"Power corrupts, but absolutely clean power is absolute heaven" is the new Audiogeek mantra. At least it is if the recent rash of electrical power conditioning, regenerating and cleansing products are the physical manifestations of the current zeitgeist. And, without admitting insider knowledge through membership in the Audiogeek ranks, I see why. In the last twenty years the noise floor of nearly every audio component has copied the polar ice caps... Retreating slowly at first, almost imperceptibly, but gaining speed until, boom, one day we all sat up and asked "Where did it go?". And as those individual improvements in noise floor performance have combined to reveal other, more subtle distortions in the playback chain it was inevitable that the noise that rides in on the AC from the wall would be laid bare. And so, just as teenagers guarantee a market for the cleansing action of Clearasil, audiophiles also guarantee that enterprising companies would attempt to clean up the AC issue.
History And Perspective
And so they have. In the mid to late '80s elementary AC power conditioners such as the Adcom ACE were the first salvo in the AC control game, but Les Edelberg, a veteran of large computer and heavy industrial power conditioning definitively won the first round with the uniformly excellent line of Audio Power Inc. Power Wedges. For several years, in fact, API was the only significant game in town and everyone who cared about conditioning had at least one of their products. API carried that lead into the mid and late '90s, until the game was thrown wide open when companies such as API themselves, Furman, PS Audio, ExactPower and Bybee introduced products that used balanced power, power amps as AC current regenerators and top-secret government research into ultra low-level signal preservation. The list of companies that have or are now offering power products, nearly all of which show a surprising degree of sophistication considering the relative newness of this product category, would fill my allotment of virtual-paper. So rather look at each company, let's look at the three broad paths that have been followed in delivering clean power.
The first is active circuit filtration. From Adcom and, especially API, the idea of using industrial styled surge suppression and noise filtration with capacitors, filters of various types, transformers and intricate circuit design has a deep, rich and rewarding history. The audible results, and the protection from many of the common power line nasties that this approach offers is certainly well documented. Also well documented, both anecdotally as well as in the lab, is the negative effect this approach has when faced with large current draws such as those presented by high powered amps. However, the softening of leading edges and, in some cases, a general darkening of the tonal character, was well worth the cost of a lower noise floor, protection from surges and elimination of hash and grain in line level components.
PS Audio is widely credited with popularizing the idea of power regeneration with their PP300. A class A/B power amplifier, the 300, and its fellow stable mates the PP600 and PP1200 (the number in the model name is a rough indicator of the wattage each unit is able to supply), plug into the wall and then have outlets for your gear. The wall current goes through several stages of filtration and is then passed through the amplifier with the output section of the amplifier being tuned to 60 cycles. Theoretically, this approach should result in power free from any upstream issues. And, in practice, this is pretty much what it does (the PS Audio line now features a filter module that allows you to change the output frequency as well as blend several frequencies but the basic operating principle is the same). In addition, since the PS Audio draws more power than it supplies, under normal operating conditions it is able to supply constant current regardless of what your electric company may be delivering at the wall. The PS Audio products do both these tasks very well, but, as with all things audio, not without a cost. And there are two significant ones here. The first is similar to one of the issues with active circuit filtration, namely slowed response and softened dynamics when faced with large, instantaneous current demands. And second, the PS Audio circuit requires approximately the same amount of current as it supplies, hence the PP300 draws roughly 600 watts to output 300 (other regenerators such those made by ExactPower are more efficient but nonetheless lose a significant percentage of power in the regeneration process). Besides significantly adding to your power bill, this makes the PS Audio problematical when driving many amps, whether high-powered solid-state, class A, or tubed ones.
The final approach, spearheaded by Jack Bybee with the now defunct Bybee Technologies line of power conditioners, is to employ primarily passive devices, but to also use novel materials, at least to home audio applications, to reduce power line noise. Bybee, a former researcher for the US Government, worked on line noise suppression for submarine communications and surveillance, and while you and I may think that we have mission critical uses for power conditioning, well, let's just say we overstate our case a tad compared to that of a nuclear attack sub. Anyway, the Bybee conditioners offered all the sound improvements of standard circuit filtration but without as significantly limiting or slowing current draw. On the other hand, they offered little by way of surge suppression and had no way to address voltage drops.
Each of these approaches, even though carrying surface similarities are tailored toward solving a different power problem. Circuit filtration, which lacks the ability to precisely regulate the output signal and usually softens dynamic peaks, but can significantly reduce power line hash while also offering superb isolation and surge protection, is ideal where incoming power is consistent but noisy and power amplifiers draw limited current. Not to mention being of great value where lightning strikes and similar environmental hazards are an issue.
The regeneration approach also faces the problem of softened attacks as well as overall current limiting due to its inefficient nature, which also adds considerably to your power bill. On the other hand, it is the only process wherein the output voltage can be precisely controlled and which also offers the theoretical ideal of ridding all incoming noise issues by completely rebuilding the AC. With these skills it is well suited to an environment where wall voltage is variable and noisy, but where power is also cheap (a rapidly dwindling list of locales) and where you have other choices for amplifier AC power filtration.
Lastly, the exotic materials approach cannot guarantee output voltage, but has the ability to cleanse wall voltage while offering all that voltage to gear, and without the delay of circuit filtration or the need to double your power bill. That makes this approach valuable where wall voltage is fairly constant, surge protection is less of an issue, and current supply to gear is important.
With so many design options, none of which covers all bases, what's an audiogeek to do?
As a digression, the first step to take, if at all possible, and one that is usually cheaper than just about any reputable power conditioner on the market, is to run a dedicated AC line to your equipment. This process can be as simple as running separate 30 amp service lines from your central power box to the listening room or you can take it further by establishing specialized grounding schemes for these lines. In most cases a significant portion of the advantages of AC conditioning can come from this simple operation alone.
But let's say that you cannot do this due to your particular situation (inaccessible wiring, you are renting, etc.), or, having already done it and being a typical Audiogeek you want to take further control. What's up next? Well, short of installing a home fuel cell generating plant and disconnecting from the grid, it's time for a power conditioner.
Still with me? Good. Before we dive into this review allow me to fill you in on the particulars of my own power conditioning history.
For the last dozen years I have used power conditioners of one type or another. As many did, I started with API, using several of their models. And from personal experience I can say that they are all I have mentioned above. In particular, the Model 116 saw many years of superb service around here. It did a wonderful job removing hash, glare and grain from my line level gear, although it did have a tendency to flatten dynamics when used on my amplifiers. Separating the amplifiers from the line level gear helped restore dynamics, but also re-introduced some noise as the full isolation effect of the Model 116 was and is best heard when it powers the entire system. Lastly, it also darkened the overall sonic picture a touch. But after having one of these in my system I found that going back to AC as delivered by Public Service was no longer an option.
I have also used a PS Audio PP600 with the multiwave frequency generator. With tube amplifiers seeing a lot of duty here at the Warnke Snowshoe and Music Lodge, a single 600 did not have enough pop to power the complete system and so, at times, a second 600 was employed. Since this combination threw off a lot of heat, it's fortunate that I live in snowy Colorado.
Placed in the system, the PS Audio products reduced the difference I heard in the system from day and night listening, moving the daytime experience closer to the sonically cleaner nighttime one. It also produced more apparent detail, greater air, and a more transparent stage. Harmonics were slightly richer and micro dynamics a touch more nuances. On the other hand, large dynamic swings, especially with tubed amplifiers, were quite audibly softer. And, for reasons I was never quite able to resolve, in most situations the system became emotionally flat, even if sonically more exact.
Finally, as a representative of the last type of conditioner I have used a Bybee Signature line level conditioner and Bybee power amplifier conditioner, a combination that has served me well for the last several years. Amazingly quiet, with excellent resolution, intricate, detailed and full harmonics, yet with only the faintest whiff of dynamic compression, the Bybees have taken power conditioning to a new level for me. Sure, I wish they could regulate output current like the PS Audio, but with their overall quality this has been a loss I have found easy to live with.
Finally, A Review!
So now we come to the Shunyata Research Hydra. A product out of the third path, the Hydra uses no transformers, chokes, filters, regenerators, coils or capacitors, instead it relies on a completely passive design built to ultra-high standards, using hyper-pure components, unique topologies and exotic materials based on Caelin Gabriel's (the head of Shunyata Research) background in materials science. Gabriel, whose training is in quantum physics, spent a decade working at the National Security Agency developing low-level signal acquisition devices (I am not sure how you read that, but I take it to mean eavesdropping bugs with extreme sensitivity). After leaving the employ of the government Gabriel worked in the computer industry, designing gigabit and beyond network data transmission devices. Both these environments are extremely rugged proving grounds, where the tolerances, electrical hazards and technology are magnitudes beyond even the most sophisticated of audio environments.
The first and most obvious face the Hydra presents is its exceptional build quality. A 35 pound 10" wide by 6" tall and 14" block, the sides are finished with half inch thick, polished and dampened granite while the face has a solid Amaranth wood inlay. The rest of the unit is covered with a mirror-polished polymer. It is a beautiful thing that is not afraid of showing it.
Round back are found six, Hubbel, hospital-grade outlets, arrayed in three individually isolated pairs. The power cord uses a Nema twist-lock connector, assuring a tight grip. From the factory, Hydra uses the Hydra cord (which is based on their Sidewinder Gold cord), but can be upgraded to any power cord in the Shunyata line. Also on the back is a 20-amp fuse. With a max output of 2,500 watts, a single Hydra has enough pop for all but the most esoteric of systems.
Internally the Hydra uses high purity, massive CDA-101 copper buss bars to distribute and "focus" power. That focusing action is a significant part of the Hydra. According to their literature FeSi-1000 (a proprietary compound that functions similar to ferrites but uses a different coupling mechanism to attenuate and dissipate radiated electrical energy) is used in their EML, or Electro-Magnetic Lens. The EML is a buss array, designed using antenna array principles and contained with an aluminum structure acting as a magnetic shield, which "...create(s) a polarized electromagnetic field. This effectively focuses high energy between two conductive plates. The EML concentrates high frequency EMI, thereby improving the effective coupling of the FeSi-1000 compound".
A second, significant part of the Hydra design is the massive case described earlier. Shunyata has paid exacting attention to resonance control, and, as my sore knuckles can attest to, this thing is solid. Finally, with a ten year, transferable warranty, the Hydra is built like no other power conditioner that I know of. Besides being solid, this thing is meant to last. Much has been made of the build quality of the Hydra in various online forums and in other reviews. I personally find it odd that, as long a product sounds right, anyone would attack it because it is overbuilt. Give me a product designed to last over one designed to last until the day after the warranty expires any time.
Listening To A Black Box
Since the review unit came to me direct from another reviewer, it was already broke in, and so, unusually, it started out in the main system, taking the place of the Bybee conditioners. Also, unusual for a power conditioner, it made an immediate and strong impression.
What I mean by that is that many non-signal path products tickle the ear with faint echos of what they are doing, but until they are removed from the system and the old sound returns, their full effect falls short of total understanding. Not here. Within the first five minutes of use the Hydra quite obviously released an artificial tension that had been in the system, which had been affecting both it and myself, a tension that until the Hydra arrived I had not noticed. More importantly, no musical tension was lost in the transition; in fact musical tension had greater traction in the absence of the artificial sort. Dynamics had both larger sweep on the macro side of things, and more delicate nuance on the micro side. And that hoary audio cliché, liquidity, increased by the gallon jug.
Looking deeper, and over a much longer time period, this is what I came to see (hear) as the effects of the Hydra.
Regardless of amplifier used, a greater dynamic ease and power was the first hallmark of the Hydra. Since this, in my experience, is a highly unusual result when using a power conditioner it deserves to be emphasized. As I mentioned earlier, the API Power Wedge, and especially the PS Audio products, in spite whatever else they have done right, they have flattened the dynamic curve of every combination of gear I have used them with. But the Hydra, instead of acting as a brake on the system, lubricated the entire dynamic range - from the softest whisper all the way to triple fortissimo, my system responded faster, stronger and with greater assurance. I attribute much of my comment about the removal of artificial tension in system to this facet of the Hydra. Much like a horn-loaded speaker, which in spite other faults, projects a dynamic ease, so too the Hydra made every volume shift sound natural and unforced.
Second, the Hydra created a much darker, silent background from which music emerged. This silence was neither "digital" nor artificial; rather it had the effect of naturally reducing noise generated by my system. Against this blacker background each recording was better able to present their unique and delicate sonic fingerprint, which made easier the belief I was in another location listening to a musical performance and not in my room listening to a recording. Which, of course, added further to the overall ease of the system when using the Hydra.
Next, and a thing which follows from the above paragraph, harmonic texture was rendered with greater range and detail. I've embarrassed my teacher by calling myself a piano player, but I do have the opportunity to regularly play on several excellent pianos, an experience which has come close to spoiling me for audiogeek purposes, primarily because getting all the micro-tonal, fine textural nuances of a great piano out of a stereo is about as easy as getting all the truth out of a politician. In my system the Hydra acted as the finest source of harmonic truth-serum I've heard. Great piano recordings, such as the Ivan Moravec versions of Beethoven's Piano Concertos [Vai Audio VAIA 1069], offered up even more juice while mediocre recording moved up a notch and even poor recording took on fresh detail that made them wholly believable.
Another area where this newfound harmonic density and integrity was immediately evident was when listening to vocals. Hildegard von Bingen, for a female composer about 800 years dead, has certainly received much attention of late. This, in part, is due to an exploration of older forms in much modern classical music, especially religious, an exploration that has, ironically, made von Bingen a postmodern. Fashion aside, von Bingen was an exceptionally talented composer, even more so considering that she was more concerned with religious and cultural issues than with musical ones. Out of her oeuvre, perhaps her most completely realized work is known as 11,000 Virgins, Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula. And, undoubtedly, the most completely realized recording of that work is the Anonymous 4 version from several years back [Harmonia Mundi LC 7045]. As a group Anonymous 4 sing with precision, passion and power, and with the Hydra in the system, in spite of the religious themes on this album, they sing with almost decadent tone. The ultra-fine detail that had previously slipped by was now a natural part of the sonic fabric. Once again this increase in texture gave a far more believable shape to music, allowing me to enjoy it far easier.
Finally, compared to straight AC, the Hydra deepened bass extension while adding definition as well. Treble was airier and more extended while also sounding less strident, more natural. Similarly, staging expanded, both left to right and front to back. And through the enrichment of the harmonic envelope, items on the stage were more tangible.
Let's make this brief. As compared to every other conditioner I've heard, the Hydra has far greater dynamics, or better put, the Hydra cleaned the incoming AC in a way that allowed my system to better produce dynamic contrasts, where previously cleansed AC always came with a cost in overall system dynamics.
The Hydra also offered as black a sonic background as I've heard. The Bybee comes closest to this level of performance, but it too is bested by the Hydra. Further, no other conditioner has opened up as much harmonic texture. Both the PS Audio and Bybee had been fantastic in this department, but the PS Audio's added texture had, paradoxically, come with an added emotional distance. The Bybee did not suffer from this issue, but in the final analysis, the Hydra simply offered greater harmonic information then the Bybee.
But where the Hydra offered the biggest contrast to other conditioners I've tried is the overall sense of balance it imparted. Its reduction in artificiality, in electronic tension but not musical tension, allowed me to access music with either side of the brain with equal ease. If I wanted pure analysis of music, the Hydra silently swung open doors that previously had squeaked partly open. And if I wanted connection to a performance the Hydra helped the entire system step out of my way and to invited me in.
Ultimately the overall presentation of the Hydra, or rather my system when it's plugged into the Hydra, is relaxed, liquid, detailed, harmonically rich, quiet, and emotionally direct. Other conditioners have garnered three, four or even five of those adjectives, but none has received all six.
Now we come to the hardest part of this review. How do I properly locate the flaws in the Hydra? What complicates this question is that in every performance parameter, excepting one, the Hydra surpasses every conditioner I've heard. And that one drawback is not a sound issue; rather it's the lack of a guaranteed output voltage. In other words, how do I describe flaws in performance of a product that creates no sound of its own and so is less subject to comparisons to naturally occurring sounds, beats the competition, and lacks only a feature?
First, I can say that it is not a universal product. Because of the entry price, and even though I recommend power conditioning for every system, it is not appropriate for many systems. While the sonic and musical improvements have been readily noticeable in every system I've placed the Hydra in here at the Warnke Musical Zoo, in most sub $10k to $15K setup I would say that $2,500 would be better spent upgrading other parts of the system first.
Second, and as just mentioned, it does not regenerate AC and so cannot compensate for AC line fluctuations. In certain environments this may be a significant issue, and while the Hydra will cleanse the AC of other issues that a varying level creates, it cannot act as an UPS. In this case the investment in the Hydra may better be spent addressing other issues.
Lastly, six outlets may be confining for certain systems. And while I wish the Hydra had eight outlets, I would not have it so if that meant a compromise in performance.
In total, the Hydra made only positive contributions to my system. It opened the dynamic framework, reduced system noise, and enhanced harmonic structure, all without darkening the system, reducing extension, or editorializing. The combined effect of these skills, at least 'round here, is a system that is far more relaxed while offering better detail and harmonic structure.
Most significantly, the Hydra made it easier to connect on an emotional level with music. This is a hard to describe skill, and so I have dealt but a little with it. But truth be told, there are times when itemized, intellectualized and rationalized analysis, even if important, simply misses the point. Take looking for a spouse, for example. An understanding of what you want and need in a life-partner certainly is a vital part of that endeavourer, as is knowing what you have to offer another person. But when you're standing at that alter it better be a feeling that makes you say "yes", and not a spreadsheet. Likewise, when you plop $2,495 down for a passive box that plugs into the wall and that you then plug your gear into, it better be because it allows you to connect far better with the music on your media of choice and not just because of some spec sheet somewhere. Absolutely, for that kind of money it must do the job of AC cleansing, and do it well, and the Hydra does its core job better than anything I've heard. But for that type of money it also must deliver on the feeling of music, it must help your system to get out of the way of the magic streaming from those wonderful recordings. And in my system, with my AC, and to these ears, this is exactly what the Hydra does best. Simply, after running a dedicated power line, and in the context of a top-flight system, even at $2,495 the Hydra is the most cost effective way I know of to clean AC whilst simultaneously releasing all the emotion, commitment and involvement in the recordings I play. Shunyata has a real winner here.