Tweaks are for kids, to adapt a phrase from a 1960s ad campaign for Trix breakfast cereal. In the world of audio, the phrase is true and not true. Newbies fall in love with tweaks, for which are claimed miraculous improvements at little cost. The allure of customizing a relatively humble system has an attraction similar to that of using a tighter suspension and nitrous oxide injection to soup up a stock compact car into a tuner.
At various times in my first few years as an audio maniac, I fell under the spell of vinyl pod footers, cheap plug-in line filters, ferrite cubes that snapped onto speaker cables and interconnects, birch-plank plinths to go under my speakers, even felt pens to dye the rims of my CDs green. But as my system and my approach to sound have evolved (and possibly matured) over the years, I’ve shied away from those and a host of other tweaks. Now I use only damping plates atop my components and some aftermarket footers under my line conditioner.
So when is Tweaks are for kids not true? Since being sent some high-tech footers introduced by Joe Cohen of Lotus Group, maker of PranaWire and importer of cables and AC equipment from Japan, I’ve begun to believe that Tweaks are for OGs too.
Description and design
Cohen proposed that I audition the Modrate HEM-25B (brass) and HEM-25S (stainless steel) Pure Note Insulators, made in Japan by a company with the wondrously Dickensian name of fo.Q -- honest. fo.Q specializes in the development of 21st-century damping materials and works (through another company, Kiso Industries, Ltd.) with the Japan Science and Technology Agency, a division of the Japanese government. Their footer design is a three-layer mechanism that consists of a neatly rimmed, circular pad of polymer about 2mm thick and a 1/2” (14.5mm)-tall hemisphere of the same material sandwiched around a machined brass or stainless steel cup that is flat on the bottom but shaped with a rounded receptor on top where the hemisphere sits. Each footer weighs 4.41 oz (126gm) and measures 1.68” (43mm) in diameter by 1.13” (29mm) high -- about the size of a small roll of cellophane tape but with serious heft. The compliant polymer is infused with piezo and high-permativity dielectric materials that convert vibrational into electrical energy that is then dissipated as heat.
Joe Cohen thinks that it’s the intermediary step, in which vibrations are converted into electrical charges, that makes this particular polymer, which fo.Q calls Zero Bump, different from other compliant vibration-control synthetics. As soon as Cohen read the announcement of Zero Bump’s availability, he ordered some samples, then placed them under a DAC he used for his headphone system. He immediately noticed that all ambient cues were much more present, but without calling particular attention to themselves. All seemed part of a grander musical experience. He used the brass ones first, then tried the stainless and thought the latter revealed greater dynamic contrasts.
The Modrate HEM-25 Pure Note Insulators come neatly boxed in sets of four for $1125 USD. They’re warranted for only six months -- distributor Lotus Group assumes that if there’s a defect, it will be noticed at the unboxing. When I agreed to try them right away, Cohen sent me a baker’s dozen: one four-pack of HEM-25Ses, two four-packs of HEM-25Bs, and an extra HEM-25B.
To start, I placed the HEM-25B footers under my Audience aR6-TSS AC power conditioner. This was easy -- the compliant discs fit perfectly around the flat bottoms of the brass cups, and the compliant hemispheres nested perfectly on top of them. I assembled three Pure Note footers and placed them, one by one with hemispheres up, beneath the aluminum housing of the Audience, where they made a very stable coupling to both my hardwood console and the bottom of the conditioner. Later, progressing in sequence through my front-end electronic components, I added four HEM-25S footers under my Cary 303/300 CD player, three more HEM-25Bs under my Zanden Model 3100 preamp, and three HEM-25Bs under my Auralic Vega DAC. In each case, setup took only a few minutes, mostly involving lifting and/or tipping up the component, then shuffling the footers under it.
Invariably, I used the Modrate footers with the flat side resting on a shelf of my console or rack and the hemisphere supporting the bottom of the component. That was easiest, but Cohen said others invert that positioning. “When I install them upside down,” he wrote, “I put two fingers under the metal base, with the sides of my fingers gently gripping the hemisphere.” He must be an old card sharp or a magician good at legerdemain. When I tried it, the Modrate footers wouldn’t cooperate -- the hemispheres kept dropping away from the cups, and then the whole assembly would fall apart.
But Zero Bump has a slightly tacky quality that gave it a nice, soft grip on wood surfaces. With the discs making contact with my shelves and the hemispheres up, the footers stayed in place while I moved each component over the tops of them. Other footers I’ve tried have always slipped out of place when under a component, making for some frustration in setup as the component slides askew or, at the very least, the footers move out of their optimal positions. The Modrates stayed put.
I didn’t try the fo.Qs under a power amplifier or speakers. Each footer is claimed to support up to 25kg.
When I placed the Pure Note Insulators under the power-line conditioner in my reference system, I heard an immediate and positive difference -- just as Joe Cohen had with his head-fi system. The midrange was richer; there was more piano sustain in Ray Brown, Monty Alexander & Russell Malone (two CDs, Telarc 83562), and the soundstage now extended beyond the outer side panels of my speakers by a few feet on either side. Brown’s double bass sounded deeper, faster, more resonant, with more sustain and longer decays in his solo. There was a touch more shimmer to the notes from Alexander’s piano -- but also, I thought, less sparkle and snap on top.
With the Wynton Marsalis Septet’s Selections from the Village Vanguard Box (CD, Columbia CK 62191), I noticed that the overall sound seemed much more natural and mellow, the instruments less sharply outlined. Attack transients seemed shorn of their sharp, unpleasing edges, yet cymbal strokes were more startling and the speed of the system increased, stops and starts now sounding much more precise and timely. The sudden sixteenth-notes from the horns in “Buggy Ride,” which had been much looser before, now sounded in perfect unison, and there was now air and space around each instrument and a fine bloom around Wycliffe Gordon’s trombone -- all of which gave the music a much livelier presence. Marsalis’s trumpet leapt forward out of the stage and each instrument’s image was solid and discrete, taking up its own position as though on an actual bandstand. The band hit the beat tightly and together at the end of “I’ll Remember April,” Marsalis’s trumpet tailgating with high, tender sustained notes as the track faded out.
The sound was consistently superb whatever sort of music I played, but jazz seemed especially improved. At first, when I’d put Pure Note footers only under the Audience line conditioner, there was an odd “stickiness” to midrange notes -- a slight hesitation as if they’d been slightly gummed, or their tails were held back, trapped in flypaper as they tried to take to the air. Attacks were more complex: no longer simply released, but held in a horn player’s mouth and given a bit of spin -- a nanosecond’s worth of deliberation or micro-sass that signaled the player’s musicianship and precision. The music seemed to slow down, given an extra micromoment everywhere, and even more dimension in time and space -- I could savor the character of the performance that much more. I decided that the effect on the decays of notes wasn’t any type of stalling as I had thought at first, but I could tell that they were trailing off more lingeringly, with finer shadings of evanescence.
I put on a collection of highlights from Verdi’s La Traviata, with Carlo Bergonzi and Joan Sutherland singing the leads, and Sir John Pritchard conducting the Florence Maggio Musicale Orchestra and Chorus (CD, London 289 458211-2). In the Prelude, I heard rich violas and cellos, and smooth, sprightly violins that sounded speedier and more resolved than before. In the drinking song, “Libiamo ne’lieti calici,” the chorus was open and airy, with sweet blasts from flutes and a pleasantly shrill piccolo. But the choral sound hardened when the men’s voices entered, and Bergonzi’s top notes had a disappointing raggedness. On the other hand, this recording has always sounded this way to me. Could it be that I needed more Pure Note footers, placed elsewhere in the system?
I unboxed the four HEM-25S stainless-steel footers, unscrewed the stock metal cone feet of my Cary player from within their cylindrical housings, and placed the compliant fo.Qs just so within the vacant housings where the stock footers had been. Punch and clarity went way up, without raggedness or distortion; on the Traviata CD, Bergonzi’s top end and the mixed chorus went from distorted to completely smooth. Sparkle and snap also improved; Alfred Brendel’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5, with Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic (CD, Philips 434 148-2), demonstrated adroit, finely calibrated dynamics and a lyric touch in Brendel’s exquisite arpeggios. On a large aural canvas the orchestra now sounded majestic: gone were the ragged edges I’d always heard in the violins, and the sound was smoother and more open throughout, with sweet woodwinds and increased nuance and sophistication even in this score’s march-like passages. Geez, I wrote in my notes; I can even hear the clatter of keys and hammers in some of Brendel’s rapid trills.
I placed three HEM-25B footers under my Zanden Model 3100 preamp and the sound grew even more impressive. Everything seemed a touch sweeter and textured in the midrange, presence was much more realistic and lively, the bass deeper and better defined, and slam much more sudden with more impact. I played Dion’s Bronx in Blue (CD, Razor & Tie 82960); the bass in “Walkin’ Blues” was amazing, with forceful impacts from Dion’s strummed guitar and his voice full of coloratura shouts and wails, gorgeously plaintive and penetrating. I could hear the pliant character of individual guitar strings, how he bent them on or just behind the beat. There was fabulous air around everything, and the feeling was insistently live and rhythmic, the music muscular and infectious with lots of jump. fo.Q’s Modrate Pure Note Insulator footers had taken my system to another level.
I used my last three footers, the HEM-25Bs, under my Auralic Vega DAC, a fairly modest design when compared with the topline models produced by dCS, Esoteric, and Meitner. Yet using them this way showed off what a fine product the Vega is when given the benefit of superior vibration control: It’s capable of much finer resolution, greater cleanness, and more three-dimensional soundstaging. Banished were the deleterious effects of untreated vibration: smearing, diffuse imaging, shallow soundstages, lack of clarity, homogenized or obscured textures, shortened decays. The footers completely did away with treble raggedness and made the sound much more natural, with more air and space around aural images. Even the most complicated music -- real system-crushers like Mozart’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, both performed by Robert Shaw leading the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, Telarc) -- sounded gorgeous, finely articulated, and without glare or distortion with the Modrate footers under the Vega DAC. The vocal soloists were pure and clear in tone, the chorus consistently airy and open with distinctions between sections finely drawn in terms of register, tone, and placement on a broad soundstage.
The hi-rez files I have, such as Charles Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (24/96 FLAC, Impulse!), had a special kind of clarity that was tactile, organic, and startling, with more natural timing and a tonal richness without opacity. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” from John Coltrane’s Coltrane’s Sound (24/96 FLAC, Atlantic/Rhino), was presented much more cleanly. Coltrane’s tenor sax was more penetrating; Elvin Jones’s drumming was snappier, his cymbal work more sparkling, his kick drum thunkier and deeper; and, with McCoy Tyner’s piano and Steve Davis’s bass, there were more textural contrasts among all four instruments. It all made for a far richer, more complex listening experience than I’d had before adding the fo.Q footers.
I used my Auralic Vega DAC to compare the fo.Q Modrate HEM-25B Pure Note Insulators with the Vega’s stock footers, with three Nordost Sort Kones (BC bronze; $139.99/each), and with three HRS Nimbus Couplers and Spacers (1.5”, $125/each). It’s worth noting that both the Nordost Sort Kones (about $560/four) and the HRS Nimbus Couplers and Spacers ($500/four) cost less than half the fo.Qs’ price.
Each comparison emphasized the general superiority of the fo.Q footers. Though at times the stock footers could make the midrange sound a touch more natural, the top was always much more ragged, the soundstage flatter, and the textures within far more opaque. I played a tough track -- Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid, with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (24/192 FLAC, Everest). With the Vega’s stock footers, the brass fanfares were full of distortion, orchestral climaxes were opaque, and the music in general was not as clean or resolved as with the fo.Q footers. With the Nordost Sort Kones, the fanfares sounded quite wonderful, the orchestral strings leaner but still usually clean and clear, and the woodwinds pleasing if not quite as woody. Overall, I thought dynamic expressiveness was fine with the Nordosts but that the frequency balance might have been shoved up a touch, though nothing sounded unpleasant or “wrong” per se -- just slightly different in tonal quality. My HRS Couplers and Spacers were also very good and much better than the stock Auralic footers, sounding in general more pleasing, clean, and dynamic. But they weren’t as resolving as the Modrate HEM-25Bs and their contrasts of textural and timbral colors were flatter. Breadth and depth of soundstage, though, are two of the HRS products’ strong suits.
The fo.Q Modrate HEM-25 Pure Note Insulators, brass or stainless steel, improved almost all aspects of sound for me, regardless of what kind of music I listened to, and did more to better the sound than the footers from two other manufacturers. When I used the HEM-25Bs under just one major component, my line conditioner, the results were immediate. Then, with every subsequent front-end component I placed them under, the sound of my system dramatically improved. I suspect that the fo.Q footers would have improved things even more had I felt the need or had the guts to try them under my amp and speakers as well.
These high-tech damping instruments proved to me that well-designed vibration-control products can do wondrous things for my system’s sound -- a sound I’d previously considered “mature,” even all but perfected. If you haven’t yet addressed extraneous interior vibrations in your system, as I had not, and if you’ve settled on most of your components and want to take things to the next level, seriously consider investing in one or more sets of these excellent tweaks. They’ve shown me that my electronics can be taken to higher levels of sound quality than I’d thought possible and improved my listening in ways I hadn’t imagined. For any audio purist, fo.Q’s Modrate HEM-25 Pure Note Insulators with Zero Bump are a must.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Digital sources -- Auralic Vega DAC, Cary 303/300 CD player
- Preamplifier -- Zanden Audio Systems Model 3100
- Power amplifiers -- Pass Labs X250.8, Zanden Audio Systems Model 8120
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR-44 Aktive with RST-5 ribbon supertweeters and Masterbuilt jumpers
- Power cords -- Audience Au24 SE powerChord and Au24 SE powerChord LP, Harmonix XDC Studio Master, Siltech SPX-800
- USB interconnects -- Audience Au24 SE, Cardas Clear
- XLR interconnects -- Cardas Clear
- RCA interconnects -- Audience Au24 SE, Siltech Classic Anniversary 330i
- Speaker cables -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L and 330L jumpers
- Power conditioner -- Audience aR6-TSS and Au24 SE powerChord
- Accessories -- Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack and amp stand, Pottery Barn three-shelf hardwood console, FIM amp stand, edenSound FatBoy dampers, HRS damping plates, Nordost Sort Kones, Harmonic Resolution Systems Nimbus Couplers and Spacers, Acoustic Science Corporation SoundPanels, Zanden Audio Systems AT-1 Acoustic Tubes and AP-1 Acoustic Panels
fo.Q Modrate HEM-25 Pure Sound Insulators
Price: $1125 USD per box of four.
Warranty: Six months parts and labor.
Kiso Industry Co., Ltd.
1-7-23 Sakae, Naka-ku Nagoya-city
Phone: +81 052-221-8616
The Lotus Group
PO Box 1598
Novato, CA 94948
Phone: (415) 897-8884, 328-1752