Akiko Audio Tuning Sticks Review
Akiko Audio is a Dutch company, founded in 2011, that specialises in high-end handmade audio cables and accessories. The company is run by Marc Berlo and Sander Berlo—a father and son CEO team. In their quest to improve digital audio systems’ performance to sound analog-like they tested about fifty different materials that included gemstones, metals and minerals, for over three years, before their first product—a Tuning Box by the name of Gem 1 Gold was launched in the Netherlands. Last year, Akiko Audio launched their new generation of Tuning Sticks that now includes RCA/XLR, AC and Universal Tuning Sticks. Each Tuning Stick is priced at EUR 100 (equivalent of INR 8500) or more depending on the size of the stick and the type of termination/plug used.
I received a total of 06 Akiko Audio Tuning Sticks. The kit included—02 Akiko Audio AC Tuning Sticks, with one AC Tuning Stick terminated with US NEMA plug and the other AC Tuning Stick terminated with the UK BS-1363 plug, 02 Akiko Audio RCA Tuning Sticks and 02 Akiko Audio Universal Tuning Sticks with Velcro bands. All sticks are handmade in Holland and the carbon clad cylindrical shaped Tuning Sticks are much better to look at than the pictures posted on Akiko Audio’s website.
The more I toyed with them the more I wanted to know what is inside them and how do they work? I emailed Mark with question after question and he was always ready to answer any questions that I had. The tuning sticks are filled with a mixture of crystal gemstones that Marc claims has a natural ordering effect on electromagnetic radiation around speaker cables and power cords. The content are then stabilized using black resin, which suppress microphone effects. Marc explained that the crystal lattices of these naturally occurring stones are points of intersection between straight lines in a three-dimensional network.
The sticks also contain paramagnetic minerals with iron, which according to Marc, react with strong radiation from audio gear to attract magnetic fields. Another active ingredient in the sticks is a material called tourmaline, which is a piezoelectric material that generates an AC voltage when it is subjected to vibrations or mechanical stress.
Apparently, the composition and combination of these three materials influence the tone of the signal passing through the cable near the sticks to reduce digital artefacts and thereby deliver a more natural analog-like sound. The earth of most A/V systems are always highly contaminated. The Akiko Audio Tuning Stick also influence the earth, so the music is heard better!
After a dozen emails, I must admit that I still don’t completely understand how these sticks actually work. I have used these sticks for over 02 months now and I have tried them in different systems in various combinations and what’s mentioned below, in as few words as possible, is what I have observed trying them in a few of my A/V systems.
Setup & Performance
System 1: Panasonic LED LCD HDTV + Tata Sky HD Box
This is one of the HDTVs in one of my bedrooms. This simple setup involves a 32” LED LCD HDTV with a Tata Sky HD Cable Box. The tweaks in this system includes aftermarket gold plated pure copper fuses, inside and outside the HDTV, and the HDTV’s power cord is terminated with a pure copper Schuko plug. Some interfaces such as the wall plate for the cable box have been bypassed for a stronger transmission of signal and as such with HD channels the HDTV looks as pristine as Blu-ray. It is already well tweaked and so robust in its presentation that I’m just not sure what to expect.
Connecting the Akiko Audio AC Tuning Stick, to the multi-plug socket, instantly improves some aspects of the HDTV’s presentation that I could not even imagine was possible. The first thing that I observed is the improvement of skintone of the picture. There is a glossy shine and crispness to the skin that was not so prominent before. The colour temperature appears to have taken a tad bluish tint and the overall grain (if any) level is now almost hard to see. I ask others in the house, who watch this HDTV more often than I do, and they agree that the HDTV’s presentation has changed for the better!
System 2: Panasonic Plasma HDTV + Tata Sky HD Box
Not convinced with what I experienced with the LED HDTV, I plug the AC Tuning Stick alongside a power hungry (450 watts) 42” Panasonic G10 plasma HDTV, in the living room, that is also directly connected to the Tata Sky HD Box. The tweaks in this system includes Furutech Flow-15 in-line filter connected to the power distribution box and the power cords are terminated with pure copper plugs. Some interfaces such as the wall plate for the cable box have been bypassed for a stronger transmission of signal and as such with HD channels the HDTV looks as crisp and clean as Blu-ray. It is more robustly tweaked than the system above and I’m now curious to see the results.
Connecting the Akiko Audio AC Tuning stick to an empty receptacle, on the power distribution box, results in an immediate improvement to the overall presentation. This Plasma HDTV already had a natural skintone, that I really appreciated as a virtue of Plasma HDTV technology, but with the addition of the AC Tuning Stick the skintone gains a gloss and smoothness never experienced before. The contrast of the HDTV, the black levels, the colour temperature and the overall grain level was also affected in a positive way. The picture looks like a camera lens that is perfectly in focus. There is also an improved legibility to the HDTV’s in-built speakers.
I like the Panasonic LED LCD HDTV for its detailed and analytical presentation and the Panasonic Plasma HDTV for its warmer and more natural presentation. With the addition of the AC Tuning Sticks the differences between both my HDTVs have bridged quiet a bit.
System 3: A Thrifty 10w T-amp + Mordaunt Short Avant 902i Bookshelf Speakers
There is this small setup in one of the spare bedrooms that I do not listen to very often, but whenever I do, I’m amazed at the clarity, agility and effortlessness that defies its price-tag. The source of this system is a Sangean Octopus (SO) iPhone dock with multimedia capability. The SO is utilised as a USB pen drive reading media player and I use a SanDisk 32GB pen drive that is loaded with carefully ripped 320kbps MP3s. This is the only system in the house that plays MP3s and all my other systems are treated with FLACs. The tweaks in this system includes oversized 4A SMPS power supply for the T-amp and all cables are my own DIY cables that includes speaker cables, jumper cables and line out 3.5mm cables.
Connecting both the Akiko Audio RCA Tuning sticks to the T-amp’s R&L input sockets resulted in a different presentation than what I’m used to. The first obvious impact was on the bass response, it appeared to be a tad soft instead of its regular stout, punchy and fast response. The overall presentation was no longer as agile and light weight, it gave way to a darker and more organic presentation. There was nothing wrong with it but removing one RCA Tuning stick resulted in a more pleasing and a well balanced sound that I appreciated better.
There is a shift in the focus of the presentation with the Tuning Stick plugged in, there is an emphasis on the upper midrange, some background vocals and instruments get highlighted more often and certain old recordings also sound more sibilant than what I’m used to. After much plugging and unplugging, I now enjoy listening to this system with the single RCA Tuning Stick plugged in.
System 4: Fully Customised Source & Amp + Quad 11L Classic Bookshelf Speakers
This hard drive based 2 channel system gets all the expensive tweaks and experiments before they trickle down to other lesser systems in the house. This elaborate system benefits from a Furutech Flow-15 In-Line Filter connected to the power distribution box & all other types of cables used in this system are my very own DIY cables. This system only has linear power supplies (some are external PSUs) from source to amplifier and they are further tweaked with pure copper and pure silver fuses in key sonically benefitting sequence and locations. There is also a Vacuum Tube buffer stage tweaked with Shuguang Treasure Black Bottle Tubes and the other thing that is unique about this system is that the equipment is in one room and the speakers are in the listening room. Though this system runs the risk of very long speaker cables, I chose this arrangement for maximum isolation from EMI/RFI, vibration and microphonics. This system is so resolving and detailed that even a change in something as simple as the speaker termination plug affects the presentation of the sound. The one area where I always craved for an improvement in this system is the bass response, I wish it had a tad more of it.
I plugged the AC Tuning Stick to the power distribution box & the Universal Tuning Sticks on the speaker cables behind the amplifier. The presentation from the Quad Speakers were much darker and lacked the Pace Rhythm and Timing (PRaT) that I’m used to. I’ve heard much better from this system. I then relocate the Universal Tuning Sticks to the speaker cables immediately behind the Quad 11L Classic Speakers and this brings out a tad more bass from the bookshelf speakers, it also sounds more open with improved PRaT. The high frequencies and the low frequencies also appear more cohesive and this in turn makes the soundstage appear more clearly defined without much change to the height, width and depth of the presentation. This is the only audio system where I was able to enjoy multiple (03) Tuning Sticks plugged in at once.
System 5: Musical Fidelity V-Series II Desktop Headphone System
This is my desktop system that is connected to my Dell Vostro CPU and neatly organized in a Comta I-Com Workstation. This workstation/computer table has a concealable chamber to accommodate excessive cables, power supplies and small equipment such as the Musical Fidelity V-Series. This is the system I mostly use to watch YouTube videos and to rip CDs. The system is tweaked with pure gold plated copper fuse, all cables from power cords, digital interconnects, analogue interconnects and speaker cables are my very own DIY cables. The Musical Fidelity system includes the V-DAC II, V-CAN II powered by the V-PSU II. The system is already tweaked for a warm and sweet presentation.
I started by connecting the Akiko Audio Universal Stick to the power cord connected to the Tripp-Lite surge protector box, where all components are connected. I did not like what I heard, the presentation was too dark and it completely congested the PRaT and dynamics of the music system. In an attempt to try something different with this computer audio system, I removed the Universal Stick and instead connected the RCA Tuning Stick to the digital input of the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II. This resulted in an organic, refined and well balanced presentation than when there was no Tuning Stick at all. The benefits is clearly audible and enjoyed when listening to the headphones & IEMs that I have. The Shure 425 is a hard-to-please IEM and it sounds most impressive with the single RCA Tuning Stick plugged into this MF set-up.
System 6: Acoustic Fun PocketDAC + Bose Quiet Comfort 2 Headphones
I also wanted to know just how much impact will the Tuning Sticks have on a portable audio setup. The Acoustic Fun PocketDAC is a compact USB powered DAC/AMP that cannot drive headphones bigger than Bose QC2 without losing sonic composure. Together they pair well and are highly portable. As such there are no tweaks in this system other than the fact that I only play FLACs via Foobar2000 media player.
I first tried the Universal Tuning Stick by attaching it to the USB cable that ran from the CPU to the AF PocketDac and later I also tried the RCA Tuning Stick by inserting it to the RCA (S/PDIF) input of the AF PocketDAC. On both occasions I heard no apparent difference at all through the Bose QC2 Headphones. These Tuning Sticks did not perform any wonders here.
System 7: Pioneer BDP-450 Blu-ray + Onkyo TX-SR604E + Mirage OS3 Omnipolar Speakers
The 600 watts Onkyo AVR is currently the most power hungry and oldest work horse A/V component in the house with almost 07 years of abuse and more than 5000 hours of playback time. It is tweaked with a 11 AWG power cord terminated with a pure copper US NEMA plug and the other side of the cord is soldered inside the AVR on the circuit board, the default wimpy rat-tail power cord was surely a bottle neck. The Onkyo AVR also has about 05 gold plated pure copper fuses and the mains of this system is filtered using a Furutech Flow-15 Inline AC filter. All the cables in this system from power cords, interconnects and speaker cables (except HDMI) are my very own DIY cables. All unused RCA female sockets are capped with custom made nickel plated brass RCA caps too.
I connected both the AC Tuning Stick to the power distribution box and a RCA Tuning Stick in one of the empty sockets of the Onkyo AVR. The bright and edgy sonic nature of the budget Onkyo AVR is finally tamed! However, the presentation was at the cost of an extremely dark presentation that also lacked the PRaT and dynamics that I was used to. The sound did not pan around, in the room, effortlessly the way that I’m used to with the Mirage Omnipolar OS3 speakers. I then removed the single RCA Tuning Stick from behind the Onkyo AVR and this resulted in a well tamed and well balanced sound. The high frequencies from the Mirage Omnipolar speakers and the low frequencies from the subwoofer sounds impressively cohesive like I have never experienced before. A single AC Tuning Stick is all that was needed to make this budget Onkyo AVR sound like a better refined AVR and the entire system feels and sounds better as a whole.
Comparison & Alternatives
Probably the closest tweak to the Akiko Audio Tuning Sticks, in form factor, is the ENACOM Audio Noise Eliminators by Harmonix from Japan. The ENACOMs are actually direct interfaces, that act like filters along the signal flow, whereas, the Akiko Audio Tuning Sticks are indirect interfaces that are not directly in the way of the signal flow. I tried both the AC ENACOM and the Speaker ENACOMs in System 4 mentioned above. The AC ENACOM made no difference at all and the Speaker ENACOMs gave a hollow presentation that almost appeared like it was congesting the PRaT and robbing details to such an extent that I could not even bear the music I was listening to. The ENACOMs were much cheaper than the Akiko Audio Tuning Sticks but they never worked in my A/V system the way I had expected them to.
The other tweak that I always wanted to try was the WA Quantum Chips from Germany. The only thing that kept me from trying them was the fact that they were in the form of stickers that almost had very limited scope for reuse and it also had the possibility of leaving glue stains/marks on piano gloss surfaces mostly found on modern A/V equipment. So by the time you know where they work best, in your A/V system, they would have lost their ability to stay stuck. The Akiko Audio’s form factor and reusability is a clear winner here. They are completely invisible in any set-up.
In my pursuit of better music and movies, I had the opportunity to try a lot of tweaks from around the world. Each time I tweaked, my system would either sound better or worse. My success rate has been 50% in this regard. There are so many tweaks out there that has just not worked for me. The Akiko Audio Tuning Sticks not only worked in my A/V systems, it is also one of the best tweaks that I have ever tried. For me the thrill is no longer in the listening but in the pursuit of something that I cannot truly explain in words, only a fellow audiophile can sincerely empathize with me.
These sticks do not affect the details of the presentation, however, they did lower the noise floor a notch in all the systems that I have tried them with. This enables me to play the music a little more louder, without losing sonic composure, than was previously possible. These Tuning Sticks may not be a cure for bad performance but they helped me tame the analytical/clinical nature of some of my music systems. I don’t want to use the word ‘analog’ as it is one of the most misused and hyped word in Audiophilia. I would any day opt for a decent 24bit/96kHz playback system over any Vinyl Playback System. At the same time, using these Tuning Sticks carelessly in a system that is already dark may lead to a dull, uninvolving and unexciting presentation.
The effectiveness of the Akiko Audio Tuning Sticks is directly proportional to the wattage/power consumption of the system used. In short, the less power hungry devices that worked off the 5V USB from computers had no impact at all. On the other hand, my 450 watts Panasonic G10 Plasma HDTV and the 600 watts Onkyo AVR had the most profound impact. Devices running on linear power supplies benefitted more than devices running on SMPS. Well tweaked A/V systems were more likely to respond better to these Tuning Sticks than A/V systems with stock or neglected infrastructure.
The key to getting the best from the Akiko Audio Tuning Sticks is to find the right type of Tuning Stick for the right A/V system. Too many Tuning Sticks actually impact the PRaT of the audio system and ruin the presentation of the sound. I would like to add an analogy here to better explain things. I like to take inspiration from an alternate hobby—photography. There are photographers who like using photographic filters such as UV filters, coloured filters, infrared filters, polarising filters etc., and there are photographers who do not like to use any filters at all. Of course, even amongst the ones who do use photographic filters, it is extremely rare that anybody is going to use more than one specific type of filter at a time for obvious reasons. The key to optimum performance lies in knowing which type of filter is to be used with the given photographic equipment and lighting conditions.
The AC Tuning Stick is my favourite pick and it is a no brainer. It’s just as simple as plug and play. One AC Tuning Stick is more than good enough for one entire power distribution box and its associated A/V equipment. Where the use of the AC Tuning Stick is not possible, the RCA Tuning Stick and the Universal Tuning Sticks can be used with careful experimentation and observation. The RCA Tuning Sticks sounds best somewhere between the DAC and the Amp in an audio system chain. The Universal Tuning Sticks sounds best closer to the speakers than amplifiers. Your mileage may vary. The only way to get a sure answer is to experiment and experience it yourself.
I don’t think this is a tweak for a beginner. I highly recommend this tweak to all seasoned and experienced audiophiles who enjoy tweaking the infrastructure in and around their A/V systems. In my experience, most tweaks that improve audio playback almost always improves video playback too and this tweak is one that benefits both. The Akiko Audio AC Tuning Stick is a good starting point and if the results impress then you may gradually move across the range. If at all these Tuning Sticks do not work for you then please make use of Akiko Audio’s 14 days money back guarantee for a refund. For more information on Akiko Audio please click on this—LINK.