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.
Right out of the box and into my system, the Niagara 1000 handily and noticeably lowered the noise floor, creating a sense of clarity that seemed to increase resolution across a broad spectrum of recordings. But wait; there’s more. The musical elements all seemed in better balance, with everything in its place, tidied up. More distinct textures and tone colors shined through more clearly. The soundstage deepened some (depending on source recording), and a more palpable sense of presence came from the speakers, along with more body, bloom, and dimensionality. In my general experience, better-recorded material showed more pronounced results. Note that the differences with the Niagara I noticed and will describe were less smack-in-your-face obvious, yet still distinct and discernible.
With the Niagara 1000 in place, subtle nuances of individual musicians’ and singers’ styles could be detected as more fine microdynamic and harmonic details were revealed. I thought of the old trope, “It’s not what you do; it’s the way that you do it.” Playback revealed at least as much about what they were playing (or singing) as how they were playing or performing as artists.
On “In the Cold, Cold Night” from The White Stripes’ Elephant, Meg White sounded more like an actual flesh-and-blood woman, singing in her plaintive way. Quiet backgrounds allowed more of the studio echo to register. The low end also showed more clarity and control as the deep organ notes rumbled and hung in the air longer, drawing me into the song’s haunting atmosphere.
The National’s Matt Berninger may not be a formally trained singer but his earnest and natural baritone style often delivers an appealing and compelling honesty. Here, on the moody first cut of the band’s Sleep Well Beast LP “Nobody Else Will Be There,” the system with the Niagara 1000 in front rendered his vocal performance with greater presence and body, but also made his singing seem more intimately personal, human, and almost vulnerable in expression. Bryce Dessner’s lonesome, somber piano chords sounded more convincingly like the real thing, darkish harmonics and all.
Perhaps most striking with the Niagara 1000 in place were the differences in imaging specificity, outlines, and three-dimensionality, especially on better recordings. Obviously these also up the realism ante. Individual instruments and vocalists were more clearly delineated and distinct from one another. On complex layered material, such as Buena Vista Social Club’s LP/soundtrack of the same name, this greater specificity and dimensionality made the unbridled energy and sheer liveliness of each of the Cuban virtuosos clearer and more intoxicating. The myriad and distinctive stringed instruments on “Chan Chan,” such as the laúd, were presented with a resonating sense of urgency, of tension and release, that drew me in; the trumpet swells were exhilarating, the horn’s bell so clear, dimensional, and lifelike I could almost see its brass.
Not only did my ears pick up accents and flourishes within the layers that had only barely registered before, if I’d heard them at all—such as the background tambourine during Aaron Dessner’s guitar solo on “This System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” the first single from the Sleep Well Beast LP—it was also easier (and more fun) to follow any given instrument’s part within the mix. For example, during the title track from EL VY’s Return to the Moon, I noticed how often the crisp, continuous cymbal taps return, and the jovial pep of the bass line kept catching my attention.
When I removed the Niagara 1000 and switched all the components’ power connections into a fairly run-of-the-mill AC power strip plugged directly into the wall, the differences were pretty apparent. It was a bit like reheating the leftovers from a fabulous restaurant meal from the night before: All the same delicious elements were still there, but they didn’t have quite the same distinction in texture or flavor. Though still very enjoyable, a little of the thrill was gone. A revisit to Buena Vista Social Club, for example, yielded less texture on trumpet and less tension on the string instruments. I missed the musicians’ lively energy, missed hearing them presented more as a group of individuals—as you would in life. Music like this should compel you to move. Here, it didn’t quite do that as much. Some excitement was lost.
Without the Niagara 1000, on The National’s “Day I Die” track, Bryan Devendorf’s energetic drum intro sounded slightly veiled, less crisp and crystal-clear as attacks so sharp before seemed to soften a bit. Soundstaging flattened out too in front-to-back dimensions, as if more of the band were piled within the same plane.
In listening with the Niagara 1000, to some degree all the usual audio review clichés applied: It was like removing a layer of dust from a vinyl record’s surface, wiping a dirty window pane clean, etc. And it did seem that some bad stuff was also being cleared away from the signal path, allowing more musical information to be heard. On well-recorded source material, this often translated into greater clarity, detail, and the enhanced expression of the artistic qualities of the music. Image outlines were clearer, more convincing. All of these factors contributed to greater realism and more involving listening.
I didn’t have any complaints about the AudioQuest Niagara 1000; it’s complex inside but simple to use. Although it still requires dropping a pretty substantial sum for those on a budget, it’s a worthy investment that could transform your system’s sonic potential. Kudos to AudioQuest designer Garth Powell for bringing power-conditioning benefits of to a wider audience of audiophiles and music lovers.
Specs & Pricing
AudioQuest Niagara 1000 Low-Z Power Noise-Dissipation System
Type: AC power conditioner and passive filter with non-sacrificial surge protection
Inputs: Six low-impedance AC outlets; one for high-current devices
Dimensions: 5″ x 4.25″ x 20″
Weight: 5.5 lbs.
AudioQuest NRG-10 AC Power Cord (used in review; limited availability)
AudioQuest NRG-Z AC Power Cord
2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
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