Aug 262011
 

Track Audo Isolators – It’s in the Construction

Quite a few months back, November 2010 to be exact, I was sent a number of items, from relatively new company Track Audio to review. Among these items were a pair of speaker stands the Precision 600’s which ended up as a pair of  Precision 700’s, as I needed some extra height to conduct the review properly, and a number of what Track Audio call Isolator Spikes.

I also spent a fair bit of time talking with Mike Butler of Track Audio who gave me during our conversation an in depth explanation of how he came up with the Isolation Spike. Essentially the Isolator Spike is a distillation of the technology that goes into the Precision series of speaker-stands and allows those with floor-standing speakers, equipment tables and even electronic components to have access to the great benefits that Track Audio’s unique Isolation Spike design solution brings to the world of audio.

These Isolation Spikes are manufactured to the very highest quality (as are all Track Audio products) from aircraft grade stainless steel. There are three visible (many more inside though) pieces making up the Track Audio Isolation spike, the top section where the threaded adaptors are screwed in place, a lower adjuster ring and an upper locking ring. This height adjusting is achieved via a very clever  ball locking system which is hidden inside the assembly. Each of the rings have holes in them spaced at 60 degrees around the middle circumference, into which one places a supplied rod key,which allows the user to adjust the height and then lock it in position. Cleverly (Mike Butler is nothing but clever) as one turns the adjusting ring one can here a clicking which allows you to count of the number of adjustments, back or forwards, to easily repeat or find previous settings. If you hear no more clicks you have gone to far and you must go back till you hear a click and you are back on safe ground. If you go too far the Isolator will come apart. However it can be put back together easily enough, so panic not (1)

The visible business end of the Isolation foot is a high quality beautifully machined (as all Track Audio products are) stainless steel spike, which sits in a bed of an undisclosed black material. Putting your hand on the spike and pushing on its side reveals that the spike moves slightly. At first thought this goes against the normally held view that ‘rigidity is best in audio’ and any movement is bad. Well after a very long period of development, Mike Butler discovered that the conventional thinking on ‘spiking systems’ while a viable option don’t deal with all aspects of coupling and isolation. The Track Audio design does deal with several factors at once thus offering a more effective design solution. Part of what happens is that the actual internal construction of the Isolator makes sure that the spike itself is Isolated,using a low density material which has been designed to decouple the spike when in use; i.e under pressure. Track Audio are understandably very guarded in regards to this design and I would love to show you photos of a disassembled Isolator or even an exploded diagram of an Isolator, which contains many individual parts (16 in total), but sadly I am not permitted to do so. Nor am I allowed to tell you about other design aspects of the system. I do find this a bit frustrating but I respect Track Audio’s right to protect their design’s uniqueness.

Anyway the proof in the pudding is always the tasting and taste this design I did by trying it in a number of different ways over a prolonged period of time.

Tasting the pudding

I have been playing around/living with the Isolators for quite awhile now and I have tried them in a number of applications: as spike replacements for a Rel subwoofer (2), spike replacements under a homemade isolation platform, replacement feet for a Technics 1200 turntable, replacement feet for a BSE Slate Deck turntable and more recently as replacements for the spikes used for the Ruark Equinox speakers.

Despite being fairly compact in size these are pretty heavy and beautifully engineered items, which incorporate all the sound improving design aspects of the speaker stands version of the’ Isolators.’ However in saying that it is only fair to point out that the relationship between the Isolators and the speaker stands is a symbiotic one and while the stand alone Isolators bring much of the sound improvements of the whole stands they don’t bring all of them.

Mike Butler of Track Audio: chief designer/engineer and audio enthusiast himself, wanted to offer audio enthusiasts as much of the speaker stand technology as he could, in a standalone product, for those using floor-standing speakers. His biggest challenge was to transfer as much of the design tech and sound quality improvements as he could and I feel he has been as successful in this endevour as he could be.  It is a testament to Mike’s passion and ingenuity that he has managed to go as far as he has; after all it is rare to be able to take/transfer a part of a whole other design and make that element perform well, in all-be-it a similar application but none the less different enough one so as not to be able to guarantee anywhere near the same level of performance but Track Audio have succeeded in doing this; mostly. As in all things if you want the extra benefits then you will need to move to the next level and use a Track Audio Isolator platform under your speakers or subwoofer.  However on this occasion, this particular review is about the Isolator as a standalone product, so we will leave the Track Audio Isolation platform to another time.

When the Isolators first arrived with me there was no nice packaging accompanying them unlike now, as they now come in a nice wood presentation box. However the proof in the pudding comes in the tasting so regardless of how nice the packaging is the question that needs answering is, how good are these products? The simple answer, depending on the application was very good to excellent.

In fact the only real failure I had during this review period was trying to use these with a Technics 1200 turntable and this failure was down to the Technics 1200, not the Isolators. Put simply the threaded inserts that the 1200 designers utilised for the admittedly light original feet are metal friction fitted into rubber. The heavy weight of the Track Audio Isolators either pulled the threaded inserts out of the rubber or would not allow, again due to the weight, the Isolators to stand straight: once in installed. However with another turntable the BSE Slate Deck (first heard about this via a phone conversation with Mike and then in the flesh at the last Whittelbury Hall audio show) not only do the Isolators work well (the BSE is made from well finished machined flat slate), from a visual point of view as Track Audio offer an adaptor fitting kit which allows the owner of a BSE to replace the original isolation feet with the Track Audio ones and in a way that is nicely executed; so as to look like it was intended to be this way all along.

As I have mentioned the BSE Slate Audio turntable in a little detail first, I will look first at with how the Track Audio Isolators work with it before looking at how they work in other applications, namely used as part of a DIY Isolation platform and as upgrade spikes for a pair of Ruark speakers.

System Used

The system used in the main consisted of my usual reference components with a few alterations as review items came and went during the period of time this particular review was happening. Moon Andromeda CD player, Marantz SA7 SACD player, SME Model 20 turntable, Graham Phantom B44.1 tonearm, Ortofon 7400 MC catridge, BSE Slate Deck 3, SME 3, Entre One MC cartridge, Technics 1200, Jelco 750 tonearm, Bat VK10se phonostage, Meridian G02 pre-amplifier, Stereo Knight Silverstone pre-amplifier, Stereo Knight Enigma pre-amplifier, Meridian G56 power-amplifier, Music Reference RM200 power-amplifier,  AirTight ATM 300 power-amplifier, Anthony Gallo Ref 3.1 speakers, Ruark Equinox speakers. Cabling (speaker, interconnect, mains) included: Atlas Mavros, Audience, Analysis Plus, TruSoundz, Mains cables R us. Clearlight Audio Aspekt racks equipment tables.

Music Used

Way too much to list individually but Thomas Dolby’s album Aliens Ate My Buick was a constant friend, both on CD and vinyl.

The BSE Slate Deck 3, Improving a classic

I never grow tired of Mike Butler’s enthusiasm for audio, quality engineering and his enquiring, problem solving mind. During one of our conversations, when I was reviewing the Track Audio Precision 700 speaker stands he mentioned in passing to me that he had worked out a way of upgrading a classic British (actually Scottish) turntable the BSE Slatedeck 3 by replacing the Micro Seki adjustable feet with a set of Track Audio Isolation feet. He rustled up a two piece thread adaptor one part screwing into the top of the Isolator and the other part, in the form of a dome topped rod which is fed through the slate plinth from the top into the adaptor, which the Isolator is then in turn screwed onto. This simple, neat system allows a somwhat out of date original isolation system to be replaced with a more up to date one. I hear you call out “that not all vintage tech is bad tech” and I would agree. However the original Micro-Seki isolators are fairly poor quality devices, made mostly from plastic and after very many years I suspect the squidgy feet element (rubber?) have lost their original effectiveness (assuming they had much in the first place).

Initially I listened to the BSE with the SME 3 arm and Entre one cartridge, as it was supplied to me, but not being very impressed I decided to remove the SME tonearm, which I replaced with a Graham Phantom B44.1 tonearm, Ortofon MC7500 cartridge and an XLR terminated Graham IC70 armcable to better assess the quality of the motor-unit. Once set up with the Graham arm I had another listen and it was terrible obvious that the SME arm and Entre One had been holding things back substantially. The sound was now more open and detailed than before and quite musical but despite the solidity that is a trade mark of most good direct drive turntables speed control, the BSE was not….well that good. There was a veiled, somewhat soggy element to the sound.

Rather than jump straight to removing the Micro-Seki feet I placed three Track Audio Isolators directly under the turntable’s plinth, two at the front and one at the back, just to the right side of the mains input and played the same album again, Thomas Dolby – Aliens Ate My Buick. What a transformation in sound quality, with a layer of muck seemingly removed as the sound opened up right across the frequencies. Lots of fine detail that had been masked was not obvious and the instruments now occupied their own space as opposed to being more of an amorphous whole, as they had been with just using the original feet.

Moving to the next step I unscrewed the Micro-Seki feet (3) one by one and substituted the Track Audio adaptor kits for them and screwed the Track Audio Isolators into the threaded bottom of the adaptors. Once done I fitted the Track Audio Isolator pads and had a listen to the same tracks again. Being truthful here I actually listened to all of Side 1, the improvement in sound was not subtle as a further layer of grudge had been removed. The soundstage had gained more depth, width and height and instrument separation was also improved. The lower frequencies had also gained more openness and a little more weight and scale but with no loss of articulation.

As a last step and just out of curiosity I removed the Track Audio Isolation Cones and allowed the Isolators to rest directly on the polished granite shelf. Frankly I was not expecting a further improvement in sound quality but there was one and not a subtle one. Another veil was removed from the sound and a further degree of openness was gained with the separation of instruments further enhanced and overall the music was much more three dimensional with greater air in the treble. The bass had also benefited and was a tad tighter and also now slightly more articulate than before.

I think I need to make it clear here that the Isolation Cones are no after thought and contain a number of interesting design aspects that make them work particularly well when used in conjunction with the Isolation Spikes, either as part of the Precision speaker stands or with other speakers; to protect wood floors and even the surface of all kinds of equipment table shelves too. However the sound improving after I removed them, in this case, is perhaps just a quirk of the BSE turntable and the fact that I had the Isolators resting on granite rather than wood. I think as the Cones are supplied with the Isolator Spikes you should just try them in your application and out of it, in order to see how they work with your equipment.

The addition of the Track Audio Isolators to the BSE Slate Deck had transformed the performance of this turntable, frankly quite a lot and while I should not really have been that surprised by this, having placed all manner of cones and squidgy feet under all sorts of equipment over the years and many times heard less than subtle improvements in sound quality, I was. I think perhaps this comes from the fact that these products were originally designed to be used with speakers and as part of the Track Audio speaker stands, rather than as an isolation product for use with turntables.

Well improve the sound of a turntable these have done and I suspect they will also work with other turntables but the challenge will come in how to do that. Those who have single solid plinth turntables may be able to use these with them and those of a DIY bent will be able to accommodate the use of Isolators into their design. Those with other, more awkward, designs of turntable may struggle to do this (though there is a pretty full set of adaptors of metric and imperial sizes to allow the Isolators to be screwed to most types of equipment) however you could always use a set of TA Isolators under an isolation platform, a much easier thing to make as a DIY project.

The BSE Slate Deck’s design lends itself very well to the use of the Track Audio Isolators and as such I really would urge anyone who owns one to get a set of adaptors and Isolators to try, I am pretty confident you will not be disappointed in the improvement of the turntables performance, once you have bolted a set of Track Audio Isolators to the slate plinth.

Isolation Platforms

Early on, after originally getting the Isolators from Track Audio and having been supplied with a number of adaptors of different thread sizes I fitted four as replacements for the conventional spikes I had been using under a home made large amplifier isolation platform. As with the BSE turntable, adding the Track Audio Isolators under the platform improved the overall performance of the platform and benefited my Music Reference RM200 amplifier, an Air Tight ATM300 and an Art Audio Diavolo amplifier.

Very similar benefits were heard as I heard with the BSE turntable, with an increase in transparency, bass and openness in the treble. I have as yet not screwed a set of Isolators directly to the underneath of any equipment bar the BSE turntable and Ruark speakers but I strongly suspect that doing that would be even more effective in many cases than using these under a platform.

Ruark Equinox’s

I have owned these speakers for quite a few years and I love the dark red Rosenut finish of these particular ones and the sound which is a mixture of classic British and almost Sonus Faberisque Italian charm. They are open and detailed but slightly sweet, with excellent musicality and great insight into the structure of music.

Unlike many speaker designs these particular Ruark’s have their crossover built into the stand, which while being a substantial design has to my mind always been a flawed one. Firstly the bottom of the stands are a two piece construction with a purely decorative wood skirt bolted onto a metal base and this skirt makes it hard to get any spike tightened securely to the bottom of the metal plate. Secondly the thickness of the wooden skirt makes getting any spike long enough to provide a reasonable degree of adjustment is also somewhat of a challenge and I include the ones originally supplied by Ruark in that comment. In fact fairly early on in owning these speakers I had to seek out longer spikes to give me enough adjustment to work with, with my less than even floor. Put simply levelling the speakers usually ended up with one or more spikes so far up inside the skirt that I could not tighten it off firmly.

With the arrival of the Air Tight ATM-300 relatively low powered valve amplifier awhile ago I had a good reason to press the Ruark’s back into service, from their semi-retirement, and in no short order I was once again vexed by the spike arrangement. During a conversation with Mike of Track Audio I mentioned this to him and he suggested that he make a set of adaptors that would be long enough to allow me to use Track Audio Isolators as replacements for the spikes. True to his word Mike sent me out a set of eight adaptors a week or so later.

Fitting them was a simple task, remove the existing spikes and tread the adaptor from the bottom of the stand upwards into the threaded hole in the base plate and then screw the adaptors on to the bottom of the adaptor. Levelling the speakers was simplicity its self , using the supplied key which allows you to tighten the whole assembly once the correct adjustment as been reached. This too  is a simple task as all one has to do is turn the bottom section listening out for the clicks and once done the top section is tightened using the supplied key.

Making sure both speaker stands were the same height and they were I sat back to listen and frankly my mouth nearly hit the floor in regards to the amount of improvement this simple act had brought about. The overall presentation was not changed nor was tonality as such but the degree of veiling that had been removed was quite staggering. The Ruark’s have never sounded anything but excellent in this room and despite the presence of colourations due to the use of cabinet (1) I was hearing much more detail in the music plus the width, height and depth of the soundstage had increased, slightly too. Weight and scale of the bass had not changed but there was now slightly more articulation and clarity in it and the midrange also had opened up quite a bit as well.

I had heard much the same thing while doing the review of the Track Audio stands but truth be told I was not really expecting to hear a big improvement in the Ruark’s sound on quite this scale as put simply the Track Audio stands are a complete solution and tacking part of that solution, all be it a crucial part, onto another design which in and of itself was in its day also a complete design should not really have worked that well and yet it did and gloriously so. Now one area where this success may not be transferable to other speaker designs is the height of the Track Audio Isolators. Each Isolator will add a couple of inches to the height of any speaker and thus move the tweeter above the ear level of most seated listeners. There is a solution and that would be to point the speaker down slightly to compensate or to use a taller listening seat. I have always felt that the Ruark Equinox’s were slightly low as a design and while Ruark may well have had a good reason for doing this the addition of the Isolators improved things quite dramatically.

Frankly if you own a pair of these speakers I think it really a no brainer that you should try a set of these Track Audio products under them as soon as you can arrange to do so. I would go further to say that if you can accommodate the change in height then anyone who owns a pair of floor-standing speakers should also try listening to their speakers with the spikes replaced with the Isolators, you may well find that the improvement in performance big enough to forestall any further upgrade thoughts you might have re the speakers.

Conclusions

Mike Butler is a very clever designer/engineer who brings purest engineering solutions to audio problems and with a very obvious personal humility but quiet confidence in that well thought out engineering will solve them in a way that lets the excellence of Track Audio’s production shine forth. This purity of vision in my opinion assures the audiophile a pride of ownership, in a range of audio accessory designs that few other companies, involved in same, manage to create anymore. Let’s be honest here £300 is not a small amount of money for any audio product, never mind what amounts to, if you want to be crude about it, just a set of adjustable spikes. However to have that mind set without trying the products, never mind feeling and seeing their worth in pure engineering terms (trust me if you could see what goes into each Isolator you would be both shocked and surprised) would be to sell these amazing items very short indeed. The Track Audio Isoltaors while a high end, high quality product are no ‘Foo’ product as they in my opinion and experience punch way above their price point in terms of the kind of sound improvements they can render and the real plus here is that a product designed mainly with speakers in mind can cross over to other product types and improve them too. This fact is, in my opinion, one of the best testaments to the genius that is Mike Butler, though he himself would be too modest to say so.

Track Audio Isolators are highly recommended and well worth a try and I really don’t think you will be disappointed by what you hear. Any good Track Audio dealer should let you try before you buy, but be prepared to do just that, as you will not be wanting to give them back.

Neil

Track Audio Isolation Spikes/Feet  £295 for 4, £435 for 6 and £580 for 8

Specification: Diameter 44mm, height 85mm and supplied with adaptors for 6mm, 8mm and 10mm threaded inserts.Isolation adaptor kit are now available with American ¼” UNF, ¼” UNC and 3/8”UNC threads, others sizes available on request.

Source of  Review Product Loan: Manufacturer.

Address: Track Audio, Unit 3 Corinium Industrial Estate, Raans Road, Amersham, Bucks, HP6 6JQ

Contact:T: 01494 723755 or sales@trackaudio.co.uk or www.trackaudio.co.uk

Website:  http://www.trackaudio.co.uk/

Track Audio Isolation Spikes/Feet  £295 for 4, £435 for 6 and £580 for 8

(1) In many months of use and adjustments I never had an Isolator fall apart on me, as there is a bit of movement past the last audible click position. I would though urge you not to push this ‘breathing room’ just adjust back to the last click position and all will be ok again.

(2) As AIHFA does not cover Home Cinema products I won’t be going into great detail re the Track Audio Isolators use with the Rel Q200E Subwoofer that makes up part of my home cinema system, except to say that adding them to the sub tightened and extended the bass it produced. There was also an increase in low frequency texture and articulation. So once again the Track Audio Isolator spike/foot brings its tell tale signature magic to another audio application.

(3)Disassembled Micro-Seki Feet.

© Text and Photos Copyright 2011 Adventures in High Fidelity Audio…..except for Track Audio product photos and album cover. Copyright belongs with their original publishers.

NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.



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