Although I can’t say that I am very familiar with many digital cables, I’ve owned six different brands, which is a drop in the bucket of what’s available. I went on a search for digital cables when I acquired my Esoteric transport and DAC four years ago, looking at 1.5 meter cables in the $1,000 range, and I have been very happy with the cables I ended up with, the Transparent Reference. I’d occasionally tried some other digital cables on other digital components, but those cables were not the manufacturer’s top-of-the-line models. In March of this year I purchased a Qsonix Q-105 music server after reviewing it, which has two analog outputs, but which I operate through its digital output. It was time to do some research and become reacquainted with the options that are out there.
One of the first things I did when I began my research, was to check the Audiogon used listings to get a sense of price and value. I’ve found over the years that, unfortunately, the most expensive products do tend to be the best, and you can partially verify this assumption by checking the resale prices of those expensive products. This also provides an initial sense of overall long-term value. Among the cables then listed were some of the most expensive out there: Tara Labs The Zero, Stealth Varidig, Virtual Dynamics Genesis, Siltech G7 Golden Ridge, MIT MA-X and a few others. Even the resale price of some of these digital cables seemed unaffordable.
After visiting several dealers and getting a bead on what improvements I could expect by spending $2,500 for new product, I recalled reading comments about a digital cable that some felt was one of the best digital cables out there: Aural Symphonics Echelon Digital. When I checked the pricing I saw that it was priced at $1,200 new, which was much less expensive than the cables listed above. Since I’ve had the very good Aural Symphonics Chrono interconnects and Hybrid V3 speaker cables for review and extended follow-up, the Echelon Digital seemed like a good candidate. I contacted Aural Symphonics, and received the Echelon about a week later.
My main point of comparison was my Transparent Reference digital cables. I have three – two AES/EBU and one BNC. All three are used in Esoteric’s dual AES-3 connection system, the best-sounding way to connect Esoteric transport/DAC combos, with the BNC connection slaving the clocks. This posed a bit of a problem, since I did not have a Transparent Reference that had an SPDIF RCA termination. This limited my options for direct head-to-head comparisons. One was to compare the Aural Symphonics Echelon to the Transparent Reference BNC between the Qsonix Q-105 and a DAC. This required fitting the Transparent’s BNC connectors with RCA adaptors. After some searching, I was able to obtain a pair of Tributaries gold plated BNC-to-RCA adaptors. The second way I could go for comparison was to run my Esoteric transport/DAC combo in single AES/EBU mode and also in SPDIF RCA mode. Each comparison method had its advantages and drawbacks, but I eventually determined that the first would probably be a more valid comparison. Comparisons were done using my Esoteric D-70 DAC and the excellent LessLos DAC 2004 mkII (review to come).
When comparing top-of-the-line cables that do just about everything well, the major differences are often found in their voicing, which affects transparency and balance. This proved to be the case here. Both of these superb digital cables provide great top and bottom extension, as well as plentiful detail, and both also soften the hardness in the treble reproduction of digital components. However, to my ears it sounds as though they accomplish this in different ways. Transparent’s products have been described by some as being “dark”. My description would be different. I would say they tend toward a romantic or “husky” voicing, as opposed to clean and clinical. The lower and mid bass is full-bodied and powerful while the top-end, though highly detailed, feels slightly rolled off, thus eliminating or deemphasizing the hard edge of poorly recorded flutes and violins. The Aural Symphonics Echelon, on the other hand, is slightly lighter in the midbass, but more extended in the top-end. This creates a cleaner midrange and a greater sense of overall transparency. Moreover, the top-end doesn’t feel like it’s rolled off. Rather, it feels almost as though Aural Symphonics has somehow figured out how to filter the hash at the top-end of the audible spectrum.
I really like the Transparent Reference digital cables, but in the Echelon, Aural Symphonics managed to equal the Transparent Reference’s strengths while improving on top-end extension and midrange transparency.
For example, the Eagles’ track “Those Shoes” from The Long Run, has a pounding kick drum and growling bass, setting an underlying beat that can easily overcome the cymbals if they’re at all muddy, while those same cymbals can become indistinct if the top-end is too rolled off. A similar effect can occur in Ry Cooder’s “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich”, from Bop Till You Drop. You can sacrifice the powerful driving growl of the bass, or risk obscuring the transparency of the background vocals, or lose the nifty cymbals, if you don’t have full extension, transparency and full and powerful bass. Other examples, such as Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up, Chicago’s (then still the Chicago Transit Authority) I’m A Man and Buddy Guy’s Midnight Train illustrate the same need for a delicate balance between bass definition and power, midrange transparency and top-end extension. The Aural Symphonics Echelon was excellent at achieving this balance.
I recommend the Aural Symphonics Echelon digital cable without any reservations. At $1200, cheap it ain’t. But its combination of extension, balance and transparency is exceptional. I don’t know if one of the $2000 – $3500 digital cables mentioned above can do better, but for that money they should be a lot better, which is really hard for me to imagine. If you can afford it, go get one, If you can’t, scour the used listings. You won’t be disappointed.
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