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Do Power Cords Make a Difference?

Brian Damkroger

Reprinted from: The Absolute Sound, Volume 21, Issue 111

In the case of Synergistic’s original A/C Master Coupler, the answer is yes — unequivocally, resoundingly, and oh my, yes. The original A/C Master Coupler was a breakthrough product, a true High End classic that defined what an AC cord could do for a system. Suffice it to say that when Ted Denney said that his Reference model was “as much better than the original couplers than they were compared to a stock power cord,” I was more than a bit intrigued. I’d heard rumor of cord that bettered the original Master Coupler — the insanely expensive NBS for example — but never actually encountered one. Cords that sounded different, yes — better, no.

The Reference Coupler is similar in design and construction to the original — two stranded conductors, one for each AC leg, with the shields combined and used as the ground. Unllike the original, the Reference coupler uses a double shield of gold and silver instead of a single copper layer, silver- matrix conductors instead of copper, standard rather than foamed polyethylene as a dielectric. Cosmetically, the Reference is distinguished by its use of a silver, rather than black, mesh sleeve. The IEC and AC plug are the same as those used in the original.

Though my experience with the Reference Coupler has been for the most part positive, I found it to be the least satisfying of the Synergistic products I’ve tried. Partly, I think, this is because it has a tough act to follow. In most ways, and in most of the systems I’ve used it in, it did improve on the original’s performance. When I replaced the original Master Coupler feeding the VAC CPAI Mk II preamp with a Reference, I actually wondered if the original had lost some of its magic over time. A comparison with the stock cord confirmed that no, the original Master Coupler was working just fine. It was just that the things that it did so well — removal of inter-image grunge, sharpening the leading edge of transients, tightening the bass and cleaning the highs, better elucidation of image edges — the Reference did even better. So what’s the problem? One is that the original A/C Master Coupler was truly revolutionary, capable of changing a system in a very fundamental way. Starting from the originals, the Reference Coupler is just somewhat better. Like I said, a tough act to follow. For $250, you absolutely cannot do any better than adding one of the original A/C Master Couplers to your system. For an additional $350, I’m not certain that upgrading to the Reference Coupler is as good an investment.

A second niggling difficulty I have with the Reference Couplers is that they aren’t as universally applicable as the originals. I have yet to find a piece of equipment that didn’t benefit greatly from the use of a Master Coupler. I even joke about taking one to work and using it on my girlfriend’s scanning electron microscope to see if the resolution can be improved. If you think High End audio gear is overpriced, imagine what a two-times improvement in the resolution of such a device might be worth. The Reference Coupler seems to be more narrowly applicable. I’ve found that it has a tendency to make inexpensive solid state and digital gear sound worse, accentuation any upper midrange edginess and drying out any semblance of warmth in the upper bass and lower midrange. It has worked beautifully with a wide range of tube gear and with Audire’s Class A solid state gear, and the Accuphase DP55 CD player was a good match as well. On the other hand, I’m concerned that the Reference Coupler proved to be a bad match for the Spectron Model 10 preamp, which is a super-fast, super-detailed, ultra-wide bandwidth design. I’d suggest particular caution with equipment which tends toward the yang side of neutral. With a Reference Coupler, everything is cleaner, faster and sharper, but the tonal balance often seems to be shifted too, tipped slightly upward with a bit of lightness and whiteness in the lower midrange. With the bulk of the gear I’ve had, it hasn’t often been a problem, but try before you buy. In summary, the Reference Master Coupler is a mostly successful attempt to improve on a High End classic. Like many sequels, however, it breaks no new ground but rather attempts to distill and further accentuate the qualities that made the original a benchmark. In doing so, the Reference Coupler has become more narrowly focused and moved closer to adding a sonic thumbprint of its own — a set of characteristics that may mesh well with some systems but not in others. When it works, it works very well indeed, but too often I found myself thinking of it as a means of altering the sound of a component as much as improving it.

Beyond any doubt, Synergistic Research has become one of the serious players in the High End cable industry. Regardless of how you judge the validity of their design goals and philosophy, their top models are unquestionably reference-quality products. Taken individually, the Resolution Reference speaker cable and Designers’ Reference interconnects are very close to neutral, and do an excellent job at hiding their slight characters and deviations within the fabric of the music. They do everything well and are particularly adept at recreating a seamless soundstage populated with beautifully sketched images, admittedly a key components among my listening biases. Their slight deviations from neutrality offset and balance each other well, fortuitously or by design, resulting in a cabling package that has worked spectacularly well in every system I’ve tried. TAS

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