June 15, 2003Silent Running Audio Tremor/Less Isolation Platform
To arms! To arms! The audiophiles are coming!
The day FedEx dropped SRAs Tremor/Less platform off at my kitchen door, I got an e-mail from a gent who flies F-16s. Seems this Air Force pilot has taken on a second career as a distributor of a Japanese equipment line. He wanted me to audition a power cord, which I look forward to doing. High-end sound meets high-end weaponry.
Jack Bybee, a designer of high-tech noise erasers, also connects to the military, as does the cable designer Jeff Smith of Silversmith Audio -- a reactivated Naval officer who put his audio business on hold in deference to the Middle East. Silent Running Audios Kevin Tellekamp, the maker of the isolation platform reviewed here, has a background as a contractor and subcontractor for the military. His specialty, among several others, is stealth applications. The companys very name alludes to his work on submarines, as do the monikers of his Ohio Class and Ohio Class XL product lines. The stars and stripes -- and great sound -- forever!
Tellekamp is one of the more impressive folks Ive met in this game. For an encouraging start, hes an audiophile. The transition from military silence to sound-system silence makes perfect sense. Add to that a passion for woodcraft -- hes also a skilled cabinetmaker -- and you get an unusually well-crafted product. As to effectiveness, Ive been using pieces from SRAs VR line for several years; one lies under my Mark Levinson No.390S CD player (an upgraded No.39) and two more can be found under my ML No.33H mono amps. A fourth, under a Reimyo ALS-777 line conditioner, is squirreled away beneath a low Chinese chest where theres no room for additional elevation. As the ML amps are far too heavy for your favorite wheezing geezer to heft, I requested but one Tremor/Less platform for evaluation under the CD player.
Your reporter reconnoiters
In short, I have one economy isolation platform to compare with a pricier equivalent from the same designer-manufacturer. As a control of sorts, I also have the option of no isolation at all. The simplicity appeals. Ideally, a well-executed isolation device provides a tighter, better-delineated focus, which of course implies a lower noise floor and better-defined imaging. This is the kind of thing for which the genuinely committed audiophile is willing to sell an organ, and I dont mean his Wurlitzer. (Revealing word choice that -- its my subconscious speaking. A whole lot of audiophiles need to be committed, and honesty prevents me from excluding myself.)
With respect to construction -- those aspects of it that one can see -- my CD players VR platform consists of two outer sections not unlike a box, the lid of which doesnt quite reach to the inner sections bottom. Note well: the VR, Ohio Class, and Ohio Class XL are component-specific lines, and in this they are unique. Tellekamp would probably prefer to have me repeat the preceding sentence in bold 20-point italics. That certain benighted souls ignore the significance of a one-on-one, component-specific application is a thorn in his side. Excepting the new Tremor/Less line, SRA builds to a given components size and weight on demand. As to the need for an on-demand approach, it would be hugely impractical for a niche-market designer-manufacturer to maintain a component-specific inventory given the array of high-end electronics and turntables from which consumers can choose. To put that in personal terms, the horizontal dimensions of my ML 390Ss VR platform closely match those of the player; its suspension, as mentioned, is likewise tailored to the players weight. Its an expensive way of doing things, but in Tellekamps opinion, it is critical to optimal performance. He claims that nothing the competition has to offer comes close. Rather than bemoan public incomprehension, the clever fellow has begun marketing his own take on non-specificity: the "generic" and relatively inexpensive Tremor/Less.
The textured finish of the review piece Tellekamp sent is close to that of the VR series, an unobtrusive, dappled gray. My 390S calls for the smallest of the three stock Tremor/Less platforms, the 15" x 17", at $275 USD list. For comparison, the suggested list of my component-specific VR was $500. The other Tremor/Less models are 19" x 16" ($300), and 23" x 20" ($375). The 15" x 17" platform is 1.25" thick. With its four spiked feet secured in their shallow steel cones, it stands a tick short of two inches tall, in contrast to the VRs overall 5.25" height. If you turn the Tremor/Less upside down, you will see a fine seam at its perimeter, where the skin-thin lid joins the rather-more-substantial base. Tellekamp describes the suspension within as "set static," consisting of "a six-component, semi-viscous material; its damping properties accomplished as a liquid pour just prior to final assembly." At close to ten pounds, it is heavy and solid to the touch. Had I not been told otherwise, Id assume it to be filled with something like concrete.
Tremor/Less under fire
As the curtain raiser -- and eye opener! -- a fine jazz recording: We See: Thelonious Monk Songbook by the Steve Lacy 6 [hatOLOGY 569] (Steve Lacy, soprano sax; Steve Potts, alto and soprano saxes; Hans Kennel, trumpet and flugelhorn; Sonhando Estwick, vibes; Jean-Jacques Avenel, double-bass; and John Betsch, drums; US distributor, www.cadencebuilding.com). Peter Pfister recorded this re-release in Willisau, Switzerland in 1992. Pfisters work, which is responsible in large part for my early enthusiasm for this fine Swiss label, is among the best Ive encountered in small-ensemble recording.
I approached Tremor/Less in steps, with a detour at that low Chinese chest where Ill be making my comparisons. Because its low, I call it a chest. With its front-facing drawers and doors, its really more like a sideboard. At 4.5 long and 1.5 high, this sturdy wooden antique supports both the CD player on its VR platform and the Tremor/Less, which I put directly next to it, thus avoiding delays removing and reinstalling interconnects. Ive heard tell -- and believe -- that our memory for other than gross differences in sound is short-lived. Therefore, the speedier the comparison the better it is. The chest sits at one edge of a 12 x 12 sisal carpet. The woven fibers seem to do a pretty good job as room treatment, as do two couches, an armchair, and large hassock, all upholstered in a close-shorn velvet. Behind the couch that divides the room from the bay, there are three screens consisting of 17 angled pine boards milled over 150 years ago and rescued from our barn and attic renovations. Wide pumpkin-pine boards comprise the flooring under the carpet. The listening rooms five windows are covered with blinds of fine bamboo strips alternating with strands of a woody material. Draperies are still in the planning stage. Weve been in the house just over a year, and the room as it stands has remarkably good acoustical properties.
I listened to a variety of Lacy tracks with the player on the VR platform and then without. Off the VR, the sound took on a disagreeable edge, especially evident in the drum sets harsh, unlifelike cymbals. Sax solos lost their compelling, pinpoint clarity. I also compared both platforms to no platform. In several platformless sessions using the VR and Tremor/Less via a large number of recordings, the disagreeable difference with no platform held.
As Ive already digressed, this might be the ideal time to mention that we audio writers get ourselves in trouble overstating what we hear. As an enthusiast, I treasure my SRA VRs in ways impossible to quantify rationally, since a difference for the better, however subtle, is emphatically desirable. If I comported myself in print as the enthusiast I admit to being, rather than as an impartial journalist, Id doubtless resort to the kick-ass panegyrics so regrettably common to these gigs. To the unengaged onlooker, intemperate rhetoric in review after review would seem to elevate a given reviewers sound system to the stars and beyond. Im reminded of a comment a fellow audiophile made: "Once youve achieved perfection, theres no limit to where you can go." He meant it sincerely.
In the midst of my comparisons, a tad mischievously, I e-mailed Tellekamp my suspicion that he might find my conclusions disconcerting. In short, I found that in several instances Tremor/Less vis-ŕ-vis VR taxed my powers of discrimination close to their limit. As an entry-level item, I asked, is Tremor/Less perhaps better than its designer would like? Tellekamps response is far more interesting than my question.
"In designing Tremor/Less, we concentrated on lower-midrange and low-frequency isolation, as these are what the listener most easily hears and feels. While we do regard Tremor/Less as a stellar performer, I would have you make comparisons with recordings of piano and acoustic guitar. Listen for speed and detail, [and] air around the quiet passages. These are some of the areas that cant be mastered with generic isolation products, which much of the time muddy the sound. We did try our best, however, and feel that we have designed as good a unit as youll find in its price range. Obviously, there are unavoidable dead-ends in building to a price point. The VR series excels at allowing subtleties to come through. The hardest thing to do is precisely transmit what the component manufacturer wants you to hear. I see my job as removing problems only. This can be done better with our custom units owing to component-specific design and the freedom of choice one exercises in building to a higher price-point target."
Its not surprising that Tellekamp would want to establish a performance gap between his economy and component-specific lines, but my responsibilities are to the reader. I was instantly impressed by the Tremor/Lesss abilities and so remain. With respect to those differences Tellekamp suggests I listen for, the arrival of a pair of balanced palladium interconnects from RS Audio (Ill be reporting on them next) provided assistance. At this stage of my report, Ive done better than half my listening with these interconnects. Theyve helped clear the air.
Tellekamps characterization is accurate and fair. While differences are audible, theyre anything but night-and-day. As I see it, that translates into high praise for the "compromised" Tremor/Less. With most of the discs I played, the distinctions lay chiefly in the sense of spaciousness and air. The VR took the gold and Tremor/Less took the silver.
My Wilson WATT/Puppy 6es, Mark Levinson electronics, SRA VR isolation platforms, Reimyo line conditioner, dedicated outlets, and Nordost Valhalla and RS cabling operate in synchrony in providing a remarkably resolved sound. With systems that resolve less well, the listener might have difficulty hearing the distinctions Im reporting here. Understand this, in none of my comparisons did Tremor/Less come off as anything less than a charmer. Tellekamp is correct in suggesting (in another e-mail) that Tremor/Less makes quite the perfect entry-level platform as well as an introduction to his take on isolation. Its dat ol debbil degree again. Show me an audiophile who can quantify a change for the better and walk away from it, "Widget X-100 improves my system by eight percent ." Big deal, you say? I dare you.
A recent Telarc release (Rainbow Body [CD-80596]) features the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Spanos direction in a handsomely performed and recorded program of easy-going 20th-century orchestral music: Coplands "Appalachian Spring," Barbers First Symphony, and two shorter works by lesser-knowns Christopher Theofanidis and Jennifer Higdon. As is the labels custom, a warm midrange dominates. With this style of recording, I experienced more difficulty in hearing a difference between the VR and the Tremor/Less. This is not surprising, since by Tellekamps own account the economy lines strengths lie in the midrange and below. A recent release of soprano Juliane Banse and pianist András Schiff performing songs by Debussy and Mozart is a thoroughbred of another color [ECM New Series 1772]. Here the listener remains keenly aware of executive producer Manfred Eichers taste for space and air, which, as I hear it, is where the VRs virtues shine. With Tremor/Less, the ambiance is there, no question, but in relatively reduced circumstances. Again, were it not for comparison to the VR, Id have been perfectly content with the Tremor/Lesss presentation.
I returned to a set thats always troubled me, John Eliot Gardiner conducting his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in Beethovens nine symphonies, the last with the Monteverdi Choir and vocal soloists [Archiv 439 900-2]. Despite line conditioning, superb cabling, and crackerjack isolation, the sound remained stifled and harsh. Piggies ears cannot silk purses make. Neither the VR nor the Tremor/Less were capable of providing what isnt there. If you want to check out Tremor/Lesss effectiveness, use top-quality recordings, whatever the formats. Trust me, Ive played a stack of similarly harsh material while comparing the VR and the Tremor/Less.
My best experiences with these devices can be encapsulated in the one I had with a marvelous between-the-lines CD entitled essencia [btl 017], with Gebhard Ullmann, tenor and soprano saxes and bass clarinet; Jens Thomas, piano; and Carlos Bica, bass. The bass clarinet and stringed bass hint at the discs rich low-end. These lusciously calm tracks dwell for long moments in low-level sounds as well. Warmest praise goes to recording supervisor Wolfgang Hoff, recording engineer Ekkehard Stopffregen, and Berlins SFB Studios. Here we have a musically fascinating jazz-of-a-kind program in which warmth, air, dynamic finesse, and effortless speed share center stage. It came as no surprise that the VR again proved its worth. What continued to surprise me in a most gratifying way was how well, relative to its component-specific cousin, the Tremor/Less did with this and every other well-recorded disc I used for comparison. Gold and silver .
Were the platform I live with the Tremor/Less, Id remain a contented listener. Kevin Tellekamp, in designing to an economy price point, has come up with a product that does remarkably well in a high-resolution system. That kind of know-how speaks volumes.
Price: $275 USD (15" x 17"), $300 (19" x 16"), $375 (23" x 20").
Warranty: Lifetime warranty (except in cases of abuse).
Silent Running Audio Inc.
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