Digital transmission for the masses
The Audio Magic Presto II and Wireworld Starlight III Digital Cables
Digital playback has come nearly full circle since the first CD players were introduced over a decade ago. Early CD players were just that - single-box entities containing both a transport mechanism, for reading the digital data from a compact disc, and a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) for converting the retrieved digital data to an analogue signal. Unfortunately, early CD players were not readily upgradeable, mandating either their complete replacement or significant internal modification if sonic improvements were to be realized. The eventual introduction of the external digital interface and outboard DAC solved the upgrade problem, but ushered in yet another - jitter, or timing errors, introduced into the digital data stream due to the need to now recover the CD's embedded digital clock via the digital interface. Audio designers, fueled by consumer demand for sonically-excellent two-box digital systems, were determined to find a solution to the jitter conundrum. Their research and development efforts led to products like the Genesis Digital Lens, the Sonic Frontiers Ultra Jitterbug, and the Audio Alchemy Digital Transmission Interface, each of whose goal was to reduce, if not eliminate, jitter in the digital interface. And so, from its humble, one-box beginnings, a state-of-the-art digital front-end became defined as a dedicated transport, feeding digital data to a jitter reduction box via a digital cable, which in turn fed jitter-reduced data to an outboard DAC via a second digital cable. Hardly a minimalist signal path!
In the here and now, all things integrated are once again fashionable. To wit, integrated amplifiers, once looked upon with disdain by "serious" audiophiles, are all the rage, and one-box CD players have surpassed their multi-box brethren in popularity. Still, few can dispute that the addition of an outboard DAC, linked to the digital output of a CD player by a digital cable, can be a cost-effective way to improve an existing digital front end, and many cost-conscious audiophiles continue to follow this upgrade path. For these audiophiles, there are many inexpensive, outboard DACs and digital cables from which to choose, two of the most interesting examples of the latter being the Audio Magic Presto II and Wireworld Starlight III.
The Audio Magic Presto II
The Wireworld Starlight III
As with all of Wireworld's latest offerings, the Starlight III was designed utilizing David Salz's patented Cable Comparator system, which purportedly facilitates double-blind listening comparisons between an audio cable and its bypass. ABX'ers rejoice!
When comparing audio cables, I am often struck by the differences in their apparent "speed" or transient quickness. Some cables, as a result of their ability to render accurately the leading edge of a musical transient, impart an energy and vitality to a music system that echoes that of live music. Others, possibly in an attempt to inject a sense of warmth to an otherwise bright system, tend to round the leading edge of transients, resulting in a slower, less incisive presentation. With the Starlight III and Presto II, examples of both cables were before me. The Starlight III was certainly the more adept competitor at reproducing the leading edge of transients. From the strummed guitars on Mary Black's Columbus (No Frontiers, Gifthorse Records G2-10002), to Dave Weckl's solo drum work on Chick Corea's Akoustic Band (GRP 838 396-2), the Starlight III allowed the explosive nature of the music to burst forth unimpeded. While not what I'd consider a particularly slow cable in absolute terms, the Presto II did not present quite the same level of transient snap, crackle and pop as the Starlight III, lending music a less immediate, if sometimes more relaxed, feel. Those into the synergistic approach to system building might just find that the Presto II is the cure for a digital front end with a penchant for etching transients, particularly those of a high-frequency nature.
One of the most serious liabilities with inexpensive digital components in general, and digital cables in particular, is a sense of grain and glare throughout the upper midrange and lower treble. I was pleased to find that neither the Presto II nor the Starlight III exhibited such a sonic signature. Both cables reproduced male and female voices with a smoothness and naturalness that belied their budget prices. Cymbals, and the upper register of the piano, sounded equally natural, and relatively glare-free. Neither cable conspired to drive me from the listening room when playing music at realistic levels. Although never bright or offensive, the Presto II didn't have quite as sophisticated a treble presentation as the Starlight III, the latter cable presenting more air and subtle detail at the top end of the frequency band. On Akoustic Band, for example, the shimmer and sheen of Dave Weckl's cymbals were rendered more faithfully by the Starlight III. In contrast, the Presto II tended to emphasize the initial strike of a cymbal at the expense of that instrument's lasting overtones.
Both the Presto II and Starlight III did an admirable job at the bottom end of the frequency spectrum, presenting a deep, solid musical foundation. Plucked and bowed acoustic bass, as well as fff bass drum and timpani strikes, had the requisite heft and weight through both the Wireworld and Audio Magic cables. In terms of bottom-end tautness and articulation, my preference was for the Starlight III, although the Presto II was not far behind.
Another area in which the Starlight III shone, was in its presentation of depth information. The budget Wireworld cable did nothing to foreshorten the natural depth of the soundstage captured on the Rias-Kammerchor's wonderful traversal of Brahms' Motets Op. 74 (Harmonia Mundi 901591). Vocalists located at the rear of the stage clearly sounded as though they were at greater physical distance from the listener, resulting in a more realistic portrayal of the sense of space captured by this superb recording. Even studio-fabricated depth, as heard on sonically excellent pop recordings such as The Cowboy Junkies' Lay It Down (Geffen 24952), was convincing via the Starlight III. In contrast, the Presto II had a tendency to flatten the front-to-back perspective of the soundstage, lending it more of a two-dimensional, less tangible feel. The ominous tom-tom which opens the title track of Lay It Down, sounded as though it was several feet closer to the front of the stage when heard through the Presto II. The Starlight III, on the other hand, layered the soundstage in a more realistic fashion, placing the drum in its rightful place towards stage rear.
Finally, the Starlight III did a superb job rendering instrumental outlines, being only slightly edged out in this regard by the considerably more expensive XLO Type 4. By comparison, the Presto II tended to slightly blur instrumental outlines, providing a more fuzzy, less precise view of the inhabitants of the soundstage.
While certainly not approaching the state of the art in digital cables, the Presto II and Starlight III represent good value for money. While I felt that the Starlight III was the better performer in many of the areas which I deem significant (dynamics, focus, depth, transient attack), the Presto II was a worthy adversary, and provided many hours of musical enjoyment. Had it not been for the near-breakthrough performance of the Starlight III, the Presto II's minor failings may not have been brought so readily to the fore. The Presto II may, in fact, be the right choice for a digital front end with a bright, forward presentation, and a penchant for etching high-frequency transients. It is certainly more than worthy of your consideration.
The Starlight III, on the other hand, is a sonic overachiever, performing far better than one might expect from its price tag alone. While it did not outperform the much more expensive XLO Type 4, it did come far closer than I expected. In fact, I rarely pined for the Type 4 when the Starlight III was in the system. In designing a cable to the Starlight III's low price point, David Salz has made the inevitable sonic trade-offs wisely. The result is a budget cable which competes favorably with those of a much higher price.
II Digital Cable
Manufactured by Audio Magic
456 S. Potomac Way, Aurora CO USA, 80012
Phone: (303) 364-8202, Fax: (303) 364-8102, E-mail:Sorceror49@aol.com
Price: US$ 79
Starlight III Digital Cable
Manufactured by Wireworld
3320 Griffin Rd., Ft. Lauderdale, FL USA 33312
Phone: (954) 962-2650, Fax: (954) 962-2603
E-mail: email@example.com, Web: http://www.wireworldaudio.com
Price: US$ 60
Source of review samples: Manufacturer loan
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