Grounding With Computer Audio Design: Ground Control GC1
Audio is a curious hobby. One minute you’re laughing at the people wearing tin foil hats and at some later point in time you look in the mirror and there’s a person wrapped in tin foil staring back at you.
I’ve always thought the people paying big money for grounding products were more than a little nutty – how could these boxes with who knows what in them actually improve the performance of a high end audio system. Plus, my system has a star grounded VH Audio Hot Box that all components are ultimately plugged into and so in my mind my system was as grounded as it was going to get.
The whole topic of grounding in audio is a minefield – it seems to be an area which attracts a lot of fanatics with over the top claims. The various grounding products in the market with accompanying opaque explanations (or sometimes no explanation) of their operation also do not inspire confidence in their effectiveness. Given that, I wasn’t actually planning on dipping my toe into grounding treatments. In fact, I might never have if not for FedEx.
Let’s take a step back. Having completed component and signal cable selection, I was considering whether there were any reasonably priced tweaks to my system that would result in a material uptick in performance. The only thing that jumped out at me was power delivery. The Shunyata Denali, even though an excellent product, left room for improvement given the subsequent introduction of the flagship Shunyata Triton v3. So I began considering whether upgrading the Shunyata Denali power conditioner to a Triton v3 would be worthwhile. The reviews of the Triton v3 were encouraging - an excellent online comparison of the Denali 6000/T and Triton v3 noted a substantial increase in weight and speed provided by the Triton in relation to the Denali - and coupled with an amazing promotion bundling a meaty 6awg Sigma EF cable, my decision was a relatively easy one. But ultimately FedEx had different plans – losing my newly ordered Triton v3.
While waiting a month and a half for FedEx to conduct their search for my wayward Triton, I decided that the best way to take my mind off of that mess was to turn my audio attention elsewhere – with no “traditional” options left for system improvement (components, wire and isolation were set and power was up in the air), it was time to broaden my audio horizons and finally take a serious look at grounding.
After conducting research over a few weeks I learned that there are three types of grounding treatments – signal, chassis and mains earth. They can each be beneficial to a system and can also be used in combination. Beyond a very high level understanding of the differences between all three, I’ve never cared to understand how they work (maybe that’s because there has yet to be a consensus as to how they actually do what they do). Nonetheless, the more I researched, the more I couldn’t ignore the number of user reports that stated that these types of treatments can substantially improve performance even on high end systems. However, overall user reports regarding the effectiveness of various products were also inconsistent so I was ultimately left to make my own call.
The grounding products with the most extreme hype (and with extreme prices to match) are the Tripoint products that are focused on chassis grounding. Way too expensive to take a flier on, I moved on quickly (and if my Triton was ever found and I am so inclined, I could test out chassis grounding via the Triton's integrated CGS system in any case). The other big players in the market, Nordost and Entreq, focus on signal grounding, although they appear to have branched out more recently into mains earth grounding in the case of Nordost and chassis grounding in the case of Entreq. Nordost products look professionally made but have very little information explaining how they operate so I was hesitant to take that route. Entreq products had a little bit more theory but not much and their ridiculous range of products made me shy away.
So I cast my net wider and explored the other players in the grounding game. My search ultimately led me to the product being discussed here – the Ground Control GC1 manufactured by Computer Audio Design (CAD) which focuses on treating signal ground and mains earth. A coherent whitepaper by Scott Berry, CAD’s founder, plus a solid review by a reviewer I trust, Roy Gregory, confirmed the bona fides of the Ground Control products. I also liked the fact that CAD has chosen to design a single reasonably priced product line with a single set of reasonably priced cables (to be fair, they’re not alone in this regard - Nordost also falls into this category ) – I’m a big believer in treating customers properly – I shouldn’t have to spend thousands on cables from the manufacturer in addition to product cost to get the proper performance from a grounding product.
Being the skeptic that I always am and fully expecting to not be impressed irrespective of theory or positive review, I minimized my spend and limited my initial purchase to a single CAD Ground Control GC1 with an additional cable for use with my transport and DAC (not inexpensive at ~$2k all in but not crazy money either). Given reports that digital equipment benefit disproportionately from signal grounding, I figured that this was more than a fair test. If the GC1 didn’t do much in this use in my system, then the Ground Control line wasn’t likely to do much in any other part of my system.
CAD turned out to be a pretty efficient shop and I had the GC1 in my hands a week after I placed my order. Opening the box revealed that the GC1 is small enough that it can be placed almost anywhere and as expected, its subdued black acrylic design won’t call attention to itself. After examining the clean fit and finish for a few minutes and taking note of its substantial heft (10 lbs), I got to work creating just enough space between the HRS M3 isolation platforms for my transport and DAC to be able to straddle the GC1 between the M3 platforms. I then plugged the ground wires into the unused AES/EBU output of the transport and an unused spdif input of the DAC. I had read that the effect of grounding generally takes time to show up so instead of testing I went back to watching my Blu-Ray boxset of the television series Person of Interest, intending to leave critical listening to another day.
I pressed play on the next episode of the series and the intro began to play. Well that’s strange I thought, I don’t remember hearing that in the music playing over the intro. Hmmmm. I kept watching and then the bass hit with a punch that I had never heard from that part of the music. I made a mental note and watched the episode. Started the next episode – the show intro ran again – everything I had heard earlier was confirmed, but even more so. It didn’t make any sense – it’s a small box, there’s no way it’s making *that* much of a difference. There’s only one way to settle this I thought – I pulled out my Japanese Blu-Ray of Dredd – my current go to test movie.
The intro credits certainly seemed punchier. Then the movie started playing and I was sure – low level detail that I had never heard was now audible. Bass heft and punch were markedly improved. Over the next few days those improvements continued to increase in effect and were similarly reflected in two channel listening where additional improvements in low end drive and articulation were also audible. Impressive.
I played around with connecting the GC1 to the DAC and my preamp as recommended by CAD but I didn’t like it as much. In that configuration, the low end detail and drive were lessened but the music in turn appeared to take on better flow. It’s something I plan to explore in respect of the preamp along with mains earth grounding via the Ground Control GC3, both at a later date.
We are experiencing an amazing era in audio as talented designers push beyond established narrow minded thinking and explore ever more corners of the audio universe. I’m still not sure how the CAD Ground Control GC1 does what it does, but the performance improvements it draws out of system components are significant and undeniable. Grounding treatment now takes its place next to isolation and power treatment as a critical component if one intends to extract the ultimate performance from a system. I guess there’s only one thing left me for me to say – thanks Fedex (they finally found my Triton a little over two months after they lost it and the Triton v3 did what I expected so in the end I got a lot more than I expected and thank goodness for that).
I recently got a remedial course in how setup can have a critical
impact on the performance of an audio system.
I purchased a Shunyata Denali 6000/S in late summer last year a few months after I purchased my Focal Maestro Utopia III speakers. I found that it made a nice improvement in the system, particularly in noise floor, control of bass and treble smoothness.
I really wasn't spending too much time focusing on the
Denali after that since my Ayre MX-R Twenties were having a hard time with the nasty
impedance curve of my new Maestros. I
researched the issue and realized that the amps simply petered out between 4
and 2 ohms and these were speakers that needed massive amounts of current into
2 ohms. I ultimately replaced the Ayres
with D'Agostino Momentum M400 mono blocs which given their doubling of wattage
from 8 to 4 to 2 ohms, I expected to solve system speed and transient issues. While there was a definite improvement in
performance with the M400s, I was still experiencing to some degree the slow
speed, blunted transients and lack of air and shimmer. After letting the M400s break in for a month,
these issues weren't getting any better, and for a sanity check, I pulled out
the Denali and while the noise floor was higher, all the speed, attack, air and
So I emailed my dealer just to let him know my experience and that the Denali was coming out of my system. He was really surprised and said that the Denali was one of the few products in his many years in audio that had almost universally positive feedback, particularly with high end systems. He said he'd email Shunyata and let me know. Shunyata couldn't understand why the Denali was causing these issues in my system but sent some things to try - one of which is to use the unit as intended (I had been sitting it on its side on two HRS nimbus assemblies due to lack of space - the 6000/T was too wide to fit in the same space due to its spread out feet or I would have ordered that).
Since I was long overdue for my biennial system cleaning anyway, I went ahead with that and stripped the system down completely which allowed me upon rebuilding it, to temporarily configure the system so that the Denali was used as intended - on its own feet on hard tile over concrete. Having checked the connections, I hit play - WOW were there transients, but the top end still didn't have the proper air and shimmer.
I know my speakers and they are tipped down in the brilliance region (which generally helps with real world untreated rooms but this is the region in the audio spectrum that produces air and shimmer) so I figured that the Denali was doing something Focal did not expect - delivering very clean power. Thankfully, this was solvable thanks to Focal's wonderful jumper system - I set the tweeter jumper to high (a +1db boost) and the treble was again airy with the right shimmer.
So all good? Not quite. I started to reassemble the system and as I usually do, placed HRS nimbus assemblies under all components and cable network boxes for my MIT cables. UGH! Sluggish again and blunted transients. Hmm... So I started systemically removing the nimbus assemblies, first from the speaker networks and then from the interconnect networks (they remain under all my components in combination with HRS platforms). Transient attack and speed returned and all was well again.
(1) Use components as intended/the manufacturer generally knows best
(2) Get to know your system (speaker measurements are invaluable although that's more a result of the good fortune of having a Stereophile review or similar review which includes measurements)
(3) Sometimes you can't appreciate what something is doing until you take away other things (even if those things that you take away worked amazingly well earlier)/ it's a whole system and some things don't play well with each other
I've been looking for a proper digital front end since I decided that while I loved my Wadia 861se GNSC Statement CDP, it was hopelessly colored, closed in and limited in its detail retrieval. Given that, over the past few years I’ve been on the hunt for a single box CDP with digital inputs that I could live with long term.
I've historically been a Wadia fan because their players got the most important thing in music right – drive (in fact, I still have a Wadia S7i GNSC Statement CDP - Wadia's last CDP - that I intend to use in a secondary system once I get the space). Wadia's players have always been unparalleled in my experience in driving the music forward. Up until now, subsequent to the death of Wadia (what exists now has no relation to the original company), I have not heard any digital that has gotten that right since. When I replaced my Wadia 861se with the original XDS1, I sacrificed that drive for the significantly lower coloration, better and more open top end and midrange and the vastly greater resolution of the XDS1. But not having that drive always bothered me, and along with the mid-hall presentation of the XDS1 (I prefer being closer to the stage) and the good but I never felt quite right treble, I was never fully satisfied with that CDP, even in V2 guise.
Hearing that EMM Labs would not be releasing a replacement for the XDS1 V2 and that the EMM Labs TX2 Transport is a limited edition (50 units I believe) and would likely be the last CD spinner from EMM Labs, made me seriously consider the latest EMM Labs combo. I re-examined the limited space I currently have for my system and eventually decided that a two-box digital solution could be shoehorned in with some rearranging. Having settled that and having worked out the potential logistics with EMM Labs, the Fred Crowder Dagogo review favorably comparing the TX2/DA2, particularly in the low end and leading edge, to the Esoteric P-02/D-02 (which I’ve heard do its thing), meant that I was all in.
The EMM Labs TX2/DA2 is, simply put, a statement digital music delivery system. At a very basic level, the EMM Labs designers/engineers have taken the positive aspects of the XDS1 V2 and made them significantly better while fixing all of the shortcomings that kept me from ever really falling in love with that CDP. On a more holistic level, EMM Labs has delivered on the promise of digital - one that leaves no question that digital has finally arrived (without the need for any bandaids).
EMM Labs’ new reference digital combo has everything that one could ever want - resolution top to bottom that is generations beyond their single box CDP (which was not a slouch), highs that are smooth and accurate (violin is as smooth as it is in real life while cymbals have just the right amount of bite and definition), unlimited dynamic range and musicality without coloration that I can detect – plus the best aspects of Wadia - drive and solidity in the bass/fully developed foundation to the music. It’s purely a bonus that the clean industrial design of the units, without the shiny buttons of earlier pieces and with a grey strip down the middle, is a beautiful evolution of the EMM Labs aesthetic and befitting the sonics (although the blingy footers were not so well received but nothing that some black electrical tape can’t fix).
When I began building a new system 10+ years ago, my goal was to build a system that made music as fun my first system (that system began my love affair with music and was a system that I couldn't stop listening to well into the night and typically much longer than planned – components were: Wadia 850, Levinson 38, Ayre V-3, B&W 804 and MIT cabling), but with accurate uncolored reproduction of music including state-of-the-art dynamics and resolution. Notwithstanding my best efforts, I’ve been struggling with that. While I eventually put together a great system (EMM Labs XDS1 V2, Ayre KX-R Twenty, Ayre MX-R Twenty, Focal Scala Utopia and MIT Oracle MA cabling) that I've greatly enjoyed listening to for the last few years, I never got that "just one more song" pull that I had with my first system - that is, until one night this past month with the TX2/DA2 - a planned short 20 minute listening session to see how the system sounded after break in that was supposed to end just before midnight extended past 2AM and I had to forcibly stop so that I could get enough sleep to function at work the next day. Just as pleasant a surprise was that my wife, who couldn't care less about high end audio (she tolerates my audio "hobby"), was right next to me asking for one more song and then just one more and then another. We went through a range of music - Nina Simone (Sinner Man, My Baby Just Cares For Me, I Put a Spell on You), Chicago OST (Overture/ and all that jazz), The Mission OST (On Earth as it is in Heaven, Falls, Gabriel's Oboe), Crosby, Stills & Nash (Suite: Judy Blue Eyes), Billie Idol (Rebel Yell), Phil Collins (In the Air Tonight), CCR (Fortunate Son, I Put a Spell on You), Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven) and a few others.
After that night, I paused all major upgrades to the system - I just want to enjoy the music. I'm both overjoyed and relieved to finally have achieved the goal I (naively) set out with in 2006 - a goal that in recent years I was increasingly coming to accept as not likely to happen (I thought I would have to sacrifice uncolored sound to bring back the joy).
Ultimately, I don’t think I can sum up the achievement that is the EMM Labs TX2 LE CD/SACD Transport and DA2 Stereo DAC any better than to say that I’m in full agreement with Fred Crowder’s closing comment in his review - "If it gets any better than this, I don’t need to know".
Note: I replaced the included ST fiber optic cable with an Aural Symphonics Lotus Optimism ST fiber optic cable.