Isotek MiniSub GII

Product Review by Björn Törnroth
Updated 5 September 2006 (Layout)
Updated 23 April 2006 (Follow-up & errata)
Updated 24 November 2005 (Image & subtle wording)
Updated 22 November 2005 (spelling & HTML coding)
Original date: 3 October 2005
Copyright © by Björn Törnroth 2005
Additionally licensed for the exclusive use of Ari Laine at Hifi Mesta
Isotek's home page

Isotek Minisub GII
SYSTEM
CD: Teac VRDS 10
Pre amp: Yamaha RX-V630 (6.1 Receiver)
Power amp: Musical Fidelity P140
Speakers: Sonus Faber Electa
Subwoofer: REL Strata III
Interconnects: Kimber PBJ
Speaker cables: Symo LS4X (bi-wired)
Mains cables: LAT AC-2 & Supra LoRad

Introduction

I do not like the idea of mains having an effect on the sound. I am - or was - very sceptical of the whole notion of mains filtering. I have only recently upgraded some of my mains cable after grudgingly being unable to deny the tremendous benefits. I did expect to hear some effects of the MiniSub, perhaps even some improvements.

It's much easier to accept what your ears hear when you audition e.g. a new amp, because it clearly is a different piece of equipment and it clearly sounds different. All you have to do is decide whether the new and different sound is better than the old or not. It's much harder to audition cables, mains filters and tweaks, because it's still the same system sounding mainly the same. I am intellectually much less inclined to trust my ears because of this. The differences tend to be more subtle and more of a kind I tend to distrust.

Update 2006-04-23 After some extensive auditioning of interconnects, speaker cables and mains cables I have reversed my opinion on this issue. With components, I find it hard to decide whether a sound is actually better instead of just different. With cables and tweaks, the basic sound remains the same - it just gets better or worse, and that's easy to hear. I am also now convinced that the mains is the key to sound quality. When getting a hifi, the first thing to buy is a mains filter and some quality mains cables. Only then will you ever know how the components actually sound.

Sometimes an improvement is there only when you listen very carefully for it. Not so this time. The differences - nay, improvements - I describe in this review are so clear and stupefying that I have a hard time believing it myself. They were easily verified by my tired wife with only a quick audition late at night at low volume levels because of the sleeping kids. Hey, I could probably demonstrate them over the phone, so give me a call ;-)

Now that we have that out of the way let's cut to the chase.

The Sound

Bass: A tremendous increase in clarity, weight and tunefulness. Lower and louder. Sounds that before were general bass notes are now clearly distinguishable as being a bass guitar. Kick drums have more snap and weight. (I suspect that the enormous improvement in the bass area are mainly a result of the benefits for the CD player and therefore I deem this improvement to be the most system dependent one.)

Treble: Less than before, but that is just the first impression of the fact that it is for the first time rendered accurately. The sounds "S" and "F" are more precise. Cymbals have more harmonics. Perhaps clichés like "a veil has been removed" and "less grain" are appropriate here. It first seems like there is less bite and urgency to aggressive music that should have it, but that is actually wrong. I had just got used to the excess of coarse treble.

Speed and resolution: More. Percussive sounds now have a beginning, a middle, an end and a decay. E.g. the complex sound of a drum beat has the initial sound of the drum stick hitting the drum skin, followed by the main boom, followed by the end boom, followed by the echo.

It is now easier than before to focus on separate instruments in a dense mix. Particularly the doings of the bass guitar player are now frighteningly easy to follow.

A lot more air between instruments. Voices in a choir are more easily identified as individual voices with individual characteristics.

A more clearly defined soundstage with a more easily identified acoustic environment. Echoes that before integrated with the originating sound are now clearly separated and the echo stretches backwards in the acoustic environment. Some of this information were there before in a lesser degree as long as the music wasn's busy. Now it's there to a greater degree even when the music gets decidedly busy. (E.g. the echo of the snare drum in Metallica in full tilt.)

Violins sound much more natural and acoustic than before. A sharp and electrical element has disappeared. A cello sounds more mellow and wooden.

Closely miked acoustic guitars, such as in Coldplay, sound decidedly more mellow and wooden, although with more clarity and speed. The pluck of the string sound more natural and is not overstated as before. It sounds less hifi and more musical. The guitar also has a lot more body and weight. All this means a more life-like sound, because an acoustic guitar, when you hear it played live, has surprisingly full yet soft sound. The edgy high-definition sound heard on most recordings is actually not very realistic.

Conclusion

Funnily enough, the improvements seem to vary depending on musical material. The Cello Sonata gets more air and acoustics and harmonic detail. Bach's Cantatas get improved imagery of the choir and increased purity of tone of the singers. Coldplay get better bass definition and more natural sounding acoustic guitars. Metallica get bass clout and resolution together with percussion speed. Eva Dahlgren gets a quieter background and more echo to go with her more relaxed voice - she even seems to articulate better. Marilyn Manson gets everything above but now he nows where I live, and that's really scary.

In short, different CD's now sound more different than before. My only explanation is that the system now renders the material more accurately and has less of its own character. The MiniSub therefore brings about a clear and pure improvement. The system setup is the same as before. Only the current fed to it has been affected. Nothing else.

Bottom line: Am I going to order one for myself? You betcha!

Update 2006-04-23 An Isotek MiniSub GII has now nested in my rig for half a year - and I actually have nothing to say! It performs so well that I tend to forget about it. That's the best praise it can get. My only regret is that I didn't realise the importance of mains quality until now. I think it would have saved me some unnecessary upgrades in the past. Thanks to the MiniSub I now think I really hear what possible upgrades I audition really do. I also think a MiniSub with good mains cables save money, since they make cheaper electronics sound like a million bucks.

Björn Törnroth
bjorn.tornroth.net
bjorn at tornroth dot net