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Clark Johnsen's Diary: Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On
After reading Marshall Nack's recent review of the new Vibraplane (http://positive-feedback.com/Issue50/vibraplane.htm), Clark was reminded of his own write-ups of the original design back in… 1996! So he has prepared a version combining all three, to be read in conjunction perhaps with that of the new model. Enjoy!
Ye Olde Editor]
A short while back, the Vibraplane was greatly admired in this column. [See Appendix.] Now that I own one, a full account of my life and times with feet, shelves and undergirdings may soon be forthcoming in a piece tentatively entitled, "Briefs on My Underthings." (Like it? Or would "Selected Shorts" be better?) But I cannot contain myself: I must outburst: Here be THE AUDIO DISCOVERY OF THE DECADE!
An isolation platform nonpareil, Vibraplane (or equivalent) teaches us that ultimately, The Firmament be a substantial contributor to audio degradation. Really, who ever thought that coupling audio gear directly to earth, would wreak such havoc? That decoupling, would bestow heaven? Certainly not I!
Or that, without this radical reform at the source—the most crucial location—right sound cannot be gauged correctly anywhere down the line? Or that, no conventional component upgrade begins to match the Vibraplane effect? Wary by now of offering paeans to a product, I shall say this however: You don't know what you have, until you have a Vibraplane! So immense be its consequence, I cannot imagine better, but who knows?
Vibraplane (or equivalent) forevermore alters our view of what's critical in design of mechanical devices for audio. Previously we assumed that self-induced energy was the bugaboo, apart from the foot-fall problem, closely followed by air-borne acoustical impingement. In truth, earth-born activity enormously affects analog playback, even as it does, albeit more implausibly, CD digital. Who predicted that? Again, certainly not I!
Vibraplane (or... ) heard under LP is a jaw-dropping experience; under CD, while less effective, it becomes eye-opening owing to general denial of mutability in this numerically-fixated, fascistically-consecrated medium: "Ones and zeros, period, das ist alles!" Whatever the actual explanation, try this out: Ask anyone in Southern California what earthquake motions afflict the severest damage. Answer: Horizontal! So, while previous cures sought control over the vertical element—from tennis balls and butt cushions to Seismic Sinks and spring suspensions—good source sound is inextricably linked to isolation from the low-frequency horizontal component of our seismic environment.
It's not just seismic – it's cosmic!
So what's the audible result, already? For starts I can now reliably recognize what I am calling seismic congestion. Once learned, its signature is unforgettable. More obvious even than wrong polarity, not one room at CES '96 lacked such congestion, nor even one system on my subsequent California tour until measures were taken.
Insert a Vibraplane and several distinct sonic effects occur, but music leaps to the fore: Polyphonic voices assume distinct presences, while the musicians are heard interacting more closely with each other, picking up cues tighter, etc. It's all in the timing! Which is made immeasurably (literally!) better by Vibraplane. Uncanny. One also notices that every instrument sounds truer and occupies a more tangible place in audiophile-beloved soundstage space. Also every stroke and pluck resonate inside your head. It's cosmic… and psychedelic!
Here I'll suggest another new technical term: Lilt. As in, "of Irish laughter" and "hear the Angels sing." Lilt connotes freedom. Lilt be the life substance of live music. And lilt is what you get more of, I swear to God, on almost every recording when transports and turntables are mounted on a Vibraplane (or, I repeat for the last time, equivalent).
With Vibraplane we encounter a potent sonic decongestant. Although this device has been around for three years, to date only Harry Pearson, Shannon Dickson and Michael Fremer among reviewers, to my knowledge, employ this essential tool to level (and elevate!) the playing field. Nor am I aware of any designers or retailers who use it, even to increase the sales potential of their other gear. Sad, sad, sad.
Three stories – first:
One longtime demo favorite of mine, "You Look Good to Me" with the Oscar Peterson Trio, features Ray Brown on string bass and Ed Thigpen on percussion in a dynamite opening duet, but when Oscar enters on piano I quickly get bored with his simplistic stylings. Then one day I was showing off my Vibraplane to a local jazz aficionado and happened to play this cut, explaining that I wouldn't subject us overlong to Mr. Peterson. Laughing, he agreed. Well sir, the "A/B" part of my demo lasted the usual sixty seconds, but I could hardly believe what happened next. With the Vibraplane still pumped up, I let Oscar roll to the end. His playing, dismayingly, was inflected with—some subtlety! Never heard this before, and my companion, dumbfounded, nodded assent.
And all this happened, believe it or not, on a CD.
2) Rat Shack Redux
Yes, the Optimus 3400—and yet another explanation for its notorious greatness. Of all the turntables and transports auditioned on Vibraplane, this unit manifests the least improvement. Why? Well, the 3400 (like all portables, obviously) is built for the road, plus its mechanical drive is featherweight. Aha! Reduced seismic sensitivity? Maybe, who knows?
One day I had in the Vimak transport beloved of PF colleague Mike Pappas and others. Built like a BSH, it embodies every old-fashioned good-engineering principle and several others as well, I expect. Yet it was enormously improved by Vibraplane. So much so, the hapless Vimak owner could no longer live without one.
Aha, again. So, it's the bigger they come, the harder they fall!
3) CDs vs. CDs vs. DATs
Larry Archibald once admitted in Stereophile that, "Our Sonata CD... has a sense of congestion... not on the master tape... The master tape is effortless." Larry uttered the dreaded "c" word, not I!
Careful producers such as David Chesky and Peter McGrath have noted that CDs rarely sound like their masters and, when cut by different houses, may even sound different from each other. Such disparities (when recognized at all) have commonly been ascribed to jitter, but a variant explanation might fit better: prone as CDs are to seismic disturbance upon playback, they may be equally susceptible during inscription.
For that matter, so may LPs be. How about this: A whole new edition of Living Stereo: Now Better Than Ever!
Uh-oh. Can tape be affected as well? Mother of God!
Oh, we are years ahead of our time here, I think, in acquainting you with developments. [And still going strong, fourteen years later. / ed.]
Whatever, these facts do wonderfully contradict those foolish pronunciamentos we have long suffered, that this LP or that CD "sounds exactly like the master tape."
With Vibraplane we encounter, as stated, a potent sonic decongestant—with better listening the inescapable, happy result. But there is more. Imagine: Vibraplane: The Great Equalizer. Ineffective isolation from the seismic environment may account for most differences among otherwise competently-designed turntables. The inexpensive Rega on a Vibraplane might become the equal of the VPI TNT (for example), once the former's marginal suspension has been overcome, and at a lesser cost altogether.
Or, and this does push the envelope, what if it's not the turntable? Who knows whether or not arms and cartridges might be the actual victims of external assault? Isn't that scenario more likely, actually, than turntables being so damn sensitive? Perhaps the excellent damping designed into every portion of the Graham arm protects the signal not against groove-shake as thought, rather against earth-shake. And therefore maybe the less-protected, lightweight Moerch, at less than half the price, might sound just as good on any turntable atop a Vibraplane. Who knows?
Henceforth every parameter relating to vibration must be seriously rethought. One that leaps out is the tonearm-mass/cartridge-compliance range of choices "to reduce susceptibility to resonance." For over forty years this factor has been thought to be well understood, with many attendant articles in journals and the audio press. (Isn't it amazing how avidly engineers will attack a problem, once some numbers are attached?) The assumption has been that the whole assembly's resonant frequency must be set to below where vinyl imperfections activate untoward behavior. But now, with our larger understanding of the entire vibration climate, we see how that point may innocently be shifted into a region with significant seismic action (i.e. under 12Hz or so). And thus how a very wrong assembly resonance point may be chosen based on cherished false assumptions, to the detriment of good sound.
Doubtless these vibrational sensitivities would have been remarked in any rational systems analysis performed to aerospace standard; pity no such impulse or funding has yet accrued to musicspace, but that's another story. Oh, we had hints earlier and some ameliorative products too. Tiptoes, for instance, were said to couple things better to the floor; others said they decoupled things better from the floor; the rest of us filed those conflicting reports away. And what about electronics? They responded too, to whatever went on below. And again, there were products. But who today uses Torlyte? Navcom? Sorbothane…?
We are properly astonished to learn that seismic activity should outweigh other vibrations—so much so, that once when I demonstrated effective isolation to a non-audio listener, he exclaimed, "A wholesale improvement!" Yet when I mention this to, shall we say, knowledgeable people, they often go, "Yeah, right!" Poor souls, they have let "the facts," TV-newscast- and college-textbook-style, be beaten into their what-passes-for-brains, so they lapse immediately into denial—a sure sign of psychological conditioning.
Yes, the firmament, so-called, that bitch Mutha' Earth (pardon my 'Bonics), contributes more bad vibes to audio than anyone could ever have suspected. More by far than foot-fall, "acoustic breakthrough" from loudspeakers, or internal vibration. Our planet is one hellova shaky place!
We never realized, did we, that here we held a tiger by the tail? We futzed around on the early learning curve, but failed totally to see the whole picture.
A lucky few knew, however, starting some three years ago, after initial introduction of the Vibraplane. Apprised later of the thing's existence, I paid no particular heed. "It costs too much," I sniffed. Later the news hit the fans, and nearly simultaneously, in TAS #103, Stereophile Vol.18, #11, and Positive Feedback Vol.6, #1. The most extensive coverage came in Stereophile, with twenty pages devoted to an exemplary paper by Shannon Dickson on the history and technology of vibration control entitled Bad Vibes! http://www.stereophile.com/reference/52/ Eighty pages later came a barely-contained rave for Vibraplane, with a polite nod to the Townshend Seismic Sink. (Regrettably this is not online.) Both pieces are must-reads.
To his everlasting credit, Shannon first laid out the whole truth back in that November, 1995, Stereophile. His two main precepts I characterize as "Shannon's Theorems," after the similarly eponymous formulation in information theory.
1) Nearly every present remedy for isolation involves damping as well, so we change "the feet", or add more shot, whatever, but experience neither condition independently.
2) Springs, strings and mass loadings, with or without their own damping, may improve the sound somewhat, but these are mere euphonically-tailored palliatives; once vibration has entered a system, it can only be redistributed (in frequency and intensity) by these elementary mechanical means. Moreover, the most hazardous lower frequencies, both horizontal and vertical, are rarely attenuated.
In other words, while one can locally rearrange the vibration signature on a component, the overall amount of entrant energy remains the same. Thus, most defensive procedures to date are merely ameliorative, i.e., sonically euphonic to some degree
Without wishing to duplicate or further redact Shannon Dickson's yeoman effort, a few remarks must be made. We had thought our main enemy resided within; we had identified motors, bearings, stylus reactions, acoustic waves etc. No! None of these affects sonic quality so much as does seismic activity transmitted upwards. We also know that expressways need not be nearby, nor earthquake zones, for such phenomena to occur. Whether in busy Boston or up in rural New Hampshire, it's the same new story.
Our error lay, I think, not in ignoring this contributor, rather in our naive overconfidence in separating ourselves from it. As a fine example of such hubris, I recall when Hy Kachalsky of the Westchester Audio Society showed me (back in 1983) the cinder-block tower he had built from a concrete basement floor up through a big hole into his listening room. "No more foot-fall problem, Clark," he proudly announced. "But Hy," I replied, "what about all that clumping around from Down Under?"
My smart-ass retort now seems strangely prescient. Today we know that poor Hy had built a tower on Hell. No wonder he never experienced the ultimate improvement! Which once again goes to show, how the road to that Infernal Place is paved with good intentions.
Bigger than jitter
Many experts have latched onto jitter reduction as the solution to digital's numerous aural ills. Again, no! Neither the end-all nor the be-all, jitter (in its myriad forms) has now been joined by a dark-horse contender, an unannounced third-act villain: Planetary disturbances. No clock-retiming scheme in my experience, even such as accomplished by expensive gear, matches the salutary effect of Vibraplane. But the audio press has us hypnotized to think otherwise. (Not to forget that so-called "CD degaussing" also works astonishingly well, again for no apparent reason and likewise to little acclaim. Hey! Here we were given a brand new recording and playback system that thousands of professional engineers obligingly accepted right out of the gate, yet careful listeners and experimenters hated it. And now, bless their hearts, they can shoot pet engineering concepts down like sitting ducks. Is this not wonderful, or what?)
As for the vaunted new DVD, or any other future high-bit, high-sampling-rate digital media that would have us repurchase our record collections again, who can swear on a Bible we need them for proper sound? Or that they will be any better executed than the present system, which we have only now begun to comprehend?
Folks, it's a Whole New World out there. Greet it merrily, and do not blame your high-end audio designers, for how could they have known? No one gave them the correct parameters. Thus, lacking proper environmental specs, their products are variously subject to many random, unknown intrusions. Vibration. Line harmonics. RFI. EMI. Hell, sunspots!
Granted, in this case the only known solution hereabouts (hearabouts?) is mighty expensive. Does Vibraplane ($1700 passive/$3000 active) represent the ultimate solution to the aforesaid isolation problems? Already there are competitors. Among them, Cornerstone ($3000), NoiseBlocker ($2300), LaserBase ($1100), AirHead ($850) and The Shelf ($430), the po' man's spread. Only the last of these is known locally and it performs very well indeed, offering a third the effect at one third thecost and one-tenth the weight. A great entry product, especially for under non-mechanical components. Did I neglect to mention that application? Who made us think that "solid state" meant cast in stone?
Vibraplane is not so much a product as a concept, a corrective at the source—and lacking which, proper judgment cannot be rendered anywhere down the line. Always protect your sources! (A good rule for journalists, why not for audio?)
Meanwhile I almost have to pinch myself to remember that all this be true, that here we have a discovery that shall compel a total re-evaluation of beliefs held by engineers and enthusiasts alike. With the offending Mutha' Earth quelled, listeners may forevermore enjoy superior music reproduction on any system owned already, and for far into the future.
To repeat the radical pronouncement delivered here earlier—the klaxon warning has sounded—You don't know what you have, until you have a Vibraplane.
The Original Vibraplanes are still available: $2250 passive and $5495 active with compressor.
APPENDIX - How it all began for me (Positive Feedback, Vol. 6 #1)
Boy do I have a fine new product to recommend. Cheap it ain't, but listen: It imparts to LP some of the best characteristics of CD, namely, rock-solid placements in space and time and an other-worldly feel of connection to the master. This device, once heard, can hardly be lived without, although admittedly I generalize from the single instance I have experienced so far. Here's the story.
Earlier this year the voluble but ever-helpful Harry Burstein in New York was raving about a pneumatic platform that "blows away" the Seismic Sink, at least for under turntables. Modified from an original design for electron microscopes, it weighs 140 lbs, holds almost 275 and costs $1696. Out of my league, I thought, so I ignored Harry, whose only fault besides volubility is over-enthusiasm.
Soon other audiophile magazines began to cover this product and I started receiving calls. Not only that, but the distributor, Steve Klein at Sounds of Silence, has a $1929 phono cartridge that some commentators liken to the $7000 Clearaudio. Well! With SOS only one hour away up in New Hampshire, it's time to hit the road. Hasty arrangements are made with Steve, whom I find most congenial and self-deprecating on the telephone. He even knocks his own system, leading me to expect nothing much besides a demonstration of the Vibraplane.
Events have already conspired to draw my two regular cronies, Bill Gaw and Kwame Ofori-Asante, and me together on this cool mid-September Friday, to audition Bill's latest system reconfiguration, so what could be more natural than a stop in nearby Nashua followed by a seafood dinner on the Atlantic shore? Well, nothing! So we arrive at Steve's home and after introductory pleasantries are led into a modest-sized listening room. There we find a very decent system on which an inordinate amount of attention has clearly been lavished. My spirits, never flagging, rise a notch or two. This guy Klein was unnecessarily diffident.
Gotta love it!
A philosophical discussion ensues on how best to spend one's hard-earned cash, on measurable substance or on sound? And what constitutes an ethical mark-up? Will there ever be economy of scale in the high-end? Voices are raised.
Mind you, we haven't listened to any music yet!
Eventually, however, that moment arrives when we must all observe strict silence. Steve puts on one cut, then another. And even though both are in wrong polarity, about which the three visitors exchange knowing glances, his system sounds exceptionally fine. Clean, solid, musical. I, for one, am surprised and delighted . In particular I had expected less of the speakers, but that's another story.
Now we get down to business. The Vibraplane can be collapsed, then raised again, by a switch on the air pump. That change happens before our eyes twice, and there can be no doubting: With the turntable sitting on an un-airborne hunk of heavy metal placed on a slab of granite on the floor, the sound is discombobulated and uninvolving, ugly even. With the base pumped up -- Holy Jesus! We're in Heaven!
To rephrase Gertrude Stein, there's more "there" there: Absolutely uncanny focus, rock-solid placements in space and time and a pervasive sense of ease. Putting this more reviewerly: I can think of no better way to invest $1700, once one has spent, say, $12,000; no similar outlay earns comparable improvement. Here is a product that virtually revolutionizes LP reproduction. With one caveat: Steve's Well-Tempered turntable has no suspension, so one might reasonably suppose it responds better therefore to this degree of isolation. Others, however, say the Vibraplane works deliriously well beneath the well-sprung VPI TNT too. We shall see.
Steve at one point asks, concernedly, "Do you think $1700 is too much to pay?" "Probably not," is the communal answer. And "I'd have to hear it at home," of course. But after we insert the Seismic Sink I brought along, opinion is unanimous: "The Vibraplane is worth every penny! The Sink provides good bass, but no space! No focus. No magic!" Steve allows that the Townshend products work well under electronics and cost considerably less; only under mechanical components does the Vibraplane come into its own. And there, because of its weight-load capacity and size, a measure of economy emerges: both a turntable and a CD player may be placed on one unit, side-by-side. Bill Gaw suggests that a whole equipment rack might be mounted on it. Hmmm!
A time-out is called: We instruct Steve on the ins and outs of Absolute Polarity. He is properly astonished and elated to discover that muffled sound does not necessarily inhere to recordings themselves, rather to their inscribed polarity; and wisely spends his time after we leave (I later learn) investigating the facts for himself, while devouring a comp copy of The Wood Effect.
Later, in the mail:
I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU! What I really mean to say is THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! You have opened my eyes (my ears!). I've always known about polarity and even wired many of my past systems out of phase, by accident, only to have heard that uninvolved, muffled sound. BUT, I never knew that 50% of all albums were recorded out of phase to begin with. I've just thought that muffled sound, loss of focus, was more a quality of a poor engineering/recording job, nothing else.
Well my quest for audio nirvana continues, this time for a preamp with a phase reversal switch. (Now my wife hates you!) But truly, I do thank you for your interest and time in hearing my system: I appreciated your honest comments. Also thanks go out to your most valuable accessory, Kwame, and your good friend, Bill. It is truly enjoyable when others can experience the effects of the Vibraplane and appreciate it as much as I do.
Again, it was great meeting you, and I look forward to talking with you soon.
STEVEN M. KLEIN, President S0S
A few copies of The Wood Effect are still available at $20 plus postage. Write the author at this magazine.
After our visit to Steve's, each of us purchased a Vibraplane and we use them to this day. Steve himself now has four. I built a stiff eight-foot-wide shelf for atop my unit and put almost everything on it, without even approaching the weight limit.
As to the text, I changed very little as it purports to be a reprint more or less of the originals. Certain aspects might have been better developed, but I resisted the temptation.