For this evaluation my system consisted of the Pass Labs preamp driving an ATC SCM50A active, three-way floorstander. Sources were a Clearaudio Satisfy Black analog rig and an Oppo Sonica streaming DAC equipped with the top-flight ES9038PRO 32-bit HyperStream DAC chip. Power cords were Audience Au24SX with Tara Labs Air Evolution interconnects (reviewed in the last issue).
Each time I embark on an audio review I remind myself to expect the unexpected. And thus far pretty much every piece of gear I’ve evaluated has surprised me in some way—subtle and elusive at times, and others as obvious as a punch in the nose. The Aquarius was not quite a sock in the schnoz, but in terms of three-dimensional presentation, clean transients, plus its depiction of micro-dynamic and low-level information, it packed some real moves.
A prime example that I constantly turn to is the Keith Johnson-engineered Reference Recording of Rutter’s Requiem. The complex array of voices in the Women’s Chorus of Dallas and Turtle Creek Chorale is a challenge for any system, but the IsoTek enabled a more cohesive, unified presentation across the full stage, while also imparting a greater and more specific sense of the individuality and height cues of the voices. Further, during the toccata from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, woodwinds, oboe, and bassoon suddenly snapped to attention, right down to the tick of fingering changes. Even on the most commercial pop or rock recordings, images achieved a stability and individual clarity that I hadn’t expected from reverb-and-compressor-laden multitrack.
All genres of music benefitted from the addition of the IsoTek Aquarius, but truth be told, the fullest realization of its potential occurred while listening to purist, uncompressed acoustic music with naturalistic tonal, ambient, and reverb characteristics. A favorite example of mine is Laurel Massé’s a cappella rendition of the Quaker hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” [Feather & Bone], recorded in the superb acoustics of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in New York. Via the Aquarius, the spaces between images seemed to open up and the entire cavernous hall seemed to exhale in relief, as if, after holding its breath, it could finally inhale again.
I think of AC line noise as a subtle but pernicious kind of audio compression—the more noise and grunge, the greater the loss in low-level micro-dynamic energy and transparency, like the interplay of a chamber group or the harmonization of a pair of backup singers or simply the resting sound of a concert venue during musical pauses. Details such as these tend to get swallowed up in a noisy system. In suppressing line noise, IsoTek unlocks low-level transparency in the same way that removing layers of old wax from a fine wood surface allows more of the inherent depth and beauty of the wood-grain patterns to shine forth. When I listen, I want to be able to follow the harpist gliding along during Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps Overture. Part of the joy of this hobby is to be able to hear each harp string even as the orchestra wells up.
I’m aware that power conditioners may not be at the top of every audiophile’s to-do list. But eventually, as one’s vision of a high-end system comes together, affording a conditioner a comprehensive test drive is a logical and, I think, necessary step. And the good ones like IsoTek offer both protection and performance in various configurations at prices that won’t blow a fuse. But more specifically I was impressed by and grew ever more addicted.
Specs & Pricing
Outlets: Six total (two high-current; four medium-current)
Dimensions: 17.5" x 3.5" x 12"
Weight: 20 lbs.