March 15, 2010
Stillpoints ESS 28-40-3 Equipment Rack
I well remember the Golden
Age of high-end audio, when you just put your equipment on a shelf, plugged it into the
wall, and listened. How different those times were, especially considering the price and
design of the Stillpoints ESS 28-40-3 rack which costs $10,275 USD.
My path to isolating audio equipment from resonances has
been long but rewarding. I began with an equipment rack made of cinderblocks and
1"x6" wood planks; later, I had handmade plywood cabinets. My first true efforts
at isolation began with 0.5"-tall aluminum Tiptoes from Steve McCormack, of
Mod Squad fame -- I bought many of those cheap little cones and placed them under my
equipment. I then went on to soft feet and cones, hard feet, discs of jade ore, feet of
solid carbon, hardened balls sitting in depressions, bladders, springs, multi-layered
shelves, shelves of heated and compressed Styrofoam, shelves of thick glass, wooden racks,
steel racks filled with lead shot, and various damping weights.
Most of these made a difference; whether the difference was
good or bad was another story. Ultimately, I settled on Mana stands as the best isolation
system I had experienced, though I experimented with other shelves even in the Manas.
Later, Acapella Fondao Silenzio platforms on the Mana glass shelves, using the pucks that
came with them as feet under the components, proved better still. For a while, I was happy
with this combination.
But while I thought my adventures in isolation had all been
part of my own rational process of getting the best sound, I cant guarantee that the
results would have satisfied anyone else. Although Id improved everything to some
degree, I was to discover that I was still far short of true isolation from vibration.
In the 1990s, I saw a picture of a Halcyonics Model One
active isolation platform at a New York City high-end audio show, where it had been
demonstrated isolating a glass of water. The Model One had resisted all efforts --
pounding on the table, shaking the table, etc. -- to cause a ripple in the water in the
glass. I contacted Halcyonics US importer and asked if the Model One was good for
isolating components from acoustic feedback. He said not only did it do that, it also
absorbed internal vibrations generated by the component sitting on it. He asked if
Id like to listen to one. Of course I did.
I received a Model One, loved it, and ultimately bought two
more. Theyre expensive -- some models cost over $10,000 each -- and very effective.
For a long time, I hoped that this German-made product would get cheaper, which would
allow me to have Model Ones supporting everything in my system, but alas, the euro
kept getting stronger against the dollar, and I had to "get by" with just three.
Enter the Equipment Suspension System (ESS) from
Stillpoints, makers of the famous support cones. I first saw and heard the ESS racks at
the 2008 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The system in the room in which they were being used
sounded great, but of course it was impossible to tell which component was most
responsible for the sound. However, John Tucker of Exemplar, whose top tube preamp was
being demonstrated in that room, told me that the ESS rack was quite good. Later, after
hed bought one for himself, he was more emphatic. As I greatly respect Tuckers
work and hearing, I asked for an ESS for review, but demand for the rack meant that my
review sample wasnt shipped for several months. Finally, after the 2009 RMAF, it
The reader can see from the photograph that the ESS 28-40-3
is a striking-looking rack of stainless steel and acrylic. Hidden somewhere in all this,
included under each shelf, is the Stillpoints technology first used in the Stillpoints
cones. Id had experience of acrylic shelves in the past, and I had misgivings -- but
if the acrylic shelves were detracting from the sound of this rack, I didnt hear it.
From the Stillpoints webpage:
The Stillpoints consists of an outer case, two layers of
ceramic balls, and a stainless steel pedestal. The Riser is an aluminum base with a
stainless steel stud, which accepts the Stillpoints.
The system functions as a shock absorber for vibrations and
resonances. The system changes vertical vibration into horizontal motion and absorbs it.
Following the path of vibration from the top of the exposed ceramic ball (at 12
oclock), as the component is placed on the Stillpoints, the vibration exits that
ball at the contact point of the second tier of balls at a diagonal (4 or 7 oclock).
The weight of the component expands the second tier of balls, forcing them into the
surrounding petals, which flex and absorb the vibration.
From the platform or shelf, vibration enters the bottom
outer rim of the Riser, travels to the center of the Riser, and transverses up the stud
into the center of the pedestal. Finally, vibrations travel across the pedestal to the
outer edge into the ball/petal mechanism and are absorbed.
The system utilizes constrained-layer damping techniques by
assembling ceramic, Delrin, stainless steel, and aluminum materials. The system also
provides for the leveling of components via the threaded Riser and studs.
It took me about two hours to assemble my 40"-high ESS
28-40-3 rack with its three 20"W x 16"D x 0.75"-thick shelves. The fit and
finish of this product is exemplary, and it definitely looks high-tech. Though others may
not, I love its appearance.
It took me another three hours to disassemble my system and
reassemble it on the ESS. Although Id listened to the system prior to disassembly,
the comparison with the new rack was a long-term one. I was also mindful that the
components, having been turned fully off and their cables substantially twisted, might
take some time to recover. This would, of course, disadvantage my first impressions of the
Other than now sitting on a new rack, my system was
otherwise unchanged. However, only one of my Halcyonics -- the one under my Exemplar DAC
and SACD player -- was displaced. Each of these was placed on the Stillpoints rack, as
were my H-Cat line stage and phono stage and the Exemplar Music Server. My Shindo Labs
turntable and H-Cat amp remained on their Halcyonics Model Ones.
I used in my evaluation This Is K2 HD Sound (CD,
First Impression Music FIMK2HD078), just as I had at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show
and T.H.E. Show and RMAF. I played a rip of this sampler from the hard drive of my
Exemplar Music Server. Track 1, Symphonic Dances, was quite a shock. This is a big
orchestra playing big climaxes. Although I was listening at my usual volume level, it
sounded a good deal louder, with an authority, foundation, and clarity that hadnt
been there before. Notes had sharper leading edges than before. When a new instrument
entered, I was startled, as I imagine I would have been at a live concert, had I not
noticed that musician getting ready to play. Another word for this is realism.
I dont think that many of us -- perhaps none -- know
what our systems might sound like if all vibration were to be eliminated. Listening
now, I had the distinct impression that all smear and lack of dynamics, perhaps caused by
vibrations, were suddenly gone. It sounded to me as if I was now hearing what my system
sounded like when much more of the airborne, structure-borne, and internal vibrations
generated within the components themselves were being damped or removed. And, of course,
that may well have been exactly what was happening.
Id had the same initial impressions with the
Halcyonics Model Ones, but their efficacy depends on how fast their electronics can
counter the vibrations they encounter. Nor do I know whether the Stillpoints technology
performs throughout the audioband. I do know that I turned the volume up to the level I
hear when seated at the center of row two, leaned back, and thoroughly enjoyed the
Track 2 on This Is K2 HD Sound is a flamenco
performance, "Zapateado," and it confirmed my initial impressions. The footfalls
of the dancer were realistically portrayed and precisely located. Im growing tired
of this selection, but that doesnt make it any easier for a stereo system to
capture, and the ESS rack dramatically improved its sound. Tracks 5 and 16 are also
growing old, but the decay of the bells and the gongs shimmer and decay on
"Touch," and the background sounds in Pachelbels Canon in D, were just
more realistic, and the leading edges of percussion sounds were startling.
The last track of Frank Sinatras Only the Lonely
(CD, Capitol/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab/Koch B001BJ65SU) is his melancholy take on
"One for My Baby." The intimate feeling of this recording was correctly lost
with the Stillpoints rack -- I was immediately aware that the recording studio was quite
large and not intimate at all. Sinatras performance of this song on Sinatra at
the Sands (CD, Reprise 46947-2), while still in a large room, had a much more intimate
Digital sources -- Exemplar/Shanling SCD-3000
SACD/CD player, Exemplar Music Server, Exemplar/Xindak XD-1 DAC
Turntable -- Shindo Labs/Garrard 301 with
Shindo RF-773 tonearm and Shindo Super SPU-A cartridge
Phono stage -- H-Cat PH-300
Preamplifier -- H-Cat P-12R X8
Power amplifier -- H-Cat DF-100.2
Integrated amplifier -- LSA Statement
Speakers -- Acapella LaCampanellas
Speaker cables -- Synergistic Research
Interconnects -- Synergistic Research
Apex, Precision Reference, Accelerator
Digital cable -- Synergistic Research
Power cords -- Synergistic Research
Hologram D, Hologram A, Tesla T2
Power conditioner -- Synergistic Research
PowerCell 10 SE
Equipment supports -- Halcyonics Model One
active isolation platforms (3), Mana stand
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsaliss
recent album, Two Men with the Blues (CD, Blue Note 04454 2), is a live recording
of some pretty funky music, such as "Aint Nobodys Business" and
"My Buckets Got a Hole in It." The sense of the recording venue with the
Stillpoints was quite real. Without the ESS stand, I got some sense that there was an
audience present, but not a sense that I was part of it. The Stillpoints changed
that. The instruments also had a realism and leading edges that Id never quite heard
before. The piano and drums also had greater authority.
Finally, I played some LPs on my Shindo Labs turntable. The
sound was authoritative, especially the bass. Duke Ellington and Ray Browns This
Ones for Blanton (2 45rpm LPs, Fantasy OJC/Analogue Productions 2310-721) was
striking in its clarity. The piano is the key here, and its honky-tonk sound came through
with great realism. Both Browns bass and Ellingtons piano were very accurately
reproduced, transcending anything Id heard before from my system. I ended up
listening to all four sides of this recording.
Another recording that I often use is Belafonte Returns
to Carnegie Hall (RCA/Classic LSQ-6007-2). While the performance is quite good, it is
the sound of the audience, as well as the ambient sounds around and beneath Carnegie Hall,
that lend realism to this recording: You can distinctly hear the subway approach, stop,
and depart, and the movements of the performers onstage give you the impression of being
there. The applause after each song was strikingly real with the ESS 28-40-3, and the
other sounds were never clearer.
The Stillpoints ESS 28-40-3 is, of course, a device for
reducing or removing from the reproduction of music the interference of vibrations. It
doesnt have the "sound" of rubber or most woods, nor of steel or brass
points. Ive never heard a music system in which every component sat on a Halcyonics
base, but the sound of my system with everything supported by the ESS 28-40-3, including
the amp and turntable, was much better than the same system sitting on three Halcyonics
and my Mana stands.
Everything in my system has been chosen because it
contributed to the reproduction of a realistic soundstage and the timbral accuracy of
instruments, and I had long assumed that I was enjoying all that the electronics and
speakers could give me in terms of that realism. The Stillpoints ESS 28-40-3 rack showed
this assumption to be baseless. From the sweetness of the highs to the solid bass,
everything had a rightness to it. I suspected from the first listening session with my
components on the Stillpoints rack that it was something special. You cant see it
working, but you sure can hear it.
. . . Norm Luttbeg
Stillpoints ESS 28-40-3 Equipment Rack
Price: $10,275 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
573 County Road A, Suite 103
Hudson, WI 54016
Phone: (651) 204-0605