Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CLI: What's Under Your Turntable?
(June 2023)

Last time, I discussed the importance of record weights and clamps, something that basically goes on top of your turntable platter. Now let's discuss what goes underneath your turntable, which is even more important.

Your turntable needs to be level, something I first mentioned a long, long time ago. A turntable that isn't sitting perfectly flat can sound terrible. But your turntable also needs to be isolated from the room as much as possible. Most analog lovers know exactly what I'm talking about--if you've ever made a record skip by merely walking by your turntable, you need to address the surface underneath your turntable. Fortunately, a good isolation platform will do both--isolate and keep everything level.

I've always paid attention to this issue, and I've experimented with all kinds of devices that are designed to isolate the turntable from vibrations in the room. While a high-quality equipment rack is often enough to alleviate these vibrations, they usually come at a significant cost. High-end audio is heavily populated by well-engineered equipment racks that start in the five-figure range--I could probably find you an equipment rack or two that strolls capriciously past the $100,000 mark (nothing in this hobby should surprise us anymore, pricewise).

I have a relatively expensive rack as well, from Fern & Roby, and it's a unique work of art made from huge pine shelves that require two people to carry, repurposed industrial iron, and a hidden suspension system that keeps the actual shelf decoupled from that iron. It works beautifully, but I find I still must use a second method of vibration control to satisfy my ears. There are racks that go far beyond the Fern & Roby, however, and for a lot more money. Last year, I discovered racks from a German company named Ictra Designs, which are designed by engineers and not furniture makers. Even the screws have been machined individually, with strategically placed silicon inserts, to eliminate even more noise from the system.

A $50,000 equipment rack will do the job of course. It will solve all your problems, except for the part where you must sell your house because you've spent too much money on hi-fi gear. A more cost-effective solution is either isolation feet, or a small isolation platform just big enough for your turntable. Both devices can be very effective at vibration control, and most of them are adjustable so you can level your turntable as well.

Again, there are insanely expensive versions of each. I just experimented with a set of footers from Denmark, the Ansuz Darkz, which were extremely effective at removing all types of noise and distortion from my equipment. They made a huge difference that I could easily hear. But since they are made with expensive materials such as titanium, silver and zirconium, which are far more effective at eliminating noise from your system than aluminum, they can cost up to $4,000 each. Not for a set, but each. But you can also find footers made from material such as sorbothane that still reduce vibrations for just a few bucks apiece.

I've also championed the products from Les Davis Audio from Australia (full disclosure--I was Les Davis' first importer and distributor in the US, but I did so because I believed in his products). LDA constructs small pads out of a constrained-layer damping (CLD) material made mostly of aluminum. CLD has been used for many years to reduce vibration in all sorts of technical equipment--the material Les has developed was once used to reduce vibrations in aviation instruments during flight. These products are simple, relatively inexpensive and they do work.

Isolation platforms and shelves can also be very expensive. When I reviewed the Brinkmann Taurus turntable a couple of years ago, which costs $15,000 without cartridge or tonearm, I was asked to put the entire rig on a custom isolation platform from a company called Harmonic Resolution Systems. I've known about HRS for many years--I once had to assemble an HRS equipment rack for an audio show and each shelf was so heavy that I could barely lift it. The isolation platform I received cost about $4,000, but when I did an A/B comparison with and without the HRS, there was no comparison. If you're going to spend $15,000 on a turntable and $8,000 on a tonearm and $7,000 on a cartridge, as I did with this review, an extra four grand isn't that crazy. Once I heard what the HRS could do, I kept it under the Taurus for the rest of the review period.

Once again, you can spend less. Around the same time, I received an isolation platform from a company named IsoAcoustics. This shelf, the Zazen II, has an MSRP of just $229. It didn't make the same difference as the HRS shelf, but it certainly made a big difference with the sound of a Technics SL-1200G. I also found the Zazen II to be ideal underneath compact disc players since they tend to be rickety and full of moving parts, which create their own mechanical vibrations. But if you had a turntable in the $1,000 range, an extra $229 provides an easy, no-nonsense upgrade to the sound. It's like purchasing a better cartridge.

The DIY crowd, however, has come up with some truly innovative and effective solutions to reduce noise. A few years ago, many people started slicing handballs and tennis balls in half and setting their turntables on top of them. That requires some precision since you must carefully match each half to keep the turntable level. And if you're worried about placing your precious turntable on four balls, you can simply sandwich them between two boards. In fact, many commercial isolation platforms are variations of this approach.

An even simpler solution is the good old butcher block. Many people buy butcher blocks for isolation platforms, and they work as well. There's even an equipment rack manufacturer called Butcher Block Acoustics. Natural wood can be very effective for damping vibrations, although many audiophiles and manufacturers argue about materials. Good old-fashioned multi-dense fiberboard (MDF) is popular because it's cheap and plentiful--it's what most equipment shelves are made of these days. Some platforms are filled with foam or some sort of honeycomb structure, which can direct vibrations away from the turntable and the needle. You should probably avoid placing your turntable on a metal surface--metal tends to ring. Glass can also be problematic, although I've seen plenty of equipment racks with glass shelves.

I could probably come up with plenty of products that will isolate your turntable from vibrations. The one that's right for your turntable, however, depends on many things. Does your turntable have an active suspension, where it bounces around on springs or has big rubber feet? What kind of floor do you have--is it a wooden suspended floor or is it a concrete slab? This is where I cop out a little and recommend that you try a few isolation products and see what works the best.

25 years ago, when I first started writing this column, I recommended the Rega wall shelf as the best solution for isolating your turntable from footfalls and other hazards. Rega still makes these, designed to fit perfectly with most Rega turntables. They do have a few shortcomings--it's not the simplest thing in the world to install these things so that they'll be solid and sturdy, and Rega turntables are notoriously light. In other words, this is not a practical solution for high-mass turntable designs.

It's so much easier to use a platform or isolation feet, something you just slip under your record player. In fact, you'll be able to conduct quick A/B comparisons with these products so you can quickly realize the benefits. If you've ever walked up to your turntable while playing a rare LP and the needle starts jumping around, you'll know that this is money well spent.

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