Sugg. Retail: $1500 CAN
(Reprinted from the Fall 05 Audio Ideas Guide)
Since moving to back to Canada from California about a year ago I’ve been a little bit transient in terms of living arrangements, having rented two different apartments before finally buying a house in Toronto. The first apartment was so transitory (a furnished rental) that I effectively had no audio system at all. Thankfully that period was short-lived! The second apartment, although small, turned out to have a great listening space. The place had also been freshly re-wired by the very technically minded landlord who, bless him, had the foresight to install two dedicated outlets, just a few feet from the electrical panel no less, for A/V and computer equipment. My system sounded as clean and dynamic as it ever had but with a completely different sounding room from my place in California it was impossible for me to isolate the effect of the dedicated power from the completely different acoustics.
Moving into the new house a few months later presented an entirely different power situation, the wiring a mish-mash of old and new and nary a dedicated circuit in sight. Also, the system was now at the opposite end of the house as the electrical panel. It was also, of course, a different room all over again, with a much springier floor, and, inevitably, the system sounds different yet again. Overall, actually, it probably sounds better, which was a nice surprise. After the requisite fine-tuning of speaker location I’m getting great sound, with perhaps the best bass I’ve ever had. My trusty Energy Veritas 1.8s really sing in the roughly 14′ X 17′ X 8′ living room, but there was a clarity and dynamic robustness in the old apartment that I hadn’t been able to reproduce. The prospect of reviewing Panamax’s Max 5510 got me to wondering if addressing my AC power might help bring these qualities back.
Isolation or Regeneration?
The Max 5510 is Panamax’s most feature-packed power filtration/protection product, designed to handle the power needs of an entire home AV system in one (small) power amp-sized box. Panamax calls the 5510 an “AC regenerator”, adopting a hot catchphrase of the past several years. This, I think, is a case of the marketing department getting a little carried away since, unlike the PS audio Power Plants, which made the whole concept of AC regeneration so popular in audiophile circles in the first place, the 5510 is not actually a power amplifier re-generating 120 volt AC. It employs, instead, a variety of filtration and isolation techniques to treat an entire system.
Foremost among these techniques is a balanced/isolated power filtration approach via a large, 500VA isolation transformer. Four of the eleven outlets on the 5510 are filtered through the transformer, all intended for digital source components. It is here where Panamax claims the “regeneration” is taking place, through “electromagnetic coupling between the primary and secondary windings of the transformer”. Sounds more like balanced power to me, the large transformer rejecting common mode noise and/or hum on the line once the voltage is balanced onto both sides of the circuit (with each side 180 degrees out of phase from the other). In the 5510 Panamax actually offers both balanced power and an “isolated” power mode on these outlets via a push button toggle on the front of the unit. The manual explains further: “In the Balanced mode, a center tap wire from the secondary winding is connected to ground. This creates a balanced voltage waveform (+60V Line-Ground & 60V Neutral-Ground, 180 degrees out of phase), which still provides 120 VAC to your equipment� In the isolated mode, the secondary (load side) of the transformer’s winding is completely isolated from ground connections.” So which is better? According to Panamax “results will depend upon the quality of incoming power, noise sources close to your home or system, the combination of components and the routing of interconnected cabling.” So, in other words, just about every variable you can think of. “One setting may provide better results than the other for your particular system but the only way to really know is to try both and use the one that sounds better to you”. Amen. Regardless, the nature of balanced power should keep noise out of these outlets and, perhaps even more importantly, will keep any noise generated by digital components from getting back into the circuit and interfering with analog ones. Noise filtration on these outlets is rated at 120 dB.
Another four outlets on the 5510’s rear, and the “convenience outlet” on the front are intended for analog source components. “These outlet banks utilize ‘Balanced Double L’ filter circuits,” the Panamax product literature continues, “that are far superior to any other design in filtering out all forms of electromagnetic and radio frequency interference in both common and normal modes. Cross-contamination between your components is also eliminated with this design.” These outlets are always powered and intended for low current devices (ie. no power amps or powered subwoofers). The convenience outlet on the front is particularly handy when something is connected temporarily or is being tested. Just don’t plug your vacuum cleaner in there! Noise attenuation on these outlets is said to be 55 dB.
The final pair of outlets are switched with the toggle on the 5510’s front and reserved for high current devices like power amps. The trick here, as the product sheet is only too happy to point out, is to filter the incoming power without limiting it in any way, and thereby handicapping the dynamic capabilities of the amplifier. “Line conditioners that utilize coils (inductors) in series with the AC power line can ‘choke’ off this large in-rush current, thereby reducing the amplifier’s ability to operate at peak performance levels. The Max 5510’s high-current outlets are fed by noise filtration circuitry that does not utilize coils.” Here the noise filtration is rated at 50 dB.
On the front of the 5510 is a toggle for the switched outlets, one for isolated or balanced power for the digital outlets, a handy three pin socket for a “convenience lamp” (there’s another on the back), two rather sexy looking orange backlit dials (one indicating incoming voltage and the other the combined load of connected equipment in amps) and a dimmer control for the lamp and dials. There are even settings which allow for delayed turn-on of the high current outlets and delayed turn off of the isolated outlets, which can help make system startup and shut down free of nasty pops and thunks from upstream components turning on or off while the amp is on. There are also two 3.5mm voltage trigger inputs on the rear panel which allow the 5510 to initiate startup or shutdown sequences via 12V signals from other, similarly equipped pieces of equipment.
Aside from the various AC outlets already mentioned, the 5510’s rear panel also features surge protection for three different coax devices (ie cable TV signal, including HD), two stereo pairs of RCAs and a telephone line (ostensibly for things like Tivo which need to be connected to a phone line to operate). Should a surge come down any of these cables the 5510 is designed to “clamp” down on the circuit as soon as a certain voltage threshold is reached (usually as soon as the voltage reaches a level significantly outside normal operating range). Surge protection for devices connected by RCA is likely overkill, but Panamax has made a concerted effort to cover all the bases for even quite elaborate A/V systems.
Naturally, being Panamax, the 5510 is not just a filtration device but a protective one as well. All connected equipment is protected from spikes/surges and sustained voltage fluctuations. The 5510 uses what Panamax calls “Protect or Disconnect” technology to deal with surges. According to the manual the 5510 can “withstand without damage, multiple 12,000A surges, far exceeding the UL maximum requirement of only 3,000 Ampere surges.” Should you anger the Almighty and encounter a surge which exceeds its capabilities, the 5510 will, like a well trained secret service agent, take the bullet for your equipment, severing an internal connection and completely disconnecting your gear. The manual doesn’t go into much detail exactly what this entails, but this “disconnection” is violent enough to require repair or replacement of the 5510 by Panamax should it occur.
The other area of protection offered by the 5510 is from excessive or inadequate line voltage. Simply, if the voltage sags to 95V or less, or rises to 137V or beyond, the Panamax will kill power to all its outlets until the voltage returns to the safe range for ten continuous seconds or more. While it obviously monitors the voltage I could find no evidence that the Panamax performs any voltage regulation (ie that it maintains a steady 120V to connected components regardless of incoming voltage).
The Sound of Isolation
I inserted the 5510 into my system, in the process bypassing a couple of relatively high end powerstrips (if such a thing can be said of powerstrips). One is a Hammond Zap Trap 2000 and the other a Tripp Lite Isobar, both of which feature a certain amount of noise filtration as well as surge suppression. The attraction of the Tripp Lite is that its filters are bi-directional, and therefore it’s best used to isolate digital gear from the rest of the system, which is exactly how I was using it. Both cost around a hundred bucks apiece. I had also been using a Tripp Lite voltage stabilizer I picked up on Ebay for about $40, which itself offers up to 85 dB of electrical noise reduction while maintaining a rock steady 120VAC to connected equipment; the theory being that gear designed and tested to work at exactly 120 volts will sound best when fed precisely that. If you live in a densely populated urban area, you may very well find that your voltage drops, especially in the summer when air conditioners and fridges are working overtime. In rural areas voltage often runs very high. Especially considering the cost, this combination of gear had worked very well for me for over a year.
The Panamax worked better. Making the switch resulted in sonic improvements often associated with cleaner power: Music was smoother and more articulate - complex passages more easily unraveled. Transients were crisper, a corollary of improved micro-dynamics. Just as I had heard with the Inouye Synergistic Power Line Conditioner back in 1998 music “popped” out of blacker backgrounds than before and was much more likely to induce goosebumps. The result was sound that better mimicked the speed, impact, and authority of the real thing and did a better job pulling my attention away from reading or working on my laptop while listening. On some recordings it seemed like I was also getting better, more powerful deep bass, a sure sign that the amp was getting plenty of current.
And speaking of current, it was interesting to see just how much the system was drawing on the 5510’s front panel ammeter. Even when playing very bass-heavy material about as loud as I could stand it, the needle barely moved. I don’t think I ever got past 3 amps, and at normal listening levels the needle was pretty much pinned to a hair above zero. My speakers and amp may be more a little more efficient than most (Musical Fidelity A3CR, 100 watts into 8 ohms, driving Energy Veritas 1.8s, nominal 6 ohm load), but I think the gauge would be far more useful if they re-weighted it for finer readings at the low end.
I also found it surprising that my vinyl front end seemed to benefit from the 5510 to a greater extent than my digital gear. In fact, LPs never sounded better. “Cleaner, more rhythmically sure-footed and involving than ever. CD sounds sterile and edgy by comparison” I remarked in my listening notes. My Rega Planar 3 and Rotel RQ970 BX phono preamp were clearly enjoying the juice from the 5510’s analog outlets. With the Graham Slee Era Gold and Project Tube Box phono stages the effect was even more pronounced.
Based on my experience the Panamax 5510 is relatively easy to recommend. Its well thought out, full system approach to power filtration certainly paid sonic dividends in my audio system, akin to upgrading a power amp or preamp. It’s also compact, very user friendly and I love the look of the orange backlit analog meters. I didn’t have an opportunity to test the 5510 in a home theater rig, but I’m confident that it would be at least equally beneficial, if not more so. One is more likely, however, to run into the problem of where to plug in devices like high-powered receivers or subwoofers with digital amps, which are both digital and high current devices.
As with any power conditioner, there’s also the issue of just how bad your power is to begin with, and just how sensitive your equipment is to less than pristine AC. My Musical Fidelity amp, preamp and DAC all feature choke regulated power supplies, which, in theory, should make them less sensitive to dirty AC. The Panamax, however, was still quite beneficial, and perhaps this helps explain why it was more beneficial with the vinyl front end, which did not have any such power supply advantages. With so many variables to contend with the old try before you buy axiom holds as true as ever. In some systems, I suspect, the improvement could be dramatic.
The cost is not insignificant, but not unreasonable compared to other serious power conditioners, and generally cheaper than true “regenerating” models. You may be able to find a conditioner for source components for less money, PS Audio’s P300 for instance, but its load limitation is around 200 watts, making it unsuitable for most power amps, whereas the 5510 is limited only by the circuit it’s plugged into. Factor in the protection features offered by the Panamax and, assuming you’ve got more than a few grand sunk into your system, it starts to sound like a very worthy upgrade path.