The importance of clean power is well known and has spawned a subsidiary industry of high-tech cables and power line conditioners for high-end audio and home theater. Some have achieved fame and some have achieved notoriety. Dedicated power lines, on the other hand, have only been praised from time to time as a desirable complement to a high-end rig. Since they seemed like an inexpensive upgrade, I helped a friend install one in my townhouse and experienced the benefits that others had extolled. When I re-married and moved to a freestanding home, I needed a new dedicated line. I took the opportunity to review the newly introduced JPS Labs In-Wall Power Cable (click here). I also installed a standard 20-Ampere Romex type dedicated line as a control, and compared the 30-amp JPS line with both the 15-amp house wiring and the Romex dedicated line. The improvement was significant and led me to surmise that this must be the kind of benefit others experience from a good power line conditioner. I thought someday I would get around to checking out that premise, but my personal crusade took off in the direction of vibration absorbing devices.
I have kept an eye on power conditioners, but developed a skeptical view of them. Many amplifier manufacturers build in sufficient protection and some filtration and feel power line conditioners impede the current flow and deteriorate the sound quality, or at least add another variable to the performance of their product. Some reviewers feel the same way. Having experienced a decided improvement with the JPS cable and a subsequent additional improvement by moving all my digital components to the separate Romex dedicated line, Iíve been reserving judgment until I have had one or more power line conditioners to evaluate in my system.
One of the companies Iíve been watching is PS Audio. The Soloist, however, is labeled PS Power International and is ETL rated indicating the global perspective they are taking with their power products. In recent years this company, headed by industry veteran Paul McGowan, has been a hotbed of innovation and growth. In their free internet newsletter in July, 2005 they asked for ideas for products readers would like to see produced. Two seconds later I started refining a solution to one of my pet peeves about power conditioners:
Why do power conditioners sit on the floor like a separate component and require an additional expensive power cord to connect to a dedicated line?
In recent years there have been some strides taken to make them look more refined like the expensive components they power, but almost all still require an additional power cord, further raising the cost. Some of this "beautification" has had the unfortunate consequence of adding more LEDs and meters to distract from the music ó but thatís my personal bias. And many of them still require plugging components into the rear of the unit, an exercise that becomes more challenging as the years add up. Perhaps I should follow in Lindaís footsteps and take up tai chi?
I had always admired the diminutive PS Audio Ultimate Outlet, which purportedly had little effect on the amount of current drawn. Why not remove it from its handsome (but costly) housing, expand it to four or six outlets and build it into a junction box that could be hard wired directly to a dedicated line in the wall or in the floor? This would give users the high quality Power Port receptacles, the balun filtration and spike protection at a reasonable price without the need for an additional power cord. Invoking my best understanding of feng shui, I reasoned that being mounted in the wall, there would be one less "box" on the floor and less cable spaghetti. Better yet, it could be mounted behind the rack and higher off the floor so I wouldnít have to bend down to disconnect stuffÖor connect it, either, for that matter. Perhaps I could even skip the tai chi?
In-floor mounting presents additional possibilities for visual enhancement of the rig. Installing such a device in the floor directly behind an amplifier positioned between your loudspeakers could hide at least one unsightly power cord. And if I ever get around to upgrading power cords, I could use shorter cords to make the whole rig tidy. Sure, audiophiles with more nomadic lifestyles will prefer a separate unit that can migrate with them. I submitted the idea anyway.
In the August newsletter they listed a bunch of the more interesting ideas that were sent in and down near the bottom of the list was mine. Cool. I canít remember what the interval was, but at some point I emailed Paul McGowan and asked him about it. He sent back two photos of the prototype that looked pretty much like the finished product. It had only two outlets, but I reasoned that two was better than none. What I didnít anticipate was the length of time and all the hassle it would take to get the ETL certification. Nor had he. When he announced the discontinuation of the Ultimate Outlet in their January 2006 Newsletter I figured we were getting close. In reality, I didnít see it until mid-September.
When it finally arrived and I opened the box, I was surprised to see how large and substantial the Soloist is. The down side to all this beef is the fact that it does not fit directly into a standard outlet box, but requires a double gang in-wall junction box. A blue plastic double box is included in the package, but still, it means some cutting of wallboard and a permanent installation, unless you already have a double box in your wall. This is not what I had in mind for review purposes, so I went to Plan B. At my local electrical supply store I bought an industrial grade plug for the three wires protruding from the Soloist that would normally connect to your house wiring or dedicated line. Permanent installation would be done with the supplied wire nuts, as long as your wiring is copper, not aluminum. By installing the plug, I would then be able to compare the use of the Soloist with my standard 15-Ampere house wiring, 20-Ampere Romex dedicated line and the 30-Ampere JPS Labs dedicated line without tearing my walls apart. I could easily swap back and forth between the three electrical circuits.
To reiterate, installation where you have only a single wall box means you will have to remove it, cut away some more wallboard and install the supplied blue double outlet box. This is not terribly difficult. The enclosed instructions are fairly explicit, aside from one minor typo that has probably been corrected by now. But if you have any reservations ask your son (or grandson) if you can borrow his Bob the Builder reference books. And under no circumstances should installation be attempted right before a major bowl game if you intend to plug your TV into it. Seriously, though, if you do not feel competent to do this, find a friend to help you, or call an electrician. We canít afford to lose a single reader.
The Power Port used in the Soloist has two receptacles that in regular junction box use can be separated, so a dedicated line can be run to each receptacle. But with the balun and the super-MOV spike protector jammed in behind the Power Port in the Soloist, this is seemingly not an option. During development, I had asked Paul McGowan if they could also include binding posts so the dedicated line could be screwed down directly to the Soloist instead of using the wire nuts. Now that I see all that is crammed inside this unit, this feature was probably a little too difficult or costly to implement.
With only two receptacles, I had to come up with a game plan for evaluating the Soloist in a rig that normally requires seven. I settled on plugging the CD transport and the DAC into it, figuring that I could still keep my digital and analog components on separate dedicated lines that way. These two components probably contributed the most noise to the system and, as a source, would benefit greatly from cleaner power. Remember, the Soloist filters noise in both directions, keeping line noise out of your component, and keeping component generated noise out of the line which feeds the remainder of your components.
Let The Games Begin!
Step 1: To establish a baseline, I listened to the first four musical cuts on my compilation CD with the transport (actually an older Sony ES CD player) and my Muse model two DAC plugged directly into the Romex dedicated line which has four receptacles.
Step 2: Then I replayed the four cuts with the transport and DAC plugged into a nearby 15-Ampere wall outlet. Predictably, this was a letdown. The music had less dynamic contrast; softer attack on the notes and pace and rhythm were slower. While the focus was still very good, there was little or no toe tapping.
Step 3: Next I plugged the transport and DAC into the Soloist and plugged the Soloist into the 15-Ampere wall circuit. Pace and rhythm returned. The treble was more present, but was not over-emphasized. Notes had faster attack and cleaner decay. Instruments were more pinpointed in the soundscape and the notes had more tonal color.
Step 4: I removed the transport and DAC from the Soloist and plugged them directly into the Romex 20-Ampere dedicated line again. It sounded a lot like Step 3, but with a splashier, longer decay on the cymbals. Overall, the sound was looser. Step 3 and Step 4 both have better transparency than Step 2 where the transport and DAC were plugged directly into the wall circuit. And overall, Step 4 had a little fuller sound than Step 3, possibly due to the greater current reserve, and possibly due to a slightly less quiet background level.
Step 5: I plugged the transport and DAC into the Soloist and plugged the Soloist into the JPS 30 amp line, putting the entire playback system all on the same circuit for the first time, here. The music was tighter and the background was blacker, but it seemed to have lost some pace and rhythm. The music was smoother with great attack and decay, but overall it was not quite as dynamic as Step 4. There was more tonal color, especially in the deep bass and treble. There were lots of plusses here, but also some steps backward.
Step 6: With the transport and DAC still into the Soloist, I swapped the Soloist over to the Romex dedicated line, leaving the preamp and power amps in the JPS line. This arrangement really got exciting. There was more pace and rhythm, more dynamics, more tonal color. The rig was better able to separate the musical lines of the different instruments. By the end of Step 5 above, I was pretty sleepy, but switching to this configuration in Step 6 woke me right up again. Bass notes, in particular, were rounder, more focused and more musical. Everything just happened more effortlessly and more clearly. I could shift my attention with ease around the soundscape, exploring the performance of individual musicians. And the toe kept tapping.
Step 7: Next I set up the mirror image of Step 6 with the digital front end in the JPS 30 amp dedicated line and the pre and power amplifiers in the Romex 20-Ampere line. Note my Manley Mahis with 20 wpc are more about finesse than brute strength, so I thought this exercise would really have more to do with the quality of the dedicated lines. Here, the music was even more tonally refined with better timbre, especially in the bass, but it was not quite as dynamic as Step 6. Apparently the 30 amp JPS line was making more of a contribution to the Mahis than I thought. While the jams and final crescendo of James Taylorís "Steamroller Blues" were distinct and orderly, the music was slightly more recessed ó another consequence of swapping the amplifiers over to the Romex 20-Ampere line.
Leaving the rig in Step 7 configuration, I played my two favorite " CDs. Whatever was wrong with Jimi Hendrixí Live at Winterland, the Soloist finally fixed it. Iím sure the improved focus brought by all the footers and the ERS paper helped a great deal, but with the Soloist in place, noised dropped off to such an extent that almost all the lyrics and certainly all the musically intended distortions were clearly audible. Whether or not it is enjoyable depends, as we used to say, on the bag youíre in.
The other " CD was Dylanís Real Live. Here, the results were mixed. The music became more transparent, but Dylanís voice was still fuzzed out. Whether this happened at the microphone end of the recording chain or at the mixing board, I donít know. The Soloist definitely improved the transparency of both recordings, in effect throwing more light upon the entire soundscape, much as if you took your sunglasses off while at an indoor concert. But the focus improved very little beyond what the vibration absorbing footers had already contributed. This was a key revelation for me as I had been frustrated in trying to improve the transparency for a long time. Most recently, the combination of conrad-johnson CT6 preamplifier and Berning ZH270 power amplifier provided the biggest breakthrough in the area of transparency in my room. I had begun to think that upgraded electronics might be the pathway to greater transparency. Now, it seems like further exploration in the area of power line conditioning is in order. Unfortunately, both the CT6 and the ZH270 had been returned before I began work with the Soloist. The three together could have been a really beautiful experience.
Turning my attention to analog, I tried the Soloist with my Linn turntable. For this exercise, I put all my digital gear into the Romex-type dedicated line and my amplifiers and turntable into the JPS Labs dedicated line. I picked the last three cuts from Jackson Browneís Running on Empty LP and played them first with the Linn plugged straight into the JPS Labs line. Then, I inserted the Soloist into the JPS line and, trying to be careful to maintain polarity, plugged the Linn into the Soloist. The results were lethargic pace & rhythm and a lack of sparkle and air at the top end. I went back to square one, and eventually discovered that I had inadvertently reversed polarity of the turntable. Not wanting to repeat the mistake, I took the opportunity to carefully label the side of the 2-prong Linn plug that should face the ground hole in the typical three-prong receptacle. Turntables, usually, are grounded to the phonostage or preamplifier with a separate ground wire that accompanies the tonearm cables. I should have labeled the plug many years ago.
Now I was cooking, and so was Jackson Browne. The improvement was not as significant as using the Soloist with the transport and dac front end, but digital is inherently noisier than analog sources. Nonetheless, in the context of a turntable rig that cost several thousand dollars, the benefit of the humble Soloist represents significant value. Iím not sure I could identify the presence of the Soloist in this analog context in a blind test with unfamiliar music, but I heard an absence of occasional glare and sibilance, as well as a smoother sound with slightly improved inner detail. There was also a noticeable, but not huge improvement in transparency. With the benefits of the Boston Audio Designs Mat 1 on the platter and Boston Audio Design TuneBlocks with Sound Dead Steel squares underneath, my Linn reached an all-time high performance mark when plugged into the Soloist. Maybe a thousand dollar cartridge upgrade would have accomplished the same end?
Real World? Video?
It would also be fair to raise the question "Am I playing the Soloist too far above its intended audience?" Well, yes and no. If I can acknowledge the significant gains in an already well balanced system as I have outlined above, the answer must be "no." Its price is an easy expenditure in the context of such an expensive rig. But at $199, it should certainly attract a lot of attention from both newcomers to the hobby and experienced devotees of limited means. To address the Soloist from that angle, I tried it in my much more streamlined and modest video rig with an inexpensive Sony DVD player feeding a Tandberg 3012A integrated amplifier, which drives my Coincident Technologies Partial Eclipse II loudspeakers. A Sony 24-inch Wega CRT TV handled the video signal. A 20-Ampere Romex dedicated line feeds the audio side of this rig, while the TV is plugged into a standard 15-Ampere house circuit. The DVD player, VHS player and amplifier are plugged into a beefy metal power strip of no particular fame, and the power strip is plugged into the dedicated line.
I played the system "as-is" first, then plugged the DVD player and amplifier into the Soloist and the Soloist into the power strip since the wall outlet of the dedicated line was relatively difficult to access. The gains, as above, were not jaw dropping, but were easily heard and qualitatively similar to my big rig. Surprisingly, even with the TV screen between the loudspeakers and the face of the loudspeakers themselves only two feet from the wall, the soundscape was very well portrayed. Since this room is our family room and there is a traffic flow right through the middle, the set-up of the rig is not as meticulous as my listening room. Nonetheless, the virtues of the Soloist improved the performance not only of the audio, but the video as wellófar in excess of its modest cost. While the Soloist will not convert your CRT screen into an LCD quality image, the opening twenty minutes of Chicago almost seduced me into an all-nighter. For a wall-mounted LCD or plasma video screen, the in-wall Soloist offers a solution for power filtration, this type of installation typically demands surge protection and concealed wiring that. But should you be looking for a way to put off your purchase of an HD monitor for another year until the prices drop even further and the 1080p format becomes more readily available, the Soloist may well be your ticket for that strategy, too, and the benefits will be transferable when you decide to upgrade.
Be Careful What You Wish For...
My suggestion for a six receptacle In-Wall Ultimate Outlet didnít come to fruition. But the results of my experience with this single Soloist suggest that what I really need is a Soloist with two power ports (four receptacles). Then send me two ó one for each dedicated line. And while Iím at it, why not convert the Romex dedicated line to JPS Labs cable? Unfortunately, this is starting to add up. With the Soloist priced at a very reasonable $199, adding a second Power Port would bring it up to at least $250. Double that and Iím at, or likely over $500. A more cost-effective solution might be another idea that was proposed in PS Audioís original solicitation: a high quality 3-line into 1 adaptor. The weight of heavy power cords might pull the adaptor out of the Soloist, in spite of the strong grip achieved by the Power Port receptacles, but if the prongs of the plug are thick enough, this might be a solution.
The scenario, however, is more complex. When I originally made the suggestion, I was not aware of a new series of power conditioners being developed with Nano Crystalline filters that may well be the next big thing in power filtration. At $400 plus the cost of another power cord, PS Audio now offers their Duet, which has four receptacles. Above that is the new 10-outlet Quintet at $695, plus the cost of a power cord, which gives me all the outlets I need plus five-zone isolation that might eliminate the need for a second dedicated line. Filtration and protection for cable TV, antennae, DSL, and phone lines are additional perks with the Quintet. The downside, literally, is that once again, the outlets are all down on the floor. Maybe these, too, should be offered as in-wall units?
Their website states their power conditioners and even their Power Plant Premier benefit from being plugged into the Soloist. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to request a review sample for personal comparison and testing. In the other direction, PS Power has also introduced the Noise Harvester for half the price of the Soloist, raising the question, which might be the better value? I asked Paul McGowan, "If Santa could only put a Soloist or a Noise Harvester in a Christmas stocking, which would be the better value or provide the largest improvement?" Ever the entrepreneur, he pointed out that the Soloist and the Noise Harvester are both very different and work together. The Soloist, he suggested, would be the better choice between the two, but a five-pack of Harvesters might be more useful.
The Power Plant Premier, unfortunately, will not fit in your stocking. I would be remiss if I didnít comment on the aesthetics of the Soloist. Sheís no diva. With a 3/8-inch thick milled faceplate decorated with the blue PS Audio logo and the word SOLOIST CI printed across the bottom, it is a very industrial looking design. The small green LED with the word "Protected" next to it tells you if the MOV is operative. This is useful and unobtrusive, but does it need to be labeled? Likewise with "1800W Max" in the lower right corner. It is kind of like having "5 quarts 10W-30, with filter" painted on the fender of your car. Surprisingly, "PS Audio" appears only on the Power Port receptacles where it will be concealed by the power cord. I expect the metal faceplate provides some shielding, and it is certainly in keeping with the high-end audio roots of the manufacturer, but I wonder if a plastic faceplate would be more cost effective and conduct less heat out of the room in the cool Northern winters. Perhaps it is necessary for the ETL certification and for use in hospitals and laboratories, which may present a far larger market for this product. In any case, all these audiophile trappings matter little. Your interior decorator will have no trouble whatsoever painting over the frosted metal finish to make it nearly disappear on the wall. Trust me, if it brings harmony to the home, itís worth it, and you will never hear the difference.
Those seeking more technical information on the Soloist can check out the PS Audio website. Although this URL deals with the original Ultimate Outlet, the graphs and text are relevant to the Soloist. You might also want to subscribe to their excellent newsletter for articles on a wide variety of audio-related topics.
No doubt some readers will be irked that I canít tell you for certain that the Soloist is a piece of cake to install. It probably is, but Iím not sure just where I want to install it at this point. So, ironically, it remains an external box in my Reviewerís Tool Kit, ready to serve as needed. But it will not always be so, I can assure you. This thing works, and it works very well, whether the rig is modest or grand. It is a terrific way for skeptics to test the merits of power line conditioning, and it will probably not become obsolete if you upgrade to a more exotic conditioner or AC power line regenerator. All that, and it protects your equipment when lightning dances. It may not be everything I wanted it to be, but the price is right and I give it my highest recommendation.
The Soloist gave me an opportunity to re-examine the merits of the high quality JPS Labs In-Wall Power cable I reviewed years ago. The JPS dedicated line held its value, complementing the improvements brought by the Soloist, and remained audibly superior to the standard Romex-type dedicated line when both were compared with the Soloist in use. My original recommendation remains intact, providing the distance from the breaker box is not far, or alternatively, you have deep pockets.
In the past few years two of my favorite writers expressed their amazement at the improvement brought by the installation of dedicated lines. These are guys who have reviewed millions of dollars worth of equipment. I considered ridiculing them for not getting on board earlier, until I discovered what everybody else has probably already known ó power line conditioning can really work. It would be like the left speaker calling the right speaker piano gloss black. In the real world, even right in my own neighborhood with buried cables and the power substation not far away, you probably need both.
PS Power Soloist $199
JPS Power Cable $24 per foot