Editor’s Note: The genesis of this review began with our audio show coverage of the Ictra Design brand through the exhibits of Doug White and The Voice That Is! We petitioned Doug to help us coordinate a review sample, and when the time came to orchestrate the process we were lucky enough to have our own John Richardson, Senior Contributor step up to the plate and swing for the bleachers. Dankeschön to Doug White and John Richardson for their unique expertise in this special matter. —Eric Franklin Shook, Managing Editor
If you are like me, a no-nonsense, cost-conscious audiophile, then a good equipment rack like the Ictra Design PROTO (website) is probably something of an afterthought. Heck, you may not even have an equipment rack at all!
Words and Photos by John Richardson
I’ve made do for a long time. My racks have typically consisted of furniture hand-me-downs, or perhaps something I’ve scarfed from my wife such as the occasional end table or old coffee table, and she usually finds out and eventually asks for said article back. I do have a pretty nice Premier Audio hollow-tube steel rack from the 1980s or thereabouts, but it’s kind of tall and best used as stacked storage for my prized (but currently unused) audio gear. As a fairly serious audio nut and reviewer, I know I need to do better.
The more I think on the subject, the more I have come to realize the value of a good component rack. First, I know I’ve spent a lot of money on my prized audio components, so it makes sense to properly showcase them. How will my friends (even the normal, sane ones) take me seriously when I have my prized 300B tube amp perched upon a sloped surface supported by some rickety wooden legs?
True, yes, but let’s get a little more serious. The Ictra Design PROTO is serious.
Ictra Design PROTO
I’m a scientist, so I like to think that I can reason clearly and make a true case for investing in a well-designed audio rack such as the Ictra Design PROTO. Consider this: if you were going to spend say a couple million bucks on a new home build, would you want to settle on a poorly designed and constructed foundation? If you settle, I almost guarantee that your house will too. I’d make the same case for housing expensive and finely-tuned audio components on a cheaply made platform. Not only might you run the risk of physical collapse and ensuing damage, but you also rob your gear of its best possible performance.
It’s well known that vibration, either external or internal to high-performance gear such as turntables, DACs, and amps, can (and does) inhibit performance. Lack of focus via sonic smearing leads to decreased resolution and ultimately, a less enjoyable and realistic listening experience.
Now that we’ve all been convinced of the importance of a good audio rack, let’s get down to it and discuss the products of Ictra Design, a company dedicated to designing and building the best possible furniture upon which to place your audio stuff. Who are Ictra Design?
Ictra Design is a German company headed by husband and wife duo Carsten and Inga Tragsdorf, both trained as mechanical engineers. Their overall goal is to create and craft peerless audio furniture (as in component racks and amp stands) with an emphasis on innovative design, careful use of materials, and aesthetic beauty. The component rack I received for review is their Ictra Design PROTO model, complete with three component shelves.
Yes, this is some serious rack. When the box arrived on a pallet outside of my listening room, I had to do some head scratching about how to best get the thing inside. The parcel was seriously heavy, so I decided to deconstruct the box contents outdoors and bring the various parts of the Ictra Design PROTO into my room individually. Tightly packed inside the box were a number of heavy, flat boxes which contained the shelves and shelf supports, as well as the other accoutrements required for assembly. Once these items were manhandled inside, I was left with what appeared to be the main body of the rack. This part was both seriously heavy (solid steel, in fact) and tightly wedged to one side of the box. For the life of me, I just couldn’t jimmy it out.
I finally got the great idea to let gravity aid me, so I carefully tilted the box onto its side. This approach worked, but was perhaps just a tad too aggressive; the body careened out of the box and tumbled onto the concrete slab below. While the item was well padded, it did receive several small blemishes to its base. Note to self: if I ever have to do this again, move the box onto the grass!
Once the parts were inside, assembly of the Ictra Design PROTO was straightforward. I needed maybe about an hour and a half to go through the assembly instructions and get the rack assembled and sited. My advice would be to take your time, especially when it comes to carefully leveling the base and the individual shelves on their supports.
Ictra Design PROTO Technology
I’m a big fan of technology properly applied to audio design, and there’s plenty of it to be had in the Ictra Design PROTO rack. There’s no way that I can cover all of the details in a brief review such as this, so I’ll hit on some of the high points.
A primary goal in the rack’s design is mechanical decoupling. Here, I mean that each distinct module of the Ictra Design PROTO rack is mechanically isolated, as far as possible, from its neighboring module. By use of careful design and modern materials, the base is decoupled from the floor; the shelf support arms are decoupled from the base; and the shelves themselves are decoupled from the arms. The overall result is that whatever audio component is placed on one of the shelves is going to be mechanically isolated from its local environment to the greatest extent possible.
Previously I mentioned use of exotic materials and careful engineering. Since I’m a tech sort of guy, some of the specifics are worth mentioning.
Let’s start with the Ictra Design PROTO shelves. These, which are quite beautiful in appearance, are made of a non-resonant bamboo composite which is reinforced down the center with a slab of metal for added rigidity and strength. The composite parts of the sandwich are coated with a wooden veneer which in turn is given a mirror-smooth lacquered finish. The overall aesthetic is breathtaking. Each of the aforementioned shelves rests upon a pair of carefully designed metal shelf support arms via a trio of blunt-ended vibration dampening spikes. The support arms themselves are married to one another by way of a horizontal honeycombed plate which offers additional lateral rigidity. The whole support assembly then locks into place against a centering disc located on the base assembly. During assembly, the supports are affixed tightly to the rack base using hockey puck-sized nuts that are hand-tightened. I found this setup to be quite ingenious and a joy to use.
Finally, there’s the base element itself, which holds the shelf support arms. Looking at it side-on, it’s a basically an “L” shaped form fashioned out of solid steel. On its rear are slots and holes to accommodate the three shelves (and their support arms) at various heights. The Ictra Design PROTO base houses four individual guide rails housing vibration dampening feet that support the whole affair.
Noteworthy also is that special dampening materials are used to absorb vibrations any time one surface abuts another. In this way, each part of the rack is effectively isolated from whatever other part it touches.
Ictra Design Performance and Sonic Characteristics
One might think it difficult to address, or even detect, any sonic advantages of a piece of furniture designed to accommodate audio gear. After all, it isn’t supposed to make any sound at all.
And that’s the point. Sounds produced by our speakers or other gear (think hum) adversely affect how our individual components do their respective jobs. A well-designed audio rack isolates and buffers components from each other and their local environment. We might say then that the primary goal of the Ictra Design PROTO rack is to remain absolutely “silent.”
So then, what exactly is the “sound” of silence? Or, put another way, does it make sense for the well-heeled audiophile to spend nearly $30,000 on an audio component that produces no sound whatsoever? To state things bluntly, my ears tell me that the Ictra Design PROTO rack makes a great difference indeed to the quality of my overall listening experience. Unlike some gear I test, the results were immediate, taking my ears no time whatsoever to adjust to its installation.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into the “listening” experience…
Sound? What Sound?
I keep going back to the idea of comparing the Ictra Design PROTO rack to the solid foundation of a building. In that analogy, a good foundation both isolates the building from environmental disturbances, yet grounds it solidly to the earth below. The streetcar may be rumbling along just outside, but you’d never know from your perch at the office desk.
Likewise, by isolating audio components from one another, as well as from the local environment, one can enjoy a more focused and grounded listening experience. The effect is conveyed in any number of ways easily detected by the ear. First, I noted a deeper, much more silent background. I felt as if my music was emanating from some great, yet silent, cavern deep inside of the earth. As an example, large scale symphonic works had more gusto and presence than I am accustomed to hearing, all of which led to a much more realistic and “you are there” listening experience.
The second big improvement I noted with the Ictra Design PROTO was increased focus, which presented itself in several ways. I heard greatly improved image focus, meaning that the three-dimensional images of instruments (or, more accurately, the sounds coming from them) sharpened and took on less fuzzy boundaries in the overall soundscape. I found it much easier with eyes closed to identify the precise locations of various sounds in all three dimensions, as well as identify the relative sizes of their sources. For instance, the sound of a tuba occupied a considerably larger physical space than a triangle tapped lightly.
Along related lines, I was further impressed by what I might call increased harmonic, or tonal, focus. I’m referring here to ability of my system to capture the delicate harmonic complexity of a guitar string plucked, but without the annoyance of sonic smearing. Again, it was as if the sound itself were rising out of an endless cavern, hindered by nothing whatsoever.
Thirdly, overall dynamics seemed to improve perceptively. I’m not sure how to best explain this noteworthy effect, other than to perhaps credit it to an overall increase in the efficiency of sound generation by my components once freed from environmental hash. On second thought, maybe what I am hearing isn’t an actual improvement in dynamics, but rather a perceived improvement due to an overall cleansing of the sonic presentation. When our sound comes from a blacker, quieter background, we just hear small changes much more perceptively. Either way, I’m left smiling ear to ear.
Some components will benefit from a rack such as the Ictra Design PROTO more than others. I’ve been listening to almost no vinyl recently, so I never got a turntable onto the rack, though I think that component would probably benefit greatly from Ictra Design’s efforts. Given the components I did place onto the shelves, I’d wager that my DACs and tube amps soaked up the greatest sonic advantage. I never did try to get my massive Pass Labs X250.8 stereo amp onto the rack, though I firmly believe that it would have really liked sitting on Ictra Design’s $13,250 matching amp stand.
Did I mention tube amplifiers? Oh yes! Placing either my ToolShed Amps Transcendence 300B amp or my Oliver Sayes 45 triode amp on the top shelf of the Ictra Design PROTO did wonders for the sonic performance of these glass bottle-adorned jewels. It’s kind of funny to think that the Ictra Design rack costs somewhere around 15 times more than the humble little Oliver Sayes amp, but hey, the rack brings out the very best in it! Talk about focus: these triode amps just sing like lovely little birds perched up there on the top shelf. It’s also hard not to notice the eye candy associated with placing the steampunk ToolShed amp on top of that lacquered shelf: stunning!
Ictra Design Specifics
Whether tubed or solid state; jazz or classical, my components and favorite music really joined forces in an exquisite sonic and visual smorgasbord. With the Pass X250.8 amp driving my reference ATC SCM100 passive monitors, I found myself digging into the various Shostakovich symphonies with interest anew. I have been enjoying lately Andris Nelsons’ cycle with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the Deutsche Grammophon label (streamed via Qobuz, 24/96 flac). When riding upon the PROTO rack, my components convey a certain power and raw emotional connection that I find addictive. There’s something about the depth and presence of low-pitched horns and double basses welling out of that imaginary, yet silent cavern that grabs my attention and hangs on for dear life. Via the Ictra Design PROTO, I find myself in the midst of an emotional swirl upon hearing these symphonies that I just haven’t experienced during previous listening sessions using essentially the same gear.
Moving over to my Tool Shed Amps Transcendence 300B amp driving Charney Audio Maestro-X speakers, I was able to get a taste of jazz done right. It’s worth emphasizing again here that the Tool Shed amp looks spectacular on the top shelf of the PROTO rack. And the rack makes the amp sound just as spectacular. Qobuz just came out with the Expanded Edition of Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, and Paco De Lucia‘s classic live album, Saturday Night in San Francisco (streamed via Qobuz, 24/192 kHz flac). This system is really resolving, but man does it catch the little details with my components up on the Ictra Design PROTO. Everything is just so crystal-clear that I almost feel taken back in time; closing my eyes puts me right there a few rows back from the stage and the performers themselves. I want to dig in and just listen—all night long.
While any component will benefit from its placement on the PROTO rack, my experience tells me that it really makes good vacuum tube amps sing like never before.
It’s hard for a regular guy like me to sum up all there is to say about the Ictra Design PROTO component rack.
After spending a solid couple of months up close and personal with it here in my listening room, I can assure you that the PROTO makes real sonic sense. The technology, design, and implementation are second to none, and it really shows. As a technical kind of guy, I can more than appreciate everything that the Tragsdorf duo has put into it.
But there’s an elephant in the room: this piece of furniture that holds our beloved audio stuff costs $30,000. I don’t mean to imply that it’s not worth the asking price for what it is, specially when you consider the research and development, materials, and build quality that has gone into bringing it to me.
What I am saying is that the PROTO rack (and Ictra Design’s other products) is going to appeal most to a very special kind of client. This will be a very serious audiophile who has the kind of disposable income to showcase his or her valuable components on what is no doubt one of the the most technologically advanced and beautiful pieces of audio furniture ever developed. Those components, so displayed, will look their most elegant and also reap real tangible benefits of the technology employed.
If you fall into this category of audio enthusiast, then I’d say go for it. The Ictra Design PROTO component rack gets my highest recommendation. As for me, I’ve been convinced that I need to start shopping for a better audio rack… Thanks Ictra Design!
Ictra Design PROTO Equipment Rack
- $29,995 base price for 3-shelf rack in standard veneer
For more information, see Ictra online at: http://www.ictra.com/index.php/en/.
US Dealer: The Voice That Is.