MAD SCIENTIST AUDIO BLACKDISCUS audio system enhancers
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AND now, for something completely different. But before I begin, I have to offer my apologies to both the editor and manufacturer for the delay in submitting this article.
These products were received for review in the early part of 2013’s final quarter and, sensing a scoop as no other reviews of this product had been published elsewhere back then, I worked quickly on testing them and sent a draft of the review to the manufacturer for a fact check, and to procure response from the Chief Mad Scientist, one Bob Prangnell, over in Mad Scientist Audio’s homeland of New Zealand.
You’re likely to have come across his name and his audio-related writings on the Internet if you’re into the DIY-equipment and technical side of this hobby. An engineer by training who runs a software company, he’s been a long time audio hobbyist, so he certainly looks like he’s got the technical chops to come up with things which do what he claims them to do.
After the initial draft was done, Prangnell sent improved versions of the BlackDiscus. In the meantime, the emphasised application of the product also changed. They were initially marketed specifically as headphone performance enhancement products, bearing the name CanOpeners. However, the original versions of the CanOpeners were apparently dropped from the product line-up.
As I more readily perceived an improvement (or difference, I should say, at this stage) in the effects when using the second batch of products received, I did not feel I should just recycle my already-written review findings and had to re-commence listening tests from scratch. Then things happened with the day job and hi-fi had to take a back seat for a while. An extended bout of illness didn’t help either.
A few weeks ago, I started to rework my initial post re-test listening notes and drafts into this (much re-written) article. There have been other published reviews of the BlackDiscus since, Prangnell is probably wondering if we’ll ever get round to publishing the review of his submitted wares. I apologise unreservedly.
Alright then, so what exactly are these BlackDiscus thingamajigs and what do they do? There was no specific description of what these products do per se from the manufacturer (unless you consider “audio system enhancers” sufficiently descriptive), but they work by apparently having an effect when placed near a system component’s interconnects, power inlets, on top of power transformers and even on op-amps and chip-based power amps, amplifiers and loudspeakers’ connectors (both ends) and near the transducers of one’s headphone set. Mad Scientist invites experimentation by users and hope to get feedback thereon.
The common factor that one can deduce from the Mad Scientist’s suggested applications is they seem to be aimed at addressing how radio frequency and electromagnetic interference can degrade the purity of the audio signal before the drive units of one’s loudspeakers or headphones turns it back into the sonic pressure waves our eardrums tell our brains is music.
BITS AND PARTS: Visually, the BlackDiscus units look like refugees from a cookie jar, in differing sizes as the pictures indicate. The simple reality is I have no idea what goes into the making of the BlackDiscusses.
What is clear is a different material is used to constitute the base, while the apparent key ingredient looks like some kind of semi-crystalline metallic particle-like substance re-integrated with processes which we have no official explanation on, onto the uppermost layer of the “cookie”. This could well be a red herring to throw competitors off the mark, and the “magic ingredients” could well be somehow infused within the base layer, hidden from view, one never knows. If it works, I couldn’t care less.
As stated earlier, I equally have no idea how they work, but there are some rather hilarious non-explanations offered by the Mad Scientist on its website. I don’t think RF absorption per se is a likelihood – I put two of the large units onto the back of my iPad and turned on the Bluetooth function to send music wirelessly to a pair of LG Tone+ HBS-730 stereo earphones, and there didn’t seem to be any detriment to the iPad receiving Wi-Fi signals or the LGs playing music from the iPad.
IN CONCERT: With so many potential points of testing, it is not possible to elaborate on all of them fully within this article. Read these observations more as summarised findings. The main tests, not all in the same session, were carried out in a combination of blind and sighted methods with the help of two gentlemen – Gentleman A is an experienced audiophile, while Gentleman B is a music lover with a decent, if elderly, budget separates system, and only has a passing interest in the gear side of things.
In sighted tests which I performed on my own, my findings were that I could not determine with confidence whether these products do anything when placed near the tape heads of a cassette unit (I used a Sony Walkman Pro WM D6C) or on the headshell of a tonearm, just above where the phono cartridge’s pins interfaced with the tonearm cable. For the latter, I used a single piece of the old version “CanOpeners” as even the smallest BlackDiscus piece would have been impractical to use.
When it came to headphones, I could confidently say I indeed got noticeable results, albeit a negative one in the beginning. Using the CanOpeners placed against the earcups (is that what they are called?) of my Sennheiser HD414 Classics in the way which one was instructed not to (when the CanOpeners were still available), each facing outward and opposite of each other, the air and space in the music sounded diminished. If there was a “blandness” function button on my amp, results might perhaps have sounded like this when depressed.
Applying the CanOpeners to the headband, the impression I got was a cleaner, more defined sound, with somewhat better separation of the images. But it still gave the impression of taking away some airiness, an effect I did not like. I then moved on to a pair of Stax SR-30s, plugged into its proprietary energiser and in turn into the speaker terminals of the amplifier. Results, on the positive side, with a CanOpener on the connector plug of the headphone cable, were similar to as previously observed, but this time there was no clear loss of airiness ensuing. I then added two of the largest BlackDiscusses on top of the Stax’s energiser – I thought they did clear up some background hash a little, but the changes were too small to be of significance for me personally, relative to the asking price of these units.
For the main system tests, my helpers and I targeted the connectors of the tonearm cable at the phono stage end (or that on the integrated amps also used in the test sessions), from the phono stage to the volume controller, both ends (we were using passive pre-amps, save in the case of the Rotel Michi which drove the partnering power amps directly), and at the pre-power amp interfaces (both ends) as well as at the loudspeaker cable interfaces (again both ends).
When the BlackDiscusses were unanimously perceived to work with the specific cabling connector points, there was general consensus among the three of us that the main effect was to clean up the treble, smoothening the sound and allowing for a slightly more “dense” image of the singer or instrument to be perceived, with little vocal inflections captured or reverb effects applied by the recording engineers being more easily heard. Ambient cues of the recording venue sounded clearer, giving a better picture of the acoustic environment of the recording, and fade-outs seemed to just trail on that bit longer.
The effect also seemed to allow mids and the upper bass to sound more substantial, though I would hesitate to express this as “improved bass” lest the already highly limited way words can accurately convey how one perceives sound be misinterpreted (and there is lots of room for the latter, as we all know). I think I would perhaps express it more like noticing the effect of the sounding board of a guitar apart from the strings more with the BlackDiscusses applied, or like a slight change in microphone positioning. Gentleman A did not feel he was sufficiently confident to want to support these latter statements though, while Gentleman B did seem to agree (well he agreed, he said, when he heard the effect, which was not always!). I wondered then if Gentleman A spending more time with hi-fi, while myself and Gentleman B having more exposure to listening to live solo instruments (he plays guitar by the way, while I often sit in on my children’s violin and cello sessions) had anything to do with this.
This smoothening effect was perceived to apply uniformly and fairly subtly in a spread out range of the highs, in case one gets the mistaken impression I am trying to convey the BlackDiscusses produce an effect akin to ferrite clamps, or worse, notch filters being applied. The cleaner treble, with reduction of harshness, manifested itself most clearly when applied to the connectors of the inputs of the phono stages in use. In order of effect, improvements were heard most on the Exposure X integrated amp’s phono input, followed by the JC3. Strangely, improvements were more difficult to hear on the ADL GT40. My helpers and I also agreed, again when we agreed that is, that the effects were also noticeable more on the loudspeaker terminals than when applied to the connectors of the passive controller and the power amplifier’s input jacks.
There were perceived improvements when the BlackDiscusses were applied to the top of the casing above the transformers of the Exposure X and Creek 4140 integrated amplifiers I had on hand (the Creek has wooden casing, by the way). Yet when tried on the casing of the Michi phono stage and all four of the Mesa Baron’s encased transformers, I wouldn’t dare say I could discern any clear difference. I am not surprised by these results because I have a clone of the VPI Magic Brick, and the results here mirror those obtained when the Brick clone is similarly used.
Things got all the more interesting when the BlackDiscusses were applied at multiple points simultaneously. We all felt this was where the effects were most noticeable (this part was done sighted with all listeners participating) and we were most confident we heard what we heard, when we agreed we heard it. I say “most confident” because I have reservations whether any of the three of us would dare use expressions of absolute certainty once we looked at the results from the blind listening tests.
The blind tests were indeed equivocal in outcome if the idea was to use them to statistically plot the three listeners’ ability to pick out when the BlackDiscusses were in use, and not. I knew we would be getting into controversial territory here given the vehement disagreements those in support of, or those opposed to, the idea that this method was the definitive, and indeed only, way one should ever test listeners’ ability to perceive changes. I acted as “controller” more times than I put myself in the listening hot seat, so the two helpers contributed their perceptions more than I – Gentleman B seemed better able to get consistently correct results compared to Gentleman A when opining whether the BlackDiscusses were being applied or not.
And myself? Let’s just say statistically, if the test results of the BlackDiscusses being applied to the phono stage of the Exposure X amp were excluded (which I got it right more times than not in a “best of five” sequence), a parakeet randomly pecking out selections for five binary choices in five “test sets” could possibly have beaten my score. If that kills all credibility I ever had as being a perceptive listener with readers, so be it.
APPLAUSE: Look, with the equivocal results with the blind listening tests, and the sometimes inconsistent ones in the sighted tests apart, I’m reasonably confident these here BlackDiscusses do do something positive to one’s system and improve the musical enjoyment result when properly applied… and when they work, that is. The latter can perhaps be explained as being due to different components, cables or their connectors suffering different magnitudes of RFI and EMI interference depending on how much their designers paid attention to such shielding
I did extensive tests outside of just what was conveyed here, and while I will not pretend this is the kind of item that will make big changes like a component swap would, I am convinced they can make a difference. And the Mad Scientists have put their money where their mouths are. Mad Scientist Audio is giving out free samples (at the time of writing, at least) to those who contact them, so rather than wasting the time to write in to lambast this article, or the writer personally, suck and see for yourself. What have you got to lose?
BUT…: Okay, the biggest impediment for anyone to want to acquire a product like this is the believability factor. As said above, you can make the effort to obtain free samples. Those already inclined to condemn this article and or the writer for even daring to test such a product, for which no clear scientific basis for working has been offered, will no doubt do so, whether privately or in emails, so knock yourselves out.
Given the places the BlackDiscusses are recommended to be placed on or near, one has to question if a cookie or biscuit shaped disc is the best way for form to follow function. Before submitting the review I glanced again at the Mad Scientist Audio website and noticed newer iterations in perhaps more practical shapes, though the BlackDiscus cookies are still the main form this product comes in. And they do seem expensive … (but may be worth it if they work for you in your system).
FINALE: You just have to make your own minds up on this one, folks. I am a believer, so there. My thanks to Gentlemen A and B for taking the time to take part in the listening tests, and thank the Mad Scientists for sending in their wares for review in the first place.
Yes, the tests were humbling in outcome for me, but they sure were a hoot, if rather hard work, to conduct.
Sources: Marantz DV-7001 multiplayer, Thorens TD124 turntable with SME 3012-II tonearm rewired by Frank Acoustics and Rega Carbon cartridge, Roksan Xerxes-RB1000-Benz ACE S (Red) / Amplification: Parasound Halo JC3, ADL GT40 and Rotel Michi RHQ-10 phono stages, Exposure X and Creek 4140s2 integrated amplifiers, Euphonic Research ATT600 and diyparadise Eva passive controllers, Euphonic Research Amp 80 and Mesa Baron power amps / Speakers: Sonus faber Guarneri Homage, Triangle Ikoto, Mordaunt-Short MS10i / Headphones: Stax SR30 and Sennheiser HD414 Classic
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