Listening #4

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.

With the meter box open and the meter itself pried from its moorings, there wasn't much to see: two hot legs (sounds like a bad Rod Stewart record, doesn't it?) and one neutral, plus a braided ground lead. The hot and neutral legs are extremely thick multistrand cable, terminated with what appear to be cast-alloy O-lugs and fastened down with 3/8" nuts.

The cables and lugs are no bigger than the ones I've seen used as speaker connectors on more than a few contemporary high-end amplifiers—forget AC power; the fastening nuts are actually a lot smaller than I'm used to seeing as audio hookup hardware. And, again, that's just for hooking up loudspeakers to amplifiers—which is to say, that's for conducting AC of a relatively small number of amps and volts compared to what an audio amplifier's power supply draws from the wall outlet.

And what about that wall current? I won't go so far as to tell you that Niagara-Mohawk's incoming lines are dwarfed by the ones I've seen used as high-end accessory AC cords'n'plugs, a relatively new field of research and development (as in, "Let's research what these guys have in their wallets and develop new ways of taking it"), but I will say that I've seen bigger, more robust, more rugged, and altogether more serious cables and connectors in high-end audio than I have in this two-year-old meter box on a two-year-old house in a five-year-old housing development.

"There it is," as my friend Lars Sorensen used to say: Why would anyone spend money on an AC cord that's bigger or in any imaginable way better than the inarguably greater lengths of cable that bring the wall current from the meter box to the circuit breakers, or from the circuit breakers to your home's electrical outlets? What possible good could such a thing do?

I've wondered that myself. God knows I've tried, but until recently I found it impossible to hear significant, repeatable differences between various accessory power cords and the ones supplied as standard with my audio components. I say that without one iota of harsh feeling toward any of the people I know in the audio cable industry, some of whom are nice. But I don't even blame the nasty ones for making and selling high-priced AC cables. If I owned a bakery, and if I saw customers waving $50 bills at my competitors and begging for magic cookies, there's no question in my mind what I would do. (Hint: It involves dough, cookie cutters, and pixie dust.)

I'm about to tell you about the last time I did an informal AC cable comparison, but first I'll fill you in on how us bigwig audio reviewers acquire most of our audio cables. If my experience is typical, borrowing just a pair of speaker cables or just a pair of interconnects for review purposes is impossible. Cable manufacturers, who also tend not to wait for us to pick up the phone and call them, are interested in having reviewers try as many of their products as UPS is willing to deliver. Not just interconnects, but interconnects and speaker cables and digital cables and AC power cords and you name it. Not just one cable model, but a variety of models from their line, at different prices. (A commonly heard suggestion: "Start with our budget line—which is better than anybody else's cable, anyway—and then work your way up to our more expensive stuff.")

Cartons from cable companies tend to be big, and if most cable manufacturers had their way, we reviewers would spend several weeks out of every year doing nothing but playing around with their products and theirs alone. Can't blame 'em, I guess.

By the time I last felt motivated to compare AC cords, which was maybe six months ago, I had a selection of five different ones in my basement: two from one manufacturer, three from another. I brought them all upstairs, cleaned off the plugs, and got to work. I began by comparing the five to the stock AC cord that came with my Fi 2A3 amplifier, my reasoning being that amplifiers, because they generally use more electricity than any other components in a home audio system, will make the greatest demands on an AC cord, and thus expose its strengths or weaknesses in a clear and straightforward manner. Not necessarily flawless reasoning, but a place to begin.

I could hear no improvements at all when using any of the accessory cords. Of course, I looked at it the other way around: I was delighted to hear how well my stock AC cord acquitted itself in the face of such expensive competition. I was so impressed that I half-considered shining it up with a little Armor All (can I still mention that stuff in these pages?) and selling it for hundreds of dollars on eBay, perhaps under the name Art's Black Beauty, or The Midnight Connection from Dudley International Products/World Audio Designs, aka DIPWAD.

But I didn't. And that was that.