Such were my concerns in the days following last November's New York Audio Show, where I first encountered High Fidelity Cablesan exhibitor that generated considerable (figurative) buzz by promoting the use of magnets in an audio system's interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords. Indeed, by the end of the first day, more than one showgoer had asked me, "What did you think of the guy with the magnetic cables?"
The guy with the magnetic cables was Rick Schultz, a Canadian whose base of operations is now the Dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas (footnote 1). After hearing Schultz explain the reasoning behind his designs, and after listening to a High Fidelity Cables-wired system in the demonstration room next doorsponsored by Star Sound TechnologiesI was sufficiently interested to request review samples of HFC's entry-level product: the Magnetic Adapter, intended to be used inline with the buyer's existing interconnect or digital signal cable (footnote 2). Soon thereafter, I received from HFC a starter set ($299) comprising two Magnetic Adapters and small quantities of contact cleaner and Stabilant 22 contact enhancer. (Like the wines I tend to order in restaurants, this set is the second-least-expensive thing on the menu; a single Magnetic Adapter for a digital signal cable can be had for $189.) The implication seems to be that HFC's moderately expensive interconnects, speaker cables, and AC cordsthe prices range into five figuresoffer even more of the improvements in sound promised for the Magnetic Adapters.
The Beloved Question
At roughly the time Gustav Mahler was working on his Symphony 2 and the well-intended Grover Cleveland was wrapping up his first term in the White House, British physicist Sir William Crookes demonstrated the changes in trajectory exerted by magnets on streams of free electrons, in the form of what were then called "cathode rays." (Sir William also believed in ghosts: another story for another day.) A century and a quarter later, I watched as Rick Schultz demonstrated, with the aid of an old-style cathode-ray tube, the very same effect.
Schultz proceeded to explain that standard audio cables are merely electrically conductive, while his products are magnetically conductive. I think we all have some understanding of electrical conductivity, on at least an elementary level: Atoms within a conductor have the right number of "free" valence electrons to enable the conveyance of an electric charge. As for magnetic conductivity, although the math Schultz talked about was over my head, I was given to understand that a key element of his concept is the use of magnetism to counter the ravages of skin effect, the phenomenon whereby AC conductivity is significantly lower at a wire's core than at its surface (footnote 3).
Skin effect, a byproduct of the electromagnetic waves generated by alternating currentthe swimmer struggling to overcome the turbulences created by the act of swimming, if you willbecomes more severe as AC frequency increases. Thus, it would seem that Schultz's concept of allowing "the magnetic fields [to] guide the electrons through the conductor," as he put it to me, is nothing less than the use of magnetism to combat . . . well, magnetism. Viewed critically, it is an attempt to counteract a complex, naturally occurring, continually shifting, and presumably intricate pattern of flux lines. Such a task would, I believe, require more than just attaching a magnet to a piece of wire.
And it seems that Rick Schultz has, in fact, delivered more. The HFC Magnetic Adapter is a 3.5"-long metal cylinder just over ½" in diameter, with an RCA plug at one end and an RCA socket at the other. Each Adapter contains a total of 49 neodymium magnets, arranged in specific patterns according to their polarities. (Schultz says he uses an assortment of testers, including specially made compasses, to align the magnets during assembly.) Of those 49 magnets, four are tiny cylinders stacked inside the pin of the Adapter's specially designed RCA plug (I'll come back to this in a moment); the remainder are disc magnets of two different sizes.
Electrical connections between the hot conductors of the socket and plug are made not with wires or metal bars but by the magnets themselves; the ground-to-ground connection appears to be made through the Adapter's metal housing, which proved to be conductive even through its exterior finish. Using a common multitester, I measured a resistance of 2.1 ohms across the hot conductors of a Magnetic Adapter, while the ground-to-ground resistance between the two RCA connectors fluttered between 0.0 and 0.1 ohm. (The latter measurement is also what I see across the bog-standard RCA-socket-to-RCA-socket adapters in my parts bin.)
HFC says that all of their products are directional, and all are marked with arrows indicating proper orientation. Magnetic Adapters are offered with plugs and sockets arranged for input or output use. My review pair was an output pairmeaning that, for a preamplifier-to-power-amplifier connection, they should be plugged into the preamp. And so they were.
The Hateful Question
With my system fully warmed up, I listened to a few well-loved recordings, then installed the Magnetic Adapters and listened to them again. At first, making the physical connection between the Adapters and the output jacks of my Shindo Masseto preamp proved difficultsurprisingly so, given the unremarkable appearance of HFC's RCA plug. A closer look revealed that the male contact of this plug is split rather than solid; not only do the segments of the pin flare outward, but the metal has been shaped to form a bulbous tip of larger diameter than the pin's shaft. Later, Rick Schultz explained that this PinLock plug is a proprietary design intended to enhance conductivity by eliminating the "micro-arcing" associated with a mechanically poor connection.
I persevered, and with a little more effort the connection was made. I didn't bother with the included contact cleaner or contact enhancer, for three reasons: it seemed safe to assume that HFC would not send samples that required maintenance; because I plug and unplug my interconnects so frequently, I don't believe that they require such ministrations; and in assessing the Magnetic Adapters, I wanted to base my findings on only a single variablethe application of magnetism.
The first record I played with the Adapters in place was of the Ensemble de Solistes des Concerts Lamoureux performing Milhaud's Les Quatre Saisons, for two pianos and eight instruments, under the composer's direction (LP, Philips 6504 111). Compared to my system's pre-HFC performance, the change was subtle but readily detectable. The sound of the entire ensemble gained in smoothnessindeed, smooth was the first word in my listening notes, written almost without thinking. But that smooth sound was also duller, less contrasty, and altogether less interesting. I had the unshakable sense that, compared to my system without the Magnetic Adapters, there was something between the music and mewhich, I suppose, there was. (I didn't measure the Adapters' resistance until I had completed my listening tests.)
There were pluses. Dynamic peaks were peakier: In the portions where the ensemble's two pianists were both playing rather loudly, my system seemed marginally louder than it did without the Adapters. But removing them also removed from the sound a film of murk whose presence I had not at first detected. Without the HFC products, the violins again stood proud of the other instruments, and the oboe line became more audible and intelligible.
After hearing similar results with a few other LPs I changed course, removed the Adapters from the line-out jacks of my Masseto, and plugged them instead into the outputs of my Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player. This time, I based my comparisons on a number of tracks from the Beatles' Anthology 3, a 1996 collection of outtakes and alternate versions from the final third of the group's career (2 CDs, Apple CDP 8 34451 2). My responses to "Cry Baby Cry," with and without Magnetic Adapters, pretty well summed up my thoughts: After listening to the song twice through without magnetic conductivity, I plugged in the Adapters. Two seconds into the song, I realized that the tone of the strummed acoustic guitar had changed: Its midrange tones were now more prominent, resulting in a quackier sound. John Lennon's lead vocal sounded finethe opening chorus and verse are just Lennon and his acoustic guitarbut then, from the moment the drums and electric bass enter, the song sounded tired and listless: The pace dragged, and the players sounded bored.
The differences were so clear that I wondered: perhaps, by the third time I'd played the song, I was just sick of it? So I grabbed another albumthe Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken (CD, Capitol 5-35148-2)and, with HFC's products still in the loop, played just one verse of "Lost Highway" before pausing, removing the Magnetic Adapters, and playing the song from the beginning. With the Adapters, the pace was laggy and lackluster, and the reverb-drenched spoken intro sounded desultory and, again, tired; with the Adapters removed, this broadly paced tune was rhythmically more on track, and more purposeful: Les Thompson's mandolin accents on the downbeats now seemed to push the band in a straight rather than a straggly line.
That seemed a good enough place to pause.
Remember a Day
As I indicated in one of my posts from the New York Audio Show, meeting Rick Schultz and hearing such good sounds from the Star Sound Technologies system left me impressed and optimistic: I was anxious to try a High Fidelity Cable product in my system. I was surprised when that technology pushed the sound of my system in the wrong direction.
Then I recalled a day, some seven or eight years ago, when an equipment supplier visited, bringing with him a moving-coil step-up transformer to try. As longtime readers of this column know, I love step-up transformers, and while I've heard some that sound mediocre when poorly matched to their surrounding gear, I have never heard one that I thought sounded bad per se. My mind was about as open to step-ups as my mind can be.
Footnote 1: High Fidelity Cables, 901 N. McDonald Street, Suite 502, McKinney, TX 75069. Tel: (844) 348-6292, (214) 614-7111. Web: www.highfidelitycables.com.
Footnote 2: During the first week of December, Rick Schultz informed me that he will soon offer Magnetic Adapters for speaker cables.
Footnote 3: See the second page of "The Essex Echo 1995: Electrical Signal Propagation & Cable Theory."