Spiritual Audio VX-9 AC Conditioner
I’ve been a bad hi-fi reviewer. Spiritual Audio was kind enough to send me a sample of their VX-9 power conditioner almost a year ago, and with Christmas now passed and the New Year approaching rapidly I’m just now finishing my review. I started the year behind the eight ball. Then a pair of other reviews got bumped up for manufacturers who decided to personally embody the cliché “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Before I realized it, 2014 had slipped away with breathtaking speed. A full professional schedule, a two-year-old toddler, and domestic demands all conspired to keep my vacuum tubes cold and dark for more of the year than I would have liked.
On the positive side, I can accurately report that the Spiritual Audio VX-9 power conditioner proved to be perfectly reliable over a much longer than usual review period, so there’s that.
The Condition of Hi-Fi
I hosted our local hi-fi crew last month for some listening, scotch, and victuals. While we were together I took a highly unscientific poll on buying equipment and the use of power conditioners. Most of our motley assortment of gear was purchased used or new-old-stock, sometimes modified, and with a few judicious investments in important core pieces – usually amps or speakers. All of us rely on a lot of trial and error to get our systems to sound the way we like, and for the most part they all sound pretty darned good. For my part, I have exactly two pieces of equipment that I purchased new: a Project Tube Box, and my Cambridge 840c CD player, and the later doesn’t really count; it was a demo.
All of us (seven of us) use power supplies of some sort, but none of them crack four figure price tags and most of them were purchased for significantly less. All of them were bought used. It’s not that the gang doesn’t appreciate the benefits of a state-of-the-art power delivery scheme it’s just that other more glamorous components always seem to take precedence, especially as the prices go up and up. When the component’s price crosses into the thousands we want it to do something: amplify a signal, spin a disc, make our ears bleed, or something.
On the other hand…
Taking stock of my own system, it’s pretty clear that with the cumulative investment I have in equipment a higher level of power conditioner would not be out of place financially. Something in the $3-5,000 dollar range would be comparable price-wise with a lot of my gear. But – and there’s just no way to sugar coat this one – I have a hard time wrapping my head around spending as much money on one ancillary non-signal piece as I spent on my amplifier. The two things just don’t seem equal to me. The amplifier makes music. A power conditioner supplies electricity, which I can get directly out of the wall without the middleman.
There is no question that making some investment in power supply gear – including at least moderately upgraded power cables – does have a positive effect on sound quality. I’m probably not telling any audiophile readers something they don’t already know, but the most grandiose hyperbole of miracle transformations and sonic epiphanies leaves me skeptical.
The only way I start to thaw that barrier in my own mind is to consider that every piece of equipment in the signal chain can be supplied through this thing, and therefore every piece of equipment receives its benefits at the same time. Now we’re talking about a power supply that’s giving life to two source components, a pre-amp, an amp, a phono stage, and periodically some other visiting piece of equipment. Taken in the context of an entire system’s worth of equipment, a more significant investment in power conditioning starts to – begrudgingly – make more sense.
This House Was Wired By Blind Mice
We’ve lived in our house – which we built – for ten years. For most of those years I’ve had a Monster power supply, which despite the manufacturer’s claims, I still think of as little more than an oversized power strip, but it was fine. I never had an issue with the electricity until I switched to tubes (about four years ago). With the installation of the Cary V12r I was suddenly faced with an audible (if low-level and mostly tolerable) hum through my speakers, likely caused by a ground loop of some sort.
Attempting to rectify that issue I acquired a PS Audio Ultimate Outlet to supply the amp and pre-amp, which further lowered the noise floor. In combination, the twoconditioners do a pretty good, but not 100% successful, job.
About a year ago I realized (and in retrospect this seems obvious, but it never occurred to me to look) that the entire room was powered through one circuit breaker. Counting plugs, I tallied up my entire hi-fi (five components in the signal chain), the TV, two laptops, a VCR, a cable box, a Roku, three lamps, and a Christmas tree. That surely wasn’t doing anything positive for the sound and more importantly the situation clearly had ‘fire hazard’ written all over it. If for nothing more than safety I ran a dedicated 20 amp line from the main electric panel to a single outlet near my components (without setting the house on fire, thank you very much), which reduced the noise further still, as well as opening the sound up a little with the increased current. This year we moved the Christmas tree to another room*.
Still driving myself batty trying to eliminate the last remaining hum, I also made what turned out to be an excellent $100 investment in a DC blocker, which was built to order by a gentleman I met through Audiogon. It’s basically two square metal electrical boxes screwed together back-to-back with a heavy-gauge fixed (thank goodness it’s fixed) power cord, two outlets, and some caps and other guts inside(I’m not an engineer, so I couldn’t tell you what they actually do). It’s a versatile design that can also be hard-wired it into an electric supply line, eliminating the need for any power cable at all. On it’s own it also further reduced the noise floor – and particularly the hum, which was almost entirely eliminated. I have it placed in my system as sort of a pre-power supply, and everything – including power conditioners – runs through it. Over all the combination of the DC blocker with the two conditioners reduced extraneous noise to a very low, tolerable level. Hiss and slight hum are audible at about two feet from the tweeters, but not at my listening seat.
When I installed the Spiritual Audio VX-9 power conditioner, the Monster and the Ultimate outlet were taken out. The DC blocker remained as an intermediary between the conditioner and the wall outlet.
The Spiritual Audio VX-9 Power Conditioner
The Spiritual Audio VX-9 is a black box component, 19 inches wide (including rack overhangs) by 8 inches deep, with eight outlets on the back panel. Ornamentation is limited to white painted lettering on the front panel for make and model, and two LEDs. Its basic utilitarian aesthetic suits my taste just fine. As usual, I want my money on the inside, so I appreciate the plane black box. The basic price listed on the Spiritual Audio website is $2,500. An optional upgraded Mark II version adds Furutech FXP-G and GTX-D outlets in place of the standard receptacles for an additional $500.
The VX-9 is a passive conditioner that uses transformers to reduce AC line noise. The size and type of transformers is not specified, but the unit is not very heavy, so I’d assume that they’re fairly small. Following the admonition on the Spiritual Audio website, and out of respect for a loaned piece of equipment, I did not open the case to look. The unit can pass through 2500 watts at 20 amps. The conditioner won’t create a pinch point that limits current being supplied through my dedicated 20 amp line, which is appreciated. It also claims a 560 joule/30,000 ampere surge capacity as well as something they describe as “advanced power factor correction.”
Spiritual Audio claims that by maintaining full current strength they prevent transient limiting, with no sonic coloration or loss of high frequencies. I know from experience that last point – impact on high frequencies – can be an issue with some power conditioners, so it’s good to see that SA took that into design consideration. SA also states that the VX-9 can be placed behind an equipment rack with the outlets facing out in the event that this placement configuration is more convenient for the user.
One interesting feature of the VX-9 is its “Digital Source Tuning”. Two of the outlets are marked with either a green or red dot. The Digital 1 outlets, marked with the green dot, claims to be highly detailed, while the Digital 2 outlets, with the red dots, claim to offer a warmer sound. I know there are some audiophiles who blanch at the idea of anything messing with the signal, but personally I appreciate the ability to fine tune the sound to taste. People do it every day with their choice of cables, tubes, and other tweaks. There’s no reason why a power conditioner shouldn’t provide a similar benefit for those who desire it.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, the VX-9 has been perfectly reliable during its extended stay in my system. Granted, it doesn’t have any moving parts, but I’ve got a lot of things around the house with no moving parts and they break all the time. The VX-9 seems to be a robust piece of equipment.
Sounds like a winner
To tell the truth as I write this, I’ve had the VX-9 for so long that I’d I completely forgotten what my system sounds like without it. So I guess I’ll start by discussing what it sounds like with it and work backwards.
To start, other than a little mechanical transformer hum (the Cary tech told me, “they all do that”) my system is very, very quiet with the VX-9 in place. That’s one of the primary goals of any power conditioner, so I’d say that goal has been met. Using my Verity Fidelio Encores there is still a very faint hiss at the speakers, but when I say ‘faint’ I mean you can barely hear it with your ear pressed up against the tweeter. At six inches away it’s inaudible. Also, Hum is completely eliminated. That’s as good a performance as I’ve ever gotten out of my point-to-point wired tube system without any impact on sound reproduction. With the Magnepan IIAs, certainly helped by their higher resistance, there is no audible sound whatsoever.
I’m also pleased to report that there does not seem to be any constriction of the high frequencies. Another power conditioner that I reviewed earlier in the year was dead quiet, but in my system it also very obviously scrubbed off the treble a little. The VX-9 displays no such bad habits. Violins are naturally extended and airy with their entire vibrato intact the way they sound in real life (Hi-fi reviewers really should be on first call for ad agencies writing copy for wineries: smooth and refined, yet bold with a hint of drama).
During my extended review of the VX-9, a hi-fi friend generously gave me the aforementioned pair of Maggie IIAs* that he’d purchased new in 1983 (he still had the receipt) and that he’d had rebuilt fairly recently. This was my first experience with any Magnepan product, and despite being over thirty years old, and having limited extension at the top and bottom, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the things they do right. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Sergey Schepkin’s recent Steinway recording The Six French Suites, music of Johann Sebastian Bach. As you’d expect, Steinway’s in-house label makes really great piano recordings, and despite their shortcomings in other areas, the Maggies capture the essence of the piano beautifully. With the VX-9 charging the whole kit, the Maggies reproduced not only the notes, but also the secondary sounds – the changes in tone and vibrato as the pedals are manipulated, the room and case reverberations, and the string vibrations – with pleasantly unexpected clarity. These speakers sound far better than any thirty-year-old pair of ribbons with a reputation for being unreliable has a right to. Adding background noise to any system can really kill those subtle effects, and with the VX-9 it was never an issue.
Imaging, resolution, and clarity are also excellent with the VX-9 installed. On mono recordings the sound image is rock solid and stable perfectly between the speakers. Recordings with good stereo spread expand instruments clearly across the soundstage like ducks on a county fair shooting gallery.
Everyone knows the song “Peter Gunn”, but fewer people remember that it was written as the theme song to a short-lived TV show that began airing in 1958**. Switching back to the much higher resolution Verities, The Harmonie Ensemble’s recent recording of Music For Peter Gunn, directed by Steven Richman on Harmonia Mundy is a fabulous recording by any standard. These Henry Mancini compositions are presented with a clarity and spaciousness that all recordings should aspire to. Stage depth, especially around the percussion, is loud and clear, and the individual musicians inhabit their own space laterally as the instruments spread out between the speakers and then beyond them. Instrument timbres are perfect and the entire recording just sounds right. Again, those little details – the spaciousness, the clarity, and the timbres – are the things that get lost when noise is introduced to the signal chain. With the VX-9: No noise, no loss, great sound.
The aforementioned “digital source-tuning feature” offers a very subtle variance in the sound character, but subtle is the operative word here. In my system the effect was most notable on violins. Listening to the Trio Wanderer’s recording of Haydn’s piano trios 39 and 43-45 (Harmonia Mundi), both the green-dotted “detailed” Digital 1 outlets and the non-dotted Digital 2 outlets (there was no red dot on my review sample, contrary to the literature) had smooth detailed treble. The Digital 1 had perhaps a little more overall detail, air, and extension than the “warm sounding” Digital 2 outlet, but the difference was between shades of white: If I hadn’t been looking for it I might not have noticed it. With the Digital 1 outlet the piano had a little more ring and reverberation, and there was perhaps slightly better overall instrument separation. In an all tube system I preferred the Digital 1 outlets, but I could see going the other way in certain solid-state applications. It’s good to have choices.
Tearing It All Down
Then I took my amp and pre-amp out of the VX-9 and plugged them into the PS Audio Ultimate Outlet, again run through the DC blocker. Renewed – if minor – static hiss was immediately evident from a couple of feet away. It isn’t audible from my listening chair, but it’s there all the same. Still using the Trio Wanderer CD, stage depth is slightly shallower with less crystalline clarity and instrument delineation, likely due to the audio signal having to fight its way through a little more grunge. It’s not a complete holy-shit, that-sounds-awful collapse of the music, but it’s definitely a small but audible step down.
Taking it one step further, I inserted my Monster supply back in for the source components and revealed slightly more degradation. High violin notes, while they don’t exactly sound strained, have lost a touch of the natural silky smoothness they had with VX-9. Similarly, edges of images also become a little less distinct. Cumulatively, my own power equipment doesn’t sound bad, per se, but it doesn’t sound quite as good the VX-9 either. The VX-9 adds a level of cohesion and clarity to my system that the PS Audio and Monster combination just can’t duplicate.
Wrapping It Back Up
I went about 24 hours and then re-installed the VX-9. With every component running through it instead of my current two-conditioner setup, it had the advantageof improving the performance of every piece in the same manor at the same time. The change was subtle, but universally positive. It wasn’t a (*!BANG!*) hit-you-in-the-head-with-a-2×4 change, but the things that mattered were all appreciably improved: quieter backgrounds, better image definition, more dimensionality, and smoother treble. Music was more cohesive as a whole sonic experience.
I’ve never inserted any piece of equipment into my system – in the signal chain or out – that had such a universally positive – if nuanced – effect on the entire system. Sure, a cable swap or source change will make an audible difference in sound, but it won’t change the performance of your amplifier or CD player. In listening, I felt that the VX-9 did subtly improve the performance of all of my components and I was happy to hear it.
So back to my original ranting about equipment cost and value for ancillary components in a good hi-fi system: the improved sound of my system may well overcome my cheapness and hidebound skepticism. At $2,500 the VX-9 actually represents a small fraction of the total retail price of my equipment, and therefore makes it a good value in my system. Its overall benefits were very clear and to my ears worth the money.
I’m going to miss the VX-9 when I send it back. A house sale and subsequent family move will likely sideline any new equipment acquisitions for the near future, but as soon as that’s all settled this is where I’m going to invest my coin. In the meantime, the Spiritual Audio VX-9 gets a hearty recommendation as well as my personal nod for Stereo Times ‘Most Wanted Component’ for 2014.
* It’s worth mentioning that the Maggie IIA’s have a decidedly vintage sound: very little low bass, and obvious treble roll-off. They’re not in any way up to the full standards of what we think of as modern hi-fi. Still, and perhaps because of their shortcomings, they’re the rare pair of speakers that I can plug in and just enjoy the music without listening to it as hi-fi. That midrange is glorious.
** I was actually sorry to see the Christmas tree go. Placed behind a speaker it did a terrific job of breaking up some unwanted room resonances.
***Since we’re discussing Peter Gunn, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to hype one of my favorite recordings of all time. Shelly Manne and His Men Play Peter Gunn (Contemporary S7025) is an early 1958 stereo recordingfeaturing the same Henry Mancini music played on the CD I used for this review, but in a smaller sextet. Mancini’s compositions are relentlessly interesting and accessible, with excellent instrumental interplay, and the band (and somewhat contrary to the Harmonie Ensemble) swings like crazy. As a bonus, it’s a terrific sounding record with – and especially for an early stereo recording – excellent sound-staging. All the players, and especially Manne’s drum kit, are placed in very natural context to each other. The lineup is a who’s who of west coast musicians who never got the widespread recognition they deserve, including Conte Candoli on trumpet and Herb Geller on alto sax. I’ve never seen this one reissued on vinyl, but it should be. In the meantime, original copies aren’t all that expensive. If you’re looking for a great jazz record, this one is hard to beat.
• 8 Outlets
• Dimensions: 19” x 6.8” x 4”
• Weight: 10 lbs
• Chassis: steel
• 2500 watts/20 amps
• 560 joules/30,000 amps surge capacity
• Input power: 125 VAC 50/60 HZ
• 2 x 250 VAC 10 fuses
• Digital Source Tuning
• Optional Furutech outlets.
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