CES 2015: High-Performance Cables, Power Products, and System Tweaks
One of the most fertile areas of product development in high-performance audio during the past year has been in the cable, power products, and system-tweak categories, resulting in many significant product introductions at CES. Audiophiles and many audio enthusiasts are now well-aware of the impact that high-quality cables, clean power, and innovative fine-tuning devices can have on system performance, with the potential to transform very good systems into great ones. Some of these “glue pieces” are relatively inexpensive, whereas others can cost as much as (or more than) some reference components. However, if you really want to get the most out of your system, high-performance cables, power products, and tweaks can make a significant difference. As a former skeptic (now a convert), I would encourage you to listen to them for yourself before passing judgment.
There were significant introductions of new reference interconnects and speaker cables from companies like Siltech and Naim, as well as of more affordable cables from Shunyata and Cardas (among others) that migrate advanced technologies from their reference products. With the personal audio boom, it was not surprising to see so many high-performance cables for headphones from some of the top cable manufacturers. While Audioquest and Cardas helped lead the charge in this area in years past, they have now been joined by Crystal Cable and Wireworld. In somewhat of a twist, some high-end companies like Nordost and Wireworld are now supplying high-performance cables to the pro-audio market.
What was somewhat of a surprise was the bevy of introductions of power conditioners and/or AC noise-reduction devices from new entrants like Audioquest and Telos, as well as from established power product players like Shunyata and Isotek. From what I heard, these units yielded very positive results, letting fine details emerge without compressing dynamics.
Several brave manufacturers, including Nordost, Audioquest, Wireworld, and Synergistic Research swapped out cables, power products, and/or system tweaks to demonstrate their effectiveness, and others, like Shunyata Research, Wireworld, and Telos used oscilloscopes to show actual (and dramatic) measurable results. Hearing (and seeing) the positive changes in comparisons convinced me that cables, power products, and system tweaks are worthwhile additions to high-performance audio systems.
Most Significant Cables, Power Products, and Accessories
Audioquest Niagara 7000 Power Conditioner
One of the most notable product introductions was from Audioquest, with a family of intriguing power conditioners. The Niagara 7000 (~$6000) sits atop Audioquest’s new line and includes twelve (12) AC outlets, including four high-current ones. It also offers “the world’s first dielectric-biased AC isolation transformers,” a patent-pending AC ground-noise-dissipation system, common-mode and transverse-mode noise reduction, and surge suppression. In a live demo, designer Garth Powell compared the 7000 with a well-reviewed power conditioner and the Niagara sounded smoother, more natural and dynamic, and less subject to overload on demanding dynamic peaks. (It reportedly has a dynamic range of 120dB.) The Niagara 7000 is slated for release this summer and is certainly worthy of consideration.
Siltech Triple Crown RCA and XLR Cables
Although Siltech showcased a prototype of its state-of-the-art Triple Crown RCA connector at last year’s CES, it is now a key element in Siltech’s flagship line of Triple Crown interconnects and speaker cables (now shipping). This patented connector makes perfect contact with every type of RCA chassis part, and features a self-adjusting locking mechanism, multiple self-centering ground contacts for ultra-low losses, and an auto-adjustment for perfect centering of the signal pin. Siltech also introduced a new XLR version of the cable with self-centering locking connections. The Triple Crown employs mono-crystal silver technology as well as a switchable shield to optimize the interface with different types of electronics. One can keep the shield floating or drain it to either input or output. With the Triple Crown’s incredibly low distortion, inductance, resistance, and capacitance, Siltech’s Edwin Rijnveld says it is “as pure as we can make a cable.” Indeed, at €20,000 for a one meter pair of interconnects, or €35,000 for a two meter pair of speaker cables, these are among the most expensive cables on the market. If you must have the best, check them out, but here’s hoping that this impressive technology finds its way into less expensive cables in the Siltech line!
Shunyata Dark Field Suspension System, Sigma Series Power Cables, and Venom MPC-12 Power Conditioner
Although Shunyata introduced new Sigma Series power cords with built-in noise reduction technology, and a new MPC-12 Venom power conditioner that firewalls digital while also offering both surge suppression and noise reduction, I was most intrigued by its affordable DF-SS Dark Field Suspension System ($195 per set of three). The DF-SS Dark Fields utilize elastomers to isolate the towers and to suspend the speaker cables, and a granular noise insulation compound that effectively isolates the cables from floor-borne vibrations. At $195 for a set of three, this is an affordable way to improve system performance. A test using an oscilloscope and a mallet being struck on the floor demonstrated the Dark Field’s effectiveness. They were used in a system with the outstanding new VAC Sigma 160i SE integrated amplifier ($17,700), Brinkman Bardo turntable system (with 10.5 tonearm and Pi cartridge), Dynaudio C2 Platinum speakers ($17,000), and Shunyata Anaconda cables and Hydra Series Power Conditioner, producing a really engaging sound with a very low noise floor and jet-black backgrounds.
Synergistic Research Atmosphere System and Bass Resonance “Black Box”
It’s remarkable how many new ideas spring from the mind of Synergistic Research’s Ted Denney. Yes, Synergistic has a new line of non-active cables, the Atmosphere Series, which replaces the Element Series at one-third of the price. However, it was two other Synergistic Research products that really shook me up. The first is a passive bass-resonance device, the Black Box, which effectively canceled out low-frequency standing waves during a live demo. The other is the Atmosphere RF Field Generator ($2250). When combined with an Atmosphere Tuning Module ($495), and assisted by Synergistic High Frequency and Electronic Circuit Transducers, it effectively controlled the ambient RF environment in the listening room, enabling one to change the sonics (soundstaging, bass definition, timbre, and more) via pre-sets on an iPad or Android device. The effect is somewhat like what one can get with really good DSP correction, but as the Atmosphere RF Field Generator is not in the signal path, it is totally transparent. Since RF impacts your system anyways, you might want to control and shape it.
Crystal Cable/Astell&Kern Portable Cables
These durable, flexible, and lightweight cables (co-branded and distributed by Astell&Kern) bring Crystal Cable’s advanced cable technology to portable applications. The range includes headphone cables, as well as digital and analog interconnects with both single-ended and balanced connections, to bring your portable music source into your main system. As one might expect from Crystal Cable, these portable cables are also stylish, yet use very-high-quality conductors, high-tech insulation materials, and advanced shielding to make sure all the low-level signals are preserved. “Good cable is so important to replay high-resolution files on headphones, earbuds, and personal audio devices,” said Gabi Rijnveld of Crystal Cable. As Astell&Kern is a leader in high-res personal audio this should be an effective partnership.
Isotek EVO3 Mosaic Genesis Power Conditioner
This new power conditioner and AC generator for source components migrates technology from Isotek’s flagship Genesis and Titan products. The Mosaic Genesis combines the extremely low THD sinewave-generation engine from Isotek’s Genesis with the direct-coupled conditioning network from its Super Titan. The Mosaic ($11,995) not only generates “clean AC” but also provides voltage stabilization, as well as two high-current circuits and three medium-power ones, ideal for source components. In a system with the Vienna Acoustics Liszt loudspeaker, Primare electronics, and a Dr. Feickert Firebird turntable with Axiom tonearm and Archon cartridge, the noise floor was astonishingly low, enabling delicate details to emerge from the music. Additionally, the system’s terrific rhythmic flow and dynamic swings produced a lot of goosebumps.
Cardas Clear Reflection Cables and EM5813 Ear Speakers
The big introduction for Cardas was its Clear Reflection interconnects ($1150 for one meter) and speaker cables ($2450 for two meters), which reportedly combine the sound and geometry of Cardas’ Golden Reference with the technology from the Cardas Clear line to boost dynamics and imaging performance. As the Golden Reference has been one of my favorite cables, I’m looking forward to hearing this new hybrid. It features Cardas’ Matched Propagation Conductors. Cardas also introduced a new, “lower-end” ear speaker ($299), the EM5813, with a brand-new driver and Cardas’ welcome earpiece technology that helps keep the earbuds in your ears. That’s no small feat, at least in my case.
Vovox Textura Fortis
Vovox, a Swiss company with its roots in pro audio, has introduced a solid-core cable, with a cross-section of the conductors enlarged by a factor of ten, designed for use with high-powered amplifiers like the Soulution 701 monoblocks. The ends of the speaker cables are shaped like spades so there are no joints or interruptions, and the terminations are plated with rhodium on the assembled cable. The Textura Fortis is Vovox’s flagship cable. In a system with Soulution electronics sitting atop Critical Mass’ Sotto Voce stands, the Wilson Alexia speakers sounded better than I’ve ever heard them, with outstanding transparency, bass power and control, low coloration, and no smearing of the leading edge of transients.
Wireworld Nano Series and Eclipse 7 Cables
David Salz of Wireworld was demonstrating his Nano Series of ultra-light and flexible cables designed for headphones and portables. They certainly are a significant upgrade over stock headphone cables, letting more fine details emerge. David also compared “direct” music files through Wireworld Eclipse 7 and a variety of other cables. In this experiment, the Wireworld was the closest to the “direct” feed. It’s no surprise since the design objective of the Wireworld Eclipse 7 (as well as Wireworld’s other cables) is “to hear what you hear without any cable,” said Salz. The Wireworld Eclipse 7 cables were also part of a sonically compelling system with Constellation Inspiration 1.0 Series electronics and Wilson Sasha II loudspeakers. The fine detail retrieval was first-rate!
Telos Grounding Noise Reducer
This promising product dramatically reduces ground resistance and noise so you get the most direct grounding path for your system. Telos’ largest unit ($4500) is an active isolating ground system, and in a “real-world” comparison it produced 40-times less noise compared to the original ground that we measured. It also offered noise reduction on the AC line. A smaller unit with no filtration ($1500) will also be available in early March per designer Jeff Linn.
In Other News
NAIM introduced its new Super Lumina range of high-end interconnects and speaker cables, primarily for its high-performance Statement amplifier, as well as Naim 500 Series and Classic products. The Super Luminae feature the Naim Air-PLUG to minimize microphonic interference and preserve the integrity of the audio signal, but an RCA termination option is available for use with non-Naim equipment.
Cardas introduced a new tonearm cable that is the “lightest ever from Cardas,” a Clear Coax Digital cable that replaces Cardas Lightning, and the 101 bulk speaker cable at $9/ft.
Kimber Kable introduced new power cords with Wattgate Evolution Connectors.
Isotek and its North American distributor, VANA, showed the Isotek EV03 Optimum, a silver-plated power cord ($995/2-meter) with a Teflon dielectric that combines solid-core technology in a flexible power cord.
Best Sound (cost-no-object): Several systems vied for best sound at CES, including the relatively diminutive yet big-sounding YG Acoustics’ Carmel 2 with D’Agostino Momentum electronics and a dCS front-end; the Rockport Avior speakers driven by Absolare Passion electronics, including Absolare’s new 85/watt/channel push-pull amplifier and new phonostage, which exhibited holographic soundstaging and beautifully natural timbre; and the imposing Nola Concert Grand Reference Gold loudspeakers driven by Audio Research Electronics connected by Nordost Odin cables, which was able to convey the grandeur and scale of a large orchestra. The Kharma system (dB11-S speakers, Kharma electronics/cables, dCS Vivaldi) was a “sonic oasis” featuring wonderful coherence, smooth yet extended highs, and explosive bass, and the Wilson Alexia paired with Soulution electronics offered wonderful transparency and bass definition, and absolutely clear transients with no smearing.
Best Sound (for the money): When it comes to value in high-performance loudspeakers, it’s hard to beat Magnepan. Its .7 speakers, driven by Conrad-Johnson electronics sounded like a far more costly system. The new HiFiMan HE1000 planar-magnetic headphones driven by HiFiMan electronics sounded remarkable and may motivate me to do a lot more headphone listening, and the $10k all-Sony system (SS-NA5ES speakers, TA-A1 ES integrated, and HAP-Z1ES server with Kimber Select cables and interconnects) worked extremely well and represented great value.
Most Coveted Product: The Soulution electronics vaulted the Wilson Alexia loudspeakers into another league, and the combo contended for best sound of the show. However, the new VAC Sigma 160i SE integrated is also a gem and more within my budget.
Biggest Surprises: How good the YG Acoustics Carmel 2 loudspeakers ($24,300) sounded, driven by D’Agostino Momentum electronics. I thought I was listening to one of YG’s much larger loudspeakers! Another major surprise was the effectiveness of using a Nordost Sort Kone under the USB output of a laptop computer, which resulted in better imaging and a more focused bottom end.
Most Significant Trend (in my category): High-performance cables coupled with high-resolution personal audio systems.