Cable reviews are a very tricky endeavor. In the best of situations, a well-chosen and placed interconnect or power cord can provide that touch of magic to a system in order to bring it to new heights of musical enjoyment, or just simply provide that extra measure of quieting to bring a system to an apparent higher state of transparency and detail. In the worst of situations, a poorly selected interconnect inserted in a critical signal path can literally destroy the very balance and presentation you labored so hard to construct.
In simple terms, the wrong choice in power cord for an amplifier, preamplifier, or front-end component can shrink your sound stage, cause midrange glare, or can greatly diminish bass response and tunefulness. The search for cable-synergy magic can be endless and there is certainly no assurance of success at the end of that journey.
In the case of speaker cables, I find that the choice is somewhat less critical. As long as construction and material quality is of high standards and lengths are kept reasonably short, a misstep amongst that select class of cable is not likely to seriously tank the overall sound of your system. This may sound like heresy to the legions of tweakers and by those afflicted with cable-nervosa out there, but I guess I’m entitled to my opinion on the subject, eh?
I guess it would be fair at this point to disclose my particular biases and kinks when it comes to cabling in my personal system. For the past 20 years or so, I have pretty much stayed true to the same basic formula. My speaker cables are quite short: 4 feet or so. In fact, back in the day when I utilized monoblock amplifiers to power my various Martin Logan Electrostatic hybrids, I had the amplifiers perched in satellite speaker stands behind each speaker and virtually docked to the speaker binding posts using just a pair of Cardas Golden Cross jumpers. Yeah, the set-up was not particularly attractive, but it sounded great! So, it goes without saying that my systems tended to have long interconnects and short speaker cables. I know that there are plenty of people and even manufacturers that recommend the complete opposite, but in my experience, which is admittedly limited to being with mini-monitors and with various incarnations of electrostatics, I have found the opposite to be optimal. Of course, much of this is very system-dependent, and has much to do with component compatibility with the electrical properties of the cables, such as inductance, capacitance, DC resistance, etc. I certainly do not want to downplay the importance of component compatibility when selecting cables. Some cables could actually cause electronics to malfunction due to their electrical properties. Much attention needs to be given to cable specifications and equipment manufacturers’ guidelines. RTFM is the golden rule.
Another topic of great interest to the cable-nervosa set is that of the wire itself.
When it comes to power cords for instance, I have pretty well stuck to the heavy gauge copper solid-core ones. Of course, the list is long, and the audible differences were varied and my choices always represented some sort of compromise one way or another. In the case of interconnects and speaker cables, my system has been quite stable for the past 15 or so years. After much experimentation and trial, I settled on a particular “family” of silver wired interconnects and speaker cables, silver ribbon to be exact. These have been updated over the years and there have been roughly 8 or 10 updates to these cables, but the basic neutral character, wide bandwidth, and sonic signature has remained stable.
So there we are, I’m a silver-cable-fan that has been set in his ways for nearly a couple of decades on the same basic small gauge silver ribbon speaker cables and interconnects from the same constructor, and has largely been a happy camper. Who better then to review a family of cables that are by all counts the absolute opposite of this formula!
In this multi-part review of the Aural Symphonics family of cables, I will be describing the progression of effect each cable has wrought on the sound of my system in three distinct stages, power cords first.
Part 1 – Snakes in the Berber
The power cords I will be describing in this essay are the Aural Symphonics Magic Gem v2t and the Aural Symphonics Cappuccino.
The Magic Gem v2t is quite an imposing power cord. It is a rather huge fire hose of a cable, with a 1.5” to 2” of diameter, but it is not at all as stiff as many smaller cables I have experienced. In the words of Tommy Dzurak, designer and owner of Aural Symphonics llc, “it’s not stiff like a frozen fire hose”. The exterior shell of this cable is hard but flexible. The wire and connectors are cryogenically treated via infusion in a nitrogen soak of minus 310 degrees, and the Magic Gem v2t’s circuit topology boasts low capacitance and low inductance. The cable also sports a circuit design that results in EMI and RFI filtering. Being the flagship power cord in the line, a 2-meter Magic Gem v2t will set you back just under $2,500.
At the other extreme in the line of power cables is the Cappuccino. Some of the technology found in the Magic Gem v2t is trickled down to this cable. The wire is cryogenically treated and the overall design results in very low measured values of capacitance. At a tad under $400 per 2 meters, this cable supposedly packs a lot of performance and features at this price point.
Speaking of Performance
I first inserted the Aural Symphonics Magic Gem v2t power cords on the Pass Labs X350.5 solid-state stereo power amplifier and the MartinLogan CLS IIz 20th Anniversary electrostatic speakers. After a brief overnight burn-in/warm-up, I gave it a listen. What immediately struck me was the absolute black backgrounds. I never found my system to particularly suffer from a high noise floor. However, the Aural Symphonics Magic Gem’s clearly cleaned up whatever was out there and made it disappear into a total and complete blackness.
My previous experience with power cords is fairly extensive and it still astonishes me how this final 1 or 2 meters of wire can impart any sort of audible character to the sound of any system, but I am resigned to the fact that they indeed do just that. Another of those “mysteries” is that of power cord break-in. It’s enough to accept the fact that power cords affect a component’s sonic signature, but quite another stretch to accept the fact that power cords also have a break-in period in which they themselves actually change in sonic signature. My current reference power cords are an extreme example of that sort of cable, with roughly a 300-hour break-in before they settle in. Such did not initially appear to be the case with the Magic Gems as they sounded quite good literally out of the package. This did not remain true as time progressed.
Once I made note of my initial impressions of the Magic Gem power cords after 100 hours of burn-in, I continued the process by inserting the Aural Symphonics Cappuccino power cords to my front-end components, Conrad Johnson CT-5 preamplifier, McCormack/Conrad Johnson UDP-1 Deluxe universal player, and ASR mini-basis phono stage. Once again, after a 5-day burn-in, I sat for a brief listen. Here, the immediately recognized advances made with the Magic Gems were not replicated nor were they negated. The black backgrounds remained intact. However, the sound changed to a slightly more forward sound in the midrange and a little bit of the imaging “magic”, which has always been the nature of my reference power cord, seemed to have diminished. To confirm what I was hearing, I swapped out the Cappuccino on the digital player with my reference cord and indeed, the soundstage width and depth returned to its former self. This is really the first time I ever evaluated a power cord with very little burn-in time on it, so I decided to take the Cappuccino’s and swap them in to the two active subwoofers and run the entire system with my burn-in track for an additional three weeks, 24 x 7. This was not a big deal since I also had a power amplifier in for evaluation that required extensive burn-in. So I was able to kill two birds with one stone.
The Sound of Silence
Confident that burn-in had taken place and that things were stabilized, I sat down for some very critical listening with Cappuccino’s in place in the front-end, and the Magic Gem v2t’s powering the amplifiers and electrostatic speakers.
Overall system changes were significant. The noise floor was dramatically reduced. The bass became more solid, visceral, with substantial weight. This added heft did not seem to sacrifice speed and tunefulness, an important consideration when mating dynamic subwoofers with full-range electrostatic speakers. For the purposes of this review, I listened mostly to CD’s, SACD’s, and DVD-(A)’s, since these involved all components that were affected by the change in power cords.
In listening to the combination of Magic Gems to amplification and speakers and Cappuccino in front-end and preamplification, I found that my system had noticeably blacker backgrounds, better and more tuneful bass, and a somewhat sweeter midrange, particularly with diverse female vocals such as Katie Melua, Patti Smith, and Dawn Upshaw. Along with the black backgrounds came the apparent increase in low-level detail and sense of weight. Listening to ‘live’ CD’s in particular, such as my favorite “live” reference, Not Necessarily Acoustic by Steve Howe, added a new dimension of apparent detail and transparency. Still, it seemed that this newly discovered blackness and associated transparency came at a cost of dimensionality. I seemed to have lost the sense of size of the venue from recording to recording. Along with this diminished sense of space came a sense of loss of realism that has always been a key attribute of my system and with this recording in particular.
Since it seemed that the overall sonic qualities of my system had taken a downturn in some respects after replacing the power cords on the front end equipment, I went back to my original power cords on the digital player and Conrad Johnson CT-5 and had a listen. The results were mixed. The dimensionality returned, but this time at the expense of ultimate bass impact, quieting, and some of the newly found midrange “magic”. This was absolutely not acceptable. Like any voracious and greedy audiophile, I wanted it all!
I decided the only logical course of action was to remove the Magic Gem v2t’s that were presently doing electrostatic speaker duty, and place them on the Conrad Johnson CT-5 and the digital player. Then take the two Cappuccinos and connect them to the electrostatics. From the moment the CD started, I knew that I had hit that magical sweet spot in system synergy.
What words simply cannot express (but I try)…
The sound of the very same CD’s I had been playing transformed into a plane of sonic performance that I had not ever experienced in my system. Overall, the changes were consistent with upgrading the entire audio chain.
The same Dawn Upshaw CD, White Moon Songs to Morpheus, was transformed to pure goose-bump material. In her performance of Monteverdi’s “Oblivion Soave” and of George Crumb’s “Night of the Four Moons” in particular, you become consciously aware of the vast expanse of the recording venue, the eigenton of the room emanating from total blackness, as Ms. Upshaw’s voice takes on an intimacy and purity that I found absolutely breathtaking. Then, with her voice transformed into more of musical instrument than voice in Crumb’s very esoteric piece of music that weaves vocal sounds with Tibetan prayer stones, cello, flute, cymbals, and castanets, the sense of space, weight, size, and realism, simply transcends what I have come to expect from my system.
Switching gears and playing Patti Smith’s Twelve (as in, twelve covers), the improvements are parallel to those I discovered with the Dawn Upshaw CD. For the readers who are not familiar with Patti’s voice, suffice it say that it can be a real challenge for any system. In Patti’s rendition of Neil Young’s “Helpless”, the sound took on a sense of space, three-dimensionality and realism that gave the illusion of a live recording. Yes, her voice had the familiar edge and bite, but not the metallic overshoot that is more typical of my system with the prior power cords. In her recording of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise”, once again the realism of the recording takes over and you simply can’t help yourself from bobbing your head and tapping your foot to the beat. We’re talking full immersion in the musical experience.
Switching to an actual “live” recording, Steve Howe’s Not Necessarily Acoustic, the improvements yielded by the power cord swap is exposed to its fullest. This is a superb recording of a night club performance that contains loads of ambient information, sounds from the audience and superbly recorded guitar. This is one of my acid test CD’s and I have it with me wherever I go. Once again, the results remained consistent, the dead silent and black backgrounds, and sheer weight, scale, tunefulness, timing, and detail my system demonstrated with playing this CD proves beyond any reasonable doubt that my system has attained a much higher plane of performance. The Magic Gem v2t’s, in particular, had made across-the-board improvements that simply defy reason. After all, we’re talking about power cords.
Summing it all up
I would like to state that when it comes to cable performance, it is all about system synergy. The performance enhancements I experienced in my system are not going to necessarily translate to the exact same effect and degree of change in another system. (There are too many variants at work in every system. –Ed.)
On Aural Symphonics’ literature and website, the MagicGem v2t’s are described as, “…(having)greater range of dynamic contrasts, upper frequencies are slightly softened but not rolled off or veiled, overall a quieter and blacker sounding background, bass frequencies have more authority and weight with increased transparency, increase of nuance and detail…”.
My findings parallel much of these assertions. In fact, I would also point out that the “softening” of the high frequencies is simply not the case at all. I equate the effect to a reduction or even elimination of a high frequency hash or distortion. The effect is much the same when upgrading a power supply to a component, such as the case where my digital player’s power supply was completely overhauled and upgraded by Conrad Johnson. In the same way, the resulting high frequencies could be considered “softened” but only because the distortion and “hash” disappeared and was replaced with a tube-like sweetness in the mids and highs. This audible performance upgrade was replicated to every single component.
The Aural Symphonics Cappuccino power cords provided a build quality, level of technology, sonic performance (e.g. level of detail) and noise reduction that belied its fairly modest price point. In my particular system, the carefully chosen cables I use as reference cables did indeed offer a higher level of performance overall. However, they cost 1.5 to 3 times the price of the Cappuccino. In my book, that makes the Cappuccino an all-out bargain for the performance it does deliver.
As to the Magic Gem v2t’s, these indeed are in a class of their own. The performance they deliver in my system equated to substantially upgrading each and every component that they were connected to. If I had to take a guess as to what aspect of the Magic Gem v2t’s design most contributed to its stellar performance, I would have to say that it may have a lot to do with its quality of construction, attention to detail, and resultant isolation of the actual wire from outside vibration. Suffice it to say that the overall effect that they had on the digital front-end, linestage, and power amplifier(s), were essentially similar to the effect of upgrading the power supplies of each of those components. Granted, at $1,865 per 1.5 meter of cable, they are not cheap. However, if this power cord can substantially improve the sound of a $9,500 and $6,000 power amplifiers, $8,500 linestage, and $4,000 digital player to a level of sonic performance that could otherwise not be achieved without doubling the cost of each component, then is it also not a bargain? I believe it is.
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