Ultralink Powergrid PGX-500 Power Isolator 
Home Theater AC Power AC Power
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Wednesday, 01 October 2008

In our quest for the best loudspeaker or high-definition video image, one area we often neglect, which can have a substantial impact on both sonic and visual performance, is power.  I’ve been guilty of it in the past, as I’m sure many of you have.  While many AV components work just fine plugged directly into a standard wall outlet or a simple surge suppressor, one cannot discount the importance of feeding your gear good, clean power.  After all, you don’t see finely-tuned athletes downing 40-ounce malt liquors or Big Macs between quarters or events, do you?  However, power products, like many AV accessories, are plagued with the ever-present snake-oil argument by manufacturers, who make bold claims that are often hard to substantiate and/or discern.  I’ve seen my share of power products that fall into this category and have even purchased a few, only to scratch my head later as I wondered which door to prop open with the otherwise useless hunk of metal sitting in my rack.

The Ultralink Powergrid PGX-500, reviewed here, doesn’t really fall into the above category, for it’s a simple design that sets about filtering your system’s power and protecting it without a whole lot of bells and whistles to distract you.  Much like the Transparent PowerWave 8 I reviewed earlier this year, the Powergrid PGX-500 is straightforward, compact, nicely designed and surprisingly affordable at $499.  In fact, the PGX-500 sits at the top of the food chain in the PGX line, with the smaller 400 costing $399 and the 300 retailing for $299.  All of the PGX products do essentially the same thing.  The differences come in the number of components you can connect, as well as total joule ratings.  Regardless of which PGX product you choose, they are all vastly more affordable than nearly every other offering put forth by the competition and provide the same, if not better, levels of protection.

Getting back to the PGX-500, it’s an elegant-looking piece, measuring roughly the size of a reference DVD player or DVR, albeit not quite as deep.  The smaller PGX products are more in line with today’s modern, slim-line DVD players in terms of size.  One thing that I noted when installing the PGX-500 was its weight, which couldn’t have been more than 10 pounds, a stark contrast to the massive Monster Power AVS2000 Pro it was replacing, which weighs as much if not more than my McIntosh seven-channel power amp.  The face of the PGX-500 is elegant and clean, with a simple LCD readout sunken into a semi-rounded aluminum plate flanked by black aluminum sides.  The LCD display on the PGX-500 actively monitors and displays line voltage and amperage.  There is a small power/standby switch on the left side of the unit itself.

The PGX-500 has 12 rear panel outlets: two that can be programmed for delay, four that are switched and six that remain constantly on.  There are also a host of phone, Internet and cable connections on the rear.  While the outside of the PGX-500 is rather understated, inside is where the magic happens and, in the case of the PGX-500, this power product has a few new tricks.

Designed from the ground up, the PGX-500 uses a dedicated microprocessor based Active Surge Processor (ASP) that monitors incoming line voltage, board level power status and outgoing power conditions to eliminate voltage fluctuations, which cause signal degradation in A/V components.  The ASP does a diagnostic sweep of all power conditions before closing the circuit to allow power to flow to your components upon power-up.  Even if left on, the APS constantly monitors and looks ahead and conditions your power to ensure that nothing but the proper signal reaches your components.  In the event of a fluctuation, the PGX-500 will protect your components by disconnecting them from the AC.  It will even sacrifice itself to protect your components in the event of a catastrophe by absorbing the hit and keeping it internally without passing it along to the rest of your system.  When the PGX-500 does this, it is toast, which may sound like a bad thing until you consider that other products will do this also, but then become basically a multi-outlet extension cord providing you zero protection.  Many of these products also don’t tell you when they’ve bought the farm, so your system goes from resting assured to a constant game of Russian roulette.  So ask yourself, would you rather replace a $500 power product in the event of a serious electrical situation or your entire rack of toasted gear?

The PGX-500’s 12 outlets are divided into sections or “banks,” with each bank optimized and labeled for its intended usage.  For example, high current is designed to be used with amplifiers, subwoofers, etc.  Each bank is isolated from the next to prevent noise from transferring to other connected devices.  The same applies to the PGX-500’s phone, Ethernet and coax connections.  The PGX-500 features no type of battery or backup protection, but does have two outlets that can be configured with programmable delay to prevent turn-on transients, which can be annoying and sometimes damaging.  All of the UltraPower PGX components come with a $250,000 protected equipment policy, which is good and says a lot about how strongly UltraLink feels about the quality of their product and the service it provides.

UltraLink was kind enough to ship me both a PGX-500 and 400 for this review, since my rack has become rather robust and I felt the need for the larger 500, as well as the 400.  Keep in mind the two units are nearly identical in feature sets and differ only in total power ratings.

I installed the PGX-400 in the middle of my rack, plugging in my source components to the appropriate outlets.  The sources included my Dish Network HD DVR, Sony Blu-ray player, Apple TV, Toshiba HD DVD player and secondary LCD TV from Vizio.  The PGX-500 was installed on the bottom shelf of my rack, where I fed it my Outlaw Audio LFM-1 Plus subwoofer, Bel Canto Ref1000 monoblocks, which were later replaced with a massive McIntosh seven channel amp, my Neptune Audio EQ and my reference Integra DTC 9.8 A/V preamp.  I made sure to connect all of my components first before plugging either of the PGX products into my wall outlets.

Once plugged in and ready to go, I power on both units and proceeded to turn on the rack.  The whole process was painless (not counting the removal of two heavy Monster Power products) and without incident.  I especially liked the fact that when I switched gear off and on, it wasn’t accompanied by a large thwack or clunk, which was usually the case with the Monster products, making sure I remembered they were there and were very, very Monstrous.

Music and Movies
Since this is a power product review, I dispensed with the usual two-channel, multi-channel and movie repertoire and just started playing around with different sources and material, starting with the DVD-Audio disc of Metallica’s Black album (Elektra) and the track “Enter Sandman.”  Right off the bat, the noise floor was dramatically lower, although not completely absent.  The added reduction of noise from a few feet away from the speakers themselves breathed new life into dynamic swings and transients. Impacts were more visceral and explosive and the high frequencies gained a bit of sparkle on the top end.  Skipping ahead to “The Unforgiven,” it was more of the same.  With a bit of the sonic junk gone from the recording, notes seemed to hold a little longer, with added clarity.  Vocals were a bit more natural and possessed an added sense of breath and weight.  Soundstage definition also improved with the added clarity given to the recording space. High volumes did little to distract the PGX-500.  Even during peak hours, in the hot California midday sun, it helped dish out one hell of a musical performance.

Next I cued up Gavin Rossdale’s latest solo effort, Wanderlust (Interscope), which I purchased via Amazon’s new MP3 service and played back through my Apple TV.  On the track “Forever May You Run,” the lower bit rate transfer was of little concern to my system with the PGX-500 in the mix. The music was clean, lively, dynamically sound and surprisingly musical, given the 256kbps transfer.  Again, AC noise was diminished, giving the somewhat dynamically limited track an added sense of oomph and weight. This also made for a more taut bass experience and improved the high frequencies as well in terms of spaciousness and air.  Rossdale’s vocals were clear and well-pronounced, with little to none of the usual MP3 shortcomings in terms of naturalness and weight.  Like the much more expensive Transparent PowerWave 8 I reviewed earlier in the year, the PGX-500 allowed the music and notes to flow a bit more naturally and smoothly from one to the next.

Wanting to see what the PGX-500 could do for video, I went ahead and fired up my Vizio LCD HDTV, which I use as a second or set-up monitor in my reference rig, and turned my Dish Network service to the Democratic National Convention.  I had previously had my Vizio plugged into a simple unprotected or filtered wall outlet.  Now, with the PGX-500 handling the power, there were subtle but noticeable differences.  For starters, the somewhat noisy Vizio picture was a bit more composed.  Edge fidelity, when viewed at a close distance, seemed crisper and less feathered.  Colors were a tad punchier, although this depended on the channel at times.  With the added boost in saturation, I also noticed that warmer tones, i.e., reds and oranges, were a bit more dimensional and less prone to excessive bleeding around the edges.  Again, this was when material was viewed at close angles and was less perceivable when seated at a proper viewing distance.  The most surprising thing was that, as I turned on other gear in my rack, these slight improvements in picture quality never faltered.

I ended my time with the PGX-500 and 400 with the Blu-ray edition of Live Free or Die Hard (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment).  I chaptered ahead to the tunnel sequence where McClane, played by Bruce Willis, is trapped in oncoming traffic amidst a blackout.  The crunching metal and squealing tires had all the flair and texture an action movie fiend like myself could want.  Bass was tight and punchy, while the treble shed a bit of edge and replaced it with composure. Again, I don’t want it to sound like the addition of the PGX-500 made a night and day difference, for it didn’t, but it did have subtle and welcome effects.  Again, with a mega-watt McIntosh amp running full bore and every source in my rack powered on and the volume throttled, I was unable to tax the PGX-500’s internal ASP.

My housing development is notorious for spikes, sags and otherwise “dirty” power, with the best listening and or viewing hours being between nine and midnight without waking the neighbors.  While these hours still proved to provide the best performance overall, the PGX-500 didn’t stumble when called upon at other times of the day and never left my system out to dry, which is more than I can say for some of the other power products elsewhere in my home.

The Downside
It’s hard to gripe about a power product that performs as advertised, which is precisely what the PGX-500 did.  I suppose you could argue that it might have better noise filtration and voltage regulation and battery back-up, but those all cost considerably more and aren’t really what the PGX-500 is competing against.

Battery backup is important and, if I had a cost no object system, with, say, a server-based music or movie system I would probably want that but I should also expect to pay more.  When it comes to giving your components solid protection and basic filtration, the PGX-500 does a fine job.  There are also affordable but not audiophile-grade battery backup units you could add to your rig for about $100 that won’t get you where say a Pure Power 1050 will, but it won’t cost you $2,500, either.

With a retail price of $499, the Ultralink Powergrid PGX-500 is a terrific buy.  It is considerably less in almost every department from weight to price, but it is very big on performance and value, which many power products are not.  The PGX-500 is the first power product that I can wholeheartedly justify for the Everyman, for it does all the things the costlier products do, but doesn’t leave you asking, “Where’d all my money go?”  It’s not the greatest noise-reducing power product I’ve heard, but it’s far from the worst.  What I like most about it is how simple and understated it is.  It goes about its business and doesn’t worry you with its inner workings, letting you focus on the enjoyment rather than watching large flashing displays dip and fall and rebound like news ticker on Wall Street.  The PGX-500 just works and affords you a little piece of mind that your investments are protected and performing at their very best.  At the end of the day, that’s all a power product like the PGX-500 should do.  Without reservation, I recommend the Ultralink PGX-500 to everyone looking for more from systems ranging from simple and affordable to extreme and audiophile.  It’s just a true performer and a killer value.
Manufacturer Ultralink
Model Powergrid PGX-500 Power Isolator
Reviewer Andrew Robinson

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