Like most enthusiasts, I am forever on the hunt for cost effective, easy to implement, system improvements that can coax more performance from my home theater gear. The biggest roadblock is separating true game changers from snake oil prior to opening the wallet – after all, who wants to spend valuable coin on a product that simply exists within a system without any appreciable impact? If you’ve been in the home theater or two-channel game for a while, then you probably can jot down a laundry list of products that simply do not (and never will) live up to claims. That’s what makes the subject of today’s review a breath of fresh air.
IsoAcoustics Inc. is a Canadian manufacturer of slick-looking speaker stands that employ patent technologies that fine-tune a speaker’s operating performance. Earlier this year I spoke with the company’s founder (Dave Morrison) at AXPONA in Chicago, as IsoAcoustics’ stands performed an ear-bending magic show in the company’s unassuming demo room. That demonstration left fellow staff writer Wayne Myers and me thoroughly impressed – so much so, that I called IsoAcoustics’ stands “Must Buy Gear” in my show report.
The company’s specialized line of stands was born from Dave Morrison’s lengthy tenure with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and his involvement with the design and construction of radio and television studios. It was there that he cut his teeth and gained experience in the field. Morrison now serves as IsoAcoustics' President and remains the driving force behind the company’s impressive stable of products.
IsoAcoustics has quite a few variations of stands to choose from, including the Aperta, a range of ISO-LR8 models, and customizable Modular Aluminum stands. These models vary in terms of size (height capability and width), build design, and cost. Interested buyers can use the company’s website calculator to determine the best stand for a specific application. They can then be purchased from a variety of online retailers (e.g., Sweetwater, Crutchfield). Also, some manufacturers (such as Dynaudio) are offering the stands as bundled options with speaker purchases, and at least one furniture manufacturer (ZAOR Studio Furniture) is integrating the stands into some of its furniture offerings. For the purposes of this review, IsoAcoustics direct shipped four Aperta Stands for speaker duty (left, right, and center channels) and two custom configured Modular Aluminum stands for large subwoofers. Street pricing for these products is roughly $199 for a pair of Aperta stands and $165 for a Modular Aluminum stand with a base of 24-in by 18-in.
Hollowed, oblong, corner feet allow for insertion of the stand's rods.
Aperta, a relatively new member of the IsoAcoustics family, sports a gorgeous artistically tailored aluminum frame design (available in black and silver). I can’t overstate how good the stands look – especially when paired with speakers. A single assembled stand has an overall size of 6.1-inches (w) by 7.5-in (d) by 3-in (front side adjustable height). In the hand it weighs next to nothing (1.4 lbs) and feels solid, and to the eye it conveys high quality craftsmanship. The stand has four essential parts: two rigid frames, two insert rods, two adjustable height insert rods (for tilting speaker orientation), and eight rubber isolating feet (made from a high-modulus co-polymer) that are internally hollowed in an oblong fashion and externally concave to improve stand grip. The isolation feet fit snuggly into the corners of the frames and the insert rods fit snuggly into the hollowed-out portions of the feet. Once assembled and placed on a solid surface, the system allows the top frame to gently move front-to-back while resisting movement side-to-side. The Modular Aluminum stands are built using the same basic pieces (minus the addition of adjustable height rods), but have more robust tubular sections for heavier weight duties.
The Magic Unveiled
On the most basic level, IsoAcoustics’ stands act as isolators, effectively decoupling a speaker from a surface and eliminating the transfer of energy from the speaker to outside objects. On a slightly more complex level, they allow a speaker to float independently with a focus on the direction of front-to-back, following Newton’s Third Law of Reciprocating Motion (for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction). As a speaker's cone moves forward, its enclosure wants to move backward, hence the importance of the stand’s ability to manage a speaker's response in that direction. The end result is a speaker/cabinet system that is able to perform exactly as it is designed, while resisting lateral movement that can harm its perceived output.
A close-up of the oblong section of the stand's feet; arrows show direction of the rods movement.
The real key, here, is the perceived output of sound. At AXPONA, Morrison explained to me that speakers sitting directly on a surface (yes, even with feet or carpet spikes) suffer from secondary reflections that cause a soundstage to collapse. This is a result that is nearly unavoidable. As Wayne Myers can attest, we heard this in action in IsoAcoustics’ demo room. In fact, Wayne said it best when he characterized the soundstage produced by the non-stand demo speakers as sounding like “mashed potatoes.” It was clearly muddied and smeared as compared to the lively, sharpened, and significantly more open soundstage created by identical speakers on Aperta stands. It was that definitive, that exacting, and that noticeable.
It’s worth noting that the stands – because they have height – allow speakers to hover above a surface, thus reducing reflections. They also allow a speaker to be raised and tilted to dial-in speaker positioning to exacting levels.
Out of the Box
Aperta stands ship in sharp-looking store-ready packaging, featuring high-quality black boxes wrapped with detailed pictures and branding. The packaging’s interior is fitted with shaped plastic to hold the stands in place (two stands per box). Included are simple to follow instructions and other product information. Aperta stands are boxed pre-assembled, with the only available adjustment being the ability to raise the front-end of the stands by removing the top frame and twisting the screw portion of two of the insert rods (this is an intuitive process that only requires fingers, no tools).
The Modular Aluminum stand's packaging is a slightly different beast, largely because the stands are a cut-to-order product and shipped unassembled. Packaging is completely utilitarian, but more than acceptable to ensure safe delivery. IsoAcoustics includes instructions and a hex key to facilitate assembly. I found the assembly process to be a breeze and both stands were ready to rock about 30 minutes after unboxing.
If you’re assuming the Aperta stands are for bookshelf speakers only, they’re not. They can work with smaller tower speakers, too. After discussing my home theater’s front-end speakers (Polk Audio RTiA5 towers and a CSiA6 center channel), IsoAcoustics asked for speaker measurements and shipped four Aperta stands (two designated for use with the 24-in by 14-in CSiA6 center). While the left and right channel stands were happy with my theater room’s rug floor surface, I opted to craft harder sitting surfaces using spiked feet securely attached to old Gramma Pad boards. Placing speakers on the stands was a relatively simple task – just align the stand with the base of the speaker and let the tacky concave surfaces of the isolation feet take hold like suction cups. The end result (especially noteworthy for the towers) is a solid and secure fit.
IsoAcoustics' Aperta stands.
The Modular Aluminum stands were slightly harder to integrate simply because of the sheer size and weight of the subs (24-in by 18-in base, 111 lbs). I removed the subs’ feet to provide a smooth surface for the stands’ isolation feet, and found lifting the subs onto the stands to be a rather taxing (back bending) task. Luckily, with dual subs, I was able to create a stand vs. non-stand A-B testing scenario, so lifting the subs into place was a one-time task.
The fully assembled Modular Aluminum stand for subwoofer duty.
Visually, the stands exuded a professional stylized look once integrated with a speaker. This was especially notable with the subwoofers, as the stands had been cut to the subs’ exact base dimensions. They looked like they were meant to be there, as if designed by the subs’ manufacturer.
There are endless ways I could have attacked stand demo sessions. I ultimately chose to evaluate the stands in chunks, hoping to best identify their contributions to the sound produced by the front-end of my home theater system. I spent the majority of time testing three different scenarios:
- Straight Two-Channel Stereo (no sub)
- Center Channel Only
- Subwoofers Integrated
Testing during the two-channel and center channel only conditions required removing and adding stands between listening sessions. Using markings and blocks, I was able to keep the speakers within a close approximation in regard to overall positioning. As I touched-on above, sub testing was accomplished using subwoofers in an A-B comparison.
Associated equipment for this review included: dual Power Sound Audio XS-30s (subs), Polk Audio RTi A5s (L/R), Polk Audio CSi A6 (C), Polk Audio RTi A3s (R), Polk Audio FXi A4s (S), Polk Audio 70-RTs (F/M presence), OPPO BDP-103, Yamaha RX-A3050, Emotiva XPA-5 (front channel amp), and Emotiva CMX-6/CMX-2 line conditioners. Testing was conducted in a room complete with acoustic treatments, corner bass traps, and a rear wall diffuser.
A Tale of Three Different Results
I’ll kickoff the results reveal by first discussing my straight two-channel audio evaluation. If you read my last product review, then you’ll know that Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me album is one of my favorite demo discs. The album’s fourth track, Feelin’ The Same Way, has imaging that is easy to place on an audio canvas, ranging vocals, punchy bass, and nice highs sprinkled throughout, making it a must-demo track for this review. Since this is the first track I’m highlighting, I’ll introduce you to the over-arching theme of my experience with the Aperta stands mated with my left and right channels: FOCUS. Hearing the difference is akin to a novice looking through a pair of binoculars. The novice fumbles with the controls to get an image that is pleasing and acceptable, only to have a more seasoned veteran tweak the settings just enough that fine details sharpen and true detail is revealed. Transfer that analogy to this demo track, and you’ll understand the difference.
The stands introduced a completely different soundstage. I know, it sounds impossibly crazy, but it’s true. The sonic image both sharpened and expanded, and the pinpoint placement of sound became much tighter and focused. For the track Feelin’ The Same Way, I noted that that tones in Jones’ mid-range vocals lost a hint of harshness, bass guitar notes tightened, and higher notes played by an acoustic guitar (left side of soundstage) sharpened. Fast-forward to her song Shoot the Moon, and the impact of the stands was immediately noticeable with the opening acoustic guitars, which sounded much sharper. I also noted that Jones’ vocals were more centered and tightened.
Image: Maverick Records.
Next, let’s move to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. The Canadian rock-star’s Pop track was a good demo choice because it begins by living in the middle of the soundstage (dripping with trebly, punchy, sounds), and then expands to the left and right while keeping Morissette’s vocals dead center. Again, tightness brought to the game by the Aperta stands was immediately noticeable in the song’s opening moments; Morissette simply sounded cleaner and – you guessed it – focused, especially in the higher frequencies of her lyrics. Composure was the predominant theme as the song continued, with the lower expansive frequencies sounding much better controlled.
To complete the female rock star trifecta, I jumped to Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, which has a snappy first track in Welcome to New York. The song expands and contracts in its presentation and has an audio lightness that hangs in the air – if you haven’t heard this one (fan or not) in a two-channel presentation, you should check it out. The Aperta stands played this song with a more composed image, especially noticeable in the song’s airy echoes and thumping bass. I hate to dip back into the “focus” pool again, but I must. The song, sans stands, has great imaging but its sharpness was smeared (noticeably so).
For two-channel audio, the Aperta stands hit on all cylinders, had noticeable sonic impact, and have reaffirmed my previous stamp of approval. My demo sessions were extremely pleasing and produced results similar to the speaker demo sessions heard in IsoAcoustics’ room at AXPONA.
Moving on, I evaluated the center channel with and without dual Aperta stands evenly placed on the left and right edges of the speaker’s cabinet. For this section of the review, I ran a series of listening tests isolating the center channel to listen for impacts on a single channel basis. To do this, I shelved music and pulled several different Blu-ray films including Birdman, Interstellar, and Gravity. In a near 180-degree twist from the instantly recognizable two-channel testing revelations, I found it difficult to hear a discernable difference between stand and non-stand testing. My notes indicate that I might have heard a slight focusing of the lower end during demo evaluations, but differences across the board were not significantly noticeable enough to report definitively. I was especially keen on looking for perceived changes in dialog presentation, and none were highlighted or noted.
To keep this short and sweet, the Aperta stands’ impact on center channel only performance was limited according to my ears. However, the noticeable differences I experienced during two-channel listening, paired with the stand’s decoupling and aiming abilities, still make the stands a worthy addition in the center position. In many ways, this is a leap of faith conclusion, anchored by the two-channel testing results.
Having given the Aperta stands a chance to operate in a straight two-channel set-up, I was eager to invite my two beastly friends back into the fray – Power Sound Audio’s XS-30 dual 15-inch subwoofers – along with the Modular Aluminum stands. Historically, I’ve gone through great pains to both place and equalize the XS-30s using Room EQ Wizard and a DSP-1124p; their bass output is extremely tight, deep, and controlled, thus leading me to wonder if IsoAcoustics' stands could lead to further performance improvements. For this section of the review, I moved the subs together, ran them straight from the Yamaha RX-A3050’s two sub-outs, and placed one on a Modular Aluminum stand and one directly on the floor (channel level matched and mirror frequency responses confirmed by Room EQ Wizard). I was able to switch between the subs using the AVR menu settings, and also took an opportunity to listen to the subs without left and right speakers engaged.
Cheryl Crow’s Leaving Las Vegas has a recognizable, repeating, bass guitar pattern, which made it perfect for initial sub evaluations. I was able to quickly identify an audible difference when switching between the two subwoofers; it wasn’t as robust as the two-channel experience, but present. The Modular Aluminum stand subwoofer exhibited a more defined upper end of the low frequency spectrum. It was subtle, but definitely apparent. I hesitate to say the upper-end of the non-stand sub was bloated, but the sub on the stand was more refined in its presentation, if not ever so slightly thinned out.
My second song selections, Gorillaz’s Tomorrow Comes Today and Sound Check, offered a much more aggressive foray into bass. The opening seconds of Tomorrow Comes Today has a raw bass line that I felt would be easy to compare. The tonal differences on this track were notably different, much more strikingly than Crow’s track. The sub sitting on the Modular Aluminum stand had a tighter upper end, enough so that a tonal difference was evident. It definitely exhibited what appeared to be a lighter sonic appeal, one that’s probably better described as streamlined.
My third song selection, Meat Beat Manifesto’s Now single, features devastatingly deep pulses of head rattling, heavy, air moving, bass. It’s the kind of bass that cracks foundations and shakes the pots and pans in the kitchen. I ran through this track several times, intently looking for a comparative difference between the two subwoofers, and couldn't find one. I simply was unable to hear a notable difference in the two presentations of Now’s mega bass extravaganza.
While not nearly as ear grabbing as the two-channel listening results, I was able to perceive some differences between the Modular Aluminum stand and non-stand subwoofers. My listening impressions largely relegated discernable differences to delicacies in the upper ranges of low frequency sound. The decoupling/isolation factors provided by the Modular Aluminum stands are significant, and the existence of mild improvements is certainly present; these stands make the cut and have solid value.
Listening to my current speaker configuration with all stands fully incorporated (subwoofers and three front channels) has been a delight. The cacophony of multi-channel movie activity makes hearing subtleties more difficult, however, the largely present impact of the stands on the left and right channels shines through during musical scores and the like. Of course, it goes without mentioning that IsoAcoustics' game changing impact on straight two-channel audio is simply fantastic. To put it bluntly, I was floored by IsoAcoustics’ product demonstration at AXPONA and remain equally impressed after having a chance to closely inspect the company’s products in the comfort of my own listening room. I called my results section "A Tale of Three Different Results" largely because the center channel testing didn't reveal a markedly noticeable improvement when the center channel was isolated. It's a curious result, for sure, but not discouraging, especially considering the challenges most horizontal center channels are known to have.
During a phone conversation with Dave Morrison, he mentioned the phrase “hear the difference,” and I can unequivocally state: “I did.” IsoAcoustics makes products that can actually impact your listening pleasure when added to an audio system, and I highly recommend checking-out what they have to offer. For more information about the Aperta and Modular Aluminum stands and links to demonstration videos, head over to the company’s informative website by following this link. Also, it's worth noting that the company should be releasing its next model (Aperta 200) within a month. The 200 series is designed to support speakers weighing up to 75 lbs and features a new lower height profile and enhanced sculpted aluminum construction. Please click on the discussion thread link (below) where you'll find information about IsoAcoustics' show/demo plans for 2016.
Image Credits: IsoAcoustics Inc. and Todd Anderson