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Jacob Heilbrunn

Reprinted From: The Absolute Sound, Issue 192, April/May 2009

A few years ago at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Synergistic’s Ted Denney III ushered Neil Gader and me into a small, dark hotel room that featured his latest Tesla cables, which used active shielding via a complement of different tubes. Different tubes shouldn’t have affected the sound, but, of course, they did. After that experience, I went on to try some of Synergistic’s REL subwoofer cables, which added to the potency of the RELs, and not by a small margin.

So when the chance came up to try Synergistic’s latest power conditioner, I bit. Having tried a fair number of conditioners over the year, I’ve become less enamored of them the more I’ve used them. The pluses and minuses almost always seem to balance out in the end. Sure, there’s the initial excitement of hearing a few notes that weren’t there before or a blacker background. But then reality begins to intrude. Weren’t the highs a little more extended before I put conditioner X into my system? And so on. If it was just a matter of tradeoffs, it really didn’t seem to be worth the outlay. Recent exposure to the latest conditioners from Audience and PS Audio suggested, however, that matters have begun to change for the better.

The $5000 Tesla PowerCell thus offered another chance to see if the conditioning field has continued to advance. Unlike many conditioners, it doesn’t feature chokes or transformers. The chassis, Synergistic says, is electromagnetically inert, but on the inside it conditions the electricity by subjecting it to various electromagnetic fields. The power cord for the unit also allows for active shielding. The unit is said to be non-current-limiting—which many conditioner manufacturers say, but which often turns out not to be the case—and is lightweight, making it easy to move around. Nor does it have an on-off switch. You simply use its locking power cord and plug it into the wall. It’s best to have any equipment you intend to use with it turned off before you plug it in. After letting it burn in for two weeks, I inserted it into my system, adding one component at a time.

“The Synergistic PowerCell immediately offered a warmer and more relaxed presentation.”

The difference was surprisingly dramatic. The Einstein preamplifier I’ve been using recently is quite dynamic, but can be a little astringent at times. The Synergistic PowerCell immediately offered a warmer and more relaxed presentation. It also made the Wilson MAXX 3 loudspeakers sound more elegant, particularly in the highs. By comparison, the sound before I added the PowerCell seemed somewhat disjointed. In addition, the conditioner endowed intricate passages with greater resolution, helping to delineate musical lines more clearly. Overall, the PowerCell had a holistic effect, drawing me further into the music.

One of the Tesla’s most palpable improvements was its ability to open up the soundstage. On Simone Dinnerstein’s intriguing recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations [Telarc], which features a reconditioned Steinway model D concert grand, hailing from the town council of Hull, in Northeast England, it was easier to hear both the reverberations of the piano within the concert hall as well as its rich, telluric sound, closer almost to a Bösendorfer than a Steinway. The sound of the felt hammer hitting the string was also more articulate. As always, this may be something of a double-edged sword—recordings provide a lens into music-making that a concert hall simply will not offer, further proof, I think, that it’s very tricky to compare CDs with live music. But honest to gosh, I almost swear you can hear the aged quality of the wood (whose aging process can’t be speeded up like metals that can be treated cryogenically).

The ability of the PowerCell to help disentangle complicated passages was underscored by a wonderful piece, W.L. Thompson’s “There’s A Great Day Coming” [Gala], which is played by six trumpeters led by the New York Philharmonic’s Philip Smith. There was no suppression of dynamics, if anything the PowerCell conveyed a greater sense of authority and body. The burnished sound of six trumpets popping up seemingly out of nowhere was quite striking. In fact, I would say that it was the closest reproduction of the actual sound of a trumpet that I’ve heard.

But the most striking improvement rendered by the PowerCell was the confidence with which the music unfolded. The presentation simply seemed more relaxed and self-assured. On Angela Hewitt’s recording of Bach’s English Suites [Hyperion SACD], for example, the piano simply sounded less constricted and compressed than it had previously. The graceful, composed nature of her playing emerged more fully.

Was the PowerCell, however, blurring transients? Not to my mind. I can see that not everyone will gravitate to the PowerCell. If your system tends to the warm, lush, rich side, you might not welcome the extra dollop of plushness that the PowerCell provides. But I wouldn’t consider my overall system, given the number of tubes in it, on the dry side, even when using solid-state amplification. To my mind, the fuller presentation of the PowerCell was more authentic. What’s more, the PowerCell really does seem to be non-current-limiting—it does not choke amplifiers, which, for the most part, are best run directly into the wall.

“Overall, the PowerCell had a holistic effect, drawing me further into the music.”

Perhaps the performance of the PowerCell shouldn’t be surprising. My experience with power cords has been that they can quite drastically alter the sound of a system. A whole submarket has emerged around trying to deal with electrical anomalies, some of it snake oil, some of it quite helpful.

The blunt fact is that the electricity flowing into most homes is pretty wretched, and it’s not going to get any better in coming years, as more and more electric devices pollute the atmosphere. If you’re living anywhere near a city, you know what I’m talking about.

I have gone to some lengths to try and improve it by, among other things, installing a dedicated, active grounding rod, which is used by government installations, as well as a separate Isoclean breaker box and a number of dedicated lines running from it. Even special wall outlets can make an improvement. But there’s always more to be had. Conditioning makes a lot of sense, but the rub has always been that it often seems to subtract as much as it adds. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for audiophiles to audition equipment as the number of dealers shrinks due to the Internet trade. But with anything as tricky as power conditioning, it would be wise to make an effort to try the PowerCell or any other conditioner before making a commitment to buy one.

Still, my sense is that it’s hard to go too wrong with the PowerCell. It ably improved the performance of a number of components and is simplicity itself to use. No doubt conditioners will continue to improve in coming years, and they seem to represent something of a black art, or, if you’re a skeptic, sheer voodoo. A number of very gifted manufacturers of preamplifiers and amplifiers that I’ve encountered over the years regard them with great suspicion. But the PowerCell represents a startling and welcome advance, suggesting that the inventive mind of Ted Denney continues to seek new ways to enrich musical reproduction. It would be too much to say that the PowerCell provides a romantic presentation, but it may well win your heart. TAS

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