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Equipment Review
February 2008

Review Follow-Up
AudioQuest William E. Low Signature Interconnects and Speaker Cables

by Marc Mickelson

"The people at AudioQuest seem to be on to something with the various ways they've addressed distortion."

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I have a friend who is a talented art photographer. He mostly takes pictures of places and things, capturing their essence in a way that's always moving, even if I don't quite comprehend how he does it. Oh, I understand the mechanics of photography and even how to frame a good picture. What I don't get is his way of highlighting the lines of an object, the light and shadow present, and the compositional properties, all of which create such immediate and deep meaning. I see what he does after he has done it, and I understand why his photos are appealing. But in terms of the creative process, he simply sees things that I don't. I have a great interest in visual art, and I've even done some painting in my distant past, but my eye can only take me so far, and it won't allow me take photographs like my friend's.

I'm beginning to think that a similar thing is at work with audio cables. We all need them to connect the parts of our audio system, but some people simply don't hear differences from one cable to another and therefore believe they don't exist. You can connect your CD player and preamp with cheap patch cords from Dollar General and your speakers to your amp with the jumper cables in your trunk, and it all will make sound, but when the cables' contribution meshes with that of the right electronics and speakers, their importance seems as great as any other part of the system. But tell this -- or demonstrate it -- to a diehard cable skeptic and he will look at you as though you're speaking in Martian, his need for some kind of objective order outweighing his willingness to experience something he thinks is simply not there. He can no more hear from a set of cables what I can't see when behind the camera -- something that exists but is just not perceptible to everyone.

One of the best-sounding sets of cables that I've used is from AudioQuest: Sky interconnects and Volcano speaker cables, which I reviewed almost three years ago. The two share a number of AudioQuest-specific design features, all with stately names, but ultimately differ in terms of conductor materials: Sky uses silver conductors and Volcano copper. AudioQuest's newest interconnects and speaker cables have no such issue. The William E. Low Signature line -- named after AudioQuest founder and president Bill Low -- uses silver conductors exclusively and features a number of design innovations of the earlier Sky and Volcano in refined forms.

Chief among these is the patented Dielectric Bias System (DBS), which consists of an insulated anode and uninsulated cathode inside each cable that are connected to battery packs at the cable's downstream end. The batteries keep the cable's dielectric constantly charged with DC -- 72V for the WEL Signature interconnects ($6200 USD per meter pair) and 144V for the speaker cables ($14,500 per eight-foot pair) -- and thereby ensure that the dielectric never drains its energy as distortion, providing, according to AudioQuest, "considerably better transparency and dynamics than are possible even from a cable in continuous use." And because the battery packs are attached when the cables are terminated, the cables arrive ready to use -- no hundreds of hours of break-in required before they begin to sound good. 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. Indeed, the AudioQuest DBS-equipped cables I've used have sounded great right from the start.

Back when I reviewed Sky and Volcano, I asked AudioQuest's Joe Harley about the voltage required for the DBS system. At that time, 50V was thought to be the threshold above which the benefits of additional voltage were "pretty subtle," according to Harley. However, the DBS battery packs are 48V or 72V each, due to the use of four or six 23AE 12V batteries, so 72 volts were used. In the intervening three years, however, AudioQuest has continued to do research, and the company's latest thinking is a bit different, at least where speaker cables are concerned. "Late last year we discovered that increasing voltage over 72V was beneficial in speaker cable designs," Harley told me. "The difference in 144V over 72V is meaningful, but I wouldn’t characterize it as night and day. The Signature Speaker cable represents our all-out assault on the state of the art, so it gets 144V DBS of course."

Why not 144V for interconnects? "It’s a matter of proximity to the DBS field elements," Harley explained. "The spacing in an interconnect is much smaller than in a speaker cable. By spacing I mean the distance between the conductor insulation and the DBS field elements. You could say that DBS has a tougher job to do polarizing insulation in a speaker cable due to the increased spacing involved."

Another feature that's been carried over is the use of Perfect-Surface Silver (PSS) solid conductors for both the WEL Signature interconnects and speaker cables. The benefit of these high-purity conductors is a reduction of distortion between strands and the grain boundaries of each conductor, which AudioQuest's process of drawing the conductors minimizes. The effect, according to AudioQuest, is the elimination of harshness and greatly increased clarity compared to other conducting materials.

New is the five-level Noise Dissipation System, which uses a combination of different shielding methods to reduce radio-frequency interference (RFI). A combination of metal and carbon-loaded synthetic materials prevent most RFI from reaching the equipment's ground plane. AudioQuest's take: "By the time whatever RF is left actually is drained to ground (via an inner foil which is attached to ground), the RF 'enemy' has been greatly reduced." The effect? "Dramatically less modulation of the signal, less distortion and better sound."

The WEL Signature interconnects use AudioQuest's Triple-Balanced Geometry, which means that when configured as a single-ended or balanced interconnect, the shield is never used as a conductor. The speaker cable's 16 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 they cross each other instead of run parallel. AudioQuest calls this Counter-Spiraling Earth-Feature Geometry, and it makes for thick, somewhat-inflexible speaker cables.

The terminations for Sky were welded at 8000 amps, but those for the WEL Signature interconnects and speaker cables are cold-welded -- a combination of high pressure at the contact point and the use of silver-impregnated paste. According to AudioQuest, the result is a conductor and connector that are "mechanically as one," without the use of heat. AudioQuest has been cold-welding speaker-cable terminations for decades, but a new process for the interconnects required special connectors, which is why the RCA and XLR connectors for the WEL Signature interconnects are extra large and beefy. Both the interconnects and speaker cables are clad in a satiny black sheath -- very chic.

I began my use of these cables with a single pair of balanced interconnects, which I placed between my preamp and mono amplifiers. When you know the sound of your audio system well, swapping one pair of interconnects for another causes a discernible difference, though it's when you swap entire sets of cables that the changes become profound. Here, though, even when used with other AudioQuest cables, a single pair of WEL Signature interconnects produced obvious improvement in terms of soundstage size, image specificity, and transient speed. The entire presentation was bigger and more bold -- "shock and awe," to use an overused phrase. Musicians were better delineated in a wider and deeper soundstage, and transients had more snap. To say that I liked what I heard would be a great understatement; I wasn't about to take this pair of interconnects out of my system.

A few months later, a pair of WEL Signature speaker cables arrived, and I immediately put them to work. I had been using AudioQuest Volcano right before, and the sonic difference between these two speaker cables could only be described as transformational. I could easily attribute the gains to overall clarity, but that wouldn't cover all of the many sonic bases. While some speaker cables can bring an overwhelming naturalness to the music, sometimes bordering on sluggishness, the WEL Signature speaker cables were just the opposite, producing a more athletic sound that tracked each recording with laser-like precision. This is not a euphemism for "bright" or "etched." There was no tonal shift or bleaching of the entire presentation. Back to photography: With the WEL Signature speaker cables in my system, I was "seeing" everything through a better lens -- one that not only produces crisper images but also captures colors better and allows greater width and depth of field. The people at AudioQuest seem to be on to something with the various ways they've addressed distortion.

And there the single pair of WEL Signature interconnects and the speaker cables have been ever since. I've had to remove them a couple of times for reviewing purposes, but they didn't go unused for long. I still have fond memories of the very expensive Siltech Signature Compass Lake interconnects and The Emperor speaker cables I wrote about a few years ago -- Siltech's best at the time, and the best I had come across. There's no question that the WEL Signature cables deserve to be discussed along with them, and they are far less expensive.

Of course, sonic memory is always suspect, and perhaps even more so when you're attempting to remember the sound of interconnects and speaker cables. No matter -- as I sit in my listening seat right now, AudioQuest's William E. Low Signature interconnects and speaker cables are the most complete-sounding audio cables I've heard, passing the signal with the greatest amount of musical energy intact. Get the picture?

...Marc Mickelson

AudioQuest William E. Low Signature Interconnects and Speaker Cables
Interconnects, $6200 USD per meter pair; speaker cables, $14,500 per eight-foot pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
Phone: (949) 585-0111
Fax: (949) 585-0333

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

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