This is the kind of review I especially enjoy. Effectively, one that describes such unique products offer challenges and rewards beyond the norm of reviewing standard product categories. On an evaluation of a preamplifier or amplifier the writer can draw on past review experiences to at least set a frame of reference for the current subject. But that is far from the case here. As my second decade of audio reviewing nears, nothing I've previously encountered has prepared me for how Holder Stein's remarkable products so effectively enhance the beauty and emotional connection I experience during each session with my audio system.
Most audiophiles would acknowledge the adage that the listening room is the key element in the sound of an audio system. But few of even the most ambitious systems I have encountered include substantial room treatment, and those systems typically fail to achieve their full sonic potential regardless of the cost of the equipment. They are compromised by frequency peaks and dips caused by the room's uneven interaction with the output of the loudspeakers.
Room treatments essentially fall into two categories, active or passive. Active electronic products, connected within the signal path, range from the graphic and parametric equalizers that have been around forever to more sophisticated recent DSP-based room correction products. All of them work by modifying the system's frequency curve. Passive room treatments typically involve bulky traps and diffusers, commonly fabric-covered cardboard and foam structures designed to absorb and redirect the output of the speakers to produce a smoother and better balanced octave-to-octave frequency spectrum.
Confession time. Until a couple of years ago I was among the audiophiles who resist using traditional room treatments, either active or passive. Years ago I had dabbled with equalizers, but found the products of the 1980s demanded too many trade-offs. While I might accomplish some desirable frequency shaping, the positive benefits were offset by phase anomalies, and all too often undesirable degradations of tonal beauty and transient impact resulting from inserting typically poorly engineered equalizer designs into my "purist" signal path.
As for conventional traps and diffusers, I've resisted cluttering my room with dust-catching big traps and panels. Now, décor has never loomed large in my priorities, and none of my listening rooms has ever been in danger of appearing in House Beautiful or Architectural Digest. But adding those honkin' big uglies into the visual mix has had zero appeal. Moreover, my two cats would think they'd been transported to a wonderful world of oversized scratching posts! Finally, none of my listening rooms over the last 25 years has been a rectangular box, a shape that tends to emphasize audible room boundary effects; each has been shaped so that standing wave problems were minimized and heavy-duty room treatments have not been required to achieve reasonably well balanced sound.
There are of course many other forms of passive room conditioning, including among others African ebony Mpingo disks, RoomLens plastic Helmholtz resonators, Shaketi Hallographs, and the Synergistic Research Acoustic ART resonating bowls I wrote about in December 2009 (more on those below). Over the years I have tried all of the aforementioned unconventional products, and others as well. Some gave me good results, some didn't, and some yielded ambiguous results. But the one thing that has been consistent is that for any room-tuning product that falls outside the generally accepted active electronic and passive trap/diffuser approaches, there is always a sizable and highly vocal number of audiophiles who reject such unconventional thinking out of hand. Nothing activates the "snake oil" chorus more predictably than products whose rationale relies on concepts not covered in high school and undergraduate physics textbooks. I suspect that these Steinmusic products will evoke a similar reaction in many. My goal is to make a sufficient case for them to encourage more listeners to broaden their horizons, open their minds, and judge unconventional products by their sonic results.
The Steinmusic system confounds easy characterization. The Harmonizers are electronically active, but they are not connected within the system's signal path. Changing the Intensity level quite audibly alters the in-room sound, but that interaction is strictly with the room itself, not the electronics of the system. But the Magic Stones, which are equally important to the effect, are totally passive devices. I have not previously worked with any similar combination of active and passive room tuning elements.
In mid-2010 my friend Jack Bybee – another creator of sonically superb, scientifically valid, but often misunderstood off-the-beaten-track audio accessories – excitedly described to me some black boxes and small resonant pieces whose deployment had dramatically enhanced the beauty and musicality of his already superior audio system. Jack is not prone to hyperbole, so based on his enthusiasm I contacted Holger Stein and requested review samples of his H2 Harmonizers and Magic Stones. A few days later the parcel arrived from Germany and the adventure began.
Physical Description &
The cubes are the H2 Harmonizers, marked either H2A or H2B. Each Harmonizer has a blue LED on the front panel to indicate that it is getting power. The rear panel has an input jack for the wall wart, an ON/OFF toggle for the LED (and to turn on or off an internal 9V battery if that power option is chosen over the wall warts), and an Intensity knob with a rotational range from 7 to 5 o'clock. Inside is space for the 9V battery and a small electronic circuit. There is no visible difference in the appearance of the circuits in the H2A or H2B Harmonizers.
There are three basic options for configuring the Steinmusic Harmonizers. The listening room's size and the system's electronics and speakers may perform well with two (1 H2A and 1 H2B), three (2 H2A and 1 H2B), or four (2 H2A and 2 H2B) Harmonizers. The deployment of the Magic Stones need not change because more Harmonizers are in use. The following room diagram illustrates recommended placements of the Harmonizers and Magic Stones. You can see that in the four-cube setup the H2A and H2B Harmonizers are paired in diagonal relationships. That principle holds true for the two-cube and three-cube layouts; however, in all cases some experimentation with the precise locations of Harmonizers and Stones will help the listener optimize the entire configuration for best results.
At the beginning of this process I had no idea which of the above – described setups would work optimally in my room. I set about methodically to try them out, starting with the simplest two-Harmonizer version (1 H2B behind the right speaker and 1 H2A behind the listening seat on the left side). After working with that configuration for almost two weeks, I went to three Harmonizers (1 H2A behind the left speaker, 1 H2A behind the listening seat on the right side, and1 H2B behind the listening seat on the left side), and subsequently, when I felt I had gotten the best possible results from that rig, on to the four-Harmonizer version depicted in the room diagram.
The changes in sound resulting from those progressive stages did not happen in linear and predictable ways. I was very pleased with the initial two-Harmonizer setup. I could hear small increases in clarity with two Harmonizers even before I placed the Magic Stones in the recommended locations. However, putting the Magic Stones in place immediately raised the quality of sound, confirming that they are essential to the concept.
Adding a third Harmonizer did not initially make things better. With one Harmonizer located behind the left speaker, it took a while to find the best locations for the second and third Harmonizers at the listening end of the room. I settled on placing the second H2A about six feet to the right of and five feet behind my listening seat; the single H2B was placed symmetrically on the left. Even then, I found the improvements from adding the third Harmonizer to be relatively minor. Had I been stopping at that point I would have gone back to the two-Harmonizer setup, not having found that three Harmonizers produced an improvement worth the cost of the third cube.( Let me say here that other users report excellent results with three Harmonizers. The point is that each listener must listen carefully to dial in the Steinmusic system for a particular room.)
Going to four Harmonizers proved the right choice for my room. The Harmonizers and Magic Stones were placed in the relationships shown in the room diagram above. A few weeks into the review, Holger Stein sent me a few different-looking Magic Stones: white, round-shaped with curved star-like arms radiating from the center. He advised that the qualities of those pieces should be very close to the original Magic Stones. I did not substitute the new Stones for original ones, but simply added them into the whole configuration. Adding more Magic Stones enriched the naturalness of vocals and clarified pitch definition of lower frequencies. And about a month after that, I received five new pieces, labeled Magic Diamonds: shallow cone-shaped pieces with greater mass than the Magic Stones. Adding them to the mix–three at about head height across the wall behind the speakers, two on the wall behind the listening seat, further enriched vocal and instrumental clarity and provided more sense of weight and substance, especially for piano, low strings and brass. Making those changes on the fly I learned that while the basic set of Magic Stones work very well with the Harmonizers, adding more of those passive resonant elements made things sound even better.
Digression: Juggling Unconventional Room
My solution was first to disable the Acoustic ART system – very easy – and for three evenings in a row listen in my now-untreated room in order to reestablish in my mind and ears the sound of my system without any room tuning elements. That sound was pretty much as I remembered it: good, but lacking the full harmonic richness and spatial depth and resolution I had gotten used to with the Acoustic ART elements in place. Then, starting from scratch as it were, I went through the progression described above before settling on the four-Harmonizer configuration with additional Magic Stones and Magic Diamonds. The following listening comments first discuss the results with the fully configured Steinmusic system, and then what happens when both the Steinmusic and Acoustic ART systems are employed simultaneously.
Listening to The Four-Harmonizer Steinmusic
The Steinmusic effects restored much of the acoustic warmth and harmonic richness that was lacking in the untreated room. But even more dramatic was the striking increases in the intelligibility of vocals. I have probably listened more than 100 times to Patricia Barber's wonderful Modern Cool, on both SACD and vinyl. One of the things I love about this great artist is her impeccable diction; one can generally understand her lyrics without need for reading the texts – except for moments here and there where her Quintet is wailing and things gets complicated. But I found that the Steinmusic rig made even those more-difficult-to-follow sections much clearer and easier to comprehend fully. I found that increased intelligibility with singers ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Emmylou Harris to Renée Fleming to Thomas Hampson, with all those disparate artists suddenly easier to comprehend than ever before, even when the Acoustic ART system had been in use.
This sense of reduced distortion and improved intelligibility was equally evident in instrumental music. On symphonic recordings, inner voices were more easily discerned within the full orchestral texture. On one of my most demanding jazz LPs, Gil Evans' Out of the Cool, I could now hear a startling increase in micro-detail that had previously remained somewhat buried in the mix. These qualities, I think, are the most distinctive characteristic of how the Steinmusic system enhances the total music listening experience.
Having gotten a good fix on what the Steinmusic system was doing to my room, I was now ready to re-activate the Acoustic ART system and see what the combination would do. Would they work together or fight each other? Both systems had independently delivered more beautiful tonality, richer and more complex harmonics, and above all more emotional connection to the music than my untreated room. I restored the resonating bowls of the Acoustic ART system to their locations and started to play the stunning CSO Resound SACD of Ricardo Muti conducting the Verdi Requiem – a complicated mix of large chorus, orchestra and soloists, in a performance I had heard live in Orchestra Hall.
To my utter delight, this magnificent performance was now more compelling than ever. The Synergistic and Stein systems together produced a huge but precisely delineated image-specific soundscape, seeming to develop at once an overwhelming sense of scale in the big dramatic passages and enhanced intimacy in the quieter moments. There was a new and emotionally stirring bloom to the music. Reviewer cliché warning: that first night I could not bring myself to shut down the music and go to bed until after 3 a.m.
In trying to sort out what each room treatment is contributing to this marvelous overall effect, I think the most important contribution of the Steinmusic system is to reduce distortions – even those that may go unrecognized until they are eliminated and thus conspicuous by their absence. Yes, the Steinmusic elements do add warmth and harmonic richness, but it is the accurate rendering of details and ability to eliminate subtle forms of distortion that are their greatest achievement.
What the Acoustic ART adds to that mix is wonderfully enhanced tonal warmth and harmonic complexity – as if my listening room has morphed from sounding like a pretty good concert hall – e.g., Orchestra Hall here in Chicago – to the warmer, richer and more exciting acoustic of, say, Boston's Symphony Hall.
So, how does one choose between these two room treatment concepts? Neither system is inexpensive, nor cost alone will probably limit music lovers to one or the other. I feel fortunate that I have both and that they are so compatible, but what would be my choice if I had to choose between them? It is a very tough call, but with my back to the wall I guess I would opt for the Steinmusic system. The deciding factor for me is that stunning increase in intelligibility of vocal and instrumental detail, coupled as it is to most impressive spatial enhancements. But I'm really glad I can keep both!
What's Happening In Those Harmonizers?
The PDF Steinmusic manual for the Harmonizers describes their function as "elongating the air molecules" – i.e. "charging" the air in the listening room in a manner that facilitates the transmission of musical energy through the room. It seems to be suggesting that this charging of the air molecules means that when the speaker output enters the listening room space it does not have to overcome the inertia of uncharged/un-elongated air in the room.
I spoke with Holger Stein at the RMAF in Denver last year, and we have had a number of telephone conversations. He also sent me an e-mail in which he described the inspiration for this system as having been motivated by hearing subtle changes in the acoustics of a room in which some pieces of quartz had been placed. Quartz can be cut and shaped, and has highly resonant properties. Although he has not confirmed this theory, I suspect that the Magic Stones and Magic Diamonds are composed of quartz that has been tuned to resonate with the emanations of the Harmonizers. (In that respect they function similarly to the resonating carbon steel bowls used in the Synergistic Acoustic ART system.)
I mentioned near the beginning of this article that I heard about Steinmusic from Jack Bybee, who has been a practicing theoretical physicist for over half a century. At that time Jack confessed that he did not understand just how the Steinmusic system did what it did. But Jack's mind never stops working, and he has discussed this question with other scientists. The consensus of those discussions seems to be that although we are dealing with areas of quantum physics that most of us don't understand, the scientific principle at work is valid. Recently Jack mentioned that one of his friends and science peers (who owns and loves the Steinmusic Harmonizer system) believes that each Harmonizer circuit contains a quartz element whose vibrations are set to predetermined frequencies, and that the resonances that they project into the room are regulated by setting the Intensity knob. Again, Holger Stein has not commented on this theory, but it makes sense intuitively to me. It is clear from all my usage that the Harmonizers are projecting some kind of resonant energy into the room, which excites the passive Magic Stones/Diamonds and makes the room's air more receptive to the energy of the speaker output.
Ultimately, whether these theories are right or wrong is immaterial to me. The audible evidence that the Steinmusic Harmonizer system is a superior room conditioning product is inarguable, and the ability to achieve a glorious-sounding listening room without the need for those big ugly traps and diffusers cinches the deal!
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