The handful of power conditioners in the $5000 range (and up) has remained a curiosity to me, primarily because the price seems out of proportion to the rest of my system. High current dedicated lines and moderately priced power conditioners have served me well and proven very cost effective. So when I learned of the new Synergistic Research PowerCell 4 at $1250 offering trickle-down technology from their larger Tesla PowerCell10SE MkII, I sensed a breakthrough product. With careful component selection the four outlets of the PowerCell 4 would allow me to test the waters of the upper echelon of power conditioners.
As I waited for a review sample to become available after CES the story took a twist. The Canadian Home Furnishings Show in Toronto gave me an opportunity to visit Israel Blume of Coincident Speaker Technologies and experienced his personal rig. Using his Coincident cables, amplifiers and loudspeakers, along with $30,000 front ends (both digital and analog) Israel indulged me in two hours of listening to my own familiar music, and several pieces of music he wanted to share. It was one of the very finest auditions I've ever experienced (and I've covered more than my share of high end shows). Immediately, I adopted it as my Reference Rig in absensia. But as we were leaving, almost as an afterthought, I asked Israel what kind of power conditioning he uses. Was flabbergasted when he replied: None! He relies on multiple dedicated lines along with orange hospital grade outlets from Home Depot. He assured me he had tried the very best conditioners offered and found they all impart a sonic signature on the music. Driving back to Rochester I kept thinking that maybe a couple of $30,000 front ends in my system. In lieu of the possibility of that happening, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the PowerCell 4.
Synergistic Research had previously impressed me with their Acoustic ART room tweaks at a demonstration at CES a few years ago. And last year, Wayne Donnelly gave the Acoustic ART system a Blue Note Award. Would their PowerCell have a similar effect on the music? Ted Denney, Lead Designer and owner of Synergistic Research planted a seed of skepticism when he warned me that it might not be my particular cup of tea. Nonetheless, I was optimistic. And equally optimistic about the new Tesla SE T3 Active power cord they were sending along with it. He also teased me with the prospect of trying their new Galileo Universal Speaker Cell, which he claims has a similar and additive effect on the music. He wrote:
But first things first. While waiting the availability of the PowerCell 4 I kept hearing the siren call of the Coincident system. As Israel pointed out, was not far off with the gear I had on hand since his Statement Preamplifier and Statement Phono Preamplifier were already in my system plus my TubeMagic Canada monoblocks were quite similar and a bit more powerful than his M300B Frankenstein MK II mono amplifiers (reviewed a couple of years ago). For that matter, my Kharma loudspeakers have an Accuton ceramic midrange (though not the expensive version he uses), so I put them back into the system, displacing the wonderful Tekton Designs open baffle full-range monitors and dual Tekton subwoofers. I surrendered a little depth, clarity and timbre in the bass by installing the Kharmas, but picked up the immediacy and dynamics that brought the rig a lot closer to what entranced me in Toronto. I was still far short of the $30,000 front ends, at least in dollars if not a commensurate shortage of musicality. The end result was a reasonable facsimile at about a quarter of the cost of Israel's reference rig and was solidly back to square one and feeling very good about what I was hearing.
The Arrival And Set-Up
Coming home one evening with a mild headache probably caused by dehydration, I put on Joni Mitchell's Blue CD which I had previously enjoyed the night before. With the mild headache, it was unbearable, so I switched from the gray module to the black and within 20 minutes the headache was gone. Whatever your pleasure, the choice of bullets is a wonderful option that will give you flexibility and adaptability as your system and personal taste evolves. Unlike Israel Blume and more than a few legendary companies who have achieved their version of system synergy by designing nearly every component, most of us in this hobby re-design the wheel with spokes from a variety of manufacturers as our financial commitment grows. We tinker, we become intellectually engaged, and we express our individuality and personal style by virtue of the industrial design of the components we select. And along the way some of us even enjoy the music. All of which is why I love this hobby.
Moving on to the PowerCell 4, it is a small box, not much larger than the two orange duplex outlets on its top side which are not your typical hospital grade outlets, but their own TeslaPlex design that gets treated, along with the entire unit, with their Quantum Tunneling process whereby the unit is conditioned with a 850,000 Volt treatment from a Tesla coil using a special protocol. The chassis is a shiny black plastic-like box that will neither shield the components within from EMI/RFI, nor limit whatever waves are produced from emanating into the room. It is comprised of an expensive synthetic material designed to resonate with the contents as electricity passes through. Denney is keenly aware of the importance of vibration control. One of the economies of the PowerCell 4 is that this chassis is built from a folded design of this special material, rather than the machined parts of the material that form the chassis of the more expensive 10SE MKII or the new Galileo PowerCell LE. On the bottom are threaded inserts for four 1.5 inch thin metal spikes that are so sharp they are capable of releasing blood from your body should you become curious. The purpose for the spikes was to keep the PowerCell 4 away from the static field that resides in carpet, but I was told they will no longer be supplied with the units. I suspect it is a liability issue. Instead, to keep it off the floor I used a block of cardboard packing material. The threaded inserts for the spikes are also used to attach the unit to a wall mount, which would give you the advantage of mounting the PowerCell 4 higher on the wall to facilitate connecting power cords and swapping Enigma Circuits — a very nice idea. Also of note, on the side of the unit next to the IEC input is a little plug-in resistive module that completes the active shielding of the PowerCell 4, much like the Enigma Circuits on the power cord. It has a bright blue LED to indicate the circuit is active. Since this module can be rotated, you can aim the LED in a direction to intentionally maximize or minimize its impact on the listening environment — a clever and important factor for those of us who like to listen in the dark. Most likely you will place it behind your components where it will be out of contention and the blue glow will be minimized.
What I Heard
The music takes on a much more live character that makes it incredibly easy to flip into the experience of being there with just the slightest injection of fantasy. The instruments are three dimensionally rendered in a three dimensional soundscape with greater focus and a seemingly non-existent noise floor. This latter characteristic became irrefutably evident on a cold night when I lit a fire to heat the house. I could hear the fan in the heat exchanger of the fireplace in the adjacent family room as a distinct sound, while the music was perceived as being played in a separate, silent space. Typically, the fan noise blends into the noise floor of the music and is not perceived as a unique noise in the other room. Likewise, the soundscape is completely believable with continuous space among the clearly identifiable players without any unnatural sonic voids. Yet it was not so pinpoint as to draw attention to the fact or to give the impression that the musicians or instruments were as thin as Alberto Giacometti's stick people. Following the lines of any particular instrument was just a matter of wanting to. But the presentation of the music was so complete, so natural, so inviting that my reviewer's cap was continually falling off, leaving me to simply enjoy the music. (That's my official excuse for taking so long to write this review).
In the Our Reviewing Strandards column of this website, editor Steven R. Rochlin talks about the effect of music coming out into the room rather than residing behind the plane of the speakers. Seldom have I experienced that effect and I attributed its absence to the fact that my speakers are on a very long wall with first reflections virtually non-existent. With the PowerCell 4 and Tesla SE T3 combination there was greater transparency from edge to edge and front to back in the soundscape as well as greater focus than with my previous power conditioner. While the musicians were placed behind the plane of the speakers, the music often reached out into the space between the speakers and my listening chair I've experienced greater focus before — what you would call really "pinpoint" — but that alone does not lead to greater believability or enjoyment. Perhaps it is the combination of lower noise floor along with this improved focus and greater transparency that makes it all come together and break through the plane of the speakers. A by-product of these improvements is greater dynamic contrast. Perhaps it is this that makes the music seem to jump out into the room at the appropriate moments such as the opening of the 4th movement of Mahler's First. Talk about "being there"! Even as I walked about the house in the kitchen and family room the music reached out and grabbed my attention with a degree of reality not previously encountered.
Female vocals are a difficult genre for me. The soft, seductive female voice is a challenge for my aging ears but revisiting Norah Jones' Come Away with Me revealed the system to have much improved resolution. This in turn yielded far more subtle nuance and tonal color that afforded me much higher cognitive recognition of the lyrics and much deeper emotional connection with the music. I was literally moved to tears. Nor was this emotional connection unique to female vocals. The music also took on a smoothness that made digital sound a lot more like analog sources. Part of this smoothness seems attributable to a slight bloom that digital sources have a tough time reproducing. This slight bloom (which can be induced in the recording process or later in post-production) combines with a sense of three-dimensionality that makes the music seem much more live rather than recorded. And here, by "three-dimensionality" I am not talking about musicians being left and right, fore and aft in the soundstage, but the dimensionality of the musical notes themselves — the attack, the decay, how large they are, how loud they are, how far they come out into the listening room, the micro dynamics of the notes, as well as what musicians call "tone". Wait, that's seven dimensions!
Another interesting by-product of this power conditioner/cable combination was the increased accessibility of music in old recordings made with old microphones in more primitive or minimalist recording studios. I was able to cut through the "vintage sound" and feel like I was there with the musicians at a long gone point in time. Old songs I listened to in my youth came through with a clarity and transparency that did not exist back in those days — at least not outside the recording studio. Talk about creating a time machine....
I was also curious about what the Synergistic Research gear might do for a less expensive rig, so I brought the Coincident Partial Eclipse II speakers in from the video rig in the family room and lowered my expectations. I needn't have bothered — to lower my expectations, that is. The SR gear raised the performance of the rig to the point where the Partial Eclipse II came across almost as good as the much more expensive Kharmas. This was both good news and bad news. Israel was always a bit disappointed that my review of the Partials many years ago did not leap and scream about the quality that he knew was there all along. So the good news is... with a really primo rig, the Partial Eclipse II is an outstanding speaker deserving of a leaping and screaming rave review. The bad news is... the market has moved away from speakers in this price range and the model has been dropped. Such is fate, but if you should come across a used pair and have a small to medium size room, I'd say grab them. My Linda, who watches far more TV than I, informs me that selling "her Coincidents" would be grounds for divorce.
This brings me around to the Tekton Designs, a $550 open baffle monitor with low wife acceptance factor, and precious little more acceptance from husbands. They just happen to be incredibly good monitors for listening at low to moderate levels with tube amplifiers, which is why they were awarded a Blue Note Award. (Apartment dwellers take note.) Normally I mate these with a crossover and Tekton's extraordinary subwoofer for my larger room and to listen at higher volume, but for this review I limited my comparison to just the OB4.5 monitors on stands. The results were mixed. With the improved resolution and tonality afforded by the PowerCell 4 and cable, the shortcomings of the 4.5 inch full-range Fostex driver became more evident, particularly after listening to the eight times more expensive Coincident speakers. That was the result after running through my compilation CD. When Sunday evening arrived with my Hearts of Space listening ritual I totally forgot about the speakers and became Lost in Space. Admittedly, this sub-genre of electronic music is not terribly demanding in terms of dynamic range and it certainly need not be played loud. The spatiality and tonal richness shone through with mesmerizing detail that belied the price of the speaker and outstripped its performance when I used it in my reference system. While there was definitely much to be gained with the PowerCell 4 and Tesla SE T3 cable, the likelihood of a speaker in this price range being paired with them is minimal.
Synergistic Research also claims great results with video. I tried them with my Sony Trinitron CRT TV and noticed a decrease in video noise and more saturated colors, but I did not have a plasma or LCD big screen to really give it a relevant test. Given the audible results I obtained, I don't doubt their claim for video. If you are running a large plasma screen the non-current limiting benefit of the PowerCell 4 should be a big plus.
The Question Of Value
From the other end of the telescope, it can look like a tremendous value. In an economic environment where high end integrated amplifiers are prevalent and preamp/DACs abound, a small unit with only four outlets is not such a handicap. And if you do need more, Synergistic Research offers their QLS-6 power strip ($399) which is also Quantum Tunneled and can be plugged into the PowerCell 4. If your system is well balanced and you are looking to raise the performance bar, it is hard to imagine a better way to spend $2150 since the PowerCell 4 and Tesla SE T3 combination affects all the components plugged into it simultaneously. As you read above, they dramatically narrowed the performance gap between the $4500 Coincident speaker and the Kharmas that were selling for upwards of $20,000 last I knew. That's certainly value added that is far in excess of the cost of the Synergistic products. In my case, I'd feel a lot less impoverished for not being able to afford those $30,000 front ends.
The other significant factor is that while it is an outstanding power conditioner, it is not a surge protector, nor will it protect you from brownouts. I have really come to appreciate the peace of mind from having such protection in my PS Audio Quintessence, particularly in the summer when thunderstorms pass through and I'm not around to pull the plugs. You will have to find your own comfort zone on this issue. But the absence of MOVs, switches or fuses creates the opportunity for un-restricted current and far greater transparency. I had already compared the sound of my rig with the PS Audio Quintessence and simply running the four components directly into the 30amp dedicated line. The Quintessence was a significant improvement over directly into the dedicated line as I found in my initial review of that product, but the PowerCell 4/TESLA combination took the music to another level altogether. With the thought of adding a modicum of protection I tried inserting the PS Audio Soloist between the dedicated line and the PowerCell, but sonically this was a step in the wrong direction. While this supports Israel's contention made earlier, it makes me wonder if he has ever tried a PowerCell. Synergistic Research feels that the best way to protect against surges is to take the "whole house" approach by installing a surge protection device or transient voltage surge suppressor ahead of your panel box on the incoming line. They claim these devices will not affect the performance of your rig, but they will certainly incur an additional expense.
Tesla SE T3 Active Power Cord
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