A lot of people dismiss the idea of isolating stereo gear from vibrations with a smirk and two words: snake oil.
Those people clearly don’t live in a 100-year-old home with springy wood floors that turn it into a really big bounce house. Maybe they live in a newer home, or more likely in their parents’ basement; a concrete floor cures a lot of ills.
But for a lot of people, isolation is a must because we can’t walk across the room without making our turntable skip. Others consider isolation crucial no matter the circumstances, believing that even marginal resonances negatively impact the sound.
Maybe those folks do enjoy the occasional shot of snake oil after dinner, but I’m writing this story because I’m the poor sap who lives in a bounce house, and I have a box filled with isolation devices to prove it.
The Discogs down-and-dirty guide to reducing bad vibes will not be a scientific paper but instead a look at practical solutions. We’ll discuss cheap fixes, esoteric options, and a couple of products that can perform minor miracles. We may even try and make something involving a serving tray and playground sand.
Let’s get started.
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Isolation v. Vibration
Nothing can get a flame war started quite like a forum thread about putting your turntable and speakers on the same surface. People lose their minds. Those who go hard against the practice are inevitably called “audiophools.” Those who are fine with it are often called much worse. The internet even got mad at President Obama for having his turntable and speakers on the same surface, and dude was giving us all quality affordable health care.
Photo by Susan Yin
Friends, let’s take a breath and approach this logically.
A turntable’s primary job is to keep the stylus in the groove, because that’s where the music is. It’s a delicate operation, in some ways a literal balancing act, and vibration can get in the way of that operation. If the stylus isn’t getting a smooth ride, you won’t get good sound. Meanwhile, a loudspeaker’s primary job is to turn a signal into music, and part of that job requires the speaker to vibrate. That’s how they reproduce music (see: every video on YouTube showing a pair of woofers pumping during “Bass I Love You”).
So, logically, you should keep these two things far apart but: It depends.
It’s entirely possible to put a pair of moderately-sized speakers, ones that are well-made and don’t generate excessive bass, on the same surface alongside a turntable without problems. I’ve seen it done, and with great success. A friend with whom I’ve shared many all-night listening parties has a set-up that, on paper, should be a disaster but it sounds great. That’s because his floors are rock solid, the furniture used is old-school solid wood that weighs a ton, and most of his bass is handled by a subwoofer that sits on the floor.
But the “down-and-dirty guide to reducing bad vibes” is for people with vibration issues. These could be from footfalls, speakers that are cranked loud enough to cause occasional skips, and even acoustic feedback. The latter is borderline frightening and occurs when the vibration of your woofers is picked up by your stylus, which creates a loop. The same signal is being amplified twice and all hell breaks loose as the woofers begin pumping like mad while howling. Feedback is an incontrovertible fact, no matter how many dumbass “experiments” you stage to prove that it isn’t an issue.
So, let’s start with two common scenarios and use those as our baseline. One is my own situation, the vintage bounce house, and the second is for those who are forced to put everything on one surface and aren’t as lucky as my friend. Here are some very affordable solutions
Where to Start
There’s a common product available under a variety of names but they’re all essentially alike. They’re heavy-duty isolation pads made with cork and rubber that are often used under heavy equipment in an industrial setting. They come in a variety of sizes and have a layer of cork compressed between two layers of rubber. There’s a variant that has an extremely dense layer of blue foam between layers of rubber and they perform just as well.
If you have minor issues with footfalls affecting your turntable, put it on top of three or four of these. If you have more serious issues and are using something similar to an Ikea shelf, you could start by using the pads underneath the cabinet — or under both the shelf and the turntable for a double whammy of isolation. These pads are readily available from industrial supply houses, big box hardware stores, or Amazon, which has the widest variety and best prices. You can get an eight-pack of small ones, which are 2” x 2” x 7/8”, for $10. The larger 4” x 4” x 7/8” pads, perfect for under a bigger shelf, are $7 for four.
If your turntable has feet taller than 7/8”, then consider making yourself a turntable platform by using an Ikea bamboo chopping board, the Aptitlig, for $10 (thinner) or $20 (thicker, which is better). Place the chopping board on the pads and you have a pretty sharp platform for next to nothing. I use this method for most of my tubed equipment — tubes don’t like to be bounced around — and I don’t think it’s my imagination that the music has more clarity and focus.
I know for a fact that in many situations, this platform will at least cure your turntable’s footfall problems (it worked in a former home but not this one). It might help if you’re getting feedback at higher volumes; if you are, it’s possible that the easiest and cheapest solution is to move your speakers.
Options, Options, and More Options
I’ve gone through a lot of isolation crap, some ridiculous, mostly to help with footfalls. There was a brief problem with feedback, however, which I’ll get to in a minute.
Here’s a list of everything I’ve tried other than the cork and rubber pads, with varying levels of success:
DIY sand-loaded platform: This is a pandemic project that was cheap and reasonably fun but ultimately wasn’t quite good enough. Sand has been used for resonance damping in the audio world for decades; there are a number of speaker stands that can be filled with sand, and even a few speaker designs that have a rear cavity for sand loading.
For an equipment platform, all it took to DIY one was a serving tray, sand, and a cutting board at a total cost of around $25. I glued some thick, laminated paper over the inside of the open handles, lined the tray with plastic, and filled with sand. The cutting board went on top of the sand, and it was fairly easy to shift the sand around in order to get a level surface. It looks surprisingly good and did a fairly good job — not good enough but it was encouraging. I suspect the tray isn’t deep enough at 1.5 inches. A 3-inch tray would let me use around 40-45 pounds of sand, which would likely dampen anything.
Vibrapod isolators and cones: These slick little buddies come in two flavors. One is a vinyl composite pad, and the other is the pad combined with a cone that’s topped with a metal ball. It kinda looks like a 1988 Madonna bra. If you have minor footfall issues and are concerned about aesthetics, a set of pads (no cones) placed under a cutting board may be all the isolation your turntable needs. A four-piece of No. 2 isolators will support 24 pounds and cost only $24. The price is the same no matter which version you buy, Nos. 1 through 5.
Sorbothane: This stuff is good for squeezing when you’re feeling anxious but it has never solved any problems for me. Your mileage may vary, and it’s readily available and pretty cheap unless a brand name is attached.
Spikes: Spikes are fairly controversial considering how they’re just spikes, but there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about them. They don’t isolate your equipment from a surface but instead couple your equipment to a surface. Regardless, some people like the result and some don’t. I can take them or leave them, but since I have hardwood floors I mostly leave them. A set of self-adhesive spikes can be had at pretty much all price points, so if you just want to experiment you can without burning too much cash.
Wooden blocks: Many years ago, there was a buzz about these tiny maple blocks meant to be used anywhere you needed isolation. Of course I bought some, even though the cost-to-size ratio seemed way off, and they’ve been sitting in a box for a decade. While a thick maple butcher’s block can be highly effective (and expensive), these little guys did nothing for me. However, because I’m dumb, I bought some much large isolation pads made of birch plywood sandwiched by cork from a carpenter/audiophile who has since retired, or perhaps run out of birch plywood. These were actually pretty good and cleared up some midrange congestion in an old pair of Spendor monitors.
Marble platforms: This seems like such an ’80s thing, but there are still people who use marble. I have one marble turntable platform and it doesn’t help with footfalls (at my house and with my turntable) I can see where a thick slab under a speaker or subwoofer might do some serious isolating, but marble ain’t cheap.
Gingko Audio: My Gingko Audio platform is probably the most embarrassing audiophile thing I own but it is highly effective. It’s a three-part isolation system that starts with an acrylic platform, then squash balls are situated on indentations in the platform — yeah, I know — and they’re covered by another acrylic piece that hides the fact that you’re using squash balls. The thing is, it works, but at a cost — like $500. When I bought a monster pair of floor-standing speakers 10 or so years ago, they overloaded my room with deep bass, which caused violent feedback even though my turntable was four or five feet away and sitting on a wall-mounted shelf. I added the Gingko, which I thankfully found used because these things are way overpriced, and the feedback was solved. So I’m a big fan but still. Squash balls.
Wall-mounted shelves: These steel shelves, made by a variety of manufacturers, all do the same thing and do it well. They aren’t that expensive, usually around $150, but they require you to punch six long, heavy-duty screws into your wall, preferably into some studs. It’s a highly effective but fairly extreme solution, in terms of effort and overall destruction, and your turntable won’t skip even during a B-52’s party. After repainting the living room, however, I haven’t been able to bring myself to ruin that beautiful wall again. Plus, it’s a serious pain in the ass to mount these shelves correctly.
Luckily, out of the blue, an affordable, elegant solution arrived.
The Best (So Far)
Since the early 1990s, I’ve read reviews of hundreds of audio accessories and tweaks. Some were solid, practical engineering and some were absolute nonsense, like the recommendation that you put photos of yourself in the freezer for improved sound, or anything marketed by PWB Electronics. I’ve never seen such unanimous praise as I have for products made by IsoAcoustics, many of which are beyond my price range. But as I was formulating this story IsoAcoustics randomly reached out via DM and offered to send review samples of their zaZen I turntable platform ($199) and Iso-Puck Mini ($99 for eight). I was stoked but cautious. Turns out I should have just been stoked.
The zaZen platform replaced an elaborate two-tiered isolation setup involving cork pads, bamboo cutting board, and the crazy squash ball thing — all of which worked but looked insane. The zaZen, with its dense platform and IsoPuck feet, is unobtrusive at 1.5 inches tall, looks elegant, and does a better job.
Courtesy of IsoAcoustics
I took a cautious step. I took a normal step. Then I took an aggressive step — let’s just call it a drunk step — and nothing happened except music. No skips.
I was pleasantly shocked. Maybe $199 sounds like a lot of money, but after struggling for years with skips and occasional feedback, it feels like a screaming bargain and I’m buying the review sample.
Excited by the results, I went online and found a used set of eight standard-sized IsoPucks, which are designed for heavier loads, to put under my vintage ADS speakers. They objectively tightened the bass and improved the overall clarity. There was no doubt. None. The ADS are a recent purchase and I love everything about them except for slightly muddy and overemphasized bass. The IsoPucks improved this to a degree that the sound went from really good to holy shit.
The IsoPucks are made of a proprietary material and make clever use of suction. The top half of the IsoPuck melds itself to the bottom of a component and the bottom half does the same with the surface on which the component sits. Inside is a design based on stud isolators used in the flooring of buildings. The ultimate purpose is to decouple the component from a desktop, shelf, speaker stand, or floor.
Decoupling prevents the transfer of vibration-based energy from speaker to surface or from surface to component. Imagine the energy getting trapped in the middle of the pucks, leaving the component free to do its job. The zaZen is a double whammy as the feet and platform work together to isolate.
If you’re forced to keep speakers on the same surface as a turntable — and are having issues, of course — I highly recommend the Iso-Puck Mini. I can’t imagine them not working. Of course, you absolutely should first explore the cheap alternatives detailed above if money is a problem. Even if the cork and rubber pads don’t work, they’ll come in handy someday, guaranteed — if you ever have a washer go rogue and start loudly spasming, just slip the pads under that rude boy and enjoy the silence while you listen to “And Justice for All.”
And there you have it, one man’s journey into isolation, which is pretty appropriate given the current state of the world.
Again, if you feel like you don’t have any vibration issues then don’t bother. If you think that problems caused by vibration are fake news, then don’t bother. This guide is meant to help anyone whose listening is compromised, period, and it isn’t based on conjecture but results. Now get out there and crush those lovin’ good vibrations under the heel of your cork-and-rubber boots.
Product feature in the header image from Inputaudio.