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Monster Power

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 home.

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.

Rotel RLC-1050  AC/Line filter and power sequencer

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 like.

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 your investment.

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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Updated May 13, 2006