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Equipment Review

February 1999

Bright Star Audio
Big Rock, Little Rock and Air Mass

by Marc Mickelson

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Review at a Glance
Sound Purer tone, slightly greater detail and clarity, and more natural flow are all apparent; it’s your equipment, only better.
Features Sand, air and nonmagnetic metals and minerals are used to damp, isolate and protect components from vibration, resonance, RFI and EMI.
Use Big Rocks require filling with sand and careful leveling; Air Mass comes with its own air pump and bubble level; no assembly required for Little Rock.
Value Can remain part of your system even as your components change, improving the sound for old and new.

You would have to be an audiophile from another planet to be unaware of Bright Star Audio’s products. The original line consisted of the Big Rock isolation base and Little Rock isolation pod for sandwiching your audio components and producing a number of beneficial sonic effects in the process. They came in a few different sizes, and there was even a specific model of base for the VPI HW-19 turntable. These products remain in production, but the line has bulked out and includes a larger variety of Big Rocks and Little Rocks, the Air Mass pneumatic mount for isolating components with air as well as the new and especially attractive Reference Series products made of carbon fiber and heat-fired glass crystal. Currently Bright Star makes over 20 different products -- including the sturdy Gibraltar equipment racks and Altair series of speakers -- and all are available in the company’s now-signature mottled dark granite and black granite finishes. And you can get the speakers in a real-wood finish too.

For years I’ve used the sand-filled Big Rock bases under my CD transport and the various amps that I’ve owned, and the effects have always been a little more than subtle but always meaningful and more than commensurate with the cost of the products. Most notably I heard greater overall purity of tone coupled with a slight increase in the resolution of fine detail. I added a Little Rock on top of my transport and the sound was better again. So the thought of giving the Bright Star treatment to my entire system was especially appealing -- I already had a taste of what the products could do. If a little was good, then maybe a lot would be better.

Mr. Sandman

The Bright Star Little Rock pods are filled with a proprietary mixture of nonmagnetic metals and minerals to create a blocklike mass that sits on top of a component. According to Bright Star, this loads the component’s top plate, damping stored energy and shielding the component from RFI and EMI. When the component also sits on a Big Rock base, the Little Rock is said to force unwanted resonance out of the component and into the Big Rock, where it is absorbed. To complete the Ultimate Isolation System, add an Air Mass under the Little Rock/component/Big Rock sandwich. Inside the Air Mass is a bladder that you fill with air, further isolating the component from floorborne vibration and increasing the effect of the Little and Big Rock.

The Little Rock pods and Air Mass platforms require very little in the way of setup. You have to add air to the Air Mass with the included pump, but that’s it. The Big Rock, however, requires some effort because it uses sand inside to do its job. It comes in two pieces -- the base and plinth, both made of MDF and finished similarly. In earlier Big Rocks, the plinth, which rests on the sand below it, was about an inch shorter in length and width, so the difference between it and the inside edge of the base was made up with foam strips that finished off the unit nicely, hiding the sand. Nowadays the plinths are larger so that they almost fit snugly inside the base, so the foam is no longer necessary. All you need to do now is make sure the plinth doesn’t touch the inside edges of the base and thus null the floating-on-a-bed-of-sand effect of the Big Rock.

Back to filling with sand. Bright Star strictly recommends #20 to #30 silica sand or dry sterilized play sand. You can find these at building-supply centers or perhaps larger toy stores. Simply fill the base to 1/4" of the top lip with the sand, then use the included cardboard guide to smooth and level it. Rock the base from corner to corner if you can’t quite push the sand into the corners of the base. Add the plinth, making sure to leave a small gap between it and the inside edge of the base all around, and you’re finished. Once you’ve gotten the hang of setting up one Big Rock, filling others is no problem.

To construct the Ultimate Isolation System, put the unfilled Air Mass on your rack or floor -- wherever you will set the component you will use with it -- and level it by turning the small brass feet on the bottom. Bright Star thinks of everything, it seems, and includes a bubble level with the Air Mass. Then add the sand-filled Big Rock on top of the Air Mass. Next situate the component on the Big Rock, and then put the Little Rock on top of it all. The feet on the Little Rock will probably allow enough clearance for any ventilation holes on the component, but if you are unsure of this, consult the maker of your equipment. The final step is to pump up the Air Mass with the supplied pump, leaving as close as possible a uniform gap of 3/8" or so between its top plate and base -- which the hidden air bladder will take up. The Air Mass 2S that I used could hold up to 150 pounds safely, so overall weight, even with the heavy Big Rock and Little Rock on it, was no worry.

System and method

I used Bright Star Big Rocks under every component in my reference system -- except speakers. Thus they sat under a Wadia 20 transport, Timbre TT-1 DAC, Lamm ML1 and ML2 monoblock tube amps, even an Audio Magic Tubed interconnect. Additionally, a Bright Star Ultimate Isolation System held my Lamm L1 linestage in its weighty embrace. I also used a Little Rock 1 on top of my Wadia transport, as I always do.

In addition to the electronics I mentioned, I used ProAc Response Four speakers; JPS Labs Superconductor2 interconnects and NC Series speaker cables; Marigo Apparition Reference series 3A and JPS Superconductor2 coaxial digital cables; and JPS Labs, API and Audio Magic power cords. Power was channeled but not filtered by a Marigo RMX Reference AC Distribution Center and JPS Labs four-socket Power AC Outlet Center.

While doing this comparison, I used my system in three different configurations: with a full complement of Bright Star products in place (as explained above), with no Bright Star products (equipment on sand-filled Target rack, amps and transport on plywood on the floor), and with my usual lineup of Bright Star products (a Big Rock 2 under each mono amp, Big Rock 1 under and Little Rock 1 on top of transport). The observations I offer apply most strongly to listening done with the full Bright Star system in use and to a lesser degree when a few of the pieces were in use. Quick A/B comparisons were, well, next to impossible.

Sand and sound

As I mentioned, I already had experience with Bright Star products before this review -- about eight years of it -- so it was no surprise to me that Bright Starring my entire system pushed it just a bit closer to what is its essential nature: unforced resolution. It was still my equipment at work, only the sound was better -- purer in tone, slightly more detailed and clearer, more naturally flowing. I especially liked the way the soundstage seemed to open up -- due, no doubt, to the system’s overall increased resolution -- allowing me to hear details as being more individual, not part of a single sound.

Last month in SoundStage! Music Online, Srajan Ebaen waxed rhapsodic about Jacques Loussier’s Satie disc [Telarc CD-83431]. Prior to this release, Loussier did his jazz thing on the Telarc label with Bach [Plays Bach, Telarc CD-83411] and Vivaldi [The Four Seasons, Telarc CD-83417]. I have yet to hear Satie, but the other two releases displayed the virtues of the Bright Star bases and pods very clearly. With the Bright Star stuff in use, the differences between the two recordings are all the more evident. Loussier plays on The Four Seasons with both greater restraint and fire. while Plays Bach, in contrast, is more calculated and even emotionally. Does the music itself dictate these differences? Perhaps, but the more finely resolved sound plays a role in at least my interpretation. And speaking of piano, the electric piano on "Her Town Too" from the Mobile Fidelity remastered version of James Taylor’s Dad Loves His Work [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 726] is easily clearer with the Bright Star goodies in use. It seems to float like a feather in the air. Also, Taylor’s and J.D. Souther’s voices here are more ambient, decaying in their own sweet time.

If JVC’s XRCDs interest you, but you’re not sure which title to start with, I suggest the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Concorde [JVC JVCXR-0203-2], one of the new XRCD2s and a "big mono" title that projects and spreads out so well that you won’t mind that it’s in mono. Milt Jackson’s vibe work is more pristine with the Bright Star products in use -- man, does it project! -- and John Lewis’ soft piano playing on "All of You" seems even softer, as though it is not just more resolved, but the noise floor is lower. I know this can’t be -- I think -- but my ears aren’t convinced.

With each recording, the Bright Star effect came into stronger light, until I was finally ready to quantify the results: My system now drew approximately 110% of my attention -- no, make that 115.5%. I’m being facetious here because I have nothing else to fall back on. The Bright Star Big Rocks, Little Rocks and Air Mass improved everything I listened to, no tradeoffs or mere changes in sound, only discernible improvements. I could go on and on citing recordings made better because of the Bright Star products in use, but it would be a long list -- I suspect everything I own. But the effects were consistent throughout -- greater clarity and resolution, and a more organic overall sound.

A day at the beach

There’s no great mystery to Bright Star’s approach. The company uses sand and air along with other materials to soothe the nerves of your audio equipment, figuratively speaking. I would say that Bright Star products are almost necessary for turntables, CD players and transports -- hell, maybe everything -- budget restrictions being the only reason not to experiment with them. They’re easy to set up and use, and they even look nice, offering a sort of reserved counterpoint to the glitz of much high-end equipment.

It’s chic these days to call this or that non-essential addition to a system equal in effect to that of an electronic component. I’ve read this about everything from power cords to cones and footers. What’s most significant about the Bright Star products, however, and thus of the greatest interest to audiophiles looking to better their existing systems, is that the Little Rock, Big Rock and Air Mass, even when used together, don’t represent a component-like upgrade -- and you shouldn’t want them to. Why add yet another variable to the already complicated process of building an audio system? Instead, Bright Star products make the sound you already have better, and universally so. All of sudden, you’ll know what your equipment really sounds like. The intrinsic nature of your system becomes more discernible, or perhaps discernible for the first time. Tonally, the music is purer and more resolved, and you didn’t have to pay big money and hope a new amp will produce the sound you long for. And the neatest thing is that it can all be done incrementally. Start with your source component and go from there. You’ll only be rewarded with each ensuing step.

For me, Bright Star’s Big Rock, Little Rock and now Air Mass are essential items. In fact, they are the only constant in my audio system, which has been evolving for years. If you want to wring the most from your current collection of components and those you have yet to buy, I can’t think of a better place to start than with Bright Star. The stuff works -- and always has.

...Marc Mickelson

Bright Star Audio Big Rock, Little Rock and Air Mass
Big Rock, $125-$299; Little Rock, $79-$199; Air Mass, $99-$539 (all depending on size and finish)
Warranty: One year

Bright Star Audio
2363 Teller Road, Unit 115
Newbury Park, CA 91320
Phone: (805) 375-2629
Fax: (805) 375-2630

E-mail: brightstaraudio@hotmail.com

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