World Premiere Review!
With the 2020 election behind us, we still face the battle of Covid-19. From what I hear from manufacturers, many audiophiles have turned to music to fill their isolation and the audio industry had not evaporated. In fact, many high-end companies are doing quite well. Those individuals who have maintained their professional careers in one form or another have continued to upgrade their equipment, even in the absence of new product introductions at shows that never materialized in 2020. Those working from home and minimizing social interactions and errands have likely saved thousands of dollars in travel expenses. In my case, we've downsized from two cars to one with little inconvenience. Those who have had to make greater sacrifices, especially musicians, have my sympathy.
For many, it has been necessary to become resourceful. Tweaking the gear you already own is one way to increase your enjoyment of music without spending the big bucks. In May this year (2020) I contributed my Synergistic Research Tweakfest review and in November, I contributed Part 3 of my Linn Project, a series of tweaks for the Linn LP12 which has been my analog source for nearly 30 years. For December, I've got a variety of tweaks for those of you who have idle hands around holiday time. Contact info for the products here are all listed at the end.
Audio Magic CE Generators (Donuts)
Right away, I knew I was the guy to review these donuts. He was talkin' my talk, and I've walked the walk since years ago with reviews of the Stillpoints ERS paper and the (sadly) defunct Accentus Audio's AVM (Anti-Vibration Magic). My only fear was that I'd just reached a new high with my rig and the donuts might not live up to the hype Jerry was spinning. After all, how good can the music get? Right?
A box arrived three days later. Jerry had sent me four donuts. I say that because that's what they look like, except the sprinkles are glitter, not colored sugar. The glaze is a clear poly-something over a chocolate looking substance, though shards of bare copper wire are visible inside from one angle or another, suggesting a rather technical taste. The concoction, which Jerry described as a very nasty substance looks like it had been molded into some kind of bakery tin. They are very smooth and somewhat slippery, lying flush to the component, so getting your fingers under them is a bit of a challenge. A kind of high-end fake food, if you will, and low calorie.
Went to my record bin and pulled out Dr. John's In a Sentimental Mood that I picked up at a garage sale. Vacuumed it off and gave it a spin. The music jumped right outta the groove. Mostly recorded by Allan Sides at Ocean Way Studio in LA, and mastered by Doug Sax. This is no Audiophile Approved record, being put out by Warner Bros., but these two guys are among the very best in the business. Enough said.
The review process was not simple. I tried one or two on top of my tuner, inside my tuner along with the ERS paper, inside my tuner without the ERS paper, on top of my DAC, on top of my DAC and Transport, on top of my turntable power supply and phono stage, both with and without the preamp likewise treated. And I tried them in chains — CD source, turntable source, and tuner, on down through the preamp and the AGD monoblocks. I tried the preamp and phono stage with two donuts — one nestled on the deck with the tubes and another on top of the transformer covers. I ultimately found the donuts on the monoblocks to work best on the back deck behind the speaker binding posts close to the RCA input and the IEC input. Further experimentation led to the discovery that I could add some ERS paper inside the GaNfet tube cage for additional benefit. When placed on top of a large flat component like the tuner or CD player (transport) it did not seem to make a lot of difference exactly where the donut was placed. On the DAC, my chip is near the ESS chip is near the back edge, close to all the inputs, so that's where it worked best.
The donuts are non-conductive and rock hard, so it is easy to place them inside a component. The tuner worked best with a combination of the donut and the ERS paper (which covered a broad circuit board). I found adding a second piece of ERS paper along the front panel, where all the tuning and display electronics were located, worked very well, too. The big advantage of keeping the donuts on the outside is that you can swap them around on different components quickly. This may, however, leave you vulnerable to ridicule from your friends with less-educated ears. I'd also suggest you keep them away from hot tubes on a power amp and NEVER, EVER put them in a microwave oven!
The effect was not immediately obvious. I had to go back and forth a few times to zone in on the audible effect of reducing the RFI/EMI in the proximity of the component. Given that my rig was sounding so spectacular to begin with, it didn't jump out and grab me. But once I recognized what was missing and what was gained, it became easier to recognize the benefit each time a new piece of music was played. Missing was a slight haze. Like Joni Mitchell sang, you don't know what you've got until it's gone. What emerged in its place was a lot of micro-detail, greater transparency — particularly at the sides and back of the soundstage. The leading edge of notes was slightly more distinct and dynamic. The slightly greater tonality that was a by-product of micro-detail enhanced the overall tonal color. The tonal balance remained as it was before applying the donuts. Without the donuts, the music was kind of homogenized; with them, instruments became more distinct and the air among them became cleaner, more breathable — less like a smokey bar if you can remember back that far.
Overall, the effect was a lot like what the Synergistic Research Tranquility Pod does, but the Pod is much stronger than a single donut. With a handful of donuts, you can spread the effect from source to power amp(s) and achieve a roughly equivalent effect for less money than the cost of a single Tranquility Pod. The difference in form factors will determine the optimal placement for each. I noticed no indication that these two products were incompatible with each other.
The problem with this review is that I've started with a very high-quality rig, and have not compared it with something more modest. It might be more effective, or the effect might be masked in a less resolving system. Jerry has offered a seven-day return policy to one person on his site. The effect is immediate and takes no time to break in, so you won't need more time than that. He told me the early sales have resulted in re-orders for additional donuts. I can see why. With something as magical as the CE Generators you will probably start small and add on.
The idea for the CE Generators came out of Jerry's development of a product for human health. We are continually bombarded with RFI and he originally built a pyramid version of these donuts to place by your bedside to reduce RFI while we sleep. He said one of the side effects was more prolific dreaming — even in color! Well, you guessed it. I've been taking these donuts to bed with me, placing them under my pillow each night. I'm here to tell you when I wake up several times during the night (as older men are prone to do), I'm always coming out of a vivid dream, indicating that I've been in deep REM sleep. This is quite a different behavior for me. Time will tell. I'm keeping them in my audio rig, for sure, and hoping Santa will bring more for the bedroom.
$150 each or 3 for $399 from Audio Magic or The Cable Company
Captive Power Cord Conversion
Their Achilles heel was their captive zip-cord AC line. These were the days when audiophile power cords and cables were just beginning to gain traction. Early on I had a friend replace the zip cord with a hard-wired shielded power cord typical of the generic cord manufacturers send with their components to get you started. It was a noticeable improvement that I've lived with, even though my other gear now benefits from Synergistic Research power cords costing thousand dollars apiece. I've often thought of replacing it. A recent malfunction of the CD tray led me to remove the top and bottom of the player whereupon I saw how complicated and how little space there was for a thick contemporary power cord. (The problem with the CD drawer was just that the rubber gasket had pulled out slightly, prohibiting the drawer from closing fully.)
Plan B was to clip the existing shielded power cord about five inches from where it emerged at the back of the deck and install an IEC 320 C14 male plug that would allow me to use one of the vintage Synergistic power cords I had on hand. Finding a C14 is do-able on the web. Schurter is a good brand. I happened to have one from a Synergistic Research power bar that I converted with a Furutech male plug, allowing me to plug the power bar directly into one of my dedicated lines. My father never taught me how to do these kinds of things but he definitely modeled DIY behavior and the tools to do such tasks sometimes appeared beneath the Christmas tree. With a little research on YouTube, I found out exactly how to do it. Here is one of several. You can use more basic tools than he does, so don't be intimidated. When you have an actual C14 plug in your hand, the instruction on the video will be more obvious.
While I was inside the Sony, I took note of the fuse it uses and ordered up a Synergistic Research Orange fuse. I've got them everywhere else in the system that uses a fuse and they've always made an improvement. Since the digital signal emanates from the deck, I figured it would likely be a benefit here, too. I wasn't hoping for much since I had already made terrific gains with an SR digital cable, but even small gains can add up. (Forgive me if I'm sounding like a commercial, here.)
I should have known better as I had previously transformed my Sony ES tuner by replacing the generic shielded power cord (that had replaced the original zip-cord) with a modest Testament power cord from Audio Sensibility. This was also hard-wired directly into the chassis as there was lots of room inside for a secure attachment and the attachment points were right at the back of the component. The results were spectacular. Along with some ERS paper, the tuner was sounding as good as my digital playback.
With the C14 connector on the pigtail of my CD player, I now had the option of using any IEC power cord, and being detachable, it was much easier to take the unit in and out of the equipment rack. And the resulting sound? Like my tuner, it was pretty spectacular—much more than I expected, even with a power cord that was not specifically designed for digital gear. Much better resolution, greater macro, and micro-dynamics, much-improved tonality due to the quieter background, in short — everything you expect from a major upgrade in a power cable.
I was so pleased that I didn't care that I didn't go to extraordinary measures to hardwire the new power cord directly to the machine. Though to be fair, I didn't simply put the C14 connector on the original zip cord, but connected it to a generic three-wire shielded power cord that had been carefully embedded in the original cable pathway and properly grounded up near the power switch. I'm not big on self-flagellation but I wish I had done this a couple of decades ago.
Herbie's Audio Lab Way Excellent II Turntable Mat
Tom returned the SR mat after I had loaned it to him to try on his new Acoustic Signature turntable and said he preferred the much more affordable Way Excellent II mat. I asked to borrow it for a day, and I too, was very impressed. Tom previously had very good results with his VPI Scout turntable with Herbie's Grunge buster Turntable Mat for tables with acrylic platters that are specifically designed to be used without a mat. (Robert Herbelin tells me the VPI Scout does come with a stock mat, however, and most Scout users find great success with the Way Excellent II model. If in doubt, call Herbie's.)
Robert was delighted to honor my request for a review sample for a more in-depth listen to the mat. The mats are available in a wide variety of diameters and thickness to accommodate a wide variety of turntables. They are also available in donut-shape and with center holes cut for normal spindles as well as large-hole 45 rpm singles. Customs sizes are available for an upcharge. Different thicknesses are useful in replacing stock rubber mats without having to adjust the tonearm for vertical tracking angle (VTA), but the tacky, pliable gel material is so effective there is said to be no audible advantage to going thicker than the standard 2mm. Robert tells me thicker models (3mm or 4mm) are successful in dealing with macro-vibrations such as motor rumble or footfall issues. Again, if in doubt, give him a call.
The diameter requires some care in selection. There is a thin outer lip of the white layer beneath the black donut that extends about ¼" (7mm) beyond the black portion that makes contact with the grooved area of the LP. I ordered a 295mm diameter so the white portion fell just inside the outer edge of the Soundeck platter. This greatly facilitates the removal of the LP in that the outer edge of the record extends just a bit further than the edge of my Soundeck platter. My Soundeck platter, at 298mm, is sized to fit just inside the outer lip of a record, allowing complete contact of all the grooved area with the patter.
My Way Excellent II mat is sized at 295mm at the outer edge of the white layer and about 281mm at the outer edge of the black layer which might not stretch out quite far enough to reach the lead groove, but close enough to be very effective. The white center of the mat gives clearance for the thickest of labels and there is probably some acoustic filtering offered by the use of slightly dissimilar compounds in the black and white layers. Their website will guide you through the selection process and Robert is there to help if you have an unusual situation.
The black layer feels slightly tackier than the white layer. Herbie's suggests pressing down all over the mat to ensure that it is flat on the platter. If there is residue on your platter after removing a stock rubber mat, I would suggest removing it completely so the Way Excellent makes complete contact. The mat is floppy but also tacky enough so that it stuck to the platter when lifting an LP, yet also formulated to release from the LP at the same time. I had zero problems with the mat lifting off the platter or sticking to an LP.
Realizing most people have the stock donut on their Linn LP12, I put my original donut back on and tried the Way Excellent II on this more traditional set-up. Keep in mind that my turntable was still about 75% non-Linn upgraded replacement parts. The sound quality didn't drop much at all when I reinstalled the original Linn outer platter. It was almost a case of which you prefer better. This suggests that the Way Excellent II effectively quells whatever ringing the Linn donut imparts on the music. For those who are reluctant to spend money on the Soundeck matt and a periphery ring and heavy record weight (no small expense) that are required to add mass to the platter, the Way Excellent II mat is an outstanding, high-value alternative approach. It is slightly warmer than the Soundeck matt approach, but I could easily live with either.
While I had the original Linn donut on my turntable, I also compared Herbie's mat with the original felt mat supplied by Linn. Again, given the highly modified nature of my turntable, there was not as large a difference between the two as I expected. On a completely stock LP12, I highly suspect you will find the Way Excellent II an affordable and very worthwhile upgrade. I also suspect anyone with a mid-fi or entry-level high-end turntable will be ecstatic.
Soundeck Record Weight
What sets the Soundeck apart from all others is the two-piece construction with a layer of visco-elastic polymer between the 5mm thick disc on the bottom and the finely contoured and polished main body. The Soundeck logo and name are finely silk-screened on the top, making it easy to ascertain if the platter is in motion in dim light. It is the visco-elastic layer that absorbs the vibrations caused by the stylus screaming down the groove and echoing through the vinyl. On lesser turntables, it likely blocks vibrations caused by the bearing from reaching the vinyl as well. The original height of 4cm has been lowered to 3.5cm to allow closure of the lid on Linn turntables while the diameter of 8cm, which fits inside the record label, remains the same.
The two words that first come to mind about the design are classic and elegant. The contour of the body is perfectly shaped to pick up the weight by sliding a finger in on each side of the neck, palm upward, or by grasping the weight with your thumb and two fingers from above. Either way inspires absolute confidence that you will not accidentally drop it and the touch of the fine finish imbues a sense of quality that should make this record weight feel at home on all but the most ostentatious turntables. It just feels right.
The weights of the stainless steel (originally 768 grams, now 570 grams) and aluminum (now 270 grams) versions determine their performance. The heavier weight produced higher sound quality with greater resolution, tighter bass, more air, and blacker background than the lighter version. It wasn't a night and day difference between the two, or not using one at all, but the differences were noticeable in the context of my high-level rig. I was able to use both versions on my heavily modified (but still suspended) Linn turntable. Finer adjustment of the suspension might have produced even better results. The use of the Soundeck PM platter mat or Herbie's Audio Lab Way Excellent II Turntable Mat produced more impressive results than adding the record weight. But ultimately you will appreciate both an improved mat and a record weight as the latter will help flatten LPs to give better contact with your mat, as well as help minimize vibrations from the bearing. 30-day returns are offered if you are still skeptical. The best deal is to order directly from their website, but they are also available through eBay at a higher price. Les Thompson tells me he is happy to discuss bespoke projects such as speaker stands, top plates, or shelving using his vibration-absorbing metal sheets.
Block Audio C-Lock Duplex Outlet Cable Support
The C-Lock Lite ($54) is followed by several other models, culminating with the SE2 ($395) with a top-line Furutech rhodium-plated NCF duplex outlet. My sample came with a spec-grade 20A outlet made in Mexico that included a trim gauge molded into it, but the only attachment for the wiring was via the screws on the side of the duplex. A version is available for $49 without the duplex outlet if you already have an audiophile-grade duplex outlet. A large black anodized aluminum collar with internally seated white O-ring screws down onto the fixed collar and locks the input end of the power cord securely into the duplex outlet. The fixed collar is attached to the substantial wall plate with two Allen head screws. It is said to work with AC power connectors ranging from 32 to 42 mm (1.26 to 1.65 inches). The fit is tight and secure which is what you want to minimize vibrations that cause distortion. Just take care not to trip over the power cord attached to it. The wall plate was a nicely finished brushed stainless steel with their corporate logo discretely applied.
Their various designs are all covered by worldwide patents. Their top line SE2, which is a single AC input model particularly suited for dedicated lines, incorporates EMI shielding and looks like it is equipped with additional vibration damping technology. The concept of a locking input has been carried over to their power conditioners where each AC input has its' C-Lock, including the IEC input coming from the wall. It wouldn't surprise me to see them come up with a version for IEC inputs on components, as this is where power cords more typically come loose.
The top input in the duplex will not be useable by a second large audiophile power cord, but it was possible to plug in a Synergistic Research power supply for an older actively shielded power cord. The C-Lock certainly got the job done and I suspect Block Audio may have created a new category of audiophile tweak in the process. If you've got a dedicated line feeding your rig, this is something you should consider, though you may well be advised to upgrade the duplex from spec-grade to one of the many audiophile-grade duplexes that in my experience provide improved sound quality.
Furutech NCF Clear Line Mini Power Optimizer
Well, it seems like everything is Nano-something these days and there are lots of plug-in power conditioners around, but I jumped for Furutech based on their reputation and the excellent result I had with their FI-12ML right-angle AC plug which I used to convert my Synergistic Research QLS (Quantum Line Strip) to a direct plug-in unit, thereby eliminating the need for a separate power cord. This conversion left me with the Schurter C14 IEC mains connector that I used in the captive power cord conversion I wrote about above. (Waste not, want not.)
I don't know if these mini power optimizers require a burn-in or not. I plugged it into the video system and let my wife do the heavy lifting. I'm told it requires a 24-hour burn-in, but I went way beyond that. It does seem that they need a moment to settle in, once they have been inserted. I started first by adding it to the 20A dedicated line that my Synergistic Research PowerCell 8SE runs on. It wasn't an "Oh, wow!" experience, probably because the system runs at such a high level to begin with, given the SR power conditioner and a lot of SR $2k-$3k power cords feeding the components. And going A/B every minute or two didn't make me scream and shout either. But once I caught on to the difference the NCF Clear Line makes, it was a keeper.
In addition to all the clichés of improvement — you know the list — the periphery of the soundstage became as clear and noteworthy as the musicians in the spotlight. The trailing ends of sustained notes faded delicately into silence, not noise, and the musicians became personified, rather than being just point sources for the instruments. That a $250 plug-in could make that much difference in rig that already sounded like it cost well over six-figures was practically embarrassing. Moreover, it worked as well with turntable, tuner, and CD playback.
I thought twice about opening it up to see what was inside as I feared that it might be like one of those mail-order mattresses that are impossible to get back in the box if you decide to return it. But as I said above, I didn't want to return this. I'm told the magic ingredients are the NCF material that is sloshed around in the carbon fiber/nylon shell and vibration damping Air Coils that damp the vibrations coming from the socket electrodes. (You can see brush strokes under bright light, and what looks like thin, uniform layers of finely woven cloth inside the clear tube.) In addition to eliminating static, the NCF crystals (a combination of ceramic particles and carbon powder) are said to act as electrical and mechanical damping material. Naturally, they were not about to tell me everything about their proprietary product.
Back in my home office I plugged it into a typical power strip with surge protection that connects to the printer, monitor/TV and laptop. Using affordable workhorse Grado headphones I experienced a similar positive shift in quality with most of the same improvements on this list of YouTube videos including
The Blaze live at Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix, France for Cercle
Bach: Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008 - Pincombe | Netherlands Bach Society
Norah Jones Live from Austin TX
Ginger Baker Trio - Charlie Haden - Bill Frisell / live 1995
More expensive headphones would likely have revealed additional improvements and probably resulted in a lot less sleep. My Dell Inspiron laptop with a 15.6" full HD IPS screen has a pretty decent picture to begin with, so the improvement in image quality and the black level was not as great as the improvement in sound quality, but welcomed.
Moving out into the family room where another 20A dedicated line feeds a Blu-ray player feeding an upscale Sony HD TV with sound fed into a Magic Tube Research IAM 34SE integrated tube amplifier driving vintage Coincident Speaker Technology's Partial Eclipse Mk II speakers, again, the sound showed similar improvement with instruments being a lot less homogenized. It was much easier to hear past prominent instruments to those backing the main performers with much greater clarity. The country/bluegrass ensemble Bruce Springsteen brought together for We Shall Overcome; The Seeger Sessions was a delight in this regard.
Visually, the Sony was so good that I could not detect much, if any, improvement, even as I looked for noise in black areas. The one exception was that subtitles popped and were noticeably easier to read. Perhaps I'm better trained for listening than I am for watching TV.
While I have not compared the NCF Clear Line with variations on this theme from other companies, I expected a lot from Furutech and they delivered. One would be a fool to spend thousands of dollars (or tens of thousands) on a new component in search of the clarity and relaxed listening experience brought by the NCF Clear Line for only $250. And I make this suggestion even if you already own a serious power conditioner. This device does not duplicate the function of a power conditioner, it supplements it. Do shop around but beware of counterfeit knock-offs that are said to be out there and buy from trusted Furutech dealers.
Stay safe, be well and enjoy the music!
Company And Product Information
Captive Power Cord Conversion
Herbie's Audio Lab
Voice: (210) 530-8680
Soundeck Record Weight