Furutech and the Alaskan pipeline

I recently received a phone call. It was Dave Sturdevant, ardent fellow 'phile and music lover in chilly and remote Juneau, Alaska. (Yes, it is a shameful plague. Our kind eventually migrates into even the most idyllic and hitherto unpolluted places). Dave had followed my reviews over some time. Occasionally, we compare notes. On the weather, mostly (yeah, right). Today, he agreed that the Walker Audio Vivid optical CD enhancer I had unceremoniously but excitedly dubbed "the shit" worked as described. In his opinion, it bettered any comparable libations (what the heck do they drink in the snow?). But, Dave retorted out loud, was I hip to Furutech's CD demagnetizer that now constitutes the second half of his daily CD resurrection ritual?

I had - a hip, all two of 'em, thank you very much. But no, I wasn't.

Did I want to try his personal unit while he took off on vacation? Seemingly in dire need to up my hipness quotient to levels befitting a jacked-in reviewer, I hastily said yes. Otherwise -- seeing that Stereophile's review of the RD-1 dates back to somewhere in 2000 (missed that one) -- I'd be more jack-assed than in. Thankfully, the package arrived a few days later so we can leave my hindquarters out of this equation.

CD's secretive metal urge

Now - why demagnetize your CDs? Are they made of ferrite? Mine sure ain't. At least so I thought. Then I read Furutech's explanations. I had used a Bedini clarifier MkII for years but never found a gripping rationale for its effects that on a whole tended more toward the elusive than concrete. A few address changes later -- or perhaps as a result of my wolf challenging my big-dog status by sneaking off with it to bury in the yard -- it had disappeared. This by way of explaining why there won't be comparisons against this erstwhile competitor.

Furutech claims that impurities in the weak-magnet 99% aluminum alloy of any CD's storage side contain strong-magnet elements of iron, nickel and cobalt -- as does the ink on the label side --that are inductively magnetized while repeatedly spinning inside a player. This is said to inhibit the laser's ability to pick up signal and instead triggers the error correction interpolation mechanism for reduced S/N ratio.

Unlike the Bedini which actively spins the CD over two beams, the Furutech RD-1 (and its replacement, the RD-2) use a powerful ring magnet. It first ramps up voltage to magnetize the CD resting stationary above, then reverses polarity to demagnetize the charge in what's referred to as a "loop ebbing" process.

The firm believes this results in a more complete and even demagnetization that doesn't produce a partial recharge in the process.

Furutech's degauss cycle for the RD-1 (patented in Japan, Taiwan and the US) lasts approximately 10 seconds per side while the new RD-2 ( externally identical except for a new silver finish) takes 20. After the red power button is pushed and the CD placed inside the well, the white "erase" button lights up green when engaged and triggers the internal voltage that creates the circular magnetic field underneath the disc. When this light dims and then cuts off, you flip the CD and repeat the protocol for the other side. Easy as pie.

By disposition, audiophiles tend to willingly embrace new problems, especially truly esoteric and far-out ones. For that they are then bled with equally esoteric and expensive cures. Would this CD degaussing turn out to be such a self-fulfilling dilemma? Furutech's documentation certainly makes an excellent case for the actual existence of today's disease - CD magnetism. Is that why I get so hypnotized listening to music? Salvation lies in this $299 device (the pending RD-2 replacement is pre-announced at the Cable Company for $399, with a short-term introductory price to match the current iteration).

The Science

The three-dimensional graphs to the right were generated by a SPECTRA PROFET analyzer. The vertical axis represents time, the horizontal line shows frequency, and the height of the crests equates relative amplitude in dB.

Graphs 1 and 4 are pre, 2 and 3 post demagnetization.

According to the company's comments (which suffered marginally in their translation from the Japanese original), the 1kHz signal in graph 1 shows not only edge non-linearities but also white blank fields believed to be caused by reading errors.

Additionally, there are irregularities and excessive amounts of small crests in the 2 to 5KHz region.

After demagnetization, the 1kHz component shows up perfectly solid, the former signal dropout portion filled in and the upper edge non-ragged. The non-linearities in the upper bands turned uniform, and the height of the crests increased.

Furutech's engineers believe this is visible proof of improved S/N ratio and a reduction of read-error distortions.

Graphs 3 and 4 show an actual music signal, with graph 3 post-demagnetization. The encircled areas clearly show filled-in signal and increased crest height, indicating -- according to Furutech -- both improved data retrieval and once again extended dynamic range.

In other measurements accompanying my printout of their e-mail document, Furutech measured music signal in the areas of output power level, THD and S/N ratio. After treatment with their admittedly newer and improved RD-2 unit, output power level increased by 0.58dB, THD decreased by 1.12% and S/N ratio improved by 0.181%.

While these attempts at quantifying degaussing effects are genuinely laudable, they do show up as rather diminutive quantities generated by state-of-the-art machinery. How about our ears? (As it turns out in many experiments, human hearing often perceives things we can't -- or don't know how to -- measure while the reverse can also hold true.) To minimize the placebo effect, I dug into this tech data after my listening impressions had formed. Which moves us now from having this easy pie to consuming it.

Subjective human response

I started off with Zoltan Lantos' Eclipse [TR-2010], a phenomenally otherworldly solo violin album. The effects were subtle and obviously not repeatable with just one copy. Still, I felt certain that the RD-1 had shaved off a certain edge. The violin's overtones and 16 sympathetic strings were cleaner but lacked a degree of harshness, glare or raspiness. Let's call it enhanced smoothness without loss of resolution, perhaps a 10-15% improvement.

Can you relate to musical curtsies, the kind of formal movements period movies depict during baroque dancing? "An Sumnia" is one of my favorite tracks on Thierry 'Titi' Robin's Un Ciel de Cuivre [Naive Y225091], an authentic Gipsy caravan celebration around an -- imaginary -- camp fire. This track -- which by now I know by heart -- features a limping 5-based rhythm that the musicians execute with a very distinct "curtsy", a kind of elastic miniature suspension of the beat. The sense of "sub-beat" subtlety post-treatment was significantly enhanced as though whatever the degaussing had accomplished improved the tune's timing cues.

Another phenomenon pointing at the prior violin example was a change in the singer's metallic timbre so prized by the Gitanos. It didn't seem subdued but sounded more naturally the result of a human throat rather than electronic grittiness. I also involuntarily reached for the Bel Canto preamp's remote and cut volume by 1dB on its display.

When I got around to reading the above engineering data, I wasn't entirely surprised to see the claimed 0.58dB increase in measured output. I can't say whether the overall volume seemed louder or the peak output differential stretched. My reaction was simply spontaneous and unmeditated. This makes it inherently more trustworthy than elaborate justifications during explorations as fraught with potential exaggeration as these.

Trying El Potito's Mia pa los restos [Nuevos Medios 15 688], the before/after difference was similar to Robin's. Rhythmic events had more tautness and intrinsic tension, and minor inflective accents seemed stronger. Exploring other CDs, I eventually concluded that the improvements with complex material seemed more pronounced, as though more complicated signal equated more raw substance to be cleansed of whatever the RD-1 removed or straightened out.

Reserving final conclusions for the follow-up report when the RD-2 arrives, I'll leave you with the following comments today: The Furutech device does not work gratuitously in the frequency response domain. Different listeners would immediately latch onto aberrations or changes. Rather, its gentle touch affects the realm of timbre, rhythmic coherence and overall musical gestalt. That latter is hard to quantify. Let's just say that sounds assume a closer likeness to feeling real. On certain tracks this appeared more overt than on others, such as the background restaurant cues of silver ware moving in trays on Cielo's concluding bolero. Hearing the common rattle of silver ware had that unmistakable rightness of ... familiarity? (Yes, reviewers do dishes, even though their daily intake of musical calories is sometimes less than it should be.)

What's it mean?

I'm reminded of an old, well-worn simile - that of multiple window panes each adding their own fine contributions to distorting what is seen. As we remove one pane after the next, clarity continues to improve. But something more profound happens when we get to the last one. The degree of visual distortion removed is no larger a step than any of the preceding ones. Still, our senses, when finally admiring the landscape without any glass buffer but directly, undiluted, respond disproportionately strong. The change goes beyond simply seeing. It's become a more complete experience. Which of course is true - now we feel the air, smell the breeze and shoot it endlessly afterwards.

Something of that sort happened with the Furutech time and again. Hard to explain yet rather reliably felt. A cop-out weenie of a description? Perhaps, but it' the best I can do for now. Check back in a month or two when Harmonic Technology, the new importer, has the RD-2 in stock. At that time, I will also experiment with treating interconnects and other cables. They apparently can be coiled inside the RD's well and treated just like a CD, DVDs, metal terminals and sundry other goodies. For now, I confess to being rather taken by this device. Unlike the Bedini whose potential benefits eluded my ears more often than not, fellow pilgrim Sturdevant really is onto something here. If he wants this thing back -- and of course he does unless his vacation turns permanent, lucky devil -- the extent of my grief shall be the real arbiter of Furutech's invention. To be continued.