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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Accustic Arts Drive-1; Audio Aero Prima SE [on loan]
Preamp: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Manley Labs Skipjack passive switch box
Amp: Audiopax Model 88
Speakers: Zu Cable Druid Mk4
Cables: Stealth Audio Sextet S/PDIF, Crystal Cable Piccolo [on review], Stereovox HDSE [on review], Q Tao [on review]; Zu Cable Ibis speaker cable; Crystal Cable Reference power cords
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Resonance control: Grand Prix Audio Monaco
Sundry accessories: Walker Audio Vivid; Walker Audio Extreme SST;
Review Component Retail: $200/1m/pr for Stereovox; $399/1/pr for Crystal Cable; $650/1m/pr for Q

A new breed of analog interconnects follows the cholesterol-is-bad maxim of health food fanatics. Strip the fat. Minimize dielectric layers and mass. Shrink conductor diameters as much as possible. While the same recipe requires certain modifications to work for high-current signals between amplifier and speakers, the low-level domain -- so the thinking goes -- benefits drastically from miniaturization of mass and conductor thickness. Today's entries pursue the same ideal via different routes. Steve Eddy's shield-less quad braid of undisclosed binary alloy conductors in his Q Tao carry a single layer of wrapped silk for insulation and terminate in low-mass Ebony-encased RCA barrels. Gabi Van Der Kley's Piccolo Crystal Cable is a coaxial design with a binary silver/gold alloy conductor, a silver-braid shield, a triple layer of helically wrapped Kapton film as primary dielectric beneath the shield and a translucent outer Teflon casing of 1.5mm diameter, all terminated in a proprietary, Furutech-inspired black RCA. Chris Sommovigo's HDSE of Stereovox' affordable Studio Line is a hollow micro copper tube "with the skin-effect profile of a 32-gauge 0.008" diameter wire yet a DC resistance roughly 18 times lower." The tube is wrapped in a multifilar PTFE tape dielectric and encased in a silver-plated copper shield braid terminated in a proprietary chromed RCA connector.

From a perspective of structural integrity, Crystal Cable's Piccolo will withstand the highest amount of real abuse. Its Kapton wrap plainly makes for the strongest construction. The Stereovox micro-tube concept requires common sense to careful bending, avoidance of truly tight corners and repeat flexing in the same spot. The Q Tao is stronger than it looks but, unlike the Piccolo, shouldn't really be stepped on.

Connectorwise, all three designs eschew locking RCAs and fit snugly on chassis jacks without requiring force or feeling too loose. Unlike the Tao and Piccolo which drape with nary any innate structural tension, the Stereovox is modestly stiff and will retain whatever curves you bend into it. All three are easy to route and copasetic with even the very lightest of components without mass-loading the latter. All in all, very common sense rather than excessive designs. For once, dabbling in HighEnd doesn't equate to getting punished. Also, the skinny nature of these cables means they're cosmetically unobtrusive and nearly invisible.

Because it lacks any shielding, the Tao is liable to pick up RF interference in the wrong circumstances. Prospective owners should negotiate for a return privilege if unsure whether such a design will work in their system.

Dollarwise, we're doubling power into lower imprudences. The Piccolo at $399 is double the price of the HDSE while the Tao is 3 x the tariff of the Stereovox. Unlike the costly ambitions of the standard Stereovox line, the Studio Series comes in at rock-bottom pricing for serious high-performance designs. Crystal Cable is the only consumer cable company that offers a full line of Kapton-wrapped cables, a very hi-tech material that's expensive and hard to work with. The Piccolo is the most affordable Crystal Cable interconnect and baby in that line. The Tao is the first cable effort from Steve Eddy who plans to follow it up with a matching speaker cable in the near future. So much for the where, why and how much.

To report on the what (what did these cables sound like), I ran two of the three review cables at one time off the twin outputs of the ModWright preamp into Manley Lab's
SkipJack switcher, then one pair of the not-there Stealth Indras from the SkipJack to the amps, another between the Audio Aero's analog outputs into the preamp. The SkipJack's hardwired pickle control allowed convenient remote switching between two cables. Comparing cables in 3 groups of two would allow me to form opinions. Hopefully those would triangulate back to a clear hierarchy of sonic flavors - or even clear superiority. The Manley piece inserts zero clicks, pops or even minute delays for instantaneous cable replacement gratification (if you can call materializing suspicions of personal deafness gratification).

A quick word on A/B/As. If done too rapidly and for too short a duration per interval, you may hear no difference at all. That's because the list of differentiators is far longer than can be ascertained in 15-second sound bytes. There's frequency response, harmonic distortion, noise floor, timing, dynamics, resolution and spatial soundstaging cues. If differences were restricted to just one of these areas, it'll take you a while to sort through your list and cross off individual attributes until you hit upon the one (or two or three) that actually differ and know where to look for them.

Once you've identified what to listen for and the difference is real and not imaginary, you can hone in on it quickly. But prior to this recognition, it's like scanning the horizon not knowing what you're supposed to notice. All you see is landscape and a few houses and cattle. But once your guide narrows down the infinite options and instructs you to focus on the unusual hair color of the cows... of course you can see that now that you know what to pay attention to.

Those who insist that double-blind testing in a mere few minutes can settle any score don't account for the huge number of variables that inform audible differences. 

Piccolo vs Tao
Bebo & Cigala's Lagrimas Negras [Bluebird 82876-55910-2] on "Inolvidable" features Cuban piano, male Flamenco vocals and double bass. It's very well recorded, all acoustic and the minimalist ensemble doesn't place undue burdens on the listeners wondering what to focus on. The Tao was just a tad more lit up on top. This surprised me. We're talking a very faint difference here but it exerted itself on right-handed piano keys and, subtly, on how Diego's voice seemed balanced against piano and bass, especially during peaks where his Flamenco style injects slightly hoarse and metallic upper harmonics. Think just a whiff more air.

Tao vs HDSE
Very faint differences again and very hard to pin down. What I heard occurred in the midrange and manifested as a very small change in the forward/recessed axis, in how prominent the vocals seemed embedded in the surrounding activities. The Tao appeared more laid back, the HDSE gutsier. But even talking about this already suggests a magnitude of perceptibility that is far greater than what was actually audible. I'd be able to tell within the first 10 seconds of switching, then this difference would merge into the background and vanish.

Piccolo vs HDSE
Nothing. I couldn't tell a difference. Looking back at my notes, I realized that my triangulation wasn't precise since otherwise the differences between the two prior groups should have been identical. So I went back, still using the same track. In the end, all I felt comfortable saying is that out of the three, the Tao was the one that sounded different from the other two. What exactly created that difference was rather harder to determine. It seemed to change depending on what music I played. It ranged from slightly more treble energy/air to an overall sense of relaxation, two descriptors that could seem mutually exclusive to some and thus raise questions about my - ahem, biological resolution. Mister trigger finger had to admit that Cap'n SkipJack was the great equalizer for this type of experiment. It clearly cuts down on gross imaginary aspects diluting attempts at objectivity.

Mercan Dede's Su [Escondido 6510-2] on "Ab-i Hayat" is far more layered and complex, with synthetic bass, lots of drums, didgeridoos, flute, guitar, multi-tracked ambiance that's different for different instruments and plenty of soundstage-specific cues. Using the SkipJack's instantaneous switching feature meant I could focus my aural gaze on just one element - bass impact and weight; transient definition; vocals; soundstage depth; texture... whatever. Working my way down the list, I attempted to gain an overall picture, then try to match that picture against listening to the full track on first one, then the other cable to see whether these partial impressions remained audible or verifiable when listening to a piece as a whole.

I noticed very fine shifts of performers within the soundstage whereby a solo violin, for example, would move 5 degrees over to the right with one cable, being positioned farther left with another. Little things. Since I have no idea what proper positioning for this track would be -- or any other track except for classical music with a photo of the orchestra in the liner notes --, these observations ended up being utterly useless unless they'd have assumed grotesque proportions which they clearly did not. Another psychological angle muddying the waters is that when you listen to a whole track repeatedly, your attention will attach itself to different aspects. You might notice a particular drum whack as being exceptionally well defined only to ask in the next breath whether that was due to a difference in presentation or simply a product of unsteady attention.

All this by way of admitting that for all realistic purposes, these three cables are interchangeable. You'd be hard-pressed to reliably tell them apart. The Q Tao is the one of this bunch that you might single out more often than not as having a particular texture of softness or a feel of mellowness or somewhat more air on top - perhaps. In general, this group of skinny cables clearly belong in the category of fast, transparent, tonally neutral (i.e. no fattening up, no detectable coloration) and very precise and accurate in the bass. They are clearly not additive in the sense of adding a few dB of apparent bass output, skewing tonal balance by highlighting the treble or emphasizing a particular quality. If you own transistors in search of body, these cables won't add any. That's because none of these designers belongs into the cables-as-tone-controls camp. Rather, the credo seems to be about superior noise floors, detail retrieval and neutrality. The overriding audible qualifiers of this cable group were velocity and clarity as though time smearing was kept to a minimum (and thereby also the fuzz and fluff that sometimes appear as added body or softness).

What's conceptually interesting is that such essentially identical results have been achieved with different geometries (coaxial solid-core, twisted quad, hollow tube), different conductors (silver/gold, unspecified, copper) and massive shielding versus none at all. It's as though despite their posturing of different design strategies and engineering concepts, our aural Muslim, Taoist and Mormon ended up believing in exactly the same gospel. Perhaps the minimalism of thin makes for this common ground? When capitalism and commerce enter the equation, the clear winner by default becomes Chris Sommovigo's Stereovox HDSE. At $200/1m, it's 50% or 70% cheaper than this particular competition and, by virtue of being fully shielded, isn't accompanied by a cautious qualifier. The designer of the famous Illuminati 75-ohm digital interconnect has brought home another winner. It drops the price of admission for this level of performance by a considerable margin. What's more, it does so without introducing any real peculiarities as regards use and routing (except for the application of common sense to honor dealing with a thin-walled hollow tube for tight bends and repeat flexing).

Cable designers dread participating at CES. There's the nearly hypnotic appeal of exotic speakers, gleaming 'Lake Chromo' amplifiers from Germany and complicated new turntables with three arms and stands fit for long telescopes. They invariably render the question of what connects these components mute in the eyes and minds of the attending public. Say a cable designer approached you daring to suggest that his cables were an important contributor to the good sound on display here. You'd wave him off like a pesky fly. You regard him as a freeloader who wants to ride somebody else's coat tails. In your mind, it's clearly the speakers that make the sound here. So cables aren't sexy unless they're at least one inch in diameter and dressed up with Carbon fiber network boxes suspended on chromed legs. Add a monster price tag and eyebrows will raise either in mock shock or suddenly sincere interest. What else is today's cable manufacturer to do to attract attention? Mister Sommovigo's answer is, charge the least. That may not be sexy in today's upside-down world of escalating HighEnd audio pricing but it sure is reasonable. And reasonable may just be the safest sort of sex there is - for most of us mere mortals. Bravo to Stereovox for their Studio Line HDSE. It benefits from trickle-down technologies first pioneered for their price-no-object offerings and keeps up with cables at three times its price.

PS: I did run a bypass test on the SkipJack and couldn't hear it. Perhaps better ears can. At the end of the day, even if it were guilty of a very subtle sonic signature of its own, it'd affect all comparisons equally as does the ubiquitous hookup wire inside amplifiers, preamplifiers, CD players and loudspeakers.
Crystal Cable website
Crystal Cable USA website
Q website
Stereovox website