The sheer power and universal religiosity of crude language is truly amazing. There is the fundamentalism of “this shit’s gotta stop”, the Hinduism of “not this shit again”, the New Age-ism of “I created this shit?” and the determinism of “let’s make shit happen”. There’s the Rastafarian glory of “this shit’s good” and the Jewish angst of “why does this shit always happen to me”. There’s the Taoist wisdom of “go with the flow” and the existential “no shit”. Narcissism (“my shit don’t smell”) meets Zen practically (“this stinks”); Christian morality (“don’t shit on thy neighbor”) turns pragmatism (“shit happens”). Juvenile nihilism (“ shooting the shit”) evolves into adolescent Bohemianism (this is the shit). And there’s always the Alan Watts inspired unpredictability of Life (“you must be shitting me”).
From “f-ing eh” to “what the f-?”; from “I’m f-ing great” to “f- you too”; from “f- me” to “that’s f-d” and “f- that”, there’s scintillating – or is that titillating? -- glory in the shifting meaning one can derive from even the most excremental excesses of living as opposed to literary English.
Except for the puritans among us, these are all valid points. Which brings me to Lloyd Walker and his Valid Points. As an audiophile dweeb perplexed by the multitude of isolation devices, one could readily convert to Hinduism (see above). A responsible audio reviewer might momentarily experience Jewish déja vu only to realize that the Rastafarians really make the most excellent point (again see above). And that’s more or less what happened to me. But first, yet another anecdote in my ongoing saga of that valiant audio Viking, Lloyd Walker.
But Which One?
It is sometimes after Las Vegas 2002. An ad on audiogoN -- for my Triangle Ventis xs speakers which the importer graciously upgraded to 222 status with his broken-in CES demo pair -- brings a mature couple from Albuquerque to Taos to listen for themselves. Having asked them beforehand to bring their own CDs, I am about to regret this advice when I am through spinning their second request – lovely performances of classical music, but recorded very poorly and thus rendered in high-resolution with all their defects glaringly obvious. Not an opportune constellation of qualities to facilitate a pending sale.
Then I recall a genie in a little plastic bottle, dispatched to Taos compliments of Lloyd Walker just a few days earlier. It springs to the rescue, potentially at least since I had not yet tried this latest concoction from the tweak meister. I hit ‘stop’ with the suggestive offer “to do something about this to make it sound better”. With my back to the audience – which includes my wife – I am squatting before the altar of my audio rack like a sacrificial lamb ready to be liberated from its tiny brass balls. Then deftly apply a drop of Walker’s new prototype cleaning solution to buff the offending disc to a high mirror polish. Admiring my secretive handiwork at an angle, I notice that the CD does true reflective justice to my already long nose. It now appears like a veritable Cyrano de Bergerac knock-off, pores, tiny hairs and all. Hastily erasing this grotesque vision by reinserting the CD. I cue up the same track and turn around at the visitors to observe their reaction while secretly crossing my fingers.
He Is A Warlock Practicing Magick...
I can hear it right away and am shocked. But the even bigger shock comes from seeing two devout music lovers without any pretensions at audiophilia smile, look at each other and exclaim with shaking heads “that’s amazing”. My wife – in what could have been gilding the lily to underscore the obvious – mutters something to the effect that this is the most blatant before-and-after difference she’s heard in a long time. Why had not I done “this thing” before? Remember, I was hunkering down on the floor with my back to them while polishing the CD. They really were not too sure what I had done. On subsequent CDs, I now proudly play CD shine boy in full view of these strangers, and much pleased with the efficacy of my potent audiophile trickery. If I perhaps was a little smug and self-congratulatory on this occasion, today’s report sets the record straight to whom the credit should have rightfully gone (the speakers sold).
Once again then, Lloyd had not exaggerated when he promised a most notable improvement. I hate it when you can not finger a perfect victim for ridicule like Walker who after all is in the tweak business, that most volatile corner of our little industry where get-rich-quick schemes of blatant rip-offs commingle with poorly marketed breakthroughs. It is one thing to convince yourself that you are hearing things when you have spent the dough to feel obliged to. It is quite another when essentially untrained listeners – that is, listeners who get lost in the music rather than comment on obscure audiophile artifacts – spot the improvements without effort.
My prior exposure to spit-shining CDs was at the hands of not snake but shark liver oil – squalane to be exact. It made my CDs skip. This caused sudden and premature exasperation in my willingness to trust audiophile tweak propaganda. While other buffing compounds might do similar things to Lloyd’s, I haven’t tried them. What I do know is that his solution – non-abrasive and thus not intended to remove scratches -- effects plainly obvious gains, say 20 to 30% to indicate how readily verified. Unlike the Bedini Clarifier, it doesn’t require a treatment for each session. With pricing at $49.95 for a 5-ounce bottle -- enough fluid to treat close to 200 CDs, perhaps even more -- Walker Audio’s Vivid is the proverbial lobotomy. Even nay-saying heathens can afford it in a casual humor-me gesture that’ll end up ill-fated attempt at shooting down a perfectly legit product. Is the rationale behind this tweak akin to cleaning your camera lens so that the incoming data are more clearly recorded on film, hence more cleanly captured by our laser?
...While Your CD Player Is A Closet Alcoholic
I watched a 47 Labs PiTracer in the Galante Audio/Art Audio suite at this year’s CES. Its high-precision sled mechanism for the laser pickup acted as if in a fit of advanced Parkinson’s, suggesting that a conventional CD player’s error-correction mechanism must be covering up with lots of signal guesstimates how the poor laser pickup is trying in vain to figure out what greasy pit it’s supposed to track. As Junji Kimura proved so elegantly with his PiTracer, a CD player is mechanically no different from a turntable. The main difference is that a turntable will mistrack openly if a record is badly scratched or warped while a CD player’s sins of cutting corners are masked by its devious error-correction scheme. Based on a simple experiment, my friend Jim Saxon came to similar conclusions. A music-loving acquaintance of his brought over a CD so badly scratched from car radio slot machines that it would no longer track properly on her Walkman. The Saxon king with his own lotion – the beloved-by-disc-jockeys Novus 2 Fine Scratch Remover -- buffed it as well as he could, popped it into his expensive CD player and voilà – uninterrupted sound. However, as both of them agreed, it sounded like shit. Fortunately, Jimbo had a flawless copy of the same recording in his library for a quick A/B. No contest, his shiny CD sounded much better than the barely salvaged version that now apparently tracked just fine. This clearly puts to red-eared shame the popular truism that the digitized ones and zeros on the CD are immune to degradation. For what you hear when the laser can not follow its track is not what is on the CD but what the error-correction logarithm interpolated as a probability of what might have been there.
Now I began to sympathize with Kimura San’s refusal to embrace DVD. Its pits are even tinier than a CD’s, its tracks yet narrower. If the so-called mature 16-bit/44.1kHZ CD medium hasn’t yet managed to elicit hardware that can truly extract all of its encoded information without errors, why chase after an even more formidable challenge if you haven’t mastered the smaller preceding one?
Frankly, conventional CD transports are probably like well-meaning drunks: caught in the harsh spotlight of a cop car while swaggering down a broken-line road divider like a snake on acid. Perhaps we could say that asking a CD player to properly lock onto a groove of stringed ones and zeros, on a CD that has not been de-smudged and optically enhanced, is akin to letting a friend drive you home drunk. While you might get home without incident, your ride will most certainly unfold in anything but a normal and linear fashion.
I Get Religion: Bottoms Up For Vivid
I am converted, I have seen the light, sign me up. If a tweak works, demonstrably and repeatably, and for a sum that is more pauper than princely, I don’t have to shop the competition or even fully understand why it works. Lloyd’s got a winner on his hands on all three counts. And that last one especially is a real humdinger in these days of $2,000 power cords. Unlike the tanked Squalane squirt, this Walker fluid doesn’t raise eyebrows by claiming unobtainium ingredients. In fact, he won’t divulge what’s in it except to recommend against drinking it. Fair enough – why give away the recipe? He’s not charging enough to compel even cheapskates to go mixing their own. If you figure on one drop of Vivid per CD, the cost of this treatment is in the 20-cents-per-CD range – not as cheap as putting toilet paper on your speakers, but guaranteed to work even you don’t believe in it. Which probably can’t be said for the toilet paper. Eventually, the 47Labs technology of a smart, self-correcting servo sled that works in the mechanical rather than DSP-interpolating domain will -- or should at least -- become licensed to the likes of Sony to bring down the cost of implementation. Until that day, the next best thing in my mind is to attend digital boot camp and spit-shine your CDs before you let ‘em take on the obstacle course of playback. Without it, the hairline fracture tracks embedded on our silver discs by high-quantity CD pressing plants don’t seem to invite the kind of pit bull lockjaw tenacity on the part of the laser pickup that would keep the wildly guessing error correction mechanism at bay.
If you have paid attention, you’ve probably wondered why I have not qualified the exact nature of the changes wrought by Lloyd’s almond-milk colored fluid. That’s because it’s already all in the name – Vivid. Like the Audio Magic Stealth power purifier I’ am so fond of, it makes the music more vivid. And that rates very highly in my book. Case closed. Next.
Gleamy and piercy things. To come right to their points: Walker’s brass-covered lead tips and discs work exceedingly well (for a run-down on their composition and history, see my prior Earwax Article) The disconcerting thing is that the Vistek Aurios and Symposium Roller Blocks work splendidly, too. I say disconcerting because the bearings are based on completely opposing theory – providing a pathway and then absorption mechanism for component-induced resonance (Walker) versus containing this vibration within the component by isolating it from the surrounding environment (Vistek, Symposium). This is one of those instances where you can’t listen with your head. You must trust your ears to put preconceptions and predictions into their proper place (perhaps cleaning the toilet or sewing up those holy socks?) while you shrug your shoulders at not being able to explain why they shouldn’t be dancing around your sweet spot instead. Let’s avoid distraction and go to work.
To begin with, all of these devices are tuning objects. As such, their effects and appropriateness depend on the problem at hand and in which direction you intend to shift it. Flimsily put-together boxes whose casings ring when knuckle-rapped – and most do -- are prime candidates for the Walker approach. Mass-loading them with the lead discs either flat-out dampens this pesky ringing or up-shifts it in frequency to be less obvious. The lead in the points and discs acts as sink for the resonances that remain (and some speaker manufacturer line their cabinets with lead for the same purpose). To truly maximize the Walker approach requires inert shelving since whatever the discs below the points rest upon becomes part of the resonance chain. Walker himself prefers 2-inch thick, hard rock maple butcher-block. The irregular-length wooden staves, isolated by glue joints, do not provide for a uniform resonance and are thus far more inert than, say granite or marble. While those look posh and stylish, they ring like a cellphone during the movies. Lloyd supports his shelves on hard-welded metal joists that are themselves damped. His entire rack is designed as rigidly as possible which is why the colorful vision of my semi-swaying pARTicular Novus rack caused the visiting tuning maestro obvious distress. But sometimes style is an issue. Perhaps in Lloyd’s black notebook, this turns me into a less than 100% dedicated audiophile. Still, I love the way Volkmar’s rack looks, especially with my custom Southwestern colors of turquoise and lilac. Superficial pleasures? You bet. Guilty as charged.
Trimming The Fat Of Noise...
If you think about it, the most fragile signals in the system chain are those low-voltage trickles that originate with the source components before they’re converted into rushing current streams by amplification further downhill. CD/DVD players and cassette decks have motors and moving parts that plainly produce vibrations. Preventing those from overlaying or modulating this fragile signal can make profound differences. Thus, where exactly you place the cones and discs becomes important and cause for experimentation: a disc above the transport mechanism perhaps, one each above the transformers? Putting your hand on the chassis will tell you quickly where most the energy stems from – one for the home team of common sense. What may not be as apparent is how far this Valid Point tuning system can take the performance of a good CD player. Before you assume that only a hyper-priced upper echelon graduate will do your ears justice, see what happens if you give your existing disc spinner a once-over with the Walker technique. It might just save you from squandering your money. Of course, all components including speakers are fair game in this tuning venture, but the source components may just be the most obvious beneficiaries.
The mass of the component atop the cones becomes part of the Walker equation. For lighter components, you want to reduce the area of contact. This maximizes the amount of weight that bears down on this smaller interface. Thus, Walker has fashioned special cones (the Ultimates) with three upward-facing points that, by the way, can be used right side up or upside-down. This is tweaky tuning stuff, remember? It’s supposed to be hands-on, the only objective to get involved and make your system sound better to your ears. It’s of course highly subjective, but that’s exactly the irreverent fun part. And if a few days later, you suspect that perhaps you diminished certain aspects by highlighting others; or you’ve gotten bored with things sounding “just mahvelous, darling” but the same as yesterday (as I suspect is the true reason for many audiophiles’ ongoing journey); start over again. Musician play music, now you get to play with your system. What a concept. And there you thought being an audiophile was serious business.
A word of caution: more is not necessarily more. It’s possible to over dampen components, to drain off too much energy, to undermine snap, to tighten things up to such a painful extent that it seems as though you overdid your belt by a notch or two, forced to parade around with ramrod stiffness and a sucked-in gut rather than a relaxed, casual and unconcerned gait. If your music begins to sounds military – too tidy, too dry-cleaned, too creased at the edges – inject a minor dose of looseness again. Eh, what am I saying? This is for you to decide. Just get yourself some of these Legos and build your own castle in the skies.
...Reveals A More Becoming Physique
Just as digital upsampling doesn’t create more signal but less conversion junk, tuning with Lloyd Walker (now there’s a title for a 50-minute self-help video for ailing audiophiliacs) extracts more signal from the mechanical noise floor by minimizing materials distortion. Think of the mesh strap underneath certain drums that is excited each time the skin above is struck. In similar fashion, mechanical resonances are excited whenever signal propagates, current flows through transformers, motors spin, relays switch, circuit boards tremor and casings vibrate. Eliminating or at least reducing this background din rewards with more clarity, as though you shut off the ambient noise in a restaurant and could finally follow the conversation with your tablemate – more unadulterated signal.
Really, this ain’t rocket science. What’s refreshing about Walker’s approach is the extent to which he has thought about the problem and has engineered a comprehensive and plainly working solution. From all the pointy hats I’ve worn during my secretive audiophile Voodoo rites, Walker’s cones seem to be the epidemy, the Rolls Royce of their kind, the best made and most effective. While I can’t say that his system is the only approach to the peak, it’s definitely one that can take you all the way to the top. And unlike the bearing-based ascent to that same rarefied panorama, this one’s rock-solid rather than wobbly. To come full circle with today’s shitty beginnings then, the Walker Audio Valid Points are Sonically Highly Ingenious Tools – the shit.
In concert with our publisher’s wish, this month’s hardware reviews are my last ones for this publication - my writing, website and trade show involvements with Soliloquy were deemed too close to the vest. My thanks go to all my readers, and especially those who occasionally picked up the virtual pen to let me know that they enjoyed my reviewing efforts. Here’s to remembering that it’s all about the music! Cheers.
Design Valid Points
Super Tuning Kit: $410.00 (Standard Kit plus four 1-inch discs)
Additional Resonance Control Discs (½ -inch $27.50; 1-inch $44.00)
Ultimate Valid Points (triple-point design)
Super Tuning Kit: $560.00
Ultimate Low Rise Valid Points
Optical Enhancer for CD/DVD