December 1998Versalab Life Support System
by Jeff Fritz
Versalabs John Bicht was explaining radio-frequency interference (RFI), and I was trying to follow him. Hes the sort of chap who can talk over your head without trying to. I picked up on most of the high points, but I felt a more in-depth, working knowledge of the products was necessary before inserting them into my system. So I asked John to send as much technical information as he could find with the review samples. "Oh, one more thing, you may have to raise the volume on your preamp to attain your usual listening level. We have found as much as 3dB of noise in some systems." That statement hit me like a ton of lead. Could these products really make that big a difference? I was reeeeeally itching to get the Versalab Life Support System into my life support system as soon as possible. A week later, two boxes arrived, and I poured over the literature to get a better idea of what this RFI thing was and why it was in my system. And that brings us to....
RFI, what is it?
RFI is everywhere. Radios, televisions, communication devices, etc. are all receiving transmissions from a myriad of sources. These transmissions are broadcast through the air and picked up by these devices. The problem is, these signals are not particular when it comes to what they attach themselves to. And guess what, your hi-fi system looks like a big antenna. The cables, power cords, and even your components chassis are potential sites where noise can enter your system. This noise will eventually wind its way to your speakers and manifest itself as a slight haze over the music. OK, I hear you now, "I dont have haze in my system." Well how would you know what it sounded like if you had never heard your system without it? This was Johns statement to me, and I have to admit, he has a point. So what is the Versalab Life Support System? Glad you asked.
The Life Support System is a combination of several different products designed to work synergistically. For optimum performance, your entire system should be protected from RFI. According to Versalab, you may obtain some improvements from individual components of the system; however for the full benefit, you should consider treating everything from the wall to the speakers.
Power cords are filtered with the aptly named Wood Blocks ($180). These devices are, as the name implies, wood blocks with an IEC female connector on one end and a short male connector on the other. There is a RFI filter contained in the wood chassis. Instead of filtering at the wall as many products do, Wood Blocks filter directly before the component. If you dont use this approach, Bicht says, the entire length of the cord before it reaches the component is susceptible to RFI. Wood Blocks only work with components that are equipped with detachable power cords. The Wood Block Duplex ($250) can be used with equipment that has captive power cords. This unit is connected straight into the wall, with facilities to power two components (a unit with six outlets is available for $475, although not used for this review). I would not think the Duplex unit could be as effective as the standard Wood Block, simply because the entire captive power cord would be untreated. Like Ive always said, you buy a component with a captive power cord, you take your chances.
Red Rollers ($135 per pair) are designed to filter RFI from interconnects. These heavy cylindrical objects are made of a fused ceramic material containing metal oxides. Placed around interconnects at both terminations, they filter RFI before it enters the next component. A similar product, Flat Rollers ($165 per pair), are machined flat on one side to fit components with closely spaced connectors. Versa also makes Split Rollers ($260 per pair) for use on the umbilicals for separate power supplies and other cords that you cant unattach. Bicht made it clear that Red Rollers, Flat Rollers and Split Rollers be placed as close to the actual component as possible, as any exposed wire after the Rollers but before the component would become susceptible to RFI pickup.
The installation into my system was fairly straightforward. Each amplifier, preamplifier, and the electronic crossover had its own Wood Block and set of Red/Flat/Split Rollers. The Wood Block Duplex was used for my CD player and line conditioner, as they do not have detachable power cords. One installation note: Because the Red Rollers are very heavy and some components have rather flimsy connectors (CD player in my case), stress on the actual connector could become problematic. You could place something under the Rollers to support their weight (such as a book), which would solve the problem. Overall, the design seems well thought out and should be adaptable to any system.
My listening room is 18'x14'x 9.5'. It is rectangular and symmetrical with no windows. All amplifiers have their own dedicated 30-amp line, while a single 20-amp line was used for the rest of the system. The Adrenaline Dipole 75 loudspeakers were biamped with Krell MDA-500 monoblocks driving the woofers and a Krell KSA-100S the planar magnetic panels. The preamplifier used was the Krell KRC-3 and the source component was a modified Sony ES unit. Cabling was from Transparent Audio. A Studiotech rack and a Panamax line conditioner were also used. A large, acoustically absorbent panel hangs on the wall directly behind the listening position.
I began the review process with some critical listening to my system without the Versalab products installed. As opposed to listening for pleasure, reviewers do have to dissect each aspect of the musical whole in order to determine where a new component is affecting the sound. I have found this to be more difficult than it sounds simply because the music is so damned distracting (if the sound is distracting when listening to music, youve got problems!). My focus in these pre-review listening sessions was on the overall noise floor, the leading edge of transient response, and the tonal shadings of sound in different parts of the frequency spectrum. These particular areas were somewhat speculative of course, though I thought I had a pretty good idea that some noise was manifesting itself.
Once the products were installed, I realized I was partly right. My systems noise floor is very low to begin with. I use balanced connections, which I feel offer significant advantages in this area. Still, if noise were removed, you would expect a further blackening of the background. I was not disappointed at what I heard. Initially, my notes read "imaging is marvelous," and "very three-dimensional." I realized that the reduction in the noise floor made individual sounds more palpable. It was as if the slight amount of noise present in my system before was flattening out images in the soundstage. The noise seemed to connect the sounds rather than let them stand on their own. Imaging became more holographic as individual sounds gained body and substance. The reduced noise floor let me hear the space in which the artist was recorded. This space seems to be an area noise will mask. A blacker background yes, but also a more three-dimensional soundspace. My Wisdom Adrenaline speakers already reproduce a depth of field that is astonishing. When that depth is silent except for the artist, the sound produced becomes almost spooky. Sara Ks "I Really Do" from her Hobo CD [Chesky JD155] is an excellent example. I noticed a reduction in noise between the words in the artists lyrics. This improved the illusion of depth by a considerable margin.
The silence between sounds also improved the leading edge of notes. Clearly, attack and decay are affected by RFI noise. Ive spoken before about how a systems ability to span soft to loud increases the illusion of a live band playing in your listening room. The Versalab products make this transition more precise, therefore improving dynamics. I think many people describe this trait as speed, when in fact they mean precision. Noise directly before or after a note rounds the edge, which makes it sound slower. Listening with the Versalab products became more of an edge-of-your-seat experience. Mickey Harts "Umayeyo" from his Supralingua CD [Rykodisc RCD 10396] is very dynamic and a plethora of rich, diverse music. I felt my pulse race as I anticipated the next transient attack. The jump factor was definitely improved. Actually, I was startled on more than one occasion. Im sure we all can think of a moment while at a live performance when this has happened. Noise homogenizes the sound of music to an extent that the illusion collapses. When the noise is removed, that holographic soundstage that fine systems can produce is enhanced.
I did not detect a particular frequency range that was affected more than another. Tonal balance did not change. Music simply sounded more real from top to bottom. A systems ability to disappear is affected by a number of variables that are interrelated. It is generally agreed upon that subtractive errors are more acceptable sonically than are additive colorations. The system noise, which the Versalab equipment removes, is an addition that affects the sound in an unacceptable way (once youve heard your system without it). Noise is a constant reminder that we are listening to reproduced music. It hampers a systems ability to disappear. Do not expect the tonal qualities of your components to change, however. Many audiophiles will try to cure a bright amplifier with dark-sounding speaker cables, or perhaps a tubed preamp.
The Versalab system is by no means a tone control. In fact, the overall sonic character of your components will be enhanced. If you like the way your present setup sounds, youll probably love it with the RFI treatment. And the same applies to recordings. Carly Simons 1987 Greatest Hits Live CD [Arista ARCD 8526] captures Simon at her best. The recording, however, sounds thin and grainy. This character remained intact even with the removal of RFI. If someone finds a cure for bad recordings, please let me know. When the entire musical spectrum is cleaned up, you hear a purer representation of the information on the recording, good or bad. On well-recorded discs, this translates into a better connection with the artist. My system disappeared in a way that made me forget about sound and listen to music.
The Versalab Life Support System revealed the sonic gains that can be realized from RFI filtering. You owe it to yourself to hear the difference these products can make in your system. I think some of the hash attributed to digital components may actually be RFI rearing its ugly head. I use a strictly digital front-end, and I must say that I now feel less compelled to replace it. An analog setup may benefit as well, although I did not try one during the review. I suspect actual results will vary depending on your components and the amount of RFI actually present in your area.
I did not find myself increasing my normal preamplifer settings, so Im not sure exactly how much noise was removed. However small the amount, though, it was significant. You can be certain that these products do as they claim. In my case, the overall noise floor was lowered and dynamics improved. The sonic signature of my system remained intact, but strong areas became stronger. A veil was removed, revealing a clearer sonic picture. Versalab should be commended on solving a problem most of us didnt know we had. Give the Life Support System a try. You may be in for a newfound appreciation of your audio system and music collection.
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