Consumers have not been splurging on expensive audio/video components during the COVID-19 crisis; soundbars, wireless loudspeakers, headphones and entry-level products, however, have continued to sell as music lovers still want to upgrade their experience at home with the realization that going back to work in a traditional office setting might not happen as quickly as they may wish.
The closure of movie theaters for almost six months has helped home theater products and there is no evidence to suggest that audiences will return to their local AMC in the near future while cases continue to grow in some parts of the country. The same reality applies to live music which is hard to find as venues are still struggling to deal with the logistics of making it safe for people to attend; drive-in concerts are hardly a viable long-term alternative for the industry.
Audio accessories have become a big category in 2020 as consumers look for affordable methods of improving what they already own. Record cleaning machines, isolation cones/platforms, cables, and inexpensive DACs/headphone amplifiers are all the rage.
We’ve been playing with a lot of new products at home during the pandemic and these have all proven to be very effective.
IsoAcoustics zaZen Isolation Platform ($199 & $229.99)
The zaZen is a new isolation platform designed for turntables, tube amps, and other sensitive audio equipment. The combination of the platform mass and the integrated IsoAcoustics isolation technology allows audio gear to reveal greater acoustic clarity and detail. The zaZen will be available in two sizes: zaZen I with a weight capacity of 25lbs (11.3kg) and the zaZen II with a weight capacity of 40lbs (18.1kg). The zaZen features an elegant medium gloss black finish over a dense fiber construction.
Isolation products come in many different shapes and sizes and while they certainly have an impact on the sound – the results are not always what you expected. Improvements in one area of sound reproduction are offset by a negative change elsewhere.
We took delivery of a zaZen II platform and experimented with three turntables; a Thorens TD-145, NAD C 588, and Thorens TD-160 Super. The NAD C 588 weighs substantially less than either one of my restored Thorens tables and benefitted the most from the zaZen which lowered its noise floor, tightened up the bass response, and improved the overall transparency of the sound. The presentation moved slightly forward with the zaZen installed which was a benefit with the Q Acoustics 3050i loudspeakers in my system.
Placed underneath both a Croft RIAA phono pre-amplifier and Naim Uniti Atom network amplifier (review forthcoming) had a very positive impact on the sound; the Croft which suffers from a tiny degree of hum was quieter than usual (I’ve always suspected that its thin metal chassis was the cause), and the Naim’s midrange was more transparent sounding.
Is the zaZen more effective underneath lighter equipment that is more susceptible to vibration or footfalls (in the case of a turntable)? Unquestionably so.
For more information: IsoAcoustics zaZen Isolation Platform
Schiit Audio Magni 3+ Headphone Amplifier ($99)
$99 for a discrete audiophile-grade headphone amplifier made in America. That isn’t a typo on my part but the reality in 2020 thanks to the clever folks at Schiit Audio who are based in California. The Magni 3+ is designed for your desktop; it fits easily in the palm of your hand and there is nothing little about the sonic presentation with even demanding planar magnetic headphones. The Magni 3+ can output between 1.6 – 2.8 watts per channel (50 ohms to 16 ohms) which represents a lot of power for a pair of headphones. It offers very low levels of distortion and a presentation that is free of background noise. Is it the quietest headphone amplifier I’ve ever tried? No – but for $99 there is nothing in its league. It does require an external DAC like the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt or the Schiit Audio Modi 3 ($99.00) which you connect to either your smartphone or laptop. The Magni 3+ does well in the boogie department and offers a level of transparency with your headphones that will make you question why you didn’t splurge on this before. This isn’t cheap audio but affordable audio that sounds way better than it should for the price.
For more information: Schiit Audio Magni 3+
QED Reference High Resolution USB Cable ($135/2m)
USB cables are a necessary evil for digital audio if using your laptop or a network streamer and there is no shortage of opinions in regard to the wide range of prices from $15 for a generic one from Staples or Monoprice and the very esoteric ones from some audiophile cable brands that retail for more than the components they are connected to. Having tried some very expensive USB cables with reference level digital playback gear, I’m convinced that there is some merit to pricier models that offer better construction quality and superior RFI shielding. Where I go off the reservation is when the price exceeds about $150 for a 6-foot cable — which I know sounds like an insane amount of money for a digital cable. QED has a long track record of building affordable loudspeaker cables and interconnects that sound excellent and are built to last. Their loudspeaker cable is cheap by audiophile standards and has never been the weak link in any system I have tried it with. I’m a lot more skeptical when it comes to USB cables. The QED Reference High Resolution USB cable uses a 24 AWG, 99.999% oxygen-free copper twisted-pair featuring low-permittivity, and foamed-polyethylene dielectrics, which are bound by an aluminium/mylar wrap. It is a flexible design that is easy to route behind a crowded equipment rack and the connection is solid on both ends.
From a sonic perspective, it is most certainly on the neutral side. It adds no additional warmth to the sound and offered a very transparent presentation across the frequency spectrum. Detail is easy to discern and there is solidity in the bass. If your DAC adds some color to the presentation, the Reference High Resolution USB cable won’t alter that in any way. Compared to the entry-level cables from Staples and Monoprice, the QED offers superior build quality and a more transparent sounding presentation; vocals are more forward sounding while maintaining whatever flesh on the bones exists on the recording.
For more information: QED Reference High Resolution USB Cable
IsoAcoustics Aperta Isolation Stands ($199.99)
Vibration is the enemy; both in the recording studio and in your home when it comes to sound quality. Put your hand on your loudspeaker while listening to music and you’ll immediately feel how the energy produced by the drivers causes the cabinet to resonate. That level of resonance affects how your loudspeaker sounds. External vibration from your room, equipment stand, or loudspeaker stands impacts how your loudspeakers sound as well.
The Aperta with an overall size of (W x D x H) 6.1” x 7.5” x 3” or 15.5 cm x 19 cm x 7 cm isn’t just one size fits all either. Specifically designed for use with bookshelf, desktop or floor standing speakers, they are available in different models to fit specific sizes and weights of medium-sized speakers. Sculpted from aluminum frames, the Aperta creates a parallelogram structure with isolators in the top and bottom sections to provide a high level of separation of sound. Build quality on the Aperta is superb.
The Aperta offer a range of tilt which makes it extremely useful if you place your loudspeakers on a bookshelf or desktop and want to angle the tweeter at your ears and not at your chest. The impact on the sound is not subtle; the clarity of the sound improves dramatically, bass tightens up, and everything sounds more focused. One thing I did notice with warmer sounding bookshelf loudspeakers like the Q Acoustics 3030i, and Wharfedale Diamond 10.1s was a reduction in midrange coloration that some might find takes away from the impact of the presentation. Bass tightened up significantly but also lost some of its visceral impact. Vocals were rock solid in the soundstage and the presentation took a step forward as well.
For more information: IsoAcoustics Aperta Isolation Stands
Zorloo Ztella USB DAC ($109)
Streaming your favorite jazz recordings via Tidal or Qobuz has never been easier with the Ztella USB DAC that plugs directly into your smartphone or laptop (USB-C to USB-A adapter included). The Ztella is compatible with iOS, Android, Mac OS, and Windows 10 and is a true high-resolution audio DAC offering support for PCM (up to 384kHz) and DSD 5.6MHz with support for MQA. The Ztella looks like an adapter cable which makes it both super comfortable to carry attached to your phone but also easy to lose or confuse with other cables in your bag. We’re still amazed at how much technology is packed inside this tiny DAC and even more impressed by the sound quality.
If you’re looking for a compact USB DAC/headphone amplifier that can drive a multitude of headphones, the Ztella is a surprisingly affordable device but we would caution against using it with very demanding planar magnetic headphones with the exception of the HiFiMan Sundara or Deva which proved to be suitable matches. The Zorloo sounds slightly dark making it more suitable for headphones with a livelier tonal balance; Grado, AKG, and even Beyerdynamic. IEMs are well served by this little DAC/headphone amplifier that can drive them quite easily and tame any excess energy in the treble.
For more information: Zorloo Ztella DAC/Headphone Amplifier
IsoAcoustics Delos Isolation Platform ($799.99 – $899.99)
Isolating components from vibration is a worthwhile exercise but it has always been a bit of a crapshoot with all of the various options available. Some products eliminate one problem and then create another; enhanced transparency at the expense of midrange warmth. I’ve heard it with cones, discs, and multi-layered platforms that all seem to work but never without some form of change that I dislike long-term.
Turntables are probably the most difficult component to isolate but the rewards can be very worthwhile. Suspended turntables (Thorens & Linn) are more susceptible to footfalls or other forms of vibration and benefit tremendously from proper isolation. The Delos combines a substantial butcher block with IsoAcoustics’ patented isolation technology. The design consists of a top isolator, bottom isolator and a connector. The isolation is a result of the way the 3 parts work together, so there is not a single path connecting the live equipment to the supporting surface.
The Delos is designed to work with turntables, tube amplifiers, and other source components and proved its worth almost immediately when placed underneath my restored Thorens TD-160 Super turntable; footfalls were eliminated and there was an immediate increase in soundstage depth, along with a reduction in the background noise. The Delos isn’t inexpensive but there is no question that it works.
For more information: IsoAcoustics Delos Isolation Platform