CNET reader Chris writes:
My question is are expensive surge protectors even necessary? I see lots of other surge protectors in the $20-30 range that seem like they would be sufficient. Will an expensive surge protector really keep the "dirty power" out of my lines and give me better picture and sound?
That's a great question. If you listen to the companies selling the equipment, there's no doubt about it. Monster promises, "a more natural sound, increased dynamic range, and the most vivid video images possible," and includes a highly suspect comparison to back up its claims. Similarly, Panamax claims, "improved picture and sound quality from AV component sources" from its $500 surge protector. (We did notice that Belkin--another major manufacturer of surge protectors--makes no claims of improved AV quality.)
So is the marketing hype true? As far as we can tell, no. At CNET Labs, we have a large Monster surge protector, plus a variety of other, less expensive models from different manufacturers. In terms of video quality, we've never seen any difference from the Monster surge protector compared to other surge protectors, or even compared to plugging components directly into the wall--and we're constantly looking for even the slightest video artifacts. Maybe our lab just has good, "clean" power, but we haven't noticed any differences in our personal home theaters either.
For audio, it's largely the same experience. Unless you hear something obvious like a hum, hiss, or pop from your speakers, the increase in audio performance from a surge protector is going to range from about nothing to negligible. In fact, if you are hearing problems, your money might be better spent on an electrician to examine your home's electrical wiring rather than a surge protector. And if an electrician isn't feasible--say you're living in an apartment--you're probably better off with an uninterruptible power supply (UPS).
But before you go writing off surge protectors as overmarketed hype, don't forget about their main purpose--protecting your gear from electrical spikes. It makes much more sense to purchase a surge protector based on its clamping voltage (the lower the better) and maximum surge current (the higher the better), instead of suspicious performance claims. Also pay attention to how much insurance the company offers if your gear is damaged from an electrical surge. As long as it covers the value of your home theater, you should at least be able to replace your gear.
The bottom line is that when buying a surge protector, focus on its ability to protect your gear from getting fried, and pretty much ignore any claims about improved audio/video quality.