Core Audio's Kenai Light
Core Audio Technology Kenai Light AC Conditioner
I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that the electrical wiring in my house sucks for hi-fi. The family room where my equipment resides has at least seven outlets which – in addition to my hi-fi – also power a flat screen TV, the cable box, two laptops, a Blue-Ray player, a few lamps, and at the moment a Christmas tree. As best I can tell they’re all on the same circuit.
The guy who installed the wiring in our house wouldn’t have known a vacuum tube if a KT-88 had run up his leg and bit him on the ass, let alone knowing enough to install a reasonably clean dedicated circuit to better accommodate those glass bottles. Unfortunately, when we built the house nine years ago I didn’t think of it either. I was still using some mid-fi equipment of little note, some of which dated back to college. I hadn’t yet embarked on assembling my current components, and frankly hadn’t even envisioned doing so. For the last couple of years I’ve been contemplating installing a dedicated line, but I’ve just never gotten around to it. It’s on the list.
On top of all that, my all-tube, mostly point-to-point amp and preamp are easily impacted by power issues. Although I have used (and currently use) power conditioners, they are older and have never been as effective as I would like them to be. The Cary V12r is sensitive to cable placement and occasional transformer hum, sometimes dependent even on what time of day I’m listening; and the Emotive Audio Poeta preamp has always required a ground defeating cheater plug to break the effects of a ground loop and reduce hum to an acceptable level. No bones about it, I’ve got power issues in my house and equipment that is highly susceptible to AC hanky-panky.
With all of that in mind, I was very interested in hearing what effect a higher-end power conditioner would have on my system.
The Core Audio Technology Kenai Light power conditioner is a passive unit with eight outlets installed on the back of an attractive gun-metal gray aluminum faced box. The unit is comparably sized with many audio components at 16” x 16” by 4.5” tall, and fits easily into my cabinet. The product is advertised as having no capacitors, coils, transformers, ferrites, or passive filters. It’s priced at a competitive $2,000.
Core Audio Technology’s literature claims that the unit “corrects AC waveform and eliminates higher order AC harmonics” and that it’s “MNF technology measurably increases slew rate and dynamic current.” “MNF” stands for Magnetic Noise Filter, essentially as series of passive magnets applied to the positive, neutral and ground wires passing through the conditioner. The composite rare earth and electromagnetic assemblies in the Kenai Light are spec’d to provide 600 lbs of magnetic force to passing current. They explain the effect: “Passing an electric current through a strong enough magnetic field increases the current through that conductor. This increase in current decreases magnetic fields along all power wiring in your system (including connected power cables) and eliminates all high frequency noise. Because the filters are not frequency dependent it has no impedance curve, it is 100% effective at all frequencies up to infinity.”
To boil that down: they’re applying a strong magnetic field to the electricity passing through the cables to scrub out the line noise and prevent it from impacting the audio signal.
Straightforward enough: To infinity and beyond.
That’s all well and good, but the average listener is probably less interested in the engineering how’s and why’s of a power conditioner than they are in the sonic effects on the system it’s is installed in. In my case, I rather like the way my equipment sounds, so I wasn’t looking for any change in the sonic character other than reducing the noise floor and getting rid of some transformer hum.
I installed the conditioner using my own Cullen and MIT power cables throughout. All of my equipment was plugged into the conditioner to ensure a single ground point (except the vacuum/power module for my turntable, which is not in the signal chain), as suggested by most power conditioner manufacturers. Given that the IEC receptacles are placed in opposing positions on every componentit still takes a good bit of snaking and careful placement to get them all into position without having wires lying across each other randomly.
Initially, just doing some casual listening, it was clear that the system was indeed much quieter, a promising start. Ironically, I was most impressed when I went to shut it all down that first evening. As I reached for the dual standby and power switches on my amp and then my pre-amp, I was struck by what I wasn’t hearing: The V12, which I once described as a ‘recalcitrant ill-tempered robot’ for its random pops, ticks, buzzes and other audible eccentricities, was dead silent. There was not even a hint even of transformer hum, which is a first since I adopted it from the Home for Angry Amplifiers. In addition, at the speakers there was no more than just a slight hint of static hiss, and even this was only audible with my ear within a couple of inches of the tweeter. The sole anomaly was that I had to keep the cheater plug on my pre-amp cable to prevent some serious speaker hum. This should not be considered a reflection on the Kenai Light though: No conditioner I’ve ever used eliminated the need for the cheater. With it installed, the Kenai Light delivered what was without a doubt the quietest background I’d ever heard in my system. If the sole consideration were the Kenai Light’s ability to reduce AC line noise it gets high marks, indeed.
Of course I do not usually enjoy my hi-fi for its ability to *not* play music. When I got around to some serious listening the newfound background silence delivered by the Kenai Light definitely offered some positive musical enhancements. With less noise to compete with, front to back spatial definition improved markedly with instruments layered much more clearly in front of and behind each other. Julia Hulsmann’s Imprint on the ECM label made a great leap forward in imaging as the bass and drums were clearly placed in front of the piano. The bass is a little wooly on this recording, but the specificity was enhanced. Cymbals in particular had newfound clarity with really fine pinpoint placement. Decay of sustained diminishing piano notes went on and on, and additional audible cues, like chairs squeaking, or a musician coughing emerged from a newly darkened background.
Switching to vinyl, my phono-preamp has never been quieter, and that’s a welcome development. The Music Matters pressing of Hank Mobley’s The Feelin’s Good – a session recorded in 1963, but only recently released as a full album – is a great Rudy Van Gelder Recording. Donald Byrd’s trumpet is clean and bright, and Mobley’s tenor saxophone exhibits great vibrato and bite. Even the piano, a Van Gelder trouble spot, has great tone and even some weight.
So it sounds like the perfect power conditioner, right? Well, not entirely. The quietness and spatial effects were all very positive (and I don’t want to understate those benefits: they were dramatic), but I couldn’t conclude that the Kenai Light was a perfect match for my system. Good, but not perfect.
To varying degrees based on the type of tubes used, cap upgrades, and the like, the Cary V12 has a reputation as a tubey sounding amplifier: big round images with a little softness in both the treble and bass, especially when used with EL34 power tubes. I had my amp factory upgraded with Cardas caps, which improved bass definition appreciably. I also recently dumped the EL34’s in favor of KT77s, which offer a little more extension top and bottom, though at the slight expense of the midrange magic the big pentode is renowned for. In effect, between the caps and the KT77s, the amplifier exhibits a more balanced and modern sound, at least to my ears. It still sounds like a tube amplifier, but with less of the classic treble roll-off and bass softness that defined the original V12. You wouldn’t mistake my amp for the authoritative neutrality of today’s Audio Research gear, but you wouldn’t think it sounded like a fifty-year-old Dynaco either.
Unfortunately, the Kenai Light seemed to leave the overall sound a little softer than I would have liked, losing some of the snap and sparkle that gives music it’s edge and jump factor. The best way I could describe it is that it made a tubey sounding amplifier sound even tubey-er (chew on that, Merriam-Webster), sanding off – if ever so slightly – some of the hard edges. Acknowledging that the conditioner offered some great improvements in noise reduction which resulted in improved soundstaging, and conceding that that observation was made using just one amplifier, the Kenai Light’s complete contribution to my system just wasn’t an all in all winner.
Now, someone might aver that I’m just hearing what my system really sounds like when the grunge is removed. That might be a fair point, but I don’t believe it to be the case. With another comparably priced conditioner that I also have in for an upcoming review I experienced no such softening signal effects.The other unit did reintroduce a bit of transformer noise, but it was inaudible from more than a foot away and, more importantly, all of the aforementioned snap and sparkle remained intact. The system variable in this case was the power conditioners: same sources, same equipment, same ICs and speaker cables, same power cords, and same recordings.
Before anyone gets flustered (not least of whom, the folks at Core Audio Technology), I do not mean to suggest that the Kenai Light is not a good product. It clearly delivered a quantum leap in noise reduction to my system, and in fact, no conditioner I’ve tried at home was quieter. But component matching remains important in any blend of equipment, and not every product will have perfect synergy with every other product, especially when mixing and matching manufacturers as I have. One set of cables will sound great in one system and like hell in the next. There’s no reason why the same shouldn’t be true for power conditioners, or CD players, or whatever.
Notwithstanding my experience using it in a tubed system, I could well imagine that in a more muscular, strident, solid-state system, this power conditioner might allow some much-needed top end refinement to shine through. A Musical Fidelity M3 integrated that I used to own comes immediately to mind. It was a massively powerful amplifier, but I always thought it was a little grainy and hard-edged at the top. If the sonic impact were consistent, I’ll bet the Kenai Light would have been a great companion to that amplifier. I didn’t have the opportunity to test this theory, but considering that the Kenai light is reasonably priced (by the current standards of such things) and that Core Audio Technology offers a 30-day money backguarantee, it would be well worth an audition.
In the end, the most impressive thing about the Kenai Light was how completely it scrubbed out virtually all of the AC line noise in my system. That’s no small feat in my house, and one that I’ve been toying around with for years. It’s a well-built piece that effectively implements Core Audio Technology’s well-articulated design goals of improving AC conduction by applying magnetic fields to the cables. In the right system this thing could be a great addition. I would certainly recommend someone in the market for a new power source to check it out and decide for his/herself.
Several weeks after I wrote my initial conclusions on the Kenai Light power conditioner I finally bit the bullet and installed a dedicated 20amp line directly from the main breaker panel to the family room where my hi-fi resides. I didn’t do anything fancy, just copper romex, a GE breaker switch, and the highest quality 20 amp outlet I could find at my local home improvement store. I installed it myself, including cutting the drywall and pulling the wire through the wall. The total investment was about $60, including the clips to hold the wire in place, and about four hours of my time. I didn’t burn the house down which my wife tells me is important.
On the whole, it was a worthwhile project. Power conditioners notwithstanding, the equipment now has better focus and clarity. I suppose it would, now that it’s not competing for juice with TVs, computers, lamps, etc. Plus, with a 20amp circuit, it stands to reason that the equipment has the opportunity to draw a little more current if necessary.
As I still had the Kenai Light on hand, I thought it would be worthwhile to see if the new circuit offered it any advantage. It seemed only fair to give it the opportunity to show its stuff with an upgraded supply line.
The new line did improve the sound of the Kenai Light, although it’s general sonic character remained consistent. It was still the quietest conditioner I’ve ever had in my system, but it still had the softening effect as previously noted. On the plus side, the softening effect was somewhat less pronounced than it was on the old 15 amp circuit. I also still had to use the cheater plug on my pre-amp, although to reiterate, I don’t believe this has anything to do with the power conditioner.
I too had the opportunity to spend time with the Kenai AC conditioner before reading Greg's review. But after reading it, I was not surprised of his comments as to the effects on his high frequencies. I got the same sensation as to the overall level of noise reduction and quiet the Kenai AC conditioner brings to the table. However, in an al solid-state rig, I found its qualities most welcome. The Wyred 4 Sound MINT integrated, as well as the Burson Audio Timekeeper are not mega-buck products but they perform way beyond their asking price. Ditto the Marantz 6500 SACD/CD player. The Kenai retails for about $2k which makes it a perfect companion for this type setup. Loudspeakers were the remarkably affordable and splendid sounding Rebecca monitors from Alexis Sound.
Comparing the Kenai against an early model Bybee Golden Goddess AC conditioner is a tough act for any AC conditioner - regardless of price. The Bybee has served as my reference since first hearing it nearly a decade ago. Simply put, it controls low frequency dynamics unlike any AC conditioner I have heard. Surprisingly, in place of the Bybee, the Kenai acquitted itself rather nicely at first blush. The bass, lost some oomph and dynamic contrast but remained quick on its feet and tuneful throughout its register. Most importantly, the Kenai did not get in the way of the music or remind me that I was listening to a AC conditioner that sells at half the price of the Bybee ($5500). In terms of sonic character, I would place the Kenai alongside the Bybee in that it does seem to add another level of quiet to the top end (and that's with the $299.00 Core Audio Katana AC cord, no less). BUT, as Greg observed IN HIS SYSTEM, these impressions wasn't necessarily a good thing on tubes and his sensibilities. There are plenty of folks who I know that do not like the Bybee - or AC line conditioning at all for that matter. I admit to not being able to live without the Bybee. Different strokes... In a system composed of these electronics, I found the Kenai's quieting effect (Greg calls it a softening) an inviting attribute especially when you have a tendency (as I often do) to want to play loud.
Further, not many AC conditioners I've heard offer this level sophistication to the overall sonic character at this asking price. And yes, though slightly tipped on the darker side of neutral, I find the Kenai's overall strength aimed directly at preventing unwanted noises into the system. The Kenai's overall performance convinced me it was doing just that. Moreover, it did a great keeping the low frequencies crisp, fast and clean. Not an easy feat for any AC conditioner, reconditioner or ground conditioner - especially a unit priced in this hemisphere. Make no mistake, spending $2k on an accessory is a lot of money no matter how you look at it. However, a good AC conditioner is an accessory of necessity as far as I'm concerned. And in that regard, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Kenai Light for its overall performance.
In the end, no matter what we think, write or propose, always try before you buy.
Product Specifications: Price $2000 USA
• 8 Outlets on 4 Receptacles
• Dimensions: 16" x 16" x 4.5" Boxed: 20x20x10
• Weight: 22lbs
• Chassis: aluminum
• Wire gauge: 9AWG
• Basic vibration damping
• Magnetic Noise Filter Technology