Playing with wires and the Acoustic Zen Matrix II & Hologram cables
There is little that will create more conversation and controversy within the world of audiophiles, than the subject of cables. There’s more opinion, wild claims and snake oil marketing in the world of high end cables than just about anywhere else in audio and I suppose that I’ll be throwing myself into the fire with this review! Not that I necessarily enjoy being ridiculed and chastised, usually by others that fail to understand that they’re voicing opinion rather than facts or are so self righteous they just can’t stand considering other viewpoints, but I do like to share my experiences in hopes that others can benefit, if that’s any consolation.
First, I need to explain a bit of background so that you understand the basis for many of my comments. I have a very long and deep technical background and have been playing with audio gear since I was junior high age. I went to college to become a tech, have built amps and preamps, spent hours with old Dyna-kits, and had a reputation for disassembling almost anything electronic that my beleaguered parents had around the house (luckily, I was always able to get everything back together and working!). I’ve worked in the high-tech industry for close to 30 years now and my first real job out of school was working for a cable manufacturer and connector distributor. I’ve been inside of wire production facilities and cable manufacturing labs so I have experience with how cables are actually constructed. I’ve also built quite a few examples myself and understand the intricacies of putting together a high quality audio connection. I put together my first real stereo system when I was about 12 years old, have played drums most of my life and have been to live music events too numerous to count, from Ted Nugent to regular symphony orchestra concerts. I have no desire to stroke my ego or try to prove that I’m by any means a genius with this stuff, but I think it’s important to say that I’m by no means a novice, nor am I coming from a completely clean, unbiased slate when it comes to my opinions about audio in general, including cables.
The entire discussion around cables in the audio chain always seems to start with whether or not they’re worth it. There is the school of thought that says connections are connections and no amount of exotic materials, construction, strands, braids, etc, etc, will make any difference in sonics. I am not of that ilk. I do believe that cables make a difference, and sometimes a BIG difference in the ultimate character of a system’s sound. That said it is also my opinion that the vast majority of high end cables are grossly overpriced and the amount of hype some of them receive is almost comical. The very concept of a cable commanding 5 figures…? Please. Wire and cable of ANY kind simply does not have that much intrinsic value. However, if we as audio consumers BELIEVE one of those high dollar products has value for us, then by all means I support whoever wants to purchase it and especially whoever wants to sell it; capitalism at work! At the end of the day, my belief in those kinds of rarified purchases making real sonic improvements is dubious at best. Now, I do believe that there are some absolute improvements and sonic benefits that come with higher quality and hence higher prices. Yes, some cables are justifiably more expensive and deservedly so due to the R&D that goes into them, the nature of their construction and the need to make some level of reasonable profit for the business that sells them. However, the law of diminishing returns is alive and well in the land of cables, and it seems that every advertisement for every company building cables has the latest & greatest secret for improving the sound of your system in it. Don’t get me wrong, I believe there are some more expensive cables that may actually be worth their price, but usually, as I see price increase my red flags start to raise. I also tend to be suspicious when the packaging a cable comes in is worthy of jewelry from Tiffany’s; what am I buying, a fancy box or a level of performance? Sure, I like some luxury and bling as much as the next guy but if the fancy clothes are more impressive than the product itself, I’m usually nonplused. It’s also important to remember that “value” is a very relative term. To me, a cable that costs a few hundred bucks can be a great value, while to some that cost can seem excessive. Conversely, my earlier statement about 5 figure prices should tell you that I would personally be hard pressed to find value at that kind of price point. My bet is that many folks who purchase some of what I would consider a ridiculously overpriced cable hear it as the eighth wonder of the world not necessarily because it truly sounds that good but because they have to justify the purchase in their mind. One of my personal rules of audio is that as cost goes up, so should your skepticism.
Now, the purpose of any interconnect, digital cable or speaker cable is to allow a signal to propagate at one end of the cable in the same waveform and amplitude as at the other. Sounds simple but in reality is not that easy. The problem is that all cables, no matter how they are constructed, what materials they use, what types of treatments are applied to them or even how they’re handled within a system, have resistance, capacitance, inductance and cause varying degrees of phase shifts at certain frequencies. In short, they have ‘impedance’ and anything that has impedance is ultimately a filter. You’ll find examples on the web of impulse tests on cables that show how an input signal looks almost identical at that cable’s opposite end, but keep in mind that those tests are usually shown at specific frequencies and impedances can vary wildly with frequency, and musical signals are comprised of the most complex frequency spectrums there are. While a single frequency test can be a good measure of some qualities, it doesn’t paint the entire picture of how that cable will perform with real world musical signals. The first thing that most good cable designers try to do is to tame that impedance and get the truest signal transfer possible and to effectively “tune” the cable. Every good designer knows and understands the principals of cables having impedance characteristics and that by changing various parameters of the cable’s construction can change those characteristics and thus the filtering effect of the cable, some to greater extents than others. That’s why many times we buy some expensive cable, insert it in our system and we immediately believe that it has wrought a massive improvement in sonic purity and accuracy when in reality it actually just sounds different because we’ve changed the filter in our system and we’ve discerned a change that we interpret as improvement. But, it could just be that we hear a change and not necessarily a real improvement. That’s actually one of the reasons that cable selection can be so important as well as so vexing for a high resolution audio system. Different cables can “tune” systems in different ways. With that in mind it’s easy to see that it would be extremely difficult to give a definitive nod to any cable brand or type as the “best” or the “best value” or the “giant killer” for all applications because cables can perform differently in different systems.
So, with that out of the way, let’s get down to the subject at hand…. A few months ago I was in the envious position of being able to have a bit of a cable shootout of my own and listen to some of the very differences that different cable types can bring to a system. Through a few serendipitous events, I was able to compare “PNF Audio”, “Transparent Audio”, “Reality Cables” and “Acoustic Zen”. I’ve had the opportunity over the years to try a number of different cables and have listened to example of “Apature” (way back in the day, some of the first higher end cables ever), “Kimber”, “Esoteric” “Audioquest”, “Straightwire”, “Linn” and probably a few others that I’ve forgotten. Bottom line is that all are good products in the right system. In this case though, having the ability to make direct comparisons between the former products was very revealing and I won’t try to make comparison to a cable that I did not have on hand at the time. My current system is what was used for all of the testing (online here at Audiogon) except that the majority of the actual comparisons were done with a Sony DVP NS9100ES disc player which has since been replaced by a Marantz SA8004. I tend to believe that cables should be looked at as a component just like an amp or a turntable and they will usually perform their best when interconnects and speaker cables come from the same manufacturer and complementary product levels. My own personal bent and if you feel differently, that’s ok, just makes sense to me to normalize cables as much as possible. So, for my tests I always utilized a pair of interconnects of the brand being auditioned and also a pair of PNF Audio ICON interconnects as a control. I’d run the pair under test between disc player and preamp and the ICON’s between preamp and power amps, then would switch them so the cable under test was between preamp and power amps ad the ICON’s connected disc player to preamp. My rationale was to see how each performed in different applications and if there was enough of any kind of sonic signature discernable in those different set ups. Truthfully, there was little to none. In every case, I also connected power amp to speakers with an example of each brand’s speaker cable.
I have a broad range of musical tastes. I was lucky enough to have a mother with some musical talent and the foresight to play lots of music in the house when I was growing up. Lots of classical on a gigantic Sears Silvertone console stereo (I actually still have some of those old monophonic collections) and we had season tickets to the symphony. I was also able to experience more modern music on my own, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys and the Dave Clark Five. Then, when I discovered Led Zeppelin… oh my! Plus, I got to stay up late one night and see Buddy Rich on the Tonight Show, and the die was cast as far my wanting to play drums! So, you’ll find a pretty broad array of music in my collection both on vinyl and CD. I do lots of day to day listening through my Logitech Squeezebox; I have most of my CD library ripped in Apple Lossless code and it’s just easy to dial something up at hit play. However, for this test I wanted to make sure I utilized a finite set of discs and tunes. I kept strictly to CD and SACD played directly in the Sony and Marantz disc players. I make no apologies for any of the music here as I listen to what I like, not what is “audiophile approved” (although a couple below could probably be considered in that genre by some). I am one of those people that music is a deeply emotional and intellectual passion for and it’s that passion that has driven my love for audio. At the end of the audiophile day, for me, it’s about the music. Almost all of my listening for the direct tests I’ll describe came from the following:
-Dire Straits, “On Every Street”; Warner Bros 26680-2
-Peter Gabriel, “Us”; Geffen 069 493 275-2
-Mark Knopfler, “One Take Radio Sessions”; Warner Bros 49331-2
-Eric Johnson, “Bloom”; Favored Nations FN2510-2
-Roxy Music “Avalon”; EMI/Virgin ROXYSACD9 7243 5 83871 2 4
-Norah Jones, “Come Away with Me”; Blue Note 7243 5 32088 2 0
-Jennifer Warnes, “Famous Blue Raincoat (20th Anniv Edition)”; Shout Factory 826663-10490
-Kenny Burrell, “Midnight Blue”; Blue Note (RVG edition) 7243 4 95335 2 3
-Minnesota Ochestra/Osmo Vanska; “Beethoven, Symphony #6”; BIS SACD-1716
-Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle; “Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition”; EMI 5 17582 2
*PNF Audio “ICON” interconnects, and “Symphony” speaker cables:
I have actually been a huge fan of PNF Audio for quite a long time. For me, they are the ne plus ultra of a value priced cable. Their performance is just silly good for their price. My system has been completely wired with PNF Audio and I keep a set of their interconnects and speaker cables as a standard to judge others by. Are they the best sounding cables I’ve ever heard, no (more on that to come!). However, they perform at a level that makes them a great starting point for finding out how cables affect systems. PNF uses continuous cast wire for lower crystalline structure. Greater crystalline structure generally means greater impedance issues in the wire. In simplest terms, continuous cast wire is drawn “hot” rather than at the “cooler” temperatures of most wire. The tough thing with continuous cast wire is that it is harder to work with and breaks more easily as the metal is pulled through its die, but it does make for a wire with smoother and more consistent crystalline structure. Think of it like this; remember your old Play Doh “Fun Factory”? You know, it had a chamber that you put a blob of Play Doh into with a lever and plunger that drove it through a die to make different shapes? Well, if the Play Doh is cold and you drive it through the die, it comes out with ragged edges and a little lumpy. Now, if you take that same dollop of Play Doh and warm it up by rolling it around in your hands and then press it through the die, it comes out much smoother; same idea with metals that you drive or draw through a die to make wire. The resultant cables made from that “hot” cast wire are much smoother (less crystalline structure) and claimed to have better frequency response with fewer phase shifts at fewer frequencies.
I can tell you from long experience that PNF Audio makes a solid, simple cable with great materials and no hype. They use straightforward construction and high quality gold spades, locking RCA connectors or Neutrik XLR’s. They do what a cable should and transfer a signal relatively faithfully. In my experience they tend to have a very even tonal balance, slightly tilted toward the upper end of the spectrum with a minute roll off in the extreme bottom end but not to large degree in either case. They also are very good with dynamics and the leading edge of transients which says to me they don’t have crazy phase shift problems. I always like to listen to Eric Johnson’s song “Bloom”, from the album of the same name to see if I get drawn into the intricacies of the song and the arrangement. I was lucky enough to see Johnson live on the Bloom tour and if listening to the CD can take me back to that, the system is doing its job. With the PNF cables, I get that. Needless to say, I like PNF and have found them to be a real bargain especially in comparison to some much higher priced competitors. PNF is still out there, although they seem to be in a bit of hibernation at the moment. Hopefully, they’ll get back at it full tilt for the benefit of folks that want a quality product at a rational price.
*Transparent Audio “Music Link Super” interconnects, and “Music Wave Plus” speaker cables:
Transparent cables are tremendously popular and are considered one of the better, if not some of the finest, cable products by most audiophiles. I had always wanted to give them a try and I had the opportunity to pick up a pair of “Music Wave Plus” speaker cables from an audio buddy so thought I’d take advantage of that. At the same time I was able to procure the “Music Link Super” interconnects to try with the speaker cables. The minute I put the Transparent cables into my system, their difference was immediately apparent. Their most arresting ability was to bring massive amounts of power and authority to the bottom end of the spectrum. Vinnie Colaiuta’s tom’s exploded out of “Bird on a Wire” from Famous Blue Raincoat with plenty of resonance and body. One of my all time favorite tracks to listen to for bass performance is “Digging in the Dirt” from Peter Gabriel’s album Us. It’s probably not the greatest recording of all time but it has bass lines and synthesizer parts that you should be able to clearly delineate. On a lesser system, it will all sound like a big, bass heavy wash of sound, but in reality Tony Levin’s bass playing is chock full of little slaps and slides and harmonic textures you should be able to pull out of the mix. The Transparent cables did this without breaking a sweat. The amount of body and articulation they added to the bottom registers was astounding.
As I listened to the Transparent’s for a number of days and in direct comparison with the others here, there was something that just wasn’t right, however. Overall, there was a sort of opaque character to the sound, especially in the upper mids and treble, like trying to see through a scrim of some sort, rather than fully seeing a picture clearly. It seemed there was a lack of clarity and air that should have been there but just wasn’t making it through. Now, in all fairness, the examples I had were older models and maybe not up to the technological prowess of some of their newer models. Regardless, they didn’t quite do it for me in my system. Also, it may be that one of my personal biases may be coming into play a bit where these cables are concerned. I’m always a little bit skeptical of ANY cable that puts some sort of device, whatever the manufacturer may want to call it, in a cable and every Transparent model has their “network” gadget in the path. I always want to ask exactly what’s going on there? Why does a cable need some device in it if it’s properly designed in the first place? I especially find it interesting when there’s a box in the cable that purposely is there to tune the frequencies that it passes, and some of those cables are monstrously expensive. I don’t want to disparage the possibility that it may be beneficial, but there’s nothing that says “why or how” and it’s hard for me to make sense out of that practice. Seems to me it’s just one more filter or piece of circuitry in the signal path that really doesn’t need to be there. Transparent’s newer models may be much better, but ultimately in this test, and outside of that magnificent bass performance, they just didn’t have the same all around musical abilities as some of the others here.
*Reality Cables by Gregg Straley, interconnects and speaker cables
Through a purchase here on Audiogon at about the same time that I was trying the Transparent cables, I obtained a pair of Acoustic Zen Adagio speakers [ which , by the way, have been in my system longer than just about any other I’ve had in recent memory; magnificent! Yes, there are others I’d like to give a listen to, but I think the Adagio’s are going to be really hard to beat. I hear there’s a new Harbeth dealer in the St. Louis area, though…! ;^) ]. Through that transaction I was afforded the privilege of meeting Mr. Gregg Straley of Reality Cables. Gregg is one of those folks that loves to talk about audio and whose eyes light up and sparkle as soon as you start discussing the subject. Wonderful, affable guy and quite the gentleman as well. Upon talking to Gregg and subsequently meeting him in person, I was able to get a set of his interconnects and speaker cables to try out. Gregg’s designs use high purity copper in what appears to be a very heavily stranded configuration. Nothing terribly fancy, just what looks like a good cable in twisted pairs with quality connections form Vampire. They’re also very reasonably priced at about $250 for a 3 foot pair of interconnects and $300 for an 8 foot set of speaker cables. Check out his website for lots more info.
When I got the Adagios in my system and the Reality Cables home is actually when this whole shootout really began. I set the speakers up with PNF, tried the Transparent cables as well as the Reality Cables. I must say that the Reality Cables really bowled me over. Their clarity and precision were fantastic and their midrange presence and realism knocked the PNF Audio’s and Tranparent’s both off the pedestal. Norah Jones’ vocal in “Turn Me On” from Come Away With Me took on lifelike qualities that turned my legs to jelly! Strings in Vanska’s interpretation of Beethoven’s 6th on the excellent BIS SACD, were incredibly alive and real. You could easily discern the full character of the instruments including the resonance of their bodies and a perception of the bow moving across the strings. They’re bottom end performance was not quite as deep and powerful as the Tranparent cable’s but the rest of the alive, open and airy spectrum more than made up for that very slight deficiency in comparison. These were arresting cables that were just so lifelike I was literally put back on my heels. Gregg has figured out how to wring incredible amounts of music out of a simple design and up to that point, I thought had one of the best cables I had ever heard.
*Acoustic Zen “Matrix Reference II” interconnects and “Hologram” speaker cables
Finally, to the object of the above title! Okay, back to the Adagio speakers for a moment. The pair that I purchased actually had a screw missing from a tweeter so to correct that with the proper, matching part, I wrote Acoustic Zen to see if I could get one. Well, I was answered by Robert Lee, the owner of Acoustic Zen himself, and he graciously sent a couple of screws to me free of charge. In that conversation string, Robert asked me if I had ever tried his cables. Finding out that I had not, he invited me to call him directly, which I did. I must say that Robert is incredibly gracious and in speaking to him at length I found a gentleman that really loves audio and more importantly, what it’s for, and that is the reproduction of MUSIC. I had a great discussion with him about cable construction, materials and the whole idea of cables as filters. I found that he has many rational and correct ideas about cables and what they should do. I was thinking also, that the Acoustic Zen speaker cables at the very least might be a good, synergistic match for the Adagio speakers. Robert made me an offer to try his cables that I could not refuse and sent out a pair of his Matrix II interconnects and Hologram speaker cables. Now, being perfectly honest, the Acoustic Zen cables here are more expensive by a pretty wide margin than the Reality and PNF Audio cables, so it may not be the best comparison, but the Transparent models are certainly in the same price range.
Upon arrival, I took the cables out of their simple and functional packaging and was a bit taken aback by their physical size. Size in itself does not mean better cable or sonics, so my skepticism meter started to rise almost immediately. These are not small and light cables, the Hologram’s being almost garden hose sized and the Matrix II cable dwarfing the diameter of an RCA connector. This makes them a little tougher to work with, but they do have good flexibility, and are not ergonomically impossible to deal with like some gigantic cables can be. Once I got them in the system, and fired up some music, all the sensibilities went out the window. After a period of time, I suddenly realized that I was just listening to entire disks and finding new pleasure in tunes that I heard many times. The first thought that comes to me when reflecting on the experience is “more”. There’s just more of everything. The dynamics, the air in the top end, the purity of line and tone in the mids and the magnificent bass slam and definition found in varying degrees in all of the aforementioned cables was there at once in the Acoustic Zen’s and of even better quality and quantity in most cases. This was not subtle. Listening to things like Mark Knopfler’s “One Take Radio Sessions” allowed me to hear deeper into the mix and hear the growl and tube rush of his amp in the studio to a greater degree than with any previous set up, making it more real. “More Than This” from Roxy Music’s Avalon was just more fun to listen to than ever, especially on the SACD reissue with Bryan Ferry’s vocals moving from razor sharp to lilting with no strain or confusion. Listening to music should be fun, and one of the pieces that I love to just rock out to, is Dire Straits “Heavy Fuel” from the album On Every Street. Actually, I love the whole album, but this particular cut is a good one because of the drum dynamics within it. With the Acoustic Zen Cables in the system, they literally jump from a black background and kick you squarely in the pants. My air guitar licks were lighting up the room!
I stopped for a few moments and wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just basking in the glow of something because it was different. So, with all four cables firmly in hand, I went through my previously described methodology and spent a week or so listening to each. In the end, the Acoustic Zen cables outperformed all of the others by a pretty wide margin. While I could live with the others, the Acoustic Zen’s simply are in a different league. I called Robert back, bought the samples he sent and bought more! My system for the past few months has been completely wired with Matrix II and Hologram cables.
Acoustic Zen actually makes a number of different models and these two are in the middle of Robert’s product lines. They utilize 6 Nines (99.9999%) copper in what he claims to be a “zero crystal” type, my guess is, a highly refined continuous cast wire. By the way, Acoustic Zen actually manufactures their own wire, whereas many cable companies buy wire from outside manufacturing facilities and configure it for their own purpose. Rumor has it that Acoustic Zen actually produces the actual wire for some other big name companies. The cables use densely stranded wires that are twisted in a matrix with what appears to be hollow tubing (possibly Teflon) to create airspace between conductors. The construction is absolutely impeccable with some of the finest workmanship I’ve ever seen in a cable including exceptional and substantial connectors.
Robert mentioned to me that he believed I would ultimately hear things in music that I had not discerned previously with other cables, and I have to admit he was right. Listening to familiar tracks from Kenny Burrell, Eric Johnson, and Peter Gabriel through the Acoustic Zen cables allowed me to hear subtleties in the music that I never really paid much attention to before. I think they were there before, but not in a way they are now. Today, there’s more clarity and a real sense of space around instruments that just isn’t there with lesser cables. Subtle things like Norah Jones or breath intake or subtle ghost notes the Mark Knopfler plays are more apparent and more real. Music is more alive and things like soundstage space are better defined with instruments firmly rooted where they should be. I found myself listening to the entire Beethoven 6th and then listening to the 1st on the same recording because I just couldn’t help myself. I love Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and the finale of Simon Rattle’s version with the Berlin Philharmonic took my breath away the first time through it. I just could not get away from the fact that the Acoustic Zen Matrix II’s and Hologram’s totally transformed my system and my overall enjoyment of the music it was playing. Maybe it has to do with system matching or that suspected synergy with the Acoustic Zen speakers, but at this point I must state that in my system and at this time, the Acoustic Zen cables could be one of the best things I’ve ever invested in for my listening pleasure. I’m picky when I spend my money, but Roberts’ cables are worth every penny! Bravo Robert, BRAVO!!!
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