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Product Preview - The Critical Mass Systems Black Platinum PXK Direct Coupling System, by Dr. Sardonicus
The only thing more discomfiting than the lack of certainty is the presence of it.
Certainty. Such an interesting word. What more consistent driving force in the development of man than the clamoring need to make order from chaos …to have certainty …at least about some things? And if we cannot have it, we will manufacture it; collectively and individually.
Discovery always puts certainty at risk. So much of what has been believed, what we have been so certain about, is torn asunder as we learn new things. Most times, we adjust our perceptions and beliefs (Oh, the sun does not rotate around the earth …it's the other way around, OK) but this seldom happens quickly or easily, and sometimes it does not happen at all. Remember, there are significant numbers of people who are certain the space program is fake, and pro wrestling is real, and that Velveeta is actually cheese.
And the darkest side of this aching desire for certainty is that we will kill for it and we will die for it.
Since my earliest days in this hobby I have been certain about things I later found to be incorrect (just like in life). One major thing I have observed as I approach my sixth decade of life is that I am much less certain about most things than I used to be. I choose to think of this as wisdom. Certainty is a door that closes and locks, and only opens with effort and anxiety; facing it head-on is one of the most courageous things a human can do.
At one time I was certain all this stuff about stands and isolation was nonsense. Put the stuff on something solid and reasonably non-resonant …and move on; end of story. But, several years ago I took a side path to look at the Black Diamond isolation products and found, much to my surprise, I was wrong. It made sufficient difference for me to justify the costs, and I used (and continue to use in some applications) these products for quite a long time.
I don't remember precisely how it came about, how I hooked up with Joe Lavrencik at Critical Mass Systems, but both David Robinson and I did. Joe sent me some sturdy but unremarkable maple stands, which would hold some very interesting and extremely attractive (if somewhat delicately surfaced) filter platforms.
In a nutshell his approach was to use these multi-layer platforms to convert mechanical energy (vibration) to heat, and dissipate it. Obviously we are talking about very low level things here, even if the theory is sound. I was certain it could not make that much difference, but once again I was wrong.
I came to this realization with the same certainty and comfort I did with the Jena Labs products …a feeling of… "Yep, this is it." Ah, a sigh of relief and now I no longer needed to be concerned about wire and suspension. Cool.
But just as I recently castigated the fine folks at BAT for producing a new pre-amplifier that eclipses what they have done previously (and that I, of course, own), and whined at Jennifer Whitewolf-Crock each time she insists on demonstrating yet another leap in her work …so Joe Lavrencik has blind-sided me; not with the typical incremental improvements, but with a fundamentally different approach to the issue of vibration control, and a new product that completely redefines the territory.
The Black Platinum PXK Modular Rack and Filter System
I finally got to meet Joe in person, when he came out to Oregon to install his new rack system in both mine and David Robinson's rooms. While I always found Joe to be professional and gracious in my email interactions, in the long day we spent together (with Jennifer and Michael from Jena Labs joining us), listening to music pretty much non-stop for over seven hours I discovered a very sophisticated and thoughtful individual, with none of the typical peculiarities I have come to associate with high-end designers. I am not sure exactly what he does as his primary job, but working around high-level, responsible professionals, I recognize the signs of someone of depth, substance and stability.
As I have opined before …when you are stepping off the beaten path in audio, this kind of thing is very important. Are you giving your hard earned money to someone who is maybe smart, but so unstable (financially or otherwise) that you have absolutely no idea what they will do, or how long they will be around? How many audiophiles have been left holding the proverbial bag when a designer, manufacturer or distributor simply self-destructed?
So, decry the relationships between reviewers and suppliers if you wish. I think these are things of import to potential consumers. Of course there are no guarantees in this regard, and I am certainly capable of being incorrect …but thus far …about these things, it has been relatively rare.
At any rate …after some time with my system, and an opportunity for Joe to hear the Marantz SA-7 SACD player, and the Marantz Reference electronics (review pending), we pulled his old stuff out, and he started assembling the new rack. Gone was the wood. Gone the kludgey four poster maple racks; gone the thick filter platforms.
What emerged as he worked was a tripod, formed of machined and beautifully finished aircraft grade, black-surfaced aluminum, which he assembled from screw together pieces, much like a sniper putting together a complex rifle. He then placed small tungsten carbide ball bearings, with machined bearing cups, which would be the points of contact for the new filters to the stands.
Again a surprise …the new filter was a fraction of the thickness of the previous products (while still containing 28 sequential layers of differing composition filter elements) and featuring a much more durable surface.
Theory of Operation
Completely unlike the previous CMS system, direct coupling as the strategy for vibration control was the objective. The whole idea is using the rack and filter system to function like an antenna, not to dampen, but to attract and directionalize, with filter and stand functioning together as an integrated unit. The antenna traps vibration and passes it evenly in all directions. The filter wicks excess energy between the rack and component and establishes a two-way link between the component and the floor.
Joe informs me that the technical issues with materials, geometry …even the placement of screws, were extremely challenging in executing this unique approach but ultimately he feels they were resolved adequately to "comb out" small anomalies in early versions.
The resulting rack system structure is almost delicate in visual impact, compared to the earlier Critical Mass products. Beautifully made.
But Doc, How does it Sound?
Joe was jittery as we fired things back up, saying it would take some time for everything to settle in. He was right, and he was wrong. The immediate impact was of a far greater scope than I would ever have imagined (there goes certainty back into the ash heap once again), and it did get better incrementally over the first two hundred or so hours …but man, that first blush was a killer.
How it sounds is exactly like the construction metaphor suggests …this …thing that grounds the components to the floor in a way that sounds as though it was drilled into bedrock. I am not sure that "stability" (in the richest and most full sense of that word) really addresses it.
As I have been having fun with the Marantz reference gear, I am very much aware of its similarity in overall presentation to the highly popular Marantz SA-7 SACD player …but I was pretty convinced it came down on the side of delicacy and refinement, rather than it's somewhat polar opposite in the form of my meaty, sweaty, more visceral BAT reference gear. I don't mean to imply it is lighter in substance, just a bit more contained if you will. I had actually composed this part of the Marantz review in my head, before the CMS stand showed up.
Once I started to sort out what was happening with the new piece, the first thing I had to do was roll back the gain on the HSU sub and mid-bass units …not because of boom or bang, but first because suddenly a significant portion of the structure of my smallish house appeared to be in audible distress. The sheer increase in impact in the mid to low frequencies (I suspect because of ameliorating the effects of both vibration and the increase efficiency with which the system was now truly grounded to the floor) changed my impression of the Marantz electronics in a heartbeat. What it will do with the BAT, sadly, I may simply not have the time to discover, before it has to go back.
Once I had this part of the change at least a bit sorted out in my head, the next thing I consciously recognized was that the velvety smooth presentation of the Marantz gear on the previous CM stand and filters, was now almost "buttery." This was particularly noticeable with DSD sourcing. The slightly "contained" nature of what I was certain was the Marantz "sound" was gone. Now, what the hell do I mean by this?
If you are one of those audiophiles for whom detail is king, you really have to give this new product a listen. Whatever detail you thought you were getting is far less than what you can get, from the same equipment. It is easy to create the false impression of detail temporarily by simply lifting the top end a bit and introducing a bit of "tizz" (which is what passes for detail in way too many audiophile systems), but over time this will become apparent and fatiguing to most.
Real musical detail is a horse of a different feather, if you will. It is textured and nuanced and produces relaxation, not fatigue. It is this "zone" which allows the finest audio systems to create music without the Scylla and Charybdis of unnatural (and ultimately boring) blandness, or hyped (and ultimately wearing) zing. Boredom disappears, attention returns, you can listen for extended periods of time without feeling like you just finished a five hour road trip in Jeep CJ. Buttery and smooth.
I have had too many losses in my life of late, and having to give back the stellar BAT VK-52-SE, and now this new stand (I admit now I have a habit I cannot afford) are tragic and I blame them.
I was certain that stands and stuff didn't matter. I was wrong. I was certain the original Critical Mass stands and filters were ne plus ultra; I was wrong. I was certain I knew what the Marantz gear sounded like. Wrong again.
I think it takes enormous courage to completely redefine a product line and step out on the uncertain terrain faced when we put our prior certainty aside and look at things with fresh eyes.
I suspect that Joe's products (as with most small volume, esoteric artisanal producers) don't appeal to the audiophile herd, and this new direction is a profound challenge to an even smaller group of potential buyers. Essentially handmade, designer-quality driven anything has a limited market by definition… first because of the cost of such things, and perhaps more importantly, the level of sophistication and discernment required to appreciate them.
Ah, but for those few, those rare individuals willing to trust the chef who offers up something truly unique, those who can re-examine their assumptions without blowing an artery, who are truly and knowledgeably engaged in exploring the outer reaches of what can be done …or the true audio aficionado, this is something you must hear.
Retail Price – $3300 per level
PXK Direct Coupling Filter system information: