Mains is mains isn’t it? Surely all you need is a stable 110/230 volts and an extension block to provide more sockets. An approach I’ve followed myself until now; I figured money was better spent elsewhere. That despite the nagging doubt I should at least explore whether better power made a difference. After all, cars don’t run well on dirty fuel do they? Nor we humans for that matter.

Intent became action at last year’s Ascot show. Isotek was showcasing various devices. A task made easier by its ‘mains sniffer’, a perspex box with a numerical readout. Plug its lead into a socket to show the electrical noise present (it also makes a sound, louder meaning dirtier mains). If the electrical noise is high then it’s time to do something about it.

Long story short, I took delivery of the sniffer and various Isotek products shortly after. Followed in quick succession by more products from Audioquest. That gave me lots to play with but also too many permutations to try everything. So I’ve simplified the assessment into several parts.

    • Some background on the role of clean power in audio
    • A review of Audioquest’s Jitterbug (£40 street price) that cleans signals from USB sockets (phone, computer etc). 
    • Then a look at Isotek’s EVO3 IsoPlug. It’s similar to the Jitterbug but works on mains, not USB. 
    • Reviews of 3 mains cables; Isotek’s C13 and Audioquest’s NYG-3 & Blizzard (£100/£200/£650). 
    • Finally I tested Isotek’s £650 V5 Polaris and Audioquest’s £1050 Niagara 1200 mains blocks. 

In terms of articles, this one sets the scene for the reviews. In a few days the Jitterbug review will be published. Shortly followed by one looking at the Isoplug and the mains cables. Culminating in a final article to cover the extension blocks. I’ll say upfront there are benefits to be had with the least expensive component. So maybe it’s worth reading on, even if you’re a little sceptical to start with (as I was).    

So what noise am I listening for?

Electrical noise does not manifest itself (as many people assume) as a buzzing or hissing noise from your speakers or headphones. If you’ve got that your problem is elsewhere (earthing, speaker amp mismatch etc). What we’re talking about here is electrical noise that sits in the background. You don’t hear it per se, it does mask the music you’re listening to though. 

Think about trying to hold a conversation in a room full of noisy people. You have to talk louder to hear each other. Either that or you miss bits of the discussion. The problem is exacerbated when the background chatter increases. Reduce it and it’s easier to hear the nuances of conversation. It’s the same with electronics, albeit on a smaller scale.

In electronics the proportion of foreground and background sound is known as the Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR), which is a widely used measurement. It can also be very meaningful. 

A jet fighter with a low-noise radar will see enemy aircraft further out for example. That’s where digital-audio expert Data Conversion Systems (DCS) cut its teeth (in the Falklands war). Similarly, a medical diagnostic tool with a good SNR allows doctors to spot problems earlier than they might otherwise. Say hello to audio company Shunyata’s medical division. Meaning yes, low noise in electronics can be a matter of life and death. 

In audio the benefits are (arguably!) less critical. Reduced noise does generally lead to a cleaner sound though, allowing more detail through. Power a simple Raspberry Pi streamer from something like iFi’s £60 iPower 2 and everything sounds more organised and relaxed. Electronics designers also put a lot of emphasis on low-noise circuitry in their designs. Snake oil this is not folks.

All of which is a layman’s take on a very complex topic. As we’ll see with the power blocks other factors can come into play. ‘The cleaner the better’ is a pretty universal truth for power though, hence there being a healthy market in products to clean up your act. Next up is Audioquest’s Jitterbug FMJ, a simple device that acts on the USB signal from your phone, laptop or streamer. It’s an option everyone can afford, but is it worthwhile?  Watch this space…..