I can't remember a time when I wasn't concerned about power quality. I grew up around finicky, home-brew ham-radio gear and labs full of instruments, and with both, power-conditioning gear was standard fare. When I moved into high-end audio, it seemed obvious that power quality was important. As a result, I've experimented with a wide range of power-conditioning equipment, from simple ferrite loops to huge isolation transformers, and even exotic laboratory power supplies that could vary the voltage, frequency spectrum, and shape of the AC signal.
Considering that not that long ago there wasn't even a product category for balanced AC line conditioners, we seem to now enjoy a plethora of the critters. Cinepro offers the PowerPRO 20 (reviewed in Stereophile, November 1998, Vol.21 No.11). And Equi=Tech, which caters more toward the pro end of the field, offers one that I have yet to hear. Now Audio Power Industries weighs in with their own approach to the genre.
There never seem to be enough AC outlets, and when there are, they're not always easily accessible. I have two dedicated 15A duplex outlets at the power-amp end of my room, but a subwoofer and multiple power amps (up to three at a time) exhaust those facilities. What happens when I need to add a second subwoofer or other EQ? What do I do when I want to keep more than three amps cooking for quick comparisons?
Any difference that is at all audible must be treated as though it is huge!" John Atkinson declaimed, as Tom Norton and I rolled on the floor laughing. It was a slow day around the Stereophile offices, and the startlingly huge differences that our colleague was describing did strike us as rather piddlingso John began stentorophonically reciting rules from a mythical Guidebook for Audio Reviewers to gales of laughter all around.
Tweaks come and go. When a new one creates a buzz in audiophile circles, I generally prefer to wait and see if it's still around after the initial excitement has subsided. I'd heard about "audiophile" fuses some time ago, and although the likelihood of them making a significant difference didn't seem as farfetched as such tweaks as the "intelligent chip" or the "clever little clock," I didn't feel inclined to try them. I was persuaded otherwise by the confluence of two separate influences: a report by Michael Fremer, in the February 2007 Stereophile, that the HiFi-Tuning fuses produced a "subtle but noticeable" improvement in the sound of his Musical Fidelity kWP preamplifier; and an encounter at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show with Robert Stein of importer Ultra Systems (the HiFi-Tuning fuses are made in Germany), who said that they produced a big improvement and offered to send me some samples.
The most important change made to the system was one that held up the writing of my review of the Mark Levinson No.23.5 power amplifier for several months, such was its anticipated impact. Though my listening room is well-equipped with wall sockets, there are actually only two 15A circuits serving these outlets. Ever since I had converted what had hitherto been our house's master bedroom into my listening room, I had intended to run new circuits to it.
We were having trouble with the power in our home—the wall current, I mean, not the dynamics of our marriage—so I called the local utility. While the technician was here, he let me watch what he was doing. I had a chance to look inside our meter box, which is the junction between the utility's power lines and the circuit-breaker box in the cellar.
When you play recorded music, you have before you a work of art with almost no physical existence at all; reconstituting it requires electricity, which will itself imitate the musical continuum represented by the bumps in the groove or the zeros in the datastream. When you listen to recorded music, you are listening to your household AC, and better AC equals better playback. That sounds obvious to me and you, even as it sends the technocodgers into paroxysms of puritanical indignation.
It's a simple premise: power corrupts. You can buy the finest audio components in the world, but if the foundation of your aural house is rotten, you won't get anything vaguely resembling the level of performance your gear was designed to provide. Over time, I've come to realize just how fragile the audio signal chain is, dependent as it is on electrical sources fatally compromised by all manner of aural schmutz pouring through the local grid. I've become obsessed with figuring out how to liberate my system from the line noise, reactive loads, and voltage anomalies that veil the presentation, obscure resolution, and limit dynamic range.
Although advertising copywriters would have us believe otherwise, there is not a lot of true innovation in audio. Most audio products are based on well-established principles, perhaps refined in detail and execution. Of course, some products do take novel approaches, but they tend to be too off-the-wall to be taken seriously, or simply don't do the job as well as more conventional products. What's really exciting is to encounter a product that is audaciously original in concept, yet makes so much sense that you wonder why no one even thought of it before (footnote 1).
Determining whether an idea is brilliant or off the wall is often a matter of perspectiveand of looking at the results that follow from the idea. Take the notion of AC regeneration. AC is what comes from the wall socket, courtesy a network of power-generation plants, and it's specified as having a certain voltage and frequency, with the amount of current limited by fuses or circuit breakers in the electrical panel of the house or apartment. Audio componentsother than those powered by batteriesare designed to convert this alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC), then produce variable AC that drives the speakers to produce a facsimile of that signal. In short, AC provides the raw material used by audio components to do their job.
PS Audio's Power Plant Premier is a high-end product that takes the regeneration approach in providing audio/video gear with the cleanest AC possible. But not everyone can afford to spend $2195 on such a product, and although the new amplifier design that forms the basis of the Premier is relatively efficient, it does use power, and concern about conservation of the planet's energy resources might lead one to prefer a passive approach to power-line treatment. PS Audio's line of Power Centers provides such an alternative. The model I had for review was the Quintet Power Center, which differs from the Duet Power Center only in having five pairs of receptacles to the Duet's two.
PS Audio's Power Plant AC-regeneration devices have taken the audio and home-theater worlds by storm. The P300 was voted 2000 Accessory of the Year in Stereophile (December 2000), and the P600 won the Editors' Choice Platinum Award in Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (January 2001). The Power Plant differs from conventional power-line conditioners (PLCs) in that it doesn't just "clean up" AC but actually synthesizes (or regenerates) it. Each Power Plant is essentially a special-purpose amplifier, producing AC to run the equipment plugged into it, the maximum output wattage indicated by the model number. (The most powerful Power Plant available is the P1200, which produces 1200W.)
The Richard Gray's Power Company 400S arrived on the audiophile scene last year with a bang. Weighing in at a hefty 20 lbs and at $700 a pop, this four-outlet power conditioner, according to the paperwork, "effectively 'positions' audio, video, and home theater equipment 'electronically closer' to your utility company transformer, without introducing any type of series electronic 'traps' or capacitors into the circuit, which we feel degrade the performance of certain equipment, and severely limit the amount of current they can handle."