One of the elements that permits (often encourages) power cord experimentation is built into most equipment. It is the IEC 60320. Here is a picture of it.
Starting in the late 1960s and gaining popularity in HIFI circles in the 1970s, the ubiquitous IEC 320 (shortened from 60320) was immediately embraced by manufacturers; not because it is better (it isn’t), but because it permits the use of multiple cable types without change to the hardware. Once manufacturers began shipping goods around the world the first problem they ran into was the different plugs used. The Germans had one type, another for the UK, Italy, Brazil, Australia, and the list is long.
Using a captured power cable meant stereo manufacturers would need different hardware for each country, a logistical nightmare. With the IEC 320 one model with the ability to vary input voltage, and different power cables for each country, were all that was needed to service the world. But it didn’t take long before we noticed power cables did not sound the same and it was the quiet, unassuming IEC 320 making it all possible.
Not every manufacturer embraced the IEC 320. The founder of Audio Research, Bill Johnson, told me his company would never adopt the IEC 320 as long as he was alive, and for many years this was true. He had two reasons for his stubbornness: he believed fixed power cables sounded better (he was correct), and he was adamant in his belief the power cord he supplied was perfect and could not be improved upon (he was incorrect).
Few product are without the IEC 320. Had it never been introduced, it’s likely interest and knowledge in power cord differences would never have flourished.
I have known of the power cord’s affect on sound quality since the late 1970′s. My first exposure came from a request made by our purchasing manager. He had asked me to help source a power cord for a new preamplifier we were launching.
Power cords have traditionally been added to the box containing new products. Called courtesy cables by some, throwaways by others, these power cords are included because customers rarely have extras. It is assumed by the buyer that what is supplied is adequate, if not recommended. Manufacturers treat them as afterthoughts, customers seem indifferent. Into this dynamic I was asked to help find the least expensive courtesy cable possible, one that would adequately serve the needs of the preamplifier it was intended to power.
Preamplifiers take very little power and even the thinnest gauge cables are adequate, if not overkill. With this in mind I got samples of many gauges and put them on the test bench to make sure they worked without loss. I was not disappointed. From the smallest to largest diameter of cable no differences were evident on test equipment. Before making the decision to go with the smallest gauge, least expensive cable, I decided to make sure my foot wasn’t being shot, which so often happens when I make decisions not based on listening.
I started with a 16 gauge power cable, having first rejected the 18 gauge as silly looking connected to the large preamp chassis. The sound was seemingly a bit ‘thin’ compared to my memory of it, but I rejected that notion out of hand. After all, the only difference was a power cable that on the test bench was overkill. Next I went thicker, to a 14 gauge, and was shocked the thinness had been reduced.
“What the hell?”
I grabbed what had been used in the past, an even heavier gauge 12, and listened again. I was floored by the improvement. Going from a large 12 gauge to a smaller 16 gauge sounded as if the music had passed through a filter that robbed its life and fullness.
This process was a revelation to me because there were no such things as aftermarket power cables at the time.
This was all new territory and much work was to follow.