Critical Mass Systems Sotto Voce Equipment Rack

Pretty and Smart

Equipment report
Equipment racks and stands
Critical Mass Systems Sotto Voce
Critical Mass Systems Sotto Voce Equipment Rack

But wouldn’t it also be nice if, unlike the Goldmund rack, the CMS wasn’t a closed system? Even the most content of us will revisit the upgrade situation in the wake of a lottery win, or even just a hefty bonus check. Upgrades are especially appealing (and tempting) if they can be done over time, at incremental cost, and in place. As it turns out, while the stock SV will, I believe, ably serve most audiophiles, it is only the beginning of what can be done with this system.

The first step in CMS’ multi-layered upgrade plan is an inexpensive one that doesn’t require changing anything about the SV itself. Simply insert a set of MXK-SV spikes ($225 for a set of four) between a component and its shelf. I found that the efficacy of this upgrade depends on the component being spiked. When I slid the spikes under the CH Precision D1 transport, there was a loss of transparency, spatial focus, and dynamic nuance. But then let’s remember that one of the things you get with the CH’s $40k price tag is an intricately conceived vibration-evacuation system, of which the feet are an integral part. The spikes bypass the D1’s feet, thus completely defeating CH’s elaborate scheme. In this case, it’s not surprising that the D1 preferred to be right on the SV’s shelf.

In contrast, and more typically I suspect, the Esoteric K-01 transport/player/DAC virtually breathed a sigh of relief when set atop the spikes. On its own feet, the K-01 had played the ravishingly-recorded “Title of This Song” from Beck’s recent Song Reader CD with typical élan. But compared to the same track through the D1 the Esoteric betrayed some spatial confusion, paler tonality, and a loss of clarity. With the MXK-SVs in place, though, the K-01 was suddenly doing a mighty close impression of a transport costing twice as much. The difference was that transformational. My conclusion is that for gear that has not been as fanatically engineered for mechanical grounding as CH is—which is to say, most gear—this $225 per component upgrade will be worth every penny.

The next step up is to place our friends the Rize! footers between components and SV shelves. This will cost $775 for a set of three ($600 if you buy them with the SV). I found it a rewarding upgrade. The difference is in the “purity factor”—a measure of how much random noise is being banished. The footers do a better job at this than the spikes, so the sound clarifies. I’d say the footers get you about half the way between the spikes and the next step in the upgrade path.

For a more profound—and yet again more expensive—upgrade, you can swap out stock Sotto Voce shelves for one of CMS’ “filters.” These are shaped and function like shelves, but are mechanically far more complex. The filters compatible with the SV rack are the very ones that snuggle into CMS’ high-buck systems. I tried swapping out an SV shelf for the entry-level filter, the Black Sapphire Mk.2 ($995). I was expecting this upgrade to be subtle, but, boy, was I wrong. The filter is clearly more accomplished at noise abatement, and the “purity quotient” takes a sizable jump. Under some components, like turntables, the improvement can be even more dramatic. The filter allowed bass from my ’table to really speak out, and there was a good deal more timbral information and tonal richness. These filters aren’t cheap (there are two more models above the Black Sapphire Mk.2), but they deliver the goods. Don’t listen to them if you aren’t prepared to buy them. To be exposed to what they do is to be spoiled for anything less.

The nice thing about the SV system is that if funds do not permit making an upgrade right away, it can always be done later. And when the time comes, the process couldn’t be simpler. Even installing a filter is a breeze. Heck, there aren’t even any screws involved; just lift off the SV shelf and plop down a filter. Voîlà—better sound. Also, there is no requirement to replace all the shelves at once. Instead, you can upgrade selectively, moving to spikes/footers/filters one by one, starting with the components that will benefit most. Mixing and matching shelves and filters in the same SV rack is perfectly okay.

The only gap in the SV system, to my mind, is the lack of a proper amplifier stand. Depending on the size and quantity of your amps, they may or may not fit in the SV rack. In my case, with two swank but bulky, inhumanly-heavy CH Precision A1’s, there was no way they were going on the rack. Amplifier stands to match the SV would look cohesive, but CMS offers plenty of sonically workable possibilities for outboard amps. For starters, amps that would otherwise be on the floor can be placed on Rize! footers. Alternately, an SV shelf ($125) can sit atop a set of MXK spikes, resulting in an apparition of the shelf hovering just above the carpet or floor. The shelf can also be set atop footers. The ultimate option, sonically, is to use one of the amplifier stands CMS offers as part of their higher lines. They won’t match the rack, though.

I was able to test the latter scenario thanks to Joe having provided a pair of QXK amp stands ($1995 each) with the mid-tier Black Platinum Mk.2 filters ($1895 each). Compared to the previous Goldmund amp stands, the QXK imparts that same wonderful feeling of the electronics getting out of the way, letting more music shine through. They also make the amps more coherent, with more air, more dynamics, and more bass, yet with more control of spurious elements. The SV shelves on spikes, however, are impressive as well. They give up little—just a smidge—in the by now familiar “purity factor.”

I realize that this has been a highly deconstructive analysis, so it’s important to sum up by saying that the Sotto Voce not only looks good and is more than fairly priced; it just plain works. My system has never sounded better. The hallmark of the SV rack, in all of its various permutations, is that it gets the crap out of the sound, delivering a less electronic, less hurried, less blurred presentation of the music.


Critical Mass Systems
69 Windsor Dr.
Oak Brook, IL 60523
Tel: (630) 640.3814

Price: $4500 for a four-tier, four-shelf system ($5500 in black)