Monday, May 14, 2012

Footer shootout - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Revised on 4 Nov 2014)




On test here are the following gunslingers,

1. Aurio's Classic
2. Cold Rays
3. Finite Elemente Ceraball Universal
4. Finite Elemente Cerabase Classic
5. Finite Elemente Cerabase Compact 
6. Franc Audio Ceramic Disc Classic
7. Golden Sound's DH Cones and Squares
8. Herbie's Tenderfoot
9. Herbie's Isocup with Black Lamp Ball
10. Kryna C-PROP Mini / D-PROP Mini
11. Magix Hexa
12. Stillpoints Ultra Mini
13. Stillpoints Ultra SS (New) 
14. TAOC TITE-46GP
15. Valab ball bearing footer
16. Yamamoto Sound Craft PB-09 / PB-10 Ebony base

Aurios Classic



Unlike its namesake, the Aurios cannot be dunked in milk, or eaten. But like Oreo cookies, the Aurios are made out of two circular halves, with the goodstuff in between. 3 steel ball bearings take the place of the sweetened white cream in the cookie version.The steel bearings sit in a circular race, with a plastic triangular guide to hold the 3 ball bearings in place.

Out of all the devices featured here, the Aurios have the dubious honour of being the most unstable. Components are able to roll around a fair bit, and I’ve had to dive to save some equipment when I placed the Aurios a bit too close for comfort near the perimeter of the equipment’s chassis. This does pose a problem if you place it under a CD player, as pushing buttons results in a bit of wobbly jelly effect, although the problem is less noticeable under heavy equipment.

The Aurios are very extended at both ends of the frequency spectrum. Bass is superbly tight and defined, and ambience retrieval at the top end is outstanding. Overall, the sound takes on a very projected and focussed quality. Its fly in the ointment is its high frequency quality, which can be artificial and fatiguing. Separation and control is also a bit lacking with cymbal work sounding a bit messy. The other ball bearing footers on test here, the Cold Rays and the Ceraball have both extension and better control.

Cold Rays




This is a ball bearing footer with a difference. The Cold Ray features a bell shaped top that sits on top of a ball bearing (you have a choice of either a steel or ceramic ball - the on test here is the ceramic ball version). The lower assembly is a solid flat topped cone. The manufacturer claims that the bell shaped top acts as a resonator and limits the amount of vibration that can pass through the footer.

In terms of physical stability, the Cold Ray is most comfortable under heavy loads. With its high center of gravity, the Cold Rays were not stable under lighter equipment. Of other notable interest is that the Cold Rays are the only footer in my system that sounds better with a quartet deployed. This makes levelling the footers a bit difficult, but nothing that cannot be fixed with a bit of 3M post it notes.

Using the Cold Ray can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. It did not work well under my tube amp, or DAC, but was great under my Cary CD Player. Balanced throughout the frequency spectrum, it had excellent definition, extension and control. Instrument separation and composure under heavy mixes were outstanding.

Honourable mention should go towards the sense of extension brought by the Cold Ray. It avoids sounding artificial, and has both speed, and natural decay and reverb - which cannot be said for some of the other footers on test here. When it works, the Cold Rays are one of the most impressive footers in this shoot-out.



Finite Elemente Ceraball Universal




A regularly recommended ball bearing footer, the Ceraball from Finite Elemente of Germany is probably one of the most well-known of its breed. Finite Elemente has a whole range of footers based on ball bearing support, including some mean footers that are probably strong enough to support the weight of a very large sized sumo wrestler.

Each model in the Finite Elemente range is suited for a specified range of loads. The Ceraball is the smallest model in their line-up and is suitable for lighter components although each individual footer is able to support up to 40 kg of load. The next model up, the Cerapuc is also a single ball bearing model but designed for heavier loads. The top model, the Cerabase utilises 3 ball bearings. As the name suggests, the ball bearings used in all of Finite Elemente's footers are ceramic. The Ceraball is made of aluminum while its bigger siblings are made of stainless steel.

The Ceraball brings immediate focus and solidity to music. Besides tightening up the bass, midrange becomes clearer. High frequencies are neater also and more extended. Improvements in both transient attack and decay are observed. Compared to the Cold Rays, the Ceraball is drier, with less bloom and weight.

I also had a trio of the top range Cerabase on hand for comparison. The Cerabase has greater potential than the Ceraball. It outperforms the Ceraball but only under heavier loads (in excess of 20 kg). Used under my Cary CD-500 (10 kg load) , its performance was close to its cheaper sibling.

The Cold Rays have greater potential, but the Ceraball delivers more consistent results across a variety of equipment.

In liberal doses, the Ceraball can sound too sharp and clinical. In my system, I usually use no more than one set in a a system.

Finite Elemente Cerabase Classic

The Cerabase Classic is the bigger and meaner version of the Ceraball. The Cerabase is made from stainless steel and uses 3 ceramic balls. It has an optimum weight loading of between 40 to 500 kg of weight (125 kg per footer). The Cerabase Classic is height adjustable which is essential if you are using 4 footers.

The packaging is very comprehensive, including provision of various threaded bolts to allow the Cerabase to replace your stock spike underneath your speakers or equipment rack.

Sound wise, the Cerabase Classic sounds like a grown-up version of the Ceraball, with additional focus, separation and refinement.

Finite Elemente Cerabase Compact

The Cerabase compact is similar to the Cerabase Classic, with a stainless steel assembly and 3 ceramic balls. It has a smaller base, and is shorter. This is useful for large components with limited height clearance.Optimal weight loading is from 20 kg to 150 kg weight. My Conrad Johnson power amp despite being close to 20 kg in weight sounded better on the Cerabase Classic compared to the Cerabase Compact. The house sound is there, but the Compact sounds slightly brighter than the Classic, with slightly less bass and a midrange that is a touch more forward.

Franc Audio Ceramic Disc Classic

The Franc Audio Ceramic Disc Classic is a relatively new offering from a young Polish company. It is mechanically quite complex with a top disc with a firm elastomer surface that makes direct contact with the component. The disc in turn is coupled to a single 8mm ceramic ball that rests on a three point holder. Internally, the 8 mm ceramic ball is coupled to an aluminum disc that in turn rests on three 6 mm ceramic balls. The internal construction is quite complex and deserves a separate write-up.

Compared to the Cerabase, the Franc Audio offers a smoother midrange and more organic sounding bass lines. However, separation and focus are as good as the Cerabase. Slightly richer and more "wet" sounding than the Cerabase, the Franc is perfect for those who want detail but a richer and more fluid presentation. Tonality wise, it reminds me of a bigger sounding version of the Stillpoints Ultra Mini.


Golden Sound DH Cones / Squares

An oldie but goodie, the Golden Sound DH Cones / Squares are made from near diamond hardness (hence the name “DH”) ceramic and a graphite composite material respectively.

They can be used separately, but are claimed by the manufacturer to work best together.

You have to experiment with them facing upwards or downwards. I’ve found that using 3 cones almost always works better than 4. They are available in a variety of sizes, but my personal collection consists of the larger sizes, i.e. jumbo and super.

The DH Cones / Squares have in the past served me well under tube amplifiers. However, during tests, they failed to perform under the Calyx 24/192 DAC, sounding thin and confused.

Used under the Cary CD-500, the cones alone resulted in a forward sound, with voices moved closer towards the listener. There were gains in midrange coherence and high end extension. But the bass took on a lean and rhythmically disconnected feel. In the long run, I found the high frequency extension to be metallic and fatiguing. Pairing the cones with the pads brought everything together in harmony. The metallic sheen disappeared and bass bloom and warmth were restored. 

As a combination, the DH Cones / Squares bring gains across the frequency range. They are system dependent and do not work well with lighter equipment.Although they work well when optimised, they are comfortably outperformed by the Ceraball and Cold Rays.

Herbie's Tenderfoot




The Tenderfoot is a square shaped footer made out of a silicon based elastomer formulation. The model here is made out of the older white coloured material. The current model is black in colour.

The Tenderfoot lends a nice roundness and density to the bass and midrange. It generally leaves the top end intact, and does little to add focus and improve microdetail. It is a fairly average performer, which is in line with its low price.

Nothing particularly offensive about the Tenderfoot, but little to write home about either. Its bigger sibling, the Isocup is a much better performer.

Herbie's Isocup with Black Lamp Ball

The Isocup is a circular shaped footer with a concave depression in the center (much like an egg cup), in which sits a matching one inch diameter ball. It used to be available with a variety of ball options, but the current offering is limited to a "Supersonic Hardball".

Equipment does have a tendency to slide a bit with the Isocup. The manufacturer recommends a bit of liquid silicon gasket maker underneath the equipment at point of contact to stop the sliding.

Contrary to my experience with compliant and squishy footers which can sound muffled and slow, the Isocup is bold and vibrant sounding. The Isocup has good dynamics and bass is both more extended and more pronounced. Midrange is smooth but also quite laidback. The Isocup also has modest improvement in high frequency extension. Decent gains are also observed in separation between instruments.

Kryna C-PROP mini / D-PROP mini



A rather interesting footer from Japan, the Kryna is unique in featuring a silicon fluid damped spike resting in a sealed housing. The D-PROP is based on a double metal spike, while the C-PROP is based on a single metal spike in a plastic housing.

Both the D-PROP and C-PROP are sold individually and can be mixed and matched according to your liking. The brochure (only in Japanese) suggests a number of placement configurations based on typical applications. Being unable to read Japanese, I also spoke to the distributor and the instructions seem to suggest use of either the D-PROP or C-PROP depending on whether the footer is being asked to absorb vibration within the component (e.g. transformers, motor spindles), or to prevent shelf vibrations from reaching the component. The D-PROP is suggested to tackle the former, and the C-PROP, the latter.

The brochure I took from a shop in Japan suggests various combinations of the C-PROP and D-PROP under different types of equipment.

Used under my DAC, the Kryna has a refined sound that is quite different from the rest of the footers here. It  has a clear sound that avoids the razor sharp focus of some of its competitors. Initially it sounds somewhat soft, but over long term listening, it becomes obvious that it trades a bit of impact and leading edge definition for body and smoothness. Listeners who find cones and spikes too "sharp" sounding, and compliant footers too slow and mushy would probably like the Kryna - it takes the middle ground between the two.

Magic Hexa

I generally don't like squishy products, but the Magix Hexa is quite firm and large (76mm in diameter and 23mm tall). The honeycomb structure flexes very little when placed under moderate loads (each single disc is rated for a maximum of 12 kg) and its anti-skid surface makes placement easy and fuss-free.

Sound wise, the Magic Hexa adds a good level of focus and increase in resolution. It manages to do this without adding any softness or reduced dynamics. It is also very affordably priced (S$85 for 4). I especially like the fact that the disc is so large that I can use a single piece for brick power supplies and the like. It is by no means the best performer on test but easily the best value for money item.

Stillpoints Ultra Mini

The Stillpoints utilise multiple tiers of ceramic balls inside a sealed housing. They offer moderate height adjustment which is extremely useful when trying to level four cones under equipment.

They are highly sensitive to placement, and it took me months to find an ideal placement under my Conrad Johnson preamp. When used correctly, they offer a marked increase in focus and clarity. Unlike most ball bearing devices, the Stillpoints sound smooth and warm on the top end.

Stillpoints Ultra SS

This is larger version of the Ultra Mini. I found them easier to place compared to the Ultra Mini. Think of it as an even more refined and higher performing version of the Ultra Mini. The price tag is on the wallet unfriendly side though.

TAOC TITE-46GP



Easily the heaviest amongst all the footers on test here, the TAOC weighs a massive 800g per piece. TAOC specialises in the manufacture of high carbon content cast iron parts, and is actually a member of the Toyota group. You could end up in hospital if you accidentally dropped one on your foot.

The TAOC served as a brutal reminder on the perils of hasty judgement and "settling time" for footers.

Quick insertion brought bone crunching bass and slam, with increased separation and control, at the expense of a lack of high frequency extension and air. After a few days of settling time, this went away, and the high frequencies took on both extension and control. This was particularly noticeable during heavy mixes, where previously blurred lines and messy details took on organised precision. The TAOC lacks the ultimate 3D quality and natural ease of the Cold Rays but was otherwise very impressive.

If you are looking for a "jump" factor, these footers are likely to please provided that you give them plenty of time to settle down..

Valab footer



Looking very much inspired by the Finite Elemente’s Ceraball, this footer from Valab, Taiwan, similarly relies on a single ball bearing, albeit steel. Fit and finish are not exactly the best, the prime offender being a rubber O-ring that is a little bit too big. As a result, the top cover of the Valab will not sit tight against the ball bearing unless the component is of sufficient mass to compress the O-ring.

Is this a cheap and cheerful clone, or just cheap and nasty ?

The Valab adds some clarity to the music, and has nice improvement to the high-frequencies, which are more distinct, and more extended. On the downside, the overall presentation is quite dry.

The midrange and low frequencies are where the Valab comes apart. Bass notes are lightweight and hollow, compared to stock. Midrange is small sounding and lacking in density.

Taking out the Valab and substituting it with the Ceraball shows that the Valab may be much cheaper, but is actually false economy. Valab may want to go back to the drawing board and take another shot at this.

Yamamoto Soundcraft Ebony footers



Yamamoto Soundcraft is not particularly well-known outside of Japan, although there is some limited distribution of their products globally, especially their amplifiers. They have an intriguing range of footers, ranging from simple cherry wood cubes, to their top-of-the-range magnetic levitation bases.

Their rather modest ebony footers are in the spotlight today. The PB-09 and PB-10 are intended to be used together, with the PB-09 being male, and the PB-10 being female. African ebony wood is used in the manufacture of these footers, presumably for their density and musical properties (ebony is used in many musical instruments for their tone). Ebony wood is of such high density, that it sinks if you put it in water.

The Yamamoto has above average bass, with some useful low frequency extension. It's strength lies in mid-bass and the midrange, where there is a good balance of clarity, sweetness and warmth. Piano notes have realistic timbre with impressive weight, especially on the left-hand notes. Vocal lovers would be very taken by the Yamamoto. High frequency wise, it lacks a bit of extension.

Test Bed

I originally intended to try each footer under  two different components, a relatively light DAC, the Audio-Gd DAC 19 DSP, and my CD Player, the Cary CD-500. Halfway during the test, I realised that the stock footers of the Cary were quite high, and a number of footers were not tall enough. Instead, my Almarro A318B and Calyx Femto DAC were used. I also tried some of these footers under my power supplies and my Conrad Johnson power amp.

As no footer works best in exactly the same location, I experimented with placement. Each footer would be evaluated in isolation over a few days, before the stronger contenders were pit against each other.

Conclusions

Readers hoping that I would crown one of the contenders here as being the best, will be sorely disappointed. None of the footers here performed consistently across all equipment, and weight loads. Some had a preference for lighter equipment, while some only shone under heavy loads.

That being said, it would be impossible to come out from such a test without a few favourites.

The Magic Hexa deserves special mention for best bang for the buck.

For lighter equipment, I especially like the Ceraball and Stillpoints Ultra Mini.

For moderate loads, I like the Stillpoints Ultra SS.

For heavy loads, it is a toss-up between the Franc Audio Ceramic Disc Classic and the Finite Elemente Cerabase, depending on the tonality sought.

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