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Jun 10, 2011

The Importance of Cabling

Posted by The Advanced Audiophile

This one's not about Beltism. (Or is it?). It's about something I always knew, but rediscovered tonight. The importance of cables. In this case, we're talking power cables.....

I had a listen to one of my cd players earlier, an Arcam Alpha. I had not heard this thing in years. My intention was to compare it to another one of my cd players, a Marantz CD-63. The Marantz was really the one in the spotlight, as I was preparing to give it to a friend, having another listen to it before it goes for good. It may be a low budget audiophile thing, but it really is a good player, all around. It's lively, exciting, plenty of distinct tonal colors, and it gets most things right. If I had to nitpick, and it would be that, it can be a trace hard sometimes around the mids, and doesn't have the expanse (in soundstage) of more expensive players. Nor should you expect it to, nor is that the be all and end all.

The Arcam Alpha is quite a different beast. Of UK design, this I'm guessing is two or three times the cost of the Marantz. And it feels like it, as its built to a much higher standard. It's also capable of a higher degree of resolution, that much was in evidence during a comparison. But... was it really better than the Marantz? My brain wanted to say "of course not" but my ears were saying "are you kidding me?". Yes, it could resolve things better than the Marantz, yes it was less congested, but everything had a greyish coloration. It was too smooth. Remember, it had been years that I'd heard this, so I attributed it to the older DACs of older players.

While listening to it, I imagined myself reviewing this for a magazine, saying "Sorry, but this doesn't quite do it for me. Everything is smoothed over, everything has a homogenous tone. No distinction in timbre of instruments being played, and despite the smoothness, it still manages to be strident in some areas.". That would be of course followed by a lot of tears and anger, and controversy from a lot of people. For how could I dismiss such a "fine player with a fine reputation". And yet.... I was ready to call this one for the Marantz! It was rough around the edges, but it sounded more like music. It even tracked better than the Arcam. So why give away the Marantz CD-63, if the Arcam Alpha was less satisfying to listen to? CD after CD comparing the two players next to each other, convinced me that "perceived price/quality be damned", I should just keep the Marantz, and give away the Arcam.

Just before concluding that I was better keeping the Marantz (as much as I wanted to keep my Alpha), I decided to try something.... power cables, to be specific. One of the advantages the Arcam had was a detachable power cord, so you could easily change it. My thinking was "What if this is all due to a power cable?". I wasn't sure if this was the original power cable, because it was grey. But, the power cable on the Arcam was clearly marked "Arcam power cord", so that I don't get it mixed up with others. I don't quite remember, but it is possible it wasn't the original cable, and that "as a tweak", I had tried out different power cables in my posession, and fitted the one I thought best on to the Arcam. So doing the reverse, I pulled all the IEC power cables I could find in my system. Out of my DAC, out of my jitter reducer, and I don't know where the third one came from, but I had gathered up three more power cables (all of them black and looking alike, as they were standard manufacturer equipment-fitted cables). Which I then proceeded to listen to, attached to the Arcam. I listened to one after another, comparing them to the grey cable, and though I hoped they would resolve the problem, they may have changed a few little things here and there, but they did not change the major complaints I had with the sound. Which is that it was boring, grey, dull and lacked differences of tone/timbre. Then I tried the last one.

And that last cable seemed to cause the Marantz to blush. It was obviously a natural fit with the Arcam Alpha.  The tone and timbre that was lacking was now there, the stridency was gone, the greyness gone, and it was so much more involving to listen to, that it made me forget I was supposed to be just testing the unit. Listening to the Marantz again, made it seem like the Marantz was much worse than I remembered, from a few minutes ago! There was really nothing the Marantz could offer at this point, over the Arcam. I was perfectly pleased with the rejuvenated Arcam. And I know my friend will be perfectly pleased with the Marantz. Especially since I plan on "Belting" it. Making the CD-63 a "CD-63 Super SE Platinum Signature Edition With Cherries On Top").

I think what this anecdote shows is that my listening skills today are a lot better than what they were ten years ago. And they were brilliant ten years ago! But no, I made a mistake with the cables, by not listening to the right elements at the time. Now corrected. Never let them say "a power cable can't make a difference, it's only one meter long, there's miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles of cheaper cable going from the power plant to.....". Audio dweebs can be such nebbishes sometimes. Just whip 'em with a power cable, like in the Devo video, and say "Tell me, Mr. Cable Skeptic Jr. Does that make a difference?!".

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