Walk the corridors of any recent hi-fi show and you’ll have noticed a creeping, almost insidious presence, the first visible evidence of a (not so quiet) rise in audio’s dark side: mains conditioners, and chief amongst them, AudioQuest’s Niagara models. It’s a tendency that must have old-school audiophiles scratching their heads. After all, doesn’t everybody know that the prophet Ivor banished such devices as the spawn of the devil? When it came to AC power, the mantra was, ‘first do no harm’, which roughly translated meant do little or nothing at all, beyond cleaning the contacts in your leads and sockets and tightening the terminals. Anything placed between the wall socket and your electronics served mainly to raise the source impedance and limit current flow, cramping dynamic range and response – at least so went the logic, backed up by experience…
But the times they are a changing and so is your AC power supply. The world has become infested with ‘smart’ devices: everything from fridges that tell you when to shop to home management systems that can tell you almost anything (and frequently do), while every person has become a mobile RF generator and the sheer range and complexity of electronic devices that litter our homes has exploded, with every one of them dumping ever-increasing levels of noise back onto the AC ground. Meanwhile, AC conditioning technology has advanced, as has our understanding of the damaging influence of noise sources and of treatment of noise within audio systems. As AC quality has collapsed, both in terms of consistent, stable voltage and the degree of RF pollution and other noise that infests it, the tools available to combat the decline have improved, to the point that we have graduated from ‘first, do no harm’ to ‘let’s ensure that the cure is better than the disease.’ Sure, a hi-fi show could be perceived as a worst case electrical scenario, but I wouldn’t go assuming that your domestic environment is that much cleaner or quieter, which helps explain the rash of AC conditioning products hitting the market.
As I’ve already suggested, amongst the most prominent is AudioQuest’s Niagara series, of which the 7000 reviewed here is the top of a four-model range. There are good reasons for the Niagaras’ prominence. Look closer at the 7000 and it soon becomes clear that as a product it’s as thoughtful as it is carefully executed, from the topology and facilities to the quality of the in-house socketry and other hardware. This is neither an IT-industry response that’s been re-boxed, nor a simple sledge-hammer solution. The size and weight (and at £7,995, the price) of a serious power amp, it’s a substantial beast that offers 11AC outlets (12 if you opt for Schuko or US socketry) arranged in three separate banks, one bank of three for high-current applications, two banks of four for low-noise (source) supplies. That’s capacity enough to feed all but the most complex systems. The three sockets (four in the Eu/US) designated for high-current applications, such as power amplifiers, features a combination of DC blocking and minimal filtering so as not to impede dynamic response. More importantly, they also offer AudioQuest’s Transient Power Correction circuit, a current reservoir with an 80A instantaneous response capability to shore up sagging AC lines and meet massive transient demands. The end result is the stiffest AC supply many power amps will ever see. How stiff? At RMAF, VTL were using a Niagara 5000 to feed the massive S-400 II power amp, without suffering any dynamic constriction, an experiment I repeated with the S-400 in my own system. Impressive in itself this also serves to illustrate the difference between the 7000 and its more affordable but outwardly identical sibling. The 5000 offers the same casework, the same current capacity, common-mode rejection, patented ground-noise dissipation system and extensive filtering for source components as its bigger brother; but the 7000 adds a pair of substantial, dielectrically biased isolation transformers between the banks of three or four outlet sockets. Using the proven standing current technology that AudioQuest apply to their signal and AC cables to reduce burn-in and settling effects, the dielectric bias system improves linearity and bandwidth in the transformers, helping them to further reduce noise while isolating source component supplies from the transient demands of the power-amp(s) as well as digital components from analogue. They also add over 40lbs to the weight of the unit, which now reaches a grunt-inducing 81lbs total. The nitty gritty detail on the ins and outs of all this is outside the scope of this review, (you can read AudioQuest’s take on their website), but that’s a lot of conditioning, whichever way you cut it. The question is, does the good that results from all this outweigh the harm?
On the one hand the answer to that question is simple: yes. On the other, it depends on the situation and how you set it up as to how much goodness the 7000 generates. Any AC conditioner will be environmentally dependent and the AudioQuest is no exception, so I started by running it on a standard domestic outlet, rather than a dedicated audio feed and plugged pretty much as many different devices as possible into it. I also used a variety of different stock and audiophile power cords. I won’t bore you with the seemingly endless procession of changes, combinations, and configurations, cutting instead straight to the results. Compared to an audiophile distribution strip and the same power cords (whether stock or expensive audiophile designs), the Niagara 7000 had a huge impact on the sound, with a marked reduction in edge and hash, quieter backgrounds, larger and more developed soundstages, much better pitch definition (especially at lower frequencies), and improved instrumental texture and colour. At the same time – and musically more significant – the sense of pace, presence, flow, and overall shape became far more apparent, singers more identifiable and intelligible, playing more articulate. Bands sounded more like themselves, whether that’s the Berliner Philharmoniker as opposed to the LPO, Blur as opposed to Oasis. More importantly, they all started to sound like a much better band, captured on a really good day. This was no small difference – but it reflects a carefully arrived at system topology. Fortunately for you, that topology was arrived at by AudioQuest so that all my convoluted changes and experimentation demonstrated was that they’ve got it right.
The results I have just described depend on two important things: making sure that you use the different banks of sockets as suggested, separating power amps, analogue source, and digital components and secondly, don’t skimp on the cable connecting the Niagara to the wall. Playing with power cords from IsoTech, Nordost, and AudioQuest, it soon became clear that (with a single exception), the contribution of the 7000 is more fundamental to the musical performance of your system than improving your power cords. That exception is, however, vital: make sure that you feed the Niagara with the best power cord you can. The input uses a 20A IEC socket, which will help you focus on the problem, but amongst all the other things the Niagara does, it really underlines that the most important cable in your system is the one coming out of the wall. Does that make the Niagara a substitute for high-quality power cords? No – it makes it the perfect foundation to maximize their benefits, whether those leads are from AudioQuest, Nordost, or anybody else. Use top power cables with the 7000 and you’ll hear more of their benefits and you’ll hear them more clearly, making the Niagara what the military refer to as a ‘force multiplier’.
When it comes to hooking up your system via the 7000, you need to pay considerable attention to what goes where. Start plugging digital components into the same set of outlets as your line-stage and you’ll rapidly erode performance. Plug the power amp(s) into the wrong sockets or a separate socket altogether and you’ll erode performance. In fact, plug a server or laptop into the same bank of outlets as your DAC and (you guessed it), you’ll erode performance. It’s largely a case of common sense, but beware the odd exceptions. For instance, two-box tube pre-amps with substantial external power supplies can draw a lot more than the 3A rating for a complete, filtered output bank on the 7000, so be prepared to experiment with connecting it to a high-current outlet, just to see what happens. Finally, if you opt for the European (Schuko) equipped version, checking the polarity of each component in the chain by simply reversing the plugs is a simple process that will reap further sonic and musical dividends.
All those topological variations bring me to the most intriguing aspect of the 7000’s potential. Although intended as and equipped to be a total system solution, the big Niagara lends itself to multiple applications, especially in high-end systems where its cost becomes if not trivial, then at least easily justifiable when compared to the price of high-end electronics. While its benefits were both clearly audible and expected when it came to running a full system in a standard domestic scenario, what I wasn’t ready for was the leap in performance it delivered in a dedicated listening room, with its own dedicated AC lines and clean grounds. Which just goes to show that, as much as you can control what happens in your own house, there’s no controlling what goes on beyond its walls. In fact, the combination of a bigger room, bigger system, greater bandwidth, and higher resolution, made even more use of the lower noise floor delivered by the AudioQuest power conditioner, making the benefits of separating digital and analogue electronics even more apparent and musically significant, suggesting that AudioQuest have got an awful long way towards nailing the AC conditioning issue. I used the 7000 with solid-state electronics from CH Precision and Connoisseur, and tubes from VTL and Engstrom. In every case the reduction of grain and the associated improvements in transparency, focus, natural tonality, and dynamic range were manifest. What’s more important, the differences and characteristics of the different electronics emerged that much more clearly. Far from compressing sonic and musical distinctions, the Niagara 7000 helps significantly in revealing them, clarifying the character of different components as well as the artistic differences between performances and performers, Berglund as opposed to Barbirolli, live recordings as compared to the studio.
This quality isn’t just reassuring, it invites you to get creative with the additional possibilities offered by the Niagaras in the context of bigger and more complex systems. Want to completely isolate digital front-end or streaming components from both each other and the analogue elements in your system? Look no further than a Niagara 7000. The same holds true for a phono front-end or turntable: remember all that early Lingo-related angst? Now the much-maligned power supply can finally improve the sound of your record player without ruining the sound of your system. Running active subs and a set of mono-blocs at the far end of the room? A Niagara 5000 will do nicely, seeing as you don’t need the low-noise, source-optimized sockets. In fact, if there’s a criticism of the 7000 it’s that it arguably wears too many hats. As a solution for a straightforward, co-located system it’s hard to fault, but in bigger systems – the ones that tend to spread across the listening room – a half-sized 6000 with just the high-current outlets and an 8000 with no high-current but three isolated banks of low-noise outlets (one each for a streaming, an optical disc/DAC and analogue front-end/line-stage) would be an even more elegant solution. Still, who knows what’s on the AudioQuest drawing board?
As it stands, for those who live in apartments or situations where they can’t control their AC environment, the Niagara 7000 is an audio godsend. Put it between your system and the wall (and those ‘noisy neighbours’ beyond it) and you are going to hear much more of what’s on your recordings – and much more of what your system can do with them. For those of us who are complacently assuming that our dedicated audio AC lines mean that we don’t need to worry about extra boxes like the AudioQuest, it’s time to think again. The musical improvements that result from using the Niagara 7000 to drive some or all of your system can be as fundamental as they are significant. It will make your system sound better, but more importantly, it will make it more engaging and more rewarding, even if that reward takes the shape of the frigid desolation of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony! Given the history, it’s easy to dismiss AudioQuest’s ambitious and expensive power conditioner; given its performance that would be tantamount to cutting off your sonic nose to spite your musical face. Listen and you may well be seriously surprised.
Type: AC conditioner
Input: 20A IEC
Outlets: 3×High-current (4 in Eu or US) AC; 2×3 (4 in Eu or US) isolated low‑noise AC
Additional Features: Transient Power Correction on high-current outlets; Surge and over-voltage protection; Ground Noise-Dissipation System; Dielectrically-Biased isolation transformers
Dimensions (W×H×D): 445 ×134 ×437mm
Tel: +31 165 54 14 04
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