Copper, not just for penny’s…
Let’s get this out of the way first; Yes, I’m an Acoustic Zen fan. Just look at my system listing and some of my other reviews and that should become obvious. There’s a reason for that. Simply put I have yet to encounter a product that competes with theirs either sonically or on the value scale. I love my Adagio loudspeakers and all of my cabling is Acoustic Zen. Their owner and guiding light is the venerable Robert Lee who is a music lover first and to that end, builds his products with solid engineering and quality, and shies away from bling and snake oil. At the end of the day, Robert’s products have breathed more life into my system and have given me more real musical enjoyment than any other I can think of. So, when I heard that he was releasing a newly designed interconnect, the “Absolute Copper”, I had to try them.
Now, it’s important to note that I’m not an investment banker, neurosurgeon, oil sheik or trust fund owner. I’ve worked my entire professional life in the high-tech world, and do well enough to pay the bills, but I do have to watch my spending. I have an education and background in electronics and many years ago I worked in the cable and connector industry. The point is, while I’m not an Einstein, my technical and engineering knowledge is of sufficient depth to make me very skeptical when it comes to spending a lot of hard earned wages on cabling. I do believe that cabling can make or break a system, but I also am absolutely convinced that as you move up the ladder into the rarified air of ultra-high end cables, the law of diminishing returns is more than alive and well. It’s been my experience over the years that some of the best performing cables that I’ve had the opportunity to use have actually been quite reasonable in price. The truth is that the real, intrinsic value of some very high end cables is nowhere near what you have to pay for them. I’m not saying that the cable manufacturers that sell some of this audio jewelry aren’t justified in charging what they do; I am, after all is said and done, a red blooded capitalist and believe that if they can market their wares and command a high price, they should by all means do that. That said I always remain skeptical when cables start hedging up into the thousands of dollars because in my experience, the return on investment is low to nonexistent when balanced against real performance. With that in mind, the price of the Absolute Copper is at the higher end of my personal sensibilities. A one meter pair runs $1495.00 and at that price, they had better be a knock out. Let’s say, I was not disappointed.
Reviewing cables is interesting and enlightening, but can be a bit of a daunting task. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that no matter how you want to slice and dice the subject, a cable is a filter. It has resistance, inductance, capacitance and a wonderful ability to play with phase relationships between its two ends. All of these attributes, along with a multiplicity of other factors, combine to act as a filter. You can’t get around physics, so there are a couple of schools of thought where audio cables are concerned when dealing with the electrical characteristics that cause these filtering effects. The first should be pretty obvious to most folks and that is, do whatever it takes to minimize these effects. I have found that Acoustic Zen subscribes to this line of thought (see their website for more on this subject…) and it makes sense both logically and in practice. The other school of thought may be considered a bit dastardly and underhanded by some and will surely be pilloried as heresy by the companies that actually practice it, but it has to do with actually embracing the filtering effects that certain cable configurations and designs yield. Stop and consider how many cable companies and different cable designs are available today. Can ALL of them really be better than the others? Isn’t that the claim? The reality is that the claim of “better” is usually not even close to being a truism. The fact is all of these designs sound “different” and therein lays the golden marketing keys for the companies that embrace the latter philosophy. Think about this for a minute; let’s say you’re happily listening to your system when you see an ad for the latest & greatest, wiz-bang design from company “X” that has taken 437 years of intensive research and development, ultra-pure metals and plastics of greater cost magnitude than anything ever built, blah, blah, blah. You gotta have ‘em! You head to your local audio emporium and scoop up a pair or two for 5 figures, race back to the cave, hook them all up and give a listen ( you will, of course, have to be a true audiophile and give them at least 156,000 break-in hours before you really critically listen…), and wow! What a revelation! Suddenly the top end of all of your favorite music has more air and sparkle than ever before! These are definitely a revelation beyond any other competition. But, are they really? Are you hearing something “better” or just something “different”? It’s my contention that most of the time where cables are concerned it’s the latter… sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s that dark and naughty little secret of the company embracing the filtering philosophy to its best advantage that has gripped you. In this case, you may have traded off great midrange transparency for more sparkle which is nothing more than a cable that is acting out its capacity to tilt the sonic landscape one way or the other. Over the years, I’ve listened to more cable types and brands than I can count, even designed and built my own, and in my experience Robert Lee’s Acoustic Zen cables are never in this philosophical bucket. When I said earlier that all of my cables are Acoustic Zen, it’s for the simple reason that they are, to my ears (which I’d like to think are pretty good), able to convey the most natural balance and pass a signal in truer form that any other that I’ve had experience with, period.
The other thing that can make cable assessment challenging is trying to do meaningful comparisons and keeping your sonic “memory” intact while swapping from one cable to another, which can and usually does entail entanglement with the snake pit of wires and power cords behind your system and wrestling each to the ground whilst trying to make fresh connections. [And, as an aside, who the heck decided on the connections that we use in the audio world? Just about every single one can actually be improved upon with another type of jack or plug, yet we Luddite audiophiles embrace change at the pace of slugs and when we do change, it’s not always for the better… oh well.] To exacerbate this, my appraisal of the Absolute Copper interconnects included comparisons to six other cables. This does, however make the overall assessment more meaningful and adds some weight to my findings. Some of the other contenders were very high dollar designs and one was the Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference II with which I am very familiar because I use it throughout my system and have for at least a couple of years now. To make my life easier in making comparisons and to minimize my capacity for becoming the victim of a bizarre cable-hooking-on-a-shoe-tripping-myself-into-a-fishtank type of accident, I ripped my system apart and brought it down to two components; an Ayre AX7e integrated amp and a Sony XA5400ES CD/SACD player. Speakers were my Acoustic Zen Adagios, power cables were Acoustic Zen Tsunami’s and speaker cables were Acoustic Zen Hologram II. This way, throughout my trials, the only thing that changed were one set of interconnects between CD player and amp. All were XLR balanced types from the balanced outputs of the Sony into one of the balanced inputs on the Ayre. One last note on methodology; this assessment took a while and not necessarily because I’m slow but because any time you assess a cable you NEED to take time with it. I’ve been listening to the Absolute Copper in one part or another of my system for six or seven months now. Why is that? The answer is that it forces you to really listen to the character of a cable long term and NOT succumb to the aforementioned trap of hearing something “different” and automatically declaring it stupendous. My personal belief is that you must listen to cables over time before you really KNOW how they sound in your system. Some say this is due to cables needing to “break in” and form their capacitive and inductive characteristics, but it’s also distinctly possible that our perception of a cable’s “sound” changes over time simply because we adjust to its character rather than its actual character changing in that time. So, I’ve taken my time, lived with the Absolute Copper for a good long while before any pontification. My bases are coverd.
My musical background and tastes are varied enough for another essay. Suffice it to say they are very broad and I listen to a wide variety of classical, jazz, rock and pop. While I do have a number of “audiophile approved” recordings, their use in listening tests is of little to no use; listen to what you want and to the things that you have a reference point for. Mine happens to be live music, studio work, sweaty bars and night clubs, concert halls and live theaters. I’ve been a musician my entire life and spent plenty of hours enjoying live music.
For this critique, I tried to boil my critical listening down to a handful of familiar selections to keep my head from hurting too much between tunes. I stuck with the following CD's and SACD's for listening comparisons:
Mark Knopfler – “One Take Radio Sessions”
Dire Straits – “On Every Street”
Norah Jones – “Come Away With Me”
Peter Gabriel – “Us”
Chicago Symphony/Reiner – Rimsky-Korsakov, “Scheherazade”
First, allow me to describe my listening reactions to the other cables I listened to. I am not going to name names here because quite frankly I don’t want to embarrass anyone (certainly not my intent) and I don’t want to start receiving hate mail from their fans! Some of these are very expensive and well regarded and some were actually “mystery” brands that I wasn’t even sure about. All were either some that I had lying about or they came from an audiophile compatriot of mine. If you want to try and figure out what they are from the pictures, have at it, but if you go to those extremes I’ll bet you need some level of psychological or anger management therapy. So, in sort of a weird, backward detective kind of way, you should be able to discern from my listening notes on how the other cables fared, some of the performance you can expect from the Absolute Copper:
-Cable A: Image is slightly closed in and truncated, not as much “body” to the sound, not as much resolution and some loss of detail, seem a bit constricted.
-Cable B: Not very good at frequency extremes, no “richness” in the bass, a bit dry with a smaller soundstage.
-Cable C: Not bad! Good detail and coherent with just bit of shyness in the bottom end in comparison. Clean sounding, but with just slight roll off in the bottom registers.
-Cable D: Excellent midrange presentation, great body to the sound. You can hear the piano sound board. Very slightly shortened soundstage and just very slightly tilted “up” in the high end for that “sparkle” that some may want while leaving a bit of the bottom off the spectrum.
-Cable E: Very nice, sweet sounding cable, but lacks some bottom end heft. Doesn’t convey all of the instrumental resonance that’s there.
I will point out that there was one more comparison cable in addition to the five above and that was the Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference II that I mentioned earlier. Because I use it normally, it basically established my baseline, and that’s a hard baseline to beat! Suffice it to say that it outperformed the other contenders handily and has been (up until the Absolute Copper came along…. Oops, I let the cat out of the bag!) my reference for some time. The Matrix Reference II is supremely balanced across the musical spectrum, wide open with exceptional sound staging and imaging capabilities (amazing how much of a difference cables can make in that area of reproduction…). To date they are the best cable that I’ve ever had the pleasure to listen to. However, the new Absolute Copper takes things to a new level.
Through lots of time and critical listening, I’ve found that Robert Lee has once again hit a new high note in cable design. The Absolute Copper reflects some of his latest thinking on cables by utilizing a zero crystal copper ribbon for the main conductor in a star twist geometry implemented with air/Teflon tubing. The same type of flat ribbon conductor is used in his Absolute Digital cables as well. By the way, Robert was using zero crystal copper in his designs before just about anyone else ever heard of the stuff. While he’s experimented with silver and copper together and individually, it’s interesting that this particular design is all copper. He also claims that utilizing flat ribbon conductors simply sound better, and considering the outcome of my listening I can’t dispute that claim. Like all Acoustic Zen products, attention to details is exemplary and construction is jewelry-like. Simple things like solder connections and shrink tubing are perfect and clean. It’s amazing how many “high end” cables many times have very shoddy workmanship but you will never find that in an Acoustic Zen product, ever. If the Absolute Copper has any downfall at all, it’s that it’s a bit bulky and a little on the stiff side. If you’re looking for light & flexible, this may not be the best choice, but considering the cable’s sonic performance, you may want to reconsider and deal with that one minor quibble. The cables arrive in a simple but functional plastic and canvas zipper bag, a breath of fresh air in a world where we have the silliness of cables arriving in humidor quality cases that probably cost more than the product within!
Getting to the point, the Absolute Copper is the best cable I’ve ever heard and surpasses the performance of the Matrix Reference II. The latter is a great cable, but the former trumps it. First of all, the Absolute Copper interconnects do one magical thing that every other Acoustic Zen product I’ve ever tried has done as well, and that is, gives me “more”; more performance in every aspect and consequently, more musical enjoyment. The frequency extremes are enhanced and better balanced. I especially notice that bass frequencies are more powerful, the mids more natural and the highs have life, sparkle and “air” without edginess or glare. One of the things that really strike me about the Absolute Copper is how deeply you can hear into the mix. There’s a resonance and depth of reverb coming off of instruments that is just not as distinct with the other cables and practically non-existent with some of them. What this tells me is that there are vast amounts of musical information that lesser cables simply are not getting from point A to point B and that’s the first thing a cable needs to do. It’s been obvious throughout my time with the Absolute Copper that it does this chore handily. For instance, in the first violin solo from the beautiful “Scheherazade” by the Chicago Symphony conducted by Reiner and played by Sidney Harth, you can hear a breath that Harth takes before the last few notes, almost as if he’s physically drawing you into the emotive feel of the piece. The Absolute Copper allows that breath to seem more real, more alive and just more THERE. One of my favorite pieces to listen to and judge any component with is the tune “Digging In the Dirt” from Peter Gabriel’s “Us”. Tony Levin’s bass playing in this tune is awesome, but if your system isn’t up to snuff, it’ll sound like mush. In my listening, the articulation and distinct playing jump from the speakers. The Absolute Copper really excels in pulling ALL of the bass out of the mix with authority and power. Gabriel’s voice also has more resonance and sheer size than it ever has and this speaks to that concept of more information being extracted from the signal. Norah Jones is more in the room than ever on “Turn Me On”, which is very cool because hey, it’s Norah Jones waiting for me to come home and turn her on! The presence and the body of her voice are so much more alive and warm. “Heavy Fuel” from Dire Straits “On Every Street” is another favorite that lets me hear dynamic contrasts and shading simply because the drum track in that tune should kick you in the gut… it does and then some, and at the same time there are lots of little cymbal and bell strikes that come through with more clarity and realism with the Absolute Copper cables. I love the sound of Mark Knopfler’s “One Take Radio Sessions”. On first listen with the Absolute Copper, I just wound up listening to the entire CD! It almost seems as if Mr. Knopfler is sitting on his amp right in the middle of the room in front of you with his band backing him up like it was a present for your birthday… sweet!
So, here’s the bottom line. The Absolute Copper is aptly named. Over the years, lots of other metals have been added to and used in cables, but good old copper is still a great conductor and Robert Lee of Acoustic Zen has figured out how to harness it to create what is for me, the finest interconnect I’ve ever heard. These are supremely balanced, dynamic, coherent cables that seem to act as a superhighway for musical signals to pass through, getting more information and realism from sources than anything that’s near its price. For many, it would be hard to consider the Absolute Copper a great value, but believe me, they are. These are the cables that you should aspire to attain if you can, and if you’ve spent five figures on interconnects, well, sorry; sell them and get the Absolute Copper and pocket the difference! I will definitely want more of these… copper rules! Associated gear Click to view my Virtual System