Playback is Suite
Jeffrey Allen listens to the high-end, audiophile-style sound system in CBS’ Reference Playback Suite
by Martin Goodman
LOS ANGELES—Located on the CBS Studio Cente lot, home to Spin City and Third Roc from the Sun, is a unique listening environment known as the Reference Playback Suite. Jeffrey Allen designed the suite so that producers, engineers and artists can listen to their projects on a high-end, audiophile-style sound system.
Among those who have recently visited the Playback Suite are Herbie Hancock, Mickey Stevenson, Smokey Robinson, Hank Waring of FDS Labs/Quad Digital, Dolby Labs, and Miramax. Allen, who has a background as a live show and content producer, was interested in creating an environment that could replicate as close as possible the “live” experience.
Allen took years matching specific cables and components, with chosen cables by Purist Audio, Kimber Select and Nordost. “I’m not a snake-oil salesman,” he says “the stuff is out there. For example, I use the CFX a line conditioner from a company called Sound Application which makes a real line conditioner—it really does condition the line.”
Not Just Another Power Line Conditioner
The Sound Application CF-X
By Jerry Kindela
We have just caught Jim Weil as close to pure focus as a human can get, a flawless balancing act of chi in which nothing else exists but this second in time, this deep engagement in process. Sure, there’s an end result, “ultimately the CF-X, a noncurrent limiting, ultra-wide bandwidth AC filter/surge protector with –60 dB of transverse noise reduction,” but as we observe him, the wet circumferential strokes around the buss bar are his world at the moment.
“It’s a form of meditation, everything else just fades away,” he’ll explain later. “I become extremely focused. A bomb can go off and I wouldn’t notice.” This brief anecdote is to be understood as metaphor, one that explains how each Sound Application CF-X Power Line Conditioner is birthed in Jim Weil’s 12 by 16 work room, which is filled with everything he needs “including some 1,200 needle nose pliers (different edges for different types of wire, different leverage angles, different lengths)” to build a state-of-the-art interface between the wall outlet and the rest of the audio system downstream. It is becoming increasingly clear that the single worst impediment to the optimum performance of any audio system lives at your wall outlet. Actually, there are a number of impediments: AC fluctuations, both under and over-voltages, or sags and surges, and radio frequency (RF) and electro-magnetic (EM) pollution, more commonly referred to as interference, hence RFI and EMI.
GARBAGE ON YOUR LINES
Clearly, power line problems are multifaceted. Take surges and sags, for instance. Your audio system and home or apartment are connected to your street and neighborhood power subgrid, which is connected to other subgrids, which comprise even a larger grid and so. Depending on the time of day, the power demands of all these grids will vary, causing the local utility to adjust its delivery of juice to meet the demands. These ups and downs impact how your audio gear functions, most often not well, especially with highresolution equipment. Ever notice how well your system sounds after nine or ten p.m., when your grid’s power demands drop significantly and the juice to your home is a much more stable 115-117 V of constant power?
Most power line conditioners can do very little for over- or under-voltage problems, and one solution for more consistently stable power delivery is to install a couple of separate 20-amp lines to nourish your audio system.These will be bit slightly less affected by transient power fluctuations and virtually eliminate common mode noise. If you haven’t taken time to do this, your standard house lines (15 amps per spur) can often prove to be less than adequate for delivering the musical bliss your system is capable of.
The other and perhaps more pernicious problem is the noisy spuriae riding on your power lines. Refrigerators, air conditioners, electric-based heating equipment, halogen and fluorescent lights and so on in your home, your neighbor’s home, the 7/11 down the street and even the shopping mall several miles away all feed electro-magnetic noise back into the grid.
Then there’s the RFI, emitted by assorted radio and microwave equipment, from shortwave gear to microwave transponders to cell phones and so forth. Essentially, the wiring in your house acts like a giant antenna for this form of noise.
You can be certain that a good part of the accompaniment to Yusef Lateef Live at Pepe’s (Impulse 314 547961-2), for example, is unrecognized noise filling the space between Yusef’s lips and flute and every other space on this and virtually all other compact and vinyl discs you’re likely to play. Sure, you may not hear that noise directly, but it’s there in the form of brightness, stridency, smearing, compression factors, sibilance, bloated kick drum and upper bass notes, foreshortened soundspace, lateral elision or attenuated decay. Essentially, the noise diminishes, on occasion even destroys, nearly all of the very qualities that make listening a cathartic experience.
The Sound Application CF-X won’t regulate line voltage, but it will clean up all the RFI and EMI across a bandwidth that stretches out to the microwave range. Rated from 50 kHz to 2.5 Gigahertz, I don’t think another line conditioner even comes close to the cleansing properties of the CF-X.
Now, let’s backtrack to the opening metaphor, the business about CF-X creator Jim Weil. Jim has devoted the last 12 years experimenting, refining, testing various topologies, wires and parts, attending to the “process” at each stage of development. You’ve gotta understand that this near-meditative state may be a counterpoint to his other side: Jim talks AK-47- style. Ask this guy (who is given to wearing black racing cap, black jeans, and black polo shirt and shoes, like the Lash Larue of power mavens) an audio-electrical question, and the retort is not unlike a fusillade of wisdom packed densely on top of more information packed on top of even more information. You realize quickly, despite the wealth of data along with considered opinion, Weil is only grazing the surface of what he knows about electrical-electronic parts, from function to quality, as they relate to power. The rapid-fire minutiae can be overwhelming, but it is always instructive and awesome in the truest dictionary sense.
While all power moguls are reluctant to openly discuss their topologies, I was able to obtain the following information from Weil (actually, he readily volunteered a helluva of lot willingly, though he indicated that much of the information was proprietary).
According to Weil, the first conditioner built some 12 years ago, a classic doubt-T filter with 142 active circuit elements, was five orders of magnitude more powerful than the CF-X. A good part of the last dozen years has been spent refining and simplifying the topology down to 25 elements, and with it a reduction in price. The original would have sold for something like $10,000 to $15,000, while the present still pops for a not inexpensive $4,200, without the MAC 2 Power Cord ($5,000 with). The CF-X is a transformerless design. “Anything to do with a transformer, you should avoid like the plague,” he laughs, “unless it’s gargantuan, we’re talking in the 1,000-pound category. Anything smaller, and the transformer will always give you a hard edge, you’ll lose dynamics, and the soundstage will be compressed.”
Basically, the CF-X is a low impedance capacitive shunt to ground device. The piece, consisting of a 23-step stage filter of capacitors, is designed to shunt off highfrequency RF. Each of the capacitors, which are custom built except for the silver mica caps utilized for the high frequency range, covers a portion of the bandwidth, while the impedance per capacitor in its operating range approaches zero.
Jim Weil claims to have tested nearly 5,000 capacitors in developing the CF-X, a process (that word again) that led him increasingly to distrust sole reliance on testing procedures. While similarly rated capacitors would measure equally—“selfresonance frequencies basically in the same neighborhood within a few kilohertz of each other,” notes Weil—“not all of them sounded equally when implemented. Clearly, the test-and-try process took years before he settled on the appropriate sounding capacitors (he obtains caps from assorted vendors depending on what portion of the band he’s cleaning up).
Then there’s the resistor side: Again, after years of experimenting he says he settled on custom-made Caddocks. One tolerance measurement of a resistor is its Temperature Coefficient Resistance. Caddock precision resistors measure a TCR of 50 parts per million (ppm), while its Ultraprecision babies rate at 15 ppm, which translates to a vanishingly low noise floor. Well, Jim’s specially made Caddocks measure 5 ppm, super-super quiet.
Also unique to the CF-X are Varistors, or surge protectors, that follow NEMA’s 250 V recommendation. Other conditioners, he notes, do not offer such a high rating. Weil’s product goes one better, however: He also uses a 500 V input varistor to protect the remaining bank of varistors, essentially protecting the surge protectors from surges themselves. Moreover, he says his nonstandard approach to lashing together the varistors improves the final sound quality coming out of the speakers (most power conditioner manufacturers, claims Weil, follow a more standard approach which degrades sound). He says he came up with this proprietary topology after years of relying on the “process.”
IT’S IN THE DETAILS
The attention to detail is nothing short of staggering. When Weil displayed the guts of a CF-X, I saw not mere wire and parts, but electronic art worthy of display. The entire set-up was point to point, since Jim has come to believe that circuit boards within power conditioners only degrade signal transfer. The power distribution wires are imported, according to Weil, from South Africa, “because at a quality of six-nines copper, they simply sound better.” These are given a full 360 to 720 wrap around the gleaming six-nines 1/8-inch copper buss bars: He notes that his buss bar copper is government certified (“It’s the same stuff sold to NASA and it comes with papers. I doubt anyone else has such certification in their power conditioners.”). Obsessive, you say, but consider this: the spacing of the three buss bars, the hot, neutral and ground, is set at specific intervals, because, notes Weil, “When you’re trying to attenuate microwave frequencies, the distances become critical.”
Solder joints themselves appear to be flawless, which speaks to his 35 years of soldering iron work and to the fact that he uses an Argon drip while soldering. The Argon cools the joints more rapidly than free air, while preventing the more sensitive capacitors from baking. And so it goes. Nothing within Weil’s “process” has been left to chance, including such seemingly miniscule elements as the thickness of FEP insulation (“The thickness of the dielectric impacts the sound, especially when you’re dealing with higher voltages. That’s why I’ve chosen thinner insulation.”) and the color of shrink tubing (“Pigments have sonic effects too, so the colors I use are specially chosen as well.”).
After 12 years of “process” the CF-X comes to market in its most developed form. And what it does for music is nearly indescribable. Forget the stuff about removing veils or Windexing windows — each is understatement when it came to the impact the CF-X had on my system. Simply, with the CF-X as my front-end, I’ve never been able to get so close—thisclose— to the original source. Period. Finito.
Take Ray Brown Trio’s Live at Starbuck’s (Telarc CD-835020).Track after track, the presentation is open, spacious, with Brown’s bass work positively nuance-filled and not buried deep in the mix as he tends to sound without the CF-X in place. The delicate yet powerful bass work is particularly evident on Brown’s solo “Love You Madly.” The fundamental of each struck note is clear, while the overtones emanate roundly without bulging into flabbiness.
For a taste of the other frequency extreme, few discs offer greater problems of resolution than David Grisman’s Quintet’s Dawganova (Acoustic Disc ACD17). Until the CF-X arrived, this compact disc seemed too bright, but all it needed was to have the noise artifacts removed from the chain. Sure, Grisman’s mandolin still sounds a tad hot, but with the power line conditioner in place, much more of the tonal palette of the instrument is revealed. The same can be said for Matt Eakle’s flute playing, Enrique Coria’s guitar work and Joe Craven’s violin work. Simply, the instruments now have more characteristic body, and their positions in the soundstage are more precise and fleshed out. The word continuous comes to mind, disc after disc, in fact.
As in most things audio, one does not know how much EMI and RFI infect one’s music until the infection is removed. Producer Daniel Lanois loves to add ambience/reverb, an ethereal spaciousness to his work of which Willie Nelson’s Teatro (Island 314-524-548-1 IN02) is a prime example. Line noise smears the effect to such a degree that one may dismiss the entire compact disc as overprocessed. Not so with the CF-X in place: The ambience added to each instrument and voice builds a smoky, engrossing soundstage without in the least stealing from the fundamental signature of each note and instrument, including Nelson’s vocals. His voice is clearly and naturally Willie’s, although now it has a warm halo that counterpoints its world-weariness. With the CF-X in place, I came to love the beauty of this compact disc.
I could rhapsodize about the stunning effect of the CF-X to the point of nausea, but I’ll spare you that. Suffice it to say, this power line conditioner will max out every audiofillet virtue your equipment is capable of. It will allow you to hear what you’ve never heard before; more precisely, it will bring you significantly closer to the recording venue. I’m now trying to figure out a way to purchase the two units (one for digital, one for analog) that serve as the ultimate front-ends in my listening room, and if you own a high-rez, pricey system, you’ll regret it if you don’t give the CF-X serious consideration.
One final note about Jim Weil’s “process,” which as it turns out, is endless: Jim has started replacing the hospital-grade outlets in his conditioners, which can be custom built to meet any need of the end user, because he’s just discovered a new (and as yet unavailable to the consumer) Hubbell outlet. The new plug uses a phenolic (not nylon) body and measures nearly 75% of the conductivity of copper wire (no other plug, notes Weil, comes close to measuring this well). He says he’s also found that treating the plugs cryogenically (for extra cost) further improves their conductivity. I don’t know about this freezing business, but I noticed yet another distinct improvement, a greater clarity of presentation, in my room after I swapped out the old wall plugs with these new versions.
If Jim Weil were a brain surgeon, he just might be the best. Thanks to his obsessive “process” he’d certainly never leave a sponge behind. But instead he’s in audio, and that make us all the luckier for it.
Sound Application SA-1 AC Filter
Best I’ve Heard?
by Norm Nuttbeg
These days getting electricity to our audio systems has grown into a major concern. It’s hard to believe that just ten or fifteen years ago, my only concern with electricity was finding a close enough AC outlet in which to plug our stock power cords, or I occasionally worried about whether lightening was possible. When lightening was around, sometimes I’d unplug everything. In short, I focused only on having electricity and avoiding lightening. Some did have to worry about low voltage, an increasingly common problem, but fortunately, I never faced this problem.
Later, I bought an Electronic Specialists Supressor to suppress spikes in voltage. The computer I’m writing this review on is presently plugged into it. Also, at some point I decided to try a Square D isolation transformer and have been sliding down the slippery slope since, using a wide variety of different devices to get isolation from noise and voltage spikes on the AC lines. Early on in this trip, I did notice improvements and could, in comparisons, pick the best sounding, but I also learned that there were costs. In more than a few instances, on removing the device, I got better sound. I do think few manufacturers could not beat the old Square D, but possibly our world now is rife with RFI and EMI noise, making these devices more and more necessary.
This is a review of a Sound Application SA-1 AC filter, one of basically four different filters they make. In the early 1990s, I had my first Sound Application AC filter. I vividly remember this one, as it saved my stereo system from a lightening strike. My wife and I were returning from dinner and, as I stepped out of the car, lightening struck a water heater just about 20 feet from me and over my head. I could find no evidence in our garage of the bolt, but entering the house I could. Our golden retriever was shell-shocked, the telephone wasn’t working, the garage door opener would not work, and all the outlets in the garage were not working.
It was only belatedly that I thought of my sound system, which was fully on. I rushed upstairs with dread, but all was normal. The Sound Application had isolated it. We later discovered that the lightening had struck a hole in the gas line to the water heater a mere six feet from my stereo system, and it was aflame but in a direction where it contacted no wood. We were lucky.
The review sample, Sound Application AC filter, looks largely like my older units (yes, I had four different units over several years), although there have been many, many improvements I am told but, of course, I can make no comparison of sounds I heard then versus now. Among its many subtleties are: the SA-1 has a bandwidth of two GigaHz, there are no series components, such as daisy-chained outlets, the digital and analog outlets are separated with the substantial filter circuit feeding both sets of outlets, capacitors are matched to within one PicoFarad or .01 to .05 percent, and many film and foil capacitors give 90 db of noise reduction. One product design resonated with me, “All Sound Application products have massive spike/surge protection that has been tested in the very real world, multiple times with direct lightening strikes.” I can vouch for this.
So what is new with the SA-1? Since the first Sound Application AC filters in the 1990s, they look little different, but in reality they have changed greatly inside. Talking with Jim Weil convinces you that he has explored all aspects of wire, insulation, capacitors, outlets, connections, vibration, digital noise within the box, wire routing, and even screws. He talks about $100 per foot, very low noise wire that was not even available in the past. He loves to talk about conductivity being quite low on many electrical connections, including wall outlets and on plugs at either end of power cords. He rails against plating and the virtues of quality brass that is not readily available any longer. It seems to be very expensive capacitors and wire that make the difference between his less expensive and more expensive filters. The Sound Application SA-1 is their top of the line unit capable of taking high power amplifiers.
Looking at the pictures of the Sound Application you will notice a set of three duplexes at either end of the unit. One is labeled Analogue and the other Digital. I had an experience that underlines the importance of how these differ. Physically, the difference is 1-½ inches of wire from the main filter board to the digital outlets versus 8 inches to the analogue outlets. The concern is radiation of digital noise. The digital outlets have very short leads from the circuit board that reduces digital noise getting into the analogue outlets. It may seem extreme, but sonically not at all – it is clearly audible, which was the result of a fortuitous mistake on my part. I misunderstood what Jim Weil told me on my unmarked unit and installed the analogue device power cords into the digital duplexes and visa versa. On making it right, I was rewarded with much improved performance in all of the finer attributes of this AC filter. This is just another of all the careful consideration of all factors contributing to pure AC with the Sound Application.
I still remember when I first got this generation of Sound Application filter up and running my entire system. This was after several weeks of breakin at the manufacturer. The sound stage was more encompassing although somewhat less wide than had been the case with my previous AC isolation. While it was satisfying, I knew that with time there would be much improvement. Another major improvement was using the Hubble HBL5362 wall outlet (apparently a stock outlet but with limited availability) provided by Sound Application with every unit and used for all the outlets in the filter box. I had been too impatient to put it in earlier, but it made a dramatic further gain in clarity and sound stage precision. Frankly, this greatly validated my respect for Jim Weil’s total commitment to greatest conductivity, to avoiding plated conductors, and to getting the purist AC possible.
Now with many several months of use, I have come to appreciate the effortless sound of this filter, the extension and sweetness of high frequencies, the control and deepness of the bass, and the detail that comes through with its low noise. The dynamics are very impressive and startling. Loud first notes, especially on less than familiar albums, repeatedly startle me.
It is the clarity, low noise, and clean top end that most impresses me with the Sound Application. Early on I put three StillPoints Ultra Stainless steel isolation feet under it. I was rewarded with greater openness, depth, and precision in the sound stage. Jim was surprised with this, but as yet has not tried the StillPoints. With the StillPoints, the proper outlets used for digital and analogue, and now well broken in, it further brings out the benefits of my sound stage. On Willie Nelson and Marsalis’ Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis Two Men With The Blues – Blue Note Records [TOCP-70541 Japan], and indeed on all the live records that I have dug up, one can definitely estimate the distance from the artists to the audience and often even hear conversations that were heretofore been unheard. The sense of being there is palatable.
I have not been bothered by pops coming across the electrical lines, but now I have heard none at all. Similarly, I had always thought I was getting the true timbre of instruments, such as the ripeness of brass, but relatively speaking this is greatly improved. Especially in complex peaks, such as with the Basie Big Band on Sinatra At The Sands [Vicy 94366 Japan SHM] or on the Amerset Swan Lake Duo selection on the K2 Sampler This Is K2HD Sound [FIM K2 HD 078], the complexity and the timbre remain on loud passages. There is no confusion in the sound. But it is the stringed instruments in this and other symphonic records that are most striking. In many instances you can hear individual violins. Also, you can hear the string character as the bow is drawn. I have only twice been so close to the instruments in recitals that I have heard this. Of course the mikes are close and capture it. What happens to it without the Sound Application is the real question. Is it lost in the noise for the AC lines getting into the system? Whatever the explanation, hearing it lends authenticity and the sense of being there and close to the performers. Overall, I would characterize music reproduction with the SA-1 as vivid and real. Certainly I hear none of the smearing and dulling that so often troubles me with other AC filtering.
I requested the Sound Application JCR1, lowest price unit for comparative purposes. Unfortunately with such a short notice the only such unit I could get was extremely well broken in. At first turn on, I could hear the similarity of the sound. Only the very well broken in character of this unit, held me back for thinking the more expensive SA-1 might not be necessary. This was, however, only an initial thought. After spending a day with it, I noticed less purity of the timbre of instruments as well as less convincing far left and right soundstage instruments. The sensation of being there fell well short of that offered with the SA-1. Apparently, the wire in the JCR1 was used in the Martian land rovers and was the best available at the time of its conception. The signal to noise ratio for the wire used in the SA-1 is far lower and shows in the speed and low noise with that unit. The JCR1, however, shows the ultimate even greater superiority of the SA-1 with several years of break in.
I held off writing this review until I returned to my big room and system in Texas and for further break in by the SA-1. Using the H-Cat electronics I had used in New Mexico, I just sat a marveled at the authenticity of the soundstage before me as well as the ease of the music. I was set to thinking of why I had sold my original units and must confess that I probably just decided to move on to something else. Sound Application has certainly come a long way since the 1990s. I certainly have heard no other AC filtering unit that can compete with the SA SA-1. I was thwarted in using my new BMC gear. One of the M1 amps had stopped working and I sent it back for repairs. On its being returned, I found the other amp had the identical problem. I also learned that my two amps were the only ones with this problem. This all kept me from having much confidence in using the BMC gear.
The first amp was simple repaired by replacing the thermistors on the AC input. The question was why these failed. It turned out that an old practice that I used was responsible. I lifted the grounds on the amps and all other electronics except the line stage. I removed these after BMC suggested that they might be responsible for the amps failing. After both had been repaired and the cheaters removed, they have been flawless. But having them working properly resulted in my finding that unlike the other amps I have tried, they do not benefit from being plugged into any transformer and other AC conditioner or filter. One has to suspect that the input design of the BMC makes this so. I have stopped using the Sound Application with these electronics.
Apart from my BMC electronics, the Sound Application SA-1 has added the thrill of realism to my music enjoyment. Although it is expensive, if you can give it a listen, hopefully with it in the system and without, I strongly recommend you do so. It is the most dynamic and transparent AC filter, I have heard.
Sound Application Reference LineStage Powerline Conditioner
by Jeff Parks
Line conditioners. Who needs them? I used to think that if you had a clean, dedicated AC line and ground, a line conditioner would not be necessary, but as my audio system improved, I began to realize that I was wrong. I am now a believer. Why? It goes back to my experience in modifying sports cars, where it all starts with the gas. As the principle applies to audio systems, it all starts with the electricity feeding your gear. Using higher-octane gas in cars makes sense for racing, so why wouldn’t cleaner power make sense for high-end audio systems?
Several years ago, I read an article in the now-defunct audio rag, Ultimate Audio. The article discussed how to install the perfect (or should I say almost perfect—nothing is perfect in our hobby) dedicated AC line. The piece went into great detail about why it is important to install a dedicated line. At the end of the article there was a contact number for Jim Weil of Sound Application if you had further questions. Because I was considering the installation of a dedicated line (with the help of an electrician, I should say), I decided to give Jim a call. As soon as he picked up the phone, I realized that I was speaking to another highly enthusiastic—if not obsessed—audiophile. Enthusiasm is an understatement when describing Jim. I am a fairly hyper person, and a fast talker, but I met my match in Jim. Nobody on this planet can keep up with him—not even the Federal Express guy from commericals of years gone past! Once you are done speaking with Jim (aside from the need to have a smoke), you will realize that he has given you new insight into our hobby. Jim is the real deal.
Jim Weil started building audio gear about 37 years ago. He has become one of the most respected designers of line conditioners in the industry, perhaps because he follows the old-world path of earning your livelihood by honorable means, at any cost. If Jim cannot offer the best product he can create, he will not manufacture it. Jim’s design philosophy is the opposite of that of most manufacturers, who design their products to price points. Jim does not. After all of the research and development is complete, Jim creates the best product he can—nothing less, regardless of cost. That must be why Jim’s products, though pricey, are so popular among audio reviewers and recording studios.
What is in the Sound Application Reference LineStage that can justify a price tag of $5000? For starters, you get a device that has been designed and redesigned many times over, as Jim finds ways to improve it. Jim has listened to thousands of different capacitors, along with dozens of resistors and hundreds of wires when designing the Sound Application Reference LineStage. Then you must understand that all Sound Application products are hand built by Jim, with no printed circuit boards or automated soldering. All terminations are done by true cold welding techniques, which means using 200 foot pounds of torque in a four-ton arbor press, where you can actually feel copper becoming plastic. Where cold welding is inappropriate, Jim solders in an Argon gas environment to eliminate the surface oxides of the copper and the solder, which creates the ultimate electrical joint.
Nothing is left to chance in designing the twenty-eight stage Reference LineStage lineconditioner where it uses the finest of audio components. All components are custom manufactured for Sound Application. This includes the following: An ultra high speed magnetic circuit breaker (SA has been using this type since 1992), hand tensioned, hand soldered, exotic film and foil capacitors specifically designed for the application as high frequency AC RF filter caps where these custom capacitors are of the highest quality available today. The outlets are special order Hubbell that are 300% more conductive than standard brass. The buss bars for the circuit module are constructed of mirror polished OFE type 101 copper. The solder used to both manufacture the capacitors and to assemble the capacitive filter array is the same proprietary SA solder. No dissimilar materials are used anywhere in the Reference LineStage. Last, critical resistors are rated .01% with an effective TCR of 2ppm and internal wiring is cold welded inductionless high speed data transfer wire. Why no gold, silver, or rhodium plating anywhere in the Sound Application Reference LineStage? It is because, according to Jim, they all add a type of coloration or electronic haze to that changes the original signal in one way or another, thus, degrading the sound. Talk about obsessive!
When I approached Jim about the possibility of reviewing the Reference LineStage, he suggested that he bring one one over to my home for me to listen to before receiving the review sample. After measuring the noise coming in from my power line, Jim declared that my AC was pretty clean considering where I live (in the ‘burbs of southwest Riverside County in Southern California). When we pulled out my old line conditioner and replaced it with the Sound Application Reference LineStage, there was an immediate difference in the musical presentation, and it was NOT subtle. We were listening to a completely different system. There were dramatic improvements in both micro and macro-dynamics, to the point where I felt that my amplifier now had reserve power. Imaging improved, with pinpoint accuracy and no smearing. Instruments took on lives of their own. An artificial brightness—a metallic tinge in the upper frequencies—was gone. I had always blamed this on my cables or my Audio Research amplifier, which can be a bit forward, but my system now had a natural ease that it had never had.
Unfortunately, my time with Jim that day was short. I thought I was to receive the LineStage during this visit. My mistake. I later learned that Jim was “interviewing” my system. He wanted to be certain that it was of reference quality. IN the past, he had heard several reviewer systems that were not of sufficient quality. Again, talk about obsessive! Jim told me I was to receive my sample unit in about a month, and I couldn’t stand the wait. I had tasted the apple, and had to find a replacement for what was obviously an ineffective line conditioner. After a short search, I found an older Sound Application model, the CF-4, which made a noticeable improvement in my system, but not as much improvement as the LineStage. With the CF-4 in my system, I heard more dynamic power, less compression, a wider and deeper soundstage, and better focus. Until then I had not heard a line conditioner that did not limit the dynamics of my power-hungry ARC VT-100MKIII. In addition, my system had a natural ease that it had never demonstrated in the past. Essentially, my rig sounded less like an audio system and more like music.
Jim was not able to deliver a review sample of the Reference LineStage in April 2005, so it turned out to be a good idea to buy the CF-4. I even thought that I might be happy with the CF-4 instead of the much more expensive Reference LineStage, but I soon found out that that was wishful thinking! As soon as I replaced the CF-4 with the Reference LineStage, all of the things I said about my previous line conditioner now applied to the CF-4, though not to the same degree. The system now sounded more relaxed, and it had better dynamic swing. Highs were more extended without sounding bright or etched. The background also sounded quieter. In fact, it was dead quiet! This resulted in a larger, more realistic presentation and a deeper, wider soundstage that moved the system closer to the sound of a live performance.
What was I to do? Buy the unit? $5000 is a lot of money for a line conditioner. I was also wondering whether the whole experience was system dependent, so I decided, like Jim, to take the Reference LineStage on the road, and to try it in the systems of audiophiles that that I knew and respected. Knowing the strong opinions of these audiophiles, I reasoned that if there were any weaknesses in Jim’s design, they would bring it to my attention. Across the board, the effects of the LineStage were the same—better dynamics, more detail, a larger and more lifelike soundstage, and a quieter background. All of this occurred whether we were listening to a tube- or a solid-state-based system. Bass improved without ever sounding bloated or boomy. The only complaints were about the cost of the LineStage, but as Jim says, “It’s all about the music!”
The Sound Application Reference LineStage has been the biggest audio upgrade that I have heard in my system to date. Nothing, and I mean nothing—no speakers, no amplifiers, no preamplifiers, no CD players, no turntables, no cartridges—have made as much difference in my system as the Reference LineStage. I am now hearing my Audio Research gear for the first time, and I understand why so many high-end audio manufacturers, audio reviewers, and recording studios, including MoFi and Rick Rubin’s American Recording, use Jim Weil’s products. They are simply THE BEST. Knowing this in hindsight, if I ever put together another audio or home theater system, I will start with the line conditioner before purchasing any other gear, and that line conditioner will be the Sound Application Reference LineStage. The difference that this product made in my system was unbelievable, so I purchased the review sample. That is the highest recommendation I can make.
|Jeffrey Allen, Producer, CBS Studio Center
|“HEAR the CF-X in the Reference Listening Suite at CBS Studio Center! I run the Reference Listening Suite at CBS Studio Center. SOUND APPLICATION placed five of their amazing CF-X line conditioners in my playback suite. WOW!! I have never heard any other AC product do what this does. Simply put, it is the best there is!”
|“The SOUND APPLICATION CF-X will max out every virtue your equipment is capable of.”
“HEAR the CF-X in the Reference Listening Suite at CBS Studio Center! I run the Reference Listening Suite at CBS Studio Center. SOUND APPLICATION placed five of their amazing CF-X line conditioners in my playback suite. WOW!! I have never heard any other AC product do what this does. Simply put, it is the best there is!” Read More
—Jeffrey Allen, Producer, CBS Studio Center
“The SOUND APPLICATION CF-X will max out every virtue your equipment is capable of.” Read More