Critical Mass Systems Sotto Voce Equipment Rack

Pretty and Smart

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Critical Mass Systems Sotto Voce
Critical Mass Systems Sotto Voce Equipment Rack

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you acquire a component or accessory that is so good the thought of replacing it never comes to mind. You install it, have a listen, and say to yourself: “Well, that’s that.” For me, this happened when I replaced whatever racks I was using to support my system (see, I can’t even remember, so thoroughly did I jettison them) with a contraption from Goldmund. Back in the day, when Goldmund was blazing trails that others are still following, the company made a rack system built from state-of-the-art materials and with a clever method of isolating shelves from each other. Isolation of the equipment from the shelves was handled by the superb Goldmund Cones, which were an integral part of the system. I put my gear onto those racks, had a listen to their effect, and I was done. The sound had improved substantially in every way.

Since then, understandably, racks haven’t been on my radar. Oh, sure, over the years I have read the glowing TAS reviews of some pretty fancy-shmancy racks, like the Critical Mass Systems Maxxum. But they tempted me not at all, given their $40k price tags and my satisfaction with the Goldmunds. Truth is, I probably would have lived happily with those racks right into my twilight years if not for their bête noir. You see, these things are ugly. I mean seriously ugly. Massive blocks of sharp-edged black iron form the frame, which supports equally-square, equally-black slabs of methacrylate shelves. On the style-ometer, the Goldmund racks earn a solid zero.

Why is this relevant, given that the racks perform so well from a sonic perspective? Well, I happen to believe that aesthetics contribute mightily to the pleasure of this hobby. Top-notch audio components don’t just sound good; they look the part, oozing craft and workmanship and, yes, style. Some are even sexy (“audio porn” as my buddy Karl Schuster calls them). In my view a rack should show off these components to best effect, and also show off the system as a whole within the room. This is why, despite the eyesore-Goldmund’s sound, I have rankled at inhabiting it with the stream of gorgeous components I am fortunate enough to have flowing through my home. The equipment—not to mention the room—deserved better.

So when Critical Mass came out with a brand new entry-level rack, the Sotto Voce, the first thing that intrigued me about it was not its potential sonic benefits, which were purely theoretical at that point, but rather its looks. Other CMS racks lean toward a purposefully industrial style (though not with the brutality of the Goldmund stuff), but the Sotto Voce has a much friendlier, warmer, and more inviting look. This is because, while metal connections within the frame are milled from billet aluminum, the frame and shelves themselves are made of good old-fashioned wood. Sapele African hardwood, to be exact. Not high tech, to be sure, but purposefully chosen and certainly appealing to the eye. The rack also appealed to my value detector. Unlike CMS’ ultra-pricey top models, a four-tier SV system with shelves costs just $4500 ($5500 if you’d like it in black). That’s right: the SV is one-tenth the price of the top-line model.

I took delivery several months later. By the time CMS’ affable and deeply-knowledgeable Joe Lavrencik personally delivered two SV racks, plus assorted accessories and options, I had already seen them at many trade shows. Still, experiencing the Sotto Voce in my own room was something of a revelation. Replacing the Goldmund racks with the CMS quite literally transformed the look of my room. Rather than being a blight, the new racks melded into the décor and showed off the components within to great effect. I took stock. Looks: check. Value: check. Ah, but would the SV rise to the sonic standard of my long-time reference rack?

Before I delve into that, let’s talk about the component that doesn’t sit on a shelf: the speaker. CMS’ solution for SV (and other) buyers is their Rize! footers ($225 each). To get a feel for what they do, I first compared the sound of my speakers with and without their normal Goldmund Cone underpinnings. Using “God Bless the Child” from the terrific OMG pressing of Blood, Sweat and Tears, I could easily detect that the Cones conferred more air to the brass, nicely tightened the bass, brought some needed control to the top, generated previously-missing depth, and gave drums both more realism and more visceral impact. Man do I love these Cones! But if I’m being honest, I must admit that they also dulled the mids a tad, and rhythms weren’t quite as razor-sharp either.

I then replaced the Goldmunds with a set of three Rize! footers under each speaker. My hope was that they would sound as good as the Cones—a tall order since nothing else ever has. To my delight, the footers delivered all the benefits of the Cones. If anything, drums, and transients in general, became even more visceral. Even better, the footers also nixed the Cones’ drawbacks; tempos regained their drive, and there was no dullness anywhere in the sonic spectrum. Then there was the wholly unexpected icing on the cake: The footers removed some of what I can only describe as “random energy” in the system. You don’t consciously hear this energy; but you can definitely hear its absence. A layer of electronic noise recedes, leaving a rare and blissful purity. Somehow, the reduction of this stray energy lets the ear-brain mechanism interpret what it is hearing as “music” rather than “sound.” That, in turn, means more realism co-joined with more relaxation.

I have gone into detail about the effect of footers in what is, after all, supposed to be a rack-system review because it turns out that the Sotto Voce has the exact same effect on everything set upon it. Bass tightens, transients gain more verve yet maintain better control, rhythms sharpen, and—perhaps most significantly—that subliminal low-level noise plummets. All this without any noticeable sonic degradation, at least not compared to my reference rack. I knew very quickly that I could live happily with the Sotto Voce. Sound: check.