Synergistic Research cables
[Sproingggg] It's stiff! I couldn't use this interconnect with the fairly lightweight player section of the YBA CD1 Blue Laser. Designers' Reference practically suspended the blessed thing above the stand! The interconnect is "workable," however; with some determination, I battened it down into our system.
Later on, more Synergistic Research boxes arrived bearing Designers' Reference (DR for short) speaker cable. These proved somewhat less Technicolor, in a dark, industrial gray jacketing, and were terminated with WBT expanding bananas. The connecters are very easy to work with and can be "stacked" for bi- and tri-wiring applications. I like them far more than the sharp, crab-clawed copper spades previously used by Synergistic.
As Ted Denney explains it, signal and ground get separate, dedicated geometries in each Designers' Reference interconnect: two separate runs of cable twisted around one another. With the balanced interconnect, the shield is tied to the shell of the XLR rather than the ground pin within the connector! "The cables are still shielded, but outside the signal path," explains Denney (footnote 1). "This produces incredibly low capacitance between the music and ground signals. Designers' Reference measures only 5 picofarads per foot!"
This seems a unique approach. Denney points out that many cable makers merely adapt their single-ended designs to balanced configuration. "That's why most audiophiles don't feel they really sound any better than single-ended designs," he avers.
Wanting the inside dope, I pressed Denney for details and learned that the dielectric is a "proprietary modified polyethylene derived from defense applications." I signed the Official Secrets Waiver he thrust at me and continued digging. He briefed me on his special copper-alloy conductor—it's coated with another proprietary alloy he described as "migratory in nature." I fixed him with my best "Do tell" look. He continued unfazed: "Yes, it migrates to the center of the conductor, and the conductor alloy migrates out to the coating alloy. The result is excellent high-frequency handling and skin-effect characteristics. That's derived from defense applications as well."
I inquired about resonance control. It seems DR addresses vibration both as it relates to passing signal through the cable, and as air- or room-borne in origin. "To avoid smearing, grain, and lack of clarity, we use four polymer shafts with cotton cores within the interconnect, plus a thin Cellophane wrap. The shield—a weave of the signal-conductor alloy—also helps control resonance."
The bright green jacketing material, I am informed, was initially developed for what Denney describes as "geo-tech applications." Uh-huh. "That's jacketing for cables found in seismic measurement equipment. And the woven clear material around that, a dissimilar material, also helps to prevent resonance. Even the twist rate is strategic in creating the sound we're looking for. Many elements, Jonathan, all working in synergy."
By the way, this is the same conductor material used in the Resolution Reference Mk.2, which is half the price of DR. The difference is in the "vintage" of the wire, explains Denney. "It's a subjective process we go through in grading the alloy before we know which cable it will be used in. Only about 4% of the total yield is good enough for Designers' Reference. It's like a vintage Bordeaux—same grapes, same growing year and vintner, the only difference being that the wine from a vintage year has unique characteristics that make it better. We listen to the conductor material, and a small batch with the right characteristics is set aside and reserved for Designers' Reference. The rest make it into Res Reference Mk.2, and Looking Glass Phase 1 and 2."
Sound: This is a wonderful interconnect. It sounded at all times as close to perfectly neutral as I've ever heard in our system. Yet it was always effortlessly musical, alive with tonal color and harmonics. The entire bass range was exemplary in the best of audiophile ways. The midrange was as fully developed as any front-end ever managed to produce. The highs sounded extended and linear, very naturally detailed, and, above all else, open. Speed, timing, and dynamics—macro and micro—were right on the money, balancing each other perfectly.
The soundstage the DR threw, given the right material, could be awesome—deep, wide, and airy, the vibrant acoustic environments surrounding each performer coupling well with the overall soundstage. And forget "layering" as an audiophile concept; it's too coarse a definition. Any component making a grab for the audiophile brass ring must layer a soundstage at the very least. But we have to get beyond the flat, one-dimensional sense the term implies and look at the integrity, the palpability of the entire sonic construct. I'm speaking about separate acoustic environments—bell-like, if you will—surrounding each performer. How these mini-environments couple with each other and the larger acoustic environment is of more interest to me than the simple concept of "imaging." In this way, the DR was always very adept.
Some people never learn. While his RM-50 speakers were here, Jeff Joseph brought over two LPs he thought I'd enjoy. Big mistake. Dance to Duke is a Columbia Special Archives pressing (CSRP 8098) with an impossibly young and dapper Ellington smiling up from the cover. The album features Duke, his piano, and orchestra at the Bal Masque—the supper club at the Americana Hotel in Miami! Picture it—the early '60s, Cuban cigars are legal, Camelot has just begun. Duke digs the gig, the audience loves the Duke, everyone is ecstatic, it's the atomic age...duck and cover.
Listening to this classic vinyl with the Wilson Benesch Analog (review to appear next month) and other reference cartridges, I heard all of the DR's best qualities displayed in glorious harmony. Ellington's piano was illuminated, resonant, quick and strong, rainbows of color spraying effortlessly from his fingertips. The orchestra was set out in a large, airy sonic construct, very transparent. Deepest bass up through the mid- and upper bass was totally acoustic, tuneful, tight and on time. Transparent and lithe as well; very "sportif," as K-10 put it. Transitioning to the midrange was accomplished seamlessly and without frequency-related aberration. The well-developed midrange was plush and velvety. Transitioning to the highs was once again accomplished without drama, the top end open, joyous, and soaring. I found myself leaning into the music just for the pleasure of it. There was always an inviting clarity that never devolved into euphonic smarm, come to paint in warm and luscious tonalities. No, the DR delivered information in a manner so linear and complete that, for the most part, it transcended the barriers of time and place.
Complaints? Sure, I'm still a picky guy, and nothing's perfect. Peeling the artichoke down to its heart, I can say that DR is a touch biased toward the large-gestured and grand rather than the small and well-formed. While it's fully capable of nuance and gesture, I've heard other cables that in some way manifest a more refined and delicate balance with small musical details. The Harmonix HS-101 Harmonic Strings come to mind, as does TARA Labs' new The One. However, given the superb overall balance of Designers' Reference, I never found it to be an issue.
The Designers' Reference Speaker Cable is built in what Denney describes as "quad configuration": four separate legs (geometries) each carry a plus and a minus leg. "If you took bolt-cutters to our cable and cut one leg, signal would still get through." (I tried to imagine under what circumstances I might feel compelled to do such a thing.)
"All speaker wires have a point at which inductance, capacitance, and resistance become reactive with the signal. And that changes the signal, of course. In Designers' Reference we've combined four separate tuned geometries, each with a strategic set of strengths and weaknesses. When one geometry becomes reactive, one or more of the other geometries will allow the signal to pass unimpeded. It's like water flowing downhill—it takes the path of least resistance. Along the way it will change course many times in response to resistance on its way down from the mountain top. By using four geometries with different reactance points, the signal simply pushes through the path of least resistance. It's an elegant and simple way to deal with a complex problem."
I inquired about the materials technology in the two large and two small conductors snaking through the cable. "There's Litz technology in there, as well as solid-core and basket-weave. You'll also find modified polyethylene, foamed Teflon, silver, copper, and alloys. You know, you can't get best results with only one technology. Built this way, Designers' Reference works with just about any amp." He sounded rather pleased with himself.
Sound: Ted Denney has every right to feel smug about his cable. DR was delightfully quiet, offering a blacker, more velvety background from which music burst forth. I had a strong sense that the cables sounded very powerful; put another way, they let the power of the music through, unrestrained in any way I could detect. Compared to other cables on hand, they were more colorful and bold. Large-gestured dynamics fairly exploded from the speakers.
The DR speaker cables were also very transparent-sounding, much as the interconnect proved to be. To elucidate this transparency, I must point to the cable's overall balance. Its high degree of innate transparency was but one element in a blend of superior sonic qualities. Transparency as a quality unto itself didn't manifest itself in any significant way. DR isn't from the "[gasp] ohmigawd" school of transparency, although it did let right on through the Graaf GM 200's heightened sense of speed and lucidity. Rather, DR's presentation was more about a certain precision and profound clarity of presentation—a clarity made up of equal parts air, transparency, detail retrieval, linearity, and perceived frequency response.
In a nutshell, these are great speaker cables, fully worthy of partnering the DR interconnect in every aspect. Problems? Just one. The DR speaker cables were endowed with much the same "house sound" as the interconnect. As a result, once again, their mastery when reproducing the large-gestured and dynamic was undeniable. But capturing the smallest nuances in music that only a very few other extremely costly cables manage was not its forte. I am most emphatically not saying that the DR lacks nuance entirely—unforgivable in such a costly cable. Rather, there was enough of the fine, elusive stuff to satisfy even one so picky as I, although a very few other cables do it better. But these other cables and interconnects certainly don't possess all of the DR's qualities. Let's say that, while dazzling the listener with its many strengths, DR—speaker cable and interconnect—ever-so-slightly glossed over this one aspect. But that's only one of a myriad of qualities necessary for topflight playback. On balance, DR is still great stuff; for me, it's one of only a handful at the very top of the cable hill.
AES/EBU & S/PDIF digital datalinks
The balanced version of the Designers' Reference datalink features Swiss Neutrik XLR connectors, but with a special twist—they're supplied standard with no outer barrel. I understand from Denney that digital datalinks can't dump the shield to the outer connector, as in the DR interconnect. "Right, you won't get a lock. You have to tie it to the ground pin. But then having the shield floating around the pins creates noise that manifests itself in terms of grunge. Many balanced cables sound better when the outer connector shell is removed." Now there's a first. According to Denney, the actual geometry of the AES/EBU digital cables is slightly different from the interconnect's, in order to optimize the datalink's target impedance of 110 ohms.
Late in the game, a DR S/PDIF digital datalink terminated with gold-plated BNCs arrived. Urs Wagner of Ensemble is adamant that his Dichrono sounds best this way; the AES/EBU interface, he claims, is heavy with jitter, as is AT&T optical. BNC'd S/PDIF is his recommendation for lowest jitter and best sound.
Sound: Well, this was interesting. Over time, I've listened to many AES/EBU datalinks, and have concluded that certain sonic elements of their presentation are predictable. First and foremost, AES/EBU generally sounds quieter than S/PDIF. As a result, music is presented from a darker, more velvety background that can be a touch airier than S/PDIF. Since it's quieter and airier, images within the soundstage can be more round and palpable. One important caveat, however: Until now, I've always felt AES/EBU darkens in some way the upper-midrange/treble region, seeming to suck some of the life and energy out of this vitally important range. Also, while AES/EBU more often than not gets the midrange right, its bass can sound a bit loose and out of control, fatter and slightly less pitch-differentiated than S/PDIF. It occurs to me that if, other factors being held equal, AES/EBU is more jitter-laden than S/PDIF (footnote 2), this may explain to some extent these sonic effects.
Given that, the DR reigned supreme over all other AES/EBUs I've tried. Yes, I still noticed a slight reduction of energy in that upper-midband/lower-treble region, but somehow I found it less compromising than with most other balanced 'links in this regard. (Of these, only Chris Sommovigo's Illuminati Orchid AES/EBU approaches the same level of openness and energy in the presence region.) The DR's bass was tight and controlled, more taut and acoustic than most other cables managed with AES/EBU. The midrange was colorful, textured, and graciously harmonic on many recordings. And perhaps as a result of the endemic darkening in the upper mids giving rise to a slightly recessed presence region, the cable sounded quite attractive in the highs (as do many AES/EBU 'links)—but perhaps not quite as open-sounding and extended as some of the S/PDIF cables manage.
The same cable terminated with BNCs worked extremely well between the Ensemble Dichrono Drive and converter. It was obvious from the first moments that the energy in the upper midrange and above had been restored in a big way—a little too much restored, actually. That proved the case until about 100 hours of break-in had passed (footnote 3), after which the BNC'd DR performed brilliantly in every respect. The lower-through-upper-bass range was taut, powerful, and in control, the midrange was quite handsome (depending on the recording, of course), and the highs sounded smooth, linear, and extended. Altogether, the BNC coax proved a first-class performer, more revealing than the trick AES/EBU version (which nonetheless showed deft charm on less-than-stellar recordings).
So there you have it. Synergistic Designers' Reference: expensive and built to stay that way. If you've got the budget for Top Stuff, make sure you audition DR. I'll be listening to other top-tier cables in the coming months, and will be happy to report on the results. In the meantime, if you've a mind (and the bank account) to take the plunge now, I say...go for it!
Footnote 1: Provided, of course, that the XLR shells of the sending and receiving components both conduct electricity (some XLRs are nylon) and are themselves grounded to the component chassis. In the pro-audio world, only one of the balanced cables's XLR shells is tied to pin 1 (ground), thus providing shielding but no additional ground path between the connected components.—John Atkinson
Footnote 2: This is something that remains in the land of conjecture, though I will be using the Miller Research jitter analyser (see elsewhere in this issue) to examine issues such as this.—John Atkinson
Footnote 3: Be aware that long break-in is required with all Synergistic cables—100 to 200 hours for fresh, unplayed cable. But don't despair; they perform at about 80% of maximum after 24 hours or so.—Jonathan Scull