LISTEN FOR YOURSELF
Evaluating these claims is way beyond my competence. But that's not the job I set out for myself here. Basically, I wanted to hear what some leading cable designers had to say about their industry and their products, then try those products in my own system.
My plan was to drink a whole pitcher of cable Kool-Aid, completely rewiring my system with specialty products. As I got close to my deadline, I'd pull out the premium stuff, go back to status quo ante and report on my findings. Had the new cables transformed my listening experience? Had they become an essential part of my system? Did they represent good value for money?
"That's all we can ask of anyone," Low says. "Listen for yourself. If you don't think it's worthwhile, don't buy it. My attitude toward cable, whether it's a $20 cable or a $10,000 cable, is that it's only appropriate when it's the least expensive way to make the biggest difference. That is the charter to me."
I described my system and listening habits to AudioQuest and Wireworld, and asked them to send a suitable package. In addition to new speaker cables between my Simaudio Moon Nēo 340i integrated amp and KEF LS50 monitors, I also connected a new USB cable between my Mac Mini and the 340i's built-in DAC, new interconnects between the Nēo 340i and Sunfire Atmos XT subwoofer, and new power cords for all my components.
Will using a premium USB cable to connect a computer to an external DAC improve the sound? Wireworld says its top-of-the-line Platinum Starlight USB 2.0 cable dramatically improves dynamic expression and focus, thanks to its solid-silver conductors, Composilex 2 insulation, six signal conductors, and separate shielded power conductors.
I also used the occasion to address my skepticism about power conditioners. Toronto-based Plitron Manufacturing Inc. supplied two of its Torus conditioners. All Torus products are built around large and heavy toroidal transformers. The transformers isolate connected components from the household and utility AC line. They employ Narrow Bandwidth Technology, which acts as a low-pass filter to block electromagnetic and radio-frequency interference (EMI and RFI) on the line. In audio applications, this produces a "blacker" sonic background and greater sonic purity, says Kevin Main, Vice President of Sales and Marketing. The toroidal transformer can also deliver high instantaneous current to connected devices, which for audio applications translates to improved dynamics.
Priced at $1,295, the Torus TOT Max has a 1,800VA transformer and can deliver 15A of instantaneous current to devices connected to its eight AC outlets. Torus also supplied an RM 15 Plus, also equipped with a 1,800VA transformer and rated at 15A, but with Series Mode Surge Suppression, 10 outlets, and improved mechanical isolation of the transformer. I tried both products; but settled on the smaller TOT Max (18kg as opposed to 37).
AudioQuest's package included a 15' NRG-10 power cord (US$1,499) to connect the Torus conditioner to the wall, 6' NRG-10 power cord (US$779) for the amplifier, 6' NRG-4 power cord (US$359) for the subwoofer, 6' NRG-1.5 power cord (US$169) for the Mac Mini, two 10' Boxer interconnects (US$179 each) for the subwoofer, a pair of 8' GO-4 speaker cables (US$589), and 5' Diamond USB cable (US$699). That adds up to roughly $5,500 Canadian, which is roughly half of the retail costs of my components (including the Mac Mini).
I asked Stephen Mejias, AudioQuest's Vice President of Communications (and a former Stereophile columnist), about this. "We tried to provide you with cables that an audiophile consumer would actually purchase for a system like yours," he responded. "But we also wanted to show that other options exist. It's up to the customer to decide how far he or she wants to go up the ladder."
The Wireworld package included a 1m Platinum Starlight USB cable (US$700), a 2m pair of Mini Eclipse 7 speaker cables (US$430), 4m Equinox Mono subwoofer cable (US$310), 4m Aurora 7 power cord (US$460) to connect the Torus TOT Max to the wall outlet, and two 2m Stratus 7 power cords (US$120 each) for the amplifier and subwoofer.