Symposium Acoustics Isis Shelf And Rollerblock Jrs

Rick Becker

To celebrate the completion of last month's reviews, Linda, two friends and I went to the Adirondacks and climbed Mt. Colvin. I continued on alone to climb Mt. Blake. I treasure these experiences as a way of keeping my work, high-end audio, and my life in proper perspective. It is also a spiritual journey. I returned with renewed vigor for continuing my exploration of the benefits of the Symposium Acoustic products I had on hand.

Isis & Svelte with VR-4s

With the Von Schweikert VR-4 loudspeakers now back in the system I put the Isis Platform Between the upper and lower modules of the left loudspeaker and the Svelte Shelf between the modules of the right loudspeaker. On Lyle Lovett's "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" from the Joshua Judges Ruth CD, the lead guitar on the left speaker really floated smoothly and deep into the soundstage. The bass notes did not seem as loud, but seemed deeper and more focused. Moreover, the bass did not compete with Lyle's singing for my attention. The cymbals were more refined and Lyle's voice was smoother.

From James Taylor's CD Live, the quick paced "Traffic Jam" was smooth and natural with better focus. The soundstage seemed somewhat narrower at the front, but wider at the rear, probably because of the improved micro-dynamics. It was certainly very pleasant. On "Handy Man" the hall sounds were much more perceptible, as were the back-up singers. There was a slight difference between the speakers because of the different shelves, but not much. I cranked the CAT up two notches to the 12 o'clock position to give me 96db peaks on "Steamroller Blues". Wow! There was a rich and full sound with a deep soundstage, and JT was not so close-up and in-your-face as without the shelves.

Replaying "Traffic Jam" with the CAT panned full to port for a mono signal with the VR-4 with the Isis Platform, the sound was very nice. Then, full to starboard with the Svelte Shelf, it was more dynamic, with a quieter background, and seemed louder. I repeated the test using Horenstein's Mahler First Symphony with the Vienna Symphony, a mono recording. With the 4th movement, the VR-4 with the Isis sounded like a recording, but I appreciated the enhanced detail. Switching to the VR-4 with Svelte Shelf, the experience was much more like being there, more dynamic and more transparent.

N.B. In my first report, while using symposium products under just the electronics of my system improved the focus, they did not improve the transparency. (Improving focus is like putting your prescription eyeglasses on; improving transparency is like take your sunglasses off).

Rollerblock Jrs. with VR-4

I then tried the Rollerblock Jrs. between the modules of the left VR-4 speaker and the Mahler 4th movement became even more dynamic, focused and transparent. But it lacked continuity from top to bottom. The bass was still muddy. The Isis and Svelte, by contrast, absorbed vibrations from both above and below and maintained tonal balance from bass to treble. Beneath a single chassis speaker I would expect the Rollerblock Jrs. to perform very well, except for the vulnerability to being knocked over by pets, children and exotic dancers.

Putting the Rollerblock Jrs. back under the CAT pre-amplifier, I dug out Jimi Hendrix's Live At Winterland CD from the back of the shoebox. With the Svelte Shelf and Isis Platform between the VR-4 modules, the system cut right through the Purple Haze that obscures this crude recording. The lyrics, which suffer from Hendrix's chronic inability to stand still in front of a microphone, became mostly intelligible. If he were alive today in this age of radio mics, he'd be all over the stage and roaming the audience like Buddy Guy. "Foxy Lady"/"Hey Joe"/"Purple Haze"/"Wild Thing"--my feet were tapping so hard I thought I was going to have to replace the mechanism on my recliner.

Rollerblock Series 2

At this point I finally opened the premium Rollerblock Series 2 and with Linda's help we placed them under the CAT pre-amplifier, figuring that the Series 2 would really shine under this tube component. (The original and Series 2 Rollerblocks are a much trickier to place than the Rollerblock Jrs.). Earlier, in the prologue of "Live At Winterland" I could faintly make out some recorded music being played over the PA system amid the crowd noise. With the Series 2 in place I could make out the lyrics to a few bars of "Whiter Shade of Pale" just before the MC introduced Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell and Jimi. Almost unbelievably, the focus went up another notch and even more lyrics were discernible in this cognitive test. Musically, a pretty cruddy recording was transformed with the Series 2 to an experience that resonated with my personal experience of this group in Hartford, circa 1967, only falling short of the mind numbing volume that comes with the territory of 10th row center.

With the Series 2, playing Lyle Lovett's "Church" the paced picked up and all the vocals of the choir singers were exceptionally clear. And on "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" the lead guitar was right in the room and floated throughout the front yard. With the Isis and Svelte in the VR-4s, upgrading to the Series 2 Rollerblocks produced an increase in transparency, whereas the Jrs., under the pre-amplifier, merely increased the focus. Bass from the VR-4s was very strong and tighter than ever. Lyle's voice was right in the room. Switching to Music For A Glass Bead Game from John Marks Records, the violin and cello were unquestionably present and while I am clueless of technique, the subtle nuances of the music were clearly conveyed.

Rollerblock Jrs., Hardballs, Couplers & Stacking Components

Before my surgery in June, I set up my system at waist level so I wouldn't have to bend over during recovery. (I could gently activate the CAT power supply and switch the Plinius into Class A with my toe). But with limited horizontal surface, I was forced to stack the CD player (transport), DAC and tuner. Except for listening to Hearts of Space, I pretty much left the tuner out of the system for these reviews. With the premium Series 2 still under the CAT pre-amplifier, and the shelves still in the VR-4 loudspeakers, I again played with the Rollerblock Jrs., Tungsten Carbide ball upgrade, and the aluminum Coupler blocks.

To keep it short, using all three allowed me to optimally stack both the player and DAC. With the TC balls in the Jrs. under the player, and the couplers between the player and the DAC, I was able to improve the focus and transparency without crossing the edge of irritability that I experienced in Part I of this review (when I was not using the shelves with the speakers). Adding the TC balls made a more subtle difference in the context of simultaneously using a Symposium product with each component in the system. Moreover, the quality of different recordings sometimes made one arrangement of Symposium products preferable to another. Clearly, I was entering the realm of Extreme Listening.

The silver edges may be blackened with a magic marker for a less contemporary, more subtle look. Also, note the architectural slate which works well with both the Isis Platform or spikes. Strips of leather between the slate and the Isis keep the Isis from being scratched.

Coincidents on Platforms

After observing the improvement in transparency that was brought by using the shelves with the speakers, I swapped out the VR-4s for the Coincident Partial Eclipse Mk IIs. I put the Isis and Svelte on the architectural slate since they are not designed to work on thick carpet with rubber padding. 

The slate provides additional protection from the wicked vacuum cleaner, although cones could be used, following the specific instructions. With the Svelte Shelf under one and the Isis Platform under the other I listened again to Dylan's "Masters of War" on his Real Live CD. It was a good bit tighter and a more cognitive experience than through the VR-4s with the shelves. This is another crude recording that challenges a system like the Hendrix Live at Winterland CD mentioned above.

After finding Bruce Springsteen's title track of "Human Touch" too sharp, I removed the Mini-Isis from under the power supply of the CAT, which softened it up just enough. The repetitive drumbeat in "57 Channels" was really tight. (Very cool). And by the time I reached "Cross My Heart" I recognized that the shelves had allowed the transparency of the Coincident loudspeakers to surpass the box-less VR-4s. Not only that, but the image of the soundscape became noticeably taller than without the Isis and Svelte. I still felt I was sitting further back in the audience with the Coincidents, but the superb focus and transparency I had achieved made that a moot point. Again, using the monaural recording of Mahler's First, it was clear from panning left and right that the Svelte was more transparent than the Isis. And sliding in Lyle Lovett's CD again, it was better with the Mini-Isis under the CAT power supply because of the smoothness of the mix. On the Graceland CD, where Paul Simon's voice is a little fuzzy, the extra edge of the Mini-Isis made every word intelligible.

In comparing the Mini-Isis with the full-size Isis Platform under the Coincidents, the difference was so small I decided to attribute it to the banana tree that resides close to the left speaker. Notice I said, "tree," not "plant." I was not about to move it. The Mini-Isis is the same size as the footprint of the Partial Eclipse loudspeaker and allowed more of the architectural slate to be visible. Overall, the Mini was the more elegant of the two, but when Peter Bizlewicz offered to let me try a couple of full-size B-Stock Isis Platforms, I jumped at the opportunity. Besides, the larger Platforms might be more helpful in future reviews.

With the arrival of two more Isis Platforms for the loudspeakers, I could return the Svelte Shelf to its optimal location beneath the Linn turntable. With the slightly diminished focus of the two full-size Isis Platforms under the loudspeakers (as opposed to one Isis and one Svelte), it now made sense to put the Mini-Isis back under the CAT power supply. And doing this made the Mini's contribution to improved focus even more apparent than without shelves under the speakers. Also, I did not really miss any of the transparency that the Svelte Shelf seemed to contribute when I panned from Isis to Svelte in Mono. If I had been able to compare two Sveltes with two Isis, I might have some different news to report.

Extra Isis

With a leftover Isis Platform to play with, now, I tried it under the CD player (transport), and swapped the Coupler blocks in and out. While it seemed slightly smoother, more transparent, with the most robust bass yet, I'm not sure I could consistently pick out the difference in a double blind test with and without the Isis under the transport.

For my next trick, I levitated the Plinius SA-100 amp and placed the extra Isis Platform between the amp and the solid oak amp stand with three spikes. This was no small feat with the fins hot from Class A operation. (Don't try this with your father's amplifier, kids). The effect was a solidifying of the bass, a slight decrease in the hissy-ness of the "s-es", but not much of an effect on the upper end. Again, it was a case of diminishing returns. If I had a deeper cache of Symposium products I might opt for Rollerblock Jrs. under both the CD transport and the power amp, as the Jrs. out-performed the Isis when tested under a single electronic component--plus, the Jrs. are less expensive. 

"I See," Said The Blind Man!

I also briefly tried the Isis Platforms and Rollerblock Jrs. in my video system. It was relatively easy to improve the sound there, but I am not very well set up yet for testing the video. At one point, using rabbit ear reception and the Mini-Isis under the JVC VHS deck (tuner), we thought we turned our vintage 32" Mitsubishi into a Sony Wega, but the results were not consistently repeatable. Nonetheless, I expect in a more properly connected and stable video system, significant improvement would be made.

Putting It All Together

At this point, my system seems feels pretty well maxed out. I'm at the point where I am making minor alterations to satisfy the idiosyncrasies of individual recordings, and that is no way to enjoy the music. My heart really goes out to those people who have to adjust the VTA of every record and the polarity of every CD. To avoid such headaches I have tuned the system very slightly on the soft side of neutral.

The Symposium products I have tested here all work supremely well. Some are better suited to certain components than others. You wouldn't want to put a turntable on Rollerblocks, and platforms are safer for use with speakers. And while the Series 2 Rollerblock outperforms the Rollerblock Jrs., you may not need the best performer for every component in your system. Indeed, what worked best for me was a systems approach where almost everything had something Symposium under it. In Part 1 of this report I went over the edge of irritability by using too much stuff on the front end. As I spread things around a little, the sound of the entire system benefited, and when I finally added Symposium shelves to the speakers, the synergy of multiple Symposium products took my system to unprecedented heights. The system now has a transparency comparable, without embarrassment, to the best systems I have heard.

While the total cost of the products I am using may feel like buying a major component, it is not an "all-or-nothing" proposition. Each component in my system benefited from one Symposium product or another, and, in most cases, felt like a major upgrade of that component. It almost goes without saying that each Symposium product was far superior to any of the home-brew tweaks I had previously been using. So, you can start with one and move up to more when your finances or your spirit moves you. The value is certainly there. I expect you would have to spend many kilobucks on front end, amps and speakers to equal the improvements these products can make... and even if you tried, I'm not sure you could. It is like they say in the BASF commercial: "We don't make the product; we make the product better." Ditto, Symposium Acoustics.

The idea of a comparative rating system for the improvement in focus of each Symposium product came to me in Part 1, and without access to a scientific way of verifying it I will shoot from the hip:

  • Rollerblock Series 2: 7
  • Rollerblock Jrs. with TC balls: 6
  • Rollerblock Jrs.: 5.5
  • Svelte Shelf: 5
  • Isis Platform with speakers: 4
  • Isis Platform with electronics: 2
  • Symposium Couplers, with Symposium shelf: 0.5
  • Symposium Couplers, on solid maple shelf: 1.0
  • Symposium couplers: add 0.5 to shelf rating when used
  • with electronics
  • Solid maple shelf: 0 (baseline)

However, my experience also taught me that the relative benefit of each Symposium product is dependent on the component it is used with. It is not likely we have the same rigs, but I am sure you can figure out how to optimize your own system. With Christmas coming along, you can put these at the top of your Real World list. And if you get duplicates, all the merrier!