by Andy Fawcett
“Out of all this beauty something must come…” Ezra Pound
It’s been a long and winding road to this point; my final comparison review of the top of the line interconnects from New York-based My Audio Cables. If you’ve travelled some of the way with me then I thank you – if not, here’s a link to the previous episode (a look at the pure gold Au interconnect, plus an extra-curricular discourse on the CuQ speaker cable), which itself contains links to the earlier pieces. My initial encounter, almost a year ago now, was with the Palladium interconnect, and it made quite an impression on me; however, the need to partner it with the lesser-performing (though still admirable) Ultrasilver+ in a typical two-cable application (linking CD player to preamp, and pre- to power amp) limits its ultimate potential.
That dilemma provided the impetus to investigate the other three designs at the top of MAC’s range which, unusually, each employ a completely different conductor material. The pure gold Au interconnect was sidelined by a severe lack of synergy with my system but the newest introduction, the Mystic, endeared itself with a compelling blend of tonal neutrality, consistently superb hi-fi reproduction and an intense musicality. In so doing, the young pretender laid down a benchmark that the range-topping Reference cable will surely be hard-pressed to match, let alone surpass.
The Reference Interconnect
Taking as its starting point the Palladium interconnect, a simple twisted pair of air and Teflon-insulated pure palladium wire, the Reference cable doubles the number of conductors and arranges them in a complex, RFI-resistant braid (described as “a unique double, double helix” … suffice to say, I don’t imagine that MAC supremo Steve Hallick winds these things for fun!). Typically supplied with large Xhadow silver RCA plugs, the abnormal proximity of my CD player’s sockets dictated that I opt instead for the same ETI Silver Bullet plugs that grace the Mystics (*note - as we go to press, I’m informed that the ETI plugs will henceforth become standard fitment on the Reference cable, too). Thus configured, and with both cables sharing the same plastic outer tube and black fabric sheath, only by their discrete labelling could they be visually distinguished. In hand, though, the substantial mass damping employed by the Mystic contrasts strikingly with the featherweight Reference, which derives its own measure of mechanical damping from an inert material woven into its braid. Instinctively gratifying as the weight of the Mystic is, it does require provision of some support to relieve the strain on its plastic-bodied plugs, while the Reference is entirely vice-free in use. At $649 per 3’ pair, the Reference’s price premium over the Palladium cable ($429) is easily justified in purely material terms.
As alluded to above, the Palladium interconnect is specifically recommended only for linking source components to amplification; when used between a pre- and power amp, its high DC resistance and lack of shielding (the addition of which ruins the cable’s soundstaging, I gather) tends to exacerbate ground loop hums and noise pickup. While the Reference is less prone to this problem, a certain proportion of users do still experience it and I know that Steve agonises over exactly what stance to take on the question; but he was good enough to supply two pairs of References and, as my ground rules for this phase of the testing required that each cable be used end-to-end, in they both went. Incidentally, pre-conditioning had involved several days of cable cooking and 350 hours of passing music signal – a response to palladium’s reputation for lengthy burn-in and a lesson well-learned, you could say.
Born of a healthy natural scepticism, before each and every cable swap-out in this series I’ve been haunted by the recurring question, “what on earth will I write about if I can’t hear any difference?!” Those familiar with the earlier articles, particularly my appraisal of the Mystic, know to their cost that I’ve never yet been stuck for something to say … and the Reference hasn’t bucked the trend. Its overall presentation was immediately and obviously different to the Mystics; a tauter, leaner and more agile balance contrasting the weightier, richer and warmer sound of its predecessor. Each version of the truth seemed equally valid, a preference falling to be determined by individual taste and system matching considerations. In other respects, the Reference offered benefits that were certainly not subjective. The soundstage was substantially wider than any I’d yet achieved, with much more imaging occurring beyond the speakers’ physical confines; without a concomitant increase in soundstage depth or height (both of which appeared to roughly match the Mystics), the effect was of a Cinemascope-style stretching of perspective. Image placement within this enlarged soundstage was even more stable and focussed, transparency still greater than the Mystics had offered. The level of both detail resolution and timbral fidelity was extraordinary, though several aspects of the presentation all contributed to this impression; notably a tight, precise and highly articulate character through the bass and midrange, imposing clarity and order on even the densest mixes, transitioning to a very open and extended top end. I found the Reference’s ability to ‘float’ a cymbal especially beguiling … a trait that I’d also singled out with the Palladium interconnect, come to think of it.
While upper- and mid-bass frequencies were less weighty than the Mystics, there was no deficiency in raw bass extension and output levels were closely matched right down to subsonic realms. As it happened, the greater articulation, control and texture to the Reference’s bass was very close to ideal in my (rather troublesome) room; purely a personal preference that owners of mini-monitors, for instance, might not share. Microdynamics, which I’ve previously pinpointed as a particular strength right across MAC’s range of cables, reached their zenith in the Reference’s supreme nimbleness, while macrodynamic surety and speed was so effortless as to pass generally unremarked; most unfair, given that it again advanced on the Mystic’s capabilities (and gave me new respect for my power amp!). One aspect of its performance that took me quite by surprise, given a sound that was highly detailed and a little lean, was an ability to remove the very last traces of brightness and harshness from the reproduction of difficult material, such as soprano voice. So fine had been the notably smoother and warmer Mystics in this same respect that I’d felt justified in blaming specific ‘problem’ recordings on the rare occasions when it did intrude … yet, without rolling anything off or smoothing anything over, the sheer grainless purity of the Reference’s sound simply eliminated the issue at source. Very impressive.
So, there we have it. The References have ticked every box on my standard audiophile checklist, achieved a very fine in-room bass balance and, by any rational analysis, sound absolutely wonderful. All that remains is for them to shoulder the sash, clasp the bouquet, shed a few tears and we can all go home, confident that a worthy winner has been crowned. If only life were so simple! For everything that I admired in the sound of the References, there were a couple of concerns weighing on me. Firstly, I was experiencing some sporadic electrical hum through the speakers which, as its level did not change with volume setting, was clearly emanating from the run of cable linking pre- and power amps. Hovering somewhere around the threshold of hearing from my listening chair, it was never particularly intrusive but you do wonder what other effects it might be having on the reproduction. The second issue was more serious.
During the time I’d spent with the References, there had been a change in my listening habits, so gradual that it hadn’t really registered. Most of my more boisterous and anti-social quirks (typically, but not confined to, vocal accompaniment, air-drumming and bad dancing – that’s probably the last time I get invited anywhere!) had ceased … which, you’ll have to take my word, is a bad thing. Rather than being swept up in the music, I was merely engrossed in how remarkable the system sounded - and that really isn’t any substitute for the level of involvement that the Mystics had engendered. There was also a coolness to the system’s demeanour, a lack of the drama and emotional impact that my time with MAC’s cables has led me to expect and demand. Yet my ear still told me that the References were doing a fine job. Sure, they hadn’t sounded completely comfortable with the sustained high-level onslaught of Joe Satriani’s heavy metal guitar (it’s amazing how often this music has revealed faults in equipment, from malfunctioning DACs to dodgy tubes to a simple lack of headroom. I rarely listen to it for pleasure, but for testing it’s invaluable!). And they never quite seemed to inspire the same feeling of top-to-bottom consistency, nor remove themselves from the sonic picture quite as effectively as the Mystics. As it transpired, Dexter Gordon’s “Go!” (from the Blue Note RVG Remasters series) was key to unlocking the mystery; the normally infectious swing to this music had a strangely military precision, a “robotic perfection” (according to my notes) that left the sonics intact but stripped the music of its soul.
It took a while, but I finally managed to read the signs. Each time I’ve experienced synergy issues with a MAC cable, symptoms have included an exaggerated level of detail resolution and a marked loss of musicality; and so it was here. The fact that the sound of the References had been, in every other respect, so very fine had blinded me to this epiphany. Something needed to be done, but what? Reluctant to lose many of the Reference’s fine qualities, I also missed aspects of what the Mystics do well. The solution was obvious; a way must be found to bind together the preternatural spirit of the two cables in the realm of the perpetually undead! Invoking ancient shamanic ritual, a naked and chanting throng would assemble by the light of the full moon, there to engage in hideous necromancy and other unholy practices. Trouble is, there’s never a naked throng around when you need one (though I’ve heard some stories about the parties at Anthony Kershaw’s place!), [ahem - Ed] so I compromised and went with Plan B … swapping out the troublesome Reference cable between the amps for a Mystic.
Reference + Mystic = The ‘A’ Team?
Only within that most apocryphal of constructs, the perfect world, could I expect that combining these two cables in my system would preserve all the most exceptional qualities of each in isolation. Previous attempts at mixing MAC’s cables had yielded unpredictable results, with a test of the ostensibly similar combination of Palladium interconnect (from CD player to pre) plus the Mystic showing them not to play at all well together, so there was really no cause for optimism now. The background hum did immediately disappear, though – score one for the combo!
Fire up the music, and my first impression was … disappointment. No, that’s not quite true; I reacted immediately to the perceived loss of some articulation, transparency and that bristling detail my ears had grown accustomed to, plus a slight reduction in the References’ amazing soundstage width. Less impressive it may have appeared, but it was also a sound that I felt much more comfortable with - the soundstage set a little further away, yet with a greater sense of inner space, of colour and shade and a looser, more natural cohesion. Emotion flooded back into the music, and the beat started to move me again. With familiarity came the realisation that those first impressions had been mistaken; a similar amount of detail was still being resolved, but presented in a more harmonious fashion, free of artificial prominence and the hyper-real sense of transparency that accompanies it. Indeed, the more I listened, the more it seemed that a truly optimal blend of the two cables’ strengths had, miraculously, been achieved. The richer, warmer character of the Mystic was especially welcome with contemporary music, while the leaner and tauter bass of the Reference (that had worked so well in my room) and its superlatively clean treble were both still present in full measure. A robust, unrestrained rendition of the Joe Satriani dispelled any lingering concern over the Reference’s ability to handle high levels, confirming it as another artefact of the synergy issue. If one word serves to encapsulate the difference with the Reference+Mystic pairing, it is “expressiveness”. Music communicated so much more of itself via this combination and, if success is measured (as it should be) by the number of times a big cheesy grin was plastered across my face, then the winner was never in doubt!
What doubt did remain concerned precisely how much of an advance the Reference+Mystic offered over two pairs of Mystics. My great enthusiasm for the Mystic interconnect is already on record; I’d lived with them for several months but, with the upheavals of the recent testing, had lost my bearings. While convinced that some improvement was evident, I couldn’t honestly quantify it and wasn’t completely sure that all of the delicious musicality had been regained. It was the work of a moment to restore the second set of Mystics (which, in view of a moderate period of disuse, I’d taken the precaution of gently preconditioning). How nice it would be to report that time had not sullied the rosy glow of first love in which I’d waxed lyrical over the Mystics … and in many ways it hadn’t. They do offer a generously full and rich balance that some listeners and systems will doubtless prefer, yet I was won over by the more refined, composed, transparent, articulate and resolving quality of the Reference+Mystic pairing. And, to my great surprise, the system’s musicality with the single Reference cable in situ didn’t just match the Mystics – it actually surpassed them! Only late on in the formal evaluation did I casually pass comment on the “luminous purity” of the combination’s sound and, weeks later, it is still as insightful a summary as I can muster of the corporeal presence and ethereal beauty they conjure. There was no specific area in which the Mystics were greatly outclassed, yet the mongrel pairing just ‘clicked’ with my system, achieving the most superlative balance of precision and clarity with excitement and vivacity.
Intermezzo – a pause for breath
By rights, this is where the conclusion should be … but I’m not quite ready for that just yet. So this section will serve as a leisurely pre-conclusion, airing necessary issues while clearing the way for an appropriately punchy closing stanza.
I started out using two pairs of the Reference interconnect and, for all their many admirable sonic qualities, encountered both an electrical issue and a milder form of the system synergy problem that has appeared at various points in this testing – most notably with the Au interconnects in the previous episode. Without the experience gained from all the other cables, I doubt I’d have been able to diagnose it; the symptoms were subtle, though I’m convinced that the patient was sick. That being the case, the results reported in the first section of this evaluation should not be taken too seriously; qualities that other MAC cables have displayed in non-synergistic settings can be the polar opposite of those achieved when conditions are favourable. The hyper-detailed presentation, the cool demeanour, the rhythmic anomalies and the lack of musicality that I observed are not in any way inherent properties of the Reference cable – none of them were remotely apparent in the rampantly successful partnership with the Mystic. I can still clearly envisage the sound I achieved with this combination appealing greatly to some tastes … but I certainly can’t say that it’s the same sound you’ll get if you install two pairs of References in your system!
So, what is the average enthusiast to make of all these contretemps and pitfalls surrounding cable synergy? Is this a road that’s suitable only for the brave or foolhardy? I don’t see it like that. Certain combinations of MAC cables have proven consistently reliable in the field and, without knowing it in advance, those felicitous partnerships revealed by my testing have tallied closely with designer Steve Hallick’s own practical experience. Stick with the manufacturer’s recommendations and you should be fine – if not, they’ll certainly help you out. That sort of business model won’t work for the big brand names in the cable arena; they neither want nor can afford these types of concerns, so are forced to play it safe by aiming for maximum compatibility … potentially at the expense of ultimate performance. If MAC are attacking the problem from the opposite direction – seeking to maximise performance and minimise price, with potential compromises in the realm of compatibility – then prospective customers need only ask themselves where their own priorities lie?
You were promised a punchy conclusion, so here it is. I am hugely impressed with the Reference interconnect, and have no doubt that it fully merits its position at the pinnacle of MAC’s cable range. Based on my testing, its only challenger for that honour is the Mystic and, all things being equal, the Reference resolves a little more information, presenting it on a larger soundstage with greater transparency, definition, refinement, articulation, dynamic surety and a purity that verges on the transcendental. The difference isn’t vast in any individual respect though, given the elevated level at which the Mystic performs, it was never likely to be. Key to the Mystic’s success is a seamless, organic blend of its qualities, and the Reference cable demonstrates an equally artful and coherent synthesis of its own particular strengths in realising a distinctly different tonal balance.
Of course, that’s really only half a conclusion – because all things never are equal. Listeners aren’t equal and systems aren’t equal, and I can easily envisage situations where the richer, weightier presentation of the Mystic would be preferred to the leaner, more agile characteristics of the Reference. Complicating matters still further, the Reference’s electrical properties result in it not being generally recommended for linking pre- and power amplifiers, for reasons I discovered. Fortunately, the combination of a Reference interconnect ‘twixt CD player and preamp, paired with Mystics linking pre- and power amps turned out to be hugely synergistic, reinforcing the most desirable qualities of each and realising the optimum tonal balance for my system and room. Indeed, such is the symbiosis between them that, for many users, I suspect the Mystic may be an indispensable element in hearing everything that the Reference has to offer … much as the Ultrasilver+ proved to be for the Palladium cable. The combination is, quite simply, stunning.
One thing remains unsaid, and I cannot close without confessing how much sheer enjoyment I’ve derived from listening to the Reference cable … yet it’s curious how the word can seem almost incongruous in the context of an audio review. We dedicate ourselves (neurotically, so say our accusers) to the pursuit of ever greater sonic fidelity, but why? Seriously, I’m asking; why? If the finest nuance of bow on string or that last faint echo in the reverb trail are really our holy grail, how come so many seem to languish on the ‘upgrading’ treadmill, only years later pausing to question where the fun went? Is it really too much to ask that, as well as replicating the way music sounds, our systems should also evoke the way it makes us feel? That’s what has been most revelatory about my experience with MAC cables; the undeniably huge gains in all the areas that audiophiles are supposed to care about are not, for once, an end in themselves. Each upward step has furnished me with more insight, more understanding, more appreciation, more fulfilment and, ultimately, more sheer pleasure from my music than I have ever known before … not just with a few of my discs but from every single one I own, regardless of its pedigree in terms of recording quality. I really didn’t know cables could do that – yet, through all the twists and turns along the way, it’s been proven time and again. If you’ve been paying scant attention to those all-too-easily neglected carriers of current lurking behind your system, then I hope above all that my experiences will serve as a call to action … I really don’t think you’ll regret it.
We’ll meet again, do know where, don’t know when …
When the concept for this series of reviews first struck me, it was so appealing that I wondered why I couldn’t recall seeing its like before. The answer, of course, is that it consumes an enormous amount of time! Still, I was convinced that the opportunity to examine closely an entire range of cables, particularly one as diverse as MAC’s, would cast new light on one of audio’s most enigmatic mysteries, and had intended to set out some further thoughts and reflections on the review process and cables in general to wrap things up. That won’t happen now – firstly, we’re out of space, and secondly … the journey ain’t over! Review samples of the long awaited Shotgun speaker cables and take-no-prisoners Burly power cord will soon be crossing the Pacific; I dare not predict what further revelations might result, but do hope you’ll join me to find out.
In closing, I acknowledge with gratitude Steve Hallick’s support and assistance in providing all of the cables required to float this crackpot scheme (to a total stranger with a funny accent, moreover!). The extraordinary results achieved, right across his range of cable products, thoroughly vindicate the many years of patient toil he must have dedicated to their development, and I warmly congratulate him.
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 / MAC CuQ (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