The Running Springs Jaco AC Power Conditioner

by | Mar 7, 2006 | Component Reviews | 0 comments

The Running Springs Jaco AC Power Conditioner
SRP: $2,199.99
Running Springs Audio
26571 Guadiana
Mission Viejo, CA  92691
While I am not against the concept of a power conditioner in theory, in practice, I have never heard one that lives up to its claims. A few have come close, but ultimately they end up being some kind of tone control or they restrict dynamics in one way or the other. As you can well imagine I was about as interested in going to the dentist as listening to another power conditioner.

This story actually goes back to CES 2005, when I was still writing for the other guys. At this year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, almost all of the rooms that had sound I enjoyed had one thing in common – the Running Springs Power Conditioner. It’s an unassuming black box that’s pretty easy to miss. But poking around behind everyone’s gear, there it was.

Now this was getting interesting and, true to my badger-like nature, I found Dan Babineau, the creator of the Jaco and the other power conditioners in the Running Springs line at the show. When I told him I was interested in reviewing their product, he reminded me that at CES I gave the ESP/Pathos room my vote for best sound of the show and that they, too, were using Running Springs. I named a few other rooms I liked there (because I wasn’t paying attention to power conditioners then) and sure enough, they all used RS boxes.

The Jaco features eight outlets and will pass through 2400 watts worth of power if you have a 20-amp outlet to plug it in to. In the event you only have a 15-amp outlet, you can only connect 1850 watts worth of gear to it, or the circuit breaker will pop. You can’t fight the laws of physics. When I wired our studio, I made sure to have three dedicated 20-amp outlets for the hi fi, so I was fully prepared. It comes with a five-foot Running Springs Mongoose power cord and is also available with an eight- or ten-foot cord at your request.

Behind the Black Box
Mr. Babineau is a member of the IEEE, AES, holds a PhD in Physics from the University of Wisconsin and is a classically trained woodwind musician to boot. His partner, Lenny “Catfish” Mayeux, is also a blues guitar fanatic, is working on a book about Roots & Blues music genealogy and a passionate audiophile. He has worked in the audio industry since the early 90s in design and retail. So, it’s pretty safe to say these guys know a bit about how music is supposed to sound.

With lousy power coming to his door, Mr. Babineau was pretty fed up with the situation, and set out to design his own power conditioner for the same reasons I’ve always been skeptical about buying one. “A couple years and a lot of prototypes later, I finally had what I wanted,” he told me, as we chatted when he checked to see that the Jaco had arrived safely. I was trying to cut the conversation short so I could hook the thing up and he said, “play something that sounds crappy, put Back In Black on and tell me what you think.” So I hung up the phone and dug out all three copies (CD, DVD and LP) of Back In Black and got busy.

Set-up and Installation

As I was in the middle of a review of the ESP Bodhrans and the McCormack DNA-500, I was anxious to put the Jaco into the system. Even though these two items were not part my normal reference system, I had been listening to them for a month straight, so I felt comfortable enough to hear a difference, if there was one. This particular Jaco had just come from he RMAF, so it was ready to be put in service right away. Running Springs suggests about 20 hours of break-in to get the full effect for fresh units.

And Back In Black kicked major butt, so I was ready for some serious listening. Evaluating any kind of system upgrade can be a tense situation, because when you insert that mega-expensive power cord, interconnect or whatever, you want results right now. With no disrespect to the folks who make this stuff, that’s not always the case. More often than not, there is no change, or you are stuck with the tone control effect. Sometimes you get a great cable that takes your system a bit further down the path to audio nirvana, but sometimes even the best cables are only a subtle – yet valid in my opinion – upgrade.

Proof in Listening
I could give you paragraphs of audiophile clichés about how great the Jaco is, but I’ll spare you and get to the bottom line: this is the real deal. No tone-control effect, no restriction of dynamics, no bullshit. This was like buying a whole new system, and the effect was anything but subtle. The noise floor isn’t lowered, it’s gone. Dynamics are much bigger and, even feeding a monster amp like the DNA-500, everything had a lot more impact. I threw all the favorites in my record collection at the Jaco, listening for it to limit the amp. I listened at a much higher level than I normally do, but could not hear any dampening of transient attack. The size of the sound field got a lot bigger as well. This one doesn’t go to 11 on the 1-10 scale, it goes to KAPOW! As far as I am concerned, the RSA claims of no current limiting are valid.

What about detail? I moved the (very heavy) ESP’s and the (pretty heavy) DNA-500 out of the system and replaced them with my reference WAVAC MD-300B and second Rethms to see how the (also pretty darn heavy) Jaco would do with an SET amplifier and some efficient 100 db speakers, as this is usually where power line noise is a huge problem. Those of you with Avant Gardes or some other ultra-high efficiency speakers know what I’m talking about; 100 db speakers just seem to be like a big Shell Pest Strip for system noise.

While the improvement with the DNA-500/ESP combination was outstanding, the effect on all three of my SET amplifiers was even more amazing. Again, all the noise was gone and the amplifiers took on much more of a three-dimensional quality with no detrimental effects to dynamics. For those of you that prefer the low power SET/high efficiency road to audio nirvana, you will be in for a real treat with the Jaco; it will open a whole new world.

Excited about the Running Springs experience, I tried it in my other two systems and had the same results, with the same improvements. Even using it with the Prima Luna amp and preamp was a breathtaking improvement, though I’m not sure someone with a $2,500 amp/preamp combination would shell out almost that much on a power conditioner. (But you would be very happy with the results if you did.) This is what really impressed me about the Jaco: I got the same results with everything from an entry-level system to a very serious system. One thing I did notice was that it was now easier to hear the difference between power cords, with the power adequately cleaned up. To make sure I wasn’t letting my brain just fill in the blanks, I pulled the Jaco back out of the system and the music just collapsed.

Back to the Mothership
I had to spend some time at casa Hoffman photographing gear for upcoming articles, so I gave Mr. Babineau a call to see if I could chat with him in person and see where the Jaco is made. He gave me a quick tour of the factory and explained that none of the Jaco’s internals are outsourced – it’s all designed and produced in-house. Seeing the high level of dedication and precision was very inspiring. “Military spec is where we start,” said Mr. Babineau, who also does his fair share of defense work in another life.

This concept of “micro engineering” as Mr. Mayeux refers to it, explains how RSA achieves this level of performance, creating components around a design, rather than the way many other designers must do it, designing a circuit around already-available components.  This is what really gives the RSA conditioners that extra push over the cliff.

The Verdict
No matter how much you have invested in your system, you aren’t hearing what it’s capable of until you plug it into a Jaco. If you want something that will really make you freak out, go to the nearest Running Springs dealer and listen to a Jaco. Better yet, take it home for the weekend, if you have some room on your credit card. Once you hear it, you won’t be able to live without it. I’m buying the review sample, and a second one for my other system. I won’t review another piece of gear without it.

Line stage        Emotive Audio Poeta
Power Amplifier     McCormack DNA-500, WAVAC MD-300B
Digital Sources     Denon 3910 universal player with Modwright modifications
Analog Sources     Rega P25 (modified) w/Shelter 501II, Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline XR-     10B phono stage
Speakers     ESP Bodhrans, Rethm 2nd Rethm
Cables     Tara Labs The One Interconnect, Tara Labs RSC Vector Speaker Cables, Essential Sound Products  “The Reference” power cords
Vibration Control         Symposium Ultra platforms on amplifier, linestage and disc player. Symposium Svelte Shelf and Rollerblock Jr. on P25

— Jeff Dorgay

[Reprinted with permission from Issue No. 2 of  TONEAudio, the e-journal of analog and digital sound at]


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