June 2004Harmonic Resolution System M3 Isolation Base
by Marc Mickelson
With analog playback, which relies on a delicate diamond-tipped stylus being dragged through an exceedingly narrow groove, it's easy to understand why physical isolation from vibration can lead to better sound. However, for electronics, whose functionality does not rely on precise movement, the merits of isolation platforms and other such devices seem more dubious. In the past, I've let my ears decide, and I've discovered that with CD players/transports and tube electronics (I haven't been analog in over a decade), a good platform can lead to subtle but meaningful sonic improvements.
Over the years, I've written about isolation and damping products from Bright Star Audio and Silent Running Audio. These companies make very effective isolation platforms that are based on very different principles. Bright Star uses the mass and damping properties of sand to create platforms that are heavy and inert. Among its techniques, Silent Running uses a blocked thermal reactive copolymer to create shock absorbers that isolate a platform with an outer coating of rubber and cyclonically exploded glass. I use products from both companies in my reference system -- Silent Running VR 3.0 isoBases under my Lamm amps and preamp, and a Bright Star Big Rock 1 base under my CD transport (in between base and transport is a Townshend Seismic Sink, another well-known isolation product).
So into a system that's already flush with similar products come Harmonic Resolution Systems' M3 isolation bases. How do these perform amidst the competition?
The HRS story, abridged edition
I hadn't heard of Harmonic Resolution Systems before I saw the company's products a couple of years ago while covering the Son & Image show in Montreal. It's difficult to walk by and not reach out and touch them. They look dramatic, all machined anodized aluminum and polished granite. Their beauty is undeniable and makes me wonder why audio companies can't make chassis that look as good.
HRS is run by Mike Latvis, who, according to the HRS website, is an engineer with "twenty years of engineering and product development experience with isolation systems for major aerospace and defense customers." Latvis has "worked for a number of leading companies on the development of isolation products for commercial aircraft, military aircraft, and missile defense systems." He is also an audiophile and music lover who obviously has a knack for finding skilled craftsmen -- HRS products are expertly made in addition to being developed through adherence to the scientific method.
With their products, Latvis and his team mean to address two sources of the vibration that harms the performance of audio equipment. As the HRS website states, structure-borne vibration originates "from loudspeakers, household devices, other audio components, and miscellaneous external disturbances." Air-borne vibration comes from "loudspeakers, humans, and other vibrating devices within audible reach of the [audio] system." According to HRS, for both types of vibration "the frequency range is very broad and complex," meaning that application of one technique or material will not address the entire spectrum of vibrational energy. HRS products are said to "significantly reduce structure-borne and air-borne vibration over the entire frequency range of any audio system," accomplishing this via isolating, damping and controlling resonance for the audio equipment used along with them. They do this through various means, including the use of proprietary materials "developed based on years of engineering experience, product testing, and audio-system listening tests." Can't ask for much more than that.
The M3 platform addresses structure-borne vibration only; HRS's Nimbus footers, couplers and damping plates, which I'll be writing about in the future, address air-borne vibration. The M3 consists of six materials -- three proprietary polymers, two metals, and granite -- each utilized for its broadband-isolation, micro-vibration-damping or resonance-control properties. For the M3, a thick piece of polished granite is set into a frame machined from a single billet of aluminum. The granite is decoupled from the frame via polymer pads of HRS's creation. Underneath the M3 are footers that pivot from central screws that affix the footers to the aluminum frame. The number (from four and up to eight) and type of footers used depend on the load the M3 base will support. The M3 is thus heavy, very inert, and very well isolated from all manner of structure-borne vibration.
HRS produces the M3 isolation base in various standard sizes (custom sizes are also available), and each of these is optimized for the weight of the component it will support. Standard sizes range from 14"-23" deep and 17"-21" wide, with as little as 0 and as much as 205 pounds supported. Prices range from $1345 to $1965 USD. HRS sent me for review one M3-1419-YW base, which is 14"D x 19"W x 3"H and supports 0-25 pounds, and one M3-1719-RD, which measures 17"D x 19"W x 3"H and supports 5-40 pounds. They cost $1345 and $1495 respectively. Custom sizes and load ranges are available.
I used the M3-1719-RD isolation base under either a Mark Levinson No.37 or 47 Lab PiTracer CD transport and the M3-1419-YW base under a Zanden Audio Model 5000 Mk III DAC. Electronics were from Lamm (ML1.1 and M1.2 Reference mono amps, L2 Reference preamp), Atma-Sphere (MA-2 Mk II.3 mono amps and MP-1 Mk II preamp), Belles (150A Reference stereo amp and 21A preamp with Auricap upgrade), deHavilland (Aries GM70 mono amps) and Simaudio (W-6 mono amps). Speakers were Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s or MAXX Series 2s. Interconnects and speaker cables were Siltech Signature G6 Forbes Lake and Signature G6 Eskay Creek respectively, with Nordost Valhalla also in use. Power cords were from Shunyata Research (Anaconda Vx, Anaconda Alpha, Taipan and Python), with Siltech Signature G6 Ruby Creek power cords used on the digital components for a time as well.
There is no assembly required with the M3 isolation base. You simply remove the M3 from its wooden shipping crate, put it where you want it, and set your component on top of it, centering the component's mass as well as you can, which boosts the M3's effectiveness. The M3's refined appearance matched very well with that of my Mark Levinson transport -- the two looked like they were made to be used together.
Differences and improvements
Because of the way my system is configured, I used the pair of M3 platforms I received in two different ways: by themselves (for the bulk of the review period) and with one on top of my Bright Star base, which I did so I could determine the effect of the Townshend Seismic Sink that is usually there. I was not able to compare the M3 to the Silent Running products I use because the HRS platforms were load specific to my digital gear and the Silent Running VR 3.0 isoBases were made specially for my Lamm electronics.
I first used the M3 with the Zanden Model 5000 Mk III DAC -- disconnection and reconnection of the DAC was easier than with either CD transport. The Zanden DAC is cinder-block solid and has a thick base plate that reportedly has isolation properties of its own. Here, the effect was modest -- a slight decrease in noise, which led to an increase in detail. Instruments had greater solidity -- brass more bite, drums more impact. When it comes to reviewing audio equipment there is nothing worse than having to detect and then describe sonic differences, especially those that are minute. Doing so is hard work and causes anxiety over the merit of what you think you might be hearing. With the M3 and the Zanden DAC, I heard improvements, not mere changes, although I can't say that they were profound.
I then removed the DAC from the first M3 (removing that variable in the process), centered the transport I was using at the time, the 47 Lab PiTracer, onto the second M3 platform, reconnected everything, and put on a CD. I hoped I would hear something greater -- better or worse -- than I did with the DAC, just so I would have worthwhile findings to report for this review. I feared I wouldn't. However, the increased focus and authority were not subtle. Image outlines were obviously sharper, and the overall character of the sound was more energetic and detailed. After hours and then days of listening, I came to the conclusion that the PiTracer not only sounded better sitting atop the M3 platform, it sounded its very best. Its intrinsic character was discernible when it was resting on my Bright Star/Townshend combo, but it wasn't as pronounced -- things sounded a little muffled or fuzzy in comparison. Not with the M3 underneath. The PiTracer sounded better than any CD transport I've heard.
At this point, I was in the middle of reviewing the 47 Lab PiTracer, but I couldn't resist swapping it for my reference Mark Levinson No.37, the transport I would be living with after the PiTracer departed. So out went the 47 and in went the 37. I knew the sound of the No.37 well, so I didn't reestablish a baseline by resting the transport on the Bright Star/Townshend combo before going to the HRS M3. Again, there was an obvious increase in focus -- image outlines were more strongly drawn -- and a sense that more musical information was present.
I settled in for some listening -- I needed to get what I was hearing down on paper. I listened first to Ani DiFranco's Evolve [Righteous Babe RBR030-D], which I found out is no longer her latest release. This woman records faster than some of us can listen! Evolve's jazzy energy has grown on me to the point that I enjoy it as much as Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up [Righteous Babe RBR013-D], which is saying a lot given the number of times I've mentioned that recording in one of my reviews. On the title track of Evolve, DiFranco proves once again that she can write engaging lyrics and music, and record herself with great expertise. With the M3 platform under the Levinson No.37, her voice sounded more immediate and powerful than I had heard previously. The funky bass line was easier to follow too, even at its greatest depth. Good stuff.
Later I put on an old favorite that's also well recorded: Lyle Lovett's Joshua Judges Ruth [MCA/Curb MCAD-10475]. The piano opening to "I've Been to Memphis" was more crisp and had a better sense of pace. On "Church," the voices of the choir had greater delineation amidst the very spacious soundstage. Bass on both tracks was tighter, more rhythmic and had greater solidity. Again, good stuff.
I needed no more convincing. The M3 was a success.
In formulating what I wanted to say about the M3 with the CD transports, I was necessarily playing the sound of the transports in this configuration against the sound with my Bright Star/Townshend duo underneath. However, later on I compared the Bright Star Big Rock 1 ($199) directly against the HRS M3, and the results were very interesting.
The Big Rock 1, as most audiophiles know, is a boxy MDF platform filled with sand onto which an MDF plinth "floats." The component then rests on the plinth. The sand adds great mass -- once filled, the Big Rock 1 weighs 60 pounds -- and damps vibration very well. I've used Bright Star products for more than a decade, and I've never found them to be anything less than highly effective. The Big Rock 1 I own is an early version with foam that fits around the edges of the plinth to hide the sand. Barry Kohan of Bright Star Audio has refined this design over the years and now uses a plinth that fits into the platform without foam and hides the sand just as well. He's also introduced Reference versions of his earlier designs that use heat-fired glass crystal, carbon fiber and high-density polymers in the place of the MDF. These cost about double what the originals do, but they are roughly one-third as expensive as the HRS M3.
What I discovered was that the Big Rock 1 I've been using for more than ten years is one heck of a great accessory. It alone brought the sound of either the 47 Lab or Mark Levinson transport nearer to that with the M3 than the Big Rock 1/Seismic Sink combo. Images were more crisp with the Big Rock 1 alone, and bass was tighter and more propulsive as well. I have no reason to believe that my Seismic Sink is defective -- it holds air and its LEDs flash to let me know when it's low -- but removing it certainly improved the sound of my system. I've been using the Big Rock 1/Seismic Sink combination for years, and obviously I began using it because it was more effective than the Big Rock 1 alone. I will have to do some investigation before I write off the Seismic Sink completely, at least in my system.
Still, the M3 platform more than held its own against the Big Rock 1 -- I preferred it. There was no sonic parameter in which it didn't improve on the Big Rock 1 -- a few to a slight degree but most to a greater level. With the Joshua Judges Ruth, for instance, the spaciousness on "Church" was obviously greater with the M3. I also used the M3 in the place of the Townshend Seismic Sink, which is to say that I put it on top of the Big Rock 1. Why? I wanted to hear if this would improve on the M3 alone. It didn't -- I heard no change or improvement with the Big Rock 1 underneath. What this indicates to me is that the M3 does its job exceedingly well -- its footers isolate to such a great degree that what's underneath is of no consequence. If you're wondering, I didn't try things the other way around -- with the Big Rock 1 on top of the M3 -- as the M3 was not spec'ed for such a load.
The moral of all this mixing and matching? If cost is a consideration, investigate Bright Star products. But if you want a platform that looks smashing and performs to an even higher level, seek out the Harmonic Resolution Systems M3. I would expect both products to be even more indispensable when used with a turntable.
If your electronics, and especially your turntable, advance from being supported on the shelf of a simple equipment rack to being used with a product like the HRS M3 (or Bright Star Big Rock 1), you will hear sound that's better in various ways. You should expect to -- that's what such products are designed to do. Not realizing this and then proclaiming that amazing improvements exist is rather like being surprised that what looks like a pair of wooden boxes can emit sound.
Even amidst the competition, the Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation base worked very well in my system, improving the sound of the digital equipment I had here in worthwhile ways. Focus and resolution were greater, as was the swing and power of the presentation. I can't say the inherent character of the equipment changed, but I can say that it seemed to be more pronounced, more easy to recognize and appreciate.
Harmonic Resolution Systems is onto something with its approach to improving the sound of audio components. The M3 isolation base is not inexpensive, but if you demo one, you will become a believer in such products -- and perhaps an owner.
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