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Impressions: The Stillpoints ESS Reference Rack System

06-01-2016 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 85

"Take him hence; to the rack with him! We'll touse you
Joint by joint, but we will know his purpose."

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure


The Stillpoints ESS Reference Rack with Grid Shelves (image courtesy of Stillpoints)

Fine audio reviewing can be great, with passion driving you through the work and all the costs that it takes to do it right. (Time, money, travel, attention to the details…hardware, software, room, power, system enhancements, accessories…elbow grease, and training your sensibilities through the listening to tons of music in all sorts of formats, including live.)

It can also be torturous, real slogging, with the impressions of subtle and nuanced audio qualities and virtues pressing your vocabulary to the limit. There are so many variables that you must keep in mind, and so many elements that can affect what you're hearing, that there's a very real possibility of weariness and ear blear. Sources, preamps, amps, cables, power conditioning and distribution, system enhancements, accessories, room construction, acoustical room treatments…and yes, even audio racks and isolation devices. That's why meaningful audio evaluations cannot (or should not) be mass produced:  They take a lot of time to hone and to polish, both on the impression side, and on the expression side.

Getting the Foundation Right

Enter Stillpoints. Several years ago, I began to talk with Paul Wakeen and Bruce Jacobs about their ESS Reference Rack System. I had heard it at several shows, and was very taken by what I was (and was not) hearing. Might this be the next step for my rather out-of-date racks here?

That's not a minor consideration when you do a lot of audio reviewing. The sheer logistics of getting components, and even entire systems, shipped and received, and assuring the best possible platforms for reference-grade components, are major considerations in what I do. We have worked hard for many years now to bring out the very best in both our reference listening room and visiting products here, but by 2013, that rug was getting threadbare. I had a very old Michael Green Designs Justarack (remember those?), which had remained because it had so many shelves that it was too useful to send out to pasture. I also had a very good, but also long-in-the-tooth Critical Mass Systems Grandmaster Black three-shelf system. Beautiful to look at, and very effective, but the state-of-the-art had moved well along since then, including the latest stuff from Critical Mass Systems. Remember that we handle a lot of components here; this is not your typical audiophile's system, nor your usual audiophile's set of expectations.

There's a pretty serious review workflow happening here; we needed an upgrade.

Paul and Bruce were willing to discuss our needs here, which involved a pretty fair number of shelves (at least 8-10), and decent workmanlike shelf widths (28-30 inches) and shelf system heights (38-40 inches). This would allow for reasonable access and elbow room for all of the component switching and cabling/re-cabling that we have to do.


The Stillpoints ESS Reference Rack System with Grid Shelves, but without the Ultra Isolation V Feet (image courtesy of Stillpoints)

After some discussion, Stillpoints recommended their ESS Reference Rack, 28" wide, with five shelves. For superior sonic isolation and control, we decided upon the Grid Shelves. For isolation feet, they included several sets of their SS and Ultra V's. (Since then, Stillpoints has released a step-up from the Ultra V's, their Ultra VI feet. I've tried them once, briefly, but don't have them here now. I'll mention them later, towards the end of the review.)


Stillpoints ESS Reference Rack with Ultra SS (mini) Isolation Feet in place on the Grid Shelves (image courtesy of Stillpoints)

A while later, the packages from Stillpoints arrived, awaiting assembly and installation here. The big plus was that my very good friend Bruce Jacobs was going to handle the construction of the ESS Rack and Grid Shelves. He was also going to demonstrate the setup of the Ultra Isolation Feet, so that I could get the feel of how they worked in the Stillpoints system.


The Stillpoints Ultra V Isolation Feet (image courtesy of Stillpoints)

Bruce is an extremely knowledgeable person in the world of music and audio. He and I have talked about his decades as a musician and an audio designer, and his very productive association with Paul Wakeen at Stillpoints. Knowing that he would be doing the work was really reassuring to me.


John Tucker of eXemplar audio and Bruce Jacobs of Stillpoints in the Stillpoints/eXemplar audio room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, 2015


Stillpoints' Bruce Jacobs on the job in our reference listening room

As you can see from the photograph above, the ESS Rack system consists of a precisely designed and executed aluminum frame, with powerful steel cables acting as vertical tensors and shelf-mounting struts. These have horizontal aluminum shelf rods that act as the rails for the Grid Shelf assembly.


The Stillpoints Grid Shelf rails, showing the middle inserts for interleaving them to form the shelf structure. Note that the circular inserts at the ends of the rails will be placed over the rail tabs to hold the shelves securely by gravity and precise alignment…no screws required, other than those used to place the rail tabs.


Bruce Jacobs completing the final adjustments on the ESS Rack in the foreground. Observe that the rack in the background has its shelf rails in place and leveled, but the Grid Shelves are not yet in place.

The ideas behind the Stillpoints ESS Reference Rack System design included minimal mass and weight to greatly reduce vibration and resonance and increase sonic isolation; maximum opportunity for component ventilation; and maximum strength to handle heavy loads. The fact that the ESS Rack system also looks fantastic is a major aesthetic plus for any listening room. The look of the rack complements, and does not overwhelm, any associated audio gear.

Particularly impressive to me was the load-bearing capacity of the ESS Rack System. Stillpoints says the following on its Web site:

"The current day ESS support bars were designed in the spring of 2007 to carry the weight of turntables that exceeded 200 lbs. The 20" and 26" wide ESS can easily carry a load of 225 lbs. for decades to come. The 40" wide ESS with a doubled support bar system can carry a load of over 450 lbs. per shelf assembly. Each cable of every ESS rack has a breaking strength of 2000 lbs."

This is definitely my kind of rack!


Bruce Jacobs showing off one of the Stillpoints Ultra V feet before their installation

One of the most appealing elements of the ESS Rack for me is the fact that the shelf placement is completely variable along the length of the support cables. Rather than hard-wired shelf support insertion holes, the clamping screws at the shelf rail ends allow the user to remove the covers, loosen the rails on both ends of the cable, and then slide the rail to whatever level necessary for a given application. Slick! You just use a level to get back to horizontal, screw down the ends, and then screw the covers back in place. Repeat the process with the other side, and you're done. We've already done this for various configurations that we have had in place here…works just fine.


The first ESS Rack with its Grid Shelves in place, but before the placement of the Ultra V and SS feet are in place.


A horizontal view of the right ESS Rack after assembly of the frame and shelves, but before the Ultra V and SS Isolation Feet are in place.


A pair of Ultra V Isolation Feet in place on the Stillpoints Grid Shelf.

Once Bruce was finished with the placement of shelves and the final clamp-down, then came the various Ultra Isolation Feet. He and I discussed the components that would be placed, and we came up with an optimal scheme. The top Grid Shelves and Ultra V feet would be reserved for large components like turntables and tape decks.


The United Home Audio Phase11S RTR deck placed on a set of four Ultra V Feet on the top shelf of the left ESS Rack System. Very solid, and worked like a charm.


As another example, we were able to place the darTZeel NHB-108 reference preamp quite comfortably on a lower shelf, where it was quite stable, and very well ventilated.


A nearly full pair of ESS Rack Systems, showing the great flexibility of the configurations possible. On the top right is the superb Wave Kinetics NVS reference turntable, output cable dangling before connection to the darTZeel NHB-108 preamp on the next shelf down. Directly underneath the darTZeel NHB-108 preamp we were able to place two different power supplies on two sets of four Ultra SS Isolation Feet:  The darTZeel outboard power supply for the 108, and the ModWright PS 9.0 outboard power supply for the ModWright Oppo 105 optical disc player (the black unit on the shelf underneath the two power supplies). We were able to do this due to the open framework of the Stillpoints ESS Grid Shelves, which allow the tubes in the ModWright Oppo 105 to fit, and to ventilate properly. Beneath that is the Playback Designs MPS-5 SACD player; on the left, you see the AURALiC VEGA DSD DAC (second shelf below the Phase11S RTR) and the AURALiC TAURUS Mk. II headphone amp (third shelf). Quite flexible, this!

Various Configurations over Time

It's hard to evaluate an audio rack in the short term. It's best to let various components come and go with the tide, and hear the differences. Over time, we've been busy here, and I've gotten to put the ESS Rack System through its paces, and show what it could do with a variety of gear…


The Stillpoints ESS Rack System in place during a transfer of an Opus3 tape to Quad DSD, courtesy of the UHA Phase11S, the darTZeel NHB-108 preamp, the Merging Technologies Horus A/D converter, and the Pyramix DAW software package. Any vibration or unsteadiness would have been discernable in this very demanding application; the results in Quad DSD were brilliant!


The arrival of the state-of-the-art Merging Technologies NADAC MC-8 DAC on the ESS Rack and Ultra V Isolation Feet. Another exceptional result…a global performance standard.


When our Audionet reference system arrived for review, it found a ready home on the Stillpoints ESS Rack System. You see the exceptional Audionet PAM G2 reference phono amp in place on Ultra V Isolation Feet. Need I say it? The results have been superb, from two different world-class turntables.


The arrival of the superlative KRONOS turntable system allowed me to dust off my old oversized Black Diamond Racing shelf for stability, which I placed on the Ultra V Isolation Feet on the left ESS Rack. Worked great, and allowed clearance over the left and right cable posts on the ESS.


A grand stack! On top, the world-class reference turntable, the Wave Kinetics NVS, on its Wave Kinetics Isolation Platform. Consistently top-notch sound from this innovative computer-controlled direct-drive turntable system. Underneath that, the amazing TIDAL Audio Presencio reference electronics threesome:  Their Phonodeck, Linedeck, and Powerdeck modules. Finally you see the powerhouse world-reference Merging Technologies NADAC MC-8 Quad DSD DAC. The bottom shelf is empty in this configuration.


A close-up view of the TIDAL Audio Presencio stack, resting on Ultra V Isolation Feet. For four months we had these incredible units in place on the ESS Rack. DSD up to Quad DSD levels, and tons of LPs from the KRONOS and NVS turntables. The results were stellar, truly world-class, as usual with the ESS Rack System.


When the beautiful LampizatOr Golden Gate Quad DSD DAC arrived in its unbalanced configuration, with those so very seductive MESH 45 tubes, we had to rotate the unit sideways. This was due to the very long length of the Golden Gate copper chassis. Additionally, we have to drop the third shelf down onto the fourth shelf to accommodate the tall 45 tubes. No problem, however:  The complete flexibility of the clamp-and-cable system of the Stillpoints ESS Rack makes such changes easy to accomplish. (Note that the third shelf is resting on the fourth shelf rails here.) Nevertheless, the Golden Gate has been sitting quite stably on a set of four Ultra V Isolation Feet, and the sonic results have been spectacular. The ESS Rack truly helps to reveal the transparent, silky presentation of this unique work of the audio arts.


Nowadays, the Kubala-Sosna XPander has its own shelf on the bottom of our left ESS Rack. This is a wonderful power distribution unit, by the way, and sounds its best here.


Here's a different combination and configuration:   This time, the Audionet PAM G2 phono amp and EPX external power supply are escorted by the NVS, AURALiC, our TEAC Esoteric DV-60 Universal Player and Playback Designs MPS-5 SACD player. A Korg MR-2000S A/D unit is on the top left.


The KRONOS Pro reference turntable (top left ESS Rack) and the Wave Kinetics NVS reference turntable (top right ESS Rack), together with the TIDAL stack, the LampizatOr Golden Gate, and the Merging Technologies NADAC MC-8:  A group photograph from last winter.

The Sound…or Lack of Same

So, we've seen a pretty decent pile of audio kit flow through here since Stillpoints arrived. It has allowed me to take the measure of the Stillpoints ESS Rack System over time, and to come to some carefully considered results. After all this time, what do I think of the ESS?

Glad you asked.

Over time, my initial impression firmed up and was confirmed by extended use with a variety of gear. The Stillpoints ESS Rack System and the Ultra V and SS Isolation Feet do the following:

  • The noise floor that I experienced in my listening room from 1999-2013, regardless of rack systems, declined noticeably. (Note that I am referring to our older source racks, the Justarack and the Critical Mass Systems Grandmaster Black. I am not including the Walker Audio racks and isolation feet, which have sonic virtues like unto those of the Stillpoints ESS Rack System, and which remain highly esteemed with me.) This led to a deeper, quieter times with the music. When you lower the noise floor in a quiet listening room like our reference room here (a daytime at-rest sound floor of around 30dB), you do pick up on even subtle shifts in the sonic foundation. The Stillpoints ESS Rack System has taken our source side to a new low…which is a great thing! This is often rendered as "deeper blacks" by some reviewers, which is what I'm saying here, I think. Greater quietness, in spades.
  • Interestingly, I also found that the sound of both analog and digital components seemed quicker and livelier. This is predictable, I think; if the noise floor is lowered, then sudden changes in the volume or edge of the music come through more cleanly. Transients were lightning fast, with no sluggishness or loss of pace. This was particularly true when compared with my old Justarack, but also true to a lesser extent with my older Critical Mass Systems Grandmaster Black rack. The CMS was good, but the Stillpoints was notably better.
  • This, in turn, connects with dynamics of all sorts: micro and macro both. The ability of the ESS Rack to provide a stable and quiet platform for all components that we've used here is quite considerable. Highly dynamic passages in great classical recordings from the likes of RCA Living Stereo, Decca, Channel Classics, NativeDSD, and others, whether LP or DSD, came through in a smashing way, with no sense of smearing or fuzzing of even the loudest passages. Meanwhile, the quietest piano solos, or the most intimate jazz recordings, scintillated by the exactness of rendition through all associated systems.
  • Transparency, that king of audio virtues, was really enhanced over our older source racks. Given the very high quality of the sources that we have here, any layering or blurring of the audio signals, whether analog or DSD, would be immediately detectable by me. Instead, the ESS Rack System polished the already crystalline nature of our room, and rendered more clearly the excellences of all of our components. Whether I was listening to test pressings from Chad Kassem or live-to-Quad-DSD recordings, the resolution of the signal was the very best that I've heard. Spotless. I do know that "layering of veils" is a problem in audio reviewing, but it's an unavoidable effect. You don't know whether there are more "veils" beyond the best that you've heard, until they get removed by some new advance in the audio arts. Readers will just have to get used to that truth. In fact, I've reached the point at which I'd not want to do listening evaluations in our listening room without Stillpoints in place.
  • Harmonically, I found the Stillpoints to excel in their lack of discernable coloration or sonic editorializing. If you've been around enough rack/isolation systems, and have heard them under various conditions, you really do come to appreciate what a superior design can do for the entire system. Stillpoints was extraordinary in delivering an organic and satisfying harmonic structure to me. There was no tubbiness in the lower ranges. The midrange lacked any grayness or nasality that I have heard some racks introduce. And the higher frequencies were not exaggerated, and lacked extra edginess. What a blessing!
  • When I consider the strength and durability of the ESS Rack System, I really must praise Stillpoints quite highly for producing a design that combines extraordinary sturdiness with a very lightweight framework. Instead of weighing a gut-busting ton, like other designs that I have tried, the ESS Rack System is manageable, without sacrificing its ability to handle large loads. (See the Stillpoints quote above about the load capacity of their system.) And as to durability: Not a single problem or failure in all of our time here, with all of the shifting and changes that we have made.
  • Flexibility is a huge plus with the ESS Rack System. You can vary shelf high, and alter the number/type of isolation feet that you use. For an audio professional like me, this is blessed manna from heaven!
  • In the category of style and looks…well, what can I say? You've seen a number of photographs above. I consider the Stillpoints ESS Rack System to be a paragon of sleek, modern, and truly striking design. It all rests on solid engineering and very intelligent consideration, but the final execution of the look and feel turned out to be something special. I think that the Stillpoints System is smashingly beautiful, and complements all the components that have been here. To have solid engineering, audio truth, and real beauty in one product line is a wonderful achievement. You cannot go wrong on looks here!


(Image courtesy of Stillpoints)


Two and a half years of constant critical listening with the Stillpoints ESS Rack System and Ultra V and SS Isolation feet, with a number of exceptional components in extended listening, and a huge variety of highest resolution sources, allows me to be reasonably categorical in my evaluation of them. Given the quality of the components that we have here, and have had here during that time, it was essential that we hear all that they are capable of, without being undercut by the very platforms that they rest upon. (I have had platforms here in the past that underwhelmed me, and really harmed the performance of their associated components, especially turntables. They are long gone many years ago.)

When I had heard the Stillpoints system in several very fine show rooms, I had reached the conclusion that they were strong candidates for the next generation of racks and isolation here in our reference room at Positive Feedback. I was pretty sure…but then, there's always the acid test of sustained working practice. (We work hard here.) And there is where slips might occur, ‘twixt the cup and lip.

But I need not have been concerned. I know now that I chose the Stillpoints line wisely. By all of the virtues and values that I hold dear in fine audio, the Stillpoints ESS delivered true excellence. By every audio criterion they actually exceeded my hopes, and have settled in for the long term as essential supports to my ongoing work: Gathering impressions of what I'm experiencing, and creating the written expressions to share those with my readers. I take what I do quite seriously; the Stillpoints System underlines my seriousness of purpose. If your budget will stretch to accommodate their price range, then I don't know any better way for you to go.

I therefore give the Stillpoints ESS Rack System and Ultra V and SS Isolation Feet my highest recommendation, without hesitation, and with deep enthusiasm. If you are looking for the exceptional in this category of the audio arts, then this is the current top ‘o the heap for me.

Take that to the bank.

Post Scriptum


As a footnote to this review, I note that I have only had a brief experience with the Stillpoints Ultra VI Isolation Feet, during Bruce Jacobs' last visit here. Ditto that with their Aperture Acoustic Panels. They sounded amazing…the VI's definitely seemed to outpoint the V's…but that was a very brief encounter, and so is not conclusive. If I have a chance, I'll get the VI's and the Apertures in for an extended stay and evaluation. That will rate an update.

Price:  Pricing varies according to specific configuration of racks, number and types of shelving, and number and types of isolation feet required. Please check with Stillpoints for a quote for your particular needs.


573 County Road A, Suite 103

Hudson, WI 54016


Paul Wakeen, President

[email protected]

Sales:  Bruce Jacobs


[email protected]


[Photographs by David W. Robinson, except as indicated.]