ONLINE - ISSUE 8
bright star IsoNode anti-vibration feet as reviewed by Steve Lefkowicz
Ask any audiophile about mechanical isolation and vibration control, and they'll bend your ear for far longer you'd probably care to listen. It seems that pretty much everyone who has either read a "High End" audio magazine, or has spent more than a thousand dollars for their audio system, has a complete, total and highly scientific understand of resonance control, vibration damping, and the harmonic nature of how things move.
On the other hand, there are actual engineering and scientific justifications for reducing and controlling the vibration and physical isolation of audio components in real life environments. There is a large part of the audio industry that specializes in making devices specifically for this purpose, and I would be surprised a great deal if I found out that most people reading this didn't already have something in their audio systems for this purpose. Somewhere in a box out in my garage, I still have an original set of Tip Toes, which was one of the first such devices sold to audiophiles.
There are special shelves, spring loaded things, rubber mounted devices, air bladders, and sand filled boxes. Some of these are very good, and others are somewhat snake oil in nature. All too often, whatever these turn out to be, and whether they work or not, one thing they normally have in common is that they are priced too high. Welcome once again to the world of High End Audio.
There are too few real bargains in this hobby. Too few times where a product does something useful, does it well, and is still priced according to what its material, manufacturing and marketing costs could justify. All too often, a product with a real value of maybe $50, ends up selling for $500, just because the manufacturer knows that some people in this hobby are probably willing to spend the money. In fact, they're probably more likely to spend for something overpriced than something that is realistically under priced.
This brings us to Bright Star Audio and their nifty little IsoNodes. Bright Star is one of the companies who specialize in support and isolation devices. Their product line consists of a variety of vibration damping products, isolation devices, and shelving systems. I have not had the pleasure of using one of their complete isolation systems at home. However, from the times I have heard systems using their products, I would say that Barry Kohan and the Bright Star crew know what they doing, and have a very well thought out system for properly isolating and supporting audio equipment.
IsoNodes are the lowest priced, and simplest device in Bright Star's lineup. The are, in simplest terms, semispherical squishy feet. They come in two sizes: 1.25 x 0.75 inches for equipment up to forty-two pounds, and 0.75 x 0.375 inches for up to thirty pounds. However, in spite of the two sizes, Bright Star recommends the larger feet for most uses, unless there are clearance problems in which case and the shorter feet can be used. They sell for the remarkably sensible price of $19.95 and $12.50 respectively for a set of four. I received five sets of the large feet, so I could experiment with isolating different pieces alone or in combination.
In their own literature, Bright Star suggests that although any component may benefit from using IsoNodes, sources (CD and DVD players) will exhibit the biggest improvement. They also suggest using them under center channel speakers in surround systems, or under any speakers that are in the same cabinet as other electronic components. Do any of our readers actually use a home entertainment center to house their equipment, including the speakers?
A brief aside here. Each of my three source components are normally supported and isolated in slightly different fashion. My Linn turntable sits on a classic early Sound Organization wall mount shelf with the original MDF shelf. I have heard improvements in this system using various replacement shelves, but haven't yet chosen to make any changes here. My Marantz SA8260 SACD player sits on an even older original issue Sound Organization floor stand. I used to use this for my Linn, but having small kids in the house meant moving the Linn to higher ground on the wall mount shelf. Under the Marantz, I also use a set of Solid Tech Feet of Silence. These are fairly expensive ($300) highly complex devices that combine roller bearings and an o-ring suspension. They are nicely made and very effective. I chose not to write a review on these in the past, as they were a gift from a previous distributor, and I didn't want any sense of a conflict about giving a positive review about a product I received for free. Solid Tech products are now distributed by Audiophile Systems (www.aslgroup.com). My third source, an old but very nice Nikko Gamma Tuner, sits on a lightweight 5/8 inch particle board shelf which is part of an adjustable rack system mounted to the wall. This is courtesy of Home Depot, and very inexpensive!
I started by putting IsoNodes under all three of my sources (replacing the Feet of Silence in the case the SA8260). Let's get the less than good stuff out of the way first. IsoNodes were not a good match for the Linn. I can't say how they'll work under other tables, but (and those of you who own a Linn will understand) they made the table sound like a Linn will when the suspension is out of tune. Pace and timing sounds off, dynamics sound, not necessarily compressed, but out of balance. This was a short and unhappy trial period, and removing the IsoNodes returned the Linn to its normal very happy state of being. I would like to try them under some other tables, and will hopefully try them in my brother's new system under his Pro-Ject 1.2 table. It would also be interesting to try under some other unsuspended tables like the VPI Junior or various Rega models.
Used with the Nikko tuner, results were subtle at best. No thousand veils lifted, no order of magnitude increase in soundstage width, and not much, if any, reliably describable sonic differences. But I will say that through the course of a day of listening, there was less drift from the tuner, and far fewer instances where I needed to tweak the tuning knob slightly to get the best reception back (the wonders of older analog tuners). This alone would make it worth $20 to keep a set of IsoNodes under the tuner.
Now, on to the really good stuff! Using the IsoNodes to isolate the Marantz SA8260 SACD player was a good indication of how successful the IsoNodes could be. I'll start by saying that the sound with the IsoNodes was closer to what I hear when using the Feet of Silence that what I hear when using the player directly on the SO stand. To say it is 75% or 90% or some other such "value" would be silly, but suffice to say it is almost, but not quite as good.
What does that mean? I need to point out that the Marantz SA8260 is an exceptionally good player, for both SACD and regular red book CDs. I use mine strictly in two-channel mode. For more information regarding the SA8260, see Max Dudious' articles in issue 6 of PFO (www.positive-feedback.com/Issue6/toc6.htm). I have had this unit for just about a year now, and feel that as far as digital sources go, I am done. I feel no need to shop for anything better. For me, the SA8260 is a great reference for affordable digital playback.
When using either the IsoNodes or the Feet of Silence, I get similar results, just to a slightly greater degree with the more upscale units. What I hear in my system is a reduction in the background content of the sound. The music flows from a less obtrusive space. Vocals take on a more natural quality, with more realistic scale and weight behind them. There was more room in sound the for the music to exhibit its natural dynamic trait. The differences seem subtle when you first install the IsoNodes, but become obviously less so when you remove them.
Now, I also tried sets of IsoNodes under all my other electronics. I'll have to admit that I heard no difference whatsoever when used with my PS Audio 4H preamp. This didn't surprise me, but I did spend a fair amount of time trying to discern anything that I could report on. Maybe the passive nature of the line section and solid state phono stage just don't have any issues that need isolation.
My Antique Sound Labs MG-SI15DT-S amplifier found a very happy home perched atop the IsoNodes. In fact, this might be the single best place in my system for them. Background hash (extremely low with this amp in any case) dropped noticeably. Music came from a quieter, emptier background. Subtle musical cues were more easily heard and understood. Maybe the KT-88s in the amp were having a little problem with vibration after all. They do currently sit a little closer to my speakers than I would normally want them. It seemed the more detail or musical information in a recording, the more apparent this became. Listening to the SACD reissue of Blood Sweat and Tears second album made a strong case for the IsoNodes. Listening to the lengthy instrumental in "God Bless This Child" for example, it was easier to pick out each instrument's line musically, and its location within the soundstage. The various brass instruments had more bite, more dynamic excitement. Yes, the IsoNodes allowed this amp to be more dynamic as, and I'm guessing here, energy normally lost in amplifying tube vibrations was apparently now available strictly as the music required.
What was left was to try the IsoNodes under my speakers. I used them both under my Sound Dynamic 300ti and also with a pair of VPMS QSO626 Ribbons (review to come any day now). I used four IsoNodes between the speakers and the top of the twelve-inch wood stands that I use for speakers of this size. This did allow the speakers to wobble around on the stand, a far cry from the rigidly spiked immovable objects we usually try for with our stand mounted speakers.
This worked, and did a great deal of good, more so with the much more revealing VMPS ribbons than with the simple dynamic Sound Dynamics. The music came with a new sense of freedom. Yes, both speakers were given a new enhanced sense of transparency. Just as with the SACD player and the tube amplifier, IsoNoding the speakers reduced background noise again. When I say noise here, I don't mean noise as in buzzing or humming or anything that obvious, but noise as in something filling up the space between the notes that simply doesn't belong there. You don't really hear it until it is gone. Every sound is presented out of a quieter, less constrained space. This again allows hearing more detail, more texture, and more subtle dynamic touches.
This isn't just something you hear on big, loud musical passages. I listened to Alfred Brendel's rendition of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (Vox Box SVBX 5420) with the system fully IsoNoded and then again with all the IsoNodes removed. With the IsoNodes, I heard a noticeably greater rendition of all the emotion and artistry that has always made this my favorite Moonlight.
As someone who has focused on affordable audio products over the years, I have to admit there have been a lot of areas in this hobby that I have neglected, mostly because the cost didn't correspond the to the results. I was late in the game with power line conditioning, because until the Monster HTS2000 came along, there were no really effective moderately priced conditioners. I shied away from tube amplification for many years, because until I found the ASL MG-SI15DT-S, there wasn't much in terms of good sounding, low priced tube amps with enough power to drive "normal" speakers. Even the Linn, though very pricey in 1984 when I bought it, has turned out to be a great bargain, as it still works as well today as it did when new, and I still feel no need to replace it.
Well in that same regard, I have not ventured too deeply into the depths of isolation devices, as I have waited for something that would do the job for basically pocket change, rather than a day's wage. The IsoNodes are exactly that. They do just what the manufacturer claims, and still cost less than a dinner at even a moderately priced restaurant. Great job, and kudos to the folks at Bright Star.
Steve Lefkowicz copyright August 2003