Symposium Ultra

6moon.com 08/2013

Wojciech Pacuła

Symposium Acoustics have been distributed in Poland since 2009 and remain represented by the same company, audiofast from Lodz. I know their product from many shows and presentations where it usually appears as a full-fledged part of upscale systems alongside electronics, speakers and cables. But for the first time now I had opportunity to take a closer look at a complete set of Symposium Acoustic products in my own home. 

Previously I'd used their devices only once during my report on Dan D'Agostino's Momentum Stereo amplifier when I used the Ultra Padz mini footers provided by the distributor. That's exactly the kind of company products from this American manufacturer are associated with. For this review I asked for a full set designed for a single audio component. It included an Ultra anti-vibration platform, Rollerblock Series 2+ with tungsten carbide ball-bearing isolation devices and a Rollerblock Series 2+ double stack kit. The platform thus sat on double Rollerblocks and the auditioned component on footers that came with the set. 

In Symposium Acoustics’ portfolio the Ultra platform evolved from the Super to be the second from the top. It's a nice solid product made of several layers of materials with dissimilar density. There are no moving parts hence the platform can be used with turntables, even those with decoupled sub chassis. Whilst it's not designed to protect against infrasonic vibrations for which it would need to be combined with other products from this catalogue, it does provide notable isolation across the upper nine octaves of the audible range.

The Ultra has virtually no weight limitation with regards to what it can support. Its top and bottom layers are precisely machined aluminium plates for a distinctive look. The platform works on the principle of constrained-layer damping and its wafers are thus arranged in a specific order (from dense to more porous to dense again). According to Symposium this concept works bidirectionally, i.e. attenuates vibrations entering from both top and bottom.

To make the best use of its mechanical properties, care must be taken to provide good mechanical coupling in both directions – between the component and Ultra top; and between the Ultra base and support surface. Symposium postulates that it's best to quickly transfer vibration and suppress it in layers of different mass. Hence they avoid materials with high mechanical reactance like rubber or elastomers and favor rigid connections. Together with the Ultra I receive three large metallic precision couplers with perfectly polished top and bottom races to replace my component's own footers. Symposium recommend placing their couplers directly between the component chassis and top of the Ultra to rapidly drain vibrational energy from the component and prevent it from getting trapped. If we want more, it becomes inevitable to reach for what the Americans are probably best known for: their rollerblock isolation system. 

These rollerblocks operate on a similar principle to what we find in the Cera spacers from Finite Elemente and the feet from Franc Audio Accessories. A ball bearing becomes the mechanical interface between two hard surfaces. In these rollerblocks we get what for their size are very heavy tungsten carbide balls. The Finite and Franc equivalents use ceramic balls and the Human Audio Libretto HD CD player uses steel.

In the Symposium isolation devices the balls sit in precision-polished steel races. The latter in turn sit in rectangular blocks with drilled-out bores in the bottom said to improve mechanical coupling between block and supporting surface. The blocks themselves are aircraft-grade aluminium hard anodized. This structure resembles a roller bearing design which was highly praised in the context of vibration isolation by Mr. Wladyslaw Skrzypczak of Pro Audio Bono all the more so as the ball can be put into the double stack kit to create a three-layer structure. The Rollerblocks are mainly used under components but can be added beneath the Ultra platform which I did.

"In 1999 Symposium determined that grade precision—that is, how perfectly round each ball is and how similar in size to each other—is of critical importance to performance in ball-bearing isolation devices. All tungsten carbide balls now supplied by Symposium are grade 10 precision. Off-the-shelf bearings by comparison are grade 100 or 10 x less precise. How perfectly round a ball is has a profound effect upon its performance characteristics and directly influences the amount of distortion produced by the Rollerblock system as it responds to micro displacements caused by vibration. The more perfectly uniform each ball is, the better the Rollerblock system responds to vibration and the less distortion is induced into the electro-mechanical system which the Rollerblock system protects." [Scot Hull, Symposium Acoustics: Rollerblock Series 2+, Junior, Svelte Shelf, Precision Couplers and more, see here.]

Records used during these auditions: A Day at Jazz Spot 'Basie'. Selected by Shoji "Swifty" Sugawara, Stereo Sound Reference Record SSRR6-7, SACD/CD (2011); Dominic Miller, Fourth Wall, Q-rious Music QRM 108-2, CD (2006); Daft Punk, Random Access Memories, Columbia Records/Sony Music Japan SICP-3817, CD (2013); Nirvana, In Utero, Geffen GED 24536, CD (1993); Danielsson, Dell, Landgren, Salzau Music On The Water, ACT Music ACT 9445-2, CD (2006); Frank Sinatra, Sinatra Sings Gershwin, Columbia/Legacy/Sony Music Entertainment 507878 2, CD (2003); The Modern Jazz Quartet, Pyramid, Atlantic Records/Warner Music Japan WPCR-25125, “Atlantic 60th”, CD (1960/2006); Johann Sebastian Bach, St. John Passion, BWV 245, Smithsonian Chamber Players and Chorus, Kenneth Slowik, Smithsonian Collection Of Recordings ND 0381, 2 x CD (1990).

It is interesting that while anti-vibration platforms come in different designs and employ various types of materials, as long as the theory behind them translates into practice, the end result is generally similar and the sonic changes follow a common direction. There are of course differences but what they share appeals more strongly. The reason is that the sound with such contraptions becomes more refined.

The Symposium system is a perfect illustration. Initially it isn't clear what to look for. The sonic change is clear but only after three or four tracks a pattern emerges whereby we may identify the elements which change after coming off an ordinary shelf. This results in a slightly different set of changes for different discs but their origin is common.

This is actually symptomatic of vibration isolation products in general. If they are good to begin with and the sound is good (the system was set up properly), listening to components as they sit on their own feet on a classic shelf of an equipment rack seems to merit no improvement. We are aware of the fact that swapping one component for another usually far more expensive will net improvement but we don’t really care now. We are happy with our current hifi belongings and somewhat apprehensive of what a misguided upgrade might bring.

This remains true until we make an upgrade like something which at first glance appears insignificant such as changing the surface on which a component sits. If everything else is proper and our efforts to set up a coherent audio system have already proven successful, 'plugging in' the Ultra platform with Rollerblocks will demonstrate what's been missing still.

Symposium products release what we call air around instruments to reveal their recorded acoustic environment. To some extent they also improve the greater venue acoustics—natural or engineered—but the most striking colossal change concerns the immediate space around instruments and vocals. Everything seems to take a small step back to be less close. Yet it’s not because something is muffled. Stepping back improves clarity and perceived information density.

While the piano on Daft Punk’s "Within" previously seemed resonant and free, with the Symposium it was deeper, more resonant and freer. Moving back to the raw rack shelf moderated all that again. It seemed that the sound moved forward but very clearly it also was drier and less teased out.

 

The American products enhance sonic depth.

This was incredibly clear and tangible on Sinatra's "I've Got A Crush On You". After placing the amplifier on the Symposium platform his vocals became bigger and fleshier. By comparison they seemed crippled before, desiccated and lifeless. It was a very interesting experience because I was dealing with mono material more than 60 years old. Sometimes this puts the vocals closer to the listener. If everything else is okay we're happy with that. 

However sooner or later, usually on other tracks, it turns out to be an exaggeration. We realize that some breathing room is needed, some distance from the recording first plane. The Symposium gives us something like that. It indulges us with a larger space in the foreground and at the same time brings us emotionally closer. Really great! Lifelessness is probably the best word to briefly describe the sound without the Rollerblocks and platform despite what I’ve said earlier- that without a point of reference it can’t be easily heard and hence we’re not aware of it. What’s really puzzling is how much our evaluation of sound depends on our conditioned experience which is patterned by listening to audio products and systems better than our own!

Conclusion.

The anti-vibration system from Symposium will bring out the best from our components without changing their timbre and general sonic parameters for which we already value them. The amount of treble does not change for example. With the platform the treble gets more vibrant and saturated but its overall level remains exactly the same. Some improvements like superior resolution, vibrancy and definition are clear and reproducible from album to album. Nevertheless none of it changes the overall tonal balance.

We can however still think such is the case with the midrange. The reason is better tonal saturation. That adds flavor and maturity. Hence vocals and instruments seem stronger and better defined in that range. This in turn creates a feeling of a stronger midband but it's not a fact. I had to listen to a few albums I know very well to come up with a kind of explanation for this effect. The entire range from mid-bass to treble had a very similar tonal balance with or without the Symposium products. Nothing was emphasized or withdrawn. Subjectively however, the midrange seemed stronger. It wasn't a zero-one type of change from a real shift of accent and color but rather a different flavor. This new accent did not change as clearly as with platforms from HRS or CEC reviewed in the same issue but it was actually even deeper and more visceral.

If we are presently missing something like it—if we like deep full vocals which slightly dominate the presentation—the Symposium system will be the best high-end modification to our system we can imagine. It won't 'break' anything we've already accomplished but instead emphasize the features we care about most.

During the review the platform was placed on the top plywood shelf of my Base VI rack supported by three sets of Rollerblock Series 2+ , one in front, two in the rear. The component auditioned was the Ayon Audio Spirit III integrated tube amplifier. The audition was a multiple-repeat A/B/A comparison with A and B known. For a cross comparison I used the RST-38H platform from Acoustic Revive and the Pagode Edition from Finite Elemente. I listened to 1-min. music samples.

Symposium responds:
Lately I have been receiving emails from various sources calling my attention to a new review of some of our products which has recently appeared on your website. It has never been my practice to contact a website owner regarding a review unless asked to by the website owner himself, however there are some extraordinary circumstances regarding this particular instance. Specifically the deployment of the double-stacked Series 2+ Rollerblocks by the reviewer and depicted in a prominent photograph is completely incorrect as regards the recommended application and setup of this product! Series 2+ Rollerblocks are designed and meant to be used on top of our platforms and between the component and the platform, not under the platform. I do not know why this reviewer set them up this way; this setup is absolutely incorrect, gives relatively poor results and is not recommended as a primary setup procedure in either our product instructions or literature. It would be like reviewing loudspeakers which are turned around 180° and facing the wall and wondering why the sound isn't so good.

To make matters worse, the reviewer states that this is the recommended method for deploying our equipment! I assure you that it is not. We specifically state both in the equipment instructions and on our website that Rollerblocks should be primarily deployed directly under a component, especially double-stacked Series 2+ Rollerblocks since their patented body design was expressly made to optimize the mechanical interface between component chassis and the platform or between the equipment chassis and whatever kind of support surface is being used.

Also to further compound the problem, the reviewer used Fat Padz and other devices of ours on top of the platform where the Rollerblocks should have been used. Again he states that this is the setup recommended by Symposium. This is also not expressly recommended nor is it the original design purpose of these footer devices, which are meant as stand-alone damping pads to be used when a full platform is not economically feasible or possible. They should have been evaluated by themselves as inexpensive damping pads to be used under equipment by themselves. While some users have used them in conjunction with the Ultra Platform as a top 'coupler' device, this is a relatively rare instance and in any case is not a normal configuration and thus should never have been used as a review example in the course of seeking accurate results or an accurate reflection of the efficacy of our products.

The problem is of course that someone not familiar with the proper use of our products is receiving misinformation when reading this review. I do not know where the reviewer got the idea to set up our equipment this way; it certainly was not from us. He could not have read the instructions (at least I hope he didn't) since Rollerblock Series 2+ instructions specifically state the correct setup method (the Series 2+ instructions are four pages long and quite detailed!) to be the opposite of what he did. We would have gladly assisted him with setup advice as we routinely do with all reviewers of our products, which require some care and attention for proper results. Unfortunately no such assistance was requested nor were we ever asked for any verification of the proper setup of our equipment. As a result, his results are of little or no value (at best) since the products were essentially set up 'upside down'. And yes I believe your good reputation and your website deserve better than this.

To avoid immediate and irreparable damage to the dissemination of accurate information and in the interest of journalistic integrity, I would respectfully ask that you withdraw or cancel this review as it stands pending a correct and thus valuable deployment and audition of these products. Our Rollerblocks and platforms have been in production for almost two decades, are well-known and popular and are known to give excellent performance value. We would hope for an adjustment or at least a chance to have the products evaluated properly and ask for your kind assistance in this regard.
Thank you for your attention.
Best regards,
Peter Bizlewicz
President
Symposium Acoustics

As this was a syndicated review which also appears in Polish on the original website, we had no control over the review process itself and I can't comment on how or why Wojciech got the notion to employ your devices in the wrong fashion. However wrong employ of a device is still useful information if identified as such. Having added your explanation as to the proper use, that has now been accomplished and should satisfy your request. Thanks for letting us know and alerting our readership. I've also informed the author and publisher of the original Polish review so he can respond in kind if he sees fit (over that I have no control either).
Srajan Ebaen

I did try the Rollerblocks both ways and in my opinion the one pictured was better. Reviewing is just an experiment and I always try different options. Manufacturers have a right of course to guide us how to use their devices but in the end we use them and we listen to them. Thus my choice is clear. Claiming that vibration-control devices can be used in only one way and not another is... well, what to say, that's simply wrong!
Wojtek