Symposium Ultra platform

Stereophile 

John Marks  

The Fifth Element #16

The lease said about my and my fathers trip from the Bureau of Manhattan to our new home the soonest mended. In some way ether I or he got balled up on the grand concorpse and next thing you know we was thretning to swoop down on Pittsfield.
Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.

Shut up he explained.
—Ring Lardner, "The Young Immigrunts" (1920)

And you are shocked—shocked—to learn that "Shut up he explained" is something of a catchphrase in our household (footnote 1). Hold that thought.

My wife has wonderfully sensitive hearing, and she calls them as she hears them. We once attended a stereo-shop open house, and were asked, "What do you think?" I thought the sound was uninspired and uninspiring, but I nonetheless uttered a benign platitude. She grimaced, shook her head, and said, "Sorry, something is wrong." The owner looked pained, but went away to check the setup. Within moments he had powered the system down, and was correcting a relative phase inversion (one speaker hooked up in opposite electrical phase from the other). He did come back to thank her, which was nice.

Anyway, a few weeks ago my wife came home after working late, and while she and I were eating dinner, two rooms away my daughter was listening—not at all loudly—to Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat. My wife cocked her head and observed, "I've never heard that particular [vocal] swoop quite so clearly."

I chortled triumphantly. "While you were at work, a new isolation platform arrived for the [Marantz SA-14] SACD player [see Sidebar—Ed.], and I set it up."

"Oh, just shut up," she explained.

My wife loves music but has a low tolerance level for audio tweakery and very expensive gear. The $21,000 price tag for the Wilson Benesch Chimera speakers was merely "appalling." The Halcro dm58 amplifiers' $25,000 was "obscene." On the other hand, the first time she heard a Custom Power Cord Company power cord (the A/B test track was from Encarnación Vázquez's Cuando Dos, Urtext JBCC 013, one of my 2003 R2D4s), her response was, "I wish I could say that you guys were all full of poop, but that really sounds much better."

I value her reactions in large part because she has absolutely no emotional investment in a tweak's working or not. As important, just because something sounds different, she's not willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that it sounds "better." Cases in point I can recall include the SACD of Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations ("Is there something wrong with the system?") and a cryogenic-process experiment on an Arturo Delmoni CD ("It sounds like he's playing a viola in the fifth position").

Please note that, except for the CPCC power cord, which she was aware of and initially scoffed at, the cited instances were all blind listening. So her hearing from two rooms away the enhancement in resolving power and lowering of noise floor that I believed I heard after setting up Symposium Acoustics' Ultra isolation platform was quite gratifying.

The Ultra platform is a component-sized shelf (review size: 19" wide, 14" deep, and 3.5" thick). The top and bottom are aluminum, while the middle is made up of several unequal-thickness layers of vibration-damping material. It comes with a set of three aircraft-aluminum blocks, each about the size of two stacked dominos, to couple your component to the platform by bypassing its (presumably) compliant feet. The Ultra platform was designed primarily to drain vibrational energy away from your component, rather than to provide isolation from external vibrations or footfalls.

Despite clear evidence to the contrary, some people still maintain that factors such as vibration control cannot affect digital playback. Apart from the evidence of the ears of people who can hear, the science is indisputable: The Compact Disc is an analog medium that recovers by analog means data that are later treated as though they represent digital data. Just as the case with an LP turntable, attention to vibration control will yield sonic dividends. Superabundant proof of that pudding can be found in any trade journal devoted to optical-media manufacturing engineering: the ads for the ritziest glass-mastering setups boast air bearings. And no vinyl anywhere in sight. Huedathunquet.

When I later had time to rearrange things so I could use the Ultra platform with the set of Symposium Rollerblocks I already had, the improvement was even more noticeable, and totally without any adverse side effects, as far as I could tell. However, if I had to pick only one, it seemed that the Ultra platform alone lowered noise and enhanced resolution more than did the Rollerblocks alone.

The Ultra platform with three large couplers retails for $599. That is a fair chunk of change, but it seems worth it, given the entirely subjective sense of ease it brings to listening. And, it's future-proof. So, should everyone go out and buy one? Not necessarily. I place a higher priority on speaker location, assisted by computer software, if need be; next, room acoustical treatments; and then, adequate wall current and power cords. But if all those are well in hand, by all means place your order for the Symposium Ultra.

What these measures have in common is the reduction of nonmusical content—noise—in your system or listening environment. Not to make things dead, but so that you hear more of what's in the recordings.

Footnote 1: A little birdie informed me that there is something of a betting pool in the august precincts of Stereophile's editorial offices, with odds being laid whether any particular column I file will include the Casablanca reference "Shocked—shocked!" So now we have a wonderful meta-moment: I am shocked—shocked!—to learn that there is gambling going on in Stereophile's offices!

Glenn Again

Speaking of which: You may recall that, last year about this time—"The Fifth Element," March 2002—I was knee-deep in an ultimately fruitless quest to determine whether DSD-on-SACD remasterings of recordings originally made on early PCM equipment could yield sonic benefits. The test piece was Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. No conclusions could be drawn, in view of the Accuphase DP-101 SACD decoder's nondefeatable DSD upconversion of "Red Book" CD data, but an interesting development was the discovery of a "ghost" or "mouse" orchestra playing along at a very low level during certain variations.
I speculated that there might have been analog tapes made as backups, and wondered whether those could be released in some form. I can't take credit for it, but, to my surprise and delight, Sony decided that the 20th anniversary of the release of Gould's 1981 Goldbergs should be commemorated by the release of a bargain-price three-CD set: A State of Wonder (Sony Classical Legacy S3K 87703).

The first CD is a fresh remastering from the original analog source of Gould's 1955 Goldbergs. The third CD includes a publicity interview with Gould wherein he explains—at times using musical examples—why he decided to re-record the work, despite the fact that his earlier recording was generally regarded as one of the most important classical records ever. That bonus CD also includes some chatter and outtakes from the 1955 sessions.

But the new set's sine qua non and raison d'être (and probably a few other foreign phrases as well) is its second CD: the 1981 Goldbergs, mastered from newly edited analog backup tapes. Rather than take a razor blade to the irreplaceable analog tapes, Sony's team sensibly decided to dump them, as is, into a Sonoma DSD workstation, and then perform the edits in the digital domain. The producer of the 1981 sessions assisted, using the original marked-up sheet music.

 

I hope that this means that Sony will in due course offer an SACD from the analog source, but as it is, the "Red Book" CD from the analog tapes is plainly superior to the SACD made from the PCM master. "Plainly" as in "across a crowded room." Hmmm...

One is moved to make three observations:

First, one hopes Sony will "do the right thing" and price any new analog-derived SACD of the 1981 Goldbergs lower than dirt. So to speak. Some of us have already bought this performance in four guises, and even if No.5 will be the best of all, those who bought the PCM-derived SACD when it first came out perhaps are entitled to feel a little miffed (without for a moment slighting the very admirable $7/disc pricing of A State of Wonder).

Second, the fact that one of the signal classical-recordings events of the past year is a budget-priced "Red Book" set of 22- and 38-year-old performances, one of which handily eclipses its comparatively recent SACD version, just goes to show you. As the Soviet historian ruefully remarked, with each passing year it becomes increasingly difficult to predict the past.

Finally, although Gould was a great pianist, he not only gave free rein to a wide streak of willful perversity, he also made ideological virtue out of psychological necessity. For a number of reasons, he came to a point where he could no longer perform in public. That did not entitle him to declare the end of public performance in general as a valid art form, or to posit painstakingly edited, and in cases allegedly post-produced, recordings as an art form superior to live performance. That aspect of Gould's legacy must be taken with a dump truck full of road salt. Rest in peace, despite and still. And thanks.

Grace Design Model 901 headphone amplifier
My listening to Glenn Gould's A State of Wonder was lent a deeper dimension by one of the most "gotta have it" pieces of gear I've played with in a dog's age: Grace Design's Model 901 professional headphone amplifier ($1495) (footnote 2).

It is often a sure indication that a product will turn out to be tremendous when its maker designs it for himself and a couple of friends, never intending to make a commercial product of it, because he doubts that the larger marketplace will "get it." Give me inner conviction over market research, any time.

Footnote 2: "901" is an interesting choice of model number. Porsche's 911 was originally intended to be called the 901, but on the eve of its auto-show debut, Peugeot asserted trademark rights in all possible numeric designations for automobiles consisting of three digits with a zero in the middle. Which always struck me as piggish. I know about WWII and all that, but everyone hates a sore winner. And let us not forget Bose's 901, Julian Hirsch's review of which fairly electrified me way back when. But I digress.

Michael Grace made a headphone amp for his own use. Pretty soon, enough of his friends had asked him to make one for them that he made it a formal product with a model designation and an initial production run of 25 pieces. Those vanished in a trice, and he found himself in the headphone-amp business with a product that was selling briskly by word of mouth, and a few reviews in the professional magazines. I was knocked out by its looks, and asked for a review sample. I was predisposed to like it anyway, in view of sound engineer Jerry Bruck's having used Grace microphone preamplifiers on some of my JMR recordings.
The Grace 901 is approximately one professional rack unit high and half a rack unit wide. It is 8.5" deep and weighs about 6 lbs. The front panel is thick aluminum, polished to a high gloss. Front-panel controls are, from left to right: stepped resistor volume control, additional gain, digital or analog source, digital sampling rate (32-96kHz), two standard phone-plug headphone jacks, and power. The additional gain, input selector, and power switches are illuminated buttons of the sort I refer to as being of the "Ph.D." variety, as in: Push Here, Dummy. Gotta luvvit.

On the rear panel are an IEC inlet for the power cord (no plug-in transformer); optical, S/PDIF, and AES3 digital inputs; and left and right RCA and XLR analog inputs. Industrial design and fit'n'finish are surpassed only by the likes of Nagra and the Jeff Rowland Design Group, which means that just about everyone else was left in the dust miles behind. Meanwhile, the 901 just sits there, quietly screaming professional competence (in an elegantly understated way).

The only thing I can't figure out is the threaded hole in the middle of the bottom panel. For mounting on a mike stand or camera tripod, perhaps, for musician foldback at sessions? (footnote 3)

It is the 901's ability to take a high-resolution digital input that distinguishes it from most headphone amplifiers. The 901 accepts digital inputs from 32kHz to 96kHz, and indicates the sampling rate with front-panel LEDs. Apart from the convenience of needing only one signal cable, having one's headphone amp provide an internal DAC of known quality removes two variables from recording system monitoring: an outside DAC and its interconnects.

The Grace 901 performed flawlessly. Its only quirk was a slight pop on power up and down—but no headphone amp should be powered up or down while anyone is wearing the headphones anyway. The 901's essential sonic character was refreshingly rich and full-bodied, without being sludgy or lacking detail. Perhaps what I was hearing was equally attributable to its power reserves. I can't say for sure. But its circuit is based on a telecommunications current-feedback amplifier chipset that can drive five miles of copper wire if it has to, so 10' of headphone cable was doubtless a snooze.

Perhaps it's just me, but fine as the Grace's internal DAC was, I preferred by a slight margin the sound of its analog inputs when connected to the Marantz SA-14's analog outputs by Stereovox analog interconnects. Yeah, I know—for $2500 a meter pair, they should sound good.

A headphone amp is pointless without headphones. My rough'n'ready Audio-Technica ATH D40s are distinguished more by their relative indestructibility than by any excess of subtlety. Sennheiser kindly lent me a pair of HD 600s, a Bob Ludwig fave. The HD 600s balance delicacy of detail with dynamic range and bass extension, which goes a long way toward justifying their $450 price.

It appears that for every pro user who auditions the 901, two buy it, so there is that. But that doesn't answer the question whether—massive coolness factor aside—it's a good use for that spare $1500 you just happen to have lying around. The answer, as usual, is: It depends.

The 901 is built like a brick, is quiet as a mouse, and is very relaxing to listen to. However, it's a pro unit that was designed to let you hear a mike feed or do quality control on a mix or a mastering job. (Bob Ludwig bought five 901s for Gateway Mastering and DVD, which should tell you something.) The 901 therefore lacks the frequency, temporal, or cross-feed processing functions that other headphone amps offer as means of trying to make the headphone listening experience more like listening to speakers in a room. I don't mind the "inside the head" effect of listening to non-binaural stereo recordings on regular headphones, but it's your call. Whether or not the 901 is for you probably comes down to how much headphone listening you do.

Footnote 3: My two goals in writing are to amuse John Atkinson, and to convince him that I have actually removed the piece of gear in question from its box