Product Review - Audio Interconnect Cable Shootout - Part 1 - December, 2000

 

Milan Cernohorsky  - Editor, EUROPE

(Cables evaluated by Jiri Michalek, Milan Cernohorsky, Patrik Blaha, Petr Püschel, and Vladimir Rybar)


Divider

 

Introduction

Hi-Fi reviews are always based on shaky grounds. No one can actually reach the objective reality because no one really knows what the product should sound like, and there’s no direct comparison with the original music as it was played. Some sort of fata morgana substitutes for it. And, in the case of connecting cables, this problem grows into fatal dimensions. There are more unknowns than known, which generates opinions from one end of the scale to the other.

Here are some various conclusions:

  • The connecting cable plays no substantial role in the sound.

  • The connecting cable can slow down the dynamics, blur the details, or make listening to otherwise excellent stereo unpleasant.

  • The connecting cable is an accessory.

  • The connecting cable is a full-time component.

  • The cable is an accommodating element.

  • The cable is an inevitable evil.

  • The cable quality cannot be objectively evaluated.

There are two different approaches to the issue or selection of audio cables, with each approach being a dichotomous pair:

a)     Transparency should definitely represent the idea of cable.

b)     The cable is here for us to tune up the sound with it.

                                                                              Or

a)     Only the rational way leads to success.

b)     It is necessary to explore technologies going beyond the limits of the “reasonable” mind.

Of course, various cable designers' philosophies correspond with these requirements. However the reader certainly asks more down-to-earth questions:

  • How big are the real differences between the cables?
  • How will the sound change  - both in the case of using the best, or, on the other hand, inexpensive components?
  • Can the cable’s own sound character be considered?
  • Can the cable be evaluated be means of measurement?

We decided to address a few of these issues, but, obviously, not all of them. We defined the task to come up with more general conclusions than just a ranking of a large number of cables. Hopefully, we’ll also convince you that cable qualities can be generalized.

Size of Differences Identified by Listening

The main stumbling block is that we cannot realize the situation “without the cable”. We are missing that centerpiece around which the space would revolve. But, we did the best we could. Here, our thanks go to Pavel Dudek who manufactured several connecting cables of minimum length for us. We simply turned the components with their backs to each other and then the connection length approaches the ideal situation in accordance with the “no cable – best cable” philosophy.

For example, we could say that the maximum differences (and I’m rather exaggerating here) only approximate the difference when we insert a quality net filter before the components. This difference can reach the size of an audible difference between amplifiers of the same class and principle, e.g., we would definitely claim that the character of these imaginary amplifiers is very similar. Just one of them is better tuned.

If you suspect that some reviewers will expressively exaggerate the described differences and qualities, then I must agree with you. If we tune to the “magnifying glass mode” in the course of the test, then we take these nuances into account. However, it is also true that these differences can have such an impact, that it can be characterized by a situation such as when you are listening to music while reading a newspaper, and you forget about the world around you (I think I stole this sentence from someone). Such feelings  from which the micro-dynamic, transient, and phase originators are abstracted, are often more important and quality defining than the separate parameters of individual bands that can be followed more easily (firmness of bass, clearness of mid-range, etc.). By the way, only the best cables from the test opened up the door to such an irrational fascination. A pretty expensive door for such a moment of pleasure.

Without  instructions, the described differences would be unrecognizable for the listener – especially during a short period of listening. The overall character of a cable shows up only after a longer period.

It is as if you come to a river and look at it. Only after some time you start to recognize the order of its flow, and your mind accepts the rhythm in which it flows through the basin and jumps over the boulders. Only then your mind rests in peace and you can enjoy the music, in which chirping elements play. Although it is poetic, I find this example suitable.

At the same time, this analogy hints at the reason why the rapid comparison (“switching”) test method fails. Quality criteria cannot be derived from measured data, not only in cables, but in other components as well. If the world is recognizable, as the materialists claim, we have to forget about that kind of recognition. Besides capacitance, DC resistance, and inductance, there also exist some “special” parameters derived from other characteristics (output, phase, and attenuation). We measured some of them, but correlating them to listening evaluations in this case would be looking for the needle in the haystack.

Construction and Parameters

Many ambiguities result from a quality called the cable directivity (an arrow printed on the cable to indicate which end should be connected to the preamp and which end to the power amp). I can remember with what disdain this quality has been treated in several articles recently. In the prevailing number of cases, the cable directivity is automatically given by the shielding or non-live conductors configuration (pseudo-symmetry), and there’s no reason to doubt it. In several cases, both the directivity and configuration are different.

Cable configuration can be coaxial, symmetrical, or pseudo-symmetrical. The expression “symmetrical” leads to confusion.

The symmetrical cable is usually terminated with XLR connectors and serves for the connection of symmetrical types of signals (balanced). In the RCA case, the inner structure is understood as “symmetrical”. Inside the core, symmetrical cable contains two conductors, usually twisted, connected to the pin and ground, and woven or foil shielding is open at both its ends (unconnected). All other configurations with more than two electrically conductive elements are usually called pseudo-symmetrical. For example, it might be a conductor and double shielding or two conductors and connected shielding, or any multiple alternative, with a different connection type at every end from which the cable’s directivity results.

Every conductor is an antenna for different kinds of high-frequency, e.g., RF, from which it is important to protect the cable as much as possible.  For that reason, there are twisted conductors, shielding, and various filters. Designers must, of course, solve many conflicting requirements: for example, triple-core cables are more resistant to electromagnetic interference, but the cable capacitance is increased.

A lesser know parameter is the so-called cable resonance frequency. It’s the frequency (usually around 2 kHz) where the influence of capacitance starts to surpass the influence of inductance, and parameters of this transition indirectly influence the sound character.  The resonance frequency can be measured, but the value itself does not provide us with much information about the cable character.

Connectors represent an independent chapter in the cable case, and they have been under-examined in previous studies of cables. The connector contact should be flexible and clean – the former quality being secured by the pin, eventually in combination with grooves or other specialties. The contact of the ground conductor must deal with the mechanical load, with the surface finish and necessary maintenance being very often underestimated. Cleanliness and size of the contact surface have an important influence on the signal quality.

Regarding the electrical properties, supposedly the capacitance is important with interconnects, and there is a dependence on the low or high input or output impedance of the components connected by them.

For this study, we have more or less accepted the quality descriptions from the manufacturers' spec sheets and we did not intend to comment on them too much.  We tried to avoid, however, paying attention to phrases such as “Our silver conductors guarantee the best sound”. Many of the statements seem to be disputable and it is clear that some companies try to sell based on presentation of their technology in brochures. But, to ignore all seemingly strange claims would not be a good idea either.  How many times in our lives do we realize that practice is a bit different from textbook theory?

Cables We Tested

We tested both famous and less famous Czech manufacturers, as well as imported brands of recognized standards in their categories.  We acquired a representative selection of just about all possible construction types and philosophies.  We included the world-wide recommended cable for DIY applications, the “starter-cable Belden 89259”, and the famous Silver Sonic BL-1 II by DH Labs, with which we already have lots of experience. The RCA connector was a common denominator for all the cables in the tests.

We were very curious about two Canadian products from GutWire and Maple Audio Works as well as Ultraconductor Joe Skubinski / JPS Labs / and the Granite Audio # 470 from USA.

As to Czech companies, Mr. Michal Vevera from VOBA Acoustic, Cable4You lent us the Whitesnake One Reference model and its lower priced brother. Without the KrautWire Model 4, Czech cables would not be considered thoroughly represented.  This cable is probably the most famous here. Mr. Koudelka (ALK) gave us three pairs of his hand-made cables.

We thank Jim Aud from the legendary Purist Audio Design, who sent us the Proteus. Now you must understand that our hands were a bit shaky when we were opening a rather ordinary UPS parcel containing a cable worth almost one hundred thousand crowns.

The number of cables we finally had on hand was almost unbearable. We were unable to obtain the same length of all the cables, so that was a variable we could not control.

The products are divided into four categories (the categories were just for our convenience during testing).

Of course, in the test, the categories were not taken into consideration.

Currency converter……….1 USD = 39 CZK

Brand

Model

Price

Conductor Metal

Capacitance and Inductance

Reviewer Score Average

Country of Origin

 

Category A

 

 

Top pair of numbers in picofarads, middle pair in microhenries, bottom number is length of cable

 

 

Purist Audio Design

Proteus

$2,415  US

 Alloy

436, 439

0.9, 0.9

1m

 95.5

USA

Granite Audio

# 470

$570 - US

 Ag

  53, 53

0.9, 0.6

0.5m

 91.5

USA

GutWire

Chime

$769 - US

 OFC

269, 269

0.9, 0.9

1m

 94.8

Canada

Maple Audio Works

Ambiance

$335 - US

 OFC

204, 191

1.05, 1.05   

1m

 97.5

Canada

 

Category B

 

 

 

 

 

Cable4You

Whitesnake One

9,990 -CZK

 OFC

64, 78

0.6, 0.6

0.5m

 90.8

CZ

KrautWire

Model IV

9,235 - CZK

 Ag

  94, 94

0.65, 0.65

0.8m

 88.3

CZ

Straight Wire

Maestro II

8,050 - CZK

 OFC

  356, 358

0.45, 0.45

1m

 84.3

USA

 

Category C

 

 

 

 

 

Clearaudio

Sixtream

4,990 - CZK

 NA#

208, 192

0.9, 0.9

1m

 79.3

Germany

Van Den Hul

The First Ultimate

4,990 - CZK

 LSC Carbon

37, 37

0.9, 0.9

0.6m 

 80.3

Netherlands

ALK

No2

4,900 - CZK

 Cu

  339, 344

0.45, 0.45

0.6m

 78.3

CZ

Straight Wire

Rhapsody II

4,850 - CZK

 OFC

  151, 151

0.45, 0.45

1m

 77.8

USA

JPS Labs

Ultraconductor

$109 - US

 Alloy

 Cu+AL

174, 156

0.9, 0.9

1m 

 90.3

USA

Clearaudio

Silver Line

3,990 - CZK

 NA

  45, 44

0.5, 0.5

0.5m

 83.3

Germany

DH Labs

Silver Sonic BL-1 II

4,300 - CZK

 OFC+Ag

  149, 149

1, 1

1m

 87.3

USA

ALK

No3

3,800 - CZK

 Cu

192, 194

0.45, 0.45

0.5m 

 75

CZ

ALK

No4

3,500 - CZK

 Cu

  95, 95

0.6, 0.6

0.6m

 75

CZ

Cable4You

PTFE

3,490 - CZK

 OFC

  31.5, 31.5

0.6, 0.6

0.5m

 83.8

CZ

Van Den Hul

Thunderline Hybrid

2,425 - CZK

  Hybrid  OFC+Ag +LS Carbon    

  104, 105

0.8, 0.85

0.5m

 76.5

Netherlands

Clearaudio

Trident

1,860 - CZK

 NA#

136, 137

0.45, 0.45

0.6m 

 74

Germany

Oehlbach

Interconnect No. 1

1,000 - CZK

 Cu

33, 33

0.7, 0.7

0.5m 

 68.5

Germany

Belden

89259

1,000 - CZK

 Cu

  23, 23

0.5, 0.5

0.5m

 68.3

USA

 

Active Cables*

 

 

 

 

 

B-Cable

 

6,000 - CZK

 OFC

  Couldn't measure because they are active

 82.3

CZ

Pavel Dudek

Sound Refiner

5,990 - CZK

 OFC

  "

 88

CZ

1 The two numbers represent measurements we took on both the left and right cable in the pair.
# NA means we could not obtain the information.

* Active cables require a power source for operation.

 

a - Neutrik connector for KrautWire Model 4, ALK No.2 and No.3

b - Oehlbach

c - StraightWire Rhapsody II

d - Maple Audio Works

e - WBT ALK No.4, Cable4You Whitesnake One, and Clearaudio/Discovery Trident

f - DH Labs

g - Belden

h - Clearaudio

i - Van den Hul

j - Cable4You PTFE with diagonal grooves

k - Original WBT for GutWire Chime and Granite Audio # 470

Top left-hand - JPS labs

Top right-hand - StraightWire (Maestro II)

Method of Testing

In the first phase, we carried out the burn-in process. Although some of us were not convinced that burn-in is of any value, we decided that we would do it just in case. Many designers, however, suggest that it is important. During the test, all connectors were treated with the antioxidant lubricants DeOxit and ProGold, and we definitely consider this to be necessary. Otherwise, we might end up testing the effects of oxidation on the plugs rather than the quality of the cables. Four reviewers took part in the tests, which encompassed four months(!) Each reviewer listened to the cables on various components. The specifications, including their prices, were kept secret. Each reviewer listened to cables for about 1 month.

Each reviewer evaluated each cable in his own words and by a defined scale of 0 - 100 points, to come to general conclusions concerning the tests, to define the order of quality, and to carry out several other tasks that made my job easier.

In the second phase, we used a single blind controlled listening situation. The recordings were chosen carefully, but in a quarter of hour we could only test three different cables. Then, we would rest and drink coffee. One person served as the cable manipulator and also recorded the results. We used two recordings for each test of three cables in the quarter hour period. The sense organs would strain. More coffee. More and more trips to the can because of all that coffee. One of the reviewers might be cold, another not in a good mood. This was not easy. However, we tried to test all the cables with different music and when everyone was as relaxed as possible. With about 25 different pairs of cables, we calculated finishing in the year 2023. Fortunately, we got done sooner, but now we all hate coffee.

We concentrated on cables used for interconnecting the CD player with the preamplifier, and the preamplifier with the power amplifier.

Equipment Used During the Tests:

CD Players:

Denon DCD1800 with modified output impedance

Kenwood 7090

Copland CD266

Sony XA7ES

Sony SCD777ES

Classé CDP 1,5

Classé CDP 0,3

Preamplifiers and Power Amplifiers:

PP01SE

DPA380SE MkII

Cairn 4807

JH Sound Version 5.0

Primare A30.1

Brassany BR011 R

Classé CAP 151                           

Speaker Cables:

Dudek Cable One

Van den Hul Clearwater

KrautWire Model 3 SE

Straight Wire Duet

JPS Labs Ultraconductor

Speakers:

Xavian XN270 with racks XS65

Mi/Audax mini-monitors

Protagonist (prototypes Audax/Scan-Speak)

Energy Conoisseur C2, racks Mission with 30kg shots / in each /

Shan E520

Dali Evidence 870

Deco La Passione

AC Line Filter:

OkTechnik PF-010 SF / MULTIPLE SOCKET STRIP / Czech product /

Music:

Dave Grusin "The Gershwin Connection",  Victor Bailey "Low Blow",  Towner-Gary Peacock "A Closer View ",  Bob James "Playin´Hooky",  Mighty Sam  McClain " Give Me Up To Love",  Johnny Adams " One Step In The Blues",  Scott Henderson´s Tribal Tech "Thick", Tuck Andress "Reckless Precision", Spyro Gyra "Got The Magic",  Lary Coryel "I Will Be Over You", Bach/Vivaldi/Marcello "Violin and Oboe Concertos",  Patricia Barber "Modern Cool",  Dead Can Dance "Spiritchaser",  Tori Amos "Boys for Pele",  JMLab Cd No.3,  Diana Krall "Love Scenes", “Acoustic Mania” with Antonio Forcione,  Jacky Terrason "Dedicato",  Cassandra Wilson "Rendez-Vous",  David Bowie "Hours"

Other:

ProGold and Deoxit from a Caig Labs for treatment of all connectors.

Violin from the workshop of maestro violin-maker F.L. Prokop (product from 1907) for relaxation and possible return to reality.

Results

Both Canadian products, GutWire-Chime and Maple Audio Works-Ambiance, took our breath away.  Their resolution and space came through even with mass market products. These cables would be classified as a separate component. The Chime especially had brilliant highs, yet they were completely natural. Mr. Patrik Blaha and Petr Püschel determined that the Ambiance was their clear favorite thanks to their dynamics, as well as their price point.

The Proteus  from Purist Audio Design is absolutely neutral and therefore a universal cable. Its quality cannot be heard as immediately as its Canadian colleagues. There was transparency and phase coherence.

The Silver cable # 470 from Granite Audio was excellent. On details, it worked like a magnifying glass, but it did not interfere with the music flow. However, Petr Püschel did not care for them when they were connected to his low impedance Denon DCD 1800.

The Czech Cable4You - Whitesnake One is a product from the north of Bohemia, and it surprised us with its resolution and separation of instruments in space. We could not agree on its bass goodness, but did agree generally that it had a great sound overall.  The KrautWire Model 4 was not quite neutral, with a slight inaccuracy in the middle and higher frequencies.

As for the cable Maestro II from Straight Wire, it had detailed bass, but it also sounded a bit too laid back.

JPS Labs Ultraconductor has solid core conductors and no shielding. Because of this, it is subject to interference and hum. The connectors are average. So, you have to keep it away from such things as computers and AC cords. Even with these caveats, the sound was terrific. This cable and the DH Labs Silver Sonic BL-1 SII were considered as tremendous values.

The Cable 4You - PTFE and Clearaudio Silverline ended up with nearly the same score, and were noted as very rich and detailed in sound quality.

Van Den Hull The First Ultimate was felt to have moderate suppression, perhaps due to the carbon content. But, the sound came off as velvety, and this might be enjoyable to some listneners. Clearaudio Sixstream was also soft, but had a full bodied character, along with excellent bass. The ALK No.2 and No.3 had a nice spatial resolution, but fell behind in accuracy of the mid-range and high frequencies.

Straight Wire Rhapsody II was dynamic and non-fatiguing but lacked clarity to most of us, but one referee really liked it. The VanDenHull Thunderline was considered good value for the dollar and we could not find any particular criticisms here. We did not care for the Trident.

The Oehlbach No.1 is a simple branded entry-level cable. Even so, its sound quality was not dramatically different from the others (this is why we used single blind testing). The Belden 89259 was the only real disappointment in the test, but it was also very, very inexpensive.

Both active cables represent a separate chapter. Pavel Dudek's Sound Refiner was a bit more defined. The B-Cable was more subtle in the bass, and as a whole, was not so firm. However, both products were quite similar otherwise.

The active cables were considered better in the bass than the passive cables. On the other hand, one reviewer found the active cables to seem a little artificial in the high frequencies.

Summary

The Maple Audio Works Ambiance is the shootout winner for sound and value.

Purist Audio Design Proteus is absolutely neutral and is a space age product.

Model #470 from Granite Audio is the best silver cable.

Cable 4You Whitesnake One is the winner of  category ”B”.

JPS Labs Ultraconductor is the winner of category “C”.

The Straight Wire Maestro II has the best connectors.

General Statements

The monocrystal conductors were clearly evaluated as the better ones.

The structural material (silver vs. copper) of conductors is not a guide for the character of sound.

The basic parameters of cables i.e., their capacitance, DC resistance, and inductance, were not correlated with sound quality. The theory that a cable is better if it has lower capacitance, is invalid. Of course, this does not say anything about the accuracy of electrical propagation of the signal in relation to reactance. There just does not appear to be a correlation with audible preferences.

The results clearly show that it is possible to characterize the "sound" of the cable.

The treatment of the terminating connector has a significant role.

The best solution need not always be subjectively "no cable". For some people, being able to adjust the sound quality with the cable will be useful.

 

Once more I would like to thank all who participated in this study. It was a huge investment of time.

 

- Milan Cernohorsky -


© Copyright 2000 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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