MAC Cables – The Circle Squared!

by admin on October 19, 2009 · 3 comments

in Cables

by Andy Fawcett

“Men walk the road of life, the road fenced in by their tastes, prejudices, disdains or enthusiasms, generally honest, invariably stupid, and are proud of never losing their way.” Joseph Conrad

Having recently concluded a comprehensive series of reviews examining My Audio Cable (MAC)’s range of interconnects, this present endeavour was essentially unplanned. Sure, it was an initial purchase of their Digital and HC power cords that had served as a catalyst to try the interconnects, and I had been easily sidetracked into assessing the CuQ speaker cable too … but, feeling like I’d spent most of the last year burning in one cable or another, that’s where I’d have been happy to leave it, for a while at least. Except that MAC’s head honcho, Steve Hallick, seemed particularly keen for me to sample his recently-introduced Burly power cord and long-delayed-but-finally-gone-on-sale Shotgun speaker wire. Given the astonishing transformation wrought on the sound of my system by his other products, it didn’t seem like a smart move to argue.

Shotgun Speaker Cable

You certainly didn’t need the Hubble Telescope to spot the gaping hole in MAC’s product line for a more upmarket speaker cable. Given that their pure silver model is aimed only at the specialist single-driver niche, the humble CuQ was left to cover every other eventuality – a far cry indeed from the rich variety of the interconnect range. Modest may be the CuQ’s constituents, and its price so low that some will not be inclined to take it seriously. As my earlier testing proved, that would be a mistake – it is a remarkable over-achiever in its own right. Clearly, though, a higher-performance model at a higher price point would hit the sweet-spot for a lot of enthusiasts.

The Shotgun has been slated for commercial release for the last year or so but, as an indication of the amount of development work involved in something so deceptively simple-looking, has been subject to continued refinement. Flawlessly descriptive of nomenclature, it indeed comprises twice as many conductors as the CuQ but is certainly not a “doubled-up” version of that cable, as I’ve previously speculated – the two have nothing in common beyond their connectors (generic, though decent quality gold-plated bananas or spades). Each run of the Shotgun cable utilises eight individual conductors of stranded, high purity copper in a cotton and PVC dielectric – a nod, perhaps, toward the air dielectric employed to such good effect in the interconnects. These are arranged into two sub-assemblies, separately insulated and twisted for improved rejection of RFI; despite its substantial appearance, the cable remains flexible enough for easy routing. A black, plastic faux-fabric sheath helps to minimise its visual impact (the appropriate objective for cable designers, I believe) though, as a friend observed, the red identifying shrouds used on one run of the pair are VERY red! Throughout the testing I was unaware of the planned selling price – only as we prepare for publication has the cable gone on sale, with a 6’ single-wired pair offered for US$649, and the extra terminations of my 8’ bi-wired run upping the ante to $784. Introductory special pricing is advertised, for a limited period.

Again, Steve was good enough to give the Shotguns some solid time on his cable cooker, to get the burn-in process off to a flying start … though they showed precious little sign of having benefited! Where the CuQ had quickly revealed its essential character, and improved steadily through the first 100 or so hours of use, the Shotguns initially displayed an uncharacteristically (for a MAC cable) bright, pinched midrange and a shut-in quality that persisted stubbornly and had still not completely dissipated even well past the 100-hour mark. I’ll admit to being a little worried – at that point, I wasn’t convinced that they had significantly bettered the CuQ overall, which would have been a crushing verdict in context. Fortunately, the dam burst with a sudden, dramatic improvement at around 140 hours and, I suspect, further small gains right out to 200 hours; to be sure that the cable was completely stable, comparative testing against the CuQ was deferred until a full 250 hours of use had been clocked.

Having acclimatised unconsciously to the Shotgun’s sound over several weeks, while simultaneously burning in various power cords to further confuse matters, the CuQs were reinstalled 24 hours prior to the face-off to ensure that they were not disadvantaged by their period of inactivity. I already had a pretty clear impression that the Shotguns had edged ahead of the CuQ but, as my previous enthusiastic account attests, expected the CuQ to push them pretty hard when placed head-to-head. Wrong! In the brutally relativistic arena of high end audio, the CuQ was not just beaten – a cable that I had praised for its vivacity, dynamics and musicality was left sounding cool, dry and colourless next to the passion and profusion of richly hued tonality emerging from the Shotguns.

The grand soundstage dimensions of each were similar – others may conclude differently, as I have little latitude in positioning my speakers and it’s likely that the CuQ had already maxxed out the possibilities of their current location – though the Shotguns offered foreground images a marginally closer perspective and thus increased the overall perception of depth, while also achieving a more architecturally coherent layering of spatial information. That’s really about all I need to make in the way of direct comparisons, because in every other respect the Shotguns were simply unassailable. Bass was tauter, though no more extended, and its timbral quality better resolved. There was more ambience in the hall acoustic, more light and shade in the contrasts, more colour in instrumental tonalities, more expression in voices – seemingly more nuance and definition in everything that was conveyed.

Microdynamics have been a stand-out strength of all MAC’s cables and never more so than here, where their effortless ‘snap’ laid bare the finest details of timing, inflection and rhythmic subtlety. Borrowing a trick from the Reference interconnect, the Shotguns offered a sound that was simultaneously highly detailed yet smooth, grainless and devoid of any trace of harshness or edge. I can find no reference in my listening notes to issues of neutrality, treble extension and several other of the old audiophile chestnuts – apparently, I’ve reached the point where I take such things for granted from MAC cables but, for the record, I could detect no undue emphasis in any frequency band and not even the slightest departure from what I hear as tonal neutrality.

The Shotguns achieved an exceptional precision and control in their presentation - most particularly by never sounding even remotely precise or controlled! In allowing the character of the original recorded performance to shine through, they exhibited instead a “perfect imperfection” that often seemed eerily real in connecting me to the humanity behind the sound. Indeed, this was the single most powerful impression they left me with. Beyond the finely resolved sound of familiar music, they offered a sensation of humans interacting in an acoustic space and expressing themselves through the emotional medium of music. Of phrases shaped by dynamic tension, of players riding the beat, even the raw humanity of a moment of flawed technique – these things impressed themselves more powerfully than before, and the music was much the richer for it.

Though this comparison will inevitably tend to reflect poorly on the CuQ cable, that isn’t my intention. The praise that I previously lavished upon it still stands; those looking to cable a system used other than for the most critical listening, or simply requiring the maximum performance from a modest outlay, will find it to be all the cable they require. Certainly its smoothness, precision and fine soundstaging will be appreciated in all applications – perhaps proving especially effective in tackling the common afflictions of less ambitious systems – and I could have continued to live with it very happily. Though not now, of course! For use in a demanding application, I can’t overstate the Shotguns’ very substantial subjective superiority … albeit that a protracted break-in period was required to realise it. They have gifted my music more colour, more excitement, more passion, more humanity and more sheer joy – a consistent family trait that proves them to be, first and foremost, a MAC cable. Their performance was without obvious flaw or weakness; they are a complete package at a very reasonable cost and, while I know that greater ultimate performance is available up in the rarefied air where pricing and sanity long since parted company, they have left me wanting for nothing. Sorry Steve – if you want these Shotguns back, you’re going to have to pry them from my cold, dead hands … !

Burly Power Cord

Like most who haven’t tried them, I suspect, I’ve harboured a particular fascination for upmarket power cords – especially as they have been so fervently championed by colleague Marty Appel. Initially, though, I’d refused the loan of a Burly, fearing that I had no suitable application for it in my system. However, Steve was insistent – I was reluctant to turn down such a well-meant offer, but would accept only if I could hope to do the cord justice. I mentioned, in the original review of MAC’s HC and Digital power cords, my frustration at having been unable to try them on my 200WPC power amp, due to it having a captive power lead – which was really pretty dumb, because fitting it with an IEC power socket proved to be quite simple! I had also been able to rearrange my system layout so that the amp could be run from its own wall socket, rather than plugged into a multi-way distribution board … and was pleasantly surprised at the very obvious improvement in sound quality that resulted from this alone. Anyone in the same position can take that on board as a no-cost upgrade; it certainly demonstrated a susceptibility to mains power effects that whetted my appetite ahead of the testing. As I had no aftermarket cord of sufficient length, I also asked Steve to send over an HC cord for comparison, to help place the Burly’s achievements in worthwhile perspective.

Upon its arrival, my first reaction was “aren’t things that cool normally regulated by the Geneva Convention?!” Our hobby is given to glorious excess and, even before being plugged in, the aptly-named Burly says “I’m serious” like using a Chieftan Tank for your everyday transport! It has raised more comments, queries and requests to touch (indeed, more smiles too) than any audio product of my experience – make of that what you will, but the “fun factor” is off the scale! Very neatly constructed, it utilises three 10-gauge copper conductors (as, indeed, does the HC lead), encased along most of their length by an outer tube 3cm in diameter. This contains an inert damping material, which endows it with surprising weight (six pounds) and a marked inability to go round sharp corners. For those reasons, you will want a relatively straight and unimpeded path from power point to component, both of which will ideally be within inches of ground level, and for your Burly to be very close to the precise length required if space is at all limited. My sample came fitted with the optional Furutech FI-11 plugs (though they’re not optional if you require an Australian-spec connector …), whose elegant black/gold finish sets the dark-jacketed cord off an absolute treat visually. Before I’m accused of getting in touch with my feminine side, I assure you they’re not just audio jewellery; the sheer mass of the cord, combined with its stiffness and relatively short lead-outs, will tend to put far more strain on the connectors than usual, and the greater mechanical integrity of the Furutechs proved well up to the task. All told, I consider the Furutechs almost mandatory at their relatively small additional cost ($87 the pair); to forego them recalls to mind the old English expression, “spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar”.

One question that had struck me, and for which I’d been unable to find an answer, was whether I could expect a superior power cord to have any effect when used from the wall to the distribution board that feeds my source components (themselves utilising a mix of MAC’s HC and Digital cords)? In other words; would the cord still provide a benefit when one step removed from the components? If it did, that might offer the possibility of gaining a benefit from the Burly earlier in the chain. As the board is permanently powered, burn-in for the Burly commenced by replacing the HC cord already doing duty there … and the system’s sound immediately got worse! But I had my answer – yes, even that cord makes a difference. It was an issue I’d return to later.

Before going further, you’ll have to allow me to set the scene. I’ve always had problems with the bass in my system, without really understanding why; there was plenty of it, but it had just tended to do its own thing, never really connecting rhythmically or musically with the rest of the spectrum. There’s nothing wrong with my amp – it proved both better in the bottom end and far more musical than a Stereophile Class ‘A’-rated behemoth I had on loan a while back – so suspicion fell naturally on the hybrid speakers, though measurements taken during their last modification had not indicated a problem, with a well-damped response flat to 30Hz. Others confidently diagnosed serious room issues, which seemed plausible, so I learned to live with it and gratefully accepted the significant improvements that came along with the other MAC cables. The Burly’s oversized dimensions create a subliminal expectation of brute force and bass power, so I’d like to be able to tell you that fitting it to my amp realised another worthwhile improvement … but I can’t. Really, I just can’t. Because “improvement” doesn’t even begin to describe the transformation that resulted!

Its impact was apparent from the very first note; as I commented to a friend, after just an hour or two of listening, “it’s like a bomb’s gone off under the system”. The simple fact is that, without a word of exaggeration, below 150Hz it is completely unrecognizable as the same system any more; it is as if that portion of the frequency range had been surgically removed, and one from a vastly more capable/expensive rig grafted on in its place. Gone is all of the wallowing and vagueness; bass notes start and stop with a precision that had never been hinted at before. And, between starting and stopping, what emerges is nothing less than the growl of Cerberus at the Gates of Hades; an intense dark energy of precisely defined pitch and timbre, seemingly welling up from the centre of the earth. Yet there is no sense of undue weight to the bass, no shift of system balance or musical perspective. It is there when it should be, and not when it shouldn’t; what has changed, most emphatically, is that for the first time in all the years I’ve owned these system components, the bass has achieved a complete coherency with the midrange and treble. (NB. To satisfy renowned hybrid-hater Anthony Kershaw, I will admit that there is still some mild unevenness in the 250Hz crossover region; though this is also the point where room modes start to intrude and, as problems go, I find it fairly innocuous!) This theme, of having the sound of familiar components changed radically by the cables that connect them, is one that’s recurred through my previous testing – but nothing had yet suggested a transformation on this scale.

If the bass region is the first change you’ll notice, the second is macrodynamics. What was most impressive was how unimpressive some of my reference tracks sounded in this regard! Dynamic swings that had previously drawn attention to themselves, by conspicuously pushing the system to the edge of its envelope, were now handled so effortlessly as to barely register. Orchestral music, in particular, felt like it had gained a couple of extra gears; the system’s ability to ‘swell’ to reproduce the scale and impact of the most thunderous crescendo appearing almost unlimited. On the other hand, sounds on familiar discs that had not previously stood out as particularly dynamic could now startle with their transient impact.

So yes, the Burly is a big cord that does big things; yet its iron fist is swathed in the softest of velvet gloves. No area of the system’s performance seemed untouched by it. It brought extra detail resolution, precision and soundstage focus, and presented all this with a sense of composure and musical ‘flow’. There was an ease, a naturalness and a powerful sensation of the music occurring in a real acoustic space, all of which gelled propitiously with the similar traits in the Shotgun speaker cable. And, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, microdynamic prowess was again well to the fore, adding still greater nimbleness and articulation to a presentation that already wanted for neither.

Of course, it must be borne in mind that all of these observations relate to the Burly replacing a generic cord (ie. the type supplied free with most audio gear, computers, household appliances etc.). More likely, I guess, is that an owner would be upgrading from another aftermarket cord, so I had one of MAC’s HC cords on hand as a yardstick. Compared carefully to the Burly, the good news is that it too achieved the total transformation in the bass that I described above, which alone is sufficient grounds for a strong recommendation. That’s not to say that its bass performance was the equal of the Burly – it certainly wasn’t, with the latter’s articulation and sheer intensity easily surpassing the HC – but it offered enough of an improvement across most of the same areas to remind me that the law of diminishing returns is still in operation. For anyone unwilling to make the leap of faith, purchasing an HC cord for your amplifier is a low-cost way to determine whether aftermarket power cords will work for you. In a decent system, though, the Burly will likely demonstrate a higher level of performance right across the board that no enthusiast would be prepared to surrender.

MAC only recommend the Burly for use with an amplifier, but I mentioned earlier having also tried it in a ‘low current’ scenario, indirectly feeding my CD player and preamp. As I said, on Day One it made the sound worse; but it was replacing a fully burned-in HC cord and, after just three days of passing current, the shoe was clearly on the other foot. As part of the final definitive assessment, I cycled back through my test tracks and compared the sound of the Burly from wall to powerboard (serving the source components) partnered with an HC cord to the amp, against the combination of an HC cord to the powerboard and Burly on the amp, as used throughout the previous testing. The difference was quite noticeable; the overall trend was consistently of greater precision and refinement when the Burly served the source components, versus greater presence and richer tonality when it was on the amp. Which configuration I preferred varied from track to track, with a majority verdict favouring the Burly to the amp. Either combination was substantially preferred to a pair of HC cords, and I can only wistfully imagine how good a pair of Burlys might sound! Indeed, the only reason I haven’t been straight back to Steve Hallick to place an order is that I know he’s currently working on an ‘Ultimate Source’ cord for low-current application, the outcome of which I now await with especial interest.

I happily confess to being perplexed by aftermarket power cords. I do not understand how or why they work, and have heard no scientifically convincing explanation. They are, as the sceptics remind us, preceded by many miles of low-grade cable and, as we are wont to forget, in the vast majority of cases return to inferior cable for the last few inches inside the amplifier (just as, by close analogy, the internal wiring of a loudspeaker is rarely anything like as exotic as the cable that supplies it). Yet their efficacy cannot be denied. The Burly is supplied in a standard 6’ length, which happened to be inch-perfect for me so you’ll need to contact MAC if your requirements differ. Its price is $799, which isn’t loose change but is well below the tariff for ambitious designs from many other manufacturers. As it essentially gave me a whole new system, when replacing the generic cord previously on my power amp, it’s hard for me to tackle questions of value – I cannot conceive of being without it!

Not to be outdone, the HC cord also gave a fine account of itself, offering perhaps 80% of the Burly’s performance in the bass and a solid taste of its achievements elsewhere … though without rivalling the refinement, precision and sheer musicality of its very big brother. Given that this performance is available for around $200 (in a 6’ length), I posed myself the thorny question of whether the difference between the HC and Burly power cords was as great as that between the Ultrasilver+ and Reference interconnects, which share a roughly similar gulf in price – and, in my system, I don’t think it quite is. But it’s also true to say that the transformation is different in nature; as in my original assessment of MAC’s power cords, I still find a closer correlation to the overwhelmingly positive effects of vibration isolation than with the more obvious sonic signature of an interconnect. One thing’s for sure; if you want the benefits that each provides, you’re going to have to buy them both. I certainly wouldn’t want to have to choose between them!

Conclusion

All of my life, I have lived by one simple maxim – I hate opera! So why, then, have I spent large portions of the past few weeks immersed in several examples of that genre? Simple – these cables! They were able to take something that has always seemed annoyingly contrived and often uncomfortable on the ear, and realise instead a sense of continuously unfolding physical drama in the interplay of orchestra and singers, and a sublime beauty in those suddenly all too human voices, that is totally compelling.

Though it is the motive force behind every audiophile, upgrading is a cruel and merciless mistress. We assimilate gains so quickly, resetting our internal ‘baseline’ almost instantaneously, yet suffer such agonies when taking a retrograde step. How else to explain the transformation achieved by the Shotgun speaker wire, which left the already over-achieving CuQ sounding dry and colourless in comparison? Its pricing is mid-market, but its performance clearly a considerable step above.

The conclusion from my original test of MAC’s Digital and HC power cords, feeding my source components only, was that they “do make a worthwhile difference” but “may not be the first place to spend your money”. As regards the effect of attaching an HC cord to my power amp, I’d wish to revise that somewhat – it made an astounding difference and, if you’re still using a generic cord on your amplifier, is absolutely the first place that you should be spending your money. If you can stretch to the Burly, though, you’re unlikely to regret it – as my first experience of a genuinely high-end cord, I’m surprised both by how much improvement it was able to realise, and how many areas of system performance benefited. The fact that it seemed almost equally efficacious in both the high-current and low-current applications in which it was tried, is also reassuring.

The Burly power cord is literally the last link in the chain for me, replacing the sole remaining length of non-MAC wire in my system. Yet, in a figurative sense too, it has put the seal on everything that went before it, and lifted the system’s performance into a new dimension. What I find most shocking is that it took an aftermarket power cord to solve a serious problem in my system, which had persisted for years through a variety of hardware and ancillary changes. How many thousands of dollars could I have spent, perhaps uselessly, in attempting to eliminate it through further component upgrades? You’ll understand, then, why I get agitated when I hear people stating that cables are merely about adjusting a system’s tonal balance to the owner’s preference. My experience says something quite different; until you thoroughly and methodically tackle your system’s cabling, you may well have only the barest idea of its true potential. Having outlaid a large sum on components, not to then spend a few percent extra to unleash the performance nascent within them constitutes a special type of madness!

Where to from here?

No, this is not an appeal for help in filling the copious hours of spare time I shall enjoy now that I’m no longer testing cables! Instead, it harks back to the awkward position in which I found myself a year ago, prior to placing my first order with MAC – knowing that I needed to do something about my cables, but baffled by the profusion of choices available and unwilling to make an expensive mistake. To anybody else facing the same dilemma, I’d like to offer some purely personal advice, which might prove helpful in breaking the impasse.

The Ultrasilver+ interconnect offers a strong taste of what MAC has to offer and, both in my experience and from owners’ feedback online, is the least likely to result in a synergistic mismatch and thus the ‘safest’ buy from their range. Alternatively, if you still have a generic power cord attached to your amplifier then an HC power cord could just prove to be a revelation. Both of these models are regularly offered by Steve Hallick through his Audiogon auctions, at a fraction of their usual price – which, given that many owners have found them to easily surpass more expensive competition, makes them formidable bargains. The same could be said of the CuQ speaker cable, likewise available through Audiogon, though that is perhaps more at the mercy of what goes before it and thus a more suitable second step. Be sure to observe the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding burn-in periods, which tally with my own; none of these cables will give of their best straight out of the box. Should any of these cables not work for you in your system then you’re only minimally out of pocket, and can likely find a willing buyer – but if they do, then I suspect you will find yourself asking the same questions that I did … and I hope that this series of reviews will furnish you with some of the answers. It’s been one hell of a ride!

Manufacturer’s website: www.myaudiocables.com

Source of review sample: Manufacturer loan.

Associated Equipment

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 Reference, 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

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

admin 10.13.09 at 9:08 pm

Congrats, Andy, on your amazingly comprehensive series of reviews of My Audio Cables products. The consistency and the objectivity of your writing is equally amazing! Many thanks.

Cheers, a

Martin Appel 10.14.09 at 6:48 am

Great job Andy. I’m happy that you’ve taken the plunge into the magic that well designed power cords can create. It is a mystery, but one I gladly accept. The results can be, and in your case, were a revelation. For those who still doubt the efficacy of power cords and their impact on the sound of their systems, we are truly sorry and beg you to audition some after marke power cords. I feel that the better and more resolving your equipment, the greater the benefit will result.
Have fun, Marty

admin 10.14.09 at 8:29 am

I have an email into MAC. Andy, your superb reviews have intrigued me, much like Marty’s equally wonderful traversal of Acoustic Zen cables.

Cheers, a

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