April 1, 2010

Machina Dynamica Clever Little Clock Signature Version

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, perception is "physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience." But the problem with a hobby based on perception is that no one’s perception is the same as another’s. We all hear differently. Some people’s perceptions correspond with those of other people, but the inevitable differences mean that opinions are formed and lines are drawn in the sand. You’re either a vinyl guy or a digital guy; you’re either solid-state or tubes; you believe in linear frequency response, or you don’t. This hobby has more lines drawn in the sand than one can imagine, all drawn from different points of perception.

The product reviewed here is the Signature Version of Machina Dynamica’s Clever Little Clock ($299 USD), a device that sits in your listening room and purportedly changes your perception of what you’re hearing. The device was designed based on the theories of Peter W. Belt, an Englishman responsible for all sorts of controversial audio-related tweaks that have been written about in various audiophile publications over the years. Belt’s theories are based on his belief that "all audio equipment (regardless of price) underperforms because of factors in its environment." He also believes that "environments can be fixed easily and often at modest cost." Geoff Kait of Machina Dynamica first learned of Belt’s theories in 1999, when he read an article in SoundStage! about the PWB Rainbow Electret Foil. He then developed his own take on PWB’s theories which he’s employed in his Clever Little Clock.

What does it do? Well . . .

The Clever Little Clock (CLC) is called that because it is a clock. The version sent for review is actually the Casio PQ-15 travel clock, which retails online for about $20. Earlier versions of the CLC used completely different clocks; the only reason they were replaced was because the clock manufacturers discontinued those models. Geoff Kait says that he makes several modifications to the Casio, including some visible ones.

The rare-earth oxides of neodymium are used to make what are, currently, the strongest of all permanent magnets. The two neodymium magnets on my review sample were stuck on metal discs that were coated in tinted ceramic and glued to the CLC: an orange disc was stuck to the middle of the clock’s display, and a red one to its rear panel. "I’m not sure exactly why the magnets work," Kait says, "and why the specific colors I use for the ceramic magnets work, in the locations they are used, but it has all been worked out experimentally, [by] trial and error, that the magnets are integral to how the clock functions." The magnets are treated with a solution before being placed on the ceramic-coated metal pieces on the clock. In his latest production runs of the CLC, Kait attaches the magnets with glue to keep them from accidentally falling off.

The second visible modification is the time. Kait presets the clock to a time later than the customer’s local time. This Future Time (Kait’s term) was arrived at experimentally. According to Kait, the CLC won’t work as well if the time it displays is the same as local time, or if it’s set to Past Time.

The final visible mod is perhaps the most interesting because Kait’s explanation of it is a bit mystical and hard to grasp. To the Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries included with the CLC, Kait adds strips of -- not tape with a sparkly finish, which is what they look like, but actual PWB "devices." Belt’s term for these strips of tape is Holographic Foils, which, Kait told me, have specific applications, one of which is to electrical batteries.

First, Kait said, batteries, like magnets, have positive and negative poles, which create a corresponding polarizing effect in a room. Kait feels that humans are unaware of the batteries’ audible effect in a room. He claims that not only do the Holographic Foils remove from the room the effects of the CLC’s batteries, they also counteract the problem of morphic field, a concept first articulated by biologist Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake didn’t have hi-fi in mind; instead his morphic field theory describes the way life forms evolve, adapt, and learn. Sheldrake felt that "the ‘morphic fields’ presently organizing the activity of the nervous system in humans and other creatures, are inherited through morphic resonance, conveying a collective and instinctive memory among species. Individuals within a species however, both draw upon and also contribute to the collective memory of their species." He also felt that this phenomenon explains how new patterns of animal behavior are spread rapidly over huge distances.

Belt learned of Sheldrake’s theory and felt that the same principles could also describe hearing. He felt that, over time, humans have developed the ability to naturally block out the harmful sounds created by such things as the billions of electrical batteries on the planet -- whether those batteries are in your remote controls, in a toy, in the trash, or even sitting on a shelf or in a drawer. Because all of these polarizing objects negatively affect the way humans hear, humans therefore subliminally "perceive" these sounds as threats. Belt feels that we have developed defense mechanisms to these harmful sounds and are passing along those mechanisms to generation after generation, without any of us ever being aware of the harmful sounds. It is these defense mechanisms that negatively affect what we hear coming from our loudspeakers.

So Peter W. Belt developed various inexpensive products that, he says, remove the interference of these polarizing objects, with the result that the listener hears only the music. With Belt’s and Sheldrake’s principles in mind, Geoff Kait designed the Clever Little Clock.

Description, systems, rooms

The Signature Version of the Clever Little Clock arrived in my mailbox in an unassuming package. Only 4"H x 3.5"W, it fit neatly into a Victoria’s Secret perfume box. No manual or instructions were provided, but if additional information is needed, I found Geoff Kait very prompt in returning my e-mails. According to Kait, the best location for the CLC is behind the speakers and 5’ above the floor. My mantel is at about that height, so I was easily able to place the clock.

My review system consisted of a pair of Rockport Technologies Mira loudspeakers, a Simaudio Moon P5.3 preamplifier, a Classé CA-2200 power amplifier, and a Bel Canto DAC3 D/A converter. All cables were Analysis Plus, and a MacBook Pro laptop was my music server, running Amarra Music Player and iTunes so that I could navigate my music collection.

A separate listening session was conducted in the Music Vault of editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz, using a system comprising Rockport Technologies Arrakis speakers, Classé Omega Omicron Mono monoblocks or a Boulder 2060 power amplifier, another Bel Canto DAC3, and Shunyata Research cables. In both his and my rooms, Jeff and I conducted both blind and sighted listening tests of the CLC. Though the results were the same in both systems, my descriptions below are from the notes I took in my room with my system.

What it sounds like . . . sort of . . .

To give ourselves well-established reference points, Jeff and I began by listening to three familiar tracks without the Clever Little Clock in the system, or even in the house. Then, after we’d refamiliarized ourselves with each track, we positioned the CLC and listened to the same three tracks again, at the same volume levels.

Because Machina Dynamica claims on their website that "You will hear less distortion, more information, a deeper, more coherent soundstage and more air," I’d picked a recording that already provides goodly amounts of these qualities, just to see if they could be improved on: "Motion Picture Soundtrack," from Radiohead’s Grammy-winning album Kid A (CD, Capitol 29684). It begins with the slow, plodding sounds of an organ, but that wasn’t my focus with this track. The sounds of the performer’s feet depressing the pedals in the background are a great indication of the audio system’s ability to reproduce the non-musical sounds of the instrument. These small details are also farther back in the soundstage and off to the left. I heard no difference with the CLC in my system.

Then we played one of Jeff’s favorites, "Tall Trees in Georgia," from Eva Cassidy’s Live at Blues Alley (CD, Blix Street 10046). A good audio system will re-create the air and ambience of the recording venue, a small jazz club, throughout the soundstage, as well as show off the system’s own upper midrange. Early on, someone in the audience strikes a glass with an eating utensil, creating a well-defined tink that, through some systems, sounds somewhat dull, and masked by audience noise. However, neither Jeff’s nor my own system has any problem providing the desired result. Also, this live recording has a bit of microphone hiss that systems of lower resolution improperly mask. With the CLC in the room, the results were exactly the same as with the Radiohead track: There was no difference in the sounds of the struck glass, the microphone noise, or of Cassidy’s voice.

Last was Mino Cinelu’s "Soon I Will Be Home," from his eponymous CD (Verve 546403). We chose this track for the complicated nature of the fun arrangement: a thumping bass line, punchy bongos, cleanly recorded strings, and a chanted vocal -- altogether, a tough task for an audio system to properly scale. The low bass in this recording tests the quickness and articulation of a system, and provides a good gauge of pace. Once again, we heard no differences with the CLC in the room.

Then we tried some blind tests: One of us would leave the house with the clock. When that person returned, the listener would not know whether or not he’d brought the clock back with him, so the listener had no idea if he was then listening to the system with the CLC or without it. While conducting this lengthy blind test -- and wasting a lot of the HVAC system’s heat by constantly opening and closing the front door -- neither Jeff nor I could accurately determine by listening whether or not the CLC was in the room. Every time we thought we’d discerned some telling characteristic, we’d turn out to be wrong. It was like flipping a coin and calling it in the air -- we had a 50/50 chance of being right.

What does it all mean?

I was disappointed that the Signature Version of the Clever Little Clock didn’t work for Jeff and me. But why didn’t it work? We discussed this at length, and came up with the following.

First, from a reasonable thinker’s standpoint, is the question most readers of this review will ask themselves: Why would stickers on a pair of batteries, a preset Future Time, and a couple of rare-earth magnets on a $20 digital clock, make your audio system sound better? Machina Dynamica provides no scientific data supporting the claims they make for their product; instead, they present such concepts as morphic field and Future Time. While those theories are interesting, they make little scientific sense to me.

How do I explain the Clever Little Clock as a product that some audiophiles have reported has made improvements in their audio system? Before the music starts, might someone believe that there will be a difference, and because of this belief, the differences become discernible? If so, then the question is, did the listener hear actual improvements, or did they hear something they wanted to hear -- something that doesn’t exist in an unbiased reality?

Geoff Kait provided as much help as he could, but finally conceded that the "results can vary from system to system and person to person as well as recording to recording. I think someone who’s very familiar with his system and used to evaluating tweaks would, generally speaking, be better able to key in to what’s going on with the Clock sonically."

Throughout the process, I tried to remain open to the principles Kait believes in, but in the end, I don’t share his beliefs. Geoff Kait seems to believe that his product works.

Machina Dynamica offers a 30-day money-back guarantee for the Clever Little Clock. If this sort of tweak sounds interesting to you, you have little to lose. But the Clever Little Clock didn’t work for me.

. . . Randall Smith

Machina Dynamica Clever Little Clock Signature Version
Price: $299 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Machina Dynamica
8003 Chanute Place #10
Falls Church, VA.22042
Phone: (703) 560-3018

E-mail: geoffkait@verizon.net
Website: www.machinadynamica.com

Machina Dynamica responds:

Machina Dynamica introduced the Clever Little Clock five years ago. Until very recently, we did not provide any details of the Clock's operation. We acknowledged that the Clock was developed using techniques and products of PWB Electronics in Leeds, England, but that was as far as we went. At the end of 2009, with the help of May Belt of PWB Electronics, I developed an explanation of how the Clever Little Clock works. This explanation is provided on our website at: www.machinadynamica.com/machina42.htm

Geoff Kait


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