Synergistic Research cables John Atkinson
"I see you don't believe in audiophile power cords!"
Synergistic's Ted Denney III was poking around behind my equipment racks
Well, I didn't use to. While I had found PS Audio's Lab Cable to work well with the company's Power Plant P300, and while I routinely used Audio Power Industries' Powerlinks with source components, I had never experienced night-and-day sonic improvements from an AC power cord.
This explanation didn't faze Mr. Denney. "So I'll start by replacing just the Krell's AC cable with a Designers' Reference AC Master Coupler."
I need to backtrack a little. After Chip Stern had submitted his text for this review, we learned that the Designers' Reference interconnect samples he'd written about were about to be superseded by the X Series. These featured slightly reworked alloy conductors but, more important, extended the Active Shielding concept to SR's Designers' Reference speaker cables (with power cords soon to follow). Blue LEDs are now used at the "receive" ends of the interconnects and speaker cables to indicate that their shields are floating above ground potential. (Note: This DC voltage—I measured 30V—is referenced to a separate drain conductor, not the signal conductor. I couldn't measure any bleedthrough of the shield voltage to either the hot or ground signal conductors.)
As it was not going to be possible for Chip to update his review comments, I agreed that Ted could install the new X-series cables in my system. I moved the active Meridian DSP8000 speakers (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) temporarily to my storage room and set up the system I had been using before them: Revel Performa M20 minimonitors on 24" stands, driven by my vintage Krell KSA-50. The digital front end was all Mark Levinson: No.31.5 transport, No.30.6 D/A, and No.380S preamp. Speaker cables were the excellent AudioQuest Gibraltar, and because the Krell has only single-ended inputs and the balanced outputs on one channel of the No.30.6 had failed (for the second time in less than a year for this 9-year-old sample), I was using unbalanced Canare interconnects all 'round, these fitted with the excellent Neutrik RCA jacks and purchased from pro-audio dealer Markertek a couple of years back for my testing lab.
Denney plugged in the Synergistic power cord and flicked on the Krell. I hit Play on the Mary Chapin Carpenter track we'd been listening to: "This is Me Leaving You," from Time*Sex*Love*, Columbia CK 85176. My jaw dropped. Of the amplifiers I have used over the years, when it came to bass impact and perceived extension, the Krell had been beaten out only by the Levinson No.20.6 and No.33H monoblocks. Yet with the massive Synergistic cord, with its four twisted bundles of green-finished, screened conductors, I could have sworn there was another half-octave of bass extension.
We listened through to the end of the cut. We went back to the generic AC cable, then back to the Designers' Reference Master Coupler. Same difference.
"How much is the AC cable?"
Two thousand bucks. This was more than the Krell had cost me new back in 1983. We moved on to the X Series Designers' Reference speaker cables. These look similar in size and construction to the Master Coupler and are available in versions suited for solid-state and tube amplifiers. Price, in the 10' lengths Ted had brought with him, was $6000/pair—more than twice as much as the Revel speakers themselves. We listened to Mary Chapin Carpenter again. A less obvious change in the sound than what I'd heard with the AC cable, but in the same direction: more perceived low-frequency extension, this time with slightly better image focus. (This was without the Active Shielding switched on.)
Then we replaced the two pairs of unbalanced interconnects with the $2000/pair Synergistics, again without the Active Shielding powered up. A slight but pervasive treble grain was gone. The midrange sang. The soundstage was wide, deep, and well-defined. We listened again to Mary Chapin Carpenter, this time "Stones in the Road," from Party Doll (Columbia CK 68751), with its wonderfully captured round-wound bass-guitar growls. We listened to an advance dub of the new Dylan CD, this issue's "Recording of the Month." The system was definitely cooking.
One caveat: The massive construction of all the Designers' Reference cables and the inherent stiffness of the foamed polyethylene dielectric makes cable dressing very important. If appropriate care is not taken, the components' RCA sockets might have strong sideways forces exerted on them.
"How about Active Shielding?" I asked. Denney unpacked the Master Control Center, which has three pairs of BNC outputs per module (it can house one or two modules), plugged it into the wall, and hooked up connectors to the flying 1/8" sockets on the interconnects and speaker cables. The six blue LEDs lit up and we sat back to listen to some of the cuts we'd been enjoying.
The sound was...
Let me digress a little. When I was mastering the Let Your Voice Be Heard CD for the Minnesota-based male choir Cantus, it took me a while to decide on the precise equalization needed. The main microphones had been a pair of large-diaphragm Neumann M147 cardioids in an ORTF configuration, which I used because of their excellent presentation of the soundstage. However, at the necessarily distant mike position, the lower mids were intrinsically rather lean. I did use a second, spaced pair of B&K omnis, which helped balanced the sound in the final mix, but some EQ was still necessary to best present both the tonal quality of the voices and the soundstage.
The Z-Systems rdp-1 I was using to apply parametric EQ in the digital domain allows a considerable degree of control over both width and center frequency of the band being boosted or cut. This was just as well; I found that changing the degree of boost by just 0.2dB made all the difference between a sound that was tonally true and one that sounded slightly "overcooked" in the lower mids.
Let Your Voice Be Heard includes the choral chestnut "Danny Boy" in a refreshing arrangement by Cantus' musical director, Erick Lichte, that makes much use of close harmonies in the baritone range. With not quite enough boost in the lower mids, the tonality was a little cold but, paradoxically, the view into the soundstage seemed less clear than it should. Clicking up the boost with the rdp-1's rotary encoder by 0.2dB at a time was like operating a camera's focus control: When the EQ was just right tonally, it also opened up a clearer picture into the recorded soundstage.
I have discussed this phenomenon at some length because the change in the presentation due to the Synergistic cables' Active Shielding was very similar. No, switching it with the Master Control Center didn't equalize the sound. But the effect on the perceived soundstage was an identical sense of the perceived sonic picture coming into focus. This difference is, admittedly, small—but it became more and more important to me as I continued my auditioning.
Explanations? The only plausible one that comes to mind is that, as the shield is no longer connected to the components' grounds, those grounds are no longer required to sink any RF hash or interference. Even in the best-engineered products, there will always be a slight degree of resistance between their ground potential and true ground, meaning that any RF that needs to be sunk to ground will give rise to some noise.
Whatever—the explanation is not as important as the effect on the sound. My experience confirms Chip Stern's (and Jonathan Scull's) very positive impressions of the handmade Synergistic Research Designers' Reference cables and the Active Shielding concept. But at what a price!—John Atkinson