Gez Kahan wonders Watt it’s all about…
It was my search for an adaptor to connect a pair of excellent (but old) computer speakers with a 2.5mm stereo plug to a more modern machine with a 3.5mm socket that introduced me to the phrase “Utomordentligt usel”. This was the two-word review of the only affordable product that seemed to fit the bill. Google Translate tells me it’s Swedish for “Extraordinarily lousy”.
Those speakers, sadly, will probably wind up in that box of old things which still work and might come in handy one day – every bloke has one. There they’ll join a plethora of old routers, USB hubs and more PSUs than I dare let my wife catch sight of. And it’s PSUs – power supply units that transform incoming AC mains to low voltage DC current – that are getting me wound up, not least because they’re getting themselves wound up.
Many of those in my box differ in different ways: some are ‘wall warts’, some have a captive cable going to the mains, some a detachable twin core cable connecting to a 3-pin plug; voltage ratings vary, and many proprietary models counsel against use with any product other than the one they were supplied with; plus there’s a bewildering variety of connectors at the other end. What they all have in common is a flimsy wire running from transformer to whichever effect pedal, router, phone or laptop they were designed for, and a propensity for those flimsy wires to tangle like nest of vipers.
Obviously constraints of space and issues of heat dissipation mean internal power supplies and standard IEC cables (kettle leads to you and me) are impractical for small accessory units, mobile phones and portable computers. But increasingly I’m seeing professional keyboards issued with similar external units which, frankly, aren’t up to the job. I’m not alone in this – it’s been a common gripe with reviewers for the likes of Sound On Sound for years.
It’s a matter I took up with one manufacturer, thinking this was an economy measure to avoid fitting different internal power supplies to suit different markets. That’s not the main reason for using an external PSU, R&D said. It’s a common misconception that IEC cables are ‘professional’ and external PSUs aren’t, they said, and here’s why:
(I) You get a much better signal to noise ratio with an external power supply (and lots of pro audio units use them)
(II) If a power supply fails, it’s much cheaper and easier to replace an external unit.
(III) You could power your keyboard with a car battery if you’re busking or similarly mobile.
(IV) It makes it easy to implement an ‘auto-off’ setting so as to comply with the most stringent environmental legislation.
That first point is based on the misconception that professional musicians don’t understand the audio advantages of external power units versus internal power supplies. On the contrary, we understand the S/N issue perfectly, but we come from a different angle, which is that if we don’t get the job done we (and those around us) don’t get paid. And it’s the mickey mouse cable that runs from keyboard to adaptor that we have the problem with.
It’s less of an issue in the pro audio world, where engineers (even on live gigs) jealously guard their equipment and where it is less likely to be in a high traffic area during set-up and break-down. But for the band, live performance is a mission critical application with plenty of hazards – for example, a roadie tripping over the unit and ripping a fragile power cable from its transformer, or coiling the delicate wire during packing up in such a way that over a period of time a breakage occurs. Kettle leads are not only more rugged, they’re also standard. Most musicians and all sound crews carry several spares, so if one packs up during soundcheck, you’ll have swapped it out within two minutes. If a product-specific external PSU goes down at 5:00pm in an out-of-town venue, either you’re lugging a car battery on stage or your 7:30pm show is in jeopardy.
As for the environmental argument, you’re taking a truck full of gear to a venue full of high powered lighting and PA for fans who’ve travelled miles to see you, and EU regulations are suggesting that the miniscule trimming of a carbon footprint by implementing auto-off on a low consumption unit is going to make a significant difference? Oh, come on…
The one point really worth considering is that should the PSU’s transformer itself fail, whether external or internal, it’s game over. In that case, an external PSU is undoubtedly easier to replace. So here’s a suggestion to keyboard (and effects unit) manufacturers. Come up with a standard transformer, and a standard connector to a more roadworthy (less utomordentligt usel) low voltage cable that will work for everything giggable. Make it affordable and universal so that – once enough are on the market – it’s reasonable to expect there will always be a spare to hand. Until then, please put the kettle back on.