Symposium Acoustics Ultra Platform and Svelte Shelf
by John Crossett
School is back in session here in the US, and this has caused me to think about the classes in which I learned the most. For me, hands-on learning beat book (or magazine, or Internet) learning every time. Its a similar situation in audio. There is just no substitute for having the ability to see, touch, fiddle with, and listen to any product you're considering.
This was brought forcibly home to me at the CES this past January in the Symposium Acoustics room. A passing encounter with Marc Mickelson ended with the command, "Youll want to get to the Symposium room. Their demo is a knockout." I turned tail and headed right over. Symposiums Peter Bizlewicz was demonstrating his mechanical-energy-damping platforms, shelves, footers and rack with a Naim CD player, Emotive Audio electronics and Spendor speakers. The demo consisted of playing a music track once, and then again with two small Svelte Shelves in place. The before and after differences were easy to hear, and very much in the realm of sonic improvements. Another part of the demo was to tap on the side of the CD player, then, with the Svelte Shelf removed, tap again. The mechanical-energy-dissipation properties of the Svelte Shelf were immediately apparent. Think "thunk, thunk" versus "bang, bang," even with equipment as solidly built as Naims.
Thanks to Peters spectacular demo of his small Svelte Shelfs damping and purifying abilities, SoundStage! inquired about reviewing it. His response was to bundle off a few Svelte Shelves and an Ultra Platform for me to evaluate.
The Svelte Shelf isnt imposing, but then, it isnt designed to be. Though measuring a scant 5/8" thick, it does look classy. Its made of two sheets of constrained-layer-damped, polished stainless steel of differing thicknesses, with a foam "heat-sink" core sandwiched between. The thicker side is laser engraved with Symposiums logo, and it is the one that should face the piece of equipment. It comes in a variety of sizes and prices, depending on your needs -- from $149 USD (8" x 10", no Couplers) to $449 (19" x 24" including four Precision Couplers). Symposium lists placement options as under digital components, turntables, preamps, loudspeakers, line conditioners, and amplifiers -- ergo, any component that might benefit from vibration control.
The Ultra Platform is much more impressive. It measures 3 1/2" thick and is made of the two dissimilarly thick constrained-layer-damped, anodized-aluminum sheets, but now theyre bonded to multiple "impedance-matched" layers and a textured, monogrammed foam "heat-sink" core. Figuring out which end is up with the Ultra Platform is self-evident -- all you need do is be able to read the logo, or check out Symposiums informative product literature. The Ultra Platform also comes in a variety of sizes, and is recommended for use under digital or analog devices, preamps, and power amps -- which is how I used the review sample. Ultra Platform stock sizes (Symposium also makes custom sizes) are 19" x 14", 19" x 18", 19" x 21", and 19" x 24". Pricing ranges from $599 to $899 in $100 increments per size. Symposium can create custom sizes of the Ultra Platform and Svelte Shelf.
Included with both the Svelte Shelf and the Ultra Platform are Symposium's new Precision Couplers. These are larger than their predecessors, circular, and made of 7075 aircraft aluminum. They have, according to Symposium, "a hardness similar to most metal equipment chassis, vital for efficient mechanical coupling." They are also machined to be ultra flat to make better contact with the chassis and platform. Each has a hole drilled and threaded in the center to allow you to join two together mechanically if you have a need for an extra-large footer. In comparison to Symposium's older Large Couplers, which were smaller and rectangular in shape, the new Precision Couplers reportedly drain more energy away from the equipment chassis, and seem to make for a more stable mount.
The system into which I inserted the Symposium Svelte Shelf and Ultra Platform included a VPI HW19 Mk IV turntable with Butternut Audio-modified Rega RB300 tonearm and Clearaudio Aurum Beta S cartridge, a Marantz 8260 CD/SACD player, and a Panasonic DVF-65 CD/DVD-A/DVD-V player. Electronics were an Audio Research SP16 preamp together with a Bryston 4BSST power amp. Speakers were Magnepan MG1.6/QRs. Interconnects were mainly Alpha-Core TQ2, with sets of Harmonic Technology Pro Silway Mk II and DH Labs BL-1 around for swapping purposes. Speaker cables were also from Alpha-Core, a biwire set of MI2.
Everything but the power amp sat on a Target TT3 racks MDF shelves or homemade sandboxes and Golden Sound DH cones and squares. The Bryston amp sat on a sandbox atop a granite slab over four Tonecones. I placed small Symposium Svelte Shelves on top of the SACD player, DVD-A player, and, using Symposiums Couplers supplied with the Svelte Shelves, the preamp -- a necessary precaution to ensure its tubes get proper ventilation.
A Svelte Shelf and Ultra Platform also replaced the shelves of my Target rack at various points, and I'll talk about each separately.
Beginning with the Svelte Shelf
Initially, I used a Svelte Shelf under my CD/SACD player and then my preamp in place of the MDF shelf that normally sits in my Target rack. While I found that the effect was similar, I experienced a small but significant increase in the level of change with the Svelte Shelf beneath my Audio Research preamp, perhaps due to the preamp's tubes being more susceptible to vibration than the components used in the digital player. All observations below are made with the Svelte Shelf under the preamp. Given my druthers, Id have preferred to hear a Svelte Shelf under both preamp and CD player.
In the opening cut of Jazz Party In Stereo [Classic Records/Columbia CS 8127], Duke Ellington used a plethora of percussion instruments. These instruments, together with those of his band, easily span the low-, mid-, and high-frequency ranges. With the Svelte Shelf in place under the preamp, each and every one of those instruments, from tympani to vibraphone to triangles through brass and reeds, was more realistic-sounding. From the initial note to the last vestige of its harmonics, all the sound was there for me to enjoy in a more complete manner than Id ever heard before the insertion of the Svelte Shelf.
Often isolation/damping products lessen noise, making for a background that's more black. I got a pretty fair idea of how well the Svelte Shelf handled this aspect while listening to one of my favorite discs, Andy McClouds Blues For Bighead [Mapleshade CD 07832]. The noise floor was certainly lowered, which in turn allowed me to appreciate better the give-and-take "conversation" between McCloud and drummer Victor Lewis at the intro of the title tune. Steve Nelsons vibes had more shimmer to them, with seemingly less distortion getting in the way of their transients and harmonic lines. There was also a tad more fullness, along with a deeper, more detailed, woodier tone from McClouds acoustic bass. All of this wasnt earth shaking, but it was noticeable. With the clearer, cleaner bass line, ambient cues were more easily discerned as well.
Dynamics were also improved. With less of the musical signal's energy lost to vibration, more of the dynamic, live sound embedded in the music was allowed to play through the speakers. And, surprisingly enough, the loudness level seemed to increase by a dB or so -- perhaps due to the lower noise floor. The drums on the Steve Davis Projects disc Quality of Silence [DMP SACD-04], for instance, exploded from my speakers with far more snap and clarity than Ive heard previously. The brassy ring of his cymbal work, whether the cymbals were well hit or softly tapped, was depicted with more lifelike wooden-stick-hitting-brass accuracy than Id previously heard. The harmonics of those sounds wafted off into infinity.
Everything seemed to click into place. Images were well rounded and more sharply defined. At the end of the song "Hi-De-Ho" off the album Blood, Sweat & Tears 3 [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2013], lead singer David Clayton-Thomas is joined by a choir. Once Id inserted the Svelte Shelf, I noticed that not only could I identify more easily where each singer in the choir was located, but I could also differentiate better between male and female members, something that had previously been lost in the sonic shuffle.
Though not an area targeted for improvement by Symposium, vocals were rendered more believably real with the Svelte Shelf in my system. Female vocals especially, whose distortions in any form are easily discerned, were more realistically reproduced. Allison Krauss has an ethereal quality to her voice that was given freer rein to blossom with the Svelte Shelf in place. I reveled in her singing on "When You Say Nothing At All" (Now That Ive Found You [Rounder SACD 11661-0325-6]). I could get a better sense of the fragile, trembling quality that makes Krauss such a special singer.
Male voices also had an extra quotient of realness. The aging process has not been kind to the voice of John Prine. All the years, beers and cigarettes (not to mention a serious bout with throat cancer) have left Prines voice less of the whisky-stained-yet-still-supple instrument he commanded in his younger days. But, with the Svelte Shelf in place, I could better enjoy what hes doing on his latest album, Fair & Square [Oh Boy Records OBR-034] to compensate for those years of abuse, and how well he still manages to hit all the notes he tries to reach.
The increase in enjoyment afforded me by the Svelte Shelf made me eager to hear what the more sophisticated, and expensive, Ultra Platform would add. So out went the sandbox under my Bryston power amp and in went the Ultra Platform.
To make a long story short, I heard another round of improvements, but this time a few somewhat more surprising ones. You see, I figured that a solid-state amp wouldnt benefit as much from mechanical grounding and vibration control as a tube preamp. Shows what I know.
The quiet quotient was ratcheted up another notch or two, and the clarity of instrumental lines was much greater. When John Prine flubs the opening guitar line at the beginning of "Thats The Way That The World Goes Round," from his LP Bruised Orange [Asylum 6E-139], he turns to the band members to joke about it. I could hear this misstep better, as well as tell when he was facing the mike, or turning away. The sonic differences between Prines acoustic guitar and that of Steve Goodman were also made more identifiable.
This ties in closely with the lowering of the noise floor. Listening to a full symphony orchestra playing at full tilt, such as during Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition [Classic Records/RCA LSC-2201], can be disappointing if a murky sonic picture is presented. What should be easily heard as diverse groups of instruments playing together can be distilled into a muddled mess if each section is not allowed to present its own unique sonic contribution. With the Ultra Platform under the power amp, I could follow whichever section of the orchestra I chose, and as far as I wanted.
Sounds soft to loud, and the individual shading between those points, were improved thanks to the Ultra Platform. I slipped Mike Oldfields Tubular Bells 2003 [Warner Music Spain R9 60204] into the DVD-A player. During the conclusion to side one, when the tubular bells are introduced, the jump in level between them and the surrounding instruments was startling. As well, the variations in loudness between instruments were impressive.
I cant say for sure if the Ultra Platform added any additional extension to the bass I was hearing -- my Maggies only go down to about 40Hz -- but it sure seemed to. I do know the texture and clarity of what I heard was improved. Paul Chambers' bass line at the beginning of Kind of Blue [Classic Records/Columbia CS 8163] was much easier to follow and had better definition.
The Ultra Platforms ability to increase the perception of air, detail, dynamics and smoothness was illustrated to me playing the LP version of Carmen McRaes Carmen Sings Monk [RCA/Novus 3086-1-N]. The live cuts, especially, were more enjoyable thanks to a better appreciation of the size of the venue where this concert was recorded (The Great American Music Hall). Because the Ultra Platform gets vibration out of the musics way, Larry Williss piano was allowed to come across as the large, percussive instrument it is. It just seemed to flow from my speakers.
A classical quintet recorded in an ambient atmosphere is a real challenge for an audio system to capture correctly. My SACD copy of Mozarts String Quintets, as played by the Fine Arts Quartet with Yuri Gandelsman [Lyrinx LYR 2214], was superbly reproduced thanks to the insertion of the Ultra Platform. Each of the five musicians occupied his or her own unique acoustic space, separate yet connected. Each instrument was clearly rendered, faithful to its own sonic signature. For me, soundstaging isnt a prerequisite for listening enjoyment. But, if the information is included on the recording, dont you want to hear it? I do. The Ultra Platform gave me a better opportunity to do so.
In comparison to what I have been using to control vibration, the Symposium products were distinctly better. None of my admittedly homemade sandboxes could control and dissipate vibration with anywhere near the success of either the Svelte Shelf or the Ultra Platform, together or separately. It wasnt even close. The Symposium products took what had been a very enjoyable system and ratcheted things up into a more lifelike one, and thats what I want out of my system. Plus, my homemade sandboxes didnt look anywhere near as good as the Symposium products. If we have a chance to make our systems look good, for spouse approval or whatever, we should.
I tried using both my homemade sandboxes and the Symposium products together, but I found that the Symposium products on their own created a more lifelike rendition of the music than any combination with my sandboxes. Maybe thats because the science behind them and their build quality are leagues ahead of anything I can do. Or maybe my efforts just werent that good to begin with. When I considered the level of improved sonics provided by the Symposium products alone, it became a no-brainer to use them solo.
In product literature, Symposium lays claim to numerous benefits gained by using either the Svelte Shelf or Ultra Platform, or both. From my listening, both do, indeed, meet those claims, with varying degrees of success. If I had to use only one word to define my overall findings, that word would be focus. Insertion of the Symposium products brought an overall increase in focus to all aspects of my system. One could, as Symposium has done in literature, break that term down in numerous smaller areas, but the overall effect still comes back to focus.
No tweak should be your first purchase -- your money is better spent building the system itself. But Im willing to bet that once youve assembled a system of synergistically compatible gear, adding Symposiums vibration-control pieces will give you most, if not all, of the benefits I've heard and help each piece sound its very best. Symposium products cant turn a sows ear into a silk purse. They will, however, allow any piece of equipment with which they are used to reveal itself more fully for what it is. They remove veils, clean the sonic window, shine more light onto the music, focus the proceedings, and do whatever any other audio cliché you choose to use indicates.
Symposium's CES demo certainly piqued my interest, but my firsthand experience with the Svelte Shelf and Ultra Platform have made me a believer. My system has never sounded so good.
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