Impressed, floored and frustrated

Remember "The Man who would be King"? It's a Kipling adventure tale in a remote Hindu Kush kingdom, set to celluloid with trekking Sean Connery and Michael Caine as the unwitting impostors who are mistaken for quasi deities, a kind of stereo second coming of Alexander the Great. There's a wonderful moment in which one of the local kings complains how his upstream neighbors urinate in the river to pollute their water. And so it is with us audiophiles. Every electrical component wired to the grid is effectively pissing into it for goodness' sake. When the power reaches us, it's frankly disgusting - not to mention the sheer quantity of mobile phone emissions polluting the atmosphere. Getting clean electric power and keeping RFI out of our systems is a problem, And it just keeps growing.

Hence the growing interest in power conditioners, purifiers, isolation transformers and suchlike. Fortunately, there are companies like PS Audio, Accuphase, Isotek and others to offer solutions. At a serious price, though. As an impecunious audiophile, I'm hugely in favour of the DIY mains spur or ring - which has the added advantage of turning staid and safe audiophilia into a serious life-threatening sport. Seriously, don't try it until you're absolutely sure what you're doing. The effect of my dedicated mains spur, while disappointingly underwhelming at first, has turned dramatically beneficial over the years.

But power conditioners and purifiers do a completely different job to that of a separate mains loom. To find out what that approach might do for my system, I decided to try the Audio Magic Mini Stealth. This is the diminutive little brother of the Stealth, a power purifier which has garnered considerable praise in the US. What we've got here is another one of those small plastic boxes, in this case sporting a red metallic front plate while the rear holds an IEC socket, a circuit breaker and a pair of US three-prong sockets (as opposed to the Stealth's six outlets).

I've no idea what's going on inside the patented workings of the Mini Stealth, though clearly it's a passive unit unlike the regenerative approach taken by PS Audio. But note the circuit breaker. It replaces a conventional fuse. Every fuse in the system passes current through a hair's width of uncertain-quality metal. Maybe we should be taking a good look into fuse quality while we're obsessing? Anyway, the Stealth then offers seven stages of secondary surge and spike protection using Audio Magic's highly rated ultra-pure 10 gauge silver wiring, with five further stages of patented broadband noise reduction, one of those presumably involving a capacitor. Audio Magic is reluctant to divulge details so that's pretty much all we get to know. Except that they claim that components attached will also last longer.

Obviously, with this kind of equipment, the usual caveats apply. The effect is bound to depend on the quality of our mains and the amount of upstream pollution. Living in London, I can safely assume it's bad here. The set of flats I live in has pretty ancient wiring. My listening room -- tripling as bedroom and office -- contains a rat's nest of cables feeding TV boxes, video, telly, electric heater, computer, printer and so forth. All of this stuff is shoving grunge back into the mains as well, so I must belong to the group with the most to gain from this kind of equipment. If it works.

Audio Magic sells direct to the public. We gain the benefits of lower costs but loose the safety net of prior auditions. This is great for the cost-conscious but puts even more responsibility on reviewers who already have too great an influence on the success or failure of a product. I was more than nervous about taking on the Mini Stealth. For one, this is my first foray into the power purifying arena - no context to go by. And what if I didn't hear much of anything? What would I have learned? That it didn't work? Or that I got shitty hearing and missed the obvious? In any case, how could I actually judge whether my mains power was better or worse than others? Obviously, there are so many variables in this arena that I'd probably just muddy these turbulent waters further. But in the end, curiosity prevailed.

Of course when it arrived, the obvious problem struck. US plugs! The 240-volt unit still uses them, so if you're considering the Stealth range, it'll have implications for your power cords as well. I had an unused standard US lead and attached it to a cheap spare four-gang bus. For starters, I tried the Audiomeca Mephisto II CD player alone. The effect was dire. Absolute crap. Amazing really how these relatively small additions robbed the entire system of its effortless transparency and replaced it with an invisible mist to work havoc on microdynamics, timbre and transients. One of the things I prize most is my system's ability to create a big, room-filling sound while allowing conversation to continue with no need to raise the voice. Well, that was gone too. Instead a fairly harsh and slightly brittle sound emerged. Obviously the virgin standard cable and 4-way extension were having a deleterious effect. Still, the sound was bad enough to suspect that the unit itself wasn't run in either. The instructions suggest attaching it to a heater for 300 hours. So heater duty it was. And by the way, I can tell you that while running through the Stealth, the heater sounded fantastic. Letting off steam, I tried to source some US plugs in the meantime.

A couple of days later, a Furutech US socket and IEC arrived. I made up a cable out of standard mains wire and attached it to the 4-way. This time I plugged in the Lavardin IT amp and the Mephisto II. Aha, that restored much of the sonic damage. The resultant sound was pretty similar to what it was before the Mini Stealth's' arrival. I prepared for some pretty close listening to tease out subtle gradations and nuances. Meanwhile, I finally scared up a UK/US adaptor. This allowed the CD to be plugged into the Mini Stealth directly while the Lavardin (through a Lavardin cable) got to use the adaptor. From the very first bars of the first disc, I now heard what it's like to get three cherries in a slot machine: Jackpot. A big one, too. The sound of sonic coins flooding down onto my feet threatened to bury me.

Which was a surprise, frankly. By now I didn't expect all that much after the first let-down with the new component, not least because it seemed to take quite a while to settle into the system. Power supplies usually take weeks -- if not months -- to reveal their actual character. In this case there was no question: Something major was going on now.

The Audiomeca Mephisto II is one of the most impressive CD players I've come across. Still, it is not without faults. In particular it appears to trade a greater density in the portrayal of individual notes for a small loss of associated harmonics. The greater density produces an effect similar to the three-dimensionality of good analogue, which is what I found so beguiling about the player to begin with. But harmonic wealth is usually pretty close to the top of my list. It spoke volumes about the player's performance as a whole that its virtues convinced me to part with frankly outrageous sums when it didn't completely cut the mustard in the overtone area - at least when compared to other top flyers like the big Metronome and tubed Audio Aero Capitole II.

With the Mini Stealth, the harmonics resurfaced as though they'd just been playing hide and seek. And they arrived to magnificent effect. First up was Kathryn Williams' Old Low Light. These are deceptively sparse songs that rely on the interplay of relatively simple motifs to create a surprising and complex whole. Hers is a particularly sure touch with subtle changes of rhythmic emphasis that communicate some rather "post-modernistic classic" emotions - if I may put it that way. In the wrong hands, this kind of effort collapses like a failed soufflé. But Lurne's digits are deft and attentive.

Through the Mini Stealth, the palpability of notes, the three-dimensional envelope which characterizes the Mephisto remained not only intact but emerged yet further. Simultaneously, the harmonics grew, increasing associated tonal colors and further resolving the recorded room acoustic. The bass line appeared to gain in tautness and energy. I could now imagine the player's fingers pressing on the string, the relative pressure he used to pluck with. And this bass came across even faster and tighter, without sounding artificial or overemphasized - none of that solid-state sounding generalized thump that certain components produce.

When Kathryn's voice breaks into "Little Black Numbers", she appears directly in front of the bass, giving a considerably greater insight into recorded stage depth (I'm assuming that this stage is created in the mixing room). Her phrasing -- the minute hesitations and build-up of anticipation that do so much to communicate the emotional content of a song -- are patently more obvious. So are consonants, the puckering of lips, the inhalations, the voice itself - all the small ingredients that make up the song's interpretation.

An interesting aside? Even though voice and bass completely overlap, they appeared in separate yet complimentary spaces. From where I sit, this counts as a pretty impressive trick. The increase in harmonic reverberations is often associated with a greater sense of presence, an enhanced sensation of instruments being actually in the room. The Mephisto already scores highly in terms of presence hence this effect only further refined the player's already remarkable tonal and timbral palette. What I got in spades now was also greater definition. Just as spacial relationships congeal out of nowhere when you focus a binocular, this sharper focus further defined the spacial relationships between the various instruments, not to mention noticeably heightening rhythmic precision.

In short, detail - more of it. Far more importantly, detail of the right sort that wasn't at the expense of the song's fabric. Yes, with the increase in detail came a slightly drier overall presentation, but I wouldn't be surprised if that disappeared once the cabling and components had settled in further. These noted improvements arose with a remarkably light hand. The Mini Stealth didn't seem to add an outright acoustic signature of its own. The relationship between voice, guitar, bass and the emerging drumbeat simply took on greater cohesion than I had been used to. The soundstage became more defined, the sense of apparent scale not so much larger as inherently more palpable. On "Wolf", this meant that the rhythmic subtext, that hidden background beat the musicians are imagining, became part of the track itself to find me more deeply involved, head nodding involuntarily.

At this point, some of my old favorites begged to be heard, like Antonio Forcione's Acoustic Mania. While the gains in transient attacks and elongated decays were considerable, the more significant thing was a sense of greater delicacy, a greater insight into the music itself - as though one were noticing or participating in the musical score itself. With Arvo Part's Te Deum, the same effect again. This wasn't just an audiophile issue. What we had here was a tool that helped the musical event become at once more involving and easier to experience, not just as a work of art but on a visceral level. I have no doubt that this little creature has diverse vital audiophile goodies to offer, but was it this greater resolution, detail, harmonics and contrasts that made better music? Was the sensation of greater energy just a product of more resolved micro-dynamics, or something else as yet difficult to define?

I cued up Hildegarde Von Bingen's "10,000 Virgins". While more meditative, the results were paradoxically more spine-tingling even - the purity of the plainsong, the perfect mixture of voices and their echoes within the church. The directness of this recording allows the interplay between the four singers to recreate not just the music but the underlying spiritual imperative. The poise and stance of each voice became more evident, as well as the uniting bond which had them come across almost as aspects of a single being rather than four separate individuals. On inferior equipment, plainsong can be monotonous suffering. The Stealth, true to its name, invisibly helped reveal this Karlsruhe LV Antiphon: Auctori vite psalmis to be what it is - a triumph of medieval music and a profound, even transformative experience.

On it went with every genre of music I threw at it. Rachmaninov, R. Kelly, Abdullah Ibrahim, even the fabulous rap of Citizen Cope on a friend's compilation disc. Big smile time, every track. Getting the Mini Stealth to work began as a frustrating experience. The incompatibility of US plugs means I'll have to adapt the captive plug of the Microgroove Plus phonostage to see if the effects are as good (two adaptors simply won't fit into the back). I won't be trying it on the turntable as I'm waiting for a battery power supply which will make the issue redundant. Ultimately however, the Mini Stealth has easily secured itself a permanent space on my rack. Its effects aren't just noticeable but far from subtle - stark and obvious. The looks are plain Jane, but the sound is anything but.

Now here's what's really frightening: The Stealth is designed to work with Audio Magic's silver power cords at something like $1000 a shot. The 240-volt version of the Mini Stealth comes in at $900 plus shipping and UK taxes. The decision to keep it was laughably easy for me but remember that I don't have a background of alternatives to compare it against (next up I'll be trying the Loricraft Power Supply). In the end, the Mini Stealth speaks for itself. I can't decide whether I'm just deeply impressed or completely floored. Either way - it's a pleasant dilemma to be in.

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