'Come in, the water's lovely!'
'Come in, the water's lovely!'. Cables are such a boring uncontentious area. Just to nail some colours to the mast, I have found that cables make a difference, and this has been evident to me since I first started listening to a HiFi. At that time some bright spark, or should that be sparky, came up with the idea of using twin & earth as speaker wire, I stuck with my QED 79 strand. What is frequently less clear to me is whether such a change is an improvement, or whether the effect of the cable is consistent across systems. In order to test this consistency question I decided to test these cables in my main system and my nearfield system.
In comparing these cables I deliberately took my time, that is a few days for each cable to bed in. I gave myself time to get used to the changes. I find that quickly swapping is pressured and doesn't allow you to get a proper idea of what the cable is doing.
I will now open another can of worms, the files used to test a system and their source.
I use two primary sources, my own locally ripped and curated files, and Qobuz. The latter I find to be inconsistent, the sound quality varies with the time. I have a fat pipe into my house, but Qobuz itself will have different loads at different times. I find the sound quality is poorest in the late afternoon and early evenings as well as on Saturdays.
Comparing files is always interesting, are they the same master is a perennial favourite. In my playlist for this exercise I chose a variety of tracks where the Qobuz variant was remastered. Generally, I found these files to be LOUDER, a bit sharper and have flattened dynamics. The sharpness was emphasised when listening during a 'poor' period.
Interestingly there are many standard CD quality tracks which I found indistinguishable from my locally ripped files, such as David Gilmour's 'On An Island' and the available tracks on Qobuz for The Lost Boys soundtrack, although some of the best tracks on this album are not on the streaming service; a good reason for buying the CD and ripping it yourself.
Finally, I included a selection of tracks that I have historically found to cause issues in most of my set-ups.
In order to keep this review from becoming a novel I have decided to short hand the comparisons by concentrating on two tracks: John Martyn & Solid Air; and, Phil Collins & Son of Man. You will find the descriptions will become terse as we move on, to save you, dear reader, from repetition.
Son of Man is a song I thoroughly enjoy, but it is one that can exhibit strong sibilance that I find very distracting. Solid Air is superb.
Round #1 – Main System
Bubbleupnp is installed on my Synology DS1812+ NAS.
Linn Kazoo is loaded on my laptops and connects to the dCS Network Bridge, exposed by Bubbleupnp.
Audioquest Carbon (1m Coaxial £189)
Construction details can be found here.
This is a solid cable that I could listen to without issue. Interestingly I found it was the best at ameliorating the 'Son of Man' issues. In comparison with the other two cables in this review where it suffered was in the precision of its sound stage, which was flatter, and in the resolution of the musical detail.
When listening to this cable I felt there was a slightly greater emphasis on the upper bass, an almost traditional LP12 presentation.
The Carbon was perfectly good but it didn't reach the parts that the other two cables were capable of illuminating.
Gothic (1.5m Coaxial £190)
Construction details can be found here.
George sang the praises of this company’s cables to me and so I divvied up the readies and bought a 1.5 metre silver SPDIF.
This is a very well-constructed cable. It is hand made using Harmonic Technology’s solid silver 75ohm Silver III cable terminated with high quality silver plate on copper RCA connectors.
I replaced my far from cheap current cable and slotted in the Gothic and was very pleasantly surprised by the result. The overall result is a detailed sound stage with a slightly raised presence in the high frequencies; and I suspect that these two are not unrelated.
Solid Air is rendered in a way that draws you in, but Son of Man's issues were more apparent.
Audioquest Diamond (1m Coaxial £1,039)
Unobtainiam details can be found here.
The Audioquest Diamond was the first of the cables I tried. I was listening to my system on a Saturday morning, yes, one of those times when things are less than optimal when using Qobuz. I was feeling dissatisfied and so plugged in the Diamond, music returned.
The Audioquest Diamond resolves treble in a wonderfully layered and unhighlighted way. By this I mean that brass rings, there is a lack of ting and tizzzzzzzz.
Audioquest asks for a lot of money for this cable and I would love to write that it is an unnecessary extravagance, I would like to but is that true?
Having plugged in the Gothic cable I enjoyed it and so left it in my system for a week. Having bedded the Gothic cable in I swapped back to the Diamond. I immediately relaxed. This is something that I have found with digital systems, when they improve, I find a level of unrecognised tension within myself dissipate. Here were all the advantages of the Gothic cable, but with a SLIGHTLY better produced top end.
This is the damnable thing with cables. Sometimes the effects are broad, not here. Here they are slight. Slight but important.
I found with the Diamond in situ I had a number of moments where I was no longer listening to a HiFi, just the music. One of these was with the Solid Air album, I was simply transported. This cable seemed to be allowing through all that my components were capable of delivering.
Interestingly, not with Son of Man. Here the issues were present, correct and fully on show, ouch. But this is not to imply that the cable only works with the best recordings. Generally, it gets the best from whatever is playing, but not with my 'problem' files.
Round #1 Conclusion
Audioquest Diamond > Gothic SPDIF > Audioquest Carbon.
In my main system this was my definite preference, with the exception of a very small number of files where the Audioquest Carbon came into its own.
Round #2 – Nearfield (via SingXer F1)
Bubbleupnp is installed on the Synology DS1812+ NAS.
I ran up Foobar2000 on my laptop and started the Upnp Media Server plugin. This allowed Bubbleupnp to see Foobar and make it available.
Linn Kazoo was loaded on my laptop and connected to Foobar which had been exposed by Bubbleupnp, which then streamed through that to the SingXer F1.
The listening Experience
The Sound Artist speakers are NOT proper LS3/5a. The cabinets are MDF, the parts are less than stellar as is the build quality. They ARE a surprisingly listenable speaker that echo the strengths of the design and offer great VFM.
For an in depth view of these speakers by someone who is FAR more experienced with the design than me look here.
These speakers sit on my desk approximately eighteen inches from my lug holes. This is akin to having a giant pair of headphones without the enclosed feeling; I love it.
While the Sound Artist speakers are not as extended at either end of the frequency spectrum they are very good in the mid-range, will this be critical in this examination of SPDIF cables?
I was immediately aware that the issues that were exposed by my main system were far less apparent here. I played Son of Man, little fizz and tizz here; although not completely absent.
Listening CAREFULLY, and in a way that I simply don't usually listen to music, I was able to pick very minor differences between my local rip of David Gilmour's Castellorizon and the Qobuz version, but I would hate to be asked to do this blind; which was better? Honours shared.Comparing my Local rip of Bohemian Rhapsody, from Queen Greatest Hits, to the Qobuz 2011 Remaster again showed the 0db nature of the update. As with the main system the music was loader and the dynamic contrasts reduced. Whilst I could argue that the vocal elements were more obviously laid out in the remaster the music was a touch more strident and I was less relaxed.
Moving on to Solid Air. It was well produced with the musician weaving around Martyn's drawled lyrics, I did not find myself transported in the way I was in my main system, but it was very musical and detailed.
The differences between the Gothic and the Diamond were closer in this system.
Son of Man issues were more present on this track in this system with the Gothic.
Solid Air I would say is not as relaxed as it is through the Diamond, but certain detail stands out.
My initial thought was that the Carbon could be a winner here, however the upper bass tilt was still present and I felt adversely effected the balance of what I was hearing. The Gothic's upper frequency tilt was also absent, but so was the clarity and resolution of that cable.
Round #2 Conclusion
Diamond Gothic Carbon.
However, the differences were compressed, particularly between the Diamond and the Gothic. The LS3/5a's don't do deeper bass. The upper bass is present and correct, but not through the Carbon where their slight emphasis bloats those frequencies and was not something I could live with in this system.
Round #3 – Nearfield (via Meridian 210)
Bubbleupnp is installed on the Synology DS1812+ NAS.
Meridian 210 made available by Bubbleupnp to Kazoo.
Linn Kazoo is loaded on my laptop and connects to Meridian 210.
The listening Experience
I had just been doing a comparison of the Meridian 210 to the dCS Network Bridge. Currently the dCS is in my main system so this made the Meridian free to fit into my nearfield system.
With the Carbon still connected it was IMMEDIATELY apparent that this was a step-up quality; the 210 is so much better than the Laptop/SingXer.
Starting with my local rip of Bohemian Rhapsody when the bass arrives it does so in a slightly over enthusiastic style, but not completely overwhelming. This has far better balance. The layers of vocals are present and correct and far easier to listen into .......I wondered what the other two cables were going to produce as I was enjoying this immensely.
As before the Bohemian remastered changes were easily heard.
As a change of pace, I switched to the Reference Recording of Mahler’s 8th Symphony, Fischer, Utah Symphony Orchestra with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This was not fully in the wheelhouse of the LS3/5a being on an ENORMOUS scale, but the small speakers stepped manfully up to the plate, as far as their size allowed. Once the soloists stepped forward the small speakers showed what they were designed for. The Audioquest Carbons simply got out of the way and allowed the system to sing.
Solid Air was well reproduced.
Son of Man vocal excesses were well controlled.
The Gothic's resolution of detail & higher frequencies trumps the Carbon. The slight upper frequency tilt yes, but the hardness was not heard.
In the nearfield context the advantage in sound-staging that the Gothic demonstrated over the Carbon in the main system is not relevant.
The Mahler was well and enjoyably produced, with its frequency balance.
Listening to the Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic, Mozart 28th Symphony (Qobuz) was hugely enjoyable and detailed, the bounce and enthusiasm were excellently communicated. On the main system the violins were just a touch bright, this was at 8pm on a weekday evening so no timing issues (in theory). On my main system I switched to a local rip and balance was restored. The Qobuz Abbado was greatly improved by restoring the Audioquest Diamond, the objective changes were minor, the subjective improvement was notable. I had a friend over for a music listening session. I had told him what I was reviewing as the boxes were on a chair, when I told him how much the Diamond cost his eyebrows launched northward and he let out a ‘ho-hum’. Having fitted the cable, he looked at me and said, “It does make a difference doesn’t it”. In the nearfield system via the LS3/5a this difference was very reduced.
Moving on to Beethoven’s 4th Violin Sonata with Mullova & Beatson; this recording is made in a bright acoustic, this can emphasis the upper frequencies in both the piano and the violin. In the main system via the Gothic I quickly moved on, in this system I was aware of a slight tilt but was able to enjoy the performance and interplay. The upper frequency tilt became a light filigree of detail.
Son of Man issues were a touch greater than with the Carbon.
Solid Air was not as relaxed as it is through the Carbon, but had improved resolution.
The Audioquest Diamond simply allows the music to flow in a more relaxed way. This had a warmer sound with greater reverb on a macro and micro level, the micro being the presentation of each individual instrument.
To my ear it resolves all the detail of the Gothic whilst not sounding in any way bright, even with recordings which might induce that sensation, the Beethoven 4th Sonata being a good example.
Solid Air was full of the detail of each musician's contribution. Balanced and musical with no hint of digital artefacts or unbalanced. I really enjoyed the whole album.
Son of Man, issues were still greater than with the Carbon.
Round #3 Conclusion
Diamond Gothic Carbon.
I would say the honours between the Gothic and the Carbon were closer in this application.
ConclusionThis was an interesting exercise and one in which I wanted to write that the Gothic took home all the prizes. In the event I found the order of the cables was reasonably consistent across the different systems; however, the degrees of difference varied.
I will repeat, to find out what a cable has to offer you MUST listen to it in your own system, AND give yourself time. DON’T base your decision on quick changes and short musical passages.
With that in mind there is a limit to what you can expect an expensive cable to do for you. Your equipment in your home acoustic will have its own sound signature and so what may sound like a slight over-emphasis in mine may be precisely what you need in yours.
We are not talking about objectively huge differences between these cables, but unfortunately these differences count. Over time, especially in digital replay chains, I have heard systems where the quality of bass has improved and digital high frequency hash has reduced, allowing ME to relax. These improvements have not been easily won, and frequently not without much financial pain. In that context what is good value?
The Audioquest Carbon had a relaxed presentation that many will enjoy. It is notable that with the files that I use to trip up systems, mainly I would say due to recording issues, the Carbon was consistently best at reducing the pain.
The Gothic Cable is well made and at a bargain price. Further than that its resolution of musical detail and sound staging is very good, in the right system. It has a very slight upper frequency tilt that can present as detail, but can also be a tad less than relaxed. If Qobuz is not giving of its best this cable will let you know.
[SIZE=12pt]The Diamond is sold at what I consider to be silly money and I would love to write it off, but I simply can't. It is wonderfully balanced, dynamic and detailed. On a number of occasions, I found myself simply caught up in the music. How much[/SIZE] is that worth?