One evening while casually browsing the web, I came across an audio product review that caught my attention. It wasn’t a review about a typical audio product, such as a loudspeaker, amplifier or DAC nor was it a review of an audio cable or vibration control accessory; rather, it was something that I’d never heard of before. What was it? Before I tell you, let me give you a little background on it. The product comes from a Dutch company called Akiko Audio that is based out of Maastricht, The Netherlands (www.akikoaudio.com). Akiko Audio is a father & son owned company that was founded by Marc & Sander van Berlo in 2011. The word Akiko itself means ‘brilliant’ in Japanese. If you’re wondering why a Dutch company based out of the Netherlands has a Japanese name, you wouldn’t be alone. I posed this same question to Marc van Berlo who told me that the name was chosen given its meaning and its catchy sound, as well as the fact that there are a large number of Japanese high-end products. I’d speculate also that Japanese / Asian consumers of hi-end audio products are also generally more receptive to alternative / non-traditional audio products than European and North American consumers, hence, a Japanese name might provide greater benefit. So back to the question, what was the product?
The product was Akiko Audio’s Tuning Sticks. Tuning Stick – what’s that? – was exactly my reaction upon coming across the article. From the description these were apparently just passive wands, some with plugs and some with straps, but wands none the less. However, with the emphatic claims in the review, my curiosity had the best of me. Could a static object have such a dramatic effect on the sound of an audio system? It was the next day that I made the decision to find out for myself. I sent an email to Akiko Audio requesting a set of sticks for me to audition in my own reference system. Within a week I received a set of sticks including: 1 x Tuning Stick RCA; 2 x Tuning Stick Universal and; 2 x Tuning Stick AC. Normally one Tuning Stick AC would be enough (for a single circuit); however, my system runs on two independent dedicated circuits – one 20A circuit for my amplifier and pre-amplifier and another separate 15A circuit for my source components, Marc from Akiko Audio agreed that two AC sticks might be best to ensure full benefits.
Each Tuning Stick version utilizes a cylindrical stick that measures 22 mm x 150 mm. The stick has a smooth glossy clear finish that displays a woven carbon fiber covering and carries a black and gold foil label identifying the company and the product. The Tuning Stick RCA (€ 129/each) has a short lead that ends in an RCA plug, allowing for connection to a spare RCA jack on a pre-amplifier, integrated amplifier or DAC – with the internal wiring being only connected to ground. The Tuning Stick AC (€ 119/each) is designed to plug into any spare plug on the electrical circuit that the audio/video equipment is connected to; either a wall socket or spare socket on a power bar. The Tuning Stick AC is also only connected internally to ground. The Tuning Stick Universal (€ 99/each) comes with a pair of Velcro straps that allows it to be strapped to speaker cables, grounding wires or interconnects. Though each version of these sticks appears to be the same, apart from their connections, each differs in composition, with a different mix of internal materials depending on their purposed application.
The Tuning Sticks are designed to quell undesirable electronic artifacts and interference, resulting in a more analog, natural and consequently more lifelike sound. How they work exactly is something of a mystery to me but Akiko Audio does provide some insight into their composition and the effects of the materials they are comprised of. The Tuning Sticks contain a combination of the following materials in different ratios depending on the version:
“Natural crystal also called gemstones: have a natural ordering effect on electromagnetic radiation around speaker cables and power cables. The effect is due to crystal lattices, I think. Crystal lattice is the periodic and systematic arrangement of atoms that are found in crystals. In the simplest of terms, the crystal lattice can be considered as the points of intersection between straight lines in a three-dimensional network. The physical properties of crystals like cleavage, electronic band structure and optical transparency are predominantly governed by the crystal lattice.
Paramagnetic mineral: We use minerals without iron. This material reacts with strong radiation, such as near power cables and equipment. Paramagnetism is weak attraction to magnetic fields. The attraction is usually discernible, but it may be so weak that it is undetectable. Most paramagnetic minerals become strongly magnetic when heated.
Piezoelectricity: also called the piezoelectric effect, is the ability of certain materials to generate an AC voltage when subjected to mechanical stress or vibration, or to vibrate when subjected to an AC voltage, or both. The most common piezoelectric material is quartz. Various other solids also exhibit this effect. A well-known example is tourmaline.”
In addition, Akiko Audio has the following to say about their Tuning Sticks:
“The Tuning Stick’s contents are stabilized with black resin, a material which sufficiently suppresses microphony effects. This is an important condition for a calm and pleasant rendering of the music.
On top of that the fine metal foil sticker is energetically treated, which causes it to contribute on a sub molecular level.“
I’ve got to say that my first read of this information on the Tuning Sticks made me more skeptical, as I found the explanation to be quasi-scientific, almost hocus-pocus. However, I put aside my skepticism and decided to leave it to an audition before making any conclusions. As they say, “the proof is in the pudding”.
I have a computer-based music file library that feeds a Squeezebox Touch. The Squeezebox is connected to a Furutech Alpha Design Labs (ADL) Esprit DAC, which outputs to my Bryston preamp and amplifier. For this evaluation, I used a pair of quadral Aurum Montan loudspeakers, as they are full-range and very transparent.
NOTE: During my audition, I used the RCA Tuning Stick with my Bryston BP6 preamp but found it tamed the high-frequencies a bit too much for my tastes; however, with my ADL Esprit DAC the results were to my liking and my impressions are based on the latter. Therefore, experimentation with placement is strongly recommended.
Listening to The Absence, by Melody Gardot, and the track Lisboa I introduced only the pair of Universal Tuning Sticks. I strapped them to my speaker cables, as close to the speaker binding posts as possible, according to Akiko Audio’s recommendations. All the other Tuning Sticks were kept about 15 feet away from my system, as I was told that they can have an effect from even a few feet away. Expecting to not hear any difference, I was very surprised by the result. Not only was their effect audible, but it was noticeable, something I verified a number of times by removing and replacing the Sticks. What was this effect? The track Lisboa is filled with outdoor sounds, voices, rustling, church bells etc. With just these Universal Tuning Sticks in place, what I heard was a blacker background that served to provide a little more dimension and gave more clarity to each of the elements. In particular, faint bird chirps became more distinct and identifiable with the Universal Sticks in place. The bells ringing to the right and the bell taps to the left had changed noticeably. With the Sticks, they gained a little more fullness, sounding more brassy than tinny, though there was some apparent loss of their uppermost twinkle. Melody’s centred voice was wonderfully detailed; however, now it sounded smoother, with a touch less sibilance and a little less chiseled. The soundstage also seemed to gain a bit of size, if not just by relaxing at its boundaries. Next up, was the RCA Tuning Stick. I left the Universal Sticks connected and just plugged the RCA Stick into one of the empty inputs on my Esprit DAC. I was surprised again, there wasn’t just a small effect but rather a significant change mostly in imaging – elements within the soundstage became more holographic. These images also grew noticeably in size within a wider soundstage. String instruments became richer in tonal colour and more sinuous. There was a change in bass, as well, with bass notes now sounding more relaxed, giving up a bit of tension. I was inspired…but surely adding in the AC Sticks could not do much…I was wrong. Plugging in the two AC Tuning Sticks into my two separate circuits via empty outlets resulted in deeper though more relaxed bass notes. The soundstage became even deeper and sounds were more dimensional, becoming further liberated from the speakers. Overall, this produced a more realistic sense of space.
I next moved to the track Sultans of Swing, from the Dire Straits. This time I moved backwards. First, I removed the AC Tuning Sticks. With that, the rendition became less organic, though gained additional crispness, with the guitar shrinking before my ears. With the AC Sticks images were more diffuse with softer edges but having a greater sense of image presence. Without the Sticks, the guitars had more ring, cymbals were sharper and louder and drum strikes tighter and more dynamic. I next removed the RCA Tuning Sticks. Now vocals shrunk in size though gained focus, while images became flatter. The treble balance increased as well as overall perceived speed and dynamics. Finally, removing the Universal Sticks from the speaker cables, resulted in a further reduction in the vocal image with a more defined outline, brighter tone and accompanying etch. Putting the Sticks back, in-turn confirmed my impressions.
Turning to Keb Mo’s self-titled album and the track Every Morning, I found that with all the Tuning Sticks in place, produced a natural and detailed voice rendition with warmth and appealing tonal colours. The guitar was just very “there” and had believable tone and resonance. The thump of Mo’s hand on the guitar body had heft and convincing impact. Removing the AC Sticks produced a noticeably crisper voice with a smaller image size that was higher in pitch, favouring the analytic over the realistic. Removing the RCA Stick, the twang of the guitar strums became undeniably tighter and perceivably louder but Keb’s voice and the guitar itself shrank in size. Taking away the Universal Sticks, Keb’s voice now sounded constrained in comparison, the track was now less relaxed and less organic. What I was now hearing was a recording and less of a recreation of a physical performance in my room.
Overall, I was very surprised at how great an effect these passive Akiko Tuning Sticks could have on my system. The greatest of these effects was a softening or elimination of treble hardness, combined with noticeably larger images and a less bordered soundstage. Images become more diffuse, while remaining localized. Pinpoint imaging was sacrificed in favour of a more cohesive soundscape. Voices gained body and size, with reduced etch. The Sticks produced greater tonal warmth, ease and flow, while giving up some perceived speed, dynamic impact and highest-frequency delicacy and detail.
I was skeptical when I read about them, doubtful when I received them but astounded when I tried them. Given their characteristics, these Tuning Sticks offer quite an affordable way to tailor the sound of your system and get the right balance. And, since all the Sticks work for the same results, you can always start out with a couple and add more as you like. Do you believe in black magic?
Akiko Audio Tuning Stick Universal: € 99/each
Akiko Audio Tuning Stick RCA Price: € 129/each
Akiko Audio Tuning Stick AC Price: € 119/each