World Premiere Review!
So what's most important in a system – the front end or the speakers? Where should you put the most money? These are the kinds of questions that arose for me when I first became aware of the High End. And the answers were as numerous as the sales people that I spoke with. Without a lot of experience or knowledge, what seemed like outrageous prices were daunting barriers to investing. Fortunately, I lived in a town with a few high-end dealers who were sympathetic to my thirst. A variety of high-end audio shows including Toronto and Montreal opened my mind to a broad international spectrum of products. Gradually, I learned how to listen.
Cables and power conditioners were gaining serious traction as significant components back in the early 1990's when I came into the realm. But for nearly a decade I remained content with home-brew interconnects, generic shielded power cords and a Tripp-Lite power conditioner. There were other contenders for my attention and my dollars in those days beside audio. When the urge or the need to upgrade struck it was usually for critical components like amplifiers or speakers that desperately needed replacement. Along the way – maybe from rec-audio.high-end or from observing successful layouts in rooms at shows – I developed a critical understanding of the importance of the listening room. When I re-married and we bought a house, the listening room was a prime factor. My wife, on the other hand, was thrilled with the kitchen. The new (to us) home opened the possibility of reviewing equipment and among the very first products I reviewed was the new JPS Labs In-Wall cable which I installed along with a 20 Ampere Romex line for comparison. I immediately began to take electricity more seriously.
The Synergistic Research PowerCell4 I reviewed in June, 2011, along with a nest of their Tesla SE T3 Active Power Cords with active shielding was an ear opener, advancing my system to such a level that I lost interest in the category and turned my attention elsewhere. I mean…like how could it get any better than this? It's a natural consequence of acquiring a very satisfying new component. By this time I was ascribing to the chain link model of audio systems where attention should be paid to improving the weakest link. Well, that's sort of true, but my adventures in hot-rodding a Linn LP 12 turntable and reviewing the Calyx 24-bit/192kHz DAC and the outstanding Kronos Sparta turntable tilted the balance of importance more toward the front end.
A lecture/demonstration at the TAVES show in 2012 by Roy Gregory of The Audio Beat brought a lot of more peripheral issues into play, many of them focusing on the importance of vibration absorption with footers and racks (Stillpoints was one of the sponsors.) but also on filtering the electricity and grounding the entire system. I've paid a lot of attention to vibration absorption over the years, including the use of AVM (Anti-Vibration Magic) to coat the fuses of my components. This interest led me back to Synergistic Research to review their new Black Fuses and Black Duplex outlet, two modest products (relative to the cost of amplifiers or speakers) that took my rig to new heights. An opportunity to borrow a friend's Atmosphere Level 2 interconnect and a newer (but not current) power cord from SR, fired my enthusiasm for experiencing more of their new products, which brings me around, finally, to the review at hand.
You Can't Always Get What You Want
These were expensive power cords I would have been uncomfortable buying on my own initiative, but who am I to argue with their greater experience? Ted Denny dances with electrons and his wisdom permeates the company. The trajectory of their success is evidenced by their new factory with refined equipment that allows them to offer lower priced products that rival their statement products of just a few years ago. I had the feeling I was being set-up for a really good listening experience, but also for a lot of work.
I had not used the monoblocks for a couple of years, but I refreshed the capacitors by using the amps with my original Synergistic Research Tesla SE T3 active power cords for a while before the new gear arrived. I had forgotten how really good these amps are with parallel 300B tubes and seven transformers, each. When the package arrived, I tore down my rig completely and vigorously vacuumed the rug, suspecting I would be on my hands and knees a lot during this review. With a power conditioner having eight outlets instead of four, and active power cords that no longer needed a separate power supply, it was a whole new ball game. I no longer needed their two QLS power strips. I set them aside with plans for a follow-up review of them in the fall. As I re-configured the rig it didn't escape me that they sent the better cords for the source and preamp and stepped down a level to drive the power amps. This correlated to my understanding of the great importance of the front end in assembling a first class system.
One of the virtues of my vintage Sony ES CD player is the Repeat button, a feature that is sadly missing from most modern players and essential for burning in new gear. I could rack up the hours without having to listen or even be present. Nevertheless, it was evident from the start that good things were awaiting. The problem I faced was differentiating the contributions made by the power conditioner from the contributions made by the cables. I set up a protocol.
Since I had been reviewing the new Coincident Dynamite speakers for the previous several months, I started out driving those speakers with the PowerCell8 UEF SE (hereafter, simply the PC8) and the Atmosphere Level 2 and Level 3 power cords. It was an obvious improvement with a stronger, more tightly focused deep bass than before, though it didn't remove the strong emphasis in the upper bass region of that speaker. It was clear this was going to be an interesting ride and it didn't take long for me to move my Kharma 2.2 speakers into position for the remainder of this review. With the Kharma there was a more solid image with better focus – a tighter sound, all around, than what I was accustomed to. The Kharma does not reach as deep into the bass as the Dynamites and there is no hump in the upper bass of the Kharma, so the bass doesn't seem as strong, but it was tight. (I was tempted to hook up my subs at this point, but didn't want to add another variable to the rig along with two additional power cords.) The female voices of Wilson Phillips' tight harmony were more differentiated & pinpointed. Mahler's 1st was more transparent, sounding almost as transparent as the live performance of Beethoven's 5th I heard recently in Cleveland. The lyrics in "One Mic" by the rapper Nas were much cleaner and more intelligible. The bass on that tune was not as forceful because it was less distorted and would not go as deep as with the Coincident Dynamite.
Adding the Synergistic Black UEF Fuse to the Coincident line stage brought further improvements. In my review of those fuses I suggested they would be a good way to get a taste of Synergistic Research without spending big bucks, and I stand by that statement. If you decide to invest in one of their PowerCells or a bevy of their power cords, the money spent on Black Fuses will not have been wasted. The effect was cumulative, not overshadowed. Since I only had one 8A Black Fuse from the review, Andy Wiederspahn was kind enough to send out a second so I could use them in the monoblocks, too. There was more transparency, greater timbre and better focus. Especially good was the overdubbed refrain on Bruce Springsteen's "57 Channels" which is often barely intelligible. Overall, music in this early stage of the review was brighter and sharper with more contrast. The music came out at me more. Mahler's 1st was even more like Severance Hall, moving me up from my actual seat 2/3rd back from the stage, to only 1/3rd back. Simply put, there was more presence. While the PC8 and power cords sounded impressive from the beginning, it was clear that the sound was evolving as they continued to break in.
Pillars Of A System
The front end and the speakers – the two ends of the reproductive chain are clearly two additional pillars, each with fervent advocates as to which one is more important. And the fourth pillar, in light of what I learned in this review, is the power delivery system. That would include dedicated lines, power conditioner, power cords and grounding system. It is also the pillar on which a lot of us (me included) are reluctant to spend serious money. We need to get over that. For our front ends, amps and speakers to sound their best, there needs to be a quality network of electricity throughout our systems. Everything matters to some degree, for sure, but if you don't want your system to teeter like a chair with uneven legs, you need to keep these pillars relatively balanced in quality.
This is not to say amps, interconnects and speaker cables are not important. (Tom loaned me his SR balanced Atmosphere Level 1 and single ended Level 2 interconnects which mysteriously found their way into my rig, resulting in huge smiles from both of us.) I've come to learn that everything matters. The trick to improving a system is to find the components that will give you the most improvement by upgrading them. Sadly, there are those who completely ignore the power/cable category altogether. Yet I can also acknowledge a very few components that are carefully designed to filter out noise, and I know some dealers who present their wares without filtration (or regeneration) so as to present the products they sell with uncompromised honesty. The flip side of the coin here for the enthusiast is that without paying attention to the electrical power and signal pathways, they may blindly spend a lot of money replacing major components that do not need replacing.
In saying that, I feel like I'm echoing my own comments on the Codia Acoustic Design Stage 3000 BAB Audio Rack I reviewed last October. At $5260, it was not a small ticket item, either. Like the Synergistic Research products here, it raised the resolution to that top tier, more than justifying its price. This presented an obvious question. To answer it, I tore out my home-brewed equipment rack topped with a Panzerholz shelf and installed the Codia to see if the improvements wrought by the PC8 and power cords would mask the improvements contributed by the Codia rack. As seems to frequently happen with gear designed to improve resolution and transparency, the combination was... well, synergistic. No bleeding edge notes pierced the night air. Shakey Horton's screaming harmonica on American Folk Blues Festival 1970 sounded like the real thing and the crystal in the dining room didn't shatter. The rig seemed pretty close to perfect. The primary shortcomings were the limited depth of bass response (about 33Hz) which can be addressed with subwoofers, and the absence of great slam, which would require more than the 18 pure Class A watts of Eddie Wong's SET monoblocks. Frankly, I don't think I want to give up the gorgeous tonal color and three-dimensionality his amps provide. And I'm not a head-banger.
I've learned something here. The Kharma Ceramique 2.2 speakers have been my reference for fourteen years now. I've been suspecting they might need replacement. First the Codia rack and now the Synergistic Research PowerCell8 and four Atmosphere power cords have shown me that I've yet to reach their full potential and I don't need to spend anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 to replace them. For my system, in my room, these Synergistic Research upgrades represent an extreme value, bringing out the very best I've experienced from my components so far.
That the products reviewed here surpass my other Synergistic Research products of only six years ago by such a wide margin attests to the fact that this entire category and Synergistic Research in particular, is making enormous progress through their research and development. I mentioned their recent expansion to a new facility earlier and their investment in more efficient production equipment has not only advanced the technology they offer, but made it more affordable. If you can't afford these particular models I've reviewed, or if they are not appropriate for the level of gear you currently own, there are models below these that may fit your needs. The PowerCell 12 UEF series above the one here approaches the performance of their previous ultra-high-end Galileo series. That series has recently been re-engineered as the Galileo UEF level for the very wealthy. As I've written before, this is not a company that is standing still. They are on a creative roll and appear to be having a lot of fun and success doing what they do. Nonetheless, research and development costs money and those costs must be passed along to enable future R&D.
It should be easy for you to prioritize your purchasing decision between the PC8 and the power cords. The PC8 UEF SE benefits the entire system for $2995. The Atmosphere Level 2 and Level 3 power cords at $1995 and $2995 respectively, will enhance a single component. If that component is at the front end then the benefit will flow through the chain. Look at what you have in place already and figure out where to invest if you can't go for everything at once. $2000 or $3000 sure seemed like and expensive add-on to a $5000 line stage and a $2000 DAC and it didn't make any sense to me until I heard it for myself. Once everything was fully burned-in there was no going back.
As a reviewer, I appreciate the smaller footprint and upward facing outlets as it allows for a more convenient placement and easier plugging and un-plugging of gear – something I seem to do a lot. There are four small rubber feet on the bottom. I've placed the unit on a couple of vibration-absorbing blocks, but it is hard to say if they offer much, if any, benefit. A 20 Ampere IEC inlet is fitted to one end of the chassis. All the PowerCell and V8 conditioners are bundled with an appropriate level 20 Ampere power cord. The grip of the Black UEF duplex outlets is substantial and you need not worry about power cords falling out.
The Atmosphere power cables are about as supple as the Tesla series and were easy to work with but they do not make sharp right angle turns. The IEC connectors seemed to be the same G 07 models used on the earlier series and had a familiar, firm grip. The Atmosphere series lacks the entwined smaller cables used for the active shielding as this series incorporates that function internally, and no longer needs the additional plug-in transformers of the Tesla series. That's a real plus. The red anodized tuning modules are for the internal active shielding and they retain the blue LED light on their tip which gives the walls around the rig a blue cast and the rig itself a hint of Christmas.
Blinded By Science
The instruments I'm most comfortable using are my own ears and my brain, which has become reasonably adept at interpreting the electronic signals that are transmitted from the ear. This leads me to another anecdote to share. All of my reviewing had been done using my CD player / DAC and FM radio as sources since they had set me up with a digital power cord for my DAC. But as a music lover, I'm much more of an analog guy. Since I had blown far past my initial protocol in this review, I figured it wouldn't hurt to reconfigure my rig for LP playback for one more trial.
The Coincident Statement phono stage has dual potentiometers that allow me to run it straight into the monoblocks. Due to personal business, it had been a couple of months since I had listened to music, save for a few evenings with Hearts of Space on NPR. The transport, DAC and tuner had slowly been drawing current for all that time, adding maybe fifteen hundred hours of burn-in to the PC8. It had been even more months since I had played an LP. Dropping the needle after all that time blind-sided me with what was almost the best LP listening experience I've had at home, save for a stint with the Kronos Sparta turntable and an $8000 AirTight cartridge. The lower noise floor, blacker blacks, the way the dust seemed to jump out of the groove to avoid the cartridge, the dynamics, the transparency were all so improved it sounded like somebody else's rig. The only downside was the recognition that my Charisma 103 cartridge lacked the smoothness I thought it had when my rig was less revealing. Alas, it's still a great daily driver.
The Big News is the rig had regained the bloom that I thought was gone forever. Now, I had bloom with a transparency and resolution that far surpassed anything I had experienced before with my hot-rodded Linn. The future looks bright as I look forward to embarking on Stage 2 modifications of the venerable old record player. To double and triple check this experience I revisited FM broadcast and CD playback. Sure enough, BB, the thrill has returned. While three hundred or a thousand hours may seem like a rather long break-in period, hang in there. It's great from the start, and gets even greater with time. Plus, you get to listen to music while doing it if you choose. For those soul-less persons who think bloom is a distortion or corruption of the original musical event, they can simply remove the Gold UEF Tuning Module from the Level 3 power cords. I had two of those – the digital version powering my DAC and the analog version powering my line stage (or alternatively, my phono stage.)
Going back to the live recording of Shakey Horton again, after the first pass I removed the gold tuning module from both the DAC and line stage Level 3 power cords. The bloom vanished, leaving a highly resolved but relatively flat soundstage. Next, I replayed the same piece with the gold tuning module in the Level 3 Analog power cord for the line stage where it would benefit multiple sources. A substantial portion of the bloom returned bringing me about 40% of the way back to full bloom. After several trials, I concluded that using the one gold module in just the DAC's power cord brought me back to about 60% of full bloom. Adding the second gold tuning module to the other power cord brought the bloom back to full strength. Keep in mind that beside the Gold UEF Tuning Module there is additional technology in the Level 3 that improves the resolution and bumps the price up another thousand dollars over the Level 2. If I were to have just one Level 3 power cord, I'd have it on one of my source components. You may not want to use it all the time, but the tuning module is a nice way to sweeten up a dry recording. Personally, I think it ranks right up there with dark chocolate.
It's not like bloom or no-bloom is the "right" way to listen and the other is not. It's more like the same group of musicians is playing in a different venue. At the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival earlier this evening I attended four shows. Each of them featured a pianist and three out of four featured upright bass and drums, so there was a lot of commonality of instrumentation. Each venue had its unique sonic signature that was additionally affected by the location of the seat I took. They included two churches that featured ample bloom and a corporate auditorium that was heavily damped with a lot of drapery. Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music was exceptionally fine sounding, as you would expect. All of the performances were obviously live, but the listening experience was vastly different in each venue. The particular recordings you listen to at home will also contain varying degrees of spatial cues that will be amplified or attenuated by your listening environment. The point here is that the Atmosphere Level 3 power cords all have the Gold UEF Tuning Module to bring your recordings more in line with your personal preference.
Reader Dave Lalin, on The Absolute Sound website made the comment, in essence, that... a purchaser who chooses to wait for "the next big thing" chooses to waste his most valuable commodity, which is their life and time. Sure, he said, you can wait two, three or even four more years for the timing or market conditions to be right. But life is to be lived now, while you can. John Mellencamp put another twist on that message in "Your Life Is Now".
As a cutting edge Boomer, that note rings as loud and clear to me now as when I bought my first motorcycle in my early twenties, or started climbing mountains in my forties. The time for music is always now, even as one's choice of genre matures. The PowerCell 8 UEF SE and Atmosphere Level 2 and 3 power cords revive the goosebumps with my favorite music and let me feel the bass vibrations through the leather of my listening chair. This is great gear and it's staying right here!
Atmosphere Level 2 PowerCell power cable (included)
Atmosphere Level 2 Power Cable Specifications
Atmosphere Level 3 Digital Power Cable Specifications
Atmosphere Level 3 Analog Power Cable Specifications
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