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Isolation Devices Binge Update (Very Long)

Hello Fellow Asylum Members. I’ve been playing around with a few more isolation devices and thought I’d provide an update. I also thought it would be nice to consolidate bits and pieces of the many reviews I did a few months ago under one posting. Those wanting more information can obviously search the archives, but I thought it might be useful to get at least a little bit on each device in one place.

So here’s what is included in this posting:

1. New reviews on the SAP Relaxa 3+, Silent Running SR Isobase, Tightropes and Osiris.
2. A ranking of devices which includes the four new competitors
3. Some cut and paste from earlier reviews of each of the ranked items.

As with earlier reviews I’ve limited the “binge”, at least the public part, to the isolation of my SACD player. Perhaps the semblance of a controlled environment will provide meaningful information to a few of you. All of my comments relate exclusively to the use of these devices while isolating my SACD player. I imagine (in fact, I know) that the results would be different isolating other parts of my system or using these devices in conjunction with one another.

Here’s my system:

Speakers: Audio Note AN-E
SACD Player: Sony 9000ES with Modwright Signature Truth Mods
Preamp: Thor Audio TA-1000 Mk. 2
Amplifier: Butler Audio TDB-5150 (biamping the AN-Es)
Cable: Luminous Audio Silver Reference ICs and Speaker wire
Rack: Paul Berry with MDF shelves
Room: About 11’ x 15’ with 16’ ceiling

The New Reviews ……

SAP Relaxa 3+: After my happy experience with the Relaxa 1 (described below), I broke down and laid out the coin for the new Relaxa 3+. Although the 3+ is a magnetic levitation platform like the 1, the implementation is quite different. First, the 3+ is a gorgeous piece of high end audio art. Second, the 3+ uses magnetic piston footers to support a glass shelf. Third, the 3+ utilizes an attractive metal base to hold all of the footers in place and provide a stable platform. Fourth, the 3+ allows the use of a fifth middle footer to take its weight bearing capacity up into the mid-60 lbs. I decided to spring for the base unit ($795) plus and extra footer ($175). Not cheap.

Using the 3+ is easy: attach the footers to the base, place the base on your shelf, put the glass on the footers, place your component on the glass. You can easily level your component by adjusting the base of each piston by turning it left or right. Be forwarned that the glass shelf is a little over 17” wide and may prove difficult to locate on a narrow shelf. I had to place the Relaxa 3+ on the top of my component rack because of interference from the side-rails.

My initial experience with the 3+ was not good. Compared to the best devices in this survey, the midrange was overly dark and important sonic details were obscured In fact, I was so disappointed that I decided to sell it. I contacted the manufacturer, who was very nice, and he encouraged me to continue to experiment. I played around with a few things but was still not happy with its performance. Then, being the sharp guy that I am, I thought to remove the middle footer thereby causing more compression of the pistons. What a genius, huh?

Transformational. Not only did the darkness and opacity disappear, but I began to suspect that the 3+ might displace the ClearAudio Magix as the King of the Hill in my survey. After several hours of listening, I pulled the Relaxa 3+ and reinserted the Magix. OK, the differences were not huge, but I did hear some subtle changes, most of which went in favor of the Relaxa. Most importantly, the Relaxa 3+ sounded quicker. By this I mean that initial instrumental attack had more snap and dynamics seemed a tad wider without any loss of warmth or tonality. Low level detail also improved. Piano sustains seemed to hang around a bit longer, brush strokes on cymbals sounded more like what they were (as compared to running water!) and acapella voices more easily revealed the subtle nuances, the inner detail, that can transform a jazz singer from boring to engrossing. Soundstage depth was also improved, especially on small jazz sets and female vocal performances. With respect to soundstage width, I’d have to give the nod to the Magix. I’d also have to say that the Magix are just a smidge warmer, though I don’t really know which one is more “accurate”. Bottom line, I sold the Magix and the Relaxa 3+ is still in my system.

Silent Running Audio VR Isobase: The SRA VR Isobase is a constrained layer damping platform upon which your component is placed. It has four spiked feet on the bottom to couple it to your shelf. Mine was finished attractively in a mottled grey color with a handsome Silent Running badge on the front. It was obviously carefully made and arrived packed very neatly in an impressive wooden crate.

Let me start with a very big caveat, which may make the rest of what I say irrelevant. Because of this, I’m keeping my review of the SRA short. I bought this unit used. Furthermore, it was designed for use with a 55 lbs. tube amplifier and my SACD player, while possessing a tube output stage, only weighs about 40 lbs. It is quite possible that I didn’t have the right SRA platform for my component.

I will say that I was not happy with the performance of the VR Isobase. It drained too much of the life out of my system and created a warm, rich, dark palette that was just a bit too much for my taste. There was a loss of presence and the soundstage collapsed and narrowed. An overly bright or detailed system would probably benefit from this product. I don’t have that problem, so I found its effects to be mostly negative. For what it is worth, I also tried it under my 50 lbs. tube/hybrid amplifier and didn’t hear much of a change.

Tightropes: Tightropes are are a string based isolation footer which cost about $30 a piece. They are comprised of a 4” ring black plastic ring with a very robust black string wrapped around one screw and five “pulleys” inserted into the ring. There is a sprung metal piece attached to the string and a piece of red “felt” ontop of the metal. The tension of the strings can be adjusted quite easily by turning the screw. A set of four can hold over 200 lbs., I believe. They are easy to place though their large size may be inconvenient for some. You’d better go find a picture if you are interested, because they are hard to describe.

The Tightropes were another disappointment. Not so much because they did anything bad, but because they didn’t do much good. For some reason, I thought this was going to be the best bargain bang-for-the-buck footer. What I found was that the Tightropes were a bit like the Polycrystals. There were some very subtle differences, but nothing that would make you say, “Hey, that was worth $120.” Soundstage a little cleaner – yep. Bass a little tighter – yep. Wallet $120 lighter – yep. In my system there were other footers that did more better for less than the Tightropes. ‘Nuff said.

Osiris: The Osiris is an extremely heavy steel platform with four airbladder that may be filled to create an air cushion for your component. There is a hollow base in which the four airbladders are housed. The base is nicely finished with four attractive brass spiked feet. A 30 lbs. top-plate is then placed on top of the bladders and thus floats on air. The bladders may be adjusted to increased/decrease the bouyancy of the bounce!

I had to violate the control procedure with the Osiris. It was too heavy to place on my rack, so I moved it to the floor and then put my SACD player on top of it. With all of the other components the isolation devices were used on the exact same shelf on my rack. Full disclosure is my aim.

OK, I liked the Osiris. It imparted a nice warmth to my system without obscuring detail. There was slightly more presence in the lower midrange which gave a heft to orchestral music which I found quite involving. It was not as open and airy as the Magix or the Relaxa, but it also wasn’t dark like the SRA. It also had a particularly nice impact on male vocalists, drawing more attention to the deep resonance of a Johnny Cash on American Recordings or the soulfull wailing of Mighty Sam McClain on Give it Up for Love. Compared to the Gingko, I’d have to give the nod to the Cloud 11. The Cloud 11 possessed more of the attributes I value (see below) and was much easier to work with.


Here are the final rankings including the four new devices reviewed above. Please keep in mind that this is a completely subjective ranking and I don't pretend to be any kind of expert. I'm just a guy who's listened to his system with a lot of strange stuff inserted under his SACD player and has learned that it is possible to increase your musical enjoyment through the utilization of these products.

THE RANKING: MOST PREFERRED TO LEAST PREFERRED (SACD ISOLATION ONLY)

1.SAP Relaxa 3+
2. Clearaudio Magix
3. SAP Relaxa 1
4. Finite Elemente Ceraball (tie)
4. Gingko Cloud 11 (tie)
6. Aurios 1.2
7. Osiris
8. Bright Star Air Mass/Big Rock
9. Ganymede
10. Black Diamond Racing Cones with Pucks
11. Hipjoints
12. JJaz Fods
13. Vibrapods
14. Stillpoints
15. Vibracones (with large ball bearing)
16. Black Diamond Racing Cones (solo)
17. Tightropes
18. Polycrystal Isolators
19. Stock Feet
20. SRA VR Isobase
21. SSC Pucks

THE PREVIOUS REVIEWS (In no particular order):

ClearAudio Magix: Many of the devices I've been testing somewhat remind me of tone controls. They affect one or several areas of the frequency spectrum rather than having a holistic impact on music. Even the Relaxa, which I have praised several times, achieves some of its effect through a very slight thinning of the music. You have to listen carefully to hear it, but it is there. To get an idea of what the Magix do, read my review of the Relaxa. It's pretty much the same, just slightly better. The key difference is that the Magix achieve the air, speed, micro-dynamics, and clarity of the Relaxa without imparting any tonal changes that I can discern. This is what, in my opinion, puts them at the top of the list of the isolators. It's a subtle difference, but one which I believe is important. An audio buddy of mine who spent a little time today listening (and lifting equipment) with me was trying to distill his impressions down to one word. He chose "organic". I'm not sure if organic is the correct word (we are talking about a whole bunch of metal and plastic), but it conveys the right feeling. The Magix make recordings sound less like facsimiles of real music. Four Magix will set you back $800. A brand new Relaxa costs $750. Many of you would probably disagree, but I believe the difference is well worth $50. The Relaxa has the advantage when it comes to useability, but the Magix, in my opinion, are the better magnetic isolation device.

Finite Elemente Ceraballs: I’ll start by saying that I really like these. So far, they are my favorite footer and they only cost $99 for a set of four. I found them extremely easy to place and they are sturdy enough to hold all but the heaviest components. They also firmly couple your component to the rack so you don’t get the swaying motion that some other ball bearing isolators produce when you push a button on your SACD player. The sound they allowed my SACD player to produce was clean and refined. There was a sense of air around individual instruments and vocalists and improved low level resolution. The tonal color palette was richer and the overall presentation more relaxed and inviting. Bass was tighter and more articulate. Dynamic were enhanced without a sense of etch or glare. If I had to categorize the overall affect I’d say the Ceraballs helped to produce a more analogue-like sound. If you made me quibble, perhaps the soundstage width was a little smaller than some of the other isolators. Bottom line, if you’ve got $100 to spend and you want to know what all the isolation fuss is about, buy these.

Aurios 1.2 (now called “Classic”): I also really liked the Aurios and found them to be extremely versatile. While I am now confining this survey to the isolation of my SACD player, I found them to have a positive impact on all of my components. They are more difficult to place than the Ceraballs or cone products, and you will have to play around with them a bit before you find the optimal location, but once you’ve got them dialed in, you’ll hear good things. Your player will develop a rocking pattern every time you touch a button, but this is the way the Aurios are designed to work. The Aurios displayed all of the benefits of a good isolator. A cleaner, clearer presentation, increased transparency, and improved soundstaging. They were not quite as energetic as the Black Diamonds or as refined as the Ceraballs, but they did most everything well. Expensive at a retail price of $400, but the improvements rendered will be heard by those who care to listen.

Ganymedes: These are very similar to the Aurios in as much as they use a ball bearing device sandwiched between metal couplers. The Ganymede’s are perhaps the most tweaky of this lot to set up, but are also capable of producing very good results once they are dialed in. You might be surprised by the wide range of motion, perhaps 1/2” that these allow. Your player will definitely sway when you press a button. I suggest use of the remote with these in your system. Most of the descriptors used to describe the Aurios apply here. Key differences were that they created a slightly more forward presentation and had a little less soundstage width than the Aurios. I imagine they would be an excellent match for a system needing a little more detail and immediacy. Retail is $200.

Black Diamond Racing Cones with Pucks: I used type 4 cones and pucks in this comparison. This combination produced the most drastic change in the overall sound of my SACD player. They were very easy to use, had none of the rocking issues of the Aurios or Ganymedes, and produced obvious benefits. I am not going to review the BDR’s without the Pucks, because I felt the Pucks created a quantum improvement over the cones used alone. So, what did they do? Again, the usual adjectives apply: a cleaner overall presentation, better soundstaging, increased resolution. What the BDR combo did better than any of the other isolators was to create a sense of scale, drive and rhythmic energy that the others failed to achieve. If I needed to add some energy and slam to my system, or if I was big into rock and roll or Wagner, I’d buy these. However, with all of this excitement came a slight loss of finesse and refinement. Depending upon your sensibilities and system I can easily see how the BDRs would be the preferred product of this lot. For me, it was just a little too much of a good thing, but it was fun. A setup like this will set you back about $225.

Stillpoints: I’ve covered the Stillpoints in an earlier post, but I reintroduced them for this part of the evaluation to get a better sense of where I felt they fit in as a source isolator. Without question, the Stillpoints are my favorite speaker isolator. Used on my SACD player, they were a definite step up from the stock feet. The soundstage became slightly more forward, larger, and more precise, a neat trick. Transparency and low level detail also improved versus the stock feet. It was only in comparison to the other isolators that I felt the Stillpoints suffered. For example, compared to the Ceraballs, there was a slight loss of air and presence. These are attributes which I prize. If you don’t share my passion for presence then all is well and good. Your wallet will be $300 lighter after buying these.

Polycrystal Isolators: I’m not going to say too much here. The Polycrystals definitely made an improvement over the stock feet, without any downside that I was able to identify, but the improvements were more subtle than with the other devices. They are substantially less expensive than the $400 Aurios or $300 Stillpoints, and, while perhaps not offering state of the art isolation, they do offer a good value and a worthwhile improvement in overall musical enjoyment. Cost about $60, I think. Mine were used.

SSC Pucks: Looks a little like a felt cookie with a hard center. Very short – perhaps ½” tall. These were not synergistic with my SACD player and created a slightly loose and obscured presentation. Fortunately, they worked well elsewhere in my system. $99 for a set of four pucks.

SAP Relaxa 1: Not too much more to say on this one. I’ve covered it a couple of times before. I reinserted the Relaxa into the control environment just to get a reminder of my current reference. The Relaxa allows small aural cues to emerge, giving character to voices, allowing easier delineation of backup singers, and creating a more convincing image of real musicians in real space. Bass is tight and taught, but not overly pronounced .... the overall performance seemed quieter/more relaxed. The soundstage became deeper (more recessed, which I value) and more inviting. A winner.

Bright Star Air Mass/Big Rock Combo: I only tested this as a combo and would note that these are two generations old. I’m told that the current models have made some meaningful refinements. The Bright Star combo was briefly covered earlier, but I’ll say a bit more here. The Air Mass can make things difficult to balance. My SACD player is weighted to one side, so it took a fair amount of jiggering to get it level. I’d be hesitant to try the Air Mass with an extremely asymmetrically weighted component (unless, of course, you counterbalance it in some way), but once you’ve got it set up, you’re good to go. The result, when properly balanced, is only a small see-saw action when you press the buttons on your player. The effect of the Bright Star is not subtle, akin to the Black Diamond Racing Cones with Pucks. The soundstage increases in width, image size is increased (by which I mean, for example, the apparent size of a bass in a jazz trio becomes larger), mid-bass energy increases creating a more rhythmic and driving musical experience, and there is an overall smoothing of the sound which alleviates the digital edginess I find on a majority of CDs. The trade-off is that the Bright Star combo can sound overdamped compared to some of the other isolators. This manifests itself as a loss of micro-dynamics, reduced soundstage depth, and the diminished initial attack of instruments. These qualities become most obvious when listening to orchestral music where I felt, for example, violins lost a bit of their bite and trombones a touch of their blat. If you’ve got one of those analytical or bright sounding systems where you can only find 10 CDs you can actually sit through, then Bright Star would be a great fit. If you listen mostly to popular and rock music, and you want increased drive, rhythm and pace, then this would also do the trick. If you want to be startled by the thwack of an upright bass joining a jazz trio for the first time, or if you’re seeking to hear the slight rasp at the back of Eden Atwoods throat as she begins a song, you can do better.

Gingko Cloud 11: The Cloud 11 seems so simple that it makes you wonder why you didn’t think of it. It may be simple, but these guys have thought through how real audiophiles will use the Gingko in real world (ie: compromised) systems. Have a heavier component, add some more balls. Have a component with unequal weighting, place the balls in different locations. A component sounding a little bright, take away a ball. A little too laid back, add a ball. It’s a tweakers dream (or perhaps nightmare). After a little experimentation I ended up with two balls in the corners on the left side and one ball in the middle on the right side. The shelf exhibited only minor rocking when buttons were pushed. I’d be worried if you have an overactive child, dog or cat, but otherwise it’s no-worries. I also wouldn’t try moving the Gingko with your component sitting on top of it. In some areas, the impact of the Gingko is more subtle than that of the Bright Star. Rather than expanding the soundstage, the Gingko cleans things up without changing the size of the performance. This allows the background to seem blacker, images to float a little more, and dynamic nuances to be more easily conveyed. Soundstage depth is also improved creating a more inviting presentation. A little less subtle is the impact on the mid-bass performance. Here things get not only cleaner, but faster, tighter, and more rhythmic, while becoming only slightly larger in scale. It sounds more like what I hear at live acoustic performances where mid-bass tonality adds a sense of warmth and color missing from many hi-fi systems. So, what’s the downside? The Gingko failed to alleviate digital glare and edginess found on some recording to the same extent as the Bright Star. It also had a little less air and warmth and was slightly less adept at conveying dynamics (though it had a more energetic bottom end) than the Relaxa. Given the versatility of the Gingko, its ease of setup, and many sonic merits, I would think that many audiophiles would find this the best of the lot. For me, even with weight limitations, I prefer the slightly more refined and inviting presentation of the Relaxa.

JJAZ Fod: Anyway, I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I like the JJAZ Fod. The Fods are so mundane looking that, well, let's just say I had low expectations. A JJAZ Fod package consists of four sets of squishy circles each with four concentric rings cut into it and glue on one side to bond to your shelf. The largest ring is perhaps an inch in diameter and about 3/8" tall. You choose the size of ring which corresponds to the weight of your product. Theoretically you could support four components with one set of Fods. The Fods cost $16.

An audiophile friend of mine from Maryland (a Jeff Rowland guy) was visiting and we decided to break out the Fods an give them a try. We first listened to the Relaxa as a reference point. We also listened to the SACD player with its stock feet. We inserted the Fods by attaching them to an intermediate shelf made of the same MDF as my rack and then placing the intermediate shelf on the rack. The SACD player was then placed upon the intermediate shelf. I'm going to quote my friend as a summary and then say a few more words, "How the hell did they do that?"

So what did they do. Most obvious was an increased sense of midrange presence without creating a bloated musical landscape. Other qualities, versus the stock feet, included a cleaner and clearer sonic landscape (improved microdynamics), taughter bass and less sibilance. The Fods were not the equal of the Relaxa, but they also don't cost $750. We were so excited that we decided to quickly throw in the Finite Elementes and Aurios. Bottom line is that they were not the equal of either of these products, but neither were they completely put to shame. For audiophiles on a budget, this is a nice tweak. Just don't expect much when you first open the package. I imagine your disappointment will disappear when you put them in your system and hit play.

Hip Joints: The Hip Joints cleaned up the sound a bit, meaning that images had more specificity. There was no change to the overall tonal balance of the music. This led to the perception of a faster, more open performance, without any hint of brightness. The Hip Joint consists of three highly polished silver bases with three high tolerance ball bearings. The bearing simply sits in a small depression ( a “cup”) grooved into the base. This makes for a very unstable platform, one which can be easily upset if you bump your component. Nonetheless, given its sonic merits, this is a nice and worthwhile tweak for $55.


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Topic - Isolation Devices Binge Update (Very Long) - zog 14:14:02 02/03/05 (3)


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