[SoundStage!]Planet Hi-Fi
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February 2003

First Impression Music Model 880 AC Receptacle

Don’t stop until you hit the AC receptacle!

Ah yes, alternating current! What started out as a mere curiosity for me has developed into a real obsession. It's all around us, providing energy to accomplish life’s basic and at times more complicated tasks. Often taken for granted, good-quality AC is hard to come by, especially when 700 other environmentally unconscious apartments feed off the same tap. This pipe, in turn, also hooks into the regional power company’s sub-grid that services a quarter of Manhattan. Think you’ve got it bad? Try auditioning equipment in August with every air conditioning unit in New York City cranked to its max. Even the best equipment starts to choke on the electrical filth and pollution.

A while back, I took my first step into rectifying the nasty AC that flows through my apartment by purchasing a high-end power cord. It was the Silver Audio PowerBurst, or what my friend who’s addicted to reality shows calls the Joe Millionaire cord -- sounds like a million bucks, but in reality costs very little. Unlike the popular FOX reality show, this was no scam. And after living with this cable for an extended period of time, I never heard it say "Gotcha" but always managed to catch a pronounced "Wow" from visiting audiophiles and more grounded friends alike.

A couple of years later from my first dip into the AC-power-upgrade pool, I purchased a very good-sounding Chang Lightspeed line conditioner, and then later on a couple of magical Blue Circle BC86 parallel line filters. After a slight detour auditioning and finally purchasing a Powerware 9125 series online-double-conversion UPS, I’ve ended up as close to the power company transformer as I can get in a rental home: the AC wall receptacle. I was beginning to think that I had targeted all the possible fronts on which to battle the invading electrical pollution. But what about that AC wall receptacle? My tweaky brain started to kick into second gear. That thing has got to be as old as I am, and possibly as old as this building! Perhaps I could try replacing it with a high-end receptacle. I wonder what that would do.

Yeah, I can hear the remarks all the way from my desk. Stuff like, "That boy’s drunk" or "Playing too close to that Zerostat gun?" And my favorite, "Maybe you should try some non-toxic disc cleaner, something without FUMES!"

Nay, nay, nay, nay, nay-sayers

Well, laugh all you want -- and my friends have busted a rib or two these past few months -- but some things, as crazy and insignificant as they might seem, can have real impact on sound quality and system performance. I personally scoffed at the Bedini Ultra Clarifier when I was a hi-fi salesman, but soon bit my tongue after auditioning it alongside a more open-minded customer. So when I picked up the First Impression Music Model 880 AC wall receptacle from the package room, I thought back to that humiliating experience with the Ultra Clarifier and vowed never again to pass hi-fi judgment prematurely.

The FIM Model 880 arrived in a plain white cardboard box with a gold FIM label adorning the outside of the lid. Purchasers will catch a bit of déjà vu when they open the box, as another gold FIM label appears alongside the brief marketing brochure and the distinctive blue-faced AC receptacle, this label apparently to be placed on the outside face of your AC wall plate. I always say that a little extra branding never fails to motivate consumers. I stuck mine just beneath the bottom receptacle.

Aside from the bright blue color of the high-density plastic casing, the Model 880 looks and feels awfully ordinary. But according to FIM, the differences lie within the casing as well with the electrical contacts located both on the inside (receptacle blades) and rear of the housing (contact screws). Higher-quality AC receptacles attempt to improve sound quality by concentrating on improving the unit’s mechanical and electrical properties. In this case, FIM has replaced the plastic casing with something a bit more solid, although I could not really tell the difference until I tried to push the edge of a screwdriver into the side of the casing. The commercial 15-amp duplex receptacle that came installed in my apartment was definitely constructed of softer plastic than the Model 880 and allowed me to inflict a deeper gouge when using about the same amount of force. But whether having a casing of higher-density plastic will reduce resonances, and whether or not this should/will correlate with improved sound quality, is still open for argument.

Of greater mechanical importance in my mind is the Model 880’s improved gripping power, or contact tension. Loose or weak contacts will allow the male contact blades of the power cord to either slip out of the receptacle or at least hang down and slightly away from the casing. This could reduce the contact area between the power cord and the wall receptacle because part of the power cord blade will be physically hanging outside the receptacle. In addition, the male blades and the female receptacle contacts are not perfectly straight or complementary. Each one will each have its own small but unique shape or curve that will not perfectly align with each other. Add to this problem the contacts’ usual coarse and irregular surface and we have two surfaces that ideally should touch each other perfectly but do not. High contact tension cannot smooth out or permanently flatten the surface contact area, but can at least help flatten out these irregularities and increase the amount of contact area between the two surfaces. Increase the quantity and quality of the contact area and surfaces and the result is decreased distortion due to arcing.

Are higher-density plastic and stronger gripping power better? Well, for all you skeptical readers out there, these are not quite everything. FIM has also improved the conductivity of the Model 880 by replacing the usual stamped steel and/or brass contact screws and internal receptacle blades with high-conductivity copper pieces. I would have liked to have also seen some sort of anti-oxidation coating on the contact surfaces, but regular maintenance -- such as unplugging and plugging your power cord from the wall receptacle -- should alleviate this problem. This should scrape off any crusty build-up on the contact areas. Of course, in order to get at the hot- and cold-wire contact screws, you’ll have to turn off the breaker and access the back of the receptacle to clean off the barnacles.

Replacing the AC wall receptacle is easy; just remember to ALWAYS turn off the power from the main breaker box BEFORE working with ANYTHING relating to the electrical components of your home or system. When you’re ready to evaluate a new AC receptacle, just locate your breaker box, find the switch that correlates with the outlet you would like to experiment on, and switch it off. To double check, I recommend plugging in a table lamp to the outlet in question and verifying that the light goes out when the power is switched off. Next, go to the outlet, remove the wall plate, disconnect the two or three wires (hot, cold, ground) from the rear of the housing, remove the old receptacle and replace with the new receptacle, re-attach the wires, replace the wall plate, and flip the breaker switch back on. You can check the table lamp to see if power has indeed been restored. Finally, use an Elfix Polarity Tester or similar device to verify that the AC wires have been hooked up correctly to the new receptacle.

Sounds like, sorta, I think, well, maybe…

After about two hours of listening, the first handful of discs shuffled in and out of my front-end and back onto my CD shelf without incident. I was listening intently and thoroughly enjoyed myself, but after lunchtime had passed and my stomach reminded me of the leftover pizza in the kitchen, I realized that nothing had sonically changed. Natalie Imbruglia’s beautiful voice on "Satellite" from White Lilies Island [BMG, BG2 68082], sounded open, clear, and three-dimensional, just like it sounded the week before. I wondered if there was a bit more definition to her words, perhaps a little less haze around the attack of the drum kit. Nope.

I wondered if all the line conditioning I was using (Chang Lightspeed into the Powerware UPS) was masking/preventing any of the benefits of the Model 880 from being transferred to the listener. So, just for kicks, I unplugged my Jeff Rowland Concentra integrated amp from the Chang Lightspeed line conditioner (and therefore also from the Powerware UPS), and drove it directly from the FIM Model 880 AC wall receptacle. The rest of the system also ran through the 880, but first through the Chang Lightspeed/Powerware combination. That aspect did not change from my earlier evaluation setup. I cued up "Two Faced" from The Complete in a Silent Way Sessions [Sony C3K 65362], Wayne Shorter’s tenor sax sounded livelier, more forward in the midrange with Dave Holland’s additional string bass speed in the lower octaves adding appreciated excitement and pace to this cut. But these enhanced attributes arrived along with a somewhat overall higher noise floor that detracted from some information and detail within the recording.

I kept myself amused with another change. This time, I switched out the FIM Model 880 and put back the old receptacle. Everything else remained constant. Oftentimes it is easier to discern changes in sound quality when you remove the item responsible for the improvement, a method called detraction. Instead of inserting a new component and listening for any improvements to the sound, first try listening to your newly configured system with the changed item in place. When you have familiarized yourself with the "new" sound, insert the old component back into the system and listen for any changes. I did just that and was pleasantly surprised at something I initially thought was due to listener fatigue but later confirmed was due to the FIM Model 880.

I heard two things: (1) There was greater bass impact and definition, and (2) the midrange opened up ever so slightly when listening to solo vocals. In order to pinpoint exactly what change(s) I was hearing, it took me multiple receptacle swaps along with successfully wearing out both the A-B repeat button and my wife’s tolerance for playing the same two-minute passage. But this trying experiment allowed me to capture what I initially thought was a minor and fleeting improvement, but eventually and confidently nailed down as a small but fairly significant sonic improvement. On my first two passes with "Jesus, etc." from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Nonesuch 79669-2], I heard a slightly more centered and focused midrange, with perhaps a more plump bottom end -- not a real helpful description, but in line with my initial inability to easily and deftly describe what was going on in my living room. But with each subsequent round with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the characteristics of the Model 880’s sonic enhancements slowly began to emerge with clearer focus and greater audibility. After playing about a dozen or so identical passages through the system from another song, "Heavy Metal Drummer," I narrowed it down to a specific effect that interestingly held true across disparate albums, songs, and passages.

The Model 880 provided a quieter background with less haze around the critical midrange, especially when listening to vocals. Images were more stable, aligning themselves more definitively when centered. The blacker backdrop allowed a bit more information to come through by helping to further suppress veiling electronic noise. In addition, the midbass and lower bass carried more weight and thump. Low notes appeared to be etched into the musical framework with greater-than-normal force. They were both more prominent and less restricted by the music’s landscape.

After living with the FIM Model 880 AC wall receptacle for over six months and comparing it to the ordinary AC receptacle in my home, I am convinced that the FIM Model 880 does provide audible benefits. Can upgrading your own AC wall receptacle to the FIM Model 880 improve your system’s sound quality? Perhaps it can. It certainly did for me.

My auditioning experience with the Model 880 was rather interesting and quite exciting, as I would have never believed that an AC receptacle would improve a system’s sound quality. It’s an AC outlet, not a speaker or CD player! I know some readers will look upon this month’s column with extreme skepticism, but I stand my ground. No, I am not crazy. And yes, in my opinion, the level of improvement provided by the Model 880, although slight, is readily apparent. Just give yourself some time to get a handle on its capabilities and you might hear what I have been trying to describe to you here.

At $70, the Model 880 is expensive for an AC receptacle, but not much money for the positive results gained. If you look at the Model 880 from a pure dollars-invested point of view, I believe you’ll get high return on investment from this little guy -- audio performance that far outweighs its price tag.

...Greg Kong

First Impression Music Model 880 AC Receptacle
Price: $69.95 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

First Impression Music
7309 233rd Pl. NE
Redmond, WA 98053
Phone: (425) 868-5326
Fax: (425) 836-9061

E-mail: support@fimpression.com
Website: www.fimpression.com


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