A new wrinkle in a proven performance garment

Though a company specializing in pure silver audio cables, Audio Magic, in unexpected fashion, finally broke through the temporal lag of "if we just do this long enough, people are bound to notice us" plague that many small companies battle in today's overcrowded market. What proved to be their 100th monkey product that had the chattering apes in the audiophile jungle agape just long enough? Not a signature new interconnect or speaker cable but a power product - the Stealth Power Purifier I reviewed for EnjoyTheMusic.com a while back.

Based on the reported runaway success of the Stealth, existing owners clamored for a mini version. They wanted to power a secondary small system -- such as a CD and integrated amp rig -- and save some money over the regular Stealth whose 6 outlets would be redundant in such applications. Acceding to market demand and a good idea, Ramsey responded with the Mini Stealth, a $799 honey-I-minimized-the-affair box. It duplicates the Stealth's proprietary multistage filtering, surge protection and hyper-pure silver wiring and offers the basic-need two outlets customers had asked for.

Never one to rest on his laurels -- Jerry's one of those eternal-youth enthusiasts whose inspiration IEC is hardwired to the central master cortex -- Ramsey then decided to add up what appeared like the proverbial 1 plus 1: For superior performance, digital and analog components should be separated. The Mini Stealth concept had enough outlets for digital-only applications. Why not tweak his existing circuit for a digital version Mini Stealth?

Knowing I had two standard Stealth in my reference system, Jerry called me one day and offered to upgrade one of them to the new digital specs. Upon receipt of this unit, he wanted to know whether I'd like the improved cosmetics of the current production. Did I need the extra outlets of the bigger but outdated box? I did not.

What arrived by return mail shortly thereafter was a brand-new Audio Magic Digital Stealth. It's visually identical to the Mini Stealth but the beneficiary of the aforementioned optimization for CD/DVD players, DACS and transports. The intended employment is a parallel ride next to the standard Stealth: Use the latter's 6 outlets for your analog and amplification components, plug your transport/DAC combo or two digital sources into the puny digital fellow.

And what a bright chap he is, with that surprising but very attractive new burgundy metal face. It's detailed with the white-etched company logo and nomenclature and sports a central blue power light. The housing is the signature Stealth black plastic casing but reduced to 6" width.

The rear sports a 20-amp duplex, the IEC socket and a 20-amp circuit breaker to replace a conventional fused power switch for faster response time to 911 electronic emergency calls. And how about better sonics? Good riddance, skimpy current-strangling fuse wire.

My previous review of the regular Stealth was rather extensive. Hence today's hiked-up mini (skirt?) report just asks one simple innocuous question: What happens when digital components are unplugged from the standard Stealth where they share suckling rights with the rest of the system, and get to feed off their very own, this-is-all-mine special diet mother's milk?

Perfect fit, Mister Jerry Armani

On the title track "Corpo Illuminado" of Portuguese fadista Cristina Branco's newest album, the Digital Stealth demonstrated unquestionable pinch-your-cheek traits. Others more subtle were -- reasonably reliably -- noted over a few repeat A/Bs. In the dead-obvious ringer category, a significant drop in the noise floor. By sharpening the contrast between silence and sound, sonic events acquired more 'pop' - they sounded bigger and more defined. No appreciable change in soundstage width, but distinctly enhanced depth perception. Call it a smoother far-field perspective of a few added rows of apparent listener distance coupled to more resolved ambient data.

Another easily pinned improvement? The relative loudness and intelligibility of Fernando Maia's bass guitar. Bass lines were fuller and stronger, the instrument fleshed out as an oversized guitar rather than indistinct something-bass - the kind of instant change a superior after-market powercord can often make. Also, dynamic range was wider on vocal climaxes. Cristina's voice now sounded subjectively louder and more emphatic, the same emotional statements expressed with increased force and conviction.

In the realm of subtlety, a more fluid and expansive sense of rubato which permeates this style of music - elastic suspensions of metronomic time keeping that occur not only as part of sub phrases but even individual notes. The result of expanded dynamic range affecting the micro scale for more between-the-lines motion? Clearer timing cues?

I haven't the foggiest except to remind you that this falls into the foggy mists of subjective gestalt and my emotional response to it - hard-to-quantify items and, in the stating, mere attempts at explaining a perception that another listener might share but likely explain or attribute differently.

With Jorge Cardoso's "Milonga" on Virtuosi by Gary Burton & Ozone Makoto [Concord, 2105-2, 2002], when Ozone repeats the melody in the cello range of his piano about 3:30 into the track, and then grabs handfuls of accent cords with the right hand while the left ferociously hammers the tango's bass line, his Yahama CF-IIIS clearly had more weight, rumble, impact and rockin' mass on the Digital Stealth. On subsequent albums, the Digital Stealth continued to demonstrate better bass and soundstage depth as two reliable, repeatable, distinct signature traits of separating analog and digital in this particular fashion.

Burton's vibrato-less Musser sounded "bloomier", with less of the occasional "tinkle" - distinctly smoother. Still, certain mechanical playing noises remained clearly resolved. Without the Digital Mini, the initial mallet attacks on the vibraphone had more metallic bite.

To ascertain whether the Digital Mini's many performance enhancements included a possible negative of softening or taming an occasionally vital edge -- such as the "zing" and "blister" on virile flamenco guitar -- I cued up Rafael Riqueni's brilliant Alcazar de Cristal [Auvidis/Ethnic's Flamenco Vivo series, 6823, 1996] to the rumba number "Piel de Toro".

Indeed, there was less edge or sharpness, albeit said absence didn't undermine the rhythmic drive and was again accompanied by clearly punched up overall contrast and bass slam. Does the Digital Mini's presumably more aggressive high-frequency filtering remove not only digital nasties and electronic hash but also some real-life edge?

Being a flamenco maven and keenly sensitive to its rough-edged machismo, I didn't find anything amiss, subdued or constrained in the Mini's rendition of various thin-played favorites though it's fair to notice that transients by comparison weren't as highlighted, hence the presentation energetically less upfront.

As we all are liable when it comes to our favorite music and its peculiar qualities, I investigated this particular aspect at some length. I concluded that on balance, I preferred the darker blacks, increased punch and grit-free peaks -- the latter especially noteworthy on revealing female vocals -- as a winning combination of refinement, superior depth, the ability to enjoy higher playback levels without nastiness, and greater rhythmic élan due to more defined and substantial bass lines. To forego the slightly more accentuated leading edge intensity of plugging all components into the regular Stealth seemed like an easy tradeoff that relinquished little to gain much.

Do I get a hanger with that?

No hang-ups. Sorry, for that you may have to spend considerably more.

But seriously: For $1,600 and saving $100 off the standard 6-outlet Stealth, you could purchase a digital and regular Mini Stealth. You'd give up one duplex but gain hard isolation between digital and analog duplexes.

Or, you could evaluate both Mini Stealth versions and, for $799, settle on just one for a Count Basic CD/integrated system. The standard Stealth proved highly competitive with other conditioners up to $4,200 in my original review and turned out my personal favorite. Getting into the act now for just half of its already-price-buster fee (the closest competitor then was $2,500) is an awfully potent endorsement all by itself.

Add its bass and depth gains. Count on it ironing out wrinkles of grit and glare that we should expect both in real-world software and less-than-friendly affordable hardware, especially when goosed to higher levels. The affordable Audio Magic Digital Mini Stealth begins to appear like quite the must-have necessity.

I call it a fortuitous example of trickle-down and manufacturer response to consumer feedback. At $800, it ain't chump change, true. But what it effects tends to cost a whole lot more based on my research in this arena. If your system total currently straddles the far side of the $5,000 fence, I'd recommend you investigate the digititis cleansing action of this red-faced overachiever before you consider upgrading your current digital source components. You might get more, for less than you bargained for.

Should you need more than two outlets but economically have to decide on what to treat first -- source components or others further downstream -- I'd opt for addressing the source first. This follows the well-known rationale that when it comes to additive improvements, the preceding items in the chain respond with higher returns. Whatever you do to them is passed down and amplified many times over. Which, incidentally, is why power conditioning can reward with rather comprehensive returns. It affects every component plugged in (usually all active components in a system) and thus involves math on the highest rather than isolated level.

No hanger?

Hey, why would you want a hanger for something you'll wear every day? The Mini Stealth gives maxi performance, but unlike its paparazzi-haunted runway siblings, it doesn't bare more than you care to look at. In a men's world, that can be a questionable statement when it comes to fashion, long legs and cleavage, but not so in digital (and if good taste were part of this equation, not in fashion either).

Manufacturer's website