Gramophone Dreams #61: The Art of Cable: AudioQuest, Canare, Kondo & the HoloAudio Serene preamplifier

I have this friend, a smart, good-looking young physicist from Argentina. Naturally, I call him "Gaucho." He lives in a glistening-white steel-and-glass apartment overlooking lower Manhattan. I visit him regularly, usually with a group of audio friends, mainly to compare recordings, drink wine, and talk hi-fi.

One day, unexpectedly, Gaucho invited me over to listen to his system—just me—so that I could tell him what I "really think" of his system's sound.

His digital source is Roon into a dCS Rossini DAC and Master Clock. His record player is the latest SME 20/3 turntable with an SME V arm and a Dynavector XV-1s moving coil cartridge, which feeds a van den Hul Grail SE transimpedance phono stage. These fine sources feed a 25W Kondo (Audio Note Japan) Ongaku integrated amplifier, which drives a pair of Avantgarde Generation 2 Duo Mezzo horn loudspeakers.

The day I visited Gaucho, it was snowing, and the big flakes swirling past his floor-to-ceiling windows put me in a pleasant, dreamy mood. While I sat on the white couch sipping black tea, he played three digital recordings followed by three LPs. I was listening mindfully but not critically, hoping to get a feel for the character of sound energy coming from the horns.

After the third black disc, he stopped and asked me quietly what I was thinking about the sound. I told him that the main thing I noticed was how all the recordings sounded equally nice, but that both digital and analog sounded strangely the same: ethereal, slightly generalized, and lower in density and contrast than I imagined they should. Had he ever noticed anything like that? He said, "No, but it sometimes feels like there are holes in the music. Not centerfill or soundstage extension—it's just this feeling that some notes have somehow disappeared."

While Gaucho played the next recording, I walked around the room to see how the system sounded in different places. Then I put my ear close to the mouth of each horn, listening for distortion. Finally, as I examined the components on his equipment rack, I noticed that he had connected both sources to the Ongaku with midpriced AudioQuest Water interconnects ($850 for a 1.5m pair) and his $90,000 Ongaku to his $60,000 Avantgarde Duos with nearly free Canare 4S11-based speaker cables he had terminated himself.

Having spent the 1990s as the US distributor for both Audio Note Japan and Avant Garde horns, I asked my friend why his dealer didn't push him to use Kondo's silver cables. He replied that the dealer did sell him Kondo's cables and that he still had them—but in this new apartment, with this new rack, the Kondo cables were too short. He bought the AudioQuest and Canare cables because he didn't want to spend even more "stupid money" for longer ones. He said he'd been using these wires for four years and was completely satisfied with the sound. Then he reminded me that he was a physicist, and that expensive cables didn't really "make sense" to him.

Further discussion revealed that Gaucho's too-short Kondo silver KSL-SPz speaker wires (which sell for $5k per meter-pair) were in a closet, easily accessible, and actually would reach the speakers, although they would have to be exposed on the floor in front of the fireplace. I convinced G to put them in "as a science experiment."

After the first side of the first LP, I asked my friend if he was noticing any difference. "Yes," he said. "The sound is much calmer, and the tone is much richer.

"It's weird, but for some reason, I am fairly sensitive to tonality. When it's right, I notice right away, and it invariably makes me smile." "Of course!" I responded, "To me as well. Tone is everything." Then Gaucho asked me what I heard.

I said that the difference was not subtle but that he should leave Kondo's wire in for week then put the Canare back. "Then phone me and tell me what you've learned."

Within 48 hours, my friend had purchased two 1.5m lengths of Kondo's soft, supple, silk-sheathed Ls41 interconnects at $7500 each and was text-bombing me with purple prose. "The fully Kondo-wired system has flow, like one of those minimalist Japanese ink paintings. It is complete, integral, gentle, and perfectly detailed. I keep coming back to my sense of completeness in the sound; I don't know why. The best analogy I can come up with is umami, the flavor that unites flavors."

Gaucho never put those other cables back in. Before that prescribed week of listening was over, he had spent more than $20,000 on silver wire.

The next time I visited, I asked my physics pal how spending all that money on audio wire squared with his science brain. He looked at me seriously, not smiling. "I am a physicist and know everything we hear can be measured. But what should I measure to fully characterize a sound system? What is a complete set of measurements that would uniquely allow me to identify good sound? That I do not know. What I do know is that scientific pursuit is about accurately describing what we observe, not aligning observation with model-driven expectations." What I imagine is that, whether sleeping or awake, my senses are inputting massive amounts of data—of which my conscious self appears to notice only a small, carefully edited fraction.

My spiritual side reminds me that I am what I give my attention to. Knowing and believing this, I try to notice what I notice and to assemble that data into the biggest, clearest picture I can, without prejudice. In audio, that means I am constantly struggling to step back and listen more objectively to the "sound of sound": trying to notice how different qualities of sound affect my ability to connect with and focus on recorded musical content. I also know that it has taken me a lifetime to know only a little about what I should listen for.

So: If some newbie audiophile has not learned to spot shifts in tone, dulled or sharpened transients, or the distortions in force, momentum, and density that audio components routinely inflict on sound systems, we shouldn't scold them. Instead, we must encourage them to listen and compare. Like Gaucho did.

To still-suffering cable deniers, I offer encouragement. Experience has taught me that meaningful differences in component sound character are never subtle—that they will be obvious to all experienced listeners and that a truly great-sounding audio system will sound conspicuously good to everyone in the room, including newbies.

Unfortunately, with audio cables, particularly interconnects, the sonic differences are not always conspicuous. The colorations that interconnects impose on system sound are generally caused by—and rendered less invisible by—whatever components the cable is connected to. That's the bad news.

The HoloAudio Serene line preamplifier
The good news is that the more electrically benign and sonically transparent those boxes are, the more easily we can recognize how much and in what manner the cables are affecting the sound.

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This became obvious during the last year while I was comparing a group of top-shelf DACs. At first, I was playing them all through my long-term reference Rogue Audio RP-7 line-level preamplifier, which I always regarded as extremely open and neutral-sounding. I enjoyed the RP-7's natural focus and superbly balanced tone. But after I removed it and connected the dCS Bartók and the Mola Mola Tambaqui DACs directly to the Parasound Halo A21+ amplifier, I realized that my BFF Rogue was imposing a slight, gray dullness on the sound. I set it aside for a while.

When I began auditioning source components without volume controls, I switched to Linear Tube Audio's Z10e integrated amplifier. It drives my Falcon Gold Badge speakers well, plays music with elite charm, and allows me to double-check my assessments with any headphone I choose.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Jack L's picture

Hi

Frankly, many "cable deniers" do hear the sonic difference among audio interconnects. It is the high costs of such cables relaive to the moderate costs of their systems that deter them from taking it seriously.

My skeptical ears found pure silver audio cables sound so much better than non-silver cables many years back: elegance, see-thru transparency & delicacy in widest dynamic range: from pianissisimo ppp to fortissisimmo fff that non-silver cables can't come close.

So I started design/building them years back thanks to my electrical power engineering background involving subtantial use of wires/cables. I don't need to wreck my banks to finance the exotic cable vendors.

One special feature of the 99.99% pure silver interconnects I design/built since day one: the music imaging & soundstaging do remain sharp, stable & intact even when blasting the music at very sound levels, say up to 100dBs.

Those oxygen-free pure copper with/without silver coating I tried just fail to keep the sound picture in shape at such high volumes playing same music.

Trust me. Try to play yr favourite music starting from low to very high sound volumes while visualizing how the imaging & soundstaging change.
At average low sound levels, even cheapie RadioShack type cables will sound OK.

Playing at high volumes is an acid test for any audio cables.

Knowledge is power of saving.

Listening with own ears is believing

Jack L

mcrushing's picture

Hello, Jack.

I'm a "cable believer" (or, more accurately, a "cable comparer-and-yes-they-sound-different-experiencer").

What I do deny - and as a DIYer you may agree - is the notion that a relationship exists between what a cable costs and the musical enjoyment it delivers. I'm sure Kondo cable sounds wonderful but design, materials and manufacturing - not the price - are the reasons.

I've been down the cable-DIY rabbit hole for some time as well, and in my comparisons between bulk stuff like Belden and Mogami I think it's less that one sounds *better* than the other, and more that each sounds *very different* from the other. The choice comes down to your personal taste, system and goals. (Belden 3079a, PVC outer stripped, teflon tape wrap w techflex jacket is my current IC weapon of choice.)

Silver is the next frontier for me, but even in the DIY arena, it gets pricey. Loved hearing your impressions of cables you've made... care to share any design info?

Thanks in advance!

Jack L's picture

Hi

Positive ! Why not sharing it with cable DIY friend like your goodself ?

FTI, Belden is for RF industrial applications, e.g. cable TV etc & NOT for audio. I would not touch it.

Yet you can borrow the idea pf Beldon's mininum loss for long distance RF transmission - Teflon dielectric used to insulate the electric conductors.

The dielectric constant of Teflon (PTFE/FEP) is 2.1, highest among common plastics vs vacuum=1, & air=1.0006.

(1) signal conductor: Technically, silver is the metal of highest electrical & thermal conductivity on this planet. That's why I experimented it SONICALLY & have chosen 99.99% pure silver as the conductor metal for ALL my audio interconnects & power cords. I love the silver sound. IMO, it blows away sonnically oxygen-free copper wires with/without silver coating (common 'hi-tech' conductors used by many exotic cable makers. High purity silver is not cheap to buy at all. Yet yours truly managed to get such pure silver affordably. Lucky me !

(2) conductor dielectric (insulation) :
air is the best (virtually very very close to vaccuum) & is freely
available. Teflon is the 2nd best next to air, expensive though.
So I've chose BOTH for for silver wire insulation strictly on
technical ground.

(3) shielding against RFI/EMI noises:-

It is a must considering WiFi makes the RF noise environmemnt worse.

BUT I would not use any overall metallic shielding like most most,
if not all, brandname cable makers, including Belden.
Technically, any metallc shielding around conductor(s) will generate
interconductor capacitance which messes up the music quality, IMO.
My skeptical ears detect it.
I've succeed provided the neccessary RF shielding WITHOUT using any
external conductor shielding. It frees up the music big bigtime vs
metallic shielding, IMO.

(4) Protective outer jacket for the silver cable - not too rigid to provide flexibility & mobility of the cable.

Well, that's it. Any cable fabrication details that makes or breaks it, would be my little intellectual property which is close to the public.

Listening with onw ears is believing

Jack L

mcrushing's picture

A twisted or braided (i.e., Kimber) solution is all my non-engineer mind comes up with to "shield" ICs without a braided sheath (assuming balanced ICs aren't an option). I was hoping to learn your build technique, but keep your secrets if you must. I found a couple 99.99 silver/PTFE options (and one with cotton) at prices reasonable enough for an experiment, so I'll give it a try.

Don't count out the bulk stuff, tho. Belden 8402 and Mogami W2549 are for pro audio and please my ears more than entry-Audioquest stuff I once had. Yes, 3079a is for industrial automation, but it's a shielded, twisted pair of solid copper conductors in FEP "foam" with a spec capacitance of 8.5 pF/foot. Replacing the PVC jacket with teflon tape/techflex *might* improve sound and definitely improves flexibility. With cheap switchcraft RCAs and Cardas solder, I think it helps analog gear sound bigger and more 3D, with a bit more HF sparkle than the microphone cables above. It does have a bit less midrange presence, though.

IMHO, cables are a bit like wine. If you can afford to drink Grand Cru Burgundy, you absolutely should. But if that's not an option, there's a well-made $28 California bottle that'll please you just fine. You just have to look hard enough.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Yes, there are supplies of 4nines silver/PTFE jacket, pretty affordable.

But not my choice for the best sound. I only go for both PTFE + air. Air is the best insulation dielectric next to vacuum (1.00006 vs 1). So I built it my special way !

"Belden 8402 and Mogami W2549 are for pro audio"

What "pro audio" ? For miles-runs audio interface in auditoriums/recording studios ?? I would not use such "pro audio" cables for home audios. Besides, they are not pure silvers, not good enough for me.

"cheap switchcraft RCAs and Cardas solder"

Yes, no need of exotic brandname termination connectors, which are more money pitching than sonic effect, IMO. That said, I only use non-magnetic jacks which deliver the eligant silver-like music I want !

Which Cardas solder? I always use lead-free silver solder for best jointing. NO lead inside to damage our health !

"there's a well-made $28 California bottle that'll please you just fine."

Yes, for wines, I go for red wine only on occasons, e.g. X-mas parties as I am non-alcoholic. So no expensive wine for me.

The best low-cost red wine that gives me monthful of lingering rich, smooth & CREAMY favour is: La Crema brewed in Russian Valley. California. Wow, it tastes like 10 times its $40 price !!! Crema Red is not available in any wine stores, & is fully booked by restaurants due to its low yield.

One time, I spotted some La Crema white in Costco, San Jose during my visit to my younger son & family there years back. But no where I could locate any La Crema red there ! Shame !

No, unlike breverages & food, I want to get the best sounding audios for my money value by DIYing them right. No compromise !

Knowledge is the power to save !

Listening with own ears is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture

La Crema wines brewed in Russian River Valley, CA.

Jack

mcrushing's picture

I believe Nordost traps air gaps beneath their PTFE insulation, while Tara Labs literally seals conductors within a vacuum.

Both seem far beyond my skills to manufacture.

I did run across Tempo Electric, who offer silver in "oversized" PTFE tubing on the idea minimizing the conductor's surface contact with the tube. To maintain this they recommend twisting your +/- pairs no more than once per inch – which seems problematic in an unshielded cable. Also: Silver + Air = tarnish. Silver sulfide is less conductive than 9999 silver. And, since RF is much more subject to skin effect than audio, a tarnished silver cable would seem present RF with a higher resistance. Am I right about that?

Btw, my 3079a ICs use "foamed" FEP. I understand FEP and PTFE to have a similar dielectric constants, and the foam structure adds air to the final product the jacket is made from. As I said, the spec is 8.5 pF a foot, roughly what I measure with my multimeter. On paper, PROFIBUS cable shouldn't sound good in a hifi system. Mogami microphone cable shouldn't sound as good as Audioquest Golden Gate. But they do to me.

As always, YMMV. But to anyone about to spend $60/foot for entry-level commercial hifi stuff, TRY IT. Worst case, you'll waste $25 and a couple hours on a working stereo pair of ICs.

I suspect I'll like silver better, as you clearly do. But to bring it full circle, I dropped the wine analogy as a way of saying I don't judge anyone's tastes or priorities. If I could afford to drink Grands Échezeaux or drop $20k like Herb's friend did, I would. But like you, I think DIY hifi delivers BIG value. So I appreciate the knowledge you shared. Cheers.

(And incidentally, I'm not into the creamy wines. I like less extracted, more bracingly acidic wines with only a little oak influence. Different strokes, different folks.)

Jack L's picture

Hi

Loosely twisted signal conductors NEED overall shielding to fight RFI/EMI, like Tempo Electric or whichever else cables makers do. So interconductor capactance will be added as bonus, affecting the music. The issue is that few brandname cable makers worry about the added sound affecting capactance. Either they don't detect the sonic defference or just take it for granted.

"Tara Labs literally seals conductors within a vacuum"

Yes, 4nines & purer silvers easily get tarnished by the sulpur contamination inside admospheric airs. Tara Lab uses vacuum to seal off the admospheric air. That's why such topnotch Tara Lab silver cables cost a fortune to acquire.

Well, I mangaged to home-brew my cable sealing which works fine after many years now: consistent ELEGANT muscial sound since day one till today. So it works. Of course, this very critical part of silver cable fabrication is not intended for DIY beginers.

"Mogami microphone cable"

I would not use any mic cable as interconnects. When you open up one such mic cable & check, you will know why.

Just imagine how much money I would have spent if I were to purchase pure silver interconnects (9 pairs for my rig today) & power cords from cable vendors assuming such 4nine silver cables & power cords available.

Work out yr own way that makes you happy! Not many audio guys get so addicated to silve sound like yours truly.

Listening with own ears is believing

Jack L

hb72's picture

you may use any other material for shielding as long as it is conductive (at least to some extent), as otherwise it is transparent or inert to electromagnetic waves (from WIFI or whatever).
Using e.g. carbon loaded plastics (as e.g. Audioquest does since ages), will help reducing susceptibility to EMI but since it is somewhat conductive, I wonder why such a material would not influence capacitance to some extent?

Jack L's picture

Hi

Sorry, any currents passing thru any conductive shieldings will generate a magnetioc field which interacts with the magnetic fields generated by the signal currents passinng thru the signal conductors - causing interconductor capacitance.

It just messes up the music sound, IMO.

The best is NO overall conductive shielding !

Jack L

Glotz's picture

Want the Serene more than blood itself!

s10sondek's picture

HR writes:

"Unfortunately, most reasonably priced linestages employ op-amps smothered in global and nested feedback and energized by excessively regulated power supplies. These software-optimized designs make preamps measure remarkably well—but they oversharpen detail, overheighten contrast, reduce atmospherics, and flatten space."

So how should I think about the tradeoff between the simplicity of circuit topology enabled by a well-designed op-amp versus the relative circuit complexity of a fully-discrete design?

Typically, subjective sharpening of detail is accomplished by injection of distortion or frequency response aberrations. But a great Opamp is measurably better in both regards. So how should I think about the mechanism by which an opamp causes this sharpening (or spatial flattening, contrast heightening or contrast reduction)?

In my experience, fully-discrete designs tend to blunt transient detail compared to an elegant opamp implementation. So I am trying to reconcile that empirical knowledge against a theoretical argument that is being suggested otherwise in this article. Is there a reasonable explanation that can be provided as to why a really good opamp should sound worse than a discrete component implimentation?

Also, I've always thought a well-regulated power supply was a good thing, reducing noise and distortion by ensuring that voltage remained steady throughout all current demands and with low noise, over all thermal and environmental conditions. Why would I ever think the opposite was true? Is there a tradeoff there as well that I should be thinking about?

I am not trying to be a jerk here. I am just trying to reconcile the posture of the physicist who opens the narrative against the statements that come later in the preamplifier discussion. And I don't think the correct answer is that "the physicist was wrong and learned his lesson." Rather, we should always be asking, why is empirical observation sometimes at odds with our scientific intuition -- and how do we reconcile the two?

Jack L's picture

Hi

An operation amplifier (or opamp in short) was a historic electronic device first invented by Bell Labs in 1941 using vacuum tubes. Not until 1958, Texas Instruments invented it in form of an integrted circuit or 'chip'.

In simple language it is a Dirct-Coupled (DC) high gain electronic voltage amplifier with a pair of differential inputs (one non-inverting & one inverting) & usually one single-ended output.

Its commom application is signal conditioning, filtering, to perform mathematical operations: addition, substration, integration & differentiation. Hence it is named "operational amplfier:.

As a physisist, hopefully you have already check out the circuit of a typical Op-amp: usually built up quite a number of miniature discrete biplar junction devices (or transistors/FET etc) with local & global feedback loops to achieve its controlled high gain for its common mathematical applications.

Yes, using standard bench test signals, e.g. sinewves, squarewaves & triangular waves, an op-amp can delivered immaculate figures, like THD, Noise level, etc etc.

BUT BUT an audio amp is for processing everchanging dynamic music signals formed of high orders of harmonics, not static bench test signals of single frequencies that simple. It is the capacitance, resistance & inductance inherently existed in the junctions of the bipolar devices forming an opamp that affect the passage of the complex musical harmonic signals. It makes even much much worse is the many built-in local & global feedback loops - very music harmonics 'unfriendly' - phase/timing feedback distortion.

Standard static bench tests does not measure realtime harmonic music signals.

Thank goodness, our ears can detect such dynamic harmonic & phase distortion caused by an complex constructed op-amps to the music that standard bench tests fail to achieve !

Only God knows when effective bench test methodology will be available to test dynamic music signals.

Less active electronics in the music signal path better will be the music signals sound. That's why yours truly only go for triode tubes which carry true linear signal transfer property. This is physics.

Listenig with own ears is believing

Jack L

JHL's picture

...from one of the true greats. This is a spectacular highlighting of what matters in fine audio and only what matters in fine audio - enormous enthusiasm, peer-confirmation of real, musical sound; working successfully toward that bliss, honoring the mysterious, and teaching the ethos by example - definitively punctuated by one of the greatest closing lines ever in audio journalism.

This piece leaves the reader yearning for more. If this is one story about one encounter, imagine the possibilities!

Glotz's picture

Smashed it on every level this (and every) month!

What's more he took his own journey to the next destination with honesty and candor.

hb72's picture

wonderful article of enormous inner beauty - at least to an audiophile cable nerd in search for music without holes.

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