Once you've selected and bought your dream assemblage of hi-fi components, you've got to put them somewhere. Well, you could plonk the lot in a pile on the floor, but it's not very elegant, is it? - never mind easy to use. However, if you're not a veteran of the hi-fi scene you may be surprised when your friendly dealer assures you that the equipment you are buying will actually perform better on a dedicated hi-fi rack. Is this hogwash? Well, as it happens, no, it's not.
In the days of LP players it was painfully obvious that whatever the deck was sitting on made a difference to the sound: Too flimsy a support and the deck would skip when you walked across the floor and feed back with a dreadful howling sound when you turned up the volume, and on a slightly more subtle level the sound would lose definition and focus compared with siting the deck on a proper stand or wall-mounted shelf. With the advent of digital systems, however, people were surprised to discover that the same still held true: you don't tend to get skipping or feedback but the sound does indeed benefit when all the components - CD/DVD player, amplifiers, tuners and so on - are supported on a properly designed hi-fi rack.
Approaches differ and as with so much in audio there's plenty of room for taste. Apart from anything else, a rack has a major visual impact so manufacturers offer a variety of looks as well as structural approaches, and some racks easily justify their cost on appearance alone - there are some very sleek metal and glass designs out there! But there are differing approaches from a sonic point of view too. Let's have a look at some....
Isolation and damping
Townshend 'Seismic Sink' range
Some manufacturers aim to make a rack that is acoustically 'dead' when you tap it, the idea being that any vibration arriving at the stand (through the floor, through the air, or due to movement within the equipment itself) is rapidly damped out and turned into harmless heat. Such racks often have shelves made of composite materials and may use soft, compliant mountings. This can make them rather disconcertingly wobbly, but they tend to help equipment produce a very detailed sound that's honest and solid. An extreme but well-rated example of this kind of rack is the 'Seismic Sink' range from A< HREF='http://www.townshendaudio.com' TARGET='BLANK'>Townshend Audio - the company's models are expensive (think £1000 for a four-shelf rack) but demonstrably give excellent isolation between the floor and the equipment, thanks to intelligent use of air bladders and/or springs.
Rigidity and stability
At the opposite extreme from highly damped racks, many models exist that favour a high degree of rigidity, typically using metal and glass with point-contact support on spikes or similar. Tapping a rack like this usually produces a tuneful 'ping', while in real-world use the sound will tend to be bright, exciting and lively though not always quite as multi-layered as with a damped rack. Probably the ultimate statement of this kind of design is the
Mana Acoustics range, and devotees of these racks claim that benefits continue to accrue as you add more racks or shelves on top of each other - something that works because they are really very strong and very stable. It has to be said that Mana's appearance can be a little daunting, but the company definitely places function ahead of form.
Low energy storage
Less well represented, but the lightweight 'Torlyte' racks from Russ Andrews are a good example of this approach. The idea is to use materials that are light and rigid but still quite well damped. Accordingly, beneath the wood veneers are some quite high-tech composite materials which confer a sound with much of the liveliness of metal stands but with more detail, avoiding the dullness which (advocates claim) afflicts highly damped racks.
And then some manufacturers combine aspects of two or more of those approaches within one design, often with good results sonically and visually. Some racks have given particular importance to practical matters, for instance providing concealed cable conduits at the rear, while others are modular systems which can accommodate all kinds of hi-fi and AV gear, from mini-systems to widescreen TVs. Prices vary from under £200 to well over a grand: most of the specialised stands designed with sound as top priority are in the higher price ranges but for under £300 you can get some very good performance.
What's certain is that there's plenty to be gained by careful choice of a rack. At the very least, you'll find something that suits your needs properly rather than 'sort-of', and if the cost seems high, compare the price of well-made coffee tables and general-purpose shelves some time, which often are no cheaper. There are a lot of well made, practical, good-looking hi-fi racks out there at very sensible prices: that they can also improve your sound is the icing on the cake!