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Positive Feedback ISSUE
Guardian AC power distributor
as reviewed by Graham Abbott
If you have cables the size of a baby's forearm sluicing the juice to your components, you probably take the quality of incoming AC pretty seriously. In fact, I'd be surprised if an audiophile so equipped (or even those with 'normal' sized high quality cables) wasn't plugging into some kind of good quality power product. The market has really blossomed as we audiophiles are blessed with nothing if not a wide selection of power conditioners, regenerators, and stabilizers, as well as many passive filtering multi-duplex models (even the much-maligned generic 'power bar' has decidedly upmarket family members now). I've heard many types and all of them changed the sound of each system they were ahead of, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. Usually the changes were for the good, but occasionally the music seemed to round off and err on the side of an all-pervasive smoothness - meaning a resultant lack of dynamics and sense of excitement. This however was the exception rather than the rule and today I am a dedicated user and full of enough of hubris to suggest that everyone should have one.
My current is the e-TP80 from Furutech (Robert H. Levi reviewed it in Issue 23) and at $475 it's a pretty good value, especially when you factor in the very nice power cable Furutech tosses in for the price. The unit is beautifully finished and sports eight high quality outlets (two for preamps, two for power amps, and four filtered outlets strictly for digital gear) and a coating of EMI absorbing outer space goo called GC-303, which is applied to the bottom plate of the unit to absorb all the internally generated nasties. Furutech employs the 'Alpha Process', which besides sounding vaguely L. Ron Hubbardish, treats all metal parts to a cryogenic freezing before a patented round of 'Ring Demagnetization' (stop snickering). Furutech claims both of these improve electrical conductivity and subsequent power and signal transfer. To the right of the outlets are two LEDs: a green one for power and red one indicating proper polarity, along with a pushbutton for verification—of which I've pushed from time to time to no visible or audible effect. This is a mystery perpetrated by a manual that ignores it completely.
Shunyata Research has been winning glowing reviews with their Hydra line of products, and judging by the press on their website, some pretty substantial clients. The Guardian line, the subject of this review, is Shunyata's attempt to bring Hydra- like performance to a new lower price point. Outlets are all 'Shunyata spec' Hubbels, internal wiring is all 'massive gauge CDA101 copper' with both a 'Venom Filter' network and 'Trident Defence System' borrowed from the more expensive Hydra line (I direct your attention to the website for a more detailed explanation of the two technologies). The unit looks more 'pro gear' than stylish and is constructed using heavy gauge metal that, according to Shunyata, will 'withstand the weight of an SUV'. This sounds cool, but is not altogether necessary. I really liked that the outlets are mounted facing up, making for easy and solid connections. Finally, the Guardian requires a twenty-amp cable connection from the wall and, just like the proverbial batteries (and unlike the Furutech), it's not included.
Should any skeptics out there ever cry bullshit over the ability to hear how some components have a certain sound or change the sound of a system in a certain way, then I will immediately challenge them to listen to these two items. The e-TP80 is warm and cozy and instruments are full of body and tone. Bass is less about the transient snap of the string and more about the luxuriant woody reverberation of the body. Brass has lots of golden glow, though not a lot of air. Cymbals are all about shimmer and decay trails that last and last. The Furutech is a lushness filter, adding a beautiful aura of richness to everything that passes through.
The Shunyata Guardian is not lush. When I first plugged it in I thought it made music sound threadbare and slightly '80s digital,' but it didn't take long for it to convince me otherwise. The Guardian makes the noise floor melt away and what sounds like thinness is actually a razor sharp outline of instruments with tons of dynamic pop and top-end extension. The transparency of the Shunyata's is really amazing; there just isn't any background haze at all. I listened to John Mclaughlin's Extrapolation (Polydor Super 2310 018), and it never sounded clearer and cleaner; the steel strings on Mclaughlin's guitar sounded just right with great transient attack and a tight ringing tone. The Guardian was able to magnify the detail and structure of what was never the warmest of analogue recordings without causing it to sound bright or hard.
Because of the Shunyata's 'infinite void-black' background - the almost preternatural silence between the notes—small details come pouring through to the listener. Whether it was fingers sliding on guitar strings or Glenn Gould humming his way through the Goldberg Variations, it all combined to create the feeling of being closer to the event and an all around more immediate and vital sound. A sound that more readily mapped the sonic signature of each recording, and in doing so, made the differences between recordings more readily apparent. A great instance of this differentiation can be found in how the Guardian s allowed the acoustic signature of a particular recording venue to sound through, with all the ambient clues available in realizing the space around the performers. For example Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio CD Live at the River East Art Center (Delmark DE-566) is a very (a) live recording with the crowd literally buzzing around me. The performers are described in individual space and the instruments and all their overtones sing through the mix. The bass in the opening track fairly thunders, and the plucked and bowed strings are beautifully presented and distinct with wonderful transients and micro-tonal detail. On the same recording, the Furutech, with its much warmer sound and more greyish backdrop, tends to emphasize the instruments' body at the expense of detail. The crowd is reduced to a polite background murmur. On recording after recording, the Furutech tended to impose its warm sonic signature on recordings, making them sound similar—a pleasant rather than strictly accurate sound.
Both conditioners allowed images a wide and deep soundstage to play in (the Furutech's stage seemed a little deeper in comparison), yet the Shunyata's clarity described images in greater detail no matter where they appeared. As I said earlier, the Shunyata cuts image outlines with a razor and no matter how complicated the music becomes, they stay separated in space. Orchestral recordings really highlight the Shunyata's strength here in how when the entire brass section comes online the individual instruments stay clear of one another with their timbres distinct. Each individual image/instrument and the sound/timbre are more of a piece, more tightly wound together and coherent, and this imbues instruments with a very distinct physical and more 'real' presence. The Furutech has a clear midrange, but tends to muddle lower frequencies together. The softer top tended to take the bite out of violins and brass and make them sound similar.
Non-audiophiles will freak out when I say this, but just like any other component, a power product has to be listened to and evaluated within the context of an entire system. The Guardian really allowed my components to take on distinct personalities because of the crystalline clarity and deep black backgrounds that locked into place once it was plugged in. The gains in top-end extension, and across the board detail retrieval, were nothing short of spectacular. Overall the Guardian made my music seem much more real, with a tangible sense of immediacy or 'you are thereness'. Does this make the Furutech bad? The short answer is no. The Furutech is a good product and is perhaps at home in a more tonally thin system where it's extra timbral girth would be welcome. In my tube-based system, the e-TP80 is just too much of a good thing. I've used the Furutech to power my Sony flatscreen, and it did great things to the colour (deepened) and clarity of the picture; maybe its perfect spot is in a home theatre setup, powering a multi-channel solid-state rig that could use a little lushness.
Shunyata has indeed placed a lot of value in the SUV defying box of the Guardian. It's an ear-opener of the first order and a steal at the price, just make sure that what you plug into it can stand the scrutiny of the crystal clear musical world it makes a reality. Graham Abbott