The Fifth Element #81

Long experience has convinced me that many audiophiles' stereo systems substantially underperform compared to what they could sound like. This is not because people haven't spent enough money on their electronics or speakers. Instead, people aren't getting all the performance they've paid for because they haven't devoted enough attention to all aspects of the initial setup, and/or to maintenance and updating.

Reduced to its essentials, a stereo system is a machine designed to convert the electricity that comes out of your wall outlet into mechanical motion by the loudspeakers, which create the sound in your listening room. So we should start with the wall current.

Ayre Acoustics L-5xe line filter
Line filters, power conditioners, or whatever you want to call them are a controversial subject. Many audiophiles claim that the best line filter is no line filter at all. Others claim that line filters merely make the system sound "different" rather than more accurate. Part of the problem may be that the technologies that remove noise, especially high-frequency noise, from the wall current can have the undesired side effect of reducing the amount of electrical current instantaneously available to the power amplifier. Water flows a lot more slowly out of a water purifier than it does from a faucet.

Until I began writing this month's column, I hadn't given much thought to the fact that while countless companies make amplifiers, preamplifiers, phono stages, and digital gear, as far as I know, only one of them—Ayre Acoustics, of Boulder, Colorado—also makes its own power-line filter (footnote 1). Something to ponder. Could it be that most high-end audio companies don't think they have the expertise? Or do most companies think such filters unnecessary? Or not profitable enough?

Ayre's L-5xe line filter is as handsomely designed and ruggedly built as the rest of its products. The case, which measures 17.25" wide by 2.38" high by 13.75" deep and weighs 12 pounds, has essentially the shape of a 1RU (one rack unit) piece of professional gear—except that the L-5xe has no provision for rack mounting. The case is borrowed from Ayre's P-5xe phono stage. That, Ayre's Charles Hansen tells me, explains how the product came into being: Ayre's UK importer was so taken with the looks of the phono stage that he begged Ayre to find some other use for the same housing.

The front of the L-5xe has a centered, vertically oriented oval recess that contains a small blue pilot light. There's nothing else on the front panel except a silkscreened Ayre logo. On the rear panel is a centered IEC inlet flanked by four individual outlets—that's it. There's no master power switch or provision for remote control. The price of $1500 doesn't include a generic power cord. Ayre's own, quite heavy, 1m cord costs $850. Cardas Audio is the OEM supplier of Ayre's own interconnects and speaker cables, so I assume they make the power cords as well.

Ayre's design philosophy for the L-5xe was "less is more." Hansen believes that the controversial nature of many power conditioners is a result of the designer's having let the perfect become the enemy of the good (my phrase, not his). He claims that many power conditioners have more net negative than positive effects on the sound, and that taking a power conditioner out of a system often results in better sound. (It's important to point out that I'm discussing power conditioners, not surge protectors, which are a different and even more problematic kettle of fish.) The L-5xe was developed with a view as much toward avoiding negatives as achieving positives. The basic design brief was to turn high-frequency energy coming in through the power line into heat before it can cause distortion in the audio signal.

Unusually, the outlets at the rear of the L-5xe are single, not duplex types because Ayre claims that it's impossible to isolate the grounds of a duplex outlet. They want the power going into each device connected to the L-5xe to be separately grounded as well as separately filtered. I assume this is why they don't designate an outlet for digital components—the design is such that there should be no leakage between outlets.

The internal wiring is 11.5 AWG; Ayre claims that there is no current limitation. There are no ferrite-containing devices inside, and all contacts are rhodium plated. Ayre is not specific about its circuit design, and doesn't state whether it employs cryogenic processing. What Hansen does say about the circuit is that the high-frequency energy on a power line can't be blocked or shunted to ground, it can only be turned into heat—and that Ayre's nonferrite means of accomplishing that is a trade secret.

Ayre recommends that the L-5xe sit on wood blocks on a hard surface or spikes on a carpet, and encourages a break-in period of at least one week; they caution that, before break-in, its immediate effect on a system's sound may be suboptimal—in their word, "murky."

I installed the L-5xe (on cedar closet blocks) in the system I wrote about in August: Parasound Halo CD 1 CD player, Bricasti M1 DAC (Nordost Silver Shadow S/PDIF cable), Unison Research S6 tube integrated amp, and Opera Callas stand-mounted speakers, all connected with Cardas Clear interconnects and cables. Ayre provided two power cords; I used one to plug in the L-5xe, the other for the Bricasti DAC.

Sure enough, the immediate impression was suboptimal. My reference track was Lucia Popp's delectable recording of the aria "L'amerò, sarò costante," from Mozart's Il Rè Pastore (CD, EMI CDC 7 47019 2). The highest highs were obviously rolled off. Images were less well defined, more like blurry nimbus clouds. Had I not been assured that this would not be the end result, it would have been quite disconcerting.

Still, some positives were immediately apparent. The soundstage depth seemed to extend about 2' farther back and 1' farther forward than before. The soundstage was also taller and wider, although the boundaries of those extensions didn't seem as well defined as the improvement in depth. I found this remarkable—primarily, all I expect from a power-line filter is a lower noise floor and greater retrieval of detail in the time domain.

By the third day, the soundstage was even taller, center images were recapturing their proper outlines, and the highest frequencies were on their way back. However, it was not until two weeks (not one) later that the highs returned as much as they ever did.

At first, it seemed that the highs had lost a little sparkle, but listening to several different recordings of the second movement of Mahler's Symphony 6, with its prominent triangle and cowbell parts, made me rethink that. The harmonics in the high-treble "air" seemed to be more organically connected to the fundamentals than before. There might have been slightly less high-treble energy overall, but the treble was sweeter, and made more of a contribution to my sense of a larger soundstage. I can't report any noticeable improvements in resolution, but it was already a hugely revealing system to start with. Without question, the L-5xe made the system more listenable, and with no trade-offs.

I think that Ayre's L-5xe clearly brought the performance of my system up to the next level. I also think that the timbral balance in the "air" region is now right where it should be. Highly recommended.

Housecleaning Time!
Here's a quick punch list of things that almost certainly will improve the sound of your system for not much money. Most systems suffer from bottlenecks that prevent you from hearing how good your components can sound. Each bottleneck might itself account for only a small, perhaps nearly imperceptible veiling of the sound, but add them all up and the total degradation of your system's performance might be substantial, and especially if your system has been in place for several years: Corrosion or oxidation may have taken a toll on connections and wires.

1013fifth.shunyataoulets.jpg

Shunyata Research SR-Z1 wall outlet
Unless you've replaced the wall outlet that your system plugs into within the past few years, that outlet is probably long past due for replacement—especially if you can look inside the outlet and see drops of dried wall paint. Even if the outlet hasn't been painted over, upgrading to a heavy-duty, cryogenically processed outlet will remove major bottlenecks in both the outlet and its connections to the house wiring.

I think that nearly all home-stereo systems should be plugged into only one wall outlet. This avoids potential problems that can arise from two outlets being connected to different phases of the incoming 240V power after it is split into two legs of 120V, or from remote outlets having different ground potentials. (Of course, this will not be practical with systems that include extremely high-powered amplifiers, or whose amplifiers sit at the far end of the room from the other gear.)



Footnote 1: Boulder-based PS Audio also makes digital and amplification components, as well as power-line accessories and AC regenerators.—Ed.
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COMMENTS
the_80s_werent_all_bad's picture

...that makes amps, source components and power line accessories is accuphase. 

Your point is an interesting one, however - there are few companies that do this. 

DoggyDaddy's picture

"cedar closet blocks," eh?  As so often, these articles perplex me b/c I sense the presence of truly helpful stuff - and of true BS.  And no one can tell me snake-oil isn't a problem for the industry (yes, I will shell out real $$ for gear, so it's not a resistance on my part to prices per se).  I wonder: of 100 random people, how many could tell the difference between the system w/ and w/out the blocks...?

fyzzics's picture

that makes both audio gear and power filters is PS Audio.

As for the rest of the recommendations, well, at least the Stabilant 22 is very good and probably worth the small investment.  I use it.  It keeps connections stable.

Too bad nobody was on hand to measure the "obviously rolled off" high frequency response of the system when first plugged in to the power filter.  We could have actually captured the fabled burn-in effect in action.  Oh well, maybe next time...

bigmike1976's picture

or fill them,

It was a good article and I certainly can uphold the validity of Ayres' posture on filtering technique.

But....and here it comes...I'd be willing to bet that the outlets that most guys have their gear plugged into are not dedicated circuits. Thus, replacing the outlet, however corroded or not, will do little good. Unless you have dedicated circuitry for your audio gear, you are depending on multiple outlets downstream from your equipment to bear the weight of the power supply chain. This is a critical point to make. To further that, you can buy a 'good' Specification/Hospital Grade receptacle from any electrical supplier for around $20-$30 that will do a stellar job of clamping down, politely but firmly, on the prongs of your audio gear power distribution/filtering components' umbilical cord. And it will last for many years t come. The fact that an outlet that is made with cryogenic manufacturing processes is going to make a significant difference, I think, could be a bit far-reaching. But, I am sure there is a market for them.

Really all I am saying is, along with the really great gear, you need to find the ever-so-elusive 'quality electrical guy' to install the circuit with the same care as he would an outlet in a clean-room (computer main-frame room). That should be the first step in cleaning up the power on your system. Then, by all means, enjoy the fruits of clean power. It's not Kool-aid, it makes a huge difference in sound reproduction, even on a less costly system than the one in this article (which by the way, I am envious of..)

1likeh1f1's picture

Tacking on "audio" or "audiophile" to electrical components, particularly outlets and power cords introduces an unnecessary cost element to otherwise sound steps (pun intended! cheeky), an audiophile can take to increase the fidelity of power to their system.  For example, I saved 80% of the cost of the "audiophile outlet" by utilizing a Hubbell top-of-the-line duplex after having a qualified electrician run a dedicated 20 amp circuit for my main system (with super-spec'd gauge copper wiring - considering the run required). 

Some thoughts about mains/PC's:  As an audiophile, I realize that EVERYTHING makes a difference (whether the difference is "good" or "bad" becomes a matter of objectivity in some cases, subjective preference or collateral circumstances in others.)  Also, the AMOUNT of good or bad gained becomes very relevant with some components, sources, etc.  (Stuff we all know, but don't always apply).  In the case of I/C's, I see the need for alot of care in the technology, materials and construction techniques to optimize with the rest of my main two channel system (i.e., transmission of the low-level signals transduced.)  So, I leave it to the experts for these - Kimber Select and Transparent Reference in my particular application.  However, for my mains, I researched and built my own (great fun and not difficult - just a little craftsmanship applied along with diligent sourcing and selection of materials).  In the case of the mains, I used 8 gauge stranded copper for all but my digital sources and 10 gauge shielded stranded (with ferrite cores added) for them (cable purchased from Anixter/connectors from Parts Express/other stuff like the braided cover, shrink seal materials, ferrite cores, etc. from a local electronics supplier.)  I won't bore you further with all the details here, but I found tremendous improvement over the standard (high quality) manufacturer's cords that came with the equipment (ARC Ref mainly).  I attribute most of the improvement with the amount (gauge) of copper as opposed to the grain, etc. for the mains (after all, the manufacturer of a fine copper cable is not going to do anything stupid w/r/t the copper conductors, diaelectics, geometry, etc given their main objective (another pun intended!) is the safe and effective transmission of the electric current), coupled with good solid Wattgate connectors and the best-quality Hubbell duplex connected to a dedicated 20 amp circuit supplying good clean power.  I've used a PS Audio Power Plant for many years and it is a mainstay for a black background as well.  So, the whole enchilida is what works in harmony to produce my desired result.  Do I think the OCC, PCOCC, cryo, etc. makes a difference in mains?  Probably.  Is it worth the difference in price from the $200 in materials cost I incurred for my seven PC's?  I seriously doubt it.

Happy Listening!

ajcrock's picture

It would be nice to see some measurements on the power filter.

otaku's picture

I am a puzzled by the announcement of a forthcoming download of the Ayre Irrational but Efficacious CD. I had always assumed that since it was offered as a CD, its main benefit would be to the CD player. Does the presence of a download imply that it is aimed at improving the amplifier and/or speakers? I am not trying to start a flame war here, just wondering whether the disk or download would be helpful to my system.

John Marks's picture

Hi.

The CD is sold by Music Direct with a money-back guarantee. So if you buy it and try it and it does not work for you, you are only out the shipping both ways.

Offering the Full Glide Tone as a download, as I understand it, has two benefits. One, the Tone can have technical specifications greater than a CD can deliver. Two, it allows people who have changed over to computer music to treat their front end.

As I understand the theory, the Full Glide Tone is believe to work on all the electrical devices and components in your signal path, through the crossover and to the voice coils. Furthermore, it may have a mechanical effect of the woofer surrounds.

ATB,

 

John Marks

otaku's picture

I purchased the iPod version last night and tried it out.  It seemed to help, although it is hard to tell since there is obviously no way to do an A/B comparison.  

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