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boston audio design
TuneBlock Series 2 Standard and TuneBlock Series 2 XT
as reviewed by Tom Campbell
Boston Audio Design is a manufacturer of serious audiophile tweaks. In concept, design, and execution, their products display a penchant for perfectionism and for thinking outside the box. The company's secret weapon is the proprietary material used to make all of their offerings, a specially coated carbon-graphite mixture that is exceptionally strong and inert.
Carbon-graphite (when mixed with clay) is used as the "lead" in pencils—though of course, it is not actually lead at all. According the Boston Audio Design website, in order to make pure carbon-graphite practicable for use in its flagship product—the Mat 1 turntable platter mat—each piece produced has to go through a painstaking and expensive sealing process:
"First, it is possible to remove 90% of loose graphite particles by polishing the mats at high speed. So after being CNC machined, each side of the Mat 1 is polished at speeds of over 4000RPM. Second, our proprietary sealant is applied with an automotive-quality HVLP spray system to ensure precise and even coverage. The benefit of our sealant is that it is incredibly thin (only a few microns) so that it doesn't degrade the natural acoustic properties of the mat. In fact, the slight dampening produced by using our sealant yields a sound quality consistently preferred by our listening panel in blind tests when compared with nude mats. Each Mat 1 receives four coats of sealant."
As I said, this is serious stuff.
For the record, the Mat 1 is the best and most efficacious audio accessory I have ever found. It made a huge difference replacing the standard felt mat on my Nottingham Spacedeck turntable. Cartridge tracking, rhythmic stability, soundstage depth, musical flow, continuity, noise floor, etc.. The Mat effected marked improvements in all of those areas, with no attendant drawbacks or evident colorations.
I could go on about the Mat 1, but I won't, because my colleague Victor Chavira has already covered the subject nicely in these pages. Under consideration is Boston Audio's other main product offering: TuneBlocks resonance control devices. Made with the same sealed carbon-graphite as the Mat 1, TuneBlocks come in sets of three; each block has a small recess on one side in which to place one of the included ball bearings (chromium steel bearings are standard; super-high-tensile tungsten carbide bearing are available as an upgrade).
The TuneBlocks are placed underneath your component with the ball bearings facing up and serving as the only contact points with the component. Unlike many such devices, these blocks do not have a recommended weight range: according to Boston Audio Design, they are strong enough to support the heaviest of amps or turntables but work as well with the lightest of CD or DVD players. After launching the product last year as a one-size-fits-all solution, however, the company recently unveiled a new line of several different block sizes and configurations. Apparently, what makes pure carbon-graphite so unique for audio applications is its extraordinary energy-absorbing characteristics—thus, the larger the TuneBlocks, the greater their mass, and the more vibrations/energy they will absorb.
Two block sizes were submitted for my consideration: the TuneBlock Standard (see to the left) and the taller TuneBlock Standard XT (see below). Both the standard chromium bearings and the optional tungsten carbide bearings were also supplied for review.
In the past, my Sony DV999-ES universal player has not benefited from being placed atop any of various resonance control thingies. I've tried blobby things, pointy things, and puck-y things, and each time preferred the sound of the player on its own rubber feet. The sorbothane blobs delivered a fat midrange with rolled-off highs and tubby, diffuse bass; the pointy steel designs made the sound searingly bright and instantly unbearable; and the pucks were clear and detailed but tonally dull.
The TuneBlocks are by far the closest to being "just right", and are the first equipment supports that I prefer to the Sony's standard feet. They notably enhance resolution and focus without making the sound thin or bright—a bit leaner-textured, perhaps, but you soon realize that all that's missing is the gauzy layer of haze you're accustomed to hearing (which, in my case, is at least partly an artifact of my adequate-but-not-great veneered MDF rack). It may be a warm pleasant layer of haze, but haze it is. The TuneBlocks brought an almost hyper-real presence to my system, greatly clarified instrumental layers in complex productions, and allowed me to hear deeper into the soundstage of recordings.
A case in point is Deutsche Grammophon's spectacular new release of Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic (works of Mussorgsky, Bartok, and Stravinsky) in their newly built home, Disney Hall. This recording joins Telarc's recent efforts with Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony among the finest orchestral recordings I've ever heard. These discs (all of them in the all-but-dead Super Audio CD format) have it all: a proper orchestral balance, a realistic audience perspective, you-are-there hall ambience, tremendous range, and stunning dynamics. In addition, they are all superb performances to boot—in addition to this Salonen disc, I particularly recommend Jarvi's recordings of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and Stravinsky's great ballets (Petrushka and The Firebird suite on one disc; Rite of Spring on another, accompanied by a dynamite performance of Nielsen's Fifth Symphony).
The Salonen may just be the best of the best. On the basis on this, Disney Hall sounds like a remarkable acoustical achievement: warm and woody but clear and dry, with just a small, pleasant amount of reverberation. Listening to the performance pre TuneBlocks and post TuneBlocks was instructive: the Blocks not only clarified textures and improved depth, but also really made me feel immersed in the hall's acoustic. By stripping away the slight additive smear I was used to, the TuneBlocks helped me hear exactly what was on the recording.
At the other end of the sonic spectacular scale, the quiet, intimate performances on Bonnie "Prince" Billy's (aka Will Oldham) new CD, The Letting Go, were equally impressive. This is also a very well recorded CD as well as a great late-night listen: many songs feature just Oldham and his acoustic guitar accompanied by Dawn McCarthy's dreamy back-up vocals. On first hearing, some of this comes off a little corny—almost in A Mighty Wind kind of way—but on subsequent spins the haunting melodies, evocative lyrics, and deeply felt performances prove very affecting. The way that the TuneBlocks added depth and three-dimensionality to Oldham's and McCarthy's voices – the way the nuances of their vocals, and their close proximity to each other, locked into focus—was almost eerie. I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck.
That said, whereas the Mat 1 is a hands-down superior interface that effects pronounced functional improvements over most other turntable mats, your impression of the TuneBlocks will depend to some extent on your individual taste. I know there are some listeners who prefer their music in "soft focus"—the kind of golden glow associated with tubes that is not necessarily about the unvarnished truth of a recording. Soft focus is not what TuneBlocks give you; their focus is more akin to a super-high-rez photograph. However, unlike other resonance control devices I've heard, they do their thing without hardening the tonality of the music.
I placed both sizes under my Sony digital player and noticed a further degree of enhancement with the larger XT blocks—blacker backgrounds, more detail, even firmer imaging. It seemed to me the standard TuneBlocks got you 90% of the way there, but the XTs justified their modestly higher cost. One note, however: make sure that your rack has enough clearance to accommodate the taller (1.5-inch) XT blocks before taking the plunge. If you really want to go all the way, the $299 SE model has a wider circumference than the XT and includes a larger, cryogenically treated tungsten carbide bearing as standard equipment. I haven't heard the SE, but it may be just the thing for those who must have the best in everything—and, incidentally, that is still cheaper than a lot of the competition.
As for the regular chromium steel versus the tungsten carbide bearings, the choice, unfortunately, is clear: you should spring the extra $50 for the tungsten carbide. The upgraded bearings produced a more natural, fluid, breathing sound; by comparison, the chromium bearings could sound a bit unyielding on some CDs.
Moving the blocks around my system, I also placed them under my heavy Coda integrated amp and my even heavier Nottingham turntable, with its big blue-marble-colored base. In each case, I heard a more subtle version of what happened under the Sony: superior resolution, increased depth and improved micro-dynamics. The effect under the amp was the least significant, but the effect under the Spacedeck was more than negligible and worth the investment in another set of blocks. I feel the Nottingham's standard base has somewhat of a dulling effect on the 'table's performance—I've been considering replacing it with another platform for that reason—but the TuneBlocks did a nice job of alleviating that effect, clarifying textures and enlivening the proceedings.
Overall, though, it seems to me that these little buggers make the biggest difference under lighter, as opposed to heavier, equipment. With CDPs, in particular, their energy-absorbing qualities seem ideal for reducing the vibrational phenomena that can contribute to a case of the digital nasties. Just before sending this review in, I finally thought to place a set beneath my tubed E.A.R. 834P phono preamp, and heard much the same results as with the digital player: tightened focus and blacker backgrounds.
It's not that often that someone in our hobby comes up with a truly new solution, but I think that Boston Audio Design is really onto something with their pure carbon-graphite designs. The Mat 1 is a best-in-breed product that in my opinion has been under-reported in the wider audio press. Moreover, TuneBlocks resonance control devices managed to make a believer out of me, one who had never been previously persuaded by blobs, points, or pucks. I highly recommend you give them a try. Tom Campbell
TuneBlock Series 2 Standard
TuneBlock Series 2 XT
Boston Audio Design