Product of the Century

Dr. William Gaw

Excerpted from
September 1, 2001

Sound Application CF-XE Line Conditioner

While all of the improvements I have made in my system over the years has gotten me closer to the sound of live music, optimal listening has occurred only on very rare occasions when the electricity is perfect, which seems only at 11:42 P.M. on Thursday March 13… for about five minutes. This has always driven me crazy as I tend to prefer listening at other times. Otherwise the biggest single constant detractor of my and your systems’ sound is the awful, crappy, disgusting A/C that your power company transmits. The supposedly pure 60 Hz. sine wave has enough garbage attached to it in some homes to make the E.P.A list it as a toxic waste site if it were traveling through the ground. Just think of your power wire and how it is acting as an antenna of many miles length from the generator to your power company supplied low-end step-down transformer. Think of all of the RFI, from every radio and television station, CB and Ham operator… not to mention that produced by that big transmitting station in the sky, the Sun, etc. Think of all of the noise that is transmitted through that line from the power company as radio signals, all of the back EMF as motors, inductors, computers, etc., attached to the electrical system screw up that supposedly pristine sine wave. Think of how your equipment is trying to produce something close to DC by finding the peaks of that sine wave among that garbage and how the caps and inductors are trying to filter out the garbage riding on that wave. Think of how some of your equipment with switching power supplies, and digital equipment is spewing out its own RFI to other pieces of equipment in your system, and you get some idea of what sort of crap is riding along as your equipment is trying to reproduce and amplify that supposedly pristine signal on your recorded medium. It’s a wonder that any of our systems sound as good as they do at times.

Over the years I’ve tried home generators (lousy spiky wave), banks of isolation transformers with and without motor run capacitors (dull transients), high-end power cords (expensive for what they do), wood blocks, massive ferrite blockers, wire shields (cheap but minimally effective), capacitor banks (almost electrocuted the cat)… None of these has done anything but scratch the surface at blocking the crap while each has added some sort of problem usually related to starving the system for current. Up until now! The only thing that gave me some relief was to run five 1.5 and 2 KVA AC-DC-AC sine wave uninterruptible power supplies that gave me great sound at night, but still let through some sort of grunge during the day and especially the evening, and compressed the transients somewhat.

Enter the Tweak of the century, no matter what this magazine has written last month about the Product of the Year, the CF-XE Line conditioner by James Weil of Sound Application, is the best product out there in my opinion. I first heard of this unit about a year ago, through an article by Dick Olsher within these pages and while he loved the unit, its price put me off a little. Then I heard what it can do at the Stereophile Show in May.

On the Friday press day of the show I went into the Art Audio, Soliloquy, etc. room and thought the sound good but not great. Luckily, Clark Johnsen, Kwami and I got into the show before it opened on Saturday morning with our press passes and went to a private demo at another room. I happened to pass by this same room again and from outside the sound drew me in.

They had redone the system and had inserted two of the CF-XE units. I awarded Best Sound of the Show on the spot as this room now had the best audio I’d heard at any show. While there were probably other things done to the system, I figured the units must have done some of the improvement and that next week I contacted Mr. Weil and begged for a review unit. We conversed back and forth for a while as he didn’t know me from Adam and had to wait anyway for more units to be built as he had a huge backlog of orders. I finally received one with its own power cord and 20 amp. AC outlet, for review.

Please go back to Dick’s article for a full review of the unit so I won’t have to write so much, and I agree with what he said anyway. Over multiple e-mails I’ve gleaned the following extra information from Mr. Weil. There have been three versions of the units, with this latest one using “extended foil capacitors” (whatever they are) and “high conductivity AC outlets”. Each is hand built over an eight-hour two day schedule. All hand wired with true cold welding while soldering done in an Argon environment. This guy has got to be the most anal-retentive engineer in the world, (although he sounds like a regular great guy on the phone)! He only uses 5 ppm Caddock Ultra Precision resistors, 6 Nines 12-gauge copper wire, 8-gauge OFE 4 Nines NASA grade bus bars and cryogenically treated high conductivity outlets.

Each unit also comes with an extra high conductivity 20 amp outlet which is needed as the plug on the CF-XE unit is a 20 amp IEC type. Thus, most other high-end power cords cannot be used as the IEC pins are oriented differently compared to the standard 15 amp type. Only Jim’s power cord can be used as all other high-end cords that I know of use 15 amp plugs that have a different orientation. Of course you can make one up if you can find the correct plugs and Jim says he will supply them for a nominal charge if you buy one of his units.

Luckily he had a partially broken in unit that he shipped to me for the review. He also claims that the unit can take a 50 amp load continuously without burning out, or even getting warm, and gives them a 25 to 30 year life. The unit also has a built in 11 stage surge suppresser of his design, which one customer claims allowed his stereo system to survive a direct lightening strike to the home while the stereo was playing. A magnetic circuit breaker rather than a standard thermal type is included which, according to Jim, has less effect on dynamics and has only a few microseconds delay before triggering.

They can be found in systems at the CBS Dedicated Reference Listening Suite; in evaluation systems at BAT, Avant Garde, Walker Audio, ART Audio, Silverline….Jim states that they were used in 18 high-end rooms at this year’s CES.

The system as shipped to me consists of his power cord, a special cryogenically treated high conductance 20 amp wall plug, and the box with 12 outlets plus a circuit breaker on-off surge suppresser switch. The wall outlet comes free with the unit and the cord is cheaper if bought together.

I have been using it to plug in my entire audio-video system, which had been using 6KVA worth of uninterruptible power supplies, and have only tripped the circuit breaker once when I accidentally dropped my cartridge onto a record and the Crown Macro-Reference went into overload (and probably also the seismometer at Univ. of N.H.). Luckily everything, including the stylus on my $15,000 Audio-Note cartridge and my heart and hearing, survived. A quick flick of the switch/circuit breaker on the CF-XE got the system up and running again.

What has the unit done for my system?  Turned day into night!  Allowed me to put some of the six power supplies up for sale on an Internet newsgoup which will hopefully give me enough money to purchase another of these units to isolate the digital more from the rest of the system as Jim suggests.

The first time I turned it on was at 11 a.m. on my Thursday off from the office, and the first thing I played was an Opus One CD with Tiden Bar Gar, a recording I have been using for 20 years for evaluation, and which I am somewhat familiar with. First impression: I thought I was listening to analog. The CD sounded as good as it ever had, in any of my late night listening sessions. Not only had the curtains lifted, but the digital nasties were gone. The internote silence was deafening. One cannot understand what the RFI and EMI distortion are causing until one hears the silent background produced by this unit. I felt just like I was listening to analog , and matched how I felt while listening to SACD at the shows with none of that digital tenseness. Analog sounded even better with all of the curtains up, with perfect pitch stability, with the hall sound extending behind me even with the surrounds turned off. At 11 in the morning I was hearing what I usually don’t at night. I think I’ve finally cured the electricity problem with this one unit since over the past three weeks the sound has consistently been as good as I’ve ever heard from those previous unusual peaks. The unit also worked synergistically with the Walker Ultra Links, as one cleaned up the AC and the other the junk picked up and produced by the equipment, interconnect and speaker wires.

I know this is supposed to be an audio column, but I must mention that there was also a tremendous improvement on the video side. I receive the direct HBO and Showtime C-band HDTV 1080I feed, which is the best available signal in the world, short of sitting in the studio, and project it with an Electrohome 8500 projector onto a 10 ft. 16 x 9 screen.

I can say without reservation that my video is now better than anything I’ve ever seen demo’ed at any showroom or show.

Colors are more vibrant; the image is more three dimensional and film-like. I watched the Jurassic Park II DVD on my home HTPC at 960P, 72 Hz., and then went to the premier Friday noon at my local megaplex of III, and can honestly say, that the home reproduction of the audio and video far surpassed what was being reproduced in the theater. Except for my addiction to the artificial butter-coconut oil on the popcorn (I’m not a cardiologist), there is no longer any reason for me to go to the movies.

I have found two problems with the unit, one of which I’ve solved, and the other that I’m going to need some help on. The first was a 60 cycle low level hum from my Marchand tube crossover for the center channel. I’ll discuss this one below. The second one is going to be a little more difficult.

An hour after I had put the unit into my system, and was half way through the Beethoven third, I heard some unusual room noises that I hadn’t heard before in the recording and thought WOW, surround information without the rear speakers. Then I realized they were coming from behind my chair. Turning around, I actually found my wife sitting there. She had sneaked into the room behind me and was actually listening to the music. She never comes in while I’m listening! Says it hurts her ears. Women are like that — much better at discerning high pitched anomalies- probably relates to listening for whining babies — something genetic — which thank goodness men don’t have. Anyway, she now loves the way the stereo sounds and has come in several times since to listen but unhappily also to talk.

This is the first time she has ever asked me what I had done to the system to make it sound so good. Thus, I guess this is the first piece of audio equipment I’ve had that got an A for the WAF (wife acceptance factor). So be forewarned! If you like the solitude that your audio system offers you, don’t buy this thing. On the other hand if you want or need a chick magnet, well this is cheaper than a Ferrari. Play a little mood music and see what happens.

The final experiment, for now, was to run my uninterruptible power supplies off of the unit, and use one for the video equipment, one for the digital, one for the surround amps, and the analog and amplifiers directly from the CF-XE. While the UPS’s total wattage plus the analog stuff probably exceeded the 50 amp limit of the CF-XE, the special circuit I have running to the room is rated at 60 amps, and I figured the UPS’s wouldn’t be running full out anyway, I thought what the hell. Let’s see if the unit can actually deal with high loads. So first I turned on all of the analog, then the UPS’s and switched them on to battery, which actually continue to draw wall current, warmed up the system, and listened and watched.

Again, there was a jump in level of all of the above improvements. I am truly a happy camper. At mid-day and evening, the normally worst times for listening, the system sounds better than the best I’d ever achieved. Happily, there is no improvement beyond this at night. Conclusion? Maybe I’ve actually reached the Mount Everest peak of noise suppression in my system.

While this is the most expensive tweak I’ve placed in my system over 21 years, it is actually the cheapest in total cost considering the time and money I’ve spent in AC tweaks that have failed. Jim claims that two work synergistically, especially if one is used to isolate digital from analog, and I’d have to believe him. Thus, I have a second on order.

Most highly rated tweak I’ve used and for me PRODUCT OF THE CENTURY.

I feel so strongly about this unit that I have to suggest that any reviewer that doesn’t have one cannot be giving you the best review possible.

That’s enough writing. I’m going back to my system, and may not return for a while to do another column. Besides, I don’t think I’ll be able to top this find. Sorry Steve, you may have to find another writer.

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