Author Archives: Jacob Heilbrunn

Parasound JC 1+ Monoblock Power Amplifier

In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the flibbertigibbet Lady Henry observes, “I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage, don’t you think so, Mr. Gray?” Dorian doesn’t miss a beat. “I am afraid I don’t think so, Lady Henry,” he replies. “I never talk during music—at least, during good music. If one hears bad music, it is one’s duty to drown it in conversation.”

By this humorous standard, when listening to the new 450-watt Parasound JC 1+ monoblock amplifier, my guess is that you’re not liable to engage in much small talk because it makes most music sound so good. “JC” are the initials of legendary audio engineer John Curl, who has given his original JC 1 design a complete overhaul. [John Curl was inducted into The Absolute Sound’s High-End Audio Hall of Fame in 2018, Issue 289. —RH] As it happens, I used a pair of the original JC 1 Class AB monoblocks for several years to power Magnepan 1.6 loudspeakers, which prospered from the clean current that those amps provided. Any Magnepan lover knows that these big panels suck up watts like almost nothing else in the way of loudspeakers on the planet, but also that the sonic rewards can be great. In this case, they were.

Naturally, I was curious to hear what Parasound and Curl had accomplished after almost two decades. On paper, the revisions to the JC 1 appear to be extensive. It boasts a new power transformer with 20% higher capacity than its predecessor, as well as Nichicon power-supply filter capacitors that have been increased in capacity from 132,000uF to 198,000uF. Both measures typically translate into an increased stability that provides a wealth of sonic benefits, including better imaging and dynamics. The amplifier also employs Bybee Music Rails to help eliminate the input-stage noise that can have a deleterious effect on tonal purity. The amplifier has a two-position toggle switch that allows you to choose between 23dB or 29dB of gain, depending on the sensitivity of your loudspeaker. With the Wilson Audio WAMM Master Chronosonic loudspeaker, I relied upon the 29dB setting. The amp also sports two nifty pairs of CHK Infinium speaker terminals that grasp the loudspeaker cable lugs very firmly, indeed. As long as you insert the lugs straight up into the terminals, the CHKs are a breeze to use; deviate, however, by even a millimeter, and the lugs simply won’t glide in. At 83 pounds (the original was 63), these amps are no lightweights, but they’re not too difficult to maneuver into place by yourself.

As with most big powerhouse amps, it’s always tempting right away to declare, like the Thing in the Fantastic Four, “It’s clobberin’ time!” Whether running the Parasounds on the subwoofers or the front speakers of my system, I consistently found that they can, as you would expect, deliver quite a wallop. Initially, I ran the Parasounds on my subwoofers to break them in and to test their mettle on the deepest bass passages. Quite frankly, I was taken aback by what they brought to the table in the bass realm. They seemed not simply to plunge down more deeply into the nether regions, but also to more fully energize the notes themselves. This was apparent on both CDs and LPs. On a Decca pressing of the Solti recordings of the Wagner operas—recently bestowed upon me by Ali Saad, a classical aficionado and avid audiophile in Los Angeles—the forging of Siegfried’s sword came through with a remarkable clang, resounding to the back of the room. Jeepers, creepers! It was though the Parasounds were delivering the current into the loudspeaker unmediated by cables or anything else. I consistently found that the Parasounds not only increased the dynamics of my overall system, but also the perceived sense of hall space. It’s been said, time and again, that subwoofers play a pivotal role in defining the soundstage dimensions of a recording, but it’s always a pleasure to hear the phenomenon vividly demo’d, as it was with the JC 1+. 

As tempting as it might have been to retain the Parasounds on the subs, duty called. It was time for the Full Monty. I ventured to the recesses of my listening room, eyed the Parasounds for a moment, then hoisted them into the air, one at a time, mind you, to install them on my main loudspeakers. The results were quite revealing. 

The first thing I noticed was that same sense of enveloping space I’d heard with the subwoofers. On a BBC Music CD that I recently received, a whoosh of ambient hall and audience sound came through even before the music began, followed by Frederick Delius’ pleasant trifle “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring,” a tone poem he composed in 1912. It features an onomatopoetic cuckoo call that is sounded first by the woodwinds, then the strings. With all that surplus power on hand—the first 25 watts in Class A—the Parasounds vividly conveyed the sweeping and shimmering sound of the orchestra, turning it into an engrossing experience. In part, the Parasounds possess such an enveloping character because of their ability to plumb the depths with satisfying richness and grip. 

To give their ability to stand up to a real high-powered orchestral performance a go, I played an old EMI, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on Sibelius’ tone poem Finlandia. This one has it all—melodrama, pathos, and grandeur. Right from the outset, the Parasounds delivered the staccato trumpet fanfare with precision and alacrity. No less impressive were the timpani whacks, which were never drowned out by the orchestra, but clearly audible in all their majestic force. There was none of the smearing or congealing or discombobulation of the various sections of the orchestra that you might expect with a lesser amplifier, without the power to keep everything from spiraling out of control. On the contrary, the JC 1+ kept the proceedings firmly in hand right up through the very grand finale, as the orchestra crescendos triumphantly while the tympani delivers a sustained roll—a kind of emphatic period to the overture. Once again, the clear delineation of the tympani even as the orchestra was playing full bore was most impressive.

Another blockbuster was a CD on the Sony label called Oriental Trumpet Concertos that features the Hungarian trumpeter Gabor Boldoczki playing Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto in A-flat major. The Parasounds effectively captured the velvety sound emanating from the bore of Boldoczki’s trumpet, as well as the more nasal quality when he deployed a straight mute for the wonderfully plangent and meditative middle movement. On the cadenza that wraps up matters with a triumphant finish, the trumpet almost sounds as forceful as a machine-gun, as Boldoczki double-tongues the sixteenth notes. The transient dynamism of the amps was consistently apparent on trumpet recordings—it was as though the music were snapping to attention, like a soldier crisply saluting a flag.

As noted, the spaciousness and power of the sound has a lot to do with the bass control of these amplifiers. On a very fine recording by Stephen Hough of the final piano pieces of Brahms [Hyperion], the rumbling of the piano in the subterranean regions was quite palpable. On both the Fantasias and Intermezzos, both the delicacy and lingering quality of Hough’s touch were discernible as his left hand traveled down the keyboard. I’ve rarely heard such fidelity and accuracy in the bass as I did with the Parasounds. The PS Audio M1200, an amplifier based around a tubed input and switching output stage, may have gone even deeper, but I don’t think it boasted the same grip, or, to put it another way, the same variety of timbres. 

I heard something similar in terms of bass fidelity on an oldie but goodie, the Concord label album called “Don’t Forget the Blues,” which sounded unforgettable. On the song “Rocks In My Bed,” Ray Brown’s bass was tautly defined, moaning and groaning as he accompanied the superb trombonist Al Grey, a master of the wah-wah mute, if there ever was one. If the sound of Brown’s bass line were a rubber band and any tauter, it would have snapped in two. 

How did the Parasounds perform on more delicate fare? You’ll get few quibbles from me, friends. There were moments when I was simply startled by the finesse that they offered. On Louis Bellson’s album Thunderbird, for example, I was smitten by the rendition of the Neal Hefti standard “Softly With Feeling.” The Parasounds were able to provide the hushed backing of the winds with total control, endowing the song with a sense of realism that it would otherwise have lacked. This was one of those times when this LP on the Impulse! label really sounded opened up rather than claustrophobic. I mean talk about pristine. Suffice it to say, that the Parasounds conveyed, or appeared to convey, just about every last little nuance the cartridge excavated from the black grooves.

But even on the delicate passages, the sound was never wispy. Take the magnificent album Festival of Trumpets [Nonesuch]. It was mastered in 1974 by Bob Ludwig and features the New York Trumpet Ensemble, directed by Gerard Schwarz. I was riveted, among other things, by a lovely Sonatina by the baroque composer Johann Christoph Pezel, who himself  played trumpet and violin. The gossamer-like trumpet playing of Schwarz and Louis Ranger sounded very enticing, but it was the accompaniment of the bassoon and harpsichord that really caught my ear. It’s easy for them to get lost in the mix. But here it was easy to hear the pleasingly sonorous sound of the bassoon as it puffed along, as well as the soft and deliberate plucks of the harpsichord. If I had to pick a nit, it would be in the treble. It’s not that the sound ever became hard or dirty—the Parasound always has a rich, warm, inviting sound on top—rather, the amp could sometimes be less slightly transparent and pellucid on top than some of its far-pricier brethren.

The JC 1+ shows just how far amplifiers have come in the past several decades. Always a stalwart, it has been vastly improved in its latest incarnation. Both consummately reliable and stellar in performance in my listening room, it offers a beautifully refined, flowing, and organic presentation of music. It is clearly voiced on the sumptuous and warm side, which is to say it has the breath of musical life. I could listen to it for hours and hours, and did. 

No doubt you can spend a lot more money on amplifiers ranging from $50,000 and up, and I’d be the last to dissuade anyone from chasing audio rainbows as vigorously as they please. The gains will be there in tonality, dynamics, and filigree of detail, particularly in the treble. But the JC 1+ monoblocks come so darned close to the best, in so many categories, that for more than a few listeners it may seem an otiose pursuit to look elsewhere. Parasound and John Curl deserve a rousing round of applause for producing a real-world-priced amplifier that delivers otherworldly sound.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Monoblock solid-state power amplifier
Power output: 450 watts @ 8 ohms; 850 watts @ 4 ohms; 1300 watts @ 2 ohms
Class A power output: 25W, bias switch set to high; 10W, bias switch set to low
Frequency response: 2Hz–120kHz, +0/-2dB; 20Hz–20kHz, +0/-0.25dB
Total harmonic distortion (THD): <0.15 % at full power; <0.02 % at typical listening levels
IM distortion: <0.03 %
Damping factor: >1200 at 20Hz
Input impedance: Unbalanced, 50k ohm; balanced, 100k ohm (50k ohm per leg)
S/N ratio, inputs shorted: >122dB, IHF A-weighted, bias set to Low; >120dB, IHF A-weighted, bias set to High; >113dB, unweighted, bias set to Low; >111dB, unweighted, bias set to High
Dimensions: 17½” x 7¾” x 20″
Net weight: 83 lbs.
Price: $8495 each

PARASOUND PRODUCTS, INC.
2250 McKinnon Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94124
parasound.com

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Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound

PS Audio Stellar M1200 Amplifier

Mention the words “switching” and “amplifier” in tandem and not a few audiophiles are apt to get a queasy look. The knock on Class D amplification is that it tends to sound cold, sterile, amusical. For the most part, there has been something to the opprobrium that has attached to switching amplifiers. So when I saw that PS Audio’s inventive engineer Darren Myers had come up with a switching amplifier called Stellar M1200, I was most curious to hear it. 

The design of the monoblock M1200, which is priced at $5998 per pair, seems calculated to try to overcome the traditional objections to Class D amplifiers. The input section features a venerable 12AU7 tube coupled to a high-current ICE Edge output section. The idea, as near as I can tell, is to try and mate beauty and the beast. And why not? The advantage of Class D amplifiers is that they don’t really produce any significant heat, weigh very little, consume minimal electricity, and deliver a whopping amount of power—in the case of the M1200 no less than 1200 watts into a 4-ohm load, enough to drive just about any extant loudspeaker with ample headroom to hit sonic peaks loud enough to satisfy the most demanding listener.

When I first spotted the M1200, I reckoned that it would be able to drive my Wilson WAMM Master Chronosonic subwoofers easily. I couldn’t help wondering what all that power would be like on the bottom section of my loudspeaker setup. As it happened, however, my system was in flux, with gear whizzing in and out the door; so, I put the M1200s first on the WAMM main loudspeakers without harboring too great expectations. Boy, was I in for a surprise! The M1200 is not a good amplifier; it is a superb one.

There were several enticing attributes of the M1200 that caught my ear, so to speak, from the get-go. The first one was the capacious soundstage that the M1200 produces. It’s always been my experience that the more powerful the amplifier, the larger and deeper the soundstage created by the loudspeaker. Joined to this is a sense of hall ambience, which is very important for a classical buff like me. The M1200 produced all of these in spades. 

On a fine Delos CD of the Brazilian Guitar Quartet playing transcriptions of Bach’s four suites for orchestra, the plusses of the M1200 were easy to detect. For one thing, there was a whoosh of air the instant the quartet began playing the second suite, each guitar firmly and forcefully planted in its own space. One of the attributes of the power that the M1200 offers is a sense of power and drive, not just of the overall performance but of a feeling of dynamic jump for each instrument. To a greater degree than I have heard with most amplifiers, the M1200 truly amplifies the smallest details—the hand of a guitarist inadvertently brushing the strings, a performer sucking his breath in, and so on. The accumulation of these small, almost microscopic, details add up to a more realistic overall sonic landscape. Instruments, whether trumpet, guitar, or violin, emerge as formidable in size and scale.

At the same time, the M1200 is something of a jackrabbit. The amazing damping factor of the amplifier means that it often seems to start and stop a hair faster than many other of its brethren. No matter the musical genre, the feeling of a sense of propulsion is inescapable. In many ways, the music seems to be happening in real time as opposed to that subliminal sense of a split-second time lag. On a Philips LP of Schubert’s sonatas for violin and piano that’s beautifully played by Arthur Grumiaux and Paul Crossley, this alacrity endows the music with a sense of drama. Grumiaux’s bowing has more bite and fervor than most systems would render, as do Crossley’s fortissimos. In my experience, it’s pretty difficult to reproduce a violin’s overtones—the guts of the sound—with any real degree of verisimilitude. The M1200 excels at it. The hall ambience it coaxes into your listening room also means that the lower regions of the piano resound with great fidelity. The piano chords have a 3-D dimensionality to them that is quite winning, particularly in the bass region. Ah, the bass region. I’ll admit it. I’m something of a bass fanatic, and not just because my system is located in the basement. Nor is it that I’m intent on pounding out the low bass on rock recordings, though I’ll confess that I enjoy it upon occasion. No, what I really find illuminating is the degree to which improvements in the bass further the illusion of the real thing throughout the frequency spectrum. In controlling the bass quite authoritatively, the M1200 is able to reproduce effectively the timbral richness of a grand piano, tuba, or guitar. It goes deeper than many competing amplifiers, something that came through vividly on a Pentatone SACD of Bram Beekman playing Bach’s Organ Concerto in D minor. The sustained low organ notes are held with a tautness, even as the melody plays above, that makes for a rewarding listening experience. Ditto for a praeludium by Johann Christoph Kellner; I’ve never heard it better. The linearity of the amplifier means that every note, from bass to treble, exploded out of the loudspeaker with equal force on massive organ block chords. The sound was rich and overwhelming. The depth of hall space was cavernous, as though you were in the cathedral itself feeling the sonic waves emanating from the organ. Forget about the fumbling around that you sometimes hear with other amplifiers that are trying to grasp the very lowest reaches of the organ. The M1200 handles them with aplomb. You’ll hear every note, loud and clear. 

What about the treble region? Here, as you might expect, there are some plusses and minuses. The excellent transparency and power of the M1200 allow it to soar wide open in this fussy sonic region. The grip and control on violin and piano or vocals is most impressive. Take the German counter-tenor Andreas Scholl. On a Harmonia Mundi recording of Bach cantatas, it is impossible to detect a hint of compression with the M1200 when Scholl cuts loose. You can also practically hear the air whooshing through the organ pipes on contemplative treble passages. The automotive equivalent would be flooring it on the Autobahn with no sense of hesitation. The power with the M1200, in other words, is always there, always on tap, always ready to deliver. 

But—you knew there was a “but” coming—the M1200 is simply not on the level of costlier amplifiers in offering an unimpeachable treble region when it comes to tonality. In my view, the M1200 closes the gap between switching and Class A/B amplifiers to a remarkable degree—but not all the way. It has great clarity, but simply remains a little tonally thinner on top than other top-flight amplifiers.

The M1200 poses a real challenge for much of the audio industry. It offers a colossal sound and excellent refinement at what has to be considered a budget price for the high end. PS Audio, which has specialized in power regeneration for many years, is really expanding its ambit. For anyone who has a loudspeaker that is difficult to drive the M1200 is a must-audition. It does so many things so well that it is consistently a joy to listen to in my system. 

Of the amplifiers that I’ve auditioned in this price range, the Stellar M1200 is by far the best, a gangbuster piece of gear that upends many old verities about switching amplification. I could live with it for a very long time. Stellar, indeed.

Specs & Pricing

Frequency response:10Hz–20kHz ±0.5dB, 10Hz–45kHz +0.1dB, -3.0dB
Output power: 600W into 8 ohms, 1200W into 4 ohms.
Signal to noise: > 112dB, [email protected] watts
Gain: 30.5dB
Output impedance: <0.007 ohms, 50Hz, 2.8Vrms
Damping factor: >550 at 50Hz, 2.8Vrms, 4 ohms; >1100, 8 ohms
Inputs: RCA (unbalanced), XLR (balanced)
Outputs: Copper-base nickel-plated binding posts (two pair)
Dimensions: 17″ x 3.75″ x 12″
Weight: 27 lbs. (each)
Price: $5998/pr.

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Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound

Boulder Amplifiers 508 Phonostage

Boulder Amplifiers’ products tend to be as hefty as their prices. The company’s new 508 phono- stage is neither. It is a svelte piece of gear that retails for $5000. At this price point, there is a lot of competition, but the Boulder acquits itself very well, indeed. It is a clear offspring of the company’s more lavish products, including the new two-box 2108 phonostage. The smallest product that Boulder has offered in two decades, it is carved out of a single block of aluminum and looks quite attractive, at least if a Bauhaus look is your style. Personally, I found its appearance to be quite ingratiating; it didn’t take up much space on my new Stillpoints ESS rack and was dead quiet in operation. No hum, no buzz, no nothing. It just sat there like a quiet guest—until the needle dropped on the vinyl. Then came something else entirely.

Like all Boulder products, the 508 runs in balanced mode. Since many tonearms are terminated with single-ended connections, Boulder offers a spiffy set of adapters, but it must also be run balanced from its outputs. You could use adapters on the outputs if you really wanted, but I wouldn’t advise it. The more adapters you use, the more distortion you introduce. There’s a switch on the front panel for on-off operation along with a mute switch, and another switch in the rear that toggles between mc and mm mode. Gain is a robust 70dB in moving-coil mode and 44dB in moving-magnet mode. You could substitute your own step-up transformer and thereby run an mc cartridge in the mm mode to bypass an extra gain stage, but I don’t really see the point.

Having recently auditioned the $52,000 Boulder 2108, I reckoned that the 508 would be a big step down in performance. It wasn’t. The first LP that I played on the TechDAS Air Force Zero turntable with a Graham Phantom Elite 12″ tonearm and a TechDAS TDCO1 cartridge was a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Narciso Yepes and Godelieve Monden playing Telemann guitar duos. This is a subtle record that takes far less dynamic wallop than delicate figurations and beautiful timbral shadings to make its point. Right from the outset, I was smitten by the 508’s ability to convey them. The exceptional linearity of the 508 manifested itself not as a dryness of sound, but as an ability to convey little details accurately against extremely black backgrounds. Another notable feature was the wide and deep soundstage. Once again, the clarity of the Boulder had a beneficent effect, not only allowing you to hear where the instrumentalists were positioned, but also how their plucks resounded into the hall. The sense of the ambient decay of the notes, particularly on the Sarabande section of the Partita in E major, came through vividly, as did the twang of the guitars on the Menuet that immediately follows the Sarabande. The 508 delivered a keen sense of the body of the guitar and the forcefulness of the performers in communicating with each other. In this regard, the absence of noise with the 508 was itself a striking development. What you don’t hear in high end can often be as important as what you do. In my experience, whether it comes to amplifiers or phonostages, this is an arena in which Boulder has always excelled.

Perhaps even more impressive was the monumental recording of another duo, Pierre Fournier and Friedrich Gulda, performing Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano. I recently procured from Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds what looks to be one of the last sets of a special LP edition mastered at half-speed by Emil Berliner Studios. (My limited edition numbers 1668 out of 1700. If you see one, grab it.) The sonics are as superb as the performance, which was recorded in 1959 in Vienna’s legendary Musikverein. Fournier has long been one of my favorite cellists, and the 508 accurately captured his refined and majestic sound. What was most stunning on this album were two things: The 508 anchored the two performers in their respective spaces and provided what seemed like limitless dynamics. To further test the 508, I played another Deutsche Grammophon LP, this time a Boston Symphony Orchestra recording of the late-Romantic composer Manuela De Falla’s wonderful ballet score The Three-Cornered Hat, which he wrote at the urging of Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes. Once more, the Boulder nicely laid out the orchestra with the trumpet solos firmly rooted in the right rear and woodwinds spaced neatly in the middle. The opening fandango came through with real swagger, the sheen on the strings could only garner a thumbs up, and the great mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza’s voice soared over the orchestra. All in all, it was a very spacious, even lavish, presentation. Dynamics were very good—not as good as with megabuck phonostages. In the treble region, the 508 just couldn’t quite soar into the ether on orchestral recordings, but the tympani came down with a resounding whack. Dynamics are where, in my experience, most phonostages that don’t have separate power supplies tend to falter. The 508 never sounded compressed, but it didn’t have the ultimate resolving power that the big boys can deliver.

Nonetheless, the linearity of the Boulder and its prowess in the bass region should not be underestimated. This came home to me in listening to the 45-rpm reissue of the South African musician Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela,” which is probably one of the most overplayed cuts at audio shows, but, heck, I like it. And it reveals a lot. What it revealed to me in this instance was the profound bass definition that the 508 delivers. The drum crescendos in “Stimela” were cleanly defined and propulsively powerful. I also noticed how clearly the 508 captured not only the huskiness of Masekela’s voice, but also how beautifully it rendered his enunciation of the song’s lyrics. It was as though they were etched in stone. Ditto for his playing on the flugelhorn. The way Masekela soared into the treble region, then issued plaintive wails was profoundly moving to listen to on my system. Boulder often gets knocked for delivering a sterile sound, but it’s a bum rap. This went right to the emotional essence of the music. Ditto for a Sackville label recording that I recently acquired called Three Is Company that features the jazz soprano saxophonist Jim Galloway, a remarkable musician who teamed up with the pianist Dick Wellstood for this album. This is traditional straight-ahead jazz and on lively numbers like “Minor Drag,” the 508 viscerally delivered the fast-paced excitement of the music. The 508 nailed the sometimes nasally and keening quality of Galloway’s soprano sax, while Pete Magadini serenely mans the drums, gently accompanying his peers.

To some extent, I’m scratching my head over the 508. It definitely marks new territory for Boulder, which rockets into the stratosphere when it comes to the pricing of amplifiers, phono- stages, and preamplifiers. Somehow the company has managed to cram into this small box a wealth of the attributes of its top-notch gear. It has done the same thing, incidentally, with its new 866 integrated amplifier, which I listened to for several months and which left me flabbergasted at what it delivers. The 508 is a fine piece of equipment that is at home in any high-quality system and is likely to elevate the vinyl performance of not a few. For anyone considering a solid-state phonostage in this price level, auditioning it isn’t an option but a must. 

Specs & Pricing

Inputs: One pair balanced, converts to unbalanced
Outputs: One pair balanced
Input impedance: Maximum mc: 100 ohms; mm: 47k ohms
Output impedance: 100 ohms, balanced
Gain, RIAA: mc: 70dB; mm: 44dB
Frequency response, RIAA: ±0.5dB, 20Hz to 20kHz
THD: 0.01%
Dimensions: 11.5″ x 2.3″ x 9.5″
Weight: 11.5 lbs.
Price: $5000

BOULDER AMPLIFIER
255 S. Taylor Avenue
Louisville, CO 80027
(303) 449-8220
boulderamp.com

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Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound

Stillpoints ESS Rack and Amplifier Stand

It was time to take a stand. Over the years, I’ve resisted auditioning audio racks because of the upheaval that comes with unplugging and moving a mountain of audio gear. But I could never quite scratch the audio itch about the merits of improved isolation that stands are supposed to supply. I knew from past experience that mass can have a profoundly beneficial effect on the ability of stands to isolate equipment. But what about an entirely different approach?

Enter Stillpoints. For several decades this Wisconsin-based company has been on a relentless pursuit to the lower the noise floor of audio systems by manufacturing both footers and racks. Its successive generations of footers have proved quite efficacious in helping to banish the electronic artifacts that accompany audio signals. In my experience, the footers were A+ champs at helping to reveal critical micro-details in recordings. Now Stillpoints has introduced a new and upgraded version of its ESS racks. 

What are the upgrades? Stillpoints has made some important changes from its previous version of the ESS, including radically altering its shelf-grid system. Anyone who owns the old rack can upgrade it to current specifications. According to sales director Bruce Jacobs, “we always knew that positioning, leveling, and weight balance were important. With the limited position of our previous racks that was not always possible. Now, we can put anything, anywhere, anyplace.” 

The basis of the rack is a rail system. Stillpoint Ultra 6 footers or other less pricey footers in the line are incorporated into the rail system, which can slide forward or back to support a piece of equipment. Four robust wires (also used in aircraft wings) reside at the corner of each stand. Jacobs notes that “the wires are the main support structure that allows us to size anything into it.” Each wire has a load capacity of 2200 pounds. The same rail system is also employed in the Stillpoints Component stand, used here as amplifier stands, which come in three- or four-leg configurations and retail for $1995. This allows Stillpoints to adjust the feet so that they can sit underneath a piece of equipment and easily bypass the standard equipment feet.

Where Stillpoints deviates from many other manufacturers is in its design philosophy. Jacobs doesn’t mince words: “We do not believe in storing energy. This is why the rack is designed to reduce mechanical vibration; when you store energy you absorb it. When the shelf material can’t hold the energy any longer it releases it back into the components. You can’t control it. It robs dynamics rather than increasing them. There is no subtraction in our system.” The idea is that the stand is supposed to form a vibration-isolating structure, functioning as a targeted filter in what Stillpoints refers to as the ultra-band frequency above 20kHz. 

Since I’m a cautious type, I did not plunge into installing the main racks but first tried a pair of amplifier stands. Perched underneath the Ypsilon Hyperion monoblocks the stands were completely invisible, supplying the optical illusion that the amps were simply floating in the air. If you crouch down and peer hard, you can see that they are positioned beneath the amp, but otherwise nothing. 

If the stands are inconspicuous, their effect on the music is not. Their effect was little short of a sonic explosion—one that had me shaking my head and marveling at the efficacy of these amplifier stands. All the audiophile goodies were on copious display—darker backgrounds, smoother treble, and improved bass punch and definition. On the Acoustic Sounds 45rpm reissue of Isaac Hayes’ song “Shaft,” for example, the pounding bass drum came through with much greater dynamism and authority. My experience has consistently been that the more you can clean up the bass region, the better the sound throughout the frequency spectrum. On a Philips recording of the Dutch soprano Elly Ameling, the clarity of her singing, particularly in the upper reaches of the treble, was enhanced by the stands. It was possible to discern more clearly where she was standing in relation to the piano. In this regard, it was clear that the stands were helping to produce—or at least create the illusion of—a wider and deeper soundstage. On CD after CD, LP after LP, the amplifier stands tightened up the entire presentation, helping to create a richer sonic tapestry.

So marked was the improvement that I was most curious to hear the ESS racks. The racks range anywhere from $8000 to $45,000 in price, depending on the configuration you choose and which Stillpoints footers you employ. After a few months with the amplifier stands, Bruce Jacobs showed up to install the main ESS racks, which he made look easy. For anyone seeking to set them up on their lonesome, I would direct then to one of many YouTube videos on assembly and installation, though most dealers assemble and install the ESS for their clients. 

The stands come in shelf widths of 20″ or 26″ or 40″. I went with a vertical 26″ rack with five shelves. One of the most attractive aspects of the rack to my eyes is its compact and open nature. The racks look nifty but are fairly unobtrusive. If you’re out to impress your friends with a big and imposing rack, then this stand isn’t for you. I very much like the modern, sleek look of Stillpoints’ open design. In this case, form truly does follow function.

Upon installing them, I quickly discerned that they made a significant improvement in the sound but that the effect was not as overtly dramatic as it was with the amplifiers. Yes, they opened up the soundstage and improved bass reproduction further. But it was in the area of image stability, purer treble, and nuances of bowing and voice that I heard the most audible differences. It is the accumulation of micro-details that render a performance more believable and more lifelike. It is here that the ESS racks excelled.

On a recording by Kim Kashkashian and Keith Jarrett of Bach’s sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, the darker sound of the viola was rendered with greater fidelity. The interplay and communication between viola and harpsichord was much clearer—the gradations from pianissimo to fortissimo, the urgent dynamic swells on music that, by its nature, can seem dainty, took on a dynamism and power that were quite intoxicating. It became more of a communion of two great performers as opposed to two instruments playing in separate spaces. 

Another performance that demonstrated the proficiency of the racks was the recent live recording from Chick Corea with Christian McBride and Brian Blade called Trilogy 2. The ESS rack helped bring the last degree of articulation of this trio to the fore. It was simply a delight to hear the complicated rhythms on Thelonious Monk’s fiendishly difficult song “Work” unraveled with such accuracy and aplomb and verve.

Indeed, the ESS rack profoundly improved the performance of my audio system, allowing it to further resolve the very fine micro-details that enhance a sense of musical verisimilitude. The improved resolution and clarity were so palpable that at times I found myself listening at lower volume levels with total satisfaction. For anyone intent on obtaining a more suave and supple, refined and precise sound, Stillpoints delivers the goods.

Specs & Pricing

STILLPOINTS LLC
573 County Road A, Suite 103
Hudson, WI 54016
(651) 204-0605
stillpoints.us

Price: $1995 (amplifier stand)
Price: $8000–$45,000 (rack) depending on configuration

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2020 Golden Ear Awards: Jacob Heilbrunn

TechDAS Air Force Zero Turntable 
$450,000
The Air Force Zero, a 700+-pound beast devoted to spinning a vinyl platter as unobtrusively as possible, is an immensely impressive creation, a tribute to the ingenuity and seriousness of purpose of its legendary designer, Hideaki Nishikawa. The massive air-bearing platter, composed of multiple layers of stainless steel, gun metal, and tungsten, makes the LP itself look positively diminutive. But the sound that this gorgeous belt-drive ‘table produces is something altogether different. It can ramp up to dynamic fortissimos that will shake a room, whether the music is a Mahler symphony or a Led Zeppelin tune. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Zero is its refinement. There is a sense of ease to the proceedings, a blissfulness that transports it into a truly lofty realm that perhaps no other competitor can quite match. The mechanical lengths that TechDAS has gone to, including a three-phase Papst motor, are daunting. No fewer than three external units are required to drive the Zero. Different tonearms and cartridges will always affect the sonic presentation, but the fundamental image solidity and purity of sound are a constant. The depth and width of the soundstage are titanic and bass authority absolute. When coupled with a custom-built HRS VXR stand, the Zero delivers the analog goods, and then some.

Swedish Analog Technologies CF1-09

Swedish Analog Technologies CF1-09 Tonearm
$48,000
The SAT CF 1-09 tonearm is, as the Brits like to say, a serious piece of kit. It’s exquisitely fabricated by a process that includes grafting layer after layer of carbon fiber upon each other to ensure a tonearm of great rigidity that is as impervious as possible to vibration. Marc Gomez, the designer of the tonearm, has gone to heroic lengths to ensure that the stylus can track the grooves of an LP with scant perturbation. The darned thing is simply so inert that it manages to excavate tiny nuances and details that were previously obscured, as well as offer huge dynamic swings. There is nothing quite like hearing a full brass choir on a Verdi overture or Strauss tone poem the way the SAT can render it. Anyone seeking full-spectrum sound from his tonearm need look no further than Gomez’s wizardry.

Ypsilon_Hyperion_black

Ypsilon Hyperion Monoblock Amplifier 
$93,000/pr.
The Hyperion is a 370-watt, push-pull, hybrid amplifier that can effortlessly drive just about any loudspeaker. Like all of Demetris Baklavas’ inventive designs, it is based around transformers with wide-bandwidth capability together with a tubed input stage. The idea is to provide a little tube magic along with the grip and control of a solid-state output stage that relies on premium MOSFETs rather than bipolar transistors. The results are difficult to quarrel with. Somehow Baklavas manages to transcend many of the electrical artifacts that often subliminally accompany much audio gear as it reproduces music. The Hyperion, to put it another, simply sound less electronic than a number of its peers, effacing, as far as possible, the boundary between reproduction and live music. No transformer hum is discernible even if you put your ear next to the Hyperion’s chassis. A low noise floor is married to granitic authority to produce real sonic magic. The first 100 watts of Class A power and the input tubes meld so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget that the Hyperion is even exerting itself on the most demanding passages. Tonal color, lavish image sizes, and minute details are all rendered with exactitude and an often-breathtaking beauty. Hyperion was the Greek god of light. It’s an apt name for Ypsilon’s bruiser of an amplifier, which sheds abundant light on what’s contained in recordings, old and new.

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Nordost QRT QPoint and QRT QSource Resonance Synchronizer

Nordost QRT QPoint and QRT QSource Resonance Synchronizer

About a year ago, I first heard the Nordost QKore system—a passive approach to grounding that proved to be extremely effective. Even though my stereo system was running off an Equitech transformer and special Cardas runs of wire to hospital-grade outlets, it turned out that the noise floor could be taken down another notch. The benefits—a silkier presentation and blacker backgrounds—were immediately audible. To my surprise, Nordost hasn’t stopped there. Nordost representative Michael Taylor indicated to me that the company was introducing a new and separate product to try and further improve playback sound. I first got a chance to ...

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Boulder 3010 Preamplifier and 2108 Phono Preamplifier

Boulder 3010 Preamplifier and  2108 Phono Preamplifier

In 1936 the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman asked Arturo Toscanini to conduct the opening benefit concert of the Palestine Symphony in New York. The musicians, most of whom had fled Europe after the Nazis rose to power in Germany, were both terrified and elated to rehearse under the famously tyrannical Toscanini, who spent a month in Palestine preparing the orchestra for its American debut. “Mr. Huberman,” the violinist Lorand Fenyves exclaimed after one session, “Toscanini is a magician! He doesn’t simply conduct the orchestra; he hypnotizes us.” Something similar could be said about the character of the new Boulder 3010 ...

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CH Precision A1.5 Power Amplifier

CH Precision A1.5 Power Amplifier

Nobody does neutrality like the Swiss, who haven’t been involved in an international conflict since 1815. They sat out World War I and World War II, didn’t join the United Nations until 2002, and so far have refused to join the European Union. This policy of neutrality appears to have had a profound effect not only on Swiss foreign policy, but also on the country’s high-end electronic equipment. Enter CH Precision. Several years ago, I reviewed the company’s P1 dual-monaural phonostage, which relies on current amplification rather than the more traditional voltage amplification to boost the signal from a cartridge. ...

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Technics SL-1000R Turntable

Technics SL-1000R Turntable

When I recently visited Command Performance AV in Virginia for an evening event featuring Magico loudspeakers and Doshi amplifiers, I was struck not only by the superlative sound of the two systems playing that night, but also by the sheer abundance of vinyl for sale on the store’s main wall. The albums looked to be reissues from Mobile Fidelity and Acoustic Sounds, ranging from Simon and Garfunkel to Count Basie. Their pride of place offered a reassuring reminder that the revival of vinyl isn’t a flash in the pan, but continues to go on strong. The truth is that even ...

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VTL TP-2.5i Phonostage

VTL TP-2.5i Phonostage

VTL products, in one form or another, have been a steady companion during my audiophile journey. Years ago, I employed both the VTL MB-750 and MB-1250 amplifiers. I’ve also reviewed the VTL Siegfried amplifier as well as the 7.5 Series III preamplifier for TAS. This gear represented VTL’s top-drawer products and was quite pricey. The $5000 TP-2.5i phono preamplifier, whose design is based around 12AU7 and 12AX7 tubes, represents something different—an attempt to create, in a fairly small package, excellent performance at a moderate price. How has VTL done? Quite nicely, indeed. Tubes and vinyl are, in a sense, ideological ...

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