Power Line Conditioner
- review of Tice PowerBlock IIIA -
Thirteen hundred and fifty dollars, and that is before you even get to the audio components?
You have got to be kidding!
That is what I thought as we unpacked the heavy carton with the Power Block IIIA (call it the PB3 for short). We listened to our reference system for a couple of hours (the components were plugged into the wall outlet, and the PB3 was not connected to anything, nor was it plugged into the wall).
Then, our component meister connected the CD player, tube preamp, and solid state power amps into the PB3, and the PB3 power cords into the wall. We listened, and thought, "It sounds worse." However, the instruction manual states that it must be run in for at least 60 hours. So, we left it plugged in with the panel switches on, but the components off, for 3 days, and then listened again.
We asked Jeanne Fairbrook, who has the best hearing among our group, to tell us what she heard. She had just come in from San Francisco and did not know what we were testing, but she was very familiar with the reference system sound (without the PB3). "Very detailed. I like it. What are you testing?" she asked. She was surprised to find that a power conditioner was making the difference. I don't think I could hear the improvement in the high end detail, but Jeanne could, and that's good enough for me. However, we were all able to tell that the mid-range was much clearer and that there was less harshness in the high frequencies . . . that sometimes almost inaudible irritation that makes you want to turn the system off after a short while and do something else. In other words, less fatiguing. So, it works . . . but how?
In order to understand how a power line conditioner functions, one first has to realize that the AC power as it arrives to the outlet, is not a pure 60 Hz sine wave 120 volts.
If one were to look at the AC on an oscilloscope at magnification, little blips would be evident. These are caused by signals being sent from the power company to turn circuits on and off at the power pole. Secondly, every appliance in your home that has a motor puts blips into the circuit, and if that isn't bad enough, so do your neighbors' appliances. On top of all that, the wiring acts like a huge antenna for radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic radiation (they can be of any frequency, but for the sake of this article, we define RF as 60 kHz and higher).
So, the purpose of the line conditioner is to filter as much of this electrical contamination out as possible before it reaches the audio components. Otherwise, these blips end up on top of the audio frequency signals, and even though 60 kHz is not audible, super-imposing this RF with the music can alter the audible frequencies, e.g., starting to square up a 10 kHz signal to make it sound harsh (imposition of false harmonics). The lower frequency blips probably exert their effects in the mid-range.
The power conditioner filters out the contamination by use of various parts inserted into the circuit. Inductors (basically coils of wire) act to filter (absorb and convert to heat) frequencies in the high end (RF), while capacitors serve to absorb the low frequency band (blips caused by power company impulses). What you want to end up with is just the 60 Hz AC, with everything below 60 Hz and above 60 Hz removed. Transformers will prevent DC from entering the system, and also isolate the components from ground loops. All of these parts are in the PB3. They are arranged in five circuits, three of which are for source components and have isolation transformers, and two circuits are for power amplifiers, having no isolation transformers. Six 150 volt spike and surge protectors (MOVs) will trip if voltage spikes occur. Circuit breakers and fuses protect all circuits.
The front panel has four rocker switches, one for each of the sets of switched outlets (Circuits 2 - 5). Two red LEDs indicate power on (one each for Circuits 2,3 and 1,4,5), and an AC volt meter indicates the voltage being supplied at input to the PB3 (see photo). There are two power cords, one each for Circuits 2,3, and for 1,4,5. The outlets are located on the back panel and are configured for the various countries where the unit is sold. Any or all of the source component circuits can be configured to take 240 volts input (50 Hz) and step it down to 120 volts (50 Hz), so if you live in Europe and one or two of your source components (e.g., a CD player) are 110 volts configured, you can make great use of this feature. Each unit is guaranteed for 5 years and comes with paperwork signed by the test supervisor, final inspector, and George Tice.
The construction of the PB3 is like no other component I have ever seen. After examining it, I called George Tice and asked him if he is compulsive. "To say the least," he said. "I am never satisfied. I am always looking for ways to improve our products." For his sake, I suggested a little herbal tea once in a while, but in any case, to our benefit, the PB3 is world class construction. (In fact, it was his compulsive nature that compelled him to design the very first audio video power conditioner - the PB1 - in 1986, which started a new category in AV products).
Absolutely every part is selected for its ability to filter the AC. Not only the brand of capacitors, inductors, transformers, and wiring are carefully chosen, but the manufacturing run! The wiring is treated with a proprietary "TPT" process, that I imagine has something to do with putting it under extreme pressure. Material scientists will tell you that this affects the crystalline structure of the metal to a large degree. There is damping material not only under the parts inside the chassis, but against the walls of the chassis itself. CD player, preamp, and amplifier manufacturers could take a lesson here, since vibrations induced in these components are thought by some to affect the signal in a detrimental way.
Now, although we did find a sonic improvement, single blind, with the PB3 (to me, the best effect was the lessening of fatigue by reducing the harshness at the high end), we did not find the PB3 to eliminate hum and some other electrical noises, at least in our system. Of course, it all depends on the components. Some are more sensitive than others to hum. Also, noise can be induced by power supplies of the audio components themselves, and interference picked up by wiring AFTER the PB3. (No power conditioner can remove this type of noise.) So, the PB3, and any power conditioner for that matter, is not a panacea, but it sure is a step in the right direction.
Well, I'm convinced; the Tice Power Block III is a very fine product that makes a tremendous improvement in sonic performance of components plugged into it, so have a listen for yourself as to what the PB3 can do.
Tice makes several models that are less expensive, and they also make optional enhancements (larger transformers for the amplifiers that need a fork lift) which boost the price, depending on your budget.
Keep in mind that not all brands of power conditioners do the job equally well. Some can actually degrade performance, & you just have to try them out. We are marking the Tice in the "Works Beautifully" column.
−JEJ, Secrets Of Home Theater And High Fidelity.
Los Angeles, California USA
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