My upcoming world-premiere scoop on the Jena Labs Power Wing power line conditioner called for preceding the review with a background article and introduction of Jennifer
WhiteWolf-Crock, president and designer of
Shortly into our three-hour recorded telephone interview, it dawned on me that Jennifer
WhiteWolf-Crock was chock- full of it -
not the crock of proverbial you-know-what but 40 years of hardcore experience. This included friendships and notes-sharing with the likes of John Curl, George Cardas, Ralph Karstens
(Atmasphere), Stan Warren (PS Audio, Superphon), Dan Wright (ModWright), Ben Piazza
(Shakti Innovations), Tim de Paravicini (E.A.R), Stan Ricker (the half-speed master) and many other notables. There even was a stint as contributing writer for
Positive Feedback that's still ongoing.
Jennifer's audio experience is solidly grounded in high-level design and engineering. She's had many years of extensive application exposure to Physics, Metallurgy, Materials Science and Mechanical Engineering and worked as VP of Engineering for an advanced weapons platform development corporation. This position included numerous dark projects - highly classified military contracts where super-advanced design work takes place. I knew better than to fish for details. Somewhat vicariously then, and to point me in the right direction, Jennifer
did mention that her husband, Michael WhiteWolf-Crock, was associated with a company that built RF communications equipment for the military. He
personally hand-fabricated all the antennas for the Space Shuttles, the communication antennas for the first two Viking Mars probes, Voyager deep space probes and Solar Max, and antennas for numerous other satellites that have long since boldly disappeared where no one has gone before.
Jennifer received her initial electronics spurs when the family, dad being an engineer, relocated from Minnesota to Beaverton/Oregon. This landed them smack in the midst of a neighborhood that sported 40% population saturation with employees from the Tektronix Corporation. At the time, Tektronix was the world's preeminent manufacturer of electronic test equipment. Once or twice a week, interested neighborhood kids would congregate in one of the home labs of one of the dads or the actual Tek R&D facility. While taking occasional breaks from working on their hi-tech assignments, highly trained engineers (continuously revolving from session to session) would assign to the kids specific tasks and monitor their progress during these impromptu science projects.
In the 70's and now in the saddle, Jennifer spent three years working with the
Vacuum State Research Company of Eugene/Oregon. VSR produced what she called the most advanced audio equipment of its day: fully balanced, direct-coupled differential vacuum tube circuits and power amps with conduction-cooled radio transmitter power
tetrodes. VSR gear was far ahead of its time and consequently about 20 times as expensive as the best audio equipment then commercially available - Audio Research SP-3s or D-76s, or the first-generation of Conrad-Johnson designs. VSR soon faltered due to lack of commercial viability for its kind of Xtreme audio. While the head designer, an RF instrumentation engineer, moved on to Motorola to design RF test kit, Jennifer pursued various engineering jobs. These included non-audio assignments as well as a stint at TC Audio/Eugene where she re-designed a regional line of loudspeakers. After Paul McGowan had bought him out of the original PS Audio partnership, Jennifer contracted with Stan Warren and his revived Superphon venture to help bring a 60-watt and 100-watt amp and a zero-gain buffered line stage to market.
All along, Jennifer supported other audio manufacturers in an advisory and mostly non-credited capacity and built her own and very eclectic audio equipment. This occasionally spawned expensive one-up custom projects for wealthy audiophiles who found her through the grape vine. Some of her private and non-commercial products included cables that employed ultra-high purity copper specially sourced from one of only two foundries in the world capable of drawing it to her specifications. As a gift through a mutual friend, one of her entry-level cable designs ended up in the hands of one Frank Dennison. Dennison, during the 50s and 60s, had been the controller at
H.H. Scott before he partnered with Arthur Janzen to produce the famed Janzen
Electrostats. Dennison was enthusiastic about her cables and persuaded Jennifer to attend the 1992 CES. As a result of demand generated at that show, Jennifer now began fabricating these cables on a commercial basis.
Seeing that this interview is a prelude for the forthcoming review, I concentrated my next questions on technical subjects my ears would revisit again in the Power Wing conditioner - cryogenics, advanced solders, sources of broadband power line noise and how to address this noise without restricting current.
Cryo is currently making the rounds as one of the newest audiophile catch phrases. I was still relatively ignorant on the subject save to know that it existed. Jena Labs performs and offers its own full-immersion liquid nitrogen cryogenic treatments. Besides being available to a select few other manufacturers and end-users on a job-shop basis, Cryo is an intrinsic part during the manufacture of Jena Labs products. This was the perfect opportunity to ask an expert to provide some hard facts. I'd learn something, and so, hopefully, would you.
To understand the basic principle of Cryo, consider the two cosmic forces of attraction and repulsion. The attractive force prevents atoms, with their constituent elements orbiting like mad around their nuclei, from disintegrating and literally flying apart. Attraction binds atomic elements together into organized clumps, making possible solids and fluids. Simultaneously, the force of repulsion
balances the attractive force. Atomic and 'organized atomic' molecular matter remains in perpetual motion at all temperatures above absolute zero.
Thermal energy repulsion prevents the atomic clumps and molecules from becoming too organized and "stuck-up". (Increased heat equals more repulsion, more chaos and less organization.)
Cryogenics is the controlled descent of substances into, and their subsequent removal from, extreme subzero temperatures. Below a certain threshold, this severe cold overpowers the repulsive force of the thermal energy. The attractive force becomes predominant. Crystalline grain structures of metal, for example, become more aligned as they literally "suck" themselves together. The atoms or molecules are functionally "welded" together into a highly organized bond that reduces the molecular gaps Quantum Mechanics calls
Josephsen's Junctions. When an electromagnetic wave travels down a conductor and encounters one of these J junctions, a conversion of energy occurs across the gap. This produces a transverse wave called a phononic wave that operates at a lower propagation speed than the electrons.
Imagine yourself zipping down the middle of a long tube on a cushion of air. Now compare that smooth and uneventful ride to being jostled and knocked against the walls of the tube while you're racing down it. Each bump into the wall causes a noise, then friction and thermal energy and a loss of primary energy. The addition of the converted energy to the original force creates a distortion. Electricity, Jennifer explained, has the same problem with Josephsen's Junctions. By squeezing out most of the voids, a cryoed conductor passes the electric field with fewer disturbances of noise and distortion, has audibly better conductivity and benefits from higher structural integrity. These qualities of the molecular re-alignment (produced by the cryogenic treatment) remain stable unless very significant heat exposure re-injects enough thermal energy to rebalance the dominance of the attractive force.
Once you've digested this explanation, don't conclude that you should hustle down to your closest local Cryo shop, complete stereo kit in the trunk ready for the deep freeze. First off, not all Cryo treatments are created equal. Commercial Cryo -- for example as used for engine blocks -- employs a 2-to-3-day vapor process inside a chilled-wall cold furnace. In vapor/steam form, liquid nitrogen achieves temperatures of approximately minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. This equates to maximally 300 degrees in commercial environments. Jena Labs' own facility uses
liquid nitrogen sourced from a gas plant that employs liquid argon -- which gets even colder than liquid nitrogen -- to chill the nitrogen. (In the near future, Jena Labs might even convert their current nitrogen apparatus to offer liquid argon immersion treatments for even more radical results.)
Deep immersion into liquid nitrogen can generate temperatures
up to 100 degrees colder than possible via the vapor or cold furnace process. The change from the high thermal impedance of the vapor/gas versus the low thermal impedance of the liquid makes deep immersion potentially hazardous to the materials exposed. A full immersion treatment requires five full days as the temperature, going first down and then up again, is very slowly and gradually adjusted. The effects of the last 50 to 70 degrees are said to be substantial and easily audible, but require great sensitivity and lengthy experience to be properly administered. (Michael
WhiteWolf-Crock's long background and hands-on skills in the aerospace industry proved highly advantageous when Jena Labs decided to implement their own on-site Cryo facility.)
Unlike the vapor process, the liquid immersion process is hugely inefficient and inherently far more costly. While 50 cubic feet of cold furnace could be refrigerated with a few liters of liquid nitrogen, immersion requires 50 liters for one cubic foot of material to be
Deep immersion of completed products - rather than individual parts such as RCA jacks, wires, transformers, AC sockets or resistors - can be a dangerous proposition since different parts undergo dissimilar contraction and expansion cycles. What's more, certain parts (like metal oxide
varistors, the whole family of transient surge absorbers and high temperature coefficient resistors) will implode because they're intrinsically designed to change their physical composition with small thermal changes. Tubes
can be cryoed but are tricky to handle - the shrinkage and expansion of the glass envelope differs from that of the metal pins. This can cause potential vacuum leaks or shattering of the glass. (Incidentally, Jennifer refers all tube Cryo requests to Bill Perkins of PEARL -- Precision Electro-Acoustic Research Laboratory/Canada -- who offers immersion Cryo for tubes on a regular and commercial basis and also performs full service gain/noise grading and proprietary polishing techniques for the tube pins.)
Tubes respond well also to subsequent annealing, a kind of reverse Cryo process in which the temperatures are being increased. In tubes, this moderately activates the getter and helps pull out excess molecular waste from the vacuum. Large-scale thermal cycling, from sub-zero Cryo to below-melting heat exposure, has been elemental NASA procedure since the 1960s. It routinely prepares deep space equipment that is expected to encounter and survive the most severe of temperature changes. Repeat cycles of extreme hot/cold exposure remove residual structural imperfections on a molecular level until all materials are maximally stabilized.
Solder Soldiers In The Joint
"Do you know why Wonder Solder is called what it's called? Because it makes you wonder how long it'll last." Jennifer's quip demanded an explanation, and of course one was forthcoming immediately.
According to her, common solders as well as "audiophile" silver mixes
all fail eventually because their molecular phase is unstable. Over time, their formations de-bond, turn into crystalline chunks, become diodes and fail to conduct electricity well. Inspection under high-power atomic microscopes shows that the molecules of a solder joint actually migrate over time. They recombine, physically separate out and peel off the alloy components of the material they're soldered to.
Two kinds of solder exist - eutectic and non-eutectic. Non-eutectic solders exhibit three states - solid, plastic and liquid. Eutectic solders omit the plastic state and change directly from solid to liquid and vice versa. In the early days of the Bell telephone system, the phone company had to redo every junction of every switcher and every soldered wire
every four years because of the use of non-eutectic solder. It was eventually learned that when the traditional lead/tin solder mixture of 60/40 was changed to 37% for tin, the plastic interstage of the solder was eliminated and it stayed stable over time. Despite this stability, there remained a gravelly type of interface between it and the base materials. Experiments began about what to add that would exhibit enhanced bonding to make the solder stick better to common surfaces like silver, gold, copper and nickel. Jennifer called George Cardas' quad-eutectic silver/copper/lead/tin mix the best commercially available audio-specific solder. She added that the exotic industry employs specialist solders that the audiophile community remains entirely ignorant about. For example, to make unconditionally stable solder joints with standard gold-plated contacts (such as RCA jack pins) requires
Indium to prevent the eventual migration and absorption of the gold molecules. In short, the composition of the materials one wishes to solder together determines what solder mixture to use. This includes glass, ceramics and other non-metallic substances for which specialist solders exist. Apparently there's more to a perfect solder joint than a steady hand and a quick dash to the local Shack.
Another termination technique for wires is cold welding or crimping. According to Jennifer, crimping lacks the molecular pressure to create a unified and solid crystalline structure without surface boundaries. Thermal expansions and contractions stress the molecular bonds while inclusions and voids create pathways for eventual oxidation. Her solution for a long-term joint where soldering isn't possible is a combination of pressure/compression coupled with a fluid di-methyl-siloxane oxygen barrier that also provides an electron tunneling function.
Heated AC Noise
I was surprised to learn that the largest contributor to broadband power line noise is not the radio-frequency "antenna function" of miles and miles of power distribution wiring picking up microchip radiations, TV and radio stations, cell phones, police radar and beeper signals. Exhaustive research by IBM, published in a series of white papers, proved that the main culprits are calrad heating units instead. Water heaters, electric stoves, electric base board or ceiling heaters employ
resistance heating that causes thermionic effects in the 1.5MHz to 3GHz range. Depending on the particular heating unit plugged into the power distribution grid, these effects are concentrated in specific frequency ranges but occur too high in the band to be filtered by most conventional power line conditioners. These contributory problems of ultra-high-frequency noise relate directly to the impetus behind the design of Jennifer's Power Wing.
Current Pulses, Power Cords
and Isolation Transformers
A common misconception has it that power cords and conditioners only have to transmit 60Hz sinusoidal voltage waveforms. Jennifer pointed out that micro-duration current pulses (too short to trip a circuit breaker) occur in the range from 120 Hz all the way up to the low MHz range and are clearly measurable with a Hall effect probe and spectrum analyzer. Rectified AC creates a halversine (lined-up bumps rather than a sinusoidal wave) that, when fed to filter capacitors, charges them up to smooth out these ripples. However, the load on the amplifier is depleting the caps simultaneously. Thus, every
120th of a second, the voltage waveform rises to meet with capacitors that aren't fully charged. The amount of current required to charge them now increases drastically. If limited by the wall or cord set, this capacitive demand restricts available power to the load. In Jennifer's words, the challenge then resides in how to design a power cord or power line conditioner that deliver high frequency current pulses on demand, while simultaneously removing voltage mode noise from the source - obviously more involved a subject than us would-be-experts concede.
Jennifer then explained why an isolation transformer in a power line conditioner tends to be a bad idea. As a rule of thumb, a transformer should be able to, with less than 3% THD, deliver at least twenty times the maximum amperage one expects to draw. This will operate the transformer in a range where it produces very low harmonic distortion and avoids core saturation. A 100-watt Class A/B amplifier that operates at 30% efficiency constitutes (inclusive of peak power draw) a 400 to 500 watts consumptive load. Using the times-twenty formula, this amp requires a 10,000-watt capacity isolation transformer to operate properly. Clearly, most commercially available power line conditioners with balanced-power isolation transformers don't even come close (though some do and work very well). Furthermore, if the isolation transformer had sufficiently poor frequency response, its high impedance at high frequencies would starve the downstream power amp transformer from delivering the high current pulses its power supply requires to charge. This failure to deliver the short duration current pulses that ride atop the slower 60Hz waveform causes current slewing. It becomes a clearly audible, accumulative limitation.
I then brought up PS Audio's popular AC regeneration devices that spawned a whole new class of audio/video devices and employs Class A/B amplification and a sine wave generator to reconstitute AC. Jennifer was familiar with that technique. She predicted that to transcend the inherent inefficiency of PS Audio's approach, latter-generation designs, in both current and voltage modes, would merely add stored energy to the sagging and distorted wall-supplied waveform. In ad hoc fashion, she dubbed this "add-as-needed" rather than "rebuild-from-scratch" technology. She speculated that someone somewhere was probably already working on it. (Unless I'm mistaken, the ExactPower voltage
regulation units do work along those lines.)
While my interview subject had barely warmed up at this point, I could hear my Editor protesting about undue column length. I also imagined reader attention going soft right about now. To save further revelations for another day, I detoured Jennifer with an impromptu offer for some concluding and shameless capitalist propaganda - talking specifically about forthcoming Jena Labs products.
In addition to her legendary "audiophile underground" cables, Jennifer will shortly introduce her own line of electronics, starting with a series of dual-mono single-ended and balanced tube preamps and a phono stage. The circuit architecture around the 5687 or 6H30 tube will be a single-stage SRPP compound parallel design, with sufficiently high current delivery to make a separate buffer/output stage redundant. Targeted pricing is $6,000 for the single-ended and $10,000 for the balanced-differential version. Also due shortly is the release of the Power Wing and Power Hawk.
The Power Wing AC conditioner and Power Hawk surge/spike protector are joint projects between Jennifer
WhiteWolf-Crock (design) and Alan M. Kafton of
audio excellence az (inspiration and funding). To be housed in a purpose-built Corian chassis with stainless steel top plate, the Power Wing will separate 6 duplexes in an axial configuration of two discrete "wings" that are fed from a central AC inlet. An ultra-high-speed magnetic circuit breaker will provide primary protection, followed by eight stages of value-staggered high quality varistors for secondary protection. Three successive levels of power purification will include common-mode low frequency filtering, extended broadband capacitive filtering and proprietary distributive filtering
on each individual outlet. This will provide true high frequency electrical isolation from one outlet to the next, down to separating even the sockets within a shared duplex. New Hubbell high-conductivity receptacles, internal wiring and certain custom parts will all be deep-immersion
cryo'ed. Estimated retail is under $3,000.
The Power Hawk is a single output high-level surge/spike protection device with over 60,000 peak amperes of over-voltage current absorption. It's intended to be used either in-line (with power line conditioners -- parallel or balanced designs -- that lack sufficient surge/spike protection) or on it's own, to improve spike protection for smaller systems. The Power Hawk will utilize a
cryo'ed high-conductivity Hubbell duplex. Similar but smaller scale distributed high frequency filtering system as used in the Power Wing will also be incorporated. The Power Hawk will essentially replace a standard wall socket with an ultra-high quality power port and dedicated high-quality power cable. Projected retail should remain below $1,000.
Once Again, No Single
To conclude this article and point to the upcoming review, Jennifer's potent statement about power line conditioners in general seemed fitting:
no single conditioner can claim to address all potential AC problems. The quality of AC power in your system is contingent on many different variables. These include your proximity to the generator; the type of materials the AC travels through before it gets to your house; the type of devices plugged into the whole grid of which your house is a part; the type of power supplies your equipment employs etc. While a shoot-out between conditioners
will establish a hierarchy of performance within a certain system context, this sequence will be overthrown and null and void in a different house and system. Once again, things in audio are more complex than they might seem at first glance.
Hanging up the phone with Jennifer slightly dazed, I realized that one should never cry (white) wolf if not intent on learning a bit more about some surprising and somewhat esoteric aspects about this crazy hobby of ours!
In December, look for an interview with inveterate tinkerer, tweak maestro and turntable maven par excellence, Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio.
Voice: (503) 639-7551