Does Battery-Powered Hi Fi Sound Worse?

Audio purists have long had a love-hate relationship with battery-powered HiFi, but there may be new technology on the horizon.

(image courtesy of

(image courtesy of

This post follows a discussion I had with Gary Alpern at The Home Entertainment Show, in Newport Beach, CA, on Saturday June 2nd.

Gary Alpern is a thoughtful former audio enthusiast who is the director of True Audiophile, an online store selling such highly-regarded brands as Audion and Lindemann. Gary was kind enough to share some of his knowledge about the use of batteries in audio gear, a topic that I'd read quite a bit about, but was not very enthusiastic over.

I used to have a Sutherland PhD phono preamp, which operates on 20 D-cell batteries, which I thought was a great concept. I figured if I just purchased rechargeable batteries, this would also make for a very green solution. Unfortunately, it sounded pretty poor to my ears and after just a few days I re-sold it. The problem was that the phono stage sounded slow, lifeless, and just plain boring. It worked OK, but it was easily bested by standard plug-in-the-wall phono stages at 1/2 to 1/4 it's price-point. I had had high hopes for it since all the issues with dirty wall power would be leiminated, but its poor sound quality was a deal-breaker for me.

Gary explained that the problem with most batteries is that they are designed to trickle electrical power out slowly so as to maximize longevity. From a sound perspective, this means that the battery does not have the capacity to drive sudden changes in volume and that the sound at the frequency extremes (that would need the sudden power delivered) would not receive enough of it.

In contrast, a device that is plugged into the wall has far more electrivity to draw from during sudden changes in volume a musical piece might require. This is the primary reason that there are so very few components that succesfully implement batteries. This explanation is pretty spot-on if I consider the lack of life I heard from the Sutherland PhD.

Side note about USB-powered components: These days there is increasing demand for devices that are USB-powered. However, the sound reproduction is problematic for the same reasons as with batteries. The USB interface cannot adequately provide the needed power for large changes in volume. This is the reason why most USB-powered devices tend to be found on the low-end because of this issue.

Back to battery powered devices, there is also a problem with batteries, and especially rechargeable batteries, in that only a fully charged battery will provide the specified power needed. As the battery starts to drain, the sound quality also degrades until all the electricity is drained from the battery. As Gary put it, it's all down-hill after you start drawing power from the battery. While I hadn't noticed this effect as much from my Sutherland, this is probably because I had it only for a few days.

So will there not be a Prius for the audio world that will usher in a green movement towards battery-powered devices? Well this analogy is actually quite a propos here, because the batteries in an automobile can't just trickle electrical power out slowly. An automobile needs to store large power reserves and to be able to very quickly draw on them for acceleration. Without this ability, the automobile would have significant trouble starting to move forward after a stand-still. Ideally, what is needed in audio is just such a battery.

The good news is that Gary has been investigating this concept. While he is currently still evaluating prototypes, there is a strong possibility he may have found something that will work. He has also found that the sound quality is remakably better than many devices that are priced much higher. The thought there is that with battery power, many of the problems that are asociated with plug-in power are non-existent. I've asked him to keep me informed of what may be available soon and I do hope to have an opportunity to once again venture into battery-powered audio components.

If I do get an opportunity to hear one of these devices, I will be sure to write about it here.