Equipment Review No. 3  -  June 2003

Audio Component Isolation Devices from
Van Slyke Engineering & Finite Elemente

Van Slyke Engineering: Tri-Orb Lite (SRP: range from $495 for set of 3 “blems” to $1349 for set of 4 reference-grade)
X-rod (SRP: range from $149 for set of 3 XR-1s to $295 for set of 4 XR-2s)

Van Slyke Engineering
12815 Porcupine Lane
Colorado Springs, CO 80908
Finite-Elemente: Ceraball
SRP: $99 for set of 4
Distr. By Immedia
1101 Eighth St. Ste. 210
Berkeley, CA 97410
Purchase Here

Iso Intro

If high end audiophilia was a mainstream thing, Nike and its competitors would probably be making super-high-tech feet to place under audio components to improve isolation and damping, therefore enhancing the sound. It’s obviously not, so these gadgets which now seem to be proliferating since Steve McCormack came up with his Tiptoes (at least I think he was the first), are hand-crafted for the descerning few who are interested, carefully machined, and carry rather respectable pricings (but then so do running shoes nowadays).

Recent developments in this area have mostly employed one or more metal bearings vs. the hard cones and spikes - or coming from a different direction the Sorbathane or other elastomer materials to absorb/insulate vibration. The general idea of the bearing-based gadgets is to transfer sonic-muddying resonances in the components away from them. The three-bearings Aurios and the single-bearing Darumas (which we reviewed here a couple months ago) were some of the first of the bearings approach. Of course some audiophiles had been placing ordinary marbles under their components for years, which was a crude no-cost tweak along the same pathway. Now here are three new products which use from one to three bearings, but bringing to bear some individual new slants on the subject.

Tri Orbs Lite

Paul Van Slyke is a master machinist who specializes in the creation of custom-built components for amateur astronomers and for observatory telescopes. Such telescopes require more critical isolation than any audio system in order to track the stars accurately and make perfect lengthy camera time exposures. Slyke is also an audiophile, and as a natural offshoot of his main business has come up with a line of the most complex, refined and heavy-duty AV isolation devices on this earth! They are all gorgeously made and finished, are offered in a dizzying array of different custom styles and modifications, and are priced to suit their hand-made perfection. Plus they are offered with a lifetime materials and workmanship warranty. The introduction description of the Tri-Orbs concludes with the line “Expensive too!” Right.

[His third basic device is the Orbital - a no-holds-barred record clamp/lock which features a built-in centrifugal damping mechanism involving eight chrome steel roller balls. It makes your turntable look as though it’s going to take off for another planet the moment the platter starts revolving. I’m hankering to review that one next!]

There are two basic Tri Orbs - Lite and Heavy. The Heavys are especially designed for the support of components that weight over 500 lbs., so let’s go on the Lites. There are also two different grades of the Lites: Reference - which is what I tested - and Standard. The Standard’s center cylinder is a single machined piece of iron rather than layered as in the Reference. The Tri-Orbs are available with either chrome steel balls or at extra cost harder tungsten carbide balls. The Lites support up to 75 lbs.

Tri Orb Parts

From the top down we have first the large top piece of 3-inch diameter. In some of the illustrations it shows what appear to be four more bearings on its edges, but that was just a cosmetic feature that has been dropped in current production. The top piece - a gray iron cone - has a cavity at its center to accommodate a shaft that sticks up from the center part of the unit. This part has three concave depressions around it in which rest the three roller ball bearings. Slyke calls it the 3-saucer disk. The top piece has to be level to rest evenly on all three bearings and move freely upon them. The 3-saucer disk is the top layer of the complex center cylinder, which (in the Reference version) has a total of three iron support rings sandwiched with a layer of tray felt just under the top disk and a layer of cork just above the bottom disk. There is also something called a Coulomb Rod which comes with the Standard Grade Tri Orbs and may optionally be inserted into the central cylinder to improve performance.

Finally we have the base support unit, which looks like it sits on three more roller balls yet but these are actually fixed in place, with felt pads on the bottom. The base has three stationary rods coming out of it near its top and spaced equally around the base. The center cylinder has three more similar but longer rods coming out of it near the bottom and jutting into cutouts in the sides of the base. Between the top and bottom of the three pairs of rods are affixed Neoprene rubber O-rings. Therefore the weight of the component above is supported by the stretched O-rings around the base. The Tri Orb Lites come with the middle-sized of three different supplied sets of O-rings, said to support from 25 to 50 lbs. The lightest of the rings support up to 25 lbs. And the ultra-duty O-rings handle from 50 to 75 lbs. Beyond that the O-rings may be doubled on the posts to handle even more weight. With a bit of effort obsessive-compulsive audio buffs can while away many pleasurable hours fussing with these things...

Installation of Tri Orbs

The loose roller bearings of the Tri Orb are a bit of a concern both in assembly of the units and in adjusting their placement under the component. Doubly so if you have curious pets around. The next concern - a major one - is the sheer height of these things: 3 3/4 inches. This means if you have allotted just enough room in your shelf for your CD or DVD player and perhaps some small cones or tiptoes under, and perhaps a weight of some sort on top, you are going to have to do without the weight, and in fact there probably won’t be room for both the tall Tri Orbs plus your component. I was barely able to fit them under my Sony CD-775 and found it easier to test all the different devices under my Toshiba 5700 DVD-A player on a separate table.

The next big challenge was locating the units under the players. The 3 inch diameter grey iron piece is called a cone but its top surface is perfectly flat, and though it can be off as much as 10 degrees and still work one really requires a fairly flat surface for it under the player. None of my three players had much in the way of flat surfaces on the underside and I don’t think they’re that unusual. If you ignore Bucky Fuller’s espousal of the triangle idea and go the 4 Tri Orbs route, you will have even more problems in locating the supports since you can’t put them under the feet that your player was supplied with. That would be worse than no feet at all and would raise the whole shebang even higher! Tip one of the Tri Orbs just a little too far and bing, bing, there go some of the bearings across the room (followed enthusiastically by the pets...). However, once they are finally in place with the weight of the component resting evenly on them, the bearings won’t escape again.

Intro to Auditioning

Accessories such as these are even more difficult to assess than a single audio component such as a player. We’re working with some subtle just noticeable-differences here, and there are thousands of possible variations that could affect the outcome. The particular player you would like to isolate is of course central to this - some are more amenable than others to tweaks such as these. Then there is the matter of whether you are using three or four feet, what type of shelf unit or isolation plate your player is sitting on, whether you use any sort of weight such as a Bright Star on top, not to mention the exact positioning of the feet under your player. Putting one directly under the power transformer is highly recommended, though that may entail taking the cover off to find out where it is.

I’ve tried several different tweaky-feets over the years. I think the one basic dictum here is that even the most expensive component can be improved sonically by some sort of isolation/resonance control feet. Almost anything is going to work better than the feet the factory provided. Ordinary marbles can provide a hearable sonic improvement, especially with a weight on top of the player. The enhancements are normally in the area of increased clarity, improved resolution and greater sonic impact.

Auditioning the Tri Orbs

I auditioned the other options first before working up to the time consuming Tri Orbs; time-consuming because I had to let them break in as per Paul Van Slyke’s instructions. I started out with the Darumas under both my Sony and Toshiba players, then the Cereballs, next the simpler X rods from Van Slyke, and finally installed the Tri Orbs. I expected a gradual enhancement from one to the next, culminating in the Tri Orbs. Most of the testing was done with the Toshiba player, with a marble slab weight on top since the unit has such a lightweight and resonant case.

So what did I hear? In my fav test tracks of the Telemann Violin Concerto arranged for four guitars and Tomas Ornberg’s Blue Five playing Jelly Roll Morton (Opus 3 Testrecords 1,2,3) the guitars had a richness, clarity and bite that I had never heard before, and their layout across the soundstage was just about as palpable as when I formerly had a four-front-speaker setup instead of three, and each guitar was solidly located at its own speaker. The piano which opens the Blue Five track had a good percussive feeling and seemed closer than I had ever heard it before. (With only the Toshiba’s own feet the piano had sounded dull and distant, for example.) Next tried was the DVD-A of John William’s score for the film A.I. (Warner Bros.) The opening theme with brass and strings was much better delineated than with any of the other devices. This develops into a clock like percussive accompaniment, that had greater clarity than with competing feet. In fact, I hadn’t even noticed the clock-like effect in the earlier auditionings. In a recent Naxos release of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8, the opening of 7 has the woodwinds and brass over a bed of strings. The precise separation of the three sections was enhanced with the Tri Orbs, but they still blended together into a lucid whole which surely was the composer’s intention.

The X-rods’ Parts and Sounds

The X-rods are a much smaller solution in a one-piece closed system with no balls or other parts to lose. They were a pleasure to work with after the frustrations inherent in the Tri Orbs. In fact there are no roller balls, but a pair of roller rods, which is where the unit gets its name. They are made of tungsten molybdenum and chrome steel. Van Slyke claims the rods release 100 times the kinetic energy of single roller ball devices. The simpler X-rod 1 has the two roller rods in between a top and bottom piece held together by a single Neoprene O-ring tightly stretched around four slots in the plates which allow the ring to provide rubber seating on both the top and the bottom of the X-rod. The X-rod 2 (reviewed here) has an added brass vibration-canceling plate in between the top and bottom plate, plus a spring-loaded shaft at the bottom which presses against the shelf or table, providing a vibration path to ground. The low-profile X-rod is less than one inch in height and easy to install, although it may still be a problem finding a flat area under the player to engage the top of the X rods. Again, you can employ either three or four of them. In some cases they may fit just outside the player’s supplied feet, on all four corners, making a very wide-wheelbase support for the player. When they are properly placed the player should have a similar free 360-degree movement horizontally as with the Darumas or Aurios, but it’s not as jello-like as with the Tri Orbs. Four X-rods fitted very easily under my Sony 9000ES and there was still room for the Bright Star weight on top.

Everything was very similar to the results with the Tri-Orbs but just a tad less strongly. The four guitars again displayed great clarity and soundstaging, and the piano in the trad jazz selection was realistic and natural sounding. When the whole band comes in together at 1:21 from the top the impact is strong but not quite up to the startling effect with the Tri-Orbs.

Cereball Design

Finite-Elemente is a German maker of high end audio furniture. They design their shelving to optimize resonances in the components, and have developed the Ceraball to be placed between the bottom of components and any shelving to deflect interfering resonances. It uses a single roller ball but it is a U.S.-made high-tech ceramic rather than steel ball. The big advantage over devices such as the Roller Block or Darumas is that the ceramic ball is captured inside a metal cap that fits tightly over a shaft on which the ball rests and is secured by an elastomer collar that centers and damps the top cap. The largest diameter part is the base of the unit, about 1 1/2inches, and the height of the entire unit is only about one inch. The Cereball comes in either black or silver and is precision-machined from solid aluminum with a hard anodized surface.

Cereball Positioning and Auditioning

Placement is the easiest of any of the feet, including the fibre or metal cones. The very small top and larger base made it easy to find three or four small flat spots on the underside of a component. Once they have been placed it may be surprising that the player on top will not exhibit any noticeable motion in any direction, but it is securely resting on the three or four ceramic balls via the tight-fitting caps. This was especially useful with my Sony 9000ES which requires a fairly smart push on its tiny buttons for operation, which can easily cause it to fall off the other types of isolation feet or at least misalign them. There seem to be no restrictions or concerns about the weight of the particular component, though one wonders if a 500 lb. unit as mentioned in the Van Slyke literature would crush the ceramic balls inside.

Enhancement of dynamics seemed to be the most noticeable with the Cereballs. The four guitars were just as impactful as with the Tri Orbs and the opening of the Arnold symphony sparkled. Improved resolution was clearly heard and the soundstage on the opening of the A.I. Soundtrack was wider and deeper than with the Darumas. The solo sax on the Jelly Roll selection came on more strongly than with the X-rods or Darumas, and the piano on this selection had just as much realism and clarity as with the Tri Orbs.

Summing Up

I wasn’t wrong in expecting the Tri Orbs to be the winners here, but I found their subtle enhancement may be regarded as a must-have by only a chosen few audio buffs if their particular components are similar to mine. On the other hand they may have players (or furniture) with certain resonance problems that the Tri-Orbs or X-rods will solve with such success that a whole new level of performance can be realized, making their cost more than sensible to those who can afford them. There is such a wide range of custom features available that perhaps I didn’t optimize the most appropriate versions to my particular system by only auditioning the two models which were furnished for review. By all means check out the audio section of the Van Slyke web site (see above) if you would like to further pursue this ultimate approach to component isolation. In my own situation the Tri Orbs fell into that rarified high end region where a huge cost investment produces only a subtle sonic improvement that most people would not consider very sensible economics. While they are truly magnificent examples of high-tech machining art, the phrase audio overkill does come to mind. The Ceraballs, on the other hand, solved all the physical and installation problems, delivered nearly all the sonic benefits, and came in at about the same cost as the previously recommended Darumas.

- John Sunier

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