Red Wine Audio Black Lightning DC Power Supply

Black LIghtning-2By Jeff Dorgay

If you’ve been reading TONEAudio for the last couple of years, you know I’m a big fan of the battery-powered gear from Red Wine Audio, built by Vinnie Rossi and his team. I’ve used their Signature 30.2 power amplifiers and their Isabella tube preamplifier with excellent results. The key to a large part of these components success is the fact that they are powered “off-the-grid” from high-current, sealed lead-acid (SLA) batteries, and Red Wine Audio has made the them effortless to use thanks to their SMART charging system.

The great thing about SLA batteries is that they have very low impedance (very high output current capability) and relatively flat discharge characteristics. The benefit to you is that the sound does not change as the batteries begin to discharge, and dynamics are maximized. I’ve used a number of battery-powered components, and the ones that rely on normal alkaline batteries (the Sutherland PH3D and Chord preamps come to mind) change their sound dramatically over the charge period and don’t have the low output impedance. The result is a sound you can’t really get used to.

SLA batteries are much better in this application, but they do require a certain amount of care to keep them performing at their peak, but who’s got time for that? What Red Wine Audio has done with their new SMART (SLA battery Monitoring and Auto Recharge circuit) board is to make the battery process a “no fuss, no muss” affair. Everything works in the background, so you only need to concentrate on the music. When the battery voltage discharges down to a set level (which is continuously monitored via the SMART board), the SMART circuit automatically turns OFF the unit and begins the recharge process for you. In addition to being very convenient, it maximizes battery life by avoiding accidentally deep-discharging the SLA batteries.

There are three other very important features worth mentioning about the Black Lightning: First, when you are using battery operation, the charging circuit is completely disengaged from the batteries, so there is no chance of noise leaking into the power supply. The battery charger itself is a separate unit that plugs into the Black Lighting for total isolation.

Second, the Black Lightning has 0.5 second in-rush current limiting avoid the high current in-rush that you don’t typically see with conventional AC power adapters because they cannot supply nearly the same level of output current. According to Vinnie, it’s actually better to leave your component switched on all the time and use the power switch on the Black Lightning as your power switch, thus always allowing “soft starts” of your audio component – which prolongs the life of their internal components.

Third, and possibly most important, I have to believe that while a good portion of the Black Lightning’s improvement comes from removing your audio component from the grid, it also eliminates one or more switching power supplies from proximity to your system. Anything in your HiFi system that uses a “wall wart” power supply is a noise bandit, dumping a healthy amount of RFI back into your power line and associated components. Even with world-class power line conditioning, I noticed a slight decrease in background noise with my other components, having eliminated the two switching power supplies from my system.

Red Wine brings this technology to the rest of us

As cool as the idea of getting off the grid is, for most power amplifiers, it’s not practical because of the high voltage requirements. But for preamplifiers, phonostages, dacs, and other low-level components that accept DC input voltages from AC wall adapters, Black Lightning will elevate the performance of your components to a whole new level. The minute you leave the grid, you’re leaving any AC-related noise and distortion components behind completely.

Earlier this summer, Vinnie and I were discussing exactly this and I asked him if he could build an upgraded 12Vdc power supply for my Nagra VPS phono preamplifier. I’d like to think I had a small hand in the process and in November, the Black Lightning was born. There are two models to choose from, the Series 10 and the Series 12. The main differences between them are the available output voltages and their current capacity (measured in Amp-Hours), which translates into the ability to power a component that draws more current for a longer period of time.

You can read the full list of configurable options here:

The Series 10 starts at $625 and the Series 12 starts at $825. When you think about it, that’s just about what a good power cord would set you back. Hmmm. My review centers around three components that I felt would respond very well to being removed from the grid and that accepted a 12Vdc input (which I had Red Wine Audio configure a Series 10 unit for me); the Nagra VPS phono stage, the Nagra LB portable digital recorder and the Wadia 170i iPod dock.

Across the board gains

The $9,000 Nagra VPS/VFS phono stage has been my reference for over a year now and is a hybrid tube/solid state design. I’ve been very satisfied with the VPS/VFS, but it’s always had the slightest bit of background noise and hum that I’ve just chalked up to life with tubes.

Immediately after plugging the Black Lightning in, all of the noise was gone, even when sticking my ear right up to the tweeter. The Black Lightning redefines the term “inky black background.” The big surprise was when I set the stylus down on the first record, Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall. (200g. Classic Records version) We gave this record one of our product of the year awards in the audiophile recordings category. If you have this record, you know how big the soundstage is, but adding the Black Lightning just blew the boundaries out of my room. The Nagra’s already excellent dynamics went up a few solid notches. It just wasn’t the same preamplifier anymore. Everything I loved remained, but now it was super sized!

Black LIghtning-3I am a big believer in clean power, and the validity of good power cords, but I’ve never had this much improvement from any power cord or line conditioner. I currently use the Running Springs Dmitri line conditioner on the front end of my system (and a Running Springs Maxim on a separate 20 amp line for my power amplifier) and I feel this product is the top of the mountain in power line conditioning products. I would compare the difference plugging the Nagra into the Black Lightning to be an equivalent jump in performance I experienced when I plugged the rest of my system into the Dmitri from the wall. Background noise decreased dramatically, dynamics increased substantially and the upper registers got smoother, yet more defined.

The more records I played with the new “upgraded” Nagra, the more impressed I was with the contribution of the Black Lightning supply. The effect was all positive and not the least bit negative. The bass drive had increased substantially, as if I had added a subwoofer to the system!

As much fun as the additional bass grunt was, this already detailed phono preamplifier was considerably better with microdynamics than before. No matter what kind of music I was listening to, I was always able to hear further into the recordings than I could before, thanks to the lower noise floor. This also gave my system the added benefit of sounding “louder” even at low volumes because the effective dynamic range was increased.

I’d also like to mention that when Vinnie and I were discussing playback times as he was developing the Black Lightning, I was expecting about 4 hours worth of playback time with the Nagra VPS (based on its power consumption rating) and I’m getting about 8 hours consistently. Very impressive!

Benefits with other devices as well

I had similar results with the Wadia iTransport dock, and this was very easy to discern using the Wadia 781i as my DAC. Everything was decidedly “less digital” sounding and the gap between .wav files on my iPod and the CD played on the Wadia closed further.

When using the Black Lightning with my Nagra LB digital recorder that is already battery powered by AA batteries, the main difference when using the Black Lightning SLA battery supply was slightly increased dynamics, better resolution during lower level passages and much longer record time. The LB will eat up eight AA cells in pretty short order, and with the Black Lightning I was able to record all day long without stopping to recharge. Again, the added benefit here with a Black Lightning is that you aren’t tossing a pile of Duracell’s (that contain mercury) in to the wastebasket on a regular basis. Better sound and better for the environment.

A product that truly exceeds expectations

In the world of high-end audio, there are a lot of snake oil vendors and precious little science and engineering, with every new widget promising nirvana where none previously existed. Red Wine Audio’s Black Lightning power supply is well-built, with solid engineering behind it and does a fantastic job at its designated task. You can’t ask any more from a component!

If you have something in your system that uses a switched mode/wall wart power supply and feeds a DC output voltage to your component, the sonic benefits you will receive from the Black Lightning will be instantly apparent. It has certainly made a welcome addition to my reference system. Give Vinnie a call to see if he has one that will suit your needs.

The Red Wine Audio Black Lightning, $650 – (approx.) $1,000 depending on size and configuration.

ThinkFlood Red Eye

I’ve been eyeing one of those $300 universal remotes for years now, but at the back of my mind kept thinking about the marriage of the iPhone/iPod Touch and all of my other devices around the house. You can have the Red Eye for $188.

The future is here, it’s cool and affordable. Most of all, it’s straightforward to use. Well, it’s almost here. The Red Eye from ThinkFlood will be in stores sometime in October, just in time for the holiday shopping season. While you are picking one up for yourself, I suggest buying one for anyone in your family that has more than two remotes laying on their coffee table; they will love you for eye products

The only catch is that you need an iPhone or iPod touch to use it. Even if you don’t have an iPhone or iPod Touch, I’d suggest jumping off the cliff for at least an iPod Touch, as you can pick them up refurbed on the Apple Store for about $150. Who cares if you don’t need an iPod, this is the most exciting thing I’ve seen since AV gear started coming with remote controls attached.

Those needing an extra rationalization to buy the latest cool thing, here’s a point to ponder: If you have about seven remote controls lying about, that’s at least 14 AAA batteries you are throwing in the garbage once or twice a year. (Maybe more, if you are a mega channel surfer) If you are buying Duracell’s in a four pack at Walgreens, the Red Eye will pay for itself in two years and that’s about 50 icky batteries you haven’t dumped in the garbage can. See, now you’re an environmentalist and an economist; how cool is that?

The principle behind the Red Eye

Once you program the Red Eye for your devices, when it gets a signal from you iPhone/iPod Touch, it’s base station (that is no bigger than a standard iPod dock, but in a cool transparent blue) will send the corresponding signal that used to come from your remote control, to your CD player, preamplifier or other device. The Red Eye dock also serves as a charger for you iPhone/iPod, so that you will always have it charged and easy to spot. More organization, great stuff!

By the time the Red Eye is out on the market, they should have a large database of built in remote control codes that you can easily download. But for the companies that don’t release their remote codes, or the occasional off the radar device, the Red Eye will “learn” the commands by a simple push of the button. You only need to go into the setup screen and push the “learn command” button on your eye products 3

Easy networking

In the event that you don’t have a wireless network in your house, your iPod device can connect to the Red Eye via an “ad hoc” network. There are complete instructions for that on the Red Eye website, and it usually will not take more than going to the System Settings>Wi-Fi and selecting the Red Eye network. Now your iPod device will see the transmitter. However, if you do have a wireless network, you can link the Red Eye to your network and expand the range of where you can command your empire. This can be very useful if you like to listen to music on the system downstairs while you are lounging in a bubble bath upstairs. When the phone rings, just push the pause button and carry on!

Now the real fun begins

Once you have all of the remotes in your world entered into your iPod device, you can customize how you use these devices and tap the full power of the Red Eye system. The next step is to set up activities for each one of them. The more complex your system, the more you will appreciate the Red Eye, as will members of your family that aren’t as technically savvy. red eye products 2

It’s worth mentioning that the Red Eye will integrate into your lighting system if you have one, so when you want to “Watch a DVD”, you can program your system to open the drawer, change inputs to play the disc player, eject the tray and dim the lights. I told you that you needed one of these.

Even the staunch 2-channel enthusiast will love this. You can mix devices on one panel. For example, as part of the control structure with my Naim CD 555, I added a volume up and down button (that actually control my Burmester Preamplifier) so I don’t need to switch screens when listening to this player. I’ve done the same thing for all three of my disc players and it has made my system much easier to use.

Accessory of the year

With the rest of the accessory articles in the queue for the year, I can spill the beans and let you know the outcome in November right now. The Red Eye will be getting our Product of the Year award in the accessory category. This is by far the most useful HiFi accessory I’ve ever come across. Almost anything that is controlled by an IR device can be managed with the Red Eye. Now you can kiss all of that remote control related clutter goodbye.

If they can only make it control the garage door opener, I’ll be in Heaven.

The Red Eye will hit the market in early November, just in time for the holiday shopping season. You can get more information from their website at: