Power protection buying guide
What's the best way to protect your gear?
Seven years of experience in the Crutchfield Contact Center give Jeff Miller a valuable perspective as an A/V writer. Having steered scores of Crutchfield customers through challenging situations, he's well prepared to lead readers through unfamiliar territory. Jeff is an explorer in the frontiers of streaming audio and video. He looks forward to helping you discover new ways to enjoy music and video in this brave new connected world.
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Plugging your audio and video gear into unprotected power outlets is risky. Lightning strikes are the obvious danger. However, smaller power surges, spikes, and sags occur daily. They, too, can damage your gear or degrade its performance.
This article will help you choose the right kind of power protection for a variety of situations. If you're not convinced you need power protection, read what happened to Crutchfield photographer J Stoll.
Inexpensive power strips offer little or no protection. Genuine surge protectors include heavy-duty parts that absorb or derail excess voltage. The amount of protection offered is often measured in joules. The higher the number, the more protection you get. The Panamax SP8-AV pictured below at right provides 1,125-joule protection.
A generic power strip (left) offers far less voltage diversion and suppression than surge protectors like the Panamax SP8-AV (right). The Panamax also has widely spaced outlets that accommodate power adapters without blocking adjacent outlets. Its right-angle plug lets you move furniture closer to the wall. And it comes with a $50,000 connected-equipment warranty.
Types of power protection units
- Long block of protected outlets attached to a single cord.
- Lets you connect several components to one AC outlet.
- Space-saving surge protector that sits over an existing wall outlet.
- Provides protection in tight spots where you can't fit a strip.
- Replaces a regular wall outlet and adds surge protection or suppression.
- Installation by a licensed electrician recommended.
- Larger-sized units that provide a higher level of protection.
- Many offer power filtration for optimal audio and video performance.
Clean up dirty power
To get the best picture and sound out of your gear, you’ll want to get power protection that not only diverts harmful spikes and surges, but also cleans up dirty power. Dirty power can come from electricity's long trek to your home or office. It can also originate from high-power appliances found under your roof.
Component-style surge protectors like the Furman IT-Reference 20i filter out interference that degrades sound and picture quality.
Power line conditioners can drown out Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) and Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) that seep into your system:
- EMI originates from items like blenders, vacuum cleaners, or washing machine and add a low hum to your otherwise pure sound.
- RFI results from radio waves generated by radio stations, microwave towers, cell phones, and many other sources. Your home's electrical circuitry can act as a crude antenna, sending RF signals through your system's power cords and into your gear. These interference patterns are sometimes heard as clicks and pops.
Photo source: Panamax
A line conditioner with voltage regulation stabilizes the voltage it sends to the components plugged into it. This helps ensure that high-end equipment performs at its best.
Some component-style units also "regenerate" power and provide high-current outlets that actually deliver more current than is available from your home's AC line. This allows high-end amplifiers to reproduce instantaneous sonic peaks, like a car crash or a cymbal crash, with more authority and precision.
What do you need to protect?
The Furman Elite-15 PFi includes 13 total protected AC outlets. The outlets are divided into three isolated banks, helping prevent noise created by one component from affecting the power going to another.
First, count the number of components that need protection. The average modern system might have the following placed in a central location:
- Cable or satellite box
- Blu-ray player
- Game console
- CD player or other audio component
- Powered subwoofer
- Streaming media box such as Roku or Apple TV®
For this system, you need a power protection unit with at least eight outlets. It’s good idea to have a few more, just in case you decide to add something to your system later on.
Block all surge pathways
Power surges can travel through your cable or satellite TV lines and your home network cables, too. Look for surge protectors with protected inputs for these types of connections. Don’t forget that you’ll need extra coaxial and Ethernet cables to complete the hookup.
Cable modem and Wi-Fi® router
What happens when a power surge takes out your modem or router? Even if you rent them from an internet provider, you still have to wait on a service call or parts to ship. Meanwhile, you have no network — no working from home. No music streaming from your Sonos® system. No movie streaming from Netflix®.
Subwoofers are often placed in a separate area from the rest of your components. Rather than leave them hanging out to dry, you’ll want to make sure you have an extra surge protector.
You can use a traditional strip-style surge protection, but if you don’t need several outlets for other gear, use a space-saving surge protector like the Panamax SP-1000 (Pictured to the right).
In-wall or on-wall surge protectors work best for wall-mounted televisions. It's a matter of space, but also aesthetics. You want your TV to look clean and uncluttered on your wall.
TIP: Some space-saving surge protectors, like the Sanus SA-206, are designed to be hidden behind wall-mounted TVs.
A ceiling-mounted projector will need its own dedicated surge protector. In-wall, or in this case "in-ceiling," surge protectors like the Panamax MIW Power-Pro PFP work best for this setup.
Smartphones and tablets
Get a surge protector with built-in USB connections to protect your device as it charges.
TIP: Check the output amp rating on the USB port. 1 amp (1A) output is enough for a smartphone. The Monster Power® 800 AVU is labeled 2A, and is able to charge a tablet.
Home office or desktop computer
Traditional desktop computers often don't have back-up power. A surge protector with an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) keeps your computer going long enough for you to shut it down properly. You also buy some time to save any unfinished work.
Not every room or home is built to handle a large sound system. Single wireless home speakers are popular because of their convenience and size. A wireless speaker should always plug in to a protected outlet, whether you keep it in one place, or move it from room to room.
Outdoor speakers spend their days in the elements. It's important to not only keep them protected, but also your gear inside that plugs into the same electrical system. The Panamax MOD-SPKP plug-in module (pictured, right) connects to your inside surge protector. It has eight screw terminals for your speaker wires. Or, if you have a home security system, you can also use some of the terminals for those wires.