July 2009

Synergistic Research Tesla Tricon USB Cable

No aspect of the audio world is more dominated by mumbo jumbo than cables. Pretty much anyone with a soldering iron can get into the cable business, usually by simply terminating wire produced by someone else. Worse, some dress up wire from Home Depot, add some marketing wizardry, and charge a premium for their "engineered" product. Such companies aren’t nearly as rare as they should be, but even those that manage to survive don’t tend to last very long -- hype is no substitute for engineering.

Synergistic Research is a company that looks for -- and regularly seems to find -- innovative new ways of transmitting an electrical signal from A to B. Rumors persist that one of the secrets of Synergistic’s success is a team of aerospace engineers who moonlight as cable designers when not occupied with their ultrasecret day jobs. Officially, Synergistic attributes the company’s product development to president Ted Denney III. No offense to Denney, but I think the story of the mysterious space engineers sounds way cooler.

Whoever designed the things, it’s obvious to me that Synergistic is on to something very special with its Tesla line of audio cables. I first heard of these from fellow reviewer Howard Kneller, who was so impressed with his Tesla Precision Reference interconnects and speaker cables that, over a period of three days, he called me about every 15 minutes to share each new sonic gem the Teslas revealed. Howard’s not an excitable guy, but man oh man was he excited by these cables! It took some time to get around to it, but thanks to the Tesla Tricon USB cable ($550 USD per 1m cable), I, too, have at last taken a trip on the Tesla train, and what I discovered is nothing less than shocking.

What sets the Tesla cables apart from Synergistic’s earlier products, and indeed from every other audio cable ever made, is something called quantum tunneling (QT). As understood by this arts major, QT is a physical phenomenon that deals with the probability of an electron passing straight through an otherwise impenetrable barrier. If I may borrow from Wikipedia, whereas heavy objects (e.g., a baseball) cannot pass through solid barriers (e.g., a wall), electrons, being very small, can, under certain conditions, make their way through a solid. What relevance this has for audio cable is anyone’s guess.

Exactly how Synergistic subjects its Tesla cables to quantum tunneling is shrouded in mystery, but a video on the company’s website shows the essence of the procedure. Basically, every cable in the Tesla line is hooked up to a large Tesla coil and zapped with 2 million volts. It doesn’t take an electrical engineer to understand that these volts must be accompanied by incredibly low amperage, otherwise the cables would glow white-hot just before they vaporized. It is this rush of (literal) megavoltage that turns ordinary cables into members of the Tesla line. Whether a QT state can be achieved using a Tesla coil is a question I’ll leave that up to physicists; and because I didn’t have a Tricon USB cable that hadn’t been zapped, I can’t say what effect the QT process had on the cable’s performance. What I can say is that, whatever the cause, the Tesla Tricon USB is a phenomenal audio cable.

The Tesla Tricon isn’t the first high-performance USB cable I’ve tried. When I switched from a standard USB cable to Kimber Kable’s USB interconnect (then $49), there was an obvious lowering of the noise floor that let through a lot more detail. In fact, it was thanks to the Kimber USB cable that I switched from a CD player to a computer music server: with the Kimber relaying USB data, the sound quality exceeded that of the best CD player I had.

Given the significant improvement I got with Kimber’s cable, I was surprised to find that few other cable makers have put forward USB cables of their own. While an ever greater number of makers of audio components offer USB inputs on their CD players, preamps, and integrated amps, not to mention the plethora of USB-to-S/PDIF converters now available, very few audio-grade USB cables are on offer.

At $550 for a 1m length, the Tesla Tricon USB costs about 11 times as much as the Kimber. That’s quite a premium by any standard, and it’s one big reason I wanted to try the Synergistic. Could it be that the Tesla Tricon USB was superior enough to the Kimber to actually justify the difference in price?

Any USB cable doesn’t only transmit data; it’s also a power cable, with two wires for the datastream, and two more for the 5V available from the computer to power a connected USB device. In a standard USB cable these four wires are housed in very close proximity to each other. But just by looking at the Tesla Tricon, you can see that it’s a different kind of USB cable. Two distinct cables are wound around each other and sheathed in a mesh jacket. Each individual cable houses a pair of conductors, as opposed to the normal USB format of a single cable containing four wires. Synergistic Research asserts that this separation of the power and datastreams precludes the possibility of the 5V power stream contaminating the data. There’s likely something to this; a computer’s USB power supply is notoriously full of electrical noise, and it stands to reason that keeping that noise away from the datastream is a good idea.

From the start of my time with the Tesla Tricon, it was as obvious as being hit on the head with a hammer that Synergistic’s USB cable was miles ahead of Kimber’s. True to what Howard Kneller had told me about other Tesla cables, with the Tricon USB I felt as if I were seeing into the music for the first time. Where the Kimber had considerably dropped the noise level, the Tesla Tricon USB seemed to be pulling my music straight from the silent vacuum of space. This allowed all manner of previously undiscovered spatial and musical cues to become as starkly obvious as the moon passing in front of the sun.

Every audio reviewer uses certain familiar recordings to test various aspects of performance. My favorite track for assessing resolution is "So What," from Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue (CD, Columbia/Legacy 64935). At the beginning of the track, Bill Evans’ piano and Ray Brown’s bass lay out a mellow, understated intro. Just before Jimmy Cobb’s ride cymbal joins in, Brown runs through a quick riff that usually sounds congested and muddy on most audio equipment I’ve listened to. Part of the problem is that, just as they’re plucked, Brown’s last few notes encounter a wave of sound energy already leaving his bass. Until the Tesla Tricon USB entered my system, I had never heard those notes as distinct, individual tones. The first time I listened to "So What" with the Tricon USB, I was astonished -- not just surprised or pleased, but flat-out amazed that I was hearing something new from a recording I’ve listened to more times than I could ever remember.

The Tesla Tricon USB’s high-resolution capability translated into a very transparent and neutral soundscape. Just now I’m listening to the Dave Brubeck Quartet play "Three to Get Ready," from At Carnegie Hall (CD, Columbia/Legacy 61455). The power, presence, and clarity of the sax, the kick drum, and the brushes slapping across the snare, are the stuff of audio dreams. This triggered another remarkable moment of audio insight: as the track ends, Brubeck announces a short intermission. The fans begin to leave their seats and the track starts to fade out -- but now, for the first time, I clearly heard someone in the audience exclaim "Wow!," presumably in regard to the performance just ended. It’s such gems that make this hobby so rewarding; the fact that I heard this "Wow!" as clearly as if I’d been sitting there in Carnegie itself just blew me away.

It’s not often that I hear audio cables that offer actual improvements in the sound. But from the moment I first heard it, I knew that Synergistic Research’s Tesla Tricon USB was the real deal, and an absolute must-have for those who’ve moved to a computer-based digital audio source -- without it, you’re hearing only a small fraction of your system’s performance capability. The Tesla Tricon USB isn’t just good or great; it’s transformative. There’s no doubt that $550 is a fair bit of money, but with the significant performance boost given by the Tesla Tricon USB, buyers may wonder why Synergistic Research sells it for so little.

. . . Colin Smith

Synergistic Research Tesla Tricon USB Cable
Price: $550 USD per 1m cable.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

Synergistic Research
17401 Armstrong Ave., Suite 102
Irvine, CA 92614
Phone: (800) 578-6489
Fax: (949) 476-0800

E-mail: service3@synergisticresearch.com
Website: www.synergisticresearch.com