Last month, in “The Best of CES 2016,” I promised that, during my short break from reporting on audio shows (next up: High End 2016, in May), I’d introduce you to some audio accessories that can heighten your music-listening pleasure. This month, some products from Shunyata Research and AudioQuest have lowered my system’s level of inherent noise and thus increased its resolution, allowing me to hear further into my music.
Shunyata Research’s Venom PS8, Venom HC, and Venom Defender
In January and February, I wrote blog posts for SoundStage! Global that described the audible results of installing in my system some power-related devices from Shunyata Research: two Venom PS8 power bars ($695 USD each), each with a Venom Defender noise and surge suppressor ($195 each) plugged into a socket, plus a bundle of Venom HC power cords (starting at $295/6’). I used one Venom HC to plug each PS8 into one of my dedicated wall sockets, and the other Venom HCs for the source electronics: Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 740P preamplifier with optional 820S outboard power supply, and Hegel Music Systems’ HD30 digital-to-analog converter. The Venom HCs replaced those components’ stock power cords, while the PS8s replaced the power distributors I’d bought from the hardware store -- all nonaudiophile stuff.
What didn’t have Shunyata cords directly plugged into them were the power amps I was using: Blue Circle Audio’s BC204 and Audio Research’s GS150. That’s because the Shunyata cords supplied all have standard 15A IEC connectors, while the BC204 requires a Neutrik PowerCon connector and the GS150 a cord with a 20A connector. Not a big problem -- I used the amps’ stock cords to plug them into a PS8, which was plugged into the wall with a Venom HC.
Right off the bat, I could tell that the Shunyata products were doing something good -- with no music playing, my speakers produced much less hiss than they had with the cords and distributors I’d been using. Not that there was much hiss to begin with -- before the Shunyatas were installed, I’d had to get within a foot of a speaker’s tweeter to hear it. With the Shunyatas, I had to get even closer, and then concentrate on listening. The reduction was significant. Plus, a subtle buzz, probably a ground hum, was now almost inaudible. One last thing affected only the ARC GS150: With the Shunyatas in, the needle on the front-panel power meter went smack into the middle of the “normal” range, exactly where it should be; before, it had been about 1/8” low, which I thought was interesting.
When I began playing music, regardless of which amp I was using, the first thing I noticed was an improvement in soundstage spaciousness: a touch more width, but mostly more depth. This was consistent from recording to recording, but revealed itself most with the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (RCA) and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack score for the film The Mission (Virgin), two 16-bit/44.1kHz recordings that I’ve used to assess soundstaging for decades now. The next thing was that aural images on the stage were projected more solidly in space -- with The Trinity Session, for example, Margo Timmins’s voice hung at center stage with slightly more focus than before. I attribute these improvements to a lower noise floor and a concomitant increase in resolution; in short, I could hear more. A tiny improvement in the clarity of the high frequencies might also have contributed to the greater sense of space, but it also made the sound more relaxed and “analog-like” -- smoother. What didn’t change were the system’s reproduction of tonality or its apparent frequency response: that is, it didn’t go higher in the highs or lower in the lows.
This combination of Venom PS8, Venom Defender, and Venom HC represented my entry into the world of Shunyata Research, in order to establish a baseline of performance. So far, I’m impressed with what I hear. It’s not a night-and-day difference, but it’s enough of a difference that I’m in no rush to remove the Shunyatas. My next step is to replace the Venom HC power cords with Shunyata’s ΞTRON Alpha HC power cords, which they sent along with the rest. The Alpha HC is considerably more expensive than the Venom HC: $1250/6’. Not cheap! After I try the Alpha HC cords with my source components (again, they came terminated only with 15A connectors), I plan to write a full review of them for this site.
I probably never would have tried AudioQuest’s JitterBug USB noise filter ($49) had Pete Roth not reviewed it for us last December -- AQ sent me one to photograph for that review, and I ended up with the sample. I had Hegel’s HD30 DAC connected to my Samsung laptop via USB, and thought it would be worth a try.
Installing a JitterBug couldn’t be easier -- plug it into a computer’s USB port, then plug the USB cable from the DAC into the JitterBug. No drivers need be installed, and no fiddling with settings is required.
I didn’t think the JitterBug would do a thing -- I’ve always been suspicious of USB doohickeys that promise to improve the sound. But, like Pete, I heard some small improvements. The soundstage depth and definition improved, but just a tiny bit. The highs were ever-so-slightly cleaner, which seemed to relax the sound. There were no changes in tonal balance. That was it.
In other words, the improvements with the AudioQuest JitterBug were similar to what I’d heard with the Shunyata Research products, on a much smaller scale -- barely perceptible with the AQ vs. very noticeable with the Shunyatas. The big difference was that the Shunyata array described above will set you back about $3000, give or take a few hundred dollars depending on the lengths of power cord required; the JitterBug costs just $49. I agree with the final line of Pete’s review of the JitterBug: “C’mon -- what have you got to lose?”
Next . . .
Shunyata Research’s and AudioQuest’s products decreased the noise and improved the resolution of my system. Still, accessory products such as these are just the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. But you can’t do without speakers, which almost always make the biggest difference in the sound of any system. As I write this, I have two pairs of speakers here for review that are among the best you can buy right now: Vivid Audio’s Oval B1 Decade (the review appears this month) and KEF’s Blade Two (to be reviewed in April). Next month, I’ll tell you why I believe both are on the cutting edge of current speaker design, why you need to hear them if you haven’t already, and why each is likely to influence speaker designers at other companies for years to come.
. . . Doug Schneider