Synergistic Research PowerCell ONE Line Conditioner
Just a mere month ago, Audio Tourism looked like the next new thing. Given the continuing demise of brick-and-mortar retail salons, regional, national, and international audio shows were popping up all over — how brilliant was having a show in Florida in February, not in Miami, not in Orlando, and not during school vacation week?
But then, comes March, and out of China spreads the coronavirus pandemic. As I write this, the April Munich HIGH END show 2020 has been cancelled. AXPONA 2020 and Montreal postponed. Record Store Day too. In many places, limits on event numbers closed the concert, theater, sport, and other venues-even late night TV audiences are gone.
Audio is a niche market, but, more than many others, dependent on international trade and travel, most of it to / from nations under lock down. No one knows the long-term ramifications, of course, but short-term realities compel stay-home social distancing. For audiophiles, that can mean ordering from Amazon, Music Direct, Absolute Sounds, etc. And maybe enjoying some virtual Audio Tourism while social distancing in the sweet spot.
My only recent Audio Tourism travel was to last fall's Rocky Mountain Audiofest, held at a huge resort hotel. My iPhone tracked me at over two miles per day, but over breaks I had some interesting conversations. My gripe? The dearth of single-component power conditioners. In my listening room, the sources are fed by a multi-outlet power conditioner at the listener end, but the power amp is between the speakers, run straight into its own 20A circuit. Somebody mentioned powered loudspeakers can have the same problem. Likewise subwoofers. That led to a young guy across the table saying he was about to invest heavily in an all-in-one DAC / headphone amp, but didn't want to plug it into his computer power strip.
As it happens, at RMAF I had also enjoyed one of Synergistic Research head honcho Ted Denney's Magic Shows. Highly recommended as ear training (i. e., learning to listen to his widgets manipulate sound in acoustic space as well as enhance the musical experience is most edifying). So when I learned Synergistic Research had introduced a new level of audiophile fuses (Orange is the new Blue), I went online to learn more, and bumped smack into another new product, the PowerCell ONE.
Aha! The PowerCell ONE is a one-foot hunk of Synergistic Research Blue HC 10 gauge power cord attached to a cylindrical carbon fiber pod, terminated not in an IEC plug, but rather a standard US household three-prong socket (or whatever is appropriate for other regions). Into which you can plug in your power cable of choice. It was apparently designed as an extender for their multi-outlet conditioners, but the web-page blurb discreetly admits it can be used on its own. It is, in fact, a single outlet AC conditioner, about which you can read more here. With an MSRP $995, it's less than 1/15 the cost of their 12 outlet top o' the line (but that model is fortunately sold out). It also bears a superficial resemblance to other Synergistic Research products such as the SRX power cord reviewed here by Robert Youmans, but also way cheaper.
Of course, Synergistic Research is one of the main whipping boys for the men in black pajamas who clog the audio forums in a crusade to vaporize any deluded audiophools who would claim to hear (and even pay for) differences in pricey wires, AC outlets, fuses, and the like — let alone gizmos that toy with psycho-acoustics, the space-time continuum, or the national power grid. In all fairness, if you scroll down the PowerCell ONE page you will find the specs quite transparent, except where proprietary technology is involved, and the terminology can get a bit opaque. For our purposes, it doesn't matter if UEF stands for Unidentified Electrogenic Fryzbtls. Worth noting is that the actual conditioning of the hot, neutral, and ground legs of the AC feed is done by "electromagnetic cells" in the pod. This approach is consistent with their larger units, and in contrast to conventional power conditioners using capacitors, inductors, transformers, etc. Graphene, that new form of carbon with interesting but unspecified electrical qualities is said to be used "throughout."
AC power problems do complicate all things audio, and no two households will have identical issues. Voltage can drop during summer brownouts, or spike from lightning strikes or other surges, etc.. But it is RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) that is the main target of audio system power conditioners. Typically that "noise" is at frequencies far beyond audibility, but amplified along with the audio signal and heard as edginess, distortion, elevated noise floor, etc. Differential mode RFI noise is usually introduced by other components (particularly digital gear and switch-mode power supplies) or electrical apparatus (dimmers, computers, HVAC systems, etc), and is typically between hot and common wiring. Common mode RFI noise is the result of all wiring acting like antennae for what some call electronic "smog" — broadcast radio and TV, satellite video, cell phone, Wi-Fi, etc. — and so is present on the AC ground as well as hot and neutral. The most common symptom is a system that sounds much better late at night than during the day.
Like many of Synergistic Research's specialized products, the PowerCell ONE is built to order. I requested one for review when I ordered a couple of Orange fuses-on which I had put 100+ hours before a middling size box arrived with a PowerCell ONE, a companion three-prong plug with a mini banana plug (for grounding the active shield), and a 1.5-meter length of their 10 gauge Blue HC power cord (MSRP $649). My review sample arrived with no documentation, but a blue LED lights up when it is plugged in, presumably for the "Swiss power supply" which actively biases the separate "cells" for the three AC wires; I thus suspect it is designed to attenuate common mode noise carried along the conductors without actually being in the circuit. The standard length is 18" overall; longer versions are a reasonable $60/foot upcharge, as shown on the website:
I live on the island of Martha's Vineyard. We get our power via undersea cable from the mainland grid, local distribution is on poles. The winter population is about 17,000, there's no industrial activity, and the AC quality is pretty good, typically 124V. This computer sees just two neighbors' Wi-Fi, and cell phone service sucks; common-mode noise seems low. For eight months everything, and especially power amps, sounds better plugged directly into the dedicated 20A outlets (cryo'ed Hubble and Furutech) than through any power conditioner I've tried, but I keep a 12-year-old PS Audio Power Plant on the source components because we do get wicked nor'easters and frequent power outages. The biggest problem I'm aware of this time of year is differential mode noise from the heating system, computers, dimmers, etc. I have a few PS Audio Noise Harvester and Audioprism Quietlines plugins around the house to reduce this noise and an Audioprism Noise Sniffer that confirms they work.
Come summer, we are typically joined by 150,000+ visitors with cell phones, Wi-Fi, computers, flat-screen TVs, hairdryers, and air-conditioners turned up to eleven. Voltage sags, electronic smog tracks the humidity index, and cell phone service sucks even worse as the towers are overloaded. In other words, common-mode RFI noise becomes serious. In beach season everything — including power amps — sounds better through most any power conditioner than direct, and the little plug-ins stay because of the central air system is as noisy as the heating. Further complicating matters, our sandy soil drains quickly and provides a less than ideal "earth" ground. So only by evaluating power conditioners in our leaf, frost, or mud seasons can I assess any dynamic limiting, loss of resolution and tonal richness, transient smearing, inter-component hum / hiss / buzz, etc; hence the timing of this piece.
No surprise then that I've heard power conditioners over the years that audibly degrade performance in just those ways. However, it should also not be surprising that a Synergistic Research product would change the sound in other ways. As Ted Denney's demos demonstrate, improving a system's sound—and particularly the spatial characteristics — is their raison d'être. For example, the Blue HC power cord info explains that "UEF coating with Graphene is applied directly to connectors significantly reducing the noise floor and allowing a purer signal to transfer with less grain providing more warmth and detail" and that it has "Level 2 UEF treated conductors with Graphene." Except as noted below, all my tests employed the PowerCell One in combination with the Blue HC cord to minimize variables. Before starting, I used both the PS Audio blinkers and the Audioprism Noise Sniffer to confirm that differential mode noise is passed essentially unfiltered by the PowerCell One, so I did not remove the PS Audio and Audioprism plug-ins.
I don't use my main system (or tube hours) for cable / component break-in, relying instead on my desktop system's PS Audio Sprout 100 driving vintage acoustic suspension Spendor LS3/5a speakers overnight, face to face but connected out of phase so a mono signal self-cancels. The Sprout lacks a mono option, so I use mono Blue Note CDs—the result is 90% cancellation, and a quiet night's sleep. After a good 100+ hours of break-in (to music, not test tones, as per recommendations from Synergistic Research), I sat down to actually listen to the Sprout / Spendor combo, using my usual cabling (UIT interconnects and Tellurium Q Ultra Silver speaker cables) and sources. For repeatability, that meant mostly CDs and a few high rez files via a battery operated Chord Qutest, plus familiar LPs simply for pleasure. The 100 Wpc Ice-power Class D Sprout 100 can sound a bit bright and obstreperous; the LS3/5a tend to have a rising treble, and of course little bass below the infamous 110 Hz BBC Bump-but on 24" stands in free space they image like crazy.
It was still surprising at how well this combo worked. With the PowerCell One in place, the bass seemed smoothly extended (and well below 110 Hz), with the Class D modules maintaining a firm grip all the way down (the Sprout's bass boost was turned OFF of course). As the BBC design was intended for location monitoring, I began my Stay Home Audio Tour of familiar recordings with Haydn's London Symphony No.103, with Slatkin and the Philharmonia Orchestra. I could look over the tops of the monitors and visualize the orchestra precisely arrayed in the Abbey Road Studio. From the famous reverberant drumroll, bassoon, and low strings intro, everything seemed just right, spatially, dynamically, and tonally. The treble was noticeably less aggressive than I expected from this amp/speaker combo, and it was particularly easy to compare the hall and mic setups on, say, Bernstein's An American in Paris (6-Eye) vs. Fiedler's (Shaded Dog).
I don't have a dedicated headphone amp at the moment: the Sprout 100 drives my Mr. Speakers Aeon Flow open-back cans quite nicely for occasional desktop listening. With the PowerCell One combo, everything was clean, clear, a bit warmer than with my usual (Tel-Wire) cord. Part of the appeal of headphone listening is removing the listening room's acoustic problems; with the PowerCell One I had an easier time teasing out the various elements of a complex mix in productions like the Emmylou / Knopfler All the Roadrunning. The rich and spacious PowerCell / Sprout / Aeon sound was also particularly effective on one obscure CD I can suggest headphone hipsters seek out: New York Dreaming by Didjworks (didjeridoo, synth, and percussion, mostly).
I next hooked up the tiny Sprout 100 to the Spatial M4 Triode Masters. At 92dB/W/m efficient at 12 Ohm, they are about 10dB more efficient than the 11 Ohm Spendors, and being three-feet tall full-range dipole open baffles, present a much more spacious soundstage, especially in terms of image width, layering, depth, and ambiance-making the LS3/5a's lovely presentation seem miniaturized by comparison. With the PowerCell ONE in place, the bass was both tuneful and deep, the midrange liquid and musical, the highs sufficiently brilliant without much of the dryness I've often heard from Class D electronics. Not really "tube-like", but definitely leaning in that direction. There's no objective measurement for a stereo soundstage, but I've found a good Gamelan ensemble recording ideal for "mapping" the psycho-acoustic dimensions — such as this one recorded in Angkor Wat. Ding here, dong over there, bong and ting way in back, etc.
But seriously, reviewing a $995 power conditioner with a $599 integrated amp? Yes, because on the cheap side for a hand-assembled, high-end power conditioner that frankly could also be marketed as an imaging enhancer like many other Synergistic Research products, so significantly does it elevate the humble Sprout's sonics. On the other hand, in the upstairs "family room" the Shahinian Obelisks are driven by a NuForce STA-200, (originally $1300-but victim of the NuPrime / Optoma divorce). With a circuit based on the Goldmund/JOB 225, I'd consider it a good stand-in for the majority of mid-market Class A/B amps out there, especially with an Orange fuse in place. And powered through the PowerCell ONE, on the Spatials it sounds more than twice as good as the Sprout on challenging treks like the Strauss Eine Alpinesinfonie, and Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antartica. Always nice to know your investment scales with the ancillaries.
Of course all that's with a $649 power cord too. I snapped up the STA-200 on close-out because it was small enough to fit in the family room AV cabinet-which my olde favorite Forte Model 3 was too large for. Designed by Nelson Pass shortly before he left Forte's parent company Threshold to start Pass Labs, it sports a hard-wired genuine generic plastic power cord. Technically 200 Wpc Class A/B, it probably never gets out of Class A with the 92dB/W/m sensitive Spatials. Putting the Blue HC cord aside, and plugging the Forte directly into the PowerCell ONE brought the 3's presentation right up to date. Take the Kronos Quartet's Pieces of Africa, which combines string sonorities with a variety of African instruments, particularly percussion, in a spacious acoustic. Even with the old-school umbilical, the PowerCell ONE revealed a significantly deeper and richer soundstage.
On the other hand, my preferred amp with the Spatials has been the delightful Coincident Dynamo 34SE, all 8-Wpc of single-ended tube bliss. Mine is the Mk II version, the original Chinese tubes long since rolled out for NOS 6SL7s and modern "Mullard" (Russian) EL-34s, and also nicely benefiting from a Synergistic Research Orange fuse. Sweet, balanced, dynamic, nuanced and spacious, for well under $2000 fully loaded. But when I first plugged it into the PowerCell ONE/Blue HC cord combo, the sound was so boring the best minds on both coasts were so concerned my PowerCell was defective I was sent another sample. OK, but WTF, UEF?
Ask any ten audiophiles for an opinion on low powered SET tube amps, and nine will come up with something like "fat mid-range, soft highs and loose bass. Meh! I'm the other guy. A large part of why is the ST-10 Statement power cord Israel Blume of Coincident sold me after I acquired the Dynamo. For a MSRP of $595, it has the best HF extension and resolution of any cord I've heard under $2K, with copious mid-range detail and a hydraulic vise-like grip on the bass to boot. OK, it is voiced a bit lean to get the best results from Coincident's SET amps and their high-efficiency speakers. But replace it with the rich sounding and solid-state friendly Synergistic gear and you do indeed get comparatively obese mid-range, squashed highs, and flatulent bass. Serious SET meh.
The immediate solution turned out to be pretty simple. Coincident won't warranty their amps if you substitute "different" tube types, but there are lots of EL34 amps (including Dynamos) out there happily running Genelex KT77s, which are significantly livelier than the "Dullard Mullards." One of my favorite late night listens is the Pat Metheny / Charlie Haden duets disc, Beyond the Missouri Sky. In meh mode, they might as well be under the Missouri River. Switch to the KT77s, plug the Coincident cord into the PowerCell One, and Pat's guitar no longer sounds buried inside Charlie's bass.
Thankfully, as the PowerCell One continued to break-in, much of the apparent mis-match diminished, but I still preferred using the Coincident cord with the PowerCell One over the Blue HC. I don't have any other tube amps here to compare, so please draw no generalizations. Like tubes, tweaks, cords and cables, with power conditioners you never know until you try. With a borrowed $4000 Class A solid-state amp I also preferred the Coincident ST-10 over the Blue HC into the PowerCell One, although here it was more a matter of resolution than tonality. Of course, Synergistic Research will also happily sell you their up-market cords too. Parenthetically, I did not notice any benefit from grounding the shield on the foot-long Blue HC cord segment, but while standard Blue HC power cords do not have a shield grounding option, their more ambitious products feature it.
But back to my Audio Tour.Studio engineers today can play all sorts of fun spacey games, but even on un-gimmicked recordings, the PowerCell ONE enhances one's sense of the recorded ambiance. Last night I enjoyed Abdullah Ibrahim's African River, Springsteen's Nebraska, Maria Muldaur's Louisiana Love Call, Basie's Kansas City Suite, k.d. lang's 49th Parallel, and Eric & B.B.'s Riding with the King, each from audibly distinct studio environments. I also particularly value live recordings that convey both spontaneity and place — A Friday Night in San Francisco style. I don't do arena rock, but the enhanced ambiance that the PowerCell One added to the no-slouch-at-space Spatials was evident in every live performance I put in play, from Bill Evans Sunday at the Village Vanguard to Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert to Astor Piazzolla's Vienna Concert to Kate Wolf's An Evening in Austin to John Fahey Live in Tasmania. I know many audiophiles go weak in the knees over Diana Krall's vocalizing, but her Live in Paris sounds just too polished to me. Lyle Lovett's 1995 Live in Texas is my (male vocal) antidote, and simply much more fun. Of course, that particular mash-up required a night-cap diversion to Ry Cooder's haunting Paris, Texas soundtrack. Deep space, baby.
The Synergistic Research PowerCell ONE is an intriguing product. It is by design, not a general-purpose power conditioner, but it nicely addresses several contemporary niche markets: headphone DAC / amps, all-in-one DAC / pre / streamer / integrateds, small desktop or bedroom systems, powered speakers, subwoofers, monoblocks, and amps like mine that need be closer to speakers than sources. Basically, anything that doesn't need 6-12 outlets. But should you just need a couple more go here.
So the minimalist PowerCell ONE does not protect against spikes, surges, or differential mode RFI-but there are many complementary products that do, should such be an issue. While common mode RFI is perhaps less a problem in my system in March than for audiophiles in more densely populated and electronically "smoggy" urban locations, the ONE utilizes many of the same technologies as the "big" PowerCell conditioners. So yes, I am confident some of the qualities I consistently observed resulted from common-mode noise reduction. I also never heard any of those classic power conditioner bugaboos like dynamic limiting. But this is Synergistic Research, and as with their other products, I was more taken by the increased sense of realism-particularly acoustic space and depth-that the Blue HC power cord/ PowerCell ONE brought to the party. Some of that I also have to put down to RFI reduction as well as the abundance of proprietary technologies that distinguish Synergistic Research products in the crowded audiophile marketplace.
It's an easy recommendation if you find yourself in one of those market niches, or if your system tends to be a bit bright and ragged, the stereo too 2D, or just frustratingly more enjoyable late at night now that you're home all day. Common mode noise reduction and a complementary dose of Synergistic Research technology might be just the thing.
One can only hope that things return to something like normal in the coming months. August in Schaumburg I could skip, but I'd hate to miss RMAF 2020. Just in case, here's an audio tourist's sunset view from the RMAF 2019 parking lot to enjoy. Take care and be well.