Doug Schneider - DAS

[Audio Odyssey]
Authorized Black Diamond Racing Dealer

July 1996

Black Diamond Racing
The Pyramid Cones

Have you ever wanted to trade up your speakers to something that will give you tighter, better defined bass, improved upper bass and midrange clarity, more focused soundstaging, but you know you'd have to lay down another one to two kilobucks, or more, to get that notch up in performance. Well, that's the type of improvement I got with $120 worth of cones under my stands! Furthermore, these little fellas improved my DAC! The DAC improvement wasn't nearly as great as with my speakers, but still, compared to what upgrading your DAC (or other electronic components) cost, I think you owe it to yourself to read on.

My first experience with the effects of component vibration damping came purely by accident a number of years ago. Sure I had read about various platforms, cones, and the such in the audio mags, but I didn't really take it seriously. I was more interested in acquiring equipment and felt that little, if any improvement could be made to the original design and that isolation gear wasn't money well spent at all.

At the time I didn't have a proper equipment rack and didn't really want one. My system was comprised of an all-in-the-box single piece cd-player, directly into my power amp, and straight into the speakers. Minimalist for sure and I didn't want anything else. Besides, the stuff looked great sitting down low on the hardwood floors. My only goal was to raise them off the ground a couple inches, more to avoid damage than anything. So down I went to Ikea where I had previously spied up these marble cutting boards for only $15 a piece (about 15x18 inches, 1/2 inch thick). I bought two and brought 'em home. I used three small woods blocks to raise them off the ground, laid the shelf on top, then placed each piece of equipment on it. It looked great and that was all I was expecting. But lo and behold, that cd player now sounded better just by placing it on that marble slab. I thought I was imagining the improvement (tighter, more defined bass, cleaner midrange, etc.) so I took the cd-player off, then put it back on, then off, then on, then off, then on......well you get the picture. I wasn't imagining things and yes, putting my cd-player on a stable, less vibration prone surface really seemed to help!

So over the years I've played around with a variety of isolation equipment and learned quite a big more, although I'm by no means an expert. And I now know that I can do better than a simple marble slab (although it still works well in some instances). I still look with skeptical eyes, but I judge with what I hear. This isn't to say all the products work, or work well, or work well in all circumstances, or are worth the prices they charge. But in high-end audio, some of them are VERY well worth their cost, which can be quite modest in comparison to what you pay for some equipment upgrades.

Now obviously vibration affecting your equipment comes from a lot of sources such as airborne vibrations, vibrations from the compoents themselves, vibrations from the floor and stands, etc. I'd be lying if I told you what type of isolation is best for each of these circumstances and what to use when. I don't have such a background and few people do. Still, I've found from experience, and for obvious reasons because of the nature of their designs and functions, certain pieces of your system are more susceptible to changes in performance due to vibration. For example, turntables are highly influenced, cd-transports depending on their design, as well as tube electronics more so than solid state. And then to varying degree I've found components such as solid state amps, D/As, and preamps, etc. can also be affected, but not always. Last, but certainly not least, speakers themselves benefit highly from being coupled rigidly to your floors. Which brings us to the point at hand..... Black Diamond Racing's Pyramid Cones.

It was at Hi-Fi '96 where I met the BDR Prez, DJ Casser. He sent me home with a box of his Mk.3 and Mk.4 cones. These flashy little slick black cones are relatively new in the high-end audio arena. When viewed from the top down the cones are circular ( so don't quite imagine a pyramid which would be square). Their base is about 1.5 inches in diameter which rises steadily to a rounded top, making them about 1.5 inches in total height. They're finished beautifully in high-gloss black. On the flat bottom there are threaded holes for either Stainless Steel or Brass Studs (Black Diamond sells 'em at a nominal cost) if you're fortunate to be able to screw them into the bottom of your gear (for example, to replace the stock 'spikes' supplied on most speakers). The cones come in the Mk.3 and Mk.4 versions which differ in material structure and manufacturing technique. Subsequent sonic differences also result. Neither is supposedly better of worse, they simply work better in different situations.

A Tale of Two Sources

Two sore spots have consistently nagged me in my system as a constant reminder of the proper placement and isolation of equipment. One has been, believe it or not, my DAC, and the other, not surprisingly, my speakers.

First off, let's talk about my DAC. Ever since my Theta Prime I went into surgery and came back a Prime II, a buzzing transformer has been a persistent problem. It is a mechanical buzz and before it was shipped back to go under the knife again it was audible at 30 feet! Just a gentle, annoying hum, that not only added to the room noise, but vibrated that little bugger to the detriment of midrange clarity, bass extension, and soundstaging. Since then Theta has damped it down, not quite perfectly, but it's now only audible from a couple feet away. Still, if I rest my hand on top of the chassis while it's playing I can feel it sing along to the beat. Beethoven would have loved having this piece in his final years so he could feel the music as he went deaf. I don't quite feel the same.

Until now Audioprism's Isopods have been helping tame the vibrations, and quite effectively at that. So in their place for a good test went the Pyramid Mk. 3 Cones. With three Isopods, the DAC is basically floating on spongy feet; with three Pyramid Cones (two in the front, one in the back - three makes your components self levelling and seems to makes a stiffer contact than four) it sits rigidly coupled to the stand. I placed the cones with the tips up in this case. DJ informed me that in general you are to point the tips toward the vibrating surface. Futhermore, under transformers seems to be the most beneficial. Tapping on the top of the chassis now makes a 'bnnk-bnnk' type of sound. It feels solid and vibrates less on its own.

And the sound coming out of the speakers? Like the Isopods, the midrange and bass was cleaner and the window into the soundstage came a little clearer. We're not talking huge differences at this point, but we're talking a definite and valuable improvement in my opinion. How much did you pay for your DAC and is another $60 too much to ask if they help you make it that much better? You decide.

Oh yeah, which were better, the Isopods or the Pyramid Cones? Well, the improvements were similar, athough each were employing different technologies. I'd have to say that the Cones rendered things a little tighter and clearer, and the Isopods a little warmer. But we're talking very, very subtle here, so I don't want to get carried away. Myself, I'm going to leave the Cones underneath and find another use for the Isopods. But if you want to hear about some REALLY BIG DIFFERENCES - please read on.

Whereas the Pyramid Cones under the DAC make a subtle, but meaningful difference, under my speakers they are simply fantastic. My B&W 803's are attached to Sound Anchor Stands. The stands are excellent and come equipped with drillin' for oil size spikes. Trouble is, take a look at your hardwood floors (if you have 'em) after the spikes go on. It's as if Bonnie and Clyde were in the room. So until now I've been stuck with makeshift remedies to couple my speakers as tightly with the floor without knocking craters into them and forfeiting my damage deposit.

Under each of the Sound Anchor stands went three Mk. 4 Cones - one in the front, two in the back. Now although I found putting them tips down still does render a very small dent with very heavy speakers (you may not mind, I do), I currently have them tips up with the same great results. The speaker now feels very solid on the three points, with little room for sway or motion (important when woofer drivers start pumping). Although I was previously getting good sound from my system, the cones took it that one step further and gave me the type of improvement I would have had to pay thousands more for had I simply gone out and bought new speakers and said screw the tweaks.

The general character of the system has remained the same; it's the increased clarity that is astounding. Bass lines are much more solid and well defined. The upper bass hump that has plagued me for so long (and that I attributed solely to room problems) is now mostly gone (except for the room problem). The midrange has turned beautifully clear. I hadn't realized what I was missing and I didn't realize that my B&Ws were capable of this level of performance. I guess it was in them all this time just waiting to get out. I thought the imaging was good already, I hadn't expected even more depth, more palpability, and even more definition. To cite an example right this moment, as I type this my favorite Sarah McClachlan disk is playing (The Freedom Sessions). Certain tracks on this nearly live-to-disk release were previously bass-heavy and somewhat wooly. I just chalked that up to the recording. These same tracks still possess deep bass, but now it's wonderfully tight bass with strong definition. And there is a wealth of low level detail that had been previously masked. I'm simply stunned over the improvement.

I can stress enough that speaker placement and how you place your speakers can make some of the largest improvements in your system. How often do audiophiles spend hundreds or thousands on minuscule improvements and neglect some real basics? Getting your speakers placed properly in the room, then firmly in place should be number one on your list. For me, The Black Diamond Racing Cones help do that part of that job wonderfully.

Now what about you guys with carpet? Well, I haven't tried them there and I can see some difficulty unless your speakers are heavy enough to weigh them down to the floorboard. It's not just the fact that you're putting cones under your speakers that the sound improves. It is how the cones are coupling your speakers to the floor that really buy your ticket to audio heaven. I contacted DJ on this and he wisely suggested people try it out (hopefully y'all have really good dealers out there who lend things out, or at least won't stick it to you if you're unhappy). Black Diamond also has some other ways to make them work on carpet and you may just want to contact them directly.

I do want to add one word of caution when you're dealing with cones or spikes of any type. Whenever you're balancing any of your equipment on these types of devices, be very careful that you have them solidly in place. Although you may have propped up your equipment to newfound sonic nirvana, it could all come crashing down very quickly if you haven't done it right (ie. get the threaded screws for your speakers if possible, always test to make sure everything is stable, don't leave equipment teetering near edges, etc.). Again, Black Diamond has a silicon type adhesive that can be used to attach cones to equipment if screws aren't possible (although it may have some sonic impacts, positive or negative). One time at a high-end show I heard a gentlemen criticize reviewers for being negligent when recommending these types of pieces by not warning people to take every effort or recommend ways to ensure stability. The reviewers scoffed at him, but I found out later a light tremor had hit this man's house and his speakers and equipment started playing Humpty-Dumpty. A tremor doesn't have to be caused by shaking earth either, it can be a spouse, kids, vacuum nozzle, or your best friend with too much beer.

That said, I found the Black Diamond Racing Pyramid Cones at $60 per set of three to be of tremendous value. I'm not one to spend or recommend large amounts of money on questionable products. And at first glance, $20 for a cone seems like a lot of money. Hell, it is! But the retail value of my speakers and stands are about $3000; my DAC clocks in at about $1200. Furthermore, I've played with equipment costing thousands more in an effort to improve my system, with poorer results. At less than $200 I'm ecstatic over the overall improvement in sound. Find yourself a good dealer and try these out. You owe it to yourself.

So what's next on the horizon? Well, Black Diamond Racing's really big product is simply called The Shelf. A hot-ticket, high-tech, carbon fiber board, available in various sizes, to be placed mainly under electronic gear. Very cool looking, but at something like $265 per square foot it's not nearly as cost effective. However, like I said before, I let my ears be the judge, so I may have to get my hands on one of those to give it a listen. Until then, grab up some Pyramind Cones for the weekend, it may be your best system improvement this year.

...Doug Schneider

Black Diamond Racing - The Pyramid Cones
Price: $60 (set of 3) USD

Black Diamond Racing
2625 South Greeley Street
Milwaukee, WI