(Words, Chris Thomas; Photography, Simon Marsh)
Sometimes, late at night, I sit alone and quiet in the house with the loudness of the day behind me and pick away at my acoustic guitar. It’s a wonderful vintage instrument, built during the 2nd World War and at least 70 years old now. Often I play nothing specific, but just experiment with different sounds. Strike the string half way between the bridge and the fretted note for the richest, strongest and most harmonically colourful sound as the aged Adirondack Spruce top sings with resonance. Change the fingerpicking position or the plectrum angle of attack to let the tonewood fill with energy and open its throat so wide that you can feel the sound as its reassuring warmth vibrates through your body. I am endlessly fascinated at the way the notes decay. The rich harmonies as the undamped strings add their sympathetic chorus grow amazingly complex but, like snowflakes, they are never quite the same twice.
Ever since I began listening to music I have always wanted to be this close to its source. I used to sit with my ear wedged next to the speaker of my Dad’s primitive sound system, marvelling at what I could hear. Nothing much has changed. When I go to a concert I want to be as near to the stage as possible. I know this is not the best place for pure sound quality but I like to see the musicians up close and watch how they play. I’ll gladly forgo the sonic integration for a view of their hands and to see how they interact physically with their instruments. My time in audio has been very much the same. I have a smallish room but love the intimacy of the near-field experience. Even if I had a large room I think I would still sit close to the speakers. I am not interested in creating the live event in my living room and don’t see the comparison as relevant for me. I want to feel emotionally connected and spiritually moved by musical artistry and whether it makes me sad or sit in wonder, I really need to feel as if it means something. I want to feel as close to it as I do to my guitar.
Hardly surprising then that I have a weakness for anything ‘audio’ that takes me to that place.
Musical or Monetary Upgrades?
There comes a time in the life of every audiophile when he sits back and asks where all this upgrading is taking him and if he truly still enjoys listening to music through his home system. It takes a lot of honesty to answer that question and it is one that I have thought about many times. For as long as I can remember, the whole process of moving the system forward musically has been somewhat historic. The dealer’s answer has always been “Trade in your old box, add some money and I’ll give you a new and better one”. Cash changed hands and the industry was nourished. For those who have been around audio for many years and have invested time and lots and lots of money in their love, hobby, obsession, or whatever it has become, there will always come that brickwall moment. The simple question remains. What should a system upgrade really achieve?
Floating The System
Ever since Paul Wakeen of Stillpoints first visited these shores over four years ago I have been lucky enough to use his products to bring the music closer to me. Back then Paul told me that to really hear what resonance control could do I needed to treat the whole system. The only problem, as the box-count of my system grew, was getting enough products to achieve this. At that time Paul was making the original (cone-shaped) Stillpoints, the Component Stand and the ESS rack at several performance levels. But last year he replaced the original devices by introducing the
Ultra SS and what followed was a complete renewal of his catalogue. The Component Stand is no more and there are now essentially three levels of freestanding isolation available. First and smallest is the Ultra Mini. This is a development of the circuit board standoff that is directly available in various sizes to component manufacturers who have incorporated the unique benefits of internal isolation. You will find those and Stillpoints feet fitted to a growing number of audio electronics, including the Berning QZ amplifiers that I use, where they are available as an option but the feet are standard. As an Ultra Mini it is shrouded within a smart stainless steel body with a threaded hole at the base enabling it, like all of the filters, to be mounted on the round 3-inch diameter, machined steel plate that is the Ultra Base. This itself has a significant role to play in both levelling and sound quality. Internally the Mini utilises Paul’s unique design of ceramic balls and steel races, though the latest four-tiered construction is radically different to the original design. In fact there are no bending parts within any of the new range of Stillpoints resonance control filters.
The next in size, price and with a much higher mass is the Ultra SS. It is a two-piece design where the top section, known as the hard hat, comes screwed directly into the technology pocket itself. Or it can be left off altogether if the Ultra is to be directly coupled in either direction, as between a stand and speaker or electronics and rack for instance. The Hard Hat also allows for a degree of independent levelling of the Ultra (though I still believe this is best achieved through utilising a Base). I suspect most people will sit their electronics straight on top of their Stillpoints but, if you wanted to attach an Ultra SS directly to a component in place of screwed on feet, you could source a threaded convertor from your Stillpoints dealer. They carry a whole range for just this purpose. You will see as the review progresses, Stillpoints products are extraordinarily versatile and you can deploy them in many configurations and I would urge you to spend serious time exploring this as each individual system and installation will be different.