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It's easy to demonize switch-mode power supplies. Being dirt cheap often and well below the better lap-top bricks, they tend to inject garbage into the AC line while merrily broadcasting high-frequency noise. But such generalizations overlook brilliant gear which performs superbly not in spite of but because it runs on switch-mode supplies. Those types are obviously seriously engineered, seriously shielded and usually sizable, quite complex and internal. From my acquaintances Crayon Audio's stunning CFA-1 integrated comes to mind. It's a component I still wish I'd not sent back. Linn has championed SMPS for perhaps more than a decade. B&O's popular ICEpower™ modules and NuForce electronics depend on them. And so on. This is important to clarify. Otherwise any talk of upgrading switch-mode supplies to battery operation could seem to imply that SMPS are innately inferior and the work of those who are too cheap—or incompetent—to engineer a proppa linear supply.

Incidentally stock battery operation for source components now includes Human Audio's €7.000 Libretto CD player, their €600/900 Tabla/Chiave USB-to-S/PDIF converters (above, with two high-grade lithium-iron-phosphate cells no less) and Max Townshend's £10.000 Glastonbury universal player at right. That runs off a 6-volt internal SLA battery with eight precision voltage regulators fed from the battery to feed the clock, buffers and D/A converter and will run continuously for 30 hours on CD, 22 hours on 96/24 DVD/A or SACD and 17 hours with 192/24 DVD/A.

How would today's battery supply fare against a cheap SMPS and a properly engineered linear supply? Fitted with a single battery cell the Black Lightning proved good for about 6 hours of run time before it would shut down. Resetting the rear toggle from BATT to AC then would take a minute or two until the charger had added sufficient capacity to restart power whilst full charging continued in the background. I'd pay for either the additional module to auto switch from battery to charging mode and avoid interruptions or opt for twin-cell innards to double play time.

Battery power claims are often accompanied by promises of lower noise floors and blacker backgrounds. The implication seems to be that linear supplies are handicapped by comparison. That's not really been my experience. My FirstWatt amps are some of the quietest most resolved performers ever. Readers with high-efficiency hornspeakers of the 107dB variety have reported fabulous results with them. I thus suspect that the primary advantages which batteries properly implemented enjoy are the obvious—AC invariance where the component doesn't alter its performance with time of day— and the less obvious, raw drive from ultra-low impedance and instantaneous high current delivery. I think the latter might explain why battery-powered gear often has amazingly robust whomping (HP willow-style) bass.

I'm also wondering whether particularly with digital sources battery power can minimize/eliminate the backwash of HF noise into the AC line to benefit other components when the charge connection is cut.

BL vs. Voltikus: The core distinguishers were higher bass weight/mass for the battery, concomitant warmth, with it a sense of greater relaxation and on the virtual stage greater depth. The Voltikus was just as extended in the bass but leaner and as such subjectively more separated/articulated. The latter aspect translated across the board as sharper attacks where Vinnie's power choice painted it fatter/softer.

The upshot was that the batteries created the subjectively bigger heavier sound whilst the toroidal transformer and triple regulators had greater/sharper focus and a slightly more forward 'gathered up' presentation. In lighting terms the Voltikus scenery sat under more lumens. It seemed more modern and geared for detail resolution and speed. The BL attempted to clone analogue sound by shifting listener focus on tone density and gravitas, warmth and a darker moister feel. The Voltikus was a bit more piquant and its crisper handling of the treble produced wirier string action.

The general effect of flavor shifting reminded me of the adaptable gain of my Esoteric C-03 preamp. Zero voltage gain is lighter, faster and more incisive (Voltikus). 12dB fills out and relaxes a bit (Black Lightning). 24dB gets even heavier but most of the time too soft, indistinct and slow. Jan Garbarek/Andy Sheppard-style meditations set in moody down-tempo atmospherics would translate this as a faint echo of playing the same notes on a soprano vs alto sax. The former is more piercing, shiny and reedy, the latter more coppery and guttural. It's fair to approach the same distinction from the sharp/smooth or space/body polarities. The Voltikus (in the good sense of the term) was edgier, the BL rounder. The Voltikus was a bit keener on ambient recovery or hall sound, the BL fleshier and more fixated on the material aspects. These differences simply weren't about any extremist juxtaposition. They were mellowed aspects of opposites meeting towards the middle.

I believe that while most listeners would cast a vote of preference one way or the other—i.e. little fence setting—most to all should agree that either sonic flavor was equally valid. The only lopsided scenarios I imagine would concern folks who listen exclusively to either very low or quite high volumes. The former should prefer the sharper more incisive separation of the Voltikus, the latter the massive solidity of the batteries. Otherwise the theme of equality continues with the €795 vs. $800 pricing. On cosmetics of course particularly given the designer touches of the Zodiac Gold, the Voltikus obviously ruled this pairing. Where the Black Lightning seemed to have the upper hand was in amp-direct mode. This is something the Gold's precision resistor array switched remotely with relays encourages. Here the battery was grippier.

BL vs SMPS: Sonically the switching supply was a lighter weight and smaller size all around except for two particular interrelated qualities - speed and wiriness. While musical gravity shifted up; while more white flooded into the tonal palette which caused particularly the upper octaves to shed some suavity and richness - textures from the lower midrange on down seemed more striated. Bass felt faster and as such more tensioned. This was an even more 'modern' flavor belonging to the archetype of the ceramic-driver speaker - lit up, lean, quick. Replacing Vinnie's battery with the Chinese SMPS involved shrinkage. It also was akin to moving from a lush autumnal scene to a brightly lit cloudless summer setting. This was rather more magnified than the prior comparison between the two linear supplies. There votes should have gone 50:50. In the second audition I'd predict nearly unanimous votes in favor of the Black Lightning. This became particularly relevant on how much emotional charge rubbed off from good singers. With the SMPS I dealt with isolated voices. The batteries presented the greater substance of actual persons attached to those voices. And yes the battery rendering was softer, warmer, weightier, richer, creamier, more laid-back and leisurely... what hifi parlance generally equates with analogue. Fat versus sizzle.

How today's observations centered on Antelope Audio's top converter will translate to other devices getting the battery treatment should theoretically depend on the quality of their switch-mode supplies. In practice off-the-shelf wall warts won't span a big gamut of quality especially with affordable bonsai audio whose cost advantages are largely leveraged by cheap SMPS. How advisable it is to dude up a $200 component with an $800 external power supply vs. going after a $1.000 box remains an open question. But as today's experiment showed and Tone Audio's prior review on Nagra's phono stage confirms, the Black Lightning proposition can target rather upscale gear. Now its price becomes that of a glitzy power cord. While that could sound very good as long as the AC line isn't loaded down with crud from your neighborhood grid, it won't liberate you from that frustrating performance variability where the sound of your system fluctuates without any apparent changes on your part. Going BATT disconnects that component from variability to produce greater stability on how things sound day in day out. Taking out a cheap SMPS also takes out a source of constant RF contamination to benefit the whole system. Sonic improvements thus are most likely not limited to just the one box you had go batty. That's a lovely fringe benefit. Bros Batty and Benny make for quite the dynamic duo!

Red Wine Audio website