Power is something we take for granted. We plug our gear into the wall outlets, and it works just fine. But when it comes to audio signals, plain old AC wall power just doesn’t do justice to hi-fi systems. Some nonbelievers might be thinking I’m spouting voodoo. But those who haven’t considered the old-school nature of our utility companies should take heed: What you can’t see (or believe you can’t hear) can harm—or at least get in the way of—your getting the most from your stereo system.
Before I’d tried a power conditioner for the first time in my system (a rather amazing yet expensive one that uses a very different approach) I’d been a relative non-believer. Sure, I’d seen power conditioners in demo rooms at audio shows and in more serious high-end systems, but figured they were only for the most hardcore and/or well-heeled audiophiles—to eke out that extra tiny percentage of better sound (often within the realm where the money spent begins to yield diminishing returns on the dollars invested). Indeed, the majority of the power conditioners I’ve encountered in the high-end audio market and at shows seemed to carry price tags as hefty as their chassis. But with the $995 Niagara 1000—the entry point of the Niagara lineup, which also includes the 5000 and 7000 models—AudioQuest designer Garth Powell has brought the benefits of power noise reduction within the reach of a broader range of customers.
Power conditioners could arguably be considered a kind of “sleeper” component—under the radar, behind the scenes, or worse, as an extra (read: unnecessary) something to buy only after you’ve acquired everything else on your audio wish list. Let’s face it: Speakers are sexier; electronics have a more obvious job to do; sources are a given; cables come later; and hell, who wouldn’t be more eager to spend whatever’s left on more music or some other upgrade? But the beauty of a power conditioner is that its primary functions of impacting (i.e., removing noise from) the signal itself should deliver across-the-board improvements to any audio setup. In other words, investing in one such component could very well enhance the sound of everything you already own. It turns out the Niagara 1000 is one “sleeper” component that certainly woke up my system. Before describing its sonic effects, let’s take a closer look at what it is.
AudioQuest’s Niagara 1000 Low-Z Power Noise-Dissipation System is a shiny, sleek, and surprisingly lightweight (though its performance is not) conditioner filled with many of the key elements of its big-brother—the bigger-bucks flagship Niagara 7000. Leading the charge (so to speak) are AudioQuest’s patented technologies for dissipation of ground noise and other signal noise across more than 18 octaves. This is achieved in part through AC differential filtering that’s been optimized to handle the varying line and load impedances inherent in audio signals during music playback. AudioQuest’s own capacitors filter RF and minimize distortion, and ultra-low-resistance solid-core wiring is direction-controlled to help lower noise further. Other important Niagara benefits include surge suppression (non-sacrificial) to protect against power spikes or electrical storms; there’s also an over-voltage shutdown function with automatic reset. So, after plugging the Niagara 1000 in and switching it on, you can set and forget it (as the user manual says).
The 1000 model is smaller in dimension and form factor than the Niagara 5000 and 7000 priced above it. Unsurprisingly, it lacks some of their heavier parts, so it also weighs far less: just a featherweight 5.5 pounds. Placement is easy; it’s been designed to sit on a rack or on the floor, even behind your system. AudioQuest also provided an AC power cable (sold separately), its NRG-10 ($779/6-ft.), which will be replaced soon. A more affordable option for the Niagara 1000 is AudioQuest’s new NRG-Z cord ($249.95/6ft.). I’m told that the design advancements in the company’s entry-level NRG line mean that the new NRG-Z will outperform the NRG-10, while costing far less. (Of course customers can select from other AQ power cords too.)
The Niagara 1000 contains six low-impedance (“Low-Z”) AC outlets that dissipate ground noise, including one for high-current components, e.g., power amplifiers; the other five are also filtered. The outlets and inlets use heavy silver plating over high-purity beryllium and copper for their contacts; this combination of materials was chosen for lower resistance and better noise dissipation.
It’s worth noting that these are all passive technologies that act at the signal level to filter various types of noise in AC line and ground leads, as well as blocking RF (radio frequency) signals. The idea is to remove noise from the signal to allow a clearer path and greater “purity” so that more musical information can pass through your system to delight your ears.
The main setup for my critical listening descriptions with the Niagara 1000 included: the MBL Noble Line N51 integrated amplifier and N21 CD player/DAC, Magico M Project loudspeakers (on loan from JV), Ansuz Acoustics D2 and DTC series cabling, Stein Music H2 Harmonizer boxes (two), a MoFi Electronics UltraDeck+ turntable with StudioTracker mm cartridge, and MoFi StudioPhono phonostage. (Earlier on, I also used an Acoustic Signature Challenger Mk. 3 turntable with TA-1000 tonearm and Air Tight PC-7 mc cartridge.) All equipment was supported by Critical Mass Systems’ Maxxum racks.