EVS Ground Enhancers: a collective exploration of a tweak
In audio, there is always the lure of the tweak – the cheap and often inexplicable add-on, mod, or adjustment that promises to unleash the full potential of your rig, to peel back layers of distortion, to further blacken your blacks, deepen your soundstage and smooth out your highs, and so forth. Tweakdom ranges from the apparently crazy (telephone-based interventions and bags of magic rocks?) to the clearly sensible (adjust your speaker positions for best fit in your room). and occupies the grey area of audiophile life where enthusiasm sometimes gives way to fanaticism. We are all free to enjoy this space but when it comes to handing over money for tweaks, the arguments always become a little more heated; and if you purchase one, you can be sure that someone, somewhere, will be labelling you a dupe, or worse. Yet one cannot but admire the passions of audiophiles who, in their quest for better sound, either invent or seek out the supposedly overlooked, dismissed or misunderstood aspects of sonic reproduction.
One tweak that caught my attention recently was the “ground plane” tweak, which apparently provides a local ground storage mechanism that enhances the flow of musical signals, or something like that, but I confess, the explanations make little sense to me. A do-it-yourself version has been discussed at length on various forums, and there are commercial variants also available, such as the Audio Prism Ground Controls which have garnered decent reviews. As with any tweak, some have reported positive improvements and others none, so we here at HiFi Zine decided further investigation was warranted. I contacted Ric Schultz of Tweak Audio (not to be confused with Rick, former chief of Virtual Dynamics) about obtaining some review samples of his version. Ric jumped at the chance of a formal review but added a twist — why not have several reviewers try them at the same time and report their findings, he asked. Volunteers quickly assembled, Ric sent off packages to a group of us and I agreed the assemble the resulting findings. So welcome, to the first collective review in the ‘Zine.
What are Ground Enhancers anyway?
Ric makes no scientific or particularly supernatural claims for his product and describes them simply on his site as “tuned pieces of (Litz) wire that add a low impedance localized ground storage that enhance(s) the sound.” Ric admits that not even he knows why they work but asks you to try for yourself. Apparently a lot of people have done so and happily kept them in their rigs, reporting greater clarity, fuller bass, extended highs, you know, the typical cherished goals of audiophiles everywhere.
In appearance, there’s little to say — they look like small cloth packets with black taped ends out of which a single copper wire extends, ready to be wrapped around or through the terminals on your amp and speakers. Yes, you could probably make them yourself, and some folks have, but at this price, why bother?
The Ground Enhancers also come in versions for banana terminals ($5 extra per pair) or ready to connect to line level terminations, single-ended and balanced, if you are so inclined. You can add as many as you like to your rig for cumulative improvements though it’s the speaker interface that is usually the first step in enhancement.
Giving them a listen.
I tried two pairs of these both in my reference rig and with a variety of other components in for review. In most cases this was on the negative leg of the speaker terminals though I also tried the positive and, in one instance, tried a pair on an integrated amp feeding the speakers. The rigs consisted of the following:
- Source: PS Audio PWT/PWD digital front end combo, or Denon 2900 into Parasound DAC 2000
- Preamp: SMcAudio VRE-1
- Power amps: Spectron Musician III Mk 2 bridged monos
- Integrated amps: Naim Nait 2, Perreaux Audience i (the latter used in both set ups)
- Speakers: Von Schweikert VR5SE, Harbeth PS7SE
- Cables: Von Schweikert Biwires, Elrod single runs, home-made 16awg, Spitz Anti-Cables
For two months the Ground Enhancers sat on the negative terminals of both upper and lower modules of my VR5SEs in my reference set up, to the point that I felt they were just a regular part of my rig. I had not really noticed much in the ensuing weeks but I occasionally took them off and put them back on to determine impact. Not convinced I was hearing much, I spent the last few weeks taking them in and out while playing the same reference music I use for many reviews (Ronnie Earl’s Grateful Heart, Holly Cole’s Temptation and Starker’s Bach Cello Suites). I thought the addition might have lessened background ambience (noise?) on occasion and given the bass a little extra warmth but then again, maybe not. Could it just be that on those days, in that room, playing that track, my gear just sounded that way to me? I’m surely not the only person to experience the same music slightly differently on different days. On a couple of occasions I thought they might have increased the volume slightly but it’s hard to test this reliably.
If this sounds like I was on the fence, you’d be right. People had warned me that these tweaks did not lend themselves to quick A-B testing but I had to resort to this when my more relaxed use failed to give me a firm impression of change. I think it says it all for me that after a session swapping the Ground Enhancers in and out, I left the room to do something and when I came back I listened carefully again and concluded, “yes, they are in the system, I can hear it,” only to check and find that no, this was the sound with them removed. At that point, I gave up and concluded that whatever sonic effects they might produce, I could not reliably determine them. Time to move to another rig.
Given the rare luxury of having a pair of the small Harbeths on hand (review forthcoming), I tried them in my second rig with both integrated amps. Again, connecting to the negative terminals on the speaker, I had the same experience as with my reference rig. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, leaving me to conclude that any effect they might have is very subtle, so subtle in fact that I could not claim to notice it reliably. If this were a new component, I’d send it back as not worthy of the investment. These are far cheaper than similar tweaks offered by larger manufacturers, and fun enough to keep around to let others play with, as I will for another while. And herein lies the strange post-script. As I write this, I was listening to my reference rig playing some 90s rock compilation from Q Magazine, with tracks from Paul Weller, Cast and other mostly British bands of the time. I noted that the music sounded a bit thin to my ears, an effect I put down to the production of the compilation though I’d never felt that way before (but it had been a long time since I listened to that album). Just for kicks, I put in the Ground Enhancers and, well, again, nothing very profound happened but I “thought” the results were a smoother, less etched treble. Did that music just become a little easier on the ears? Maybe, but then again, maybe not. Oh dear, here we go again.
In sum, I did not experience the profound effects many have reported, so I’d say for those of you with similar gear to mine, don’t expect much if you add the Ground Enhancers to your rig. Could it be something about the grounding in my bridged monos or my balanced VRE-1 preamp that just negates any impact? Perhaps, but I didn’t get benefits with a couple of very different integrateds either. If you are sure you can hear an improvement, then good luck to you. For me, checking for differences was a strain. I had to listen hard, repeatedly, and who needs that? I never reliably experienced a session where I convincingly felt “that’s better” or “something’s missing”because of the presence or removal of the Ground Enhancers. For me, changes to my rig need to be consistently and reliably audible. I did not experience such with the Ground Enhancers.
What did others hear?
Here are the comments from three other reviewers who signed up for the collective assessment. Each describes their system and where they used the Ground Enhancers, before letting us know what they heard.
I would like to preface my evaluation of the EVS Ground Enhancers (GE) by saying I am not a very tweaky audiophile. I do not have any cable wraps or elevators in my system. These are by far the tweakiest items I have ever tried. My system for this review was:
- Sources: Squeezebox Touch, Rega P3-24
- Phono Preamplifier: Pass DIY Pearl
- DAC: Beresford 7520
- Preamplifier: Audio Research LS3
- Power Amplifier: Pass DIY Zen Variations 9
- Loudspeakers: Gedlee Nathan
I first evaluated the GEs by attaching one to each negative post of my speakers. I listened to a bunch of my personal reference tracks including Beck’s “Paper Tiger” from his album “Sea Change” and Hot Chip’s “The Warning” from their album of the same name. I did not notice any change in the sound or presentation of these familiar tracks at first listen. I then went into full-out audiophile tweak-out mode and played “Paper Tiger” way too many times, removing and reattaching the GEs. I think I may have noticed a very slight quieting of the background with the GEs attached. Beck’s voice in the beginning of the track might have been slightly more isolated. That said if forced to bet any sum of money I am not sure which side I would take.
Following the speaker evaluation I attached the GEs to my class A JFET power amplifier. The results of a few experiments here were that I could not detect any change in the sound at all.
For a more long-term evaluation I left the GEs on my speakers for a few weeks and after a good listening session on a Saturday I removed them to see if they were missed. The result of this exercise was no discernible reduction in enjoyment or fidelity. In conclusion the GEs may have affected the sound of my system but if they did it was a very small amount. While not generally into tweaks I am not a diehard objectivist. I do believe that some things are very hard to measure and that some tweaks may work very well. Unfortunately the GEs did not make the cut to stay in my system and will be returned to the manufacturer. As usual, your miles may vary.
I’ve always been intrigued by tweaks. To me, tweaks are small inexpensive changes you can make to a system that have either a positive or negative effect on the whole. Much of what I’ve tried has had either no effect or a negative effect but to me it is almost as interesting to discern that difference. An interesting thing about our psyche and the auditory section in particular is that change – unless it is literally physically uncomfortable – is generally perceived as an improvement. For me it requires constant changing back and forth between two different things for me to pick apart the specific difference and determine which to me is better. Using multiple speaker systems with different amps I set out to test the Ground Enhancers. The system used for this was a follows:
- Source: Squeezebox Duet (WAV files at 44.1kHz)
- Preamp: nOrh ACA2b
- Amp: ClassDAudio.com model CDA254 kit amp
- Speakers: Fritz Custom Dynaudio mini monitors, Fritz Grove Loudspeakers, Parts Express DIY TriTrix Transmission Line Loudspeakers
- Van Den Hul Mainserver power cables, Second interconnect cables, Third Speaker cables
I figured, well, it wouldn’t take me long to debunk this scientifically-inexplicable product and get back on with my life! As it turned out I spent about 3 weeks completely wrapped up in their spell.
The first speaker I tried them on were the Parts Express TriTrix transmission line speaker I built about 18 months ago for a review in Affordable$$Audio. I just happened to have them out for a few weeks of enjoyment when the EVS Ground Enhancers arrived so I figured what the heck, let’s get this party started! The change was immediate, it was as though I was listening to a completely different pair of speakers, one that had I spent a lot more money on crossover parts for. The biggest noticeable difference in the TriTrix was that background just got blacker and more silent. While there was noticed improvements in the imaging and soundstage, the biggest shock was just how quiet they became. It was a very nice addition.
Next I went to the garage for my Fritz mini-monitors (Dynaudio/Morel custom-built by Fritz Frequency Loudspeakers). These little giants tend to be a bear to drive but the bass definition is pure Dynaudio; and no matter how they try nobody can seem to replicate that real Dynaudio Sound. I once again noticed that the background noise was better but because these speakers are far less efficient the background noise isn’t as noticeable as it was with the TriTrix. With the Fritz speakers in the system the dynamic change was in imaging. I put on several albums, some Classic Rock from Neil Young, some Hobo Jazz, some Allison Kraus and a bit of country by way of Lyle Lovett. I found myself switching the Ground Enhancers in and out, because not only was the imaging change so dramatic, it was unexpected since that wasn’t the most noticeable aspect with the last speakers.
The next evening, I moved on to some new speakers Fritz had just dropped off, a pair of pre-broken in Fritz Grove loudspeakers. The change here from the Ground Enhancers was noticeable but not particularly dynamic, certainly worth $30 dollars. In these speakers, which closely model the Totem Forest in appearance and driver selection, the difference was just an overall larger blossom in the sound, something that is once again evident in all of the speakers. While I used the same playlist for all of the speakers in this comparison the blossoming sound change prompted me to fire up some music with a greater dynamic range. With Coastal Ship by Kari Bremnes, the first track on the YG Acoustics sample disc from a few years back, the sound just filled the room in a whole new way.
So my determination would be that in this particular tweak your mileage may definitely vary. There was a sonic change in every single speaker I used them with, but the change was entirely different depending on the loudspeaker. I didn’t get to hear these in conjunction with a loudspeaker I didn’t like the sonic change with, but I did not experiment with using them on any portion of the system other than the negative terminals of my loudspeakers. Is it worth $30 bucks? Heck yeah.
I’ve indulged in a handful of tweaks over the years, beginning in the 1980’s with the Monster Discus. For my hours of use, all I ended up with is a repair bill for the replacement of the CD holding mechanism. Since then I’ve taken on only tweaks that didn’t interfere with the physical operation of any part of my system. In order to gain the widest possible experience with the EVS Ground Enhancers I tried them with three separate systems.
The first was my wife’s small home office setup consisting of the Pennaudio Rebel 3 mini-bookshelves and the Aura Note receiver/CD system. To be fair the room and speakers are not set up for an outstanding listening experience. Even with some moving about I cannot say with any consistency that improvement was detectable.
With my main rig – consisting of the Verity Audio Finn speakers sourced via iTunes/Pure Music combo and powered and converted by Sim Audio i7 integrated amplifier and the D300 DAC – my results were spotty. On very good recordings, I sensed something had improved but didn’t feel the consistency was there.
Finally, I tried a completely different location, a small classroom at my school some 25×25 feet in size. I’ve used this room previously for reviewing and have a good handle on its acoustic capabilities after the desks have been moved out of the way on the carpeted floor. I set a pair of Totem Rainmakers some 8 feet apart on Celestion Si stands about 45 inches out from the wall. Source and amplification consisted of the Rotel RA1520 integrated amplifier and RCD redbook player. After an hour of listening I attached the EVS Ground Enhancers. With this setup the bass did improve with better definition and control. Adele’s powerful new hit “Running In The Deep” is one of those songs that craves a large space, and with the enhancers the soundstage did broaden a little, along with a tightening of the bass.
Overall, for the price of less than three cd’s, the EVS Ground Enhancers are worth a try. If they don’t work, you can get a refund. If they do improve your sound, you’re ahead of the game. I’m going to buy the review set to keep on hand. Someday, I may have a match up that will benefit. After all, I’ve spent more on bad recordings this spring than what a pair of EVS Ground Enhancers cost.
So, there you have it. Four reviewers, using more than 8 different system configurations in multiple rooms came to a collective conclusion that these are definitely not for everybody and cannot be seen as a universally positive addition. For most of us, there might have been a slight improvement at times, with comments about bass clarity and background quietness being the most common potential improvements, but these effects, if real, were very subtle, the kind of improvement most of us had to listen hard for, and certainly not consistent across rigs. Curiously, none of us felt that the Ground Enhancers detracted from anything, so if they are having an effect, it appears to be one that helps rather than hinders a system, though as Jeff suggests, sometimes the human perceptual system might be biased to hearing “improvements.” Jeff’s own experiences were definitely more positive and clear-cut than the others; for him these worked well, though slightly differently, on each speaker he tried, which is enough to suggest you just have to try them for yourself to know. At the price, and with return rights, there really is little to lose here but the effort, so why not? And if you are so inclined, add your own review to the site after this article, just be sure to list your rig and what you heard.