So how do I shift gears from auditioning the $266,000 Sonja XV statement loudspeaker from YG Acoustics to reviewing a hundred twenty dollar fuse from Synergistic Research? The former created by a masterful engineer; the latter by a visionary mad scientist? I google Barbara Guest's famous poem "Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher" then dive into Jim Morrison's land of the Big Beat and start hitting keys.
Fuses are a relatively common serviceable protection feature of audio electronics. They are designed to be the weakest link in a circuit and sacrifice themselves when a spike or surge of high current or voltage seeks to invade a component. I think of them as sort of an electronic equivalent of a venturi valve, though amps and volts, behave differently than fluids. Nevertheless, all of the AC power to a component passes through it and internally generated noise escapes out through it. So it would seem that any improvement it creates works in both directions. Most equipment manufacturers take the fuse pretty much for granted. Standard fuses cost about a US dollar each but in recent years several fuse manufacturers have applied a variety of new materials and new technology in an effort to improve the sound music. Even Radio Shack now sells a pair of gold plated fuses for $4.99, but the more exotic fuses go for a lot more than that. The UEF Black Fuse ($119.95) reviewed here was preceded by two other fuses from Synergistic Research, the Quantum in 2012, followed by the Red, now available at close-out pricing.
Expensive amps, preamps, and DACs have fuses and they are usually accessible behind a screw-able cap on the back panel or a pry-out compartment that is part of the IEC AC input. Less expensive gear such as my vintage Sony ES tuner and CD player (used as a transport) omit them. Sometimes they are hidden on the circuit board inside a component with stern warning that the product should be serviced only by a trained technician, usually living in a nearby state. It doesn't take a lot of courage to change a fuse, especially if you are motivated by a non-functioning piece of gear. Of course if a fuse should blow, it is wise to figure out why it blew before trying another fuse.
Duplex outlets, on the other hand, are a different story. My personal history with duplex outlets goes back to when I was a kid and took a hit of 120 volts on more than one occasion. Not fun as I vaguely recall. Time wipes out the memory of pain, but the respect gained has remained. If you live in a country with 220/240 Volt service, you risk more dire consequences. Like death. If you have any apprehension of performing such a swap, read it. Or if you need an audio-visual set of instructions, run a search on YouTube. Your friends and loved ones may not thank you, but at least you will still have friends and loved ones.
I was fortunate enough to obtain two Black fuses from Synergistic Research, a slow-blow 1Amp fuse that would work in either my Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier or the Statement Line Stage, and a slow-blow 8 Ampere fuse for the Coincident Turbo 845 SE integrated amp. These being tube amps, the burn-in process occurred when I was actually listening to music (not as often as I'd like). The UEF Black Duplex outlet was installed in my Romex 20 Ampere dedicated line, replacing the PS Audio Premiere outlet ($100) that is no longer in production. (Paul McGowan tells me the manufacturer [Hubbell] would no longer supply them with the product.) I reviewed the Premiere outlet and found it to be a significant step up from the PS Audio Power Port. Additionally, I have a second Premiere outlet retrofitted in my PS Audio Soloist in-wall power conditioner (also no longer in production) which performs admirable duty in my video rig.
The UEF Black Duplex was mounted right next to the PS Audio Power Port ($50) allowing for direct comparison to this widely known audio grade outlet. It is a well-built outlet, but not overly built. One blogger suggested it looked like a spec grade Pass & Seymour duplex outlet and the box proclaims it to be industrial grade, self-grounding with a steel strap across its back side. It has a good grip, but you don't have to be a gymnast to disengage it. But all this is beside the point of this outlet, which is the UEF (Uniform Energy Field) Quantum Tunneling process applied to it. I plugged my solid state DAC and tuner into the UEF Black Duplex outlet and let them run constantly for a week or more; not a lot of current, but a lot of time. I avoided listening to either component to sidestep discussion about the validity of break-in.
Hearts of Space
HOS was really spacious tonight with lots of air and decay on the notes. Very transparent and liquid--more than usual. [It had] All the typical Synergistic Research accolades.
The next morning Tom replied:
I'm hugely skeptical when you draw conclusions from listening sessions with HOS. There are just too many unknown variables. The music is different every week. You might not have the volume set exactly the same every week. The reception might vary from week to week because of atmospheric effects, affecting the noise level from the tuner. That could manifest itself in a difference in the ability to hear air and decay. The line voltage of your power line might also vary from week to week. In addition, there's a whole week between broadcasts, and aural memory is notoriously short. Then there's the huge problem of expectation bias. If you're looking forward to hearing HOS with some new configuration of your system, thinking that it may sound better, then it WILL sound better. Not because it actually does, but because you expect that it will. It's really easy to fool yourself with this stuff.
It's really nice to have a friend like Tom to keep me on my toes. I came back with:
I will not deny any of your above allegations. However, there is one constant--the voice of Stephen Hill. True, the list of music selections varies, but there is a recorded segment with his spiel to get you to joint HOS that is the same every week, and his signature sign-off "Safe Journey Space fans, wherever you are" is also the same recording every week. This will vary slightly for all the reasons you mention, but I can usually tell whether I've got a clear signal due to atmospheric conditions. My voltage is usually very consistent at 121V at that hour of the night. I'm very close to a relatively new transformer (1/4 mile) and the cables in my neighborhood are all buried. Also, I started watching this program when they were in the 300's and they are now in the 1100's. Even allowing for times I've missed it, I've heard this show more than 700 times. So I know this show and his voice pretty well. Also, due to the nature of the ambient music, there is very little, if any, compression of the signal.
So, when was the last time you heard of a reviewer using FM radio as a reference? I knew I was into something special and the following week, HOS sounded even better, evidence of further break-in. By the time I finished this review, HOS had me floating in another galaxy.
4 x 4
I could also clean up the cable clutter beneath the black / Panzerholz stand. Much of this mess was due to a pair of Synergistic Research QLS-6 power strips. One strip was used for a bank of power supplies for the active shields of all the Synergistic Research power cords that were plugged into both the PowerCell 4 and the other power strip. There was a convenience to having all my components connected on one dedicated line. Changing sources was a matter of merely throwing switches. But I rarely hop from one source to another in my listening sessions. Now that the snake pit has been cleaned up the change of one AC power cord and one interconnect when changing sources is relatively simple. The QLS power strips are not going to waste, I might add. I will be converting the IEC plug to a right angle AC plug which will allow me to use it directly into either dedicated audio line or in my video rig in another room.
The astute reader might be asking how I connect my vintage Sony ES tuner if each rig is dedicated to LP or CD playback. The Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier has a line input pass-through that is only affected by the volume controls on the Phono Preamplifier. It does not share any active amplification with the phono stage so I don't even have to turn the Phono Preamp on. Alternatively, with longer interconnects I could run the output of the tuner directly to the Coincident Turbo 845SE integrated amp that has three line level inputs in its passive input stage. Since I use the solid state tuner only one evening a week, I turn it on about three hours ahead of listening for it to warm up sufficiently. When I'm listening to LPs, obviously, it is turned off.
The actual protocol was a bit confusing and somewhat complex. I won't go into all the details, but to give you sequence, I started out with the analog configuration connected directly into the JPS Labs 30Amp line. Then I added the 1A Black Fuse to the phono stage. Then I added the 8 Ampere Black Fuse to the integrated amp and put the standard fuse back in the phono stage. Then I listened with a Black Fuse in both the phono stage and the amp. Then I connected the analog rig to the PowerCell 4 and ran that into the 30 Ampere line. Then I repeated that protocol with the digital configuration, except the integrated amp was the only component that could take a Black Fuse.
Testing the UEF Black Duplex outlet was a bit more complex since I only had two outlets, plus the two outlets in the PS Audio Power Port. I ran the amp (first, with the standard fuse) into the 30 Ampere line and connected the transport and DAC first into the Power Port and then into the UEF Black Duplex outlet. Then I repeated that comparison test again, but with the UEF Black Fuse in the amp. And of course at each step I went back and forth at least once to verify my perceptions. It was tedious, but not difficult as the changes were easily recognized.
If you've been paying attention to the blogs on the internet and the testimonials on the Synergistic Research website, you already know the fuses and the outlets have garnered pretty rave responses from most everybody that has tried them. Only a few skeptics are holding out. I'm not going to argue with skeptics. But I will try and elucidate my perceptions and add some conclusions as well as pull a couple of cards out from my sleeve.
The Long View
First of all, I'm a tube guy — particularly SET tubes. I've heard some solid state gear that effectively negates the tube vs solid state controversy, but it is really expensive. SET tubes create a sense of space that makes it easier for me to imagine I'm listening to a real performance. They give the music a bloom that not only relaxes me, but also facilitates my imagining a real performance. The music has more tonal color and fuller body. The PowerCell 4 marches to the same drum beat by enhancing the perception of space as real and magnifying the bloom created by the tubes. Unfortunately, I have no solid state amps on hand, but I strongly suspect the PowerCell 4, the Black Fuses and the UEF Black Duplex outlet would have similar results with solid state gear.
There is an improvement in focus, as well as an improvement in transparency. There also is more perceptible decay to notes from un-amplified instruments (think piano), and a smoother sustain and extended decay to notes from amplified instruments (think electric guitar and synthesizer). Overall, the music has more purity. Whether this comes from a lowered noise floor (reducing the garbage) or smoother transmission of the signal and reproduction of the notes, or both, I'm not sure. My reference rig is respectable, but not financially over-the-top. That the PowerCell 4 has been in my rig for almost six years without me feeling any need to replace it should speak volumes for it. The newer Synergistic Research products such as the Black Fuse and the PowerCell 12 UEF that incorporate graphene are very enticing.
The Black Fuse and the UEF Black Duplex outlet produce the same results as the PowerCell 4, though to a lesser degree. The closer to the source components I applied either one, the more obvious the effect appeared. Enhancing a second component with either the fuse or by plugging it into the outlet increases the results, but with somewhat diminished returns. Combining both the fuses and the outlet produced further gains, in effect creating what amounts to a poor man's PowerCell. Adding in my PowerCell 4 along with the fuses and the outlet took the performance even higher, though I must admit that using the fuses along with the PowerCell 4 plugged into the JPS Labs 30 Ampere line produced the best results. The JPS In-Wall cable is a superior quality cable than your standard Romex cable, and it is the larger diameter 10 AWG, not the slightly smaller 12 AWG like my particular Romex line.
I wanted to compare the effectiveness of the UEF Black Duplex running a traditional power conditioner in place of the PowerCell 4. I hooked up my PS Audio Quintessence and found it to be a step down from the PowerCell 4, as I expected, but the music still contained a high degree of the attributes contributed by the Black Fuse and Black Duplex. A more significant improvement with the Quintessence was made by switching from an entry level power cord to a Synergistic Research Tesla SE power cord. Whether the UEF Black Duplex would be as effective when used with a power regenerator is another question that remains unanswered.
You don't need a weather man
There was talk on the web about whether the Black Fuse was directional so I called up Eliott Nommensen, one of the chief operatives in product development at Synergistic Research and asked him about this. He said yes, it's true but there is no way of knowing which way to is the proper orientation, other than listening, because you can't really see the circuit inside to figure out which way the fuse holder is wired. He suggested trying both directions when first using the fuse. One way will give you more detail than the other. That's the way you want to leave it and during the burn-in process the sound will fill in and smooth out. Oh, great. I had already burned them in, so there was a 50/50 chance I had done it right. Late at night, I did the critical listening comparison and sure enough, there is a difference. The correct way has better focus and soundstaging, the other way is more diffuse and the soundstage is vaguer. A little note inside the box would have been helpful. Fortunately, my critical listening had all been done with the proper orientation or I wouldn't have been so enthusiastic about the fuses. My amps have screw-on caps to contain the fuses, not the little drawer beneath the IEC power inlet, and I made a habit of holding the fuse so I could read the logo as I inserted it each time. I guess I got lucky. Your gear may be different, though, so check it out before you fully burn them in.
Deuces Are Wild
The initial listening experience was not great. The circuit breaker I had sent them was a new one, and it was clear that it needed breaking in. Since my digital gear was Always On, this was not a problem and things were sounding remarkably good within a week. I swapped the treated circuit breaker with the original several times to be sure I was hearing a difference. I was so excited about it that I wanted to invite Tom over to run a Deaf and Blind test on him, but as usual, work and life got in the way. Months later he came over for a visit to hear some LPs and we listened and talked well into the evening. The next morning he sent me an email commenting on how good my rig sounded the previous night. It had never sounded so good he said. At that point I realized I had forgotten all about the Quantum Tunneled circuit breaker. If he reads this review, it will be news to him, even now. So comparing the UEF Duplex Outlet on my 20 Ampere Romex Line with the 30 Ampere JPS line with the Quantum Tunneled circuit breaker was somewhat closer to comparing apples to apples than I thought. If all you have is a house circuit or a 20 Ampere Romex dedicated line, I expect you will be impressed with the addition of a Duplex Outlet, particularly if you have tube gear.
And the other card up my sleeve? Well, the "standard" fuses in my gear were not exactly standard. They had all been treated with Blue Tube Goop or AVM (Anti-Vibration Magic), a paint-like substance that dramatically reduces vibrations on fuses, solder joints in the AC inlet of components, around the glass of small signal vacuum tubes and a lot of other places. Reducing vibrations improves the focus of the music and a nail-polish size bottle of AVM is a very cost effective way to make significant improvements. If you're a non-believer in the importance of fuses, treating them with AVM will convince you. If you live in a volatile area of the grid and frequently, or even occasionally, blow fuses, AVM on standard fuses may be as far as you want to go from a financial standpoint.
The SR Black Fuse dusted my AVM painted fuses and while they cost significantly more, the Black Fuse has a far greater acoustic return on investment. This is as it should be with 2mVolts of Quantum Tunneling and graphene treatment on the filament. Ted Denney was quick to jump on graphene and it is appearing in ever more SR products. It seems to hold a lot of promise from what I've heard so far. As their name implies, their products have a way of building synergy among your other components and the company is experiencing such success that they moved to a larger production facility this year. Earlier this year, I borrowed some newer generation power cords than the ones I run, and a set of their current Atmosphere interconnects from Tom. I was very favorably impressed and can assure you this is not a company that rests on its laurels.
The Black Fuse is the third generation of fuses they've produced and it would be shortsighted to think that it would be their last. Most interesting, I find, is their gear has a "house" sound that favors spaciousness and transparency along with a very healthy dose of dynamics. The latter, naturally, depends a lot on the relationship of your amp to your speakers and the cable that connects them. I've also experienced their room and equipment treatments and the original Tranquility Base which has also been upgraded recently with graphene. That their room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was consistently packed is no surprise. The combination of a Synergistic Research equipped room with MQA equipped electronics could be startling. Time will tell.
Bringing It All Back Home
If after trying the fuses and outlet you are impressed, you will be poised to spend large for cables and a PowerCell. That's where the fun really begins. The pain of doing so will be greatly reduced by the Black Fuses having doubled the apparent value of your phono stage, preamp and amplifier. While many will think of fuses as a tweak, to my mind, the Black Fuse has become an essential component. Reviewing these two products has been a ride (and the road goes on forever) so the Black Fuses and the UEF Black Duplex outlet are staying right here in my armory.
Now let me come back to the YG Sonja XV speaker so as to leave the circle unbroken. I asked Bill Parish if he ever tried after-market fuses in the electronics of the ultra-high-end gear he sells. He explained that he always displays and auditions his gear in factory-stock form so his customers will know exactly what they are buying — an honorable approach, to be sure. But even if you have laid out the $600,000 for the system I heard, I'd place a gentlemen's bet that you'd love it even more with Black Fuses and the UEF Black Duplex outlets in the wall. It's the least expensive way I know to give your system a qualitative upgrade of such magnitude.
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