July 2003Shunyata Research Aries Interconnects and Lyra Speaker Cables
by Ken Micallef
Typical marketing wisdom holds that if a company produces a well-engineered product that performs beyond expectations and proceeds to win over consumers, then that same company stands an excellent chance of bringing other products to market that will find commensurate success. Hence the perennial popularity of Baby G. watches, Mickey Mouse cartoons, Adidas sneakers, and Pez candy.
Caelin Gabriels line of PowerSnakes power cords and his Hydra AC power distributor (recently replaced by the Hydra-8) have garnered great respect in high-end circles. So when former NSA scientist Gabriel enters the land of interconnects and speaker cables, ears perk up, checkbooks open, and audio mags make phone calls.
Big dipper anyone?
Gabriel has for years incorporated a patented noise-reducing compound in many of his products called FeSi-1000. It's what creates the swooshing, waterfall sound whenever you lift or move one of his power cords. The Aries interconnects and Lyra speaker cables have their own singular methodology and composition, however. The Aries uses Litz configuration composed of separately insulated, extremely fine wires intertwined to maintain uniform length. The conductors follow an exclusive spiral helix pattern that uses unique isolation stranding to minimize crosstalk and EMF distortion.
The Aries interconnects look and feel like very strong and agile garden snakes. They're the size of a large-diameter drinking straw, and their smooth, sleek finish sets off light in a fashion similar to the vivid lightning-strike photos seen on the Shunyata website. The Aries conductors (of which there are 600!) have an insulation barrier so thin that it is practically invisible to the eye. Aries is encased in a medical-grade, visually transparent outer sleeve that is said to "lower vibration-induced distortions." Shunyata specs all its own wire -- no off-the-shelf stuff here. RCA and XLR connectors are made by Neutrik.
At $650 USD a meter pair, the Aries is not cheap. Gabriel claims that "the Aries was not designed to fit a price point or to fill a niche; instead it offers cost-no-object performance." This kind of hyperbole is standard in audio industry, but coming from Gabriel, the statement carries weight. That he prices his very first interconnect at $650 is one sign that he does not follow industry norms or trends.
The Lyra speaker cables use a set of eight individual custom-made OFHC copper conductors that are internally spiraled to form a dual-helix, counter-rotating matrix. It's a patented design (US 6,242,689) that Gabriel says lessens the effects of EMI and self-induced inductance. The counter-rotating pattern brings the separate conductors together at 90-degree angles, which is also said to eliminate the resistance that builds up when electromagnetic fields (those nasty buggers!) gang up along the length of heavy-gauge wire (Lyra is a 12-gauge cable). These conductors are braided entirely by hand and according to Gabriels computer-modeled design.
If you are used to the mega mass and alligator-sized dimensions of some speaker cables (not to mention the Shunyata power cords), the Lyra speaker cable will shock you with its extremely flexible character. Light as air? Practically. See through? Almost. The Lyra is one of the most beautiful speaker cables I have ever seen, its delicate-looking but rugged outer sheath allowing a lucid view into its matrix geometry. The dual hollow core is easily visible -- encased, like magic, by the eight spiraling copper conductors (Gabriel prefers copper to silver in all his cables). Light may pass through the Lyra, but this is no lightweight cable. Gabriel claims that heavy, high-mass speaker cables generate internal inductance that "obscures fine detail, slurs pitch definition, and clouds resolution at the frequency extremes."
Shunyata uses WBT copper/gold spades or banana terminations for the Lyra speaker cables, which cost $1250 per eight-foot pair. The banana connectors on the review pair were ingenious, resembling Monsters X-Terminator bananas, though much smaller and as refined. Once inserted into the speakers binding post, the Shunyata bananas expand in the post by twisting down the collar directly behind the banana. The fit was exceptionally tight and secure.
My rig has become stable after years of audio hopscotch (now I am on a mad tweaking binge). Here goes: 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC and transport, Audio Research Reference One preamplifier, Balanced Audio Technology VK-75 stereo power amp, and ProAc Response 2.5 loudspeakers. Cardas Golden Reference interconnects and speaker cables remain my reference wire. Vinyl spins on a ProJect RPM 4 turntable using a Grado Platinum Reference cartridge with an EAR 834P phono stage. (Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference interconnects are used here.) Power cords are Shunyata Research Black Mamba, King Cobra, and Anaconda Vx (JPS Power AC and Kaptovator for preamp and amp, respectively) running into a Shunyata Research Hydra AC power distributor to clean the filthy Con Ed power that spits and streams through my circa-1865 Greenwich Village tenement. I have recently placed a sandwich of Mapleshade cones/maple slabs/Mapleshade Isoblocks under all major components; the results have been impressive, revealing great nuance, clarity and detail.
One cable at a time
I tested the Aries interconnects and Lyra speaker cables in my system after at least two months of burn-in. I inserted them one pair at a time to hear as much difference and contrast as possible, not to mention that some buyers may want to purchase interconnects first before moving up to the speaker cables, or vice versa.
First up for interconnect-evaluation duties between DAC and preamp was Favorite Chinese Instrumentals [First Impressions Music XRCD 019], a disc of Chinese folk music using simple but extremely pristine recording techniques to capture the sound of such instruments as the pi-pa, er-hu, jung, ku-chin and Chinese percussion. On the fifth track, "Ducks Quacking," various percussion instruments speak out randomly at first, then slowly join in a spirited workout. The Aries interconnects captured all the energy, resonance and bang-on quality of the recording with great speed, tonal accuracy, and -- most surprisingly for this recording which I have heard many times -- absolute purity. Purity seems to be the Aries dominant trait. Silences are almost spiritual, and black backgrounds are deep-space spooky. This purity allowed me to hear subtle, previously unnoticed sounds, while soundstage depth and height seemed oddly altered or slightly rearranged and much more accurate. Everything fell into greater relief than I had previously heard. The overall presentation was up front and very detailed.
Moving up to 21st-century music, I tried Steely Dans Everything Must Go [Reprise 48435-2]. This CD is the Dans first analog recording in some 20 years. A contrast to the all-digital Pro Tools approach of the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature [Giant 9 24719-2], Everything Must Go has an organic, natural and eminently more listenable production quality attained by tracking entirely in the analog domain. The Aries performed equally well with Western pop music. On such songs as "Green Book," "Things I Miss the Most," and "Godwhacker," Steely Dan is in fine form, laying down a simple palette of guitars, Rhodes piano, bass, drums, and sultry female vocals. Walter Beckers bass is low, resonant, and popping; Donald Fagen occasionally adds freaky synth solos over his acoustic- and electric-piano rhythm punches. Here, the Aries excelled at bass retrieval, providing tighter, deeper, more accurate and more resonant bass than I had previously heard from my bass-champ ProAcs. In fact, the bass was so clear and active that it sounded more acoustic than electric, while drums leapt out of the soundstage and practically put a spell on me.
Soundstage width was excellent, the sounds often extending beyond my speakers. Again, purity and clarity helped achieve a solid, coherent, and extremely vivid and well-sorted portrayal of the music. At higher volumes, I thought the Aries sounded perhaps a little hot, but that imbued the music with a tremendous zing. With the Aries presentation lying somewhere between dead center and ever so slightly forward, I found the interconnects to be extremely revealing and lifelike, with outstanding bass retrieval. Midrange was very neutral, flat, and, again, pure-sounding.
Gemini: the twins
Adding the second set of Aries interconnects between preamp and power amp created an even more up-front perspective. Bass grew fatter with added thump and impact -- there seemed to be more juice pumping from amp to speakers. Individual bass notes and rhythms became more distinct and easier to follow. With that added impact came a slightly more forward treble, coupled to a rich and mostly smooth presentation. There was nothing edgy or spitty about the treble -- it was as clear as a bell, silky and again very alive and present. It was as though my system were jacked up on roids.
I tried a different recording -- Steely Dan has always been a fan of supersonic treble. Diane Kralls The Look Of Love [Verve 319 549 846-2] benefited equally well from the Aries impact, energy, and wide soundstage presentation, but the miniscule treble zing remained. There is no tizziness or plastic edge. Perhaps I prefer a slightly more laid-back transient presentation. Your tastes may vary. In most instances I found this treble energy to add great accuracy and detail to the music, with the uncanny ability to render voices, guitars, cymbals and strings with 3-D imaging. Texture and body were also in ample evidence.
Lyras in, amp back online. Now I'm running the entire Shunyata cable system. I hit the CD players start button on Miles Davis Miles Ahead [Columbia-Legacy CK 65121] and searched for "Blues for Pablo." I could now hear all the tape hiss from this classic late-'50s recording, and the brass sounded sonorous and soaring. This is an old recording, and remastered or not, you would expect some splashy treble. But the Shunyata in full array only made the music sound meticulous and rich, with enviable cymbal decay. Paul Chambers mighty acoustic bass was a cinch to follow, with greater definition, speed (did I mention that all these cables are extremely fast?) and with slightly more resonance and weight than I was used to. Again, the sound was a little forward, but that trait was well balanced by the cables dead-on tonality and precise soundstage perspective.
Revisiting Kralls sensuous sauciness, I sensed the rhythm section had increased weight, finesse and detail; a mightier heaping helping of all things rhythmical was in evidence. Bass retrieval was excellent, and every little shimmer of the drummers brushes provided thrills. I played legendary jazz drummer Roy Haynes' Love Letters [Sony/Eighty-Eights, no catalog number], an absolutely fantastic (and must-have) recording on the Japanese Eighty-Eights label. Soulfulness was in ample display -- the CD jumped out of my speakers even more than usual.
I have tried many cables, and I always return to the Cardas Golden Reference. They are imminently musical and work in a variety of systems. Some call them warm; still others have said that they are fuzzy and overly romantic. I acknowledge these traits as well.
The Cardas interconnects and speaker cables, though roughly twice as expensive as the Shunyata cables ($917 per meter pair and $2388 per eight-foot pair respectively), do not possess the same level of bell-like clarity and absolute soundstage placement. The Cardas cables also do not have the pristine purity of the Aries and Lyra cables. The Cardas cables lack the tremendous sense of air and fantastic energy of the Aries/Lyra cables as well. But in conditional terms, the Cardas cables are richer, perhaps more human-sounding, and they present a bigger, deeper soundstage overall. They are sweet to the Shunyatas spice. They are round and fat compared to Shunyatas lean and slightly more angular style.
I found the Shunyata treble presentation to be extremely detailed and totally without grain; their midrange presented an appealing flatness, and bass was smooth, deep, and full of punch, even on older discs. Do I prefer the Shunyata to the Cardas? At their respective price points, you would think the choice would be obvious, but it is not. The Shunyata cables do so many things extremely well, but they lack the last degree of warmth and perhaps power that I love about the Cardas. The Aries/Lyra cables also present a slightly more truncated depth of stage than the Cardas. But for their price, the Shunyata cables will reveal that many cable manufacturers are resting on their laurels.
Beam me up, Scotty
The Shunyata Research Aries interconnects and Lyra speaker cables offer definition and sonic purity that make them pacesetters at their price points. They provide tremendous air around instruments, deeply black silences, enough energy to start a war, and the kind of bass retrieval that organ lovers and techno fans the world over should love. They are a revelation, and I was more than a little surprised at how well they performed against my much more expensive Cardas wire. The best word I can use to describe the full-Monty Shunyata package is alive. Music absolutely pops, percolates and performs like a rocket though these cables.
Can you handle the truth? The Shunyata Research Aries interconnects and Lyra speaker cables will absolutely help you answer that question.
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