even the less expensive Isis shelf (with some lighter components), compounded the benefit, as Steve also reported.
I substituted some 2-inch squares of 0.5-inch thick Corian for the stainless steel plates and found a similar, but slightly more woody improvement. I even used the Stillpoints ball-down, directly on my solid maple shelves to very good effect. The point here is that you can and should experiment with different materials and different orientations-ball up/ball down-to achieve the sound that works for you in your system. While I went back and forth between the Symposium Rollerblocks (with the Tungsten Carbide upgraded balls) and Stillpoints (with risers) under my CAT preamplifier, this was no shoot-out and there are no dead cowboys in the mud on my listening room floor. Both of these products are excellent, and I would be amazed if I could pick up on the difference if Linda were to swap them around in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to me. I would also be remiss, however, if I did not mention that it is much easier to position the Stillpoints than it is the Rollerblocks, with their separate ball and block. But since this is not something that you do every day, unless you are extremely fanatical, this should not be a big issue. Installing either can be done alone, but an extra set of hands can make things go more smoothly.
I was quite reluctant to try the Stillpoints under my old Linn turntable since the bottom is merely un-tempered Masonite, and I thought the ceramic ball would merely dent the Masonite and prove ineffective. Three-point balancing was also a concern, although the Stillpoints are available in sets of four. But with the discovery of the benefit of inverting the Stillpoints, I gathered enough courage to insert a set of three Stillpoints with risers, point-down on the 3/8-inch thick aluminum leveling platform I use. Again, another huge gain in focus, perhaps equivalent to the replacement of the original felt turntable mat with the ultra-high-value None-Felt mat. But don't scoff-the cumulative benefit of the None-Felt mat and the Stillpoints is more than a thousand dollars less expensive than upgrading my Linn from the Valhalla to the Lingo power supply. For even more improvement, I added the Symposium Svelte shelf between the Stillpoints and the aluminum platform.
Another possibility I was reluctant to try was placing the Stillpoints under loudspeakers. My Coincident Partial Eclipse Series 2 loudspeakers improved significantly when I placed them (sans spikes) on the relatively inexpensive Symposium Isis platforms, so I had reason to believe the Stillpoints would be effective. My reluctance was based on fear of instability. The footprint of the Coincidents is small relative to their height and center of gravity, and the use of three-point balancing would reduce the footprint even further and make them vulnerable to being toppled. (I like to listen in the dark, and I have to pass closely by the right loudspeaker to change CDs and LPs). The Kharma Ceramique 2.2s, however, have a much larger footprint, and a lower center of gravity. Removing the SDSS stands, I tried the Kharmas on Stillpoints, but found them no better (but certainly less expensive) than the integral SDSS stands. Considering the liability and stability issues, I urge you to think carefully about using the Stillpoints in this manner. I feel a lot more secure with the Kharmas mounted on their outrigger spike stands, or the Coincidents flat on the Symposium Isis platforms.
With my listening sessions with the Stillpoints completed, I returned to an early email from Allan, which I thought contained a white paper on the product. Instead, I found this beautiful, three dimensional graphic that reveals the internal design of the product. It shows the four internal ceramic balls and what looked like a smaller sixth ball below them.
An inquiry about the design evoked the following technical reply, which I will insert here, with his permission, for those who might be interested.
As I said, the Stillpoints are a complicated patented device :)
Two other villains in the audio world are the RFI and EMI twins, and like unwanted physical vibrations, these bad boys are combated with a variety of electronic and shielding technologies to eliminate their degrading effect on the music. Everything from non-magnetic chassis for components, to cable shielding, to power conditioners of all sorts is used to clean up the electrical power in our systems. But I have to admit to being more than a little skeptical about the piece of magic ERS paper that I was given at the Montreal show. But willing to try almost anything, I eagerly accepted the sample. After all, they were using a piece of it on top of the outboard BAM of the Merlin loudspeakers that sounded so marvelous-why not?
Along with the sets of Stillpoints came what I thought would be a lifetime supply of ERS paper in a variety of sheets and strips. (I was wrong again, and requested a second batch). Unlike the Stillpoints, the ERS paper is a more subtle product. The Stillpoints focus and improve the sound that you do hear. The ERS paper eliminates the deleterious effects of RFI and EMI, so you have to listen for what's missing, rather than listen for what's improved. Granted, one hand washes the other here, but the improvements wrought by the Stillpoints are much more easily picked up than the elimination of RFI/EMI by the ERS paper. Once you shift your perceptual gears, you will begin to have that "Oh, my G-d" reaction as you spread this paper around in your system.
The first place I tried it was on top of the power supply of my CAT preamplifier, using little spacers so as not to restrict the air flow through the vents. Since the CAT has tubes, I was reluctant to place any ERS inside the main chassis. It is, after all, paper. The background became a little quieter, I thought, and I could hear more inner detail in the music. Next, I slid sheets above and below my CD player (transport) and DAC. Better still, but being relatively cool, solid-state components, why not put the ERS paper directly inside the chassis? Much better! In fact, the DAC fell off my list of candidates for future upgrades-not bad results from a $20 sheet of paper. Next up was my tuner, which I use to listen to New-Age music on Hearts of Space on NPR . Huge gains here, too! This was really fun! Throw a sheet or two of ERS paper into your component, and feel like you just saved yourself a thousand, or two, or three thousand dollars in a major component upgrade! Man, this stuff is dangerous! It could put hundreds of American craftspeople and thousands of Chinese out of work if audiophiles started using this stuff instead of buying newer, more expensive products.
I resisted the urge to slide some sheets into my Plinius amplifier because in Class A mode, the big guy really cooks, and all that vinyl in my house is really flammable. But I took a long look at the Mahi monoblocks and carefully slid a small sheet between the transformers and the tube deck. I also isolated the input interconnect from the speaker cables, and slid another small piece between the two speaker cable leads--likewise, at the loudspeaker end of the cable. With the un-shielded Mil-Spec interconnects, I wrapped the ends with the smaller strips of ERS for several inches, and made little sleeves that I could push up over the RCA connection once the locking RCA connectors had been tightened down. These ERS treated $40 home-brew cables halved the distance between the untreated cable and the $700 per pair Kharma Matrix Neo interconnects I was using for review. At the junction box where four ac power cords connect with my JPS AC In-Wall dedicated line, I wrapped the power cords with a long thin strip.
This leads me to the one anomaly I encountered. Every application of the ERS paper I tried seemed to provide some degree of improvement in the background noise of the system-except one. At Stillpoint's suggestion, I taped a sheet of ERS over the circuit breakers in my mains box. Not a bad idea in my mind, either. But when I did this early on in my experimentation, it made the whole system sound worse. When I repeated the trial after mummifying all my components and cables with ERS, covering the breakers with a sheet made no difference. So again, as with the Stillpoints, you have to play around with this stuff, and find the balance of application that best suits your ears and your system. Overall, by using the ERS paper judiciously, for perhaps a hundred dollars, you could treat and transform your entire system. At that price, the ERS has to rate right up there with the HAL-O tube dampers and the None-Felt turntable mat, as among the highest values in high-end audio. For those of you who might begrudge the look of this stuff cluttering up your expensive components, I suggest "Turn off the lights and enjoy the music!"
Manufacturers should also note that the ERS paper is available with an adhesive backing that is especially tenacious. This should lend itself to OEM applications that might catapult components into the next, or even higher, category of recommended components. I didn't test the adhesive backing personally, for when I ultimately swap out a component, I want to keep the ERS paper for its successor. I regret that I did not have enough time to test the ERS paper in my DVD player and other mid-fi components in other systems in my home. When I do, I will try and mention it in future reviews.
In another communiqué, Allan passed on a letter from a guy in Boise, Idaho, who drag races his Corvette and achieved substantial improvement with a special cover lined with ERS material. Specifically, his three run averages dropped from 13.676 seconds to 13.586, equating to a 0.3 mph gain. Fortunately, I have enough ERS left over to soup up my new Silver Bullet for the annual March run to the Festival du Son-Image in Montreal.
My friend, fellow journalist, and prodigious bicyclist, Art Shapiro, commented to me once, "You sure review a lot of weird stuff!" Well, I guess this review will add more fuel to his fire. These products, the Stillpoints and ERS paper, are certainly on the fringe of the High End scene. And while the Stillpoints may seem exorbitantly priced in comparison to ordinary cones, their performance is highly commendable. Mate the Stillpoints with the optional risers, use them point down on an appropriate hard surface, and their performance becomes extraordinary, far outstripping the cost of upgrading the component they support. The ERS, at twenty dollars a sheet is an even higher, though less obvious value. You can buy just one set of Stillpoints or one sheet of ERS and evaluate the benefit with each of your components at little risk, before committing to multiple sets or sheets. Furthermore, both products are relatively free from obsolescence. They will work just as nicely with your upgraded box as they do in your present rig. And who knows-you may discover that you don't need to upgrade after all. Put them at the very top of your Christmas gift list, and if Santa doesn't come through for you, be good to yourself!
In the process of taking photos for this review, I removed the top of my Sony ES CD player to discover that I had not put any ERS paper inside. I added one sheet, snapped the photo, added a second sheet, and re-installed it in my rig as the transport, only. Instantly, I knew I had hit the mother lode. Within twenty minutes the unit had warmed up again and the results were truly phenomenal. The people of Woodville, WI, should be warned that audiophiles in large numbers will soon be making pilgrimages to kiss the hands of Paul Wakeen and Larry Jacoby. Brace yourselves for sainthood, gentlemen. It's a miracle.
A tip of the hat to the boys in my band:
Linn LP-12 Valhalla turntable with Sumiko MMT arm, Audio Technica 160-ML cartridge and None Felt turntable mat, on Stillpoints and Symposium Acoustics Svelte Shelf
A set of 3 Stillpoints $299
ERS comes in 1/2", 1", 2", 4", 6" and 11" in any length, with and without pressure adhesive backing
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