Sugg. Retail: $795 CAN
Manufacturer: Brian Inouye & Associates,
PO Box 1005,
Delta, BC V4M 3T2
(604) 946-0779 FAX 946-1405
(Reprinted from the Winter 1998 Audio Ideas Guide)
Power conditioners are one of those products which teeter on the edge of mainstream audio acceptability these days. While they probably have a better reputation than carbon fiber shelves or ebony pucks many audiophiles would lump them in the same shady category, labeling them as the foolish toys of misguided, obsessive compulsive and moderately paranoid audio freaks. Certainly the ascetic idea of “pure power” and the associated disapprobation of power lines as great cesspools of electrical filth and debauchery swimming with noise, hum, RFI and the occasional catastrophic surge preys on our fragile audiophile sensibilities, impelling pangs of guilt over having unnecessarily exposed our chaste components to these evils and wondering if salvation can be found in a inviolable black box. Either that or you remain something of an audio agnostic, having yet to fully succumb to audio fanaticism, and you’re pretty darn satisfied with the power bar you got at Zeller’s. As I discovered in playing with Inouye’s Synergistic Power Line Conditioner (which, in the interests our mutual sanity will be hereafter referred to as just the SPLC), however, this may just be one of those things less pious audio freaks should investigate.
Like most AC power conditioners the SPLC is housed in a fairly nondescript black aluminum chassis. The box is finished in a glossy black paint and fit n’ finish is what you’d expect from a high-end audio component: solid and tidy. Controls and displays are typically minimal for such a device, the SPLC featuring two amber lights (indicating that transient protection is active), an on/off switch, and two breaker reset switches. Inputs and outputs are equally straightforward: two hospital grade duplex power outlets for a total of four plugs and an IEC power cable input for the supplied, heavy gauge detachable power cord. Since all these features are located on the left and right sides of the box, rather than lights and controls at the front and inputs and outputs on the back, the SPLC is not really conducive to being put on display in your stand, instead finding itself more at home buried in the daunting nest of cables behind your equipment.
As with any piece of audio gear, however, what’s on the outside is rarely more important than what’s inside. As stated in Inouye’s thorough and informative manual the SPLC contains two completely separate and isolated power line conditioners, allowing for a total capacity of 1800 watts. More importantly, this also allows for the total electrical divorce of different pieces of equipment. Why is this important you ask? Well, as the trusty manual explains your “equipment dumps as much electrical noise and interference onto the AC mains as it is sensitive to picking up. All digital processing equipment (CD players, DA converters, etc.) produce an abundance of high-frequency line noise and ideally should be isolated from preamplifiers and power amplifiers,” for example. Inouye also recommends isolating high-level and low level equipment (ie. putting your power amp on a different circuit than your preamp or sources) in addition to separating digital gear from analog gear. In most systems (assuming you have separates and digital gear of some kind, that is) if you were to follow both these recommendations you would inevitably find yourself at least one isolated outlet short. In fact, in any system with more than four pieces of equipment you’ll run into trouble. Enterprisingly enough, Inouye’s solution is additional SPLC’s, specifically one dedicated to thirsty power amps. With only one on hand for review I had to work with what I had available, which, as it turned out, worked very well indeed (more on this below).
So besides instituting electrical apartheid for pieces of audio equipment which are better off not sharing current, what is the SPLC actually doing to your power? For one thing it’s filtering out noise picked up by the unthinkably long length of cable between your wall outlet and the generating station pouring the juice. Acting as an enormous antenna this length of cable is bombarded with radio signals, electromagnetic interference, as well as the electrical noise discharged from the myriad machines running off the grid, many of which are in your own house (fridges, light dimmers, and other household appliances are notorious electrical polluters). If you live in Kingston or Montreal, of course, your power lines are bombarded with more substantial things like trees and ice, which makes you wish you had spent your money on a generator and a battery powered amp instead of that freakin’ power conditioner. “In order to halt the propagation of high-frequency interference,” asserts the Inouye manual, “the SPLC has a bi-directional, multi-stage protection system that is used in the line between the AC mains power source and the equipment being powered.” It is the bi-directional nature of the SPLC’s low pass filter which allows true isolation between its two duplex outlets, the filter not only cleaning the incoming power for a given component but preventing that same component from dumping noise back into the line.
Like any other power line conditioner the SPLC is designed to not only clean power but to protect your equipment from potentially fatal power surges and spikes. This task is accomplished by a bevy of protection features, including a 15 Amp resettable thermal breaker, four, slow blow ceramic transient protection fuses rated at 20A/150V each, and “fast acting, AGC type, fused metal oxide varistors.” According to the supplied spec sheet the SPLC is capable of reacting to a surge within 15 nanoseconds. In other words, your eight hun buys you more protection than a ten dollar power bar from Canadian Tire, and it sure as heck should.
Now this is all fine and good on paper, and, admittedly the idea that my painstakingly chosen, synergistically matched, plenty pricey equipment is protected from the potential electrical evils wrought by Toronto Hydro is mighty comforting; even if it is slightly paranoid (its starting already! My descent into hardcore fanaticism can’t be far behind!). If you’ve read this far, however, you must be wondering, as I was, how this would change the sound of an audio system. Since moving into my apartment in downtown Toronto I’ve never been aware of any power related problems infecting my audio system. No buzzes, no audible RFI, no brown outs or anything else out of the ordinary to speak of. Before installing the SPLC I cranked my volume control to its maximum setting with my CD player on but not playing, to see if I could hear any specific contamination. All I heard was noise, a hissing which seemed commensurate with a preamp set for 36db of gain. No radio, no cordless phone calls, no air traffic controllers; at least, nothing directly audible.
With the SPLC inserted between my CD Player, DAC, Jitter Box (an Audio Alchemy DTI Plus), amp, and preamp this little test turned out pretty much exactly the same, the noise retaining approximately the same character and intensity. Before doing this test, however, I had listened to a few select cuts off several discs to intimately familiarize myself with my system’s sound before power conditioning and so I continued undaunted. With the SPLC in place I sat down to revisit these songs, listening carefully for differences. Inouye claims that the SPLC will constitute an improvement of the same magnitude as an amp or preamp upgrade. After comparisons that day, and after listening to my system through it for the last couple of months, I definitely consider the addition of the SPLC an improvement. I would compare that improvement, however, more readily with that wrought by a cable upgrade than with an amp or preamp upgrade. Specifically, with the SPLC in the chain, transients, especially low level transients (that’s the musical kind as opposed to the vertically challenged homeless, who still try to clean my windshield even with the power conditioner in my system - go figure!), benefited from a sharper, more sudden and realistic attack; backgrounds became darker, or more silent (if such a thing can be said) lending instruments a more three dimensional separation from musical backgrounds; and finally, the ambient, reverberant tails of notes were better preserved as was low level ambient information in general.
Something that must be kept in mind, however, is that prior to installing the SPLC I was using two Zaptrap 2001 power bars to fuel my system. While not quite as high-tech as the SPLC these are no run of the mill power bars either, offering substantial transient protection and RFI/EMI suppression as well as six outlets apiece. Made by Hammond Manufacturing the Zaptrap 2001 will also protect phones and modems and retails for about a hundred bucks (call 519 822 2960 for more information). As my comments above suggest the SPLC represented an improvement over the Zaptraps, as opposed to power straight out of my wall sockets, and at eight times the price it bloody well better (due to a dearth of outlets in my listening room comparisons with power straight from the wall were not possible since there simply weren’t enough plugs for even a striped down setup. Despite the fact that my grade seven science teacher told me never to do this I’m making the assumption, even if it makes an ass out of both of us, as he would say, [ass out of u & me�.get it? He looooved that one], that the effect of the SPLC would be more pronounced on untreated power straight from the wall outlet).
However, my best results, both sonically and from a practical standpoint, were achieved by using both the SPLC and the Zaptraps together. Specifically, I achieved an additive sonic improvement, not to mention an abundant number of outlets, by plugging one Zaptrap into each duplex of the SPLC. With six outlets on each Zaptrap and each power bar isolated from the other I had more than enough plugs for all my digital and analog gear to be completely sequestered. I even had two extra plugs on the SPLC itself for temporary or review gear as well as for another Zaptrap to power my TV and cable converter. Not only did the sound improve in the same ways it had with the SPLC alone, albeit more marginally this time, I now had daisy-chained, redundant transient protection for all my electronics without having to buy another eight hundred dollar power conditioner; thus, as seen through the perverse logic of the fanatical audiophile, saving myself around 600 dollars! And honey, you thought my hobby was expensive?!
To put all this into some kind of perspective the question of whether you should rush down to your nearest audio boutique and warm up your plastic with eight hundred bucks worth of power conditioning is very similar, I think, to the question of whether you should plunk down a similarly alarming amount of coin for fancy cable (see my thoughts on the hideously expensive but sublimely sweet Nordost Flatline SPM reference speaker cable elsewhere in this issue). My view is that these kind of expenditures, if they can be justified at all, are justified when pretty much every other practical avenue of improvement has been traveled (both in personal and in audio terms, of course). In other words, if you’ve got your system (not to mention your life) exactly where you want it, if you can’t think of anything else to upgrade, then an SPLC might be the best move to make. If you’re upgrade wish list looks like something that ends up on Santa’s desk around mid December then I would advise putting a power conditioner, along with wire that costs as much as a nice used Honda Civic, near the end of that list, as the improvements wrought by amps, preamps, speakers and the rest will likely be much more substantial and rewarding. I count myself among this latter group and will make due with my Zaptraps for the foreseeable future, thank you very much.
Another thing to consider is that every audio system, just like every home’s power, is different. Certain pieces of equipment will be more susceptible to dirty AC than others just as certain pieces will pollute the AC lines more than others, contaminating the power feeding your other components. AC power quality is also likely to fluctuate wildly depending on where you live, how modern your house is, your proximity to heavy industry, the quality of the transformer on the pole outside, the size of the tree that just fell on the line outside your neighbor’s house, and so on, and so on. The permutations are endless. The point is that, more than perhaps any other component, a power conditioner’s performance is going to vary with the situation into which it’s introduced. If you have bad power and components which are sensitive to bad power it just might be the best piece of equipment you’ve ever bought. If the reverse is true the improvement might be so negligible that the cost could never be justified. Even more than usual, try before you buy and choose with your ears.