AudioQuest Niagara 1200 Power Conditioner
a) Any sound that is undesired or interferes with one’s hearing of something;
b) Irregular fluctuations that accompany a transmitted electrical signal that are not part of it and tend to obscure it.
Yep, I’ve got all of that.
It seems superfluous to explain why treating electricity can have a positive effect on a great stereo system, but I’ll take my stab at it anyway.
Despite the denials of few flat-earthers out there – often guys (it’s always guys) with fancy oscilloscopes and tin ears – the quality of the electricity does make an audible difference to sensitive electronic equipment. The skeptics insist that if you can electrocute yourself with one cable it must sound the same as all the rest. Poke around the hi-fi forums; those opinions are not hard to find. I take the opposite position: Clean power may not have mattered to Ted Bundy, but it does matter to your amplifier.
The higher resolution a piece of gear is capable of the more impact line noise will have on diminishing its performance. Fine details will become masked behind electronic hash, and if it’s not addressed adequately, no one – including you – will ever hear what that gear may be capable of. That kind of noise can take a highly resolved, liquid-smooth audio signal and pixilate it, rendering it grainy and dull, and you likely won’t even know it’s happening. In fact, the first time you realize how much noise you really had may be the first time you hear your system once it’s been eliminated.
Another Love/Hate Relationship
I almost never acquire anything on a whim, and I tend to keep gear for a long time, but I also try to be clear eyed about when it’s time to drop the dime. I don’t have the luxury of making costly mistakes, but I’m also definitely not the guy that tries to convince himself that lamp cord sounds the same as a good pair of properly engineered speaker cables just to avoid the expense. Everything makes a difference – sometimes large, sometimes small, but everything makes a difference.
Having said that, power conditioners fall in that category of products, along with cables (Sorry Joe), that I have to invest in to get the most out of my gear, but that I hate to spend a lot of money on. They definitely make an audible difference, but I have difficulty wrapping my head around spending as much on those ancillaries as I would on say, an amplifier, or a pair of speakers. It’s a matter of relative desirability. My hi-fi buddies will call to say, ‘Hey! Come over and check out my new speakers!’ None of them have ever invited the gang over for a power conditioner or a pair of interconnects.
I always have trouble getting to a price-to-value calculation I can get comfortable with. I work for a living and I insist on trying to squeeze as much sonic value out of as little money as I can. Come at me with royal-purple floral-patterned silk brocade cable covers over wires that cost as much as my car and you can pound salt, I don’t care how good you think they sound.
Unlike the big glossies, where it seems like everyone is using state of the art mega-buck gear, I readily admit to using a few antiques to keep costs down. Excluding my seventy-year-old Rek-O-Kut turntable, which is a special situation, the oldest piece of equipment in my system is my power conditioner, an old Tice MBF-3 AC filter – well regarded in its day – that I got off some guy on Craig’s List. It’s easily twenty years old, and I didn’t pay much for it, but it works pretty well, and it was definitely an improvement over a few other things I’d used before it. Like anything in hi-fi, you can spend a fortune if you want to, but if you look around a little you might not have to. Start small, work up.
Bang for my buck is of paramount importance. Short of hitting the lottery, I’m not going to go off the deep end into five-figure power equipment (or five-figure anything for that matter) any time soon, but I always keep a look out for products that offer a substantial return on that price-to-value thing, and I make strategic investments accordingly.
And here’s the point of that little diatribe: I’ve found a product that meets that price-to-value test with the excellent and fairly priced AudioQuest Niagara 1200 power conditioner.
Logical, Mr. Spock
AudioQuest has been building audiophile hi-fi cables since 1980, making them among the more durable audio companies currently operating. As a core technical value, their cable designs emphasize the rejection of Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) through substantial shielding of the wire cores, and from personal experience they’re quite good at it. This doesn’t make them unique – many cable companies address RFI – but AQ seems to more emphasis on the issue than many of their competitors.
An anecdote to illustrate the point: A few years ago I was describing a step-up-transformer hum issue to a vendor at Capital Audiofest. When it was clear to this fellow that I wasn’t going to spend $1500 on the interconnect he insisted that I needed to resolve the issue, he closed with “Well then, go try AudioQuest. Their cables are really great on noise, too.” I thanked him for his advice then solved the hum issue with a pair of AQ interconnects that I already owned but hadn’t yet tried in that application.
Since then I’ve specifically used AQ cables between my monaural turntable, step-up transformer, and preamp. The Miyajima Spirit mono cartridge – a true two-coil mono design, not a strapped stereo cartridge – can be prone to hum, and the AQ cables eliminate the problem better than any other wires I’ve tried, entirely in fact. These are not expensive interconnects, either. Both were less than $100 a pair, they work well, and sound good.
For the record, that vendor’s snarky suggestion may have been an attempt at backhanded dig at AudioQuest from his point of view, but it fell flat with me. Among cable manufacturers AQ has among the broadest range of cables out there, from the very affordable to really, really expensive and everything in between. More important to this discussion, attention to noise reduction is incorporated into their entire range and, as I’ve already said, they’re very good at it.
With that experience in mind, and AudioQuest’s clear corporate emphasis on clean, intact signals, it seems perfectly logical that power-conditioning equipment would be their next frontier.
Trickle Down Electronics
AudioQuest’s foray into AC conditioning equipment is relatively recent to the marketplace, but the gestation of their efforts goes back over a decade. They’d identified clean power as a market segment where they wanted to invest but chose not to rush into it until they were confident that they had something worthwhile to contribute.
AudioQuest Vice President Joe Harley (also a long-time record producer and the “Tone Poet” behind Blue Not Record’s Tone Poet reissue series, the nickname bestowed by none other than Charles Lloyd) explains it:
“We have been aware of the benefits (and, importantly, the drawbacks) of power conditioning for many years. But in 2006, while researching the entire power conditioning market (we brought everything!) … we had them all in house to evaluate. People walking into our sound room at that time were astonished to see dozens of power purification devices all over the floor. We needed to hear and understand the entire power purification ecology at that time in order to start the process of knowing how and IF we had anything to contribute.
(In the course of that process) we became aware of the singular talents of Garth Powell, then of Furman Sound. The products Garth designed for Furman were, hands down, the best power conditioners of anything we had heard to that point. It took more than a few years of trying, but we finally succeeded in getting Garth to come to AQ in 2012. It took a few more years of intense research and development (and I do mean intense …I was there) to bring the first Niagara Power Products to market. We waited until we really had something substantial to contribute before entering the power purification market.”
By most accounts AQ’s foray into this segment has been a success. The top of the line Niagara 7000 has gotten some rave reviews, and a friend has nothing but good things to say about his Niagara 5000’s ability to reduce the noise floor of his gear. His exact words were, “It eliminates noise you didn’t even know you had,” which is prescient for the purpose of this review.
The product line also initially included the entry-level 1000 conditioner, which after a relatively short period has been replaced by the subject of this review, the Niagara 1200. A Niagara 3000 model is also forthcoming.
The AudioQuest Niagara 1200
The Niagara 1200 is a smallish box: nineteen inches wide but only seven inches deep and three inches tall. It has a C-shaped gunmetal gray chassis, which is folded over the electronics inside, an understated, all business-like appearance. On the back there are seven outlets, two of which are labeled ‘high current’ for amplifiers and subwoofers, and an IEC jack to connect a power cord, which is not included. There is a master power switch on one side. For its modest size it’s also quite heavy. I didn’t attempt to open it, but at a hair over 15 lbs. there are clearly some substantial parts in there.
Where the Niagara 1000 looked a little like a fancy power strip, with the outlets facing up, the 1200 looks more like a proper component that can proudly sit on a shelf. But depending on your needs it can also be turned backwards, or even on its side if those configurations work better in your room. Unusually in these days of rapidly escalating equipment prices, the Niagara 1200 costs the same as its predecessor, about $1,000.00. Kudos to AudioQuest for holding the line on price.
Harley was also kind enough to send a pair of two-meter NRG-Z3 power cables along for the review, which turned out to be a good idea. The NRG-Z3s are about $260.00, which is relatively modest in the pantheon of audio power cables.
Setup is simple. Plug your components into the Niagara, attach a power cable, plug it into the wall then turn your gear on. If you’ve ever used a power strip this certainly won’t cause you any confusion.
Aside from any sonic concerns, the Niagara 1200 is what AudioQuest describes as a non-sacrificial surge suppression device. It’s designed to protect your gear from power surges up to 6000v, substantially more than the mere 2200v in an electric chair, and a hell of a lot higher than the 120v in normal U.S. household current. Unchecked, 6000v would be plenty to fry your amplifier and probably anything or anyone near it. “Non-sacrifical” simply means that in the event of a significant power spike it’ll act as a shut-off switch, not unlike a ground-fault interrupter (GFI) or even a breaker, that can then be re-set without damaging the unit.
On the sonic side, the Niagara 1200 identifies two core technologies: AudioQuest’s Ground Noise Dissipation System, which they claim greatly reduces ground-related noise without creating ground-loops, which can hum like Keith Jarrett and drive you mad trying to find and eliminate them; and, “Linear Noise-Dispation Technology,” which seeks to ensure the most consistent and widest bandwidth noise dissipation possible. I’m not going to attempt a full technical explanation here, but AudioQuest has an excellent white paper called Power Demystified, written by designer Garth Powel, on their website that’s worth checking out. The long and short of it is to preserve as much of the original signal as possible by “eliminating enough RF and electrical noise so that the final audio signal will be left pristine.”
Further explanation from Garth Powell: When they (RF Signals) are induced into a chassis, audio circuits, or cables, they mix with the primary audio signal. This creates a “masking effect” with low-level signals, and that’s where much of the high frequencies, ambient information, and harmonics reside. Today, up to a third of the low-level (sub -60dBu), signal can be lost or distorted by this induced RF noise. Our stated goal has always been – Do No Harm. We want to bring back the signal that was always there in the first place – if only the power had been right.
Finally, the Niagara 1200 features high-quality hardware in the form of what they call “Low-Z Power Outlets.” They’re claimed to have superior grip on plugs, and use beryllium copper to lower resistance, as well as “Hanging-Silver” plating for low impedance.
Do You Have To Hum Along?
My Cary SLP-98p preamp and matching V12R power amp play nicely together, voiced together by Denis Had, quiet enough, and reasonably well behaved despite all the hand-soldered point-to-point wiring inside. But, with two turntables, an SUT, a phono stage, digital source and more cables than I’d care to count, not to mention the 29 vacuum tubes, there’s always the potential that something somewhere will randomly start humming its own tune.
Also, as a matter of general character, the V12 and my Verity Audio Fidelio Encore loudspeakers are not a bass heavy combination. They will never produce Krell-like iron grip on the lower octaves, but the speakers are rated down to 35Hz, which – while not subterranean – is respectable, especially for the acoustic music that makes up the majority of my listening.
What It Does
Though these were by no means the only benefits, the Niagara 1200 made two obvious immediate improvements to my hi-fi, right out of the box. First, it did indeed audibly and significantly reduce low-level background noise – echoing my friend’s earlier comment – that I didn’t even know I had. I thought my system was quiet before, but it wasn’t nearly as quiet as it ultimately proved to be capable of. Low-level distortions that I used to think were simply part of the recorded information were revealed as unwanted background grunge. With that noise stripped away, new details emerged immediately.
Second, the Niagara created the impression of a pronounced improvement in bass performance, and these are inter-related phenomena. I say “the impression of” because I don’t think the bass actually got deeper – the amp and speakers can only do what they can do – but I believe the improvement is a function of eliminating hash that was obscuring the signal, allowing more clearly articulated bass to be transmitted to the speakers(the entire spectrum really, but the bass was initially most obvious).
The amp/speaker combo still won’t set off seismographs, but the bass it does produce was immediately cleaner and tighter, with more slam, and therefore fuller and more realistic sounding. Melodic lines that used to fuzzily suggest low notes turned out to be things like massed, well-articulated bowed bass strings on orchestral records, and on well-recorded small combo jazz recordings plucked basses remained clear and easily followed, even under loud horns and drums. Most recordings were more fully fleshed out and more dynamic, and at lower volumes, too.
Moving up the frequency range, the effect was similar, if more subtle. For the past few months, I’ve been enjoying newfound transparency with my new SOTA Nova VI turntable, which tightened images across the board, defining spaces and improving context between musicians and the soundstage. The Niagara 1200 took those improvements and clarified them further. Listening to the Thelonious Monk Septet’s Monk’s Music (Analog Productions AJAZ 1102, Riverside Records RLP 12-242, 45 RPM, 2004), on the magnificent “Well, You Needn’t,” Art Blakey’s kit always sounded a bit disconnected from the rest of the soundstage on my earlier turntables. On the Nova VI, for the first time in twenty years of listening to this record (or CD, before that), the drums sound fully integrated with the room they were recorded in, and the early stereo doughnut hole in the middle was completely eliminated. Adding the Niagara 1200 brought spatial cues into higher relief, creating more soundstage depth and air around the musicians, particularly during Blakey’s solo. There was always air and space around the kit, but now that air is connected to rest of the room, unifying the soundstage. The recording now sounds complete and of one piece. The Niagara’s contribution to this record in my system was immediately obvious. The reduction in noise made a great recording more realistic and brought the musicians forward across the decades closer to my room; exactly what you hope for out of any new piece of equipment. Great stuff!
By the way, if you’ve never heard it, the Blakey’s drum performance on this version of “Well, You Needn’t” is mind-blowing and something ever jazz fan should listen to – a masterpiece of keeping rock-steady rhythm with one foot on the high-hat while playing a completely arrhythmic improvisation with the other foot and both hands. Forgetting about the music for a second, the dexterity alone is amazing. (Understatement Alert! The rest of the album is pretty good, too).
A related aside: Monk’s Music is one of a pair of very famous jazz records – John Coltrain’s Blue Train (Blue Note, BLP 1577) being the other – that were recorded on two decks simultaneously, one in mono and one in stereo as the studios were just setting up their new two-channel recorders about three months apart in 1957. The Riverside production is a very successful application of the new stereo recording technology, and this AP stereo reissue is first rate. But PLEASE, would someone go find that mono master and re-press it on the highest quality vinyl you can find? Music Matters did the monaural Blue Trane using the original mono tape and it’s brilliant! Someone needs to do the same with the mono master of Monk’s Music.
What It Doesn’t Do
One of the criticisms of some power conditioners is that, while they may reduce noise, they sometimes do so at the expense of the very signal they’re trying to preserve. Transformer-based conditioners have been accused of sometimes rolling off high frequencies, obscuring details and softening the overall presentation. I reviewed a conditioner a few years ago – one that cost twice as much as the Niagara 1200 – with exactly this problem. It was quiet, but music sounded dull and lifeless.
In my system, the Niagara 1200 exhibited none of these bad habits. Signals were crystalline in the treble and clear all the way down, top to bottom, but – as already noted – with a significant reduction in grit and grunge that had been obscuring the signal. Powell’s goal to “Do no harm” mantra seems to have been met.
Another place where the Niagara 1200 has been helpful over the last couple of months is for reviewing equipment. Granted, this is not an issue faced by every audiophile, but it’s still worth mentioning. Reviewing hi-fi equipment is the art of deciphering miniscule variations in texture, atmosphere, extension, and of course ultimate detail retrieval.
It’s been an embarrassment of turntable riches around here this summer, starting with the aforementioned SOTA, which I purchased back in May, and currently Goldnote’s very enjoyable Mediterraneo turntable and B-7 ceramic tonearm, which will be the subject of an upcoming review. Using my Lyra Delos cartridge in both turntables reveals some real differences between the two. The Goldnote throws a slightly larger soundstage while the SOTA’s images and bass are more clearly delineated; The SOTA’s treble is more extended, while the Goldnote is warmer; the SOTA is more analytical, the Goldnote is more emotional, etc. These can be subtle details, but as any carpenter will tell you, the details are where the money’s at. I might have been able to hear these differences using the old Tice conditioner, but I’m not certain of that, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to hear them as clearly as I can with the Niagara 1200 in place.
Cords for Chords
As I mentioned earlier, AudioQuest sent two of their NRG-Z3 power cables along with the Niagara 1200. Although not strictly necessary to operate the power conditioner, it was suggested that the same shielding that makes AQ interconnects so good at rejecting grunge is also helpful when dealing with electricity to get the most out of the Niagara 1200. The Cullen and MIT power cables I’ve had for years are good, but I decided to take the advice to see if there was any difference. I used the Niagara 1200 with both my own and the AQ cables for comparison, placing them in succession, first between the wall and the conditioner, and then between the conditioner and the highest current draw in my system, my Cary V12r power amplifier. The cable between the Niagara and the wall made the biggest difference, audibly settling down some hot treble and hard edges. The second cable between the conditioner and my amplifier reinforced the effect, though more subtly. These are moderately priced cables, and they did make an audible difference, offering performance improvements and good value.
The AudioQuest Niagara 1200 is the type of product I can get into. It does exactly what it purports to do. It reduces the deleterious effects of untreated power and it does so at reasonable price. I like what it does for the sound of my system, clearing away electronic schmutz I didn’t know was there to allow more of the original signal to be transmitted cleanly. If you’re contemplating adding or upgrading power delivery equipment, but some of the more extravagantly priced offerings are giving you cold feet, this could be your ticket. The Niagara 1200 is a well-engineered, high performance, and high-value power conditioner that’s worth checking out. You could spend a hell of a lot more money, but you may not want to bother. It’s that good.
The Dedicated Line
Since we’re talking about power it seems like a good opportunity to tout the advantages of one of my favorite tweaks, a dedicated 20-amp household circuit for audio equipment.
The ultimate in electric stupidity – for the fire safety, if not sonic performance – would be using a five-thousand-dollar anaconda-sized power cable with a cheater-plug into an ungrounded outlet fed by one-hundred-year-old knob & tube wiring, and all of it sharing a circuit with the dishwasher. This would be an admittedly extreme example, but I’ll bet there’s someone out there doing this right now, and it does illustrate a specific point: All questions of flammability aside, if the power coming through your walls is doing so on a really poor quality circuit – if the wires are ancient and degraded, or it’s infected by dishwashers ceiling fans, and the like – all the fancy cables in the world will only go so far, if anywhere, towards making your system sound better. After all, those wires were designed to accommodate the pinnacle of household conveniences in 1920 – the incandescent light bulb, not your amplifier.
Years ago, one December in our old house, I realized that there were two laptops, a TV, a couple of lamps, and a Christmas tree, all sharing the same circuit with my hi-fi equipment, and it occurred to me that this might have been contributing to my musical dissatisfaction. With that forehead-smacking epiphany I took it upon myself to install a dedicated 20amp line to serve nothing but my stereo. In retrospect I should have hired a professional to do this and so should you, but I somehow managed to wire it into the main panel properly without burning the place down. With less direct competition for power on the same circuit, my gear instantly sounded better. When we moved four years ago, the first thing I did was to call a licensed electrician to run a line in our new house (He also installed some lights and did some other repairs, so it wasn’t all about me).
The dedicated lines make an appreciable improvement in sound simply because the audio gear isn’t picking up as much sonic garbage from every other electric powered device in the house; a little less grit, a little better resolution and so on. It’s an installation that I highly recommend. You can go nuts with fancy audiophile wire and outlets if you want – they certainly won’t hurt – but even starting with some basic yellow 20amp Romex and a hardware store receptacle will be good start. It also shouldn’t be a terribly expensive thing to have installed: a couple of hundred bucks, depending on how far the wire needs to be fished through your walls, assuming you’ve got an honest tradesman. It’s a cost-effective tweak and money well spent.
And by the way, while Christmas trees are not helpful to audio signals, they are great for taming room resonances when placed behind speakers, but that’s a story for another day.
Niagara 1200 Power Conditioner
· 7AC outlets; 2 high-current; 5 linear filtered
· Patented Ground Noise Dissipation System: All outlets; 2 banks of directional controlled ground noise dissipation
· Direction-controlled ultra-low resistance solid-core wiring
· Ultra-linear AudioQuest AC RF Filtering Capacitors
· Linear-Noise Dissipation Technology: more than 18 octaves of AC differential filtering with linear response, optimized for varying line and load impedance
· Non-Sacrificial Surge Protection: Withstands multiple AC surges and spikes up to 6000v/3000A without sustaining damage
· Over-voltage shutdown with automatic reset
· Low-Z (low impedance) NRG series silver/beryllium AC power inlets and outlets.
· Dimensions: 19.61” wide x 7.53” deep x 3.41” high
· Weight: 15.1 lbs.
Digital Front End
Cambridge CXC CD transport
Cambridge 840C CD player (Still lonely and looking for love)
Analog Front End
SOTA Nova VI turntable
Rek-O-Kut T12h turntable
Techniques 1200 Mk 1 turntable
GoldNote Mediterraneo turntable and B-7 tonearm (Review Sample)
Jelco 9” SA-750 DB toneam
Audioquest PT6 tonearm
Karmadon 12” viscous damped unipivot tonearm
Lyra Delos cartridge
Audio-Technica AT33Sa cartridge
Miyajima Spirit Mono cartridge
Cary SLP-98P preamp w/ phono stage
Cary CAD 280 SA V12R power amplifier
Aurorasound SP-03H stepup transformer
Lyric Audio PS-10 MC/MM phono stage
Verity Audio Fidelity Encore
Audio Quest Copperheads
Zentara Reference ICs
Zentara Reference Speaker Cables
Nordost Blue Heaven ICs
Cullen power cables
AudioQuest NRG-Z3 power cables
MIT Z-Cable power cords
AudioQuest Niagara 1200 power conditioner
Tice Box power conditioner
Nordost Sort Kones AC vibration dampers
Mapleshade Audio Rack
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