Audience Forte V8 Power And forte f3 Power
There is no doubt that the quality of electrical power is a limiting factor in the performance of an audio system. I learned this lesson the hard way. In the mid to late 1970s, while living in Milwaukee, I had put together what at the time was a high-end system featuring an early version of the Magnepan Tympani loudspeakers, a Connoisseur Turntable with a Formula 4 arm and a Decca Plum cartridge. Between the TT and speakers, I employed as many different high powered amplifiers as I could get my hands on. Fortunately, I had a connection at Koss (a Milwaukee based company) and access to several amplifiers that were used in-house in the development of their electrostatic speakers.
I'd like to claim that I knew what I was doing when I put the system together, but such a claim would warrant nearly as many Pinnochios as do those political figures whose relationship with the truth is accidental. The truth is that my success at system building was a stroke of good fortune, but one I took advantage of to forge lasting friendships and to cultivate an interest in audio that has not only lasted to this day but has only deepened and intensified over time.
Milwaukee winters are long and provide ample opportunity to stay indoors. Shelter in place was less a public health directive than a way of life. The time spent outdoors made possible by Milwaukee's beautiful summers was precious not just for the lovely weather but all the more so as a consequence of its brevity. Unsurprisingly, I listened to the system far less often during the summer months and attributed my doing so entirely to the fact that being outdoors was the far more rational use of time. I had no idea that part of the reason for reducing my listening time was that my system sounded considerably less good in the summer than it did in the winter.
I came to appreciate this fact a few years later when I left my position at the University in Wisconsin for one at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Tucson, Arizona did not offer anything resembling a winter of the sort we experienced in Wisconsin. Instead, over the typical calendar year, we experienced some colder mornings and nights, fewer cold days, a month's worth of chilly days, two months of slightly cool days; the remainder of the year was given over to a mix of warm days, warmer days, hot days, and unbearably hot days.
My wife and I confined our audio listening to the hot, very hot and unbearably hot days. Surprisingly, we experienced considerably less enjoyment from the system than we had in Wisconsin. Puzzled, I searched for an explanation, ultimately forming a working hypothesis: the problem was the room. Our Milwaukee home's listening room was large and the home itself was a wood frame construction built during the 1920s. The Tucson home was a one-story brick home built in the 1950s. Nowadays we might charitably refer to our home as 'mid-century' modern, but a more accurate characterization remains 'Levittown ranch'.
Moving The System To...
Like true academics no one noticed the rather large audio system in the room when the group first convened after I had set the system up in the seminar space. I was not upset since having listened to it after the move, I found it had not improved much, if at all. I was not nearly as fortunate during the second meeting when one of my colleagues from the Economic Sciences Lab noticed the system and asked if I might play something for him during an upcoming break in our discussions.
I demurred claiming I did not want to disturb others and invited him back for a listen at another time. Frantic efforts to improve the system in the interim failed. When the agreed-upon date arrived, noteworthy both because the temperature outside was pushing 110F, and more so in virtue of his attire which included cowboy boots and hat – not something this Brooklyn boy was used to seeing at any time of year.
Having no comparison or baseline, he listened and was complimentary. I thanked him but confessed that to my ears the system sounded like it was suffering from a dry cough and head cold. I also found the presentation dirty and noisy. He allowed that he had no idea what I was talking about, but we then had a conversation lasting over an hour in which we tried to devise an experiment to see if we might locate the cause of my dissatisfaction.
Hearing A Difference
Like any true economist who accepts one or another version of revealed preference theory, he suggested that perhaps other facts at work that might have affected my listening behavior. He suggested listening to my system on the coldest days as they arrived and again on the warmest and to take notes on what I heard. There was no underlying hypothesis beyond the fact that perhaps even in Tucson I preferred listening in cold weather to doing so in the heat.
I followed through on the experiment, and I found that I did enjoy listening to the system more on the colder days than on the hot ones. I knew that were I the only one listening to the system under these conditions I would have to run the experiment with others to determine whether, if there was a difference, it was down to me or my system. I had my wife, neighbors and different graduate students share in the listening. The results were uniform across all listeners. Listening was more enjoyable in the cooler environment than in the heat. Importantly, each also responded that they found it more enjoyable because it sounded better. That was a relief, but only a mild one and it did nothing to explain why it sounded better in colder than in hot weather. Without an answer to that question, I would have no way of addressing the underlying cause.
Someone suggested that we look for a variable that may be affected by the weather, in particular by differences between moderate cold and extreme heat. I immediately turned my attention to the system itself. My first thought was it must be the speakers given their distinctive elements. Not a bad guess and while that wasn't the right answer, it wasn't altogether mistaken either.
A neighbor who had been at a few of the listening sessions – a heart surgeon no less – suggested that I look into the impact of the weather on the electricity being fed my system. I had no initial idea of how the weather might impact the quality of the electricity, but he informed me that the hospital at the University had experienced differences in the performances of various machines that correlated with extreme temperature differences. He had no explanation why but suggested I speak with an electrical engineer at the University.
I did and learned only then what we now all take for granted. The greater the demand on the power supply in a given region, the less clean and effective the power. No one in Tucson turns on the heater often, even in winter. And not all of the heaters are electrical, to begin with. When the weather heats up, people use 'swamp coolers' until the humidity increases and the heat becomes unbearable. Then everyone, and I do mean everyone, turns on the air conditioning – full blast, all day and night.
To be honest, the system never did sound as good in Tucson as it did in Milwaukee, and to this day I am sure that had something to do with the effects of heat and sun on the Tympanic. But the lesson I learned was that good sound requires clean power; and clean power, even under the best of circumstances is hard to come by.
How Do We Achieve Clean Power For Our Audio
The folks at Audience, whose products I have known and admired ever since I reviewed their first power conditioner several years ago, suggest that audiophiles might want to rethink what they understand their system's source(s) to be. The conventional view is that there are digital and analog sources: for example, streamers, cd players (digital front ends) on the one hand, and turntables and reel to reel (analog front ends) on the other. The Audience view, with which I agree, is that the true source in every system is the electricity it receives (unless your entire system is battery powered).
If this is correct, then the question an audiophile needs to ask herself is whether you want to plug the rest of your relevant downstream components – front ends, preamplifiers, amplifiers – directly into that source and feed those components with whatever it is the power company has left at your doorstep.
A sensible answer is that you should not. After all, there is no denying that what the power company brings to your door is compromised and is not produced with audio systems in mind – think refrigerators, washers, and dryers. Appliances rarely worry about background noises the way we audiophiles do. An audiophile should want to clean the product up before delivering it to the rest of the system for much the same reason a chef seeks fresh and clean foodstuffs to feed his restaurant's customers.
There are lots of steps one could take to clean the power, all of them additive to one another. Among the most obvious include creating a separate line to the audio system thus isolating it from other power needy machines; external grounding (not available in most apartment complexes); power conditions; power strips; power chords.
The audiophile community is at once highly susceptible to hype and highly suspicious of a wide swath of audio 'components.' This apparent contradiction in temperament is often played out in the domain of interconnects, cables and power chords. The problem is made worse by an apparent total disregard for the concept of 'orders of magnitude.' Manufacturers invariably struggle for market share and are prone to exaggerated performance claims. Reviewers make matters worse by using intentionally vague and not particularly helpful phrases like 'the differences were not subtle,' whenever they want to indicate a positive change in performance that they believe warrants a purchase. All this against the background of the audiophile community having no shared criteria by which to access the difference between 'different' and 'better.' If you cannot distinguish different from better, the concept of orders of magnitude isn't going to be of much use to you!
As between power conditioners and power chords, the former is more widely recognized as a legitimate audio product and is not often charged with being snake-oil. The sonic problem that all power conditioners have to solve for is how to reduce noise and clean the power without creating unintended though sometimes foreseeable detrimental effects on the rest of the sonic landscape. In my experience, the most common adverse effect of power conditioning risks creating is reduced dynamics, which is by no means a trivial cost to pay. I have had several power conditioners in my system over the years, and one reason I was happy to take on the review of these new Audience products is that their approach to power conditioning left my system's inherent dynamics intact!
II. Audience forte f3 powerChord
On the other hand, sometimes differences that aren't improvements in an obvious or uncontestable way, need not be mere differences. An audio system is a system. The sound it produces is the sound of the system as a whole. The sound the system as a whole is, in turn, a function not just of the characteristic attributes of its parts, but of how the parts interact with one another.
It should not be surprising then that changing out anything from capacitors to power chords and cables will have an impact on how a system sounds. Therefore, there will almost always be differences to hear, but that leaves several questions worth asking: first, how great is the difference, that is, what is the order of magnitude of the change? Second, is the difference in how the system sounds one that you (as an audiophile) would like to experience for some time or over time? Third, if the answer is in the affirmative then what costs are you willing to incur to listen to the system with this change in its voicing? Fourth, does the change make the system better?
In the past fifteen years I have had two completely different systems in my home both of which I could have lived with forever, and one of which I lived with for over five years barely making even marginal changes. In case you are wondering, one system was a complete Shindo system from power conditioner to speakers and all stops in between. The other was built around the SoundLab 845 speakers that I reviewed a couple of years ago. I would have had to work with that system for some time to make it perform as best it could, but I knew from the outset that there was a system I could live with lurking.
I am downsizing these days and while putting together yet another such system. Is one of these better than the others? I have no idea. I am pretty sure they are all quite different, though they share attributes that characterize what I find most important in any system that I anticipate living with long term. Furthermore, I'm inclined to turn a deaf ear to those who would criticize power chords (or interconnects or cables for that matter) as snake oil.
However, I do understand being anxious about how much money to invest say in aftermarket power chords when you are uncertain of how to appreciate the differences they make, and especially if you are worried about whether what you hear are improvements or differences, and so on. It won't help matters if you are not sure whether your system is capable of revealing the fine-grained differences that power chords are likely to make.
I say 'fine-grained' differences intentionally, but guardedly. Why? I work under what strikes me as a reasonable set of assumptions. First, every audio designer and manufacturer listens to his products before putting them into the marketplace. Second, no one would put a product into the marketplace that they did not think sounded pretty much as they had intended it to, if not better. Certainly, it is hard to believe that someone would undercut their brand by rushing something to market that did not sound good (by their lights). It follows then that if a manufacturer sends a product to the market with a stock power chord, he believes that the sound the set up achieves is at least representative or characteristic of what he intended. At least from the designer's perspective, a stock power-chord, while part of designing to a particular price point, is nevertheless up to the task. At the least, it will not let the equipment down.
From this perspective, the choice of a stock power-chord is like the choice of internal wiring or capacitors. A sensible designer, building to a price point, will put component / parts together that work well together, which optimize performance relative to price constraints. At the same time, virtually every designer or manufacturer I know allows that the products that fall below the true reference-quality they send into the market leave a little something on the table. Their performance can almost always be improved – but at a cost. Sometimes the designer or manufacturer will point the end-user in the direction of potential improvements; other times he will offer upgrades.
But it would be odd if every conceivable individual upgrade – as opposed to an upgrade package covering many individual parts – were transformative. And that is why I believe that the differences one is likely to hear from aftermarket power chords are for the most part fine-grained. This doesn't mean that they are not significant from an enjoyment or a musical point of view; just that they are likely to fall into a distinctive set of categories: for example, balance, extension, nuance or refinement, dynamics, relaxation, noise levels, etc.
In my experience, aftermarket power-chords have helped components come alive and express themselves in a less confined or constrained manner. Other times, they have allowed me to hear more into the musical detail; and so on. In general, when aftermarket power-chords have worked in my system they have given me the impression of breathing life into it. And when this happens I do not doubt that my system is better for it.
At the same time, appreciating the differences aftermarket power-chords make can take some time and involves some false steps. If you are relatively new to the world of aftermarket power-chords; or you feel that your system has been built around price constraints, and you're just not sure how much an investment you should make to find out what it is capable of, then, my friend, the Audience Forte f3 powerChord (hereafter 'f3') may well be your new best friend.
The f3 is comprised of 10AWG conductors all made from 99.9999% pure OFC stranded copper with a PVC jacket. Shielded with an electrical drain to the ground to eliminate RF and EMI, the f3 is cryogenically treated and a generous 5.75 feet long (a feature that I found very useful given that I have mono-amplifiers on the floor at either end of a rather wide equipment rack. I used nearly the full length of the cables to connect to my power source. The source itself varied among: the wall outlet, the Audience V8 power 'strip' (on which more below) and my reference Inakustic P3500 power conditioner. The connection was secured by C688 Olin Brass contacts.
In both its construction and performance, the f3 is fully in keeping with Audience's well-deserved reputation as a market leader and audio innovator.
I have long admired not only the company but its President, John McDonald, who I have always found to be honest and forthright. He is not prone to exaggeration. Conversations with him are never disguised sales pitches. He believes in the products, which are designed from a particular point of view and use the very best materials available to realize the vision at a range of different price points. Audience products don't come cheap, but I have always found their products to provide excellent value, and not just for the price.
To be honest, if my listening experience with the f3 is confirmed by others, this so-called entry-level product is underpriced in the market, if not within the Audience line-up. I used the f3 on all preamps, digital devices, and preamps in all system configurations I employed during the review period. For the bulk of that period, I had a Mytek Brooklyn Bridge as a digital source, though I also listened to my venerable but soon to be jettisoned Resolution Audio transport and DAC combination. Preamp duties were handled by PASS LABS separate line and phono stages with their respective power supplies, and amplification was provided by the PASS LABS XA200.5 Class A mono-blocks. During this period, speakers included the wonderful Sonus Faber IlCremonese then under review (see review here), the Magnepan 1.7i and most recently my beloved Auditorium 23 Solo Vox open baffle speaker.
The latter reappeared in my listening room in part to facilitate a new series of reviews of tube amplifiers, including Linear Tube Audio's Z40 integrated and Mark Still's boutique EL84 integrated. I have listened to both over the past few weeks and used the f3 in both cases. My experience with the f3 was consistent throughout. The presentation was natural, musical, extremely quiet, well balanced and honest. By honest, I mean simply that nothing was added or subtracted from the presentation. If anything the system opened up a bit and felt marginally less constrained or limited.
I have a thing about the background against which recorded music is presented. Nothing is more unnatural to my ear than the infinite black background of most digital presentations. The space between real people in a conversation or real musicians playing together is filled with air (usually) that is often dirty, gritty and weighty. No one's voice decays into black emptiness. Decay is truncated by the natural environment. Analog recordings capture this reality of live music (even live music made in a studio) in a way that most digital does not. It's the main reason, I believe, that I find myself drawn to MQA as a digital format. I know it's a controversial view, but nothing on MQA strikes me as artificial in the way in which other digital recordings often do. The presentation is relaxed as opposed to an intense vividness. That is the way the f3 presents music.
I am not going to lie to you and tell you that the f3 is unique in this regard. I have heard as much before in other aftermarket power chords. And I have heard other power chords reveal even more nuance and inner detail. The difference is that all of those costs between $500 and $1000 each. If you want to know what I think about the Forte f3 powerChord, would it help if I told you that I was probably not going to send them back?
III. The V8 Power
The V8 is a small and handsome piece, quite elegant looking actually. It measures 12.875"x 4.125"x 1.25" and weighs in at a tidy 2.7 lbs. It features eight hospital-grade duplexes each separately wired to the busbar, which is itself made of high-quality copper. The duplexes are wired in STAR ground configuration with high purity AWG stranded copper wire. Quoting from the website, "The V8 also includes standard Audience RF filtration.... Although, the V8 was designed to be an affordable power block, corners were not cut at the sacrifice of good sound quality. The resulting V8 product lives up to the usual standard for Audience power products of 'do no harm'."
What exactly is a power block? It is not a full-on power conditioner and it is most certainly not a power strip. Does that make it a compromise between the two or a hybrid of the two? I don't think it is either. It is more akin to a hybrid golf club, which, alas is not a hybrid of any sort. Let me explain.
Golf hybrid clubs are not exactly fairway woods. Nevertheless, it looks like a three-wood with a smaller head and a shorter shaft length. It is easier to hit than the typical three-wood not just because it has a smaller head and a shorter shaft. The three-hybrid also has more loft than a three-wood. I've been playing golf since I was 12 years old so please forgive me as this is one of the few times that I have found golf to be a good way of making sense out of audio – and I'm going to run with it. I was taught that there are times when it is better to apologize later than to ask permission in advance. This is one of them.
The standard three-hybrid has about 19 degrees of loft whereas the standard three-wood has anywhere between 13.5 and 15 degrees of loft. Judging on loft alone, the three-hybrid is more or less a replacement for a three-iron, which for most people is even harder to hit than a three-wood. So the three-hybrid looks like a three-wood but works more like a 3-iron but is easier to hit successfully.
Tour professionals and the best amateur golfers still hit three-irons. Some even carry two-irons in their bag. Note that in my better days, I even played a one-iron from time to time (mostly for show). But nowadays, the longest iron in my bag is a 4-iron, sometimes even a 5-iron depending on the state of my game.
A touring pro's set is like a finely tuned super high-end audio system. Every club is matched to every other one. Each club is individually made to exact specifications and the overall set components are designed to play extremely well with one another, which is to say that the distances covered by each club are consistent throughout the set and there is a club in the bag for all the shots he or she may ever be required to make on the course. Touring pros occasionally have hybrids in their bags, but rarely rely on them. Your average golfer, even good weekend warriors who invariably shoot respectable scores, rely on hybrids a lot. I rely on my hybrids quite a bit as well. They are not compromised clubs. They fit the rest of the bag. They complete the set. In many ways, they are the bridge that gives you confidence with the other clubs by replacing the ones you have the least confidence in.
I see the V8 power in much the same way. It is no substitute on its own for a full-on power conditioner. A top-quality audio system demands a full-on power conditioner. A hybrid golf club is no substitute for a two, three or four iron. It can't be as easily shaped or as easily flighted. But then again two, three and four irons can perform those tasks only in the hands of quite good golfers. The hybrid can get the distance of those irons but it hasn't got the playability or nuance of them. It delivers the main objective quite well and much more reliably, but it does not give you all the nuances and beauty. It cannot reveal all a golfer is fully capable of doing with a golf ball.
Do You Need Power Filtering? A Resounding Yes!
I worked hard to find ways to evaluate the V8 power in the context of a reference system. In the end, I made several sets of comparisons. First I connected all the relevant components directly into the wall. This was easier to do when my electronics were limited to an integrated tube amplifier than it was when my system was powered by Pass Labs. Then, I plugged everything into the V8 which I then plugged into the wall socket via the f3 powerChord. Then I plugged everything into my power conditioner which I then plugged into the V8 which I then plugged into the wall socket. I then plugged everything into the V8 which I then plugged into the power conditioner which I then plugged into the wall. Finally, I plugged everything into my power conditioner leaving the V8 out of the chain. I then repeated the process several days later in reverse order.
I heard no appreciable differences with the V8 and the Inakustik power conditioner in the chain between the two different positions in which I could place the V8. It made no difference sonically whether the V8 preceded or followed the Inakustik on the way to or from the wall. I was surprised, by the differences I heard between the system when only the V8 or the Inakustik was being used for power conditioning. I expected the differences to be immediate and obvious. The Inakustik is a very very good power conditioner. If I didn't think so I wouldn't have purchased it. Surprisingly, the differences were many, but they were all relatively speaking small. You had to listen to them to hear them. The power conditioner was quieter, music flowed a bit more effortlessly and more dynamically. On the other hand, both presentations were completely natural, unforced and honest (in the sense I explained above).
The biggest difference was between the situation in which I had no power conditioning at all and the one in which I had either the V8 or the Inakustik in the chain. The important point here is that the difference was equally stark in both cases. I took that to mean that in a rough-and-ready way the $895 V8 power got you about 70 to 75 percent of what you would get in terms of improved resolution, noise and grit reduction, ease and rhythm of musical flow, inner detail and openness from a state of the art power conditioner at a fraction of the cost. More importantly, you get a lot of what a top-flight conditioner gives you in every musically significant category. It's not as if you don't get any improvement in some categories. You get a good portion of the way there across the entire spectrum of musically significant features.
If you are looking for a genuine bargain in power conditioning without some features that you might otherwise find in a full-on conditioner at a fraction of the cost of the very best available, then I implore you to take a listen to Audience's new V8 Power. You won't be disappointed.