(Photography by Simon Marsh)
Last summer, I took delivery of the latest version of the ESS rack. This is Stillpoints’ ultimate equipment support system and enables resonance-control pockets to be layered upon each other in a multi-tiered design capable of supporting just about any breed of audio electronics or turntable you wish.
As the internals of the resonance control centres have improved and grown more sophisticated and effective, so these have been fitted to the existing ESS. But the rack comprises the same basic elements. As the concept is American based, let’s dispense with the metric system for a while. Two vertical 2.5-inch hollow stainless steel tubes, lightly damped internally and called Masts, define the height and therefore how many shelves may be fitted. The milled aluminium Mast outriggers are “strung” with twisted cables under 400 lbs. tension and continuing the nautical theme, these are the kind of cables you would find on a boat. They are more accurately described as stainless steel twisted ropes and behave like an elongated leaf spring, affording a degree of inter-shelf damping. A pair of 1.25-inch stainless steel tubes that dictate the width of the rack, join the Masts horizontally. Rack widths are 20, 26 and 40 inches, while available heights are 28, 34 and 42 inches.
These bars, fabricated from solid ¾-inch square stainless steel, are slid up and down the tensioned cables to set up shelf position and are then locked off with a small ceramic-tipped grub screw against the cable and covered with a steel end-cap to conceal the screw. Each support bar contains three separate pockets of resonance control (6 for the 40-inch wide version) and these have always been used as attachment points for the thick acrylic shelves that the ESS has featured for several years. However, for some time, there had been a desire at Stillpoints to move away from the acrylic element within the rack.
The solution that they came up with was an inspired bit of thinking called The Grid. The name says it all really. Mini steel girders now criss-cross the support bars, their ends fitting straight into the technology pockets. These are drilled in several places across their length to accept any of the filters you might choose to fit. This gives a far more direct coupling to the all-important interface between equipment and filter and also between the equipment and the support bars and takes the effectiveness of the rack to a whole new level. The only downside is that the pre-determined positions where the filters may be sited is relatively limited in comparison to those afforded by the acrylic shelf. Having said that, it is far better and a great improvement over the original and is of course retrofittable.
One of the things that I have noticed about all Stillpoints products is not just the quality of build and finish, but small aesthetic design details. You can look at the ESS and quickly work out that there are many areas where Stillpoints could have saved money by specifying cheaper materials and fewer engineering procedures. The bars could have been square section end to end and not have that beautiful taper, the end caps could have been snap-on plastic covers. The couplings between the Masts and the crossbars could have been simpler and probably just as effective and there are many cheaper varieties of steel out there not to mention other metals. But you can see that Paul Wakeen wanted to go the extra mile. He wanted this piece of architecture to be beautiful because he knows that you will look at it every day. He also decided that Stillpoints themselves should cryogenically treat every single part of the ESS, just as they do to all the metal parts of the filters.
So, fortuitously armed with virtually a limitless supply of Stillpoints and the 42-26-5 (H x W x shelves) ESS rack in situ, I installed a high-end system to explore just how far I could push the whole resonance-control thing and if there were any limits. I was also interested in whether the Stillpoints “effect” had any down sides and if the sound was truly the unrestricted performance of the equipment or if the filters and ESS rack had any contributory and recognisable, repeatable sound of their own. The system I chose changed a little over a six-month period, but the general results were incredibly consistent.
The CD player was a dCS 4-box Paganini, comprising transport, DAC, upsampler and clock and these occupied the top and bottom three shelves of the ESS rack. The remaining shelf was taken by the David Berning Pre One preamplifier that coincidentally comes pre-fitted with Stillpoints in each of its three feet. The shame here was that I could not get the feet to line up with the threaded holes of the Grid sections so I had to support it individually. The speakers were, for the most part, a pair of Focal Diablos, though Raidho C1.1 and the marvellous Crystal Arabesque Mini made notable appearances. The whole system was hooked together with Nordost Odin/Valhalla and powered through a Quantum QB8 power block. The signal was grounded through a very interesting and effective set of products from the Swedish company Entreq. You will be hearing more of the efficacious nature of these boxes in the near future. The cost of this particular assembly is eye watering and I haven’t even started on the individual filters yet. Four Ultra 5s under the transport and the preamplifier while the remaining three dCS boxes were all treated to four Ultra SS units. As the tops of the Diablo’s stands are quite small I could only squeeze four Ultra SS pieces in there although I must confess that I did try them on some open-frame stainless steel stands and managed to get four Ultra 5s under each speaker with amazingly good results. Each of the Quadrature Z amplifiers, also already equipped with Stillpoints feet, had four Ultra 5’s screwed directly giving a total of 24 technology pockets for each amplifier. These sat directly on the floor next to the rack.