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Review: Audience aR4 Power Conditioner

post #1 of 19
Thread Starter 
Introduction

This is a purely subjective review that contains controversial terms like “burn in” and “power cords” as well as clichéd subjective descriptions. Readers of a nervous disposition, or sound scientists on a short fuse, had better avert their eyes now.

Background

I’ve been an audiophile for a long, long time – since the year 1710 to be precise. In the early days, I’ve kept away from Power Conditioners (PCs) – partly because, well, mains electricity hadn’t been invented yet! The audiophile arguments of the day tended to be about the sound quality of different harpsichords. And who was this upstart Stradivarius, with his “musical” wood varnish? Made from pure snake oil some said. Through the ages, the sound scientists of the day have been holding blind tests to prove that all violins sound the same (I kid you not).

But I digress. Mostly I’ve kept away from PCs because none of my usual high end dealers ever recommended them. Cables? Yes. Power cords? Absolutely. But in their eyes, all PCs compromised the sound in some way – usually by squashing dynamics. But things are changing methinks, so time to try one out.

I currently have a reasonably high end system: Nagra CD player -> Stax SRM007t -> O2 Mk1, with pricy Transparent power cord and interconnect. I’m completely done with main component and cable upgrades – apart from a BHSE/WES amp on my wish list - and I’m very pleased indeed with the sound overall.

Actually, there’s still is one problem: I’m allergic to artificially-induced brightness, so my move from vinyl to CD was a dubious step on that score. My remaining quest is to increase the detail and “life” of my CD collection whilst simultaneously decreasing brightness of the poorly mastered ones. Not an easy balance to achieve, but it’s one of the things that high end is all about IMO.

The Alternatives

One obvious alternative is to get a dedicated mains spur installed. I’ve discounted that idea because it’s not transportable and also fails on the WAF level: we live in a 17th Century listed cottage (bought as new build, heehee) with solid limestone walls almost 2 feet thick. The existing mains wiring goes though incredibly convoluted paths, and my wife would not appreciate the disruption of all that mess and drilling. Also, a dedicated spur would not resolve mains noise generated outside the house, or the noise generated by the equipment itself. And finally, the ring circuit for the listening room is already relatively self-contained – only the hifi, AV and some lighting shares this circuit.

So what about rival PCs? Well, there’s millions of ‘em now. The Tesla PowerCell is taking no prisoners; the Bybee is creating a bit of a buzz; the Power Plant Premier is famed for its organic sound; the VertexAQ Elbrus is… I’ve run out of puns. Because of PCs reputation for squashing dynamics, I was particularly drawn to a small number that allegedly increase dynamics. One of these is Audience and is also one of the very few ones that has a UK distributer. So I got one on a 30 day trail. I was going to compare it to a PPP, but the latter didn’t materialise.

What’s in the box?

Primarily, a bunch of Auricap capacitors from the same company, along with obsessive attention to detail. The box aims to do 3 things: noise filtration, Power Factor correction and surge protection – all in a way that allegedly does not harm the sound in any way. Actually, I don’t really care what’s in the box, as I’ve long given up trying to make scientific sense of this hi-fi game – ever since 1897 when some mad Scotsman trounced my state-of-the-art windup gramophone with his springy contraption – and mine was made from finest mahogany as well.

Anyway, the Audience box itself is simply but beautifully finished – as befits its high end status.

Audience also offer a “T” version, where the fairly posh Auricaps are replaced with their really posh Teflon caps. The T is reputedly much better, but is only available in US 110v variants, so I have no chance of comparing the two. Just as well really, as the T version is more or less double the price!

I have to say, I was sceptical that a bunch of capacitors could have as much affect on a power supply as say a regenerator like the PPP. But once I got over that, a passive box does have several practical advantages on the WAF front. It’s smaller, lighter, runs silently, has no fans or vents, runs stone cold and so can be tucked away in the tightest, darkest corner.

Pricewise, it’s easier for me to talk in dollars. The $2,800 (6 socket US version) Audience PC includes a $650 power cord, which connects to the box via a locking Powercon – much more secure than IEC, but prevents comparison of different power cords. Audience do offer a supa dupa $2,000+ power cord option, but I chose not to go there. For the US and most of EU, the boxes come in two sizes: with 6 or 12 sockets. Because UK sockets are that much larger, the same boxes have only 4 or 8 sockets. But for headphone use, 4 sockets are plenty for me, and it does, kind of, keep the price down a bit.

Now it’s time for the subjective review, but first, I cannot avoid mentioning a subject I hate…

Burn-in

Please, let’s not have another debate on whether burn-in is real. I believe in it, but try to avoid it where possible – usually my listening tests involve demo equipment, so the issue does not arise. But in this case, the box was brand new, and worse, the Audience’s reputation was that it was essential to burn-in for a long time. Oh joy of joys!

Anyway, I plugged it into a socket on my ring circuit – replacing a 3 metre spur of standard solid core mains wire, which was hardwired to the back of the same socket. How long should I leave the PC to gently cook? 100 hours? 500 hours? Well, I’m an impatient man, so gave it about 1 hour before I played a CD track. After all, how long can it possibly take to charge up a few capacitors?

Initially, just the CDP was plugged into the PC, with the Stax amp remaining, volume control untouched, on the spur. My first impression was that the sound became louder. Maybe not louder, more like bigger. Both the overall soundstage and the individual performers/instruments were bigger, more obvious, more lifelike. Some reduction of treble “grain” too. So, not a bad start, but TBH this was not a life changing experience. Looks like I’ll have to let it cook for a while longer. Damn!

This was during a socially busy Xmas week, so the burn-in didn’t turn out to be such a chore. I just listened for a couple of minutes at the end of each day to see how things were progressing. 1st day not much change, 2nd and 3rd days still not much change. But on the 4th day, something was stirring. It made me go “ooer”. Nothing else, just “ooer”. Twice. No time to analyse this, but tomorrow night was going to be free.

Sound Quality

So, I’m at the end of the 5th day and no interruptions ahead. Yippee, let’s dim the lights and hit that play button. This time I didn’t say “ooer”, because I was too busy trying to catch my breath. The thing causing this breathlessness was… Crazy Detail. Now, I can’t be sure if my Crazy Detail was the same as Patrick82’s Acoustic Revive PC a few months back, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was along the same lines.

I’ll try to describe what Crazy Detail meant to me on this occasion: Firstly, it was across the whole frequency spectrum. Deep base was better defined and the source was more specifically located within the soundstage. Voices were clearer and more natural – I could follow the words that much easier. Treble was less harsh and congested – more natural.

Secondly, there were more micro and macro details: Subtle echo shimmers wafted in and out of the soundstage, whilst the performers became more solid, with a more dynamic and lifelike presence.

One area particularly fascinated me: The reverb affects applied to voice performances were more clearly displayed – not just between different albums, but between different tracks on the same album. I could more clearly isolate the naked voice, surrounded by its own reverb soundstage, surrounded by the main soundstage. This sometimes made for riveting listening.

I’ll stop gushing now. Most of these descriptions can also apply to almost any significant upgrade of a main component. What took me by surprise was the sheer depth and breadth of improvement – at least the equal of any major amp or source change that I can remember. In these particular areas, it was even more of an improvement than many headphone and speaker changes I’ve made – once I’ve taken the obvious transducer colourations and frequency peaks out of the equation. I’m not trying to say that transducers won’t make a more obvious difference to the character of the sound.

Perspective Time

Let’s just go through what the Audience does NOT do:

It doesn’t make the sound all warm and cuddly. It does not perceivably change the frequency response at all. The sound is less fatiguing because of reduced grain and congestion, not because of reduced treble output. An “up front” recording stays up front - in some ways even more so because of the extra detail and dynamics.

It doesn’t reproduce detail that doesn’t exist in the first place. My above comments related to well recorded albums, like Holly Cole’s musically and sonically wonderful “Temptation”. If a recording doesn’t have real base, like Cat Power’s “The Greatest”, then the Audience will not magically create it. Poorer recordings still benefit though, just in a lesser range of ways.

Following on from this, I can imagine that the Audience may not give the same level of improvement when used with a less resolving system. The Audience produced a greater improvement than I remember when I added my high end Transparent Reference interconnect about a year ago. But would it have been different had I tried them the other way around? Due to the poorer power supply at the time, the Transparent cable was perhaps not in a system that could best show off it’s potential.

The Audience provides HF filtering. It does not clean a distorted mains waveform like a regenerator may do – It did nothing to fix an occasional mains transformer buzz that I had on my plasma TV (“…driving me nuts” thread posted a while back).

I didn’t notice “blacker blacks”, as is often reported when people make power supply upgrades.

Finally, some will say that this is all placebo because I haven’t done a DBT, which is thankfully banned from this forum. I’m satisfied that everything I’ve experienced is real, but you can’t be sure if I’ve just been deluding myself.

Am I keeping it?

After getting used to its sound for a few weeks, I took the Audience out of the loop to see what would happen. The result was interesting: great recordings, like Temptation, still sounded great, albeit in a lesser form. It’s as if the losing of Crazy Detail was less obvious than the gaining of it. But a poorer recording like The Greatest just sounded flat and lifeless. In general, most recordings just became boring. All the main ingredients were there, but after a few minutes I just didn’t want to continue with them. So yes, I’m definitely keeping it.

Conclusion

Should you rush out and buy this Power Conditioner? Of course not. Your mains situation and particular system could be considerably different to mine, such that you may get a completely different result. I also don’t know if any rivals can give a better performance for less money.

But I do recommend that you TRIAL it if you can. Because, maybe, you’ll get a bigger boost in performance than by spending the same money on a main component upgrade. And maybe, just maybe, that performance boost will take your breath away.
post #2 of 19
Good review thanks for taking the time to give your impressions.

It's too bad that you have to start by defending against the wacko fringe that for some reason targets tweaks such as power conditioners, cables and the like, even though their basic argument about the need to control for the biasing effect of psychological factors affecting judgments applies to everything we discuss in these forums. I guess they don't have the guts to come out and say that a Sennheiser 800 or Stax 007 does't actually sound good but its only your expectation that it will sound good because of the prestige of the name, or some other such rubbish.

I say this having spent a large part of my early years doing objective studies as an experimental psychologist. I know how hard it is to do such studies right and that most of the efforts described in these forums are laughably naive. For a start, finding no difference between 2 groups in an experiment is generally an unreportable (meaning unpublishable) finding since it could simply indicate a bad experiment. And yet the resident doofusses regularly pounce on such results as proof that "everything sounds the same." Also almost no-one does serious studies of perceptual sensitivity with groups of untrained subjects, rather most data comes from intensive trials of small number of subjects, tested in one or more conditions, because it was long ago realized by professionals in the field that sensory descrimination is a subtle affair and a lot of data would need to be generated to pull out the signal from the noise.

That said, it would be nice to have some psychological science back up our listening choices, but as one of my old profs said many years ago, "There's a lot we don't know before we don't know that."

Lacking good science in this field, I go back to the tried and true formula of listening to and comparing equipment over a long time, with familiar music, preferably in one's own set-up. And even if some one were to win a Nobel prize for comparative studies of high fi equipment, I would still make the final decsion on what to buy based on my own listening.

That out of the way, I have tried a few filtering systems over time, but nothing very costly. Some of the filtered strips I have used have shown benefits in cleaniness of sound, and sweeter tone quality but at the cost of some loss of dynamics of volume. Do you think your system avoids this probelm?
post #3 of 19
For the motivated DIY'er, it should be fairly doable to make your own AdeptResponse. It does sound quite good as far as power conditioners go.





No new technology here. Capacitorss (X caps) acros the line filter high frequencies by turning the differential noise into common mode noise that the inductors (common mode chokes in black shrink) cancel out.

Two parallel copper strips are for Line and Neutral
Star grounding with 2 small "Y Caps" going to ground from line and neutral, and the outlet grounds daisy-chained to the star point.
post #4 of 19
Thanks for your very well-written, entertaining, and informative review.

One interesting sidenote: it is my observation that of all the gear sold on Audiogon, items that seem to sell fastest are power conditioners. Good ones at decent prices seem to get sold in a few days if not a few hours.

Either there is especially intense mass delusion regarding power conditioners (more intense than for solid state amps or CD players, for example) or these things actually can improve sound quality quite a lot.
post #5 of 19
The effect of the AC filters and conditioners depends on the quality of the electricity in your electric mains. Some houses have relatively clean power and you don't need a conditioner or the effect will be barely noticeable. Unlike most of the audio equipment you must make your own tests with the power accessories.
post #6 of 19
Thread Starter 
Thanks for the feedback guys.

edstrelow, the Audience definitely increases dynamics. Depending on model, it's rated at around 2kw continuous. I no longer have the kind of heavyweight class A monoblocs that would truely test it, but from the comments of others it doesn't have a problem in this area. Whereas, some have said, the PPP is not comfortable handling big power amps - this wouldn't matter in a pure headfi world.

Jon L, it would certainly be interesting to see if the same performance could be gained through the DIY route - it's a case of how important is Audience's claim to their attention to detail. Like them not using off the shelf (sound destroying) MOV devices for surge protection. I'm not sure what they do use, but from the photos, it can't be very large. Same applies to power factor correction. Not sure how important that is compared to the filtering.
post #7 of 19
Quote:
I currently have a reasonably high end system: Nagra CD player -> Stax SRM007t -> O2 Mk1, with pricy Transparent power cord and interconnect. I’m completely done with main component and cable upgrades – apart from a BHSE/WES amp on my wish list - and I’m very pleased indeed with the sound overall.
I think that a BHSE is practically a necessity here!

Now, I usually won't presume to tell anyone what they need or how to spend their money, even though the urge is strong and ever-present. But it seems to me that budget allocation is slightly skewed here. I haven't heard an Audience power conditioner, but it is my humble opinion based on my very limited experience that a BHSE is a significantly bigger upgrade than a power conditioner, cables or other tweaks. This is even stronger if the Nagra CDP is as good as I think it is, yay Team Source First!

BTW, I use an Isotek Sigmas in my headphone system, and an Acoustic Revive RTP-6 elsewhere. I think the Isotek does a very good job increasing details and overall clarity, mainly by making the background seem blacker and less noisy. So each individual note stands out a little bit more, with a little better separation with other notes. I wouldn't say it is a big difference, like the BHSE vs. 007t driving an O2 is a huge difference , but it is one of those relatively subtle improvements that you become accustomed to over time and can't seem to do without.
post #8 of 19
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Elephas View Post
I think that a BHSE is practically a necessity here!
Yes, but how many years will I have to wait for one?

Actually, I'm still waiting for a decent review of one, plus a decent comparison v the WES (which I'm currently leaning towards).

Basically, I'm very reticent about spending $5k+ on something I have never seen or heard. This is based on past experience when, on hearing a component for myself, I have rarely chosen the one that got the rave reviews by other people. Having said that, it is inevitable that I'll be owning one or the other of these within the next year or two.
post #9 of 19
Great review. I'm a fan of the Adept Response conditioners, but I don't like Audience's cables or power cords at all, so I find it annoying that their multi outlet conditioners use the Powercon connector. I guess its a more solid connection than the typical 20A IEC, but it makes auditioning alternate cords much harder.

Fortunately the Ar2p that I use connects straight to the wall, so I'm not stuck with an Audience PowerChord that I don't want. I'll stick with my Shunyata Pythons, thanks.

It's too bad that Audience doesn't offer the T versions in the UK. From what I've heard, their performance is just on a different level than the standard Auricaps. I'm looking forward to trying the Ar2pT to see if that's the case with my KGSS/STAX setup.

At the moment it seems like the Audience T conditioners, Powercell SE, and Bybee Wire are the conditioners to beat. The RSA Dmitri and Maxim also have a good rep, and I'm not sure if anybody has done a direct comparison with the above.

I tried a PS Power Plant. Wasn't impressed.
post #10 of 19
Thread Starter 
I did consider getting a two-socket ar2T (without the p) specially imported - and then replacing my existing UK plugs to match. But the cost of that would have been several hundred dollars more than the ar4. So more money for half the number of sockets and twice the fuss - the T had better be pretty damn fantastic to make that worthwhile!

But the idea came to nothing because the 110v version simply can't be used at the higher voltage - Audience would have to do a significant rework for UK/EU and that I guess is not worth their while with expected sales.
post #11 of 19
Quote:
Originally Posted by TheAttorney View Post
the T had better be pretty damn fantastic to make that worthwhile!
The general consensus seems to be that it is. Fortunately the Ar2pT actually isn't that expensive. $1600 is still a considerable amount of money, but the Tesla is $5000, and the Bybee is $5000 plus another $2500 for an Anaconda CX or a Purist Canorus to connect it to the wall. Compared to that the Audience is a bargain.
post #12 of 19
Quote:
Originally Posted by DaveBSC View Post
I'm a fan of the Adept Response conditioners, but I don't like Audience's cables or power cords at all..

At the moment it seems like the Audience T conditioners, Powercell SE, and Bybee Wire are the conditioners to beat.
I also am not a fan of Audience Power cords and strongly believe the current AdeptResponse owners are not hearing 100% of their units if used with Audience cords.

BTW, the aR12 T version is $8000, which should give DIY'ers great motivation to rig up something using Russian teflon capacitors, though multiples will need to be paralleded for higher values.

While all the conditioners you mention are good stuff, all cost $$$, and I strongly believe one can achieve similar results at MUCH less $ using double-conversion "on-line" battery regenerators such as Liebert gxt series once better outlets and quiet fans are rolled in
post #13 of 19
Quote:
Originally Posted by TheAttorney View Post
Secondly, there were more micro and macro details: Subtle echo shimmers wafted in and out of the soundstage...

One area particularly fascinated me: The reverb affects applied to voice performances were more clearly displayed – not just between different albums, but between different tracks on the same album.
I owned the AR12 for a year and this effect, this shimmer effect you describe is exactly how it sounded in my system. IMO, this is the sound signature of the AR12, it makes everything sound "pretty" and "delicate". It does other things well in terms of power filtering, but it adds a sort of euphonic character to the sound at the expense of imaging and layering of the soundstage. This is vastly different than my current Synergistic Powercell 10SE which adds a pinpoint imaging and a more holographic presentation.

Ironically, both the AR12 and the synergistic use Powercon connectors. Although the Synergistic uses a much higher amperage-rated Powercon. Too bad they are not interchangeable as the SR Precision AC cord is a great power cord.
post #14 of 19
Quote:
Originally Posted by shokunin View Post
Ironically, both the AR12 and the synergistic use Powercon connectors. Although the Synergistic uses a much higher amperage-rated Powercon. Too bad they are not interchangeable as the SR Precision AC cord is a great power cord.
Indeed, although in Synergisitc's case its more forgivable as they are giving you a Precision Reference at a considerable discount, and when using the Powercell there's a definite advantage to using their actively shielded power cords. The Audience doesn't need their PowerChord to sound its best, in fact I think the sonic weaknesses of the AR conditioners may be due to the PowerChord holding it back. They would be smarter to go the Hydra route and let you use whatever cord you want.
post #15 of 19
It's a special case (this is a headphone related forum still) but the effect of power filters/conditioners on my electrostatic system is much different and much bigger than on my dynamic headphone- and speaker systems. When using a good conditioner my 727 changes his tonal balance a lot, becomes more focused and holographic... Obviously electrostatic amps need more precise power conditioning than others. Has anyone noticed this? It's possible that stax amps have bad power section...
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