Q: “What’s the difference between a power conditioner, a voltage regulator and a UPS, and which should I buy to protect my studio gear?”
A: Power conditioners are devices that typically provide protection against surges and spikes in power. Most power conditioners also provide basic electro-magnetic interference (EMI) and radio frequency interference (RFI) filtering by use of suppression circuits that keep this interference out of power supplies and their associated audio circuits. Spikes and surges can cause serious damage your equipment. And while EMI and RFI will not usually damage your equipment, they can cause unpredictable and unacceptable noises and – if strong enough – ruin a recording or performance. Many inexpensive power conditioners are simply called surge suppressors – these can provide a small degree of protection to your gear.
However, most power conditioners do NOT stabilize line voltage, which can be an important element in protecting your studio gear. A voltage regulator attempts to keep the line voltage that goes out to your equipment stable at 120V or 240V within a specified narrow range (assuming the source voltage stays within the range of what the regulator can regulate). Low voltage or overvoltage can seriously affect the performance of electronic equipment and frequent instances of voltage fluctuation can permanently damage gear. A voltage regulator may be your first, best choice for studio protection as these usually have all of the power conditioning components mentioned above as well. Voltage regulation is especially critical if you use a lot of vintage gear, which can sometimes be more sensitive to fluctuations.
An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is a completely different animal. It provides backup electrical power for a short period of time to critical equipment in the event of brownouts (extended periods of low voltage) or total failure of normal electrical service. UPSs exist in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and capabilities. The most common types are: Standby UPS, Line Interactive UPS, Stanby On-Line Hybrid UPS, Stanby-Ferro UPS, Double Conversion On-Line UPS, and Delta Conversion On-Line UPS. While these distinctions may seem confusing the basic job they do is generally about the same (though there are some important differences about HOW they do it): they all contain a battery that stays charged while the electrical service is in operation. When a service interruption is detected, the UPS is able to draw from its battery to provide power. Unless you have a very sophisticated (and expensive) UPS, the replacement power period is quite short – a few minutes at most – but that gives you enough time to save a file or shut down a piece of hardware without losing its settings. By the way, usually the UPS is inserted into your power chain after the voltage regulator. If you’re running a commercial recording operation and don’t want to risk the wrath of a client whose “perfect take” just vanished because of a blackout before you saved, definitely add a UPS, at least to protect your computer or other recorder.
There have been a number of other in depth Tech Tips written over the years about the very confusing subject of Uninterruptible Power Supplies. Feel free to search the archives for those. A couple of particular interest can be found here: