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Positive Feedback ISSUE 68
Sonic Society with Ken Ishiguro (ACOUSTIC
The meetings of the Krakow Sonic Society usually have the goal of identifying a problem, diagnosing it, comparing old and new products, records, and technologies. We approach it with an open mind, although everybody has their private expectations and agendas. The goal is the same for all, however: to explain something, to reach a conclusion. Of course, everything is very temporary and make-shift, since audio is a field in which there are no "sure" things, rather "highly probable" at most. That's why every meeting of a group of people accustomed to a certain auditioning practice, whose have viewpoints on sound and hardware, is a unique meeting of MINE with ANOTHER, an attempt at using this as a base for forming a new viewpoint. An important aspect of this is that it all happens before our eyes, and a meeting aims to reach a conclusion there and then.
This time things were different. When I sat down to write this report I had a powerful feeling that everything I wanted to say here had been said before. We were after a few auditions of this company's products (see HERE, and HERE), and I had just interviewed its owner (see HERE) and tested a whole system (see HERE). The Golden Fingerprint Award, given to Mr. Ken Ishiguro and his company, Acoustic Revive—the heroes of the evening—should speak for itself. We established it for this very occasion and it was handed out for the very first time.
Meeting this guy in real life, as well as his co-workers and friends—Mr. Yoshi Hontani who represents Acoustic Revive outside of Japan, and Mr. Yuichi Matsuki, a photographer following them along their tour around Europe (his work can be viewed HERE)—was an exceptional experience. For years I've called for the unbroken bond between a product and its creator, which directly translates into the sound produced. To cut it short—a good man creates things that give inner peace; a bad man (excuse the generalization, but I'm sure you know what I mean) is able to prepare a phenomenal product which, however, gets stuck in our throat. I didn't come up with that, but I completely agree with this sort of understanding of the relationship between the creator and the result of his work. That's why knowing Acoustic Revive by its products that are extraordinary in modeling the sound of many systems I'm familiar with (mine included), I was sure that the man behind them is equally exceptional. I was not disappointed.
Ken Ishiguro is completely and absolutely submerged in what he does. In the audiophile world (because he has another life altogether) he is the producer of products that suppress and cancel vibration and electromagnetic radiation that influence the structure of sound-related components as well as cables. I (and presumably the rest of the members of the Krakow Sonic Society) am most interested in the first two groups. The basis of his actions is the conversion of mechanical vibrations into heat and its immediate elimination, as well as the reduction of RF and EMI noise. Both of these areas, low-frequency and high-frequency vibrations, are—according to him—the reason behind the inferior sound of many systems and devices. His observations are backed up by scientific measurements carried out at the Faculty of Engineering at Gunma University. And of course by his incredible hearing. The influence of his products on sound could've been heard on last year's Audio Show in Warsaw, where he led seminars and auditions. One of the most important assumptions is that although each of the accessories offered by Acoustic Revive does its job in any given system, the cumulative effect of using a maximum number of accessories is a much more interesting combination.
Auditions of such products can be done in several different ways, the two basic ones being as follows: we apply one element at a time to the system and we search for the changes it brings, or we apply all the elements at once, listening to the aforementioned cumulative change. I tested the latter method in my reference system. However, during the meeting at Janusz's place with Ishiguro-san and his friends we auditioned individual elements. We had the whole array of Acoustic Revive accessories—the boxes they arrived in took up the entire hallway and part of the room. After a short discussion we decided to choose what interests us the most, because we didn't have time to audition every single component.
Acoustic Revive accessories that were auditioned
You also have to remember that Janusz has been using many AR products at home for a very long time—the RAF-48H platforms, the SPU8 spike receptacle insulators, and the RCI-3 (the previous version of the current RCI-3H) cable insulators. We decided that we wouldn't take them off, because we're familiar with how the system sounds with them.
RWL-3 Acoustic Conditioner
I have no doubts that these elements change the sound. With these panels everything was more precise, clearer and more three-dimensional. The biggest change definitely concerned the sound of the instruments in the higher range—a lot of information that hadn't been there before suddenly appeared. It sounds better.
The vocals were the most important change for me—they sounded closer now; the whole soundstage was closer. On the other hand, it seemed the drums rumbled a lot more—maybe because it was just louder, I don't really know…
The change is audible in a matter of seconds, and it's not some small difference or shift. I confirm I heard what Janusz and Robert are talking about, however the biggest difference for me was the larger space. I know this is exactly how acoustic panels work, but here there was no sound dampening, which often happens, or hollowness and the soundstage was much larger. And the bass extension was nicer—it appeared lower but most importantly clearer.
I agree—the panels provided for a better organization of the soundstage. The tangibility seemed worse, though. I disagree that the instruments and vocals sounded closer or clearer.
Rysiek in opposition as always... For me, instruments' focusing was much better now; not a bit, but a whole lot. And there were no flaws that usually follow such presentation. The panels definitely changed the sound, but everything they brought in was better; I have no more remarks.
I have to say that this was a very high quality system to start with—congratulations! I really liked it. But, I think we can all agree with that, just two panels significantly changed this already high quality sound. For me the most important was a change of a more general nature that I would describe as more pleasurable listening. As if some kind of irritation that we didn't pay any special attention to was gone, calmed down.
I'm sitting towards the side and I'm currently ill, so I won't digress, but even over here I could hear that while two panels did their job, the third built it all up, and now it all makes sense—everything sounds cleaner, as if there was nothing to upset us. Before adding the panels the sound was super, but adding them showed that there was something that shouldn't ever have been there.
Indeed—it was better with that third panel in the middle, but the changes that it brought were different than with the two side panels. Before, I noticed the same changes in all the recordings; now the instruments were much better differentiated. On Peggy Lee's album you could hear more "studio", you could tell that it was not a live recording, that the acoustics was set up. On Procol Harum's live recording on the other hand the "cubature", i.e. the space where the recordings were made, really increased; everything was "inflated" with new information and space. I expected the sound to come forward before the speaker line, because that's what I'd heard before with two panels, but I was wrong. I'd say that the sound was even more distanced, behind the speakers' plane.
"The sex lady" [Peggy Lee; please listen to this CD, and you'll know what he means – Ed.] moved a little to the left, as if that's where she was really meant to be. I didn't really notice it before, but now it makes more sense together with the instruments. The improved selectiveness on the "Messiah" also caught my attention. Everything was clearer, but without an exaggerated top.
Everything was better this time, but it was mostly audible with studio recordings. The contrast between instruments—tonal and dynamic—was improved and the legibility was better, too. I didn't hear any major changes with the live recording and the "Messiah".
I'm answering after Ryszard again and I have to say again I'm hearing differently from him :) For me, the improvement is evident and larger than with only two panels. Everything is deeper and better defined; clearer, but without sharpening. I'm really impressed.
I'll say this—the sound of my system, which I know and love, is now liquid, milder, and silkier. It's a big improvement. I'll also say that everything sounds less distorted now. The third panel makes the music more "listenable".
RST-38H + RIQ-5010
The next step was replacing the Acrolink 7N-PC9300 power cord with the Acoustic Revive Power Reference with the RAS-14 filter. I won't describe it in detail, because in our opinion, it was a change for the worse. Not in all aspects, as the sound became calmer and smoothed out, but the dynamics and sound coherence took a real dip. The Power Reference is a very good cable, and the filter is excellent (I know it from my own system), but it didn't really work well with Janusz's system—in the end, it costs a lot less than the Acrolink. Another obstacle could be the fact that solid-core cables need lots of time to "settle down" and "warm up" in a given location.
That's why we rather swiftly moved towards the next point on the program, to the RST-38H quartz platform and the RIQ-5010 quartz insulators. Janusz placed the RAF-48H air floating platforms underneath the transport and amp ages ago. We didn't change that. There wasn't any space underneath the D/A converters, unfortunately. What we did was to place the Ancient Audio First Generator power conditioner on the platform, and to use quartz insulators under its feet. I also showed Mr. Ishiguro and the guys a "trick" I tested in my own system— used the RIQ-5010 quartz insulators instead of Franc Audio Accessories aluminum spacers (see HERE).
It's an interesting change, because it's rather surprising. I wouldn't expect the platform underneath the power conditioner to have a significant effect on the sound. But in this case the changes were comparable to those with the panels, although their character was different. Now everything was smoother and deeper. The panels gave better focus, definition, and precision. Here at first glance there seem to be less details. When I listened to it longer, though, I have to say that there's actually more information now, but it's better organized and ordered, which is why the sound seems smoother with all records.
Before, with the panels, I thought the changes were sensible, but not necessarily going in the direction I wanted them to. Things were worse with the cables. But this time I've got to say it's superb. It's an excellent improvement. I'm surprised at how much something so seemingly insignificant like the platform under the power conditioner, influences the presentation. The tonal balance has lowered—and that's good. I didn't hear it before, but it's a trademark trait in good systems, although I know now that some elements of the sound were irritating. The platform and quartzes cleaned it of its nervousness and over-brightness, which—I must say it again—I didn't hear before! This set should definitely stay in this system!
The change is clear, and clearly for the better. I won't digress and I'll just say that for me, it seemed like every tone, each note had a wider spectrum, was deeper, as if there was more of it. The whole was more normal and fuller. For the first time I'll agree with Ryszard.
With Ricci, right at the beginning of track number 4 you first hear the tape noise. It's a distortion, to clarify, but because we only know the recording with this distortion and it's part of the presentation, its audibility influences the entire sound. With the platform this noise wasn't a hiss, like the one I still remember from tape recorders, without Dolby, but had positive value, substance and depth. The sound that appeared afterwards was, therefore, stronger, more natural, more 3D. Paradoxically, it was best audible with the sounds at the bottom of the range; the bass was stronger, more stable and softer. It's a huge change! Although if the system lacked the panels, we'd hear much less. Ryszard doesn't have to agree with this, of course :).
CD's used during the auditions
For the first time this evening we didn't add a new element to the system, but we changed the old version for a new one. I remember clearly when we put the wooden RCI-3 cable supports under the Tara Labs Omega speaker cables, mostly for laughs. I remember, even more clearly, our faces (Rysiek's, too). That shouldn't have happened. Repeated and tested time after time they achieved the same effect and the sound was better. That's why we approached this test with full seriousness. The new version differs from the predecessor in its use of Hickory and mahogany wood.
With every opportunity like this, I always get the feeling that we've changed something more than the examined component in the whole system. Such small modifications shouldn't have such a big impact. It's kind of depressing, because it means that we still know very little and there's a long way ahead of us. The real question was whether we listened on equal volume levels—it turns out we did. Because it seemed like we turned everything up, though, it's worth pointing out what's responsible for this effect—the wooden supports. The sound is now more dynamic, as if something heavy that had been "lying on it" was taken off. The imaging is also better.
It's a positive change for me, but it's borderline perceptible. The soundstage is clearer and denser, as if there were more sounds in its each centimeter. The change jumped out at me with the platform and the quartzes—it's still audible now, but it's more like an evolution.
I perceive it differently again—although visibly this is the smallest change thus far, I think it's the most significant in terms of sound. But maybe that's a snowball effect—the previous changes built up so much that now even the smallest changes reach a high rank? Either way, the sound is livelier, more dynamic and seems louder. You can therefore turn down the volume and get a better, less obtrusive sound.
I have to say I'm slightly shocked—everything seems much brighter. But when you listen to the hi-hat, it's not any flashier or sharper, the sound isn't brightened or sharpened—it's clearer and more emphatic; it has more energy and is deeper. Hence the sound is, perversely, calmer. Everything is denser and fuller, as if something was thrown off this sound. What's interesting, the smallest difference was with the classical music, the biggest—with Procol Harum.
Along with the tiny "flakes" of crystal, exactly the same kind as in the RIQ-5010 spike insulators, we're entering an area that I still haven't "grasped". Although just the mention of Acoustic Revive's name is enough for many a "straightforward" engineer to conclude that we long ago left the healthy group of non-crazies that know their stuff. But I don't give a toss about that. I respect different opinions, but I think of such critics as of people with impaired hearing. You can of course think that meetings such as the ones at Janusz's, albeit often repeated and confirmed by auditions using our own systems, are all about group hypnosis where we convince ourselves that we're hearing something. However, given the large number of people involved and the repetitive nature of tests, it is much easier to presume (without even mentioning Ockham—we don't need heavy artillery) that these changes are actually audible.
Either way, the QR-8 is a product which I hadn't tested on its own before. Ken attached them anywhere he could—under the shelves with the audio components, in the front, in the middle, under the top and bottom panels of the speaker stands, on the CD transport, under the D/A converters, on the power cord plugs, and even on the safety fuse that provides power to the mains socket Janusz's system is plugged into (see HERE) We looked at it rather disoriented, but faithful, knowing that it's all done by a man whose products, one after another, keep becoming part of our systems and change their sound in a desirable direction.
I didn't know what to think about this—in the end, it's such a tiny "nothing". But we're all hearing it, aren't we? I'm not hallucinating—there's an audible improvement. This time it's based on a better tonal differentiation, and there's a larger sound color spectrum. Before in the violin recordings I couldn't really hear the plucking, but now it's obvious. I was most struck by the realism that appeared. We've said it many times before, but I've got to say it again: this was an excellent system that didn't seem to need any improvements. But a change in a good direction showed what was lacking and what could be changed. This, of course, implies something more serious: that there is no "wall" stopping you, that audio systems can be improved practically endlessly. To know what to do and how, though, you need to do what Mr. Ishiguro's doing.
I have to say, this really impressed me. I'm a sceptic, and I don't "buy" most things that many audiophiles find normal. But this completely blew me away. It's such a small change in the system, but you can hear many more details, and the hi-hat played like on a live set. There was truth in this sound.
More tonal diversity, a denser scene—and not through suppression—these are the more important differences upon sticking those discs on. By God, how does it work? I don't know... I'm very surprised.
Whatever these Japanese lads have done—I don't understand how it works—the sound is bigger and stronger. I agree with Ryszard—everything is thicker, but also more defined. The sound is more natural.
This is THE sound. I can't sit still—I thought it's been great so far, and that every change we made here was a step toward a natural, thick, darker and more versatile sound. But the discs just polished it off.
The test system
The Japanese have lots of skill in their hands. When they're the hands of a man like Mr. Ishiguro, then the effects are unbelievable. He started with a simple observation that any noise deteriorates the sound. And he started eliminating it, suppressing it in an equally simple way. He uses a mechanical noise suppression by light elements based on crystals and wood. The presence of natural materials around power cords and line cables is key. Whenever it can be confirmed with measurements, however, he's a supporter of active processes like demagnetization, cleaning the connectors, generating waves that have a positive effect on people. I wasn't present for the latter, the meeting at Janusz's went on long into the night, yet the participants were increasingly surprised by the effects. And they build up. You can begin with one of these accessories, but the more of them in a system, the stronger and more extensive their influence is. What's important is that none of them changes the sound but rather models it, bringing out the good of the audio system. If it's any different I'm now 100% sure that you made an error while setting up your system and you need to take it apart again. I wish you all the privilege of attending a show like this. The more alert ones had the opportunity to see Mr. Ishiguro in action on Monday, after our meeting, during the open days at the Nautilus audio salon. I was also there, but I didn't drink anything. What I had on Sunday was absolutely sufficient.