The past few months have been very fruitful for me audio-wise, as there is actually much more product here than there's time to write properly about. Thus, rather than reviewing just one in depth, I've decided to do a smorgasbord today of audiophilia.
As a cheapskate of Irish-Scot descent, I'm always looking for relative bargains in everything audio. Why spend a fortune for something when you can get equal or close to equal quality for significantly less price? Thus, intrigue set in when I saw several auctions at the Audiogon site for interconnects from Black Mountain Cable, of Henderson Nevada. Since there was a need in my system for a 26 foot run of high quality balanced interconnects to my rear channels equipment, and I could not find a used set of reasonable value at that length, and they were auctioning off various types of their product with very low or no reserve price, I went to theirs, and various other sites, to see what was being offered by the garage crowd that Stereophile frowns on. The Black Mountain method of construction came closer than the rest to what I consider to be optimum configuration for interconnects, which was discussed way back at AA Chapter 5.
Interestingly, the years of experience haven't changed my mind on what I consider to be the significant parameters for cable construction. Matter of fact, my original silver foil self-made interconnects using the design and materials from Alan Wright of Vacuum State Electronics, still are the major interconnects in my system. The only fault I could find with them over the years has been a slight stridency in the upper registers, which seems to be endemic with silver conductors for some unknown reason. This was ameliorated a couple of years ago through the advice of Steve Klein of Sounds of Silence, who put me on to some speaker wire he was selling at the time which he felt sounded almost as good as his multi-buck Kondo Wire. Happily, it was relatively inexpensive for its value and did remove the stridency without muddying the sound and is still used on my main speakers. Unhappily, as with many companies in this field, the manufacturer screwed Steve and he has since stopped selling the product.
Black Mountain produces three grades of cable, their so-called Mountaintop, Peak and Pinnacle styles. All three use 22-gauge wire inside what appears to be a loose Teflon coating. In the Mountaintop configuration they use two twisted runs with ETI Bullet Plug RCA's which I've found to be excellent transmitters of energy without adding any extraneous junk to the signal, as they're primarily plastic with minimal metal contacts. Cost is $199 for the first meter and $20 for each additional meter.
The Peak Gold interconnects use a gold alloy wire with gold plating, with the RCA version using WBT plugs. There is also a balanced version using three wires in a braided configuration to further decrease RFI noise, and WBT gold plated XLRs'. Cost is $399/50. They also have a Silver version using sterling silver wire for $349/50. The wire I went for, of course is their Pinnacle. This consists of a 22 gauge gold-silver-copper alloy wire with gold plating terminated either with Eichman RCA Bullet Plugs or Neutrik top of the line XLR balanced plugs at $999/200. They can also be had using their silver wire for $50 less. I wish I could have reviewed all of their wire types to see what the difference is between the different metals and configurations, but my budget would only allow the one 26 foot run of their top of the line Pinnacle.
The cables are well constructed with a sturdy outer jacket, which is firm but flexible plus they are relatively thin and light compared to most high-end cables. To me, these are all good signs, as my gut tells me the less insulation there is, the less chance of damaging the signal. The XLR plugs are sturdy and well made, being of professional grade, using that term in the good sense. Before placing it in its final position running the rear channels, they were used as the interconnects going to my main front left and right speakers.
First, these cables are "fast." You may ask, "What does that mean?" Electrons travel at a certain speed in a conductor, and all should travel at the same speed with the same arrival times. But, different wavelengths travel at different depths along the wire, with the some of the energy actually traveling in the space around the wire. Thus, the thickness, resistivity, number of crystal boundaries, purity of the alloy, etc., plus the capacitive effects of the surrounding insulation, make for relative speed changes of the electrical wave traveling down (or over the surface of the wire), thus muddying the sound. So speed relates to the relative arrival time and cohesiveness of the wave. In other words, there is no mud with this cable, just clean signal.
On the other hand, there is also no "shininess" either. Now what the hell does that mean? Certain cables, especially those of pure silver, have a characteristic of over-representing the overtones of the music… like the previously mentioned problem with my homemade cable. To make sure this was not a problem being masked by the aforementioned speaker cable, I then ran the Pinnacle's to my rear speakers, which still use the silver speaker wire, and Voila(!) there was again no "shininess".
Unhappily, with my system configuration, there was absolutely no way I could measure their abilities in the mid-bass. Yet running them to my subs, which are flat to below 20 Hz, did not detract from their presentation compared to the short runs of Distech wire presently used. If I were to use one adjective for the sound, I'd say "burnished." Again what does that mean? To use concert halls as an analogy, I'd say the Pinnacle is the Boston Symphony or Carnegie Hall compared to Lincoln Center or Atlanta. Remember, that's in the good sense of the word. Also remember that this is a 26-foot run that the signal was being passed through, not a measly 1 meter.
All in all, I find these cables to be of excellent construction, quality and sound value. Also by buying direct from the manufacturer, one cuts out the middleman or men, which should make for pricing efficiency. If one is lucky, one may score at Audiogon, as the company has not caught on yet to the trick others have been doing of placing atrociously high minimum bids. On the other hand, my dear departed friend Sal Demicco, the original high end cable guy, let me in on the biggest supposed secret of the high end: cable is where the highest markups from actual construction costs of the product, are found.
I won't go into the esoterics of how this cable sounded in my system with various recordings, equipment, etc., because cable is probably the most system-dependent piece of gear. While it can be used to flavor a system, most of its changes on the system are small compared to changing a cartridge or speaker. Remember, speaker and interconnect wire can't improve on what your system is producing; only not damage the signal as much as some other wire. The problems are usually subtractive to the sound rather than additive, except for possibly not preventing RFI noise. So only you can determine the actual value of this cable to your system.
DAT Tape Warning
Last month, I mentioned that I had completed my project of transferring all of my DAT tapes to hard drive and DVD-Audio as they appeared to be deteriorating with dropouts and digital artifacts showing up. A recording engineer friend of mine in New York told me that the tapes should last for 100 years unless damaged in some way, and thought maybe the tapes were either defective from the get-go or had been damaged, but he has subsequently evaluated several of them and found that the drop-outs are definitely due to tape deterioration as one cannot record onto the same areas again, and not just a problem with them being damaged or losing the magnetization due to external fields. So anybody who has an extensive DAT tape collection may want to start doing either hard disc or disc backup of your most important tapes before deterioration sets in. Hopefully, the majors who used DAT in the past are also evaluating this situation, as we cannot afford another generation of music loss.
Walker Audio Prelude Record Cleaning System
Now that I've completed the DAT project, I've begun doing the same with my vinyl collection. I know, there is no way of getting all of the nuances of analog onto digital, no matter what the recording quality, but as I age, it's just too much of a pain sometimes to go through the fuss necessary to listen to records. My car also has a DVD-Audio player in it that turns two channel into surround sound and sounds very good for an automobile system, so the discs will also be used there. In addition, my phono system is at a probable peak now in reproductive ability, so now is the time before some part of it self-destructs. (Interestingly, the day after I wrote this, the left channel of my phono stage suddenly lost 12dB of gain after recording about 100 of my 500 plus records. How's that for forecasting the future. Happily it was secondary to as defective interconnect, but I'll try not to tempt fate again.) Besides, even Michael Fremer makes just CD's of his analog stuff to bring to conventions, and supposedly wows the rooms with its quality over store-bought CDs.
The phono system consists of a Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Turntable with Kondo-IO MC cartridge running through Kondo IO combination tonearm-phono interconnect to my Vacuum State one-off combo phono-preamp and 24dB crossover built to professional specs. Total original cost for those who haven't heard of some of the pieces, lists at over $60,000. How's that for audiophile excess. With the way my income is going down secondary to age, this high quality won't be replaced if and when something breaks. The analog signal is being fed through Vacuum State silver foil wire to a Tascam DV RA1000HD digital hard drive- DVD-Audio, DSD, CD Recorder at 24-bit/88kHz (AA Chapter 89), which is then being stored on hard drives and through the use of the Diskwelder Bronze and a computer with DVD drive, being transcribed to DVD-Audio. Each DVD-Audio can store about three average length vinyl recordings.
Finally, before playing a record the first time it is cleaned with an $1800 Loricraft Record Cleaner, and the phono stylus is cleaned between sides. All of the above is just so you can understand that I'm trying to be meticulous in the process. Thus, when Lloyd Walker called and offered that I try his new Enzymatic vinyl record cleaning solution, I figured "What the Hell, go for it." I'd actually been waiting for Lloyd to produce a vinyl solution, as he produces one of the best turntables in the world, is a vinyl fanatic, and had already come out with his Ultra-Vivid CD cleaning solution. But Lloyd, being an A type personality and fanatic, (sorry, Lloyd, the truth always hurts) wanted to do it better than previous solutions. He's used and recommended many of the competing products out there, my favorite being that from DiscDoctor, which has worked well on all but the dirtiest discs, where the Smart Devices strong solution used first did the trick to clean off the really thick muck.
Prelude is actually a three-step process. Included in the kit is a small container of a dry white enzyme mix, two small spoons and three bottles of fluid. The enzyme mix is proprietary to Lloyd, and is dissolved with his "Lab Grade" distilled water to make a fresh solution each day. Enzymes are actually proteins that act as catalysts for chemical reactions, and as proteins, break down fairly quickly when dissolved. It always bothered me years ago, when I'd buy a bottle of supposed enzymatic cleaning solution to think of the possible shelf life of the stuff. Here, no worry; it's always fresh.
While "Lab Grade" usually means triply distilled, Lloyd claims he also does other processes to make it even purer. (Maybe he's taking out the deuterium to sell to terrorists for making H Bombs, or possibly experimenting with building a fusion reactor to power his system. Anyway, he claims it's as pure as can be.) The third bottle, labeled Step Two, contains another cleaning solution. One mixes up the enzyme solution, bathes the vinyl side in it using a cleaning brush, waits ten seconds, then vacuums it off. Next the same type of bath is done with the ready mixed second solution, and the surface is washed once or twice with the lab grade water. All in all, it takes about 5 to 6 minutes to do the process with each record on the Loricraft.
Several testing methods were done, and each record was destaticized with Lloyd's Talisman (AA Chapter 85).
The final proof of its effectiveness was on my cartridge stylus. I normally clean the needle after every side with a Zerodust Stylus Cleaner, but decided to play several sides to see if there would be a build-up of gunk on the needle. Interestingly, even under a jeweler's eyepiece, there was absolutely no junk even after 10 sides. So the solution is removing most if not all of the contaminants from the record grooves.
That was enough for me. While my previous cleaning fluids did an excellent job of getting rid of grease and grime and surface noise, this three-step process certainly has improved on their efficacy. Using an operating microscope I have in my office, one can actually see the difference in the cleanliness of the grooves compared to records treated with my other solutions. Wish I could take a picture of the microscopy to actually show you the difference.
I'm sure Lloyd would like me to tell you that it's the best thing since the discovery of apple pie, with major improvements in soundstage, sweeter highs, deeper deeps, and smoother mids (which it appears to do by the way). But a cleaning solution is there to do one thing; remove the pressing agents and any extraneous junk that accumulates on vinyl even when the records are kept pristine in rice paper envelopes.
Prelude is now my cleaning fluid of choice. Lloyd's done it again. I've done about 150 records now, and have used a little more than 90 percent of the cleaning solution #2, and very little of the enzyme powder, and about 1/3 of the lab grade water. So at this point the volume of the Cleaning Solution #2 seems to be the limiting factor on number of records that can be cleaned per kit. At $85 per kit, that would make it about 50 to 60 cents per record. If Lloyd sold more solution #2 with the kit, the cost per record should drop considerably. How about it Lloyd? Also, Lloyd offers a 30-day money back guarantee, so if you're a little underhanded you could do maybe 50 records, then return the kit for a refund. Bet this won't put a smile on Lloyd's face. I'm pretty sure though that once you try it you'll be keeping it.
For next month's column there are two super high-end pieces of equipment being evaluated now: A Lexicon MC-12 pre-pro and a Tascam Esoteric SA-60 universal music disc player. Stay tuned.