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Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Digital Source: Linn Unidisk 1.1 [on loan], Wadia 270E [in for review]
Analog Source: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi turntable/arm combo, Denon DL103 cart, Auditorium 23 Denon step-up transformer [on loan]
Preamp: Shindo Allegro
Amp: Art Audio Concerto [in for review], Shindo Montrachet
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Super 8s
Cables: Auditorium A23 speaker cables, Crystal Cable Micro Speak interconnects
Stands: Salamander rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand
Powerline conditioning: JPS Labs Kaptovator, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnakes, Hydra 4 [on loan]
Accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; (8) RPG ProFoam damping panels/ceiling treatment, Mapleshade Ionoclast for static cling
Room size: 24' x 12' with 10-13' sloped ceiling, short-wall setup
Review component retail price: PS Audio Ultimate Outlet $299; UPC-200 Power Center $499; xStream™ Statement power cable $449.95
|Consequent to Srajan's Realsization series, I too began to wonder how much bang for the buck I could attain through downsizing - in the arena of power conditioning. A once proud but now former owner of brawny line conditioning beasts from Shunyata, PS Audio (those hot and heavy Power Plants) and BPT, I was ready to get down with the smaller denizens of the breed. How would the tinier tots of the PS Audio line fare next to their heavy metal brethren? I no longer own the Power Plant or larger Hydra, but the sonic signatures they cast remain fresh in my mind, as do those of Richard Gray's grainy-looking blocks and older units from Blue Circle and Chang I once owned.
It's funny. One thing we as serious listeners don't often realize as we switch, upgrade and spill cash is the degree to which we are undergoing ear training similar to that of a musician, learning to differentiate tones and textures in the search for musical order and ultimately, satisfaction. I bet you can remember the sound of your first pair of serious speakers. Likewise, I am certain you recall the feeling of hearing your first tube-endowed preamp, should valves be your particular passion.
|I began my search for ultimate downsizing in power conditioners with two products from PS Audio: the Ultimate Outlet and the UPC-200 Power Center. The two units are small enough, nearly half the size of similar units I've had in house designed to take on similar duties. And let's be clear about one thing. In my New York City walkup where I share power with 23 other apartments in a 130-year-old building that shares its power with a smelly falafel joint (Wesley Snipes' favorite, oh boy), a pizza emporium and a landmark coffee shop that holds the country's very first cappuccino machine, you can best believe that power conditioning is an absolute must!
Flash - this just in from the PS Audio website
In no way am I a techie guru. But let me try to illustrate what the Ultimate Outlet and UPC-200 are designed to do. As stated earlier, the Ultimate Outlet is not much bigger in girth than one of my Power Snakes, measuring 5" w x 3.5" h x 7 1/16" d. First up, PS Audio claims the standard Ultimate Outlet "improves depth, enhances soundstaging, protects from surges and spikes, cleans the top end of any audio equipment, provides isolation" and "lowers the system's noise floor." Its features include "standard and high current versions (standard version for all video, small to medium power amps and source equipment; high current version for all large power amps or use as a reference for everything), lowers impedance by a factor of three" and "reduces noise by up to 40 dB!"
The Ultimate Outlet supposedly achieves all this with the help of a small donut-shaped iron core wrapped with heavy-gauge Litz wire called a Balun - balanced/unbalanced transformer. "When an AC signal comes into the balun's two wrappings of wire," the PS Audio website explains, "the balanced design cancels out anything in common to the two wires. Unlike series filters that only work on noise over a specified frequency range, a well-designed balun cancels all noise at all frequencies. Yet, due to the small number of wire turns, it does not restrict power as a conventional power conditioner would."
"The Ultimate's balun," it continues, "reduces common mode noise by up to 40dB, meaning that whatever noise is on the line will be reduced by over 100 times, and [it] also handles differential noise. This major cleaning effort takes place at virtually all frequencies, not only at the very high frequencies attended to by typical power filters or conditioners."
Sounded good on paper but would it work? Somehow I had trouble believing that my 40wpc Shindo Montrachet amp with its fairly heavy trannies would get the juice needed to truly grow big and strong through the tiny balun of the Ultimate Outlet (I should mention here that the UO acts passively in-line between wall socket and amplifier). PS Audio also provided me with two of their top of the line, extremely stiff xStream™ Statement power cables (using a $449 power cord with the $299 UO sounds nuts but there you have it). Still, call me skeptical. Conventional wisdom from audio gurus I trust is that any line conditioner needs a super large transformer to allow juice to flow unimpeded to said amp. Too small a transformer means restricted dynamics, pinched sounds, tonal thinness and generally no fun. But since the Balun is not an ordinary transformer per se, maybe I should just shut my pie hole and get on with the review?
Similarly, the UPC-200 is also based on the Balun donut. UPC stands for "Ultimate Power Cell". There are two of these modules inside the 3" h x 8.5" w x 8.5" d small, 6lbs. light UPC-200. Each one contains its own Balun, I presume, and each is capable of handling 20 amps of current. The UPC-200 claims "a 10-fold increase in energy storage and release, improved core material and a few engineering tricks [PS Audio] are not at liberty to write about." Each UPC cell within the UPC-200 is attached to a separate PS Audio Power Port, allowing for separate digital and analog isolation, or perhaps two different CD players or a CD and DVD player if you are so inclined. PS Audio even claims the UPC-200 can handle two monoblock power amps, its dual isolated cell design creating a clean power gate as it were for each amp, independent of the other. Unlike the Power Plants, the UPC-200 runs practically cold to the touch. Additionally, the UPC-200 offers surge protection with the use of something they call a "tranzorber" as well as old fashioned MOVs.
First up, I ran CD player and turntable through the dual Power Ports (and its four outlets) of the UPC-200, and after I was comfortable with that scenario, plugged the Montrachet into the Ultimate Outlet. I figured if the joint really got jumping, I could switch the Montrachet to the UPC-200 for kicks just to see what happened.
UPC, don't you?
Upfront and personal, as I am sure you are wondering before I scribble further, let me explain the differences I heard between the $200 more expensive Shunyata Hydra 4 and the UPC-200. Compared to the straight power shot to the wall (in this case a PS Audio Power Port), the Hydra created tremendous clarity and focus in my rig, smacking hard with a dose of cool morning air and bright sunshine. Every part of the frequency range took on increased sheen, accuracy and dimension as well as increased dynamic range, translating into crystalline highs and tight, impactful bass lines, be they acoustic or synthetic. The Hydra added a serious case of high relief to the music, though with some music that meant increased sibilance on vocals and a certain heat in the treble. My room, with its tin ceiling and wall-to-wall plastic jewel case enclosed CDs is responsible for some of this zing (as Tone Import's Jonathan Halpern calls it), but the Shunyata gear is all about concentration and transparency so it too is part of that picture.
|The UPC-200 by comparison to the Hydra 4 was mellower, a little slower off the sonic mark, not quite as ultra-clear and consequently, a little smoother overall. Rolled off? Not really, just a different set of tonal priorities. The UPC-200 also lacked the Hydra's super dynamic focus on focus, tending to mass sounds together in a more homogenous way. But it also presented bass frequencies with greater warmth and weight if less precise. Like its bigger siblings, the UPC-200 likes its music warm and flowing; it's more about euphony and an easy-going ride than super-immaculate precision and truth serum-induced honesty. The Hydra also presented slightly larger and faster images than the UPC-200, creating a thrilling presentation. The Hydra is all about the thrill behind the music. The UPC-200 presents a kinder, gentler world.
The UPC-200 performed similar tricks to the Hydra running straight into the wall, if not as dramatically. Its warm character remained intact and improved immeasurably on the into-the-wall's basic soundstage (which was completely shrunken by contrast). If you are in doubt about the effects of power line conditioning, just remove all your fat power cords and line conditioners. If your power is anything like mine, the soundstage will collapse and tonality will be squashed down to a midrange as tight and un-tuneful as Donald Rumsfeld's ass. Does the UPC-200 do a great job for $299? For the price, it is a stoned steal. In my room with its slightly elevated treble tonality, the UPC-200 was as warm and sweet as a bottle of 16-year old single malt Lavagulin. I would highly recommend the UPC-200 before investing in a Power Plant, a unit I found to be overly hot to the touch, mechanically problematic and very prone to masking low level detail and dynamics in general. The UPC-200 seems to lack these ills, only slightly warming the music while never interfering with its basic fundamentals and dynamics.
Dark water or dark beauty?
So, is the word similarly favorable on the Ultimate Outlet? To back-tread a bit, I broke in the UPC-200 with repeated plays through the Wadia combo I have in for review. The Ultimate Outlet got the business through days of repeat play on my Sony boombox. Not much current I know, but a draw is a draw. The Ultimate Outlet ran cool to the touch for two months straight.
Playing the same set of CDs -- Donald Fagen's forthcoming Morph the Cat [WB promo]; Broadcast's Tender Buttons [Warp CD136]; Vijay Iyer's Reimagining [Savoy Jazz SVY 17475]; and Impulsive! Unmixed [Impulse! B0005282] -- I stuck the Ultimate Outlet in line behind the Montrachet and listened up.
Here is was much harder to be hands-down certain that the PS Audio product was doing something measurably beneficial. Playing the Fagen disc -- pretty damn high rez to begin with -- I felt that with the UO in line I was hearing deeper into the recording. Horn and guitar lines became more apparent and the disc's lush harmonies became more intoxicating, creamy, detailed and hyper-real, almost to the point of unreality. The entire soundstage seemed to move about three rows closer. I could now see the musician's faces more clearly and enjoy the female background singer's fine round frames. Dynamics were not stilted in the least, which surprised me, but the music did contain a razor-sharp edge that could at times knock me a little silly.
The music sounded louder but I wanted to turn it down. There was definitely more air and mid-to-high frequency information but the commensurate effect was not delivered in the bass, the frequencies I most crave. Everything was moving faster, from snare drum whaps! and trumpet snaps to kicking kick drums. The whole place was more energized, like a stage going from dark to light, but was it all a little too much? I wasn't sure. I kind of dug this newfound infusion of energy to my system but it also felt like a sleight-of-hand trick. As though in the morning, I would wake up to find Jennifer Connelly waiting for me in front of the stereo wearing nothing but a smile only to find out later that my girlfriend had left me for Woody Allen. Something was just too good to be true. I had to try some other discs.
Listening to Oliver Nelson's classic "Stolen Moments" from Impulsive! Unmixed, I noticed that the soundstage was deeper, slightly wider and more transparent than without the UO. Reed and brass lines had more texture, improved definition and bite, but again, there was little increase in bass weight. Overall presence was greatly increased. That may be the UO's best trait - increasing that sense of being there, close to the musicians, their every utterance pushed to the fore and in your face. Can't say boo to that! Still, I wasn't sure if this was all hyper-reality, smoke and mirrors, or was I simply looking a gift horse in the mouth? It has been a few months now with the UO and I still vacillate between loving the energized, almost compressed sound of the UO in line and thinking that it is unnatural, that music just doesn't come with this degree of slam, textural definition and presence. Like the old George Harrison psychedelic song, perhaps "It's All Too Much." At least that is how I am feeling today. Tomorrow may be different.
Countdown to ecstasy
The PS Audio UPC-200 Power Center quickly won me over with its small size and big sound. It imbued both warmth and slam to the music and is highly musical and natural sounding. Its overall effect was less intrusive than some power conditioners I have used earlier. That is a good thing. It got out of the way. I was less convinced though equally enamored of the PS Audio Ultimate Outlet as my reflections above make perfectly clear. In tandem, the pair supercharged my rig, creating a fat, detailed, superbly immediate and consequently addictive sound. Call me realsization-ized.
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