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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Analog: Garrard 301, Cain & Cain plinth, Denon 103 MC cartridge, Pete Riggle Audio VTAF, Fi Yph phono stage, Auditorium 23 moving coil step-up transformer, Origin Live Silver MkI & MkII tone arms, Paschetto Empire 208 turntable [in for review]
Digital: Meridian 508.20 CD player, Audio Logic 2400 DAC, Sony PlayStation 1 SCPH-1001, Shindo Arome CD matching transformer [in for review], 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC [in for review], Hagerman HagUsb USB to S/PDIF converter [in for review]
Preamplifiers: Tom Evans Audio Design Lithos 7 Vibe with Pulse power supply, Shindo Monbrison [in for review]
Integrated amplifiers: Leben CS600, Almarro A205A Mk1 & Mk2
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 monoblocks, Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A, Shindo Cortese [in for review], Fi 300B monoblocks [in for review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo 2.1, Harbeth Super HL5 with 18" Skylan stands, Omega Super 3 (with 24" Skylan Stands), Omega Super 3 XRS [awaiting the new Omega hemp drivers for a follow-up evaluation], Merrill Zigmahornets [in for review]
Cables: 47 Laboratory OTA Cable Kit; Nirvana S-L & S-X interconnects, S-L speaker cables, Duo wiring harness, and Transmission Digital Interface; Cardas Neutral Reference digital cable, Auditorium 23 speaker cable; Tom Evans Audio Design interconnects; Shindo silver interconnects [in for review]
Stands: McKinnon Bellevue Symphony walnut media cabinet, Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Skylan speaker and amplifier stands
Room sizes: Room 1: 20' L x 17' W x 17' H; and Room 2: 11' L x 11'W x 9' H
Review component retail: 47 Laboratory Cable Kit w. RCAs $600; Eichmann RCAs $30 brass, $48 copper, $120 silver for sets of 4; Xhadow RCAs small $57.50/pair, large $69/pair

Few reviewers with experience like to review cables anymore. It's just too tedious of a process. When it comes to comparing RCA connectors, it's even mo tedious. You have to unsolder and then resolder the connectors and then go through the normal tediousness of a cable review. It's tediousness squared. Most reviewers say "No thanks!" to a connector review without a millisecond's thought. How the heck did I get myself into the unenviable position of accepting an RCA connectors review? It all started with the 47 Laboratory OTA Cable Kit review I did back in September of 2005. I was (and continue to be) impressed by the 47 Labs OTA Cable Kit. It's a great idea and embarrasses many far more expensive cable sets.

In that review I said, "compared to my reference full Nirvana cable system, the Stratos was more extended in the highs and lows, with the latter's depth and power surprising coming from such a small single strand of wire. Compared to the clarity of the Stratos, the full-system Nirvana listening experience was a bit like the aural equivalent of looking through lightly frosted glass. The Stratos allowed me to see deeper into the soundstage, provided better image definition, better tone, better decay of notes, a greater sense of space and better delineated fine details than my reference Nirvana cables." In reminiscing about my recollection of how the OTA would compare to the high dollar Cardas Golden Reference (I've since decided I like the Golden Cross better than the Golden Ref for its more musical balance) I said, "while I no longer have the Cardas Golden Reference I reviewed for 6moons, my aural recollection suggests that the Stratos performs in the same league for detail recovery (i.e. oodles of detail) and betters the Ref by sounding more natural and - ahem, a touch more golden. I like the Stratos better than both my reference Nirvana cable set and the Cardas Golden Reference cable set or any other full cable set I've heard in my system for that matter. So what we have in the Stratos is a realsizer's dream come true: A true reference level product that you can use to wire your whole system for all of $600."

I still think the Cable Kit is a realsizer's reference bargain so it made sense to use the Kit's single strand Stratos wire as the foundation for an RCA comparison. The Cable Kit does have an Achilles heel, at least for reviewers or enthusiasts who change out equipment frequently. The RCAs are composed of white plastic center pins and black plastic barrel connectors that you thread the Stratos wire through to make interconnects. The signal does not pass through the center pin and barrel at all. Rather, those plastic pieces merely form the structural elements which press the bare Stratos wire against the RCA contacts of the electronics. There are no solder joints to degrade the signal, so you are listening to the Stratos wire with no connectors or solder joints. Junji's 'less is more' philosophy believes that no connector is the best connector and that's how the Cable Kit works. Alas, when you push the pin and barrel from the Cable Kit onto the electronics' female RCAs, this puts a stress on the fine wire strands. If you take these connections on and off a lot, the wire tends to fatigue and eventually break. Re-terminating isn't a big deal really but it's a nuisance as the wire always tends to break at the least opportune time.

I began to wonder if there was an ultra-high performance connector that could compete with the 47 Labs solutions yet was sturdier in daily use. Was there a connector whose performance approached no connector at all? I suspected that a lot of the 47 Labs Cable Kit's outstanding performance was due to the minimalist 47 Labs connectors so finding an equivalent but more conventionally soldered or screwed connector type that performed as well seemed like a tall order.

Wanting to keep things as simple as possible, I decided
to compare the 47 Labs interconnects with their minimalist RCAs to interconnects made from the same wire but using state-of-art RCAs that claim to degrade the signal as little as possible. I chose two that have an excellent reputation: the Eichmann Bullet Plugs and the Xhadow Precision RCA Plug. Both companies think they make the highest performing RCAs in the business so I put them through the ultimate test: comparing them to no connector at all.

The Eichmann Bullet Plug RCA
The Eichmann Bullet Plug was the first ultra-low mass RCA connector on the market (excepting the 47 Labs connectors) and turned a lot of heads with the substantial improvement in performance over more traditional RCA connectors. The Eichmanns use a single point of contact for their return leg, claiming it "concentrates electrons to one point, reducing RCA eddy current distortion. The single contact point is a similar approach to star earthing in amplifiers." This is said to make a significant sonic improvement over conventional RCAs where the ground contact becomes the entire circumference of the barrel. The Eichmanns come in three models with differing metal connections: the first Bullet model in the lineup uses 24k gold-plated brass contact pins, the second tellurium copper pins said to "provide up to 320% greater conductivity than standard brass pins," and the final model uses 4-nines silver pins said to be the ultimate in signal transmission.

Like the 47 Labs connectors, the Eichmanns have a reputation for being fragile with their plastic bodies and ultra low-mass metal pins. There are stories of people melting the plastic bodies when soldering up the wire leads and breaking the metal contacts away from the bodies in daily use. I've never had any damage problems while soldering them up with the Stratos wire (or any other wire for that matter). The trick is to not get carried away and overheat them since there is a very small amount of metal in the connection pins. Place the soldering iron tip on the pin briefly, feed it some solder and you're done - quick as that. I've also had no breakage problems over a year of employing the various Eichmanns in daily use. I'm not exactly an expert solderer or exceptionally easy on equipment so I wonder if the soldering and breakage fears people associate with Eichmanns aren't overblown. Tom Evans of Tom Evans Audio Design fame put me onto the Bullet plugs as his reference RCAs. If you're worried about breakage, do what Tom does to his interconnects to make the Bullets more resistant to breakage - fill in the back of the Bullets with epoxy and let them cure until they're rock-hard. As you might suspect, I've had zero breakage problems with the epoxy'd Bullets.

If you've ever had problems like I have with loose-fitting RCAs that lead to intermittent equipment shorting, you'll think the Eichmanns a Godsend for their snug fit. Eichmann says you can customize the Bullet Plug's fit to your particular female RCA connectors by heating up the Bullets' polymer body with a hair dryer and then placing them on the female RCAs. As the Bullets cool off they're reported to form a custom fit to your female RCA connectors that is both snug and relatively easy to remove. You'll never have a loose connector cause shorting issues with the Eichmanns. Being a bald guy with no hair dryer, I didn't check out the blow dryer treatment but then I haven't had any problems with the Eichmanns being so snug that I couldn't fit them on my female RCAs. If you do have problems with them being too tight, just whip out the hair dryer and warm them up a bit for a custom fit.

I've tried the brass version of the Bullets on some Audioquest interconnects that I was having shorting issues with. It cured them instantly and gave my Audioquests a nice improvement in sound quality over the stock RCAs. The tellurium copper pin version of the Bullets are the subject of this article while the silver Bullets are being saved for a future 'all silver' project (silver Bullets are also useful for killing pesky vampires).

The Xhadow Precision RCA
I hadn't paid that much attention to some of the newest state-of-art RCA connectors available since the Eichmanns had come out and wasn't really familiar with the Xhadow Precision RCAs when Chris Sommovigo asked me to give 'em a whirl for this article. Xhadow claims that their Precision RCA "is truly the best
made RCA plug in the world" and after looking them over I don't doubt it - they are extremely nicely made.

The Xhadow's main barrel and rear nut are lathed from pure aluminum rod stock and then anodized in a grey that looks like titanium, said to be both durable and non-conductive. Into the barrel is fitted the contact pin machined from oxygen-free copper (OFC) and then silver-plated and encased in a machined Teflon dielectric. The return leg contact too is machined from OFC and silver plated but uses a more conventional design than the single point Eichmann. The contact pin is fitted with a set screw so you can secure your wire with the set screw, solder it or both. I decided to use just the set screw in hopes that eliminating an extra solder joint might be advantageous to the sonics. There is no set screw for the return but the way it is made you can tie it off like a fly fisherman would and avoid the use of solder connections altogether - only one step away from 47 Labs' minimalist approach.

There's no question that with their machined-from-stock exotic materials, the Xhadow RCAs are more finely crafted than the Eichmanns. The real question was, could the Xhadows eclipse the Eichmanns ultra low-mass performance? The Eichmanns by necessity have to be soldered so that's bound to degrade their performance a little. Which then would come closer to no connector at all, the snazzy pedigreed and solderless Xhadows or the soldered low-mass and lightly built Eichmanns?

The Shootout at the O.K. Corral
In the Hollywood Westerns that romanticized the shootout between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Virgil and Morgan Earp and the McLaurys & Clantons in the 1881 O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, there were a lot of bullets flying through the air – not of the Eichmann but lead variety. Doc Holiday was a dentist as well as a gunfighter so he could both drill you and fill you if need be. Since I'm a both a Doc and a jolly 'Day, I figured I'd get to play Doc's part in slinging bullets around. Not the lead kind, the Eichmann kind.

The O.K. Corral for this shootout of RCA connectors was my Music Lovers reference system of Harbeth Super HL5 loudspeakers on Skylan stands, Auditorium 23 speaker cables, the Leben CS600 valve integrated and the controversial but superb Sony Playstation 1 SCPH-1001 as Redbook digital source.

The 47 Labs connectors were up first to establish a baseline. The 47 Labs Cable Kit interconnects are characterized by a transparent, spacious, detailed and dynamic sound that is extended at the frequency extremes. Imaging, soundstage width and depth, delineation of musical lines and soundspace reproduction are all excellent. The 47s accomplish this while maintaining a natural and relaxed feel, which is a big plus in making them musically enjoyable. Speaking of music, the 47s get a lot right in reproducing those important aspects of music that sonically oriented audiophiles often know or care little about: Timbre, tone color, realistic attack and decay of notes, rhythmic complexity, beat, tempo and a tacitly believable presentation of musical technique.

Take for example Chuck Wayne's String Fever album recorded in New York City in July 1957. Chuck was a superb jazz guitarist (1923 - 1997) who is perhaps best known to jazz guitar insiders these days. From 1944 to 1946, Chuck played with Joe Marsala and then with Woody Herman's band until 1949. In 1949 Chuck began playing with the George Shearing Quintet, then teamed up with Tony Bennett from 1954 to 1957. Towards the end of this period is when String Fever was recorded and as you would surmise, it is a terrific album with recording quality typical of the period, i.e. excellent. This is an important reissue of superb jazz guitar on the Sundazed label. I got my copy at Amazon and if you love jazz guitar, I recommend you get yours quickly before this jewel goes out of print again.

"Lullaby in Rhythm" has Chuck as the leader of his own eleven-piece orchestra consisting of four tenor saxes, three trumpets, a trombone, drums, bass and of course Chuck on guitar. Trumpets can go right to the edge of being shrill in Lullaby just like they're supposed to, but never beyond in the painful way that some cables can make them sound. Chuck's 1951 D'Angelico Excel guitar timbre comes through as warm, rounded and beautiful just like it's supposed to be. It's little wonder that D'Angelicos are so revered for their tone after hearing this album. Cymbals sound like they should, with a natural shimmer and never even a touch of brittleness or stridency. On "Embraceable You" I got a real feel for Chuck's technique in improvising around the melody, and for Don Joseph's breath control on the trumpet that gave his solos a softer and more romantic feel than most anyone I know of has ever achieved. But mostly I just marveled at the way the entire band flows together to give one of the most beautiful renditions of this old chestnut that I've had the pleasure of hearing in a very long time.

Okay, the 47s acquit themselves very well here but what happens when you drop in a pair of interconnects made with the same Stratos wire but terminated with the Eichmann Bullet RCAs? With the Eichmanns there is a tiny bit of silver solder connecting the Stratos wire to a tiny bit of copper compared to 'nothing at all' so there is a bit more metal and a solder joint in the signal path.

The first thing I noticed with the Eichmanns was how much better the connection was. With the 47 Labs RCAs, you have to move the connections about a bit at times to get the best contact from the exposed wires but not with the Eichmanns. They lock on with a nice snug fit that ensures excellent contact of the conductors. How do the Eichmanns sound by comparison? Really good. The Eichmanns actually improved the imaging over the 47 Labs RCAs by producing more body, more of a physical 'in room' presence. I think this may be due to a very slight reduction of recorded detail in general and the sound of the recorded acoustic specifically. This shifts the balance a little away from a 'you are there' to a 'they are here in your room' perspective. The sound also became ever so slightly darker, seeming to give more depth to the soundstage, more deeply saturated tone color and to perceptually improve instrumental timbre. The music became more dynamic with more bass slam, and sounded louder even though the volume was unchanged. Where I really prefer the Eichmanns to the 47 Labs connectors is in the area of musical realism. They make the beat come to life, they give a better sense of interplay between the musicians, they infuse the music with more color and emotion and give more of a flesh and blood feel to the performers. The Eichmanns give up a little bit of transparency and detail to the 47 Labs RCAs but in every other way t are a significant improvement, particularly musically. I didn't expect that at all. I really thought that any RCA connector would degrade the performance but the Eichmanns didn't. The Eichmanns are better than no RCA connector at all and that takes some doing!

Next up were the beautifully machined Xhadow RCAs wired up with the single conductor Stratos wire. Because there is no need for soldering, eight solder joints otherwise necessary get eliminated when one uses the Xhadows. They are sonically somewhere between the 'nothing at all' 47 Labs RCAs and the Eichmanns. The Xhadows have more inner detail than the Eichmanns, are a bit brighter lit and in fact rival the 47s for transparency. Like the Eichmanns but to a lesser extent, the Xhadows infuse more tone color and body to the images and bring the beat to life. With the Xhadows there is more detail of brushes on cymbals for example and they sound slightly more metallic. The Xhadows emphasize the way the notes decay more than the Eichmanns, which I tend to chalk up as a point for the Xhadows. The Eichmanns tend to emphasize the first attack of the notes and they make that work musically to their advantage by being a bit darker, rounder and with more intensely saturated with tone color. So that point actually goes to the Eichmanns. The Xhadows again give more of a sense of space and air around images than the Eichmanns and I also noticed that tape hiss was more noticeable than with the Eichmanns or the 47 Labs RCAs - not really in an objectionable way but it was more audible.

I've listened to a lot more music than String Fever but I'll save you the blow by blow analysis and just tell you that my results were consistent across a range of musical styles and with various recording quality. In a nutshell, the 47 Labs RCAs were a revolution in sound quality when they first came out, being able to win quick draws in transparency, spaciousness, detail recovery and dynamics with any high-end cable. Combined with the Stratos, the 47 Labs RCAs give extension at the frequency extremes, image crazy well, have excellent soundstage width and depth, and easily delineate musical lines. And they do it while maintaining a natural and relaxed feel. Their only weak link was their mechanical fragility.

While the 47 Labs RCAs were the best RCAs around once, they have been dethroned. The Eichmann Bullet RCAs lent that same Stratos wire a big, bold and overtly musical sound that I much preferred over the 47 Labs RCAs. Sonically the
Eichmanns give up a little transparency and detail to the 47 Labs RCAs and t are a touch warmer and darker sounding. But they significantly better the 47 Labs RCAs in timbre, tone color and rhythmic complexity, i.e. at just playing music. With the Eichmanns in place, the Stratos wire makes for an absolutely stunning interconnect in my Music Lovers system. The downside of the Eichmanns is that they too are a bit fragile, although far more robust than the 47 Labs RCAs.

The Xhadow RCAs are robust and finely crafted, easily the best of this trio. Sonically the Xhadows are the equal of the 47 Labs in transparency, spaciousness, detail recovery and dynamics - and that's no mean feat. Like the 47 Labs RCAs, the Xhadows are extended at the frequency extremes, image even better and have excellent soundstage width and depth. The Xhadows can't quite compete with the Eichmanns' musical intensity and fall somewhere between the 47 Labs RCAs and the Eichmanns in their ability to portray timbre, tone color and rhythmic complexity.

Well pardner, if you're fixin' to holster up with some new RCAs, here's my two bits worth on this trio: Both the Xhadow and Eichmann RCAs best the 47 Labs RCAs sonically and musically, with the quality of the connection and in general their ease of use. I expected the latter but not the former. The sonic and musical part surprised me because I expected the 47 Labs RCAs to KO the Xhadows and Eichmanns in those departments. I figured 47 Labs' 'no connector at all' approach would be unbeatable. I was wrong. Hands down, the Xhadows are much more robust and finely crafted than the somewhat cheaply made Eichmanns so if fine craftsmanship and quality of materials is your thing, the Xhadows knock the Eichmanns flat on their butt. The Xhadows are nice also in that you don't have to do any soldering. That makes it really easy to wire up a pair of interconnects. Sonically the Xhadows best the Eichmanns and provide a nice overall balance between sonics and musicality. There is no doubt about it in my mind though that in my Music Lovers system, the Eichmanns slapped the Xhadows around pretty seriously musically and then put 'em down with a bullet between their eyes. Honestly, you can't go wrong with either the Eichmanns or the Xhadows as they are both ultra-performance RCAs in every regard. They both make the 47 Labs RCAs sound a little bit bleached and musically uninspired in comparison, quite a feat because the 47 Labs RCAs are no slouches.

If you're a music lover who doesn't fret over a very slight loss of transparency and inner detail with the Eichmanns, I'd go for them because of their superior musicality - they were my favorites of the shootout. If you're a HiFi buff who wants maximum sonic performance with a good dose of musicality, then the Xhadows would be your choice. Now I gotta go, boys. With the shootin' stopped, I can hear the band starting to play over at the saloon ...