[This review also appears at StereoTimes.com. M.S.]
The key to canned heaven: involvement
When Lee and I moved up to high-definition video, we asked ourselves why we’d waited so long. Never mind the technology — purely on an emotional plane, the difference is one of heightened involvement. Our cable setup permits me to switch between a given station’s standard and HD transmissions, and what a contrast that provides! The more lifelike the image, the more involving — in one delightful example, something like a cheap vacation: the Tour de France on our HD screen, with its helicopter views of quaint towns, grand chateaux, cathedrals, churches, castles, mountain ranges and countryside, and of course the race.
More than ever, our culture and entertainment come to us canned. Compare the time you spend at live events — sports, concerts, theater, small-venue music, etc. — against time spent with recordings, TV, streaming, the Internet…. And, as melomanes, discophiles and audiophiles, I’m sure we all agree that music reigns supreme. As with hi-def video, the more engaging the presentation, the more involving. In our dogged pursuit of yet-better, we go to great pains to create an illusion of physical presence. How often have we been beguiled by an audio reviewer’s exclamation, “I felt as if I could reach out and touch them!” Whatever it is, I’ll take a dozen!
My curiosity about Holger Stein’s H2 Harmonizers connects to another free-standing peripheral, Ken Ishiguro’s RR-77 Schumann Resonance Generator, which impressed me as among Acoustic Revive’s most successful products. Small and near weightless, the unprepossessing trifle casts a spell: A somewhat recessed, somewhat sedate soundstage steps up a notch or two, as do dimensionality and texture. I’ve praised and recommended the RR-77 at every opportunity, yet with no real understanding of how it produces its effects, easily enough tested by turning the unit off, as I’ve done for myself and visitors. Something happens when the RR-77 is in play.
So, imagine my glee when offered an opportunity to write about SteinMusic’s devices, earlier praise for which includes — as no surprise — expressions of mystification as to how the stuff works.
Holger Stein sent four H2 Harmonizers (two marked A, two marked B) with dedicated stands that elevate the units 40 inches from the floor. In order to keep a snake pit at bay, rather than the included 12V wall warts with their spindly wires, I chose to go with the four-AA-battery-per-unit alternative. Also in the shipment were three diamond-shaped and six triangular objects, all black, identified as Magic Diamonds and Magic Stones, with instructions regarding placement: one each on the floor at the listening room’s four corners, two atop the speakers, one at the ceiling’s center point, the remaining two attached to the walls at about 70 inches elevation behind the sound system and listening position.
Backed with a dab of stickum, one Magic Diamond, resembling a juvenile stalactite, clings to ceiling. The remaining two Diamonds sit atop the Sasha W/Ps. The Stones lie on the floor at the room’s four corners, with two on the low Chinese cabinet that serves as the system’s CDP, preamp and amps’ stand. I chose to forego the wall installation as a concession to my tolerant wife, an interior designer with firm ideas about what looks good. She’s rarely wrong. A black Diamond on a white ceiling is quite enough. This is, after all, our living room. The Stones and Diamonds, glossy on their underside, otherwise textured, appear to be made of a hard synthetic I first took for glass. Normally, I’d dismiss them as yet more silliness from our community’s Cloud Nine Variety Shoppe. That’s normally. There’s nothing normal — or dismissible — about these SteinMusic products.
The cat departs the bag
Living with a quartet of H2 Harmonizers, Magic Diamonds and Magic Stones has exposed this earth-anchored secularist to a large dose of heaven. As with the RR-77, testing the Harmonizers’ effectiveness requires no more than turning them off, or better, removing them from the room. (Holger Stein contends that the Harmonizers’ effects linger for a spell after they’ve been turned off.) Removing and reinstating the auxiliary bits, the ceiling Diamond specifically, calls for a stepladder this old fart negotiates with reluctance. More to the point, in order for a comparison to be anywhere near valid, the sooner done the better. Harvesting this widespread collection and settling down for another listening session isn’t the most reliable way to arrive at a clear appreciation of difference. But turning the Harmonizers off takes no time at all. Removing them from the room takes a little longer.
As for removals, I took away the Diamonds atop my Wilsons and thought I detected a slight diminution of the effects I’d been enjoying.
In the event, the Diamonds and Stones are intended to complement the Harmonizers. While I’m not dwelling on them as entities apart, you’d be foolish to buy two, three or four of these handsome H2 boxes without following their inventor’s recommendations regarding their enigmatic helpmeets. I look at it this way: Having turned off or removed the Harmonizers often enough to get a clear picture of what they accomplish, they impress me as the work of a genius or something close.
And if I failed earlier to make the point: While ignorance may not be bliss, it does excuse me from pretending to understand the science or alchemy that informs what I’m hearing. I’ve listened long enough to know that Holger Stein has devised a mind-boggling peripheral, and if he claims that the Diamonds and Stones augment their effectiveness, I’m not prepared to snicker.
Whence these raves?
Typically, my system projects a sense of edge. The Sofia W/Ps stand seven feet apart on center and eight feet from where I sit. The music dwells, somewhat recessed, largely within that spread. The SteinMusic assemblage blunts one’s sense of enclosure, creating rather a tapering-off, much as we experience live (unamplified) acoustic music. The soundfield becomes more lifelike and therefore more engaging. Think perhaps of a framed picture of whatever size as compared with the same subject as a mural. But that doesn’t quite say it. Better: looking at something from the outside in compared with standing in the room. The Harmonizers impart a soul-satisfying sense of dimensionality and body. The Acoustic Revive RR-77 brings the soundfield forward. And so too does the H2 foursome, along with a much more vivid sense of depth and overall space.
A feeling of energy likewise applies. The sounds are more momentous. Vigor and substance say it as well. I perceive more meat on the image’s bones. In a word, presence. (In audio, “presence” has an unfortunate history. Your interest in hi-fi may hark back to our hobby’s dim beginnings when, in addition to bass and treble controls, front panels included a presence control, or worse yet, a Fletcher-Munson loudness control — a dog and pony show that never quite accomplished what it set out to achieve. I apply “presence” here in its purest, most benevolent sense.)
And, with time, I’ve also noticed a more powerful effect. Call it burn-in, whatever: The H2 on-off comparisons are not in the least ambiguous. What I’m hearing is there, dispensing happiness. And this ties in with Holger Stein’s comments: The H2 needs about a week of use, followed on each occasion, by 15 minutes to stabilize. Indeed, if the Harmonizers are left in the on position, the effect becomes all the more rewarding.
A Harmonizer’s backside features a three-way switch (off, on with LED lit, on with LED unlit) and a dial for adjusting intensity. Trial and error tell me that the ten o’clock position works best. I’ve had it from nine to one o’clock, with the latter position the least satisfactory. The choice of LED on or off relates to battery longevity. If you go with batteries, the blue LED operates primarily as an indicator of battery vitality. It will burn more dimly if the unit’s batteries have begun to fatigue. Holger also maintains that batteries are good for about two years of continuous use if one operates the Harmonizers in the LED-off position.
For Philip Guston, Morton Feldman’s 1984 composition for flutist doubling piccolo and alto flute, pianist doubling celesta, and percussionist on glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba and chimes, runs to better than four hours. For the purpose of these comments, I spent my time with one of three performances in my collection, hatNOW Series CD 4-61041/2/3/4, with Eberhard Blum, Nils Vigeland and Jan Williams, recorded in 1991 at Slee Auditorium, the University of Buffalo, by a Swiss engineer whose work I’ve long admired, Peter Pfister. Feldman’s pianissimo provocations consist of near-repetitive modules and bladder-busting lengthiness. It has been suggested that live-event performers ought to wear catheters.
Feldman’s instrumental colors are ravishing. With the Harmonizers et al. doing their cryptic thing, the flute and piccolo acquire so much body that the experience touches on the deliciously painful: brilliant, crystalline highs. In similar fashion, the metal percussion shimmers and glows. Feldman, the consummate sensualist, would relish this experience.
Helmut Lachenmann is my favorite hard-core modernist. His provocatively — and, in the event, ironically — titled Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (Dance Suite with German Anthem), for string quartet and orchestra, is best described as a wide-ranging romp of abrupt, rhythmically propelling hiccups. One visitor claimed to have pieced together the scraps of Deutschland über alles amidst the high-wire clamor. I’ve never been able to, not that it matters. H2wise, the performance is twice as much fun. Fabulous transients, dynamics to die for, gorgeous detail, unparalleled brilliance in the upper registers, near-tactile presence…. Only a hog could ask for more. (The Arditti Quartet and Radio-Symphony Orchestra, Berlin, Olaf Helzhold conducting; Arditti Quartet Edition 17, Montaigne Naïve CD MO782130, recorded in 1991, Recording Supervisor Michael Sander.)
A German label, Kairos (CD 0012142AI), features two more Lachenmann extravaganzas, NUN, for flute, trombone and orchestra, and Notturno (Music für Julia), for small orchestra and cello. As with the Dance Suite, the SteinMusic assemblage elevated everything we enjoy about a spectacular recording: spaciousness, gorgeous dynamics, resolution and transparency — and, with these edge-dwelling gems, a richly detailed panorama absent any sense of listening-room enclosure.
Nothing about an audio review is quite as tiresome as interminable narrations of what the reviewer listened to. I’ll be brief. This example of the SteinMusic assemblage’s effectiveness is something you’d probably enjoy. The Italian Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) spent a number of productive years in Spain. Harmonia Mundi CD HMC 902092 offers La musica notturna delle strade de Madrid (Night Music of the Streets of Madrid), for string quintet, and in the third offering, a string quartet with guitar and castanets. The two quintets employ a second cello. The eponymous quintet in C major is ripe with pungent themes and drive. The work with guitar and castanets further illustrates why the Harmonizers are worth the tariff. The guitar does not jump out. It’s in there among the gorgeously textured ensemble, yet perfectly distinctive. In contrast, the castanets electrify. In the way of presentation, everything is as it should be. Involvement.
The icing departs and returns to the cake
Finally, as a demonstration I put on for myself largely to dispel any possibility I’d been imagining differences, I again removed the four Harmonizers along with the Stones and Diamonds, excepting the ceiling Diamond.
I’d been listening to Bridge BCD 9012, Horn Trios by Brahms and Ligeti (Daniel Phillips, violin; William Purvis, horn; Richard Goode, piano, recorded by Judy Sherman and David Hancock respectively, in ’88 and ’86). With the Stein assemblage out of the room, the performances presented a diminished sense of dimension and immediacy. With the Stein assemblage back in the room the music became far more involving.
The same can be said for a solo-piano disc, Galina Ustvolskaya’s brutalist piano sonatas, with pianist Marianne Schroeder, on a characteristically well recorded hat[now]ART 179, Peter Pfister, supervising engineer. This 2010 release is a second edition of a CD originally released in 1995. The instrument’s room-presence and body is deeply satisfying if you can get past the composer’s unremitting harshness. Shostakovich admired his pupil enough to quote her themes in works of his own. On their own they bowled me over thanks in good part to the Stein assemblage. In its brief absence it was missed.
This also needs to be said. Often. A reviewer, particularly a subjectivist reviewer, should examine his impressions as honestly as possible. I think I’ve done that, and I also think that Holger’s innovations have done more in the way of sonic enhancement than any peripheral I’ve thus far experienced. Indeed, it makes me uncomfortable to refer to these critically significant objects as peripherals.
Holger Stein explains
“The air molecules in the listening room are propelled through the loudspeaker and thus transmit the sound. In order to elongate the air molecules from their rest position it is necessary to spend energy. It is easier to move them once they’re in motion. This phenomenon is similar to static and dynamic friction.
“To move a large rock is not an easy task. But once in motion it’s more easily pushed forward. The SteinMusic Harmonizer works on a similar principle at an ethereal level. The air, which is not actually moved, is charged with information, producing the same effect. It is elongated from its rest position without much effort and is thus able to transport sound of a different quality. This is a working hypothesis. While it does not claim to be complete or even understandable, it’s the sound that counts.
“With little understanding of the science behind the phenomenon, often times audiophiles take for granted that the sound waves we call music simply arrive at our ears. Neither sound nor electricity can travel in a vacuum. It is easy to forget that sound waves travel by riding the molecules that comprise our atmosphere, the very air we breathe. This atmosphere is actually a variable mixture that conducts sound waves as well as electricity. It can be dry or humid, fresh or polluted, just to mention several states.
“The air in the listening room differs from the ocean’s atmosphere or that of the mountains. It feels different and has different qualities, which brings us to its ability to transfer sonic information. Air as a base for transferring audio can be distorted by influences such as electric charges (electro-smog) from all kinds of electrical products, e.g., heaters, air conditioners and of course audio equipment. Air that does not get exchanged feels stale compared to outdoor air.
“Some years ago my wife decorated our showroom with rose quartz. When we powered up the system we had the impression that the sound had changed. It was not a big difference, more like moving a curtain into a different position. We wondered what this was about. When we moved the quartz we thought that it made a small but detectable change in the music. How could this be? Physically, the atomic cores of these crystals have a very regular structure. Indeed, the electrons around the atomic core are also ordered. This uniformly of order is transferred to the neighboring electrons, thus imparting this structure to the surrounding air.
“We asked ourselves what potential these effects might have, if optimally employed, for an improvement in audio. During the next few years we worked on this question and came up with a complex of techniques. We found that we were able to improve normal quartz behavior by magnitudes. In the end we arrived at a system consisting of two types of components: Harmonizers and the passive devices we call Magic Diamonds and Magic Stones.
“The Harmonizers influence, and dare we say improve, structural aspects of the air that transmit sound waves to our ears. Uniquely prepared crystals with specific measured structures are stimulated by an electronic current to create a harmonic order for themselves and their surrounding molecules. This harmonic order makes the air better suited to deliver sonic information. While a more detailed explanation would be commensurately more complex, the results are easy to hear.”
A must-read addendum
I had just about bundled the above for publication when Holger suggested rather emphatically that I check out his new Blue Diamonds. No sooner proposed than delivered. He also suggested that I try two more Harmonizers, for a total of six. Again, agreed. Happily, four Blue Diamonds arrived a few days before the additional Harmonizers, which gave me ample time to judge their effectiveness.
Blue Diamonds replace the Black Diamond on the ceiling and the two atop the Wilsons. A third Blue Diamond sits between my electronic components on the low cabinet. The three original Black Diamonds now sit across the rear of the low cabinet. As mentioned, the Diamond placements Holger recommends on the front and rear walls about six feet off the floor deferred to milady’s scowl. Even so, in removing the three Blue Diamonds I heard a less ambiguous diminution of soundfield dimension, especially front to back. The image receded ever so slightly.
The Brahms kick continues, the test disc this time cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax’s performances of Brahms’ Op. 38 and Op. 99 Sonatas for Cello and Piano, recorded in ’85, DDD. Engineer Paul Goodman’s especially warm recording early giving the lie to the compact disc’s unenviable rep. The Stein assemblage that now includes four Blue Diamonds makes listening all the more pleasurable.
Holger Stein explains again
“Magic Stones assist the Harmonizers in distributing their effect within the listening space. Their operation is based on the same, if less potent, principle as that of the Harmonizers. The Magic Stones are made of a carbon-filled epoxy resin as a carrier for three active elements in a precisely balanced ratio. The Magic Stones are intended to operate in conjunction with the Harmonizer system. Used independently, while noticeable, their effect is not especially strong.
“The Magic Diamonds differ from the Magic Stones primarily with respect to activation. Here we use techniques based on quantum physics that operate at a higher intensity than do the Magic Stones. Their application within the Harmonizer system is best applied in conjunction with Magic Stones. Four to five pieces in the right places will work quite effectively. Skilled placement impacts image size in all three dimensions. Like the Magic Stones, the Magic Diamonds are made of a carbon-filled epoxy resin and six active elements in an exactly balanced ratio.
“The Blue Magic Diamonds are a further development of the original Magic Diamonds. Here we have increased effectiveness by a factor of three. Blue Magic Diamonds can be used in place of their black counterparts for a more realistic effect. Again, the Blue Magic Diamonds are made of a carbon-filled epoxy resin with nine active elements in an exactly balanced ratio. Used independently, they are capable of achieving an excellent result.”
Holger’s remarks lit a fire under the sweet spot. I repositioned several of the Diamonds and, yes, heard a difference I judge for the better. It pays to play with these little fellows. Audiophilia nervosa mandates further investigation.
To return to the main event: The fifth and sixth Harmonizers have been positioned to the right and left, and somewhat forward, of the listening position. The right-side A unit nestles among CDs in a large shelving unit of milady’s design, with the B unit opposite, atop a stack of books on a table behind the room’s other couch, both at the same approximate height as the four Harmonizers on stands.
A disc I recently requested from NMC (D177), a British label specializing in largely contemporary British music, features a remarkable concoction of sampled and live electronics with acoustic orchestral sounds by Jonathan Harvey entitled Bird Concerto with Pianosong, with Hidéki Nagano, piano, and the London Sinfonietta, David Atherton conducting, recorded live by Polish Radio as part of the Warsaw Autumn Festival 2009. (The London Sinfonietta is among the world’s foremost new-music ensembles.)
I had already established to my own satisfaction that the Stein assemblage truly shines with large-scale music performed in a commensurately large space. Harvey’s concerto, taking its inspiration from Olivier Messiaen’s bird-song interpolations, features a sampler-synthesizer replacing the piano’s music stand. The steadfastly modernist composition features (gorgeously recorded) California bird songs among other brilliant sounds along with the piano and orchestra’s acoustic participation. However much you think you dislike what we used to call avant-garde music (no longer avant), you’re bound to get a kick out of this 30-minute work.
But clearly less of a kick with the now six Harmonizers removed from the room, along with the Diamonds. The presentation shrinks and recedes. I hear a loss of immediacy. The music’s less involving. Removing the late-arriving pair of Harmonizers and remaining with the original four leaves an impression of diminution not nearly so pronounced as the removal of all.
When compared to most reproductions, who can dispute the greater pleasure an original art work provides? We relish the texture of the artist’s brush strokes, a bronze’s luster, a scrap-yard assemblage’s zany intricacies, polished marble’s sheen — satisfactions a less than spot-on likeness simply cannot duplicate.
And so it is with recorded music. It can never be quite the same as a live performance. But the closer the recording resembles its living counterpart, the more rewarding the experience. Whatever assists in creating good sound can be at least as important as one’s basic audio system. I don’t hesitate to put these SteinMusic pieces in the “at least as” bracket.
Whatever it is that makes them do what they do is there to be tested merely by listening, even perhaps to the most hard-bitten skeptic’s satisfaction. Four Harmonizers work marvelously well, six yet better. With respect to the totality — the H2 Harmonizers with their supplementary Diamonds and Stones — call this an unqualified rave.
Four Stein Harmonizer Package with ten Magic Stones, $3999 Two Stein Harmonizer Package with seven Magic Stones, $2099 Black Magic Diamonds, $185 each Blue Magic Diamonds, $350 each Stein Harmonizer Stands, $150 each US distributor Fidelis A/V, http://www.fidelisav.com/, email@example.com
SteinMusic Ltd Hingbergstraße 103a Im Turm der Alten Malzfabrik 45468 Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany phone +49 (0)208 32089 fax +49 (0)208 390938 info@SteinMusic.de
[More Mike Silverton]