ONLINE - ISSUE 6
Two-Headed Monster®: Signal Path and Power Conditioner
My surround-sound rig is made up of gear that matches the sentiment on the ancient Dudious family crest: Champagne taste, Chardonnay budget." You'll notice the family elders said "Chardonnay budget," not "Beer budget." We of the Dudious clan had our pretensions, even before we earned them. The trick, as I imagine it, was to scour the warehouses of the negotiants in Le Havre until my ancestors found the best quality wine at the lowest price. This took some expertise, plus the patience and time required to taste a great deal of wine. It also took a lot of savvy to find the best vin pour le franc and the skill to drive a hard but mutually agreeable bargain. It was at my grandpa's knee that I learned the surprise tactic of "the hard buy": "I'll take all you have of this Bordeaux, Michel Lynch, Sauvignon Blanc (2001) at your best price."
My ancestors must have run into Head Monster Noel Lee's ancestors somewhere along the line, because Monster® Cable's corporate slogan, "Advancing the Art of Listening," might as well be, "Lottsa bang for the buck." This is true of nearly every Monster product. One gets a whole lot of engineering built into every Monster, at every price point. Take their first product, the Original Monster Cable®, that copper-pink, oversized zip cord designed for better power handling and greater dynamics. It's been in their line for decades, since 1978. It looks simple, but is seductively engineered, moreso its lookalike, Monster XP®. If you are building an entry-level system for yourself, or a college-age person, XP is likely to do a fine job. If, on the other hand, you are building a Home Theatre Surround-Sound System, or an Audio Only Surround Rig, like mine, there are lots of choices to make, at many price points in the Monster M-series alone: six varieties of interconnect cables and five high-current speaker cables. You can read about these products, and the differences between them, at www.monstercable.com.
If you remember, I reported that my Polk LSi series speakers were a tad on the forgiving side, at least in my room. When I reminded my helpful Monster representative, Dan Graham, of my speakers' sonic profile, he said, "You need a somewhat presence-oriented set of cables." Soon, UPS was delivering a boxful of M550i half-meter interconnects so I could patch my Marantz 9200 multi-channel THX Ultra 2 receiver to my Marantz 8260 multi-channel SACD player. Similarly, Monster's M1.2S speaker cables connected my speakers to my receiver. I was tickled. Things were clearing up. A haze that I'd attributed to a hodge-podge of interconnects and cables had fallen away, like a couple, three of Salome's veils.
Usually, in voicing high end systems, the job is to take some of the brightness off, and since the "sweet" cable is usually the highest prized, it is the highest priced. In my case, the cables I needed were at the opposite end of the price continuum, so I got the double benefit of cables that not only alleviated the forgiving nature of my speakers, but cost only one step up from their least expensive products ($45/pr from Audio Advisor). This is fine with me. Prices depend on the series, length, and connectors (spade, pin, banana, etc.), so see the www.audioadvisor.com website. If you've been flirting with, say, a set of drop-dead-gorgeous silver interconnects that cost $Ks, you'll recognize the significant value-for-money involved here.
Monster's M1.2S speaker cables are also top performers that offer great value for money. They have won at least one award within the industryThe Golden Note Award from The Academy Advancing High Performance Audio and Video. It seems my whole system is made up of winners of industry awards or journalistic citations of excellence at their price points. That is the goal when your family crest reads like mine, though it can be misleading, since the industry has little to do at its annual meetings but grant each other awards. Cynicism aside, there are so many wire manufacturers that when one wins an award, it is usually a pretty good indicator of at least good, possibly great performance.
Here I was, with damn good (yeah, award-winning) speakers, electronics, and wires, yet I was just not getting the kind of clarity and detail I'd heard from similar systems with the same Polk speakers at the industry shows. It was then that I installed my rig's voltage stabilizer and audio conditioner, or more accurately, Monster's Home Theatre Reference Automatic Voltage Stabilizer, the AVS 2000. This is another piece in the line that has garnered industry awards, four of them in the one year it has been on the market. It is something. Built like a brick schoolhouse, the Voltage Stabilizer supplies 120 volts line current, even if the source varies anywhere from 80 volts to 140!?! A cute trick, and one worth the money to hear what gear can do when it is presented with a genuine 120 volts, not 117 nor 110, but 120 volts, every time, all the time.
Whether you live in the city close to a "pumping station," or in the country, miles from your electrical source, your current can shift. In the city, in the summer, when everyone comes home from work and clicks on air conditioning, plus all the electrical appliances to get dinner ready, whole neighborhoods can experience a voltage sag. Lighting dims and TV images shrink. One of my neighbors complains that each time his next-door neighbor's air-conditioning system surges, he, in a house with its own metered line, experiences what he laughingly calls "brown-out." Similarly, in rural towns, or in beach or lakefront summer places, far from the nearest electrical power source, naturally occurring phenomena (sun spots, heat lightning, electrical storms) can affect power distribution. These may only last for moments, or for a relatively long time. In either case, it is good to have a Monster AVS 2000 on your side. I thought I had it covered, living in a city, not far from a Gas & Electric Co. installation, but with the meter on the front of my AVS 2000 I can see that the voltage at the wall often drifts below 115 volts. It is a comfort to know the AVS 2000 won't allow the voltage to get too low, possibly harming my gear.
All of the household wiring in your walls, being at various lengths and at various angles, acts as a series of antennae. These pick up signals in and out of the audio band, including microwave transmissions of bank or hospital data, taxi communications, and cell phones. Sometimes, due to the height of cloud cover or accidents in the atmosphere, they can pick up AM radio, or TV soundtrack broadcasts, all of which are EMI or RF signals we perceive as distortion. I think I've had all of them at one time or other, like childhood diseases, except these don't go away or leave you with antibodies. They pile atop one another and meet at the fuse box sharing a common ground buss, so even if you've taken the trouble to install dedicated lines, there is no guarantee that they will adequately deal with all the problems.
The Monster Home Theatre Reference Power Center has non-resonant circuits to trap these RF and EMI signals and bleed them to ground. Not only does the Power Center isolate your system from external sources of AC crud, it also isolates your system's components from your computer, refrigerator, and other noise generators, as well as from your other components. Digital, video, low current, high current, each AC outlet gets special treatment from three discrete patented filter sections. Similarly, telephone in/out (for some cable TV systems with modem-based pay-per-view), and six "F"- type video connectors are protected. As newer parts become available and smaller, the Power Center incorporates the resultant circuit density into the latest models. For example, since I received my HTS 5100, it has been superseded by Monster's newer and, I'm told, more sophisticated HTPS7000. Who am I to question? They all sound great to me.
Monster AVS-2000 rear
The MSRP for the Monster AVS2000, as found on the Audio Advisor website, is $1495. At first that seemed like an awful lot of money, but when I thought of the price of my entire system, and my growing SACD surround-sound collection, it didn't seem like so much. When I noticed competing models selling for $2395 and $3995, I felt it might be a bargain. Similarly, the Monster HTPS7000 Power Conditioner at $1299. That seems to be about what comparatively priced pieces are selling for. Monster backs up their engineering with a $5,000,000 connected equipment guarantee, something like an insurance policy. See the user's guide for details. If they're so certain about their bulletproof design and quality control, their confidence is reassuring.
As numerous folks have reported, audio and video benefits from the use of a power conditioner in a number of ways. There is less low-level hash and noise, the absence of which makes the audio signal appear to arrive from a darker, inkier background, and video images from a cleaner, crisper screen. Details are heard and seen that were masked before. Tonal density (audio and video) is more saturated, and seems richer and more natural. Some folks think that the background becomes more grey, or less black, as it gets noisier. This is only a verbal approximation, but one with which many people identify. To me, it means that with an on-line conditioner reducing low-level noise, there is a greater potential for a given system to capture very subtle details, and these details make for greater clarity of perception. This, in turn, captures greater spatial cues, hence a more accurate approximation of the original recording venue's size and the placement of instruments and voices within that space. Listening through a power conditioner is like seeing photographs made with fine-grain, high-contrast films and paper. We see a higher degree of detail that suggests three-dimensionality. Our minds fill in the blanks, and interpret what we see (or hear) as greater dimensionality.
With a bunch of channels (five or seven) all playing at once, with the goal of creating a facsimile of a large acoustic venue, a power conditioner seems a necessity. I feel that way now that I've had mine around for some months. Any serious attempt to capture a really good facsimile of surround sound, with a large or small budget, should include a line item for power conditioning and voltage stabilizing. City or country, detached residence or condo, no one is immune to the crud that is riding on our AC lines. Anyone who hasn't a voltage regulator and a power conditioner in his/her system doesn't have good baseline data, and doesn't know what their system can do.
When I plugged my system into the Monster AVS-2000/HTS 5100 combination, I heard it as if for the first time. Everything improved, all at once. All the distortion I'd grown used to "listening through" diminished greatly, or totally disappeared. At last I could hear the surround-soundstage floating in the room, as if independent of any electromechanical equipment. The incredible soundfield I first heard at Chesky Records' mastering facility a few years ago was recreated, albeit on a lesser scale in my smaller and more difficult listening room. The performance potential of my surround-sound rig was finally realized.
Monster HTS 5100
Even Aristotle would have enjoyed conductor Donald Runnicles leading the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano, Stanford Olsen, tenor, and Earle Patriarco, baritone, and the Gwinnett Young Singers (Telarc SACD 60575) perform their astonishing reading of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. It is really a landmark performance, well recorded and engineered. The reproduction by my Polk/Marantz/Monster system makes the hairs at the back of my neck stand up. For what it's worth, so does the Flamingos reading of "I Only Have Eyes For You," on the copy of Doo Wop Classics (Rhino or Polygram 314 520259-2) I found in the cutout bins at Circuit City, not to mention most of the tunes on this album, none of which were recorded in surround sound.
At this moment, I find it hard to imagine other price-adjusted manufacturers' pieces outperforming this rig, but I've felt this way before, so I know I'll be surprised by some combination that will offer a more palpably liquid midrange, or more air in the halo that arises above the head of the conductor and shimmers the great white light of beatification. The Monster products were the missing links. My Monster interconnects, speaker cable, voltage regulator, and power conditioner became the straw that stirred the drink, the facilitators that enabled the other pieces to perform optimally. If you are about to embark on an audio-only surround sound rig, or a home theater system with a hi-rez TV monitor, you can't go wrong following my example. You can always upgrade (i.e., spend more) later. My surround sound rig has become a monster in the best sense, thanks to Monsters Dan Graham (in whose disco I left my heart), and the irrepressible J-10, a man for all seasons. Catch ya later.
Monster HTS 5100 rear
Monster Cable www.monstercable.com