Listening #11

Autumn comes to the Cherry Valley Feed & Seed. The 50-lb sacks of sawgrass and lime give way to mulch and sand for local drives, and the swing sets and folding chairs and posthole diggers and bug zappers and flagpoles have been brought inside until next spring, which is scheduled for mid-June.

I'm more concerned with what's inside, so I make my way past a Rid-X display to the front counter and ask where the AC outlets are. "I want the best you have," I tell the owner. She remembers me from when I moved to the area a few months ago and asked for the best picture hangers, lock washers, and flyswatter she had, and, being so reminded, she decides against merely pointing with her sandwich but rather escorts me to the shelf where the outlets sit. I find I have a choice of two—or did, until I spoke up and identified myself as the David Gest of rural hardware—and the best one in the store is the model 426 from Eagle Electric, a division of Cooper Wiring Devices of Long Island City. Model 426 is a 15-amp grounding receptacle that's surprisingly robust, and it sells for a mere 65 cents, though I'm told I can get bulk quantities for even less if I qualify for a contractor's discount. I don't, because I want only one.

What does the model 426 have that its cheaper competitor—which costs a little less than half a dollar—does not? They're both sturdy, both equipped with color-coded screw terminals, both made in the US. As far as I can tell, the only difference is that the cheaper one is sold loose, from a bin, while the former is individually packaged in a nice little box.

But the PS Audio Power Port AC receptacle comes in an even nicer box: a clear plastic cylinder, with heavy paper inserts bearing encouraging words, like "Hospital Grade Connection" and "Easy to Install." (The direction sheet packed inside says, "For installation by a qualified electrician," but hold that thought for now.) And, most important of all, "Why rely on a cheap AC receptacle to power your expensive audio and video equipment?"

That's a sales technique the "high-end" audio community uses a lot these days: playing off the consumer's sense of fiscal imbalance. Why use cheap speaker wires to connect your expensive speakers? Why use a cheap AC cord on your expensive amplifier? Why put your expensive audio equipment in a room made out of cheap lumber and nails? (I can see it now: "Replace the nails in your listening room with our scientifically designed, nonmagnetic WonderNails®!") Why wear cheap underpants when you're listening to expensive records on an expensive turntable?

I'm immune to such things, of course (haw), and the reason I have a pair of PS Audio Power Ports on hand is because someone gave them to me, which is the same thing as giving me a column, which is the same thing as giving me this month's paycheck. I wanted to earn my keep and give them a fair try (footnote 1).

The Power Port Classic is outwardly similar to the duplex AC outlets in most American homes, with two sockets that protrude from the receptacle box, giving a flush-mount look when the usual plastic cover is screwed into place. Its enclosure is made of fiber-reinforced thermoplastic, the face is thermoplastic polyester, and the back-frame and mounting screws are stainless steel. All of the Power Port's terminal screws are silicon bronze, and its internal contacts are "high-purity" brass plated with 15 coats of polished nickel.

How does the Eagle 426 compare? It isn't as heavy or as outwardly rugged as the PSA outlet, and the Eagle's materials are decidedly cheaper, too, including brass contacts that aren't plated at all, and mounting hardware made from galvanized rather than stainless steel. (The Eagle's back-frame makes up for that one, though, by having a handy wire stripper built in.)

The biggest difference is apparent during actual use: Plugging an AC cord into the Power Port requires more effort, and the PSA receptacle grips the plug with significantly more force. The company's website describes the Power Port as having "the grip of Mickey Mantle." The Eagle, by comparison, is more like Igor Stravinsky.

Here, incidentally, is the meaning of "hospital grade": Electrical hardware can be designated as such by Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) only if it can be demonstrated to be spark-free under that organization's rigorous testing. Products so approved are then marked with UL's green dot. (The dot is not, as suggested elsewhere in the hi-fi community, a trademark of the Hubbell Corporation—although that, too, is something I'll get back to in a moment.) The best way to make a connection spark-free is to make it Very Damn Tight. Our assumption, of course, is that a very tight, very positive AC connection will also improve the performance of whatever product is at the other end of the AC cord.

Prior to actually trying the Power Port, I was of two minds: In one was my disdain for the WonderPants come-on described in paragraph five. In the other was the certainty that the vibration and heat that result from a flimsy connection—one through which up to 20 amps of high-voltage current are drawn—must surely be counterproductive. This one could go either way.

First, let's talk installation. And before we do that, let me tell you that neither Primedia Inc., nor I, nor even Sam Tellig can be held responsible for injury or death resulting from half-assed attempts at installing your own Power Port. You should never try to replace an AC receptacle on your own unless you're absolutely sure of what you're doing, because it takes just one little slip to put you in a place where everything is hospital-grade.

So here's what you do—or, rather, what our lawyers want you to not do: Go to the breaker box inside your home and identify the circuit breaker that affects the AC outlet you wish to replace. Once you've found it, and assuming no dialysis units or PlayStations are plugged into the same circuit, flip the breaker to its Off position, then go back to the outlet and test it. You can use a multimeter or a lamp—I recommend against using a radio, because if it's tuned to an NPR station there's a 50-50 chance that there'll be dead air at any given moment, thus confusing your test results—but whichever you choose, make thoroughly sure that both outlets on your duplex receptacle are utterly dead.

Now use a small screwdriver to remove the single screw that holds the cover in place; as you'll see, this fastens to a threaded insert in the receptacle itself. Then loosen and remove the two screws that hold the receptacle to the utility box in which it nestles, itself probably nailed or screwed to an adjacent furring strip. Pull the receptacle toward you carefully, noting the orientation of the AC wiring and separate ground. Examine those wires carefully: Ideally, they'll be solid (unstranded) copper, ranging in size from 14 to 10 gauge, but if they're aluminum—as they may very well be, especially in new housing—stop what you're doing, screw everything back together, and call the electrician. Installing a high-quality outlet on an aluminum-wired circuit is probably pointless, and PS Audio joins me in recommending against it.

If your wires are good, now's the time to disconnect them from the existing receptacle, again noting which color goes where. Common practice in the US is to have black-insulated wire for the hot line (remember the mnemonic device: black bites) and white for the neutral or return line. Standard practice also calls for the hot screws, on one side of the receptacle, to be brass-colored, while the neutral screws, on the opposite side, are nickel. The bare ends of the wires are usually wrapped around those terminals, and while the PSA Power Port has similar screws, these serve a different purpose: The Power Port, like other modern, high-quality receptacles, is "back-wired," meaning there are four round openings on its back which accept bare wire, following which the installer tightens the adjacent screw to clamp the wire in place—a neat, safe, positive way of doing things.

By the way, I recommend cutting the existing bare tips from all your wires and stripping the insulation to expose fresh ends; a gauge is molded into the back of the receptacle to show how long the new tips need to be. A clean connection is a good connection, and since back-wiring requires slightly less in the way of total length, you won't miss the extra slack.

The final step before re-testing is to fasten the ground connection—which isn't back-wired like the others, but rather uses a traditional green screw terminal. Be sure to wrap the wire clockwise, so that tightening the connection will tend to draw the wire toward the shaft of the screw rather than away from it.

Somewhere, someone is baking a pie...
Is your hi-fi in the living room? If so, someone has probably been waiting patiently for the power to come back on. So please disregard safety and rush through the remaining steps.

A moment ago I said that either a multimeter or a lamp can be used to test your handiwork, but in fact only a multimeter will give you a complete look at what's happening in your home's electrical system. (But how "complete" do you want to be? If you want to identify the harmonic spectrum of noise on your line, you'll want a spectrum analyzer and lots of other cool toys...)

Re-set the circuit breaker, then set your multimeter to measure AC and, if necessary, select a range that can accommodate 120V or so. Begin by touching the multimeter's black probe to the contact nestled inside the neutral socket (the larger one), and the red probe to the hot contact: The meter should see 120V or thereabouts. Next, move the black probe to the ground contact, keeping the red one on hot: Again, 120V is the correct answer.

But when you keep the black probe on the ground contact and move the red probe to the neutral, you should detect nothing more than a volt or so—anything more than that requires Professional Help. The fact that there's any current there at all under normal circumstances is attributable to the difference in series resistance between the ground and neutral runs—which, although connected at one point, travel different routes and serve different masters. Different numbers of ohms makes for different ground potentials, one above the other—which means voltage, which means current. (That, incidentally, is why star grounding schemes make for superior hi-fi components, all other things being equal, and why manufacturers like Naim recommend plugging all the components in your system into the same AC outlet, à la their infamous "hydra-head" tweak of a few years back.)

Please note that the above is not the same as the "leakage current" caused by the capacitance between various conductors in some types of home wiring, nor is it the same as "leakage current" caused by some hi-fi components themselves under normal operation, when operated with the "wrong" AC plug orientation. Every few years some audio reviewer discovers that latter effect, hailing the "obvious night-and-day improvement" that correct orientation makes—and then describing in painful detail the steps one must go through in order to tell which is which, so that one's system can be made to operate at full potential. I love it: obvious and obscure.

Anyway, now that you've finished testing, and assuming your handiwork passed, you're done. Replace the face and be off with your bad self.

Is there enough of a performance difference to justify the trouble and expense? All things considered, yes: I heard the Power Port make a small, subtle, yet very real improvement in sonic performance. The difference was consistently audible with a wide variety of products, and I'm hard-pressed to think of another way to improve a hi-fi system for just $50.

The first Power Port I installed got the dual chores of supplying AC to my CD player and my Naim NAP110 power amp, which means it also powered my Naim 32.5 preamp, since the latter gets its DC from the former. The first disc I tried was the reissue of George Harrison's beautiful All Things Must Pass album, in particular "I Live for You." That one begins with a few notes on a pedal steel guitar—a nice test, as it turns out, because those notes sounded stronger, fuller, cleaner, and altogether more "solid" with the new outlets in place. I daresay this was at least partly so because there was even less going on behind them—ie, the nothingness had more nothing in it.

Of course, audiophiles always think they hear more bass whenever they "improve" their systems, and for that reason alone I tend to be skeptical of same. Yet in this case it was true, though that may also have been due to the Power Ports' increased levels of nothing.

Switching my amp and CD player back and forth between the upgraded receptacle and a nearby one in original condition yielded the same differences consistently, with all kinds of music: stronger music and blacker silence, with a slight, overall improvement in listening ease. Not a big difference, but a consistent difference, and always a step in the right direction.

Replacing the outlets that feed my Quads had an even bigger effect, which surprised me. Whether those original outlets happened to be in worse shape—science be damned, but I'm not about to switch receptacles back and forth on the same wires and outlet box—is nearly impossible to tell. Yet I was sufficiently convinced that I asked PS Audio if I could buy some more Power Ports for my other system.

While I had his attention, I also asked PSA's Paul McGowan about the differences between Power Ports and the ostensibly very-high-quality receptacles that are offered by the company that actually makes them, the aforementioned Hubbell Corporation of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Unlike the $29 tweeter in the $10,000-plus speaker from You-Know-Who, this is one case where a high-end audio manufacturer really is telling you the truth about having something custom-manufactured for his company alone. Hubbell makes at least six different variations on the hospital-grade duplex theme—not even counting the many color combinations available—and you'll find certain desirable features in all of them, including the thermoplastic face, the silicon bronze screws, and so forth. But none of the outlets in Hubbell's own line combines all of those features in one product—and none offers the heavily plated internal contacts of the Power Ports.

The question of value, then, is difficult to answer—but not impossible. There are those who would never spend 100 times the price of a hardware-store outlet on one that comes from an audio salon, and that's cool for them. There are those who will try to cheap out and buy stock Hubbell units at or near wholesale. I'll cut to the chase and tell you that the cheapest Hubbell hospital-grade receptacle you'll find is the model 8300, available for $17.72 a pop from the very nice people at Johnson Electric in Cincinnati. I'll also tell you it performs quite well compared to a cheap receptacle—but it's more difficult to install than the Power Port, and will almost certainly corrode many years sooner.

And there are those at the other end of the spectrum who will say that the Power Port isn't expensive enough, and that they would never dream of subjecting their household current to the indignities of anything as banal as nickel plating.

Sigh. The audio community is like a Brueghel painting. One quick look is all you need to tell which people have kids and which ones don't. I can only offer my personal opinion (in big, heaping doses), which boils down to two observations:

1) All the AC receptacles in my home that feed hi-fi components have now been changed over to PS Audio Power Ports.

2) Anyone who can afford to spend $50 on an AC outlet can also afford to sit down right now and send $50 to Habitat for Humanity, to help give less fortunate Americans an opportunity to live in a place that they, too, can fill with hi-fi equipment someday. There's a hidden bonus: Doing so will enhance your appreciation of music. I guarantee it.



Footnote 1: PS Audio, 4824 Sterling Drive, Boulder, CO 80301. Tel: (877) 772-8340. Outside US: (720) 406-8946. Fax: (720) 406-8967. Web: www.psaudio.com.
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BillK's picture
Note that the Power Ports do not currently meet code. :-(

The 2008 NEC requires that tamper resistant (TR) outlets be used in all new construction and remodeling, and unfortunately the Power Port is not available in a TR version.

 

I've been bugging PS Audio about it for a few years now, and perhaps that's why the Power Port does not currently appear on the PS Audio web site; perhaps they're sourcing a new TR version.

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