A few months ago, I commissioned a new audio rack -- a double-wide, overbuilt, steel-and-wood monstrosity. Well, I recently got a call from the craftsman, Jason Trauzzi, who told me it was nearing completion. He was building the rack from 2” square-section steel tubing, a top shelf of 2”-thick walnut, and three lower shelves of 1”-thick walnut. The smartphone photos he sent me were stunning -- I figured I’d better get the rest of my ingredients in order.
I’d planned on building constrained-layer-damped shelves from 1/8” mild sheet steel and WallDamp, a damping material from ASC that’s designed to sit between two slices of Sheetrock and damp the transmission of soundwaves. WallDamp appealed to me because it’s supplied with adhesive on both sides, and promised an easy way to bond the steel to the wooden shelves.
I told Trauzzi I planned to pick up the rack in my wife’s Honda CR-V.
“It’s heavy,” he warned.
“How heavy?” I knew I’d seriously overdesigned the cross braces on this thing. I began to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.
“Around 400 pounds just for the steel rack. Factor in another couple hundred for the wood.”
The two of us managed to get the rack into the CR-V, and I press-ganged several neighbors to assist in getting my new liability into the basement. I made arrangements for Trauzzi to visit the following week, to help me with final positioning and assembling the shelves. I used that week to apply strips of WallDamp to all horizontal areas of the frame on which the shelves would rest.
I’d originally planned to fill the rack’s hollow legs with sand, and had grand dreams of injecting expanding plastic foam into the horizontal members. But once I’d applied the WallDamp to the horizontal members, and test-fitted the undamped shelves into the rack, the whole thing was so dead nonresonant that I didn’t see the point. Flicking a finger against one of the uprights or horizontal supports netted only a dull thunk, which seemed just perfect to me. I shouldn’t have been surprised -- the 2” square-section steel tubing Trauzzi used had 11-gauge walls -- total overkill for this project.
Trauzzi dropped by bright and early the next Sunday morning, and we began assembling the shelves. I’d planned this carefully, and it went quickly: Remove the paper backing from one side of a bunch of squares of WallDamp, apply the squares to the backside of the wood, remove the layer of paper from the tops of the squares, and lay the sheet of steel down over them. Lower the shelf to the carpeted floor, and stomp up and down on it to secure the bond. Fully assembled, the shelves felt extremely nonresonant -- utterly dead -- and very heavy.
That done, we muscled the rack into position. Trauzzi then got his dead-lift leg workout, holding up one end of the rack as I screwed in its spiked feet, which I’d dug out of a dusty corner of my audio graveyard. We slid the shelves into place, then leveled the whole shebang.
Before installing any audio components, I took a good look, drinking in the beauty of those solid-walnut shelves. Trauzzi had finished them with a simple, high-quality oil, and the beauty of the grain shone through.
I’d designed the rack so that each shelf had room for two components. I could have increased the rack’s width by 5” or so to accommodate three components on a shelf, but that would have pushed the size beyond what I considered reasonable, and the cost would have climbed beyond what I was comfortable with, as good wood in lengths longer than I’d specified quickly rises in price.
After loading it up with my gear, with the two turntables on top, we stood back to admire our handiwork. The rack was the perfect size for my needs. I put on some music, and we sat back to listen. I told Trauzzi that the rack would take at least two weeks to break in, and that in the meanwhile we’d likely hear some upper-midrange harshness. Non-audiophile Trauzzi gave me an odd look, then politely smiled. He didn’t really understand the joke.
With its homemade shelves, each a sandwich of 1/8”-thick stainless steel, Dynamat, and foam-core board, my old Target rack was seriously nonresonant. I didn’t expect that the new rack would make any improvement in my system’s sound, especially considering that my listening room is built on a concrete slab. Still, sitting on my couch, looking at the vast reduction in clutter made possible by the stunning new architectural feature at the front of my room, I realized that I was already netting a significant increase in listening pleasure.
Just as important, my two turntables now sat side by side -- for the first time, both were simultaneously set up and connected to the system. No longer would I have to remove my reference ’table to review another -- which was how I’d justified the expense of this rack project in the first place.
Trauzzi figures it would cost somewhere around $3000 to re-create my new rack, assuming that this time he does everything, including the shelf assembly I did. That sounds to me like a damn good deal for a rack custom-made to your exact requirements, with beautiful wooden shelves, and the absolute inertness of the entire structure. Of course, a rack of different size, and/or with more or fewer shelves, would come in at a higher or lower total price.
I can’t imagine that it would be cost-effective to ship such a rack, but if what I’ve described here sounds good to you and you’re within striking distance of Toronto, Canada, contact Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MoFi Electronics MasterTracker moving-magnet cartridge
Used to be that Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab just made records. CDs were a natural supplement, followed eventually by SACDs.
But in the last few years Mobile Fidelity has branched out and now comprises three divisions. MoFi Distribution distributes some of the lesser-known heavy hitters in the analog world, and lately some interesting brands of source components and loudspeakers. Now they also make their own analog source components, under the name MoFi Electronics. So now you can play a Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab LP on a MoFi Electronics cartridge and turntable through a MoFi Electronics phono stage, having bought them all through MoFi Distribution.
A short while ago I received for review a Dr. Feickert Analogue Volare turntable. Feickert is distributed in North America by MoFi Distribution, so it made sense that they shipped the Volare with a cartridge from the MoFi Electronics line, which currently comprises three moving-magnet models: the StudioTracker, UltraTracker, and MasterTracker. My Volare came with MoFi’s top model, the MasterTracker ($799 USD), which, like the UltraTracker, has a body CNC’d from billet aluminum. It has a Micro-Line stylus, and its two magnets, aligned in a V, move past coils of Ohno continuous-cast copper wire to produce a healthy output of 3mV. MoFi specifies that the MasterTracker weighs 9.7gm, which should make it compatible with most modern tonearms.
The MasterTracker was easier to mount than any cartridge in my recent memory. Its screw holes are threaded, it comes with a protective stylus guard, and the upsweep of its bottom surface gives a clear view of the stylus. It took less than 15 minutes to install and align in my Silver tonearm from Origin Live, including a brief wrestling match with the Silver’s mechanism for setting a stylus’s vertical tracking angle (VTA).
That done, I fiddled with the vertical tracking force (VTF) a bit, and eventually settled on 1.9gm as the sweet spot. Fortune smiled on the MasterTracker -- also in residence was the Constellation Audio Revelation Andromeda phono stage ($19,900), and I can’t imagine a better one. At 25 times the MoFi’s cost, I have no doubt that the Andromeda squeaked every iota of performance from the MasterTracker.
What a juicy, lively, refined-sounding cartridge the MasterTracker proved to be. I cued up Steven Wilson’s 2011 stereo remix of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung (LP, Chrysalis AQUA 1 0825646146604), sat back, and was immediately sucked into the deep prog-revisionist world of Restoration England. “Cheap Day Return” has long been my favorite track on this album, and the MasterTracker nailed it. There was a sophistication to the sound of this cartridge that belied its price and moving-magnet DNA. There was none of that MM wiriness to the treble -- instead, the MasterTracker was silkily refined up top, with plenty of extension and no harshness. It was easy to hear that refinement in “Cheap Day Return” -- Ian Anderson’s gently strummed acoustic guitar had a brassy, glistening tone, and the segue into “Mother Goose” kept me focused on that guitar, his picked notes standing out clearly from his strums.
The MasterTracker’s bottom end was full and rich, with lots of control, and only the slightest bit of definition missing from the outlines of bass instruments. Wilson’s remix has unearthed gobs of previously missing bass, and “My God” shows it to full effect. There’s a lot going on in this track: sparkling guitars, Anderson’s rich and fruity flute, and -- on this pressing -- deep, round bass. The MasterTracker pulled that bass out and made it into a feature, though it missed just a small amount of the definition that higher-priced moving-coils can excavate.
I’d just been listening to the Top Wing Blue Dragon cartridge mounted in the tonearm of my VPI Prime Signature turntable. The Blue Dragon retails for $12,500 -- which means that the MasterTracker costs 6.4% of the Top Wing’s price. Hardly a fair comparison. Ridiculous, even.
Not so fast. With the Constellation Andromeda phono stage and my glorious new rack, I had both ’tables set up and hooked up simultaneously, which meant I could just swap that Tull LP from one platter to the other, and back again. And you know what? The MoFi MasterTracker and Top Wing Blue Dragon sounded more alike than different. In terms tonal balance, richness of sound, and frequency extremes, I could tell which was which, but not in any obvious manner. I fired up Bruce Cockburn’s most excellent Humans (LP, True North TN 42) and sat through “Grim Travellers” four times, alternating ’tables. The two cartridges’ richness of treble, grip on the lower registers, and delineation of the midrange were all eerily similar -- the shimmer of the cymbals and their delicate mingling with the sounds of the acoustic guitars were remarkably alike.
But in audio there’s no free lunch. The Blue Dragon displayed its pedigree by adding a metric ton of depth, both behind the plane described by my speakers’ baffles and in front of it, almost to my listening seat. The MasterTracker presented the sounds of the instruments themselves directly on that plane. That’s not to say that the MoFi didn’t image well -- it most certainly did -- but that it wasn’t the imaging monster the Blue Dragon is. Which is as it should be: that additional $11,701 should buy you something.
Feeling no heavy weight of reviewing duties, I easily and happily focused on what the $799 MoFi Electronics MasterTracker did well, despite having a $12,500 cartridge that sounds better sitting only inches away, ready to go. The MasterTracker drew music from the grooves with a refinement and an ease far above its station and price, and far beyond my expectations.
. . . Jason Thorpe