You May See Me Tonight With an Illegal Tweak

As I threatened to do in my last column , I wrote a long review on power conditioners and power cords. What I left out of that story though, because I ran out of space, was the beginning of my tryst with power. It was in the Wild West, in the early 2000s. Back then, the forum of a certain British hi-fi brand was a lawless free-for-all where we could discuss that that most subversive upgrade of them all.

Before we go any further, if you know or can guess of what I speak, this is not an endorsement of an electric shock and fire hazard. Some “upgrades” go against electrical and commonsensical code, and if your melted lump of an amp is found in the ashes of your home with wrongly rated components, think about how—if you find it hard to talk to your regular friends about “lowered noise floor, greater detail, and bass definition”—you’ll find it even harder to explain it to an insurance agent. Or a judge. Or to the paramedic who ka-THUMPed  you back to life after you were electrocuted. “The dynamics were so stunning, my heart skipped a beat.”

I tried it, okay? Just for a little while. There was a forum member I’ll call RR who was a tweak preacher. If you wrote to him, he’d send you an envelope with a little baggy of illicit samples, a bunch of printouts with listening tests, endorsements, plans for dedicated wiring, and a CD of his test tracks. (One of those, a hard-to-find live recording of “Bird on a Wire” by Leonard Cohen remains one of our top favorite tracks ever, and one I’ve used to test the system for many years now.)

I was curious because the notion of improving the power supply to a system was new and exciting to me. I couldn’t imagine it would have much effect, but with so many people talking about it, I had to hear for myself. And this why the lawyers’ hammer dropped and all discussion about RR’s methods was immediately verboten. Today, you can’t allude to it in even the most cryptic terms without an administrator blowing a- well…

Here’s the problem. It worked. And I knew it was going to be good as soon as I turned on my system and the normally anemic thump through the speakers was louder and deeper. It was exciting. I was drunk on power. I know that the “wife came home and heard the difference without being told to look for one” story annoys a lot of people, but it is my truth. Without fully understanding what I’d done, she told me to not go back—the system sounded amazing. I was tempted, but I reluctantly reversed it so I could sleep at night.

But a switch had been thrown and I was now open to the importance of power, and have since found that few system changes are as satisfying. A power supply unit upgrade provided more than I expected. And most recently I heard what a good power cable can do.

These aren’t differences you notice only if you sit in the sweet spot and squint a certain way. This is the kind of thing where you’re outside throwing things for the dogs, the music is wafting out of the back door into your yard, and the dynamics make you go, “Wow, that sounds incredible”. It’s where you’re sleep-warm and bleary, and the wife asks you to turn on the house-favorite internet radio station, and the low noise floor makes you think (at least until you wake up a little more), “Dear God, is that a high-res stream?”

In fact, that low noise floor is apparent from the very first note, and if I may steal from my own review, it’s as if Scotty with a super-fast transporter is beaming everything up (or down?) into the soundstage.

I still have review equipment kicking around, and have a pretty crazy combination playing even as I type this. An all-in-one-music player (retail $1,995) connected to a $4,000 power conditioner via a $2,000 power cable. The power conditioner connects to the wall outlet via another $2,000 cable.

Of course I’m not recommending anyone pay for this combo. I’m just saying if I had a sheet over my audio rack, sat you down on my sofa, played you a few tracks, and then whipped off the cover like the worst magician in the world, I’ll bet a lot of money you would be astonished / dismayed / reduced to slightly manic laughter when you saw the audio rack was empty but for a black shoebox connected to my large floorstanders. You wouldn’t have expected big monoblocks for sure—you can hear the player puffing a little when things get heavy and complex—but the overall slam and definition would have got you imagining at least two or three shelves’ worth of gear.

Power delivery seems so straightforward—stick a conductor into a wall and receive. A toddler could do it. In that context, a designer of audiophile power products said to me, “When you want to push the envelope it just gets pricier and pricier because you are right at the edge of physics and what can be made. You’re buying very expensive one-off parts in low volume.”

“Right at the edge of physics.” I like that. It’s a good reminder of just how acutely sensitive our audio systems are and how much we take them for granted… not the electronic ones, I mean the “wet” ones between (and including) our ears.

[Reader Michael Dahlstrom sent in this pic of a powerstrip that he saw while deployed in Afghanistan—makes you think of that flaming tweak, no? —-Ed.]