What the f*ck is a power conditioner?

Furman M-8X2 Power Conditioner
Furman M-8X2

We’ve all seen them. Those black units at the top of just about every single rack of gear. Sometimes they even have cool lights that pop out and an outlet on the front so your buddy can easily charge his JUUL. But what do power conditioners really do and when is it worth it or beneficial for you to buy one for your studio?

The goal of a power conditioner is to filter, clean and stabilize incoming AC power. This, in theory, should preserve your equipment as well as improve performance. There’s an overwhelming amount of varying opinions on what exactly a good power conditioner is. A common sentiment on internet forums and messages boards is that most cheaper and more commonly used power conditioners are nothing more than an expensive box with a surge protector in it. A surge protector is used to prevent a power surge from causing damage to your electronic devices where a power conditioner is used to prevent noise and voltage fluctuations from causing issues.

Even an opinion piece on a supposedly reputable website like Computerworld.com, in which the author attest to the benefits of using a power conditioner, still come with no definitive proof. Just reading the author’s choice of words exude uncertainty, like he’s not even sure what the truth is.

“I can’t say with certainty that it [power conditioner] has improved the service life of my electronics, but I haven’t suffered a power related failure in the past 15 years”

Not exactly the best commercial for Team Power Conditioner. In fact, if I was making a commercial for a power conditioner and that was one of the customer testimonials, I’d probably leave that one out.

The author then goes on to cite a specific instance when he heard a hum through his guitar amplifier and his power conditioner was able to instantly remove it, claiming this as proof of the magic powers of his power conditioner. The only problem with that is that hum is usually caused by a ground loop and a power conditioner doesn’t have anything to do with that.

So what’s the truth? Are the thousands upon thousands of audio professionals using the base model Furman power conditioners stupid for wasting their money? That seems unlikely but it was still hard to find a clear definitive answer because the internet is littered with contradicting information and opinions. There seem to be four different schools of thought on how to properly power professional audio gear. I’ll explain each way and then I recommend you make your own educated decision depending on your situation.

The first school consists of people that believe in using a power conditioner. These people believe a conditioner is an effective and necessary tool that allows you to get the most out of your gear as well as preserve its components by providing the unit with consistent, stable, and clean power. They believe it reduces stress on their gear from things like brownouts and voltage sag.

The second school is made up of people that don’t believe anyone in the first school. They believe that any power conditioner within a few hundred dollars is not really conditioning anything and is nothing more than a rack mountable surge protector. Because of this, they choose to buy a $10 surge protector power strip, or a $30 rack mountable power strip and call it a day.

The third school believes in using a pure sine wave UPS (they almost always include a built in a surge protector). It is important that you look for a UPS that puts out a pure sine wave as many of the lower priced units use a simulated sine wave, which can cause some power supplies to buzz and are not recommended for professional use.

The last school believes you really need to use a voltage regulator. Voltage regulators, which are also made by Furman, can run you well over $1,000. It seems that many people believe their power conditioners are regulating the voltage when that’s not actually the case. The Furman P-1800 AR Advanced Level Voltage Regulator/Power Conditioner, claims to offer “True RMS Voltage Regulation delivers a stable 120 volts of AC power to protect equipment from problems caused by AC line voltage irregularities.”

There are obviously some other ways of going about powering your audio gear and you can certainly combine all three schools of thought for the ultimate peace of mind, but these three are definitely the most common.

As for proof on what inexpensive power conditioners are really doing and if they work? Sorry, I can’t help you with that. That will continue to be debated by audio nerds for decades to come, right alongside “Do cables make an audible difference?”

I’ve personally never used a power conditioner for my gear at home. Now granted I don’t have a ton of gear or do much work at home, I’ve still never found myself saying  “I wish I had a power conditioner right now.” Maybe I’ve needed one or would have benefited from using one and didn’t know but nonetheless, I made it out with the majority of my gear still intact.

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David Silverstein

David Silverstein began engineering at the age of 14 when he purchased a Fostex four track cassette recorder. After high school he enrolled at Five Towns College where he graduated with a Bachelors of Professional Studies in Business with a concentration in Audio Recording Technology. He has worked under renowned engineers and producers Jim Sabella (Marcy Playground, Nine Days, and Public Enemy) and Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Spacehog, The Ramones and The Lemonheads). David currently works out of Sabella Studios in Roslyn, NY.