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March 2008
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
PS Audio Quintessence Power Center
Do you really need power conditioning?
Review By Rick Becker
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

PS Audio Quintessence Power Center  As happy and proud as I was to review PS Audio's new Soloist back in December 2006, this innovative yet humble new product was then overshadowed by the simultaneous introduction of a wave of new power conditioners developed by PS Audio. The Power Plant Premier garnered most of the attention being a breakthrough re-design that allowed the regeneration of pure electrical power in a much smaller, lighter, cooler and more efficient package than the previous models. The new Duet and Quintet in their handsome and economical power strip configuration were introduced at prices that were subsequently lowered, making them even more affordable. However, it was the Quintessence in a handsome full size chassis that piqued my initial interest. I suspected it would provide a reasonable improvement over its less expensive siblings, if not match the reputed excellence of the Premier.

It was a long time coming. Production was scheduled, but before it could begin, Laszlo, chief engineer at PS Audio, developed a new super filter. This high permeability magnetic design filters out line noise all the way down to 7kHz where its effectiveness drops off on a steep slope I was told. Other passive power conditioners typically begin filtering at 50kHz, far above the range of human hearing, so the super filter is quite a breakthrough. Paul McGowan took the bold step of canceling production of the Quintessence until this new filter could be incorporated into it. The short story is it wasn't easy. The super filter had to be encased in a box for shielding and the box had to be isolated and suspended in vibration absorbing material to insure quiet operation. It takes up about 20 percent of the chassis, right in the center with 10-guage leads feeding it. You can research the history in the PS Audio Newsletters from 2006 through 2007 on their website if you're interested. The long story is once it finally received the green light for production, it took a long time before they could spring a review sample, since they had a backlog of orders. While many of us lust for the Premier, it can be prudent to live within one's means. The prospect of hearing what the new filter could do certainly sustained my anticipation, especially since it is unique to the Quintessence.

I do not pretend to be an electrical engineer, but for those who crave more tech-talk I can point you toward some interesting segments in PS Audio Newsletters that pertain to the Quintessence and power conditioners in general. The Quintessence is a series type power conditioner equipped with both double common mode and differential mode noise filtering. There is an interesting description and comparison of series and parallel types in the October 2005 issue. Passive vs. active conditioners are discussed in PS Audio's August 2004 newsletter. The THD meter is covered in June 2007 and there is a fascinating description of the super filter in October 2006. In addition to including a great photo of Laszlo with the raw filter in hand, the article erroneously states the filter is to be put in the Premier as well as the Quintessence. Their free newsletter is frequently filled with topics of interest to the casual and more serious hobbyist. There is also plenty of information and detail in the product description on their website, as well as access to the Owner's Reference (manual).

 

The Review Agenda
When it finally arrived, it hit the ground running as I plugged it into my reference rig for the review of the Von Schweikert VR-4SR Mk2 loudspeakers. I would need time and concentration to focus explicitly on the Quintessence, so I put off serious attention to it, aside from noting that the VAC amplifier and VR-4SR benefited from its inclusion in the reference rig. If you've read my review of the Soloist, you probably already suspect I had an agenda for the Quintessence. Any break-in was already complete by the time I turned my attention to it. More typically, a reviewer installs a piece of equipment and notes its contribution, but I had already become accustom to its benefits. I had also completed the Winter Tweakfest review just prior to writing this, so I was familiar with the improvements those products brought to the table, too. At this point, I decided to work my agenda in reverse and document my findings. Because of my Tweakfest, the music was outstanding, approaching the superlative experience I had with the VAC and the VR-4SR Mk2 in the rig.

I had been using the Quintessence in combination with the Soloist as PS Audio recommends with all its power conditioners and the Premier as well. After turning off my forced air furnace on this winter night to eliminate the intermittent noise, I reviewed my reference compilation CD. Next I removed the Soloist and ran the Quintessence straight into my JPS Labs 30 Ampere In-Wall dedicated line. There was a loss of inner detail and room tone on live recordings, but the most significant loss was a sense of the soundstage extending behind the musicians. With the Soloist in the rig, there was a very deep soundscape and plenty of air around and behind the performers as if they were in a very large space with lots of room behind them.  With the Soloist in place, the soundscape felt a lot like the experience of good LP playback. Removing the Soloist felt like placing a wall directly behind the performers, foreshortening the soundscape to what we more typically expect from CD sources. The music was still very good in most other respects. Nothing to be ashamed of here.

Next, I ran the Quintessence into my 20 Ampere Romex dedicated line, figuring this would be a more typical configuration for people with dedicated lines. Stepping down from the JPS line did not seem like much of a loss, if any, as I ran through my CD once again. Good news for many, I thought, as the JPS cable can be an expensive proposition, depending on the length you need. Stepping down once again, I ran the Quintessence into my 15-Ampere house circuit. I expected more of a loss of quality in this step, even though I didn't have anything running on that circuit at the time. Much to my surprise, I didn't seem to be giving up much in this step, either. Perhaps the dynamics were slightly diminished, but I'm not sure I would be able to detect any differences in a blind test. I was truly amazed, as this was good news for the Quintessence if the evidence held up. The news was so good, however, that I became suspicious of my methodology.

The next step should have been to remove the Quintessence from the system and run all the components into house line outlets. Unfortunately, there were not enough of them around, and I didn't want to dig up a cheap power strip from the basement. (PS Audio has just come out with a new Juice Bar II extension strip that would have been useful, here).  From my review of the JPS Labs dedicated line years ago, I already knew the house circuit sounded worse than components plugged into either of my dedicated lines. I decided to double check my findings by reversing the sequence and went from the Quintessence in the house line to the Quintessence in the 20 Ampere Romex line. From there I moved on up to the JPS 30 Ampere line. Stepping up in this direction revealed improvements that that were not as noticeable when stepping down in the other direction. It seems it is easier to notice improvements than to detect a loss of quality — at least in small increments. The importance of doing all this is to establish the importance of using a dedicated line, even if you are using the Quintessence power conditioner. It would certainly raise the value of any power conditioner if it obviated the need for a dedicated line. Alas, this was not my experience.

I still needed to remove the Quintessence from the system at some point, so after listening with it in the JPS line (without the Soloist), I then plugged the digital components into the Romex dedicated line and the amplifiers into the JPS dedicated line. In the era before I discovered power conditioners, this was the optimal set-up for me. Separating the digital from the analog had been an important discovery for me at the time. The Quintessence allowed me to take the concept even further with five separate IsoZones, each one filtered from the others with small but effective nano crystalline filters. There are two outlets in each zone, ten outlets total. I had put each component in its own separate zone for these trials.

Removing the Quintessence and plugging my components directly into the two dedicated lines resulted in a huge disappointment in the music, to put it politely. Using the Quintessence for several months, I had come to expect instant attack, quick decay, superb focus, unwavering sustained notes, tight deep bass and outstanding soundstaging with plenty of air around all the instruments. A significant portion of all that went away. Even the sense of pace, rhythm and timing slipped significantly. Dynamic contrast, too, fell victim as the quick attack, black background and the very low noise floor fell apart. With small tube monoblocks and relatively efficient tube-friendly loudspeakers, I cannot speak to the possibility of the Quintessence limiting power. Nevertheless, under reasonable listening levels, up to 100dB at the listening chair, the system sounded more dynamic with the Quintessence than with the gear run straight into the dedicated lines. This speaks to the quality of the listening experience with the Manley Labs Mahis putting out less than 20 watts in triode mode in a large listening room. My feeling was one of disappointment, not in my equipment, but in my obliviousness to what a good power conditioner could do for a system. I've heard numerous outstanding rigs at audio shows, after all, that ran without power conditioning. How did they do that? The real question was either "Had I waited too long before investing in one?" or "Had I waited just long enough to luck into the Quintessence?" What about PS Audio's own Premier Power Plant and the other highly regarded passive power conditioners in the $3000 to $4000 range? These are worthy questions that others will have to answer in time.

 

Quintet And Quintessence Comparison
Originally, the Quintessence was envisioned as Quintet in a fancy chassis, but Laszlo's new super filter changed all that. A comparison with the Quintet was essential to determining the contribution of the super filter in the Quintessence. Fortunately, my friend Tom had one and was gracious enough to loan it to me.  Unfortunately, it sat around unused for a couple of weeks when I was in the midst of completing the VR-4SR Mk2 review, returning the VAC amplifier to California and sending the loudspeakers off to their new owner. It took most of an afternoon to reconfigure my reference rig and the results were more than gratifying. Cables were re-routed in a more effective way and I spread my monoblocks a little further apart because of what I learned from using a Noise Sniffer in a previous review. If you have read my Winter Tweaks review, you know about the success they brought to the music. With everything plugged into the Quintessence and the Quintessence plugged into the Soloist and the Soloist plugged into the 30 Ampere JPS Labs In-Wall dedicated line, the music was sweet, indeed.

I listened to my compilation CD from start to finish and then substituted the Quintet for the Quintessence and the Soloist, running it straight into the JPS dedicated line with the JPS Labs Power AC+ power cord I have been using all along. It sounded broke. I thought I had done something wrong. I had not heard music that grainy in a decade. Could it be that power conditioners need to warm up just like amplifiers? Or was it due to the fact that it had been unused for several weeks? By the time I reached the second pass of the compilation CD it was sounding pretty decent, but to give it the benefit of the doubt, I left it plugged in for several days before resuming the comparison — and plugged the Quintessence into a house circuit to keep it from getting cold.

When I resumed my serious listening, the rig sounded decent with the Quintet in place, yet not as good as when I had been using the Quintessence and the Soloist — not by a wide margin. Step Two was to add the Soloist between the Quintet and the dedicated line, as had been recommended in the manual of the Quintessence. This made a significant contribution that more than justified the additional cost of the Soloist. Step Three was to install just the Quintessence and remove the Quintet/Soloist combination. Once again, the music took another jump in quality. Finally, Step Four was to add the Soloist between the Quintessence and the dedicated line. Predictably, the music got even better, but adding the Soloist to the Quintessence seemed to be a larger improvement than adding the Soloist to the Quintet — probably because the potential for improvement with the Quintessence with its super filter is greater than the potential for improvement with the Quintet. If I had videotaped myself listening to the various combinations, my tapping toe would have quantified the differences. On occasion, I would try and consciously stop my toe from tapping, only to discover that with my toe still, I could not concentrate on the music. What is the old saw about not being able to spit and chew gum at the same time?

It was obvious that seriously good music was happening here. So good that it made me wonder if the Quintessence is something more than just the Quintet with the super filter added. As substantial as is the Quintet, two things are obvious at this point. First, the Quintessence, at 26 lbs, is a lot heavier than the Quintet, and has a much finer chassis as well as some intriguing whistles and bells. Second, Paul McGowan absolutely made the right call in holding back production of the Quintessence in order to add the super filter. It would be difficult to sit on this new technology until the next generation of power conditioners could be introduced. The Quintessence with the new super filter may very well be the Next Generation.

 

Premium Versus Generic Power Cords
It is well known that power cords can make a significant difference in the performance of a component, but what about the power cord that connects a power conditioner to the wall? Absolutely! Which is why I came up with my suggestion for the direct-wired Soloist — it eliminates the cost and the sonic signature of an additional cord!

To check out the effect of the power cord used with the Quintessence, I substituted a JPS Labs entry-level cord, the GPA-2, for the highly regarded JPS Labs Power AC+ cord that I used for this review. It would have been really cool to find out the GPA-2 performed as well as the Power AC+, but it was not to be. The blue GPA-2 is a fine cord and maintained most of the excellent focus offered by the Power AC+, but it was rolled off on top, didn't extend the music as deep into the bass, didn't provide as much slam and dynamic contrast, and presented a more recessed soundstage. It also cost a lot less. In spite of the shortcomings in relation to its big brother, the music was still very enjoyable and a big improvement over using generic shielded power cords. The GPA-2 would make a great cord for someone with smaller monitors that were a bit too forward sounding. It may also be a wise choice for a less frequently used component such as a tuner. In comparison, the Power AC+ does everything right including a more transparent soundstage. This is to be expected given its higher price.

 

The Power Line To Niagara Falls
So if the power cord on the grid side of the Quintessence makes a difference, and the quality of the dedicated line also makes a difference, as I showed above, doesn't that suggest a dedicated line all the way to Niagara Falls would be optimal? (Joe Skubinski would probably offer a volume discount if you buy his JPS Labs In-wall cable by the mile). It doesn't quite work that way, fortunately. The Law of Diminishing Returns would crush your credit card.

A theoretical model I find useful is to view the cable from a component's perspective. A power amplifier "sees" the load of the loudspeaker and the speaker cable in one direction. In the other direction, it "sees" the incoming signal, the preamplifier and interconnects. The amplifier also "sees" the AC power coming through the power cord and the power conditioner. The Quintessence, as a crossroads between the power grid and the individual components not only "sees" your components and the power cords plugged into them, but also acts as an isolation network. The nano crystalline filters keep the garbage generated inside a component from spilling out into the components in the other four identical IsoZones. High quality cables aid in minimizing the degradation of the music by offering some of these same filtering qualities as well as being optimized for conducting both current and signal. Most of us know this already, for sure.

In this theoretical model, the closer a cable or a conditioner is to the musical signal, the more impact it can have on the music. PS Audio recommends that when an installation requires a great distance between the grid and the components, the power conditioner should be placed closer to the components using a heavy gage extension cable to tie into the grid. If it is possible, I would suggest running a dedicated line to the proximity of the system. If the installation is simple and if you can drill holes and pull cable yourself, the cost should not be great. You may even be able to recover most of the cost by being able to use shorter power cords.

As I've installed it for most of my listening, on the grid side the Quintessence also "sees" the Power AC+ power cord, the Soloist, and about fifty feet of In-Wall dedicated line. It might be interesting to compare the long JPS dedicated line with a hybrid dedicated line in which only the first ten feet from the wall outlet are JPS In-wall cable and the remaining forty feet back to the breaker box are the standard Romex cable. This should shed some light on the idea of running a line all the way to Niagara Falls . I'll try to remember this for next winter's Tweakfest.

Some might argue that premium cables are all that is necessary in a system and some manufacturers state their components may be degraded by the use of a power conditioner. But this was not my experience. The Quintessence made a very significant contribution to the quality of my listening experience. Listening was further enhanced by the use of the moderately expensive Power AC+ power cord and the Soloist in-wall power conditioner as I have shown above. This triggers the same speculation that led to the Soloist. What if it were redesigned as a complete in-wall unit itself? There would be no need for an expensive power cord and perhaps no need for the Soloist, which brings me to the questions of aesthetics and ergonomics.

 

Aesthetics And Ergonomics
The aesthetics and ergonomics of power conditions have been all over the map in the course of the last couple of decades. The Quintessence falls in the "It's a Component" school of design, which means it should be proudly displayed in your equipment rack. (It also comes with ears for rack mounting, if you choose). It is identical in size and looks just like its big brother, the Premier, save for some discrete lettering. Even the plastic remote control is the same, although some of the buttons are superfluous — to be used with the Premier or future products. The photos of the Premier in their advertising only hint at the quality of the sculptural details of its handsome façade. It is much nicer in person. And while I am not a big fan of whistles and bells (well, maybe belles) the Quintessence won me over with its visual appearance and outstanding contribution to the music. I don't need blue lights staring at me when I'm listening and my wish is at my command with the remote control that dims the blue light to low level with one push of a button, and completely eliminates it with a second. Nice.

The readouts are entertaining, giving me the incoming voltage or the %THD, again, with the push of a button. The THD, measured at about 1kHz (below the lower limit of the super filter) ranged between 2.4 and 3.3 during the time of the review. Usually it was toward the lower end of that range. The manual states THD in homes normally ranges between 2 and 5%, so I guess I'm living reasonably well. Voltage varied between 120 and 123V and never seemed to vary during a listening session. Turning computers on or off, lighting the Christmas tree, the refrigerator kicking in or out, doing the laundry — nothing seemed to faze the read outs. It seemed to be more of a global, or at least neighborhood readout. At times THD would flicker between say 2.4 and 2.5%. Mostly, I just ignored it or turned it off since I do not have much control over either the voltage or the THD, and I don't seem to live in an area that is susceptible to brown-outs or power surges. The Quintessence itself is susceptible. It will shut down and protect your equipment in the event of either under or over supply of voltage, unlike most conditioners, which only protect against power spikes. I do recall, however, one minor occurrence when the entire Northeast United States and eastern Canada was blacked out. My digital alarm clock will, from time to time, exhibit symptoms of flashanoona. Perhaps I've just been lucky so far?

The Quintessence protects against spikes, too, and it has a replaceable MOV unit should it die in the line of duty. (Replacement of the MOV must be done at the factory). Your equipment, it is claimed, will live to fight another day. My experience with the Quintessence neither confirmed nor disproved that, but during a rare winter electrical storm I continued to listen blissfully as the lightning flashed and the thunder was muffled by the falling snow. Before in similar circumstances I would shut the rig down and pull out all the plugs. Almost priceless. I can hardly wait for summer! There are also inputs and outputs for cable TV, antenna signals, and even a phone line should they be relevant to your situation. Because fuses can degrade the sound, the Quintessence employs a circuit breaker that can be reset with the push of a button on the back.  For firing up your rig there is a variety of delayed, switched and always-on outlet choices for each zone. Being a creature of habit, I continued my manual ritual. The unit turns on with a push of the logo on the front panel, or via a DC trigger at the back. It is recommended to leave the unit fired up constantly for optimum performance, which is what I did except when reconfiguring the rig.

The IsoZone duplex outlets are on the back side of the unit, as you can tell. "Where else?" you ask? For the casual or infrequent equipment swapper outlets on the back side are preferred because it looks good. For the more aggressive swapper or a reviewer, top loading, front loading or, dare I say, wall mounted outlets are more convenient. (The Quintet was more user friendly, angling the receptacles toward the installer when wedged against the floor and back wall). The grip of the PS Audio Power Port AC receptacles is tenacious. The EIC input was less so, which is not uncommon, unfortunately. I will spare you my diatribe on that one, but it is not the fault of the Quintessence. I suspect ninety five percent of users will be happy and proud of the unit just the way it is, which I guess, makes it a home run.

The manual (which is available on their website) suggests that the use of cones or vibration absorbing footers can improve the performance of the Quintessence. I'm well aware of the benefits, having reviewed many types of footers, but I didn't test it. With all the cable swapping and re-configuration going on, footers would have been a nuisance. In a more permanent and stable situation I'm sure I would use them.

 

Value
By investing in these products early on, we establish a firm foundation upon which to build a quality system and minimize the propensity to develop a top-heavy system with expensive components that do not live up to expectations. The concept makes sense, but fails to acknowledge the way most audiophiles grow and invest in their hobby. When I first discovered high-end audio, I never dreamed I would spend $3000 for a pair of loudspeakers. This was only a fraction of what my reference pair now actually cost. I had no idea what I would eventually spend for a complete rig. It has been built up over time with used equipment early on and review samples in more recent years. So how was I to figure out what would be an appropriate expenditure on cables, support equipment or power conditioning? But Roy 's point should be well taken. To get the most out of your equipment, it needs a solid foundation in quality cables, a good vibration absorbing support system, and filtered AC current. From that perspective alone, the Quintessence is an excellent value. A little Dynamat Extreme, ERS paper and Blue Tube Goop (AVM) can also go a long way.

 

Summary
I have to admit I am late to the concert when it comes to power conditioning. The PS Audio Soloist opened the door for me and now the Quintessence has turned the spotlight on the music. A greater fool would throw huge sums of money into major components in search of what the Quintessence can bring to them all. Not only is it a big step up over the Quintet, it climbs even higher when combined with the Soloist. We all need to find a comfort zone when making discretionary purchases and for many, the buck will stop here without regrets. Big spenders will move up to the Power Plant Premier, probably also without regrets. PS Audio has been a hotbed of creative thinking over the past decade and the Quintessence with the new super filter gives evidence they are not slowing down one bit. Very highly recommended.

 

Specifications
Type: Electrical power conditioning and distribution
Features:
    * Ten power outlets
    * Two coax
    * One phone jack
    * 12 Volt trigger
Dimensions: 17 x 16.5 x 4 (WxDxH in inches)
Weight: 26 lbs
Price: $1195

 

Company Information
PS Audio
4826 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Voice: (720) 406-8946
E-mail: sales@psaudio.com
Website: www.psaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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