IsoTek: a lateral factory visit – A chat with Keith Martin

Isotek Power - Fabriek - Slowakije

Inleiding

There is more to writing about music and audio equipment than just reviewing product X of brand Y. Although I cannot deny the excitement of unboxing a new device, testing it, getting accustomed to its features and then squeezing my observations into an article, I am happy there is so much more to explore. Take factory visits and interviews with the people behind the brand; certainly, these are among my favourite ways to spend a working day in the audio industry.

So, in this merry month of July 2018, my colleague Jaap and yours truly were heading towards the IsoTek factory, which is located in the east of Slovakia. We would be visiting the factory of this brand, renowned for its power filters, conditioners and cables. We of Alpha-Audio represent the Dutch press and there were also colleagues from Germany (Stereo) and England. Apart from the usual programme items of a factory visit, we were looking forward to assembling a power filter by ourselves. To quote the Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff: “je gaat het pas zien als je het door hebt”, or “only when one understands it, one really gets the grasp of it.”

Power equipment in audio systems are one of the most difficult items to write about, let alone to review. Along with interlinks, USB- and ethernet cables, our reviews on power filters, regenerators or cables unleashes long and hefty debates among readers of Alpha-Audio.nl. The variety of arguments is vast: some say it is mere snake oil, others defend the indispensability of these items. The reason why it is disputed terrain is pretty clear; whether or not you like a speaker, there is no discussion on what it does in an audio system (there is sound coming out of it). The added value of power equipment in an audio system is, well, much more complicated to demonstrate. Having said that and to return to the topic, we liked the idea of experiencing ourselves the ins and outs of IsoTek products and to get acquainted with its components in the factory.

Conundrum

IsoTek is a firm that has offices in three European countries: the UK, Switzerland and Slovakia. Production is located in Prešov, because of the skilled work force, the significantly lower labour costs and high loyalty of the people. Prešov is in the east of Slovakia and the Ukrainian border is about 100 km away. So, to get there from The Netherlands, England, Germany and Switzerland is quite a logistic conundrum, with stopovers in Prague, Warsaw and Vienna respectively. On the day of departure, only one of us was not confronted with delays and arrived on time in Slovakia. This was certainly not the case for me and for Keith Martin, IsoTek’s CEO. We were scheduled to travel together and without disclosing boring details on spending four hours in a plane that apparently was better in taxiing in reverse mode than just hitting the gas and take off and other frustrations of hampered air travel, the good news was that Keith and I have spent quite some time together.

So, with the right mix of herbal tea and Bircher muesli, we had long conversations on life in general and music, art, food, wine, beauty, comfort and joy in particular. We were at the airport for about 12 hours and then went back to Keith’s office that also houses his reference audio system. In the following paragraphs, I will try to put in words what we have experienced and exchanged. My colleague Jaap eventually met with the others who did arrive in Slovakia. He filmed the factory visit which can be viewed here. To share another Johan Cruyff-quote: “elk voordeel heb zijn nadeel” or “every advantage has its disadvantage”. We give you this disadvantage in the form of a lateral report of the IsoTek factory visit. I have tried to summarise our dialogue in sentences that cannot be attributed to Keith or me. Sorry about that. It is what it is.

On wine glasses and plastic

Somehow, it was easier to talk about the relevance of power equipment in audio systems using metaphors. I have a good friend who refuses to drink wine in plastic glasses. And he is right. Plastic does not help the wine enrichen its bouquet, after-taste and the like. And the better the wine, the more relevant is the glass. Not only its form, but also the type of glass or crystal. Blind tests and tastings easily demonstrate the added value of a matching glass.

In Keith’s listening room, we rewired the front end of his audio system (pre-amp, phono stage and power supply of the VPI record player transport). The power amps were left untouched; they were conditioned/regenerated by the EVO3 Super Titan. Instead of the EVO3 Genesis, we put the power cables of the front end in an EVO3 Polaris, the entry level power strip. We did not change the power cables which have a retail price of about € 3.000 a piece. The results? Could not have been missed by anyone. You do not need to be an audio aficionado to hear the difference. Using the EVO3 Polaris, not only the soundstage was squeezed in dramatically, but there were elements of the music that seemed to be left in the power strip without reaching the speakers. This must be things like transient information and phase linearity of the signal path (which is, of course, all-electric). While the Polaris is actually a very good award-winning power bar, compared to the Genesis it was totally out-classed.

Sticking to the metaphor: we poured high quality wine in a wine glass that matches the grape and character of the drink. We only used plastic instead of glass or crystal.

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