The Power Struggle

They are ridiculous to behold.  They are a death defying challenge to try to manipulate into position and connect behind your equipment.  They are mighty expensive, especially for a product category you probably regarded as “No, thanks.  Perfectly good one came free with each component in my system.”  So we can stop with this nonsense now, I suppose, and I am free to write about something else.  Well, no.  Because without them, your system is a waste, both of time, and any and all funds you have currently poured into it.

Garth Powell, having conquered the world of power conditioners with the AudioQuest Niagara line, now turns his attention to power cables.  “Cords,” we used to naively call them and, I have to confess, I sometimes still do.  But I am guessing that term will fade quickly from my vocabulary, at least as far as how I refer to these new things from AudioQuest, for if all other such devices are “power cords,” these certainly demand a new name.  They are that different, and instantly better, than anything that has come before, and, thus, the folks at AudioQuest have decided they need a really long title: Low-Z / Noise-Dissipation 3-Pole AC Power Cable.  It’s long, but it’s all necessary, with the possible exception of “AC,” to begin to describe just what is going on here.  Just look at the things.  Yeah, that thing that looks like a snapshot from an anaconda orgy is the two ends of one power cable.

Garth and AudioQuest know we really dig this stuff, so they sent us a care package of the first assembled cables in the country for our “audition.”  I plugged one into my Niagara power conditioner and the audition turned laughable in five seconds.  A total remake of the sound. Everything better, and profoundly so.  Tonal gravitas, space and dimension, timing, drive, beauty, silence.  All of it just leaps out in a ludicrous display of benefits that had me scratching my head as to how all off this can come merely by changing out one power cable leading from my AQ Edison outlet to my Niagara power conditioner.   And the really shocking part is the cable I replaced is one from the previous generation of AudioQuest power cables that cost slightly more than the new one I put in its place.

After replacing four more cables (preamp, phono preamp, DAC and Aurender), I found myself struggling to recognize my audio system, and to try to recall the last time I had done anything to it that had produced results of this magnitude.  It’s one of those things wherein one’s mind is presented with so much more to work with that it simply stops working.  As in “having to do anything remotely like work to fully comprehend and enjoy music.”  I’m sorry, but the change was so great that I was utterly uninspired to take any sort of listening notes whatsoever.  These cables had forced me to stop working, such as this stuff is, and have fun.

A few days later, I had a moment to kill before going out to dinner and I didn’t want to fire up the whole rig just for a quick listen, so I opted to pass the time listening to my NightHawk headphones on my MOON Neo 240i connected to power via an AudioQuest NRG-2 power cable to a (Garth Powell-designed) Furman PST-6 “power strip” ($99) which has its own non-detachable power “cord.”  

I’ve been in a Gene Ammons groove lately and pulled up “Jug’s Blue Blues” through the modified SONOS Connect.  Man, that is some sweet stuff!  The title track leads it off and proves the old adage that the best way to beat the blues is with the blues.  A jazz quartet (piano trio plus Ray Barretto’s subtle congas) backs Gene’s luscious tenor sax.  The whole record has the feel of eavesdropping on a conversation a little too intimate to be decent, but you just can’t stop yourself.

Solidly in a blues frame of mind, I followed Gene with “Katie Mae” by Pigpen (the Grateful Dead, not the Charles Schultz, one) off “Bear’s Choice.”  I love this version almost as much as Lightnin’s.  But it was lacking a little of the space and crowd detail I crave from a good hi-fi system.  Sure, these are headphones, and headphones really don’t do the space thing like a good speaker system, but detail?  Shouldn’t that be right in the wheelhouse of this system?

I checked my watch and realized I had just enough time to grab a Thunder (the entry point of the new AQ power cable lineup) and replace the NRG-2.  Bear in mind this is a change of power cable downstream from the built-in one on a $99 power conditioner.  What can that POSSIBLY do?

Just completely elevate the performance of the system, that’s just about all (quoting Pigpen here).  First, I replayed “Jug’s Blue Blues.”  Are you kidding me?  How can that much more information come from changing out a (n already very good) power cable??  I could easily now tell where the floor was in the studio and that everyone was standing on it, a really important contributor to realism, and therefore success, in my world.  Also, the reverb track for Gene’s tenor was clearly a separate track from the mike for his sax, and it was panned to the middle while his original blowing was hard left, making almost a “call and response” effect.  And I could hear the faders open up again following the bass solo, and the drum kit expanding out in space as it was picked up by other mikes.  Yikes!  Way more intimate.  Should I really be allowed to listen in so closely??

I tiptoed back a little and played “Katie” again.  Whoa!  There is all the detail, but also most of the space I associate with this track on a really good speaker system!  How can headphones do this?  3D like crazy!  The hoots and hollers, and even a little quasi-heckling, are so vivid as to virtually conjure images of physical features and even the names of the audience members in my head.  I am there with them.  And Pigpen’s acoustic guitar so rich and full, just as is his voice.  I have just enough time to put the NRG-2 back in and hear it all go away before it’s time to leave.  Certainly, I will need one of these new generation power cables on everything in my system, if not my life.  I wonder if my refrigerator would make food taste better and keep longer if I grafted one onto it?

But take it not just from me.  Scott got the first runs of Dragon (top of this new lineup) off the Irvine assembly line just in time for a Music Night a month ago and completely flipped, texting, “Was in the kitchen all afternoon (after installing them), but OMG!  Be still my heart (and every other vital organ)!  It’s gonna be a long night/week!”  And, “Oh good lord!  The front to back is staggering!”  And finally, late that night, “I truly hope you are snoozing, but I may not be for weeks!”  There is no higher praise for an audio improvement than being unwilling to stop listening for something as trivial as sleep.

And Mark texted me, “How the hell does that make that big of a difference? DAMN!  It’s crazy.  I’m floored,” after plugging in one Thunder to his power conditioner.  I called him upon getting his text and we talked as I drove home from a job site about the impossibility of the magnitude of these changes coming from a power cable.  At the end of it, we simply agreed to let our right brains disagree with our left.  But the final proof of this pudding actually came in his wife’s tasting.  He emailed me a week ago on another topic and then added, “The picture on the TV even improved from the Thunder power cable.  Even my wife noticed it.  She’s like... ‘Hey, the picture on the TV is better.’  And that’s with no prompting from me.”  Maybe I really do need one of these on my fridge.