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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog Source: Rega P9 turntable, RB1000 & Hadcock GH Export arms, Benz Micro MC Silver, Rega Super Elys & Garrott Bros Optim FGS Cartridges.
Digital Source: Accustic Arts Drive 1/ Audio Aero Prima SE DAC, Musical Fidelity A5 CD player [in for review]
Preamp: Bel Canto Pre2P
Power Amp: Art Audio Carissa, Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and Canary CA 160 mono blocks, Musical Fidelity A5 integrated amplifier [in for review]
Speakers: Hørning Perikles, Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3, Ohm Acoustics Walsh 4 with 4.5 mk.2 upgrade
Cables: JPS Labs Superconductor and Superconductor FX interconnects and speaker wire, Furutech Digi Reference digital
Power Cords: ZCable Heavys & Black Lightnings and Cyclone, JPS Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC and Kaptovator power cords
Powerline conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with 30-amp ZCable Cyclone cord
Sundry accessories: Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Ultra & Heavy ZSleeves, Viablue QTC spikes under speakers, Auric Illuminator
Room size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review component retail: Sound Mechanics MC88 wood cones - $240 set of three; C100 metal cones - $240 set of three; C101 metal bases - $95 set of 3; Performance Series Platform - $1295
"There's some really worthless crap out there." In just one line, that's how I used to sum up my experience with cones. Based on experience with a few useless products, I long ago pronounced the whole genre of cones worthless. But as in many facets of life, the more you know, the more you realize you don't know and hasty generalizations and one-liners often paint with too broad a brush. Today I'm here to admit that there's a lot about this stuff that I just don't know. But I'm learning.
|Sound Mechanics MC88 Cones and C100 Spikes
When I was approached by Sound Mechanics distributor Joe Cohen from the Lotus Group, I was skeptical but intrigued. I learned that the MC88 footers and C100 cones are more about resonance tuning than coupling or decoupling. The MC88 is actually made from wood (black wood in this case but the company makes cones from several varieties), a material I'd never experimented with before. And it's not solid wood at that. The MC88 is filled with what are said to be 10 types of metallic sands. Each footer in the set is filled with a different mix, clearly visible through a little window at the top of the cone. Forget the marketing scribes' favorite and most meaningless claim to having a patent pending. Any charlatan can apply for a patent and use that application in their marketing material. Have you ever read an announcement declaring that said pretender had his application rejected? In the case of the Sound Mechanics products, a patent for their process was not only applied for but granted: US patent No.5169104.
The C100 cones are very different but work along the same doctrine. Constructed of brass, the C100 is also filled with metallic sands though they appear to be different - a finer 'grind' from those within the MC88 cones.
|Theoretically, this means that each cone has different damping characteristics and will therefore attack a different set of frequencies as they dissipate different spectrums of energy. This is about tuning. As the best system tuners can tell you, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. What effect the MC88 and C100 cones will have can't be absolutely predicted any more than one can predict what wires or cables -- or CD player for that matter -- will best suit your system. As I moved the cones from component to component, their effects varied in terms of magnitude or even sonic transformation, though I'm told that with a larger sampling of gear, trends do appear.
One knows intuitively that the wooden MC88 will behave differently from the brass C100. Wood cells, like individual chambers, intrinsically act as dampers. Wood absorbs vibrations and also transmits part of the energy. The brass cones transmit more energy than the wood and the particles within act more as dampers. As the individual resonance of the brass cones will vary less than the wood, I'm told that they are more predictable but also, that there is only so much variance in behavior between wood samples.
That doesn't sound like the most auspicious of introductions, does it? Once you accept these truisms, you'll find yourself much more open to the Sound Mechanics' possibilities. One thing I can predict is that, unlike the aforementioned worthless cones of the past, products from Sound Mechanics will have an affect. My experience is that the effects aren't really subtle either. You'll hear something going on. And if my experience is indicative, the chances are much greater that they'll work for you than against you.
Yes, that's right. There's also the chance that they can work against you.
My Bel Canto PRe2p loved the MC88 cones. The combination produced better bass with more authority, better articulation and more highly articulated textures. Through the midrange, the MC88s produced a lower noise floor that allowed greater retrieval of midrange details and more expressive micro-dynamics. Suddenly relatively obscure details floated to the surface of the music while the music had more snap.
My Accustic Arts Drive 1 CD transport wasn't as enamored with the MC88s though the C100 cones proved to be just what the doctor ordered. With the brass cones under the transport, I observed the aforementioned changes to the sound but to a smaller while still significant extent. However, its effects spilled over into the areas of soundstaging and imaging. Image focus increased nicely and the soundstage became both deeper and wider at the rear of the stage.
Under the Audio Aero Prima SE DAC, both footers were effective but just not to the same degree as when used under the transport and preamp. For the next several months, I used the MC88s under the Bel Canto preamp and the C100 cones under the transport which not only elevated its performance but aesthetic as well. The C100 cones look great under the Accustic Arts.
|One fine day, the Musical Fidelity A5 integrated amplifier and A5 CD player arrived at my door for evaluation and for the first time, I experienced the MC88s and C100s working against me. Under the amplifier, the MC88s produced increased bass amplitude but the quality was loose and woolly. Not good. Midrange performance didn't change much but there was an addition of upper midrange grunge that made leading edges abrasive. Donald Fagen's Kamakirad [Reprise 9 45230 2] became grainy and difficult to listen to. The opening drumbeat on "Trans-Island Skyway" was loose, lumpy, fuzzy and decidedly without a sense of timing. If I bumped up the volume in an effort to allow the bass to|
|energize the room, the grunge in the upper midrange became aggressive, necessitating the backing off on the volume control. The C100 cones didn't fare nearly as badly but if they produced any benefits, I couldn't spot them.
Lest the reader begin to become turned off by my experience with the Musical Fidelity components, I would hastily remind him that the point here is that these footers have real impact. They work. They may not always work positively with all components, but they work and while they didn't work with the Musical Fidelity products in my room, on my floor and equipment rack, they could indeed work in yours. We are, after all, talking about system synergy and tuning here and your room and your equipment rack are very much part of that system. When the Sound Mechanics footers are acting synergistically -- which they definitely do under my own gear -- they are so good that they earn a very strong recommendation for you to try them. Obviously, like any cables, wires or components, you'll have to require an evaluation period from your dealer before you commit to a purchase. While this review appears in 2006, for reasons I'll get to next, the MC88 cones and C100 spikes were among my best finds for 2005. Their benefits were that captivating.
|Sound Mechanics Performance Series platform
The first Performance Series platform I received arrived badly damaged at my door, requiring a return to Sound Mechanics as well as a delay in this review. Several months went by as the platform's packaging was changed to something more protective. The second sample arrived from Hong Kong four months later in all new packaging and in mint condition.
The Performance Platform had every bit as much impact on the Musical Fidelity components as the footers but now entirely for the good. In fact, the results were stunning. Nearly miraculous and no, I'm not exaggerating. This platform is amazing.
The outrageously good Genesis Advanced Technologies G7.1c loudspeakers had just vacated my room and I was settling back to the less-than-half-the-price Gallo Ref3.1 and trying to reacclimate myself. Yes, the Gallos are terrific speakers but in the areas of soundstaging and image focus, they had yet to measure up. And as good as their bass was, it wasn't measuring up to the outstanding bass performance of the Genesis S 4/8 subwoofer. While no surprise on the latter count, let's just say that I was missing the Genesis speakers. But then I introduced the Sound Mechanics Performance platform to the system. At Joe Cohen's suggestion, I placed it under the A5 CD player first. The three-letter word, "Wow!" was the only appropriate reaction without resorting to certain four-letter words.
At 19 inches wide by 18.5 inches deep and 2 inches thick, the Performance platform is finished in a matte Blackwood veneer (custom finishes are available) that seems to hide a lot of things going on inside. The platform has a minimum of 7 layers in what is called stage 5 multi-laminar construction to indicate how the internal wooden layers are laminated in five different directions. The absorption and dissipation layers in the level 4 magnetic grounding scheme are additional. Magnetic grounding? Sound Mechanics says this:
"The magnetic grounding layer employed by Sound Mechanics can be divided into two parts: the absorption layer and the dissipation layer. The absorption layer works as an antenna, drawing in and absorbing RF and EMI from the atmosphere. The dissipation layer converts RF and EMI to energy that is harmless to sound reproduction. Since the dissipation layer continuously dissipates RF and EMI, there is unlimited shielding protection surrounding the equipment."
Joe Cohen tried to clarify for me: "First as to what's happening with the turntable: the platform is addressing two major issues simultaneously - vibration and EMI/RFI. The exact methodology for dealing with RFI consists, according to the manufacturer, of "trade know-how". In essence, it is converting fields that surround the table into static, which can then be shunted away from the immediate environment via the ground post and secondarily through the side panel via a wire to a metal frame door or window. The sources of these fields would consist of environmental RFI from the airwaves, motors, cables, digital sources, dimmers, house wiring and static generated by dragging a stylus in a groove, static generated by the proximity of vinyl to other materials etc. Your cartridge and its motor (magnets) are enormously sensitive to these influences. Eliminating them liberates your system by allowing the delivery of a more pure signal.
"I do not know precisely what materials are used but Freddie Kwoh (the designer) does say that they accomplish this without the use of copper, which would tend to create emphasis, or carbon which would tend to dull the sound. Again, I do not know exactly which woods are employed but I do know that they are laminated in 5 distinct directions to dissipate vibrations."
On the rear of the platform is a grounding terminal not unlike the grounding facilities on most phono preamplifiers. I'm told that via the grounding scheme, the converted energy is whisked away. Joe Cohen suggested connecting an additional ground post on the side of the platform [as opposed to the one at the rear]) to a metal window frame, which he claims intensifies the platform's effectiveness. This being an old house with wooden frames, I was unable to test its effectiveness.
With or without the ultimate grounding scheme, I was truly knocked out by the Performance platform. So extensive and to such a degree was the system transformed that I no longer missed the Genesis system. No, the Gallos didn't sprout another half-octave of bass extension but down to their limits, the bass was tighter, more tuneful and much more highly articulated - much more on par with what I'd achieved through the excellent Genesis S 4/8 subwoofer. Truly, I was stunned. Up until now, Donald Fagen's "Trans-Island Skyway" had sounded very disappointing but now it sounded excellent. The song had found its rhythm and the bass was completely smoothed. The electric bass line on "Snowbound" now sounded astonishing over the Gallos. Astounding even. Over the course of the next few days, I played that cut over and over just for the giddy fun of it. As for the aforementioned grunge, it was completely absent. The Gallos sounded better than I'd ever heard them before.
Supertramp's Bother Where You Bound CD [A&M CD 5015] proved very interesting. I've been listening to this CD for years and the sound of the soldier's marching in lock step on the title cut has always sounded the same until the other night. As I'd always observed, they walked across the rear of the stage but suddenly they were not at the rear of the soundstage. Suddenly I was hearing details that I'd never heard before. Suddenly they were three-dimensional. They sounded real and I could hear the individual footfalls as they were not in perfect unison. And I could hear so much depth to the image that I could sense real space beyond the marching. I could almost see them as well as the path in the snow on which they marched. That outstanding bass line as observed in the Fagen recording remained consistent and Sienberg's bass lines sounded fantastic, visceral and articulate. The lowered noise floor allowed the most micro of dynamics to be resolved, thereby increasing the sense of speed and vibrancy. But what struck me next was how big the soundstage was. The instruments didn't move but the soundstage extended both forward and backward and was now huge. There was none of that deeper in the center than the sides, either. I could easily see into the rear corners. But that was unlike anything compared to what I heard when I placed the Performance platform under my Rega P9 turntable. Whoa, Nelly!
Rick Ocasek's This Side of Paradise [GHS 24098] sounded just as I hoped it would and benefitted in all the same ways that the CDs had. It also shared some performance gains with Julian Lennon's Valotte [Atlantic 7 80184-1]. I've read that most recorded music should come from between the speakers and it's actually distortions that result in images coming from outside the speakers. Well, if that were the case, I'd love to know how the Performance platform was introducing all those distortions to the system because when under the turntable, the soundstage just exploded. While I can't quite say that the sidewalls disappeared, they definitely softened and lost significance. More importantly, the soundstage, while excellent before, broke completely free of the speakers as it had never done before. I could see the speakers sitting there but the music seemed to come from everywhere else. There was a complete disconnect between the music and the Gallos - something I've only heard once or twice before and always in very large rooms with very expensive speakers. I'd never achieved this level of speaker disappearance in my own room. By this time I wasn't missing the Genesis speakers at all. Still, I couldn't help but to wonder what they'd sound like now!
At this point the reader would be forgiven for thinking that I'm considerably more jazzed over the Performance platform than I am over the M88 and C100 cones. Well, I am. The platform is just terrific. As for that magnetic shielding, I'm in no position to prove or disprove it but I think that there's something going on there because it just elevated the performance of the Planar 9 so significantly. As a matter of fact, as it sat on the shelf above the amplifier, I had the distinct impression that the amplifier was benefiting from the platform as well. It is, however, expensive. Of course, if you have a significant investment in your system and you use only one source, the acquisition of a single Performance Series platform will likely reap a return on your investment that can't be matched by anything else I know.
If you are using a turntable, the Sound Mechanics Performance platform is the no-brainer recommendation of the year. And I don't want to give away the entire Musical Fidelity review here but at a combined price of $3795 for the A5 CD player and the Performance platform, the combo at least equaled the performance of my twice-the price Accustic Arts Drive 1/Audio Aero Prima SE DAC. The Performance platform made the A5 player scarily good. So good in fact that I'm buying the platform. The only remaining question is under which lucky component it will reside. What I do know is that to hear at least one Performance platform is to not want it to leave the system. My checkbook is glad they didn't send me two. Sound Mechanics also makes equipment racks based on the Performance platform (pictured above) that I'm told are less expensive than some of the best racks out there and should be outstanding performers.
But it was only the sheer magnitude of the Performance platform's transformation of the presentation that seemed to overshadow that of the M88 and C100 cones which indeed are capable of outstanding value. And if the price of entry seems too steep for the platform, I can't recommend more strongly that you give these a try. Even if you're completely happy with the sound of your system, you may be floored by how much better it can be. If I had to sum up these products in a one-liner, I'd say "The Sound Mechanic products can take your system to levels you can't imagine possible." Or I'd just say, "These aren't your father's aluminum cones." Or maybe I'd just say, "Highly recommended."
I never was very good at one-liners.