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AudioQuest’s Niagara 1000: what the hell (are you waiting for)?

  • To refer to AudioQuest as a ‘cable company’ is a like saying Apple is a ‘computer company’ — it’s only part of the story.

    In recent years, AudioQuest has diversified to design and manufacturer D/A converters (DragonFly and Beetle), a USB noise filter (Jitterbug) and headphones (NightHawk/NightOwl) to become a tech company. An in-house development team is assigned to each project.

    Team leader for AC power products is one Garth Powell. I first met the softly spoken Powell during a tour of the company’s Irvine facility in June 2015. Back then my focus was on the NightHawk headphone’s development process (and Big-Ass Fans) and, regrettably, not on Powell’s slowly expanding range of Niagara “low (output) impedance noise-dissipation systems”.

    It would be well over a year before I would enjoy first-hand experience of what a Niagara could do once placed in an audio system.

    Our story resumes in November 2016 not with Powell but with AudioQuest’s Sales Manager for Germany, Thijs Helwegen, at Lange Nacht Der Ohren / Long Night of the Ears, a decentralised audio show run by some of Berlin’s biggest hi-fi retailers.

    A static demo – hearing music through a carefully setup fixed system – isn’t all that informative. Proceedings only become instructive when one piece of gear is swapped out for another. Despite show(room) conditions, one A/B comparison is better than none. Two are better than one. That spells A/B/C.

    At Hifi im Hinterhof in Kreuzberg, we were served the latter. Helwegen pulled on Bob Dylan and a lesser-known Lou Reed cut to show off the improvements effected by AudioQuest’s Niagara 1000 and Niagara 5000 power products on an Accuphase CD player.

    Sat off-axis, with the CD player’s power feed moved from wall-direct to the Niagara 1000, the audible leap in avidity was pronounced. More so than when the Accuphase disc spinner was moved from Niagara 1000 to Niagara 5000. I mentally filed this demo under ‘interesting’ and went about my week.

    The next time I caught up with Helwegen was six months later at Munich High-End 2017. Time to dig out your tin foil hat. This tale is a little more bizarre.

    In the AudioQuest listening room, Helwegen had three different CD-Rs, each created with an Alesis burner. The original CD was reportedly ripped and then burnt three times, each with a slight adjustment to the Alesis’ power feed.

    The first CD-R was burnt with a standard IEC power cord connecting Alesis to wall socket. The second with an AudioQuest NRG4 power cord between Alesis and wall socket. The third, with a Niagara 1000 and an additional NRG4 between Alesis and wall socket.

    On outward appearance, the AudioQuest’s Niagara 1000 is a chromed-up power strip. Six power sockets with one designed to specifically meet the variable current demands of the amplifier — more on this later.

    You want specifications on this AudioQuest power packer? You got it:

    The tube’s internals are designed to wipe away noise detritus before it reaches the sensitive circuitry of our audio equipment; tech borrowed from the US$7995 Niagara 7000 but implemented to meet a lower price point. The Niagara 1000 sells for US$995.

    I don’t recall the specifics of the Helwegen’s Munich music but on player outline definition and micro-dynamic alertness, each CD sounded better than the last. The audible delta between CD #3 and CD #1 wasn’t enormous but neither was it trivial.

    At the behest of the audience, Helwegen repeated the demo, this time jumping directly from the Niagara 1000 burn to the first made with the Alesis connected to the wall with a stock power cable. The latter sounded marginally flatter than the former – a slightly deflated tyre or a baked cake that hasn’t quite fully risen. Sat in the front row of the demo, the occasional gasp and murmur from behind me confirmed that I wasn’t imagining the things taking place in front of me. “Was zur hölle?” (What the hell?)

    At this point, some readers will find their interest piqued, others will remain indifferent and a small minority will begin plotting conspiracy theories: that manufacturers are liars, perpetrators of trickery, all in direct pursuit of the bigger bucks. Conveniently ignoring the potential for a major dent to years of reputations built, our conspiracy theorists reason that anyone falling for such alleged sleight of hand is a fool, conned by the audio conmen.

    “What is the science that underpins this product?”, comes the passive-aggressive demand for answers. The answer, for them alas, is irrelevant. A closed mind begets a closed wallet. Who knew that seeing ghosts could be so financially advantageous?

    To admit that there might be something in the Niagara 1000 – or products like it – is to open oneself up to the possibility that there is still more to be wrung from one’s existing audio hardware. A conspiracy theory about conspiracy theorists? With a clear lack of evidence on both fronts, either both theories are true; or both are false.

    We don’t demand a walk-through on how planes fly before booking a ticket from an airline. We trust in our previous experiences: that the plane takes off and lands without incident. No technical paper required. If it’s our first flight, we look to the experience of others, nowadays abundant.

    Similarly, in the world of hi-fi, we readily accept the audible differences between loudspeakers or amplifiers. Why? Our own experiences with such hardware are sufficient that trusting in others, even when the models vary, isn’t too great a leap to make.

    With newer and/or more niche product categories like power conditioners/filters, USB cables, Ethernet cables, experience takes time to percolate through the audiophile collective. If it’s our first leap into uncharted territory, trust in others is likely in shorter supply.

    Fewer audiophiles will have heard AudioQuest’s Niagara 1000 than, say, the KEF LS50 or a Devialet Expert 200. Forums and comments sections tell us that fewer readers trust a reviewer’s thoughts on a unit like the Niagara 1000 than a loudspeaker or an amplifier.

    Fresh experiences called out from the outskirts of the audiophile collective remain contentious because their scarcity can cause uncertainty. Consumers are keen to eliminate uncertainty. The antidote? Hard facts — or an explanation.

    My job is to relay my listening experiences. I look to engineers to explain the whys and wherefores.

    Soon after Munich HighEnd, a Niagara 1000 arrived at the DARhaus. It’s one thing to report on a show demo, another entirely to make home-based calls. A show’s unfamiliar rooms and unfamiliar music mean I wouldn’t stake my reputation on any call made. Neither would I drop hard cash on the back of any audition that wasn’t a home audition. At home, I call the shots. I know the room, the music, the associated hardware. I decide on the time spent doing quick-cut A/Bs and the time allotted to slow-cooked insight.

    With the Niagara 1000, I started simple: staying true to the AudioQuest power cabling already running in my system/s since January, but alternating between the half-metre shiny tube and a €20 power strip.

    On amplification duties at the time of the Niagara’s arrival was the mains power-quality agnostic Vinnie Rossi LIO feeding KEF LS50 and Sennheiser HD800S. I didn’t expect its already-excellent sound quality to be touched by the Niagara 1000 but I tried anyway — and it wasn’t.

    Feeling the benefit of the second A/B was the PS Audio DirectStream DAC loaded with Network Bridge II streamer and playing catch on a Roon-streamed Modeselektor’s Monkeytown and, later, Joy Division’s Substance. Two words that lingered in my iPhone listening notes were avidity and focus.

    The Niagara 1000 takes Modeselektor’s thrill-ride and punches up the pace (into one’s face) whilst also throwing down some additional clarity. For the more subdued and murkier Mancunians, the improvements were even more satisfying: a comparatively duller, flatter recording brought to life.

    Drawing on James’ Laid and then, Sebadoh’s Bakesale – original issues both – had me convinced that I was hearing the PS Audio digital front-end undergo a blood transfusion.

    Unlike hi-res PCM, MQA, DSD et al, this change-up benefitted ALL music, not just those nominated for special treatment by rights holders. For this indie-rock fan where production values are variable at best, seeing more life shine from lesser recordings’ eyes was a real boon.

    The Niagara 1000’s greater caffeination and ability to expose deeper tonal colours makes albums like Supergrass’ I Should Coco and The Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk more excitable and more satisfying.

    I hit up AudioQuest’s Garth Powell for an explanation. The challenges to overcome are these:

    “The noise that is present on every AC line, and that which is induced into the power cables and component chassis via airborne radio waves are ever-increasing. They cover a massive range of frequencies as well (over 23 octaves, in fact, starting at the middle of the audio band). These noises can couple to the audio and digital signals, distorting, masking, or even eliminating up to a third of the high-resolution content from low-level signals (sub -70dBu). In the case of some digital signals, the noise can be carried up or downstream to the A/D or D/A converter and wreak damage there, even if the numerical packets of zeros and ones is seemingly unaltered. The noise couples to the signal via current noise that escapes the component’s DC power supply and via AC and chassis ground. Once this dynamic intermodulation distortion or loss occurs, it is forever. There is no fixing it later. A lost signal will never return and it cannot be corrected by upgrading the DAC, pre-amplifier, or loudspeakers. Though such upgrades are worthwhile investments all to be certain, you will simply gain more from the signal that is left.”

    A possible solution?

    “There are many technological means of minimizing these problems. Some AC power devices are called Uninterruptable Power Supplies, Power Regenerators, Isolation Transformers, Power Conditioners, Ground boxes, and so forth. They all have their virtues and their faults. Our philosophy is to filter or dissipate as much of this parasitic energy or distortion over the widest range of frequencies possible, and to do so as consistently as possible. We do not wish to unmask low-level audio detail at one octave, only to allow the next octave to be masked by noise. Most ground and AC power technologies are unfortunately non-linear (uneven), in this regard.”

    Experienced audiophiles will be aware that some AC power devices negatively impact the ability to connote dynamic drama.

    Swapping out the Vinnie Rossi LIO for the Rotel RA-10 returns my test system’s amplification from supercapacitor power to the mains. An opportunity to see what influence – if any – the AudioQuest tube might exert over the analogue domain.

    The humble Rotel was first connected to the wall socket with an AudioQuest NRG-2 cable and then, a few hours later to the Niagara 1000’s dedicated “High Current” socket. The “Low-Z” in the product name refers to its low AC output impedance, crucial to delivering transient current to the power amp when called for.

    Here I noted audible advances of a similar nature but of lesser quantity than with Niagara 1000 applied to the PS Audio front end alone. A slight uptick in avidity, layer separation and detail retrieval. As if Robyn Hitchcock’s latest, eponymous album had undergone remastering a mere six months on from release.

    Here’s Powell again: “The other important criteria is making certain that the high current AC outlet feeding the power amplifier will not current limit. Instead it should provide the lowest impedance possible (Low-Z) transient current, to the power amplifier’s power supply. Power Amplifiers are the one component (analog or digital) in an audio system whose power supply is not a constant current draw. This means that many AC power technologies that might otherwise be up to the task of reducing a good deal of noise, could also compress the transient current required to feed a power amplifier as it produces fast audio signal power transients. If this current compression occurs, it will produce a slow, muddy, anemic sound from the amplifier. Our Low-Z Power technology assures this will not occur.”

    This sense of pseudo-remastering showed up once more with a third hardware configuration: a Devialet Expert 2000 powering a pair of Dynaudio’s Special Forty loudspeakers (review to come). Headphone confirmation was no longer possible but the impact of the Niagara 1000 was more keenly felt in the Dynaudio’s excellent super-smooth tweeter: from Deepchord’s Hash-Bar Loops we get more micro-dynamic flare but crisper bass definition.

    What gives, Garth Powell?

    “Class D is far more efficient when considering the average or RMS current draw, compared with class A, AB, or B. However, the brief but critical transient current demands the power supply of the said power amplifier can be greater or more critical for a class D amplifier than even a class A. This is because these switching amplifiers are so efficient, that they are rarely matched with large over-rated DC power supplies that could buffer an AC transient current draw when the power supply is being charged down for a large audio transient signal. Class A or AB have this same concern, but a little less so, Class A being the closest to immune to this specific problem (although nothing truly is, given today’s audio dynamic range and the relatively low efficiency of most loudspeakers).”

    The Rotel RA-10 operates in Class A/B. The Devialet is a Class D/A hybrid — an all-in-one system that requires only a single power cable to which the Niagara 1000’s “high current” socket adds more life to music, as plain as day. Upgrade options are limited for Devialet Expert owners but this one? Oh boy, what a find.

    In drawing proceedings to a close I added a Wyred 4 Sound modded Sonos to the Devialet, hooked in via coaxial cable. I then moved its power feed in and out of the AudioQuest device to conclude, quickly, that the Sonos was quite clearly better in than out. Easily discerned; not quickly forgotten.

    Finally, in the spirit of Thijs Helwegen’s Munich demo reversal, returning any of the aforementioned devices – the PS Audio DAC/streamer, the Rotel amplifier, the Devialet all-in-one or the Sonos streamer – to the Amazon-bought power strip means enduring a hit, in varying degrees, to music’s animation and excitation.

    Time to repeat the obvious: I haven’t tried Garth Powell’s tube with anything but the hardware called out in this piece. Neither have I compared it to anything other than a €20 power strip. However, the potential for the Niagara 1000 to ameliorate whatever wall-power-sucking audio hardware found in your house is extremely strong. 99.9% certain? Probably. Whatever the odds, like the magnitude of the Niagara 1000’s audible lift itself, they aren’t skinny. I know not of any other upgrade at any price that gives (relatively) so much for (relatively) so little.

    “Was zur hölle?” indeed.

    Further information: AudioQuest

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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