As we all know, this hobby spawns a lot of gear junkies. On the other hand, one does not have to be a gear junkie in order to enjoy changing audio components with some frequency. For years it was common for automobile owners in the United States to trade in their cars for newer ones every three or four years. The fact that the car they owned worked perfectly well was no bar to the periodic trade-in. The aim was to have something new and different periodically: to check out changes in technology and styling if nothing else. Many audiophiles simply treat their systems in much the same way. There are so many different brands – so many different approaches to reproducing music; and with a vibrant second hand market, the opportunity to buy and sell with relative ease means that one can try a lot of different components at relatively low cost. Simple curiosity, a desire to educate oneself and to satisfy the urge that one is not missing something really different or important can all contribute to a desire to shift gears (so to speak) and to do so with some regularity. Even folks perfectly pleased with the sound they achieve in their home can be prone to make changes. The downside, of course, is that too many of the changes are counter-productive or side-ways — different if not worse, and all too infrequently, better.
Some of this apparently endless and aimless gear swapping has a more interesting diagnosis. In the first place, one cannot achieve one’s goals if one does not grasp what they are, and the fact is that many audiophiles simply do not know what they want from their audio system. It takes time to figure out what aspects of music presentation one finds most persuasive and enjoyable, and so it should come as no surprise that audiophiles swap gear in and out partially for educational purposes – and not merely as a curiosity. The same is true of furnishing a home or collecting art. It takes time to discover one’s sensibilities and to develop one’s taste. Whereas one can go to museums and galleries to educate oneself about art and to cultivate and a taste for and in it, the same is rarely true of audio. One pretty much has to bring the stuff home and live it for a while to figure out if it does the trick; if so why, and if not, why not.
The situation is made worse by the fact it is hard to uncover which aspects of reproduction have musical significance. Very little of sustainable musical significance is displayed in showrooms or industry show demonstrations. Bombastic dynamics thrill; voices — individual and collective — hanging in space seduce. From deep organ notes rattle one’s bones; access to the finest grained details of a performance — the smoke in the air of the jazz club, vocal chords vibrating — are mesmerizing. These are little more than attention-getting artifacts – often microphone artifacts. The boom and sizzle of the past have been replaced by earthquakes and helicopters, respectively. They may dazzle but they rarely sustain interest. Determining what does can be both time consuming and costly.
Painful as it may be to accept, the truth is that no system performs ideally with all kinds of music. I am now a proud owner of a pair of Quad 57s rebuilt by Wayne Piquet that I have installed in my NYC apartment system. What a wonderful loudspeaker. It is not my reference speaker and never will be because it simply cannot convey the grit, drive and dynamics of a good deal of the music to which I listen. No subwoofer is going to change that either. A sub can extend the Quad but it cannot give it balls. It’s not what the Quads do.
The Quads are marvelously coherent and natural within their range. You cannot ask them to do more because doing so simply results in less of what they do best. Some speakers play everything pretty well but nothing optimally well. Quads play lots of music optimally; and some of it not very well at all. Every system that excels in presenting music excels at some things and not at others.
One can spend a lifetime in audio looking for a system that is truly exceptional at reproducing everything and come away unsatisfied. Or one can put together a lot of systems each of which excels at reproducing something. Or one can put together a system that does very well at reproducing a broad range of music without being truly exceptional at reproducing anything. Or…
There is no denying that one ends up listening on one’s system to more of what sounds good on it and for the simple reason that it is more enjoyable to hear music rendered well rather than badly. As one’s musical tastes shift or one wants to expand what one listens to, it is no surprise to find that some equipment goes out the door with more new stuff on the way in. So in addition to having to figure out which features of musical performances have the most importance to them the audiophile must also figure out which kind of music he is going to listen to most, which next most and so on. Then after one figures this all out, one has to devote more than a little bit of time listening to see which systems do the trick.
Between the thirst for experimentation and the genuine need to identify what one is ultimately listening to and for, it really cannot come as a surprise that audiophillia verges on a veritable swap meet of components. Indeed, one might be surprised there isn’t more of it
Still, I suspect that even when our music-loving audiophile has been satisfied on all these fronts his best efforts are too often undone and he comes up short. In other words, even the audiophile who knows what he is after, knows how to listen, listens carefully and well, and has quenched his thirst for equipment finds himself swapping gear more than one would suspect he would. Why might that be?
In my experience, there are at least three reasons for this of interest to us. The first is that most audiophiles inadequately appreciate the extent to which an audio playback system is a system. The sound one hears is never the sound of particular components put together. It is the sound of the interaction of the pieces as a whole. Changes in the system cause changes in the sound of the system that are hard to track. The great advantage of mid-fi rack systems is that they are systems. The great disadvantage is that they don’t sound so good.
Seemingly harmless changes in a system can have drastic consequences. The best solution to my mind is the 'system solution.’ This does not mean that one has to have a system all from one manufacturer. On the other hand it is not a claim about system synergies. It is the view that one should try to identify the voicing and the features of musical performance one is looking for and then press on until one finds it. And once having found it, and here’s the hard part: stop. If you insist on trying something new or different, build another system for play or experimentation, but do not muck around with the system that sounds as a whole the way you want it to.
The second and most important reason is that most audiophiles (and just about everyone else I know) underestimate the contribution their room makes to the sound. The sound you hear is the sound of a system taken as a whole in a room. Reviews that purport to tell you how a preamp sounds or how a cable sounds strike me as nearly useless. All you can ever judge is how a system sounds in a room. Many rooms share basic features of course, but it is the ways in which they differ that matter most: hardwood floors or carpeting: stucco, plaster or plywood; lots of windows or none; rectangular or not; high ceilings or not; small dimensions or large; heavy furniture and bookcases or none. And so on. The room is the thing and because most folks have no idea how to work with the rooms they have they opt for denial. They discount the room and attribute all they hear to their components — individually or collectively.
The last thing in the world I recommend is deadening the room though I hear time and again that doing so is the way to go. One has to learn to work with the room one has, but instead, audiophiles keep changing gear but all they are doing is bringing different equipment into the same environment. This is not an advertisement for room treatments or for companies that hold themselves out as experts on designing rooms. I have listened to several rooms from one such company that are disasters. Were these guys Drs, they would be liable to malpractice; were they lawyers, they would have been disbarred. In audio, however, they just get more business
I have no theory about how to improve one’s room, but I do know from experience that the difference a room makes is several orders of magnitude greater than the difference a tube change or an interconnect makes. A room has a distinctive impact on sound and one can minimize that impact and even get it to work favorably, but it takes work. Most of all it takes learning the impact the room makes on your sound. If you don’t invest in uncovering the characteristic impact of your room on the sound you achieve, you run the risk of attributing the sound you hear to the wrong source. More equipment will go flying out the door than needs to.
The third reason for dissatisfaction is that almost all audiophiles underestimate the impact of equipment stands and racks. They don’t fully appreciate the consequences of structural and airborne vibrations; they don’t understand resonant frequencies of various materials, and they don’t appreciate therefore the extent to which the interaction of equipment and rack contributes to the sound they hear. This is ironic in part insofar as several speaker manufacturers in particular have been pressing the differences that different cabinet constructions can make to the sound of their speakers. And it is a commonplace that different driver materials have quite distinct sonic characteristics. When it comes to racks, the standard view seems to be if it holds the equipment in place that’s good enough. The more sophisticated version of this view is that if it holds the equipment and has spikes at the bottom to couple to the floor then it really is good enough. Unfortunately, it’s far from good enough, for the simple fact is that racks can make a huge difference – and not just positively either. Some racks shift tonal balance upward; others can suck the life out of the music; while others still can render the sound ponderous and sluggish.
Two Approaches For Equipment Racks
The alternative approach to rack design is to find a structure that contributes to the sound of one’s system. This can be done by 'tuning’ or more generally by recognizing that the rack can add to the overall sound of one’s system. Various metals and woods have a sound and that sound can work positively with one’s equipment. Of course, there are many variations on this approach, but most successful ones do provide some form of isolation of the structure from the floor to minimize particularly problematic vibrations (normally caused by speakers) working their way back into the rack structure and to the components within it.
In choosing the HRS SXR racks I have adopted the first approach. I have done so for two reasons. First, I could not find a rack – whether of maple, MDF, glass, or acrylic that sounded very good. In other words, I could not find a rack that consistently – over a broad range of components – consistently contributed positively to the sound of my system. Secondly and related, as a reviewer I anticipate having a variety of different components in for review and I just thought it made sense to employ a rack that did the same thing no matter what components were on hand. In other words, it made sense to me to find a rack that eliminated structural and airborne vibrations thus leaving every component to sound as it does unaffected by extraneous sources of noise rather than count on a sympathetic match between components and racks. I had also heard the HRS racks in enough situations to know that they work well with lots of equipment.
The following is the story of how I came to see and hear things somewhat differently: a story of a reviewer learning something new and revising his views.
Enter The Box Furniture Co. Audio Racks
An analogy with speaker design is illuminating. To my ears, some heavily damped and braced speaker cabinets produce sound that is extremely revealing, transparent, clean (sometimes clinically so) yet relatively lifeless. The presentation can also sound forced as if the music is working overtime to work its way out of the box. Dead box sometimes translates into a relatively dead sound.
I prefer the way 'live’ cabinets present music. The music is largely unforced, free, energetic and, well, simply more alive – to my ears, more natural. To be sure, some live box speakers sound awful and many heavily damped and braced speakers can be dynamic and alive. In general, however, I much prefer the way music is presented from a well-designed live cabinet than from an equally well-designed dead one.
As noted above, when it came to equipment racks I have thrown in my lot with 'the addition by subtraction’ approach (improving sound by eliminating vibrations). Because I so much prefer live to dead speaker cabinets, I have wondered whether I might find an equipment rack that worked for me but which did not pursue the broadband noise reduction approach favored by my reference HRS system. In short, the time had come to see whether another approach to equipment racks might prove equally worthy.
The idea was not to find a rack that was 'alive’ in the sense of creating musically sympathetic vibrations, let alone one that shook like Elvis. That is a ludicrous idea. After all, unlike a speaker, an equipment rack has to hold heavy equipment and needs to be stable and firm. Rather, the contrast with the broadband noise reduction approach would be a rack system that is designed to compliment or enhance the sound of one’s system by using materials that flatter the sound overall while maintaining stability and adequate isolation.
As my choice of the HRS racks made clear, I had not had much success in finding a rack whose choice of materials and whose design structure worked reliably to enhance the overall musical presentation. I had least success listening to equipment racks made of acrylic, glass and MDF. The latter typically deadened the sound, the others gave it an unnatural CD like glassiness (to my ears) — a polished and colder, two dimensionality. I had heard maple work better under some components and even hardwood walnut under a few others.
About a year or so ago, however, I had listened to a prototype of a rack by Anthony Abbate of BOX Furniture Co. that displayed promise. The rack design was completed soon thereafter and found its way into several audio emporiums and has been showcased at several industry shows. I then heard the rack myself twice while visiting dealers on equipment that was familiar to me (Shindo, Audio Research, Leben, Wavelength) as well as on equipment that was less familiar to me (Naim, Ayre).
My impressions were favorable, but my listening sessions were brief and I was happy with the HRS. I wondered whether my favorable impressions would stand up to critical listening over a longer period of time. And so I contacted Anthony to see if he were amenable to having me take a longer listen. He was and so it came to pass that Abbate and family dropped the D3S rack at my home in Connecticut on the way to a family gathering in Rhode Island. Anthony helped me set the rack up and to place components on it, but rushed out the door so as not to be late for the family affair after only a cursory listen. We agreed that he should come back within a month for fine-tuning if both of us thought that necessary or advisable.
When Abbate left, I completed the original set-up by making sure the rack was level and that all the components were well situated and themselves level. Small details, but in my experience, almost all such details make a difference — sometimes a substantial difference.
The D3S Rack
BOX Furniture Co. racks come in single and double-wide configurations of two, three and four shelves. Abbate will also fill custom orders. The rack on review is a double wide three shelf unit, 26” high, 18” deep, whose top shelf measures 43.5” and whose other two shelves measure 40” long. The spacing between the shelves is fixed; on my unit the spacing was 10” and 8” respectively. Other configurations consistent with the stand’s stability are available through custom ordering.
Each rack is comprised of a frame skeleton and inset shelves. The frames are constructed of either solid Anigre or Sapele, utilizing hand cut mortise and tenon joinery at all joint locations. Each inset shelf is recessed and glued into the frame parts at all locations thus increasing rigidity and stiffness. Each inset shelf surface is a lamination of five different wood products and three different adhesives.
Coupling to the floor is secured via aluminum spikes with locking collars. The racks come fully assembled and crated. No set up at home beyond leveling is required.
Audio components are meant to be situated on the inset shelves and not the frames. The shelf materials were sourced carefully and voiced with a range of different audio components; changes in materials including laminates and adhesives were made until the final recipe was reached after many listening sessions. Placing components on the frame deadens the sound. The frame is their to support the structure and not to support components.
I was able to place my Shindo Garrard 301 analog system, the Meridian 508.24 CD player, the two box dual mono Catherine preamp and the 300B Ltd mono bloc amplifiers as well as my power conditioner in the rack. There was not a lot of room to spare and a reviewer who chooses the BOX system for his reference may need more shelves than the unit I had — or may want to add additional units.
The rack itself is very handsome — simple and elegant lines — and works in most any décor. My reference system is in the large family room that features contemporary furniture but an Empire era baby grand piano as well. The BOX rack is understated and fit in swimmingly. Easy to set up and good looking, the only question that remained unanswered was, how does it sound?
The Sound Of The BOX
I had heard the BOX rack with Shindo equipment at two showrooms where it performed admirably and I was expecting that it would make for a good match in my room. I was not disappointed. In fact, the match was much better than I thought it would be — even in those areas where I expected it to shine: energy and dynamics. It is not as if the Shindo speakers were shy and dynamically reticent before; but they were not explosive. And it was this fact about their performance in my room that first and most concerned Jonathan Halpern when he initially set them up. Having not heard them before, I wasn’t quite sure what he was concerned about. Once everything settled in on the rack and the speaker broke in further, the difference in dynamics throughout the frequency range was palpable.
The Shindo speakers are rather modest in size (if not in price) especially by comparison with the Aspara Horns that had been in residence prior to the Acuhorns. In my review of the Aspara I emphasized their capacity to energize my large room, to put a charge in it. The Aspara was the first speaker in my experience in that room that was able convincingly to convey the dynamics of live music at both of listening positions — midfield and farfield. With the BOX Furniture Co. rack in place, the Shindo speakers charged the room like no speaker had before — including the Aspara. Had I had the BOX rack in place when reviewing the Aspara, I imagine that speaker would have been even more impressive dynamically than I had reported it to be.
I have never been as immersed in the power of the music as I have been with the BOX rack in the system. It’s as if my components were just waiting for the chance to break loose and reveal their explosive dynamics. To be honest, I had not fully realized what I was missing in terms of energy, life and dynamics.
I put the Acuhorn back in the system and played it constantly for a few days in order to resettle it before listening critically. Again the results were rewarding. With the BOX rack in the system, the sound of the Acuhorn was extremely balanced and as in the case of the Shindo speaker substantially more alive and dynamic. All my final listening impressions of the Acuhorn loudspeaker were drawn with the BOX rack in my system. With the Shindo equipment in the BOX rack the sound was full, dense, balanced and dynamically alive.
If I had to characterize the sound of the rack with my reference electronics I would say that its impact on the sound was to free the electronics; the sound took on an ease, dynamism, naturalness and simply burst forth with energy. An overall sense of release.
While my system with the BOX audio rack exhibited new levels of dynamics, energy, life and an overall sense of freedom and expansiveness, there was the question of whether the sound would be as pure, transparent and refined as it had been in the past with my reference rack. These subtleties of musical shading are in many ways as important to a persuasive musical experience are the other musical values listed above.
In my experience the HRS racks are without equal in these aspects of musical reproduction and the BOX rack was not able to match the performance of the HRS in these dimensions. The overall presentation was somewhat less fine-grained on the BOX rack than on the HRS; you just hear more and in that way the HRS provides its own way of bringing you into the music.
The two racks systems appealed to different sides of my musical personality and I find both alluring in different ways. Music just flows in a relaxed, unimpeded, liberated, life affirming way when the Shindo gear is placed in the BOX rack. There is no worry about whether some of the life of the music is being sucked out of the performance. It’s all Gene Kelly dancing in “Singing in the Rain.’ Nothing constrained, or limited; nothing being held back. Immersion in the joy of it all.
With the Shindo gear in the HRS rack the emphasis is on being drawn into the subtleties and refinements of the music: noticing the finest tonal shadings and softest passages, the beauty of hearing every detail fully resolved yet in its place within the whole. Yet, the HRS takes a little something away from the unrestrained dynamics and life of the Shindo gear by comparison at least to the BOX audio rack.
On Further Investigation
The integrated amp in my NY system is a little loose in the bottom and could use a bit of belt tightening around its mid section. Well wouldn’t you know it, in both the BOX rack and the HRS, the bargain priced little integrated upped its already shockingly good performance a full step and a half. Of course the BOX rack is over 3x the cost of the integrated, and the HRS is a good 10x as expensive. I am not recommending that you try this at home. No sane person would house a 1K integrated in a $10,000 rack, though an audiophile might.
What I was looking for was this: was the BOX Furniture Co. rack able to clean up the sound of the little integrated and give it some life; and was the HRS capable of purifying the little baby and showing its subtler side without adversely impacting its dynamics and liveliness. The answers were all resoundingly in the affirmative. Again the HRS outperformed the BOX rack in terms of cleaning up the sound and revealing more of the fine details. Of course the 'little integrated that could’ is not in the same league as the Shindo gear and had only so much subtlety and refinement to display. But it can dance some and I was happy to see that both the HRS and the BOX rack let it have its way with the music, though both took turns cleaning the little amp up for dinner with fine company in the suburbs. I am sure the little amp is happy, as am I to be back in the grittier city, where dirt in the sound as well as under one’s nails are acceptable at the dinner table.
It may seem odd to think that a rack could contribute positively to the sound of one’s system, but a moment’s reflection may make the thought a bit less puzzling. After all, every component one has — from CD player, to turntable, to preamplifier, amplifier and so on — is typically 'encased.’ It is not just some electronic parts floating in space. The 'box’ is made of materials of some sort and part of the sound of the component is the sound of the box, or better, reflects the sound of the box. There is a voicing of each component, intentional or otherwise, and part of that voicing depends on the internal construction and the choice of materials, internal isolation, damping and so on. You can then simply view the rack as the 'box’ for your system taken as a whole. And the sound of the system taken as a whole will reflect in part the relationship between the components and their 'home’ and that in turn will depend on materials, nature of construction, part to whole damping, etc. There is a voicing and it too can be intentional or otherwise.
Once one appreciates that a rack system is like a super enclosure or home for one’s components then one sees that even the broadband noise reduction approach involves a voicing of some sort. It has a sound or character that is a function of its constitutive materials and the way they interact with one’s components. So even if the rack works to reduce vibrations — even if it eliminates them — it will work differentially (at least to some degree) with one’s components. In short, eliminating vibrations will make things clearer and cleaner and in doing so improve certain important aspects of musical performance, but it may not always make a system sound better.
In the case of the HRS rack, for almost all components I have had in my house, the sound is cleaner and what you hear as a result sounds better. With the Shindo electronics, the sound is cleaner and you hear more deeply into it, but there is a slight cost in terms of overall dynamics and density. By comparison to the BOX rack, the sound is a bit less authoritative, weighty and free.
In contrast, the BOX Furniture Co. audio rack system was wonderful with the Shindo gear. The sound was slightly less refined and nuanced than it was on the HRS rack, but it was more energetic and free. The BOX rack worked similarly well with both the Meridian and Raysonic CD players and with the Sound Quest Integrated amplifier. I was very impressed.
Nothing, and not even the BOX rack, can be as refined and elegant. But the BOX is spectacularly good in ways that matter tremendously to me. Never before has the music filled my room with such energy, life and presence. Never before has my room been as charged with the life and joy of music. The BOX Audio rack was made for music, and made by a musician to boot. It is as good as I have heard in my house with my Shindo electronics.
I have decided to keep both the BOX Furniture Co. rack and the HRS racks as my reference systems. I will use the BOX audio rack with new equipment as it comes in so that I might learn more about it and in future reviews I will update my report on it and tell you how it sounds with more and more equipment. It will in addition be my reference rack for my Shindo electronics.
I will, however, use the HRS rack as my general reference for like no other rack it can be counted on in every context to work the same way — even if it cannot guarantee to have the same overall impact on sound in every context.
I will also compare how components that are in for review sound on both racks when the occasion arises. I am a great believer in the sound of a system taken as a whole and view my job to consist in reporting how the system taken as a whole sounds in my room. And so I can do some service by reporting how a system sounds in two different but wonderful sounding racks. Rooms and racks contribute more to how your system sounds than you might think. Learn what contribution your room makes or you will be forever switching gear out and going nowhere. Find a rack that works well with the equipment you have. I can say with some confidence that you cannot go wrong with either the HRS or the BOX rack. I am putting my money where my mouth is by owning both.
The BOX Furniture Co. rack is one of the outstanding bargains in high-end audio. Several years ago I claimed that the Auditorium 23 speaker cables were the absolute best bargain in high-end audio, and I stand by that claim. Many folks have listened to the cables since then and have drawn a similar conclusion. The BOX racks are not quite the bargain that the A-23 speaker cable is, but they come damn close. They are not the best rack money can buy. They would benefit from somewhat better vibration control certainly as compared to the industry standard set by HRS. But what they do is help make your system sing a happy song, and just let the music flow. And if that does not make them a great component, I don’t know what would.