November 2001Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference Interconnects and Satori Speaker Cables
by Tim Shea
Most people view the tires on their cars as something they have to buy to make the car work, but they try to spend as little time, energy, and money as possible to replace them. This usually means taking whatever the dealer recommends or just buying another set of what came on the car originally. Of course, this strategy will get you by, but the fact is that any car will handle significantly better if you put better tires on it -- tires are the only things that connect your car to the road. For those who have a car simply to get from point A to point B, the minimalist strategy probably works fine. But for those who care about the driving experience and the emotional and physical enjoyment it can provide, good tires are essential.
I liken cables in audio systems to tires on cars. Up to a certain level, audio consumers view cables as a necessary but not particularly critical link in the performance of their systems, probably not in small part due to their understandable, if mistaken, assumption that "wire is pretty much wire." And, as with tires, I think the main reasons for this are that people either dont care or have never experienced the difference cables can make to their ultimate listening experience. I will side with John Q. Audio Consumer in one respect: my experience has been that relative to differences in electronics or speakers, the differences cables make in overall system performance are usually, but certainly not always, of a more subtle nature. This is not to say that cable choices are not critical even if the differences are subtle, because to an audiophile these subtleties can represent a huge step forward in a systems ability to reproduce music and hence increase the enjoyment factor immensely.
So this review might be hogwash to Mr. Sears Roadhandler or Ms. Zip Cord, but thats OK. Everything is relative.
Which brings me to Acoustic Zen
Many of you probably know that Robert Lee, the chief designer and co-founder of Harmonic Technology, left that company to start Acoustic Zen. Lee still uses the acclaimed single-crystal wire that put Harmonic Technology on the map (Acoustic Zen calls it Zero Crystal), so you might ask, what has he done differently at Acoustic Zen? In speaking with Mr. Lee directly about that very subject, I learned that although the wire itself is the same, everything else is different. First, the Teflon air-tube insulation is new for the Acoustic Zen line both in its material and configuration. Also significant is the insulation within the wire itself, which now enables the positive and negative conductors to remain completely separate from one another. And if spade connectors are chosen, they are made from the same single-crystal process as the cable itself to preserve the benefits of that design from end to end -- a nice touch. So there are differences in materials, design, and geometry, which pretty much makes Acoustic Zen a very different cable despite sharing wire with Harmonic Technology. In fact, these also differentiate Acoustic Zen cables from every cable on the market.
One of the tangible results of all this attention to detail and design is possibly the lowest capacitance level in the industry, even lower than flat cables, but with the shielding benefits and less-fragile nature of more traditional cable designs. The combination of lower capacitance and the single-crystal wire is purported to better preserve the phase and harmonic-structure information contained within the musical signal and reduce high-frequency roll-off. The benefits are said to be very detailed yet full sound with a larger and better-defined soundstage and an increased sense of both space and timing. If thats not enough for you, Robert Lee will custom build a set of cables to your specification if you tell him which equipment you have and what you are trying to achieve, and apparently this is done through careful fine-tuning of the conductor.
Setup and use
Speaking of configurations and options, for this review I had an eight-foot pair of shotgun biwire Satori speaker cables, $1188 USD, with spade connectors that were nicely configured to fit a variety of binding posts -- no sticking forks through holes here. What I almost failed to notice upon hooking them up was that one of the shotgun pair on each side is a low-pass cable, and the other a more full-range design (this goes back to the fine-tuning I mentioned above). At this point I really had an inferiority complex in that this extravagant design was replacing my single run of vintage Monster Cable with bare wire ends. While obviously outdated and badly in need of replacement, the Monster Cable has, much to my frustration and bewilderment, managed to hold its own against newer competitors to the point where I felt a stronger desire to replace other components rather than the speaker cables.
I also had two one-meter pairs of Matrix Reference interconnects, $498 each, that sport big, beefy lock-down RCA connectors that may prove challenging to those with limited real estate between jacks. The Matrix Reference is a mix of 96% copper and 4% silver and is the baby brother to Acoustic Zens top-line Silver Reference interconnect, which is conversely made up of wire that is 96% silver and 4% copper. I am currently using DH Labs excellent, but far less expensive, BL-1 Series II interconnects, which consist of a copper core with silver plating, so I was curious to see how these very different designs would compare. The Matrix References replaced the BL-1 IIs between my DAC and preamp and between the preamp and amp.
I first plugged all the Acoustic Zen cables into my system for about a week or so to let them burn in, and I did my best not to listen during this period, although that never works. My plan after burn-in was to first try the Satoris alone to get a handle on what they brought to the party, and then try the interconnects alone to see what they could do versus the BL-1 IIs. Finally, I was going to use all the Acoustic Zen cables together to assess whether there was some family synergy happening.
Of course, you know what they say, "If you want to make God laugh, make a plan." Off I went to give God a chuckle.
So whats the Satori here?
Generally I find audio components come in two flavors, chocolate and vanilla. By this I mean that most of the time I insert a component into my system, I either get a sense that it is doing something to the sound or it isnt. If it is, it can be a good thing or a bad thing -- bad if it goes too far. For example, some of the more classic tube gear Ive heard can impart a rich, luscious flavor to the midrange that Im not sure is real, but it works magic with early 80s CDs or other recordings that sound like the engineer had cotton in his ears. This is pure, dark chocolate. On the other hand, sometimes I put in a component that doesnt seem to do anything at all to the sound. It just seems to pass the signal on through without so much as a "How do you do?" Obviously this would be the vanilla camp, but, just as with chocolate, there are different kinds of vanilla. Sometimes vanilla can skew more toward the ice-crystally, watered-down supermarket-brand ice cream we got as kids, but sometimes its Ben & Jerrys Worlds Best Vanilla. With the former, you just know theres a lot missing, and its a very unfulfilling experience, but with the latter you begin to question the need for chocolate in the first place (well, maybe thats overstating things a bit).
As soon as I connected the Satori speaker cables, I knew I was looking at vanilla, but it took some time to assess what kind of vanilla we had here. After initial burn-in of a hundred hours or so, I did a quick switch between the Satoris and my classic Monster Cable. At first I didnt notice all that much difference, I think because in going from a single run of bargain-basement, naked-ended wire to a double run of tuned and heavily shielded garden hose, I was expecting an immediate and obvious impact on the level of changing speakers. Cables just arent that way, especially if were in the vanilla realm, because the differences, although real and significant, lie in the more subtle details of the music. But again, the subtle details can be precisely the difference between listening to music and becoming involved in the performance.
So I pulled out some of my more cleanly recorded and detailed CDs that I knew would help me sort out and identify the subtleties. First up was Ginger Bakers solo effort, Coward of the County [Atlantic 83168-2], which is an interesting mix of aggressive and laid-back jazz pieces and is very well recorded. I dont know if it was the break-in time, the recording, or my level of critical listening (probably a combo of all three), but things were happening for which I was not prepared. While my initial notes pre break-in were filled with "maybes" and "somewhats," the differences I was hearing now were clear as day. On the opening track, "Cyril Davies," it was immediately obvious the bass was quicker, tighter, and better defined, and the cymbals, though not really any more detailed, were more natural and exhibited a sense of existing in space that was striking. Maybe the most telling transformation occurred with the trumpet, which took on a rounder and fuller presence, not only tonally but also spatially, so that it was as if I could picture the whole instrument. It was not unlike those newer whiz-bang commercials in which they freeze the picture of a person and then pan 360 degrees around. I felt like I could hear all around the instrument in a way Ive never experienced before.
In general, every element of the soundstage seemed to stand out more in bold relief, which was probably a combination of the improved preservation of the harmonic structure of the music along with what I perceived was a quieter background. It would be easier for me to say it was improved dynamics, but it seemed like so much more than that. Given that the Monster Cable I use is unshielded, this did not come as a total surprise, but it was the combination of the low noise level with all the other things this cable was doing right that really caught my attention.
I moved on to Diana Kralls Love Scenes [Impulse IMPD-233] to hear what the Satori speaker cables would bring to more relaxed music and female vocals. The first thing I noticed was that the edges of vocal and instrumental images were more defined in space, which allowed all sounds to come through more prominently. The piano lost some murkiness, and individual notes became more distinct. The bass line was better damped on "All or Nothing at All," and in general the Satoris let the bass flow better within the context of the music rather than overflowing on top of it, thereby obscuring detail and pace. I thought I had heard "Gentle Rain" enough to never want to put it on again, but with the Satoris in place, Kralls voice took on a new level of presence such that I ended up playing this track over and over with a stupid smile on my face (not unlike the one I get while putting a big dent in a pint of Ben & Jerrys). Background nuances and echoes were more evident, but there was really an overall balance and correctness happening that was making me want to listen more.
Patricia Barbers Companion [Blue Note/Premonition 7243 5 22963 2 3] CD is one of my favorite live recordings, and on "Like JT," the Satori cables removed a level of haze that I hadnt noticed before and made the performance become even more alive. I dont know whether it was the preservation of phase or harmonic information or something else, but I again had the sense that I could hear all around the cymbals rather than just hearing the sound projected directly toward me. This extended in varying degrees to all aspects within the soundstage and brought my system one very significant step closer to reality.
In sum, the Satori speaker cables added life to my system, and they made me want to listen to music more. I think you get the picture here.
One Matrix Reference or two?
After my extremely positive experience with the Satori speaker cables, I was eager to get the Matrix Reference interconnects in my system to see what they could do in synergy with the Satoris (gone was my notion of trying the Matrix Reference interconnects with the Monster Cable -- so much for the "plan"). It was immediately obvious these were very different from my DH Labs interconnects, and I wasnt sure right off the bat that this was going to be a good thing.
Going back to Ginger Baker, the overall sound was warmer and richer with less apparent detail and dynamic agility. Detail was still very good, but the transient attack from the brass and drums seemed a bit softer, and the see-through quality to the soundstage that Ive come to identify more with silver interconnects became slightly veiled. On the flip side, the soundstage expanded and became fuller, which made the BL-1 IIs seem rather thin and closed-in by comparison. Cymbals were portrayed in a less forward manner and seemed more naturally part of the music, and the trumpet was noticeably richer with a better balance of tone and air being expelled from the bell. Spatially the magic brought forth by the Satoris was still there, so there were some definite synergies happening.
But moving on to Diana Kralls Love Scenes, "Gentle Rain" became a little more distant than it should be. Here the fullness of tone overwhelmed the expressiveness and emotion in Kralls voice, and I found myself craving a little of that silver to bring her back to life.
This was frustrating because there were elements the Matrix Reference interconnects were providing that were clearly improving what I was hearing, but they were coming at a price I wasnt sure I was willing to pay in terms of upper-octave detail (or air) and transient snap. While speaking with Robert Lee to get some background material for the article, he volunteered (without any prompting from me or discussion about my observations) that many people prefer to use his Silver Reference for source applications and the Matrix Reference between the preamp and amp. Although I didnt have the Silver Reference on hand to do this, a light went on, and I couldnt wait to get off the phone to plug the BL-1 IIs back in between the DAC and preamp.
And just like that, life was good again. Some people have an aversion to mixing cables in their systems, but I have no problem with it if the results sound better, and in this case to me they definitely did. It was a clear case of opposites attracting and complementing each other, and the BL-1 IIs positioned up front really allowed the Acoustic Zen interconnects to show their stuff. It was as if all that copper was too much of a good thing in my system, and that when fed a diet of silver, the Matrix References were able to pass the dynamics and detail of the silver through while preserving the natural tonal richness that the copper brought to the table.
Diana Krall came back to life, and the dynamics returned to Ginger Bakers band. As a further acid test, I put on Steve Coleman and the Five Elements Def Trance Beat (Modalities of Rhythm) [Novus 63181-2], which has a tendency to sound a tad bright with the DH Labs interconnects, and was very pleasantly surprised. There is a good amount of reverb and spatial information in this recording if your system is revealing enough to catch it, and the Matrix Reference allowed it to come through while also portraying the cymbals in a more balanced and less-fatiguing way, yet with even better character and definition. On "Multiplicity of Approaches (The Afrikan Way of Knowing)," Gene Lake works his way around the drum set and strikes a woodblock to punctuate the end of a phrase, and the damn thing scared me! I had to backtrack about ten times to believe it, but the utter realism of that woodblock fleshed out and defined in space was astounding. Ive heard this recording tons of times on many systems and Ive never been affected like that before. Its the Matrix Reference at work, along with the Satoris of course.
The only other speaker cable Ive had in my system that compared to the Satori is the Analysis Plus Oval 12. My system has evolved a bit since then, so this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but my impression is that the Satori is more detailed and dynamic than the Oval 12, which to my ears had just a hint of softness to them. The Oval 9 is probably a more fair comparison to the Satori, and I think it is certainly worthy of an audition.
As for interconnects, the DH Labs continue to acquit themselves quite well against pricier competition, but in this case they do fall a bit short in tonality and overall balance versus the Matrix Reference. However, I did prefer the air and dynamic bite of the BL-1 IIs, so there are definitely trade-offs here that I think have a lot to do with silvers slightly superior conductivity and oxide properties that copper cant seem to match. Id be lying if I said I wasnt constantly pondering what kind of sonic splendor a Silver Reference/Matrix Reference combo might weave -- maybe soon.
You dont have to read too much into my experience with the Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables to know where I stand. They do things I didnt know cables were capable of doing. Regarding the Matrix Reference, although two pairs proved not to be optimal in this instance, one pair was magic and more than welcome to stay in my system.
Acoustic Zen cables convey more musical information than Ive ever heard, and they do it in a completely balanced and neutral way. I can think of no higher praise to heap on audio cables -- or any audio component for that matter -- and I highly recommend you try them. This is one case where if a dealer recommends Acoustic Zen cables, you can be sure hes got your best interest in mind.
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