Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LXXXVI: We've Got the Power
(June 2012)

A few weeks ago, I reluctantly packed up a rather expensive power management system I'd borrowed for a trade show and sent it back it back to the manufacturer. This system included all the bells and whistles: a beefy, multi-outlet power line conditioner and a whole slew of premium power cords, along with matching speaker cables and interconnects. The only reason I decided not to keep this gear was the price tag; while I firmly believe in the importance of power management equipment when it comes to high-quality audio systems, I always balk at the cost of doing it right. But I enjoyed these products and really felt sad when the call tags from UPS arrived.

In my entire audiophile "career," I've had the pleasure of using three such systems with my gear, all from manufacturers--Running Springs Audio, Shunyata and Audience--that are considered leaders in the field. Each time I was amazed at the benefits these power management products offered, and each time I felt guilty for not writing a check at the end of the loan period. I always tell myself that one day I will write that check, and I remind myself that all serious audiophiles, and all of the truly great systems I have heard, use such equipment. My confidence in this market segment is so strong that I always try to partner with one of these customers when I exhibit at trade shows. If you want to be taken seriously in the world of high-end audio, you NEED to have everything plugged into a big metal box filled with power outlets, preferably with power cords that are as thick as garden hoses. If you don't, you risk looking like an amateur in front of the rest of the industry.

Out in the real world, however, the general attitude is slightly different. No product category receives more derision, more cries of "snake oil!" than premium power conditioners, power cords and power outlets. You wanna piss off a group of skeptics on an audio discussion forum? Tell them how much you like the new $1500 Power Thrust A-1000 power cord that you purchased for your $300 CD player. You'll be called every name in the book--including "deaf."

My favorite argument against such products is this one: if current flows for dozens of miles from your local power plant to your home, what makes you think you can "fix" it in the last three feet? A basic power cord has a very simple design, and the idea that a "fancy" one can somehow improve the flow of current to your audio components sounds like hogwash to many people. A power conditioner--which usually regulates the flow of current, offers circuit protection and guards against power surges--is viewed by many as an additional filter that can interfere with the pure flow of electricity. Some audio manufacturers, such as Naim, actually recommend that you don't use any sort of power conditioning at all.

But the people who insist that power conditioners and upscale power cords do work have a compelling argument as well. In my experience, they're not con artists and sales geeks trying to get you to spend another $5,000 on your system--they're engineers who back up their sales copy with solid science. I know a couple of power conditioner manufacturers who hold PhDs in electrical engineering and are very respected in the industry. It's an understatement to say that they are not impressed with the arguments from those guys on the audio forums.

If you're on the fence about using such products, I'll attempt to offer you some straightforward tips and observations on this gear based on my own experiences, and help you decide whether or not it's right for you:

  1. A $1500 power cord will not transform a $1000 audio system. This is the most common complaint from those who just say no to expensive power cords: "I tried the Super Blast Nirvana power cord on my Emerson CD player and I HEARD NO DIFFERENCE." The simple truth is that you need a truly resolving system to hear big differences between cables, power cords and power conditioners. This is where most skeptics say, "What a scam. I have to spend thousands of dollars before I can hear a difference? Of course I do! And where's that bridge you want to sell me?" But think about it logically: a resolving system means you can hear more musical details flow through, and therefore you'll detect subtle changes in the sound more readily. It is an unfortunate part of the equation that this level of resolution usually equals big bucks. But most knowledgeable engineers and audiophiles will tell you that cables, power conditioners and power cords are the LAST choice you make in your audio system after everything else is dialed in and you're relatively happy with the overall sound.

  2. If you are going to try a single power cord, put it in the right place. Most engineers will tell you not to try just a single cord, and that the best results are when you use the same premium power cords throughout your system ("Of course they say that! They want you to spend spend SPEND!"). But if you are going to test a single power cord, put it as close to the wall as you can--in other words, on your amplifier. If you put it at the end of the component chain, that power has already traveled through your crappy stock power cords--so what's the difference?

  3. A hospital-grade outlet is a beautiful thing. Most premium power conditioners, power outlets, surge protectors and power strips have what they call ‘hospital-grade outlets.' These outlets are more robust than regular outlets, and plugs tend to fit more snugly. From a practical standpoint, that alone is worth the extra money. Have you ever blown up a component or fried a speaker because of a loose connection at the wall? I have. Even if you don't believe in $5000 power conditioners or $2000 power cords, you should consider plugging your system into hospital-grade outlets (which are often $50 or less). They're so good, even hospitals use them.

  4. If you're a power skeptic, just start off with a dedicated AC outlet. A dedicated outlet is one that is run straight from the wall to the electrical box. No other outlets are wired in the same circuit. Remember when you were a kid, and your TV always went on the fritz when your mom vacuumed in the other room, or your dad plugged in his Norelco razor? That's because those outlets were all wired together in parallel. For about $350 to $500, you can call an electrician and have an outlet that is isolated from all other circuits. For an extra $50 or so, he can swap out the outlet for one with hospital-grade connections. Every time I've done this, I've heard big improvements in the sound of my system--everything sounds quieter and smoother and more natural. Once you agree that a dedicated AC line is a big improvement, it's just a small leap to embrace power management systems and what they are truly capable of doing.

  5. Think of power conditioners as an insurance policy for your stereo system. I live in Central Texas, where crazy thunderstorms can appear in the blink of an eye. More than once over the last six months, I've been awakened in the middle of the night by a monster electrical storm, and I've raced to my audio system to ensure that everything is turned off and unplugged. Lightning strikes, massive power surges and other current anomalies can easily wipe out an amplifier or a pair of speakers. Ask yourself how much you would be willing to spend to protect your hi-fi investment, and then apply that amount to a respectable power conditioner or surge protector.

  6. Quit thinking about "snake oil." I'm so tired of arguments from the audio skeptics that rail against all the alleged scams in high-end audio. In the 21st century, with audio forums and YouTube and Facebook, a bullshit product simply cannot survive in the marketplace. These things are outed way too quickly. Face it- premium power cords and power conditioners are selling because they work. If you buy one and you don't think it's worth it, return it. Just don't run to the nearest discussion forum to call that particular product a rip-off. What doesn't work in your system may work in another one. Or you should consider the possibility that someone else has better hearing than you do.

Like the Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall, I've trotted an electrical engineer or two out in front of some of these audio skeptics, and these guys all fold rather quickly in the face of science-based information. That's not to say there aren't disagreements in the power cord industry; this is one field where I often hear, "that company doesn't know what they're doing--our company is the only one doing it the right way." I heard one manufacturer criticize another for sprinkling "fairy dust" on their power cords, only to find out that some sort of unidentified proprietary powder was, in fact, applied to the insides. Still, those products worked and they worked well. Somewhere, there's a designer who has probably published a peer-reviewed white paper that explains why that particular strain of fairy dust--or whatever the mystery substance is--improves the flow of electrical current.

As far as the sonic benefits of power conditioning, I'm not going to tell you that these products make your midrange more creamy, or your high frequencies more goose-bumpily. I will tell you a story of the first time I used one of these systems. This was back when I was into single-ended triodes and high-efficiency speakers--my amplifier had two watts per channel and my speakers were 101 dB efficient. In other words, it didn't take a lot of juice to crack the windows. At the time, I lived in a house built in the 1950's however, and the wiring was original. Not only did I hear a lot of noise through these super-efficient speakers--I heard voices. I leaned up against the speaker driver and realized I was listening to my neighbors' cell phone calls through my audio system. Once I placed a power conditioner into the chain, the voices went away. My system was utterly silent. That's worth something as well.

I'll also relate the time I turned a tubed CD player into a Roman candle. I plugged it in, fired it up, and a steady shower of blue sparks shot straight out of the tube sockets about two feet into the air. After months of troubleshooting, I finally found an electrical outlet in another room that was wired incorrectly and eventually created miscellaneous issues all over the house. In the meantime, the addition of a power conditioner eliminated any further fireworks displays in my listening room.

I've said this before and it bears repeating--the best engineers, scientists and designers never say "that can't work." They always ask "why does it work?" But even with a spritz or two of fairy dust, there's solid engineering and scientific theory behind these products. Once you've found the right amplifier, speakers--and of course, the right turntable--it's time to investigate what power can do for you. As for me, it's time to stop borrowing. It's time to break out the checkbook.

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