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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Bel Canto Design PRe2; Eastern Electric MiniMax; AudioZone PRE-T1 silver & copper [on review]
Amp: Decware Zen Taboo; 2 x AudioSector Patek SE; Canary Audio CA-308 [on review]; WRAD 300 [on review]
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Mk1.5 with new external bass attenuator (retro-fitted)
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S digital cable; 2 x Stealth Audio Indra; 2 x Zu Cable Varial [on review]; 2 x Cerious Technologies interconnect [on review]; Zu Cable Ibis; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; Z-Cable Reference Cyclone power cords on both powerline conditioner
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath DAC and preamp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell and IsoClean wall sockets
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $750/1m/pr Cerious; $5,750/1m/pr Stealth Indra; $495/1m/pr Zu Varial
 


Introductory tech stuff - times three
Each one of today's three hi-tech interconnects has a story behind it worth telling. Let's start with that. Story telling. You've probably heard of Harmonic Technology's Cyberlight cables. Unlike any of today's subjects, they involve signal conversion. They transmit music down fiber optics. Format conversion (a quasi "up-, then downsampling" from electrical to light energy and back) should open doors to new compromises not endemic to traditional metal cables. Think different jungle with different poisonous snakes. Would something similar hold true for the non-metallic ceramic-impregnated micro fibers of Cerious Technologies' interconnects? Those conduct electromagnetic current/fields just like any conventional analog cable. Hence the typical parameters -- impedance, resistance, inductance -- are still operational. The same holds true for Carbon or amorphous alloy conductors such as are found inside Van denHul and Stealth Audio cables. Starting alphabetically, how would the new CT cables mimic or defy conventional expectations for a 1-meter length of interconnect with regard to typical electromechanical values?


While we're on the subject of questions - what are the inherent challenges of non-metallic conductors? It's too convenient to declare metal the arch enemy. Refer to crystalline boundaries; molecular stress; oxidation; standing waves from transmission-line effects;
antenna effects that make such wires susceptible to radio frequency and electromagnetic interference; and other parameters as though their absence meant that non-metallic conductors couldn't possibly introduce their very own problems. This would imply that eschewing metals automatically makes for a conductor superior to copper, silver, gold or various metal alloys. Alas, it's exceedingly unrealistic to expect a free lunch. One should anticipate that micro fibers with conductive ceramic coating surrounded by a reactive semi-fluid ceramic damper pose their very own challenges or even limitations. Otherwise we'd be left to wonder why we haven't seen non-metallic lines in power grids, telephone, household and automobile wiring before.


Also, unobtainium ingredients are a marketing man's best friend. Palladium cables? 4" wide solid-silver ribbons secretly wave-treated in some military installation? Patented French braids hand-knit by little old ladies? Nitrogen cooling? The wackier the ingredients, the more hypnotic the story. It wields not only exclusivity but greater implied technological sophistication. Who wants yesteryear's outdated technology? Sold. Meanwhile, career audiophiles are sick and tired of so-called cable breakthroughs which -- more often than not -- are mere balderash but most the time come with a price tag that assures the uninitiated we've all lost it.


All this by way of a pre(r)amble. Subjective reviewers without engineering credentials can only repeat what they're told about new technologies or engineering models. We try to remember that we really lack the proper means to correlate listening impressions -- no matter how favorable -- with (in today's case) specific conductor materials, geometries, dielectrics and termination methods. For example, if the Cerious cable performed well, I couldn't say it did so because of specific items related to its construction. Ditto for the already reviewed amorphous Stealth Indra which shall make an appearance here for comparative context. Ditto for the Zu Cable Varial which incorporates that firm's most refined expression of B3, a new model of metal-based cable design that is not simply another variation on twisted, braided or coaxial geometries. For our virtual roundtable presentation, we'll hand the mike to first Robert Grost to make the case for his new cables.


Cerious Technologies
"My cables have 'strange' electrical parameters but oddly work uniformly with extremely different equipment. Could there be more to the whole equation than current physics theory might tell us? The traditional values for a 1-meter Cerious interconnect you asked about are: R = 8.6-ohm (+/- .1 ohm); C = 327pF (high - perhaps we have done through chemistry what Bill Low at Audioquest does with batteries?) and impedance = 37.5/55 ohms single-ended and balanced respectively."

"To elaborate on our design choices, first a little background on myself which may shed some light on our developments. I come from a family of prodigies. My older brother started Michigan State University when he was 9 years old, was mathematician of the year when he was 11 and had his PhD when he was 16. I grew up hanging out at the math and physics building at MSU. I learned that most things taught in physics were the "best theory that currently exists" to explain phenomena in the realm of physics. The problem is that these theories are not revealed to be theories but are taught as if they were facts. This led me to be the 'James Dean' of the MSU physics department because I refused to allow profs to state theories as facts (no one in the academic community still recalls that Einstein's Theory of Relativity is just that - a theory). Now combine this with the fact that I was 10 years old at the time and you can begin to see my lot in life. For some reason they did not like my referring to their theories as "our best guess at this time"..."


The CT cable's RCA reveals a gold-plated crimp contact on the conductor that is screwed to the split center pin.
"I became well known in the area and was approached by Lansing Community College to develop a program for their new media program. I wrote the curriculum and taught the highest level classes of the Acoustic Theory and the Recording Sciences programs at age 19. I joined General Motors as an acoustic engineer in 1984 and was promoted to Senior Engineer of Acoustics and Body Structures for Corvette, the highest prestige job in the field at GM. I was promoted again to Senior Project Engineer for Advanced Acoustic Programs at the age of 28, the youngest to ever reach this level. Here I must add that at this point -- since I wrote the curriculum for that which I taught -- I did not bother to take the classes and get a degree. I was effectively in charge of General Motors acoustic research programs with a staff of 4 PhDs and I had no degree at all (how good do you think I had to be at what I did to get that promotion in the world's largest corporation?)."


"I left GM to start Unity Audio, which culminated in the computer controlled system demonstrated at the 1996 CES. Okay, now I can start to answer your questions. The micro fibers are synthetic. Compressed into Teflon tubes, they suffer no structural damage from smashing, bending or twisting. As with any conductor, they do generate magnetic fields when passing current. This is one key element to our reactive liquid ceramic jackets and why our cables reveal high levels of capacitance. Like capacitors in a power supply, they thirst to charge. When a current burst goes through the conductors, the fluid jacket wants to 'top off' (like filter caps at the peak of the 60Hz waveform in power supplies). This presents a lower impedance path to EMF than the conductor itself, drawing this energy away from the conductors. You will find this to be a reoccurring theme in my designs - draw
away energy and dissipate it. This technique works equally well with metal or composite-based conductors and is (perhaps) the single greatest reason for the ultra quiet backgrounds of our cables."


"
I stress that technologies are tools which the engineer can use to achieve a goal. Such is the case with composites and sophisticated conductors. Anyone who states that their material is "patently superior" is showing their ignorance. Even cast iron is a superior material when you need a skillet for corn bread. This is the frustrating element of composites. The bottom line is that designers lack the vision and knowledge to thoroughly understand "what needs to be achieved", much less an "ideal solution". Only through the mastery of first understanding goals can great things be achieved."


"
Our proprietary formulation of a conductor has specific behavioral characteristics. Some are 'ideal' for specific current levels. While it is easy for a designer to be enamored with their personal creations, a mature designer must know his child's weaknesses and address them in order to be successful. Most designers are unable to disconnect their creations from their pride. Wire -- metal-based conductors -- are not bad. In fact, they are the best at what they do. You just have to have a thorough understanding of what that is."


"In the case of most metals, it is to move current - lots of current. Metal conductors have been composites for a long time since that is effectively what silver-plated copper is. The problem with silver/copper is that copper moves this big chunk of current and when the current shuts off, it forms EMF and other problems at the boundaries of the conductor and the jacket - right where the silver coating is supposed to act as a 'drain' for the copper. Now add that the silver will have its own unique reaction to current and EMF and you begin to get the sound of metal-based conductors. It is not, in actuality, the physical structure of metal-based conductors that results in their sound but a byproduct of their traditional usage."


"Have I just shot myself in the foot? No, for to deny this would be folly and would harm my abilities as a designer. This is why Cerious Technologies is a composite engineering company. We use micro-fiber/fluid-based conductors exclusively for low level signals and move to composites of metal/fiber/fluid as current demands increase. However, we create an environment and a set of operating circumstances where metals behave like fiber/fluid-based conductors so all our cables have uniform characteristics. Here let me stress that to do this, you have to know how our fiber/fluid conductor behaves in order to model it in metal. It takes an extremely sophisticated fluid jacket and termination techniques to make it work up to the level of a Cerious cable. Metal conductors are like the powered subwoofers of the audio world. Used to serve a specific role, they can shine."


"All conductors and configurations have limitations. All designs have limitations. The goal has to be to create a scenario where the design functions at its greatest strengths and will best hide its weaknesses. This is why we custom configure cables to length. If you have a 1-Meter IC design and spool off 5 meters and think it is equivalent, that you have created the perfect cable, you are burying your head in the sand.
Again, composites are the key. They offer design choices to address specific design goals. These are not the traditional impedance, resistance and capacitance that you think of. Many cables measure the same in these criteria and sound totally different. At Cerious, we have our own set of criteria we design to. That ultimately is what separates us from other companies."


"
The kid in The Sixth Sense movie saw dead people. I have the developed gift of seeing energy. This is why we have done so much in ballistic armor. Energy is intuitive. Sound is not a wave in a traditional sense. It is functionally an energy plasma of the original energy force combined with the medium through which it is transported. It is key in loudspeaker design and in cables. This technology was never utilized before because its need was never before defined. Metal-based cables satisfy every need of the designer when they operate in the traditional physics world of L, R and C. We operate to satisfy a separate need to transfer energy through a medium that becomes an integral element of the signal itself - the energy plasma."


"We all understand that you cannot place a loudspeaker in a room without the elements of the room becoming an integral element of the sound. Running a signal through a medium is no different. That medium becomes part of the energy that we think of as a signal. Our goal is to create a medium that is controllable, linear and sympathetic to this union. That cannot be accomplished simply with metal conductors. At Cerious, we define what we want to accomplish and then design the elements to best accomplish this. We were led to the development of these composite conductors by our goals. We do not start out with given materials to limit the extent of the design process by wondering how can we make this stuff work. We invert this process. We ask what needs to be achieved first, then develop specific solutions. This led to our conductor technologies, our cast ballistic ceramic loudspeaker enclosures, indeed all that makes Cerious unique. Will we see these technologies outside of audio applications? First we need to get people to realize they are missing something. With our audio products, that time comes the first time they hear the product."



Looking at the conductor bundle through the translucent cover and spotting black, I wanted to know whether the fibers were Carbon. "Our conductor micro fiber is not an off-the-shelf product but one I designed and that is produced specifically for us. Traditional carbon fiber is produced from PAN fibers that are heated until 'charred', turning them into carbon chains. This process produces what in essence is a carbon tube with a skin sealed by the heating process. That makes for a very poor absorber of fluids. If you back off on full heat cycles, you decrease yield from 97% carbon conversion to lower amounts, further decreasing conductivity. Our conductor bundles are good absorbers and have higher conductivity than 97% PAN-based carbon fiber. Clearly, something new is present. Hence the reason we call them composites. I believe that you can hear that they are different, too, but we do so many things differently including the liquid ceramic jacket that it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what is yielding the greatest sonic benefit. It is still bandied about that 'silver cables are bright sounding', 'copper cables lack detail' and 'carbon fiber cables are lifeless and lack dynamics'. Most of us have moved on to realize that materials are application-specific. I hope our cables can be judged on their sonic merit and their value in the marketplace."


Noting the RCA connector which, especially compared to the XLR Xhadow, seems on the cheap side, Robert Grost had the following to say: "No plans to 'upgrade' to the Xhadow RCA. We are looking to give audiophiles long term value (our corporate missinon) and getting into the constant upgrade gig may do wonders for turning product over but diminishes the value to our customers. They would scramble to sell their old cables and get new ones. We want our customers to relax and enjoy their systems without worrying about the current resale value of their stuff in case they have to move something to upgrade."


"We realize that the RCA connectors are not SOTA or made of machined billets of platinum but they sure sound good and are reliable. We originally made Beta samples with WBT connectors. Following the mark-up trail, this would have led to a retail of over $1000/1m/pr pair for virtually no sonic benefit. In some ways, we are not being rewarded for our efforts. We had planned a cost increase to $995/1m/pr for Xhadow balanced interconnects to cover the added costs of the connectors but are attempting to hold on as long as possible to the $750 price. Yes, in comparison, the Xhadow balanced is the better deal but only because it is artificially low now, soon to go to the $995/pr sticker price (still a deal as the balanced versions are an incredible pain to produce)."