Many audio professionals will swear by their power conditioners as a way to reduce electrical interference, avoid irregularities in their recordings and avoid damaging their expensive equipment. However, these pieces of electrical kit are expensive, and some argue that they're not needed in home studios.
Are power conditioners worth it in music/audio studios? Power conditioners aren't technically required for home music and audio studios. However, they can be invaluable in keeping your equipment safe, ensuring your equipment isn't damaged by an electrical surge, much like a surge protector. They also reduce electrical noise/interference in recordings.
In this article, we'll discuss what a power conditioner is, what it's used for, and ultimately discern why you need one in your music or audio studio.
What Is A Power Conditioner?
A power conditioner is a common staple of many studio racks. Power conditioners are electrical appliances that filter and ‘clean' incoming AC voltage and also protect your equipment from irregular ‘spikes' of electricity, known as surges.
To understand why a power conditioner is particularly helpful for sound quality, we must first look at the waveforms of mains AC power. A power conditioner targets the 50-60 Hz “power mains” frequency range (AC power mains run at 50 Hz in some countries and 60 Hz in others), which is particularly prone to electrical noise.
The AC power from the electrical grid can have a lot of problems in the way of noise and voltage fluctuations. In North America, our equipment is looking for a power input of 120V, but the voltage of the AC power that makes it homes and offices can range from as little as 90V to 130V.
The role of a power conditioner is also to eliminate electromagnetic interference (EMI) from the power line or other electrical appliances in your studio or radio frequency interference (RFI). These sources of interference could seriously affect the performance of your studio equipment.
How Do Power Conditioners Differ From Power Strips?
Power conditioners are sometimes confused for power strips, which often have some sort of surge protection circuit installed in them. However, when it comes to sensitive and expensive audio equipment, these ordinary power strips aren't going to cut it.
All surge-protected power strips will do is protect your appliances from damage if there's a power surge from your wall outlet. Anecdotal evidence shows that cheaper so-called surge protectors could cause more damage in the event of a significant power surge. There's usually nowhere for this extra voltage to go in the circuit – potentially leading to a fire.
Past mere power strips, a feature unique to power conditioners is the ability to clean the power input from voltage fluctuations, interference and noise.
What Does This Mean For Sound Quality?
A perfect sine wave can represent a clean power signal. However, noise and interference from the grid disrupt the wave's shape. Essentially, a power conditioner aims to restore this shape and, therefore, regulate the power input.
A noisy AC input introduces a ‘hum' or undesirable harmonics to your sound equipment. Have you ever heard a constant hum through your monitors or in your recordings at certain times of the day? Or perhaps only when other electrical equipment is being used in your house or studio, like vacuum cleaners or microwaves?
These buzzing, humming and squealing noises are likely the culprit of electrical interference, which can be eliminated through the use of power conditioners.
Related article: What Causes Speaker Hum & Hiss (How To Eliminate Them Both)
How Much Do Power Conditioners Cost?
As with any piece of studio equipment, power conditioners can vary greatly in price, quality and features. Entry-level conditioners can start at around $50, although products from reputable brands like Furman will set you back at least $300.
However, some professionals can spend upwards of $1000 on their power conditioners. This is certainly the case for high-tech professional studios.
Do You Need A Power Conditioner For Your Studio?
The debate on whether or not power conditioners have tangible benefits on safety and sound quality in-home studios or not rages on. Some enthusiasts and pros argue that the benefit perceived from power conditioners is a ‘placebo effect'. In contrast, others swear by them as a way to eliminate nasty hums in their recordings and through monitors.
So, what's the real answer? Should you invest in a good power conditioner?
To definitively answer this, we've got to ask a few key questions:
- What is the mains power like in your area?
- Are you currently experiencing any issues with electrical interference and noise?
- What is your total budget for your whole studio setup?
Firstly, if you live in an area with characteristically noisy AC mains power (i.e., there's a lot of interference and voltage fluctuations), then a power conditioner will ensure your audio equipment receives a steady voltage. In the US and Canada, this is often common in rural areas or where there are faulty power lines. This is less of a problem if you live in an urban area or a country (like the UK, for example) with a high-quality power grid.
How do you check your power line? Use a voltmeter and check the AC power voltage coming out of your mains. In the US and Canada, that should be close enough to 120V. In Europe, the target is 230V.
A power conditioner is a great investment if you commonly have issues with voltage fluctuations, interference, or noise. However, if a certain piece of kit starts to generate lots of noise, you should consider replacing that. This is because faulty capacitors or bad shielding could be the reason for your issues.
Thirdly, do you have space in your budget for a power conditioner? A decent one isn't cheap, and unless you have a particularly poor mains supply, that money is probably better invested in other parts of your setup. However, if you have a high or near-unlimited budget, a power conditioner is an important tool for keeping other high-value components safe.
If there's no room in your budget for a power conditioner, what should you get instead? How about a sturdy surge protector? Or, try an uninterruptable power supply? These don't have to cost a fortune but often have noise-filtering circuits built in.