This review of the Power Line Pillow BC-83 is a joint effort between Doug Schneider (DAS) and John Stafford (JS). Traditionally, reviews of power conditioning products have been reserved for higher priced systems. As the review explains, we wanted to explore and assess the impact of the Power Line Pillow in systems at different price levels.
DAS... Jonathan Badov, Madcap Audio's main madman, gleefully jumped from the side listening position and said, "now do you want to really hear something?" I had just spent the last hour listening to Jonathan's system and it was already sounding very good. His system is based on a highly modified VPI HW-19 turntable that sounds superb through his carefully thought out and meticulously tweaked system. Gilbert Yeung, Blue Circle's main designer, sat quietly behind me. Jonathan scrambled to the corner and unplugged his amplifier from the dedicated wall socket, plugged the Power Line Pillow BC-83 into that same socket, and plugged only the amplifier back into the Pillow. The same track was played and the difference was not subtle. I turned to Gilbert and raised my eyebrows -- I was impressed. Gilbert still did not say a word. I wanted to make sure that we weren't dealing with something imaginary as happens so many times when a single component is swapped into a system and significant differences are thought to be heard. Jonathan switched the Pillow in and out of the system and again I could hear the same differences. Not just differences, but improvements! Improvements significant enough for me to rethink my current ideas on audiophile power conditioning. Gilbert was still not saying a word. Instead, like he had done with his BC-2 amps and BC-3 preamp, he let his equipment do the leg-work. On the other hand Jonathan, who is part of Madcap Audio which acts as the marketing arm for Blue Circle Audio, was far more animated and he was now in front of me proclaiming the glories of power line conditioning like he was in a Toyota commercial. Nuff said..... I needed to hear the Pillow in my own system
I scurried home, that same BC-83 tucked under my arm, with some new thoughts on power conditioning jostling around my head. About that same time John Stafford joined us as a reviewer. Somewhat out of interest, and perhaps for the sake of fiscal responsibility, John concentrates his efforts on budget equipment. "John," I said, "I want you to review the Pillow in your system too." John had a bewildered look on his face since no one in the traditional budget category of audio seriously factors in a power conditioner as part of their system. Still I pressed on and explained that , "I am interested whether $500 worth of power conditioning can be as beneficial in a budget system as that same amount spent on slightly better components."
Diary of a Madman
JS...When Doug Schneider talked to me about listening to the Blue Circle Power Line Pillow BC-83 from a budget point of view I thought he had finally lost it. Maybe he was spending too many late nights in front of his PC trying to think of an excuse to put that picture of the CES chick in another article! How can a $500 power conditioner help a budget system? These systems just are not sensitive enough! I was already trying to think of nice ways to say "it may have sounded different, but it aint worth no $500 bucks to me. That is almost a whole new CD player or DAC to us budget guys!" Besides, how would I tell my wife I bought a $500 power bar for my stereo? As I pondered these and other deep audio questions, I found myself saying, "Sure, Ill have a listen."
Since I live in the Toronto area, Jonathan Badov had volunteered to come by and drop off the BC-83. This disappointed me because Doug had suggested I pick it up at Jonathans so I could give his system a listen too. Doug thought I would not only like the system, but would be interested to see Jonathans, ahem, apartment renovations. Things like holes in the walls and ceiling for the dedicated lines, bolts going right through walls to better mount his turntable stand, and a plethora of room tuning treatments that were de riguer for Jonathan. This guy takes his tweaks seriously. "Nope, the system isnt running so lets do it at your place," Jonathan informed me, "besides, I want to hear what the Pillow does to your Arcam."
I felt it was important to make Jonathan feel right at home. My system was not grounded properly so I spent the night before hacking holes in my wall and ceiling to run a new power line to my system. I now have a properly grounded, in phase, dedicated line for my system. I suppose the hospital grade plugs come next. Am I in the club yet?
JS...The drop-off turned into a four hour listening session. We started off slowly, listening to some new disks Jonathan had brought (along with Ed Balian, long time audio buddy and Madcap Audio member) and let the Power Line Pillows warm up. Did I mention he was bringing two over? We tried out the HDCD on the Audio Alchemy DDE v1.2 with Joni Mitchells Hits (which I bought the next day) and listened to the new JVC XRCD of Give it up to Love by Mighty Sam McLain. Great disk, great recording, great music. We also had a failed attempt at listening to a disk using the Micro Mat Gold. This disk is designed to work in a similar fashion to the CD Black Light by backing the disk with a more opaque material to get a better read, except it is supposed to work much better... it should at 4-5 times the price! The problem was that my NAD 514 would not read a CD with the double thickness of the disks.
It was now time for some serious listening. Jonathan brought out the Power Line Pillow BC-83 while I put on Keb Mo and had a few good listens. Jonathan then plugged everything into the BC-83 . I didn't even get back to the listening position and I could tell the difference! The solo acoustic guitar was much more three dimensional. No, Im not talking about imaging or soundstage, Im talking about air around the instrument. The detail and clarity had also improved dramatically. "Hmmm, somethings wrong here," I thought, "lets try that again." Yep, big difference again.
Now came the real test. Jonathan claimed that these things keep improving if the Pillows are run in a series. What the hell, go for it! Jonathan then plugged in a BC-84, their higher end model with multiple circuit boards feeding one pair of outlets. The difference was not nearly the same. I had to listen a couple of times to be sure, but yep, it was better - slightly. However, the addition of the second Pillow gave the kind of improvement that I was expecting just one Pillow would have given over straight AC. In my system using two Pillows in series was a barely audible improvement that is worth bucks to some, but is not something to get too excited about, at least in the budget world.
Doug Schneider is chuckling at this point because he told me that he thought the BC-83 would be as good of an improvement as adding an outboard DAC to my system. So far, I cant disagree. Now that the Blue Circle gang had gone it was time to put the BC-83 through its paces.
Stop the insanity!
DAS...I would classify the cost of my own system as sane high-end. I believe in components that offer the greatest performance for the dollar without having to sell my vital limbs or organs to afford. All tallied up my system creeps in around the 10K mark. My electronics include a Theta Data Basic Transport, Theta Prime II DAC, Blue Circle BC-3 preamp, and a Classe Fifteen amplifier. Cabling throughout the system is Nirvana's S-L series speaker and interconnect cable, as well as their exceptional digital coax cable between the transport and DAC. A number of other cables were also swapped in and out of the system as part of reviewing over this term. Speakers that I used during this time included the Von Schweikert VR-3, Coincident Speaker Technology Conquest, Newform Research R8-1-30, B&W 803 Series 2, and Merlin TSM. I also have a power conditioner of my own in the form of the venerable Power Wedge 114 by Audio Power Industries (My Wedge is now about 5 years old, the new models have been changed somewhat and are supposed to be better sonically, although I have not had the opportunity to try one yet. As well, mine is the Canadian Version which differs from those sold in the US by having a slightly different grounding scheme to conform to Canadian electrical standards). As is, I am extremely please with the performance of the system. To better it substantially I would have to spend much more money. Diminishing returns we call this.
Ill start off by talking about what role I think a power conditioner has in an audio system. For myself, there are two benefits that I find with a well designed conditioner. First, most conditioners on the market provide some sort of spike and surge protection for the equipment that plugs into them. In the case of the Blue Circle products they use MOVs. These are common devices that are intended to take the brunt of a power surge, should that occur. It is not the best way to guard against surges, but it is an effective method in terms of functionality and cost. If, say, a serious spike or surge hits your power line chances are your conditioner will be going in for repair, but your other valuable equipment should escape unscathed. That said, I believe quite strongly that if power protection is of prime concern then you can do better than what most audiophile power conditioners do. There are units on the market that are designed specifically to "Serve and Protect" your audio treasures and are optimized in that regard. No, they may not offer the sonic benefits these do, but these companies sometimes even offer their own warranties for products plugged into their protectors! Protection, then, is somewhat of a side-benefit. The real goal of most power conditioners aimed at audiophile market is an improvement in sound. A good conditioner will help get rid of the nasties in your AC power source with the result of -- improved musical performance! To avoid confusion, this is usually not like a computers Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) that is able to generate AC power from an internal battery until the battery runs down.
Whats It Like?
JS...True to Blue Circle form, wood is an integral part of the design. It is actually a wood case with a stainless steel back panel to house the outlets. What you essentially see is a black box with a Blue Circle logo and a funny blue power light. Its funny because at some angles in daylight you cant tell if the light is on. This is done on purpose with the assumption that most serious listening is done in the dark and you probably dont want to be blinded by the LED on your power conditioner -- at least thats Gilbert Yeungs take on it (Gilbert, it is said, never does anything to a product without a specific reason). In comparison, my NAD 514 CD player has enough lights that it looks like it could land small aircraft in the dark. Gilbert has a point.
Inside the unit there is a sheet metal lining and three distinct circuit boards, each with a duplex outlet attached. This means you get to plug in six different things, with the ability to isolate three groups of equipment from one another. The reason for this is to try to keep different types of equipment from messing with the power for each other. For example, you may wish to place your digital equipment on one receptacle and your preamp on another.
Considering this is a Blue Circle product, I half expected point to point wiring like their amps and preamps. However, the innards of the BC-83 are fiberglass circuit boards. If you are familiar with circuit boards, you will know that the signal path is typically a few millimeters wide with a fair bit of empty board. The circuit boards used in the Power Line Pillow products are mostly signal path with a few millimeters of empty board to ensure optimal signal conductance.
There is not much technical information supplied to explain the inner workings of the Pillow. Blue Circle Audio explained their design goals as follows: "When designing the Power Line Pillow, we were trying to clean up the noise in the power line without slowing down the speed of the power source (i.e. voltage and current). All Power Line Pillows have filter module(s) inside, the configuration depends on the model. Each filter module includes a network of passive components which make up the series / parallel filter design. These passive components will absort the noise energy from the power line and dissipate the absorbed energy into heat. The filtered power passes through without slowing the ability to deliver clean power on demand from the components. Coils and chokes (which are NOT used in the Power Line Pillows) retard the speed of delivery from your power supply. The effect is the slowing of transients, shrinking of the soundstage and smearing of the stereo image."
Blue Circle also has different models of Power Line Pillows called the BC-81, BC-84, and BC-85. They are all based on the same filtering technology, but their respective model numbers do not correlate to the number of receptacles or other such logic. They are simply different configurations and features. The BC-81 ($230 USD), for example, operates in parallel with your components by simply plugging into the same circuit, but does not actually have receptacles to plug components into. The BC-84 "utilizes Hubbell hospital-grade components and is designed for use with remote amplifiers or electrostatic speakers." The BC-85 is their most expensive model which retails for $775 USD and is described as "the same configuration as the 84" but has additional features and cosmetics. The BC-83 is the model intended to provide filtering for a complete system of components and will likely appeal to most consumers. It is priced very attractively at $490 USD.
Differences or Improvements?
DAS...As a first crack at determining how well the BC-83 would work I did the exact same thing that Jonathan Badov did, I used it only on my Classe amplifier. Were the differences apparent again? Darn right! I even performed this demonstration with a music loving, non-audiophile friend who is NOT a critical listener. "You think I'm going to hear a difference?" he chuckled as I plugged the Pillow and amplifier in. I played his favorite disk again and watched as his head jolted back a notch in the chair, followed by a few seconds of squirming, and then, "I, I, I never would have believed...."
The difference with and without the Pillow is not subtle. Anyone who has heard the Pillow in and out of my system, and even in their own systems, will attest to that. The most noticeable benefit is a significant reduction in high-frequency hash and edge. Upon first listen it is almost like the volume becomes reduced. After serious listening you will find out that your system is playing every bit as loud, but without the annoying edge to high-frequencies and the grain that is easily audible in the mid and upper midrange regions. There is an overall reduction haze and an improvement in transparency that extends throughout the entire frequency range. Subtle musical details are better resolved and 'musical lines' become easier to distinguish.
I played track 2, "Redemption," from Greg Keelors stunning solo disk Gone. This is an acoustic piece with sparse instrumentation surrounding Keelors closely miked voice. Without the Pillow in the system the voice is extremely well resolved with awesome detail and presence. With the Pillow in place those qualities remain but there is an improvement in focus, even more detail, and the subtle nuances such as spatial cues, studio noise, and even Keelors slight bumping of the microphone becomes much more apparent. Overall imaging and the perception of soundstage depth increases as well. Instruments and the outlines of their placement become sharper. The end result is a reduction in veiling, and to use an overused audiophile phrase, a clearer window into the presentation.
Were the differences with and without the Pillow easily distinguishable? You better believe it. The difference that the Pillow brought, compared to its asking price, makes it a no-brainer purchase for almost any system. To give you an example, I have on hand eight different interconnects from various manufacturers ranging from about $100 up to $2500. I can detect differences in some of the cables, however, I would say that the improvements that the Pillow made were much more audible than with any of the cables. Furthermore, I cannot see how you would get the level of improvement this conditioner provides going from a two, three, four, or five thousand dollar amp to one that is 500 dollars more than that. The same goes for CD players, preamps and the such. Was I surprised by the level of improvement? Not really, because I have lived with a Power Wedge 114 in my system for about five years and its entrance into my system was my first real eye-opener to the benefits of power conditioning.
Was there any down side to this? The significant reduction in hash and 'tizziness,' particularly in the high frequencies, can make a system sound softer and may even be described as dull by some. I have seen how an increased treble balance can give the perception of increased detail. Likewise, I could see how a reduction in the high-frequencies (in this case noise) could, upon first listen, sound like a reduction in detail. Indeed, this happened in one friends system that we inserted the Pillow into. The difference was readily apparent, but he was not 100% comfortable with it. I recommend listening long and hard beyond this because I don't believe you hear a loss of detail, rather I believe you will unravel a wealth of musical information.
JS... It took me a while to bring myself to unplug the BC-83 , but when I did I wanted to see how it affected each component. This kind of work ranks right up there with testing cables. It is fairly monotonous and you run the risk of getting sick of a particular musical track, but it is worth it in the end. I had been listening to the BC-83 with a variety of equipment: Rega Planet and NAD 514 CD players, Audio Alchemy DDE v1.2 DAC, Arcam alpha 6 integrated amp, Cary SLI80 integrated amp and Coincident Technologies Triumph Signature speakers. The biggest change I found was with the amplifier. Over long term testing I found that the change I heard on the first test was mostly amp related - probably over half of the difference. The extra air around the instruments and vocals were most prevalent when using the amp with the BC-83 . While there was similar improvement with the DAC, I found it was more subtle than with the amplifier.
The interesting test for me was the transport. I often have a hard time swallowing some of the explanations I hear about improved sound with digital equipment. This was the first chance I have had to listen for changes with a transport only. While I found no change in air, I did find that the high end was less tizzy. In English I mean that the cymbals and other high frequency sounds were smoother and less etched. This change contributed to an extra sense of clarity.
Friend or foe...
DAS...Some may think that since I have a Power Wedge 114 some sort of face-off is in order. Quite the contrary. Both the Wedge and Pillow are exceptional performers and I found them more compatible as partners rather than competitors. But before I tell you how I am currently using both of them, let me tell you one area where I did prefer the Pillow to the Wedge -- on my amplifier (I have also noticed some audiophile type power cords to have the largest effect on my amp). Some people find current limiting a problem when they use a power conditioner on the amplifier. The result is a reduction in dynamics. I did not find that with either product (although it should be noted that I do not tax my amplifier anywhere near its maximum, nor do I play my system at close to life-like levels where dynamic constraints may be better assessed). Using the Pillow with my amplifier accounted for a substantial portion of the improvement in my system and made it worth the price of the Pillow alone. Plugging my amp into the Wedge improved the sound, but not as much as with the Pillow. With my other components the performance was very similar between the Wedge and the Pillow. In fact, I actually preferred my digital components plugged into the Wedge by an ever so slight margin.
Then it hit me! "Why not get the best of both worlds?" So I plugged the Pillow into the wall, the amp into the Pillow, and as well, the Wedge into the Pillow. Then I plugged my preamp, DAC, and transport all into the Wedge. Blue Circle also indicated to me that their Pillow is ideal for chaining in series like this. It was this configuration that I found to be the best combination and that is the way it stands today. I own both and they will each remain a permanent part of the equipment regime because it sound sooooooo good. The total price of the two units together is just under $1000 which I still feel is excellent value.
Concluding with some New Thoughts!
DAS...When I said that I had some new thoughts on power conditioning it was in regard to what level of system a conditioner should go into. My previous thinking was that you should have some pretty substantial components (a system of about $5000 or more) before the topic of power conditioning becomes relevant. My thinking has since changed and I now believe that a conditioner such as the Wedge or the Pillow could be factored into systems that are budgeted at a total dollar mark of $2000 or so. Is it better to buy a $1500 system and a $500 conditioner or is it better to upgrade to slightly better components if you have the full $2000 to spend? These are the types of questions that I hope John Stafford will be able to shed some light on.
JS...While I was extremely impressed with the improvements from the BC-83 , I am not going to sit here and tell every budget person that they should run out and buy one. This exercise has demonstrated to me that it is a relevant consideration for those at the higher end of the budget spectrum. The point I would start factoring in a power conditioner is more like $2500 to $3000, I think more gains can be made in improved components below this threshold. I am a firm believer in trying to keep a system balanced and if you have something that is working well for you, an upgrade or tweak that will improve your system as a whole is often better than upgrading one component. Remember, the BC-83 should improve, to some extent, all of your components and it will be a valuable part of your system for many upgrades to come. As for my budget system, the BC-83 is staying!
DAS... Anyone contemplating a new equipment purchase should seriously consider a power conditioner if you do not have one already. Obviously the effectiveness of such a component will be subject to numerous variables such as the quality of your AC power source, the susceptibility of your components to dirty power, etc. Therefore, some experimentation is in order. Find a good dealer and try one out as a loaner if you can. The type of sonic improvement that can be gained for about $500 can be quite significant and may even amaze you. Factor in the added protection from spikes and surges and you have, in high-end audio terms, a bargain component purchase. Highly recommended.
Authorized Blue Circle Audio Dealer
|Blue Circle Audio Power Line Pillow BC-83
Price: $490 USD
Blue Circle Audio, Inc.