The Path Less Traveled

Why Do Things-That-Shouldn’t-Have-a-Sound, Have One Anyway?
Mike Van Evers
7 February 2001

The Path Less Traveled

Q. What do you think is the next important frontier in power conditioners?

A. The next important frontier is not a product; it’s a concept. This frontier has been created by a lack of understanding concerning the dual nature of power conditioners: #1) power conditioners have an inherent “sound,” #2) power conditioners clean up AC wall power. The mainstream understanding is that the cleaning action causes the sound. This viewpoint is overly simplistic and in many ways incorrect. A conditioner’s sound is influenced by its cleaning action, but only influenced, not determined.

The tonal variations of power conditioners are at least as important to the successful integration of a power conditioner into a listening system as are its power cleansing properties, and sometimes the tonality is more important. A power conditioner’s ability to do a good job of cleaning the power is not necessarily reflected in its sound; good power cleaners can make a system sound bad while ineffective power cleaners can improve the sound of a system…a counter-intuitive fact. When selecting between conditioners that are similar in their grunge removal characteristics, tonality will usually be the decisive factor in long term ownership.

The common criticism of power conditioners is that they cause compressed sonics. This is usually a case of tonality mismatch and not an actual restriction of current flow through the device. When the resonance response of a conditioner is such that it will help tame some system’s aggressiveness, it will also cause other systems to lose dynamics1. At the same time, conditioners that are very extended on top and those which accentuate dynamics can in the wrong situation sound too thin or aggressive. Of course, in what way something works or doesn’t is usually clouded in the catch word “better.”2

The following statement is based on experience: I could send out for evaluation 100 of any product I make and the individual results from each audition could be grouped into one of the following four categories: 1) I don’t hear a difference. 2) It’s too dark. 3) It’s too bright. 4) It’s wonderful; I’ll take it. One product; four different general responses.

What does this mean? In my opinion it means this: tonal synergy is king; one size does not fit all; there are no absolutes; context is everything. This means that ultimately, the sound quality of your listening system is your responsibility, and no one else’s. Manufacturers, reviewers, and dealers can only let you know if a product works for them; you will have to try it in YOUR system. The way the product is made and what it is made from–not its power cleaning abilities–will in many cases determine its effectiveness in making your system more listenable.3 (I realize that this is a rather brutal negation of the normal mental path one takes when shopping for audio equipment. However, I have noticed that the usual mental path most often leads one astray, and far too quickly back to your “favorite” retailer for a sonic fix for the new component that was “supposed” to be a sonic fix for another problem.)

Q.  How did you come to this conclusion?

A. It’s a long story but it starts shortly after I began building power conditioners. Ten years ago if someone had told me that today I would be building power conditioners to improve the sound of audio systems, I’d have said “Not likely.”4 If they’d said not only would I be building them but also I would make them in several different sonic “flavors,” I’d have thought they were nuts. If they’d dared to go even further and say I’d be accomplishing the flavor changes mechanically with small pieces of wood and metal, and/or lengths of wire according to their size, direction, color, and jacket flexibility, I’d have laughed and said, “Now I know you are nuts.”

Q. Why did you start manufacturing power conditioners?

A. Because I heard one make a significant improvement to the sound of a friend’s audio system.

Previous to this event I had built a couple of audio equipment power conditioners for a local audiophile-quality classical recording group I was part of, so I had some limited experience…but it was power and as such, how important could it really be–right? These first two conditioners were used during recording sessions and for playback, and even though the first conditioner had caused a musician listening to a recital tape we’d recorded for him to say he could ‘hear the harmonics better,’ I didn’t even consider listening to a before-and-after because it was just power, as I thought then—it was nothing really important. The exact nature of the sonic improvement was easy to overlook from a procedural standpoint. Why? Because it was “just” power and as long as it was clean and you had enough, everything was “just” fine. I didn’t understand that power could make a major difference and so I didn’t stop to listen. Because of this mental dismissal, there was a 6-month hiatus between making the two conditioners I used at work and the 3rd conditioner that was built for this particular friend. He had become converted to the idea of an audio rather than computer oriented power conditioner because George Tice had just recently made a big impression on the audiophile community with his isolation transformer.

When the conditioner for my friend was finished, we set up an evening to get together and install it. The evening came and 5 audiophile friends got together at the recipient’s home and we sat around eating some delicious munchies and shooting the audiophile breeze. An hour and a half and a lot of dead breeze came and went and then we decided to plug in the conditioner and at first put just the amps into it.

A little background before going on: The audio equipment was on the other side of one listening room wall, not in the same room as the speakers, so we had to go through the kitchen and another room before getting to the equipment. The equipment consisted of a Luxman CD player, a VTL preamp (don’t remember which one), B&K monoblock amps, and audiophile interconnects and speaker wire. The speakers were beautifully built custom floor standing towers with side firing woofers. The overall sound of the system was less than inspiring though. Treble extension seemed to be lacking, and this constricted air and dimensionality…as in no soundstage image above or outside the speakers. The sound was good but it was about to be transformed–much to my, and everyone else’s amazement.

As the speaker’s designer and I were walking into the kitchen from having put the amps (only) into the conditioner, he said, “I can hear the difference from here.” I could too. The treble extension that had been missing before was suddenly there, pleasantly in-force, which then opened up the sound. The resulting sound now had width and height outside and above the speakers, and more depth. Talk about being surprised! There is a big difference between theory and practice. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice–well…you know.

We ate fewer munchies and listened more seriously to the sound. About half an hour later, we moved the CD player’s power cord from the computer conditioner to my conditioner’s digital section. As we were coming through the kitchen, again we could hear the difference. This time the midrange quality was the beneficiary. Whew! I had no idea. From then on we paid total attention to the sound.

The speaker designer/builder summarized the evening thus: “The difference is, before we had sound, now we have music.” This is when I started thinking about the possibility of manufacturing power conditioners.

Q. Why did you start making custom power cords?

A. After I had been building conditioners for a month or so, I started noticing differences in the sound from conditioner to conditioner. They were subtle differences, but definite differences all the same. Now this was, I thought, another impossibility, but I could hear it.5 While a degree in geology isn’t heavy in electronic theory, the core classes include enough physics to have made me sure that power is just a matter of having enough. And then after my experience at my friend’s house, it seemed that clean power was nirvana….and now something else was going on! I hadn’t changed the design, but the conditioners didn’t sound alike…same parts…ah! Different internal wire! Hmmm, wait a minute. At the low current values involved, three inches of almost any copper wire from 18 gauge to 12 gauge will have equally negligible inductance, capacitance, and resistance at 60Hz… so it couldn’t make a difference– but I heard a difference.

At that point I decided to investigate something else I thought I had noticed, but at first dismissed: change the power cord wire and the sound changes. First had come mental hesitation, a little agitation, and then reluctant curiosity. I didn’t think it was possible but I thought I should go ahead and check it out. So I built six different power cords with different materials and several different construction techniques. What–they all sound different! Wait a minute…it can’t make a difference–but I hear a difference…it can’t make a difference! –OK, but I hear a difference! There I was at 3AM one morning, ping-ponging between those two diametrically opposed viewpoints–except one wasn’t a viewpoint, it was what I was hearing, and therefore reality. It wasn’t what I had expected, at all, much less something I wanted (who needs another @*&#! variable?), but it was there all the same. When I finally let go of what “should be” and accepted “what is,” I decided to let the materials and construction techniques tell ME what they sounded like, rather than the other way around.

I wound up with a basketful of physically different, heavy duty power cords (all were 14ga. or heavier) that all sounded different from each other. I used to bet people that not only did power cords have a sound, but that after a 5-15 minute demonstration, they would be able to tell me which power cord they preferred. I never lost that bet…even to those who said I was nuts and that power cords absolutely could not have a “sound.”

1 It is easy to increase dynamics without changing the conditioner: 1) Put metal or ceramic cones under the conditioner. 2) Use ½” metal machine-screw nuts under it. 3) Use one of my tuning kits. Back

2 See “Better,” at the end of this article. Back

3 Unfortunately, “better” parts do NOT automatically produce a “better” sound; also see footnote #2. Back

4 Quotable quote: “Paradigm procedures and applications…restrict the phenomenological field accessible for scientific investigation at any given time.” T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd edition, p. 60. Back

5 Quotable quote: “In science…novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.” T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution. 3rd edition, p. 64. Back

To be continued…

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