Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Little Jewel

Some things should no longer amaze me the way they do.

Paul McGowan of PS Audio recently posted on his blog the story of his new "Portable" music server, based on a Mac Mini, and running BitPerfect.  He mentioned that he replaced the stock Mac power cord with one of his own PS Audio Jewel power cords.  He said the difference was well worth the effort.

Now I have always been intrigued by the way power cords affect the sound of audio equipment.  We even make our own power cords here at BitPerfect, but they are seriously unwieldy affairs, and not well suited to consumer use.  Power cords typically make their presence felt in areas of detail, and the subtleties in sonic textures.  I would typically see them as "finishing touches", to be applied after all the other choices in cables and interconnects have been made.  I would not normally choose my power cords first.  Loudspeaker cables, and particularly interconnects, are the "foundational" cables and usually can be relied upon to make the most substantive areas of contribution to the sound of a system.  They can change the whole character of the system, whereas power cords tend to tidy up the loose ends.

None of this is definitive.  Rather it reflects in very broad-brush terms my expectations - my prejudices if you prefer - regarding the role of cables in high-end audio.  So when Paul McGowan made his comment about using a specialist power cord for his Mac Mini, my ears pricked up.  I had never paused to consider using an up-market power cord for my Mac Mini.  What audible difference - if any - did I imagine it might make?  Normally, I would immediately swap in any one of a number of power cords I have at hand, and find out for myself.  But all of those come with a standard IEC equipment connector and the Mac uses what is termed a C7 connector.

Cutting a long story short I decided to get a PS Audio C7 Jewel power cord, the same one Paul used, to see what - if anything - I might hear.  It arrived today, and I immediately plugged it in, the idea being to let it run for a few days to break in before making any meaningful comparisons.

The Jewel is a very nicely built power cord, with very professional-looking custom-molded connectors at each end.  Quite unusual in its price bracket.  Our BitPerfect Digital Precision power cords are so stiff that they would very happily suspend the Mac Mini in mid-air if I outfitted one with a C7 connector.  In fact, you could probably plug both Mac and Cable into the wall socket and have it stick straight out into the room if you wanted.  A cool (if warped) party trick, but not so convenient.  The Jewel, thankfully does not, and coils up quite happily among the spaghetti behind my equipment rack.

So why am I bothering to write this?  The answer is that, straight out of the box, this Jewel power cord has made a stand-out difference to my reference system.  Within a few seconds of starting playback, it became immediately obvious that my system's soundstage has cleaned up very considerably.  There was also a lot more air to the tonal presence - a hell of a lot, actually.  Maybe even too much.  But after as little as an hour's listening it has smoothed out quite a bit.  I cannot remember a single cable making as much difference straight out of the box.  The Jewel has opened out the soundstage - particularly in terms of soundstage depth.  And the ability to locate individual instruments within the soundstage has improved dramatically.  Their positioning is much more stable. The texture of those individual instruments also seems that much cleaner.

It is almost all upside.  To be fair, while the soundstage has got bigger, the sense of power has somehow subjectively diminished.  It is as though I want to keep winding up the volume.  Maybe that will ameliorate with break-in.  But right now I am listening to Cookie Marenco's DSD recording of Mahler's 5th (Tilson Thomas), which I  downloaded from Blue Coast Records, and the volume is at -17.5dB.  Normally I would have it at -24dB.  It doesn't subjectively sound any louder.  I'm really not sure what to make of that.  But H@ly Cr@p!  It sounds good!

Previously, no single cable had ever made such a profound immediate impact.  Perhaps the Transparent Audio Premium USB cable has been my reigning champion in that regard.  But not any more.  Now that honour goes to the little Jewel.  I look forward to giving it a thorough work out once it has fully broken in.

So now I have to think a bit more about what all this means.  Inevitably, this is going to lead me down the path towards custom power supplies, which I have seen can cost as much as the Mac itself.  Hmmm...  In the meantime, the PS Audio C7 Jewel is a fine and keenly-priced upgrade.  Actually, a serious bargain, to be quite honest with you.