Dr. David invites Synergistic Research to visit, and gets GOB SMACKED!
Positive Feedback 11/2015 - David W. Robinson
For the original text, click HERE
I like surprises.
I especially like them when they bushwhack me. You know…when I'm not looking and all.
This doesn't happen in audioville very often. Usually there's a reasonable expectation of the quality of what I'm going to hear when products come in for review. Most of my review projects are by invitation; I generally have heard things that arrive here before they're here, and have some sense of what they'll do after they're in the door. That's why I go to shows: Field research, to sort the good from the bad, the ugly, and the sorry-ass. But this does reduce the number of bombshells pretty noticeably.
More certainty; less fun.
In one sense, this particular project was the usual deal: I had heard some intriguing products at RMAF 2014 in Philip O'Hanlon's On a Higher Note room…always very fine, by the way. The Synergistic Research Atmosphere really piqued me, since the effects in Philip's room seemed clear to me. There were some of their cartridge crystals on the Soundsmith Hyperion MI cartridge…also convincing. So Ted Denney and I talked about trying to get some of their products to me here sooner or later.
This took longer than either one of us wanted it to. I had a few of his accessories early on…the Headphone Optimized Transducer (HOT) for headphone playback, for example. (That's a great piece of work, by the way…a nice improvement with my Audeze LCD-3s.)
But the rest of the SR road show didn't make it here until August. Ted had said that he wanted to do the setup here, but when the time came, he was tied up with some high-altitude hiking with his son.
Instead, he deputized Peter Hansen, a VP of SR, to come to town and handle the setup and tweak-down of a set of system enhancement devices. He also brought along their new Active Ethernet SE cables, so that we could try them with the Merging Technologies NADAC Quad DSD DAC. This was essential, too. Since returning from THE Show Newport Beach 2015, I had to seriously downgrade my Ethernet cable from the superb Kubala-Sosna Elation! Ethernet to a generic CAT6. The loss in nearly every category of audio virtue was disheartening, to say the least.
Anyone who thinks that "cables don't make a difference" needs to experience something like this. It would set him or her straight. Nothing like hearing cable audiobog to calibrate your sensibilities for the real thing.
Down the Rabbit Hole…
Peter Hansen is a great fellow: mellow and intense, all at the same time. When he arrived, all that we had planned to do was to install some key SR products in our reference stereo listening room here. Among these were the Atmosphere, the HFT's, and the Black Box, with their new Active Ethernet SE cables, just because I was so desperate to demuck the connection to our NADAC.
And that's where we started on the first day. First, we started with some listening in our stereo room. I ran some DSD via the NADAC, and we listened for a while. This was to allow Peter to get the feel of our reference system and room, and decide how he would approach it. That was all perfectly rational, and so far, so good.
Then Peter started to get active. He sprang up and said, "Let's try some HFT's!"
Now that's what I call action.
In a highly gratifying display of expertise, HFT's of various flavors began to sprout in the listening room. Not all at once, though; Peter would listen carefully for a bit, and then stand and say, "We need an HFT here!" (Standard high frequency transducer unit.) Then he'd sit down and listen some more before saying, "…and we need an HFT X there!" (More air and details with this one.) Ditto with the HFT 2.0's. (More warmth and juiciness.) On various places on the walls…on the sidewalls, the ceiling, the doorway; on key places on the speakers.
I will say this: Peter really knows his way around the Ted Denney III's design principles and the SR inventory of products and their effects on a given system. SR has organized its placement guidelines in a very useful way and made these available on its Web site. I strongly encourage PF readers who are interested to study this page to learn more about how to get the most out of the HFT's. Properly handled, these devices are a wonder!
With every placement of these very small transducers, the soundfield of our listening room started to fill in, flesh out, and bloom with more transparency, details, and a kiss of warmth. It was as if pieces of a 3D sonic puzzle were being assembled right in front of me, and gaps that had not been obvious before were being exposed, and then healed.
I've heard this with other room treatment systems that we've had in here, but I don't think that I've ever noticed this degree of improvement before. It's not that anyone system enhancement product was a complete solution in our room here; it's that each seemed to be building upon all the others, forming an audio symbiosis that was undeniable in its final effect. I was flummoxed and befusticated, all right…
The SR Atmosphere went into place just in front of my Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Level V turntable, where it was centrally placed without being too much in the way of turntable operations. (It's easily movable if I needed to get into components on the shelf system.)
Once we had power connected to the Atmosphere, I installed the Synergistic Research app for the Atmosphere on my iPad3, which I had set for the wireless access point in our listening room. After that, we established the Bluetooth wireless connection to the Atmosphere. That done, we first listened to the effects that the basic Atmosphere, with its three soundfield menu options ("Intimate Acoustic," "Holographic," and "Grand Canyon"), brought to the system. Each title effectively evokes the sort of change that I was hearing. Certainly there was an alteration to the soundfield that I could hear, with greater or less spaciousness, greater focus, more or less detail, depending on the option chosen. (Note that each shift requires about five seconds to activate.)
This was multiplied big time by the addition of the ATM module, however. At that point, four additional advanced soundfield options appeared: "In My Listening Room," "Expansive," "Amplified," and "Ethereal." Each selection has some advanced options that allow you to choose the time of day…(Different times have different EMI effects associated with the properties of the earth's atmosphere and its interaction with the sun; that's why many of you may have noticed that listening to music on your system sounds better at night than during the day.)…definition vs the smoothness of the sound, and the expansiveness of the soundfield. Each menu option has a brief summary of the effects that you may expect by selecting it…very handy, that. And they all seemed to work in our reference stereo room, as specified, with world-class gear, whose sound I know intimately. Splendid!
Next up was the SR Black Box. This is a rather mysterious looking…well, black box…that measured 9.5" wide x 9.5" deep x 8" high (with the spikes installed). In my hands it was rather hefty, with a strange vibrating, resonant feel. On the bottom it featured a set of rather fearsome spikes, allowing it to punch through our carpet to the underfloor with authority. (Watch your feet!)
The Black Box is a very different approach to the control of the lower frequencies. Rather than taming the bass with traps, absorbers, and other materials, the Black Box seems to act as a kind of resonator unit to deal with bass problems. As SR says on its Web site, "The Black Box is an LF (Low Frequency) Resonator Array that elegantly and simply solves bass node issues in most rooms." It seems to do so by taking the excess bass in a room and converting it into motion, and thus heat, dissipating that excess.
When the Black Box was added, well, damn me ears! The bass did seem to lock in, becoming more precise and more focused, all at the same time. We confirmed this by having Peter move the Black Box out (Rats! Bass improvement lost!) and back in again (Yes!). There was no doubt about the gains that the Black Box offered…that bloody thing had to stay.
The SR Grounding blocks came in as well. This component provides a common grounding point for a system, via grounding cables that connect to the central block via pins. The effect on our system was immediately obvious: A thin layer of hash that had been below my notice (Ain't it always the way?) was removed, clarifying a system that I already thought was exceptional. And this is the constant challenge of fine audio…you learn about the presence of "layers" in playback by subtraction. As Joni Mitchell sang in her song, "Big Yellow Taxi," "You don't know what you got ‘til it's gone." Well, yeah. And that's how it is with noise floors and transparency in audio. Certainly the Grounding Block knocked down some haze…no doubt about it.
One operational note, however. Due to the fact that our KRONOS Pro SE turntable already had a custom grounding system installed, a definite hum from a ground loop showed up when the SR Grounding Block was in place. I therefore had to remove the KRONOS from the SR Grounding Block, which solved the problem instantly. If you have other grounding solutions in place, especially for your turntable, you'll want to keep this in mind. Otherwise, the Grounding Block proved itself to be a fine, compact, and very useful system enhancer.
Peter was eager to try the SR MiG 2.0 feet with HFT's in place in our reference system. This was a bit easier said than done. Putting in them in place was a bit tricky upstairs, since we had the Stillpoints ESS Rack with Grid Shelves and Ultra 5 feet in place already. Our NADAC MC-8 DSD DAC was already ensconced on the rack, and this was the unit that I was most interested to hear with the MiG 2.0's. But it's a very solid piece of work, and the Ultra 5 feet would only allow the MiG 2.0's with very careful placement. This required that Peter and I both had to work to get the task done…him holding the NADAC, and me placing the feet carefully. In the end, we got the job done.
1) SR MiG 2.0 placement diagram #1: For ambient soundstage, place one MiG facing down under the component (rounded side downwards), and two MiG's facing up.
2) SR MiG 2.0 placement diagram #2: For a pinpoint soundstage, place two MiG's in the down position, and one facing up.
Placement of the MiG 2.0's is not indiscriminate, however.
There is a difference between down and up here, since the MiG 2.0's have an HFT embedded inside the footer. The HFT's effect is directional, and so "down" points the HFT upwards towards the component, while "up" points the HFT downwards away from the component. (Yes, I know…a bit counterintuitive, that.) This means that you can tune the effect of the MiG 2.0's by varying the placement and direction of these units. The HFT effect…clarifying, and introducing greater coherence into an audio presentation…is therefore yoked to the sonic benefits of the feet themselves. My experience over two days of working with the MiG's was that the diagrams above are pretty accurate as to their effects, and that they added further dimensionality to the performance of the NADAC. For the record, we placed four MiG 2.0's under the NADAC, the front two being in the "down" position, and the rear two being "up." The ambient effect was pretty clear to me, and quite real.
The last…and very important…piece of the puzzle was jettisoning our old generic CAT6 Ethernet cable, running from our switch in the office to the Merging Technologies NADAC DSD DAC in our stereo listening room. I was sure that this was going to be a significant improvement in the sound, since I knew what the Kubala-Sosna Elation! Ethernet prototype cable had done for the Positive Feedback hospitality suite at THE Show Newport Beach, back in June of 2015.
Like I said, I was expecting an improvement of some sort. Peter ran the cable, plugged in the power, and inserted the tuning module with its glowing blue power-on LED. Ready to launch! But I was not prepared for the degree of improvement that the SR Active Ethernet SE brought to playback via the NADAC. It wasn't simply "better"…it was mucho mas mejor! Gone were all of the lack of detail, the rolled-off highs, the lack of transparency that I had heard with the generic CAT6; instead, I was hearing crystalline, transparent, detailed, spacious music, the like of which I hadn't heard since the Kubala-Sosna Elation! cables last June. The listening room now lit up with the Single, Double, and Quad DSD recordings that I began to play. I was smiling from ear to ear, and Peter had to admit that he was pretty bloody damned impressed with the sound of DSD in our reference listening room!
And who could blame us? The quality of the music was simply undeniable, having jumped to a completely different level. Our library of Quad DSD recordings simply stunned Peter and I…and everybody who's been here since.
In fact, the improvement wrought by the SR Active Ethernet SE also made all of the other system enhancements that Peter had installed shine, and demonstrated that the entire listening room was now lifted up to an exceptional new level. The collective effect of the SR designs was astonishing, and I don't say that lightly. Clearly Synergistic Research's package of cables and enhancements are extraordinary, and provide comprehensive improvements to an audio system. The fact that we still don't have all of the major products that SR has in its inventory…for example, we don't have their new power cables or their Tranquility Base XL…means that we haven't nearly hit the limit with them yet! (And now Peter tells me that Ted Denney III will be releasing several new designs at CES 2016. Lordy!)
But wait! There's more!
No, no! Not done yet!
So far as I had envisioned this review project, based upon my earlier experiences with system enhancements, I thought that we were done. The stereo room was sounding splendid, and all was aglow there.
But then came the moment of serendipity.
On the morning of the second day, I told Peter that I want to listen to some music in our reference surround room downstairs. I had received the great new SACD of Roger Waters' Amused to Death from Acoustic Sounds, and I wanted him to hear it in 5.1. It turns out that Peter is a big Pink Floyd fan too, so it didn't take any urging to get him to grab a seat in our great room to check it out. I figured that this would only be a few minutes.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Within minutes, Peter got a quizzical look on his face, and began to look around the room. By now, I was beginning to recognize that expression…it meant that he would be sprinting for his SR bag pretty quickly. I was right. In just a few, he got up, asked me to pause the music, and then came in with some of the extra HFT's that he had brought with him, just in case. Just as the day before, upstairs, he began to place them, two or four at a time, pausing each time to gauge the effect. Sometimes it would be an HFT; sometimes an HFT-X; and sometimes an HFT 2.0. Speakers, walls, doorways, our 65" Panasonic Plasma HD flat panel…all began to sport HFT's.
And the same thing started to happen downstairs as had happened upstairs: Piece by piece, the soundfield of our surround system began to flesh out and fill in. Coherence increased. Transparency improved. And Amused to Death began to be transformed as a listening experience. On a sudden inspiration, Peter dashed upstairs and brought down the Black Box. We put it into the corner of the room behind and between the two main front Linn Akurate speakers. Boing-o! The bass bloomed, and become more precise and pervasive, all at the same time. Roger Waters' album was being transformed before our ears…certainly it had never sounded anything like this on our surround system before.
By now, Peter was really into it. Out came the other Atmosphere and ATM. We placed the Atmosphere next to the Black Box behind the flat panel in the corner. After some experimentation, Peter finally placed the ATM on the top of the Panasonic Plasma, where we seemed to get the best results.
I looked at Peter; he looked at me. I told him, "I ain't carrying the Black Box upstairs and down all the time, you know." He nodded, and then got on the phone, ordering up another Black Box from SR's warehouse, so that we could have one both upstairs and down. (Yes, I knew that I was in trouble, all right.)
Peter rounded things out by installing an SR Grounding Block to all of the main components in the home theater rack, and adding MiG 2.0's to the Linn Klimax surround processor, the two Linn 5125 multichannel amplifiers, and our Oppo BDP-105 optical player. In all of these cases, the placement was three units, with the single front center MiG 2.0 being "down" and the two rear MiG 2.0's being "up." (Refer to the diagrams above to see what I mean.) The sole exception was the three MiG 2.0's that we put under the Sony HAP-Z1ES music server. We went front center unit being "up" and the two rear units being "down" (the "Pin Point Soundstage" placement).
The cumulative effects were nothing less than cowabunga! Depending on the Atmosphere profile that we dialed up, we could be intimate, focused, hard-driving, or as widely spacious as the rather large great room would allow. Amused to Death was followed by a Pink Floyd SACD, Wish You Were Here. It sent chills through me to hear it…detail, much better transparency than the Linn system had ever delivered before, and a seemingly boundless soundfield when I shifted to "Ethereal" mode. Soundstaging and imaging were simply fantastic! On and on and on….
The ultimate acid test was when Lila and I sat down the night after Peter left, and watched some of our favorite British series (e.g., Foyle's War, Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, George Gently) and some favorite Blu Ray movies. Lila is normally quite proof against any audio hype, and while she very much loves high-end audio and video, she doesn't much care for some of the audio obsessives who frequent our lovely, strange world. If she thinks that something's overblown or irrelevant, she'll let me (or you) know about it.
In this case, however, she immediately noticed the difference, and asked me, "I've never heard things sound so good here. What did you do?!" I pointed out the new SR components, cruised through the settings on the Atmosphere ATM, and asked her what she thought. "I like it!" said it all…it's very rare that I've heard Lila be so enthusiastic about an upgrade, and not in many years in our home theater/surround system.
Damned impressive, that, believe me.
I agree with Lila completely. In fact, nothing in the Linn surround system had ever sounded like this. I have known this system for many years now, and knew its strengths and its limitations very thoroughly. Now those limitations were vanishing, fading away like snow in strong sunshine. In its place were qualities that I had never heard in all my years with this home theater system. In one day Peter Hansen and SR had completely revolutionized a room that I hadn't even been thinking about when we scheduled Peter's visit.
Talk about serendipity. Talk about providence. When I think of what I might have missed….
After transforming…and being transformed by…the major digression to the surround system downstairs, Peter and I rounded things out upstairs and did the final cleanup of loose ends. Upstairs and downstairs were now singing entirely different tunes, which blew my mind again and again as I listened. Upstairs had a number of brand-new components; downstairs was a system that had been in place for many years. Both were remarkably improved by the addition of the Synergistic Research products that Peter had installed with such skill.
Ted Denney III and the SR team have put together a large suite of products that really made a phenomenal difference in not one, but two listening rooms here at Positive Feedback Central! No one who has come here since then has been unimpressed; all visitors have commented on the marked improvements both upstairs and down, both audio and video related. You'd have to be an audio blockhead not to hear the performance that Synergistic Research brought here to River City.
Kudos to Ted Denney III and Peter Hansen for an amazing job of it!
Enough said…I'm sold on Synergistic Research! In fact, I suspect that if you haven't tried the SR line of products and system enhancements, you don't really know how good your present system is. Before replacing big iron or loudspeakers or sources, you just might want to give SR a try. I don't think that you can go wrong.
It is therefore no surprise that I give the Synergistic Research line of products covered in this review my very highest recommendation…enthusiastically! This is the real deal, amigos!
BTW: Expect to see some 2015 Brutus Awards from me for SR in the very near future, too….