At the Consumer Electronics Show a couple years ago, I ran into a good friend employed in the power-conditioner business. In the course of conversation, I inquired how his business was doing. With a protracted sigh, he stated something to the effect of "everybody is making power conditioners these days," a fact supported by the plethora of power-conditioning/-filtering/-regenerating devices currently available on the audio market. Without thinking too hard, I came up with the names of a dozen such devices in a matter of a few seconds.
So whats the subject of this review? If you guessed "power conditioner," youd be partially right. The Shunyata Hydra would be categorized as a power conditioner, but its entirely different from what most of us have come to expect from products of this genre.
Normal starting-out stuff
The $1995 USD Hydra is the latest product from Shunyata Research, the folks that produce the much-heralded PowerSnakes line of after-market power cords. Housed in a strikingly attractive Corian box with polished granite end panels, this is not an industrial-looking, black-painted chassis. A wood insert in the front panel is laser-etched with the trademark King Cobra pictogram and adds additional elegance to the whole package. Measuring 10"W x 5.75"H x 14"D, the Hydra is quite compact and will easily fit on most audio-rack shelves.
Along the back panel are three pairs of duplex outlets, an in-line fuse holder, and a NEMA 15-amp twistlock socket for the incoming power. Shunyatas own Sidewinder power cord is included for use in conjunction with this connector, and just so there is no confusion, a standard IEC-terminated cord will not work with this fitting -- you must use the supplied Sidewinder or find an alternate cord fitted with the appropriate connector. The Sidewinder is an exceedingly good power cord in its own right, a SoundStage! Network Reviewers' Choice, so you dont necessarily need to make up an excuse to play around with others. Its quite nice to have a high-caliber cord included, instead of it being an additional-cost option that increases the base price.
Whats it all about?If you find all this power-conditioning stuff confusing, dont feel bad. I do too. So I asked Caelin Gabriel (the head PowerSnake) to provide an explanation -- in laymans terms -- of what the Hydra actually does. According to Gabriel, traditional power conditioners and filters are designed from the premise that components need to be protected from RFI (radio-frequency interference) and EMI (electromagnetic interference) generated from sources external to the audio system. This has usually been attempted in one of two primary ways: impeding high-frequency bandwidth and/or redirecting electromagnetic energy. A third method, one that has been around for quite some time in the computer industry, has recently surfaced for audio applications: power regeneration.
Gabriel contends that the primary culprit to power-line-induced sonic degradation does not stem from external RFI/EMI sources. His research indicates that the principle source of line fluctuation, EMI, and noise are generated by the audio/video components themselves. Gabriel believes that if this premise is true, power-conditioning/-filtering/-regenerating devices may actually degrade system performance by reflecting the EMI generated by the components back towards the source.
The Hydra is based upon the same proprietary (and patent-pending) noise-reduction technology used in the PowerSnakes power cords. The Stardust material used inside the Hydra is actually a blend of several different chemical formulas. The various formulations operate in different frequency bands and are selected for the required application. Stardust starts from a chemical compound base that is fired in high-temperature ovens that cause it to crystallize into a hard, granular substance. Gabriel says that Stardust "literally absorbs high-frequency AC line noise" through an electromagnetic-coupling mechanism.
The Hydra is constructed from an electromagnetically confined chamber that is filled with Stardust. It utilizes two electromagnetic-field-shaping bus arrays that "focus" high frequencies within the chamber. This reportedly increases the coupling, and thereby the effectiveness of the Stardust compound. The Hydra uses no conventional chokes or capacitors, and thus imposes no current limiting on components plugged into it.
Layman enough for you?
The Hydra does not run hot (or even warm, for that matter), does not hum or vibrate, and due to the fact that it imposes no limit on current delivery, you can plug in most, if not all of your components (up to 1875 watts total demand). It has no ventilation requirements, which allows great flexibility in the decision of where to place it. I did find, however, that sonic gains were possible with some attention directed to what it sat on. Placing it directly on my static-prone carpet was discovered early on as the worst thing to do. After experimenting with a number of different isolation/tuning schemes, I settled with placing it on a Greater Ranges Neuance isolation shelf (borrowed briefly from underneath my turntable), with 1" Audio Point brass cones between the Neuance and the carpet covered-concrete floor. There are no absolutes in the isolation/tuning game, so its highly recommended to experiment and find what works best in your system.
Regarding break-in, Im as religious in my belief that it exists as are others who believe it to be strictly psychoacoustical. I have no fancy scientific thesis to present here, so all Im going to say is that I gave the Hydra 100 hours of burn-in on a 400-watt light tree prior to assessing it sonically. It did not seem to change much, if any, during the review process, so either 100 hours is sufficient, or break-in truly is a figment of some audiofool imaginations.
A final important note: the Hydra does not provide any AC-line protection, other than the 15-amp fuse. If lightning, damaging surge currents or miscellaneous (and catastrophic) power gremlins are a primary concern, then a means external to the Hydra will have to be considered. To be fair, many of the audio-oriented power-conditioning devices do not provide sufficient protection for such catastrophes anyway, so if you live in a severe-thunderstorm-prone area like mine, youre better off unplugging stuff entirely when those warning messages start beeping on Channel 5.
Up against the wall
In order to draw a baseline for the sonic ramifications of the Hydra, and as a PS Audio P300 has been employed in my system for the past two years, I spent a couple weeks with the P300 removed and all components plugged straight back into the wall prior to introducing the Hydra. After sufficient acclimation to un-conditioned power, the Hydra hit the system. As the total wattage requirements of all my components fell well within the Hydras capabilities, I plugged everything into it, including the amplifiers.
The resulting sonic improvements cannot be described as subtle. The most striking change at the outset was a dramatic improvement in soundstage space and detail. Im fortunate to have a dedicated room that is large enough to allow speaker placement well away from boundaries. This helps most any speaker Ive used in this room produce a wide and very deep soundstage. The Hydra moved those boundaries a little further out, but what it did for the definition within that space was what caught my attention. Wide and deep is cool, but layering and specific localization, both front to back and side to side, is even cooler. On the title track from Linda Ronstadts Dedicated To The One I Love [Elektra 7559-61916-2], not only was Ronstadts voice moved further back in the stage, the accompanying vocals established their own separate location in relation to hers. You probably hear the phrase "3-D" often enough when expressing the qualities of a soundstage, and the Hydra could provide a dictionary definition of what that expression means. This enhanced soundstage creation and delineation were clearly evident on every recording I put through the system. Vinyl replay was a real treat.
The next immediately apparent quality the Hydra brought out was in the area of micro- and macrodynamics. The Cary 805C monoblock amplifiers sounded like theyd received an injection of adrenaline. While they obviously didnt have any more measurable power, they sure sounded like they did. Bass lines were stronger, with greater impact and heft. Increased volume levels came through with greater ease, without any sense of strain or compression that similar volume levels without the Hydra sometimes presented. In that mix of things dynamic, one of the most endearing qualities highlighted by the Hydra was the unraveling of microdynamic detail and contrast. A prime example is found on the title cut from John Lee Hookers The Healer [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 567]. Minus the Hydra, the percussive mix can sound a little confused. With the Hydra, each instrument's distinct volume shift was more easily discerned, and this lent a greater sense of rhythm and drive.
Tonally, the Hydra has little (if any) effect. It does not impart additional warmth or brightness, nor does it strip any away if it already exists. A song that Im very familiar with is "Red Shoe Tango," from the soundtrack to Red Shoe Diaries [Mercury 314-515584-2]. Its a very short instrumental piece thats nicely recorded and features some percussion and a nicely rendered saxophone. It captures the feel of the recording space to good effect. I detected no change to the tone and character of the sax, instead hearing only a better sense of the decay as each note ended. The drum kit at the end was more realistic in its presentation, with a better portrayal of the transient edges and detail.
One of the qualities most people look for in a power conditioner is the ability to "clean up" the sound. Many of the better conditioners on the market do a pretty good job in this regard, removing or reducing noise artifacts commonly referred to as grit, hash and fuzz. The problem Ive experienced with many products is that in the process of removing this noise, some of the music is removed along with it. And this is exactly what the Hydra doesnt do. There is no smoothing, no reduction in treble energy or extension, no loss of bass impact, and no loss of dynamic swing. On cut five from The Phantom Of The Opera [Polygram 831 563-2], the vocals sans Hydra have a very pronounced edge and sibilance. With the Hydra in, much of that sibilance is reduced, yet the clarity of the voices scales new heights. Nothing is rolled off, clamped down, or covered up here. The organ delved more deeply into the nether regions of the bass, and the stage expanded nicely. What I got was more of the music, and less of the non-music. I had to bring in another listening chair for Mr. Clean, who came along for the ride and seems to have taken up permanent residence.
Up against the PS Audio P300 Power Plant
The PS Audio P300 has served well during the time Ive owned it, and I found it quite revelatory when it first met up with my system. It made a significant improvement over straight-from-the-wall power, and seemed to impose much less of a signature to the overall sound than any conditioning unit that had preceded it. Due to the limits of its current capability, however, it was only possible to use it for front-end components. The amplifiers have been plugged straight into the wall, as well as several front-end review pieces that required more power than the P300 could handle. My P300 does not have the recently introduced MultiWave functionality, and I have not had the chance to listen to a Power Plant with that option installed.
In order to level the playing field as much as possible, the comparisons noted below were compiled from my listening notes with just the front-end components plugged into either unit. This might be a bit unfair to the Hydra, as it could handle my amplifiers. So shoot me. Its only fair to note, however, that the sonic improvements offered by the Hydra powering all components is even more significant than when it's powering the front-end components only.
In direct comparison, the P300 lent an overall air of politeness to the music, while the Hydra lent an overall air of excitement. In my system, the P300 does a very capable job of attenuating and/or eliminating sonic nastiness and garbage, stripping the aforementioned grit and hash out of the music. But it softens transient attack and snap in the process. Subtle shifts in microdynamic information are masked somewhat, which is something that isnt entirely evident until the P300 is taken out of the system. The Hydra instills a pronouncement of these shifts, which perhaps is what makes the difference so large when doing a direct comparison. If you stumble into a conversation with avid vinyl spinners, youll likely hear the term PRaT (Pace, Rhythm, and Timing) bandied about. If youre not sure exactly what that means, pop a Hydra into your system. Then youll know.
This comparison is not meant as some backhanded condemnation of the P300, as it does a large portion of its job exceedingly well. But it also does some things in the process that are not entirely welcome -- and these may go unnoticed due to the very things that it does so well. The Hydra seems to pull off the remarkable feat of cleaning up without cleaning out.
One issue to consider is that the air of politeness offered by the P300 may not necessarily be a bad thing for a source (or system) that has some unwanted brightness, or suffers from a relentless or edgy treble presentation. The Hydra does not attenuate anything, and there are some systems that may actually be easier to listen to with a bit of smoothing in that area.
Reviewers are normally chastised for writing reviews that come across as too much of a rave. As far as the Hydra goes, I guess that Ill just have to be chastised. In my system, the Hydra simply improves the sound in all respects. It improves it in some areas substantially, and brings the improvements to the table without imposing its own sonic signature or adding a laundry list of contrasting negatives. It does not run warm, does not limit current, can handle the conditioning duties of many entire systems without problem, and even includes its own power cord. At a retail price of $2000, it cannot be considered inexpensive, but Ive done component upgrades costing as much or more that havent offered the same level of sonic improvement.
After I completed my listening time with the Hydra, I sent the unit to Marc Mickelson for further evaluation and comment. I found that I had no real interest in listening to my system once the Hydra was gone -- things were just boring and uninvolving. The true test of any component is whether it brings you closer to the music and causes you to spend more time listening. The Hydra passes that test with flying colors.
Copyright © 2001 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved