Critical Mass Systems first caught my eye at a Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. As I traipsed about from floor to floor, desperately hoping that the packed elevator wouldn’t resemble a Turkish sauna or simply break down, I came across a large room wherein stood a gleaming set of black Critical Mass Systems Maxxum racks that looked as though they had emerged from the Ferrari paint shop or its equivalent. The equipment they were supporting was almost an afterthought because the racks themselves were so fetching—to the max, as it were.
Fast forward about a decade or so and I receive a call from Chicago. It’s Joe Lavrencik, the head honcho of Critical Mass Systems, who explains that he has a nifty new device that he wants me to audition, his new footers designed for both front-end equipment and amplifiers. He didn’t have to tell me twice. Having seen the solidity and beauty of his racks, I was eager to take his footers, which come in three sizes, for a test drive. Over the past year or so, I’ve come to find them to be not only easy to employ, but also superbly effective.
Lavrencik, who visited me for a day to listen to my system coupled to his footers, isn’t one of those strong and silent type audio manufacturers. He’s got a lot of opinions about isolating equipment and is eager to share them, though I should hasten to add that he is understandably chary about divulging precisely what materials are contained in his black anodized aluminum footers. But either in person or on his website, you can learn a lot about his approach, what he thinks, and why. Lavrencik believes that it takes about a week for his footers to settle in and that some initial deterioration in sound may be experienced when they are inserted into a system. He doesn’t believe in an isosceles triangle of footers, but, rather, recommends using a quartet, which is what I did. According to Lavrencik, when it comes to his footers, “It might be more appropriate to view Center Stage2 as a catalyst in a complex energy reaction that occurs between your equipment and its environment. While this amount of kinetic and vibration energy is relatively small, the sonic consequences can be very large if these energies are unregulated and undamped. Center Stage2 is a catalyst designed to change the prevailing state of equilibrium in that energy reaction and to permanently hold it in a reduced or damped state.”
Got that? I don’t know how it is with you, but I try to approach these technical matters with an open mind. I can’t claim to possess anything like a profound knowledge of the engineering aspects of isolating equipment. What I do know is that going to some lengths to isolate your gear can make a profound difference in the playback fidelity of an audio system, sometimes to a degree that makes you rub your eyes in disbelief. Over the years, I’ve employed a variety of devices, including the Minus K system, an isolation system that relies on a coiled spring and is used underneath electron microscopes. But I’ve never been wedded to a single approach.
What could Lavrencik’s latest audio progeny, his Center Stage footers 0.8, 1.0, and 1.5 (the model number refers to the diameter), bring to the table? As it turned out, they had a number of salutary effects on my system. The sine qua non of an effective isolation device is that it lowers the noise floor, which is what the Center Stage2 devices achieved on my front-end equipment, including the dCS Vivaldi SACD/CD playback system and my Ypsilon PST 100, Mk II preamplifier and VPS 100 phono preamplifier. I also placed Lavrencik’s larger footers under the Ypsilon Hyperion monoblock amplifiers, which required some careful maneuvering as they weigh over 200 pounds each.
When it came to the front-end equipment, I did not perceive any diminution in the sound quality. Instead, I initially detected not only an expansion of the lateral width of the soundstage, but also an increase in very fine detail. On the Jimmy Cobb Quartet’s marvelous SACD on the Chesky label Jazz In The Key of Blue, I heard a more burnished sound emanating from Roy Hargrove’s trumpet and flugelhorn. The subtle brushwork of Cobb was also more precisely rendered and the bass line seemed to subjectively be somewhat tighter with a more lissome bounce to it. In audiophile terms, the transients had a little more pop and decays appeared to linger just a little longer. Something similar occurred on vinyl. Take Shelby Lynne’s album Just A Little Lovin’, which Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds has released on vinyl. The bass line seemed to possess a little more whomp and Lynne’s voice, more extension in the treble region.
The most noticeable improvement that I detected, though, came when I placed the Center Stage2 footers underneath the amplifiers. Sometimes audiophiles can get carried away with searching for more detail and end up treating musical considerations almost as an afterthought. What struck me most forcibly when deploying the Center Stage footers was the increased heft and warmer sound that they imparted to the proceedings. They made the amplifiers sound brawnier, turning them into the master and commander of the Wilson WAMM loudspeakers. On the Pablo recording Basie Jam, a must-have for any true jazz fan, there was a jauntier, more propulsive aspect to the music that made the instruments, including the spookily sinuous organ playing of Count Basie, come alive. Songs like “Doubling Blues” and “Red Bank Blues” had an extra dose of visceral palpability. Indeed, you could practically hear the organ wheezing away in real time in my listening room. Wahoo! It truly was a case of Basie Rides Again, as the album title of a 1956 album of his puts it.
For all the technical explanations that the designers of isolation equipment may provide, I always find myself falling back, in the end, on my humble auscultatory faculties. Improvements in the soundstage, dynamics, and detail? You know them when you hear them. In this case, I more than did. If you’re searching for some isolation, not from society but from audio gremlins, then I urge you to investigate these remarkably potent little devices.
Specs & Pricing
Price: $240 each and up, sold in sets of four
CRITICAL MASS SYSTEMS