What? I hear you say: Why is Puccio reviewing a piece of hardware? And a controversial part of the hardware chain at that, a pair of interconnect cables. I thought he was a music-only man. Reasonable enough. But it is the hardware that allows us to hear the recording, so the equipment seems fair game. Besides, I decided it was time for a change, and what better a change than a pair of audio interconnect cables.
Again, I hear you asking: Why audio cables? I mean, everybody already knows that cables either (1) make all the difference in the world in the sound of a hi-fi system or (2) make no difference whatsoever. No, there aren't many people in the hi-fi or audiophile world who hold a neutral position on the topic. You're either in the cable camp or you're not; you either believe or you don't.
Let me tell you a brief story that may explain where I stand on the subject. A long time ago, maybe thirty years or more, an audiophile friend of mine decided to do a cable shoot-out at his house. He invited about a dozen of his audiophile buddies and me (I was never an audiophile; I couldn't afford it) to bring their favorite audio cables to a comparison test using his Sound Lab electrostatic speakers. He asked me to bring the cheapest pair of cables I could find so we'd have a solid contrast. I went to the nearest Radio Shack and bought a pair of their least expensive models, while the other guests brought some quite fancy (and quite expensive) stuff, including several people who owned their own cable companies, making and selling their own exotic products.
We spent the evening doing blind tests, writing notes, and not discussing anything until we had heard all the cables. Then we each rank ordered our picks, and my friend added up the scores. Remarkably, all of us at the event picked the same three cables as best; not in the same order, mind you, but the top three cables appeared on all of our lists as numbers one, two, or three. Just as remarkably, three more, different cables appeared at the bottom of everyone's list, one of the bottom three being the Radio Shack pair I had brought. It was also interesting that among the top three cables was a pair that a man had built himself by picking out a Belden cable on specs alone from a catalogue of about a million Belden cables. He fastened on two pair of gold ends that must have cost him ten times the price of the cable, and the result sounded so good that afterwards I made up a pair for myself and used them for years. (Later, moving my equipment to another cabinet necessitated longer cables, and by then I couldn't remember the Belden cable number or the name of the guy who built them, so I went with a good, popular cable brand of the day.)
Whatever, here's the thing: Some years after that, I wrote up the story of the shoot-out for a magazine I worked for at the time, telling the story pretty much as I explained it above. In the next issue, a colleague took me to task. The fellow writer said, basically, that all of us at the shoot-out were wrong, that we must have all been hallucinating, that there were absolutely no differences in the sound of one cable and another, that a cable was a cable, and that we were all hearing things. Yes, people get awfully worked up about interconnect cables, taking sides as though hi-fi were politics or religion. Or something really important like Star Wars movies.
Still, I heard what I heard that night, and so did twelve or so other people. As a result, I have tried to keep an open mind about the subject ever since. And, thus, we come to the present comparison, started more out of curiosity than anything else.
I decided after all these years to try out new connecting cables between my main CD player and my preamp. I wasn't about to attempt a full-blown cable shoot-out (which I would never have been able to do anyway, the logistics being darned near impossible). I just wanted to see if a modern interconnect of good repute would sound better than the good (and best-selling brand) I had used for years. I also realized there were hundreds of companies making "audiophile" cables, with each company making a host of different models. No shoot-out could possibly be comprehensive. So, I started by researching what other people knowledgeable on the subject had said, and found the Ecosse company of Scotland showing up strongly in various on-line comparison tests, as well as winning some major hi-fi awards. Since I had never heard of Ecosse before, I figured I would have no preconceptions about them. I contacted Elliot Davis, founder of Ecosse Cables, and he graciously agreed to send out a pair of his Maestro MA2's for listening.
Next, how to test them. The longer and best way to test any piece of new hardware is to install in your system and live with it for a week or two. Then take it back out and listen to your old component again. The quicker way, however, is to arrange an A-B test against your old equipment for instant comparison. I decided to do both.
Fortuitously, my main CD player, a Sony XA20ES, has two identical outputs. By connecting them to two different inputs on my preamp, I was able to use the preamp as a switch box for easy comparisons. Of course, I first had to make certain that both CD outputs were, indeed, identical. So, before connecting the Ecosse cables, I connected the second CD output to the preamp with a cable (that I had stored in the garage) exactly the same as the old one. Then I put on several recordings (including one of pink noise) and alternated between the two identical older cables, using a sound meter to be sure they were outputting the same volume and listening to be sure they sounded alike. Having satisfied myself that the two CD outputs were the same, I connected the new Ecosse cables next to my old ones and started the comparison. After an evening of A-B comparing using a variety of discs (and utilizing the talents of a very patient and understanding wife clicking back and forth at the preamp), I prepared for the long haul of listening to the Ecosse product by itself for a week or more.
Finally, to the point, how did the Ecosse cables sound compared to my old (and very popular) cables? In a word, better.
But I know what you want me to say, what you probably expect me to say: that it was an open-and-shut case, a matter of night and day. It wasn't. It was more like a matter of twilight and day. The differences were there for one to hear, but they were often subtle. Remember, I was comparing the Ecosse cables to a pair of very good cables; I wouldn't have lived with the old ones for as long as I did if they weren't pretty good.
With the Ecosse cables the width of the sound stage seemed about the same, yet there was a slightly greater sense of air around the instruments that made the recording hall or studio ambience all the more pronounced. Highs appeared a bit more extended with the Ecosse product, too, clearer and cleaner, with better sheen. Bass seemed almost the same, if a degree tauter, better defined, with the Ecosse product.
Midrange transparency was where I found differences most noticeable. Voices, for instance, sounded a degree better focused with the Ecosse cables, and all-around transparency was a tad more pleasing. The effect in listening to the old cables was something akin to putting one's hands lightly over one's ears. The differences were not dramatic, but they were discernible under almost all conditions and with almost every disc I put on. The battle for overall detail and clarity kept favoring the Ecosse product, my old cables sounding somewhat duller and more veiled by comparison. Differences in transient response and impact were harder to detect, though. Here, the slender variations I heard could have been the result of the Ecosse's better clarity. Who knows.
In all, the Ecosse Maestro MA2's seemed to do a better job than my old cables, producing a touch fuller, smoother, more lucid sound. Yet, as I say, it wasn't night-and-day for me, and without the benefit of the initial period of A-B testing, I'm not entirely sure I would have noticed the differences at all. Nor am I sure everyone would benefit from upgrading to Ecosse or any other new cables, depending on one's equipment, one's hearing, and one's interest in the whole subject.
Nevertheless, if you are still using the cheap cables that came with your system when you bought it, or if you're just of a mind to experiment, I doubt you could do any better than to try out one of Ecosse's full line of cables. Their prices start at the more-affordable level (under $100 a pair) and go up to over $2,000 a pair; you have a full slate to choose from. (The Maestros I sampled were a little over $200 a pair at the dealers I checked.)
Anyway, maybe Ecosse's Web site would provide better answers than I can give, and the site can also show you the differences among their various products: http://www.ecossecables.co.uk/