August 1, 2009

Finite Elemente Is Good Math

This is an old post of ours in the blog we previously contributed to.
My original intention was to get a Finite Elemente rack, but after reading their website and brochure, I became interested in their equipment support footers too - which they call 'ceramic ball interface'.

One thing about Finite Elemente that appealed to me was that they were forthcoming with their designs approaches - there aren't many hifi accessory manufacturers who would dissect their products, show you the innards, tell you about their ingredients and their design philosophy, all with no voodoo, no hush-hush top secret materials and no over-the-top performance claims.

And the fact their design aesthetic is very very pleasing to the eyes does not hurt too.

The local dealer, Audio Image, was running dry on FE stock. The Pagode Signature rack and ceraballs universal, which I wanted to get, were on backorder. But I managed to get a demo set of 3 ceraballs universal and a Resonator for trial. After a weekend tryout, I went back and bought myself a set of Cerapucs - which can be used under heavier equipment or under the Pagode Signature rack.
Boxes for the Cerapucs, Resonator and Ceraballs

One thing about the 'ceramic ball interface' (cbi) is that bigger does not mean better. Finite Elemente clearly specifies the optimum equipment weight range for each cbi model in their brochure, and the dealer also emphasized to me as much. Using a bigger cbi under a light equipment may even make it sound worse. Again, impressive - this shows that FE has been thorough in their research and they are definitely not out to milk their customers - by selling you something bigger and more expensive than what you really need.

I put the three ceraballs under my Copland CDA822 cd player. Hmmm...., the effect was immediate. The little bumps and kinks in the music flow got ironed out (ironically I always thought that those were the artifacts of the CDs). The soundstage and images became more stable. Low level details came through more, there was more ambient information; on some jazz instrumental tracks, I could hear the musician vocalizing under their breath while playing at full steam. Listening to music became a more relaxing experience. What was also great was that the Ceraballs did all these without changing the tonal balance of my sytem, unlike some cones that I tried before which tend to thin out the sound.
I went on to try out the Resonator, which is designed to take care of resonance from the equipment top plate while the cbi takes care of it at the bottom. It had further effect on the sound - but the magnitude was not as big. It also required more experimentation, different locations on the top plate gave slightly different result.

Resonator on top of the CDA822

On the cdp, the Resonator further tightened up the sound. Image outlines became clearer. The sound was cleaner. After a couple more days of listening, I felt that the high frequencies had a slightly shut-in quality, the sound got a little dark. Sign of overdamping? Not sure. I took the Resonator away and placed it on my Pass Labs X2.5 pre-amp, same improvement in imaging (cleaner, better defined), almost no shut-in effect on the highs. Furthermore, the music took on greater precision in its timing.

On a whim, I placed the Resonator on my Shunyata Hydra 8 - same effect as on my X2.5, just slightly less so. Now, this one is beyond me - the Hydra 8 is a totally passive device, it just passes electricity, has no transformer in it (which may vibrate) and does no processing of the music signal, but the Resonator still had an effect.

At the end of the day, I felt that the Resonator does not give as big a bang for the buck as the ceraballs though. Talking to Adrian, the owner of Audio Image, he said that the Resonator is more for fine tuning, that is when you have done all you could to control resonance and you are looking at squeezing the last ounce of performance out of your system. He told me he used a Resonator on his turntable. The big difference? Hearing a musical sound with the Resonator and totally non-musical without.

Cerapucs under the X2.5

I went on to try the cerapucs (meant for my rack actually) under my pre-amp. The X2.5 was not heavy enough for 4, so I used just 3. Another 'Hmmm...' moment, the same kind of improvements as seen with the ceraballs under the cdp, albeit at a smaller magnitude (law of diminishing return?), but with added effect of soundstage expansion - greater depth, and some improvement in width.

Eventually, Adrian's order of ceraballs came in, and I got my own set. Swapping the cerapucs to ceraballs under the pre-amp gave a different perspective in sound (the demo set of ceraballs were still under the cdp). With cerapucs under the X2.5, the sound was richer and the pace was more measured and precise, it was a more mature sound. With ceraballs, the sound was faster and better lit. (I should put the word ' slightly' in front of every description). There was no difference in other improvement aspects between them, as far as I could tell. The final choice would come down to taste and how deep your pocket is, but also bear in mind the weight of your equipment. In my case, the preamp might still be too light for the bigger cerapucs to perform even better.

I look forward to get more cbi for trial - under my monoblocks and loudspeakers, to be tested together with the rack later.

This experience taught me that resonance control is another important area for sound quality. We (or at least me) tend to invest more on cabling & power conditioning, and be cavalier about equipment support - ignore it at your own peril, the magnitude of improvement can be as big as moving from stock cables to a high quality pair, or from no power conditioning to something that is really good.

Go out now, beg, borrow, buy (don't steal :-) ) a set of ceraballs/pucs and try them out. I bet you'll be amazed by the improvement, especially if you have not used any vibration/resonance isolation device in your system.

The star in the range must be the ceraballs universal, they are priced such that they would not be out of place even under entry level equipment. And as you upgrade your equipment, they will continue to retain their usefulness - Now, if that is not darn good math for your money, I don't know what is!

19 January '09

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