A Thousand Miles to Land
It was a sunny day off the coast of Hawaii. Ted Denney was on his J/42 and having the time of his life. At some point, he checked in with his accountants by satellite phone. The news was horrifying. The voice at the other end of the line told him, “your company is close to insolvency.” Ted was blindsided; his team had told him everything was fine. He “cried like he lost a dog”; not only was a much-needed vacation over, his career in audio was over. His factory was literally his home. Ted docked the boat and immediately flew home to see what, if anything, he could salvage from the situation.
What happened next is a classic American entrepreneur story.
But let’s start with some history. Ted started Synergistic Research in August 1992 with a small space that he both worked out of and slept in. Ted had common sense, but no venture capital, no angel investment, nothing…not even family money. He survived by dealer orders and eating very cheaply, sometimes going to bed without dinner as he did not have enough money for food let alone rent for a studio apartment. It took a couple of grueling years and sleeping on a cot and eating ramen noodles cooked on a small electrical hot plate in his tiny factory before SR took off. Ted’s first big success was the AC Master Coupler, one of the early high-end power cords, and one that put him on the map. The dealer network expanded and SR became profitable.
However, after 12 long years, work took its toll and the 80-90 hour weeks led to burnout. By 2004, Ted was losing his biggest account and his faith. He sold his house and bought a sailboat and sailed to the South Pacific. For the first year, things went fairly well in Ted’s absence, but his business started to fall apart after the second year at sea.
But something very good happened at sea: Ted read books on Nikola Tesla and these ignited his imagination. The result was a new line of cables using some of Tesla’s technology in ways that had never been attempted before. While at sea, Ted also came up with an idea for acoustic treatments based on Tibetan prayer bowls that he had seen and heard in a Buddhist temple. This would eventually lead to some highly effective science first in the form of SR’s Acoustic ART product and later the ingenious HFTs, an innovative room tuning device that I’ll discuss here.
Before sailing, however, SR’s product line included power cables, interconnects, speaker and digital cables. That’s it. But the trip would also lead to what seems to me like Synergistic 2.0 as Ted began exploring some of Tesla’s ideas. When he got back, he began working with his engineer to develop a new line of Tesla cables. Ted says that without Tesla, Synergistic would have gone bankrupt. Happily, the Tesla series proved very popular and received some favorable reviews in the audiophile press.
I’ve reviewed some of SR’s power foundation products here on Part-Time Audiophile but have shied away from the tweakier stuff. Sometimes you cannot win as a reviewer. Sometimes, you hear improvements but you can’t quite connect it to the known science much less a plausible explanation. That’s not fun.
Now as audiophiles, we can certainly believe that power line noise is bad and logically connect a sonic improvement to a power conditioner that purports to lower noise. However, I think of large fabric panels that attach to the wall and corners when people say “acoustic treatments”, not a device the size of a thimble. Yet, that’s what a Synergistic Research HFT is, and Ted sent me a set to experiment with, and showed me how to place them along the walls, ceiling, and even on the gear itself.
How could a bunch of small metal cylinders improve the sound? What weirdness was this?
We now fast-forward to 2018 and pick up on a most unusual room treatment device.
Improbable Impact & the Synergistic Research HFT
One day, I went downstairs to listen to the system and something was off. I couldn’t quite place it. It was just slightly off. With more critical listening, I isolated the issue. The image was pulling a bit to the left. At first, I thought it was an ear-equalization issue I had from returning from a business flight. But no, the ears were fine. Then I noticed that one of my Synergistic Research HFTs had fallen off the right side of the Salamander rack. It was lying on the carpet! So I had HFT treatments on the left top shelf, center top shelf, and no right top shelf. That tiny thimble of an acoustic tweak was not reporting for work and causing the image to shift left. I replaced it and had all three gold HFTs now properly set up. I went back to the listening chair. Ahh, that’s more like it. A completely centered and natural image. Success!
The Synergistic Research HFTs are one of the cooler audio inventions I have seen. Placed around the room in a strategic manner, these HFTs improve room acoustics. The way it’s explained is that the horns in these metal cylinders magnify the effect of resonating materials and the resulting vibrations change the airflow on the walls and ceilings of your room.
I know. This sounds crazy. But son-of-a-beats, it works.
By strategically placing the Synergistic Research HFTs in location and type, one can gain more “openness” in the sound of the room. Now there are several varieties of HFTs, each with different effects on the room. The SR website has very precise instructions on how to place them around the room for maximum impact. Synergistic Research HFT “Standards” have a silver cylinder and make up the bulk of a room’s treatment; “HFT 2.0” are black and add warmth and musicality. “HFT X” are the gold ones referenced earlier, and bring focus and resolution. The website shows a multi-level approach where the devices are placed in a “grid pattern” around the room including equipment racks, speakers, and ceilings/walls. Ted has also posted two videos to show you visually as well.
Today, I cued up the new More Muddy Waters Live LP. This old recording has superb sound quality and Muddy’s voice and guitar have a lot of presence, as does “Pinetop” Perkins piano. On my Wilson Audio Alexia 2, I have placed two gold HFTs on the aluminum bridge that holds the tweeter module precisely in position in terms of both angle and distance from the listener. Before, the sound was excellent. The Alexia 2s are very revealing and I hear everything from the recording. I was skeptical what two thimbles would do …. but I heard more clarity on the mids and highs, immediately.
Next up was the DCC LP of Made in Japan by Deep Purple, a pressing I waited many years to find for an affordable price. Steve Hoffman did a terrific mastering that has loads of detail but is very warm and musical nonetheless. I took the Synergistic Research HFTs off the Alexia bridge and cued up Smoke on the Water. Good sound for sure. But next, I added in the HFTs and listened to the guitar crunch at the beginning of the track…bum, bum, buummm, bum-bum badum. Ah yes! More clarity and the soaring solo was perfectly clear and real. I was in classic rock heaven. The room filled with smoke and marijuana wafted around the speakers. Okay, I kid on that last part.
Ted was kind enough to walk me through the placement of these devices on the speakers, the ceiling, and the walls. At each step of the way, I listened to a sampler CD on the PS Audio DirectStream DAC. Every addition of a Synergistic Research HFT added clarity to the mids and highs and seemed to improve the width and depth of the soundstage. It was as if the room was being taken out of the equation and we were hearing what the Alexias and Audio Research electronics were fully capable of.
Special Note to Magnepan Owners: When I started this review a year ago, I had Magnepan 1.7s. I did three things that made a substantial improvement to their sound. First I got some Synergistic jumper cables to replace the chrome “U”s that act as a jumper on the back panel. Second, I inserted a Synergistic Black fuse into the fuse holder on the back crossover panel. Third, I placed an HFT on the crossover panel. All three made an improvement and collectively they allowed my Magnepans to reach another level of quality. If you have Maggies, I strongly recommend you do all three of these mods, all of which are super easy to install.
Special Note to VPI turntable owners: this crossover trick seems to work on the junction box on my VPI Scoutmaster. It adds clarity to the table. I stick it to the back panel on the upper right of the RCA outputs.
So yes indeed, the physicists among us will raise an eyebrow. Spock will say, “most illogical”. But these little metal cylinders brought a new level of sound quality to my listening room. Ted won’t reveal exactly how they work, “trade secrets” and all that. But they are effective and essential even if improbable. If you have any room acoustics issues, experiment with five or ten of these HFTs. I think you will be impressed. Highest recommendation and the coolest accessory I have encountered in some time.
$300 for a set of five or $500 for a set of ten is quite a bit less than large acoustical panels. Better yet, they are fairly unobtrusive because they are so small.
A Factory Tour of Synergistic
While I was getting to know Ted, I had a chance to visit him in Newport and see the factory where the cables, power products and tweaky bits like HFTs were made. I wanted to share with you what I discovered out West.
Synergistic operates a 14,000 square foot factory in Santa Ana, California. Recently I toured this factory and saw the above products and others being manufactured. There is a lot of craftsmanship in these products from what I saw: the cables are hand-assembled and tested. I wanted to highlight a few rooms to give you a flavor of what a modern cable factory does.
The Reference Room
Ted has built a massive listening room with tall ceilings to apply a “microscope” on sound changes so he and his listening team can discern small differences. Of course, the room includes some fairly state-of-the-art equipment with Magico M3 speakers front and center being driven by McIntosh monoblocks and preamp sitting on his companies Tranquility Bases which Ted claims take the McIntosh gear to a new level. Digital sources include a top of the line Berkeley Alpha DAC. The room has been treated by all of the latest room acoustics devices. I found the room to not only sound excellent but to reveal the deepest of bass notes and a level of clarity. Ted’s flagship and giant Galileo power cords no doubt contribute to the sound quality. But the resolution is what is really needed here as Ted and his team may listen to many cable and device prototypes at a time and they are listening for subtle differences from varying parts and construction. One might say Ted is trying to hear the proverbial “fly fart on the studio wall”. We listened to some Yello and Van Morrison recordings I was very familiar with on Tidal and I heard many shades of detail that I don’t always get on the home system. The room itself is a trip with all white walls and carpet punctuated with some black acoustic panels. It would not have looked out of place as a set for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This room is more about work. Ted and his team of trained ears listen to new gear and have to discern small differences in sound. The quality of this room’s acoustics and the very expensive gear associated with it help the cause…but the flagship SR Galileo cables throughout and all the usual SR treatments banished noise to incredibly low levels. There is a clarity that is rare to find. The top-quality bass a Magico M3 can produce is unleashed in all its glory (and this from a Wilson guy!).
Synergistic has several large assembly lines on long and wide workbenches. In one area, we saw a PowerCell 12SE being assembled along with an Active Grounding Block (review to come). The UEF filters are made in the factory by hand and all circuit boards are assembled by hand and the parts quality looked impressive. There is a lot of skill in assembling a PowerCell and the finished look is very clean. Many of the folks who work here have been here for years. By way of example, Ted’s head cable guy, Raoul, has been there since 1993. The “institutional knowledge” of best practices in assembling the complex SR cable is preserved by these assemblers.
In the cable assembly area, I was a bit of a kid in the candy store as the shining parts were displayed quite nicely and the cables were hung on posts in various stages of completion. There is a bit of a rhythm to assembly with work going on primarily in the morning to allow dealer shipments out in the afternoon. The workbenches were clean and tidy and there were several jigs for easing assembly for things like soldering. Ted’s cables are not cheap so it was refreshing to see the quality of care on assembly and precision of build.
There is a room-sized corner of the floor where the Atmosphere towers are assembled. This frequency emitter interacts with HFT devices and allows one to tailor room acoustics based on different “scenarios” to fit the type of music you are listening to from an intimate jazz club to an orchestral hall. We will do some follow-up investigation of their newest tower soon. This is also the place where Ted’s enormous showroom banners are built and can often add to the demo quality from the hotel rooms at regional shows.
The Tesla Coil Room
I’m not going to lie; this was hands-down my absolute favorite room. Ted has an industrial strength Tesla coil that is pretty cool to watch. Every cable gets zapped by the Tesla coil which pushes a whopping 2 million volts of electricity into the cable. Every cable is connected by clippers and other assemblies to become part of the Tesla circuit and, for safety, a trained worker stands back behind the controls and engages the circuit. There is a dramatic, moving lightning bolt that moves to the coil and it’s quite something to see. The net result is a better performing cable.
The Burn-In Room
This is a room which holds cable inventory for packaging and includes industrial shelves for cables and devices to burn-in in advance of shipping to customers. Alan Kafton’s Cable Cookers are on display here doing their job nicely.
The Parts Room
A secure area of the factory holds valuable components and they are released based on assembly schedules.
Ted is a bit of photography buff so it’s no surprise that there is a small product photography studio in the factory. Ted even bought a Foveon sensor-based camera to produce product phots. The relatively new Synergistic website is pretty sharp as well so I think that helps contribute to branding and is probably essential for customers who are buying expensive cables. The setup procedures being explained clearly is also a plus for the customer.
A huge section of the factory contains boxes of finished products and the shipping team coordinates deliveries. The sheer amount of product here impressed me and it has the latest security measures.
The Sales and Operation Offices
Upfront in the factory is an open floor plan where Andy and Ted have a desk. This is primarily for managing the supply chain of parts, assembly of product oversight, and coordinating all sales efforts and dealer/customer service interactions.
Thoughts on the Synergistic Factory
I was surprised by how large the operation was but I was more surprised by the amount of labor that goes into these products. Given the number of premium parts and the labor cost, the Synergistic Research cable is often relatively affordable compared to the competition. The people I met there were top-notch and friendly. Some of the hand work looked very complex and tedious. It takes some skills to make a cable that allows for tuning bullets and grounding. This is not your father’s zipcord! High-performance cable manufacturing has come a long, long way.