The enthusiast's audio webzine

Adventures in power treatments – part 1

You don’t have to spend a long time among audiophiles before realizing that electricity, particularly the clean supply of sufficient electricity to power your components, is a topic of some interest. While most normal people can understand the value of surge protection for their home theaters or computers, with audiophiles the pursuit goes far beyond minimizing risks. We seek to reduce noise, recalibrate voltage and suppress electro-magnetic radiation. As with everything about specialist audio, there is a product for just about any desire, even categories of need you have yet to imagine (cable-elevators anyone?).

Several years ago, as part of some work I had done on the house, I requested the electrician run a dedicated 20A line from the breaker box to a pair of outlets in my living room which I would use for my audio set up. He looked somewhat bemused by the request, especially when I specified using hospital grade outlets, but naturally he took the money and completed the task. As I recall, it was not expensive (around $200, amid other jobs) and it made a subtle improvement to my listening pleasure. Of course, had I been a real fanatic, I could have installed further lines, specific wiring phases, extra treatments at the box end and more, but I was content with the results for the price and it ended arguments with others about putting money into gear while not feeding it properly. Of course, there are a host of people who say that no matter what a house-owner does, sitting at the end of miles of wire from the utility company means your last few meters or inches of pristine circuitry will offer little help. For such people any further treatment, beyond spike protection, is likely to be seen as money wasted, and I am sure the self-same folks never lose sleep over the power cords.

Obviously, not content to stop with a dedicated line, over the years I’ve tried various other add-ons to my power supply. Small spike protectors from Monster and Belkin gave way for quite a while to the Audio Wedge 116, picked up used on the recommendation of a dealer. This 12-outlet block of metal was a monster of a different kind, and remained between the wall and my entire rig for several years, improving the overall resolution of my system. I still have that Audio Wedge (and API still make them albeit in an upgraded form) and I use it happily in a second system where its less than attractive form and bulk prove won’t offend my significant other’s eyes. I suspect the “wedge” (as I call it) will outlast me and seems to have lost little of its general effectiveness with age. Still, what is an audiophile’s existence without the pangs to experience more? In response to this pang I moved on a decade or so ago to start a relationship with a product line that exists to this day, the PS Audio regenerators.

Now protection and filtering are certainly admirable goals for your audio system, assuming they are met without sonic compromise, but PS Audio promised something greater: the delivery of a perfectly formed new power supply that removes all the garbage that otherwise sits on the line. Yes, your very own clean power, generated in your listening room to a perfect 120v/60hz sine wave, as you need it. The earliest of these, the P300, came in a different-looking, curvy, elongated box with push buttons that enabled you to tweak settings up or down a little, or to select one of a variety of “multiwave” options for those who wanted to try the numerous preset alternatives. As you can imagine, a lively online community grew up reporting favored settings for different gear and from there, we never looked back, regeneration was it!

In due course, while I really admired the improvement wrought by the P300 in my rig, the intrusively loud fan (subject, as I recall, to a modification kit one could buy to lower the noise) and the limited outlets on the P300 gave way around 2005 to the Power Plant Premier (or PPP as it became known). More outlets, more power, better looking, and cooler-running, I traded up and used it happily to supply everything but my power amps for over five years until it pooped out one day (which may be a result of my stupidly shifting it on the shelf while in use and dislodging a power cord, though the attached component was fine). For those years I had run two different power amp set ups, a BAT VK500 and then Spectron Musician III Mk 2 monos, which I still use. I tried both power amp set ups on the PPP but the resulting fan noise that kicked in from the current draw proved too instrusive for me to tolerate in serious listening sessions so I moved the amps to the wall and have left them off the PS Audio with excellent results. Of course, when the PPP crashed, the cost of repair made trading up again to the newly released and further improved P5 line of power regenerator the more attractive option, and thus here I am, new P5 in my rig and enjoying the fruits of PS Audio’s constant push to provide quieter, clean power to audiophiles.

PS Audio PerfectWave Powerplant 5

Assuming the original P300 did what it was supposed to do, it’s difficult to see how the newer products can offer much more unless they are doing it quieter, more efficiently and with greater reliability. But could we not say that about most products in audio? I think this is the case with each generation of the regenerator. I can’t say I’ve done close enough listening in real time to compare them as I’ve always shipped the old one out before the new one came in, thus the newer insertion was really only comparable with listening without one, in which case it never failed to improve matters. Though I really liked the look of the PPP, I have come to enjoy the new P5, with its touchscreen front panel (dimmable if you find it disruptive) and its quieter operation. This one never gives me fan noise (but I’ve read reports from others who have not been so lucky). With it’s controlled start-up and shut down you can put different classes of components on particular outlet zones to ensure simple (and quiet) system shutdown with a single button push and avoid nasty noises on start up should the power amp try to come on before the CD player.

The latest generation offers a simplified set of options in one sense. The various multiwave settings that characterized the P300 are no more, the P5 offering only the standard setting and one multiwave option. The latter is claimed to extend the “peak charging time” of the sine wave and improve energy storage but since I’ve always run my turntable through the regenerators I do not use multiwave at all as it gives the motor palpitations, but I suppose I could switch easily enough between settings for digital or analog sources if I thought about it. Quick tests on my rig show no change to the sound on multiwave that I can possibly detect with my digital rig so I leave it off. I do occasionally use the cleanwave function, a degaussing option which is claimed to demagnetize your connected equipments’ transformers. Again, while some users report dramatic improvements, I’ve yet to really peg a benefit to this but being the audiophile I am, I see no harm in routinely running it in 10 second bursts between listening sessions, just in case.

If you think I am underutilizing the P5’s capabilities, you are probably right. I don’t even use the remote control which is so small I can never keep track of it but it does allow for cleanwave cycling from your listening chair if so inclined. I do not run my TV, DVD player or cable box through it but one certainly could connect the lot if so desired, including the cable box coaxial feed. I also make no use of the web-enabled tools that allow you to register your P5 with PS Audio and connect via the web for monitoring and controlling the power supply remotely — an advantage for those worrying if they switched their gear off when they left for vacation. I’m a man of rather simple needs, I just want to protect my gear and help it sound its best. And to be clear, this is what I feel the P5 does very well, it allows most of my gear to sound really good, and makes switching on and off simple.

The major sonic benefits of the P5 seem to me to be the easing of the musical presentation, a sort of quieting of background that might never before have seemed noisy and a cleaner articulation of small details. Cymbals are a bit more articulated, the all-important mid-range is a bit clearer, and the music just seems to come into greater relief. Unlike those who hear revelatory changes, I recognize the presentation as just a little more focused and pleasingly so. There is a little more space between instrumental lines, a longer decay on quietly struck keys or strings, the little details that capture attention seem to be more easily discerned. In combination, it’s difficult to give this up once you hear it, especially when you combine it with the protection it offers you against powerline nasties. But all told, it’s not a change in musical presentation so much as an increase in silence, the much mentioned blackness of background which really does seem darker with the P5 in the chain.

All good so far, and I’ve been happy with this latest version of the regenerator for months until I ran into a problem which I have not yet resolved. Returning from vacation and getting ready to power everything up I decided to experiment by putting the monoblocks on the P5 also. The results were not good. Rough, distorted, edgy on congested musical passages, the sound took a serious turn for the worse. When first connected I thought it was just the bass which was reduced and that upper-frequency resolution might even be increased. However, over several familiar albums, the initial change in reproduction went from potentially interesting to definitely irritating, and after a couple of days listening I determined that something really was not right. Bass was thin and on complex multi-instrumental music the reproduction became edgy and even distorted. I had no idea what was really happening but I knew I did not care for it and determined after close listening to take the amps off the P5 and seek some answers.

My first point of call was the PS Audio owners’ forum where I am grateful that PS Audio chief Paul McGowan is a regular contributor. I mentioned the problem there and it seemed I was one of the few people who had experienced any real negative sonic shift with power amps on the P5. Some folks said they heard no difference, one suggested the use of the multiwave function improved the amp’s sound but not the standard wave, and Paul himself thought that perhaps I just did not care for the sonic shift that resulted, though in fairness this response possibly had more to do with my original description of bass loss than anything else. I tried using multiwave but it had no effect that I could determine and the sound remained so poor with my monoblocks fed by the P5 that I had no choice but to remove the regenerator from use with these.

An email to Spectron produced a different take altogether with Simon, who responded to my contact message, informing me that they had heard similar stories from other owners and definitely recommend that owners avoid using any transformer-based conditioner or regenerator. The reasons for this seemed related to current limitations and the slew rate, which basically translated into the transformer in the regenerator not being able to respond quickly enough when the amps required sudden power to reproduce key parts of the musical signal. Simon reminded me of how powerful and fast the Spectrons truly are (1800w into 8 ohms when bridged) and that few line treatments can handle the demands appropriately, even if in reality one is never likely to call on all that power.

Well, two different views from the parties involved, each legitimately arguing that the cause of the problem likely lay elsewhere than their own products. In fairness, there is no real disagreement here. PS Audio rightly claim they produce clean power and it may be that it works well on most power amps without a fuss, though I do read complaints online of the fan still kicking in for some gear. The peculiarities of the Spectron monos, not just their power but the fact that they are class-D, and that I use their remote sense cable option, which it claimed to extend the feedback loop of the amplifier all the way to the speakers, might be relevant. This appears to be a unique design and one which might also prove somehow susceptible to the regeneration process of the P5. Either way, the results were not pleasing.

In an effort to learn more I’ve been reading up on the various audiophile options for line conditioning, particularly examining the products of Audience (recommended by Spectron) and Shunyata. Both of these companies eschew transformers in their products for reasons that find resonance with Spectron’s recommendation. An email exchange with both companies proved interesting, particularly with respect to Shunyata, whose Grant Samuelson told me that regenerators of any kind will limit peak current once the load on those units is increased above nominal levels, such as a single source component. He added that: “no manufacturer of amplifiers (we know) would recommend plugging them into a transformer based or regenerator unit.” Well, none except PS Audio perhaps, though I don’t think they have a power amp in the current line.

Anyhow, the amps are back on the wall, the music sounds good but I am keen to explore further, so a few requests have gone out to various manufacturers asking if they would be interested in submitting a sample for test on the Spectrons. So far no takers, but we’ll see. In the meantime, the P5 is a fine regenerator if you don’t put excessive demands on it and I’ll happily keep it in my system for the front-end components but I am hoping at some point to find a way of protecting my monoblocks without compromising their sound. The journey continues.

Readers' comments

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    Power conditioning is unfortunately one of those areas in audio that seems to be awash with ‘black magic’, with companies selling products that do very little for vastly overinflated amounts and where there is a basic lack of understanding amongst end users and consumers about the problems we face with our power supplies as they apply to high performance audio (and video) systems.

    Back at the end of 2011 we wrote some basic educational articles about power, which are posted on our website. They are a decent read for anyone wanting a broken down view of each potential problem area and the different approaches there are for resolution.

    It is worth pointing out that power regenerators (such as the PS Audio units mentioned) are very different animals from isolation transformers (such as those found in Torus Power / Bryston units). Whilst both contain transformers they are used for very different purposes.

    In the PS Audio approach the transformer is used to provide power to what amounts to essentially an amplifier which takes a digitally synthesized sine wave and boosts it to provide power to downstream components. It is basically an amplifier that outputs a constant 120V. The sine wave looks very nice but the output has current limitations which in the case of the P5 can be easily found with higher powered equipment. The biggest PS Audio regenerator available is rated for 10A continuous. There are also reliability issues, since the power conditioner is active and is electrically quite complex with a large number of components. Even the new units have a failure rate in the low single percentage digits.

    In the Torus Power / Bryston approach the transformer inputs and outputs 120V. The transformers in these units are oversized and can support very large continuous and peak currents. The transformer is used for two purposes. One is to provide electrical isolation of input and output. The second is to provide ability for connected components to draw more peak* electrical power than they would be able to from the wall. I realize this seems a bit counter intuitive but when you consider that energy is stored in the magnetic field of the transformer, and this is right next to your equipment with a low wiring impedance it makes sense. *most audio equipment uses transformer based power supplies which draw current only at the top and bottom of the AC waveform when the diodes conduct for very short periods of time to top up the capacitors in the power supply. The biggest Torus unit is 290A (enough to run a commercial facility!) and since they are essentially passive devices life expectancy is very long.

    Everyone should, at the very minimum, have their equipment protected by a device with surge protection. Preferably one that incorporates series mode surge protection from Zero Surge or it’s licensees (Brickwall, SurgeX, Torus Power). At the next level up take a look at the power regeneration, passive power filter and isolation transformer approaches.

  • This is a confusing and complex area of audiphiledome, that I have yet to embrace. It took me many years to get the ‘wire’ thing. On board with that, with no doubts or regrets. Power cables. Yep, got that one.

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