World Premiere Review!
Rich Pinto was almost to Syracuse on his way home with the Treehaus Phantom of Luxury speaker that I had just given a rave review. I wanted them back. After dinner, I fired up my reference rig with my Kharma speakers meticulously reinstalled and it sounded like crap. Could the Kharma be that boxy sounding in comparison with open baffle Phantom of Luxury? Or, wait... could it be....
Rich had picked up on my comment about replacing the captive DC power cord in the separate power supply of my DAC and offered to solder the two small wires for me. With my compromised vision and a soldering gun the size of a vintage electric drill, I was afraid of buggering up something in the tight quarters where the new cord had to be installed. I gladly accepted his offer (which was hardly quid pro quo for writing the review).
The story goes back to last year when I did a review of the Audio Sensibility Signature Ethernet And DC Power Cables for the SOtM sPS-500 power supply with the sMS-200ultra network renderer. I also wanted to replace the DC cord feeding my Calyx 24/192 DAC, but realized that it was captive to the upgraded power supply. The 20 AWG generic wire was an embarrassment to all the audiophile cable in the rig.
Original DC 20Ga wire.
As the months passed I kept thinking about that flimsy cable feeding one of my main sources. I also kept thinking that the Calyx is also ten years old. I've reasoned that it must still be competitive given the addition of ERS paper, AVM (Anti-vibration-material), High Fidelity Cables NPS 1296 goop, and Synergistic Research MiG 2 footers and their Tranquility Pod that embellishes the old girl. My buddy, Tom, has further tempted me to buy a new DAC by offering to loan his PS Audio Direct Stream DAC.
How Difficult Could It Be To Install A New Captive Cable?
While Rich carried the boxes of speaker drivers out to his car, I cleared a space on the kitchen island and popped the hood on the power supply. I also disengaged the collar that protected the cable where it entered the chassis using a pair of needle-nose pliers. Rich plugged in his Hakko soldering station and checked the continuity of the wire.
The DC input can be wired with the center pin hot (+) or ground (-) and with luck this will be labeled on the chassis as shown above. Likewise, the circuit board should also be labeled + or – where the wire is soldered to it. Steven Huang at Audio Sensibility needs to know this, along with the diameter of the barrel connector at the time you order. He stocks 2.1mm and 2.5mm, and can easily obtain 3.5mm, 4mm, and 6.3. Don't be discouraged if these are not what you need as he may be able to source something different for you. I had to call Bernard Li at Charisma Audio to find out the correct diameter for the Calyx.
I ordered the Statement SE from Audio Sensibility which uses 7N purity OCC (Ohno Continuous Cast) copper. It is a twisted pair of 16 AWG, solid core, with a cross-section of 1.31 square millimeters, with Teflon insulation and assembled with Mundorf Silver-Gold Supreme Solder. The stock wire is 20 AWG, stranded, with a cross-section of 0.52 square millimeters. Considering the Audio Sensibility wire is high purity, OCC copper, as well as cryogenically treated in-house, you would expect a noticeable improvement. I also expected it to be a little warmer sounding than the Signature Silver DC Cable which is more than twice the price. Given that I am not expecting to keep the Calyx DAC forever, the copper Statement SE model made sense to me. Keep in mind as you're deciding that the Audio Sensibility prices are in Canadian dollars so USA customers will be paying in fewer USD.
You could also ask for a bit of a discount for not having the source (power supply) end of the cable terminated. I was expecting the unterminated end to be just cut-off wire, but Steven Huang is a guy who likes to exceed your expectations if possible. As seen in the photo below, the Techflex expandable sleeving was trimmed back and secured with heat-shrink. The individual wires were stripped at the ends, and little bands of black and red heat-shrink were applied to the positive (red) and negative (black) wires. I was impressed with his forethought. Rich checked the continuity and we were good to go.
Prepared cable ends.
Or so we thought. De-soldering the original cable was easy enough, but we were dismayed to learn the holes in the PC board were too small for the new 16 gauge. wire. I offered Rich a utility knife to try and shave down the exposed copper end but that didn't do the job. Plan B was to file it down with a small triangular file I had on hand. While awkward, this did the job. Plan C was to grind it down carefully on a benchtop grinder in my shop. It might be a good idea to have an extra piece of heat-shrink handy in case the one supplied becomes dislodged in the process of filing the bare wire ends. (Don't ask me how I thought of this.)
With the ends filed down to fit into the holes on the PC board, Rich fed the cable through the portal on the back panel of the chassis. Depending on your particular chassis, you may be able to salvage the plastic retainer that holds the cable tight in the chassis opening. In my case, we were not able to re-use it because the new DC cable was too thick. Instead, we applied a piece of shrink wrap to the cable at that point so any incidental movement would not cut the Techflex sleeving on the edges of the opening. We further secured it with a cable tie on the inside so that any pulling or tugging on the cable would not affect the cable inside the chassis. Rich also anchored the DC cable with a second cable tie so it would not contact the capacitors.
Cable going through chassis.
We plugged the power supply in and turned it on. The green "on" light came to life without incident, which was nice because I had a $200 Synergistic Research Purple fuse inside that I had forgotten about. (It might have been prudent to test it with a basic fuse.) I installed the power supply in the rig, put a CD on 'repeat' and the DAC light shone purple. We were good to go. Rich packed up his tools and hit the road to make it home that night with the Treehaus Phantom of Luxury keeping the rear tires firmly on the road. Linda returned home with take-out and we had dinner while the cable silently cooked.
After dinner I reinstalled my Kharma speakers and fired up the amps, keeping the preamp on mute for a while. The disappointment mentioned at the outset came when I took the rig out of mute. After listening to the Treehaus speakers for a month, the Kharma seemed dull and lifeless, wanting for more transparency and focus. Maybe this was my perfect excuse to buy new speakers?
If you're bothering to read this article at all, you already understand that cables make a difference and they also need to burn in and settle down. Fortunately, with this DC power cable in the front end I could leave a CD playing 24/7 to do just that without having to listen to music or put another couple hundred hours on the 101D tubes. Every day I would check in on them after dinner and the sound was all over the map. When it reached a point where the music was sounding pretty good I started to write. As I reached the point of talking about sound quality I thought it had been a couple of weeks since the Treehaus were here. But no. It had only been 120 hours.
See the girl with the red dress on
By 150, and now 170 hours, the music blossomed far beyond 'pretty good'. The resolution had improved dramatically. The soundstage had solidified even more with greater depth and greater focus at that greater depth. There was excellent transparency but without any glare, as if I had switched to polarized eyeglasses. The sibilance had been eliminated in all but the most blatant instances. Cymbals had more realistic shimmer. The rainstick was quieter because there was less noise from the instrument due to the higher resolution. Re-masters of long-dead blues singers came to life with greater cognitive recognition, but still not close to 100%. Virtually all the music I used in this review came to life with such ease that my whole body relaxed to the point where I could enjoy it much more without struggling with obscure lyrics or blurred drum beats. The bass, long under scrutiny with only a 9" woofer in my large listening room, tightened up to the point where it was now acceptable. Were my Kharma speakers now off the selling block once again?
Most impressive was the increase in dynamics. The Audio Sensibility DC cable is 2.5 times as thick as the original captive cord. Combine this with all of the cable's other fine attributes for more current and cleaner signal. Rim shots were explosive. Dynamic range was more dynamic given the quieter background and the fast rise time of the AGD GaNFET amps. The pace, rhythm, and timing seemed impeccable according to both my brain and my tapping toe.
Equally impressive, but more subtle, were the micro-dynamics — the slight fluctuations in a note, or a singer's voice, the sound of very faint notes and how they disappear, notes that you never heard before in a familiar song. All of this was happening as I simply relaxed and listened at my normal listening levels without having to turn the volume up to dig for detail.
With My Tube Amps
What was happening here, in essence, was the improvement in the DAC was emphasizing the difference in the amps further downstream. But the Magic Tube Research sounded better with the Audio Sensibility DC cable feeding the DAC than before the DC cable was changed. The resolution had improved, the soundstage enlarged and the tonal colors, one of the strengths of the 300B tubes, became more vivid.
Overall, the AGD benefited more than the Tube Magic Research from the change of the DC cable. I bring this up because everybody's rig is different and your experience may be less enthusiastic than mine, just as I was more enthused with the AGD solid-state amp than the much lower-powered tube amp.
Hi-Yo Silver, Away!
If you are pretty happy with the tonal balance of your rig, going to silver might give it more of a "you are there" or live performance perspective. In this regard, ask yourself if your listening habits tend toward listening to one or two CDs or albums as if you were going to a live concert, or do you listen to lots of music for hours on end, possibly while doing other things. If you answer more to the former, I'd say go for the silver. If you lean into the latter, the copper cable will be more conducive to long listening sessions. It's your rig, and you get to choose.
And me? I'm going to postpone my final answer until Tom brings over his PS Audio DAC and I've had a chance to audition a few others. In the end, it may not make sense to spend thousands more for an incremental improvement from a new DAC, which leads us to the issue of value.
"One thing that still perplexed me with the CLPS [power supply] was the captive cable from the power supply that plugs into the DAC itself. My audio engineering friend... tells me that DACs require very little current, but the 20 AWG unshielded miniature zip cord seems like a gross oversight in comparison with the military-grade cables with screw-down collars that Israel Blume [Coincident Speaker Technology] uses with his massive power supplies. Perhaps I should try wrapping it in strips of ERS paper. But their website mentions that the DAC has a "clean power regenerator inside" so maybe that takes care of any noise picked up along this thin captive power cable."
It wasn't until Steven Huang came out with his DC power cords that I gave it much further thought. Re-discovering that it was a captive cable on the Calyx power supply bumped it from the original DC cable review. But after hearing the improvements it brought to Tom's SOtM streaming rig, the thin captive cable became highly suspect as the weakest link in my chain. Simply put, for $100 to $200, depending on the length and connectors, the value of the Audio Sensibility DC power cord, for what it brought to my Calyx DAC, is simply off the chart. The improvement was even greater than with Tom's SOtM gear, and certainly, your results will likely differ too. But in a rig upwards of even several thousands of dollars, I highly suspect the results will be well worth the expense. Tom thought so, too, and bought the review samples for his SOtM gear. Whether you have a front-end source, headphone rig, or SOtM streamer, if it has a rather ordinary DC power cable or a flimsy captive cable like the Calyx, I suspect you will make similar improvements for a lot less money than purchasing a more expensive component.
In the case of my Calyx DAC simply replacing the cheap DC cable with the Audio Sensibility Statement SE copper DC cable was transformative. The key was to recognize the original wire as the weakest link in my system and then find the courage to open the power supply to determine if it was do-able. For someone with a bit of DIY experience, this is a reasonably easy task. Other components will undoubtedly vary somewhat, but if my results with the Calyx DAC are any indication, your results should be well worth the effort. You may be astonished by the untapped sound quality that already exists in the gear you already own. I only regret that I waited this long to make the leap of faith. Steven reminded me that today, most separate power supplies use connectors at both ends of the DC cable, so this may be a simple plug 'n play replacement for you — not a DIY project at all. Check out Audio Sensibility and give Steven Huang a call if you need something that is not in his inventory. Go for it.