Let me start by saying that I know this is the kind of product that would be safer for my reputation if I didn’t review it. It does border on the kind of thing I just won’t try, because over the years I’ve become less and less of a tweaker. Add to that all the tweaks I have purchased just to sell later, and I’ve become pretty careful. I wasn’t even asked to do this review. No, I was asked to review the Tesla PowerCell (reviews to come soon), a new power conditioner also manufactured by Synergistic Research, but I couldn’t resist trying these little bowls. Why? Well, because I heard them demonstrated in two different rooms and in two different systems, and just couldn’t deny what I heard. Then there was the really deciding fact: they take less than five minutes to put up, and even less to take down. So, I hope you still respect me when the review is over – well, that is if you did before.
Ever since the 2008 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, these little singing bowls have been making quite a stir with the tweakers of audio-land. I, too, heard them demonstrated there and the demonstration was quite impressive. If you are wondering what they really are, you are not alone. The Synergistic Research Acoustic ART system consists of five specially designed carbon steel resonators that are, basically, little bowls. The main resonator is called a Vibratron. It kind of reminds everyone of the planet Saturn. It is by far the largest of the resonators, being about the size of a baseball. It is to be mounted on the wall behind your speakers.
Then, there are the three others Satellites that are all about the size of half a golf ball. The main difference I can see in them is how they attach to their holder. The one you place on the opposite wall from the Vibratron is called a Gravatron. It gets its name from the fact that its resonator is held in place by nothing but gravity. Then, there are the two side resonators called Magnetrons, and you guessed it, they are held on to their holder by a very small magnetic base.
Lastly, there is the Bass Station, a small resonator mounted on its own special spiked, wooden bass. The Bass Station’s resonator is slightly larger and seems to have a different internal volume in its bowl than the ones on the Gravatron and Magnetrons. The stand has a wooden baffle with stiletto spikes. It is to be placed directly below the Vibratron and about three to six inches from the wall.
On Synergistic Research’s web site we are told:
“We began our research by studying Helmholtz resonators, which have been used for over a century to tune low frequencies in an acoustic environment. We worked to modify Helmholtz resonator principles to incorporate the full spectrum of sound – not just low frequencies. We found we could tune music with a system of resonators working together in harmony at key acoustic pressure points. Further research led to several patents-pending. The first deals with the use of magnets to contour activation and decay properties of the Vibratron and Magnetron Satellite resonators. The second includes a new resonator shape called the Vibratron that radiates in a 360 degree pattern over a scientifically-arrived-at frequency range. The third utilizes a unique dispersion baffle to precisely control how the Bass Station resonator affects a rooms’ low frequency acoustics. Later we discovered that using spikes to mechanically couple the Bass Station to a room further enhances control of low frequencies (the Bass Station’s Stilettos). Next began a painstaking process to find resonator material with the correct mass that would operate at mathematically-arrived-at frequencies with target decay patterns. The accumulation of these scientific principals sets the Acoustic ART (Analogue Room Treatment) System apart from all other room tuning methods.”
This is the closest thing I can find as a design goal. Basically I get the feeling Ted Denney, the President of the company, wanted to create a device that would give him some of the same effects he had heard from the singing bowls in the Buddhist Temples. I get the feeling talking with Ted and Elliot, the chief engineer of the company, that they feel the Acoustic ART system is capable of improving the acoustic in a room that is too bright or too dull, has overdone bass or bass that lacks fullness. I think this is quite a lot to hope for, don’t you? Which brings us to the big question.
Do They Work?
After hearing the demonstration in Denver at the RMAF, I had thought and hoped that the Acoustic ART system was designed to be able to replace all the existing room treatments. I had envisioned not needing any absorption panels, diffusion panels, or tube traps. I knew the minute I walked into Synergistic’s reference system this had been a misunderstanding on my part.
As you can see in the picture of their reference room they used several other room treatments besides the Acoustic ARTs, and when Ted came to set up the Tesla PowerCell system and Acoustic ART system in my room, he recommended that I look into getting a pair of the Shakti Hallographic Stabilizers. So now I understand that the Acoustic ART system is another step in tuning your room and system. It is a rather elegant step, one that does things for the sound of a stereo system that no other acoustical product I know of can do. Truth is that, in some rooms, they may well be enough all by themselves, and in most rooms you will need little more.
So the question isn’t “will they work as your only room treatment,” but are they an effective tool in getting the best and most musical sound into your listening room. To be honest, I’m tired of tweaks, especially ones that make non-audiophiles think we are crazy. So, I wish I could tell you they’re just another tweak of the month, but truth is they are much more than that. Another thing I should admit is that I hate to review things that I don’t understand how or why they work. Another review like this I’ve done that come immediately to mind, is the review of the Murata Spherical Ceramic Super Tweeter. The Muratas improved my system’s sound from the bass through the midrange, and even some in the treble. The amount of the improvement to the whole of the sound, however, made no sense to me. It wasn’t difficult to hear or describe what it did for the sound; I just would have liked to have understood why. Well, the Acoustic ARTs fall into that same category. Below, I will describe what they did for the sound of my system, but I have to admit I have no real understanding of how they work.
I should take a moment at this time to explain that I knew from the start that my room would be less than ideal for the Acoustic ART system.
I have sliding glass doors and double windows on the right side of the room. I deal with all that glass with pleated curtains. The curtains tame the glass just fine, but they leave no surface for putting a Magnetron on that side of the wall. I could use a stand, but that would violate one of my rules for my listening room. It isn’t that I really have rules for my room, but for some reason I enjoy music more if my room looks good. My wife appreciates this, but she still looked at me and asked, “why is there a model of Saturn in between the speakers? How does it help the sound?” I kind of looked at my feet and mumbled, “I don’t know, but it does.” Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough, all I really need to say is that the Magnetron that goes on that side of the room ended up going on the molding between the sliding doors and the windows, not exactly the first reflection point.
Now, the left wall is no better. To put the Magnetron in its ideal location, I would have to either take down a beautiful American Indian Alpaca rug or cut a hole in this work of art. As I told Ted, neither of those was going to happen, so I put it above the Alpaca rug. This brings us to the wall behind the listening position: It has a brick fireplace in the center with oil painting in front of the hearth. It also has a 1939 Philco console radio, with a 15-inch field-coil driver, just to the left of the fireplace. Above the radio is a large french poster with a glass frame. To the right of the fireplace is a painting on canvas and some small metal jazz figures. Well, I can’t name everything in the room, but you can look at the pictures. The reason I share all this is that all this stuff influences the effectiveness of the Acoustic ART system. Why? Because the more things like this you have in the room, the more things there are that will sing along with the little bowls.
The last thing you need to know, before I share how these little bowls affect the sound, has to do with the wall behind my speakers. In the picture, you can see how the wall doesn’t go up, but half the way to the ceiling. Then, the top half of the wall opens into the next level of my house. This wall is formed by just two by fours with sheetrock nailed on one side. It creates a sort of cave effect, for this reason I have damped this part of the wall with 2″ acoustical foam. This is certainly not the kind of wall behind the speakers that the Vibratron was designed to be mounted on. The effect of this wall upon the sound of my system also was a source of some difference of opinion between Ted and myself, more on that below.
How the Acoustic ART System Effected the Sound of My System
At the demonstration at the RMAF when they removed the resonators from the room, the sound stage collapsed inside the speakers, the bass lost impact as well as tautness, the leading edge on transients was not as fast, the treble was not as pretty, and the room was not loaded with sound in the same way. Listening to the Synergistic Research reference system, I again heard all this and maybe even more. The system was more focused, the soundstage was considerably more three-dimensional, and the room was acoustically loaded in a way that I’ve only heard from corner placement of speakers before.
So how did the little bowls affect my system? Well, the amount of effect depends on how much I’m willing to change my room, but regardless, they definitely improve the sound of my system. Without changing the room at all, they improve the way sibilants are handled, voices are more realistic, ambience is more natural, decay is better, the midrange is smoother, the soundstage is slightly larger, and the entire room is acoustically loaded better. All of this is easy for anyone to hear. It is also very easy to demonstrate by just taking the bowls in and out of the room. Let me take a moment to break all this down.
Starting with the Bass Station, it’s more effective at smoothing out bass nodes and tightening the bass than any bass traps I have used. At its price, whether or not it’s a bargain depends on how many traps you would need and whether you make your own; but that seems totally irrelevant when you compare the space the traps take up compared to the Bass Station, not to mention the esthetics of the room. Now, how could this possibly be? I have no idea, but it was sure easy to hear. I should mention that the Bass Station seems to work better combined with a Vibratron above it.
The Vibratron seems to be responsible for nearly all the improvements I hear above the midbass, and it even helps there; again I only wish I understood why. As good as the Vibratron is, I still felt the need for the acoustical foam. As I said earlier, at this point Ted and I disagreed about the amount of foam to use. He suggested I leave some in the center and some in the alcove, but in the end I prefer my room a little more damped than Ted does. Regardless, the Vibratron still clearly improves sibilants, voices, ambience decay, and the soundstage.
It’s with the Magnetrons and the Gravitron that I thought I heard the least improvements in my room. In the other two rooms these had a big effect on the soundstage and the loading of the room. In my system, they only seemed to add a small sense of air, and to help acoustically load the room a little, but not like in the other two rooms. After living with the Acoustic ART system for several weeks, I thought I would just take the Magnetrons and Gravatron down and just listen to the system with the Vibratron and the Bass Station. I got quite a surprise: It seemed like the sound just flattened out and lost the wonderful sense of dimensionality I had gotten use to. Still, the effect on the sound in my room does not seem quite as dramatic as it did in the other two rooms. Why would this be? The answer to this may be the most important part of the review.
I may not know what makes the Acoustic ART system work, but I do know the kind of things that influences its effectiveness. The reason I know is because when I take the foam down, the alpaca rug down, remove the metal jazz figurines, the gramophone horn, and put in a stand for one of the magnetrons, I can get the same kind of dramatic results I heard in the other rooms. I can even achieve a huge, cavernous, holographic soundstage.
But, and it’s a really big but, I like my art; I like my original open horn Victrola; and I’m not the kind of audiophile who takes things down like the Victrola horn; or put things up like a stand for the magnetrons for listening sessions. Truth is, even though I’m a reviewer I seldom have listening sessions. I listen to live music six to eight times a month, and I listen to recorded music 25 to 30 hours a week. You can see that listening to music is a big part of my life, not just a hobby. I listen to music while I write, while I read, while I work, when I cook (Hallelujah. –Editor), and sometimes when I’m doing nothing else. What I’m saying is that music, like art and natural beauty, is part of what I enjoy in my everyday life. I want to just come in and put on a LP, drop the needle down, and listen.
One last thing, I’m just not all that into soundstaging, I prefer the more precise tonality I get with the room well damped and the ART system installed. As I said, I did take all those things out of the room, and if I had found the sound more musical I would have tried to work out a compromise. I surely wouldn’t have minded loosing the acoustical foam from the room, but in the end I like the room best with my stuff and the Acoustic ARTS system both in the room. I appreciate how much many audiophiles love the huge, holographic soundstage that I can get when I remover the foam, but I actually find it distracting from the music itself. I do want you to know I can reproduce in my room most everything I heard in the other two rooms.
The Acoustic ART system does some very special things for the sound of a room. Some of its ability can be masked if you have too much stuff in your room. Still, I think the most important thing I learned in this review is that it still works even in a room that doesn’t allow precise setup.
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