FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 30
From Clark Johnsen’s Diaries: More Power to the Music (With
[Editor's note: This essay (presented here in revised but not updated form) was first published in Positive Feedback Vol.7 #6 in 1998. Clark's attention was drawn to it by a poster on Audio Asylum who had just acquired the back issue and who remarked that it seems as appropriate today as it must have been nine years ago. Indeed so, and more; now we're proud to have it online.]
In the annals of audio the name of who first reported that AC supply elements make an enormous difference in sound escapes me. Whoever it was, they certainly do; that is, generators, transmission lines, transformers, circuit breakers, house wire, sockets, plugs, cheaters, cords, fuses, fuseholders and anything else situated between the source and the draw. All contribute mightily to sound.
Inductive and capacitive coupling figure in too. I.e. anything radiating in the vicinity: Ham radios, computers, televisions, telephones, toasters. And even further out (I argue), sunspots. (Remember Enid Lumley writing about this stuff in the early Eighties and the drubbing she took?) Not to neglect items around the house, such as acrylic carpet. All these affect the sound.
But no one knows how, exactly. Science falters—indeed, weeps—at the very concept that such stuff can be heard. The "skeptics" and "academics," so cozy with each other, may scoff and scorn and mock, yet do withdraw, when requested to listen for themselves. "I'll listen when you show me some peer-reviewed reputably-published double-blind tests that demonstrate your point, Mr. Johnsen," they sneer in parting. Well! With that chilly attitude who would dare try to tell them that some one item in audio sounds better than another? Thus is the stage set for rampant speculation—and radical improvement!
To my knowledge no one has written or outlined (or even, besides myself, proposed) the requisite systematic and scholarly study of every department in audio. In the days when I was a systems engineer for space camera projects, we broke the design down into various departments – optical, mechanical, thermal, electrical etc. Then we identified the various contributors to design performance and assigned to each a likelihood of its affecting the outcome (the resolution spec, usually). The process becomes a sort of triage, with the likeliest being more fully explored, the bottom third being ignored, for the moment anyway.
Then came the task of assessing each contributor's exact effect on the resolution, a tricky step that later expands into an iterative process. But at least the whole problem has been grasped by someone (the systems engineer) who keeps a skillful eye open, even if he himself hasn't the slightest notion how to design a lens or build a mount or land on Mars.
Would there were a systems engineering department in audio! Any progress so far must be credited to what was once known as "vest-pocket engineering," where guys get together and trade information jotted down on slips of paper. A noble tradition, that! But high time now to move on, and no facet of audio demands concerted attention like the AC area, because equipment with even the stiffest, the most vaunted "power supplies" is susceptible to undeniable and totally unexplained sonic improvements from use of specialty power cords.
At this juncture a summary historical review may be helpful. (Some day I must write a History of Wire.) In olden times we simply installed dedicated lines from our panel boxes, a movement spearheaded by Harry Pearson. Next we acquired ferrite rings for RF suppression. Circa 1987 (the memory fades) Ed Meitner brought me a heavy-duty Elgar isolation transformer of which I eventually had three. Then along came George Tice, and it's never been the same since. An astonishing variety of "series conditioners" (so-called, meaning in-line) appeared on the market, with older units continuously updated.
Later Richard Marsh introduced his MIT Z-Stabilizer and then came my own discovery of USES™ technology which became embodied as the superior Seakay LineRover; both were "parallel conditioners," and others soon followed. These represented a distinct improvement over in-line transformer-based designs, on which many listeners had begun hearing flaws, notably in the bass.
I ended up tossing my Elgars and using only the LineRover with Bill Seneca's transformerless in-line Promethean Power-Flo for low-draw units. Meanwhile the popularity of Tice-style units, even for amplifiers, rose unabated.
Around that time too digital was recognized as a very different beast that must be separated from analog both physically and electrically, so in 1991 came Larry Smith's PAC-IDOS to show us that digital even needs a separate ground. (Proper grounding constitutes a topic unto itself.)
And what cords?
Throughout the above events almost everyone still used stock cords, generally Beldens of indifferent descript. It was the late, difficult Sal DiMicco who introduced specialty power cords to an unexpectant world circa 1987. It had been an accidental discovery. After moving his air conditioner to the basement workshop, Sal found he lacked a heavy-duty extension cord. Eyeing a reel of his speaker cable, he wired it up and immediately heard that his Carrier was operating quieter. Upon reflection he did the same trick on his amplifiers, and voila! The DisTech PowerBridge was born, sold at the then-outrageous price of $100, followed by the double-run PowerBridge II for $200. ("Crap! 1 can go to Sears and get a cord for $2.99. What a ripoff!") Within months everyone I knew had converted to those bulky, bully things. The phenomenon was somewhat tardy catching on nationwide, but by the time it did I was equipped with five different items from three manufacturers and two amateurs.
Totally smitten with cords from the start, I waited for the high-end press to discover their salutary effects, greater than from most black-box conditioners. Several years passed before the first review appeared (in TAS), nor did that exactly open the floodgates, and by then poor Sal had died anyway. Indeed, to this day I cannot recall a feature article in market-leader Stereophile; the attitude seems to be, not unreasonably, "We review just what the manufacturers send." Yes, but what about your readers, gentlemen? Are they to be deprived of knowledge simply because of an arbitrary rule?
(Although sometimes readers don't want to know! An unhappy episode illustrates the publishers' dilemma. In June 1998 Fi printed a lukewarm review of the Audio Research CD-2 player as supplied with two cords, ARC having turned a new leaf after long remonstrating against such silliness. But then Wayne Garcia substituted an ESP cord and, "Oh, Sweet Relief!... Never before had my perception of a component's musicality been so radically transformed by a power cable—or any cable, for that matter... With the ESP cord the CD-2 was a knockout... Altogether an astonishing transformation." What William Z. Johnson had to say about that backhanded ovation has not come down to us, but we do know what one reader thought (in August): "I don't think you should have to 'audition' power cords for a $3500 CD player. Wayne Garcia should have given a negative review... instead of turning it into a positive review... This is how credibility is lost." Well! But Fi stuck manfully by its guns and was reader-vindicated in October, 1998: "The second... power cord completely changed the sound of my system. I am amazed at the drastic difference this swap made. I'm unable to understand the reasons... but I am thrilled with it... That is why I subscribe to Fi. [In] your competitors I would still be searching for the answer to my 'feeling' that my system was missing something.")
The opposing argument goes, among smartypants scoffers, that with all that Romex in the walls, not to mention miles and miles of wire outdoors, how could five or six feet more of anything make any possible difference? This plausible but unproven contention rests easy in AES and academic circles despite overwhelming listener testimony to the contrary.
Take heed, O Mensch
What really is happening? One explanation: Perhaps the best cords are passing some favorable current that the Beldens are strangling. Or, perhaps they're barring the garbage picked up by the world's largest antenna farm. Some of both? A conundrum!
On another tack, in 1991 John Bicht introduced his Versalab Red Roller/Wood Block AC combo, which proved effective when utilized throughout a whole system, although that could get expensive. These made no claim other than to remove (or greatly reduce) systemwide RFI/EMI pickup and showed us how greatly such contamination contributes to sonic degradation. While the latest AC cord designs have mostly eclipsed the Versalab, these are still very useful for captive cords.
Today I remain convinced that power cords exercise a more powerful influence on sound than any other AC device, indeed more that anything else one may do. (Seismic isolation and CD "tweaking" run close behind.) "Do not underestimate," Marty DeWulf wrote in Bound for Sound, "the profound impact that an AC cord (and proper AC filtering) can have on the sound of a system."
And while one must compliment Synergistic Research for bringing its Master Coupler ($240) first to popular attention, the topflight cord today [1998, still], the industry standard in my experience is the NBS Statement ($3000). I'll never forget the day Steve Klein (Sounds of Silence) brought over the lesser, $1800 model. My brother-in-ears Kwame Ofori-Asante was present and we all agreed, when used with a modest ($1000) Jolida amp, the transformation was amazing. I asked Kwame, "Can you name an amp for $2800 that you think sounds better?" "I cannot, Clark, but I would never pay $1800 for an AC cord!" "Well then, how about this? Would you pay $1800 for the amp and $1000 for the cord?" Yes! We all had a good laugh.
An oft-repeated assertion of mine goes like this: Interconnects and speaker cables have reached a developmental plateau, whereas AC cords are the new kit on the block and constitute wide-open investigative territory. While that latter claim remains true, many audiophiles remain unaware of, or skeptical about, the enormous improvements that cords can wrest from electronics. But listen: For any given number of dollars, no other upgrade can be had to compare with AC supply enhancement, and today, presently, that means cords especially. God only knows why.
Now to the promised Peroration.
(WARNING to readers with tender sensibilities: Use this opportunity now to escape. From here on out, I shall not be responsible for what you see.)
(DISCLAIMER: I do not speak here of my dear friends in the audio community; you know who you are, so please, no offense.)
Those already familiar with my often unpleasant views may guess whom I am about to blame for widespread and continuing ignorance about the AC Zone. Yes: Retailers, reviewers and designers. Riffraff!
Case by horrid case:
Retailers: Skanky lowlifes who wish no one to suppose that audio be anything but a turnkey technology, sonic quality being purely a function of expenditure. Just plug that brand new unit into your other cool stuff with the wires provided and be happy, very happy. Could anything be simpler? Achieve your dreams with minimal effort. Take it home, try it, you'll like it. And buy it. And if your male friends ooh-and-ahh over the faceplate, well, buddy, you're in Heaven. Yet despite recent progress in wire, AC cords still have not been entered upon the A-team dealers' high-end docket of desire. Which, couched in primordial terms, is this: To sell a Krell.
Reviewers: Arrogant jerks who reinforce the retailers on that turnkey thing. Otherwise their whole schtick would be undermined, and magazine subscription lists grimly downsized, if readers comprehended that what they can do for themselves greatly outweighs whatever betterment expensive new gear (that ad budget!) can provide. Reviewers play along with the entire charade. Even the most elaborate, lengthy write-ups in TAS, Stereophile and Audio largely (willfully?) omit what AC cords can do, not to mention the beneficial aspects of vibration isolation and a host of other press-marginalized aftermarket improvements. As Joe Roberts once wrote in Sound Practices, "The agenda-setting power of narrowly-focused reviewers greatly constricts the field." Amen to that!
Designers: Sanctimonious blowhards who simultaneously suck up to the press for prestige and photo-ops. These types too live in daily denial of the indisputable benefits AC cords bring to their precious electronics and seismic isolation to anything mechanical. Get a handle, guys! Don't make the beset audiophile suffer further. Figure out what's going on and design around it! Designers are the real culprits and true poseurs of audio. Were they not laboring under the gloomy constraints of a gigantic hubris, we might already enjoy protection against whatever depredations the wall outlets and earth and air may provide. But, no. The vast majority of designers endure their wretched existence fully conditioned by received wisdom, which categorically states that none of this can be happening, especially not to them.
Was I too hard on the poor dears?
Whatever, we the alert elite are forced to improvise helter-skelter or to purchase often expensive aftermarket items to offset the blinkered incompetence of our so-called experts. Sad, the conventional high-end and professional/academic audio worlds. Sad, sad, sad. Pray that they may soon catch up to the real cognoscenti: Modern audio listeners and vigilant home experimenters.