acoustic system international
Noise Filters, aka Sugar Cubes - The Audio Rubik's Cube
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
So, what's next? With the recent re-wiring of my system with Kubala-Sosna Elation! cables, I had arrived at a point of contentedness. My sound was at a pinnacle, certainly the most satisfying I've achieved. I sat back and basked nightly in these gains.
That lasted about two months, and I began suffering again from my audio addiction. I set to pondering what else I might want to work on and identified two neglected areas.
The system could use a little more of that old soundstage alchemy. I do enjoy the stereophonic illusion of 3-D. (Let's be on the level here: In truth, it is an illusion. In live performance, I've never heard anything approaching the precise layering and placement certain systems produce. At best I get left and right horizontal cues and fore and aft depth ones. Some systems enable you to draw the seating chart used by the stagehands.)
Playback artifact, microphone byproduct—whatever you call it—there's no denying a modicum of it enhances listening pleasure and involvement. The thing to keep in mind is never let it become your primary objective. Make sure to keep this lollipop in perspective.
I could also use more freedom—dynamic and timbral (or tonal) freedom, to be exact. Anything suggesting constriction, anything that gets in the way of full dynamic expansion or timbral development, is anathema. Soundstaging precision and freedom: Ha! That's a good one! Can you think of two more antithetical objectives? Working on just one of these at a time is enough of a challenge.
The Evolution of my Tweaks
I sensed that the gear was not the major culprit. Instead, I looked around the room and my eye alighted on the acoustic treatments on the walls.
These have evolved over time from:
Golden Sound Acoustic Discs → Harmonix RFA-78i Room Tuning Discs → Marigo VTS Dots.
The Marigo Dots, the product I'm currently using, are very good at strengthening the precision aspect. If this is your first attempt at room tuning, you'll find they make a marvelous improvement. If you've been through this a few times like me, over time you'll notice they don't help timbre. As a matter of fact, there was a correlation: the more I applied Marigo Dots to increase control, the greater a corresponding sense of tightening and drying up of timbre. I found my culprit.
And so we come to the Acoustic Systems International Sugar Cubes. At RMAF 2010, I found myself admiring the acoustic in the Avatar Acoustics room. It was highly developed, with attractive bloom, yet had good control. I inquired and learned how Darren Censulo, the room's proprietor, achieved this—with ASI Resonators and Sugar Cube room treatments.
Avatar Acoustics at RMAF 2010
I arranged to have some SC sent over. (Note: I had already reviewed and subsequently purchased a complement of ASI Resonators, which are judiciously placed around my room and became part of my reference system.) In the meantime, preparatory conversation with Darren and perusing the Web on the subject gave me basic instructions and the impression of a highly tweakable tweak. We'll get to that soon enough.
The front wall of my room behind the speakers has a large window area. This is covered with a double-thick curtain when I'm listening. I put four SC on the side panels and one in the center of the window. I was told they would work even if placed behind a curtain.
Bam! Right away, I got what I was after.
Let's use Prokofiev's Violin Concerto #2, with Jascha Heifetz and Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a marvelous RCA Shaded Dog LP from 1959 (LSC-2314). Talk about staging! Orchestral sections are laid out left-right, layered front to back, and the stage seems to exist in a space unrelated to my room. Physical boundaries have become permeable. This recording is well known for its soundstaging, and the 3-D effect became as well developed as I've ever heard it. Heifetz is locked dead center, a little too forward and prominent, and his image is taller than before. (I'm sure that's the way it was recorded.)
Obviously, my residential living room will never support the kind of SPL peaks possible in a concert hall. Regardless of how many watts you throw at your speakers—it ain't gonna happen. But the SC seem to lift the room's capacity, allowing you to play louder cleanly, before it goes poof and flattens out. The upshot is a wider, more impressive dynamic range.
Heifetz's violin tone improved as well. I used to think the Iceman earned his nickname from his piercing high notes and icy cold energy on recordings like this. Well, now his treble string is of a piece with the other three. The SC somehow cured his treble stridency and evened out the tone. On the bottom, bass was tight and powerful. Overall, it seemed cleaner and quieter.
Apart from what I've said above, the thing that really sets the SC (and the Resonators) apart is how natural the affects appear. The way the stage is laid out, the roundness of individual instruments and their edges, how they project into the room—all feel right. Your mind accepts them. (Even though you know you've never heard such staging / imaging in life.) This is just as important—nay, more important—than all of the rest of the effects. This was heightened precision that you could relax into.
An ASI Sugar Cube doesn't look like much, a small Rosewood cuboid that is affixed to the wall with Blutack.
Happily, they don't cost much, either (MSRP $12/each). I replaced the balance of the Marigo Dots—so long, they were good while they lasted, but the time had come to say adieu. All told, I placed 20 SC around the room and was quite pleased with the swap.
Front right corner before
Front right corner after
Mid way through this review I received a second batch of 20 SCs, which I promptly put into play. This was overkill. Just as I found with the ASI Resonators, a quantity well below the manufacturer's recommendations was optimum: in my case, 6 Resonators and 32 Sugar Cubes.
The Art of Tuning a Room
The Blutack comes in handy, as it allows easy re-positioning of the SC. That's a good thing, because you will no doubt need to re-position them. The first generation of SC had no holes; the second gen had a 1mm hole bored through one side; the current third gen has two holes on one side and one hole on another. The orientation of these holes gives you a powerful tuning device. Start with the two-holed side pointing to the ceiling. This is the most open and neutral and won't affect tonal balance. Need more wood tone and warmth? Switch to one-hole side vertical. Even warmer, go to a no-hole side up. You can rotate them individually or do the whole lot. I'm told the height of each cube on the wall also matters: vertical positioning impacts different frequency bands. The permutations inspired one visitor to dub the SCs the Audio Rubik's Cube.
There are general directions included in the packaging. Read them over until they sink in. Then decide how to deploy the SC in your room. First treat the front wall behind the speakers. Secondary areas are large windows, glass doors—any large glass surface—and ceiling corners.
Sugar Cube Placement Instructions - Front Wall View
Room acoustics is the 800 lb. gorilla lurking in the corner. It is critically important, yet doesn't get a lot of airplay. As anyone who has worked on their room can attest, most likely they came away humbled by the endeavor. Because once you get beyond the basics, like treating the first reflections on the sidewalls or the ceiling corners, the products' promotional advertising does not jive with their effects in your room. All too often you do not get the results you're looking for. How many times have you re-done your room? Tuning a room is a lot more art than science. We cannot be so bold as to believe we have a handle on this.
Similarly, I readily confess I don't have a clue as to the active principles at work with the Acoustic System International Sugar Cubes. But do I need to know? What's important is they provide the results I wanted—soundstage control with wide-open dynamics and full timbral development.
The evolution of room acoustic products continues with the Acoustic System International Sugar Cubes. Combined with the ASI Resonators, I'm getting terrific results. These are the best room tuning tools I've tried to date. Marshall Nack
Acoustic System International