At the heart of every successful product lies a great concept. Paul Wakeen’s range of Stillpoints resonance-control designs for audio systems illuminate that point perfectly. From a straightforward 3 cones under your CD player through to a full-blown ESS (Equipment Suspension System) rack equipped with direct-coupled Component Stands, the Stillpoints system brings the kind of sonic benefits that have been traditionally associated with expensive component upgrades. As part of a carefully thought out high-end audio installation, where the preservation of musical performance should always be the prime consideration, the Stillpoints installations are, in my experience, unrivalled.
Step back and take a more considered view though and their impact should really come as no surprise. Audio systems are enormously complex installations, conventionally thought of as being solely electronic. In fact they incorporate a series of mechanical resonating interactions that introduce enormous problems when it comes to reproducing music. Truly successful systems are built from the ground up. Even if money is no object, throwing together what people tell you are the very best components money can buy, is almost certainly going to end in disaster. Musical satisfaction begins at the power socket on the wall and continues through the cabling and the support structures. While nobody can deny that all audio electronics have their own particular character, flavours and colourations, it is the mains quality plus the stands and racks and cabling that allow them to give their musical best. Stillpoints differs from just about every other such system available in that their design aim is to liberate the equipment they support from the degrading effects of unwanted resonance within the components themselves, by absorbing it. They are most certainly not high-mass dampers that suck the dynamic life from the music or a structural tone control like a glass shelf that shifts the system’s balance into a brighter and more and impressive area. They merely allow the equipment to breathe. Still not convinced? Then get hold of those 3 Stillpoints cones I mentioned earlier and put them beneath your CD player or amplifier and while you are being impressed at what resonance control can achieve, remember that this is just the beginning.
Amplifier designers like David Berning need no convincing as to their benefits because he fits Stillpoints-designed feet at the 4 corners of his exceptional Quadrature Z power amplifiers. Also available is a variant of the Component Stand with four 11-inch legs that enable it to be screwed directly into the QZ’s feet. This provides a total of 8 resonance-control devices for each monoblock, plus of course a very elegant way of mounting the amplifiers themselves. The QZs captured my imagination when I first lived with them back in 2008. After a lifetime of hearing the ever-changing voice of audio electronics, the Berning amplifiers were like the proverbial breath of fresh air. These OTL valve designs with their lightweight build and distinct lack of “look at me” hyper-casework stunned just about every music lover who dropped by to experience their vibrant energy and open window into musical performance and playing technique, two things that are high on my personal list of audio must-haves. At the time there was no Berning preamplifier but my Lyra Connoisseur did a fantastic job and allowed the QZs a feeling of dynamic control that soon became addictive and made each listening session an eagerly anticipated event. But last year my ears pricked up when I heard that David Berning was going to offer, alongside the standard QZs, a special version of the amplifiers internally equipped with a new stand-off designed by Paul Wakeen of Stillpoints. Stand-offs are the fittings used to mount pcbs to an amplifier’s chassis so the idea that multiple levels of resonance control technology was now available inside the amplifier was fascinating and intriguing.
There are 27 stand-offs in each mono amplifier. These are employed decoupling the power supply and audio pcbs from the chassis. Paul was quite understandably reluctant to go into too many specifics regarding their exact constructional detail due to the stringent requirements of the patent application process. From what I can understand though (and treading carefully), the design is an advancement of the (ceramic-ball) systems found in the remarkable ESS rack I reviewed in 2008. Paul, it seems, has miniaturised the technology to create what he claims is the world’s only vibration-isolating stand-off. He has designed and manufactured both 1/2 – inch and 5/8-inch female-to-female resonance control units. A 3/8 –inch version will soon be available and he says that this particular technology might be even further reduced in size but this would be best achieved in a joint design-collaboration project with a participating manufacturer.
Technically the OTL Berning Quadrature Z is unlike any other design currently on the market. My advice is to completely forget any of your prejudices, good or bad, when it comes to the word valve because they are simply not relevant where the QZs are concerned. To continually refer to the fact that they incorporate tubes and to hold this up as some sort of sonic description means that you have missed the point of them completely. Their sole objective is to bring music in all its glory, majesty and subtlety into your life and the new “special order” version with the internal Stillpoints is even more fluent, transparent and energetic than ever. All the usual caveats apply, only more so. Firstly the choice of partnering preamp will certainly be a concern, but one that may very well soon vanish as David Berning has designed and built his own, very likely due to the extremely limited availability of suitable models in the marketplace. Quite obviously your source should be of impeccable quality and the speakers must be able to rise to the occasion and deal with the flood of information coming their way. Easily said, but this might not be as straightforward as it first seems as the Bernings, with a preamp like the Lyra Connoisseur, are just about as demanding as it gets. I recently heard the resolution of this combination described as the audio equivalent of the Hubble telescope and I think that is just about right. The sheer levels of energy and instrumental independence they can provide are not easily resolved. But get it right and the range of tonal shading and the way the music is projected into the room can be staggeringly beautiful. The powerful articulation as the music constantly shifts in mood and feel makes for some of the subtlest nuance and expression I have ever heard from an audio system. The Stillpoints- equipped version takes this to new levels of colourful and dynamic resolution and their potential to project a seamless, grain-free and animated picture with such clarity is totally compelling. Percussive or strung instruments like acoustic guitars energised with a sharp input at the leading edge have just that extra spark of vitality and impact and this makes the special order versions even more imposing. They may have added a touch more gloss and brightened the tonal balance a tad but they have lost none of their striking presence, rich tonality or the communicative excitement of the musical message. Where most high-end amplifiers are content to portray impressive levels of detail like a painting on a canvas, the Bernings really open the mix with tremendously broad and deep soundstages and an ultra-detailed look at the independent musical elements. There is no flat backdrop onto which the music is projected, just time and space - lots of space.
Students of the art and musicians who also listen to understand and learn and will be delighted with the way these amplifiers dig so deep into the realm of physical technique and playing power because control of the smallest dynamic shifts and pressure contrasts is extraordinary. Through the entire envelope the Bernings are never vague, not at all intrusive and that very special sense of flowing note transition and progression of movement through time that was so beautiful with the standard versions is even more lucid and beguiling with these amplifiers. Select a piece of solo piano, one the most difficult things to record and replay and listen to the way the QZs deal with it. Power, delicacy and a sense of harmonic shape and note integrity allow the music full rhythmic and tonal freedom and what, on lesser systems, can appear as rambling and arbitrary lines become understandable, organised phrases. This effortless agility has enormous repercussions with regards to the resolution of timing issues and there is quite amazing focus and extraordinary precision here regardless of the rhythmic complexities involved. The pure speed of these Stillpoints-equipped amplifiers is certainly epic, but speed without control is worthless and in a high-end audio system it is a musical liability. But the Stillpoint-ed QZs have such a feeling of natural and unforced grip that means that the tension is felt in the musical experience and not the system.
So, there’s no question that Berning and Stillpoints are a superb collaboration and that these versions add a notable degree of extra articulation to the already extremely impressive performance of the standard models. If you are lucky enough to be able to afford either of them the special order option could well worth the extra outlay, but this is a decision that really must be based on individual systems and personal taste and for me would certainly mandate a thorough and detailed audition. I can’t hide my enthusiasm for these Bernings. They are fabulous and very soulful and intimate amplifiers that I find enormously satisfying and at 200 watts per channel into 8 ohms they also have power a-plenty for most situations. They address and bring clarity and musical beauty to areas of system performance that are not immediately associated with power amplifiers, but remember my thoughts about the suitability of matching components throughout the system that are truly capable of answering the rigorous interrogation the amplifiers will provide. Now, I can’t wait to hear the new ZOTL Pre One preamplifier that I believe will also have an optional Stillpoints version.