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Digital tweak fest

Posted on July 26, 2010 at 23:54:00

Posts: 301
Joined: June 3, 2009
Digital usually suffers in comparison to analog---but after a lot of experimentation, I am convinced its faults are not so much in its “digitalness,” but rather the susceptibility of CD players and DACs to RF contamination, vibration, and problems in the optical interface to the disc. With the help of some tweaks, my digital system is now much closer to analog.

I want to review some of them.

First up is a CD mat: Herbie's Super Black Hole.

This is a small diameter, super-thin carbon fiber/silicone mat that damps vibrations in the clamping interface.

Before jumping in, let me describe my system. My CD player is the Naim CD5X, which I have always liked for its musicality and analog-like qualities. I am using the AKG K601 headphones together with a SET zero-feedback tube headphone amp, the Donald North Audio Sonett.

Even before tweaking, I feel my system has incredible musicality. What do I mean by “musicality”? It means I listen for emotions, for the ability of music to dance, to take flight, to soar to spiritual heights. I rarely talk about “detail” but I do talk about resolution. And I care about how beautiful music can be.

---- Herbie's Super Black Hole ---

I tested this with four tracks. In all cases, the Super Black Hole gave dramatic improvements in musicality. Technically speaking, I think this boils down to transient response, compelling pianos (soft sections) and microdynamics, but here are the details.

The tracks I used were:

Mozart's Piano Concerto #9, first movement, performed by Alicia de Larrocha on piano. This piece features a lot of massed strings playing with quite varied articulation, and lots of solo piano.

Mahler's Fifth Symphony, first movement. This is an intense brassy high-percussion fanfare.

Mahler's Fifth Symphony, fourth movement. A quiet, spiritual, and lyrical piece mainly for strings.

Mozart's Hoffmeister Quarter performed by the Hagen Quartet. This demonstrates solo and small-ensemble string playing with varied articulation and rhythmic qualities.

And now the results:

Mozart's piano concerto #9, first movement. Characteristic of Mozart, this piece opens with a catchy little phrase: one sustained note and five little dancy notes. It is followed by chords on the piano. The SBH brought out the contrast between the sustained note and the dancy notes... the sustained note was played with pressure on the strings, and the dancy notes were played lighter and slightly quieter. This subtlety was evident with the SBH and almost inaudible without it. Then, the piano enters. With the SBH, Alicia's chords had the same quality of being “pressed” (tenuto) as the first note on the strings---clearly she was mimicking them. Without the SBH, the keyboard sounded more like it was “slammed” and not tenuto. Later in the piece, string tremolos were much lighter and more transparent with the SBH.

Mahler's Fifth Symphony, First Movement. This is a brass and percussion tour-de-force. With the SBH the big percussion and brass chords seemed a bit quieter and lighter in attack. At first this seemed to cause a lack of impact, but with more listening, I decided the problem was a kind of monotonous heaviness and strain in the non-SBH configuration. It was evident that the SBH was not really softening the attacks when a kettle drum played rapid triplets—-this section had far crisper and more intense attacks with the SBH.

Transient response is an important part of music, and in my opinion good equipment can render transients with a range of character---some delicate, some soft, some crisp, some powerful. It is that range that is important. When a device imparts a monotonous coloration, that full range is compromised.

Mahler's fifth symphony, Fourth Movement. The strings enter pianissimo (very quiet). With the SBH, they were quite lush and very, very compelling. Their beauty was not lost in the quietness. Without the SBH, they tended to lose presence and focus when they got quiet.

Mozart's Hoffmeister String Quartet. This recording has great presence and resolution---it tends to sound good on any system. But the SBH brought improvement to a couple areas. As this piece starts, two or more instruments play repeated notes. Their dancy character was much more evident with the SBH---more noticeable that the articulation had both a light attack and a bit of a pressed middle, and how those details contributed to the dancy quality. Basically it made them sound like better players (and they are already great players!). The SBH also improved the differentiation of timbre between the violins and the viola.

To analyze these changes, I think the SBH made a difference to the transient behavior of the CD player, and improved resolution (including micrdynamics). It improved subtleties and brought out of hiding things like emotional character and spirituality.

Next time I'll review surface treatments.


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RE: Digital tweak fest, posted on July 28, 2010 at 09:52:29

Posts: 1867
Location: Cape Cod
Joined: September 12, 2008
That was a very nice review: well expressed and very informative.

I found the fact that you were listening to acoustic music in a concert setting much more credible and compelling than reviews that make no mention of what kind of music was used to evaluate the component. Listening to subtleties of expression in a performance of acoustic instruments is exactly where my interests lie.

Thanks again for a compelling review.


Disc demagnetizer, posted on July 28, 2010 at 10:15:44

Posts: 12599
Location: Pacific Northwest
Joined: August 25, 2002
Disc demagnetizers such as those from Furutech, Acoustic Revive, and Bedini are a must have digital tweak for greatly improved performance. I simply will not listen to a disc until it's been spun. When I happen to perform yet another evaluation test of a demagnetized vs. non-demagnetized disc, I find the same sonic betterment as the first time I tried the fascinating process years ago.

I also find Herbie's Audio Lab CD mats to be a must have digital tweak.


Very nice job..., posted on July 28, 2010 at 14:32:25

Posts: 35175
Location: SF Bay Area
Joined: April 22, 2003
December 28, 2003
...two small criticisms.

Headphones are great to determine musicality and inner detail, but not so great for soundstaging, imaging and macrodynamics.

Also, it would be helpful to do some comparisons.

How does Herbie's SBH mat compare to other mats like the Millenium or the Marigo Signature?

Keep up the good work.


Maybe K1000..., posted on July 28, 2010 at 14:41:51

Posts: 301
Joined: June 3, 2009

Regarding headphones and soundstaging, I know what you mean. I would like to repeat the test using my K1000 headphone, which has a much stronger imaging capability, closer to speakers.

(I don't have any decent speakers. I'm a headphone guy.)

I am not sure how you would describe the macrodynamics of headphones. I know that with speakers, huge loud sections of music have a visceral impact that is missing with conventional headphones (although it's better with the K1000).

The K1000 is the only headphone I know that is capable of creating a natural image... i.e., the sound is happening right in front of you and you turn your attention to it in the same way you turn to a live sound.


millenium, posted on July 28, 2010 at 14:54:07

Posts: 301
Joined: June 3, 2009
I ordered the millenium mat, so stay tuned for comparison.

Do note, although I didn't compare two mats, I demonstrated (to myself at least) that mats have a strong potential to improve the sound in general ways. And this demonstrates that some of the shortcomings of digital can be addressed via "tweaks"... ie., digital is not as faulty as I thought.

(By the way, I really can't complain too much about digital---some of my favorite discs are CDs, some of them I can listen 100 times and not get tired of their beautiful and rich music.)


RE: Digital tweak fest, posted on July 29, 2010 at 05:37:05

Posts: 3656
Joined: June 21, 2003
I’ve gone through more CD mats than I care to mention, and although I gave it up for a while, I’ve arrived back at the Herbie’s Black Hole. I really like how it removes HF grunge. At one point, though, I thought it removing too much “sparkle” from the top end, but I came to realize that what was in fact happening was that it was removing layers of gunk in the highs, the same phenomenon I’ve noticed with my Jena Labs cables.

At any rate, I just ordered the Super Black Hole to try. I like the fact that it won’t run out of adhesive. That’s the Achilles heel of the standard Black Hole.

Thanks for your write-up. I found it very informative and well written.

This is a public service announcement . . . WITH GUITARS!!!


Owned it, posted on July 29, 2010 at 05:42:18

Posts: 3656
Joined: June 21, 2003
FWIW, I used to own the Millennium mat, as well as the Marigo Signature and FIM. All of them jammed at one time or another in my various players. That aside, sonically I found flaws in each of them and eventually came back to the Black Hole. That’s why I’m really eager to try the Super Black Hole. You can probably find my comments on the other mats in the archives.
This is a public service announcement . . . WITH GUITARS!!!


RE: Digital tweak fest, posted on July 29, 2010 at 06:24:50

Posts: 16934
Location: 100 miles west of DC
Joined: January 10, 2004
October 31, 2005
Looking forward to your impressions of the new Herbies mat. We seem to see things in the hobby similarly.



"If at first you don't succeed, keep on sucking till you do suck seed" - Curly Howard 1936


RE: Digital tweak fest, posted on July 30, 2010 at 16:33:21

Posts: 1000
Location: Oregon
Joined: October 25, 2001
April 4, 2002
The Black Hole is easily the best ROI of any audio device or equipment. When I first got some my wife as listening and commented "where did you find that on vinyl".

For some reason it does not make much or as much difference on SACDs, at least in my house.


RE: Digital tweak fest, posted on July 30, 2010 at 17:37:16
John V

Posts: 248
Joined: May 10, 2010
MJ thanks for your comments. is the Marigo Signatue included ?
I've had a thoroughly late night and just can't pull it out: ROI ?


Return On Investment nt, posted on July 31, 2010 at 16:06:29

Posts: 161
Joined: August 21, 2001


RE: Disc demagnetizer, posted on August 9, 2010 at 18:15:39

Posts: 5851
Joined: April 13, 2010
Buy a Geneva hand tape eraser. They have a model which operates at 2800 Gauss, and is far stronger than something like the Bedini. Been using that one for over a decade now, and it works even on LP's. Cheaper too!



Mike -, posted on August 13, 2010 at 09:33:06

Posts: 1016
Location: Philadelphia
Joined: May 27, 2009
Thanks for the review. I will get this product. We have very similar musical tastes. Each of the pieces you sampled here is a particular favorite of mine.


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