by Andy Fawcett
“But the Mirror will also show things unbidden, and those are often stranger and more profitable than things which we wish to behold. What you will see, if you leave the mirror free to work, I cannot tell. For it shows things that were, and things that are, and things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell. Do you wish to look?”
J R R Tolkein
It certainly wasn’t scepticism that held me back for so long from sorting out my cables. Back in the ‘80s, I purchased the very first length of DNM Solid Core speaker cable ever sold commercially – a groundbreaking design that, in its latest revised form, still receives plaudits today – and experimented successfully with modest DIY power leads when such things were still the province of the lunatic fringe. Cabling always struck me, though, as the very last job that should be tackled when building a system; once all the components were in place, the appropriate wire could then be found to stitch them all together and optimise their performance. An idealistic and slightly impractical standpoint, for sure, but one that has much to recommend it. To be frank, it is a task that I can defer no longer.
In recent years, there has been a sea-change in the cable market. A fresh crop of online vendors has appeared, offering exotic materials and innovative designs at price points that fundamentally revise the cost of ownership of high performance cables. It is often alleged by these newcomers (with some justification, it would appear) that cable prices had simply increased to whatever level the market would bear, resulting in enormous mark-ups; now, they have been brought back into closer relation to the production cost. And, because it is economical to ship cables internationally, audiophiles across the globe can have ready access to them. Add to the equation generous refund policies allowing for decent home trials, and you’ve removed much of the “intimidation factor” from the cable arena – the apparently unavoidable fact that you can spend very large sums of money on designs that may well not perform optimally in your system.
So it was that I decided to abandon my randomly acquired hodge-podge of cables and start all over again, taking a more calculating and rational approach. The plan was to sample the wares of some of these online vendors, work up the price scale as far as proved necessary and see what I could learn along the way. And where better to seek guidance than consulting the oracle; Roy Harris’ series of cable reviews on this very site! First up, the value equation offered by Canadian manufacturer Ultimate Cables was compelling, and a full set of their signal cables performed remarkably well for me given the minimal outlay involved. I’d have been happy to stop there for a while and smell the roses - however, having finally succumbed to the urge to try out aftermarket power cords (no small step, as it involved the all-or-nothing replacement of my old hard-wired mains block), a specific requirement for highly flexible leads forced me to spread the net wider.
It didn’t take long to identify New York-based MAC (My Audio Cables) as a suitable source; Roy liked them, they were modestly priced, flexible, discrete in appearance (why do some manufacturers think I want my lounge littered with oversized cords in clashing fluorescent colours?!) and their recent, heavily screened ‘Digital’ model seemed to address my concerns with the Linn Lingo’s reputation for pumping digital hash back onto the ground path. So, with suggestions/guidance from ever-helpful proprietor Steve Hallick, an order for five power cords was placed. And, with their UltraSilver+ and Palladium interconnects then on offer at sale prices and the Aussie dollar actually worth something (ah yes, those were the days!), it would have been short-sighted indeed not to top up the box and add a little spice to my experiments with signal cables. As it transpired, the new power board was quite literally on the slow boat from China, so the interconnects saw service first.
MAC UltraSilver+ Interconnect
Constructed from an unshielded, braided pair of high purity (5N), soft annealed, 22-gauge solid silver conductors with air as the primary dielectric and Teflon the secondary, this cable is pure of conception and elegant in its simplicity. The utilitarian black sheathing and almost skeletal RCA phono plugs (a proprietary design with a hollow solid silver central conductor, about which I’ll have more to say later) hew to the company’s declared emphasis on the sonic properties of their products, rather than aesthetics – “You never pay for fluff, you pay for what you get!” At its price of US$179 (for a 3 foot pair), that’s an approach I’m quite comfortable with. MAC make no secret of the fact that their cables typically require lengthy burn-in periods, though they get the process started for you using their own cable cooker whenever possible. I pressed a cheap DVD player into service to rack up the necessary hours (a total of 200, including the preconditioning they’d had at the factory), to ensure that the cable would be close to its best as soon as it was installed. I must admit, my hopes were not especially high – everything I’d read about silver cables typically having a bright and sterile sound did not suggest they’d favour my preferences. On the other hand, a costly example I’d borrowed some months previously had sounded very poor in my system; murky and lifeless. And, truth be told, I was really quite happy with the performance of the Ultimate Cable C4 interconnects which, despite their low price, were doing a lot of things right and nothing obviously wrong.
How miserable would be our humdrum existence if we knew what was around every corner! Simply inserting the UltraSilver+ between CD player and preamp elicited an immediate and obvious improvement, the extent of which I could not have anticipated. There was much greater extension, punch and palpability to the bass, though it had not seemed lacking before. There was substantially more tonal colour and texture to the sound, against which the Ultimate Cable sounded a little bleached. The Ultimate’s strong suits are undoubtedly transparency and focus, and the MAC cable did not match them in these areas – but, with its smoother, richer and more rounded sound it exposed the Ultimate as having an artificially pronounced leading edge to the note, with a consequent lack of body. The MAC resolved detail further into the mix, and seemingly banished the last vestiges of brightness (although the Ultimates had already done well in this area). Surpassing all of this, though, the UltraSilver’s single most impressive attribute lay not in the fine details, but in its ability to communicate the grand structure of a piece of music; to marry together all of the threads into a single cohesive whole, in a way that gave tremendous insight and powerful emotional impact.
Subsequently, the UltraSilver+ was moved down to linking my pre and power amps - where, as a further reality check, I A/B compared it with my Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference 2 interconnect (a highly regarded, and beautifully constructed, cable retailing at US$498) using analogue as the primary source; thus bypassing the influence of the second interconnect. Again, the outcome ran against expectations. The UltraSilver+ lost nothing to its illustrious rival on the typical “hi-fi” sonic attributes – being more open and airy on top, with fractionally better detail resolution and more texture to its bass, while the AZ’s sound was more polite and refined, its bass a little tighter – but there the similarity ended. By a generous margin, the UltraSilver+ was more dramatic, more colourful, more engaging, more present. Music came to life in a way that the cool and restrained-sounding AZ cable only hinted at.
MAC Palladium Soundpipe Interconnect
Visually and constructionally identical to the UltraSilver+ cable, though utilising a finer 30-gauge wire, the Palladium’s higher price (US$429 for a 3 foot pair) reflects the greater cost of its exotic conductor material. Again, forewarned that the cable could continue to improve even up to the 400 hour mark, I burned it in accordingly so that meaningful conclusions could be drawn quickly – first impressions are the strongest, after all. MAC do not generally recommend the Palladium for connecting pre and power amps, due to the potential for its high DC resistance to exacerbate any existing grounding problems, so it saw service only between CD player and preamp.
Directly replacing the UltraSilver+ with its big brother was not the relatively subtle change that the silver cable’s excellent performance had led me to anticipate. The Palladium retained the broad sonic signature of the UltraSilver+, but managed to advance several of its qualities substantially. It had a very vivid, lively and transparent sound, its resolution of fine detail clearly ahead. Drums had more punch, and the soundstage was laid out with greater precision. However, all was not entirely well. There was also an over-emphasis to and a hardening of the midrange, along with a lack of refinement to instrumental timbre and a curiously uninvolving, undemonstrative quality to the musical experience – exactly where the silver cable had excelled.
My listening notes testify how conflicted I was by the Palladium. While reluctant to give up what it was doing well, I could not accept the loss of ‘musicality’ and communication. Something clearly wasn’t right. Surely the cable couldn’t require more burn-in? Had I simply encountered a lack of system synergy? Then it struck me – I still had the Ultimate C4 interconnect linking the amps, and the UltraSilver+ on the sidelines doing nothing … it had to be worth a try. And boy, was it ever! The transformation was extraordinary – all the good qualities I’d had before were still there, but the sound was simultaneously more resolved (with hall ambience becoming especially vivid) and smoother; more dynamic and more relaxing; more natural and more dramatic. Bass output increased substantially – too much for the room, if I’m honest, though it remained tuneful and palpable with none of the leaden quality indicative of a serious spectral imbalance. Soundstage depth perspectives were extended, and I was especially intrigued by a delicious crispness and sparkle to the sound of cymbals … which, let’s face it, is not typically one of digital’s great strengths. Above all of this, though, the coherence, the rhythmic impetus, the emotional engagement were back in spades. In combination, these two cables achieved a synergy (in my system, and to my tastes) which, as my critical faculty diminished, is effectively summarised in my notes by just two words; “shatteringly musical”.
Before closing, a couple of observations. Both of these cables use the same proprietary RCA phono plugs, a minimalist design with solid silver centre conductor and shallow outer collar. My intuition has always been that achieving a secure connection is not nearly difficult enough to justify some of the extravagant engineering solutions (or “audio jewellery”, as some cynics would have it) that are commonly offered; on which basis I find no fault with the short signal paths and sonic efficacy of MAC’s design. However, they proved intolerant of the different types of phono sockets on my gear – too loose on some (requiring only careful adjustment with pliers to mate securely), while others they gripped like an angry Rottweiler. Rough, unfinished edges to the split in the collar (belatedly removed via some fiddly work with a needle file) also left score marks on my preamp’s Tiffany sockets. If these issues concern you, phono plug upgrade options are offered; though I’m sure that MAC could resolve them without undermining the basic integrity of their design.
Lastly, my initial experience with the Palladium cable casts light upon an issue that has been little discussed (so far as I’m aware), and clearly needs more consideration. When partnered with the Ultimate Cable C4 interconnect, undesirable sonic attributes became apparent that were not inherently a property of either cable; a hard and prominent midrange, lack of refinement, lack of involvement. In other words, the synergy (or lack thereof) between the two cables has expressed itself in an entirely unpredictable fashion. Ponder this point for a while and you’ll realise how serious are the implications, not least for the way that cables are assessed. It is still the norm to remove one of the cables in a system, insert the cable under evaluation and reach concrete conclusions about its performance – I now hold that methodology inherently unsafe. At the other end of the scale, our own Roy Harris reviews in the context of having his entire system cabled by the one manufacturer; this neatly avoids the synergy issue (assuming that the manufacturer’s own products synergise with each other …) but removes the possibility of evaluating individual cables in isolation. A possibility that, as much as we might desire it, never really exists in the first place … a cable can only be used in a particular system context, and it’s performance will be partially determined by that context. Are any other devotees of quantum physics starting to get a sense of déjà vu?!
MAC Power Cords
As mentioned earlier, this was the first chance to hear accessory power cords in my own system – indeed, my first opportunity to get any sort of worthwhile direct comparison with conventional power cords. If you find that surprising, let me explain; while apparently de rigeur in North America, their benefits are by no means as widely accepted elsewhere. Whether a 240V mains supply is a factor in that (by making the cords less necessary or somehow less effective) I’ve been unable to determine – most of those qualified to judge consider the very notion too preposterous to contemplate! It does mean, though, that I cannot compare the MAC cables with other aftermarket brands; this evaluation is aimed squarely at those sceptical enthusiasts still sitting on the fence!
Necessarily installed in a single upheaval, brand new MAC HC cords (US$139 / 3’) fed a modest power filter/distribution board and my two preamp power supplies, with the Digital variant (US$249 / 3’) preferred for CD player and turntable power supply (as mentioned earlier, an ostensibly analogue component with some digital vices). While I’m not one to be unduly concerned about cosmetics, the open weave HC cords are understated and attractive while the full metal jacket on the Digital cord has a very appealing, high-tech look. High WAF, I’d suggest, and construction was impeccable throughout. All components were left powered up overnight before listening commenced – hardly an adequate period of burn-in which, unlikely as it seems, I’m assured is as essential to power cords as it is for signal cables. Expectations were obviously high, given my experiences thus far … yet the first couple of standard evaluation tracks showed only subtle changes, much less obvious than those brought about by either of the interconnects. Slight gains in transparency and resolution of fine detail (seemingly the result of a reduction in background noise, giving an even ‘blacker’ backdrop to the soundstage) are always welcome, but did not represent the return on investment I’d been hoping for.
As I continued working through the full evaluation programme, it gradually dawned on me that there was much more going on than had first been apparent. The bass output was changed in character; its power more intense but under tighter control and thus less intrusive – an ideal outcome in context, given that I had felt its level to be excessive beforehand. Soundstaging precision was improved, with images seeming to float freer of the speakers, and instrumental timbre seemed more accurate. Also, there was an appreciably more composed, effortless quality to the sound, which transient-rich material proved to be the result of increased dynamic headroom. As so often happens, only in retrospect are system flaws properly appreciated; the removal of a familiar ‘thickening’ and ‘hardening’ around some of the densest passages of music proved that this compression was not a recording artefact, as I’d long assumed. Similarly, certain ‘edgy’-sounding tracks had most of that edge removed; several of my problem discs were rendered sonically enjoyable for the first time, an outcome that gives me untoldly more pleasure than microscopic improvements in the reproduction of my audiophile recordings ever will. Though not individually huge, the net effect of these gains and the organic way in which they supplemented the strengths of the MAC interconnects was significant. These were not mere changes in presentation, but extended my system’s capabilities in some fundamental aspects of musical reproduction. In fact, rather than make an analogy to signal cables, I’d say that the audible benefits of these power cords were more akin to those realised from improving the vibration isolation of system components; an inherent ‘rightness’ that addresses the very heart and soul of high fidelity playback.
Thus liberated from the burden of critical evaluation, I eagerly returned to listening for pleasure (and a great deal of pleasure I got) … until, during the third week after installation of the power cords, a very obvious (and permanent) change in the system’s sound occurred quite suddenly. To avoid labouring the point, I’ll simply say that every improvement noted in the previous two paragraphs, and especially the increased dynamic headroom, took another noticeable step forward. Subjectively, the effect was quite dramatic. Given the clear fingerprint and that nothing in the system had changed, I have little alternative but to put scepticism aside and attribute it to burn-in of the power cords. Subsequent calculation suggests that they had had almost exactly 400 hours of use at that point, a figure Steve Hallick quoted unprompted when questioned on the subject.
Again, some closing observations seem apposite. Logically, one would expect a superior power cord to have the greatest effect on the component with the highest current draw – the power amp – but mine has a captive lead so was not a beneficiary. Had it been, the overall effect could well have been greater again. Even without exhaustive comparisons on which to base a conclusion, my experiences suggest that aftermarket power cords do make a worthwhile difference and, while they may not be the first place to spend your money, any keen audiophile will likely reach a point in the upgrade cycle where their benefits become essential.
These experiences should be read alongside Roy Harris’ original review of MAC cables, though the specific models that I cover here were not included in that article. I agree wholeheartedly with Roy’s conclusions regarding the performance and general applicability of these cables (for the record, I’d consider my system as tonally “well-balanced”). In marked contrast with Roy’s methodology, though, my own experiences are recounted in a spirit of shameless subjectivity – I do not know whether others can expect to realise similar performance in their systems, but still feel it relevant that the MAC cables did what they did in mine. And what they did was pretty special.
The UltraSilver+ interconnect offered a delightful balance of qualities, while exhibiting none of the negative traits of the ‘silver’ stereotype. Palladium is rare enough as a conductor not to have a stereotype, but easily justified its higher price by substantially advancing most aspects of the silver cable’s performance. The two in combination demonstrated a strong synergy, superb resolution and a joyously musical sound. Often, high resolution can serve to ‘dissect’ music, concentrating the attention on details while reducing its big picture coherence. These MAC interconnects consistently honoured the organic nature of musical works, their overall ebb and flow, pattern and direction, in a manner that proved highly satisfying. Indeed, their ability to reconcile apparently contradictory aspects of sound reproduction (more detailed and smoother, more dynamic and more relaxed) is a quality I have learned to associate with the very finest cables available – and I’m talking about the ones that require a mortgage! Adding the MAC power cords elevated this performance to a significant degree, providing a healthy increase in dynamic headroom that cured problems I didn’t know I had. Gratifyingly, lesser recordings were often the greatest beneficiaries; even discs in my collection that I’d previously considered almost unlistenable were thoroughly redeemed by the all-pervading musicality that these cables brought to my system.
Overall, I felt that MAC’s cables had a readily identifiable house sound. The “hi-fi” virtues were there in full measure, with superb resolution of detail, excellent dimensionality and extended frequency extremes … but were matched by an overriding musical integrity that elevated the structural coherence, the emotional communication, the energy and the sheer beauty of music. They have allowed my system components to perform at a level and with a consistency that I hadn’t imagined them capable of; in which context their overall cost must be judged very modest.
So, does my cable quest end here? Common sense would say “yes”; but the trouble with cables is that the promise of even greater performance is always just an easy swap-out away. Or a lack of synergy could just as easily see it all fall down around your ears. Something about this predicament brought to mind the “Galadriel’s Mirror” passage from “Lord of the Rings”, quoted at the start – but having once made the choice to look, and with several more intriguing cables in MAC’s range still to investigate, I shall be begging Steve Hallick’s indulgence again for the next stage of this journey. Stay tuned!
Manufacturer’s website: www.myaudiocables.com
Analogue: Linn LP12 / Lingo PS / Ittok LVII / Audio Technica OC30
Digital: Meridian 507
Amplification: Custom-built AC Magnum dual mono P200 pre and power
Speakers: Acoustat Spectra 1100 hybrid electrostatics, Lenehan Audio ML1
Cables: Ultimate Cables Silver C4 (i/c and speaker), Acoustic Zen Matrix Ref 2 i/c
Accessories: Sound Mechanics Performance isolation platforms (on each source component) / Target & Sound Organisation stands / Aerolam, RATA & Mission shelves / Vibrapods
Source of review sample: Reviewer purchase.