Thursday, December 24, 2009
Friday, September 18, 2009
$1200 bucks! Are they made out of gold!? I heard that from my buddy Earl once or twice. You know, the guy with bolts in his neck, two teeth, and tin ear. The one you warn your friends about. Yeah, that guy.
Earl told me about his cables: they have fifty-nines pure solid core copper electro-cryo-servo-cooked on his time machine. Everyone says they’re the bee’s knees. Oh… you’ve heard that one before? So have I.
So what possibly could I have to say about these KCI Silkworm Plusses? Jeez! Ladies, be patient and let me take you on a bit of a journey! Close your eyes… OK, open them because if you don’t you can’t read my review. Your speakers are in the other room, people! Let’s be visual for a second and do some reading.
Let’s just say I have been around the block with cables. No really, I’ve probably had enough 1 meter interconnects and speaker cables to go all the way around the block. Twice.
Here are a few I’ve had in my system:
Cardas (golden reference ICs, golden cross speaker cables)
Transparent (super, ultra, reference mm2 in my system – through opus on other systems)
Tara Labs (The ONE),
Goertz (Boa MI-3, Tourmaline ICs)
Virtual Dynamics (Master, revelation, and Genesis),
Morrow Audio (MA3)
The pile of green needed to pay for some of these cables is pretty mountainous. Some are more expensive than others obviously. All of them, however, are over priced. Don’t get me started about Transparent and their turtle cables.
So yes, all over priced. Except for one: The KCI Silkworm+. If I told you about the construction of any of the other cables you would understand what I mean, markup on some of those cables is ridiculous. Again, call me if you want to know more.
So finally WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THESE EFFIN SILKWORMS?
I am not easily impressed with cables. I’ve used a lot of them. Some do things better than others. Ultimately it’s which cable does more of what is better. My reference has been Tara labs because they were extended and neutral, I didn’t feel like I was listening to the cable. They have excellent bass control, a wide/deep soundstage that is clear, solid and easily intelligible. Details are present and natural without roll-off. They WERE basically what a cable should be, and they did what a cable should do: get out of the freakin way! The Tara Labs were $3500 cables. Let me be frank: The KCIs are my new benchmark for interconnect performance.
The KCIs are the most beautiful-sounding cables I have ever listened to. John calls them warm, but I generally correlate warm cables with rolled-off highs. Highs are present, natural and beautifully articulate. The cable is fast without being forward. The soundstage is huge and breathes with uncompressed freedom. They have ebb and flow that is both engaging, relaxing, hefty, and emotionally involving. I have never, with all of the cables that I have listened to, been so emotionally charged by listening to my system. A cable has never made me smile, cry, or laugh quite like this relatively trivial upgrade has made me do. They are extremely lively, and capture the richness and vast harmonic structure of music unlike any other component I’ve had the privilege of listening to. They are clearer than my Tara Labs, and have a sound that I can only describe as “real”.
The Tara Labs may have a slightly deeper soundstage. But what is amazing is that I don’t feel like I am missing anything with the KCIs. Just getting more music.
I should probably make a comment about build quality. While I’m sure some of you will prefer Earl’s cables for their amazingness. I made that word up. It was needed to describe Earl’s cables. Good word. Anyways… The Silkworm+ build quality is superb. They come vacuum packed and in a nice set of overkill packaging. The cables themselves use the glorious Xhadow connectors, which in and of themselves are a work of audio art. The cables are solid and well built, not flimsy like Morrow cables. I was recommended not to move them once plugged in, as the solid 24karat gold tends to be finicky and hyper sensitive in terms of being moved.
John Prator, the genius behind the KCI curtain -- or rather lackthereof -- is a great guy, truly a good human being. He impressed me greatly with his kind heart and excellent service. When I purchased these cables he shipped them out and I got them a day later. He’s passionate and is too nice for his own good. I was offered no deals for writing this review. I was merely enamored by their performance and felt obligated to write something for him.
Any questions feel free to shoot me an email or give me a call. I will gladly describe the other cables I’ve used and give you both a technical and audible comparison of anything I mentioned.
Friday, August 21, 2009
In a perfect world all of your components would be soldered together. However, that isn't the case, they have a distance to travel. So we have our perfect AC signal traveling from our CD player to our preamplifier/receiver. What happens to it while it's traveling down the cable? Lots of things. There are a few terms: Inductance, Capacitance, and Resistance. All are important in their own right. Resistance is the... you got it... resistance to the flow of electricity. If our goal is to have all of our connectors soldered, then effectively we want zero resistance so that the current flows quickly and accurate. With Capacitance, that's how a cable filters the signal and stores energy. There are a few theories with capacitance. High capacitance often means that high frequencies are rolled off, but it also means less noise. Low capacitance means that you have a more detailed cable because frequencies aren't rolled off. Well why would you want either? If you have the proper design, you will be able to have low capacitance AND low noise. Inductance is when a cable charges and releases energy, which reflects back into the cable. It's why shielding is a double-edged sword. Shielding blocks EMI/RFI, but it also raises inductance.
So there are a few paths for cable design. NEVER buy a networked cable. I know Karen Sumner of Transparent, brilliant woman, she can sell snake oil to a snake. Networks are just .1 filter capacitors in a shiny resin box.
Her cables are stranded cables. Stranded cables inherently cause inter-modulation (most cheapo cables like blue-jeans, monoprice, etc., are stranded). Intermodulation is when a signal jumps from strand to strand. With stranded conductors, each strand has a different resistance. So when a signal is sent down that conductor, it is copied onto all the different strands. However, that same signal shows up at different times at the next component. This means some of the signal is out of phase, and some pieces of the signal are telling the speaker driver to move out, when at the same time other pieces are telling it to move in. Obviously loss of clarity.
Another design theory uses solid-core. This means one signal at one time and no intermodulation. Sounds perfect, right? Nope. There is a new problem that's face with Solid Core conductors. As the gauge size gets larger than 14awg, we get what's called the Skin effect. This is the tendency for high frequencies to travel towards the outside of a conductor. On the outside of the conductor they travel at faster rates. This also causes timing and phase errors. However, the larger gauge size also means more current. Current is speed, and it also allows a wider range of frequency extension.
Now there are a few other theories. Multiple small gauge, solid core conductors. If the gauge is small enough then the skin effect doesnt occur. With a solid core conductor that is isolated from others, then you also dont have intermodular distortion. Morrow Audio uses small solid core conductors without shielding.
Another idea is a flat solid core conductor. Both Goertz and Tara labs use this theory, and they are some of the best cables I've had the chance to listen to. The flat conductor is by far the most frequency-linear. This means that it doesn't emphasize any frequency, it's neutral and clear. Tara Labs cables have some of the best low-frequency extension and control of any cable i've heard.
There are even more options than this. The type of dielectric, copper/silver/gold cables, silver coated copper, etc.
Now what's my recommendation? I'd go with Goertz, Tara Labs, or Morrow Audio. All three companies make some excellent cables. I would buy cables before an isolation transformer. I am selling a custom-made Tara Labs cable right now. It was made custom using their RSC conductors and is the same performance level as their The ONE speaker cable. I'm selling it on audiogon for $1175, it's an excellently musical and detailed cable. It's called Tara Labs The EKC. Retailed for $3600 when it was being made last year. Ended up costing too much to make it so Brian Kurtz and Matt Sellers stopped making them.
Goertz is cheaper, but also excellent. I often return to my Goertz Boa MI3 cables for nostalgia purposes. I don't recommend Goertz interconnects. I'd go with Morrow interconnects or Tara Labs.
So let's take a step back to our signal path. Why do cables make a difference? Because of everything I said above. The more expensive cables use better dielectrics, higher quality conductors, and have more R&D behind them. Tara Labs uses Rectangular Solid Core conductors that are 8N pure... which means 8 nines.... 99.99999999% pure. Cheap conductors are maybe 99.9% pure. They are also soft-anealed. This means that they are one long grain. So the signal isn't jumping from grain to grain within the conductor. Jumping causes distortion. Those jumps cause vibration, and vibration is the enemy. So with a nice conductor you will have no noise, with a bad conductor you will have oodles of noise.
What does that translate to? Less noise means more spacial cues, deeper and wider soundstage by a large margin, more transparency, more frequency extension, clarity, musicality, and proper rhythm and timing. All those are sacrificed with a bad cable. Going from a cheap cable to a nice cable will be the biggest upgrade you've ever made to your system. Just try and stay away from snake oil.
OKAY onto the next question...
2. 220/240 is standard I believe. You can call and ask. I've never used it abroad so I'm not too familiar with those voltage ratings.
3. Yes and no. There are a lot of companies like BPT and Goertz that make balance power conditioners. Some people like them, some people hate them. To get a balanced unit like that, which has an isolation transformer in it, will cost you quite a lot of dough and probably won't do as well as one of the ugly jobbies you see on surplus sales.
The Isolation Transformer simply takes the whole electrical signal from the wall and stores it in a huge iron core on the input side. It then releases it to a smaller iron core on the output side that feeds your components. The key piece is when the electricity is released from the large input iron core to the small output iron core, it cleans the electrical signal according to the pF capacitance, in this case .001 pF is saying that the AC signal is cleaned (or background noise or soundstage) is reduced by 136 db. This is a drastic reduction. THE ONE THING that the Isolation Transformer DOES NOT DO is any kind of Surge Suppression.
The Power Conditioner only works on one leg of the electrical signal. Because it only cleans up one side (either the Hot or Nuetral side), it affects how the Power Conditioner makes the components hooked up to it sound. It's like using a stock power cord or a Dream State power cord or a Shunyata power cord, these affect the sound by the different materials they're made up of. The Power Conditioner USUALLY DOES PROVIDE Surge Suppression.
The bottom line is that the Isolation Transformer cleans the AC without adding any sound of it's own, and it reduces the soundstage noise a lot more than most of the Power Conditioners on the market.
I own an $1800 Transparent PowerIsolator power conditioner, and it doesn't even come close to what the Isolation Transformer did.
The bigger the Kva value, the better because of the AC storage on the input side, the bigger, the better the dynamics and bass power (headroom basically). 1.8 Kva is 1800 watts, 120 watts times 15 Amps. 2.5 Kva is 20 Amps, 3.0 Kva is 25 Amps. They say that the 5 Kva is the 'best' one to have for the headroom and ease, like a 500 horsepower engine will get you to 60 mph faster.
The lower the pF value the better: .005 pF = 126 db noise reduction, .001 pF = 136 db noise reduction and .0005 pF = 146 db noise reduction. Of course when you look at the website, the lower the pF, the more expensive. A 5 Kva with .0005 pF is $2,077.00 plus shipping. I paid $400 for the 2.5kva .001pF unit, though it was used.
1. Yes and no. Your components, like the XPA-1, also generate noise of their own that is sent back along the power lines. That noise infects other components in the chain. That's why many people say they cut the breakers on their refrigerator and microwaves when they are listening to music because it cuts out noise in power lines. By using an Isolation Transformer you are effectively isolating the components from everything else. They are not effected by other components that are plugged in, and they do no effecting themselves.
2. If you look on the surplus sales website, most of the Isolation transformers will tell you voltage in/voltage out. It usually will say 120/120, or 120/220 or 220/120... or any of the other ratings you may fine. Some go as high as 440 volts, others as low as 115. If you need it to work abroad, then look for ones rated 220/220. That means the voltage coming from the wall to the transformer is 220volts and the voltage leaving is 220volts. Often people will use a stepdown transformer from 220-110 to even greater benefit. This helps to prevent the transformer from becoming saturated and going into isolation.
It also means that a 2.4Kva transformer running at 220volts will output about 11amps rather than 20 as it does on a 120volt circuit.
3. Yes. I have used many power cables. I'll be honest, I was VERY skeptical myself at the effects of power cables on a system. But boy was I converted when I brought some home. I have used the upper echelons of Shunyata, Tara Labs, Lessloss, Virtual Dynamics, and a few others. Purist also makes good, but expensive, power cords.
They make the biggest different on CD players or transports. A large gauge power cord makes a good difference on power amps too -- the XPA-1s love a good power cord, the standard cords suck (for lack of a better term).
The basic reasoning is that the power from the wall is what the audio signal is created from. With a CD player, some of that current is used to create the laser that reads the CD, another bit of current is used to create the digital signal, and a third bit of current is used to convert that to an analog signal. If that power coming from the wall is noisy, then the signal you get from the CD player is noisy. This is why power supply design is so important, it helps to filter the noise coming from the wall (among many other things).
A good power cable should also help filter the power coming from the wall by use of capacitance and low resistance (among other things. If you want more info you'd have to call me because it's too much to type up). That being said, I've heard power cables in my system make as big a difference as a component change. They make a bigger difference than speaker cables and interconnects -- depending on the budget you're running anyways.
I am a believer in power conditioning. It makes a huge difference in my system. I'll probably buy another isolation transformer and sell my power conditioner though -- the isolation transformer is more neutral and actually does a better job at cleaning the power. My advice: buy power cables before a power conditioner. A power conditioner will help bring your power cables up another notch.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
On another note, I got a callback from an agency: Locke Management. I am meeting with them tomorrow, or today rather (It's evidently after midnight -- surprise surprise)! So we'll see how that goes. There was probably something else I was going to write about, but it's getting late and my brains are cooked from staring at a monitor all day. This is a lucky day indeed, usually I let you eat my brains raw. Dig in.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
When stepping through the threshold of the online retail living room we find the tendency of manufacturers to make equipment that’s “just good enough.” That isn’t to say that their equipment is bad or even sub par. It could very well be good, it just means that it’s just good enough so that consumers don’t go out and do the comparisons to slightly more expensive models.
More often than not, marketing mumbo jumbo predisposes us to like certain equipment before even opening the box. As was perhaps my conception of the XPA-1s, and they certainly are wonderful. However, rather than being happy with that judgment, the child in me who is never satisfied decided to compare this unit to some other amps I was also playing with at the time.
Before the XPA-1 I had been powering my mains with the XPA-2. However, I had also recently brought home a Bryston BP-14SST, Linn Klimax, and Mark Levinson 433 to play with. Also, a note before I get carried away: the price points of these items are in the realm of 5 times that of the XPA-1.
One of my concerns when purchasing the XPA-1 was that I might ultimately be disappointed with the upgrade, wishing I had just forked over the extra cash for the Levinson or Linn pieces, which I was able to get a good deal on.
However, I pulled the plug and ordered a pair of XPA-1s, unpacked and plugged the heavy suckers right away and started doing what I do. They sounded great out of the box, and after about a 15-minute warm-up their initial edge faded.
I don’t generally do in depth listening tests before a component is broken in, especially when comparing it to other units. And so I gave the amp 300 hours before actually taking notes on what it sounded like. This unit does need about 150-200 hours of break-in time before it sounds its best.
For most review readers, you want to know how a component sounds. And while I could sit here and describe, in my audiophile vocabulary stuffed with confectionary treats, how exactly the component sounds on my system, I feel that unless you have my system the response will always vary. So my review will be merely a comparison of the amplifiers listed and the sound and enjoyment I experienced from each. Personally I think components, like cabling, are very system specific when it comes to the actual sound you get. To have a good component it should be a neutral conduit through which the music can flow. It should add little and take little away. However, musical listening is all about fun, and neutral is boring right? Certainly not! I would go as far to call this a very neutral amplifier. This amplifier, which is smart enough to get out of the way of the music, is effortlessly fun to listen to. The 1000watts pumping into my low sensitivity Aerial 10Ts was like a fresh glass of lemonade on a warm summer day. The speakers drank up every bit of power this amp had, and happily dished out something that could only be defined as truth. I found my toes tapping, the music moving organically throughout my room, and received more compliments on my system than ever before.
Okay that’s great, Ryan. Big deal, this amplifier sounds good, there are lots of good sounding amplifiers out there. BUT, how does it compare to the big guns? Honestly, it’s not as good as any of them, but that’s to be expected. That being said, it does come relatively close in a few areas. The Levinson could be classified as extremely neutral and detailed with very good extension and openness. On film soundtracks the Levinson made an expansive sound field that was broader than the speakers and added a sense of scale that is absolutely superb. I heard information in ways I’ve never experienced before, this Madrigal amplifier is truly reference.
The noise floor of the XPA-1 is quite low. It exhibited exceptional clarity and detail, but wasn’t as forward in its performance as the Levinson. While the scale and openness wasn’t anywhere close to the Levinson amp, it was a big leap up from the XPA-2.
The Linn, on the other hand, is a very different beast from the Levinson. It is the most musical amplifier I have ever had the chance to listen to. The swing and acceleration of the music is both refined and foot tapping. While the Levinson is probably more accurate, the Linn is more fun to listen to. Every piece of music I listened to seemed to dance around the room, up and down, back and forth, and throbbed in ways which left an emotional appeal that the Levinson lacked.
One of the reasons I am happy with the XPA is that while it is detailed and open like the Levinson, it also provides a sense of musical acceleration and swing. Nowhere near the grand scale of the Linn, however. The XPA-1 is smooth and extremely easy to listen to. It’s relaxing and mesmerizing.
The Bryston is one of those units that you either love or hate. Bryston has a slightly cold sound, but it’s a pleasant sound that is exceptionally clear and controlled. I preferred the Levinson to the Bryston for detail, but the base control on the Bryston was unrivaled in any of the units I played with. The base is tight on the XPA-1, but it has an airier sense to it. It’s more organic, but less solid than the Bryston. I preferred the fullness of the XPA-1 to the clarity of the Bryston. This is a slightly warm amplifier, but I would more so classify it on the warm side of neutral rather than plain warm.
I also had the chance to listen to some Levinson 33H monoblocks. These mammoths, retailing at $24k outclass anything and everything short of a DartZeel amplifier. The large price tag surely made the fat lady sing in the most pleasant way. These and the DartZeel amplifiers are the best of the best that I have had the chance to listen to. I was able to listen to a friend of mine’s system running DartZeel Preamp/amps powering Evolution Acoustics MMThrees with TARA Labs omega/Zero cabling. If you ever get the chance to listen to any of this equipment, please ruin your life by doing so.
While this verbiage is veering most verbose, I want to briefly mention that my dealer stopped by my place and was very much impressed with my XPA-1s. I was able to play these bad boys on some of the systems there, but rather than making this review endless, just message me and I can add to this review if necessary the details of that adventure.
While it lacks in a few of the areas that the high dollar amplifiers excel, it is only a 1% difference. If that 1% loss saves me $8-10k then I am by all means happy to accept that deal. The XPA-1s will be staying in my system until I can afford something Earth shattering… like a 5-dimensional music system.
Mac Mini – server
Sumiko Pro-Jekt USB DAC Box
Mark Levinson 380S Preamplifier
XPA-1 Monoblock Amplifiers
Aerial 10T speakers
Cables were changed often: Virtual Dynamics Master, Goertz MI3 Boa, Transparent MusicWave Super MM2, TARA Labs The ONE.
So Internet, are you ready to hear what I have to say? Shall I brain dump all over your new rug? Don't worry, you can clean it up later.
Bare in mind that you are not crazy. None of what I just said makes any sense. At all. But I said it because right now I have nothing better to do, but say random nonsense on the internet. My next post will be my review of the XPA-1 Monoblock amplifiers from Emotiva.