Can a Digital Cable Make a Big Difference?
When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised? Personally, I love when that happens. Like when you discover your tax return will be better than you anticipated, or one of your kids brings home an “A” in that course they’ve been struggling with, or getting some Baskin-Robbins Pralines & Cream after dinner… That’s what happened to me with the new Acoustic Zen “Absolute Digital” cable. I had the chance to get ahold of one of these a couple of months back and have been listening to it pleasantly surprise me since receiving it.
I’ve always found that digital cables are dicey proposition at best to evaluate. The very concept of there being any measure of difference between properly conceived and constructed digital cables is a little tough to swallow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in utilizing quality cables as some of my other reviews and comments here can attest to, but when it comes to the digital realm I have to put on my skeptic’s hat. Keep in mind that we’re talking about is a 75 ohm, RCA to RCA coax that’s designed to carry a signal that is NOT the normal audio signal. What we have is a connection that’s carrying a bunch of digital packets from a transmission source to a receiving source. It’s not like an analog signal running through an interconnect, or a speaker cable where waveform and amplitude and phase and a host of other analog attributes have to be protected. It’s merely a device that gets a bunch of bits from point A to point B to be CONVERTED into an analog signal. So, the major chore is to move those bits while keeping them intact (which truly isn’t that hard to do; I’ve worked in the computer industry for 30 years and believe me, I know about digital transmission in a wire), with the least amount of interference from the outside world. So, a good cable, properly shielded, properly constructed, with good connections should get the job done as long as it is passing the packets with no loss and little interference and it conforms to the standard for which it has been designed like S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interconnect Format; all hail acronyms!). Plus, error correction algorithms at both ends of the chain should fix any anomalies. All things being correct in something like an S/PDIF ‘system’, there should be no change in the bits that are received via the cable you’re using, and at the receiving end, those trusty packets of bits should be identical to the transmitting end for processing into the analog waveform that you want, right? Well, maybe not.
There are a couple of things that can affect the bits traveling in a digital cable. Things like interference from outside sources, anomalies in the signal wire, junky connectors, shoddy materials or workmanship, all of the usual quality offenders, can cause – packet loss. Plain & simple, if bits are lost between point A and point B, you’ll compromise the resultant analog signal that gets reconstructed from the digital stream you’re working with. Bits are bits, but ONLY if the bits are always clocked properly, without artifact and all are intact (see the excellent article “Bits is Bits?” by Malcolm Hawksford and Chris Dunn on this subject, great explanation of jitter…).
Now, I’ve said all of that to say this… I believe what the Acoustic Zen Absolute cable does better than any other I’ve tried, is to keep more of those bits intact on their travels from transmission to reception. I’ve actually played with a number of good digital cables, including my own built from Canare LV-77S, one of the best 75 ohm coax cables out there, and have generally found that digital cable performance differences are for all intents and purposes nonexistent and most do the job very well (unless you’re messing with really junky stuff). Enter the Acoustic Zen. The Absolute is the first digital cable that I’ve ever used that not only makes a difference, but a NOTICEABLE difference in the digital audio chain.
When I first received the Absolute, I replaced the aforementioned Canare between my Squeezebox and the DAC input of my Marantz SA8004, turned on some internet radio at background levels and just let it cook for a couple of days. When I finally sat down in front of my system for a good listen, I noticed something was different before I even switched sources. Even with internet radio (always listen to stuff that’s 128 bit or higher because anything lower sounds deplorable), I noticed an immediate and actually quite startling difference. There was suddenly ‘more’ of everything. More size, more space, more detail, more well defined pitch, more frequency extremes, just more of everything. I thought I was dreaming so I started digging into my library of familiar tunes to see if I was really hearing a difference. You can read my musical preferences in some of my other reviews here, but the bottom line is that everything I pulled up, Peter Gabriel, Nora Jones, Mark Knopfler (solo as well as Dire Straits), Acoustic Alchemy, Rippington’s, Dvorak, Beethoven, Copland, even Scorpions and ZZ Top, was markedly improved in its overall reproduction. My only explanation for this is that I believe the Acoustic Zen Absolute has the ability to get more of the digital bits & pieces, intact, to their destination and that is the holy grail of digital cable designers.
The Absolute Digital cable is the brain child of Mr. Robert Lee, one of the high end’s most congenial and helpful gentlemen. In looking at the construction of the cable, it appears to have a flat, copper, center element that is running inside a set of hollow Teflon tubes to give a quasi “air” dielectric effect. That is then encased in what looks to be a polymer tube with a braided outer shield and a plastic outer coat. The construction, as with all Acoustic Zen cables, is first rate (I must admit that I am a bit biased and am a huge Acoustic Zen fan, just see some of my other reviews. However, you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that if I thought any of Robert’s creations were second rate or didn’t measure up, I’d say so…. And tell Robert that as well!). So, nothing terribly remarkable from a materials or construction stand point, but I’m sure there’s much more engineering and craftsmanship at work than I am able to discern.
I’ve had the opportunity over the past three or four months with this cable to try it in a lot of different configurations and with a number of different components as well. My current system is in the Virtual Systems section, but I’ve been able to try the Absolute with different DACs, different input sources and even through other changes in my system. I’ve also swapped between the Absolute, my Canare, some other digital IC’s that I will leave nameless, and Toslink connections and the Absolute ALWAYS comes out on top, without question. The result is always the same; the music is bigger, fuller, more alive and simply more real than with any other digital interconnect.
So, are all of the other cables that bad at moving the ever elusive digital bits, or is the Acoustic Zen Absolute just that much better. In my experience, most of the other digital cables I have or have tried are good to great, but the Absolute is in another league altogether. I’m not sure how Robert Lee does it, but the Absolute is in my mind a reference by which similar products can be judged. No phony baloney gadgets or snake oil, just ultra-high quality, good engineering and top flight construction that are beyond reproach. The Absolute has created a huge improvement in my enjoyment of digital media by getting more of the information available to where it needs to be and creating, dare I say it, a more “analog” like presentation. I’m VERY pleasantly surprised!Associated gear Click to view my Virtual System