Audience Au-24 vs. Empirical Design Cable Review
I’ve been an audiophile for over 25 years but have only recently come value the importance of good quality cables. This is mostly because until recently I owned Naim electronics (for about 10 years) and the folks from Salisbury take a pretty hard line on cables--”use ours or else!”. My experience with Naim influenced my thinking about cables in several ways. On the one hand, I came to view the cable swappers in the audiophile community with a degree of suspicion--my Naim cables were simple and inexpensive and I seemed to get pretty good sound. Why would anyone spend all that time and money trying different pieces of wire when there are probably other parts of the signal chain (like power supplies and source components) that deserve much more attention. On the other hand, if the folks at Naim insisted that I use their particular brand of cable then it had to have some unique and desirable characteristics--something that made it different from other wire. Could it be possible that the cable swappers knew what they were doing as they substituted different brands looking for just the right sound?
Then (about two years ago) I sold my Naim stuff and the world of cables opened as a mixed blessing before my eyes. My new electronics were from Audio Research--a 150.2 and an SP16--and, since the Naim wires were needed by the new owner, somehow I had to connect them together. I also had to get the signal from my Rotel RCD-971 CD player to the preamp. So, with the advice of many good people in the community, I tried an assortment of cables from Wireworld (Polaris 3), Ridge Street (Pioma!) and ARC’s own Litzlink 2 before settling on Audience Au-24. Though the other wires were very good I liked the Audience wire the best, feeling it was the most musically compelling, literate and tonally neutral. I also liked the narrow gauge design and the lifetime guarantee.
During the six month period in which I was trying out the different brands I gained an appreciation for the impact cables can have on the sound of a hifi system. I have to say, however, that it didn’t turn me into a wire junkie. Call me lazy, but I found the process of demoing wire a pain in the neck--I’m not much for “system analysis”. I built my system to listen to music, not play the same song over and over trying to hear minute differences between power cords. But I ventured forth propelled forward by the desire to get the most from my system and find out for myself whether this “wire thing” was for real. For me the answer was “yes”, “but”. Yes, I sometimes heard slight differences between the different brands I tried and, more significantly, differences between stock power cords and the after market brands listed above. However, these differences were not particularly large and did not, in the end, warrant the amount of time (and money) I spent sampling different cables. In my view, many of us spend too much time on the finer points of wire and tweaks when there are major system errors or improvements that should be made elsewhere in the chain. During my two year search for new speakers I heard so many well regarded (and expensive) models that sounded so unlike real music that I can’t help wondering why people that own them even bother thinking about wire. Or take room acoustics as another example--I’ve heard so many really expensive systems (with megabuck wire) that sounded awful because the room was poor and no effort had been made to address glaring (pardon the pun) deficiencies. But I digress...
So, after my six month investigation I ended up with Audience Au-24 all the way around--power cords, interconnects and speaker wire. And there things sat for a good long while until I happened to offhandedly mention cables to Lou Hinkley, who designs and builds my speakers--the Daedalus DA-1. Lou mentioned that he had great results with cables from Empirical Design and that I might consider trying them in my setup. While I was reluctant to open up the cable can of worms again it seemed worthwhile to investigate further. After all, we all understand the importance of system synergy and if the guy who builds the speakers I adore says he likes cable “X” I ought to at least check it out.
It turns out Empirical Design (Note: NOT Empirical Audio which also sells cable) is owned by Karl Schuster and his outfit is located in Herndon, Virginia. Shortly after I spoke with Lou I gave Karl a call to see what he and his cables were all about. Karl spent over an hour talking with me about his design philosophy, material science and business model. It turns out Karl is not only extremely knowledgeable, but a man of great warmth, sincerity and integrity. Over the next several months I would return to Karl several times to acquire additional cables and he was unwaveringly supportive and responsive. It’s funny, I should have anticipated all this since Lou is exactly the same kind of guy.
My conversation with Karl left me feeling confident to go ahead and try some of his cables. This really wasn’t a difficult decision since Karl informed me that if I didn’t like what I heard I could simply return them for a full refund. You can’t ask for more than that. We decided that I should start with a pair of speaker cables and then move to interconnects and finally power cords if I liked what each did in my system along the way. I took some measurements and ordered a nine foot pair of his ED 213 speaker wire, which set me back around $500, about one-third the cost of the Au-24.
The cables arrived a few days later and I was deeply impressed by the build quality of the wire and carefully terminated ends. The wire was also professionally packed and double-boxed for shipment. For the speaker wire Karl suggests a special spade lug that allows him to prepare a proper solder connection that ensures ideal physical and electrical connectivity. These were sized for the terminals on my amp and on the DA-1’s. (Karl will also attach WBT’s if requested at a slight up charge, though he prefers the spade lugs in this application to the pricey WBT’s. Karl has also recently found a banana plug that meets his design parameters that is now also available). Without getting into technical waters that I am ill-equipped to navigate, I can say that at first glance the speaker cable looks a little like my old Naim NAC5A, with two parallel conductors separated by an insulating bridge. However, the conductive element of 213 is configured as a braided tube around a non-conductive Teflon core, versus the twisted bundle of stranded wire used in the Naim cable and its kin (the old Mark Levinson speaker cables, Linn K20, QED, Supra, etc., etc.). It is also similarly rigid in what I would call the vertical plane--meaning when the twin leads are lying one on top of the other. Even though Karl warned me about this I was starting to miss my Au-24, which negotiated bends easily and was less visually present in the room. Then I put on some music.....
Karl recommends at least 100 hours of burn in before doing any serious listening but straight out of the box these cables were the equal of my Au-24. After spinning just a few discs things really started to come into their own. In fact, the break in period in my system was really accomplished within this first listening session and the same was true for the interconnects and power cords. I heard noticeable improvement in the sound from one disc to the next and then returned to previous cuts to make quick comparisons that clearly revealed that the wires were coming into their own. There may have been slight improvements beyond this several hour break-in period, but my aural memory could not pinpoint what they were from one listening session to another a few days later.
After only three or four hours it became quite clear that the Empirical Design 213 speaker cables were superior to the Au-24. The differences were not subtle but neither were they on the level of a major equipment upgrade--remember, I was comparing the ED cables with Audience’s top of the line and widely praised Au-24. For example, prior to my comparison of the ED and Audience cables, I swapped out my Rotel RCD-971 for a Naim CDX2 and the improvement was stunning, no....earth shattering. Replacing the Au-24 for the ED213 brought about significant improvements, just not the kind a non-audiophile would notice immediately--even my wife could hear obvious differences between the Naim and Rotel players. While the differences were not glaringly obvious, the wire swap brought about the kind of important and noticeable improvements that are evident to those of us who make this our hobby and keep us hungry for the next level of sound quality.
So how do the Au-24 and ED213 compare? What I heard with the ED speaker cable was a much more organic and musically literate presentation. Instruments had more body and warmth--to a degree that made the Au-24 sound a little thin by comparison. Interestingly, the ED213 also provided a more detailed presentation. I began to hear things buried in the mix that I had never heard before. The fact that this enhanced detail was not accompanied by a rising top end or more forward presentation was phenomenal, and what I consider to be the defining attribute of the ED cables--they are both detailed and supremely lifelike and musical in their presentation. Sound stage depth and width also improved, with additional layering of instruments and voices that was not achieved with the Audience wire in place. Overall, the system sounded much more vibrant and real, and as a result I was drawn more deeply into the performance.
After a good 50 hours of break-in I called Karl and ordered up two pair of ED422 interconnects, which are priced at $330 per three foot pair, nearly $200 less than a meter length of Au-24. I had them cut to custom lengths to exactly accommodate the placement of my components in my equipment rack. This is another nice feature of working with Karl and a small outfit like Empirical Design--he will customize your cables for no additional charge. A few days later the interconnects arrived sporting handsomely finished Neutrik ProFi RCA plugs. (Karl uses Neutrik XLR’s for his balanced versions and all the 422’s come in either shielded or unshielded versions). I unplugged the Au-24 between my amp and preamp and then the other set connecting the CDX2 to my SP 16 and replaced them with the ED422. To keep it brief and simple, the same thing happened as occurred with the speaker wire, just to a lesser degree. All the same attributes were present, but the differences between the Au-24 and the ED422 were not as pronounced. I was prepared to keep going and so ordered up custom lengths of ED416 power cords to replace my Audience models.
The ED416 power cords arrived nicely terminated with Schurter IEC connectors and Hubbell wall plugs. (Both are available in right angle connectors for a slight upcharge. The ED416 also comes in ungrounded and grounded versions). While thinner than my Audience power cords the ED power cords are, like the speaker wire, a bit stiff and difficult to maneuver behind the rack---something to bear in mind if things are cramped in your setup. I was particularly interested to see if the ED cables would best the Audience since, in my experience, the latter are the best performers in the line. I find the Audience power cords to be extremely good and of all their products it was the power cords that I felt would hold up quite well by comparison with the ED wires. In the end (again, after about 5 hours of break-in) I would give a slight edge to the ED416’s. The differences were minor and may have more to do with overall synergy with the other ED gear further down the chain. While I am confident that I could distinguish between the ED 213 and the Au-24 in a blind test, I am less confident with regard to the ED416’s. Again, to say that the ED416’s were at least as good as the very fine Audience power cords is quite a statement--particularly since the ED416 retails for $360 ($290 ungrounded) compared to $470 for the same length Audience version.
Just for fun I decided to pop the stock power cords for each of my components back in the system just to see how the ED416 would compare. Wow, what a difference. Blacker backgrounds, more expansive and refined presentation and loads more detail. Two years ago I would have shrugged off the idea that a power cord could so radically alter the sound. Today I am a true believer.
So what you have hear is a small company out of the marketing-induced limelight that produces some truly fantastic wire for a small group of dedicated customers who receive extraordinary personal service. While I haven’t heard any of the stratospherically expensive “reference” wires, in my system the Empirical Design products clearly and significantly outperformed cables that are highly regarded and that beat out three other brands to make their way into my system. And the ED do all this at considerably less cost than all of the other cables I tried. My hat is off to Karl and I would encourage anyone who is shopping for top quality wire at reasonable prices to give the ED stuff a try--I don’t think you will need to invoke Karl’s generous money back guarantee but knowing you can return them surely makes for a painless (and enlightening) experience.