Review By Bob Neill
I have heard a significant number of differences among various wires - again over time, which is generally the only way for me - to know that these controversial items are key to a truly accurate and exciting high end system. They are the pieces, when they are right, that rather than wow us - usually a sign of some artful departure down a primrose path - can move us incrementally closer to the illusive Y-axis of the absolute sound. (Progress toward audio perfection is not a parabola; it is a hyperbola.) And once I have 'found' the characteristic - a lack of firmness in the upper bass, a release from intensity in the upper mids, a lovely euphonic trace of gold on the leading edges of attacks - it becomes impossible to miss. But until I hear it - even if it's nothing, which it sometimes is - it is a very nerve-racking and confidence debilitating business. Back and forth, from wire to wire, what is that? Do I hear that? Yes, but I can't be sure.
I mean, yes, I hear something but what is it? Switch again. Damn aural memory. And sometimes 'the purloined letter' is sitting right there on the desk, in plain sight, and I can't see it. Eventually I do - as in the case before us today. And when it takes that long - four days of intermittent listening, an hour here, twenty minutes there, with a six-year old running through the living room, the Cartoon Channel on in the next room (What? You thought we amateur reviewers had dedicated listening rooms?) - when it takes that long, it is generally not a characteristic - it's the whole thing. When everything improves 5-7 percent, you can sure as hell hear it. You're outside on a cloudy day and while you're not paying attention it suddenly becomes 5-7 percent brighter. You notice the change - everything suddenly feels wonderfully different - but you're not sure exactly what happened for a moment. Emily Dickinson wrote about the opposite case, where 'a certain slant of light' suddenly changes everything terribly for the worse, and was quite right to say, "We can find no scar, But internal difference, Where the Meanings are."
In the audio version of the situation, nothing sticks out at you, because the change is both (relatively) modest and comprehensive. At first, you can't put a name on what's changed, which is the only way, as a reviewer, you can come to know and believe in it. I eventually heard it and then eventually found the words - if I couldn't, I'd quit this gig. But if you really want to get it right, and I do, it can be a bitch - especially if you were not born for this business.
1. I know Gilbert Yeung, designer/CEO of Blue Circle Audio, very well. I didn't know him from the Wizard of Oz until I heard his BC 3 tube preamp several years ago and then I made a point of tracking him down. And so now I do. I have sat across the dining table from him in Innerkip, Ontario (Yes, Dorothy, there is an Innerkip.) and told him a component he'd made didn't do it for me. It helps that everything he's made that I've heard sounds 'musical' - even the stuff that's merely competitive. Gilbert's best gear, as I reported a few months ago, is the best I've heard. Because of that, I will listen to anything he makes if I can get my hands on it. But I've told him I would not write about anything I didn't out and out love because his single-ended gear and the AG's have spoiled me so thoroughly I'd end up killing it undeservedly with faint praise on the one hand while losing all credibility on the other. That said, I believe in hagiography where it's called for and am happy to contribute one more piece of praise to this Willie Wonka of audio. You never know what either Gilbert or Willie Wonka is cooking up next, but they are always out there in the factory, tinkering, creating, crowing. And, what I like about both of them best is that they have little time for fools, double-dealers, and even sometimes the innocent dull. They are both very funny, very smart, and arch - as in mischievous and roguish.
2. I have very little experience with power conditioners and the like. I don't truly understand what the PS Audio, Shunyata Hydra, and the like do, let alone the various approaches to doing it that these and the other leading brands represent. I know only that when power enters our homes, it comes bearing lots of 'noise' in the form of interference and/or bearing inconsistencies in voltage - all of which ultimately affect what we hear from our systems that depend on it. And I know that power line conditioners and after-market power cords are attempts to - invoking the most useful if crude metaphor - do what the filter on your water spigot does: to purify what goes through it. Never too late for that, though not a few audio agnostics have trouble with the concept. Some filters do it by reconstituting the flawed power, others by filtering 'noise' out. My entire first-hand experience with this genre is a Chang Lightspeed 9600 ISO, which I sold when I left the city, finding it was a moderate solution to a problem I no longer had.
So what follows is more of a news report than the informed, comparative study that will have to be undertaken one of these days. I do know that the inspirations for the Music Rings were devices from BPT, Furman, and Equiptech, which, according to Gilbert, take a similar approach. The approach, as I understand Gilbert, is to focus on getting rid of "ground noise." Gilbert: "The Music Ring is a balanced power line conditioner and distribution center. It addresses the primary problem of noise in your AC by taking the unbalanced power available at the wall receptacle and on converting it to balanced power. In the Music Rings, the 120V to ground is converted to two 60V to ground. These 60V signals are 180 degrees out of phase with one another. You still have the 120V, 60hz available at the outlet receptacles, but the noise has been cancelled out by common mode rejection."
Apparently, most filters and conditioners use ground level noise as the lowest level they can reach to filter out noise. By lowering the ground level noise with a balanced transformer, the common mode rejection of the Music Rings takes the ground level noise lower. Therefore, the line and neutral level noise is lower. And Gilbert reminds me that the Music Rings also have his Power Line Pillow built in at the outputs, so that line and neutral noise are also filtered. Gilbert sees reducing ground level noise as critical to significantly improving audio performance.
I know that Gilbert's design goal was to get as close to the performance of the best of the competition as he could at a significantly lower cost - Furman's and EquipTech's filters run from 30 percent to 200 percent higher, though Gilbert cautions that "we don't have anything that matches exactly with their products," so the comparison is not an exact one. Apparently, BPT filters run 10-15 percent less than the Blue Circle products.
What follows is a pure listening report on the effect that a pair of Music Ring 1200's and a single Music Ring 800 had on my reference system. I subbed in the Reynaud Grand Operas (big brother to the Offrandes reviewed last month) at one point just for fun and found that the Music Rings enhanced these speakers already superb spatiality even more dramatically than they did my Harbeth Monitor 40's. So it would appear that, especially in spatiality, you can not get too much of a good thing.
Music Rings in Action
I could not 'hear' the MR's for four days. "Gilbert, what are these things supposed to do?" Silence. "Gilbert, help me here." "Don't worry about it, Bob. Maybe they won't do anything. If you don't hear anything, send them back." Willie Wonka indeed.
On Day 4, my day off from work with no six-year old around and just the Goldfinches and Phoebees in the backyard to distract me, it struck me that not only did the bass viol notes on Rubbra's 3rd Symphony [Chandos 9944] have more distinct pitches, which heretofore they had essentially lacked, but that everything seemed a bit more spacious, smoother, clearer, and simultaneously more energetic and more relaxed. Had the light changed? I switched back and forth a few times -MR's in/MR's out - to confirm what I was hearing, and yes 'it' was there. It is very hard to itemize overall musical enhancement. This was with one MR 1200 each on my two monoblock Blue Circle AG 8000's. I lived with the awakened Rubbra for a while, then switched the MR's in and out to confirm what I thought I was hearing. Next, I plugged my AG3000 preamplifier into an MR 800, now that I was sort of 'on it.' I could hear a further improvement, which either means the improvement is cumulative, that I was focusing better, or the placebo effect was cutting in. Then I plugged my Naim CDSII CD player into the 800 - and heard not much difference. Couldn't be sure.
Time to try a Roy Goodman's Haydn symphony, always a good test for me when things go subtle. Symphony No. 23 [Hyperion 66536]. Great Haydn series, by the way, now being reissued at mid-price. First with no MR's in the system: fine, the usual Goodman Haydn. Clean, lithe, crisp, airy. In went the MR's. A little more space and air, reducing but not closing the 'space effect gap' between Harbeths and Reynauds. Accompanying harpsichord friskier and more separate from the orchestra, which also seemed to have more spatial existence. A little more color to the oboes and a little more life and sprightliness to everything. At about this point, lifting my pen, I heard myself say "Hey" and realized that these "little" improvements added up to the best this recording had ever sounded. It was more alive and interesting to listen to. Switch back: everything lost a little something, a considerable loss in air and spaciousness; but the main overall difference was that it now sounded less interesting, emotionally a little dimmer. Back to the MR's: everything woke up. It was as if everything got a small dose of adrenaline.
Sibelius, Symphony No. 3, Vanska, Lahti Orchestra [BIS 1286]... (Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 are now apparently only available in the complete set) Now I'm really on it. The liveliness and ebullience is even more evident. And the difference in spatiality reminds me that a lot of the sense of liveliness we identify with 'live' music is the sense that the instruments are in space, singing to each other across space. Without the Music Rings, there is a relative spatial flatness that, as with the Haydn, diminishes the excitement of listening to it. The MR's are clearly getting a lot of the dimensionality that the Reynauds pride themselves in, but there is no loss of instrumental clarity and directness. Line noise reduces dimensionality? (A quick email exchange with Barry in Ontario assures me that this is exactly what line conditioners are famous for. Maybe Barry should be writing this review.) With the Sibelius, both cellos and violins are noticeably smoother. Am I imagining this? Switch back. No, it's real as the sound is.smoother still and very clear. I have been told by far more experienced audiophools than I that getting the power right is Step 1. Even before the legendary advice to 'get the midrange right.' The longer I listen to the Sibelius the more magic it gets. It's all those little things that we sometimes think don't really matter: pure oboes in dead silence, except for plucked cellos and basses - and part of the magic is that that their pitch and timbre are clear, clear, clear.
Bud Powell The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 3 [Blue Note 7243-35585-25] is a monaural recording originally taped in 1957 and has been remastered recently as part of the Rudy Van Gelder Series. The acoustic bass is stronger, cleaner, and more present than without the Music Rings and again, we hear distinct notes, pitches. The piano has more "lift" and is more open. Especially when Powell plays solo ("Bud on Bach"), it sounds more satisfying with the Music Rings in the system. The Rings tell us how good a musician Powell really is. The whole performance feels less boxed in with the Rings, less monaural. It is a tribute to my whole reference system and Van Gelder that the recording's age is not what you notice first. A good system will make recordings of compromised quality sound good if they were good to begin with. 5-7 percent more light is a lot, folks.
Edward Elgar Symphony #2 as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis, LSO Live [LSO 0018]. Tony Faulkner's engineering make this 'live' recording in the new LSO Live series fairly spacious even without the Music Rings, but with them in the system, the performance not only becomes more spacious and full of venue, more 'live' but also more live-ly. There is a more three-dimensional sense of the orchestra. Also, the MR's seem to help the system pick up the attacks a little more deftly. This is the quality that I've called elsewhere ebullience and energy. With the Rings in the system, everything seems to have a little extra lift and quickness. Tony would like the Music Rings.
Okay, this is surely long enough for a review of a power-line conditioner. What's the bottom line here? Are they worth it? Is an overall 5-7 percent improvement that costs $700 worth it in a system based on a low to moderate powered integrated amp with a digital front end? Is $800 worth it if your amp is more powerful? Is $2,300 worth it if you have relatively high powered monoblocks and a good CD player and pre-amplifier and so need an 800 and a pair of 1200's? To my ears, 5-7% - this particular 5-7 percent is clearly worth it. For a smidgen more ambience here or inner detail there, perhaps not. You can drive yourself nuts with expensive little additives going after smidgens. But something that brings a little more space and a more than a little more life to the whole show? Absolutely. Valhalla affected my whole system more dramatically than the Music Rings and at a far, far greater expense. I used the word "revelation" to describe its effect. If the Valhalla effect was Emersonian (at least what Emersonian meant to Emerson, as in transcendental), the Music Rings are Dickinsonian - a subtler change, closer to home. You could say that what I'm hearing now with the Music Rings includes Valhalla. True. But I could also say that the system is now 5-7 percent better than it was with 'just' the Valhalla, which is also true.
I don't remember hazarding a percentage improvement with the Valhalla, though foolishly I did try to suggest the kind and degree of improvement it provided by boosting the Monitor 40 numbers in the appropriate areas but without really thinking through what my math was implying. I regret that effort. So now I'm stuck. So forget the Valhalla numbers. Cables and line conditioners have no absolute quantifiable character - they improve other components, whole systems. And if you need a number for Valhalla to get a sense of its impact relative to the Music Rings, I will give you one. If the Music Rings improved things 5-7 percent in my house, Valhalla improved them 15-20 percent. (Though do remember that Valhalla is highly system-dependent: in a just so-so system, it could actually downgrade it by being too revealing. The MR's are likely not system-dependent.) Fifteen to twenty percent equals revelation? In audio, if you're already getting pretty close to the Y-axis, yes. Absolutely yes. How close are we these days? Nowhere near as close as Enjoy the Music.com™'s grade inflated numbers suggest - all of the grades should be in the 80's in my opinion, but obviously it's too late to fix that.
Again, I do not know how well the competition achieves what the Music Rings do, so take this simply as a recommendation to find out. Power line conditioners, if they do what the Music Rings do - and at their price - may be a better investment than that new preamp upgrade or sexy interconnect you're looking at.
Footnote: Gilbert can also provide an MR 1800 and MR 2400 for those with need of even more power. I've included his technical notes on those in the spec section below. For details, call Blue Circle.
Footnote: I have heard that some line conditioners hum. The Music Rings hum for a second or so when they're turned on - I left them on - and then become dead silent.
I am going to forgo the traditional presentation of the numbers this time, not as a protest, Steve, but simply because I can see no way to do this in the usual way. As I say, power line conditioners have no absolute quantifiable character. They will raise incrementally raise 'the numbers' of your other gear. Perhaps we should introduce a new numbering system for cables and line conditioners, a 'value added' percentage. Actually, I think I'll try one! If your Reynaud Grand Operas are a 95 in soundstage extension, depth, and width, with the Music Rings, they would move up close to 100, based on my 5-7% estimate. (How's that for grade inflation!) My Harbeth Monitor 40's with the Music Rings in the system, move, by my estimate, from an 85 to an 89. I predict that the Monitor 30's would go from a 90 to a 94. So the number is "Add 5-7 percent" to all those categories having to do with space and overall clarity; and then add a new category called "Life" - I called it "Incarnation" in the Valhalla review - and add at least 5-7 percent there too.
Okay here goes, hold your breath:
Multi-phase technology for extremely quiet output
Optional voltage available for international applications
Blue Circle Audio, Inc.