“Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone”
Joni Mitchell — Big Yellow Taxi
I thought I’d share an unsolicited audio observation I stumbled into recently.
Humans are funny animals. We seem to perpetually need a bit of change, a modicum of new stimulus in our lives or we run the risk of getting bored and restless. The subspecies Audiophilius Nervosus, far from being the exception to this behavior often takes the need for change to a whole new level in the never-ending quest to eke out the last bit of performance from his audio system.
I admit to having more than a touch of upgrade bug and sometimes wonder if there will ever come a time when I can sit back and consider my mission completed -- no more new equipment to lust after, no more changes to be made in my system. No more depleted bank balances. Just musical bliss and audio nirvana for the rest of my days. Maybe the ideal rather than the reality, but after a lifetime of searching for the perfect sound, I think I’m pretty far up on the curve of diminishing effects. Or at least at the point where the cost of significant improvement comes very dearly indeed.
Sometimes it’s instructive to regress a few stages to reach a better appreciation of just how far we have come in our audio journeys. Intellectually, I know that the state of music replay in my home is much more evolved now than it was ten years ago, let alone where I started from forty years ago as a young man fumbling his way along the path toward good sound. But I recently had an experience that drove home this appreciation in a more emotional and visceral way.
I’d let things get a little too disorganized and messy in our family/listening room after a long summer spent with outdoor activities. So one rainy fall afternoon last month I decided, enough is enough -- time for a good spring house-cleaning. So I run a little late, you don’t?. Besides chasing the dust bunnies out of the corners and giving everything a good dusting, I thought I might as well take all the stereo equipment off the stand, give the connectors and good cleaning and do a bit of rearranging I’d been thinking about doing for some time.
When I got to the point of putting things back together I was struck by a thought.
Over the years as my finances have allowed I’ve been purchasing Paul Wakeen’s excellent Stillpoints isolation devices. With each new acquisition I’ve always noted significant improvement in the sound of my music, to the point where I was alway loathe to remove them one they were in the system. And, I’ve been living with Stillpoints in place ever since Paul’s ground-breaking original cones changed the audio landscape many years ago. At this point in time, every component down to the power distribution strip is on some kind of Stillpoint device, be it original cones or component stands all the way to the latest Ultra SS devices. What, I wondered, would my very mature system sound like if I removed ALL the Stillpoints? No better time to find out.
Back went everything on the shelves, all the freshly-cleaned cables and connecters were made back up, and after a generous interval to let things warm up and settle back in, I sat down to do some listening.
My immediate thought as the first track started playing? Quite frankly,
“WHAT the (expletive deleted) happened to my stereo???
It sounded as if all the hard-won and expensive gains I’d made over the years from careful component selection and patient assembly of a wiring loom had completely flown out the window. Every aspect of the sound I love from my system was deflated, diminished, rendered flatter and less expansive and more monochrome. This was immediate and unmistakeable; not subtle in the least. My long-suffering wife added to my impression by commenting,
“What happened? Did you break something?”
And indeed, the contrast between with-Stillpoints and without-Stillpoints couldn’t be more stark. My system did sound broken.
Not only had the sound become flat and uninvolving, all the images that used to float free of the speakers were now stuck on and between the two floor-standers. There was no depth and individual images were indistinct and blurry.
It wasn’t just spatial effects that were significantly compromised, the essence of tone, timbre and texture, the signature sounds of individual instruments and voices were degraded without Stillpoints in the system. Instruments were more fuzzy and indistinct, and intelligibility of words and phrases sung softly or in the presence of louder instrumentation was negatively impacted by removing all the Stillpoints. Even timing was affected, with the non-Stillpoint version of my system losing a large part of its ability to portray realistic dynamic contrast and rhythmic drive.
It simply wasn’t fun to listen to music after having enjoyed it so much before this whole experiment began. Being able to suspend disbelief and let myself be drawn into my music is, at the end of the day why I became an audiophile in the first place.
I had expected some changes, and probably not for the better, from removing all the Stillpoints. But honestly I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of change, let alone the effect this change would have on my emotional involvement with favorite music.
It’s been said before by Roy Gregory and others that the key to extracting the highest performance from any audio system regardless of price range is thorough attention to its foundation, both electrical and the literal mechanical foundation that couples our equipment to the physical world.
After hearing the impact that removing Stillpoints from the equation had, I think we do ourselves a disservice by not taking care of these basics before setting off on a quest for the ultimate electronic component.
There is no doubt in my mind that my ability to evaluate and make accurate judgements about the relative performance of two pieces of equipment would be significantly compromised without having Stillpoints addressing vibration and isolation first. As such, they are just as important and arguably more important than the traditional equipment upgrades most audiophiles -- myself included -- think of and budget for. And beyond the purely analytical and evaluative, my feeling is if we strive to have our music elicit an emotional response and involvement in our lives, attention to the underpinnings of our systems takes on an even more important role.
It’s a testament to the genius of Paul W’s designs that they have such a large positive effect on the performance and emotional impact of our music machines, from the earliest versions of his devices to his current state of the art components. My experiment ended up kind of like my first experiment with my tongue and a sub-zero metal handrail -- I won’t do THAT again! Though I suppose I could take all the expensive cables out of my system and wire it back up with OEM power cords and department store interconnect.
But probably not this week!
I hope this was of some interest to folks. I know it was instructive to me.