ELpF Isolation Platform
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
Were you around when the Vibraplane hit the high-end market a couple of decades ago? Wow! What a splash! It opened up a whole new area to audiophile investigation—high performance isolation platforms. There was nothing like it at the time. Time passes: the landscape is now peppered with isolation platforms. Into the fray steps the ELpF, the successor product from Kinetic Systems, Inc., the maker of the Vibraplane. And how does it fare?
With the VYGER Turntable
The prime candidate for a high performance platform is a component with moving parts—the turntable or the transport. The ELpF first replaced a CORE Design constrained layer walnut platform under the VYGER Baltic M turntable.
Let's begin with a DG Tulip label LP, Opera Recital (SLPM 138 700), featuring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.
When you install an ELpF, you won't have to go hunting around for what's different: the changes are dramatic. You immediately perceive a downward shift in tonal palette. Treble energy drops drastically, as every vestige of brightness disappears. If your system suffers from this malady, it will be cured instantly. Even if you think it isn't bright, you might be surprised.
Then you notice how massive the stage has become. It's not so much in the width as the sheer weight and layered depth of the reproduction. The images are propped up, unwavering, and have newfound body and support. Nothing sags—there's nothing soft on this stage. With the ELpF, you have dimension plus substance and palpability. You feel you can reach out and virtually touch Fischer-Dieskau. His image has a front, a back, and sides. In comparison to the CORE platform, he was like a cutout figure.
The CORE platform imparted dimension and air, and gave the sound "lift." Lift comes from a rising treble component on the note's tail. With the ELpF in place that is completely gone. The ELpF has buoyancy or bounce—not to be confused with lift. It was a curious thing: the VYGER had more "air" when it was on the CORE platform.
A Key Point
Now I'm listening to Ravel's Shéhérazade, with Sir John Barbirolli and the New Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI box set SLS 5013). Janet Baker's strong, yet sweet soprano is ravishing. When she hits a crescendo, she comes forward, disproportionately large and totally dominating the orchestra. My impression is it's recorded this way: the ELpF is merely allowing this to fully unfurl. Most impressively, her image does not drift and her tone doesn't thin out as she moves into her treble range—image drift with frequency changes has always been a problem in my room. Tonal quality is consistent and her image stays put.
I assume these are largely due to the purging of tracking issues. The ELpF is actively correcting micro vibrations in real time, thus enabling the cartridge stylus to maintain steady contact with the record groove walls and stop bouncing around. If you've ever upgraded a turntable motor supply/controller, the effect is similar. Both reduce smearing or blurring, and result in a threefold improvement: 1) Notably improved imaging. 2) Better timing. The start and stop of the notes has better temporal coherence. 3) Timbral color has more variety. Instruments sound less alike.
Under the mbl Transport
In some ways, putting the mbl 1511 digital transport on the ELpF was even more dramatic than the turntable audition.
For this trial, I used a favorite CD from Mapleshade, Datevik (MS 04332). A jazz lover from her youth in Armenia, it is easy to find traces of her role models—Sarah, Ella and Dinah—in her performance, but she carries it off very well, with her dark contralto. She is equally as strong and assured as Ms. Baker.
Again, a big drop in treble output.
One of digitals signature artifacts is a glossy, homogenous soundstage surface. That veneer has been dismissed, replaced by a variegated, naturally textured "image skin." I'm impressed with how smooth and relaxed everything has become. Smooth with huge amounts of detail—that's almost a contradiction.
The ELpF creates a different sonic space entirely. To sum up performance without it, the word that comes to mind is schmeered, as in your Sunday morning repast of cream cheese on a bagel. The only thing good about the "bagel sound" is you put on a bad CD or LP and you won't hear how bad it is.
But was it too smooth, too relaxed? Some visitors took issue on these counts, even as they marveled at the across-the-board advances everywhere else. I hear that, too—there is no denying that it's more laid back. It is less exciting. But I see beyond that, because a good part of the excitement was due to an unbalanced treble response. This caused it to sound faster and more energetic.
I recognized that an adjustment was needed. In went a Kondo KSL-LPz interconnect in place of the TARA 0.8 on the link from DAC to preamp. The result was both a lighter tonal balance and less smoothness on top. High treble response became proportional and sounded right, even as the KSL added a touch of that "lift."
You should be able to discern the ELpFs profile by now. On all of these vocal recordings, the soloist moved forward. His / her image is palpable, stable and weighty—a presence. An intimacy is created between you and the artist. On the jazz CDs you feel you're in a small club. Chalk this up to the ELpF.
an Air Bladder is an Air Bladder… or is it?
The ELpF is, after all, a cushion of air, an air pillow of sorts. I know what air isolation sounds like. I own a Townshend Seismic Sink (haven't used it in years, though). Certainly, there are qualities in common.
But the ELpF goes beyond these other air supports. First, the ELpF isolates in both horizontal and vertical planes. Second, it is an active system. Once set up, if you put other components on it, only minor re-leveling is required. Third, in addition to the "airy" qualities, it sounds like you've added an optimum amount of mass loading to the front end.
Another product that combines air with mass loading is the Big Rock / Air Mass combo by Bright Star Audio (MSRP $600 for the stackable pair).
The Air Mass contains an air bladder. It is placed under a multi-layered, high mass Big Rock. How different is this from the ELpF? While I haven't heard one of these, still I would speculate quite a bit, simply based on the design principles behind each.
For starters, the design of the competition utilizes a single inner tube, or air bladder. An inner tube only isolates in one plane, the horizontal.
As weight is applied to the inner tube air is displaced. Heavier areas distend more. You adjust the pressure and make the component level on the platform, but you wind up with less air under the heaviest areas. And you better not move the component afterwards or major re-leveling and air pumping is required. Because these products are passive you occasionally top it off when an indicator tells you it's time. Then you get out the hand pump.
The ELpF has four isolators plus four dedicated air chambers. Apply more weight to one corner of the ELpF and only that isolator / chamber is activated to add air.
There is another category of active isolation platforms. I'm thinking of Halcyonics and Critical Mass Systems. These are very sophisticated and, by all reports, very good—and very expensive, costing upwards of $10K per platform.
Then again, most component manufacturers recommend you put their gear on the most firm and stable support you can come up with, like a 100 lb granite slab.
Everybody has a different take on what's optimum.
Setup and Appearance
The VYGER turntable just fit on the ELpF. Likewise, the mbl 1511 transport. Usable platform area is 19" wide by 16" deep for the top plate (same as the "Baby Vibraplane" model). BTW: the top plate is made of cold rolled steel with a coating of proprietary damping material.
The fit-n-finish of the ELpF is so-so, nothing fancy. For a slightly higher money, they could have made it more elegant.
In thinking about it, the VYGER may not show off the ELpF to best effect. The table has a magnetic suspension. This possibly compromises the ELpFs efficiency. Maybe a suspension-less table wholly under the ELpFs control would exhibit the most improvement.
Unpacking the air compressor
There is no escaping the Panther air compressor's looks: it is ugly-öögly. That's right; it gets a double pejorative. It is made for industrial use; it has no business in your living room. WAF is in the zero range.
Installing the ELpF was a piece of cake. Just place it on your rack, attach the air hose, put your component on top and turn on the air compressor. There's a little bit of leveling via height adjustment knobs on the sides and air pressure adjustment via a pressure regulator screw on the front that takes a couple of more minutes. Once leveled and pressure is set, you can forget about it. It will self adjust even when you change loads.
Installing the air compressor was not easy. Not that the installation is complicated, it's only a couple of steps, just that the instructions leave a lot of guesswork. If you've never done one of these, be prepared for a multi-hour chore, reading and re-reading the instructions.
There are two manuals: one from Panther and another from KSI. The two are not in sync, and neither of the manuals is updated for the compressor model at hand. Some parts referred to don't exist on this model. Other parts referred to are not identified. More pictures would be useful. After all, the imposing-looking Panther compressor is an industrial unit and you don't want to mess it up.
(Postscript: I've been informed that the ELpF will be sold direct only and it is the distributor's intention to walk each customer through setup.)
Situate the Panther on the floor and connect the air tube. Fill up the oil well. (It takes a lot of oil, maybe 2/3 of the supplied plastic bottle.) Leave it on all the time.
Is any maintenance required?
The Panther and KSI manuals discuss maintenance procedures but, again, they weren't clear. I made inquiries. The good news is the ELpF requires no maintenance.
The way compressed air is used in this application requires an occasional short burst to top off the ELpF. It doesn't take much to keep the ELpF inflated. The compressor will be working less than a minute a day on average, I'm told. In a year's time it will get maybe two hours of actual use. The only maintenance is to check the oil level every six months: if low, fill-er-up with the supplied special oil. But no draining or oil change, as mentioned in the manual is required. If this were a typical industrial application, the Panther can clock several hours a day—then you would need to follow the maintenance procedures.
Can one compressor be used with multiple ELpFs?
Yes. By attaching a little plastic "T" you can split the air feed into two lines... and then two lines again. The distributor informs me he has customers with a half-dozen Vibraplanes all running on one compressor.
How long can I run the air tube?
There is no length limitation on the air tube. You can run a hundred feet of it, if you like. Plus, it is very thin and pliable.
How does the ELpF differ from the 2212 Vibraplane?
What's different in the Ergonomic Low-Profile-Format (ELpF) is that it only weighs 40 pounds compared to the originals' 150. The ELpF has four isolators and four air chambers. The current 2212 Vibraplane has three isolators and three chambers.
What's New in the ELpF?
What's new is an enclosed system. This means it can be repositioned on your shelf even with a load and in float. Once the 2212 model is inflated it can't be moved without causing possible damage to the vibration isolators.
How low does it isolate?
Here are the specs for the ELpF:
The current 2212 Vibraplane specs are:
Can you hear the difference between 2.0 and 3.0Hz? Doubtful. But consider that the Horizontal Natural Frequency of an inner tube product is around 8Hz. And consider that it has no vertical isolation.
When the Vibraplane Isolation Platform from Kinetic Systems, Inc., hit the market a couple of decades ago, it really shook things up. There was nothing like it at the time. Their newest model for audio use has just been released after five years in development. The ELpF is much more user friendly than the current 2212 Vibraplane. The new compact design weights 40 lbs and can be moved without damaging the isolators. Performance is at least on par with the 2212 Vibraplane and—surprise—pricing is advantageous. The ELpF with Panther Air Compressor is $3500: the 2212 Vibraplane and compressor is $5495.
It may be your most important ancillary component—even more important than cables. Unlike them, the e ELpF fixes problems at the source.
It improves the performance without any hint of sensationalism. This is the right way to get more of all the good stuff, including weight and body, clarity and PRAT. Be aware, though, that some "exciting" artifacts will go by the wayside and the sound will become noticeably relaxed. You will probably have to adjust for the lower tonal balance and the increase in relaxation.
If your system doesn't have an ELpF under your most important source(s), you're missing out on a good percentage of that source(s) potential. Marshall Nack
ELpF Isolation System and Panther P 15TC Air Compressor
ELpF Isolation System (alone)
Kinetic Systems, Inc.