ACCESSORIES

 

ACCESSORIES

The audio world is littered with weird accessories that cost a bomb and do little. One could be tempted to categorise the Furutech NCF Booster as one of those – but as it turns out, there’s more to this support/damping system than meets the eye

By now, even the most cynical audio enthusiasts will agree that cables and interconnects can have an effect on the sound of  a system. That’s simply because the enhanced conductivity of a well-designed audio cable, and its ability to reject noise and interference through improved shielding, has to pay sonic dividends.

It’s also true that different cable designs, conductor materials and shielding methods lead to different sonic results – and not always positive ones in the context of a specific system. If the concept of an ideal cable is one that conveys the original signal from end to end unmolested, then too many cables still add an own, specific signature.

End-users may use these inherent traits to fine-tune overall system performance, or to make up for system shortcomings, but it’s a path fraught with compromise. Instead, it would be better to opt for cables and interlinks that get closest to ensuring signal integrity, so that the true performance of a system and its components can be identified and (hopefully) enjoyed.

AT FACE VALUE

But what about an accessory that seeks to enhance what’s already there? The Furutech NCF Booster is just such a device. It aims to improve audio system performance by addressing the potential interaction between cables and their immediate environment.

More specifically, it combines cable support and damping functions in a single, elegantly simple device.

The NCF Booster looks like a broad clamp, located on a heavy base via a pair of extendable stainless steel shafts. The bottom part of the clamp has fasteners that allow it to be fixed at any point along the shafts. The top part fits snugly over it, and is fixed via a pair of rubber O-rings.

The NCF Booster can be used to lift thick power and speaker cables from the floor, and to support power cables at the wall plug and/or component receptacle ends. You’ll need quite a few to achieve this in a typical system.

UNDER THE COVERS

Besides supporting cables, Furutech claims that the NFC Booster performs a damping function by virtue of the NCF (Nano-Crystal2 Formula) material it’s constructed from. According to Furutech, the proprietary compound generates negative ions, which eliminate static. It also converts thermal energy into far infrared.

In the Booster, NCF is combined with tiny, nano-sized ceramic particles and carbon fibre which add piezo-electric damping properties to the device, allowing a high degree of electrical and mechanical damping.

If you want a more detailed description, you can find it on the Furutech website here.

Frankly, I was sceptical about just how effective the NCF Booster would be in practice. That despite the fact that the device has been a huge seller in Japan since being launched last year, delaying its availability in other markets, while being showered with praise from various quarters.

NCF Booster promises damping and support functions

SETTING UP

I received an array of six NCF Boosters, and decided to kick off by using three to stabilise the power cables at the component receptacle ends of the Naim Uniti2 (used as a pre-amp), the PS Audio Stellar S300 power amp, and the PS Audio DirectStream DAC in my system.

The remaining three NFC Boosters were then used to support the power cables running from the PS Audio P5 power regenerator to the components in the system. The need for height adjustment became very apparent in practice, as it allowed the cables to be lifted well off the floor while also ensuring optimum alignment with the power receptacles of both the P5 and the various system components.

Later, I used four boosters to elevate the speaker cables from the floor, with the two remaining units on the Uniti2 and the Stellar S300. And finally, I moved those two boosters from the Naim and the Stellar, and used them to elevate the power cables.

Each time, I listened to a selection of tracks without the Furutech boosters, then with them positioned in the system, and then again with the devices removed.

I expected the differences to be subtle, if audible at all, so what followed came as a bit of shock!

SOUNDS LIKE …

In the first configuration, with the focus on the power receptacles and power cables, the sound was immediately more lucid and accessible. The staging width increased, and there the sound picture provided a clearer view of the music, specifically as far as the finer nuances were concerned.

On ‘Mama You Been On My Mind’ from Bettye LaVette’s latest release, Things Have Changed, Bettye’s vocals gained additional traction and colour. The simple piano accompaniment was presented with greater impact, and the subtle electric guitar in the background was more prominent, but without disturbing the delicate balance and cohesion of the music.

But the most marked difference, at least in my system, was the extension of the tonal range, specifically in the lower frequency region. Bass notes were recreated with greater urge and intensity, and the music image gained a more solid tonal foundation.

The percussion on ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ was presented with real impact, and the electric bass gained extra heft and slam, but with a level of definition that allowed the fuzz-edged solo guitar and LaVette’s seasoned vocals to shine with a particularly appealing glow and clarity.

Shafts can be lengthened with screw-in extensions

The mix of Cuban big band Orquesta Akokán’s live, warts-and-all eponymous debut is a good test of system resolution, given the sheer breadth of musical action packed into two channels. From exuberant trumpets to swinging trombones, from intricately rendered percussion to an eloquent bass, and a full cast of enthusiastic vocalist, this is a performance filled to the brim with sound.

Again, the NCF Boosters expanded the stage to more easily accommodate the often frenetic musical action, benefiting overall insight and enjoyment. The lower registers gained additional muscle and definition, while the trebles seemed cleaner and more focussed.

‘Your Mind Is On Vacation’ from Holly Cole’s latest release, <Holly>, features the Canadian jazz singer’s sensuous vocals against a backdrop of deep, driving bass, some snappy percussion, and an engrossing interplay between piano and electric keyboards.

Here, the bass was really lifted by the NCF Boosters, gaining both impact and definition, and allowing the rest of the arrangement to come to the fore with greater tonal range and clarity. The result was a better balanced, more accessible sound and ultimately more engaging sound.

The NCF Booster added authority and stature to Ivo Pogorelich’s insightful readings of Mozart’s piano sonatas K283 and K331, allowing the full majesty of the piano to come to the fore. There were some gains in dynamics and imaging, too, but again, it was the foundation and the substance of the music that benefited most.

The results were less pronounced when I moved some of the boosters away from the power cords to lift the speaker cables. Yes, the soundstage still gained accessibility, and there was an enhanced cohesion to the delivery, but the succinctness and extended tonal range was less noticeable.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Thus, I have to conclude that, in this particular system, the power feeds benefited most from the NFC Boosters’ presence – and more so than I would have believed. Clearly, the NCF resin’s damping properties and anti-static properties aren’t only significant, but also benefit ultimate sonic performance.

Of course, the NCF Boosters also tidy up cable runs, and ensure more secure power cord connections at the component receptacle end. And their adjustable height means they can adapt to a wide range of applications.

The price remains the only obstacle. R5 000 a piece seems like a lot of money, especially when you probably need a least a half-dozen. But then, many audiophiles spend that, and more, on a single speaker cable run or interlink set.

In that context, the Furutech NCF Booster represents a fascinating and effective upgrade to high-end systems. – DEON SCHOEMAN

 

PROS
Reduce noise, add transparency and improve tonal depth – yes really!
CONS
A typical system needs at least six, if not more – and they aren’t exactly cheap.

VITAL STATS
Construction: NCF nylon resin base and clamps, stainless steel locating shafts
Base unit: ABS resin body with counterweighted shock-absorbing plate
Support unit: ABS resin and NCF nylon resin
Top clamp unit: stainless steel block and NCF nylon resin
Dimensions: 94 x 99,7 mm
Height: base level – 80 mm. Extended level -140 mm
PRICE
R5 000 each
SUPPLIED BY
The Audio Visual Boutique

TESTED WITH
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers
PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Bridge II
Esoteric UX-3SE universal player
Avid Diva II SP turntable
Sutherland 20/20 phono stage
Naim Uniti2 all-in-one player
PS Audio Stellar S300 power amp
PS Audio P5 power regenerator
TelluriumQ Black, Nordost Tyr and XLO Reference cables and interlinks
Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amp
Synology DS213+ NAS

SOFTWARE
Bettye Lavette – Things Have Changed (Verve 44/16 FLAC)
Holly Cole – Holly (Universal DSD64)
Mozart – Piano Sonatas K283 and K331 – Ivo Pogorelich (DG 44/16 FLAC)
Orquesta Akokán – Orquesta Akokán (Daptone 44/16 FLAC)

The PS Audio LANRover makes it easy to overcome the 5m distance limit between connected USB devices. But there’s a lot more to this little box of tricks …

Anyone who has wanted to a laptop or a desktop computer to a standalone DAC via USB will know that this link-up is often hampered by the 5m cable length limitation between USB connections.

That’s fine if you DAC is a USB DAC/headphone amp parked on your desktop, next to your Mac or PC. But what if the DAC is in an equipment rack on the other side? Or if your computer/music server is actually in a different room altogether?

Because USB often offers the highest-resolution D/A conversion path, it’s often preferred above coaxial, AES/EBU or Toslink options. Yes, you could set up a headless Mac or PC in your audio rack to serve music to the DAC via USB, but that would be considered overkill by many.

Enter the PS Audio LANRover – a USB extender system that comprises a sender and receiver unit. Sender and receiver are linked using CAT5e or CAT6 network cabling, which allows a cable distance of up to 100m between sender and receiver.

In other words, you could have a computer in your study, and an audio system in the lounge, and link the two via your Ethernet-based home network using the LANRover sender/receiver system. Problem solved.

But the LANRover offers more than just a convenient, network-based USB connection. In fact, it’s what it does to the sound that is actually its strongest talent.

AT FACE VALUE

The two units that make up the LANRover system are small and innocuous, but well finished. Both sender and receiver feature all-metal enclosures with ribbed sides, and exude a reassuring air of robust build quality.

The sender unit is self-powered (it draws the 5V it needs from the computer’s USB port) and connects to a laptop via a USB Type B. There’s an RJ45 Ethernet socket at the other end. Four LED indicator lights indicate power, signal lock, host status, and signal transmission status.

The receiver unit is powered by a wall wart-type PSU, and also offers an RJ45 socket for accepting Ethernet-borne signals. It features the same array of indicator LEDs, and a USB Type B socket which outputs the digital audio signal to a USB-equipped DAC.

The LANRover comes with a short Ethernet cable, and a slightly longer USB Type A/B cable. PS Audio says the cable between the source component and the sender unit is less critical than the USB link between the receiver unit and the DAC, so if you have a fancy aftermarket cable, use it between the LANRover receiver and your DAC.

UNDER THE COVERS

There are two reasons to use a LANRover system, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Firstly, it offers a convenient and effective way to use USB connectivity to link a source component (like the MacBook Pro in my system) to a DAC that’s some distance away.

However, perhaps even more importantly, the LANRover gets rid of computer-generated noise in the process. It does so by isolating the source of that noise – the computer – from the DAC. The sender and receiver are galvanically isolated from the source computer and DAC respectively.

In that role, it therefore acts as what PS Audio terms an isolation regenerator. The LANRover creates a new, packetized data stream that doesn’t utilise the usual USB protocols, and thus sheds any noise, jitter or current and voltage spikes present in the data stream.

The clean, newly generated digital data stream is transmitted to the receiver via Ethernet, and is impervious to any interference, regardless of distance. The receiver reconstructs the packetized data stream and feeds it to the DAC – thus ensuring flawless transfer of a pure digital data stream, without any artefacts.

So, you get the convenience of long-range USB-based asynchronous data transfer without the usual 5 m restriction, as well as a cleaner, purer digital data stream.

Even if you don’t need the extended cable distance, then the isolation of source and endpoint, together with the regeneration of the data stream should be more than enough reason to consider the (significant) investment in a LANRover.

SETTING UP

I tested the LANRover by hooking up my 13-inch MacBook Pro to the sender unit using a Furutech GT2 USB Type A to Type B cable, and then connecting the sender to my wired listening room network via a D-Link switch located close to my desk with a generic Ethernet cable.

The receiver unit was also connected to the same network via Ethernet, but this time to a TP-Link switch located on the audio equipment rack. A Furutech GT2 Pro USB cable was then used to couple the LANRover receiver to my PS Audio DirectStream DAC.

The DAC in turn fed a Naim Uniti2 operating as a pre-amp, with a PS Audio Stellar 300 power amp delivering the urge to a pair of Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers.

SOUNDS LIKE …

While I initially assumed that the LANRover’s core role would be to overcome the 5m USB cable length limit, it turns out that the system’s real benefit lies in the way it isolates the source computer from the receiving DAC, ridding the digital data stream of all artefacts in the process..

This enhanced signal transfer process, and especially the absence of noise and jitter, makes a substantial, audible difference to the sound. The delivery is smoother, more detailed and more transparent than any conventional USB connection between a computer and a DAC I’ve heard.

I’d wager that anyone who hears the difference will want a LANRover for the sonic improvements it offers alone, regardless of the added convenience provided by an almost unrestricted data transfer distance.

Listening to JazzMeia Horn’s acrobatic vocals on ‘Tight’ off her debut set, A Social Call,  the bustling upright bass sounded better defined, with improved detail microdetail, while Horn’s voice soared with greater freedom. The stage gained enhanced three-dimensionality, leading to a greater sense of engagement. The little boxes not only allowed the USB connection to reveal more detail, but also to contextualise that information more effectively, so that the music sounded more authentic.

Steven Wilson’s To The Bone was delivered with an almost visceral intensity that captured the complex harmonies, heroic guitars, crashing percussion and intricate arrangements to thrilling effect. The approach was lean, pacey and muscular, with a strong thread of transparency ensuring full, glorious access to the music.

Tonally, the high frequencies sounded smoother but also more clearly defined, allowing greater insight into the soul and the subtleties of the recording. Tonal linearity appeared to benefit too, and the overall presentation was both more impactful, and more believable.

These traits remained consistent regardless of the material listened to. Large scale recordings with complex arrangements such as the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto  became more lucid and approachable, while clarity was a particularly consistent theme throughout.

I thought that DSD files benefited most from the LANRover’s attentions, perhaps because the additional resolution they offer provided greater scope for the system’s revelatory talents. But the improvements were equally unequivocal when listening to normal 16/44 WAV files or 192/24 FLACs.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The LANRover system is an outstanding example of intelligent engineering addressing the inherent shortcomings of USB-based signal transfer in both practical and sonic terms.

While extending USB cable range beyond the usual 5m margin is an attractive feature, it’s the impact the LANRover has on sound performance that is its primary talent. Indeed, it becomes very difficult to live without it once you’ve experienced those sonic benefits.

Yes, the pricing is on the steep side, but think of it this way: many audiophiles spend a lot more on a single pair of interlinks. Given the practical and sonic benefits, investing in a PS Audio LANRover system will always be money well spent. But you’ll have to hurry – according PS Audio, production is ending, due to limited demand. Which makes the LANRover all the more desirable.

 

By DEON SCHOEMAN

 
PROS
Empathically unveils USB-delivered music. Extends USB range, too.
CONS
More expensive than expected.

PRICE
R10 900
SUPPLIED BY
PL Computer Systems.

TESTED WITH
Late 2011 13-inch MacBook Pro, 2,7 GHz Intel Core i7, 8 GB RAM, 1TB SSD
TP Link and D-Link 10/100/1000 Ethernet switches
PS Audio DirectStream DAC
Naim Uniti2
PS Audio Stellar S300 power amp
Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers
Furutech GT2 and GT2 Pro USB cables

SOFTWARE
Steven Wilson – To The Bone (Caroline 44/16 FLAC)
Jazzmeia Horn – A Social Call (Prestige 44/16 FLAC)
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto – Nemanja Radulovic/Sascha Goetzel/Istanbul Philarmonic (DG 96/24 FLAC)
Boston – Boston (Epic/Sony DSD64)