Review: Audio Art IC-3 SE Interconnect
My approach to audio system design can be summed up in a few words: The most elegant sound from the simplest design. Partly inspired by the minimalist philosophy of my Chinese-American wife (another product worthy of review) and partly compelled by simple economics, I have architected a two-channel system that eschews the latest/greatest audio “buzz” in favor of tried and true components whose audio characteristics are known quantities. A description of my current system and my listening room appears with this review.
I have found that using new, but not necessarily current, components provides a high cost-benefit ratio. One example is my current amplifier: Marsh Sound Designs A400s. Very reasonably priced, and highly under-rated, this amp provides ample power and maintains an air of refinement that fits well with the associated components in my system. (Give the A400s adequate clean power, use a good aftermarket cord, and upgrade the fuse to one of the many tuning fuses available in order to achieve the best results).
With the exception of the power cords/filters (PS Audio), all cables in my system are products of Audio Art Cables (AA). I have been a satisfied customer of Mr. Rob Fritz’s products for over a year now. Not only are the products well-designed and constructed, but they also deliver the qualities I look for in cabling: Resolution, PRaT, tonal neutrality, realistic pricing.
I have had the pleasure of having a number of conversations with Rob. He is very knowledgeable about his cables (as would be expected), but he also demonstrates a wide-ranging knowledge/interest in all things audio. Several months ago, I was adding a CDP (Marantz SA-11 s1) to my gear, and was in need of a pair of XLR ICs. I contacted Rob to place an order and during the conversation, he mentioned that he had some new IC-3s coming out, the SEs. Rob was very enthusiastic about the new cables and offered me the opportunity to purchase a pair at a pre-production price. Since I had just thrown down for the new CDP, I demurred at the time, but told Rob I would consider the new IC-3 SE later in the year when I upgraded my speakers (Always have a plan).
Fast forward to April 2008. I had a short-list of 3 possible speaker upgrades and I found one of my candidates for sale on Audiogon at an aggressive price. It seems the original owner encountered some financial difficulties and, like so many others these days, was forced to liquidate some toys. After a number of emails, I agreed to purchase a pair of GamuT L-3 loudspeakers (product review forthcoming) from Dan Marquez of Black Bird Audio in San Diego. Dan is another example of the good people you can meet pursuing this hobby. As an example, the original owner of the L-3s had discarded the shipping crates that the speakers came in and Dan agonized over the packaging and shipping arrangements. His time and effort was rewarded as the speakers landed safely in Washington state on-time and in pristine condition.
As my former Dynaudio speakers did not support bi-anything and the L-3s do “swing like that,” I contacted Mr. Fritz to order another pair of SC-5 speaker wires. I also asked Rob how the IC-3 SEs were doing. He told me about a couple of product reviews that had come out. I told him I would check them out and get back with him. (The reviews are in the usual places: Audiogon, Audio Asylum, Stereo Times, etc.). Universally positive, I decided to give the IC-3 SEs a shot and contacted Rob concerning another order.
Very soon, I took delivery of 2 pair of Audio Art IC-3 SE XLR cables. Handsome in a black flex tech wrap which provides an aesthetic contrast to the silver Sound Connections Xhadow XLR plugs, the SEs have a robust, high-quality look. The Xhadow plugs have a significantly more “professional level” appearance than the stock DH XLR connectors used on the IC-3. (Technical details of this and other AA products can be found at http://www.audioartcable.com/). The SEs feature the same basic core featured in lesser IC-3s, but uses the Xhadow connectors and Cardas Cable’s Quad Eutectic Silver Solder to raise the level of IC-3 performance. (More on that in a moment) For the usage-impaired, the cable for the Rt channel has a red band at each connector to insure proper routing of the cables. In passing, I will mention that the Xhadow connectors made a more secure fit in my pre-amp/power-amp stack. The CDP required additional attention to seat the connectors, nothing major, but certainly different than the easy-in/easy-out of the DLH connectors. The SEs had arrived pre-cooked and I put them in my system as shipped. I now know that an additional 50 hours of burn-in only serves to make the cables better.
Before installing the new cables, I sat down and listened to “Against the Grain” from the CD of the same name by Acoustic Alchemy, music and recording that I know well. I then de-installed the IC-3s and installed the IC-3 SEs. I then replayed the same song. Wow! Everything was better! Detail, slam, micro/macro dynamics….it was unbelievable! My wife YM, who was listening from the other room, came in and asked if I had turned the volume up. I hadn’t touched the volume controls, but there was clearly a difference. So….out came the SEs, back in go the IC-3s. Breakout the RS SPL meter, play the reference song and take a reading. Pull the IC-3, insert the SEs, replay the song and take another reading. Sure enough, with the SEs in place, the average SPL was up +1db from the first SPL measurement. Hmmm…what is going on here and what is the deal with these cables? I turn down the volume until I got an averaged SPL measurement matching the original. Ok, still better. Actually, still a lot better. However the difference is more about increased resolution, especially micro-details, than dynamics and slam. There was also a distinct, un-layering of the overall music presentation that rendered each instrument as its own entity while maintaining the cohesive whole of the music. It’s on!
I grabbed a varied selection of CDs from my library and began to listen. In every case the same characteristics showed through….detail, depth, and musicality. I also was continually aware of the ability of the SEs to expose the layers of instruments in those recordings that are informationally dense, such as “10,000 Days” from TooL’s 10,000 Days CD. How four people can make this much complex music is beyond me, yet with the SEs in place, I could finally differentiate the layered (albeit distorted) guitars from the bass and the layers of studio processed sounds.
The Used’s EP, Shallow Believer (downloadable only) also has a very complex soundscape. It was now possible to hear where the studio “sweetening” occurred and to what extent. A favorite from that recording, “Sick Hearts”, revealed even more of the performance capabilities of the band when communicated via the SEs.
F.I.R. is a pop-rock band from my wife’s home-country Taiwan. Faye does the vocals, Real plays the guitar, and Ian is both keyboardist as well as on-stage producer. Much like a turntablist, Ian does real-time production during the band’s performance. On the Love Diva CD, the effects that are injected into the music via Ian’s synthesizers and keyboards were even more apparent than before. On the song “Change,” Faye’s vocals are clear and defined (even if most of the lyrics are in Mandarin). The SEs reveal not only the qualities of the principal performers, but also exposes the acoustic (slightly cramped sound-booths perhaps?) of the recording environment.
The list goes on and on. From the very-well recorded Scent of Light by Ottmar Liebert/Luna Negra to the intricate, multi-layered sounds of SilverSun Pickups’ Carnavas, to the intimate presentation of Telemann’s Tafelmusik by Musica Amphion, the SEs consistently provided a superior aural experience compared with the IC-3s they replaced.
Excellent sounding cables within a reasonable price range. The Xhadow connectors required additional attention to get properly seated in the XLR connections on my equipment, especially the Marantz SA-11 s1. However, the improvements in sound over the stock IC-3s is well worth the extra seconds it takes to insure a good connection.
Adding the SEs to the CDP alone got me about 60% of the way towards the accumulated, positive benefits of introducing the SEs into my system. Although noticeably less, the positive improvement in sound was not subtle when adding the SEs to the pre-amp/amp combo. My best guess is that the majority of the improvement observed with the SEs is due to the Xhadow connectors which make a secure, unyielding connection that benefits overall signal integrity. Regardless of the reasons, the IC-3 SEs have taken up permanent residence in my system.
With the SEs, the Marantz SA-11s1 seemed to extract new levels of detail and overall musical presentation. This served to give the GamuT L-3s something to work with. The L-3s are clearly in another league compared to the rest of my gear and were initially under-performing in my system. With the SEs in place, I finally began to understand the true potential of these excellent loudspeakers as well as to appreciate the quality of the SA-11’s sound.
Are there more expensive cables out there? Without a doubt. Are there better cables out there? A little more difficult to answer since “better” is a subjective judgment that can encompass many different aspects of an object. Since I haven’t heard every other cable, I will err on the side of caution and say maybe. Are there better sounding cables out there? No doubt there are cables that sound different, see above for my take on “better.” Given the price-value ratio for the SEs, do I know of any other cables that outperform the AA cables? No.
In my system, the IC-SEs made a positive difference in the sound that was easily discernible. I would suggest that they are worthy of an audition by anyone who is looking for that “next” step in audio reproduction who is unable (or not willing) to pay more than $1K/IC pair.
In a past conversation with Rob, he stated that the SEs had all of the qualities of the IC-3s, just “more.” Perhaps he should have said, “MORE!”
Marsh Sound Design:
Marantz SA-11 s1 SACD
GamuT L-3 Loudspeakers
Martin Logan Descent sub-woofer
Power cords/filters - PS Audio
WIDTH: 14' 5"
LENGTH: 23’ 8”
Listening area (near-mid field):
LENGTH: 12' 9"
HEIGHT: 11' 2" in listening area
opening to 16' in balance of room.
Signal, Transparent, Nordost