Saturday, February 11, 2006

Audiophilia: DIY Power Cables - VHAudio "Flavor 2"

Holy. Crap.

This power cord stuff makes a serious, serious difference. If someone were building a new system - even a modest $2k to $3k affair - I'd now strongly recommend that they reserve some budget for their power considerations. This is not some vague audiophile tweak that eludes the ears of your average Joe; A high-end interconnect (e.g. S/PDIF cable) or exotic, expensive speaker cable could easily go unappreciated. But these power cord upgrades are a whole different matter. It's about maximizing every ounce of performance you can get out of your equipment. A $2k system can sound better than you ever thought possible.

To learn more about building these cables yourself,
see: DIY Power Cables - VHAudio "Flavor 1"

An important Flavor 2 construction tip:
The ground wire wraps around the outside of the rubber hose. This makes for an awkward connection between the end of the rubber hose and the back end of the power connector housings. You're forced to leave a bit of a gap between the housing and the hose in order to let the ground wire into the housing.

This creates a flexion point on the cable; if you have to bend the cable into a tight position, all of the strain of that bend will occur at this gap, rather than be distributed across the length of the cable.

To alleviate this, cut a 1.5" slit lengthwise at the end of the rubber hose as an inlet for the ground wire. This way the ground wire can feed properly into the housing and the hose can remain flush against the connector housing. Wrap the whole thing tightly with electrical tape and you'll have a pretty strong connection with little flexion. That takes care of the wall socket end of the cable.

At the other end, the component connector side, you have a bigger problem: it's basically impossible to wire the component end of the cable and have the rubber hose be flush with the connector housing (the housing must be slid back along the cable to expose the wiring connectors, but the hose prevents the housing from sliding back. You're forced to leave a gap at that end).

So instead I cut the hose way short - four inches too short. After the component connector is wired and complete, I then measure the exact length of hose to fit the gap. Cut that length lengthwise and slip it onto the cable. Wrap the ground wire around it as expected, but allow the ground wire to slip inside the cut - as with the other end - where it meets the connector housing. Wrap the whole thing with electrical tape and you'll have a secure, flexion-free connection at the component end of the cable.

Be sure to tighten down the strain relief screws on the connector housing itself, and you'll have a solid cable that doesn't contort itself into overly harsh bends.

High-Res System Testing
I added the DIY Flavor 2 power cable to the my high-resolution system as follows:

- UPC-200 line conditioner plugged into wall via Flavor 2.
- Sony 999ES SACD player plugged into UPC-200 via Flavor 1.
- Yamaha RS-495 receiver plugged into UPC-200 via its built-in ungrounded cord.
- B&W 602s3 biwired.

(note, this is a $2k system: $500 UPC-200, $600 SACD player, $200 ancient receiver, $600 speakers, $120 power cords)

High-Res System Results
Additional improvements were had over just adding the Flavor 1 to the SACD player. Dynamics increased again, adding more excitement to symphonic pieces (especially that Amadeus track again). But it was the separation and definition of individual instruments that stood out this time around. The spacial quality of instruments leapt forward - you could point to a place in space where the performer was standing.

Without the Flavor 2 there was left, right, center, and somewhat indistinct locations inbetween. But with the Flavor 2 you could point to a specific location, let's say, 2/3 between left and center, and distinctly image that instrument at the precise location. The second track on the Telarc Sampler SACD 1 ("Badia") excelled at highlighting this imaging. I had no idea such spacial clarity was possible.

Perhaps imaging and separation are one in the same, but all instruments had increased detail, helping each of them sound distinct from the group rather than a collection of muddled information.

Keep in mind that the Flavor 1 cord already made a big improvement in my SACD playback. The fact that the Flavor 2 added different but also significant improvements on top of this is very, very impressive.

I suspect the improved detail and imaging were due to the receiver finally enjoying some benefits from improved power. Because its power cord is built-in it can only vicariously enjoy the Flavor 2 benefits as that cord delivers power to the UPC-200 which then powers the receiver. I should do a test where the receiver goes into the other UPC-200 (which has a standard power cord to the wall) while the SACD player enjoys the Flavor 2 > UPC-200 > Flavor 1 power route. I would guess that the Flavor 2 contribution would be more modest.

Standard CD System Testing
My "standard" system is far superior to my high-res system, except for the part where I can't play SACDs through it (again, due to some missing components right now). My best speakers and killer amp have to be satisfied with regular CD playback for the time being.

- UPC-200 connected to the wall via Flavor 2
- Cal Audio Labs CD player/DAC connected to UPC-200 via standard cord
- Proceed AMP5 connected to UPC-200 via Flavor 2
- B&W 703 biwired

Standard CD Sytem Results
I didn't even mean to run this as a real test. I was getting tired of doing lots of repetitive A/B listening and decided to just pop in a CD and make dinner. The new Flavor 2s just happened to be in the system at the time. Notice that the Flavor 1 cord wasn't even powering the CD player.

When dinner was ready I sat down to Counting Crows' "August and Everything After".

Have I said "Holy crap!" yet?

Well just in case: Holy crap!

I have a freakin' awesome amp! I never appreciated what a good amp could do until I heard it behind this pair of Flavor 2 power cords.

I never thought of that CD as being particularly well-made from an audiophile perspective. But suddenly I was hearing a surprising degree of separation and detail in each instrument. I was shocked to discover a clearly audible acoustic guitar in the left channel of "Mr. Jones" (er, make that "Rain King"). It was always there, but is generally masked over by the rest of the presentation except for during the intro.

I threw in my old speaker testing favorite, the Serenity Soundtrack's 4th track, and was reminded of why I fell in love with these B&W speakers. At any point in that track there are about four or five different elements going on, and every couple seconds the mix of instruments changes. The variety is incredible and now - with the Flavor 2s - the detail, separation, and imaging of all these instruments coming and going was just phenomenal.

So this matches my earlier guess about the improvements in the high-res system. The Flavor 2s - meant for high-powered analog equipment - really bring out the best in amps and receivers.

Suddenly I find myself eager to go through my non-audiophile CDs and see which ones are given a new life by my now-superb "standard" system. I never imagined how much potential audio goodness I was missing out on, how much potential my brilliant equipment had in it, if only it could receive pristine, clean power.

Additional Bonus Benefits
My CRT-based HDTV also benefitted from the Flavor 2 > UPC-200 power route. The TV has a built-in ungrounded cord so I couldn't use a Flavor 2 directly on the TV. But the TV showed noticeable improvement when the Flavor 2 was put between the wall and the UPC-200.

Sharpness improved - not night-and-day difference, but enough that you could notice it even from a distance. I was using the Star Wars: Episode III DVD as my test material, played over the Sony 999ES, connecting via 1080i component video (the Sony outperforms the Bravo D1 DVD player, even though the Bravo offers a full digital DVI connection). The difference was about halfway between good upconverting and true HD.

Color saturation and contrast also improved, albeit at a barely perceptible level. The picture simply looked "better" so the changes were definitely subtle.

It's not clear how much, if any benefit, would be had for a digital display device (plasmas, DLPs, LCD projectors). A CRT is still analog and its horizontal resolution depends on an analog electron gun. Sometime when I'm more ambitious I'll throw in a vertical and horizontal resolution chart. I'm betting all of the resolution gain will be in the horizontal direction.

Further Tests
Now I can finally test the UPC-200 itself. I had previously been using Tripp-Lite surge protectors so I'll compare the Flavor 2 > UPC-200 > Flavor 2 > amp/receiver path vs the Tripp-Lite > Flavor 2 > amp/receiver path.

Also I'm eager to add the Flavor 1 to the CD player to see if further improvements can be had. I somewhat doubt this will be as dramatic an improvement, but if it mirrors the SACD system impact, it should bring a bit more dynamic range and harmonic goodness to the mix. Though with standard CDs the possible upper bounds are somewhat more limited when compared to the potential of SACDs.

And I have yet to install the new cryo-treated wall socket. I won't be able to do A/B tests once it's in, but I'm guessing the improvement will be minor, if noticeable at all.

Also note that these cables had only been "burned in" for less than 24 hours. In a few days they'll reach 100 hours (by powering my other two PCs 24/7). Then both the Flavor 1 and the two Flavor 2s will be, in theory, at their best.

At about $65 per cable for raw materials (plus the fun and satisfaction of building them yourself), these Flavor 1s and Flavor 2s are absolutely worth every penny.


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