World Premiere Review!
Last night I finally took on the challenge of cleaning out the top drawer of my filing cabinet — the one marked "Audio". With the vengeance of Marie Kondo I pulled out the fat hanging folder labeled "My Stereo". Over the next three hours I divvied it up into "My Stereo" (current), "Old Stereo" (inactive), "Former Stereo" (sold off), and one for "Turntable." One piece of paper, one brochure, one sales receipt at a time. There were little block diagrams of systems built and dreamed of over the years.
Print-outs from my years surfing rec.audio.high-end newsgroup. A letter to John Hellig of Musical Designs documenting my trip to CES in Chicago in 1993.An obituary letter of the death of my friend John Barnes of Audio Unlimited in Denver. Linda had warned me that papers would be the hardest part of decluttering. Those five inches of file space were a deep dive into my three decades of being an audiophile, and almost as many years as a writer.
The sadness that overcame me as I sorted papers into the early morning hours came from the realization of how slow the journey has been to get to where I am today. Like many, I started mixing entry-level components into my cherished mid-fi system, one piece at a time as I learned the language and more importantly learned how to listen. The 1990s were a boom time for high-end audio and Stereophile grew from digest size to full-size magazine as I made annual pilgrimages to the Festival du Son & Image in Montreal. Cables, DACs, and power conditioners were burgeoning categories. I made my cables with Canare, Mogami, and silver-plated mil-spec wire from a local distributor. I bought used equipment and made do with a Tripp-Lite power conditioner. The first decade was real slow going as I worked two careers and kept my fitness honed in three sports.
The pace picked up when I started writing show reports for Enjoy The Music.com in 1999 and in 2000 we moved into a new house where I had a spacious room dedicated to music. At last, I felt I could start reviewing gear. If not my very first, then certainly one of the earliest reviews was the then-new JPS Labs In-Wall cable for dedicated lines. I installed this 30 Ampere line along with a 20 Ampere line of standard Romex for direct comparison. That review is still linked on their website today and that's when I first became a "cable guy." Sort of.
They had come a long, long way. Not only was I once again highly impressed with the audible contributions of this new generation of cable, but I was really happy to lose all the wall-wart power supplies of the earlier Tesla power cords and the QLS power strips required to plug in all those switch-mode power supplies. The Teslas happily migrated to smaller systems in my home where the power supplies were less of an inconvenience. Those power strips, on the other hand, have certainly come in handy from time to time in reviewing other gear — think bi-amping with monoblocks, for example, when I needed more than eight outlets.
The next wave of Synergistic cable came to me in the form of a complete loom of their new Foundation series of interconnects and speaker cables. And like the previous two waves, it resulted in a rave review in January 2020, just before Covid struck. Not only was it comprised of trickle-down technology from their Galileo flagship models, but it fell into the breadbasket price range of a lot more people than their Atmosphere series. It wasn't thick. It didn't look fancy, but man, it got the job done and made me wonder if they weren't undercutting the value of their Atmosphere cables. I felt like the Foundation series was right in synch with the rest of my system — not too expensive, nor leaving me wanting for better.
The Full Loom
Having the cables integrated from source to speakers ensured that gains made coming from the source were only minimally diminished by the preamp and power amp as they proceeded onto the speakers. It was not just a matter of keeping a "house sound" by using cables from different series of the same brand, but using the exact same series from the source to the speaker with colorations added only by the components themselves.
Granted, doing a system with multiple sources can run up the bill. I certainly wouldn't begrudge someone from stringing new cable from their most important source to their speakers if that's what they can afford at any given point in time. And if you can only afford to upgrade a single interconnect, I would also suggest you put it on your favorite source component and jockey your other cables accordingly. Sure, they all matter, but rivers flow from the headwater to the ocean.
Power Cords, Dedicated Lines And Duplex Outlets
Having the Tesla active power cords on most of my gear, except for a few captive cords (tuner, turntable, and CD transport), took my rig up a whole level that immediately felt very comfortable. The $900 cost of a 5' T3 in 2011 would today be $1135, a bit less than the Atmosphere Alive SX ($1495) which is their entry-level in this series. The Atmosphere Excite SX power cord in this review is offered for $2495, a healthy step above the Alive. The Euphoria SX power cord takes another $1000 step up for the standard cord, or $3895 for a High Current version.
This new SX series is at least a couple of series newer and a decade younger than the Tesla power cables they replaced. And the SX series interconnects and speaker cables are only two years newer than the Foundation series I have been using. To say the change was transformative would be an understatement. I've had a chance to hear their Galileo series cables at a show, and the Foundation series originally seemed to bring my rig close to that level. But hearing something at a show and hearing something at home are quite different experiences. The Atmosphere SX series slates in between the Foundation series and the Galileo, which itself is now a step below their flagship SRX line. So you say you're looking for a $30,000 pair of speaker cables? In a world of oligarchs, or even mini-oligarchs, that's not an unreasonable product. You can spend even more elsewhere without much looking around.
Still, it's hard to keep up with the McJones' even when shopping within Synergistic Research. The reason being is that they are a research-based company, never satisfied to rest on their laurels, driven by the "What if…" that is emblazoned on their corporate cerebral cortex. My audio buddy Tom quipped that by the time he saved up enough for a new Atmosphere SX power cord, they'd be coming out with a new model. While they do seem to introduce new products every few months, many of those are in the category of less essential products. And in many instances, the original product stays in the line as an 'entry level' while more advanced products are added above them — think MiG footer or the Ground Block series that now offers a MetaGround accessory.
The cable series seem to be on a roughly four-year developmental cycle. If you buy at the year of introduction and skip a generation, in 8 to 10 years you will likely experience a profound performance upgrade and, hopefully, be financially better off enough to afford the replacement or move up to a higher series. If the performance improvement of the Atmosphere SX series is as great as the jump from Orange fuses to the Purple (whose technology contributes to the SX cables) the Atmosphere SX is likely a big step up from the previous Atmosphere series. I can't verify that as I've moved up two generations from the original Atmosphere series.
I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree.
We all have preferences and priorities. Let me lay out my cards from the top of the deck. The highest is resolution to compensate for my aging ears. But not the piercing kind. I like a touch of warmth. I need a fairly sharp attack to catch the consonants in the lyrics, and this also is key to recognizing the timbre of different instruments. Next, I like the transparency that lets me see and hear as much of the soundscape as possible from a given recording. This transparency enhances tonal color which I find very engaging. Dynamics are high on my list but they are likely more dependent on correctly matching your amplifier and speaker. A quiet cable, particularly a power cable, that eliminates noise can certainly be a significant contributor to dynamics, I've found. A sense of space — the dimensional volume as well as the ambient cues of the recording venue, often correlating with a sense of bloom, is very seductive for me. This is not the same thing as imaging on a soundstage, but that too is often a result of the combination of this sense of space and high resolution. Pinpoint imaging is an artifact of stereo. It's nice. I'll take it, but it seems to be more a result of high resolution and proper speaker placement so it comes with the territory when your cables give you high resolution. Timber often pops up as a delightful surprise, though I don't go looking for it. Pace rhythm and timing is the bedrock of rock 'n roll, which I love, but doesn't factor in for me as much with classical, or jazz and ambient, which I also love. These personal priorities are obviously highly subjective.
So How Does
Synergistic's Atmosphere Excite SX Score?
My hot-rodded Sony ES tuner was sounding as good as CDs. How can that be? On Hearts of Space, host Steven Hill sounded more like he was in the room rather than in a sound booth. Had he switched mics? The deep, fuzzy chestiness of his voice became clearer with a more physical presence as it moved up in pitch. The ambient program music was more focused — so much so that I had to flip the MiG footers to the more spatial orientation that was appropriate for the music. The enhanced transparency allowed for more accurate recognition of the instrumentation that often falls into the ambiguous area between real instruments and electronica.
My Calyx 24/192 DAC had just achieved a very significant improvement in resolution, transparency, and dynamics with the DIY addition of an Audio Sensibility DC captive cable for the linear power supply. I was thrilled…until my buddy, Tom, loaned me his $6000 DAC to play with for a long weekend. Although I was still using the previous generation Atmosphere Alive X digital cable the solidity of image, transparency, and resolution brought out by both the Excite SX RCA and XLR interconnects told me I was going to be looking closely at DACs at the Montreal and Chicago shows.
In a similar fashion, I was highly impressed with LP playback running 1m RCA interconnects from my Coincident Statement Phono Stage to my Coincident Statement Line Stage. Both of these have been in my rig since 2010 and are treasured for their resolution, transparency, and dynamics. Still, LP playback improved in each parameter with the Excite SX. I was later stunned by the arrival of the new Charisma Audio Musiko turntable (review forthcoming) that totally outperformed the Linn LP12 turntable I have painstakingly modified over the past decade.
Running XLR balanced Excite SX interconnects from the Coincident preamp to my AGD GaNFET Audion monoblocks was also a step up in performance, but not as shocking as with the previously mentioned source to preamp connections. Both of these amps are supreme products with excellent resolution, transparency, and dynamics so the improvement was more modest. Nonetheless, it was important to maintain the sonic signature.
Switching over to my Eddie Wong monoblocks with parallel 300B tubes using RCA Excite SX interconnects was a different story. There was an increase in resolution and transparency with more bloom, spatiality, and tonal color coming through, and surprisingly a somewhat tighter bass, which is always welcome when using 300B tubes in SET mode. With the SX cables in the rig, my tube monoblocs gained enough transparency and resolution to now challenge the AGD monoblocks in those dimensions. And their sense of space was excellent, as you would expect from these tubes.
Finally, adding in the Excite SX speaker cables, the image improved further with greater resolution, more taut bass, and a greater sense of air. While I may sound like a broken record here, the improvements were similar from one step to the next and the effect was cumulative, though most impressive at the source end of the chain. As for my speakers, I've been looking for an excuse to buy new speakers for years now, but the addition of Bybee Technologies Quantum Clarifiers to the midrange and woofer, plus the Synergistic Research HFT speaker kit, then the Foundation speaker cables, and now the Atmosphere Excite SX — I keep running out of excuses. These Kharma Ceramique are better than the Eveready Bunny. Not only do they keep going and going, but they keep getting better and better. What's a guy supposed to do? Spend 30 grand on new speakers I don't really need?
Well, how about subwoofers? Now there's an idea. I vacuumed the cobwebs off a pair of prototype Tekton Design subs with both a sealed 12" driver and an open baffle 12" driver mounted directly in front of it. I cobbled up connections with the Foundation speaker cables and original Atmosphere power cords and I was off to the races with bass from my tube amps now coming closer to the bass with the AGD monoblocks. The set-up looked tidy, and a flick of the phase switch to 180 degrees locked them in with the Kharma. With a series of SPL readings in the bass range, I found the sweet spot that gave the best tonal balance. It took a couple of days to get used to having deep bass, flat down into the mid-20Hz range, after all these years without it. And changing from feeding the signal from the power amps with speaker cables (Rel's preference) to feeding them from the second pair of RCA outputs on the preamp tightened up the deep bass considerably.
When removing a new component under review, I usually experience an immediate large change in sound quality. Backtracking the cables revealed only very slight changes each time and it was tedious. The changes seemed to get a little larger as I approached the source but I felt like I could easily have been fooled in a blind test. When I finally reached Square One with all my original cables back in the rig (except the power cords to the amps which are difficult to install behind my rack) I could acknowledge the sound had lost some resolution, but the music was still very enjoyable and the sonic signature was basically the same…as you would expect with all these cables coming from the mind and the ear of the same designer. These cables all contain varying degrees of silver in their construction which aids in the commonality of their sound.
At this point, the question lingered, "Are all the cables from this one source to the speaker really worth $22,485?" The cost of having a separate DAC and monoblocks drove the price up $5000, not including the digital cable. The only way to answer that question was to plug all the Excite SX cables back in at once and have another listen. With the exuberance of a 20-year old and the body aches of someone with an additional half-century, I recalled the pop-up ad on my computer for a t-shirt that reads: "I don't know how to act my age. I've never been this old before."
I re-installed the Excite SX cables, hit play, and… BAM! Buddy Guy burst into the room.
Before I hit the leather seat of my listening chair $22,485 suddenly seemed like a perfectly justifiable expense. This was better-sounding music than saying what a fine pair of Classe Delta Classic monoblocks will cost you. (I had just auditioned them at The Speaker Shop in Buffalo two weeks ago.) That my amps (and every other component in my rig) cost a lot less is a testament to my careful selection of components. Or was it the case that the Excite SX cables brought my components up into this more exalted price range? And just how would I know the difference? What my ears tell me is there is no arguing with the enticing improvement that occurred. And did I mention that my toes tapped pretty much throughout this entire review process?
So What's A Poor Boy To Do? (Carbon Tuning Discs)
Guess what?!!! They really work. And they give the Foundation interconnects and speaker cables a generous taste of the Atmosphere Excite SX cables on hand. A couple of packs of these hors d'oeuvre might hold you over a year until you can buy new cables. But if the money is just sitting there, earning pitiful interest, why wait?
Andy Wiederspahn at SR requested some feedback early on. I wrote:
The short story is Wow! After only a couple of hours of playing with them (Purple & Gold), individually and in combination on the Foundation XLR cable coming from my DAC and the Foundation speaker inputs, it is clear the Carbon Tuning Discs are one of the major tweaks of 2022. As claimed, they give the Foundation cables a very significant taste of the upgrade to the Atmosphere Excite SX for only a couple hundred dollars, making them as big a value as the Purple fuses. If these discs do for other cable brands what they do for the Foundation, Ted Denney is either giving away the farm or he's cunning like a fox.
As it turns out, SR is including a set of Carbon Tuning Discs, free, with each pair of their newest entry-level SR30 interconnect, speaker cable or power cord. I haven't heard the SR30 cables, but these could easily be the best entry-level bargains out there. Technology has a way of making things happen.
But the story darkens. An audiophile acquaintance tried the Carbon Tuning Discs on my recommendation. He was obviously a very acute and knowledgeable listener. He was frustrated with having to apply the discs in different positions, never quite finding the perfect position on his cables or his gear without some minor drawback. The good news is with this and most other Synergistic Research products, you get a 30-day money-back guarantee, so the risk is minimal.
Thinking outside the box, I subsequently tried the Carbon Tuning Discs on the line-level RCA cables feeding my subwoofers. One was a long Canare GS-6 guitar amplifier cable and the other was a Kharma cable with a blend of copper and gold. Neither of these cables exhibited the more obvious improvements I experienced with the Foundation cables. I also tried the discs on the Atmosphere X Alive digital cable where I experienced a subtle improvement. So it appears your mileage may differ with the Carbon Tuning Discs and you may find you have to play around with placement to achieve the optimum effect.
The Bigger Picture
The Synergistic Research Excite SX (as well as their other cables in my experience) are not like that. With their high resolution, transparency, and dynamics the Excite SX captures your attention and draws you into the music, closer to the feeling of experiencing it live than if it were simply a recording. Listening with the Excite SX is an energizing experience as if the drink in your hand was a Coke or Mt. Dew. Instead of the music washing over you, it invites you to go exploring inside for rhythms, sounds, and interplay among the musicians that you will not hear with a lesser cable. The mental energy you used to expend trying to figure out what the lyrics or chord progressions were can now be used to re-discover or re-examine the music at a new level, or engage in your own fantasy of actually being at the performance or in the studio. Small wonder that the levels of the Atmosphere series are called Alive, Excite, and Euphoria?
I used to say when the sound got really good that I could taste the skin on the drums. With the Excite XS I was now conscious of the shape of the drum and its physical volume…in addition to the taste of its skin. (Talk about involvement!) Whereas the Foundation series gave me a big boost in resolution, the Atmosphere Excite SX gave me an additional big boost in resolution with a huge dollop of timbral information. Except for the occasional record with a heavy local dialect, the lyrics were never a strain for interpretation. They flowed like Broadcast English on the Evening News. If it gets any better than this, I'm going to have to buy tickets to get into my listening room.
The Atmosphere Excite SX models sits in the middle of the Atmosphere series, which itself resides in the middle of the Synergistic Research line of cables. You can spend $13,000 for a 1m pair of their SRX interconnects, or $399 for a pair in their new SR30 series. At the top end, you are funding the research; at the bottom, you are reaping some, but not all of the rewards. And at the top, you are buying qualities that likely don't exist at lower levels. I have no idea of what their sales distribution looks like, but they wouldn't be making such a broad product line if those cables were not selling. You get to pick at your comfort zone, or reach above it if you wish to more fully expand the sound quality of your system. Given the improvement of the Atmosphere Excite SX cables over the Foundation series I was using previously, I suspect the Atmosphere SX series is the sweet spot of their range from a cost vs. performance perspective, though I've only heard their higher-priced cables at shows.
I loaned an Excite SX power cord to my audio buddy, Tom, who had just dramatically upgraded his system with the purchase of Wilson Sabrina speakers (used) and a new Classe Delta stereo power amp that came with a DR Acoustics power cord. A week later he wrote:
"I've been running the Atmosphere Excite SX power cord that you loaned me on my preamp. It makes a substantial improvement over the Audience power cord that I have been using. That Audience cord has apparently been discontinued, but the MSRP was $1260 a couple of years ago. The SR cable is significantly more transparent than the Audience cable, with better transients and more detail. The improvement that the SR cable makes to the sound of my system is what I would expect to hear if I bought a much more expensive preamp. The question that I've been asking myself is whether there is another way that I could spend $2500 and get an equivalent or a better improvement in the sound of my system. So far I haven't been able to think of one.
I certainly don't want to encourage people to spend above their means, but I also don't want them to under-spend for cables and miss out on the true performance their components are capable of delivering. (Have I said that before? Perhaps it's becoming my mantra.) My experience with this loom of Atmosphere Excite SX has shown me that I've been guilty of making that error myself. It also reinforces my belief that cables should be treated as a major component rather than purchased one cable at a time from different brands whenever a good deal comes along. Somewhere I read:
"IMO, cables are so system dependent for example,' And is the reverse also true, 'Systems are so cable dependent?"
If you're spending $20,000 on a pair of speakers or an amplifier, shouldn't you also be spending that kind of money on a loom of cables — at least from your primary source to the speakers? Buying all at once this way improves the likelihood that you will have a match between your components and your cables that will have the sonic signature you desire. And with a bigger ticket, your local dealer may be willing to give you a break on the price. Using different cable brands with different sonic signatures as a way to compensate for different components can be a time-consuming, difficult and expensive task. Some people choose that path, often buying used as a way to keep the cost down, but there is not always a 30-day return policy if you make a mistake.
PowerCell Power Conditioner Upgrades
Fit, Finish, And Technology
Here's a photo of the Foundation and the Atmosphere SX RCA connectors. It's a big step up, yet snug fit no matter which you choose. While I couldn't peel back the shrink-wrap, the design of the exterior suggests more than typical technology lies within.
Rather than restate the technical specifications, I'll send you to their website where you can examine the incremental improvements as you move from one level to another. You can find the power cord chart at the bottom of their web page. And the comparison of interconnects can be found at the bottom of their web page.
While the active shields of the Atmosphere SX power cords are internally grounded (no more external power supplies) the interconnects have a ground pigtail for connecting to any of the SR Ground Blocks. The speaker cables have no separate ground connection, but they feature a Gold Tuning Bullet that is trickle-down technology from the Galileo series. The Gold Tuning Bullet contributes to the sense of space for which Synergistic cables are so well known and adds a bit of liquidity. The Silver Tuning Bullet (also from the Galileo series) is available as an extra-cost option with the Excite SX for people who wish for a presentation with greater air and detail. The Silver is included with the Gold in the Atmosphere Euphoria SX models. I'll address the grounding feature in a follow-up review that will focus on their Active Ground Block. It's a definite plus.
At some point, later in life, we acquire fine components, realizing that they will become our "forever" amp or loudspeaker. The Excite SX cables qualify for that status for me. I wish I had reached this level a decade ago. But in the case of Synergistic Research cables, who can really say "forever"? Ted Denney and Synergistic Research are showing no signs of slowing down their creativity or technological innovation.