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Equipment Review
March 2005

AudioQuest Sky Interconnects and Volcano Speaker Cables

by Marc Mickelson


"Sky [is] a reference-level interconnect, one of the very best on the market, and a sure Reviewers' Choice."

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Best Product Debut


Review Summary
Sound Volcano "has a big, robust presentation that's not particularly light or dark, fast or slow. It sounded just a touch sweet." Sky had "extreme air and extreme smoothness coupled with a more absolute sense of background silence -- a combination that made it easier to hear deeply into recordings." Together, "it was as though there were more sonic pixels and they were nudged closer together, presenting a soundscape that was sharp, rich and vibrant all at the same time."
Features Sky uses "Perfect-Surface Silver (PSS) solid conductors, which are said to minimize 'distortion caused by grain boundaries that exist within any metal conductor,' and Teflon Air-Tube insulation, which has 'almost nothing but air around the PSS conductors.'" Volcano's 16 Perfect-Surface Copper + solid conductors "are of four different sizes so that any sonic character from one size is offset by the others." Both use AudioQuest's Dielectric-Bias System, which keeps the cables' dielectric constantly charged so that it never releases its energy in the form of distortion.
Use "It seemed apparent from the outset that AudioQuest's claim that its DBS kept the cables in a ready-to-use state was the truth."
Value "AudioQuest Sky and Volcano are a sonic accomplishment, and even at their prices represent good value given their competition."

Specialization is a guiding principle of modern society and modern audiophilia. We audiophiles split reproduction not only into different components, but those components often consist of separate chassis that are optimized to perform a few functions exceptionally well. Speakers, for instance, can comprise more than one cabinet per channel, and CD and LP playback may require more than one chassis each. Preamps come with outboard power supplies, and mono amplifiers handle only one channel of information at a time. While you can put together a fine audio system that has as few as four separate "boxes" (CD player, integrated amp, and a pair of speakers), you can also buy digital rigs that have that many chassis by themselves.

Specialization applies to audio cables as readily as audio electronics and speakers. There are interconnects and speaker cables designed for use with specific types of electronics and speakers, those that use in-line networks, and those that connect to outboard chassis that perform all manner of functions. And then there are AudioQuest's latest interconnects and speaker cables, which use the company's Dielectric-Bias System (DBS) and thereby carry the banner of specialization in a very obvious manner. AudioQuest says great things about its DBS cables, but lofty claims fall especially hard in the world of audio cables, where hyperbole is abundant. Still, I was interested in AudioQuest's DBS and in discovering if it did indeed represent a credible new approach to specialization in audio cables.

A quest for audio

AudioQuest is one of the best-known audio companies, having been in business for 25 years. Most audiophiles, therefore, have encountered an AudioQuest product at some point, especially if the company's extensive line of recordings is taken into account. During its history, AudioQuest has produced highly praised interconnects and speaker cables that were expensive (Diamond and Sterling) and inexpensive (Turquoise and Type 4) and, from an outside observer's viewpoint, has never stopped pushing the limits of cable performance, even as its products have seemingly sold at a brisk pace. Yes, the cynical among us would say that cable companies like AudioQuest change their product lines simply to spur sales, but these cynics are often blinded by their own dogma and won't admit that they may not have all of the facts. An improved version of Type 4 speaker cable, for instance, is still in AudioQuest's product lineup nearly 15 years after it was first introduced.

I corresponded with AudioQuest's Joe Harley two years ago about reviewing some of his company's cables, and he told me then that AudioQuest had some special new interconnects and speaker cables in development that would soon be available. He was referring to the new DBS cables, from which come the Sky interconnects ($2100 USD per meter pair) and Volcano speaker cables ($3500 per ten-foot pair) I received for review. Sky is AudioQuest's top-of-the-line interconnect, while Volcano is a step down from Everest in terms of speaker-cable offerings. Both are handsomely made and incorporate many of AudioQuest's signature design elements.

For Sky, these include Perfect-Surface Silver (PSS) solid conductors, which are said to minimize "distortion caused by grain boundaries that exist within any metal conductor," and Teflon Air-Tube insulation, which has "almost nothing but air around the PSS conductors." Sky's Triple-Balanced Geometry means, among many things, that when configured as a single-ended or balanced interconnect, the cable's shield is never used as a conductor. Sky's conductors are welded at 8000 amps to the interconnect's RCA or XLR connectors, both of which are a deep blue and have the cable's name printed on their outer casings. The RCAs are especially noteworthy because they look to be proprietary and are direct silver plated. AudioQuest includes a silver-cleaning cloth with each pair of Sky interconnects to aid in the removal of tarnish. I especially like the RCAs, which are not locking types but still fit snugly around the jack, and the flexibility of the cable itself.

Volcano features the same number of conductors and geometry as the top-of-the-line Everest speaker cables, but uses Perfect-Surface Copper + solid conductors instead of Everest's PSS conductors. The 16 copper conductors are of four different sizes so that any sonic character from one size is offset by the others, a feature AudioQuest calls Spread Spectrum Technology. The eight positive and eight negative conductors spiral counter to each other, the band of negative conductors on the outside of the positive conductors, so that the conductors cross each other instead of run parallel for the length of the cable. This is a strategy that other cables companies embrace, but it is applied in different ways. AudioQuest calls its application Counter-Spiraling Earth-Feature Geometry, and it makes for a speaker cable that's thick and somewhat stiff.

Amidst all of Sky's and Volcano's grandly named design features is AudioQuest's patent-pending Dielectric-Bias System. AudioQuest argues that the phenomenon of cable break-in is actually a matter of the dielectric adapting to a charged state, and whenever the cable is not being used, it returns to its uncharged state. The DBS consists of an insulated anode and uninsulated cathode inside each cable run that are connected to a pair of 36V battery packs affixed to the cable's downstream end. The battery packs keep the cable's dielectric constantly charged with 72V DC and thereby ensure that the dielectric never drains its energy as distortion, providing "considerably better transparency and dynamics than are possible even from a cable in continuous use." This also means that DBS cables arrive to their owners ready to use, as the battery packs are attached when the cables are terminated. A small button and LED on each allows testing of the batteries, which AudioQuest claims will last for years, presumably because they are connected to nothing -- no component other than the test LED -- that presents a load.

I immediately wondered if some particular amount of DC voltage was optimal, or if more voltage was mo' better. "Initially we thought that simply being above audio voltage was plenty for DBS," said Joe Harley. "Then as we began to experiment we realized that the strength of the electrostatic field set up by DBS was more critical. Think of it a bit like when you have iron filings and a magnet. When the magnetic field is more powerful, more iron filings are aligned. It's the same with DBS, up to a point." What is that point? AudioQuest has found that 50 volts is the threshold above which the benefits of additional voltage are "pretty subtle," according to Harley. However, the DBS battery packs are 36V each, due to the use of three 23AE 12V batteries. So AudioQuest's higher-end DBS cables come with two battery packs that run in parallel to produce 72V -- a bit of overkill, according to AudioQuest, but "72V DBS does provide a subtle but noticeable improvement over 36V."

All in all, Sky and Volcano appear to be thoughtfully designed cables, a far piece from generic wire pulled off a spool and terminated with crimped connectors. What I see from AudioQuest is not an attempt to blind with science, as all of Sky's and Volcano's design features seem to make sense and are carefully implemented, not simply for show. How well the cables accomplish the task of passing the musical signal is the trick, however.

Review system

I used AudioQuest Sky and Volcano with a distinguished lineup of reference-level components: Wilson Audio MAXX 2 speakers, Lamm ML2.1 and M1.2 Reference mono amplifiers, Lamm L2 Reference and VTL TL-7.5 Reference preamps, Zanden Model 5000 Mk III DAC and Model 2000P transport, Esoteric X-01 CD/SACD player, and Audio Research CD3 Mk II CD player. Power cords were all from Shunyata Research -- Anaconda Vx and Alpha, older Taipan and Python -- as was the Hydra Model-8 power conditioner. The Lamm ML2.1s sat on Silent Running VR 3.0 isoBases specially made for them, while the rest of the electronics rested on Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation platforms, a pair of Michael Green Designs racks, or Corian slabs on the floor.

Interconnects and speaker cables for direct comparison and additional use were from Cardas (Golden Reference), Siltech (Signature G6 Compass Lake, Forbes Lake, Eskay Creek and The Emperor) and Acoustic Zen (Silver Reference II and Hologram II). Normally when I review interconnects and speaker cables, I use the two together as a system exclusively. I do this because you write us most often about full sets of cables, not just interconnects or speaker cables. Also, the cables I receive are almost always from the same grouping in a company's product line and often use the same materials. However, these things don't apply to Sky and Volcano. Sky is AudioQuest's top interconnect and uses silver conductors, while Volcano has a similar geometry to the top speaker cable but uses copper conductors. Given this, I thought it prudent to use both separately and then together, so I could report on any differences I hear in their presentations and then how well they work together.

Sound

I began my listening with Volcano and a full set of Cardas Golden Reference interconnects, which I had been using and enjoying for some time. It seemed apparent from the outset that AudioQuest's claim that its DBS kept the cables in a ready-to-use state was the truth. Volcano sounded very good from the beginning, and I can't say that its sound changed over time. It has a big, robust presentation that's not particularly light or dark, fast or slow. It sounded just a touch sweet when compared to the bulk of speaker cables I've heard, some of which sound more whitish and others more coppery. Volcano resides between these two hues -- a very light gold, let's say. Its bass was very good, though not quite up to the sheer power and slam of that of the networked speaker cables I've used. Its midrange was finely textured and full, with strong image outlines. There was a certain corporeal nature to its presentation that gave vocals and instruments a solidity that I valued. Other listeners may prefer a leaner presentation, which may impart a greater sense of perceived (not actual) transparency.

In summary, I couldn't fault Volcano, but I didn't find any one thing about its sound that I thought stood out, which begs the speculation that it seemed to do everything well. No matter -- it's a very good speaker cable, one I would be happy to use long-term.

Once acclimated to Volcano, I swapped it out for Cardas Golden Reference speaker cables and put in the AudioQuest Sky interconnects in order to isolate their sound (and you think audio reviewing is all fun?). After that I reinserted Volcano and went completely AudioQuest. In both cases, I can't say that the sound was initially "very good," as with Volcano alone. Instead, it was astounding. There was extreme air and extreme smoothness coupled with a more absolute sense of background silence -- a combination that made it easier to hear deeply into recordings and never feel as though some ugly byproduct was lurking around the corner. It was as though there were more sonic pixels and they were nudged closer together, presenting a soundscape that was sharp, rich and vibrant all at the same time.

It's hard to convey in words the effect of this confluence of air, smoothness and blackness, but it was very easy to hear. Chet Baker's trumpet on "I Could Have Danced All Night Long," from the K2 20-bit remastered version of Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner & Loewe [Riverside RCD-1152-2], had a pellucid aura amidst the sort of spaciousness that makes audiophiles swoon. Baker's trumpet didn't blat and sounded a bit wooly, but these characteristics were part of its sound, and the AudioQuest cables, especially Sky, let it through unhindered. It was difficult to sit still and not throw on CD after CD whose inherent expansiveness would be enhanced. Terry Evans' Blues for Thought [Pointblank 8 39064 2] and John Hammond's Wicked Grin [Pointblank 8 50764 2] are on the same label and sound very spacious, with Wicked Grin possessing the bigger bottom end. They were a blast to hear, especially "Get Behind the Mule" from Wicked Grin, and one of my favorite Terry Evans tunes, "Shakespeare Didn't Quote That." I let the big soundstage flood the room.

Sky and Volcano did justice to all kinds of recordings. Mark Eitzel's dark, atmospheric covers on Music for Courage & Confidence [New West NW6038] are recorded as I wish all pop could be: tilting slightly to the bass, giving the music a warmer, less strident character. The AudioQuest cables served it well, as they did the quaint Lovely Sunday Afternoon [Daring Records 3035] by guitarist Guy Van Duser and clarinetist Billy Novick. Here, again, the space between the two musicians became an important element in the recording's charm, but the texture of both instruments stole the show. Volcano and especially Sky are detailed cables, but not apparently so. Detail is never thrust at you -- there is no forwardness or aggression -- but every musical gesture, no matter how small, is present and accounted for.

The DBS system is easy to defeat -- simply unplug the leads to the DBS battery packs -- or is it? Does the dielectric's charge drain as soon as the battery packs are disconnected? Quick A/B comparisons demonstrated no difference in sound, but extended auditions proved that there was a difference completely in favor of DBS. I mentioned this to a rival cable manufacturer, who promptly said that it makes complete sense because the cables' dielectric would hold a charge "maybe for days," so unplugging the DBS battery packs would do little or nothing in the short term.

What I found was that after listening for weeks with DBS, listening without it led to a less spacious, more blunt presentation, which made the music sound smaller. The magnitude of the difference is similar to that of swapping out an entire set of cables, which is to say that the sound is utterly changed. After getting used to this, reconnecting the DBS on all of the cables brings back the sense of endless space and vibrancy. But even this does not happen immediately; as I found out, you'll need to give the DBS system a couple of days at the very least, presumably to recharge the dielectric completely. As far as I'm concerned, those listeners who say they can't hear the effect of the DBS aren't letting it charge or drain, aren't listening closely enough, or are letting their biases cloud their judgment.

Comparisons

Another recent review cable was Cardas Golden Reference ($917 per meter pair of interconnects and $2106 per eight-foot pair of speaker cables), about which I said: "What defines the sound of Golden Reference interconnects and speaker cables more than anything is their high level of neutrality, real neutrality, not the thin, washed-out sound that audiophiles often think represents neutrality." In a strictly philosophical sense, some will argue that AudioQuest Volcano and Sky are not as neutral as Golden Reference because their sound is easier to discern. On the other hand, I could argue that Sky and Volcano are more neutral because they let more of the space, smoothness and silence of each recording pass.

Comparing the sound of these two cable sets is an exercise in unearthing and explaining subtlety, as sonic differences were never huge. Golden Reference sounded rather like the Volcano speaker cables alone -- very good at everything with nothing calling attention to itself. However, in combination with Sky, Volcano took on a slightly lighter, more energetic character that I preferred to Golden Reference. The soundstage of the AudioQuest cables seemed a bit wider and deeper than that of the Cardas cables, but nothing was compressed with Golden Reference, so this may have been due to LMV (listener mood variation) more than anything real. Break-in is vital with the Cardas cables -- they sound pretty awful without at least 50 hours of time on them -- and a non-issue with Sky and Volcano.

Only the very expensive Siltech Signature cables ($4300-$9000 per meter pair of interconnects, $11,300-$26,750 per eight-foot pair of speaker cables) that I reviewed last year equaled Volcano and Sky in terms of overall sonic acuity. If I could choose either (and not have to pay for them!), I would pick Siltech Signature interconnects and speaker cables because of their overwhelming naturalness and completeness. But both cable sets are the sort of products I wish I didn't have to review so I could maximize my time simply listening to music with them.

Reach for the Sky

I feel confident in proclaiming AudioQuest Sky a reference-level interconnect, one of the very best on the market, and a sure Reviewers' Choice. I'm not similarly in awe of Volcano speaker cables on their own, but I can certainly recommend them, especially with Sky interconnects, in which case the end product is definitely greater than the mere sum of its parts. The smoothness, air and quietude these cables bring to music are very convincing and, moreover, seductive. Hearing a favorite recording sound more spacious and liquid is a treat that Sky and Volcano deliver every time.

I'm no engineer, so I can't comment with any sort of credentials about AudioQuest's Dielectric-Bias System, but I can say that it sounds like it works. If you endeavor to experiment, just be sure you give the dielectric ample time to drain and charge, which means that quick swapping will prove nothing.

AudioQuest Sky and Volcano are a sonic accomplishment, and even at their prices represent good value given their competition. If they are the standard-bearers of some new kind of specialization in high-end audio, I say bring it on!

...Marc Mickelson
marc@soundstage.com

AudioQuest Sky Interconnects and Volcano Speaker Cables
Prices:
Sky, $2100 USD per meter pair; Volcano, $3500 per ten-foot pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

AudioQuest
8710 Research Drive
Irvine, CA 92618
Phone: (949) 585-0111
Fax: (949) 585-0333

E-mail: info@audioquest.com
Website: www.audioquest.com

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