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Something Solid XR 4-shelf rack

[hi-tech_looks_for_a_shelf_unit]
[Italian version]

Product: XR Rack
Manufacturer: Something Solid - England, distributed by Noteworthy Audio and
Chevin Audio and available from other UK dealers
Prices: XR rack 680 approx 995€ with 4 shelves (exchange rates May 2007)
100 approx 145€ per set of 4 'Missing Links'
100 approx 145€ per 'Disipating Shelf' with 3 'Dissipating Feet'
Something Solid EXR racks start at 340 or approx 472€ with veneered mdf shelves
Reviewer: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: 12 months & extensive variations to June 2007

Mark Orr is the designer and builder of the Something Solid range of racks, shelves and feet. He has been ploughing a unique furrow in this field for over 20 years, beginning, as have so many audio manufacturers, because he didn't like what was on offer and convinced he could make a better product than those on offer. I first met Mark through Doug Dunlop (founder & designer of Concordant) in the late 1980s and Mark remembers that my obsession at that time was what glue works best for loudspeaker cabinets. It is Mark who loaned me the Concordant Excelsior about which I waxed lyrical in these pages.

Too many audio reviewers have these social connections with manufacturers without declaring them, leading to suspicions of bias, or worse. At TNT-audio we like to be completely open and always declare any connection with a manufacturer that goes beyond saying hello & offering a cup of tea while they deliver their pride & joy. If I do not like Mark's rack I will not write about it, which is my policy for every product, but I will tell Mark why. Most audio-makers do it because they have a passion for good sound and a desire to make a better product than those already available. That you are reading this demonstrates that I find merit in the Something Solid rack. [some shelves]

I still use one of Mark's early prototype shelves as one of my references, because it works really well under some components. I do keep an arsenal of shelves in stock (currently 7 different types, 3 of those in two sizes) because I find they often have more effect on performance than cables, and I wish to get the best from any component I review, out of respect for readers who make the effort to read my opinions, and respect for designers whose efforts deserve a fair hearing. My experience is that different shelves suit different components, so I try to review components on various shelves.

Therefore I will try a wide variety of gear on this rack. I will try various alternative shelves, in an attempt to isolate the contribution of rack from that of shelf. I will try different footers with each component and under the rack itself. All tests will be on my solid cast-concrete floor and you may get very different results on suspended timber floors.

There has also been some low-level controversy over the years, about whether each component needs its own free-standing fully isolated table. I do find the separate-table per component brings rewards for certain items, especially turntables and cd players. Big power supplies are better banished from the racks that contain low-level circuitry or electro-mechanical devices. I will compare the separate-tables option against the Something Solid rack, so this review will be time consuming to be thorough. But first, a technical description is in order.

The frame

birdcage_maser_anyone?

Quite unlike most of the competitors in this field, the Something Solid frame uses solid steel tubing. Most racks use tubular steel, although aluminium, wood & other more exotic materials do appear sometimes. Tubular steel obviously resembles tubular bells, and clangs like them too. Some makers use dry sand, lead shot, polyester-foam, or high-damping magic pixie-dust to ameliorate or eliminate this ringing, and I use kiln-dried sand in some floor-standing tubular steel racks. Mark Orr's approach is to use thin steel rods constructed in a complex space-frame chassis, more reminiscent of a birdcage Maserati chassis than domestic furniture.

The Something Solid frame is also reminiscent of some 1950s Italian modular furniture, and my girlfriend says it's much more attractive than the grey-painted 50mm square-tube frames of my usual tables and racks, modified from Wilko products, or their even more undesirable specialist audiophool predecessors.

My experience with subchassis turntables has been that lossy supports somehow interact destructively with the subchassis-bounce, causing the sound to become turgid. After trying many supports for my old Linn Sondek, I choose as my reference a tuned wall-shelf, the Origin Live Ultra, an upgraded version of the Origin Live Super wall-shelf that I persuaded Mark Baker to make for me using features from his 'Ultra' table added to his 'Super' shelf-frame, back in the late 80s. Origin Live have become better known for their Rega RB250 and RB300 modifications, and subsequently their own range of pick-up arms and turntables and they stopped making the wall shelves some years ago. This is a shame as I found that wall shelves are better for subchassis turntables in any room with a suspended floor (a wooden floor on floor-joists rather than a solid masonry floor). I also discovered that the tuned system of the Origin Live shelf enabled the user to tweak the tension for optimum performance. Optimum tension on the Origin Live is a compromise between ever improving bass with increasing tension, vs a collapse of rhythm, coherence and soundstage as tension exceeds a certain point, even though bass qualities continue to improve. Bass-heads presumably keep tightening at the expense of music.

Mounting Tension

tense&stressed?

Using a very different arrangement, Mark Orr endows the Something Solid rack with a similar degree of tunability, whose effectiveness we will soon establish. Each shelf sits upon a tensioned cable. The cable is a twisted construction of materials that Mark discovered worked best after trial and error. Mark finds that there is an optimum range of tension for any component but that the range is wide enough to prevent end-user paranoia about exact tension or, I suppose, even room temperature variations.

So purchasers of the Something Solid rack have another dimension to their audio paranoia:
"Is the shelf-tension exactly right for this component?"
Now we can enjoy sleepless nights worrying about shelf-tension as well as shelf-material choice; cable choice; pressing choice (you didn't know the Japanese pressing of a favourite LP sounds better than the USA pressing because it was cut from an earlier generation mastertape?); mains-cable choice; RCA-plug choice... &c ad infinitum...

My experience with the Something Solid rack is that I could only hear support-tension differences with cd players and turntables. With valve (tube) or solid-state pre-amps and power-amps I could not hear any difference, even with extreme variations of shelf-tension, from floppy to boingy.

tense-nervous-headache?

Walking the Plank

The Something Solid shelves are also unique in their construction. They feature end-grain blocks of balsa-wood on an mdf substrate. End-grain balsa has been a feature of Mark Orr's shelves for a long time, combining the lightness of hollow-core materials without the danger of creating resonant chambers. Other manufacturers have tried expanded-polystyrene cores for similar reasons. Balsa-wood seems like a more environmentally-friendly alternative while the end-grain orientation makes a more inert structure.

Regular readers will know of my abhorrence of mdf in any audio application, indeed in any application at all. In audio mdf usually sucks the life out of music, as a shelf or as a speaker cabinet. Mark Orr states that the end-grain balsawood is the active component of the shelf and that the mdf is merely there to hold it in place, with little effect on the sound. Mark chooses a higher density fibreboard than usual and the balsa is hand glued to overcome the typical variations of natural materials.

Missing Links

bigfoot_or_missing_link?

With a unique frame, unique tension support and unique shelves, plus isolators, one might expect the isolation to be complete. But, there is another defence against the dreaded vibration: four Missing Link feet under the whole rack.

These are a set of 4 footers to insert, one under each corner-upright, between the rack frame and the floor. The Something Solid Missing Link feet utilise the same cord material as the shelf-tensioner supports, to suspend a 3-legged block of steel with a spike-socket on top.

Sound Quality

It came as no surprise that differences are least with solid-state amplifiers, slightly more discernable with valve amplifiers, clear with cd players, and obvious with turntables. It is difficult to hear, reliably, what changes are wrought, under my Nalty designed 100Wpc behemoth, between the bottom shelf of the Something Solid rack and an individual table. This amp weighs 23kg...yes, this is a one-box solid-state amplifier that weighs 23kg, so I am reluctant to try it on a higher shelf and thus raise the centre of gravity too high. This would be potentially unstable on carpet, especially on the Missing-Link feet, so I only tried the lowest shelf.

Even though this amplifier has some built-in vibration control, to isolate its circuits from vibration from the 1kVA toroidal transformer, it's vibrational effect is obvious on other components that may share a rack with it. This amplifier normally lives on its own individual table with tubular legs filled with kiln-dried sand, standing on vibration isolating feet. When I have tried it on the shelves of my usual rack, its effect on other components (like my modified Shanling cd player) is audible as soon as the amp is switched on, even if it is not connected to the audio system, or sharing the same mains circuit.

On the Something Solid rack the vibration produced by this transformer does not affect any other components. Even the Mitchell Orbe SE is unaffected by the monster amp, when the Missing Link feet are installed under the Something Solid rack.

References

fully loaded comparisons

I have a number of steel-framed tables and racks bought from British low-cost household products retailer, Wilkinson (aka Wilko). There are 2 multi-shelf tables whose 50mm square-tubed fames, and 10mm round-tube sub-frames, I have filled with kiln dried sand. That cost 59 (85€) before modification, but the various shelves and isolators add up to about the same money as the Something Solid rack reviewed here. The Wilko racks been fitted with isolation footers. The frame-top nylon nipples get replaced by either BrightStar Isonodes or PolyChrystal Isolators or ERaudio steel cones, depending on the shelf. The clangy toughened-glass shelf tops get replaced by either 12mm laminated-glass (very inert) or an old Mark Orr prototype, or an old sheet of Russ Andrews Torlyte or an ERaudio SpaceHarmoniser, or a combination (as shown) depending what suits that component best.

I also use other individual tables (not shown), from the same UK retailer, which are three-shelf versions from the same range. Again, the frames and sub-frames are filled with kiln-dried sand. Only one component ever sits on one table. The shelves are replaced or surmounted. The total cost of the modifications adds up to a similar cost as some audio tables, but these do outperform many established audio-support products I have tried, and those I've owned in the past. Without naming any names, I'm referring to the better UK comics' recommendations & best buys of the last 20 years.

Valve (tube) amplifiers, like my modified & NOS tubed Assemblage SET300B, that benefit from the ERaudio SpaceHarmoniser platforms also work well on the Something Solid rack. Indeed, the best performance I can wring from them, comprises the amplifier sitting directly on the SpaceHarmoniser platform, supported by ERaudio steel-cones at each corner, standing on the Something Solid shelf, atop the rack that stands on Missing Link feet. You may imagine, dear reader, just how many time-consuming combinations and permutations of racks, shelves and footers, it takes to reach this kind of conclusion.

There is one drawback. The tall transformers of the Assemblage only fit the top shelf of the Something Solid rack when all 4 shelves are in use. Regular access is always needed to the source component, which is therefore much more likely to demand the top shelf if it's a turntable or top loading cd player. For logistical reasons, the separate tables (thank you Noel Coward) approach becomes desirable with very tall or top access kit. The SET300B must descend, like Dante, to the lower regions. The Western Electric 300B valves are so tall above the chassis that there is not enough room with the first configuration I set up with just 3 frame sections between shelf-cords (even with the lower one extremely slack), so the Assemblage is wedged by its transformers, the front half of the chassis jutting forward of the rack & shelf. Out of curiosity I try this for sound, having already torqued up the Cardas binding posts on the Black Rhodium S900 prototype hawsers. It is surprisingly good, different in character from the top shelf, but hardly a safe domestic arrangement.

This means I now have to remove every component and shelf and support cable and re-arrange the whole caboodle. You will have to wait till part 2 to find out what I hear then.

© Copyright 2007 Mark Wheeler - www.tnt-audio.com

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