High end audio is one of those hobbies where there are a seemingly endless number of tweaks and refinements one can add to an existing stereo system, presumably to make it sound better. Who hasn't played around with isolation pucks or cables at some point or another? But often critics of audiophilia start out with probing questions which lead ultimately to, "How do you know you are hearing anything different (from that additional tweak), and/or if so, what makes that difference good vs. just different?" This is something I've often wrestled with as an engineer, over the last few decades. Why? Because audio quality, like clothing styles, is most often valued in the context of the time or period it or they are first discovered and used, like bell-bottom jeans from the late 1960s. As times come and go, so does the degree to which a given tweak or enhancement is taken seriously. First, Noel Lee at Monster Cable made a business of better speaker wires (1980) that looked beefy and actually sounded better than lamp cord—a perennial favorite of audiophiles. Then (1986) it came to light that the quality of the AC mains power could be treated and enhanced; producing a more faithful audio illusion through a high end stereo reproduction chain. This entailed using networks of capacitors, inductors, transformers, and other basic active and passive electronic circuits to smooth out noise, ripple, correct over- and under-voltages, spikes, and any other deleterious effects that could be added or subtracted from the pure 50 or 60 cycles,120 and 240 Volt alternating current (or AC) found throughout the world. In certain cases, the use of a battery power supply (pure Direct Current or DC) was deemed ideal for total isolation from the outside world; quite frankly, a bit difficult in practice to produce reliably for every component in a full system, particularly amplifiers because of there high current demands.
One of the first of these tweaky devices which got my attention was the George Tice Power Block (and companion Tice Titan—60 pounds, each—quite formidable) of which I had read a review in Stereophile magazine. Apparently, by plugging all of one's audio gear through this filtration / regeneration system, pure power 60Hz 120 Volt power would be delivered to each and every component; revealing previously hidden or otherwise distorted qualities found in everyone's favorite audio gems that now shown clean and clear as the most transparent view of the night's sky imaginable. At the time, I was lucky to know a friend who worked at Robert's Audio of New London, Connecticut. One lovely warm evening in June, after working rehearsals at my father's Connecticut Early Music Festival (CEMF)—a yearly concert series for which I was involved as a page tuner, harpsichord tuner, publicity photographer, and assistant recording engineer—I went down after hours to visit my friend and have a close listen to Tice's unique offerings. I wondered what a close comparison with and without the Power Block feeding an entire system would reveal about the sound quality, particularly of some of the recording sessions from CEMF I was helping to create. The speakers I choose were the Apogee Duetta, a beautiful Ribbon speaker capable of incredible sonic nuance and enormous soundstaging, especially when powered by Threshold or Jeff Rowland Design Group. As the day's live musical events gave way to mere electronic memories sourced from CD, LP, and a special edition Nakamichi / Sony F1 Digital Recording System (with Black Nakamichi / Sony companion ½" Betamax Cassette Deck—our digital recording rig at CEMF) it became clearer and clearer that George Tice had done his homework, listened carefully, and created a new way of securing clean power; isolating one's audio from everything else without resorting to buying a separate Sylvania Nuclear Fusion Reactor or at least a substation, thereof.
For all this cost and fuss (and size and weight of a pair of amps), the difference with and without the Tice Power Block was striking and favorable; especially with well known recordings from Decca, Mercury, RCA, Columbia, and Telarc—the usual suspects: a layer of glare, grain, a veil of noise, some grit, irritation, false texture, slight coloration, electronic artifice, constriction in dynamics… call it what you will, that which had been otherwise impinging on the musical reproduction, was now gone! With well recorded large scale orchestral works like Carl Orff's Carmina Burana on Telarc LP & CD80056, the bass drum located at the back of the orchestra went from sounding big, flat and close up to a much tighter, rounder, more defined and farther away, spatially integrated, single instrument in perspective with the hall sound of the room. Now, the qualities I associate with the bass drum (in an actual live setting with orchestra in a good sounding hall) include precise pitch, tautness of mallet impact, openness of the acoustical dynamic envelope, and clarity of the ambient tail of the room decay, given a well chosen location to listen in the room. This is also true for all other musical instruments, but the bass drum is particularly easy to single out and concentrate on, making it a pleasure to hear small but significant changes in audio presentation. Another great instrument for this sort of comparison is solo brass like trumpet, French horn, and trombone or ophicleida (less so the tuba); the brassy refined qualities associated with a brilliant embouchure are easily changed and contaminated by any stray noise found in the incoming power or generated as a result of interactions between components. Once that noise and interaction have been eliminated, the resulting audio reproduction is far more realistic sounding and less electronic; like a virtual 3D hologram of sound rather than a Stereo reproduction through artificial means.
That was 1986, and who among the 'philes hasn't heard about or experimented with some kind of power filter or power enhancement in the last 31 years? I personally have played around with dozens of brands and designs in that time that have focused on improving AC quality specifically for the betterment of the reproduction experience. Some worked, some sounded different, some didn't do diddly. And I decided in 1988 that the area of voltage sag (under voltage of 117 volts) could be compensated for by an Audio Advisor tweaked-out Tripplite automatic voltage regulator with an AudioQuest Ruby speaker cable substituted for the AC cord. Also, the line noise suppression could be handled by an Adcom AC-515 power center, with timed switched outlets and low and high current sockets dedicated to amps. Everything in my audio and video system was hooked up to this pairing. And I could see the voltage compensation in action on the Tripplite's meter in addition to hearing it click-over to a higher or lower winding on the transformer, every so often. There was a noticeable improvement when the amps got full voltage and current; the sound becoming more free from the speaker locations, particularly during loud and congested musical passages. And the Adcom seemed to eat up a hashy combination of noise and grit, perhaps at the expense of some ambiance retrieval. This was not in the same category of improvement as the Tice Blocks but also didn't cost more than a fraction of those Titans.
Soon after, I began working as a professional recording engineer, first at Bob Katz's Digital Domain and then at Chesky Records as an engineer and soon producer. I continued to use the Tripplite/Adcom combination. Yet soon realized the bevy of possibilities that were becoming available and for which I had a suitably central position of sound responsibility that allowed me to request review samples for evaluation and potential use in our recording and playback chains. The first that comes to mind was the Counterpoint Electronics Alternating Current Line Filters (Low & High Current Models) of 1990 – 1991 which were designed to do everything the Tice Blocks were except without the voltage regulation via secondary windings. Instead, a network of inductors, capacitors, and a transformer were used to isolate the incoming 60 Hz 120 Volt signal and free it of noise and interactive anomalies. The Low Current model was "tuned" by their engineers to work with line level components and sources like tape, LP, CD, and LD or Cable/Sat. while the High Current model was supposed to be used with amplifiers for unrestricted dynamics, free from artificial constraints. Naturally, during my evaluation I thought, "What would be the result of using these AC noise suppressors in the power train of the recording systems?" And when I suggested the same to David Chesky, he whole heartedly endorsed my experimenting to determine any possible improvements to the great transparency we were already producing. We even made some test recordings that wound up on the Chesky Records Sampler 1993, conclusively proving we could effect the sound… both positively and negatively based on the quality of the incoming power and the entire nature of the supply chain for each component.
By 1994, I started my own label, Epiphany Recording Ltd. When the dust cleared, I had chosen to record audio using only batteries, specially chosen to drive my unique First Person Perspective (FPP) microphone array, the microphone's preamp, and the High Resolution 960/32 analog-to-digital converter which fed a glass optical disk computer storage system (ODM). Based on experiments, batteries produced the most transparent and realistic sounding recordings out in the field, especially with each device in the recording chain hand matched to it's power requirements. And… the full size playback system (located in a control room nearby to each recording session) was powered via several UPS (uninterruptible power supplies), one feeding each component—we put all of them in a separate room because they made such a ruckus. By floating the entire playback system's electrical and grounding requirements on these UPS, I achieved some of the lowest noise and distortion figures in our 140+ year old industry. My point was to assemble a capture and replay system that inherently added as little noise and distortion to the experience as possible… making it sound "Like You're There"—a Time Machine, providing the Virtual Reality sound design that we are coming to take for granted, today.
Need I also mention the many power cords and accessories that I played with along the last 23 years of engineering albums for my label and others, such as power plugs by Furutech and Oyaide, wire by Cardas and Skogrand, 4% and 8% silver soldier, isolation suspenders by Solid-TECH, and contact conditioners from Cardas and Caig that also contribute to better sound through carefully tuning each and every part of a system, particularly the incoming power from the street. At some point, I approached some colleagues who worked for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California about their thoughts regarding the audibility of these various alternative approaches and tweaks, they initially laughed. But after pressing them a bit, they confided that many often strange and seemingly unscientific adjustments contribute to the idealized operation of any electrical circuit, particularly when the human component is at both ends of the perceptual chain. Something as simple as the quality of the Romex 10-3 wire in a house or office's walls could potential alter the final sound quality one heard coming from the speakers; sometimes in very noticeable and measurable ways such as harmonic resonances of the power supply frequency (60 or 50 Hz). Well what does one do if you need better than what's coming out of the wall power?
My solution? Since I was engineer my first Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS) Trinity Mastering Facility (built 2003 – 2007), I contacted George Cardas to commission a special solid core 5/9N 10-3 Solid Core Romex created through experiment and voicing to achieve the best sonic results given the goal and choice of test gear. Furthermore, each audio (and video) component in my 4k mastering, viewing, and presentation facility came to be on it's own dedicated 40-amp circuit… with all the analog components on a separate feed of 13,800 Volts from the power plant fed road distributed power and likewise the digital components, also on their own dedicated 13.8kVa service with everything separately and individually configured using differential balancing transformers to create +/- 240 & 120 alternating current as required. You can see in the accompanying photos the degrees to which I felt it was necessary and desirable to "Pullout All the Stops" and explore the heights of pure power and refine it's ultimate role and delivery in our personal enjoyment of music and video.
Suffice it to say, I've gone down and continue to navigate the many obscure and unheard of roads and avenues when it comes to supplying power to any AV gear, particularly when it is associated with a recording situation where everything must be captured perfectly! With that much at stake, I still experiment regularly to see what will improve things even with all that I've learned and employ judiciously. The use of better fuses, for example revealed itself back in 2006 when there were a total of 96 McIntosh amplifiers powering the largest Trinity system we assembled, here. And the difference achieved just by switching out the stock slow-blow 20 cent fuses for HiFi Tuning Silver $25 (and later Supreme $50) fuses was large, striking, and tangible—imagine … a fuse designed from the perspective of creating the best sound possible with the best technologies available. Even today (2017), with a much smaller two-channel mastering system currently in that same amazing KSS $6M room for album production, I recently substituted a pair of Bernd Ahn's HiFi Tuning Supreme fuses in the Mid/Tweeter section of a par of Magnepan 1.7i I have on loan for review. And these thrilling realistic quasi-ribbon speakers got even better by a significant amount.
At the same time that I requested the HiFi-Tuning Supreme fuses to go in the Magnepan 1.7i speakers, Bernd mentioned his latest creation: the Supreme³ Silver Edition Reference Electrical Power Harmonizer, which he said uses resonators, multi-level RF filters and the finest materials/components available to absorb and eliminate a) switching and communication signals, b) radio frequency interference, c) common mode interference, d) offset interference, e) mains voltage fluctuations (glitches), and f) Earth interference. That would be just fine IF … one actually plugged their gear into the Harmonizer. But instead, the Harmonizer is plugged into the same outlet as the other AV gear you use, and it simply and passively removes all the apparent noise and harmonic aberrations / colorations in the line current, caused by electrical interference and interactions from component to component and leak-through from your favorite appliances. What What... WHAT? All that seems like a bunch of Snake Oil because few audio engineers want to admit that their gear can and is effected by minute changes in the 60 Hz 120 Volt (really 117 in USA) power feed, so much so that on highly resolving systems cleaning it up makes a big sonic improvement. Until you plug the Harmonizer in and witness a pretty substantial reduction in glare and grain with a commensurate increase in tactility and spatiality that clearly improves if not transforms the ambiance and detail recovery associated with the size and shape of each recording's soundstage, you will never believe the level of sonic improvement possible from simply plugging in a well tuned passive load. That's right, I said plugging the HiFi-Tuning Harmonizer into an AC outlet with other HiFi Audio Gear produces an immediate difference in sound quality wherein any glare and grain found in just about every recording simply disappears... revealing a vastly larger and more individually populated soundstage that images with noticeably vaster proportions than I've ever heard before!
Why should this be? Let's begin with the fact that even when a piece of gear is highly regulated, with even triple or quadruple redundant filtration and capacitor isolation, it can still be effected by the exact quality of the AC feed since that is essentially the life's blood of the system. The alternating current IS the signal we are recording, editing, storing, and ultimately playing back and transforming from a very small voltage to a very large one that powers our speakers or headphones. Is it any wonder that no matter how hard we work to engineer out imperfection it is a constant battle unless one just gets it right and leaves it alone; an unlikely outcome especially where a hobby or profession are concerned and changes to technology are inevitable. So, of course, plugging in another load to the same outlet is going to effect the exact quality of the AC feed powering any devices on the outlet. The real question is how is it effected. And how can one manipulate and control the interactions so that they dropout of the overall picture? Back at JPL years ago, my colleagues experimented with both active and passive power conditioning to determine the level at which such additions to highly respected power supply designs might still be improved upon. Given the level of interactivity that they found, particularly in real time, it seems almost ridiculous to think any passive load could be so effective quelling a level of noise that is simply taken for granted in most AV reproduction. And although their have been some other devices that purport to draw noise away from your system when connected to the same outlet, the HiFi-Tuning Harmonizer represents as fully realized a concept for passive AC tempering as the Tice Power Block did 31 years ago with active voltage and current regulation.
What I heard, again and again, has been a bit staggering. With song after song and album upon album, the plugging in of the HiFi-Tuning Harmonizer to the same outlet as the gear I was listening to made a repeatable and respectable improvement in the areas of resolution, precision, slam, impact, tonality, soundstaging, dynamics, and even the silence between tunes. Quite literally everything about the presentation becomes more cohesive and focused, where the leading and trailing edges of percussion instruments take up specific locations out in the soundstage with believably amounts or air clearly audible around and between instrumentalists (given such a recording). Indeed, such small and seemingly meaningless sounds as the scuffle of a foot against a chair in certain concert recordings makes it all the more abundantly clear how hidden noise pervades the recording and reproduction chain and can obscure the true audio fidelity inherent in a great album. This should also draw attention to how quiet our listening rooms actual are. For example, the above improvements in sound created through the use of the Harmonizer (or other active or passive tweaks) are far more difficult to hear in a noisy listening environment. But grain and glare are still easily heard on loud passages and here the Harmonizer again made a clean sweep of what sometimes can be unlistenable amounts of over-modulation during the loudest portions of a recording. In this regard, recordings that were a flat wall of sound without the Harmonizer suddenly were thrown into sharp three dimensionality with a clear ease of presentation that allowed for relaxed immersive enjoyment with no sense of fatigue, whatsoever. Tall praise for a device that just sits there. But what happens while it sits there is simply amazing!!!
What I hope you've taken away from this anecdotal history of playing with power is a profound appreciation that, given the desire to improve things, a little tweaking can be well worthwhile. And that a powerful area of influence over sound fidelity is the quality of the AC power feeding one's STEREO (or surround sound) system. Anything that can improve your listening experience is worth trying as an experiment. Be inquisitive by trying something new, even if it is just a different outlet or power cord every once and a while. You may be surprised to hear worthwhile improvements simply by rearranging the orientation of the gear in your rack. Or by adding vibration dampers under each component. And so it is not surprising that several brands now offer these proximate (location based) improvements (and tweaks) that work just by having them in the same room as your gear. Again, some of these work, and some only purport to work. But many of them might not be audible in your system because of a noisy environment. So don't assume something does or doesn't have any effect until YOU have tried it for yourself in YOUR system. I encourage you to take your favorite albums and listen at length while making some selected changes. And starting with the power coming from the wall is as good a place as any. Enjoy!
Jeremy R. Kipnis is a Producer, Director, Tonmeister, and Impresario. His heritage includes four generations of musicians and conductors. Working for various record companies, including Columbia, RCA, Nonesuch, Decca, Chesky, and his own label, Epiphany Recordings Ltd, he has been responsible for more than 500 award winning albums, LPs, SACD, and Compact Discs. His passion for photography led him to study briefly with Ansel Adams and Youssef Karsh. And his love for movies and television led him to design and create the Ultimate Home Cinema in the world, known variously as the $6 Million Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS)™. In addition to creating new cutting edge ultra immersive audio & video suites, Kipnis researches and reports on many topics in his three monthly columns, as seen in The High Fidelity Report, Widescreen Review, The Stereo Times, Enjoy The Music, and Positive Feedback magazines.
Kipnis Studios (KSS)™ – www.JeremyKipnis.com
Epiphany Recordings Ltd. – www.EpiphanyRecordingsLtd.com - New CD Album
The Review System (at Kipnis Studios & Epiphany Recordings Ltd.)
(items in italics are on loan from the manufacturer)
- PS Audio PowerWave DAC II (with Bridge Card)
- Theta Digital Generation VIII DAC (Mk. 4 updates)
- Ultra-Analog A/D D/A (Custom 960 kHz Pro Tools Recording System)
- iFi Nano DSD & PCM Portable & Self Powered D/A Converter System w/ 3.5mm Headphone and SPDIF Output
- iFi Micro iDSD 768 8x DSD DAC & Headphone Amp
- Mark Levinson No. 51 DVD-A Transport
- Mark Levinson No. 37 CD Transport
- Macbook Pro 17" 2.5 GHz Intel Core i7 w/ 8 GB 1333 MHZ DDR3 / 10.8.3 OS
- Sony PlayStation 3 – Gen. 1 (SACD Playback via HDMI w/no transcode)
- Audirvana Plus 3.1 (Stand Alone Memory Music Player for MAC)
- Pure Music 3.0.6 / Pure Vinyl Recorder (LP High-Rez Remastering System & Memory player for iTunes)
- Twisted Wave Logic Express 9.2 Soundtrack Pro – Adobe Audition CS6 (Digital Audio Editor)
- Audacity Sonic Visualizer – AudioLeak (Digital Audio Analyzers)
- ELP Laser Turntable (Custom Line-Level Output Cards w/ RIAA Correction)
- Pioneer LaserDisc CLD-99
- Technics SP-15 / SME 3009 Mk. 3 Arm / Shure V15-MRx Cartridge
- Pioneer RT-909 2- track & 4-track Stereo Reel-to-Reel Player
PREAMP / VOLUME Controls
- Melos SHA-Gold Tube Preamp / Headphone Amplifier
- Audible Illusions Tube Preamp / Phono Stage
- Ultimate Attenuators (x2) – (31-step Laser Matched Resistors w/ Penny & Giles) - Balanced & Unbalanced Versions
- Crown Macro Reference (x2) – Class A Modified
- Carver VTA20S Tube (x2) (Pair running in Stereo & Bridged Mono)
- Mesa Boogie - BARON Stereo Tube Amplifier (with adjustable feedback and variable Triode-to-Pentode performance)
- McIntosh MC2102 Stereo or Mono (x2) & MC2301 Monoblock (x2) Tube Amps
- Mark Levinson No. 33H Monoblock (x2)
- Digital Amplification Company – 60 Volt KING Maraschino Cherry Mono Blocks
- iFi Audio Micro iCan - Dedicated Adjustable Headphone Amplifier with Spatial Holographic Adjustment Algorithms
- Magnepan 1.7i 3-way Quasi-Ribbon Loudspeakers
- CERATEC Effeqt Mk. IV Loudspeakers
- Symdex Epsilon 3-Way Loudspeakers (Built in 1993 by Kevin Voecks and Leeland Wallace in Gloucester, Massachusetts - USA) w/ Subwoofer (self Powered 12"): Cambridge Soundworks (x4)
- Ologe ZERO 2-way Loudspeakers
- Ologe ONE 2-way Loudspeakers
- Ologe FIVE 2-way Loudspeakers
- Ologe TEN 3-way Loudspeakers
- Snell Music & Cinema (M&C) Reference Full Range 4-way Tower Loudspeakers
- Snell Music & Cinema (M&C) Reference SUB-1800 (18") Passive Subwoofer (x4)
- Waterfall Audio VICTORIA Evo Glass Loudspeakers
- Waterfall Audio ELORA Evo Glass Loudspeakers
- Waterfall Audio HURRICANE Evo Glass Loudspeakers
- Waterfall Audio HF-250 SUBWOOFER Loudspeaker Addition
- Bryston Stereo Subwoofer Crossover (x2)
INTERCONNECTS, WIRES & CABLES
- Skogrand 421 Markarian Speaker Cables & Interconnects (Balanced & Unbalanced)
- LessLoss DFPC Power Cords (x5)
- Cardas Golden V, Neutral, Micro-Twin, and Clear Cables, Interconnects, Power Cords, Digital Connections, Microphone Cables
- AudioQuest Ruby Speaker Cables & Interconnects, Glass Optical and HDMI Cables
- Monster Cables M1 & M1000 Speaker & Interconnect, Pro 500 Microphone Cables
- Mapleshade 1st Generation Experimental Speaker, Interconnect, and Digital Wires
- Straight Wire, Kimber, Goldmund, Nordost, Sony, Panasonic, Radio Shack, etc.
- iFi Audio II Gemini Split USB Cable
TWEAKS and ACCESSORIES
- Magic Hexa Vibration Control Feet - 4 feet (x2)
- Solid Tech Rack of Silence w/ Feet of Silence & Discs of Silence (x5)
- Auralex 4" Studio Wedge Foam 2' x 2' Panels (x6)
- RPG Skycloud Diffuser (x4)
- ASC Special SQUARE Tube Traps (x2)
- DIRAC Live Room Calibration Kit
- Equitech 100 KVa Balancing Transformer (x2 : separate Digital and Analog services)
- iFi Audio iPurifier (USB Filter - Signal Regenerator)
- HiFi-Tuning: Supreme³ Silver Edition Reference Electrical Power Harmonizer