Finite Elemente Pagode Signature Equipment Rack
High end audio has always been about the gear – amps, preamps, turntables, cables. The lowly equipment rack was often an afterthought. Eventually audiophiles and audio companies began experimenting with different materials and supports, and found that the stand or rack that houses the gear can be just as important as the gear itself. Vibration, whether transmitted through the structure of your home, or generated by the equipment, is the enemy of resolution. The effects of vibration on the sound of your system can range from subtle to profound, which means that the amount of vibration reduction offered by an equipment rack can similarly affect what you hear from your system.
Building the Best Rack: Big and Heavy, or Light and Rigid?
There have traditionally been two divergent schools of thought for equipment rack design. The oldest and most utilized has been the “big and heavy” method of vibration control. Using time-honored techniques and solid (pun intended) engineering principles, big and heavy racks attempt to minimize vibration through sheer mass. This type of rack is characterized by sturdy, inflexible supports made of strong materials such as steel, compressed wood products like MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard), or even heavy stone. The heavy rack is coupled to the floor, usually through spiked feet, so that the floor becomes part of the structure too. The theory is that vibration will be transmitted into the mass of the structure instead of into the components.
This approach works pretty well for dealing with structure-borne vibration, such as a slightly wobbly floor, or rumble from passing traffic, an HVAC system, construction, etc. It also deals well with vibration caused by sound waves impinging on the equipment and rack, as the mass does not want to move. It doesn’t deal quite as well with vibration that is generated by the equipment itself. Sources with moving parts, such as turntables, disc players, and tape machines, can generate their own vibrations, which, depending on the equipment and the level of vibration control implemented in the design, can range from almost unnoticeable to severe. Vibration from a source component can be transmitted into the rack, and thus to other components. Even if the rack is massive enough to prevent vibration from one component from affecting other components, the big and heavy racks don’t have a good answer for controlling vibration within the problem component.
Enter the “light and rigid” school of thought. The idea here is that instead of coupling everything together and using mass to damp vibrations, we’ll use a lightweight rack with compliant shelving and feet to decouple the equipment from the rack and building structure. These racks are often built with modern composite materials such as acrylic or carbon fiber, lightweight metals such as aluminum or titanium, and synthetic damping materials such as sorbothane. Vibration is damped in the rack, or even in the individual shelf, instead of using mass transmission.
The “light and rigid” approach works well with lightweight components, but not so well with the bulky and heavy components often found in high end audio. Suspending a heavyweight component in a light and rigid rack will often defeat the decoupling system, thus eliminating all the benefits of decoupling.
The Best of Both Worlds?
There have been many attempts to deal with the shortcomings of the two mainstream design philosophies, with limited success. The most popular approach seems to be to add some decoupling capability to a big and heavy rack. An example would be a massive steel rack with shelves individually resting on upward-pointing spikes, instead of the shelves being directly attached to the frame. Another approach is to install a shelf that utilizes constrained-layer damping construction into a massive rack. Manufacturers of light and rigid racks have attempted to increase the weight-bearing capability of their racks, and even added elements of the big and heavy racks, such as the ability to add damping material like sand or lead shot into cavities within the frame.
Enter Finite Elemente
One manufacturer decided to take a fresh look, and combine the two approaches in an interesting way. Finite Elemente is a German company, located in the town of Bestwig in the Sauerland region of western Germany. Finite Elemente implemented their unique design in a family of component support structures called the Pagode. There are two Pagode lines – the Master Reference, and the Signature. The Master Reference line is Finite Elemente’s “statement” line. The products contain numerous innovative features, and are very expensive. As is typical for “statement” products, the Master Reference line has received quite a bit of coverage from the audio press.
The Pagode design approach uses elements of the big and heavy school by utilizing heavy-duty shelving made of Canadian Maple, a dense, dimensionally stable wood. The shelving structure consists of a wooden frame that supports a wooden shelf that is mounted using four spikes. The light and rigid school of thought is demonstrated by the unusual method of suspending these shelves – lightweight aluminum I-beams act as the rack frame, and the shelves are suspended from it using side spikes (more on this later).
The Pagode Master Reference line uses four I-beams (two on each side), and adds stainless steel “resonators” into each shelf, which are designed to damp resonance at specific frequencies. The resonators are tuned to individual frequencies, and distributed based on a mathematical model developed by Finite Elemente. The resonators are one of the reasons why the Master Reference line is so expensive ($6195 for a four-shelf model).
For those of us who aren’t independently wealthy, or who can’t envision spending mega-bucks on an equipment rack, Finite Elemente has a less exalted solution, the Pagode Signature line. The four-shelf Pagode Signature lists for $2095. The Signature achieves a lower price point by only using two I-beams for support, and dispensing with the resonator technology. It still uses the massive maple shelves and side-spike attachment method. Finite Elemente’s US distributor, Immedia, is now reselling the Signature line through popular retailers/e-tailers Acoustic Sounds and Music Direct, bringing awareness of these products to audiophiles who get catalogs from one or both of these sources. I chose to test this more “real world” Signature rack system to see if the melding of big and heavy and light and rigid really works.
Make Up Your Mind!
There are numerous options and choices for number of shelves, rack height, colors, and finishes in the Signature line. Standard configurations are anywhere from single-shelf amp stands, or two to five shelf racks (more can be added), with different I-Beam lengths available. Standard I-Beam lengths are 600mm (23.6in), 850mm (33.46in), 935mm (36.8in), 1100mm (43.3in), and a towering 1400mm (55.1in). The aluminum I-Beams can be had in a dull anodized finish, or in a shiny polished finish.
Standard colors for the Canadian Maple shelves are a lacquered natural finish, or a pearlescent black. Various other stained-wood finishes (cherry, rosewood, etc.) are available via special order. The shelves are 660mm wide by 540mm deep (25.9in x 21.3in), which means they will accommodate most audio components on the market from a dimensional standpoint.
The bottom shelf of the rack is the most heavy-duty, clearly designed for a power amplifier. It is rated to hold components weighing up to 50kg (110 lbs.), providing support for all but the heaviest solid-state amplifiers. Each of the other shelves are rated at up to 25 kg (55 lbs.), which again should accommodate most audio components on the market.
One of the most appealing factors of the Pagode racks is that the middle shelves are height-adjustable. If you own a typical rack with fixed spacing between shelves, there is nothing more frustrating than finding that you either have too much clearance for a slim component, or (more likely) you don’t have sufficient clearance to properly ventilate tube gear or install a top-loading CD player. If you have a Pagode rack, you no longer have this problem. Middle shelves are adjustable in 30mm (1.2in) increments along the length of the I-Beams, freeing you from the tyranny of fixed shelf spacing.
The workmanship is impeccable, and the finish on both the aluminum and the wood is exquisite. I could find no flaws or tool marks in the aluminum, and no blemishes in the wood finish.
Putting it All Together
The Signature rack came neatly packed, with lots and lots of parts. The shelves are pre-assembled, but that’s it. The bulk of the assembly is done by the purchaser. In the interest of science I chose to put the rack together myself, but take it from me – it will be a whole lot easier and quicker if you have a helper. Assembly itself is pretty straightforward, even though the English-language instructions aren’t as clear as they could be.
The bottom shelf is installed first. You screw the floor spikes into the shelf, and then loosely attach each I-Beam to the frame of the bottom shelf. A crossbar brace is installed near the top of the I-Beams.
The middle suspended shelves are held in place using Finite Elemente’s side spike technology. There are shallow holes drilled every 30mm on the inside surface of each of the I-Beams. Each shelf is equipped with two spikes that stick out of the left and right sides of the frame. You place the shelf at the height you want, line up the tips of the spikes with the drilled holes, and then unscrew the spikes until the points mate with the holes. The goal is to try to get each spike equidistantly threaded out from the shelf frame, and then adjust the tension so that the spikes are snug enough in the holes to hold the shelf in place, but loose enough to allow any vibration in the component to be drained away through the spikes and into the I-Beams.
Other than an admonition to check the tightness of the bolts after a week or so, the instructions give no clue or hints as to how tight you should make everything, so you’re on your own. Too loose and your gear will flop around; too tight and you’ll get vibration, thus defeating the whole idea.
As I mentioned before, the adjustability of the shelves is a boon to those who have gear of differing sizes or ventilation needs. The strength of the system and the weight ratings of the individual shelves should be reassuring, but I did find a shortcoming in the design that is endemic to the light and rigid school, and was not overcome by the hybrid features of the Pagode Signature.
The issue is this: the Pagode Signature works quite well with relatively lightweight equipment, as is typical of a light and rigid rack. It also works well with heavier gear, but only if the heavy component’s weight is evenly distributed. This is not always the case. Tube gear often has heavy transformers in the front or rear of the component. If the weight is biased toward the front or rear, the design of the tensioned shelf, which by necessity has loose tolerances, and is held in place by four small points, will allow the shelf to tip.
I have two tube components – a large preamplifier, and a tubed phonostage. The weight is biased toward the front of each of these components. This uneven weight distribution doesn’t cause any noticeable effect on my older Zoethecus rack, but it’s clear what happens with the Pagode Signature. Each of these components causes the shelf on which it sits to pivot slightly on the side spikes, tipping the gear forward. If the I-Beams are even slightly loose, the entire structure (except the bottom shelf) will tip forward. This is not likely to be a big issue with all-electronic components, but electro-mechanical components such as a turntable or disc player are not going to like it, as they will not sit level.
I suspect that this issue is not as big of a problem with the Pagode Signature’s more expensive companion, the Pagode Master Reference. The Master Reference uses four I-Beams instead of two, and has four side-spikes on each shelf, instead of two. Even so, I wonder if a heavy component with a substantial front weight bias, like my all-tube phono stage, could cause the shelf to sag forward, even though it might not be as much as with the Pagode Signature.
With mostly lightweight components the rack is just fine, although I would hesitate to put all but the lightest turntable on the top shelf. In fact, I did not put my turntable on the Pagode Signature at all after seeing the shelf tilt produced by my heavy tube gear.
Used and Abused
In many ways the Pagode Signature is very easy to live with. The open structure means that there’s plenty of air flow, and things are very easy to get to. Getting behind a component to plug or unplug a cable or power cord is extremely simple. Making adjustments on a shelf is also very straightforward, because the side spikes are easy to get to. I did have to tighten up the bolts a couple of times during the first few weeks, but then the rack seemed to settle down and everything stayed where it was.
If a Rack Vibrates, Does it Make a Sound?
Does this expensive rack change the sound? Does the vibration damping technology really work like it’s supposed to? In order to find out, I compared the Pagode Signature to my Zoethecus Reference Superstructure rack. The Zoethecus falls into the big and heavy category, but uses semi-suspended constrained layer damping shelves. I use a combination of Zoethecus-made Z-Slab aluminum-topped constrained layer shelves, and custom constrained layer shelves from Neuance Audio. I swapped components back and forth to see what effect the new rack had on the sound.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. There definitely were differences in the sound. They weren’t huge differences, though. Audiophiles often tend to describe changes in “night and day” terms, or use worn-out clichés like “jaw-dropping.” There were no changes even remotely close to this kind of magnitude. Differences were much more subtle, and took a lot of time and equipment swapping to become definable.
The two things that stood out when I moved gear from the Zoethecus to the Pagode Signature were a slight increase in treble and midrange clarity, and a slight decrease in bass weight. The Zoethecus gave a more “weighty” sounding presentation, at the cost of being slightly closed-in sounding, whereas the Pagode Signature seemed to sharpen the attack and put more focus on the pace of the music. Tube components really seemed to benefit from the design of the Pagode Signature (even when tipped forward slightly). I had mixed emotions about digital source components on the Pagode Signature. My Lexicon multi-channel universal player seemed to like the Pagode Signature – it presented a more lively and lifelike sound on complex orchestral music. My Ayre C-5xe stereo universal player was not quite happy on the Pagode Signature – suddenly the pace seemed a bit rushed and forced. Putting it back on its Nuance shelf in the Zoethecus returned everything to normal.
Again, none of these differences were earthshaking – they were all quite subtle, in fact. It took a lot of listening to hear the differences, but they were there.
The Envelope, Please
The design of the Pagode Signature is quite interesting. My wife, who has a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, was fascinated by it, and pronounced it “well-engineered.” The fit and finish are above reproach – it is a fine piece of furniture that you can proudly display.
If you have relatively lightweight components, or heavier components with even weight distribution, the Pagode Signature will work well. If you have an ear for clarity and pace, the Pagode Signature will bring those attributes forward. If your setup uses digital sources, or a lightweight turntable, you should be satisfied with the Pagode Signature. If you own hi-end gear but do not have a component stand or rack that addresses issues of vibration, you should by all means try one out – they can make a significant improvement to your system.