by Andy Fawcett
The first installment in a three-way comparison test…
Readers of my previous review of power cords and interconnects from New York-based My Audio Cables (MAC) may recall that, while the cords had healthily exceeded my expectations, I was amazed by the results achieved with the UltraSilver+ and Palladium interconnects, which had been acquired only as an afterthought. When deployed as a pair, not only were they better than I could have anticipated at all of the “hi-fi” stuff we audiophiles obsess about, but they also brought to my system a joyous musicality and a startling intensity to the way they communicated the musical message. This is not an aspect of the listening experience that I have previously found to lie within the provenance of ‘mere’ cables – indeed, my vain struggle to adequately describe the effect suggested there may not even be an established audio lexicon to cover it, so perhaps it really is as rare as my experience suggests. Look, I know there’s a lot of system-to-system variability in results where cables are concerned, and I can’t say to what extent the experience of others will mirror my own, so let’s get that necessary disclaimer on the table straight away. But you’ll understand why this brand has captured my attention.
The UltraSilver+ cable sits somewhere around the middle of MAC’s range and, while its physical construction is basically identical to the Palladium interconnect and their partnership is highly synergistic, it does not match the performance of its more-than-twice-as-costly brother. Specifically, during testing I had identified a lack of absolute transparency which, while relatively benign in practice (as sins of omission are wont to be), soon had me perusing the more exotic of MAC’s cables with a vaguely lustful gleam in my eye. And a very interesting selection it is too. Unusually, each cable employs a different metal for its conductor material (excepting the Reference model, which also utilizes Palladium), common across both the signal and return wires, with certain key constructional aspects, such as the air primary dielectric, consistent throughout. I know of no other manufacturer who offers such a variety, and was intrigued by its potential for highlighting the contribution of the metal itself to the final sound; a question that still seems to generate much debate. Also, viewing the range as a potential purchaser, I struggled to gain a clear impression of the comparative differences between the cables, so hoped that a group assessment might provide a valuable service to my fellow audiophiles. Such selflessness!
MAC supremo Steve Hallick generously agreed to provide me with samples of the three models above the Palladium cable in his range (as indicated by price – I make no prejudgment where performance is concerned!): the pure gold Au, the Mystic and the Reference. I thank him for being prepared to despatch them to this far-off land, where kangaroos roam the streets and summary justice is meted out by the Prime Minister and his oversized boot (fans of ‘The Simpsons’ know of what I speak)! It was my intention to publish the comparison as a single article, but the first cable supplied and tested was the Mystic; I found it so interesting that I’ve spent much longer with it than intended, and it’s clearly deserving of a review in its own right. So prepare your beverage of choice, and settle in …
MAC Mystic Interconnect
This is the newest of MAC’s interconnect cables and, reading between the lines, I can tell that Steve regards it with an almost paternal pride! It is one of only two current models (along with the Reference) that depart the purist motif of a simple twisted pair in favour of a heavier, internally-damped construction – although the air primary and Teflon secondary dielectrics remain. It is also the only MAC cable to employ an alloy as its conductor material, a silver/gold blend. Selling at an online direct price of US$499, and replete with the highly-regarded (and very expensive) Eichmann Silver Bullet RCA plugs, its substantial appearance and mass leave no doubt as to the material value for money. While I felt it prudent to rig up some support for the cable, suspending it from the frame of my equipment rack so that its weight was not hanging entirely on the CD player’s sockets, it is actually very flexible and in no way impractical in use. Having been mildly critical of MAC’s proprietary RCA plugs, I just loved the Eichmanns, which achieved a secure connection while being easy to fit and remove (admittedly more of a concern for reviewers than for sensible people) – though, as they are manufactured just up the road from me here in Australia, there is a gentle irony to their having circumnavigated the globe only to return home again! Having received extensive pre-conditioning at the factory prior to despatch (a special favour from Steve, to help me get the testing under way quickly), the cables appeared to settle down quickly with only minimal burn-in.
A twin pair of Mystics replaced the combination of Palladium (from CD player to preamp) and UltraSilver+ (from pre to power) mentioned earlier. The inevitable comparisons that follow should not, then, be seen as reflecting on the ultimate capabilities of the Palladium cable; rather, the pair should be considered as an overachieving two-cable solution at a combined price of $600, with the Mystics upping the ante to the $1000 mark. And the improvements that I heard straight off the bat were entirely consistent with that. There was increased resolution, for a start – apparent in the ambient signature of natural acoustics and greater layering of the resonant decay. Transparency also improved slightly, accompanied by a more open-sounding top end; though in neither case did I feel that it represented everything my system is capable of. The soundstage got a little deeper, and instrumental timbres appeared more faithfully rendered. Dynamics and articulation also took a step forward, while I was pleased by a much improved balance in the bass – I mentioned having found the Palladium/UltraSilver+ combo a little too weighty in this area, and the Mystics achieved a rhythmically tighter, more focussed and better integrated result. The balance between string and body on upright bass was certainly more artful, while some bloom on the acoustic guitar’s lower register (which I’d previously blamed on my room acoustic) was largely banished.
As with the previous pairing, brightness and harshness were notable only by their complete absence. The composed, effortless feel to the sound and its wealth of inner detail and natural colour gently immersed you in the music, rather than shouting its virtues. There was an appealing smoothness to the presentation, though not in a pervasive sense – the distinctive raw bite to Andrew Manze’s violin tone (in his sonically challenging recording of Handel’s Violin Sonatas) was not sweetened, nor was it accentuated … it simply lacked the aggressive edge that all too often accompanies it. And there’s no question that the cable could boogie – things got just as raucous as the music demanded, with a propulsive rhythmic intensity that, I shamefully admit, gave rise to repeated outbreaks of ‘air-drumming’. Do you ever have that fantasy, where you’re sitting behind a gargantuan drum kit from rock’s Age of Excess, the ones that had their own Zipcode (take a bow, Neil Peart)? Right, just me then … but to prove I’m not completely weird, I do switch back to air-guitar for the solos! Enough frivolity. The Palladium/UltraSilver+ combo was certainly not disgraced by the comparison and, while I couldn’t identify any substantive area in which the Mystics did not at least equal them, I did occasionally wonder if there wasn’t something of their magical shimmer and glow missing? In due course, though, I concluded that their character was just a little more outgoing, the Mystic’s demeanour slightly more cerebral. Crucially, there was no diminution of the glorious musicality and emotional intensity that had first sold me on MAC cables; had there been, I guarantee that the Mystics would not have lasted long!
As a side note, proof of the Mystic’s authentically natural timbre was provided in unusual circumstances. I had been listening obliviously to the thunderstorm sequence from Andreas Vollenweider’s recently remastered “Behind the Gardens…” CD, which rumbles convincingly but did seem a little rolled-off at the top. A matter of minutes later, proceedings were curtailed when a violent electrical storm (typical of the Australian summer) broke; the ground-shaking display of nature’s ferocity that ensued confirmed, in a most graphic fashion, the recording’s absolute fidelity!
I mentioned earlier having found this cable interesting, and if you’re still waiting for the evidence then well spotted – I’ve kept the good bits back, see! Because, while I’ve told you broadly what convention appears to demand (plus some personal insights that you surely could have lived without!), and we’ve established that they’re undoubtedly fine performers, it hasn’t captured the real character of the cables as I experienced them … nor why I regard them as special.
Tonally, the Mystic struck me as very neutral, with no obvious colouration in its presentation and a balance that defied being categorised as either warm or cool. And it took that feat one stage further, by demonstrating an absolute top-to-bottom consistency in which no frequency band appeared to be accentuated, either in level or character, over any other. This made it particularly adept at removing itself from the equation; getting out of the way of the music and leaving virtually no audible signature of its presence. There was an additional benefit for me, as the Mystics also did a better job of stitching together the two disparate elements of my hybrid loudspeakers – flattening out the response through the crossover region and adding nimbleness to the bass. Strange to say, but I found the Mystic’s influence on my system’s sound eerily reminiscent of the Lenehan Audio ML1 loudspeaker that I reviewed recently, to whose similar blend of neutrality and perfectly flat response I’d attributed the ability to “deliver the musical message with unprecedented clarity and impact”. That observation seems equally pertinent here.
Another apparent benefit of this musical disappearing act was that the system’s sound became very consistent, disc to disc, and even more forgiving of poor recordings than the Palladium/UltraSilver+ combo had been. I want to dwell on this point for a moment, as I feel that it has been overlooked almost to the point of becoming an audio taboo. Every audiophile of my acquaintance has a proportion of his music collection that he brands, mentally, as too poorly recorded to provide pleasurable listening … and those discs are not played. Sometimes that proportion is worryingly high, but is reasoned away as a necessary consequence of improved system performance – the better my system gets, the more recordings it will show up as inadequate. For many years I have believed, and argued, that this state of affairs is not inevitable and is actually indicative of a fault in the system; yet I still had my own significant number of skeletons in the CD rack. Since installing MAC’s cables, I find that there is barely a disc in my collection that cannot be played and enjoyed. The difference between a good and bad recording is still clearly apparent, but the problematic aspects of poor recordings somehow recede – or, to borrow a conclusion from my previous test, are “… thoroughly redeemed by the all-pervading musicality that these cables brought to my system”. By the same token, many recordings that I’d always considered mediocre now sound good, and good has frequently become great. Suffice to say, my music collection now looks quite different to me than it did a few short months ago.
Another word that appears repeatedly in my listening notes is “drama”. Yes, I’d identified that as an element of the Palladium/UltraSilver’s musicality too, but the Mystic took it further. The slow build-up of an orchestral crescendo, for instance, is invested with such emotive tension; the Allegro in a Baroque concerto so utterly thrilling, the Adagio almost unbearably poignant. This sense of emotional connectedness, at once both relaxing and invigorating, is always there regardless of my mood, state of intoxication or the phases of the Moon and it has thoroughly spoiled me, as friends’ systems that I’ve enjoyed listening to for years suddenly sound flat and lifeless. My rational side has really struggled to comprehend this, to find specific sonic attributes that might be responsible for it … and I do finally have some candidates. Certainly, the sheer palpability of the imaging is attention-grabbing, seemingly investing individual notes with a life of their own. The cables are also remarkably adept at revealing the most subtle of tempo changes, mirrored by a compelling rightness to their handling of microdynamics that discloses the filigree emphases of fingering and inflection with which great musicians communicate their craft. This microdynamic prowess is apparent even at background volume, the sound still surprisingly engaging and, I confess, frequently drew me to the listening chair without feeling any compelling need to raise the level.
There’s one more thing that struck me. As is often the case with panel speakers, mine have always been afflicted by that nervous, phasey, “head in a vice” central imaging that not only results in a miniscule stereo ‘sweet spot’ but also tends to move it a little disc-to-disc, requiring regular minor adjustments to the listening position. Of course, it quickly becomes second-nature, so only in retrospect did I realise that the situation had improved somewhat with the Palladium/UltraSilver+ cables in situ. The Mystics, though, gave me a much more stable, fleshed-out and consistent central image than I’ve ever had before. I take that as evidence of significantly better phase coherence which, in concert with the superior timing and microdynamics discussed previously, makes me confident in asserting that the Mystic is doing a fundamentally better job of transmitting the signal in the electrical domain.
So, we’re left with a near-flawless performance … the only fly in the ointment being that residual question mark over the cable’s transparency and top end. After some 70 hours of critical listening, during which the cables had performed with total consistency, I happened to be fiddling with an unrelated aspect of system set-up and performing a comparison test using vinyl. Between tracks, as if a switch had been flicked, the system’s sound suddenly opened up and the mist dispersed – there was no mistaking it, I’d listened to the same tracks moments earlier and the sound was now clearly the most transparent I’d ever achieved. I almost dived for the CD player, anxious to spin a reference disc and confirm the finding from another source. Sure enough, we can chalk up another entry in the catalogue of weird cable burn-in effects! The listening session that followed lasted many hours; one of those memorable and utterly life-affirming occasions when every single disc sounded better than it had ever done before.
Given the scale of this undertaking, I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t do any mix ‘n matching with the review cables – when you throw the Palladium into the pot too, you’ve got a bewildering number of possible combinations. In an idle moment, though, I did succumb and tried the Palladium (from CDP to pre) with a Mystic linking the pre and power amps. In an ideal world, the sound should overall have changed little - instead, things got distinctly weird! Certainly, there was a noticeable increase in detail resolution; quite unexpected given that I had not detected any shortfall in the Mystics, but potentially an exciting foretaste of what the Reference cable (which utilises a double run of palladium wire) might offer. In other respects, though, all was far from well. The bass had become wallowy and imprecise, with some colouration adversely affecting timbral fidelity and, most damagingly, a listlessness and rhythmic waywardness that robbed music of its drive and momentum. The exercise was quickly abandoned; it probably served primarily as further evidence that the Palladium cable is unusually fussy about what partners it in a two-cable scenario, making its strong synergy with the UltraSilver+ that much more compelling.
I still felt the need to obtain some genuine perspective on the Mystics’ performance, and was able to borrow a current model, well-regarded interconnect that retails for several multiples of the Mystic’s price. It would not be fair to name it - with just the one pair available, it was necessary to retain Mystics between pre and power amps so there is no way to know how much of its ultimate capability I heard, and it should not be damned by the comparison. That said, and having allowed the borrowed cable (which I shall henceforth refer to as “Cable B”) time to settle in, my immediate reaction when critical listening commenced was that this comparison was among the closest of all the cable swap-outs I’ve performed in the last few months. The sonic differences were not large by any measure, so bear that in mind during the following analysis, but they were instructive. Cable B had a slightly leaner tonality … or the Mystic had the merest touch of warmth and richness through the lower midrange, depending on your point of reference. Cable B also had greater detail resolution and a more focussed presentation … which are both good things, right? Well, it’s a sound that I’ve heard in many high end systems, and there’s no denying it’s impressive – but I’m also convinced it’s wrong! That type of etched, hyper-real detail, of images cast upon the soundstage with ruthless precision and separated by huge areas of inky black space … I just don’t think it has any analogue to reality. While able to summon almost equal precision when the recording demanded it, the Mystic typically had a softer, more diffuse, more organic quality to its resolution and imaging; more natural, to finally use the loaded term I’ve been carefully avoiding! This argument, though, proved academic; because the biggest subjective difference between the cables was that the compelling sense of drama, intensity and musical flow heard from the Mystics (and the Palladium and UltraSilver+ before them) was substantially impaired with Cable B in the system. Music was simply less rich, less involving, less exciting; it impressed, but it did not engage. And, as my recent listening patterns testify, that’s the difference between a 2-hour listening session and an 8-hour one!
There is a danger in becoming too enthused at this stage of a comparison test, of using too large a stock of one’s superlatives and being made to look stupid when the other items ascend still higher realms of performance. At time of writing I have not yet received the remaining review candidates, but I’ll take my chances. The Mystics have hugely impressed me; they have performed exceptionally well in every respect, while their neutrality and consistency allows them to place virtually no sonic fingerprint on the signal they transmit. Cables are often dismissed by sceptics as ‘tone controls’, yet I heard things with the Mystics which indicated that they were doing a fundamentally more capable job of transmitting the signal in the electrical domain. On that basis, I feel comfortable stating not just that I preferred them to any other cable I have lived with, but that they are better than those cables.
Those enthusiasts engaged in a quest for the ultimate in detail resolution and soundstage focus may not find their zenith in the Mystics; though, as a wise audio philosopher once said, “those who seek only detail tend to get the sound they deserve”! The rewards for the less Quixotic among us are ample. Indeed, I am forced back to a similar conclusion as in my previous review of the Palladium and UltraSilver+ interconnects – these cables have an extraordinary ability to communicate not just the sound but the spirit of a performance, to connect the listener at a primal level with music’s raw emotive elements. Those who do not truly love music might never observe it; those who do would never again wish to be without it.
I am thoroughly smitten with the Mystic interconnects. They do well what other excellent cables do well – but they do superbly what no other (non-MAC) cable of my experience has even attempted. Fear not, Steve, the ‘kids’ have done you proud!
Manufacturer’s website: www.myaudiocables.com
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 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