[SoundStage!]Max dB with Doug Blackburn
Back Issue Article
February 2000

Digging Digital -- Part 1

Last month I came to realize something about my enjoyment of digital music in its various forms -- CDs, 24/96 discs, music DVDs and DTS surround-encoded CDs. I realized that I didn’t like the music nearly as much when the digital front-end was simply set on a table or rack and left to do its thing without benefit of tweaks, accessories, or attention to detail. The excellent digital sound that I can get with a well-accessorized setup collapses to a state of relative mediocrity when the equipment is used bareback.

Due to time constraints and the inability to rouse myself to higher than ever levels of audiophile anality, I can’t tell you what accessories or tweaks do the most for me, nor can I or will I produce an itemized list that starts with the most improvement and ends with the least improvement. I was even debating whether or not to mention the specific brands of accessories I use because there is a certain percentage of readers who will take that to mean that these are the best products to use bar none. Well, that just can’t be true for several reasons. First, I haven’t been able to try every accessory or tweak -- there isn’t enough time in anyone’s life to try all of them. I have tried a fair number and have selected the ones I like best from the group of products I have tried.

I’ve discussed many of these accessories and tweaks either in other columns or in reviews, but I’ve never discussed all of them in one place before. I hope by doing that here you will get some idea of where you might want to go with the set up of your digital front-end to maximize the mileage you can get out of your investment in components. The best thing about these accessories is that they don’t go out of date. You can buy these accessories today and still be using them happily ten years from now. Your digital playback hardware may grow old from the introduction of new formats and new capabilities. But your accessories are mostly obsolescence proof, making them much safer buys than expensive digital components if you are budget constrained. The cost of half a dozen accessories can end up giving your digital front-end competitive sound quality with a digital front-end that costs thousands of dollars more (which is not accessorized or tweaked).

Isolation platforms

I find isolation platforms under the transport and DAC (or one-box player) to be well worth the investment. If your budget is really restricted, you might even get away with one isolation platform with both components resting on it. The LaserBase frame and cradle isolation system (review in SoundStage! archives) is the best combination of cost and performance I’ve found so far for this application. If you are one of the many people who are not particularly mechanically inclined, the LaserBase may be a little tricky to deal with. You’d probably find a Bright Star Audio isolation and damping system or Townshend Seismic Sink easier to use, if not quite as sonically effective. The five-times-more-expensive Vibraplane is perhaps the ultimate isolation base if your budget can handle it. For the severely budget constrained, there are descriptions of how to make a DIY isolation system for a cost of less than $20 per component right here on SoundStage! in the columns archive, and the plans occasionally get reiterated in the Audio Tweaks section of the Talk Online forums. Isolating the digital front-end seems to relax the entire presentation and improve the audibility of details. In addition, you get an improved sense of space. Also, different types of isolation platforms will affect perceived bass performance differently. Be sure to evaluate bass performance with each different isolation platform you try so you don’t miss what’s going on in the bottom end.

The degree of improvement from isolation platforms is the same degree that people spend thousands of dollars on buying better digital products. If you were to compare a great-sounding sub-$2000 digital front-end (perhaps a Bel Canto DAC1, Pioneer DV-525 DVD player as transport and Cardas Lightning digital cable) with a $4000 to $5000 (or more!) digital front-end, the difference in sound quality would be about the same as if you placed the Bel Canto DAC1 and Pioneer DV-525 on a single $500 isolation platform. Too many audiophiles focus on better components, more expensive components, and forget that it is often possible to spend $500 on an accessory to get the same degree of improvement that spending $2000 or more on the hardware would net.

Vibration/resonance control

This is a rather huge topic. I’ll try to limit the areas discussed rather than being stupefyingly detailed, complete, and back-button boring. I find that most digital components with medium-weight to lightweight cases/chassis sound better with a sand-filled baggie on the top as the cheap alternative. For something more aesthetically pleasing, open the product in question and apply a good damping material on chassis/case surfaces. For fine-tuning the sound of the product, I like small wood blocks or pieces of other materials. I’ve successfully used 2" pieces of 1/4" square copper bus bar or titanium bar. Placing these objects on top of the component allows you to make small tonality shifts. It requires experimentation; different materials sound different, and 1" pieces sound different than 2" pieces. Generally, the larger the object in dimensions or weight, the lower in the audio frequency range you will hear its effects. This means to tune highs, you’ll have better luck with small, lightweight objects, while tuning lows is more effectively done with longer and heavier objects. Generally, plastic, nylon, and rubber don’t sound very good as tuning materials. Woods, metals, ceramics, and glass tend to give more musical results. Woods tend to be the mellowest-sounding, and I find that for most digital front-ends, wood can fill in the overly sterile digital presentation better than the other materials.

Using a metaphor thought up by Mike VansEvers makes this resonance-tuning stuff a lot easier to understand. Consider a huge box of Crayons; each is a different color. Now assume that your Crayons are "audio colors" rather than colored wax. And each Crayon is a different material. Light blue might be a half-inch-long copper bar, medium blue might be a 1.5" copper bar and dark blue might be a 3" copper bar. Reds might be different sizes of cocobolo wood blocks. Greens might be different sizes of mahogany blocks, etc. etc. What you do with these audio Crayolas could be considered "tone painting." You select a material, put it on the component and see where it takes the sound. You will be a bit "blind" in the beginning because you haven’t experienced these tone colors enough yet to understand what each different material and each different size will do. But you can get experience with experimentation. And if you don’t have the time or inclination to do all the experimenting, Mike VansEvers will sell you kits of pre-cut wood blocks that will consistently deliver a certain type of sound. He has a "warmth" kit, for example, which is popular to use with a lot of digital equipment because it trades a little of the cold digital atmosphere for some analog warmth. You don’t get huge changes from this tuning, but you do get subtle shifts in whatever direction you want to go.


Another potentially huge topic. There is no one right answer for "What’s the best foot?" It all depends on what your system sounds like now and what type of sound you want it to have. If it has a sound that is too bright, you will probably get the best results with some type of soft material or wood for the feet. If the sound is too mellow, dull or lacking dynamics, metal, ceramic or glass may be better foot materials. Interestingly, you can combine wood and metal feet to get warmth and dynamics at the same time. I’m turning into a foot rebel by finding that in many, perhaps most, instances, I prefer the sound of two or three different kinds of feet under some components. You use three feet under a component, but each foot is different, sometimes very different. Under my preamp power supply I have a titanium ball bearing, a medium-sized Whatchamacallit (lead shot mixed with black silicone glass sealer) and one Nordost Pulsar Point. The dang power supply sits all catty wumpus on the shelf and looks rather dumb, but I can live with it for the sound the three different feet create.

You know how when you shop for paint they have maybe 12 to 20 premixed colors on the shelf, but those colors rarely match the color you have in your mind, so you get a custom mixed color? That’s how it is when you start mixing two or three different kinds of feet. Using three feet, all the same material and all the same size, can give you too much of a good sound. By mixing different kinds of feet, you can paint a different sound for your system.

For the digital components, I use a LaserBase support system and install four Nordost Pulsar Points (8mm thread) on the four feet that contact the shelf of the rack. There are four more Nordost Pulsar Points (also 8mm thread size) on the four upward-pointing legs on which the CD or DVD player sits. I happen to find the sound of the LaserBase with Pulsar Points perfectly heavenly. The $350 LaserBase combined with $200 worth of Pulsar Points is starting to get a little pricey, but it sure is effective. It may be curious that I went on about mixing feet in the paragraphs above, but here with the LaserBase, I end up with eight Pulsar Points. Well, the transport really needs to be level, and it is easier to level the transport on the LaserBase if all the feet on the LaserBase are identical. The Pulsar Points work here because they aren’t quite as tonal as most feet; that is they don’t have too much of a sound. They improve detail and dynamics and give strong, detailed bass.

Optical surface treatments for discs

Lately I’ve gotten a whole new respect for optical surface treatments for CDs, DVDs and 24/96 discs. You might even consider the best optical surface treatments "analog switches" for your digital front-end. It is rather uncanny how much gray electronic sound you can banish with a good optical surface treatment applied to your discs. And whether the product’s manufacturer tells you to do this or not, do it: apply the optical surface treatment to both sides of the CD or DVD. One of the benefits of these products may be reduction of static buildup while the disc spins -- if so, you reduce static about twice as well if you apply the product to both sides of the CD. I’ve experimented with this enough times to have proven to myself that two treated surfaces are indeed better sounding than one.

Right now I alternate optical surface treatment products between Auric Illuminator (review coming soon) and something new called Digital Juice. Both give similar improvements to audio and video quality. My experience with these products is that they impart an analog-like feel to music reproduced by a digital front-end -- you get a smoother and more open sound with a soundstage that is definitely bigger and more analog-like. Every CD or DVD I have used these two products on has improved in exactly the same ways. There is no hit-or-miss with these products; even remastered, mono CDs sound noticeably better. There are other optical surface treatments out there that may work just as well. Generally you will spend between $15 and $40 for an optical surface treatment kit. For that price you’ll get enough stuff to treat 200 or more CDs. That means you’ll pay something like 7.5 to 20 cents per CD for an effective optical surface treatment. This is dirt cheap for such sonic improvement.

If you are from the "I tried that already" group and you stopped using optical surface treatments because the company that made the one you used to use went out of business or stopped making the product or because you never heard a big enough difference to bother with continuing to treat your discs, well, you really need to try one of this new generation of products. They are considerably more effective than what was available earlier.

I’ll continue the saga of what makes digital music playback so darn much more pleasant for me in part two -- next month.

...Doug Blackburn


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