I enter the world of grounding, as it pertains to high-end audio, with some trepidation. When the Nordost QKORE products (website) first arrived at my doorstep—the QKORE1, QKORE 3 and QKORE6 Ground Units and quite a few runs of the QKORE Wire with various terminations—I instantly thought, “This is some serious equipment for grounding. Am I up to the challenge?”
I’m not completely alien to the science behind grounding. In a past life I had to install Ufer grounds on new construction sites for the computer racks and associated hardware. But other than making sure the grounding lug is tight on the back of my phono preamplifier, I don’t think about grounding a lot these days—I haven’t had to hunt down a nasty ground hum in quite some time. The Nordost QKORE seems like an ambitious, all-out assault on ground hum and other spurious noise, and I started to wonder if I needed all this to combat whatever grounding issues I might discover.
Was I walking into a minefield? Is this another controversy in the making that will make me hover over the comments section with my finger poised one steady inch from the delete button? Is the Vinyl Anachronist gonna have to choke an audiophile?
One more consideration about my ability to evaluate the effectiveness of the Nordost QKORE grounding system. I already have the very effective AudioQuest Niagara 3000 power conditioner in the main system. I also have Furutech NCF products all through the cabling. I’m not naïve enough to say “Can the Nordost QKORE really lower the noise floor any more than it is right now? It’s dead silent up in here!” But I did need to perform comparisons to determine the effectiveness of each product, alone and as a whole. In other words, I wanted to investigate the QKORE thoroughly, but I didn’t want this to be A/B Comparisonfest 2020.
Here in the real world, I jumped right in with everything. Plugged it all in at once, green ground wires flying everywhere, and sat back and enjoyed the ride for a few weeks. After acclimating to a new, nearly silent world, I started swapping and subtracting and then noticing the differences.
What is QKORE?
I can probably dig deep and scribble down a brief summary of Nordost QKORE technology on my own, but there’s such a well-written one right on the Nordost website:
“The QKORE is a parallel grounding device, which provides an artificial, ‘clean’ earth for hifi audio systems using both an electrical and mechanical approach. This unique product combines Nordost’s patented Mono-Filament technology with purpose-built, Low-Voltage Attractor Plates (LVAPs), constructed with a proprietary metal alloy and a passive electronic circuit, in order to draw stray high frequency noise and voltage-generated magnetic fields to a manufactured earth point, leaving a clean reference behind. This passive system is contained in a mechanically tuned housing, and outfitted with gold-plated, WBT binding posts, which easily connect each component to an artificial ground. By providing for a balanced and very ‘clean’ ground point, by-products of electrical balance imperfections between voltage and ground are no longer added to other pollutants, dramatically increasing high quality audio circuit performances.”
I probably would have written the same exact thing. No, really.
What’s really interesting about this explanation is that the paragraph preceding it talks about “airborne pollution on the AC line” that is related to the increase in wireless signals. So it seems to me that one of two things happened—our increasing reliance on wireless technologies has created new issues, and that’s why Nordost QKORE was designed; or, maybe Nordost was already experimenting with better grounding strategies and found the link to that pesky airborne pollution and said oh, this is a good thing it does right here.
In either case, this isn’t one more tweak designed to separate audiophiles from their money, but rather a straightforward application of fundamental knowledge about science. Think about it deeply, and you’ll discover that it makes sense for audiophiles to go to these extremes.
Your Grounding Strategy and You
There are three models in the Nordost QKORE ground unit line. The QKORE 1 ($2499.99) features a single binding post that ideally connects to the Nordost distribution block, marked QBASE, located on the QKORE 6. The idea behind this is to offer an effective ground on the primary side of the power supply.
The QKORE 3 ($3499.99) features three binding posts on the back of the unit, each designed to simply ground three components in your system. This provides grounding on the secondary side of the power supply.
Finally, the QKORE 6 ($4999.99) features six binding posts on the back: one’s the QBASE, two are marked for monoblock amps, and the remaining three are left for three more components in the system.
Meredith Gabor of Nordost elaborated:
“The QKORE1 is meant to be used on the primary side of the power supply. The QKORE3 is meant to be used on the secondary side. That being said, you could certainly USE the QKORE3 to connect to your distribution block, you just wouldn’t want to then use it for the other components as well. You want to make sure that you aren’t using ONE LVAP for both your distribution block and your audio circuitry. THAT is the reason that we have the QKORE6. This has two SEPARATE LVAPs, one for primary, and one for secondary. That way you have one box that deals with both, without cross contamination!”
Each Nordost QKORE grounding unit comes with at least one QKORE wire (the QKORE6 comes with two), terminated with RCAs or XLRs or banana plugs or spades or whatever is required for the basic set-up. Additional QKORE wires, which you’ll need, are an additional $360 for 2m, with each addition meter costing an extra $150. Yes, that seems expensive for a ground wire, even with the fancy terminations, but the QKORE wire has been mechanically tuned and “utilizes Nordost’s patented Micro Mono-Filament technology, combined with extruded FEP insulation, and constructed with a 16 AWG, silver-plated OFC, solid core conductor.”
Right about now, you’re adding this all up in your head. $11K plus however many extra QKORE wires you’ll need. (Nordost even offers an entire line of Sort Kones that can be placed under the QKORE units for even better performance). Nordost is quick to explain, however, that few systems will require all three QKORE ground units. You can start with the Nordost QKORE 6, and even a lone QKORE 1 will make an audible difference. In addition, you can purchase individual QKORE Wires without needing the ground units at all–consider them a premium ground wire in every respect. In fact, I found myself grounding the LSA T3 and Gem Dandy Polytable Signature turntables I have in for review with the QKORE Wire–it worked well and made me wonder if this is a simple yet valuable upgrade for just about every single analog rig out there.
As you can see, there are a million different opportunities to make A/B comparisons with the entire Nordost QKORE system using different configurations. But once I started using the QKORE with my review systems, I realized that you can go crazy trying to hear differences. Meredith Gabor told me:
“You mention that there are a million different configurations to be used, but that isn’t to confuse the reviewer or the customer. We have so many options so that the QKORE can be integrated into any system, regardless of which terminations may be free on the user’s components. As a general note, we recommend using a digital out when possible, since universally that tends to work best (however, that can be system dependent, and you are right, it can turn into a bit of a tweaker’s paradise).”
So let me help narrow it down with my honest and streamlined opinion—the minute differences between hooking up grounding hubs one way or another weren’t as important as either having or not having the QKORE in your system at all, in any configuration. I hope that makes sense.
So my deepest, most focused ruminations on how the Nordost QKORE performs aren’t based on copious wiring options as how much QKORE needs to be adjusted according to changes in the hardware itself. This means you’ll have to spend some time with QKORE as well, fiddling around, finding out what works. Your experiences will be different than mine, unless you just follow the instructions and do what Nordost suggests.
It DOES work, by the way. You’ll notice immediately, as I did. It seemed vaguely weird that none of this cutting-edge equipment plugs into the wall, or featured knobs and switches that somehow assisted with the operation. It sits there, doing its thing. The high-quality fit and finish, and the heaviness of these compact slabs o’ metal, hinted at its abilities to make an audible difference in my already pretty darned quiet audio system.
There I Was, Minding My Own Business…
…and I heard a sound. I haven’t heard that sound in a while. I remember hearing it after I got home from a rock concert when I was a teenager and I’d try to fall asleep but my ears were ringing too loudly. Or I’d hear it in the form of a dull roar in my head after a long and particularly frustrating commute, which is why I rarely turned on the hi-fi as soon as I got home from work. It’s a sound that I don’t hear anymore because I take care of my hearing and I work from the quiet of home and I tend to listen to music at a sane level. Yes, even when listening to “Chocolate Chip Trip.” Most of the time, anyway.
I don’t even know if it can be called tinnitus at this very low level. But the Nordost QKORE system, along with all of the power conditioning, filtration and molecular re-aligning, had reduced the noise level in my listening room to the point where I could hear that low, barely perceptible rush of noise that has probably been loafing around in my brain since I heard AC/DC at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1979 and I couldn’t think straight for two weeks afterward.
Just to ensure that my findings were correct, I walked up to the Marten Oscar Duo loudspeakers and I put my head within about a foot of the 7” ceramic woofer. Is it possible that I can’t hear anything, even with the volume knob turned up to regular listening levels (for me)? I moved closer and closer and there it was, a tiny rush of sound. There, but barely there, there because I knew it was going to be there if I kept moving closer.
But oh, such quiet. With all these noise-suppression pieces in place, the kitchen sink so to speak, my noise floor had lowered to a point where it could no longer be considered an issue by any stretch of the imagination. I’d hear a sound, think there was going to be some errant issue in the system, and the next thing you’d know I’d be poking around in some other room, finding a machine elsewhere in the house that made a funny noise I never noticed before. My listening room is QUIET. My head and the rest of my house, however, are not.
In the future we might have audio systems that are completely silent in every measurable way, but I’m not going to spend another $10K to get there. This level of quiet will do quite nicely, thank you.
The Art of Subtraction
As I already mentioned, I often evaluate cables and accessories and tweaks by first living with the tweak in place and then removing it and notice the things I’m missing. It’s just easier to detect those differences.
With the Nordost QKORE grounding system, I had to be diligent about the way I did comparisons. There were simply so many variables to consider, and plenty of room for error. Through all types of swaps including and excluding the AudioQuest power conditioners, the Furutech NCF products and the Nordost QKORE, I came to some rather basic conclusions:
- Furutech, AudioQuest and Nordost QKORE all result in the lowering of the noise floor. In each case, two worked better than one and three always worked better than two. So the effect of these three approaches are cumulative.
- There were differences in the type of noise that was lowered by each product. I really had to get my eardrums into fighting shape to evaluate this, but I felt that AudioQuest kept all of the equipment in the system running cool and quiet. The Furutech gear made everything sound a little bit bigger, forcing the noise floor to sound small and inconsequential. The Nordost QKORE, however, removed the feeling of electrical machines being present and fully operational in the room.
- The only way I could hear that faint amount of tinnitus—and yes, I do think I’m in the middle of a very weird sentence that’s describing the excellence of an audio component—was with all three of these noise-suppression solutions in the chain.
- All three are worthwhile products. They seem to work exceptionally well together.
When the time came for me to remove the Nordost QKORE grounding units from the system, I noticed the difference immediately. No, everything didn’t get suddenly noisy and unbearable. But I felt my system lost just a bit of its edge and clarity. Entirely by accident, I proved to myself that the grounding wires going every which way behind my equipment rack were reducing hum. I knocked one of the QKORE wires out of the back of the Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum S2 integrated amplifier with my ear just inches from the Martens, and I heard just the slightest increase in hum. I might have been breaking the ground loop at a critical juncture, or the sudden removal of a ground wire kicked up a buzz somewhere, but when I plugged the wire back in, it was back to pure silence.
I was sad when I removed the Nordost QKORE ground units from my system. But at least my tinnitus seemed to go away. I can’t think of a stronger recommendation than that, and I dare Nordost to use that as a pull quote in their print ads.
You might think that the Nordost QKORE ground units and QKORE wire are one of those products where you need a highly-resolving system to hear their benefits, which of course is why they cost so damned much, amirite? Yeah, but no.
I’ll admit that my current reference system has achieved a stasis in my new home, and that the sound I’ve been enjoying over the last few months is among the best I’ve heard in my over forty years of being a hi-fi geek. That, quite honestly, has allowed me to hear big differences in products such as the Furutech NCF Boosters and the AudioQuest Niagara 1200 and 3000 power conditioners.
The question in your head, of course, is “Do I really have to spend this much money just to lower the noise floor in my hi-fi system? Even with a power conditioner?” Well, what if you do have a problem with ground hum or other types of noise issues? I’ve had periods in my hi-fi life where I dealt with a cartridge/tonearm interface that hummed, or tube rush that was barely audible from the listening position or even, and I love this story, hearing my neighbors’ cell phone calls through my speakers. (Bob, I hope you saw a doctor about that thing on your leg.)
If I had a warehouse full of hi-fi where I could just pull products to test out hypotheses or do comparisons, I’d find out what the Nordost QKORE could do when it came to that annoying hum from the Grado cartridge on the AR turntable arm I had during college, or with the noisiness of NOS DHTs in my SET, or with quelling those rumors about why Frank and Barb on the next block really split up.
What if you never had to chase another ground loop hum? A lot of audiophile AND audio professionals probably pay all sorts of money to address those issues. While it’s not yet clear that sophisticated grounding equipment such as the Nordost QKORE line is going to be the “next big thing” in high-end audio, I’m already seeing grounding products in many dealer showrooms and, until recently, high-end audio shows. I know it all sounds like one more thing you have to do to achieve sonic nirvana, and those goalposts are always moving. But grounding isn’t a mystery. It’s straightforward. It’s common sense. The Nordost QKORE grounding units just approach this phenomenon from a new angle, a thorough and heavy-duty one that really does sound musical and pure—especially to a buzzing, chugging and galumphing brain like mine.