As audiophiles, we transfix on the transducer. We debate amplifiers; solid state or tube, and yearn for watts of power to provide absolute dynamics. We tweak every element of our audio systems … akin to building a race car to get every ounce of music out of the vinyl grooves or hi-resolution digital files.
But if this was Formula One, we would be putting the best fuel in that car, too. To ensure we get 100% of the performance, not 70, 80 or 90%. Aside from “great music”, I’d like to make the argument that the another key “fuel” is one that is frequently overlooked: the quality of the AC power used. Why wouldn’t you want to use the cleanest power available to allow your system to do what it does the best?
Recently the Wall Street Journal reported about Takeo Morita, an audiophile in Japan who seemed to understand the value of getting the best juice to his audio system. He went as far as to put a cement power pole outside his home, in order to get better power. I think he summarized this perfectly:
“Electricity is like blood. If it is tainted, the whole body will get sick,” says Mr. Morita. “No matter how expensive the audio equipment is, it will be no good if the blood is bad.”
Garth Powell, AudioQuest Director of Power Products, has been working on AC power for over 20 years, starting with 16 years at Furman. Most recently at AudioQuest, he has made some breakthroughs captured with the release of the AudioQuest Niagara series power conditioners. I first saw the Niagara 7000 at Music Matters 11 in Seattle at Definitive Audio, where Powell had every attendee on the edge of their seats as he discussed AC power. I walked away that night curious to learn more.
The AC Power problem
As much as we’d like to think it doesn’t matter, the electrical grid that powers our homes just wasn’t designed for high-end electronics, says Powell. Yes, it might be lovely that you installed 10 gauge electrical cable (that your electrician thought was ridiculous… ) from your electrical panel to your state of the art listening room, but it is quite possible that you just did a better job of delivering noise to your components.
AC Power was designed to power motors and incandescent light bulbs. Although products to condition, regenerate, or filter your AC power have been around for something like 50 years, Powell argues that most of these have had little innovation, and the usage of these products can hamstring your audio systems.
A huge chunk of the science and math on commercial power products goes back many years, and is based on assumptions on a period before we had switching power supplies, cell towers, server rooms, satellites, computers and wireless devices that are all dumping noise into the power grid.
Powell explained that what we love in a great music system are the following characteristics: the harmonic series, the leading edge transients, the extreme highs and lows, imaging as well as space around instruments. This is all information that is typically low in signal level and typically high in frequency.
“Through differential sample tests and spectrum analysis, it can be proven that up to a third of high-resolution (low-level) audio signal can be lost, masked, or highly distorted by the vast levels of noise riding along the AC Power lines that feed our components. This noise couples into the signal circuitry as current noise and through AC ground, permanently distorting and/or masking the source signal.”
Houston we have a problem: we need to pay more attention to AC Power.
AudioQuest Niagara 7000
During my visit to AudioQuest, Powell detailed his approach in the Niagara 7000 to address these problems.
1. Reduce noise in a linear fashion (including ground)
Power Conditioners need to remove noise linearly across all octaves. If you clean up one octave, but then another 1/4 octave away you don’t or to a lesser degree, it’s like taking the harmonic series of music and putting a 24 band equalizer on it. Yuck.
Extreme care has been taken in the Niagara 7000 to remove noise in a linear fashion across all octaves.
Additionally, noise has to be removed from ground, since it is the source of 1/3 of the noise. AudioQuest recently patented technology on ground noise dissipation. This is a hard problem that Powell has been trying to solve for years. He recently cracked that nut on addressing ground noise during his time at AudioQuest.
Powell provided some additional details on their Ground-Noise Dissipation patent: (US patent 8,988,168 B2)
This patented circuit combines ultra-low impedance (at 50 to 60 Hertz) induction with complete lead (skin) orientation for optimal, linear, noise dissipation. About a third of the differential-mode (asymmetrical) noise and some common-mode noise can be found on the AC ground lead. Because the electrical service counts on this redundant electrical lead primarily for safety (even though the audio industry relies on it for far more), there are very few things that can be done to reduce ground noise effectively and legally. There are some minor inductive mesh-traps, beads, and clamps, that are used, but these are far from linear, and most do very little. What’s even more troublesome about the AC ground lead is that many audio circuits depend on it to ensure there will be an electrical ground reference to minimize system hum. Others also rely upon it to drain as much RF noise from their circuits as possible.In comparison with the Line and Neutral leads, the significant attribute of the AC ground lead is that it bypasses the component power supply and makes a direct connection to most of the critical audio and digital circuits bringing a torrent of noise along with it.
To demonstrate the Niagara’s muscle with removing noise, Powell used an “Audio Prism Noise Sniffer“. When plugged into the wall of the AQ listening room, it put out a large screech, indicating “noise present”. Next he plugged it into the Niagara 7000. Dead silence.
Just for fun, I tried the ‘Sniffer on a couple of other power products, including the similarly priced power conditioner from another manufacturer, and yes, they all screeched.
This doesn’t mean the other competing products are bad, and the Niagara is the best. This is just one test. There are cheaper products that can pass the ‘Sniffer test, but it does demonstrate that it is hard to get rid of noise, and then do it evenly without reducing current. This last bit is the catch. My guess is most audiophile power conditioners will fail the ‘Sniffer test, since they are designed to maximize current. But in terms of pure noise removal, as far as I can see with the Audio Prism Noise Sniffer, the Niagara 7000 is getting rid of it all.
As we prepared to publish, I asked Powell for the secret sauce that contributed to the Niagara’s ability to remove noise linearly and from ground. Powell explained:
“It’s never up to any one thing – it’s everything. Place bias-ply tires from the 1960’s on a 2016 Porsche Boxster and see how well it corners. It’s not about what’s “revolutionary” (things rarely are….), it’s understanding the integrated whole of a problem and putting the right tools in place to address them.”
Powell went on to list the key ingredients working together in the Niagara 7000 to deliver on noise reduction:
- Linearized differential filter covering over 23 octaves
- Ground-Noise dissipation circuits (US patent 8,988,168 B2)
- Low-loss DC blocking circuit
- Optimized RF snubbing networks
- Two dielectric-biased symmetrical output isolation transformers (US patent 9,373,439 B2)
- Ultra-low impedance AC inlets and outlets with heavy silver plate for lowest impedance at radio frequencies
- Solid core copper wiring all directionally oriented to dissipate away from the components and towards the electrical panel and Earth ground
2. Current is King. Don’t limit it. Juice it instead
The Niagara 7000 manual summarized this concept perfectly:
“Today’s power amplifiers are being taxed for instantaneous peak current demand, even when they’re driven at modest volumes. Although we have a substantial increase in dynamics from our audio software, the loudspeakers we employ reproduce them are often no more efficient than they were two or four decades ago. This places great demands on the amplifiers power supply, as well as the source AC power supplying it.”
Amplifiers have a thirst for current and demand crazy amounts of it. For instance, to deliver transients like a snare drum snap, or a piano ring, the amplifier may call for 20-60 amps of current for 20ms (yes millisecond) to deliver and handle the peak to peak voltage.
But a typical power conditioner is adding impedance, and that is compressing current. This is exactly the opposite of what we want and why many amplifier manufacturers advise you to plug directly into the wall.
In the Niagara 7000, the design has been optimized to not only fight current compression but also be a source of current for the amplifier when it needs it. Powell explained that the Niagara 7000 can provide over 90 amps peak instantaneous current reservoir to support those transients.
3. Made in America
Following our time with Powell, Brian Long (AudioQuest VP Operations) gave us a tour of the AudioQuest facility in Irvine, California to learn more about the what goes into the building of a Niagara 7000
We started the tour in a small bright room, lined on one end with 6 workstations. There were 4 craftsman, working together to build each Niagara 7000 from start to finish. By the end of each business day, only 7 handcrafted Niagara 7000s get completed. Each unit is then moved to the AQ Listening Room to allow Garth Powell or Joe Harley an opportunity to listen to each unit and approve it before it goes out to be packaged and placed in the warehouse. When asked how many units failed QA to date … just one so far in the final listening test.
Prior to any run of the Niagara 7000, significant prep goes into place to ready the components. Powell is a fan of using solid core conductor connections throughout the Niagara 7000, evidenced by bins lined up with hundreds of small solid core copper wires that are all cut perfectly to exact lengths.
Long explained that they were getting ready for a production run, and prepped 29,000 of these small wires.
AudioQuest is passionate about is directionality of wire. They insist on listening to rolls of copper for directionality prior to using it. But Powell provided the following reasoning for this:
“When a wire is drawn during the manufacturing process, it has micro-fissures from the outside into the crystal structure of the material. The best manufacturing methods reduce the effect, but it is still in place and some of this is inevitable. The same thing is evident from a human or animal hair as it exits the follicle. Violinists depend on this for their bows to hold rosin and resonate the string. Very high frequencies (think radio frequency noise) tend to travel on the outside surface area of a wire strand or lead — this is called “skin effect” — and there is slightly less resistance at very high frequencies in one direction. For the primary circuit currents, this is irrelevant, as the current will follow the source and load and back via the return, to and fro, as it always does. That flow cannot be altered. However, what is typically missed is that these wires or conductive leads are also, in part, high-frequency antennas. There is a noise signal that is not subject to the source and load current flow; it is a parasitic signal. That signal will always take the path of least resistance (as current always will), and the path of least resistance is determined by the very slight directional variation caused by the micro-fissures created during the drawing process. By pre-determining this direction or parasitic current flow, it is possible to direct (or drain) not all but much of the noise away from the most sensitive components or circuits.”
If you look closely at these tiny wires prepped for the Niagara 7000, you can see a small red dot on each of them. That indicates the directionality of the wire. While we can certainly debate whether or not this is audible, the point is that this level of attention to detail can only produce a higher-quality product. Remember those 29,000 little cables made in preparation for this? That’s a lot of cables to mark direction!
Each corresponding screw was made custom, but they start with beryllium copper for additional strength and go through the same process.
As we watched the production process, Powell showed us the 2 transformers that are in each Niagara 7000, specifically the world’s first “dielectric biased transformer” which they have a patent for.
“These are for the source, computer, and video products only (constant current devices). They are responsible for the symmetrical noise reduction-common mode (one of the three on every AC line – common mode, asymmetrical or differential mode, and ground-noise). These devices are exceptionally wide in frequency range (more noise reduction), and the multiple screens with dielectric biasing allows for less loss at the highest frequencies with far less transient intermodulation distortion when reducing radio frequency coupled noise. “
During the last part of the build, the low impedance NRG Series outlets are installed. These aren’t your usual hospital grade outlets. The material is 30% thicker on the inside, and contain the same beryllium copper that is silver dipped.
I believe they remove any kind of spring from these, as inserting an AC plug is TIGHT!
One of my least favorite things is bringing something home, waiting for something great, only to have to wait hours for components like capacitors to break in. Happily, every single capacitor in the Niagara 7000 is burned in at the factory as Powell believes this results in a better sound.
Specifically, they placed each capacitor into one of two military grade transformers and run them at 260 volts – 400hz, and stress them for 24 hours. Long told me it took them 9 months to bake all of the capacitors for the first run of Niagara 7000‘s. These military transformers (each costing $25,000!) are housed in a separate room with dedicated power.
At completion of the tour and my time with Powell and Long, I was even more anxious to have a unit for an extended period of time in my listening room.
Installation and Listening
Kevin Wolff (Director of Global Sales AQ) was kind enough to spend a day with me to drop in the Niagara 7000. It is definitely a team effort as you unload the 95 pound shipping box.
Un-boxed, the final weight (per the manual) is closer to 81 pounds. Most owners will just place the unit on a shelf alongside their other gear.
I keep a majority of my equipment in a 19inch server rack in a separate room, so I opted for a rack mount installation. The rack mount ears are not included in the box, but can be provided to your dealer from AQ at no additional cost.
With an extra set of hands, the Niagara 7000 slipped into my rack and replaced my prior power conditioner.
The rear of the unit provides 6 banks of outlets.
- Bank 1 and 2 are designed for power amplifiers, providing the Transient Power Correction Circuit which supplies up to 90amps peak current for up to 25ms. These two banks are free of any series inductive or transformer circuits that would raise the AC impedance.
- Wolff (and the manual) indicated that the top outlet in both of these banks is slightly better than the lower outlet due to its proximity to the AC outlet’s radio frequency noise dissipation circuit.
- Banks 3 to 6 are optimized for line level sources as these outlets go through an isolation transformer.
- Banks 3 & 4 are 100% isolated from Banks 5 & 6. All four of these are 100% isolated from Banks 1 & 2.
Below is a clip from the Niagara 7000 manual with suggested AC Connections.
- Bank 1: Stereo amp driving my mains (high current)
- Bank 2: Multi-channel amp powering my other zones (high current)
- Bank 3: Pre-amplifier
- Bank 5: DAC and Streamer
- Bank 6: Surround processor for HDMI sources
Driving the Niagara 7000 in my installation:
- 20amp service that is delivered on a dedicated outlet, run over 10 gauge 35 feet to my electrical panel.
- Wall outlet was an AudioQuest NRG Edison Outlet matching the outlets on the Niagara 7000
- All power cords used were AudioQuest WEL Signature Power cables.
After getting a taste at Music Matters 11, and then spending time at the AudioQuest Factory, I had high if tempered expectations. I’m blessed to have a terrific system, and to date many of my changes have been incremental.
Ok, so power everything back on. The unit is still cold, and many of the power cords are fresh out of the box. Past experience tells me, things will initially be worse but as things warm up, break in, good things will happen. Patience right?
Hmmm… remember all of the pre-work at the factory? 24 hours of burning in those capacitors? Well it works.
In the first 5 minutes, my system felt different. The evening continued, I paid less attention to the differences and more attention to enjoying the music. LP after LP, I was going back through my favorites, and experiencing them over again.
I spent the next couple weeks listening, settling in, and not feeling any urge to change anything. Things just seemed right.
Comments from the non-Audiophile
So I have a problem, I constantly mess around with my system. As stuff comes, stuff goes, and sometimes while all of this is happening, stuff breaks and the family gets annoyed. Why isn’t the music coming on? Why does the TV have no sound? The remote isn’t responding. UGH! Getting the SOS call while at work with a tech support issue back at the house isn’t your favorite kind of incoming call….
But this time, things were a little different.
A couple of days after the original installation, I returned home from work and was greeted by my wife:
“Hey, I don’t know what you and Kevin did…..” , ok… awkward pause. Shit, am I in trouble?
“Whatever you did, don’t change it. Things sound amazing ” okay …. did she just actually notice a change in the system? Does she have any idea how much it costs?
Later that week while I was driving to work, and I receive a text from my 10-year-old daughter.
“Daddy, Justin Bieber sounds better. Love you.”
But anything I can do to get my family to listen to more music? Priceless.
My Listening Notes
I’ll highlight a couple of LPs that elevated my experience with the Niagara 7000 in place.
“Mercy Street”, from the album So by Peter Gabriel, never gets old, never gets too loud, and never ceases to have me close my eyes, lean forward and experience every pluck of Tony Levin’s bass guitar. It’s a hard track to reproduce; but is a pinnacle way to demonstrate the shear dynamics of the Lyra Atlas LP Cartridge and explosive low-end potency of my Wilson Audio Alexia speakers.
I know exactly how “Mercy Street” sounds in my room, so much that it is one of the primary test tracks I listen to in my room anytime I make a change. It’s my first barometer to see if anything sounds different or more commonly, did I break the magic and set the system back?
My wife will tell you I like to play Mercy Street LOUD. So loud (no pun intended), I sometimes ask the kids to leave the room to save those little ears. In these cases, I typically reach a volume so hot that I hit a top where I need to stop. Some distortion begins, and I always thought it was my room not being able to handle that amount of energy.
Aside; when you find a good pressing of a record, enjoy it, and please refrain from trying to buying additional copies, as it can end badly. I recently sought out a more expensive 45rpm Classic Records Special edition pressing of So from Discogs. It was expensive, arrived mint as described, and I was excited. That quickly died as 45rpm pressing was underwhelming because under the needle, it had significant surface noise. It will be for sale if anyone wants it. It comes in a lovely box….
Back to the listening. With the Niagara 7000 in place, I dropped the needle on “Mercy Street” on the good pressing of So. Volume cranked, and room was quiet.
The first pluck of Tony Levin’s bass, and you lean in. This time, you could feel more texture, more speed and attack than I heard previously. The Alexia’s felt like they were digging down another octave.
More interesting was Peter Gabriel’s vocal. I always felt the vocal was a little smoky and distant. Now Peter came a little forward, and to my ears that smoke vanished.
I grab the remote and begin to turn up the volume. Vol+ Vol+ Vol. No distortion. No feedback. The Wilson Alexias are delivering incredible dynamics. I’m smiling from cheek to cheek.
I keep going higher, and higher. The system and room make it look like it’s easy. But as my SPL meter hits 93dB at the top, my ears are asking for a little less.
My guess is the current reservoir feature of the Niagara 7000 was providing the level of current that my Dan D’Agostino Momentum Stereo amp was demanding to reproduce 90+ dB of Tony Levin beautifully.
When the Niagara 7000 was removed, the system still sounded fabulous, but lost some of the magic, dynamics and ability to drive at those more demanding volumes.
Cecile Mclorin Salvant
“I don’t know what time it is” from the album WomanChild by Cecile Mclorin Salvant.
I discovered Cecile McLorin Salvant at RMAF 2015 in the VTL / Wilson Audio room. Luke Manley and Bea Lam were displaying their VTL electronics paired with Wilson Audio Sabrina’s. Cecile Salvant was in heavy rotation, and I got really comfortable in the listening chair. 5 minutes after my exit, I ordered the album and anxiously waited for it to arrive as I returned to Seattle.
It arrived, was opened, washed and sleeve replaced. My usual OCD routine. I was ready to return to my RMAF experience, but in listening room. The needle drops. Sadness. Confusion…. It was good, but not great. The emotion I experienced at RMAF was not replicated. The LP went back in the sleeve, and sat on the shelf for over a year.
This past summer as I re-experienced my collection of LPs, I gave it another try.
To my surprise, I started to get that warm feeling that I got at RMAF 2015 hearing Cecile’s voice the first time. Now was it as good as my experience at RMAF? Better? Worse? Impossible to tell since it was months ago.
But, I do know that this time, I was engaged, leaning in and just enjoying some great music. After listening a few times, I tried to document in my listening notes why it was different? Here were the things that came to the top of the list:
- As a percussionist, the small details and air around the brushes that slid around the snare drum had my attention
- The lovely piano & bass combo, puling you in; the piano with beautiful tonality, and the bass with speed and decay.
- The beautifully reproduced voice of Cecile, not requiring anything else.
An album that will finally get its fair place in my heavy rotation.
In this hobby, we are always on the hunt for components or tweaks to raise the performance of our audio systems.
Some of these changes work, and others do not. When it comes to tweaks, some have a level of science behind them, and others at times feel like black magic.
The Niagara 7000 solves real problems that hinder our audio systems. I gained an appreciation for the Niagara 7000 during my time at AudioQuest where I got to get hear from Powell himself on technology behind it, and see first hand the care that is put into its construction here in the USA.
Before you buy anything else for your system, or upgrade a component, go and try the Niagara 7000. Hear what each of those components that you already have can really do.
As I continue this journey, I am sure many of my system components will come and go, but the Niagara 7000 has a permanent spot in my audio rack and I have no intention of removing it anytime soon.
I purchased the review sample.
Niagara 7000 pricing
- US: $7,995.00
- CAD: $9,950.00
- EU: €8.995,00
Note: Niagara Noise-Dissipation Systems do not ship with an AC power cable.
- AMG Viella 12 Turntable
- Audio Research Ref Phono 3 Pre-amp
- DCS Debussy DAC
- Pass Labs XP-30 Pre-amp
- Dan D’Agostino Momentum Stereo Amp
- Emotiva XMC-1 Surround Processor (used for HDMI with XBOX One, Dish Sat TV)
- Wilson Audio Alexia Speakers
- HRS M3X bases under all components
- Transparent Reference XL Gen 5 interconnects and speaker cable
- Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 7 interconnects
- Wireworld Starlight Cat8 Ethernet Cables
- AudioQuest WEL Signature Power cables.