Neil Gader Visits Audioquest

A Wired Afternoon

Digital cables
Neil Gader Visits Audioquest

A couple weeks ago,  I received a red carpet tour of the facilities of Audioquest in Irvine, California. Joined by Joe Harley, Shane Buettner and later on AQ founder Bill Low I was left a little breathless by the innovation, the near obsessive attention to product details, and by the sheer scale.  From it’s impeccable “clean room” production line where final assembly and the critical “cold weld” wire terminations are applied by hand, graphics department, stock rooms and mega-shipping warehouses I witnessed a mature company very much on the move, constantly adapting to new market conditions.

News to me was that every spool of copper and silver conductor material are US sourced, and samples are checked for directionality by Audioquest technicians before being sent on to Asia for basic assembly. Equally interesting is that in even in a digital-dominant market, it’s the lowly analog interconnect that remains AQ’s meat and potatoes, biggest seller. But not by much; HDMI is also huge and of course the USB segment is growing significantly prodded along by the successful DragonFly portable USB/DAC. And Low reminded me that while AQ is the sales leader among audiophile wire companies they are dwarfed by bulk wire suppliers–companies with mega contracts to wire entire housing developments or corporate high rises.

However the real fun began in AQ’s spacious listening room. Upon entering I immediately clocked the Vandersteen Model 7 loudspeakers, Aesthetix Romulus DAC/preamp and Aesthetix Atlas Stereo Signature power amplifier but was equally drawn to the pair of laptop listening stations used to demonstrate computer audio.  These systems consisted of a Macbook Air, and Airport Express, an Octave VS40SE amp with Super Black Box power supply and KEF LS50 speakers. The second  system used the another Mac Air,  KEF X300a powered monitors, a speaker I’m currently evaluating­–plus a Dragonfly USB/DAC bypassing the built-in DAC of the KEFs. And naturally, AQ NRG-X power cables for each speaker. Both systems used AQ Sydney 3.5mm to RCA cabling–Airport to integrated for System One and DragonFly to KEF X300a slave speaker in System Two.

The first system was the most instructive as it was set up as a mini network to demonstrate the differences in grades of Ethernet cable. A dull exercise? Not at all.  Actually pretty wild. Here’s how it went. Using iTunes I listened to a couple cuts, first wirelessly via AirPlay. Then, with a standard off the shelf Ethernet cable. Finally with Audioquest’s own entry level cable, then premium Vodka and finally the crème de la crème Diamond (pictured at top, Diamond on left).  The height of tweakiness? Nope. In every case the differences were starkly clear. Nothing sounded miserable mind you. Even AirPlay was listenable expecially if you were already in party mode and your attentions were being drawn elsewhere. Moving back to hard wire and to the base model Ethernet, images began tightening up, providing a greater degree of centerstage stability but it still had a darker clouded treble range. The bassline/kick drum attacks weren’t as scattered and indistinct. By the time the Vodka was flowing (the audio signal only) soundstage dimension and depth were restored to recordings, harmonic complexities were no longer shrouded beneath indistinct image cues. However to my ear there was still a residue of top end imprecision, a hint of etch and a slight flatness to harmonics and dimension. 

The switch was made to Diamond and I thought to myself that it probably will resemble the virtues of Vodka, only more. Remarkably Diamond stood discernably apart from Vodka and the earlier options. The stage seemed to settle, as did the upper octaves. Silences grew darker and low level details became effortless to track. The character of the sound emerged from rosier palette, a bit warmer. Octaves seemed to link up, fully integate creating an unbroken continuity of musicality. I won't repeat what I swore under my breath, half jokingly but the Diamond half-ruined me for the other models. But sometimes that’s how it goes–flagships are what they are for a reason.  Not always­–but in this instance it sure was easy to become spoiled. Diamonds are not always just a girl's best friend it seems.

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