[SoundStage!]The Candy Store
Back-Issue Article

January 2006

Sexy Ain't Everything

Sexy ain’t everything.

Look at the list of women who made FHM magazine's "Sexiest Women in the World" list. The top ten, in order of most to least sexy, were: Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Garner, Paris Hilton, Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, Alyssa Milano, Teri Hatcher, Pamela Anderson, Scarlett Johansson and Lindsay Lohan.

Just seeing Angelina Jolie’s name on the list would send my wife into a rant. Even before the Brad-Angelina-Jennifer thing, she was known as "big-lipped woman" in our house. Who was I to argue? We just had our differences about the appeal of this particular facial feature.

Let’s move on down the list. Am I the only one bothered by seeing the name Paris Hilton in front of Charlize Theron? Can I see a show of hands of people who could stand to be in the same room with Miss "No-Talent Party Brat" for more than, say, thirty minutes? Now, to be fair, I’ve never met the woman, but if I did, I think I would spend the first few moments fearing the moment she started to speak.

OK, now forget all about sexy women for a minute. Your Google search of Pamela Anderson pics can wait until later.

Some audio cables are a lot like Paris Hilton. You know the ones: cables with the size and coloration of beautiful tropical snakes. Some of these beauties are even terminated with large aluminum collars that give them an almost jewelry-like aesthetic. They look sexy. You’ll get no argument from me. I’d be a liar if I said that we didn’t sell some of these beauties in our own establishment. We just don’t make the decision to sell a cable based on its sex appeal. Like women, it’s nice to have a little more than eye candy for the long haul.

And what about size? Does it really matter? At last year’s CES, I saw a power cord from Sunny Cable that really pushed the limits. It was appropriately called Anaconda and was at least as big around as its namesake. Frequently, the size of the cable is a result of design philosophy. Some companies rave about large air dielectrics running the length of the cable or dual-helical windings using a large number of small solid-core conductors in a Litz-configuration. Others really do use a lot of copper and/or silver in their cables, pushing them into the 8- or 6-gauge range. However, I’ve also seen a number of cables that were nothing more than a couple of 12-gauge wires stuck inside a plastic tube crammed full of plastic filler material and covered with a multi-colored nylon sheath. It sure impresses the guests.

Enter Audience, leading with the original Henry Ford philosophy that you can have it in any color as long as it’s black. At first glance, Audience seems to break many of the rules of high-end cable companies. But if you look closer, you might see that Audience is one of the biggest followers of rules. It’s just that the rules they follow are those that lead to better sound, not selling more cables. Marketing geniuses they are not. In fact, when the first cables arrived in the store, my heart kind of sank. Cables are one of the hardest sells in the audio business, and the ones from Audience don’t look much more esoteric than the giveaways thrown in with mass-market DVD or CD players. Who’s going to pay real money for these?

And then I heard them. The first Audience cable that I experienced was also the company's best and most expensive, the Au24. A one-meter pair of the single-ended interconnects runs $552 and a 2.5-meter pair of speaker cables will set you back $1204. Perhaps the name of this cable is the one bit of marketing that Audience engaged in. Most people would automatically assume that the name of the cable was an indicator of its materials, Au being the symbol for gold in the periodic table of elements. One’s impression might further be influenced in this direction by the size of the cable; although the Au24 is the most expensive in the Audience line, it is also the smallest in diameter. If you think about the diameter of a refill in a cheap BIC pen, you’ll have a good idea of the size of an Au24 speaker cable or single interconnect. It almost makes you laugh. In fact, the Au24 is an unshielded coaxial design of "OHNO continuous-cast single-crystal copper with polypropylene insulation and cross-linked polyethylene jacket material." I couldn’t find the actual gauge of the wire mentioned anywhere, but it can’t be much. The connectors are also nothing special. The low-mass, low-contact-resistance, gold-plated beryllium/copper connectors do nothing special at all except sound good. The designers at Audience claim to have tried encasing the cable in fancier sleeves terminated with more jewel-like connectors. Unfortunately they say that each and every time they tried this, the sound went downhill.

All cable manufacturers have certain parameters that they pay close attention to. Some manufacturers pay special attention to capacitance and others to inductance. Audience designs for the lowest in both realms, but, more important, tries to achieve a desirable ratio of the two. Audience cable designs are all about low eddy-current resistance and good time-domain response. Audience describes the importance of these qualities thusly:

"Eddy currents are created by the magnetic field found around a cable when an electrical signal is present. This magnetic field builds up and collapses as the signal varies. When the field collapses it induces an opposing voltage back into the cable. This opposing voltage causes eddy currents in the conductor. If they could be seen, eddy currents would look like swirling water in a river. This late-arriving, opposing voltage disrupts the original signal by inducing a time-smearing artifact. These effects are clearly audible. Cables that sound 'detailed' or 'powerful in the bass' are usually victims of high eddy currents. Eddy currents plus high capacitance can cause a cable to sound overly 'relaxed.' The particular type of coloration caused by eddy currents is dependent on the materials, construction techniques and the geometric configuration of the cable."

Whatever the case, my initial apprehension due to the cables' lackluster appearance was quickly set aside after I did some listening. This is not a cable that will immediately wow you with showmanship in any one particular area. Cables that do this are almost always a far cry from neutral. In fact, when I first listened to Au24, I thought that it sounded like a pretty darn good cable, but that was about it. It was what followed in the days and weeks after that told the whole story. Every time I removed either the Audience interconnect or speaker cable and replaced it with something else, I missed it. I’m not talking about just any midline cable, but some cables that cost two or three times the Au24's price. I still missed the Audience. I’ve never been able to nail down Au24's sound to just one trait. It does the soundstage thing very well. It has well-defined, if not subterranean, bass. The midrange seems very natural. The top end is extended, yet probably leans ever so slightly to the sweet side. It just plays music well, without bringing attention to itself. I never find myself drawn to a certain aspect of the music, wondering if a cable change might help.

Moving on down the line is the Maestro series. At twice the diameter and around half the cost of the Au24 cables ($292 per meter pair interconnects and $538 per 2.5-meter pair speaker cables), the Maestros definitely deliver more than half the performance. They still have a very natural-sounding performance, equal or better than that of most other cables in this price range. It’s kind of like viewing the sonic picture of Au24 through a window instead of having no window in between. The window may be clean, but you still lose something. But while they may give the listener a large percentage of what Au24 delivers, this is a hobby where a 15-20% difference is a lot. If the Maestro is at the top of your budget, then it’s worth an audition. It’s a fine cable. However, if you can save for a little while longer and get the Au24, it’s worth the wait.

The first step onto the Audience ladder is Conductor, definitely a "best buy" cable. A meter pair of Conductor interconnects costs $241, with 2.5-meter pair speaker cables running $387. I would not describe the Conductor series as a step down from Maestro; it's a lateral choice. I find the presentation of Conductor to be as natural-sounding and smooth as the more expensive Maestro. Conductor just seems to be a trimmer-sounding Maestro. Now I’m not saying that I find the Maestro to sound fat; I find it to have just slightly more body. In a thin-sounding system, Maestro works well, whereas in a fuller system, the Conductor can add a little needed definition. Choose wisely, Grasshopper.

I have found cables that seemed to favor tube or solid-state gear. I’ve also found cables that seemed to work best with large drivers or metal-dome tweeters. In the case of the Audience cable lines, they don’t seem to show a preference. Audience has found itself between $27,000 worth of Thor Audio tube gear as well as in an entry-level Arcam setup. It all just works.

Can you tell that I like this stuff? My customers certainly do. But don’t trust me -- I’m only one set of ears. Find a dealer and take some Audience cables home for a try. Just don't let their looks, or rather lack thereof, influence you.

...Bill Brooks
billb@soundstage.com

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