At a recent high-end audio show I sat with a group of colleagues in the hotel lobby and discussed, as we often do, what we had seen that was worthwhile. One person asked an interesting question: “What single component are you seeing in more rooms than any other?” I made a joke about Mat Weisfeld pulling up in a truck full of VPI turntables and dropping one off in every room, but then I realized that the answer was this: the AudioQuest Niagara power conditioners, specifically the flagship Niagara 7000.
In a very fickle industry, that says a lot about the AudioQuest power conditioning designs—even if Bill Low and Garth Powell are just pulling up in the space next to the VPI truck and installing Niagaras in each room the Wednesday before the show. It means that there’s a consensus in the high-end audio industry, a rare thing. Or it could mean that AudioQuest is simply a generous company when it comes to loaning out product. I can attest to the latter possibility—AudioQuest is always willing to lend me anything I need to do my job, no questions asked.
Stephen Mejias, well-known to most audiophiles as a former reviewer and now my main contact at AudioQuest, asked me if I’d like to try a Niagara in my system. Based on the ubiquitous herd of Niagaras at audio shows, I said yes. I wondered if I’d get the massive 7000, as big as most power amps, even though I knew it was overkill for my needs. Instead, Stephen offered the Niagara 1200, a much smaller and simpler power conditioner that retailed for just $999.95. It seemed logical since I’ve only owned one power conditioner in my life, and it retailed for $999. That’s my wheelhouse.
Just a few weeks later, Stephen asked me if I wanted to review the much beefier Niagara 3000, which was recently introduced and featured some new technology. I reminded him that I still had the Niagara 1200 on hand, and I still hadn’t committed a single word to its review. Stephen didn’t seemed fazed by this, so I offered to write a review on both. And that’s what we’re doing right here, right now.
Is a Power Conditioner Right for You?
My own experience with power conditioners is a little spotty—I went for many, many years without one. I used a Wiremold power strip with hospital-grade outlets through much of the ‘90s and ‘00s because I was a Naim owner for a long time, and Julian Vereker was against having his high-current amps plugged into anything but an AC wall outlet. Once, just once, I had a dedicated AC outlet installed by an electrician and it made a big difference. I’m not even going to mention premium power cords and how recently they’ve entered my life.
The first time I reviewed a power conditioner, probably around 2006, I liked how it controlled the noise issues present in my old house, but I kept thinking it robbed my system of its deepest bass energy. I was accused by the designer of doing something wrong, because we all know how difficult it is to properly plug in a power cord. My second power conditioner review was far more enlightening—I was using a low-powered SET amp with high-efficiency single-driver loudspeakers, and I was hearing my neighbors’ cell phone calls through the drivers. I plugged in that power conditioner, and the strange voices in my listening room disappeared.
In the years I spent as an importer and distributor, I usually had a power conditioner, or a power strip with some type of filtering. If you’re going to exhibit at high-end audio shows, you’d better have some kind of power conditioning if you want to be taken seriously. Besides, you’re in a hotel with 100-200 other exhibitors, and that’s a lot of gear on the grid at the same time.
Here’s the question I’m getting to—do I need a power conditioner in my home right now? Is it something I would buy if no one else was looking? The answer is yes, for the following reasons:
- From a minimalist perspective, hospital grade outlets are a must. I’m a guy who has killed a few pieces of gear because a power cord came loose during operation. I insist on good power cords and good power outlets for a tight, secure connection.
- I’m a tube guy and a vinyl guy and lowering the noise floor in such a rig is a huge priority.
- I’ve lived in old buildings, in densely populated areas and in regions with frequent thunderstorms—sometimes all three at once. I need electrical stability.
Here’s one relatively new reason why I need power conditioning. Since I’ve been at Part-Time Audiophile, I’ve been reviewing some exquisite pieces of gear. Most of us realize that the more resolving an audio system is, the easier it is to detect subtle changes in the system. In other words, the effects of power conditioning may not be as obvious with a modest hi-fi as it is with the super-duper primo stuff. I know that folks with modest systems don’t like to hear that, but it’s true.
With the AudioQuest Niagara 1200 and 3000 power conditioners I heard big differences, especially when using premium gear from Von Schweikert Audio, Vinnie Rossi, Mactone, Palmer, McIntosh, Audio Research, Pass Labs and much more. The better the system, the bigger the improvement.
AudioQuest Niagara 1200 and 3000
The AudioQuest Niagara 1200 power conditioner is the replacement for the highly regarded and popular Niagara 1000, which was also just $999.95. The most noticeable improvements are cosmetic—the 1200 has a nice textured finish to it and it’s now heavier so it can be placed on an equipment rack and look like another component for the most part. (The larger and heavier Niagara 3000 does a more convincing job of looking like a power amp.) It can also be placed on its side with the outlets facing up so you can wedge it between the rack and the wall, or you can even stand it up on its end if space is really tight.
Like the Niagara 7000 that you’ll see at all those audio shows, the 1200 features much of the same technology—ultra-low resistance solid core wiring (for low-noise directionality), outlet contacts made from silver plating and high-purity copper Beryllium, non-sacrificial surge protection (which means everything keeps humming along if the protection circuitry is tripped) and much more. Everything is designed for improved linearity, superior noise dissipation and minimized distortion. The 1200 features seven outlets with a maximum input current of 15 amps.
The AudioQuest Niagara 3000 ($2999.95) is the newest model in the power conditioner line; it employs several new technologies that address the increase of wireless technologies in our world. (Evidently, I’m not the only one who’s accidentally eavesdropped on my neighbors’ phone calls!) The entire concept of the Niagara 3000 power conditioner is that our AC power delivery system has become downright “antiquated,” especially with all those radio signals polluting our air and our power lines. AC, after all, was invented a century ago for incandescent light bulbs and electric motors, not complex computer networks. That makes sense.
The Niagara 3000 is designed to suppress noise across the frequency band consistently. More importantly, the 3000 has a current reservoir of 55 amps, which makes it suitable for high-current power amplifiers. This is where it gets tricky.
A lot of audio professionals and audiophiles follow the “power amp rule” when it comes to power conditioning—never plug a power amp into a power conditioner. Always plug it directly into the wall. I know several high-end audio dealers who tell all their customers to do this. Our own Dave McNair, who is also a recording engineer, mentioned this to me just a few days ago when we discussed this review.
I’ll tell you the truth. Sometimes I plug the amp into the wall. Sometimes I don’t. I’ll tell you why—I’ve asked different power conditioner designers about this, and the answer from all three was very different and almost inconclusive. I’ve done some A/B comparisons and I didn’t find an answer, either. The AudioQuest Niagara 3000 seems to be one of the first power conditioners to supply a definitive answer to this somewhat heated debate. Or, as AudioQuest’s website explains, “Many AC power products featuring ‘high-current outlets’ merely minimize current compression; the Niagara 3000 corrects it.” (For the record, the Niagara 1200 is also suitable for power amplifiers.)
Finally, Stephen Mejias sent along a few two-meter AudioQuest power cables to use between the Niagara power conditioners and the wall outlet, including the Blizzard ($750), and the Monsoon ($450). Naturally I wound up using the Blizzard with the 3000 and the Monsoon with the 1200. As Stephen explained, “Our power cables use directionally controlled conductors to ensure that any induced noise is properly and efficiently drained and dissipated. This works in concert with the Niagara’s own Ground-Noise Dissipation—all of the internal wiring is similarly controlled for directionality—ensuring that induced noise is dissipated away from the audio system.”
Enter Garth Powell
The AudioQuest Niagara power conditioners were developed by Garth Powell, who is the Senior Director of Engineering. Garth took some time to explain the more technical aspects of the Niagaras, such as the Transient Power Correction circuit (TPC), and why these features are so innovative:
“My last 23 years as an analog-audio engineer have been spent (primarily), dealing with AC power, optimizing power supplies, and reducing radio-frequency noise. The latter being one of the tenets of many of the new cable technologies I brought to and developed with Bill Low (such as ZERO and GND technologies).
“The point regarding power amplifiers is that almost every power conditioner, regulator, or AC isolation device typically makes a power amplifier worse in that even if the induced noise is reduced, the drawback is always current compression. Some AC power technologies minimize that effect greatly, but still offer nothing to solve the issue of current compression in the first place. The Transient Power Correction circuit is essentially a fast-acting version of RMS AC power factor correction that has been successfully used in industrial applications for 90 years. My goal was to increase the efficiency of any power amplifier’s power supply, thus making them perform far better.
“Our TPC circuit is akin to asking your electrician for a 50 to 90 amp dedicated AC line (much larger wiring than would ever be practical). Then, made a secondary request to move your sound room within 100 yards of the local sub-station. At least in service of unrestricted audio transients, and that’s where any power amplifier needs help. For sine-waves, the existing DC power supply they all incorporate are more than adequate.”
When I first received the AudioQuest Niagara 1200, I knew what I wanted to do first. The incredible Mactone MH-120 power amplifier was in the system, and I had only one minor complaint—when it was first turned on and warming up, it was a bit noisy. After about fifteen minutes or so the amp would quiet down, but I could still hear a bit of transformer hum. I’ve had enough experience with tube amplifiers from other countries to know this usually isn’t the amp’s fault, but the fault of the AC power coming out of the wall. If your amplifier is usually designed for 220V applications, there’s very little leeway in the design of the 110V power supplies and the transformers will start to strain if your electrical system is only putting out 106-108V at the outlet, which is more common than you think. That’s where hum often originates.
I have a voltmeter for that very reason—I had to demonstrate this quite often to my dealers and retail customers back when I was a distributor. In this case, the voltmeter reading in my listening room was right around 109V. I don’t know enough about the Mactone power supply to know if this was the problem, but I do know one thing—the Niagaras were able to lessen the hum. With the Niagara 1200, the hum was lessened during the initial warm-up and gently disappeared over time.
With the 3000, however, the Mactone was almost perfectly silent from the moment it was switched on. That certainly backs up AudioQuest’s claims that the Niagara 3000 was designed for power amplifiers. With the MH-120 plugged into the wall, the transformer hum was noticeable from the listening position, and that might have prevented me from describing the Mactones as one of the finest amplifiers I’ve used—even if it wasn’t their fault. The Niagara 3000 was instrumental in helping me discover the inner beauty of this amazing bespoke amp.
I went straight from the Mactones to the Vinnie Rossi L2i integrated amplifier, and here it was tougher to describe how the AudioQuest Niagara power conditioners contributed to the whole of the system. The L2i is supremely quiet on its own, even when plugged directly into the wall. But then I remembered my usual protocol for testing the effects of a single addition to an audio system—instead of installing the new product and subsequently performing A/B comparisons, I usually learn a lot more by living with the change for a while and then removing it suddenly from the system.
After using the L2i with each AudioQuest Niagara power conditioner for several weeks, I definitely heard differences when I removed them from the system. Since the noise floor was already incredibly low with the Vinnie Rossi amp, I didn’t notice a distinct change in the overall sound. But I felt that I was hearing just a bit more detail with the 1200 in the system, and significantly more with the 3000. In addition, I felt that the AudioQuest Niagara 3000 enhanced the L2i’s already magnificent 3-D sonic presentation—I could sense a small yet noticeable increase in soundstage height and width.
When I reluctantly sent the L2i back to Vinnie Rossi—a sad day, I might add—I returned to my reference Pureaudio Duo2 power amplifier and Control preamplifier. I wasn’t as diligent about the comparisons this time, but it occurred to me more than once that the Pureaudio amps never sounded better than they did with the AudioQuest Niagara power conditioners in the system. I was worried if I’d still love the Pureaudio amps after spending so much time with Mactone and Vinnie Rossi. Nope, they were still lovely amps and I’m proud to call them mine.
There was one minor issue with the Pureaudios and the AudioQuest Niagara power conditioners. The stand-by function of the Pureaudios can be sensitive and temperamental at times. When I lived in Colorado, the very low humidity sometimes caused the stand-by mode to activate in the middle of a listening session. (It takes a full 30 seconds for the amps to come back on their own.) I haven’t had that problem since I moved to New York four years ago, but it did happen once or twice within the last couple of weeks. I’m not sure what’s going on here, or how to fix it, but if your amp has aggressive protection circuitry you might want to borrow the Niagaras first to see for system compatibility.
Or, you can plug your amp into the wall outlet.
As I mentioned, my use of power conditioners has been inconsistent over the years. On the occasions that I’ve used them, I did so with the intent of safeguarding my system against the potential dangers from the outside world. Rarely have I used any type of power management with the hope that it would make my system sound better in a subjective way—deeper bass, higher highs, a juicier midrange, etc. It’s always been a practical matter for me: protect the investment.
The AudioQuest Niagara 1200 and 3000 power conditioners, however, shaped my expectations beyond the practical. I’ve been lucky enough to have some stunning equipment in my listening room over the last year or so, and suddenly my desire for power conditioning isn’t so much about safety but providing a perfect environment that allows me to hear the capabilities of each component I review.
It comes down to this. My sonic priorities were different in the past—realistic midrange, warmth, unlimited soundstages—but now I realize that silence is more important than any of that. Noise suppression is vital to the enjoyment of music—nothing else matters if you don’t get this right first. With the AudioQuest Niagara power conditioners in my system, I’ve come to expect low noise and distortion, more so than ever before.
If you’re still skeptical, try out the Niagara 1200 for just a grand. It’s amazing for the money, and it will do wonders for even modest systems. The Niagara 3000 seems to be a major step forward, however, a power conditioner that won’t limit the performance of your amplifier. Every time I’ve shopped for power conditioners, I’m always a little discouraged by the prices. The Niagara 3000, however, should be all you need for even the finest systems and the price is more than fair for what it does.
And if it isn’t there’s always the Niagara 7000, recommended and used by high-end audio’s best!