Shunyata Research: Bringing New Meaning to the Term Critical Performance Factors

by Roy Gregory | December 5, 2015

hen the late, great Bill Shankley, manager of Liverpool Football Club, 1959-74, stated that “Football isn’t a matter of life or death. It's much more important than that.” he might just as well have been talking about audiophiles and the equipment they do or don’t buy. More specifically, the equipment they believe in -- and the equipment they don’t. To read the bile, vitriol and vicious  personal attacks that regularly flow through the online outpourings of the various audio forums is to shake one’s head in wonder at just how upset and angry some people get on the subject of audio. But the really remarkable thing is the aggression directed not at those who criticize a commentator’s own choices, but at those who invest in something he or she disapproves of -- and there’s no bigger red rag than cables in general and power cables in particular. Seriously -- there are those who believe that jail is way too good for those manufacturers who knowingly defraud the public by offering such devices -- who clearly believe that the public needs protecting and that the way to do it is through lynch mobs, although online equivalents will have to suffice.

The problem is that whilst audio (especially other people’s audio) really isn’t a matter of life and death, there are situations where cables, especially better cables, really are. And let’s be clear: by "better," I mean cables with superior performance, in exactly the areas those fancy audio power cords and distribution devices claim to deliver.

This story starts with an audiophile -- an audiophile who used a Shunyata Hydra along with Shunyata filters and power cords in his home audio system, an audiophile who also happened to be a leading heart specialist. Meet Dr. Daniel Melby, director of the electrophysiology lab at the Minneapolis Heart Institute, a specialist in the treatment of heart arrhythmia through catheter ablations, a leading voice when it comes to the development of techniques and technology within his field. When he speaks, heart specialists all over the world stop and listen.

Dr Melby’s work involves the use of advanced medical imaging equipment to actually view the internal electrical activity of the heart, both recorded and in real time. Working with such tiny signals requires a constant battle against the environmental noise floor, in an environment polluted by multiple electrical devices, pumps, generators, lights, etc. Now, being of a naturally inquiring disposition and having invested in and experienced the results of using his Hydra and power cords at home, it was only a matter of time before he got to wondering what effect they might have in the operating theatre, where his heart-trace readouts are not just vital to operational decisions and outcomes, they are a visual analog for the aural performance of an audio system.

His initial experiments were sufficiently impressive and the results so obvious that pretty soon he was on the phone to Shunyata, asking for a whole suite of their products to try in the context of his medical imaging system. Using one of Shunyata’s distributed power-conditioning systems along with Venom power cords and Venom Defender plug-top filters produced what can only be described as a dramatic reduction in noise floor and an equivalent increase in tracing resolution and clarity -- with a direct knock-on effect on surgical outcomes. Not surprisingly, the Shunyata products are now standard equipment in the electrophysiology labs at Minneapolis Heart Institute.

All of which is great for Shunyata. After all, saving people’s lives is a whole lot more rewarding than improving the sound of their audio systems (and getting pilloried for the pleasure). But as told-you-so stories go, this one is actually even more impressive than it first appears. For a start, the electrophysiology labs at Minneapolis Heart Institute have been relentless over the years in their pursuit of a lower environmental noise floor, testing many, many filter systems along the way. None has approached the performance gains delivered by the Shunyata setup.

Second, whilst what gets Dr. Melby so excited is the increased ease with which he can now read and diagnose heart activity, the actual improvements are measurable. In fact, they’re measured by the system itself. Previously the noise floor rested at between 0.25 and 0.05mV; with the Shunyata products in place, that dropped below the 0.01mV measurement floor of the equipment itself, to an estimated 0.001 to 0.003mV! What’s more, whereas the real-time Carto Mapping computer display previously lacked the resolution of the separate recording system, feeding it via the Shunyata products, it now exceeds it, the computer/processor outperforming a dedicated $75,000 signal amplifier. Interestingly, the results have been even more impressive when the Shunyata products have subsequently been adopted in other locations, possibly because those setups were less noise-aware to start with.

These are real results, achieved while operating in the most demanding of real-world scenarios. Perhaps most impressive of all (given the litigious times in which we live) the Shunyata setup is now a standard element in all of Dr. Melby’s teaching and a key recommendation to other departments. All of which raises a pertinent question: next time one of those vociferous online cable naysayers is going under the knife, would he prefer to have the surgeon viewing the procedure using the Shunyata rig or a set of standard kettle leads?

When reading a story like this, it's easy to dismiss it as marketing hyperbole, especially if the pill it contains is rather bitter. So, rather than wonder about possible exaggeration or deviation, why not get it from the horse's mouth? The video here was made by Shunyata, but it represents Dr. Melby's views, in his own words and in full view of his professional peers. It's a pretty startling endorsement.

Of course, if you are a small manufacturer, operating with proprietary knowledge and materials in a niche market, it makes perfect sense to look outside for other sales avenues to exploit -- and if you are an audio-cable manufacturer, then medical imaging is an obvious (albeit notoriously difficult and insular) target. What shouldn’t come as any surprise is that it is Shunyata that has finally cracked it. Cracked it? The standard Hydra casework is inappropriate for medical applications -- too fancy, too pretty and not "lab" enough to be taken seriously -- so that, combined with the sudden increase in demand for product from the medical sector, has meant new casework, new branding, new dedicated and optimized designs and a whole new production facility. Yep , I’d say they cracked it.

Placing this back into an audio context, and as genuinely impressive and important as they are, these results are also simply belated, third-party confirmation of what many of us already know: that when it comes to AC power, materials, execution and filtering all have a profound impact on signal integrity. In that regard it’s no different to the rest of the audio chain; it’s just that being the first step in the process, the one on which everything else rests, even apparently trivial details in design and construction can have a readily audible impact. When it comes to figuring out your system’s AC supply, you need to do it, but you need to do it right. Which is why Shunyata’s success comes as no great surprise. Not only have they been doing the AC thing longer than most, they take it more seriously too, their rigorous approach combining genuine empirical research with observational techniques to exhaustively examine the effect of each and every component in their products and the process as a whole. It’s an almost obsessive attention to detail, but one that can be easily identified in the products themselves.

Examples are legion, from the insistence on the use of OFE Alloy 101 copper conductors (the only grade of copper that’s certified for purity) to its use not just within cables but within the company’s own outlets and connectors, each engineered for improved mechanical stability and electrical integrity. Casework is constructed from heavy-gauge material and then extensively damped using proprietary materials, while everything from the feet on distribution units to the tags used on internal wiring are developed and manufactured specifically for purpose. And that’s before you even start looking at the proprietary filter circuits and patented EMI/RFI reduction techniques used within the products.

Then there’s the care and attention (and pride) that go into the construction of each product, things that are apparent as you walk through Shunyata’s compact but incredibly neat and organized combined headquarters and factory. It’s obvious too in the carefully constructed listening room, one of the quietest I’ve ever been in, with its completely separate, massively over-spec'ed AC supply and externally situated system. But perhaps it’s most apparent in the range of ingenious experimental rigs that litter the development labs, the ongoing component testing that’s being conducted and the vast array of (often rejected) samples that have been sourced or produced.

The message is clear: if nobody else has developed the testing protocols and tools to do the job, then you need to do it yourself, something that Shunyata hasn’t just done, but continues to do. With so many manufacturers offering AC-related products, again it is Shunyata that has created its own DTCD Analyzer and generated compelling measured evidence as to just how different power cords actually perform and why they sound different.

Shunyata is a company that’s serious about the quality of AC reaching your equipment, whether that’s your audio system, or the medical-imaging screens in an operating theatre. For most of us, at least most of the time, AC quality isn’t a life-or-death issue. But for Shunyata owners, while the endorsement of a high-profile medical practitioner might not guarantee better sound, it is reassuring. Besides which, the guy’s an audiophile.

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