Cinepro PowerPro 20 Professional Series AC Line Balancer Page 2

The rear panel couldn't be simpler: it has 12 outlets, four of them orange hospital-grade and designated as "digital isolation outlets to further isolate noise-creating digital components (CD, LD, DVD, etc.) from other sensitive analog components." (As we all know, sensitive analog components can have their feelings hurt if asked to use the same outlets as those rowdy digital types.)

Hush, hush—-did I hear somebody call my name?
But most people seem to get along just fine without fancy-schmancy line conditioners and such. Can they really make a difference?

Absolutely! And, concurrently, not that much. How can both answers be correct? It's all context.

If you have a system with resolution issues, you could probably boost its performance a lot more by using $1795 to replace one or several components. I reckon you could hear an overall improvement on a boombox if you plugged it into the PowerPro, but all you'd have is a better boombox—and who'd think that was worth 1800 clams?

On the other hand, a whole lot of people have systems that are good enough that they have a hard time improving them substantially. I don't just mean silly-expensive rigs; I'm talking about people who have put their systems together carefully over a long period of time and find themselves stymied by what to do next. The stereo could sound better, but improving the amp, CD player, turntable, or even the speakers would cost an arm and a leg, and result in only a slight improvement.

The PowerPro 20 just might be the answer to that dilemma. There is no question that it works: plug a system capable of sufficient resolution into it—say, the median system owned by Stereophile readers—and things certainly do get quiet. What's that you say? You don't have any hum? HA! It's probably so pervasive that you aren't even aware of it.

I certainly didn't seem to have any, yet after plugging the Audio Research Reference One and CD2/DAC3 into one PowerPro 20 and the Audio Research VT200 into another, I was stunned—not at the sudden absence of steady-state noise (I hadn't been aware of any), but at the way music sounded when I played these units.

My problem is, how do I describe the difference? That nonexistent Guidebook for Audio Reviewers dictates that certain conventions must be observed. For instance, whenever the noise floor is lowered, we critics must talk about how the music emerges from a blacker background. But I don't hear silence as black and music as, I dunno, shining in contrast to it. It's a good image, but that's not the way I hear it.

Music is so vast and unfathomable that I'm sure it's beyond my abilities to pithily express what it means to me, but something as simple as light against dark don't even begin to cut it. Closer, I think, but still inadequate, would be to say that music is motion contrasted to the stillness of silence. With the Cinepro, music moved more surely—or perhaps I should say that the silence was more still.

Either way, there was greater contrast between the two. Does that mean music sounded louder? Oddly enough, it did. Not really louder, of course, but clearer—more itself, less something else. Take, for instance, that marvelous momentum in the final movement of Mahler's First. (I listened repeatedly to Horenstein/LSO on Unicorn RHS 301LP.) This movement progresses from hell to heaven, beginning with a strident cymbal crash and ending with a coda nothing short of earth-shattering. Hearing that first clash of the cymbals with the Cinepro in the system was like hearing it for the first time—I know it's there, I've heard the piece hundreds of time, but it startled me nonetheless. It was, forgive me, more itself than I was used to hearing it on record. Victor Zuckerkandl asks, "What is it that binds the tones together and us to them?" I certainly don't know. But listening through the PowerPro, I felt far more bound to the music.

Sounds like a huge difference, right? It certainly had an impact on me in a system I was familiar with, but I'm not sure that everybody would find it as exciting—or even all that noticeable. The Audio Research components were already performing on a pretty exalted level, and I can't imagine anyone complaining about the sound I was getting before I installed the PowerPro 20. I was certainly very happy with it. But I consistently preferred the sound with the PowerPro in the system.

I wouldn't have said, instinctively, that the system sounded quieter. But it undoubtedly did, because I was hearing more detail set within the recording. I'm not saying I heard more details period, although I must have. I'm saying that, within each recording's unique sonic world, I heard more of the accretion of sonic cues that led to that recording sounding like nothing but that recording. Is that unclear?

Of course it is. Every system—even a great one—has its own sonic signature. The Cinepro line balancer makes me suspect that some of this system signature consists of the way each component reacts to the crud within the power grid itself. The more of that crud you can remove, the less you hear that reaction coloring everything else. That means that the differences inherent in each recording seem more marked. I think.

But even though that is, in a way, a very significant change, it pales beside the differences between two speakers, for instance. The Cinepro intensified my reaction to each recorded musical experience, but I hesitate to call its effect huge, even if it was audible.

Is the Cinepro worth the rather considerable price tag? As a sonic tool, the answer would vary based on the quality of the system it was being used with. I used it with the ARC system, and with an equally refined solid-state system consisting of a Mark Levinson No.39 CD player, No.380S preamplifier, and No.332 power amp. Tube or solid-state, I heard essentially the same thing: With systems of that caliber, you'd be hard-pressed to make as substantial a difference in overall sound quality for an equivalent expenditure. But drop back a notch or two in the price chain and the answer may not be as clear-cut. In many systems, an $1800 upgrade elsewhere in the chain can buy you much more musicality.

It's monsoon season
But let's not forget that the PowerPro 20 is also designed to protect your system from line aberrations and surges. And it does a damn fine job of it, too. Here in Northern New Mexico, summer is marked by an almost tropical rainy season. During July and August, most years, we have a daily thunder shower around 5pm. Well, not quite every day, but frequently enough. Sometimes these are real frog-stranglers, dropping several inches of water accompanied by Wagnerian thunder and lightning; at other times, all we get is steady, gentle rain.

This year, we've had a lot of the dramatic ones. One evening last week I came home to find the No.332 powered down. Puzzled, I pushed the power button. No reaction. Then I noticed that the PowerPro 20 it was connected to had its red outlet-status LED on. I flipped the PowerPro's front-panel power switch on, but it stayed off. I plugged the amp directly into the outlet and was able to get it powered up, so I kept the Cinepro out of the circuit.

I called the company and went through a brief diagnostic. "Only two things could be wrong—either the storm popped the Ground Fault Interrupter, in which case you can reset it, or you had some kind of major-league surge that fried an MOV internally," Doug Weinstein reassured me (footnote 1). As it turned out, it was the GFI, and I was able to easily reset it. (Doug mentioned that all users should test the GFI every month.) But I was curious about what I would have needed to do if I had fried the MOV.

"Well, you don't have a Cinepro dealer in Santa Fe, so we'd send you three replacement MOVs and you could take it to any qualified electric technician. All he'd have to do is snip out the old ones and solder in the new ones, which would cost next to nothing. Anyone who bought it from a Cinepro dealer could just have it done where they'd bought it—or they could send it to us and we'd replace them, but shipping a 75-lb line balancer is expensive and awkward enough that most people wouldn't want to do it that way."

I don't know that the power surge would have damaged the $6495 Levinson, but even if the PowerPro didn't have a significant musical effect on the system, it would have paid for itself just by protecting the gear in the system. And while it's true that I should probably unplug everything in my system every time we have a thunderstorm, I also know that that's never going to happen.

The power and the glory
So once again we come back to the basic question: Is the Cinepro PowerPro 20 Professional Series AC Line Balancer worth the money? For me, yes, definitely. With the systems I tried, it offered a noticeable sonic improvement—not merely suppressing AC hum and RFI grunge as promised, but allowing me to more closely approach the known surface of the music.

My answer may not be your answer. While I suspect that the PowerPro's sonic benefits would be audible with any level of gear, there are certainly systems that would derive far greater benefit from the application of $1800 to the signal-carrying components themselves.

But assuming your system (and your pocketbook) are up to it, the PowerPro 20 is certainly capable of taking your stereo to the next level. And while it's at it, it can even ensure that it stays there, no matter what nasty surprises come down your AC lines. And that really could make a huge difference.

Footnote 1: MOV stands for Metal Oxide Varistor. This one has a clamping voltage of 240V; it shorts across the line when confronted by a voltage above its threshold.