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The Importance of Proper Component Isolation

A good stereo system is more than the sum of its parts. We all have experienced how a system can snap into focus when you find the right combination of equipment but few of us realize there is a similar harmony that comes when your equipment is properly isolated. 

All equipment is susceptible to vibration either from outside sources or from the components themselves. Turntables are an obvious example. There is a battle between controlling resonance from the motor, platter and tonearm but also to insulate the turntable from the outside world. The negative effects of poor isolation are easy for anyone to hear with a turntable. In relative proportion, these same problems exist with all other gear – speakers, CD players and even amplifiers. 

Let’s look at CD players for example. Most people consider a CD player a closed design. Theoretically the laser reads the disc in a perfect stream of ones and zeros and these are converted perfectly by the DAC. Over the years we’ve learned that this is far from true. People don’t realize that CD players are far from perfect at reading discs and one of the main reasons is because of resonance in the players themselves and susceptibility to outside vibration. If the laser is constantly correcting for vibration this can introduce jitter, errors and ultimately high-frequency distortion. Part of the “glassy” character people despise about CD players can be traced to noisy transports and poor isolation. A similar effect can be heard even in amplifiers with no moving parts. 

You can get a general idea of how affected your equipment will be by tapping it and listening for the resonance. In almost all cases, deader is better. Most companies design “sinks” into the case in order to provide mass and damp vibration. A thick face plate or suspended chassis can work to good effect and you can often offset a ringing case with blu-tack in appropriate places or by placing weight on the top of the case such as a heavy cutting board. 

To guard against outside vibration, first look at the likely source – the speakers. Speakers produce airborne and floor transmitted vibration. Bass transfer can wreak havoc on a turntable, but midrange and treble can be just as bad, especially at high volumes. Just ask anyone with tube gear if they have heard how microphonic their tubes can be. Speakers, like equipment, can also benefit from decoupling from the floor. Try placing your speakers on cement pavers, granite, or glass with an isolation layer between that and the floor. This can pay dividends in the efficiency and imaging of the speakers as the less energy lost to the floor, the more accurately the drivers can work.

Second, look at the rack you use for your gear. Try the “tap test” here as well, both on the frame and on the shelves themselves. You want to avoid any kind of ringing. Tap the frame and feel to see how much vibration gets through to the shelves. If you have a stethoscope, this can give you a lot of information about how your stand is adding or taking away from your sound and how much noise is coming from your speakers into your components. If you have glass shelves you may find that placing an opposite face upwards sounds better due to the tensioning of the tempering process. 

For the components themselves, the old trick of halved-squash balls or cork under a component can yield great results. Also, alternating weight with isolation can work very well. A cutting board sitting on top of squash balls can work wonders for some equipment. Spikes or ball bearings can also work well. The key is experimentation as each component will resonate differently. Even the placement on a rack will affect the sound. Try your CD player on the lowest shelf versus the top shelf.

A system is ultimately a complex feedback loop of vibration. The less feedback you can attain, the more efficient and linear each piece will operate. Do not underestimate the positive effect isolation can have in giving your system synergy. It can often save a “bad” component or take an already good system to a different level. Use your intuition. Bad isolation will often reveal itself through listener fatigue, fuzziness of the soundstage, compressed soundstage or lumpy bass. 

We recommend budgeting at least 10% of your system value on a good rack. With poorly damped components you can see worthwhile gains by spending more. Just be careful to pay special attention to the physical aspects of construction. Some of the most beautiful racks can sound the worst and vice versa.

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