Like many audiophiles, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with tweaks. I’ve gone from being crazy about tweaks to being anti-tweak to somewhere between those positions. Presently, I use only those tweaks that significantly improve the sound of my system, as opposed to merely change the sound.
However, despite my substantial history of tweaking, I’ve only rarely experimented with the many products that are claimed to control electromagnetic fields and/or resonances when wrapped around or covering cables, connectors, component circuits and interiors, and speaker cabinets. There are several reasons for this.
First, since there is virtually nowhere such products can’t be placed, they can sometimes enable astonishing levels of audiophile neurosis. A friend and I once visited a guy who had covered literally his entire system -- components, speakers, cables, fuse box -- with a product said to diffuse EMI and RFI. When I saw that system, I told my friend that, if I ever did that, he should, regardless of any sonic benefit, shoot me.
The second reason is undoubtedly related to the first. Using a number of these products in moderation can work well, but excessive use of them can sometimes cause music to sound dark and lifeless. It’s a perfect example of having too much of a good thing. Also not lost on me is the fact that finding the tipping point often requires work.
It was with this in mind that I opened an e-mail from Joe Cohen, CEO of audio importer Lotus Group. Cohen was touting what he called a “21st-century damping material” called fo.Q. He stated that this product, in the forms of tape, sheets, boards, and incorporated into numerous types of isolation products, solved the second of the above issues: “Typically, damping materials have their pluses and minuses: They may be effective up to a point beyond which their positive effects are reversed, and they may give rise to imbalances in overall frequency response. We have found no such threshold or effects with fo.Q. . . . There is no limit to their application.”
I contacted Cohen and requested review samples. In response, he sent me one or more packages of each of the following (all prices USD): SH-21E sheets for components or speakers (2mm thick, ca. 11.75” x 8.25”, $170/pair); SH-22E sheets for components or speakers (2mm thick, ca. 8.5” x 6”, $100/pair); TA-32 Tuning Absorber Tape (perforated, 0.3mm thick, various widths, $84/two sheets); TA-102 Tuning Absorber Tape (1mm thick, $95/two sheets); silver and black SB-01 Phone Art stickers for earbuds, headphones, and small portable devices such as cell phones and pocket-size USB headphone DACs ($35/sheet); and an AB-4045 Audio Board isolation platform ($775), made of, among other materials, fo.Q.
Background and features: fo.What?
fo.Q was developed by Kiso Industry Co., Ltd., of Japan, through its affiliate Titecs Japan Ltd. According to Kiso’s website, the company develops and markets “industrial chemicals, materials for civil engineering, and environment-related instruments and devices.”
fo.Q is a piezoelectric material -- i.e., it generates an electric charge when subjected to mechanical stress -- and was designed to improve the performance of audio and video equipment by converting solid-surface resonances into heat. Unlike, say, Stillpoints ERS paper or Shakti Stones, it is not designed to absorb, redirect, or diffuse electromagnetic interference (EMI) or radio-frequency interference (RFI).
Kiso states that fo.Q has at least twice the damping power of conventional damping materials. They say that, as resonances increase, conventional materials become less effective, but that the opposite occurs with fo.Q: as resonances increase, so does the degree of damping.
Kiso also states that fo.Q won a funding grant from the Japan Science and Technology Agency, a Japanese governmental agency responsible for the development of science and technology. The material gets its name from principles of acoustical engineering (i.e., physics): f stands for formant, o for zero, and Q for quality factor, or resonance.
Apparently, there are those who think very highly of fo.Q. Acoustic Revive, for example, another Japanese manufacturer of audio products, uses it in a number of its own products.
As noted above, fo.Q tape and sheets come in varying sizes and thickness. Kiso has set up a website (www.foq.jp) for these and its other fo.Q-infused audiophile products, which include CD improvement rings, turntable-platter damping mats, cartridge damping tape, component racks, isolation boards (e.g., the AB-4045), stands for speakers and power supplies/conditioners, and component and speaker footers.
The AB-4045 Audio Board isolation platform is designed to be used under components or relatively light speakers. It is available in red or black and has a lacquered wooden exterior. Comprising several layers of wood and ceramic sandwiching a sheet of fo.Q, it weighs 9.25 pounds and measures 17.5”W x 0.75”H x 15.6”D. The AB-4045 comes with five round, self-adhesive “spacer” pads of fo.Q that are 2.5” in diameter and 1mm thick. Three or four or five pads can be placed on the top or bottom of the Audio Board for additional isolation, to help protect the board from scratches, or to correct for an uneven floor or shelf. When used under the board, the spacers also help prevent it from shifting on slippery surfaces.
According to Kiso, the AB-4045 has an average of ten times the damping power of conventional isolation boards made of inorganic materials. Kiso states that while the AB-4045 is effective over the entire audioband, it is particularly effective in damping frequencies below 300Hz and above 4kHz.
Setup: Anywhere it works and nowhere it doesn’t
While Kiso’s instructions for installing the fo.Q tape and sheets are written only in Japanese, they do include helpful diagrams. And while the fo.Q website, which is in English, broadly recommends that you “Try whatever you think might work . . . based on the surrounding environment,” it also states that the material will work on power cords and signal cables, under and inside component cases and speaker cabinets, on CD-player disc drawers, and in critical areas such as directly on DAC chips, fuses, transformers, resistors, capacitors, and circuit boards.
With a little experimentation, I found it easy to identify spots that worked. And while I thought I might need a lot of fo.Q for it to be effective, I didn’t -- a little went a long way, and I never had to completely cover anything.
Because fo.Q is piezoelectric, Joe Cohen counsels against applying it where it will contact the signal path. For power cords and signal cables, a good place to start is on the outside of the connectors. From there, move slightly into the dielectric or outer jacket. But don’t apply it to the inside of connectors, where it might touch the connector pins.
Care should also be taken when using fo.Q in or near hot areas. If you’re going to use it to treat things like fuse bases or in ventilation areas, test first to ensure that there will be no problem.
I began by putting fo.Q tape on many of my power cords and interconnects, but then got a bit hung up on where to apply it next. Ultimately, I also treated ten fuses and their bays, the tubes of my Synergistic Research Enigma active power supply, the cover plate of my Acoustic Revive AC outlet, the bottoms and rears of my DSPeaker room treatments and their Channel Island Audio power supplies, and slid sheets of fo.Q under the DSPeaker and Channel Islands units.
Yes, the possibilities are maddening.
I placed the AB-4045 Audio Board under several of my Esoteric components, both with footers and on the bare floor. While I ultimately left the AB-4045 under my Esoteric A-03 amplifier, the results were also audible when I placed it under my player-DAC or preamp.
Performance: I’ll be damped
With the fo.Q tape only on my power cords and interconnects, the improvements -- as opposed to mere changes -- in the sound of my system were substantial. Take, for example, Pat Metheny’s amazing 42-string guitar (aka a portable harp) in his rendition of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence,” from What’s It All About (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Nonesuch). With the fo.Q tape in place, notes exhibited increased clarity and focus. They also had a greater sense of ease that only increased the serene beauty of this performance.
After I used the fo.Q tape in full array around my system, things firmed up and improved even more. “Mercy Street,” from Peter Gabriel’s Live Blood (16/44.1 AIFF, Eagle Rock Entertainment), is inspired by Anne Sexton’s poem of that title. At several points during this song, his voice is shadowed by a female singer. Now, the two voices were more finely drawn and easier to differentiate.
With “Detroit,” from Marcus Miller’s Renaissance (CD, Concord Jazz 33794), the thumb pops of Miller’s bass guitar displayed more texture and decay. At times, there’s a fair amount going on in this track -- now, it was easier to follow the various musical lines of the alto sax, trumpet, guitar, piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano, and bass.
Speaking of bass guitarists, in “El Bajo Negro,” from his The Toys of Men (16/44.1 AIFF, Heads Up International), Stanley Clarke pounds out a familiar flamenco rhythm by repeatedly striking with his hand the body of his double bass. The sounds of those strokes were now cleaner, with more realistic transient impact. In “All Over Again,” Esperanza Spalding’s sensual voice was now more fluid, and revealed subtle low-level information that had previously been obscured. In several instances, the point at which she briefly stopped vocalizing to take a breath was more precisely revealed. This effect was present, but not nearly as pronounced, when I applied the fo.Q tape to only my signal cables and power cords.
Consistent with what I’d been told by Joe Cohen, I never reached a point where I’d used so much fo.Q that it negatively affected the sound.
I’m not saying that the fo.Q tape and sheets will make a $5000 system sound like a $100,000 system. However, the differences made by these products were surprisingly easy to hear. Even if you’ve been down this road before -- with racks, isolation platforms, and footers -- the fo.Q products will prompt you to again do some serious thinking about how resonances can affect electrical current and circuits.
Interestingly, I perceived no benefit from using the fo.Q sheets on the exteriors of my YG Acoustics speakers and Esoteric electronics. Cohen said that this was likely due to the fact that these products are already heavily damped. Still, I’m not sure that this means that the sheets will benefit no high-end gear -- the chassis of many high-end components are not as solidly constructed as the Esoterics’.
Cohen also said that if I opened the museum-quality, partially screwless cases of my Esoteric components and applied fo.Q to critical internal parts, the results would likely be good. And while I’ve been thinking about opening those cases to experiment with both VH Audio’s WA-Quantum Chips and Synergistic Research’s Electronic Circuit Transducers, I haven’t yet worked up the nerve.
Cohen added that fo.Q often proves very effective when placed inside speakers, including on the drivers’ gaskets, frames, and yokes (the last holds a driver’s magnet). But disassembling the extremely heavy aluminum cabinets of my YGA Kipod II Signatures was even more of a nonstarter than opening the Esoterics’ chassis. I can see, however, how a manufacturer might want to use fo.Q in its products during manufacture. Here again, though, the YGAs, whose drivers are made of solid aluminum billet, and whose drivers themselves are contained in a particularly robust housing, might be an exception.
In what proved to be one last hurrah for the fo.Q tape, I removed the outer case of the portable music player that I use at the gym and placed some tape on several of its flat inner surfaces. I also put several Phone Art stickers on the exterior of my NuForce earbuds. Here, again, I heard an improvement. With the title track of pianist George Winston’s Linus & Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi (16/44.1 AIFF, Dancing Cat), notes were less congested. For example, the sound of the final note lingers 10-15 seconds before fading out entirely. With fo.Q applied, I stopped my workout and played the end of the song several times, each time appreciating that the note’s decay was now less clouded.
Moving to the AB-4045, I was surprised to the extent I could hear fairly significant differences with only the single review sample between my amp and the floor. With any track of Laurence Juber’s LJ Plays the Beatles (CD, Solid Air 2001), the AB-4045 helped to better reveal the various nonmusical string sounds signaling that a live human being was playing Juber’s acoustic guitar. These include the extended sound of Juber’s fingers sliding along the instrument’s long neck, as well as smaller fretboard scratches and squeaks. I find it incredible that, without a good way to address problem resonances, I couldn’t fully hear my recordings -- even with an amplifier as accomplished as the Esoteric A-03.
But even as the AB-4045 lowered the noise floor and increased detail and focus, it rendered tonal colors more accurately. In “Autumn Leaves,” from Louis Armstrong’s Live at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival (16/44.1 AIFF, Monterey Jazz Festival), for example, the sounds of Peanuts Hucko’s clarinet and Armstrong’s closing trumpet had more of the “that’s what it’s supposed to sound like” effect than when the A-03 was set on the bare floor. Mort Herbert’s bass guitar was also cleansed with the AB-4045, though it was also a bit less weighty and extended.
The improvements in sound that I heard with the AB-4045, particularly with “Autumn Leaves,” suggest that Kiso is correct in stating that the Audio Board works not only at the extremes of but throughout the audioband: The sounds of the clarinet and trumpet, both of which were more accurate with the AB-4045, both fall squarely in the midrange.
Comparison: Who has good vibrations?
A few years ago, I covered numerous fuses and the internal parts of some of my components with Uniko’s Anti-Vibration Magic (AVM). Like fo.Q, this light-blue paint is applied (in the case of AVM, brushed on) to damp resonances in pretty much the same sorts of components that benefit from fo.Q. AVM is said to be infused with an extremely dense material that works like, um, magic.
The components that I treated with AVM are long gone, and, after doing so, I never used the product again. This wasn’t because it didn’t work. Rather, it was because too many components pass through my room for me to have to continually buy and apply more AVM at $95.95 Canadian for a 20ml (0.68oz) bottle.
Given the unreliability of aural memory, it’s impossible to precisely compare the “sounds” of AVM and fo.Q. Nonetheless, I recall that the improvements I heard with AVM were similar to what I experienced with fo.Q. That said, it seems to me that AVM might be a good candidate for covering items such as power transformers, which are irregularly shaped and/or have hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.
On the other hand, fo.Q seems at least as suited as AVM for more regularly shaped objects, and, at least for me, makes a better choice for external application. I wouldn’t apply any blue paint to the outsides of my cables, the bottoms of my tubes, or the exteriors of my components -- but I’d use black fo.Q on all of them.
Finally, like many audio tweaks, neither product is cheap. At $95.95 Canadian for less than a fluid ounce of AVM, it’s hard to know which product is more cost effective. It’s probably a pretty close call that will depend on the application.
Next, I compared the AB-4045 Audio Board with my much less expensive, 1”-thick acrylic sheets (under $100) and much more expensive Synergistic Research Tranquility Bases ($1995) with the new UEF Tuning Circuits. The Tranquility Base is claimed to provide active conditioning by generating beneficial electromagnetic fields. It also provides mechanical isolation consisting of a proprietary nine-layer structure, the top layer being of acrylic.
Compared to the acrylic sheet, the AB-4045 was slightly warmer in the mid-frequencies and rendered better tonal colors. For example, with “Autumn Leaves,” the sounds of both Peanuts Hucko’s clarinet and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet were more tonally accurate and vivid though the AB-4045. But overall, while the acrylic sheet was tonally cooler, it was slightly better at cleaning everything up and lowering the noise floor. However, the Audio Board sounded significantly cleaner and quieter, if not as warm, as a number of maple platforms I’ve used.
The Tranquility Base did a better job all around -- which it should, for almost three times the price of the AB-4045. Compared to the latter, the Tranquility demonstrated even better bass finesse and low-end impact with Marcus Miller’s and Stanley Clarke’s basses. But the Tranquility also significantly improved soundstage holography, size, and dimensions, enhanced upper-end air and extension, and created an even richer midrange than was produced by the AB-4045 or the acrylic sheet.
Choosing between the three surfaces would seem to depend on cost considerations and system synergies. If what you can spend is at or near the Audio Board’s price of $775, and if your system isn’t bass shy and could benefit from a bit of clarity and tonal accuracy, the AB-4045 is a good way to go.
Conclusion: Secrets of the universe?
Nikola Tesla said, “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration.” Kiso may have not quite yet discovered these still-elusive mysteries, but they seem to have successfully addressed one of the two problems I’ve had with many audiophile products designed to control vibrations. No matter how much fo.Q I used in my system, whether in the form of tape, sheets, or Audio Board, the sound never became too dark or damped. Moreover, the sound didn’t merely change -- it always substantially improved.
Still, Kiso hasn’t addressed my first problem. If you see me heading for the family cat, fo.Q tape and scissors in hand, you know what to do.
. . . Howard Kneller
- Amplifier -- Esoteric A-03
- Preamplifier -- Esoteric C-02
- Sources/DAC -- Esoteric K-01, Windows 7 laptop running JRiver Media Center 17
- Speakers -- YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature, JL Audio e112 subwoofers
- Interconnects -- Synergistic Research Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver (electronics and speakers’ active bass modules)
- Digital cables -- Synergistic Research Active USB SE, JPlay JCat USB, Synergistic Research Active FireWire 800
- Speaker cables -- Synergistic Research Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver (tweeter) and Element Copper-Tungsten (midrange driver)
- Power cords -- Synergistic Research Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver Analog (amplifier and preamplifier), Copper-Tungsten-Silver Digital (disc player-DAC), Tesla Precision AC SE (speakers), Element Copper-Tungsten (power conditioners), Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver Analog and Digital (Enigma power supply fed by two power cords), Tesla Hologram A (QLS Lines strips with Galileo MPCs)
- Power conditioners and distribution -- Synergistic Research Powercell 6 SE (digital only) daisy-chained to Powercell 10SE Mk.II
- Isolation devices -- Synergistic Research Tranquility Bases (sources and preamp), Custom Isolation Products amp stand (Enigma power supply), Silent Running Audio VR fp Isobase (amp), Synergistic Research MIGs, Mapleshade Heavy Hats, DIY amp stands
- Room treatments and correction -- Synergistic Research Acoustic Art System, Synergistic Research HFT and FEQ room-treatment devices, Synergistic Research XOT Crossover Transducer, DSPeaker Antimode 8033 subwoofer equalizers with Channel Island Audio linear power supplies
- Misc. -- IPC Disc Energizer, Synergistic Research Galileo Universal interconnect and speaker-cable cells, Hi-Fi Tuning CD/DVD Demagnetizer, Acousence Giso LAN isolator
fo.Q Damping Products
SH-21E Damping Material
Price: $170 USD/two sheets.
SH-22E Damping Material
Price: $100 USD/two sheets.
TA-102 Tuning Absorber Tape
Price: $95 USD/two perforated sheets.
AB-4045 Audio Board
Price: $775 USD.
Phone Art Stickers
Price: $35 USD/sheet.
TA-32 Tuning Absorber Tape
Price: $84 USD/two sheets.
Warranty (all): One year.
Kiso Industry Company, Ltd.
Development Sales Department
Toranomon 3-3-3 Minato-ku
Phone: +81 (0)3-3437-6133
Fax: +81 (0)3-3437-6185
The Lotus Group
Novato, CA 94945
Phone: (415) 897-8884