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AudioQuest Niagara 1200

Rating:
5/5,
  1. Reverso
    Surprised by the sound
    Written by Reverso
    Published Jun 8, 2019
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Tangible sound quality improvements
    Fits in small places
    Cons - Some quirky ergonomics
    Reverso's AudioQuest Niagara 1200 + Thunder Cable Review

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    Disclaimer: The Niagara 1200 and Thunder Cable were lent to me by Todd the Vinyl Junkie as part of his loaner program. I received no monetary compensation for creating this review.

    Introduction
    Is a grand for a power conditioner worth it? Yes, it is. I ordered a Niagara 1200 thanks to this loaner. Is $750 good value for for a cable? Maybe for some. I would spread that money across other purchases.

    Those who have ventured into this territory of upgrades understand that better power supplies make clean power and clean power results in better sound. Why not extend that thinking all the way to the electricity that comes from the wall outlet?

    Well, a few Japanese audiophiles have thought of this and purchased their own private utility poles for a direct feed to the power grid. For the rest of us not ready to commit to that level, the Niagara 1200 ($1000 USD) from AudioQuest offers us a chance to hear the benefits of purified electricity.

    Listening Impressions
    So did the Niagara 1200 make a difference? Yes. Astoundingly yes. The magical juju in this box made the “groove” in the music readily apparent. Instruments had more space of their own and that seemed to accentuate the attack of every note. Following the melodies and rhythms of each instrument became an effortless task. Rhythmical fills that were once buried deep in the mix became an intrinsic part of the presentation.

    A search of the audiophile lexicon for this characteristic led me to the term “microdynamics” as described by purr1n. He describes it aptly, “On a perceptive level, we feel a sense of the being able to really dig deep into the ebb and flow of the music.” Furthermore, John Darko’s experience with the outgoing Niagara 1000 led him to describe leaps in musical “avidity” when AQ’s conditioners powered his system. I agree with Darko’s assessment that the music is given the opportunity to better engage the listener when components are given a clean source of power.

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    Improvements became obvious after several A/B tests using several genres of music from studio recordings (Chan Chan by Buena Vista Social Club) to complex chin-stroker EDM (War Dub by Calyx and TeeBee). Tracing melodies and rhythms across the soundstage in any of my test songs was easy and rewarding with the Niagara.

    Beyond microdynamics (or perhaps the source thereof), the Niagara + Thunder removed a layer of grime that had degraded instrument definition. Edges around instruments felt more defined and delicate. Bass and sub-bass also became more dramatic; they were clearer and slammed harder.

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    To evaluate the Niagara, I adapted an A->A->B listening procedure for a single test track to directly compare the sound of the Niagara to my stock power strip. Next I would repeat the order with a new song, but by going from B->B->A; starting with my stock power components and then switching over to the Niagara. Doing so let me get a sense of the sonic qualities of both configurations while minimizing power up/down of my gear. A more detailed write up of the listening process is provided at the end of the review.

    User Experience
    AQ’s industrial designers put good thought into the design of this unit. The slim profile is perfect for use in smaller systems and in areas with tight spaces. It can be oriented three different ways which will give it the flexibility to sit out of sight behind your media console. Its looks are acceptable to place on a shelf in plain view. While not hideous it was also not astounding. Mine stays behind the media console.

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    The clever design carries to the back of the unit. Seven outlets is more than enough to accommodate all of the pieces of a headphone and loudspeaker setup. That included a headphone amp, integrated amp, external DAC, network streamer, linear power supply, and ethernet switch. The remaining outlet goes to a Roku. Wall-wart type adapters had enough room to fit side-by-side.

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    Pairing this unit with the correct power cable does pose an issue. Despite how good the Niagara and the Thunder cable sounded together, I couldn’t get past how cumbersome the Thunder cable was to maneuver. The bulk and stiffness of the cable nullified any of the agility of the small(‘ish) Niagara. Pictured below is actually how the unit was situated in my living room during the demo period. The stiffness of the Thunder cable overpowered the balance of the slim Niagara. The Niagara had to be wedged in the corner to keep still.

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    This configuration was also the only way to minimize the profile of the Thunder Cable. On the plus side, I never worried about the Niagara falling over because the Thunder Cable became a structural member.

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    The Thunder Cable had very little give and forced my media cabinet to sit 6” away from the wall. A 90-degree adapter for the wall-socket end would be ideal for slimming down the profile of the cable. If you are considering the Thunder, make sure you know the exact length that you need. Coiling the long cable to take up less space is hard to accomplish.

    My last and final nitpick is that the Niagara is too slim for its own good. Wall-warts such a the one paired with the 5V supply for my Allo-DigiOne Signature will hang well past the boundaries of the unit. This meant the wall wart would only fit on the unit if I had it standing up on its narrow sides as opposed to its flat side. The narrow profile also posed a challenge when orienting it plugs-up or plugs-sideways.

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    Given the sonic benefits, one can’t really fault AudioQuest for these ergonomic flaws. A more flexible power cable could remedy the Thunder’s stiffness and there is bound to be at least one orientation that the Niagara can be placed that fits all of one’s plugs.


    Value Proposition, Pairing Considerations, and Competing Products
    While AQ makes good on their promise of improvements to sound, I question its value proposition for a headphone-only system. The cabling and power rating of the Niagara are overkill considering that a DAC and headphone amp will consume less than 100 watts combined. There seems to be an imbalance in the cabling when compared to a loudspeaker amp that consumes 500 watts. AQ’s smaller PowerQuest filters may be a better fit for headphone systems that have lower power demands.

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    Another consideration is the price to performance ratio. The performance is high, but so is the price. Given that an endgame headphone setup can be had for ~$4000 (or even less). The cost of Niagara and cabling will cost over 30% that amount. Better value for performance may be found elsewhere if your other components are due for upgrade. My tests also revealed the the AudioQuest NRG cables (Z3 and Y3) paired with a regular power strip were great value enhancements to my setup.

    In the realm of power conditioners, the price of entry for the Niagara 1200 is not unreasonable. AudioQuest may be targeting an underserved price-point with this product. A quick search for competing products revealed more power conditioners available in the $2000 range. At the time of writing, there seems to be a gap of high performing conditioners in the low $1000 range.

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    A worthwhile shootout in the future would be to compare the Niagara with products in the next ($2k) price class: the Torus Tot Max and PS Audio P3. Again, the design of these high price conditioners appears to target loud-speaker and home theatre systems. The sub $1000 conditioners may provide more value to the headphone crowd.

    Conclusions
    The Niagara 1200 reset my expectations of how an endgame headphone system could be improved. I also like the Niagara 1200 for how the product meets its promise of sonic improvements. There are clear benefits to power conditioning and AudioQuest gives us an entry point to see what it's all about. The Niagara will be a welcome improvement to my system, but I’m still not sold on the Thunder cable. It was too cumbersome and is likely a better match for AQ’s higher end conditioners like the Niagara 5000. Many thanks to Todd the Vinyl Junkie for providing these loaners for review!

    Appendix: Specific Listening Tests
    Testing new audio stuff always comes with a touch of confirmation bias. Did we really hear a difference or are we fooling ourselves? A free demo took the pressure off the the desire to hear a difference. Still, I wanted to be thorough in this evaluation so I tested four system combinations of stock cables, NRG cables, my standard Belkin power strip, and the Niagara 1200 / Thunder cable.

    Components in System:
    · Headphones: Focal Clear
    · Amplifier: Auralic Taurus MKII (paired with NRG Z3 power cable)
    · DAC: Schiit Yggdrasil (paired with NRG Y3 power cable)
    · Streamer: Allo DigiOne Signature powered by Uptone Audio LPS-1

    Tested Power Configurations:
    1) Stock Power Strip and Cables ($30)
    2) Stock Power Strip and NRG Cables ($430)
    3) Niagara 1200 + Thunder and Stock Cables ($1750)
    4) Niagara 1200 + Thunder and NRG Cables ($2150)

    To evaluate the Niagara, I adapted an A->A->B listening procedure for a single test track to directly compare the sound of the Niagara to my stock power strip. Next I would repeat the order with a new song, but by going from B->B->A; starting with my stock power components and then switching everything over to the Niagara. Doing so let me get a sense of the sonic qualities of both configurations while minimizing power up/down of my gear. Since there were 4 configurations, but only two could be compared at a time, the tests were repeated. The same 6 songs were used for each comparison. Critical listening took place over the course of two days.

    The following table illustrates the order of my comparison tests:

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    For those keeping tabs, you would have noticed that comparing the components in this way would result in 6 possible combinations for A/B tests. I chose to test three configurations that would reflected likely real world usage:

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    There is an obvious flaw in testing the components in this way. Since multiple components are being tested as a system, it is impossible to know if the Niagara 1200 is helping one or many components simultaneously. It is possible that some of my components like the Schiit Yggdrasil and my streamer powered by an Uptone LPS-1 will get less benefit than the Aurlic Taurus MKII amplifier. Testing individual components would be interesting, but were not practical for this review.
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