The Entry Level #34 Page 2

Partnered with my NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier ($380) driving the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 speakers, the new C 516BEE sounded a lot like its predecessor: clean, clear, smooth, engaging. There were times—such as when Jenny Hval really lets loose in the title track of Innocence Is Kinky (CD, Rune Grammofon RCD3142), her voice rising and rising like heat from asphalt—that I thought the new player sounded slightly more extended on top, slightly more effervescent and polished overall. But I'm not entirely sure about that. I do know, however, that the NAD wasn't out of place when matched with more expensive equipment. Partnered with the Croft Phono Integrated ($1895), the C 516BEE contributed to some of the best sound I've heard at home. (See my Follow-Up on the Croft elsewhere in this issue, and be sure to check out Daft Punk's Random Access Memories.)

To everything that made its predecessor a success the C 516BEE adds smoother operation and a convenient auto-standby feature. For just $299, I don't think you'll find a better CD player.

On an AudioQuest
Not very long after I'd reviewed AudioQuest's affordable Alpha-Snake and G-Snake interconnects (August 2011), AQ revamped much of their product catalog and replaced their Snakes series with the Bridges & Falls line. AudioQuest's CEO and chief designer, Bill Low, is the first to admit that he likes to tinker and tweak: "I can never leave well enough alone if I've noticed a way to make even the slightest improvement in performance."

But, according to Low, AudioQuest's Snake interconnects required revision not so much for their sound quality as for their limited functionality. They were sold only in pairs of separate left- and right-channel cables, and therefore couldn't easily be terminated with the increasingly popular 3.5mm mini-jack plug or 30-pin iPod connectors. AQ was missing an opportunity, and Bill Low is not in the business of missing opportunities. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Low is in the business of making opportunities—of seeing and capitalizing on them. AQ's successful DragonFly USB DAC has a USB plug at one end and a 3.5mm jack at the other. You'll need proper cables for that jack; AQ now makes them.

In fact, AudioQuest has made them for a while. The company's Mini series existed alongside their Snake series and, unlike the Snakes, incorporated both channels in a single cable that could be easily terminated with a variety of connectors. Interestingly, the Minis were also available as traditional RCA-to-RCA interconnects. According to Low, the Minis offered better sound for the money than the Snakes, but few people noticed or cared.

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Low believed that if he redistributed his manufacturing budget, he could design a single series of cables that would significantly outperform his previous models. They would be compatible with a variety of high-quality connectors and have greater overall market visibility. And because putting both left and right channels in a single cable is less expensive than manufacturing two separate cables, it would, indeed, be possible. "Better sound for less money and less inventory for AQ dealers—a perfect win-win."

The Bridges & Falls (B&F) line was completed earlier this year, with no shortage of termination possibilities: RCA-to-RCA, mini-to-RCA, mini-to-mini, DIN-to-DIN, RCA-to-DIN, iPod-to-mini, or iPod-to-RCA.

Because his manufacturing costs had decreased, Low could have a little more fun. The B&F interconnects use RCA and mini-jack plugs made of better metals, cold-welded rather than soldered to their partnering cables, for stronger, longer-lasting bonds. In addition, every B&F model has separate positive and negative conductors in their own isolated shields, for cleaner, quieter performance. AQ calls this their Double-Balanced Geometry, something the company previously used only in its $100-plus Snakes.

I requested samples of the four least expensive Bridges & Falls interconnects: Tower ($25/1m), Evergreen ($35/1m), Golden Gate ($69/1m), and Big Sur ($109/1m). The Tower and Evergreen use AQ's solid Long-Grain Copper (LGC) conductors. Golden Gate uses higher purity Perfect-Surface Copper (PSC) conductors. Big Sur uses even-higher-purity Perfect-Surface+ Copper (PSC+) conductors, and upgrades the other models' gold-plated RCA plugs to gold-plated pure purple copper RCA plugs. All four models are insulated with foamed polyethylene, and are very attractive and obviously well made. Tower is black, Evergreen green, Golden Gate red, and Big Sur brown.

Just as the cables arrived, I received a text from Ginger Pete. He'd recently moved upstairs, into Kristen's apartment, and had taken pains to set up his hi-fi system—Pro-Ject Debut III turntable, NAD PP2 phono preamp, NAD C 720BEE integrated amplifier, Monitor Audio Bronze BR5 floorstanders—around her existing furniture and stuff. (Hmm. I could relate.) He figured he'd gotten the system sounding as good as possible, but felt he was long overdue for a cable upgrade. For the last several years, he'd been using the simple, cheap interconnects included with his NAD gear.

Heh-heh-heh. Ms. Little and Kristen hadn't yet arrived home from work. I gathered the AudioQuest stuff, grabbed a six-pack, and ran upstairs. Pete ordered Chinese. Kristen doesn't like Chinese. I'm not sure if Pete was more excited about the cables or the Chinese. (I could relate.)

We performed a series of A/B/A tests, beginning with the cheap, no-name cable and working our way up the AudioQuest ladder. We alternated between two very different tracks: "Death Ripper," from Speedwolf's Ride With Death (Hells Headbangers HELLS 069); and "Freddie Freeloader," from Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy 88697680571). Pete selected the music. (Um . . . Kristen, who is this guy you're living with? Do you think he was trying to send some kind of a message? Are you sure he's safe?)

Even with the speakers placed close to the front walls and flanking a large flat-screen TV and larger antique china cabinet, the system sounded pretty good, with decent bass and treble extension and a fine sense of momentum. Still, while Pete's system is easily capable of highlighting differences among components, I was afraid our ability to hear differences among the cables would be limited by the room. I needn't have worried. With the Tower interconnects in the system, "Death Ripper" sounded almost like an entirely different song. The greater overall clarity and impact especially benefited the lead vocal, electric guitars, bass drum, and, well, everything else. Pete: "Wow, wow. I can actually hear the drum tones, rather than just the basic sounds!"

Moving up to Evergreens and switching to "Freddie Freeloader," we noted improved transient snap and articulation, more vibrant color and sparkle in the brass and percussion instruments, and greater overall space. Pete: "There's such amazing depth now. I can't believe how flat the sound was before!"

We'd squeezed everything we could get out of "Death Ripper," so we stuck with "Freddie Freeloader" for the rest of our trials. With Golden Gates in the system, our attention took a decided turn away from aspects of the sound and toward aspects of the performance. We were now better able to appreciate subtle but significant nuances, such as the brilliant, graceful way Paul Chambers's fingers move up and down the fingerboard of his double bass, and how pianist Wynton Kelly mutes some notes while letting others ring out.

Our connection with the music grew stronger yet when we switched to Big Sur. Bass control, high-frequency extension, transient articulation, overall clarity, and all that good stuff were all improved, but now the musicians seemed to play with even greater purpose and intensity. We felt as if we were in a jazz club, watching rapt, following the many careful twists and turns as Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, and Miles took their memorable solos. Pete: "I'm not just appreciating the sound of the recording, I'm appreciating what the engineer could do with the recording and what the musicians could do with the piece."

That was that. We made sure to hide (in our bellies) the beer and Chinese food before the girls got home.

If you're using freebie interconnects in your dedicated hi-fi, desktop, or portable audio system, I highly recommend moving up to AudioQuest's Tower immediately. You'll be amazed by what you hear. And if you move up AQ's Bridges & Falls line, you'll gain significant improvements in clarity, focus, tone color, drama, and overall joy.

I find it interesting and admirable that AQ provides so many affordable options. I asked Bill Low to explain why and how he does it. "All manufacturers can offer cables starting at $25—that's not the challenge. What is, unfortunately, somewhat unusual is that we take our entry-level products 100% as seriously as any other product we make. While our efforts and intentions are the same for every model, in some ways, the 'affordable' models are our most important because they affect so many, many more people. And we like to think [the more affordable models] might both establish AQ's credibility and whet the appetite for higher-performance models later."

Mission accomplished, I'd say. If you're in the market for truly affordable, truly high-quality interconnects, I can think of no better place to start than AudioQuest.

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