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.
As we start our series on the mysterious power cord, asking the question of why it should make such a difference in sound, I want to offer an experiment for the adventurous few. I will make two assumptions: you have a separate power amplifier, and you haven’t changed your power cord in some time. If true, the experiment’s easy.
Find an acoustic track you are familiar with, one preferably with a voice or voices and a few stringed instruments, like a plucked guitar, or even a piano. Listen closely to the presentation of the instruments, their tonality, space within the recording and in particular, the length of decay of overtones. Focus also on the humanness of the voice. Note the exact volume level it is played at, then shut down the amplifier.
Next, remove the power cord from the amplifier and the wall or conditioner. Put it back in the AC source and the amp itself. Turn the system back on and repeat the listening test ensuring the volume remains identical. Chances are quite good that careful listeners on revealing systems will note improvements: longer decay of notes, more lifelike presentation, better separation between instruments. The contrasts should be readily apparent.
This experiment works because the act of removing and inserting a power cable removes surface oxidation from the receptacles in the wall and equipment. Metal surfaces grow ‘barnacle-like’ protrusions over time, reducing connectivity and you can hear the difference once cleaned. The experiment only works the once and time must pass before repeating it.
I bring this to your attention so you’re not fooled into hearing improvements that do not exist when trying a new power cable.
You must always begin by following the process just mentioned, then evaluate the old one, and get ready for the new.
I recently finished the BHK Signature power amplifier pages for the website starting with an essay entitled, “One man’s pursuit of perfection.” The process is to write an essay, break it down into pages and sections, add specific product details that become the website’s More Details page.
Proofreading the the BHK owner’s manual I ran across a heading entitled: “Power cords matter”. Many readers of this blog have asked me to address the reasons why they might matter and, even, if they matter. I have steadfastly avoided the subject because it is the single most contentious of them all, but perhaps it’s time we at least poke the hornet’s nest a little.
Let me begin by stating: power cords do matter – in many cases, a lot. Secondly, let me clearly state I do not know why, at least not to my own satisfaction. I hear many explanations that peg my internal BS meter, yet our apparent inability to explain what we hear should not be taken as proof we are fooling ourselves.
Time and again I have performed valid tests demonstrating clear differences between identical gauge power cables. I just can’t look you in they eye and say definitively why.
In the next days we will travel down the bumpy road together and share what we hear, what we know, what we suspect, and what others propose. Perhaps through extended dialog we may find enlightenment, but it is more likely we’ll be stung by angry hornets.
Yesterday we discussed the downside of sharing a power supply and cord in an integrated. There’s one other negative aspect to them we’ll cover today, then on to their more positive attributes.
Compactness is a benefit of integrateds yet this feature is problematic. Like trying to fit five passengers in a subcompact car, multiple systems within equipment do not benefit from close proximity. Rather, they tend to interfere with each other causing headaches for designers. Imagine the challenge of stuffing a noisy DAC next to a quiet phono stage, or a sensitive preamp next to a powerful amplifier.
Modern equipment adheres to design rules restricting width to nineteen inches, preferably seventeen, which leaves only height and depth to play with, and these are not without their limits. Stuffing a lot of circuitry into one box means interaction between systems unless precautions are taken. Some companies have much to spend on their casework and can build small chassis within chassis to help isolate noise. Others do not have the luxury of extensive metalwork and use engineering tricks instead, like lowering power within each circuit.
Stuffing a lot of circuitry inside a small box is convenient for the user and problematic for the designer, but there are some advantages. Let’s look at the brighter side of integrateds tomorrow.
Another piece to the puzzle
One of my favorite stories comes from a kindergarten student brought before the teacher to face charges of selfishness.
“It seems you do not like to share with the others.”
“Oh, I do! I just don’t like them messing with my stuff.”
The vast majority of integrateds achieve their compactness from a shared power supply, but this design technique shortchanges performance. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, all the major benefits we might expect when building an integrated, such as, eliminating interconnects, and matching colorations of components within the system can be diminished or lost when power supplies are shared.
The importance of power cannot be overstated. After all, an amplification device is nothing more than a modulated power supply. And yet designers in our field have consistently treated the source of power as an afterthought, like the proverbial red-haired stepchild (apologies to any of you qualifying on both accounts). The single biggest problem in the artform known as the integrated is the shared power supply and, even if you went to the trouble of assigning each system its own, you still feed them with one shared power cord, thus losing benefits enjoyed by separates.
Sharing has its joys, but power supplies and cords need to be selfish.
Putting it together
An integrated combines multiple systems together in one box. A good example is a laptop computer; its screen, keyboard, mouse, processor, hard drive, are all contained in one enclosure, when traditionally they are separate.
Laptops offer greater portability and convenience than their mulit-part competitors, yet performance is compromised relative to the best assemblages.
2-channel audio systems can be integrated or separate, and the choice for either has ramifications similar to those I just described: convenience and compactness vs. performance. Yet, for those focusing on performance there is a problem in that argument. Much of what we believe to be true in high-end audio suggests integrateds should sound better, when the opposite is true. Our cherished notions of fewer cables, shorter distances between units, preordained synergy between components, and the benefits of a master architect, come into question when we listen to music reproduced through single-box equipment subscribing to this dogma.
Can those among us proselytizing the benefits of a minimalist’s approach on the one hand, be trusted to proffer opinions on the superiority of separates on the other? There seems an obvious disconnect but one I believe can be explained. We need another piece of the puzzle to reveal itself and that, dear reader, happens tomorrow.
Holistic describes systems intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole. It defines our starting point to further understand two groups of music reproduction equipment: separates and integrateds. We can examine individual components, and we will, but learn little until each is examined as a whole.
The thousand foot view of a separates system looks like multiple boxes tied together with cables, powered by many cords. The same vantage point reveals the integrated as a single box bereft of cables, and fed from one power source. Each makes music that sounds noticeably different.
Over the next few days we will zoom in for a closer view and hopefully discover the reasons for those differences. Our essays will start with the integrated and move to separates. And we will ponder this question; if you collected the separates into one enclosure, so our bird’s eye view matched, would the two sound the same?
Do you share?
It cannot just be me that wants to share every time I find something new and wonderful. I believe it must be human nature. I get a new album, find a cut that sounds stellar and my first thought is to grab someone else and share it with them. Last night I watched prisoner 24601 singing on the big screen and nearly wept there was no one to share it with.
Music seems to be something we want to share with others: perhaps as a bond, a way of communication.
Do you find this to be true as well?
In response to yesterday’s post Separates reader Chris Foreman commented:
These smaller companies made one thing but did it really well and drove a wedge into the market share of the giants who didn’t have the talent or the budget to keep up in all of these product categories.
This is a classic story repeated in cycles. Companies grow to slow moving giants until their forward direction is changed by smaller, faster moving challengers nipping at their heels. Harmon, Bose, Sonos are perfect examples of small companies grown to leviathans.
Innovation rarely comes from giants. Smaller more nimble companies lead the way until they become sustenance for the colossus. Apple has gorged itself on 68 smaller innovative companies since 1988 to stay ahead of the curve and there are many other examples.
Our own group of small, fast moving technology companies, collectively known as the High End, is often viewed by outsiders as a ragtag collection catering to the doddering few. But I would offer a different view.
We are scarce advocates of better sound, whose cultured expectations push the envelope of the possible.
The great unwashed seem satisfied with what they listen to, but happier when something better comes along. Without Audiophiles driving wedges that overturn apple carts, there would be no movement towards high resolution audio, the current ‘discovery’ big companies are pushing as new. It is our customer’s insatiable desire for better sound that sets the direction of giants.