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Equipment Review
April 2006

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Shunyata Research Python Helix Alpha and Python Helix Vx Power Cords

by Marc Mickelson




 

Late last year, I wrote about Shunyata Research's Antares Helix interconnects and Orion Helix speaker cables. Since that time, I've used the Antares and Orion almost exclusively, and both have become the cables I turn to when I want to hear what's going on with a review product, or when I have time to listen for pleasure. If you're an audiophile, you can't ask for anything more than that.

Also late last year, Shunyata Research debuted new versions of its upper-end power cords. The Python Helix under consideration here is a 10-gauge power cord with nine counter-rotating conductors braided into Shunyata's patented Helix geometry, which, according to the company, "dramatically reduces self-induced AC reactance while also providing exceptional immunity to RFI/EMI noise components." This geometry is so complex that it can only be created by hand. All Shunyata Helix conductors are drawn from certified CDA-101 copper, which is considered the purest copper available on earth (or any other planet, I am confident in saying). Connectors are the Shunyata-designed custom-made Venom IEC and plug, whose conductive parts feature Shunyata's proprietary silver-and-rhodium co-plating process. Shunyata cryogenically treats all conductors and connectors to -310 Fahrenheit; this is done onsite, instead of at an outside facility. I've had various talks with Caelin Gabriel, the president and design mind of Shunyata Research, and he's one detail-oriented fellow. I'm sure he considers an in-house cryogenic lab mandatory to achieving finished products to his standards.

Shunyata is unique among power-cord manufacturers in that it makes two different types of each model. The Vx cords use Shunyata's well-known patented FeSI-1000 compound inside the large-diameter outer sheath to reduce noise beyond the capabilities of the Helix geometry alone. The Vx cords are recommended for digital sources -- CD players and transports -- only, as it is in these applications that their noise-killing properties are best utilized. The Alpha variants are the same as the Vx cords, but without the compound. They are recommended for use with preamps, amps, analog gear, DACs -- anything that doesn’t spin a CD, DVD or SACD.

The Python Alpha costs $995 USD per six-foot length, with the matching Vx version costing $1095. Shunyata's top-of-the-line Anaconda Helix uses 13 conductors to create an 8-gauge cord, while the least-expensive 10-gauge Taipan Helix uses five conductors. The Anaconda Helix Alpha costs $1995, and the Vx version $2195; the Taipan Alpha costs $695, with the Vx version running $795.

"A cost-effective upgrade to the throwaway cords..."

While visiting the Shunyata Research room at this year’s CES, I was introduced to some interesting new power-conditioning products aimed specifically at the custom-install market. However, it was another product, Shunyata Research's entry-level Venom power cord, that really caught my eye. Shunyata manufactures some very expensive power cords, but budget-conscious audiophiles will be happy to learn that the company has not abandoned the lower end of the market. Priced at only $99, the Venom offers a lot of power cord for the money.

The Venom does not feature a complex geometry, nor is it cryogenically treated like its more expensive brethren, but it does utilize heavy-duty 12-gauge oxygen-free copper conductors and some of the sturdiest connectors I have seen at its price point. The three prongs of the molded-plastic plug had very little, if any, give to them and made as tight a connection as any hospital-grade plug I have used. The IEC connector was just as sturdy and also provided a solid fit. I often like to upgrade budget power cords with high-quality connectors like those from Marinco or Hubbell, but I doubt that they would improve much on the excellent connectors already provided with the Venom.

It would be a lot to expect a single relatively inexpensive power cord to improve the performance of an entire system, but the Venom did just that. After replacing the stock power cord of the excellent Arcam FMJ DV29 DVD-Audio/Video player, I found that the video improved very slightly, as did its performance as a digital transport. When used as a CD player with its wonderful D-to-A conversion, the DV29 sounded noticeably better with the Venom power cord. Imaging was a bit more precise, such as the percussion on Holly Cole’s classic "I Can See Clearly Now" from Don’t Smoke In Bed [Alert Z2 81020]. There was more discernible side-to-side movement and depth to the swishing of the brushes, and Ms. Cole’s voice exhibited less sibilance. Replacing the stock power cords on my Anthem D1 surround-sound processor and Bel Canto eVo power amplifiers had a similar effect. The entire soundstage tightened up a bit, and there was added control in the bass. The overall sound was cleaner and more precise, with a quieter background.

The cumulative effect of replacing all of the stock cords in my system with Shunyata Venoms was an improvement well worth the investment of a few hundred dollars. If you have many components with detachable power cords, replacing them all with cords that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars each is an expensive proposition. However, at a buck under 100, the Venom is a cost-effective upgrade to the throwaway cords that are provided with most audio/video equipment, including many very expensive components.

...Roger Kanno
roger@soundstage.com

Middle audio products, like middle children, can have a hard time finding their place in the world. They are overshadowed by the company's top-of-the-line offering, especially among reviewers, and they don't achieve the same bang for the buck of the least-costly product in the same line. However, both Python Helix power cords may change this. Their sound is so accomplished, so consummate from the highest highs to the lowest lows, that they will better many top-of-the-line cords, including Shunyata's previous kingpin, the non-Helix Anaconda, which I used and loved. Comparing full systems of older Anaconda and new Python Helix cords, or individual cords used on certain components, produced the same results. The Python Helix offered a consistently clearer, more vivid view of the music -- one that's more about the music and less about the sound. Putting this another way, the Python Helix has less of a signature than the older Anaconda, sounding more transparent and simply better on every CD I played.

In the Audio Research room at THE Show in January, I heard a cut from Jessica Williams' Live at Yoshi's Volume Two [MaxJazz MXJ 214], some great piano-trio jazz served up in superlative sound. Williams' piano work defined what the Python Helix does so well. There is transient agility, with the leading edge of each note materializing without blurring or undue snap, and tonal honesty, neither an obvious light nor dark character. The music simply is, resisting attempts to explain it. In contrast, the older non-Helix Anaconda sounded slightly less energetic, a touch veiled.

"But what about the Anaconda Helix?" I can hear you asking. Well, Shunyata's new top-of-the-line power cord is magnificent, offering everything the Python Helix does and sounding a little more rich and weighty from the midrange on down to boot. Take that away, however, and the two cords are pretty much sonically identical, the Python Helix getting about 80% of the way to the Anaconda Helix for half the price.

In my mind, the bigger question than which Helix cord to buy is which type of cord, Alpha or Vx, to use where. With earlier cords, Shunyata's own recommendation was spot-on: Vx for digital gear (except DACs) and Alpha for everything else. However, with the new Helix geometry, the difference between Alpha and Vx is reduced to the point that, in my system, Vx was right only for digital transports, like the Esoteric P-03, and the Alpha for CD players. I used both variations with an Ayre C-5xe universal player and Audio Research Reference CD7 CD player and preferred the Python Helix Alpha. More than the twice-the-price Anaconda Helix Alpha? Unfortunately, no. However, with the Ayre and Audio Research players, the Vx versions of either cord slowed the music's pace a little and sounded somewhat like the older Anaconda.

Furthermore, in terms of outfitting your entire system, I'm not sure that simply buying Anaconda Helix cords all around is the best approach. Through much experimentation, I preferred a combination: Anaconda Helix Alpha with the Audio Research Reference 3 preamp, Anaconda Helix Alpha with Lamm M1.2 Reference amps, Python Helix Alpha with Lamm ML2.1 amps, Anaconda Helix Alpha with the Ayre C-5xe universal player or Audio Research Reference CD7 CD player, Anaconda Helix Alpha with the Esoteric D-03 DAC, and Python Helix Vx with the Esoteric P-03 transport. None of the cords sounds wrong with any of the products I mention, but one of them certainly sounds most right, and if it happens to be a Python Helix instead of an Anaconda Helix, you'll save yourself some serious money.

Caelin Gabriel began manufacturing and selling his power cords back in 1998, and since that time he has refined his products to an astonishing degree. As much as I like his Helix interconnects and speaker cables, I think his latest power cords are even more significant -- and vital to getting the most from audio electronics. The Python Helix may not be the very best power cord that Shunyata Research makes, but it is certainly among the very best you can buy.

...Marc Mickelson
marc@soundstage.com

Shunyata Research Python Helix Alpha and Python Helix Vx Power Cords
Prices: Python Helix Alpha, $995 USD per six-foot length; Python Helix Vx, $1095 per six-foot length.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Shunyata Research, Inc.
5594 N.E. Minder Rd.
Poulsbo, WA 98370
Phone: (608) 850-6752

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

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