by Andy Fawcett
“I am just going outside and may be some time…” Capt. L. Oates
If you’re just joining me on my trek through the range of offerings from New York-based My Audio Cables (MAC), then I’m afraid you’ve got some catching-up to do. To understand how it was that this adventure started (and, in passing, to read my impressions of MAC’s Ultrasilver+ and Palladium interconnects, plus the HC and Digital power cords) then you’ll need to click here, while the terms of the current mission are elucidated in my subsequent examination of the Mystic interconnect. So, gentlemen, let us form ranks … deserters will, needless to say, be shot.
The object of our present quest has captivated man since time immemorial with its radiant beauty and unquenchable lustre; coveted by Conquistadors, pirates and their latter-day descendents, commodity traders. I refer, of course, to gold … and, specifically, MAC’s pure gold Au interconnect. Before we get there, though, some not-so-brief digressions are in order.
When my glowing review of the Mystic was written, the review cables had around 200 hours of use on them (plus an additional 100 hours on a cable cooker prior to that) and, with the exception of the single dramatic burn-in incident described, had been stable throughout. Shortly after publication, though, their sound became a little foggy, followed by another burn-in event of similar intensity to the first; then another period of fogginess before performance stabilized finally, at somewhere well past the 250 hour mark. With the generous amount of cooking beforehand, MAC supremo Steve Hallick had not expected such a protracted burn-in period on the Mystics; still, I offer the experience to owners both actual and prospective, and will not be caught out the same way again!
Of greater import is the fact that the cable thus attained a still higher level of performance than I’d described, with gains across most areas - though my original conclusions were hardly affected. The most obvious advance, though, was in its ultimate ability to resolve detail; I previously had cause to question this aspect of its performance in comparative testing, but can confirm that the fully burned-in Mystic now clearly surpasses the cables to which it was compared, and continues to achieve this without any of the ‘etched’ artificiality that I hear in some of its peers. Needless to say, I have no reason to revise my most enthusiastic endorsement of the Mystics … and, had I not volunteered for the current tour of duty, absolutely no reason to even contemplate removing them from my system.
CuQ Speaker Cable
It had always been my intention to complete the chain and test some MAC speaker cable, but the plan was to hold out for the upcoming Shotgun model (to all appearances, a doubled-up CuQ – though it has been long in development). However, in response to requests posted by readers of the prior reviews, Steve Hallick was happy to send over a bi-wired pair of CuQs … plus a promise of Shotguns when they are ripe for commercial release (just a little permanent reminder, Steve!). All testing thus far had been conducted with my own speaker cables and, as my domestic situation makes it difficult to get the necessary hours onto a new set of speaker wire to thoroughly burn it in, I’d resolved to minimise the variables and put the CuQs aside until all of the interconnect testing was concluded. However, preconditioning the interconnects with 250 hours of music signal (for which an expendable DVD player was pressed into service) was going to take a full month; I’ve never claimed to be the world’s most patient person, and this was the perfect chance for a sneak preview of the CuQ. A quick listen, slip the old cables back in again and nobody’s any the wiser.
Not that they were going to sound any better than my own, of course. Well, it’s obvious really – whatever an interconnect contributes to the signal’s transmission is amplified, and thus magnified, while the high-level signal in the speaker cable is much more robust. And my previous experience tended to support that – while always audible, speaker cable swap-outs had never rivalled the overall impact of a new interconnect. Though tidily assembled, and with a gratifyingly substantial appearance that belies its flexibility and relatively light weight, the CuQ cable brings nothing exotic to the party. A plain (but rather handsome) black fabric sheath covers an outer tube, through which run four PVC-insulated, ‘high’ purity stranded copper conductors with generic, though decent quality, gold-plated terminations. Not that, at its price of just $209 for a 6’ pair (with termination and bi-wiring options available at extra cost), you could reasonably expect any more. It’s just that, alongside the precious metals of the interconnect range, the CuQ will always seem a little plain-Jane.
And that’s a real shame, because this cable has left all of my preconceptions in tatters! Despite a couple of days on the cable cooker prior to dispatch, I was expecting to have to put quite a few hours on them before they hit their straps; yet even from cold they exhibited a silky smooth and very natural tonality, with good soundstaging. Resolution and microdynamics were off the pace initially, but within hours the bass had filled out and tightened up and they had sufficiently eclipsed the sound of my own wire that their continued tenure was assured – the challenge now was to get sufficient time on them that they’d be stable for the interconnect testing. And, for whatever insight on the burn-in process might result, I was sure to take a careful listen periodically to chart their progress. The outcome would have convinced even the most belligerent burn-in sceptic; the CuQ’s performance advanced in a linear fashion, sounding almost unrecognizably better at 30 hours than it had at 10, substantially improved again at 50 hours, still further enhanced at 80 hours and only finally stabilizing at well past the 100 hour mark. Many owners will be waiting a while to hear everything of which this cable is capable … believe me, it’s worth waiting for!
These impressions, inevitably, are heavily influenced by the performance of my previous speaker cable - the Ultimate Cable Silver Series C4. While also sold online at a remarkably modest price, given its impressive constituents (including a high silver content and cryogenic treatment), it was favourably reviewed on this site by my esteemed colleague and cable guru, Roy Harris, and had comfortably bested the big brand, mid-market cables it replaced. Despite being the only non-MAC cable in my rig, I had no reason to consider it a weak link; yet, in every area, the CuQ has easily surpassed it. The soundstage is deeper and more stable, its images having great presence and palpability and a very cohesive presentation overall, indicative of excellent phase integrity. Central images (typically voice and solo concerto instruments) benefit from a gentle natural spotlighting that elevates them slightly in the mix; an appealing presentation achieved without any suggestion of forwardness. Bass frequencies gained significantly in power, extension and ‘slam’, yet with such control that, paradoxically, the increased quantity of bass provoked much less boominess in my ill-behaved listening room. I have already mentioned the deliciously smooth, silky tonality – the sound permeating every millimetre of the space between the speakers “like syrup on a pancake”, according to my notes, though I might just have been hungry! – which exposed a mild ‘glazed’ midrange colouration in my old cables that pinched vocals and bleached some of the harmonic richness from acoustic instruments, especially solo piano. The CuQ, by contrast, paints from a larger palette of timbral colours.
Dynamically, the CuQ was an ear-opener; my system’s ability to swing big transients with utter composure was greatly enhanced. While capable of sounding incredibly delicate and refined, when required, it more typically offered a satisfyingly confident and robust presentation that suited all musical genres and proved highly tolerant of less well-recorded material. Music sprang to life with great vivacity and rhythmic drive, furnishing fresh insights into the performer’s delivery; David Gray’s aggravated assault on his acoustic guitar in “Red Moon” now defined a precise signature to each percussive impact, delineating the subtle overlay of string ringing and fret buzz and confirming (as any guitarist will tell you) that no two strums ever sound exactly alike.
I heard a level of detail resolution on familiar recordings through the CuQ that my system had not achieved before, certainly, but more intriguingly my listening notes make regular mention of an “extra dimension of reality” to the sound. I can illuminate this point only with difficulty, and at the expense of my remaining street credibility (a small price, I confess) … by admitting that I listen to naturally-recorded birdsong! While even those hopeless nerds who queued in costume for the premiere of the latest Star Trek movie must be laughing at me now, I’ll say just this in my defence; I don’t do it often, nor particularly for pleasure, but it can be incredibly revealing of a system’s naturalness. The familiar sounds of the rainforest (which blankets the hills close to my home), when played through the CuQ were startlingly more realistic, both in the unexaggerated tonality of the birdsong (rare indeed is the audio system that achieves this) and in the ephemeral ambient setting that frames it. This alone proves the CuQ to be much more than just an impressive ‘budget’ speaker wire – it’s a serious contender, punching well above its weight.
As with other MAC cables before it, in assembling this clumsy jigsaw of the CuQ’s qualities I’m aware of failing to capture what most endeared it to me. It has the same knack of presenting music “all of a piece”; of unravelling the individual threads while still retaining a strong sense of the work’s organic wholeness. In so doing, it affords a clearer insight to the composer’s intentions, and this particularly increased my understanding and appreciation of music that I’ve previously found difficult to fathom. For everything that this cable achieves, no single attribute stands out intrusively. Not exactly “self-effacing” – its sound is too overtly musical for that – yet so even and artful is its blend of qualities that its contribution is easily ignored. It simply allowed music to sound wonderful, with an openness and lack of artifice that seduced the ear and effortlessly immersed the listener.
If these impressions appear to be re-treading familiar ground, that’s because the biggest surprise in what the CuQ cable brought to my system’s sound was how very much it resembled the effect of inserting the original MAC interconnects and, to a large extent, the power cords too – not just qualitatively, but in the sheer extent of the improvement it wrought! Although I’ve previously made mention of a consistent “house sound” running through MAC’s products, I had not expected to find its signature preserved so faithfully in a cable that, constructionally, appears to have nothing in common with the interconnects. Nor had I anticipated that swapping between two “cost-effective” speaker cables could yield such a substantial improvement – whether any part of that can be attributed to single-brand synergy I’m not able to determine at this stage without departing too far from my chosen route. For what it’s worth, I felt that the CuQ’s notable top to bottom consistency, coherence and tonal neutrality endowed it a very special presentational and sonic synergy with the Mystic interconnects used through most of this evaluation. In providing this elevated level of performance at such low cost, the CuQ can certainly help to make the Mystics accessible to audiophiles whose overall cable budget would have appeared to preclude them.
MAC offers a silver speaker cable for specialised full-range driver applications, but otherwise claims across-the-board compatibility for the CuQ. I have only the warmest enthusiasm for it, yet recommending a cable is, if we’re honest, fraught with difficulties. Though I have no reason to anticipate any problems in use, my results may simply not be replicated elsewhere; there’s nothing sinister in that, it’s just the way things are. Indeed, speaker cable is largely at the mercy of what goes before, and cannot be expected to correct problems ‘upstream’; balance and synergy will always be the key. Accepting all that, though, there’s really only one conclusion I can reach – for what it did in my system, the CuQ is an outrageous bargain that no satisfied owner of MAC interconnects should be without, and it surely merits the close attention of anyone seeking maximum performance from a speaker cable for minimum outlay.
MAC Au Interconnect
And so, finally, we reach our rainbow’s end! Recapping briefly, for those who might not have caught the preceding episodes; inspired by my favourable impression of MAC’s Palladium cable, a plan was hatched to compare the three costlier interconnects in MAC’s range and, hopefully, learn something more about the intrinsic qualities of the different conductor materials used. First up was the newest member of the clan, the Mystic, with which I confessed to being “thoroughly smitten” … subsequent contenders will thus find the bar set pretty high.
This cable’s construction mirrors that of the Palladium and Ultrasilver+ interconnects – an unshielded, simple twisted-pair of slender, 30-gauge 22K pure gold wires encased in air-cored Teflon tubes. This close family resemblance would, I believed, allow any sonic differences to be attributed directly to the metal in the conductors. The proprietary phono plugs (chosen, as with all MAC interconnects, solely for their sonic performance in each specific application) are of similar appearance to the ones that I’d disliked on those other cables, though here composed of gold-plated brass with a solid central pin; as if to spite me, they too chose to attach themselves to my pre-amp’s sockets with supernatural force. Priced just fractionally below the Mystic, at US$479 per 3’ pair, the Au’s slender, utilitarian appearance and near-weightlessness contrasted unflatteringly with the premium connectors and substantial mass of its younger sibling – in fairness, comparison with the very few competing pure gold cables on the market is probably a more appropriate measure of the value equation. The manufacturer’s recommendation that the Au is most suitable for use with solid state equipment implied that it would err on the warm and smooth side of neutral; despite being devoid of tubes, there’s absolutely no brightness in my system and no lack of smoothness either, so they were perhaps not the most obvious bedfellows. The prediction of an “ethereal experience”, though, had me intrigued!
Entirely by coincidence, with two pairs of Au’s installed to do line-level duty, my cable rig had morphed into a reasonable facsimile of the all-MAC loom that Roy Harris had used in his own enthusiastic review (on which I place a measure of blame for setting me down this path in the first place … Roy will claim immunity under some Amendment or other!). Sadly, my results did not at all correspond with Roy’s. While I’d initially experienced some synergy problems with the notoriously fickle Palladium cable, it had ultimately performed very well – instead, it was to the mild-mannered Au that my system took a strong and completely inexplicable dislike. Having benefited from several days of cable-cooking plus 250 hours of burn-in with music signal, the sound when the cables were first installed belied this careful preparation; there was a tremendous amount of detail being resolved, granted, yet the presence region particularly was coloured and strident, with loose and boomy bass and a smeared and congested lower midrange. An exaggerated, almost manic sense of energy and drive underpinned these problems, while a very forward presentation pulled performers into the plane of the speakers and robbed music of its natural spatial perspectives – artificial depth effects (admit it, we all love ‘em!) were preserved but foreshortened. I persisted with the Au’s for a couple of weeks in vain hope of an improvement; though simple, bandwidth-limited material occasionally escaped analytical censure, I was never able to dispel a subliminal sense of unease and an inability to relax and enjoy the music that, unconscious and irrational though it be, was likely the most perceptive insight of all. When, at Steve Hallick’s suggestion, I replaced the Au between the amps with my Ultrasilver+ interconnect and, despite losing resolution and transparency and remaining somewhat underwhelmed with the overall balance, finally achieved a reproduction that made me want to listen to music again, the original diagnosis was confirmed.
Let me state clearly, lest there be any doubt – nothing in this experience reflects poorly on the Au interconnect per se, nor disputes the favourable impressions that it has previously garnered from other quarters, and I would not discourage anybody from trying it. I have described the problems I encountered in such detail only to illustrate the sonic consequences of a serious mismatch, for those who have not experienced it themselves. They are not, in any sense, attributes of these cables; realistically, my results are the polar opposite of what I’d expected and, employed in a synergistic application, I’m confident that the Au would demonstrate none of these negative traits. It’s an unavoidable fact of life that some cables simply don’t work in some systems (and in particular combinations), and anyone planning a cable purchase needs to be prepared for that, preferably with a sale-or-return guarantee. While it’s disappointing that this lack of synergy has derailed my attempt to compare MAC’s premium interconnects on an even footing, and probe the merits of pure gold wire as a conductor, we can only write it off to experience and move on.
Next Time …
We’ll hope to end this series on a high, ascending the summit of MAC’s interconnect range for a look at the all-palladium Reference cable (given the rampant overuse of the ‘Reference’ nomenclature in the audio industry, it’s nice to see it applied sparingly for a change!). And, as if you haven’t already suffered enough, I will conclude with some reflections upon this journey and ponder the lessons learned along the way.
Source of review sample: Manufacturer loan.
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
Cables: MAC Mystic, Palladium & UltraSilver+ i/c’s / Acoustic Zen Matrix Ref 2 i/c / Ultimate Cables Silver C4 (speaker) / MAC HC & Digital power cords
Accessories: Sound Mechanics Performance isolation platforms (on each source component) / Target & Sound Organisation stands / Aerolam & RATA Torlyte shelves / Herbie’s Audio Labs isolation products / Eichmann Toppers / Caig ProGold