HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



July
2008

Reviewed by
Howard Kneller

 


Steve Blinn Designs
3-Shelf Extra-Wide
Equipment Rack

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: 3-Shelf Extra-Wide Equipment Rack

Price: $1545 USD
Dimensions: 43.25"W x 32"H x 21.25"D
Weight: 150 pounds

Warranty: Three years parts and labor


Features
  • Aluminum frame with solid maple shelves
  • Extra-wide shelves can hold a flat-panel TV and/or center-channel speaker
  • Vibration-damping design
  • Shelves are adjustable to accommodate equipment of varying heights
  • Expandable
  • Color options available for frame and shelves

Back in the day, TVs were so bulky that they had to be placed on a piece of furniture that was first a TV stand, and only second an audio rack. You know the kind: They had short shelves typically made of glass, and a small hole in the back to thread cables through. Sure, you could put your TV atop such a rack, but no card-carrying audiophile would ever put anything else in there, even if there were room to do so.

Today, you can barely find one of those big, bulky TVs, as increasing numbers of manufacturers move toward making only flat-panel models. In response to this, many makers of high-end audio racks have modified their products so that they can, with adequate space and vibration control, also hold a flat-panel TV (if you don’t mount it on a wall), a center speaker, and at least a few components.

For the past three years, I’ve been using a rack I made based on an old recipe suggested to me by SoundStage!’s own DIY expert, Colin Smith. This rack uses IKEA end tables, the legs of which are cut down to the size needed for each shelf. The finished shelves are then separated by vibration spikes and stacked atop each other. Total cost of a five-shelf rack, including hardware: about $90. Would this cheap -- er, inexpensive -- DIY rack be bested by one made by professionals? I was determined to find out.

Background

After supporting your equipment, a rack’s most important function is to dissipate the vibrational energy generated by those components and isolate them from external floor- and airborne vibrations. As many audiophiles know, vibration can be a significant impediment to the accurate reproduction of audio and video.

However, in addition to improving certain aspects of audio and video performance, a great rack will lower the noise floor, improve the soundstage, permit greater resolution of details, increase musicality, and improve all portions of the frequency spectrum. This latter phenomenon is referred to as "broadband" noise reduction.

Examining a lot of racks will tell you that using designs and materials that increase a rack’s rigidity will get you a good part of the way toward these goals. But rigidity alone won’t get you a great rack, and it won’t significantly reduce broadband noise. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

The designers of many top-notch racks use extremely complex engineering principles, some of them grounded in technologies developed for the defense, aerospace, and auto-racing industries -- all applications for which the control of vibration is essential. One manufacturer claims that its racks are based on technology developed to produce ultraquiet nuclear submarines.

Not surprisingly, different designs call for a host of different materials. These include granite, various types of solid wood and medium-density fiberboard (MDF), aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, acrylic, other synthetics -- and, of course, glass. Some manufacturers claim that stone, metal, and glass are too "live" or "zingy"; that instead of dissipating vibrational energy, they bounce it right back into the component. On the other hand, manufacturers who use such materials claim to have tamed this tendency through various means. It’s enough to make an audiophile’s head spin.

Steve Blinn Designs 3-Shelf Extra-Wide Equipment Rack

Enter Steve Blinn Designs, makers of racks and stands for electronic components, turntables, and speakers. Steve Blinn uses a "high-precision" aluminum frame in many of his products, and claims that this, "create[s] the most stable, rock solid foundation available." The impressive shelves of his racks are thick slabs of solid maple.

Maple is popular among makers of racks and amp stands for its hardness and density, and for the fact that it comes mainly from the northern US and Canada. According to Blinn, maple is far better than MDF at controlling resonances, isn’t zingy, and imparts none of its own characteristics to the sound. He couples his maple shelves to his aluminum frames using a proprietary system of shelf suspension that includes "load rated copolymer rubber hemispheres" (read: small rubber balls), which, he says, add another layer of vibration control.

Every rack Blinn sells is essentially a handmade custom order. No racks are kept in inventory, so expect to wait about three weeks from the time you place your order until it arrives at your door.

The subject of this review is a low, wide model, the 3-Shelf Extra-Wide Equipment Rack. Including frame, it measures 43.25"W by 32"H (including 1.5"H spikes) by 21.25"D. Each shelf is 40"W by 18"D by 1.5" thick. If you want to place a TV atop your rack, I recommend a slightly lower overall height. Retail cost of rack as reviewed: $1545.

Assembly, features, fit’n’finish

The Blinn 3-Shelf rack arrived over several days in six boxes, one of them heavy, four of them extremely large and heavy. Make no mistake: even before I unpacked it, I was impressed.

Assembly was no small task, but was straightforward once I got the hang of it. The only tool required for assembly was a hex key, which was included. Also included are very substantial spikes and an inexpensive level, the latter a touch I appreciated. The instructions seemed overly complex and not all that helpful, so I disregarded them. Not surprisingly, when I was finished, I was fairly sure I’d assembled the rack incorrectly. How did I know this? Well, sometimes you just know. (Note to editor: setting up and reviewing a rack is a tough job.)

The next day, I contacted Blinn and asked if he had a picture of a finished rack he could send me. He promptly sent along a CAD drawing that would have made assembly easier than playing with an Erector Set.

During assembly, I discovered what I consider a major selling point for the rack: the heights of the shelves, which you tighten in place with the hex key, are adjustable. When your equipment changes, simply readjust the shelves as needed. If you require more space, you can buy additional shelves, as well as four taller vertical aluminum rods to replace the ones you have. This reassuring degree of flexibility essentially future-proofs the rack, though for some reason it’s not mentioned on Blinn’s website.

Once the rack was assembled, it was clear that it was one extremely handsome product. In fact, it was much better looking than I’d anticipated. The large slabs of dark brown maple were nothing short of gorgeous -- their finish favorably competed with any high-end furniture I’ve seen, and they were beautifully offset by the silver steel frame. In all, very elegant.

Next, I needed to fill the rack with my equipment. I quickly determined that my soon-to-be-replaced RPTV was too big to go atop the 3-Shelf, so I didn’t even try. However, I was able to put my very large MartinLogan Stage center speaker on one shelf, and my Marantz DV8400 DVD player and other components on the remaining two. It was time to listen.

Sound

The 3-Shelf Extra-Wide Equipment Rack brought clarity and definition to the upper registers. The decays of cymbal and piano notes sounded more realistic. I could hear this, for example, with Count Basie’s "One O’Clock Jump," an instrumental that appears on Sinatra at the Sands [DVD-A, Reprise R9 73777]. These instruments had never sounded so "right" and natural.

Similarly, bass was tighter and more defined with the Blinn. It seemed as if my system was delivering more low-level information. The bass notes became spongy. This was aptly demonstrated by Yes’s Fragile [DVD-A, Elektra/Rhino R9 78249]. One track, "The Fish (Schindleria praematurus)," is a showcase for the very substantial talents of bassist Chris Squire. Previously, his prodigious bass notes had sounded somewhat blurred through my system. With the Blinn rack, however, those same notes had sonically visible contours, nooks, and crannies that reminded me of a sponge.

But even as detail improved, I also heard more low-level slam. The DTS soundtrack of Toy Story 2 is fantastic. Particularly noteworthy is chapter 2, the film’s first scene, which takes place inside an animated video game being played by the movies’ animated characters. When the game’s Buzz Lightyear battles the alien robots, there are plenty of low-frequency explosions. With the Blinn, these explosions were bigger, had more impact, and were definitely crisper than before.

Soundstages were now more three-dimensional, and the music sounded more relaxed and effortless. Because the notes themselves now had more integrity, the silences between them were also more defined. I heard some improvements in the midrange, though not nearly as dramatic as the improvements in the bass and highs.

I’d experienced similar sorts of isolation-based improvements in the past, when I added to my system Black Diamond Racing’s pucks and cones, as well as various isolation bases and mass-loading Rocks from Bright Star Audio. With the Blinn rack, however, I was noticing them again, and further improving my system’s already heightened performance. It occurred to me that getting a good rack should have been the first step I took toward the promised land of resonance-free sound, not the last.

But while I’ve experienced substantial sonic gains by using isolation devices in my system, at least one audiophile friend has not shared this experience. His system is in the basement of his suburban house; I live on a high floor of a tall city building. He believes that buildings such as mine vibrate like giant tuning forks, and thus are far more compromised by resonances; in short, an isolating rack such as the Blinn has a lot of material to work with. This may be something to bear in mind, though I suspect that virtually everyone can benefit, to at least some degree, from reducing resonances in their audio/video systems.

The Blinn rack bettered my DIY rack by a wide margin, which didn’t surprise me. While at one point IKEA’s tables may have been made of solid wood, they are now hollow and made of particleboard. I suppose that, with a little effort and rudimentary carpentry skills, they could be filled with sand and/or lead shot to improve their resonance-absorbing qualities. But while I feel that a DIY rack remains a good choice for someone on a limited budget, mine never stood a fighting chance against a rack of such superior materials, craftsmanship, and design as the Blinn.

Conclusion

The racks from Steve Blinn Designs seem to offer the best of both worlds. Blinn’s thick maple shelves provide the resonance-dissipating properties that make that wood so popular among audiophiles, and the aluminum frame provides significant rigidity. As described above, the performance improvements that appear to result from this configuration were substantial.

The 3-Shelf Extra-Wide Equipment Rack significantly improved the performance of my system and bested my DIY rack by a wide margin. Its build quality is rock solid, its configuration is flexible, and it looks incredible. Nor will it break the bank. In my book, all of that makes it a good value, and highly worthy of recommendation. Nice job, Steve Blinn.

Review System
Speakers - MartinLogan Vantage (mains), MartinLogan Stage (center), MartinLogan Script i (surrounds), MartinLogan Descent i (subwoofer)
A/V processor - B&K AVR-507
Amplifier - Halcro MC50
Source - Marantz DV8400 DVD player
Power conditioners - Synergistic Research Powercell, PS Audio Noise Harvesters, DIY parallel filter
Cables - Synergistic Research, Kimber Kable, DH Labs
Isolation devices - Bright Star Audio Big Rocks and Little Rocks, Black Diamond Racing cones and pucks, Balanced Power Technologies Cable Stilts, DIY isolation rack
Display device - Sony RPTV
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Steve Blinn Designs
30 Daniel Low Terrace, Suite 4C
Staten Island, NY 10301
Phone: (917) 361-4701

E-mail: sblinderman@hotmail.com
Website: www.steveblinndesigns.com


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