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December 2009
Superior Audio Guilty Pleasures

A Reviewer Builds His Reference System
Part 3 Accessories
Reviews of The VPI HW-27 'Typhoon' LP Cleaning Machine; Millennium Silentor LP Center Weight, M-LP and M-CD Damping Mats; AUDIOTOP Vinyl, Digital and Connect Cleaning Products; Furutech DeStat and DeMag; Audio Excellence AZ audiodharma Anniversary Edition Cable Cooker (World Premiere); and Synergistic Research Acoustic ART (Analog Room Treatment) System
Review By Wayne Donnelly

Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

  We have come to the final chapter of this trip down Audio Memory Lane. In Part 1 (at this link ) I narrated my transition from California to Chicago and a very different listening environment, and reviewed the core preamplifier and amplifiers. Part 2 (at this link) addressed infrastructure: signal connectivity, component isolation and vibration control, and power conditioning. In this "tweak chapter" I review the accessories that have contributed so importantly to bringing my system to its present — and, I believe, remarkably fine — level of performance.

I thought a lot about how to organize the 11 individual products covered here, which include multiples from some manufacturers. I decided to organize the reviews by application rather than by manufacturer. The individual products are grouped into three categories: LP enhancements, digital enhancements, and system-wide enhancements.

 

LP Enhancements
Until recently, the oldest weapon in my audio arsenal still in use was my venerable VPI HW-16, the original VPI LP cleaning machine, which I purchased in the mid-70s. The 16, which still works just fine today (and will shortly be passed to a friend who purchases a lot of 25ข LPs from a local Catholic charity) is a bare-bones manual machine. Raise the hinged lid, place the LP on the foam mat and screw down the tightening nut, turn on the (unidirectional) motor, squirt on some cleaning fluid from a separate bottle, clean the grooves with a separate brush (sometimes easy, sometimes requiring a fair amount of back-and-forth scrubbing), close the lid and flip on the vacuum suction for three revolutions of the platter. The vacuum suction is attached to the lid, and the vacuumed-up cleaning fluid is blown out the rear of the machine as vapor.

Subsequent models from VPI offered refinements: pump-driven cleaning fluid reservoirs, drip trays to catch vacuumed-up fluid, and bi-directional platter rotation. And now we have the easy-to-use HW-27 'Typhoon,'  delivering twice the suction power of its HW-17 predecessor while running 6dB quieter.

The Typhoon is a sturdily built machine with a sheet-metal chassis, and can be used for extended sessions without stressing the motors. The platter sports a cork mat, and a screw-down clamp affixes the LP firmly to the mat during vacuuming. Two pivoting arms — one for distributing fluid and scrubbing the grooves, the other for vacuuming the LP dry — are easily swiveled over the LP and away again as needed. A hose is provided to drain the drip tray when cleaning several records in a session. On the front panel, left to right, are a TABLE toggle that in the up position rotates the motor clockwise at 18 rpm and reverses the direction in the down position; a PUMP button that sends fluid through the cleaning brush to the LP surface; and a VACUUM toggle. The Typhoon's clear acrylic dust cover lifts off during use.

After decades of using the HW-16, I really like the convenient features of the Typhoon. The bidirectional platter rotation is very handy, especially for older and dirtier LPs, and the automated pump function is most welcome. This high performance and convenience do come at a price: the Typhoon costs $2000.

But for anyone with a serious and sizable record collection — mine is over 6000 LPs — and a revealing audio system, a good cleaning machine would seem to be a necessity. It is for me. I've been buying records for about half a century, and some of them, after decades of use (and sometimes less than careful handling in my younger, pre-audiophile days), would be virtually unplayable on my present system if I couldn't get all that crud off them. But it isn't only beat-up old records that make the machine so valuable. Even brand-new LPs have some detritus down in the grooves from the manufacturing cycle. Cleaning a brand-new LP before playing it not only allows the record to sound its best, but delays the onset of little tics and pops — and also slows stylus wear.

In the relatively short time I have had the Typhoon, it has much improved the playability of a number of LPs that I had already run through the HW-16. That additional sucking power is powerful indeed. An automotive metaphor: going from my old HW-16 to the Typhoon is sort of like stepping out of an old Chevy and into a Bentley. They both get you where you want to go, but the experience of getting there is completely different. The Typhoon was this year's birthday present to myself. Thanks, me!

VPI's cleaning fluid works very well. But for a while now I have been using AUDIOTOP Vinyl1 cleaning fluid, which I discuss in the next section.

 

AUDIOTOP Vinyl Cleaning Fluids
Cleaning products from this Swiss company are imported by Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports. They are pretty pricey for this product category, but they deliver valuable benefits. I'll discuss their Digital and Connect products below, but first come the Vinyl products. Vinyl1 is a cleaning fluid for use in machines such as the Typhoon. Vinyl2 is a relaxant/lubricant to be applied to newly cleaned LPs.  AUDIOTOP Stylus is — surprise! — a stylus cleaner. The three products may be purchased as a kit or individually.

Let us take them one by one. Vinyl1 Is said to be an especially effective cleaning fluid for use in machines, and my experience suggests that it indeed performs very well — better than the years-old jug of VPI cleaning fluid I've been using with the HW-16. More than once I have gone back and re-cleaned LPs that had previously been cleaned with the VPI fluid, and found that the LP became quieter.

The one thing that irritates me about Vinyl1 is its container. The one-liter bottle has a wide spout covered with plastic, with a pinhole through which the fluid dispenses. VPI cleaning machines have a very small opening for filling the fluid reservoir. I own a couple of small kitchen funnels, but not small enough to fit into the VPI filler hole. Trying to line up the dispenser with the filler hole ain't easy — especially for a visually impaired guy — and I wound up spilling a fair amount of this pricey fluid. I also had a visitor with keen eyes and steady hands try it, and damned if he didn't spill a bunch of fluid too. I'm still looking for a teeny little funnel that will fit into the filler hole on the Typhoon. But let me suggest to those chemical geniuses in Switzerland that they could eliminate the issue by simply using a cap with a flip-up spout, as VPI does with their fluid. How about it, meinen Herren?

Vinyl2 is the key product in this series. Deep cleaning of the grooves with Vinyl1 — and, I suspect, the latest VPI fluid as well — seems to leach out some of the lubricants in the vinyl. I find that on many newly cleaned LPs, especially those with very quiet passages, although gross noises and tics are reduced or eliminated, there is often a slight rise in what I call "groove noise." Vinyl2 is designed to "relax" and re-lubricate the vinyl. And it works. Playing a newly cleaned LP before and after the application of Vinyl2, the "after" sound is improved, and groove noise much reduced. I have even, on occasion when in a hurry, done a quick swipe with Vinyl2 without first going through a machine cycle — and the record still sounded surprisingly clean and quiet.

Vinyl2 comes with a thin applicator pad wide enough to cover the grooves of an LP. After cleaning an LP on a machine, add a little Vinyl2 to the pad and lightly press the pad onto the rotating record for a full revolution. This stuff is very volatile, so letting the LP rotate a couple more times leaves the surface dry and ready to play. Great stuff!

AUDIOTOP Stylus, as is typical for such products, has a screw-off cap with a stiff wand terminated in a fine brush for back-to-front cleaning of the stylus. If I could read German I might be better able to describe the claimed virtues of this product. But I'll say simply that it does a good job of cleaning my stylus. I can't say that I notice any sonic improvement over the stylus-cleaning efficacy of my other couple of stylus cleaners that work the same way.

 

Millennium Silentor Center Weight
And M-LP Carbon Fiber Platter Mat
Millennium is their name, and carbon fiber is their game. These products are also from Aaudio Imports. I decided to try them after being jazzed by Millenium's carbon fiber M-CD damper. But I was pretty skeptical that they would make much of a difference on my fully tricked-out VPI Aries 3, which has the Super Platter upgrade as well as the VPI center and periphery clamps. But wrong again.

Let us start with the center weight. Comparing the Millenium Silentor ($349) with the VPI, both are beautifully machined hunks of stainless steel, differently shaped but roughly equivalent in mass. The VPI clamp has two damping rubber bands around the low circumference. The Silentor has a thin carbon fiber layer on the bottom where it contacts the LP label, which covers eight holes filled with crushed quartz for improved damping. A rubber O-ring fits over the spindle for additional damping. (It makes a cute little 'pop' sound when the clamp is lifted off.)

Comparing the two center weights is easy. I start with the VPI clamp, and after listening for a while lift the stylus, replace the VPI with the Silentor and resume play. The difference is not large, but is easily discernible. With the Silentor clamp, bass is tighter and in most cases — not always — deeper. In the midrange and upper octaves I perceive improved focus, especially on piano, and gains in image specificity. I won't claim that I could walk into the room with a record playing and identify which center clamp was in use. But in A-B comparisons the differences are easily audible, and to me worthwhile.

Millennium's M-LP-Mat ($349), only 3 mm thick, has two surfaces: the carbon fiber side is backed with a thin fabric that feels like velvet. The mat can be used with either side contacting the record. As you might expect, with the fabric side up the sound is slightly softer and warmer, with leading-edge transients less sharply defined than with the carbon fiber side up. I tried it both ways, and preferred the livelier, more dynamic and detailed presentation with the carbon fiber contacting the LP.

The comparison methodology was similar to what I described with the clamps, except that I had to remove the LP in order to place the mat. The first few times I did this, I also raised the arm slightly to maintain the same VTA — although the 3 mm difference is not critical with my JMW 10.5i arm and Dynavector XV-1s cartridge, which is less fussy about VTA than many moving coils. After a while I stopped making that adjustment, and I couldn't hear any problems related to the small VTA alteration.

The M-LP-Mat comes with a small lightweight puck, about an inch in diameter and also faced with carbon fiber where it contacts the record. Apparently it's for use with sprung turntables such as Linn or Thorens, for which the Silentor would be too massive. I think I'll send it to a friend who is still using a B&O 4002 linear-tracking table, and see what it does for him.

With the mat's fabric side up, there is little difference in sound from just using the VPI Super Platter alone — and what difference I perceive favors the platter without the mat. But with the carbon fiber side up and the Silentor clamp in place, there is enough improvement to warrant keeping these goodies.

 

Digital Enhancements
The CD era was already a few years old when I reluctantly took the plunge. I didn't really like the sound, which remained generally hard, cold and glary for several more years, but as more and more labels abandoned the LP it became a matter of CD or nothing for a lot of music I wanted to hear. I feared we were entering the age of "Crappy Sound Forever."

Given the state of digital audio in those early years, it was no surprise to find CD tweaks becoming a significant segment of the audio marketplace. Remember Armor All? Or the little rubber damping bands we used to put around the edges of the discs? For a long time, it seemed to me that just about anything you did to a CD was likely to make it at least a little more listenable. I'm not sure I could even remember at this point every spray treatment and damping disc I've tried over the last 20 years — although most of them were at  least somewhat beneficial.

Digital audio has gotten a great deal better, of course, as we learned more about dealing with jitter, adjusted recording methodologies, and developed higher-resolution formats. It now seems inevitable that these shiny little discs will fade into the sunset before too much longer, as hi-rez downloads and Internet-based on-demand hi-rezplayback become more commonplace. But in the meantime, there are still myriad tweaks to improve the sound of discs. Here are two of the best I've found:

 

Millennium M-CD Carbon Fiber Disc Damper
Like the LP mat, Millennium's M-CD damper is only 3 mm thick (with no fabric backing). That thinness makes it suitable for use in virtually any transport, top- or front-loading. I first heard about it when an audio buddy raved about how much it had helped his Metronome player. For a couple of years I had been using the Marigo damping disc, a lightweight device made of treated (with what I don't know) stiff paper. But the improvement with the Millennium was immediately apparent, and most exciting. With every disc, regardless of musical genre or age of the recording, the M-CD damper improved the sound. Deeper and more precise bass was most immediately noticeable, but it didn't take long to perceive a more organized and coherent spatial presentation and more beautiful tonality on voices and instruments — and, importantly, a wider, less compressed dynamic range.

This thing has benefits beyond simple disc playback. Because it is so thin, I can use it when ripping a disc onto my iMac and burning CDs from the computer. For instance, I ripped the Ivan Fischer Mahler Fourth — a wonderful-sounding SACD that was one of my 2009 Blue Note Award choices — onto the iMac, and burned a Redbook (16/44) CD of it.

Comparative playback over my Modwright/Denon player was fascinating. I had previously ripped and burned the same performance before receiving the Millennium damper, and had found that the copy I burned from the iMac, though Red Book rather than SACD, was very close in sound to the the SACD layer of the original disc . With the new Millennium-aided copy, or when playing the performance from the iMac through a USB DAC, there were only fairly inconsequential differences between the original and the ripped or burned versions — except that here and there I thought the copies sounded a little better! HIGHLY recommended — but let me emphasize that for ripping/burning discs, I've used it only on my iMac. For any other computer, proceed at your own risk.

 

AUDIOTOP Digital
This CD/DVD cleaner/polisher ($99) comes in a small pump-spray bottle, and is simple as can be to use. Two or three pumps to cover the data side of the disc, and a quick wipe-down with a soft tissue or napkin, center to periphery around the disc, and the disc is ready to play. (The instructions suggest a double application for best results, but I find that a careful single application produces great sonic benefits that do not seem materially improved by a second round. I'm reminded of those old shampoo ads that called for two wash and rinse cycles. Once is enough, I think.)

What are the results? Well, all of the usual audio checklist virtues: significantly better overall transparency, reductions in "digital glare," even on the oldest not-too-good-sounding CDs. Small but valuable gains in soundstaging, with a greater sense of the sound being detached from the speakers. (That is a virtue with my Analysis speakers anyway, but the Digital further enhances that quality.) Low-level detail is enhanced, in a natural, non-spotlighted way. Most importantly, the music simply sounds less "canned" — livelier, more immediate, more involving — the kind of instinctive gut-level response that I have experienced more typically with analog than  with digital playback.

It works great with DVDs as well. Even with my poor eyesight, it is easy to see the better color saturation, improved contrast and deeper blacks coming through my Oppoblu-ray player to my 60-inch Sony flat screen.

$99 for this little bottle seems a bit steep. But a bottle goes a long way, especially if you treat your discs one application at a time. I've already been through a couple of bottles, but each one lasted months, and I play a lot of discs. Given the sonic improvements — clearly better than any other spray-on CD treatment I have ever used — AUDIOTOP Digital is worth the money. In tandem with my Auto Desk CD lathe, this nifty spray is now an essential part of my preparation to play any little silver disc.

 

System-Wide Enhancements
Furutech DeStat
This enterprising Japanese company makes a number of interesting accessories as well as a broad range of cable products. The DeStat ($360) is a hand-held battery-powered device that eliminates static charges by blowing a gentle stream of positively and negatively charged charged ions. Traditionally the greatest use for static eliminators has been with LPs, but static can be a problem not only with media — CD and DVD discs as well as LPs — but also with cables and hardware components. The DeStat is designed to let you zap static charges comprehensively throughout your system and media collection.

Plowing through a box of miscellaneous stuff that hadn't been opened since I moved to Chicago, I recently unearthed my old Discwasher Zerostat gun. Audiophiles of a certain age will probably remember this cute little pistol-shaped piezo-electric generator. I used it for years, but never on anything but LPs (it predates the CD). It still does a fair job of static reduction — and sold for a small fraction the DeStat's price — but only a couple of comparative tests established that the DeStat is far superior in clearing static from LPs, and it is good for much more than that.

Much of the DeStat's effectiveness comes from the airstream it produces. With LPs, the DeStat not only eliminates static, but also blows away surface dust. I no longer use any pad or brush to clear dust from the grooves — a process that as often as not used to create static, even with supposedly static-eliminating carbon fiber bristles. And the DeStat also works well for CDs and DVDs, reducing aural and visual "haze" and allowing some previously veiled detail to emerge. Moreover, I got a very pleasant surprise when I opened the drawer on my font-loading Modwright/Denon player and aimed the airstream from the DeStat into the opening for about 20 seconds. Replaying the same disc (Patricia Barber's The Cole Porter Mix) I'd heard just before, it sounded slightly warmer and more natural. I now do that little maintenance tweak every couple of days.

I have also found that, especially in combination with the Furutech DeMag (discussed below), the DeStat audibly contributed to a lowering of my system's noise floor and improved focus after destaticizing all of my cables. Static can be even more of a bitch than I used to realize, and I am glad to have this very effective tool for combating it.

 

Furutech DeMag
The DeMag ($1,980) is a hefty piece of gear with a kind of retro/futuro look. It's easy to imagine Commander Data hunched over it in the science lab of the Enterprise. It's also, as I gather from a cursory look at past commentary, a product that has stirred considerable passion among supporters and detractors.

The audible benefits of degaussing CDs have been understood for a long time. I've previously gotten worthwhile results with the original little hand-held Bedini, and after misplacing that, with a bulk tape demagnetizer. So I was perfectly ready to believe that the DeMag would be effective in degaussing CDs and DVDs.

But Furutech makes other claims for the DeMag — as well they should for an accessory that costs nearly two grand. The company has published data to support its assertions that degaussing vinyl LPs also yields sonic benefits, as does treating the cables in a system.

The case for degaussing digital discs is based on the fact that there are magnetizable impurities in the composition of the discs, as well as in the inks used for printing the label sides. OK, I'll buy that — and as I've already said, demagnetizing digital discs is generally accepted as a good thing to do. The DeMag allows you to degauss quickly and powerfully up to five discs at once on its large work surface. Frequently these days I take a few minutes to plan a "program" of CDs I plan to listen to in a session, and do a little prep first. If the chosen discs have not already had some of these processes, I apply the AUDIOTOP Digital (I mark them for future reference) , trim the discs on my Audio Desk lathe (still one of the finest tweaks around), degauss them on the DeMag, and then hit each disc with the DeStat before loading it into my player with the Millennium M-CD mat and enjoying the fruits of my labors. Sounds a bit tedious, I know, but the whole sequence takes about 15 minutes, and the resulting sweet sounds are well worth the trouble.

But, does degaussing  LPs really make a difference? Furutech says that the black dye that makes LPs black, and (again) the label inks contain metallic impurities that can become magnetized and adversely affect the sound of the record. I was pretty skeptical about this claim, but ready to check it out. Here my testing methodology was first to thoroughly clean the LP on the VPI Typhoon and "relax" the vinyl with AUDIOTOP Vinyl2. After using the DeStat, I play the record, listening attentively, then remove it, treat it with the DeMag and play it again.

The first recording I used for this was the Classic Records single-sided 45 rpm LPs of the Reiner/Chicago Respighi Pines of Rome. This dazzling orchestral feast has everything you need from a sonic standpoint: a dynamic range from ppp to fff, and a glorious riot of orchestral color.  Conclusion? Post-DeMag, this already glorious-sounding recording was even more glorious-sounding. Not a night-and-day difference, but the Chicago strings now had a slightly silkier sheen and the brass a bit more bite, and I could now hear more breath and color in the woodwind solos. I repeated the experiment with a number of other familiar LPs, and I would say I heard clear improvements with about 80 percent of them.

What about degaussing cables? My JPS Aluminata interconnects are not the most flexible, but with the help of a couple of heavy books I was able to coil them over the work surface of the DeMag. I couldn't do the JPS speaker cables — too stiff. But I was able to do all of my Bybee power cords. After treating all of those cables, I also zapped them with the DeStat before reinstalling and listening. Under those circumstances no quick A-B comparison is possible. But I know intimately the sound of this system, and I could hear that its already excellently low noise floor had been slightly improved.

I must say I found all of these experiments intriguing, and I yearn to add the DeMag to my audio arsenal. It does a better job of degaussing digital discs than anything I have previously used. It has made smaller but valuable improvements in my analog listening. And I can certainly see myself repeating the cable degaussing process every couple of months. But the darned thing costs significant money. I don't begrudge the price; the obvious build quality can't be cheap to achieve, and the DeMag is a fair value. As of this writing, I'm still trying to decide whether to further deplete my battered exchequer or, regretfully, pack up the DeMag and return it to Furutech. Check the component listings in my reviewer's bio next month and you'll know the answer.

 

AUDIOTOP Connect Workstation
The full kit — Connect1 first stage cleaner (30 mL, $99), Connect2 second stage cleaner (30 mL, $99), Connect3 contact enhancer (10 mL, $179), a pack of Q-tips and a set of tools (various-sized brushes, files, etc.) — retails for $377. Individual bottles of the three active elements may be purchased at the prices listed above for each. This stuff is more expensive by magnitudes than any other contact cleaners I have ever used. But it is also by far the most effective such product I have encountered.

In effect this is a super-detailing kit for your audio system. It is to be used on all contact surfaces, from the most obvious — component jacks and terminals, cable plugs and spades/bananas — down to power plugs and wall outlets, and even tube pins and sockets. Clearly, if you have a complex system you are in for a few hours of work.

Connect1 is the heady-duty cleaner. Connect2 completes the cleaning process (and, BTW, is extremely volatile, so keep the bottle capped between wetting the tools). Connect3 acts as a shield against oxide re-building on the surfaces, and improves electrical contact and transfer across all of the junctions.

I purchased this product nearly 5 years ago when I was still living in California. But I never used it until recently, primarily because with my impaired eyesight it wouldn't have been possible to do fine work such as tube sockets accurately and without wasting too much of the precious fluids. But a couple of months ago a generous friend — who had just done his own system and been dazzled by the results — volunteered to help me get the job done. Thanks, George!

My system was not terribly "dirty." Most of the cables are less than a year old, and I am not a smoker. I also have little environmental pollution, as my Chicago Loop location would be so noisy with open windows that I leave them closed and rely on air conditioning in hot weather. We were able to effect the complete job economically, so I have plenty of each fluid left for another cleaning a year or two down the road. That lessens the sting of the price.

But even if this cleaning had used up everything, I would've had no worries after hearing the result. The myriad improvements — far more natural realism of voices and instruments, a larger but more precise soundstage, stunningly improved dynamics, and an even lower system noise floor — were greater in magnitude than any single component upgrade I can recall. All of that for less than 400 bucks is a hell of a value! Any audiophile who really wants to get maximum performance should spend the money and take the time.

 

Audiodharma 'Anniversary Edition' Cable Cooker
This invaluable device is designed, manufactured and marketed by Alan Kafton of Audio Excellence AZ. The Anniversary Edition is $999 direct. It provides the EFS  (Extended Frequency Sweep) circuit, full cryogenic treatment of all connectors, switches, internal wiring and circuit board, and the use of Cardas ACBP speaker binding posts. Two lower-priced models, lacking the Cardas terminals, are also available: the Standard PlusCryo is $789; the 2.5 Pro is $879. Contact Alan Kafton for details.

I reviewed and purchased the Cable Cooker 2.5 Pro in 2004, and gave it a Blue Note award. Since then it has served me — and a number of fellow questors for great sound — very well. This year I had that model upgraded to the Anniversary Edition, for what seems a reasonable cost. The EFS upgrade and full cryogenic treatment for connectors, switches, internal wiring and circuit board are $175.  Removal and replacement of the old speaker terminals with cryogenically treated Cardas ACBP binding posts and a few other items, including a no-longer-needed internal cooling fan are another $175. Those upgrades are available to all 2.5 Cooker owners. Call or e-mail for details on shipping, timing, etc.

The Cooker works by generating an output signal comprising high voltage, high current and a swept square wave (the EFS).  All of those elements condition the conductors and dielectric materials. The circuit in my original 2.5 Pro generated a sweep from 40 Hz-18.5 KHz. The EFS circuit now used in all Cookers spans 0 DC to 40 kHz. This new sweep more than doubles the previous range to improve burn-in effectiveness, especially on the low end of the spectrum.

Each new Cable Cooker comes with a universal switching power supply, good for any wall voltage from 90-260 VAC. No other power supply should be used. Since it has the same power supply as previous models, the steady-state high-voltage and high-current portions of the output signal have not changed.  Those specifications have always been based on the output capacity of the power supply, which is rated 12V and 2.5 Amperes. Yet the burn-in cycle of the Anniversary Edition Cooker proved faster and more efficient than I had experienced with the 2.5 Pro. Why would that be?

I have no doubt that the comprehensive cryogenic treatment of all critical components also contributes to the unit's efficacy. (I have had numerous opportunities to confirm that cryo treatments are very useful in increasing the efficiency of electrical circuits in audio equipment.) I applaud the change to cryo'd Cardas speaker terminals; the old ones got the job done, but were annoying to use.

Also standard are three pairs of barrel connectors for daisy-chaining RCA interconnects, and a set of adapters for cooking power cables (they plug into the speaker terminals with banana plugs). Various other accessories are available, including extension connectors for daisy-chaining multiple power cords and speaker cables, cooking non-US AC plugs, and even for cooking tonearm wires and phono cables. More on that last adapter below.

I find that the Anniversary Edition accomplishes burning in various cables roughly twice as fast as the 2.5 Cooker did. For instance, my JPS Aluminata interconnects last year needed five or six days to reach peak performance. Power cables tended to take about the same time, as did heavy-duty premium speaker cables. I had a chance to do an interesting experiment comparing my old and new Cookers this past summer. Just before sending in my 2.5 Pro Cooker for the Anniversary upgrade, I received two new Bybee power cables. I cooked one of them for five days before sending off the Cooker, but did not cook the other one. While my Cooker was having surgery in Arizona, I alternated those two power cables with my VTL preamp. No surprise there — the cooked cable sounded much better. After receiving the Anniversary Cooker, I cooked the formerly uncooked power cord for three days, and then repeated the alternation on my preamp. The Anniversary-cooked cable now sounded better — to about the same level of magnitude — than the cable that had been cooked prior to the Anniversary upgrade. So, naturally, I re-cooked that one for a couple of days, after which I heard sonic parity between the two.

I made this observation back in 2004, but it's important to make the point again. High-quality, substantially built audio cables are very difficult to burn in simply by using them in a system. Power cords and speaker cables may get fairly well burned in eventually, since higher voltage and current run through them during use, but it takes much longer than most people realize. I assert that interconnects, and especially tonearm wiring and phono cables, will never reach their full performance potential simply from use in a system.

I am particularly bemused when I read cable reviews that say something like, "I put the new cables into my system and let them play for a week or two to settle in before doing any critical listening." I got news for you, folks. There might be some change in the sound of the cables after a week or two, but by no means is the cable's full sonic potential being evaluated in such a circumstance. Back in 2004 most of the cables in my system had been there between one and two years. I pulled them all out and cooked them — in stages: ICs first, then speaker, and finally power — and when I reinstalled each group, the improvement was dramatic at each stage. I did the same thing this time around. Same result.

I particularly want to emphasize the need for targeted burn-in for anyone who still plays vinyl. Think for a moment about the low voltage and current — infinitesimal, in fact, with low-output moving coils — generated by phono cartridges. Without additional burn-in, your tonearm wires and phono cables are never going to burn in completely, and you are never going to hear the best possible sound from your records. Fortunately, there is a Cable Cooker accessory to solve this problem.

The phono adapter is a cryo'd four-foot interconnect with an RCA plug on one end and a DIN plug on the other. The RCA plug connects to the Cooker's output and the DIN plug connects to the cartridge leads after you have carefully detached them from the cartridge. A Velcro strap at that end allows you to anchor the adapter cable securely to your tonearm and not strain or break those very delicate cartridge leads. The RCA plugs at the end of your phono cable plug into the input jacks on the Cooker. In most cases this burn-in will take 48 to 72 hours.

I went through that procedure back in 2004, and I had wanted to do it again last year after acquiring my VPI Aries 3 turntable. But my phono adapter cable had gotten lost in the move to Chicago, and I never got around to getting a new one. So I had one included with the return of the Anniversary Edition Cooker and did it recently. At that point I had been using the VPI for over a year — but guess what? I was already jazzed about mu analog sound, but after cooking the tonearm and phono wires, I finally know what gorgeous sounds my Dynavector XV-1s is really capable of. The cartridge had broken in quite well in about a month of use, but as I rediscovered, the rest of the phono circuit had not. (BTW, the phono adapter can also be used to burn in any phono cable that connects to the tonearm with a DIN plug. This allows someone who changes phono cables— or is spooked by the notion of messing with cartridge leads — to burn in the new cables without going through the tonearm wires.)

Remember the friend who came over to help me with the AUDIOTOP Connect cleaning process? He recently bought a new Graham Phantom arm, and loves it. When I told him he needed to cook his new tonearm and phono cables, he was apprehensive that the cooking process might be harmful, and even called Bob Graham to make sure it was OK to cook those wires. He also had new Argento interconnects, speaker and power cables. He is now one happy audiophile, and has apologized for doubting my assurance that cooking his cables was the right thing to do.

I've considered the implications of re-conditioning cables that were previously cooked, and hearing new improvements afterwards. It seems to me that a periodic re-cooking should be an ongoing part of system maintenance — just like contact cleaning, demagnetizing and destaticizing. I asked Alan Kafton about this, and he replied:  "This 'recharging' is part and parcel of owning a Cable Cooker... it is not just for brand-new cables, as some not familiar with the process seem to think.  I have found that all cables retrograde in performance over time, hence their increased performance after a re-conditioning on the Cooker.  If this retrograde state were not the case, then we would only be required to condition the cables once, and be done with it. Long experience and thousands of recharges have proven otherwise."

I do want to address briefly the concern that many audiophiles have about the danger of "overcooking" and possibly damaging their cables. It is possible to overcook cables. Alan Kafton recommends what he calls "cooking and listening" tests — doing interim checks by re-installing the cables for evaluation at regular intervals, until no further improvement is heard, or, possibly, the sound has not just stopped improving but possibly regressed. But even if the cables are overcooked, they will take from a few hours to a few days to settle back to optimum performance, depending on how much they were overcooked. The Cable Cooker will not permanently damage any cable.

So, who needs this device? I would say that any serious audiophile using quality cabling needs to at least use it. I can see that dropping a grand might give many people pause. But in the context of an ambitious audio system and high-quality cabling — for instance, my system's cables retail for, cumulatively, about $20K — another thousand to take full advantage of their quality and maintain optimal performance over time seems like a reasonable investment. It makes sense to me that an audio club or just a group of hobbyist friends can go in together and share a Cooker, thus spreading the financial pain. Whrn I  asked Alan about this, he replied, "I've always thought so as well, but over the last ten years, this has rarely happened.  99 percent of Cooker owners are individuals (other than dealers and cable manufacturers)."

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the first Cable Cooker prototype, hence the Anniversary Edition designation. Congratulations, Alan — it's a fine product, and I would not like to be without it.

 

Synergistic Research
Acoustic ART (Analogue Room Treatment) System

If you have reached the end of this review marathon, congratulations on your stamina. I elected to close this series of articles with this review for two reasons. First, the Acoustic ART system was the last among all of these products to take a place in my listening room. Secondly, it is also the most controversial product in the whole series. In case you haven't been paying attention to the pro and con scuttlebutt running through various blogs and chat rooms, I'll begin by quoting the intro from the Synergistic website:

 

The inspiration for the Acoustic ART system came to our lead designer Ted Denney four years ago while sailing the South Pacific. During his sabbatical, Ted visited Buddhist Temples and observed how Tibetan Prayer bowls altered temple acoustics. These singing bowls affected a sudden shift in acoustics whenever they were activated, and when additional bowls of varying tone were also activated, the acoustics continued to change. Ted reasoned that a system of resonating bowls could be developed to discreetly treat room acoustics without the need for large unsightly tuning devices.

However, it wasn’t until after Ted returned to the mainland and developed his Tesla Series cables that he revisited the idea of treating room acoustics with resonating bowls. We began our research by studying Helmholtz resonators, which have been used for over a century to tune low frequencies in an acoustic environment. We worked to modify Helmholtz resonator principles to incorporate the full spectrum of sound - not just low frequencies. We found we could tune music with a system of resonators working together in harmony at key acoustic pressure points. Further research led to several patents-pending. The first deals with the use of magnets to contour activation and decay properties of the Vibratron and Magnetron Satellite resonators. The second includes a new resonator shape called the Vibratron that radiates in a 360 degree pattern over a scientifically-arrived-at frequency range. The third utilizes a unique dispersion baffle to precisely control how the Bass Station resonator affects a room's low frequency acoustics. Later we discovered that using spikes to mechanically couple the Bass Station to a room further enhances control of low frequencies (the Bass Station's Stilettos). Next began a painstaking process to find resonator material with the correct mass that would operate at mathematically-arrived-at frequencies with target decay patterns. The acumination of these scientific principals sets the Acoustic ART (Analogue Room Treatment) System apart from all other room tuning methods.

 

Find all this a bit confusing? I'll see if I can clarify things a bit as we go. First, a brief recounting of how this very interesting room-tuning system landed in my listening room.

I had read and heard quite a few conflicting reactions to the Acoustic ART system since mid-2008. It sounded intriguing, but I was preoccupied with other concerns through that year and the first part of 2009. My interest was reawakened when a dealer friend who has often alerted me to good-sounding components and tweaks began raving that the Acoustic ART was by far the best passive acoustic listening room treatment he had ever experienced. That piqued my curiosity, and I got more interested when he explained that the dazzling sonic improvements were accomplished by deploying a few small carbon-steel bowls around the room. I had been interested in fine-tuning my basically good listening room, but had been resisting sticking a bunch of unsightly honkin' big asbestos/cardboard/fabric cylinders and rectangles into it. My listening room's major shortcoming has been a moderate loss of deep bass due to the two big (25 sq. ft.) windows on the exterior wall behind my speakers. It's also my living room, and while it's not going to warrant a spread in Architectural Digest, it's an attractive space, and I had resisted uglifying it for the sake of what I thought might be only subtle sonic improvements.

So I called Synergistic honcho Ted Denney to see if he'd like me to review the Acoustic ART system. He agreed, on the condition that he come out and install the system personally. That sounded good to me; after all, the system was unlike anything I had ever worked with, and there wasn't a lot of time to get it done and ready to be reviewed here. We agreed that I would come to the Synergistic room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest to hear the system demonstrated and decide on a schedule for Ted's visit. I found the show demo impressive — there was an easily heard difference with the system in place or removed (which takes only a minute or so) — and late one recent Saturday afternoon Ted flew into Chicago and we got to work (after first whipping off to my favorite Greek restaurant for a little sustenance).

A complete Acoustic ART system comprises the following:

The Vibratron ($1500) is the largest and costliest piece. Two metallic hemispheres are joined on either side of a thin round silver plate to form a sphere that, with the silver plate protruding at its "equator" evokes the planet Saturn and its rings. A set of small gold and silver magnets stuck to the top of the sphere serve to tune the device's resonances. It is placed on or near the wall behind the speakers, typically at a height above the tweeters. Other placements may be used, and Synergistic also offers an adjustable-height stand as an option.

The Bass Station ($750) is a smaller bowl-shaped piece that sits on a small wooden stand with sharp stiletto points for floor coupling and a small wood baffle that faces the speakers and obscures the view of the esonator bowl. It is typically placed directly below the Vibratron, on the floor 3-6 inches from the wall.

There are two different kinds of satellites. The Gravatron ($500) Is typically placed on the wall behind the listening seat, 2/3 to 3/4 up the height from the floor. It can also be used on the wall behind the speakers, either to complement or replace the Vibratron (if budget considerations so dictate). The Magnetron ($300) satellites typically go on the room's side walls, at or near the first reflection point from the loudspeakers, and above the height of the tweeters.

 

When Ted Denney and I were planning his installation visit, and I was describing my listening room and system, Ted suggested that it might be good to also have a set of Shakti Hallographs in the room. (The Hallographs, which I reviewed and purchased years ago, were also a target of much derision when they came out. But they did wonders for my old, somewhat problematical listening room in California, and were still useful — though less dramatically so — in my current room. I was most curious to see how Ted planned to integrate the Hallographs with the Acoustic ART components. I also wanted to find out if Ted's little resonating bowls would work in a system that was substantially different from what he was accustomed to working with. For one thing, my speakers are seven feet tall in a room with nine-foot ceilings, and there is a one-foot-thick ductwork channel behind the speakers, leaving precious little space "above the tweeters" for the Vibratron. Secondly, my dipole planar/ribbon Analysis Amphitryonns, with their six-foot-long ribbons, are more line-source than point-source transducers; the ribbons do not have nearly as much sidewall reflection as cone or dome midranges and tweeters. And the dipole planar base panels do not load the room to the same degree as box speaker woofers.

Ted was undaunted by those challenges. After listening to my system for a while, he was ready to get to work. We decided early on that in this environment we would use the Acoustic ART pieces without the Hallographs. Out they went. We also decided that the rule of thumb about placing resonators above the tweeters could be ignored here.

After about an hour of placing and listening, replacing and re-listening, here's the configuration we arrived at:

The Vibratron is wall-mounted (actually, window frame-mounted) and centered between the speakers on the exterior wall about 5.5-feet off the floor. One Bass Station is on the floor directly below the Vibratron, and a second Bass Station is on the floor near the wall behind my listening couch. The Gravaron is on that same wall, just above the kitchen pass-through window nearly 8 feet off the floor. We deployed four Magnetrons: two on the wall behind the speakers near the back corners, about 6 feet off the floor, and one on each side wall, also about 6 feet off the floor.

Initial listening after this exercise started with a couple of female vocal recordings: Patricia Barber's The Cole Porter Mix (a standby for me these days) and K.D. Lang's Ingenue, which has a couple of tracks I have always found valuable in audio evaluations. We liked the new tonal balance right away, but were less satisfied with the sound field. The focus on both recordings had pushed forward, locating the singers a bit in front of the plane of the speakers, which was not the case prior to installing the Acoustic ART components.

To address that, we eliminated most of the 20-degree toe-in of the speakers, reducing it to about 5 degrees. Voilเ! Now the sound field was completely different. The forwardness was gone, and the soundstage was now focused slightly behind the plane of the speakers, closer in that respect to what it had been originally. The sense of layered depth — in orchestral recordings, the depth extending well beyond the wall behind the speakers — was better-developed than I had previously heard it. The soundstage also had greater width, and there was a greater sense of "wrap around," with reverberant content more fully "populating" the room. (I'm not sure I can describe this phenomenon precisely, but what I was hearing now was much closer to what I hear in Symphony Center when I go to the CSO.) At that point we decided to get a good night's sleep and fine tune the system Sunday morning.

The fine tuning didn't take long. Ted made a few small placement adjustments on the Magnetrons, and after some more listening to confirm that things were where we wanted them, affixed the satellites "permanently" — which meant putting Velcro patches on the wall locations to replace the BlueTak we had used initially. After that, we had about an hour to listen to a variety of recordings before Ted headed to the airport.

As of this writing, I've been listening to my Acoustic ART-conditioned room with ever-increasing pleasure. The slight bass deficiency has been remedied to my satisfaction. The bass is still quick and tight, as it has always been in this room. But now I've gained at least a half-octave of extension and slightly greater amplitude. Vocal and instrumental color, previously very good, is now notably better, regardless of the musical genre. Spatially, the room is quite different and much closer to the kind of ambience I hear in live performance.

Let me talk a little more about that last point. I have had before-and-after experience with acoustic restorations in two concert halls. During my California years, San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall underwent a major acoustic upgrade. Prior to the changes it was a tonally well balanced venue, but seriously deficient in bass response and dynamics. Afterwards, those deficiencies were largely remedied and Davies became a much more satisfying location for symphonic listening.

When I lived in Chicago during the 1970s, Orchestra Hall — where all those great RCA Reiner recordings had been made, had suffered terribly from misguided alterations to the auditorium, mostly for the sake of air-conditioning improvements. That gorgeous Chicago sound on those Reiner recordings, with the powerful low-frequency foundation and broad dynamic scale, was gone; the hall's sound had lost its foundation and become more muddled. For that reason, most of the recordings under Sir George Solti and Carlo Maria Giulini were made not in Orchestra Hall but in other venues. During the 25 years between my leaving Chicago and coming back, Orchestra Hall went through a huge renovation and expansion that improved the acoustics significantly, as well as expanding the stage and adding Terrace seating around the orchestra that had not previously been there. At that point Orchestra Hall was also renamed Symphony Center, though it will always be Orchestra Hall to me. I'm not sure the renovated auditorium is as good as the original, but it is far better than what I heard during the 1970s

Why, you may wonder, am I bringing this up? Look out — metaphor coming. I go to that hall about 70 times a year. In its present condition, it's a very good concert hall for symphonic, chamber, solo and various non-classical programs. But it's not quite a great, world-class hall, in the sense of Boston's Symphony Hall or the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (the most beautifully balanced symphonic venue I have ever heard). Before the Acoustic ART system was installed, I'd make an analogy between my listening room playing recorded music and my live venue — good, but not quite great. With the Acoustic ART system in place, its quality for listening to audio has moved a lot closer to the level of a Boston or Amsterdam in acoustic quality. And that, as Martha Stewart might say, is a good thing.

All of this improvement comes at a price, of course, and in my case the price is higher than usual. My two extra Magnetrons and one extra Bass Station take the retail price of my installation up to $4700. That is a lot of money for a tweak. But I don't regard the Acoustic ART as a tweak. It's a transformational upgrade to my audio listening. The magnitude of change it has delivered is more significant than I can imagine resulting from any similar expenditure in new hardware components or cables.

The prices of the Acoustic ART are what seem to bend a lot of people out of shape about it. I've seen this kind of reaction many times in the past. Around 15 years ago, when I first encountered and soon embraced Jack Bybee's quantum purification technology, the Internet was filled with self-appointed iconoclasts bent on exposing Jack's inventions as fraudulent. There are still Bybee naysayers, but most of that nonsense has quieted down as his technology has proved itself. But there are still plenty of complaints about the prices of his devices as well.

I've noted over the years that many audiophiles tend to be willing to spend big for big stuff. A few thousand for a preamp or an amplifier? OK. But high prices for little lightweight accessories? Outrageous! Add to that, there seem to be lots of audiophiles out there who don't think manufacturers are entitled to make a profit. A Jack Bybee or a Ted Denney, breaking new ground in audio technology, is investing considerable sums in research, failed prototypes, etc., and they are entitled to make a profit for the game-changing innovations they bring to market.

The other category of negative commentary I've seen on Acoustic ART is plain old derision. Something like, "are you kidding me? That's ridiculous!" I notice that almost all the most vitriolic responses to Acoustic ART — as with Bybee technology years ago — comes from people who have not actually heard the product in question, but simply 'know' that it can't possibly work. Such comments also typically attack the character and honesty of the "snake oil" designer.

I've always felt that one of my advantages as an audio reviewer is that I am not a trained engineer. When confronted with a new concept, an unusual product, I don't reject it out of hand because I didn't study it in engineering school. I try to approach anything new with an open mind and judge it by what I hear. That's what I've done here.

 

Closing Comments
I am very happy to have cleared up my backlog of unreviewed products from the last couple of personally troubling years, and again I apologize to the manufacturers who had to wait this long to have their products receive my long-overdue evaluations. I hope that our readers have found this series of interest — not only for the individual reviews, but to get a sense of how a serious reference-level system evolves over time.

A word about this final installment. It has covered 11 different accessory products, and each one of them has gotten a thumbs up. I can easily imagine a reader reacting to this sequence and wondering, "did Donnelly really experience the kind of improvements he describes 11 different times?" More than once in my reviewing career I've tried something new and had to decide if the differences I heard were truly and unequivocally improvements, or did they just sound different?  I am confident that all of these products deliver genuine improvements that enhance my home listening experience. And I ask you to remember that while all of these reviews came out together, the evaluations and acquisition decisions happened over a period of 3+ years. Thanks for staying the course through this three-part series. There's lots of good new stuff in the pipeline, so stay tuned!

 

Manufacturer / Distributor Links
AUDIOTOP & Millennium: www.AAudioImports.com

VPI: www.WPIIndustries.com

Furutech: www.Furutech.com

Audio Excellence AZ: www.AudioExcellenceaz.com

Synergistic Research: www.SynergisticResearch.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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