|Stillpoint Ultra SS and BlackPods|
In the audio land of exotic footers, Stillpoints reign supreme. The most common question I get about BlackPods is "How do they compare to Stillpoints". Well, until a week ago I'd never even seen a Stillpoint, let alone heard one. But this last week I've got my hands on some Ultra SS Stillpoints and I've been testing them extensively. Also I've had several audiophile friends come over for a listen, and all say the same sort of things.
I realize of course that a comparative review written by the designer and maker of one of the products is likely to be viewed with suspicion (or worse). But I trust that my evaluation will be borne out by other's experiences in time.
This story starts with a visit to Audio Reference in Auckland - our local high-end shop. I'd gone to meet Terry and listen to a variety of footers. We used the system shown below:
This was a decent system, but was sufficiently different to make subtle comparisons difficult for me. We started out without any footers on the DAC. Then added the smallest Stillpoints, the Ultra Mini (us$375 for 3). That made an obvious difference. Then we tried BlackPods. Different again. Notably more bass. Then it was the turn of the Stillpoint Ultra SS (us$747 for 3). Better bass than the Minis. Lastly we listened to some Finite Elemente Cerapuc (around us$550 for 3). These had great bass, but notably less information coming through than the Stillpoints or Blackpods (currently $99 for 3, normal price $139 for 3).
Terry very kindly lent me a set of Stillpoint Ultra SS so I could do a proper evaluation. I did not think it worth borrowing the Ultra Minis, as they seemed to be some distance behind the Ultra SS in performance. At this stage I didn't really have a handle on how they sounded, as the system was unfamiliar and lower resolution than my normal system.
After some initial playing around and casual listening, I set about finding the best place for the Ultra SS footers. I used my DAC/Preamp as the mule, as this is most sensitive to footer changes. It's a Twisted Pear Buffalo III board, using the ESS9018 Sabre chip, running into a Broskie Unbalancer tube back-end.
I found with BlackPods that placement is important. You can alter the effect of footers somewhat by moving them around. So I wanted to find a good location for the Stillpoints. Turns out that they like the same sort of place that the Blackpods like, so that made testing easier. Also I found they sounded best with the 'hard hat' side up, slightly unscrewed (as recommended).
The rest of the test system, for those interested : Speakers Magnepan 3.6, Amp Goldmund clone that I breathed on a little, Front end, Squeezebox touch with Remedy Recloker.
Some of the CDs used: Patricia Barber: Modern Cool, Cafe Blue. Dave Matthews: Some Devil. Fat Freddy's Drop : Based on a true story. Keb Mo: Slowdown. Little Axe : Hard Grind.
I have to say that I was expecting Stillpoints to be better than my BlackPods. And on initial listening they sounded very impressive, making it easy to pick out detail that you hadn't heard before. They were clearly a cut above your average cones, or even 'good' cones like Black Carbon Racing Cones.
The most immediately apparent thing was that the Stillpoints had more treble, and the BlackPods had more bass.
As I went back and forth between the two footers, I started having this heretical thought :
Wow...Blackpods are better than Stillpoints.
The extra treble that the Stillpoints had, while exposing extra detail, also seemed too much. Some vocals that work fine on Blackpods became sibilant with the Ultra SS (eg Too Rich For My Blood, Cafe Blue). This gave the effect of a top-heavy presentation. This was also compounded by the bass, which was richer, deeper and more controlled on the BlackPods. You could hear the bass lines with the Stillpoints, but BlackPods let you feel them as well.
So once I'd broken that mental barrier, I started noticing all sort of other things:
- Soundstage depth. One thing I've noticed with all the very best systems that I've heard - they all have a fabulous way of presenting soundstage depth. (and even height). I put this down to the fact that depth cues are very low level, often buried in other music and distortion. Only systems with truly high resolution can present depth convincingly.
I noticed on several tracks that BlackPods portray a much more 3D soundstage than Stillpoints. For instance, one Fat Freddy's Drop track has this sound effect that appears to leap out of one speaker, come towards you in an arc, then go back to the other speaker. Artificial, for sure, but a cool effect. The BlackPods make you move out of the way. On the Stillpoints there's hardly any depth, the sound appearing to simply move between the speakers, not leap out at you.
With Stillpoints, a track like Gravedigger (Some Devil) has a strange effect on the lead vocal, appearing phasey. With BlackPods you can hear that it's set well back on the soundstage.
- Musicality : the BlackPods are just more musical. They sound more like music. The Ultra SS are more electronic sounding.
- Toe-Tapability. This highly scientific test measures how easily you tap your toes to some toe-tapping music. Some call it PRAT. Anyway, time and time again I found it much easier to for my toes to tap with BlackPods.
- Dynamics : I noticed that music seemed to have more sense of ebb and flow with BlackPods. More 'surprise factor' - the effect you get when an instrument comes in loudly and unexpectedly.
After a couple of days of this, I got pretty tired of the Stillpoints sound. My ears/brain dialled into their signature sound, so it became very easy to hear. Normally when I borrow gear I listen as much as I can, but with Stillpoints I only now use them when I want to do a test, or demonstration. I just don't find them as musical, as as enjoyable to listen to as BlackPods.
Given that BlackPods cost a small fraction of Stillpoints, they are a complete bargain. They are still $99 (for a set of 3) for the next few days. After that they will be $139 - and you can return in 30 days for a refund. But I can't seen anyone returning these..
I have to admit that I am quite surprised the way it's turned out. I really thought they would be better than this..