POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 17
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
The ERaudio Space Harmonizer looks innocent enough: a blond, lightweight, butcher-block style cedar platform with squishy rubber feet in each of its corners. To use, just slip one under a component and listen. That's what I did and more than once came back the next day, after a night of heavy tweaking, only to hear something different from what I remembered. It was driving me batty: could these inert platforms have a settling-in, dare I say burn-in, period? Can a slab of wood require break-in? Is there more to audio than a subscription to Sound and Vision magazine? However, I digress from the meat and potatoes.
I'm a big fan of acoustic bassist Edgar Meyer. I sure like his rendition of a Pablo de Sarasate violin showpiece, which he arranged for the unlikely duo of double bass with mandolin accompaniment (track 7 on Uncommon Ritual, Sony SK62891). This track always astounded me for the audacity of the undertaking, if not for its sonics. I could tell Edgar was playing excellently, but there were just too many sound reproduction issues. Some of the deepest notes boomed out of proportion; quality varied depending on where he was on the scale. Needless to say, I never reached a state of suspension of belief. It always seemed a bit over the top, like a circus act.
Here's what happened with one or two Space Harmonizers (SH) in place of my usual Combak Harmonix footers. Even though the SH weren't as good at sheer information retrieval as my reference feet, somehow I was able to hear deeper into the musical aspects of the performance. Ditto for imaging: I didn't have as clear a demarcation among the images on the stage, but the musical line of each instrument was more distinct and easy to follow, especially in complex counterpoint passages. You know, there's a difference between imaging as we talk about it on the soundstage and clarity of the musical line. An image is something you localize to a point in space, and has nothing to do with quality or tone. Clarity of the musical line is all about being able to follow an instrumental part because the timbre of the sound tells you it must be a clarinet. You can have clarity of the musical line and blurry or vague images at the same time.
Anyway, back to the SH. There was some clean up going on, as if musically extraneous sounds were being filtered out of the picture. Exaggerations and discontinuities disappeared, resonances no longer splashed about uncontrolled, while quality evened out and became consistent, leaving a smooth and continuous frequency spectrum. Many little semi-tones, the very quiet notes-between-the-notes, came to the fore, things that you might hear from a good concert seat. Each note's beginning, middle and end were more obvious. Most systems leave the tail end vague—you can't tell when or how a note ends. Moreover, there's a slight bit of luster on the finish. These improvements appeared throughout the life of the note and combined to give you a better sense of the fundamental, in turn making the tune more evident.
Upping the number of SHs to four or five altered my perception of the stage in ways similar to what one or two did to individual instruments. The stage began to sound more complete and cohesive across its span, closer to the impression I get at a live, unamplified event. This brought the players into one acoustic space—now everything belonged to the same time/space continuum.
These are the two most startling impacts of the SH: 1) the shape of individual notes and musical lines improved, and 2) the whole thing became a holistic entity. The boards have single-handedly managed these feats through huge gains in frequency integration and temporal coherence. They fix the arrival time of sound energy so it comes to you in a coherent wave front—not just the initial transient, but the follow through and the finish as well. You'll hear this and you'll certainly hear how each note is more integrated and interwoven into the overall fabric of the sound. Any tendency towards a thin or pointy treble is replaced with newfound flesh and roundness. A cymbal strike has more supporting midrange overtones, for example. The last time I heard these qualities (actually, the first time I heard them) was when I reviewed the Lamm ML1.1 mono-blocks and L2 Ref pre-amp.
It was evident there was some tuning going on. According to the ERaudio website: "…the Space Harmonizer …doesn't absorb vibration. The Space Harmonizer is a resonant platform. When interacting with a component, it redistributes the whole frequency spectrum magnifying those frequencies that positively affect human hearing and reducing the negatively perceived ones. The principle of operation of The Space Harmonizer is similar to that of the sounding board of a violin." They know whereof they speak. In addition to these platforms and tube electronics, ERaudio manufactures student-model violins. In addition, they have a contract acoustical tuning consulting business, which has been engaged by concert halls around the world.
Their name sounds pretentious—why couldn't they call the Space Harmonizer something like "Natural Sound Platform"? Nevertheless, I can see some rationale for it. The performance space is alive across its span and everybody seems to be in that place, in a natural, cohesive whole. Now it doesn't even occur to me that Edgar's double bass might be a maudlin parody of Sarasate's composition.
What you will find absent is any sense of instruments popping out of a deep black background. Nor will you have that sense of a void or black hole between the players. I have sometimes heard these artifacts with digital playback—never with analog or in real life. Seems to me people started to dwell on these effects sometime after digital was introduced. Today the high-end press is full of them. For the life of me, I don't know why audiophiles go on so much about what are so patently artifacts.
Occasionally, when I had four or more boards in the system and everything was just right, notes began to assume an almost physical shape, similar but different to the way we talk about image palpability. Like blowing soap bubbles—the note would fill with air, expand and be launched, a self-contained capsule that floated out across the stage, maintaining its shape as a unit (the bubble), and bouncing around for the duration of its short life. Then it went away as a unit, not in bits and pieces at different rates of decay.
Another effect was the soundstage lifted vertically off the floor. Now it's as if I'm in the orchestra looking straight out. I realize that for a long time I have been looking slightly downward from my seat on the couch, as if from a balcony. This can be thrilling, as on Sheherazade (track one, Ravel and Debussy DG B0002121-02), performed by Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra. When the trumpet fanfare blasts about eight minutes in, I'm actually looking up at this brass choir, up above, behind and to the right of mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Well, this is a new, fun thing to "watch", a new dimension to be entertained.
Tweaks & Footers
My comparisons began with the von Gaylord Audio L2 preamplifier directly on the Polycrystal rack on its built-in feet. This configuration has good pace and OK tone, with a nice lift or buoyancy from its extended and slightly emphasized treble and its lean body. It's no surprise that the pace is good—this is what usually happens when you favor the treble and the body is thin. Inserting a set of Harmonix TU-66ZX footers moves the emphasis to the lower midrange from the treble and greatly improves tone, body, and weight. Now the sound is broader, has more flesh, and timbre is truer. Because the Harmonix footers emphasize the lower mid and below, things seem to slow down (this always happens when you add weight. It's the other side of thinning the sound). This is my reference setup. I swapped out the Harmonix for the SH on it's small, built-in rubbery feet. The treble fleshed out and became more rounded; so did the mid-bass, which spread out a bit, and became warmer, less controlled, but managed to refrain from boominess. Frequency extremes were less noticeable, as happens with gains in integration. Everything had more body. Overall low-frequency energy was less than with the TU-66ZX (which are tops in this category). The soundstage became wider, taller, shallower, and less focused compared to the Harmonix. Keep in mind that the Harmonix are the best supports I've found, and only after a long period of trial and error. They also cost three times as much as the SH. But compared to lesser footers, there was no contest. Every time I swapped the SH into a friend's system, the resulting sound was better than with whatever they had been using—including the bells and whistles audiophile's value. And there were those gains in frequency integration and coherence, so that, while the SH weren't as good at the audiophile stuff as the best I've found, when considering the presentation as a whole, the sound was probably closer to what you'd hear in a natural setting.
You can purchase an optional set of four steel cones from ERaudio for $40. With the cones under the platform, points up, puncturing the wood near the rubber feet, bass became articulate and very punchy, almost percussive, just like the manufacturer says. String tone remained good and PRAT improved to match the naked vGA L2 pre-amp on the Polycrystal shelf. Compared to the rubber feet, the steel cones emphasize the upper and lower-mid band and keep the center uncongested, avoiding thickness there. Everything tightened right up. When you think about it, these are exactly the differences you'd expect between a squishy rubber foot and a pointy steel cone. It's a good thing to have both so you have some flexibility in tailoring the effects. I can see someone preferring the looser, warmer (especially in the bottom) sound of the rubber feet. With the system voicing I had at the time, I found tonal balance and imaging more true to life (which doesn't have tight focus) with the squishy rubber.
It quickly became apparent that this was fertile ground for tweaking. Things became more dynamic, definition became crisper and the stage inflated dimensionally when I put a set of Golden Sound DH Cones under the SH, although integration suffered and string tone wasn't as good. Vibrapod Isolators above or below the SH brought a huge amount of low-end weight. If you want to try something that really pushes the envelope, throw a set of Harmonix RF-900's ($235/set of 4) under the board in place of the steel cones. This combo made me do a double take. The extreme Harmonix effect was evident now—not just improved timbre and more weight, but a kind of 3-D spatial depth appeared that brought something like volume to the image. You can't get volume with two dimensions—it requires three. Bass tightened up, but not in an artificial way: it sounded right and completely avoided smearing into the middle. The whole presentation got crisper, faster and seemed to "sing" better. The SH effect was still there in terms of musical focus and musical clarity. All this without shrinking image size, without etching or other artificial definition enhancement, and with gains in body to boot! The downside was more vagueness and reduction in definition. Note that some of these effects bordered on the edge of hi-fi and departed from the pure naturalism of the SH.
How putting a set of Harmonix RF-900s under the Space Harmonizer created this 3-D effect I haven't a clue. So there you have it—I'm rattling on about two new dimensions: image depth and soundstage height.
Linn LP12 and the Space Harmonizer
I repeated the experiment with the Linn LP12 turntable and got more of the same results. The table has great PRAT when resting its Trampolinn base directly on a Polycrystal shelf, but a somewhat thin tone, with the balance favoring the treble (much the same as the vGA pre-amp on a Polycrystal shelf). Again, this is not surprising—it's easy to get better pace if you make the sound thinner. With the SH on the steel cones, pace was good, if not up to the Trampolinn on the Polycrystal shelf, and tone was much improved—the frequency extremes were more engaged. There's more depth to the tone, more body and richness. Good things happened with the soundstage: it expanded in two dimensions, vertically and depth-wise. Images stayed in place, with a satisfying level of inner voices present. After slipping the Harmonix RF-900 spike bases under the SH, tone and timbre ratcheted up, but the pace slacked off a bit. Anyway, the point here is that the SH is one of the best supports around for the LP12.
I was nervous about putting the SH under my Kharma 3.2 speakers. My floors are uneven and there's no way of leveling the SH other than with shims. Plus I worried about the speaker's weight on the soft, lightweight boards and the cosmetic damage from the spike points. So, even though ERaudio recommends the speaker as first placement, I opted out.
I did try a large SH under the Talon Roc subwoofer. I was amazed; the sub resting flat on the SH worked much better than its usual base of metal cones on top of a Rosinante Dark Matter platform or a Mapleshade wood block. There was no doubt about it—it sounded faster, had less warmth and overhang, was actually tighter sounding, yet less noticeable. Go figure: these are the kinds of results you would expect if you used metal cones on a clarifying platform—none were in use here. The SH is an excellent sub-woofer platform.
The general rule to follow is to place the component directly on the SH, with no intermediary footers. What you put under the SH is open for play.
Cosmetics and Construction
Platforms that tune sound are nothing new to me. For a time I was enamored with those Mapleshade makes from the instrument-grade maple used in the manufacture of string instruments. They cleaned up upper-bass resonances and imparted an overall clarity, resulting in a very pleasing acoustic quality, with less tuning effects. The Mapleshade platforms are much thicker than the SH, at least 2" deep, and cut from a solid block of wood. They are hand-made and reflect this through irregularities in dimension and finish. The passage of time also revealed a tendency to warp. The SH, on the other hand, look like any other product aimed at the consumer marketplace—the finish is smooth and standardized, without blemish or defect, and so far, there's no warping. The SH come in two sizes; small is 18½″ long by 11½″ wide and about 1½″ thick; large is 24″ by 15″ by 1½″ (take off ½″ from each measurement to accommodate rounded edges and get the usable area). The small boards are sold individually, while the large come in sets of two. They have small, off-white rubber footers inserted into each corner. The optional set of four small, black steel cones are cleverly packaged in a Rubik's cube type of container. You slip off the outer sleeve and a strip of four triangles unfolds, each containing a steel cone—very well designed packaging, but be careful you don't drop one. Noto bene: the SH wood is quite soft and easily scuffed or damaged. If you use spikes, they will leave holes. I'm told this has no effect on performance: be that as it may, after a while the boards won't look good.
Some more from the website: "The harmonizers are made from the wood of hundred-year-age Siberian cedar. After delivery, the wood is exposed to long-term multistage drying and then resonant bars are made. The selected group of bars is glued together and finished. Any minor change of bar dimensions affects the resonant properties. 14 percent of finished products are rejected for their sound does not live up too the makers standards." The decision to dump a board is made by listening tests: whoever does this QA function must have some very discerning ears.
The Case for Tuning
Very few things in life are perfect. The best components are financially out of range of your average audiophile, so that leaves most of us juggling gear we know is full of compromises. Our imperfect components brutalize the signal with add-ons like grain, distortion on dynamic peaks, transformer hum, transistor/capacitor or valve response irregularities, all of which, by definition, have nothing to do with the music. And then there are all the things our gear subtracts. So, let's be honest: whether you actively tune your system or not, don't for one second imagine you're reproducing "Nothing But Signal". Anyway, you look at it the signal has been tampered with. While you're at it, forget the notion that simpler is better. Who's to say that just ‘cause you have fewer compromised parts you will have less corruption?
This is similar to an impresario booking a world-class string quartet without considering the venue. If they wind up performing in a high school cafeteria, it will be a sad couple of hours for all concerned, whereas, put that same signal (the quartet) in Carnegie Hall and you're looking at bliss.
Therefore, I tune, in an attempt to offset the shortcomings in my sound. I look around my room—everything is tuned, from the walls and ceiling with Harmonix Tuning Discs and Acoustic Systems Resonators, to the Harmonix component supports, the Harmonix Bases on the speakers, and so on. Each tuning agent was carefully chosen.
The ERaudio Space Harmonizers are universal in application and should have very democratic appeal. They brought cost-effective tuning benefits everywhere I applied them. Some may extol their audiophile attributes and describe them as neutral, even accurate. I agree: they're very good in those terms. I would further compliment them by noting that their forté is the ability to heal the splintering of the soundscape into fragments and make it whole again. They shift the presentation away from audiophile and back to natural. Whether you're playing in the $10,000 or $100,000 arena, any audiophile targeting natural sound should give them an audition. Guys who've already achieved good sound will find the SH one of those rare products that help close the credibility gap. The downside? There ain't one, really, unless you want some of your exciting artifacts back.
Use them as shipped on their built-in rubber feet without further adornment or with the optional steel cones: between the two, you will have plenty of leeway for tailoring their sound. On their own, the SH are better than any component support I've found, except those from Harmonix. To really push the envelope, throw a set of Harmonix RF-900 footers under the corners of the board. This made for a very exciting sound, although it began to depart from the pure naturalism of the SH.
Now, what do you make of this statement on the ERaudio website about their violins: "Our instruments develop with their owners, they need to sound as human beings need to breathe. Due to some carefully selected processing techniques our violins acquire a more melodious and saturated tone quality as time goes by. After working in your hands for four to six months, our violin will pleasantly surprise and please you by new sound possibilities which it "suddenly" disclosed. Marshall Nack
See eraudioharmonizer for Dave Clark's review.