AudioQuest’s Bill Low takes a long-term approach to product development. He’s been in the industry longer than many and seems to have figured out what counts (and what doesn’t) when it comes to creating accessories that people actually want. His last success (in my world, at least) was the Dragonfly USB DAC, a very neat and easy to use device for your PC or smartphone. But some years before that came to market, Bill was looking at the power cable and conditioners on the market to see what he could learn about how to develop one in house. At the time he came to the conclusion that the pro oriented US brand Furman were top of the heap so he approached a designer there called Garth Powell with a view to bringing him over to AudioQuest (AQ) to develop power delivery products for them. Powell was happy where he was at that time, but some years later Furman was bought by Panamax and the emphasis in R&D was shifted from sound quality to ease of integration for smart home applications. This change in direction was enough to get Powell to move from San Francisco to just over 400 miles away to work at the AQ HQ in Irvine, at the end of 2012.
Since that time, Powell has been working on what are being called ‘noise dissipation systems,’ which is Garth-speak for mains distribution products that absorb and reduce AC-borne noise. Noise is a problem of varying degrees for audio components and digital audio is often extremely sensitive. Mains borne noise is all around us, being produced by wireless devices like phones, tablets, and white goods with their switched mode power supplies; one day, these things will be identified as pure evil and abolished, but until then we will need ‘noise dissipation systems’. AudioQuest make three Niagara power distributors of which the 1000 is the most affordable; it’s quite large but not very heavy in a very shiny case that comes with its own cleaning cloth. Five filtered outlets are accompanied by a largely straight through one on the end for amplifiers, which has some DC blocking but nothing else. If you like dynamics that is as much filtering as you want. The outlets for constant current components such as sources and preamps have RF filtering capacitors, ‘18 octaves’ of AC differential filtering (the top Niagara 7000 covers 21 octaves) and AQ’s ground noise dissipation system. The overarching theme of the spec is linear noise elimination.
The Niagara 1000 is not supplied with a mains cable so AQ supplied both their entry level NRG Y3 (£99) power cords and a single Thunder (£629), a beast of a cable with three separate conductors and battery powered biasing for the dielectric. I started off using the Niagara in full effect with Thunder connecting it to the wall and the NRG Y3 cables powering an AURALiC ARIES G2 streamer, Exogal Ion, and Exogal Comet. Switching from direct to the wall, the result of this near £2,000 upgrade was dramatic with a considerable increase in richness of tone and depth of image. The general effect seemed to be a substantiation of the sound, which became more solid and weighty. The high frequencies seem a little shut in however; there is a darkening of the balance which either means some degree of treble roll-off or, more likely, an elimination of noise. I say more likely because the result was more relaxed and easy to enjoy with greater musicality. I have noticed that digital amplification benefits from mains conditioning in the past and that is definitely the case here.
I got similar results with more conventional electronics when I made smaller changes, using the ARIES G2 streamer and VEGA G2 DAC on Isotek power cords. Switching from the wall to the Niagara brought more kick to the bass and enhanced transparency, which in turn increased the separation between instruments. More importantly, timing was not undermined; if anything it was slightly enhanced. It’s not unusual to get lower noise and thus greater resolution with mains conditioning but timing can often suffer in the process; however, the Niagara cleverly avoids that pitfall. I also contrasted it with a similar product in the Puritan Audio PSM136, which looks like better material value for money. Here, using the NRG Y3 to feed the Niagara delivered a slightly more open and well separated result that was better timed and thus more involving, so looks can be deceptive.
When I switched the big ATC P2 power amp from the wall to the high power output on the Niagara, I got a very worthwhile increase in soundstage depth and width, with increased separation between instruments and no sense of dynamic compression; the former was expected, the latter a relief. It also seemed worthwhile to contrast the NRG Y3 with the Isotek EVO3 Premier I usually use on the amp. This did something very similar to the Niagara by calming and adding weight without undermining timing, a perceived reduction in volume level suggesting that distortion and noise had dropped.
The Innuos Zenith SE server should benefit from this sort of power conditioning and the Niagara did not disappoint. A veil was lifted from low level detail which opened up the room and further enhanced musicality, turning a good piece of music into an inspiring one. As a vinyl lover, it was necessary to see if the AudioQuest would improve the sound of my Rega RP8 turntable and Tom Evans Microgroove phono stage. Here the change was more subtle, and it mainly consisted of a slight darkening of the balance alongside a slight calming with quieter backgrounds. There was an improvement but not one that matched the price.
The Niagara 1000 may look a bit shiny but it’s sound is as black as a very black thing. It has a remarkable ability to reduce noise and deliver a calm, musical result that encourages high-level listening. If I could keep it in the system, I would.
- Type: AC mains power conditioner.
- Outlets: Six outlet 13A UK (inc one high current outlet)
- Dimensions (H×W×D): 100 ×120 ×508mm
- Weight: 2.5kg
- Price: £995
Tel: +44 (0)1249 848 873
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