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PS Audio P5 Shootout: Black vs. Silver!

PS Audio P5 in blackI’d decided to enter the seductive realm of power conditioning. My humble Niles IPC-8 rack power strip had served me well for over 20 years, but it was time to upgrade.

Yes, this is a “shootout”–  comparing two pieces of audiophile hardware. However, unlike most shootouts, I’m comparing one model against the same model. The only difference is that one’s finish is black, and the other silver.

I’ve long desired to analyze the difference in sound between the same model unit with different finishes. Enclosures play such a huge role in the overall sound of hardware, and my theory is that the color of the finish can often result in subtle sonic results — colorings, if you will– that can make the difference between aural nirvana and audio purgatory.

The perfect opportunity to explore that theory arose this year when my tax return came early, and I was able to purchase two PS Audio P5s — one in silver finish, and one in black. My plan was to install both, listen in a blind test, then sell the inferior-sounding model/finish.

Both units were alternately connected to the same PS Audio Power Port. For these tests, all fluorescent PS Audio P5 in silverlights in the house were turned off, any faders dimmed to ‘off’, and the refrigerator and microwave were unplugged. I was blindfolded while my girlfriend (grudgingly) plugged the power cords of my amplifier, preamplifier, and source components into each P5 unit for each phase of the test. I had no idea which unit was being used for the two tests.

Reference components:

Speakers: Acoustic Zen Adagios

Power amp: Parasound A21

Preamp: Zesto Leto

DAC: PS Audio PerfectWave Mk II w/Bridge

Transport: PS Audio PerfectWave Transport

Turntable: Clearaudio Ovation w/Virtuoso v2 Ebony MC cartridge

Phono preamp: PS Audio GCPH

Power cables: PS Audio AC10

Interconnects: Kimber Timbre RCA, Oyaide PA-02 TX XLR

Speaker cables:  Nordost 4M biwired Superflatline

Here’s my analysis.

Unit A:

My reference LP was Cowboy Junkies Trinity Sessions (Classic Records/) RCA RTH-8568). My reference CD was the same release (Cooking Vinyl COOKCD 011).

Blindfolds on!

On Unit A, I decided to listen to the LP first. The noise floor during the silence prior to the beginning of Margo Timmins’ breathy “Mining For Gold” acapella was airy and breathtaking. Yet there was a coarseness to it that I couldn’t really put my finger on. It seemed to lack the potential for detail that I knew was there. Of course, this “silence” is actually the air conditioning of the church where the sessions were recorded, so it was difficult to analyze the recording for blackness. All I can say is that there didn’t seem to be a lot of depth in the sound of the air conditioning. The definition just wasn’t there.

My Unit A listening session continued with the CD of Trinity Sessions. The silence at the beginning of the CD perked up a little. I’ve always preferred analog, but the compact disk resolution really helped the sound of the air conditioning come into its own. The bloom and low-level detail came into focus and the recording seemed to come alive.

When Timmins began singing, I decided to end my analysis of Unit A. I’d heard enough to form an opinion of the first finish of the P5. Exhausted but exhilarated, and still blindfolded, I stumbled out to the backyard for some chamomile tea and fresh air while my girlfriend, mumbling obscenities, pulled power cords from Unit A and set up Unit B.

Unit B:

LP: during the semi-silent introduction for “Mining For Gold” I immediately noticed a more musical articulation of the air-conditioning noise. The gentle hiss was much less analytical than on Unit A, and the attack transient once Margo began singing had slam and verve. There was less coloration and the decay had a more natural extension to it. Where Unit A had sounded a bit humped in its soundstaging, Unit B had an effortless quality, an ease in imaging that I found very pleasing.

Unit B’s CD capabilities let me down a bit. While Unit A’s handing of the compact disc had been nearly revelatory, Unit B lent unwelcome glare to the sound of the air conditioner, and the overall presentation was a tad too polite. While the LP sparkled on Unit B, the CD sounded dull and the imaging ceased floating somewhere behind speakers and planted itself in a far-too-forward placement. By the time Timmins began her plaintive cooing, listening fatigue had set in and I had to end the session.

My conclusion? I liked Unit A for CDs, and Unit B for LPs. This constituted a quandary of sorts. Still blindfolded, with the faint sound of my girlfriend cursing under her breath in the next room, I asked she come back so we could talk about the test.

My blindfold was removed and I blinked. I asked which Unit was used for the first test– black or silver? She pointed to the silver one. So the silver finish sounded better with digital sources, and the black one better for LPs.

After a moment, the choice seemed clear. I made my decision – I would keep both units, and use A for CD and digital playback, and switch to Unit B for LPs.

My girlfriend didn’t like this idea.

“Every other box in that overpriced rack of yours is black. Now we’re gonna have a big silver one throwing off the tone of the room?  Also, please remember that our original agreement was that you only keep one of these expensive voodoo devices. You’re really telling me you noticed a difference between the two? Does the black one actually sound better?

“Well, yeah. But only with LPs.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

(silence. I could hear the faint sound of air conditioning in the background).

“Well, I got news for you, buster. There was no Unit A or Unit B. I didn’t switch them out. Both of your test sessions were done with the black one.”

I thought about that for a moment.

Suddenly the air conditioning seemed very loud.