It was time to take a stand. Over the years, I’ve resisted auditioning audio racks because of the upheaval that comes with unplugging and moving a mountain of audio gear. But I could never quite scratch the audio itch about the merits of improved isolation that stands are supposed to supply. I knew from past experience that mass can have a profoundly beneficial effect on the ability of stands to isolate equipment. But what about an entirely different approach?
Enter Stillpoints. For several decades this Wisconsin-based company has been on a relentless pursuit to the lower the noise floor of audio systems by manufacturing both footers and racks. Its successive generations of footers have proved quite efficacious in helping to banish the electronic artifacts that accompany audio signals. In my experience, the footers were A+ champs at helping to reveal critical micro-details in recordings. Now Stillpoints has introduced a new and upgraded version of its ESS racks.
What are the upgrades? Stillpoints has made some important changes from its previous version of the ESS, including radically altering its shelf-grid system. Anyone who owns the old rack can upgrade it to current specifications. According to sales director Bruce Jacobs, “we always knew that positioning, leveling, and weight balance were important. With the limited position of our previous racks that was not always possible. Now, we can put anything, anywhere, anyplace.”
The basis of the rack is a rail system. Stillpoint Ultra 6 footers or other less pricey footers in the line are incorporated into the rail system, which can slide forward or back to support a piece of equipment. Four robust wires (also used in aircraft wings) reside at the corner of each stand. Jacobs notes that “the wires are the main support structure that allows us to size anything into it.” Each wire has a load capacity of 2200 pounds. The same rail system is also employed in the Stillpoints Component stand, used here as amplifier stands, which come in three- or four-leg configurations and retail for $1995. This allows Stillpoints to adjust the feet so that they can sit underneath a piece of equipment and easily bypass the standard equipment feet.
Where Stillpoints deviates from many other manufacturers is in its design philosophy. Jacobs doesn’t mince words: “We do not believe in storing energy. This is why the rack is designed to reduce mechanical vibration; when you store energy you absorb it. When the shelf material can’t hold the energy any longer it releases it back into the components. You can’t control it. It robs dynamics rather than increasing them. There is no subtraction in our system.” The idea is that the stand is supposed to form a vibration-isolating structure, functioning as a targeted filter in what Stillpoints refers to as the ultra-band frequency above 20kHz.
Since I’m a cautious type, I did not plunge into installing the main racks but first tried a pair of amplifier stands. Perched underneath the Ypsilon Hyperion monoblocks the stands were completely invisible, supplying the optical illusion that the amps were simply floating in the air. If you crouch down and peer hard, you can see that they are positioned beneath the amp, but otherwise nothing.
If the stands are inconspicuous, their effect on the music is not. Their effect was little short of a sonic explosion—one that had me shaking my head and marveling at the efficacy of these amplifier stands. All the audiophile goodies were on copious display—darker backgrounds, smoother treble, and improved bass punch and definition. On the Acoustic Sounds 45rpm reissue of Isaac Hayes’ song “Shaft,” for example, the pounding bass drum came through with much greater dynamism and authority. My experience has consistently been that the more you can clean up the bass region, the better the sound throughout the frequency spectrum. On a Philips recording of the Dutch soprano Elly Ameling, the clarity of her singing, particularly in the upper reaches of the treble, was enhanced by the stands. It was possible to discern more clearly where she was standing in relation to the piano. In this regard, it was clear that the stands were helping to produce—or at least create the illusion of—a wider and deeper soundstage. On CD after CD, LP after LP, the amplifier stands tightened up the entire presentation, helping to create a richer sonic tapestry.
So marked was the improvement that I was most curious to hear the ESS racks. The racks range anywhere from $8000 to $45,000 in price, depending on the configuration you choose and which Stillpoints footers you employ. After a few months with the amplifier stands, Bruce Jacobs showed up to install the main ESS racks, which he made look easy. For anyone seeking to set them up on their lonesome, I would direct then to one of many YouTube videos on assembly and installation, though most dealers assemble and install the ESS for their clients.
The stands come in shelf widths of 20″ or 26″ or 40″. I went with a vertical 26″ rack with five shelves. One of the most attractive aspects of the rack to my eyes is its compact and open nature. The racks look nifty but are fairly unobtrusive. If you’re out to impress your friends with a big and imposing rack, then this stand isn’t for you. I very much like the modern, sleek look of Stillpoints’ open design. In this case, form truly does follow function.
Upon installing them, I quickly discerned that they made a significant improvement in the sound but that the effect was not as overtly dramatic as it was with the amplifiers. Yes, they opened up the soundstage and improved bass reproduction further. But it was in the area of image stability, purer treble, and nuances of bowing and voice that I heard the most audible differences. It is the accumulation of micro-details that render a performance more believable and more lifelike. It is here that the ESS racks excelled.
On a recording by Kim Kashkashian and Keith Jarrett of Bach’s sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, the darker sound of the viola was rendered with greater fidelity. The interplay and communication between viola and harpsichord was much clearer—the gradations from pianissimo to fortissimo, the urgent dynamic swells on music that, by its nature, can seem dainty, took on a dynamism and power that were quite intoxicating. It became more of a communion of two great performers as opposed to two instruments playing in separate spaces.
Another performance that demonstrated the proficiency of the racks was the recent live recording from Chick Corea with Christian McBride and Brian Blade called Trilogy 2. The ESS rack helped bring the last degree of articulation of this trio to the fore. It was simply a delight to hear the complicated rhythms on Thelonious Monk’s fiendishly difficult song “Work” unraveled with such accuracy and aplomb and verve.
Indeed, the ESS rack profoundly improved the performance of my audio system, allowing it to further resolve the very fine micro-details that enhance a sense of musical verisimilitude. The improved resolution and clarity were so palpable that at times I found myself listening at lower volume levels with total satisfaction. For anyone intent on obtaining a more suave and supple, refined and precise sound, Stillpoints delivers the goods.
Specs & Pricing
573 County Road A, Suite 103
Hudson, WI 54016
Price: $1995 (amplifier stand)
Price: $8000–$45,000 (rack) depending on configuration
By Jacob Heilbrunn
The trumpet has influenced my approach to high-end audio. Like not a few audiophiles, I want it all—coherence, definition, transparency, dynamics, and fine detail.More articles from this editor
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