Power to the People - Cleanly
How to Clean Up your Home Theater's Act
By Jim Bray
"The Buzz" has become synonymous with excitement and hype. Its
connotation is that "The Buzz" is something to be desired.
But if you're into good, clean audio, "the buzz" takes on a whole
different, and evil, meaning: it's something to be avoided at all costs. Well,
maybe not all costs, but within reason
As with anything home theater-related, noise and interference that
affects the quality of the sound and/or picture you enjoy is nasty, and affects
your enjoyment. Just as evil is the wicked "power spike," those surges down the
electrical wires that can turn state-of-the-art electronics into smoking hunks
of plastic and metal in an instant.
The average home is cursed with unstable electrical peaks and
valleys that can wreak havoc on equipment. Without getting technical, these
spikes could be caused by such factors as power usage patterns around your
neighborhood, or lightning strikes. Other noise and/or interference can be
caused badly designed components or radio waves - either in the air or
generated by digital equipment such as CD and DVD players tuners, computers,
cell phones, cordless phones, etc.
Even your own home can work against you.
Take my house (please!). Thrown up, apparently in about 20 minutes
during a 1980 construction boom, it's typical suburbia: superficially nice but
built with a lack of care and attention that means we're now replacing all
sorts of supposedly long-lasting items like doors, windows, the roof...
This "quality of workmanship" extends to the house's wiring, which
even affects the THX Ultra-certified separates powering my main home theater.
It raises its ugly head like this: even if everything but the amplifier is
turned off there's a slight buzz through all five of the speakers. It isn't
huge; I have to put my ear near the speakers to hear it - but it shouldn't be
there at all, especially with high end equipment.
And that's only one of the problems with the electricity in my
Fortunately, this is why there are line conditioners and surge
protectors - and it's also you might want to seek out protection from these
varied electrical interlopers.
These power line conditioners (PLC's) can range from simple and
inexpensive to fully blown components you can fit into your rack along with the
rest of your equipment. At the lower end there's what are basically beefed up
power bars, available from the RCA's, Radio Shacks and the like, while the mid
to high end includes Really Beefed Up Power Bars from companies such as Monster
Cable, Panamax, and others. At the high end there are component-type approaches
from Monster, Rotel, Panamax, Richard Gray's Power Company and many others.
Prices range from the tens to the thousands of dollars.
Many PLC's not only allow you to plug in the power cords from
various components, but also telephone and/or satellite/cable lines and the
Some people claim PLC's are either useless wastes of money or can
do more harm than good, though some of these complaints come from people who
sell their own PLC's and are commenting about their competition.
Still, such criticisms include claims that PLC's can rob the sound
of dynamics, especially with higher end, power hungry amps, and that isn't good
when your bottom line concern is quality.
But it makes sense that if you have evil power, a "power exorcist"
should be able to help - and for many people they can.
How do you know if a PLC is a good investment? Well, I'll try
putting it into terms that non-technical people like us can understand.
You know how it feels when you're in the shower and someone
flushes the toilet and you suddenly scream with pain and shock as you're pelted
with scalding water for a few seconds?
Well, electronic components don't like it when the power supply
varies either, though they cuss in different ways: buzz, fuzz, etc. Therefore,
it's good to make them happy.
So a PLC is an insurance policy for your components, helping
ensure they not only perform up to specs, but aren't likely to be destroyed by
an errant spike.
Which particular brand or model to sell obviously depends on
factors such as what your budget and interest level, and whether or not you've
already noticed any power problems. But it's always a good idea to think about
getting a surge protector as a bare minimum, as an insurance policy to protect
Then again, my house is proof that power line conditioners aren't
a panacea - and you have no idea how annoying that is. I've tried most types of
PLC in my home theater, and while they've improved things, nothing has
eliminated the noise. It's a clear illustration that Murphy's Law is alive and
well and living - at my house.
So it might pay you to remember that, while the line conditioner
will probably help, there's a chance it won't.
And doesn't that just figure?
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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