Saturday, February 11, 2006

Audiophilia: DIY Power Cables - VHAudio "Flavor 1"

I've been upgrading the power system of my high-end audio system, adding two PS Audio UPC-200 line conditioners. While thinking about power I decided to also upgrade the power cords in my system.

Surely, you say, a power cord couldn't possibly make the slightest bit of audible difference in a stereo, right?

I am inclined to wholeheartedly agree... but for the empirical evidence to the contrary.

I decided to build a Do-It-Yourself "Flavor 1" power cord based on Chris VenHaus' recipe.

His instructions are excellent and his site sells all the parts necessary to build your own cables at reasonable prices (reasonable for audiophiles, that is). The Flavor 1 includes cryo-treated 12 AWG cable with a foil shield and a braided shield, an additional cryo-treated 12 AWG cable for the ground wire, and I opted for his cheapest connectors - cryo-treated Wattgates.

What's with all this "cryo-treated" stuff? Supposedly it makes everything sound better. Does it? I dunno.

You do still have to gather some materials yourself. You'll need wirecutters/strippers, a precision blade to cut through the braided shields and the insulation that binds the two wires together, and a multimeter or continuity tester to make sure you didn't cross or short any wires. Ignore the package of silver speaker wire spades - those are for the next tweak. A thick pin or pick will also be needed to deal with the braided shield.

It also wouldn't hurt to have high-concentration rubbing alcohol (I found 91% isopropyl at CVS) to clean the wires before clamping them down. Oh yeah - also wear gloves to prevent your finger oils from getting onto the exposed wires. I used PecPads as my lint-free alcohol swab cloth (I mainly use them to clean my digital SLR's sensor). Even though they're pictured, I wouldn't recommend Q-Tips.

The hair dryer is to heat the shrink wrap tubing that helps hold your power cord together. Cool stuff.

My Expensive Deviation
I did alter the VenHaus recipe just a bit. I added Walker SST - Super Silver Treatment. It's a paste that is infused with microscopic silver particles. The idea is you use this stuff whenever two pieces of metal are going to be in electrical contact. The silver particles are highly conductive and can fill the gaps between the contact surfaces to make for a better connection.

People swear by the stuff. I didn't want to go through the hassle of making a With SST cable and a Without SST cable to compare, so if my Flavor 1 results blow away your Flavor 1 results, maybe it's the SST doing its thing.

The most difficult part of the Flavor 1 is dealing with the shielding. The braided shield is supposed to be "combed out" and twisted into a drain/ground wire (which is then twisted in with the external ground wire).

And that final mega-ground wire is too large to fit into the socket, so you'll have to cut off about half the thickness of that shield wire to make it all work.

The connectors are pretty easy to attach. The wires are stiff enough that they hold together very well as you feed them into their respective slots (labelled black/hot, white/neutral, green/ground). Then a screw tightens down two clamping plates inside the housing. Easy as pie. (note: this picture is of my Flavor 2 construction, thus the absence of the braided shield drain wire).

The Walker SST makes things a little messy if you're not very careful. It's so conductive that there are endless warnings about using it sparingly and not to get it all over the place.

The TechFlex nylon sleeve finishes off the cable very nicely. The cable is pretty flexible, though less so than a standard power cable.

Update: New construction tip
I contacted Chris VenHaus and asked him if there was any particular reason to use the heatshrink to hold the ground wire in place (you heatshrink it in place every six inches or so along the length of the cable). The heatshrink is cool and gets the job done, but it's a bit cumbersome. He said using normal electrical tape would be just as good and I've found it to be much faster and simpler.

Because my main preamp/processor is still in the shop (until end of Feb!), I can only run high-resolution SACDs over a lesser system. I've literally reversed the room 180-degrees for SACDs, using my surrounds as my new main left/rights. More on this in a subsequent post.

Initial Setup:
- UPC-200 plugged into wall via standard power cord.
- Sony 999ES SACD player plugged into UPC-200 via standard power cord. Analog 2-channel SACD output to:
- Yamaha RX-495 receiver (!!) plugged into UPC-200 via built-in ungrounded cord.
- B&W 602s3 biwired.

The only change I made in my A/B tests was to swap in and out the Flavor 1 cord on the SACD player.

The results:
The Flavor 1 was indeed better! The most revealing recording was the first track of the Amadeus Soundtrack SACD. The Flavor 1 added noticeable, obvious improvements in dynamic range and overall excitement to the symphony. There were sweeter harmonic resonances and sustains, though this, as expected, was more subtle.

When we switched back to the standard power cord the sound contracted, felt more contained and restrained. Dynamic range dropped to an unimpressive, duller range.

My roommate, Andrew (an ex-violinist), was entirely disgusted by the sound of the violins with the standard power cord. He described them as "harsh" and sounding like mediocre instruments, whereas the Flavor 1 made the violins sound natural. He says that in the world of violins there's an obvious difference between the sound of a $1000 violin and a $30,000 violin. The standard power cord sounded more like $1000 violins; the Flavor 1 got the violins closer to sounding like their true value.

Neither of us noted any negative qualities to the Flavor 1 cord when compared to the standard power cord.

Also this improvement was noted upon immediately adding the brand new cable to the system. Cable builders stress the importance of burning a new cable in for 100 hours or so. Currently the cable has been moved to one of my PCs that stays on 24/7 to start working on that burn-in time. It's a little mind-boggling to think that further improvements are on the horizon from this one cable.

It's also modestly possible that the cable will get worse as the Walker SST settles in. It too requires burn-in time, but what that stuff does over time leaves more room for degradation. It will dry out and the exposed areas will oxidize. But the stuff is designed to continue working - for years, in theory - without any need for constant reapplication.

Next Steps
You'll notice a lot of additional raw wire in the pictures. I also built two Flavor 2 cords. One will be for one of the UPC-200s. It will be my "good" UPC-200 and will power the SACD player, the crappy Yamaha receiver, Andrew's CD player, and my Proceed AMP5. I'll repeat my tests with and without the Flavor 2 in the system. If I've got time I'll also try it with the Flavor 2 but not the Flavor 1. And if I've got a lotta lotta time, I'll test the Flavor 1 vs the Flavor 2 when connected to the SACD player. Whew.

The other Flavor 2 cord will go to the AMP5. I can't run SACDs through the AMP5 right now but we'll see if the cord makes any noticeable difference when a high-quality CD is running through it to my "real" speakers.

I also got a cryo-treated replacement AC wall socket (yes, I've gone power-system crazy), but that'll be a little too difficult to do A/B comparisons against.

Anyway, I'll report my results as they come in.


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