NOTE: Please note that the details of these recommendations are written from the perspective of the American market - 120V system. Please make the appropriate adjustments for a 240V system.
WARNING: Please read this recommendation fully and then get an electrician to agree to do the work. If you decide to do this yourself then decide if you have actually done this kind of house-voltage electrical work before and are competent to do so and accept the risks of doing so. MSB or Vincent Galbo makes no guarantees or accepts any responsibility for any injury or the results or any damages caused by considering or performing the procedures outlined below. MSB or Vince Galbo make no guarantees the information is correct or complete. Rely only on the services of qualified personnel to interpret the information and perform it safely. The reader of this document is responsible to decide who is qualified to perform the work. The reader of this document is responsible to determine if any of these recommendations are in violation of any local codes.
How to wire your house for improved audio and video performance - What is the Goal?
In many cases depending on the oxidation of connections, age of the breakers, length and gauge of the wall wiring, the above wall power changes in your home system are often a bigger improvement than any component that you can buy, especially with solid state amps. But even people with tubes report improvements if not big improvements.
People often tell me "I have 20 amp dedicated lines". By US electrical code definitions, a 20 amp dedicated line will have 12 gauge wire in the wall. So while you may have a "dedicated line", 12 gauge wire is absolutely insufficient for high end audio systems. We are recommending ten gauge or thicker wire here. It is the subject and goal of this paper. The gauge of the wire is FAR MORE IMPORTANT than the fact that the line is "dedicated". The subject of this paper works on the theory that the varying musical demands of your amplifier are actually modulating the incoming power line, divorced from the utility (power company) by some resistance (12 or 14 gauge wall wiring at some length from the breaker panel has too much resistance for audio purposes). The noise coming from your utility is probably much lower than you suspect and the gauge of the wire is far more important. The amp demands current up and down with the music at audio frequencies that are of course above and below the 60 cycles from the power company. These demands are impressed on the line wavering the incoming voltage and so the amp is re-ingesting its own noise and also making the line dirty for itself AND the audio front end. This is possible because the wall wiring back to the breaker panel has some degree of resistance depending on the length of the run and the wire gauge (12 gauge or sometimes even 14 gauge). Power conditioners and certain power cord designs help because they make an effort to "shunt" this noise (short it out and kill it) and consume the unwanted frequencies. A better answer is to reduce the resistance back to the breaker panel making it difficult for the amp to modulate the power at all and also at the same time getting maximum power for the amplifier power supply. And so there are two benefits to reducing the resistance back to the breaker panel.
The Main Goal - Lower Resistance
The single biggest goal in improving audio is to install heavier gauge wire using the following guide.
- 1 to 40 feet: 10 gauge wire
- 40 to 60 feet: 8 gauge wire
- Over 60 feet: 6 gauge wire
Everything else in this paper is there to be sure you get the maximum benefit from the lower resistance of heavier wire! Skipping any steps is false economy.
Silver Paste Selection
Silver paste is important to reduce contact resistance. These pastes are called 'grease' but be wary of any that are actually that fluid. I have reports of migration of at least one audiophile silver grease that, because of voltage potential across the Line and Neutral attempts to migrate and close the gap between the hot and the ground. In one local attempt it burned up an outlet. That is why I use the McMaster Carr product. It is almost crumbly and never migrates upon inspection years later, nor does it seem to oxidize over time. There are reports of audiophile silver pastes that do oxidize and so the oxidized silver becomes worse than not applying silver at all. DO NOT try to use this stuff on interconnects, etc. While it could be a good thing, it is impossible to control it and it smears around in use because it never really dries. The result is a partial or complete short across signal hot and ground. I added this comment based on one audiophile who tried it on his interconnects, got no sound in one channel, weak distorted sound in the other, and spent hours washing his RCA plugs and cleaning his input/output jacks on his components. I don't think it can be completely cleaned out and he should have replaced the jacks and plugs. In other words just don't do it. Here is our first and second recommendation.
Silver Paste Application
You will use the silver paste at every AC power connection that is made starting by removing the breakers and applying it to the inside of the clip on the back of the breaker. No need to apply it to the buss bar connection especially since these are always live!!! The clip will transfer the paste to the buss bar. You will also use the silver paste on the wires where they enter into the screw terminals both at the breakers and the duplex outlets. A thin film is all that is needed on all these connections and the silver actually performs better as a thin film. This stuff tends to get on the fingers and then everywhere else so be sure to clean up with Goo Gone or some such solvent since it is like liquid wire. It can be a finger-shock hazard if you are sloppy with it, so be sure to clean up any excess or smeared film with a solvent like Goo Gone even if you can't see it. Your electrician will have a non corrosion paste that he always uses to preserves the copper connection but does not reduce the resistance of the connection anywhere near as well as the silver paste. The electrician's paste is not suitable for our purposes. The silver or a silver-loaded copper compounds are the only choice.
Circuit Breaker Replacement
I recommend new breakers if they are older then one year or so. (they are cheap). If you get the original equipment circuit breakers (like Square D, Siemens, etc.), from an electrical supply house (not Home Depot or Lowe's), you will likely get silver-tungsten contacts inside the breaker. Cheap replacement breakers are likely to have copper contacts which have higher resistance and will oxidize over time raising the resistance further. Research with your local electrical supply and ask them to look up the breaker contact material to confirm it is silver or silver tungsten.
I recommend at least two 20 amp 120 volt circuits sized based on the distance of the run.
- 1 to 40 feet: 10 gauge wire
- 40 to 60 feet: 8 gauge wire
- Over 60 feet: 6 gauge wire
The 8 gauge (or 6 gauge) requires a jump-down back to 10 gauge using a junction box, somewhere just before the outlet because the largest wire that will fit in an outlet is 10 gauge. Install one dedicated line for all front end equipment, and one for each amplifier. If you must feed old branch circuits off one of these outlets, it is not absolutely necessary that your audio lines are dedicated lines as long as the wire path at the outlet you are using goes directly back to the breaker panel using 10 gauge or heavier wire. The circuit can branch to other outlets from your audio outlet if necessary. (some people won't agree with this).
Select Same Phase
For 120 volt circuits: MAKE SURE ALL EXISTING AND NEW CIRCUITS THAT YOU USE ARE ON THE SAME ELECTRICAL PHASE. I have had several direct experiences with an audio system connected on both electrical phases and the dual 120 volt feed from the electrical grid seems to make a good antenna to pick up RF. Connecting your system to only one electrical phase seems to prevent any RF issues that can damage equipment in areas with high RF. (No… you have no way to know if you are in a microwave path, or TV/radio transmission path, just do it!) Usually, every other breaker in the stack is the same phase. In other words, starting at the top (first) breaker in the left column you will have 'A' phase. The next breaker down (second) will be 'B' phase, and then the next (third) will be 'A' phase again, etc. So the two dedicated lines should be spaced one breaker apart to be on the same phase. Some newer panels may have one phase all on the left, and the other phase all on the right. If you don't know have an electrician help or do the work. Decide if you are competent with an AC voltmeter and you will not be dangerous to yourself. If you have experience with an AC voltmeter measuring wall power and you feel you are competent then you can test between any two outlets to prove they are on the same phase by testing for AC voltage across the two shorter slots in the respective wall outlets. (the longer slot is always the neutral). Measuring between the two outlets probing their respective short slots you should have a reading near zero volts and maybe floating around several millivolts (mv). If your reading is 220-240 volts then the two outlets are on opposite phases and should be corrected.
Tighten Up the Connections
It is a good idea to ask your electrician to go around the breaker panel when he is done and tighten all of the set-screws that clamp the wires. This is especially important on the heaviest cables that feed the panel. These screws will be LIVE! so ask the electrician if he has the proper voltage-rated insulated tools to do this and if he is comfortable doing. Electricians will often do this any time they service a panel. DO NOT pick up the tools you own with the plastic or rubber grips and think you can do this yourself. Your tools are not rated for this procedure and it is fatally dangerous if you make a mistake, so DO NOT be tempted. Let an experienced, qualified, licensed, insured, person do this.
Try to find Hubbell hospital grade outlets with isolated grounds or something like the PS Audio Power Port, or Furutech. Generic commercial grade outlets are not a good substitute. Low and medium priced audiophile outlets are a good investment since they are heavier copper, better plated and really grip the blades of your power cord plug. I have no opinion about the very high priced cryogenic, etc., outlets. The isolated grounds can be run back to the panel individually.
About Power Conditioners
I don't recommend line conditioners on amplifiers when the system is done as described above. It is generally better to go straight into the wall. But if you do use a line conditioner be sure it has NO CURENT or WATTAGE LIMITS and it is a straight-through design with any filtering elements ACROSS the line. If it does have a wattage or current rating then it would indicate some sort of treatment in SERIES with the line which is almost never, ever good for amplifiers and may even choke off lower power gear like front ends depending on the design of the conditioner. I do recommend conditioning for all front end equipment. For front ends which tend to draw little power compared to the amp, you might pursue a clever conditioner that does have elements in series but do be concerned about power limiting. (use your ears). If you only run one wall power line, plug the amp direct into the wall and then the front end into your line conditioner. It is better to install two lines (which must be on the same phase) because the amplifier will modulate the wall power fluctuating by the demands of the music and actually make noise on an otherwise quiet wall power line. Plug the amp direct into one and a line conditioner into the other which you will then plug your front end into. The Shunyata line conditioners and the Richard Gray are two good ones that I have used for amplifiers because they are straight through. I prefer the Richard Gray because they actually lower the impedance by storing some power on every AC cycle and they correct an error on the line known as 'power factor error'. So the RG 400 is the best for amplifiers. Unfortunately 2 or 3 RG 400s are needed 'star clustered' together to get the collective impedance low enough to be effective for an amplifier. One RG 400 alone doesn't do much for big amplifiers. The amp should be plugged in the wall with the RG 400s. This requires a quad box or a high quality audiophile power strip. (Since this paper was written in 2001 many line conditioners have come on the market. I believe the general theory above still holds true. Look for straight-through unlimited current-wattage for amps, then high current excellent filtering for front ends). Shunyata is another company that is dedicated to straight through design. They seem to concentrate more on shunting the noise that has already been generated and may do this better than the RG 400. Lately I am using both types together at the audio shows where I cannot do anything about the wall wiring. The RG400s provide low impedance behaving more like the system is connected closer to the breaker panel, and conditioners like the Shunyata quiet the high frequency noise from both the amplifier-modulation and the wall power noise. Even more recently I have had success with BIG isolation transformers. They should have a VA rating at least double the 'va' (volts-amps) rating of your amplifier transformers. Triple the rating is better, so if your amp has a 1000 va (which is 1 kVA) transformer, the isolation transformer should be 2000 (2 kVA) minimum and may be marginal, 3000 to 5000 va (5 kVA) is better. I only mention the subject of line conditioners and isolation transformers to be complete. I prefer the amps straight in the wall and try line conditioners on the front end before you buy one.
The 240V Option
Some high end amps can be switched over and run on 220 volts and I recommend it may sound better. The transformer primaries and the core seem to run slight more efficiently yielding lower impedance so the supply might appear slightly 'stiffer' to the amp's audio circuits (always a good thing). Because the amp is now running at twice the voltage but half the amps (current) the wall wiring looks twice as thick to the amp as it does at 120 volt (ohms law). Now the amp makes even less audio noise on the line and it then rejects its own line noise better. The 220 volt outlet can be a standard 15 amp with 10 Ga.. Wire up to 80 feet then 8 gauge beyond that.
For the 220 volt lines, the electrician may, or may not know about a NEMA receptacle and plug number that is the same size and form as our common Edison duplex 120 volt receptacle but the wide blade of the plug is on the opposite side as the 120 volt duplex. Hubble or commercial Leviton works fine for 220 volt, and the 6-20 series looks less industrial in your home.
It is Nema plug number 6-20P. 'Stay on line' is a good source but your electrician may like a local supplier.
BE SURE TO CHANGE OVER THE AMP INTERNALLY IF YOU DECIDE TO RUN 220 VOLT !
Last Trick - Twist the conductors
Lastly, you might ask him to twist the conductors one twist every 6-8 inches or so. Each line should be alternately twisted relative to the one next to it. This prevents any coherent coupling between them. Keep them away from each other by minimum 4 inches. It is perfectly OK to cross them at a right angle.
If your electrician has any concerns about all this, be aware he is always concerned about CONTINUOUS current draw and rates everything and splits up the loads like the air conditioning and the electric dryer for the available amperage. Please explain to him that we are designing for incredibly short peak current pulses and we need the resistance back to the utility as low as possible for best amplifier performance. The continuous draw is negligible from an electrical standpoint. 10 gauge wire is the largest size that will fit into a wall outlet and as far as I know does not violate any codes but you and your electrician are responsible to be sure this is true in your state, county, and city.
Be sure that your speaker cable is at least 10 gauge. You should consider 8 or 9 gauge for speakers that are below 87db sensitivity, and/ or 4 ohms. Some manufacturers say, 'our 14 gauge behaves like 10 gauge, etc.', this could be true but I go for the real measured gauge.
Now, without exception over the last 12 years, comments from those that have done the above heavy gauge wire wall power mods say there is audible improvement in dynamics while making the sound even more detailed, yet much more relaxed with dark backgrounds leaving only the notes and music. I was very surprised the first time I did this house power mod. I did not expect the mid-range and the highs to clean up and get more coherent as much as they did. Of course bass and dynamics are better as you would expect with better current delivery.