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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COMMENTS
Jimmy_G's picture

As an Entry Level hobbyist myself, I always enjoy reading your articles.  Last March I purchased the 10.1's for my system downstairs and enjoy them everyday.  Of course there are some speakers in this price range that do one or two things better, but the Wharfedales strike such a balance at this price point that they're impossible not to love. 

I'm glad you got a pair up and working again and look forward to hearing your continued adventures in affordable HiFi.  

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks very much, Jimmy. I'm glad the Wharfedales are working for you, too.

Bill B's picture

Since you heard more info via repeated listenings, how did you consider that what you heard was definitely the cables, and not (at least partly) the effect of repeated listening?  Just askin.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Since you heard more info via repeated listenings, how did you consider that what you heard was definitely the cables, and not (at least partly) the effect of repeated listening?

That's a great question. I wouldn't be surprised if many reviewers asked themselves the same thing. I do.

When you read a review, it often seems (and, as in this particular column, it's actually made to seem) as though all the listening takes place over one session. In fact, however, the listening takes place over many sessions, often spread out over weeks or months. The thoughts expressed in the review, then, reflect all of my listening -- not just the results of one casual session.

I'm very careful to be sure that I'm really hearing what I think I'm hearing -- I don't want to be wrong and I don't want to mislead anyone -- so I repeat the tests over and over again until I'm very comfortable with the results. What the column does not describe is that I listened at my place, then at Pete's place, then at my place again and again and again -- over several sessions, both casually and seriously focused. 

In the end, I also trust myself and remain true to myself. "To thine own ears be true," John Atkinson has taught me, and I think that's very important.  

SergioLangstrom's picture

Seems to me that some one that thinks the Croft Acoustic Amp sounds great needs their  hearing checked out or at the very least take a course in how to listen and what to listen for.

Bill B's picture

Thanks. 

destroysall76's picture

I've seen the Epos Epic 1 on sale recently, and seeing how the Epos Epic 2 is of the same, do you recommend it more than the Wharfedales?

Stephen Mejias's picture

I haven't heard the Epos speakers at home, nor have I compared them with the Wharfedales, under any circumstances, so I can't say. The Epos and Wharfedale speakers strike me as being very different, however. I would expect the Epic 2 to sound bigger with deeper bass, but that's just a guess. Robert Reina has reviewed both the Epic 2 and the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1; reading his reviews might help.

Andrew R's picture

Great artical as always Stephen. I wanted to know if you still planned a more detailed comparison between the Pioneers and the Wharfedales? I bought Pioneers this past summer with some influence from Stereophile, and they are fantastic. 

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you, Andrew. I'm glad you enjoyed the column and glad to hear that the Pioneers are working out for you.

Regarding the Wharfedales vs the Pioneers: Besides what I've covered here, I'm not sure I have anything really significant to add. They're both terrific speakers. I purchased the Wharfedales and I've still got the SP-BS22-LRs; I plan on using both in future reviews. If something strikes me as noteworthy, I'll definitely mention it, but, for now at least, I think I've covered the main differences between the Pioneer and the Wharfedale. 

AlphaMale2.0's picture

Nice review Stephen.

Do you perhaps know how they compare to the 9 series? From the outside they do not look that much different.

Sold my lovely black 9.5s, 9.2s and 9.cm about a year ago (eagerly yearning for a much better stereo stage) and replaced them with 2 Heco Statements. Never had any regrets (the Heco's are just superb!), but I do miss the Diamonds sometimes, somehow...

Perhaps, one day... I get me another set, next to the Statements.

street_stephen's picture

Stephen,

I enjoy your column very much.  We seem to have much the same taste, and I've found many of your recommendations to be terrific.

I have the Wharfedale 10.2s (sold for the price of the 10.1s which were unavailable at the time-- no doubt due to favorable reviews here).

I have a very small listening room -- 11x12x10 with the speakers blu-tacked to sand-filled stands near the front wall, slightly toed in towards a single club chair that sits agains the opposite wall.

I'm using SONOS --> Schiit Bifrost --> NAD 326BEE --> BiWired Anticables --> Wharfedale 10.2s

My question is this:  with a room that small, should I be considering adding a sub, and if so should I go with a Wharfedale to match the 10.2s or go with a pricier brand like a REL or a Velodyne?

Any thoughts you (or anyone else) may have on the subject would be very welcome.

Thanks,
Steve

Stephen Mejias's picture

My question is this:  with a room that small, should I be considering adding a sub, and if so should I go with a Wharfedale to match the 10.2s or go with a pricier brand like a REL or a Velodyne?

Hi Steve. It just depends on whether you think you're missing bass. In a room of your size, with your system, and the music I enjoy listening to, I don't think I'd need a subwoofer. But you might feel differently. If you do think you're missing low frequencies, you could certainly opt to partner your Wharfedale speakers with a Wharfedale sub -- that's probably what I would do, but not so much because of the sound, but simply because I prefer that kind of coherence or synergy among my components. Wharfedale isn't particularly well-known for their subs and I haven't listened to their subs, so I can't make any statements regarding their quality. I have heard and enjoy REL subs, however, and they are highly regarded.

street_stephen's picture

Stephen,

Thanks for the reply.

I don't hear any low-end missing in James Blake, Purity Ring, Trentemoeller, or Radiohead and my beloved Mahler sounds as thunderous and heartbreaking as ever.

I have found as I drift down the audiophile rabbit hole that I don't know what I'm missing until I've added some new piece to the mix.  For example, adding the Bifrost to the mix made a huge change in the depth and breadth of the soundstage that I didn't know was possible as I'm still such a noob.

You've seen and heard a lot, and I'm grateful for your insight.

I really enjoy your column, and I appreciate you taking the time to reply.

Utopianemo's picture

Stephen, 

How far from the front wall are your wharfedales?  I am planning on getting the 10.2's, but due to room limitations, I've got 18" max distance from back of speaker to back wall.  Based on your experience with the 10.1, do you think that's enough breathing room?

Stephen Mejias's picture

Hi there.

I have about 27" between the rear of my speakers and my front wall. But I don't see why having less space would be a bad thing.

jbucko's picture

Great article Stephen, as a budding 20-something audiophile (mostly thanks to my audiophile dad) I really enjoy your writing.

I decided to edit down my previous post...

Basically, I want to get entry-level AQ interconnects for my entry-level set up (Debut III, older Oppo player, Cambridge Topaz AM10) and I'm wondering if I would notice any difference between using mini-to-mini, mini-to-RCA, or iPod-to-RCA to hook up my iPod classic full of mostly AACs/MP3s and some Apple Lossless. If Stephen or anyone else has any thoughts it would be much appreciated, thanks!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks very much. I'm glad to hear you enjoy the column!

Sounds like you've put together a great system. I'm not sure if you'd hear a meaningful difference between those different terminations. You might. I haven't tried such comparisons, but, typically, I tend to prefer the iPod-to-RCA connection, simply because it feels most secure. The mini-to-mini might be easiest and most convenient, however, since you can go directly into the Cambridge's front-panel MP3 input.

cmuto's picture

Stephen, I just purchased a pair of the Diamond 10.1's. They are beautiful and the fit and finish suggests a much more expensive speaker. Stereophile made me aware of them and your approval was weighty in my decision to audition a pair. And they sounded great when I auditioned them and subsequently I purchased a pair.

My dealer told me they need 50-70 hours of moderate volume to break in. Did you observe a break in period, in which after the fact, the sound quality improved?

Stephen Mejias's picture

My dealer told me they need 50-70 hours of moderate volume to break in. Did you observe a break in period, in which after the fact, the sound quality improved?

Sounds like you've got a good dealer, in so far as he properly communicates the vision and needs of the company he represents. Wharfedale has told me the same thing about break-in -- noting, specifically, that the speakers' initial hardness will vanish over time. However, in my experience, with both well-worn samples and out-of-box-cold samples, the Diamond 10.1 never exhibited hardness. If anything, they sounded wonderful and involving right out of the box and, while I have grown to love them more over time, it's only because they're so nice to look at.

By the way, another thing Wharfedale has told me is that the Diamond 10.1 prefers to be wired at its topmost terminals, if not bi-wired. I've taken their word on that, but haven't actually performed listening tests to confirm it.

leberumen's picture

Hi Stephen,

I've been following your reviews for a little while as I am doing research on speakers and amps for my first decent audio system. I am seriously considering the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 paired with the NAD 3020 or Pioneer A-20. However, being incredibly naive about some aspects of audio equipment, I have a question. Is it a good idea to use active studio monitors (Behringers, see link) instead of dedicated speakers and amp? Are there any fundamental differences in the way they're made or the sound they will deliver? I understand you might not have listened to these monitors in particular, but I would like to get your general insight. Please advise and keep up the great work.

donunus's picture

I wonder if Audioquest makes the RCA to minijack cables with the opposite directionality. I need it to go from my DAC with RCA outputs to a portable headphone amplifier with a 3.5mm input jack.

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