March 2003Audience Au24 Interconnects and Speaker Cables
by Doug Blackburn
Audience's other products, the Au24 line of speaker cables and interconnects, take a different tack from many other cables in the same price range. Their construction is intentionally low mass -- connectors, insulation materials, and conductors. The conductors are so-called "single-crystal copper" with polypropylene insulation and a cross-linked polyethylene jacket. Audience says the geometry of the conductors lowers eddy-current resistance compared to other designs. Eddy current is produced in conductors when the electrical field around a wire collapses. This happens constantly with audio cables as the signal varies continuously between negative and positive. Each time the signal heads towards and reaches zero volts, the field collapses around the wire. This collapse induces a current in the wire. Audience believes the reduction or elimination of this induced current is one of the keys to making a good-sounding audio cable with excellent performance in the time domain. Audience found that in achieving low eddy-current resistance, they also minimized inductance and capacitance in the cables. Audience also believes that low eddy current is one of the keys to accurate time-domain performance: All frequencies are delivered from one component to another at the same speed, so there is no smearing in time caused by high frequencies traveling faster than low frequencies, as could happen in some conventional cable designs.
While the Au24 interconnects ($418 USD per single-ended pair, $776 per pair balanced) look slight as interconnects go, it is the 1/8"-diameter speaker cables ($965 per single-wire pair, $1632 biwire) that really look tiny. The thin speaker cable contains both the positive and negative conductors in its single jacket. "Too small for the job," many would assume. Audience found that large cables with low DC resistance would end up with AC resistance in the hundreds of ohms. Since music is an AC signal, this would be the opposite of what you want. So Audience focused on reducing the AC resistance and eddy currents. They believe that while the resulting cable may be higher than many others in DC resistance, the improvement in AC resistance more than makes up for it.
During the development of the Au24 cables, Audience found that using fancier and heavier connectors, larger conductors, and cosmetic sleeving or jackets made the cables sound worse. It became obvious to them that the minimalist approach produced what they thought was the best-sounding cable.
For this review, I used digital front-ends consisting of a Panasonic DVD-RP56 DVD player feeding an Assemblage D2D-1 jitter reducer/upsampler/interpolator. The 24/96 output of the D2D-1 went to 24/96 MSB Technologies Link II or Perpetual Technologies P-3A DACs. Preamps used were the Audible Illusions Modulus 3A with Gold phono boards and the Belles/Power Modules 20A; both are tube designs. Amplifiers were the Belles Power Modules 350A and 150A Hot Rod as well as a Bryston 6B-SST, all solid state. Loudspeakers were Vandersteen 3A Signatures. Power conditioning products by VansEvers, Equi=Tech, Furman, Richard Grays Power Company, Quantum Life, and Monster Power were used during the review period.
Other speaker cables used were Magnan Signature, Nirvana S-L, Nordost SPM Reference, JPS Labs NC, and Analysis Plus Oval 9. Other interconnects in use were Nordost Quattro-Fil, Magnan Signature, Magnan Vi, Nirvana S-L, and JPS Labs Superconductor 2. Power cords were the AudioPrism Supernatural 9.5, JPS Labs Power AC, Magnan Signature, and Analysis Plus Power Oval.
The very first observation I made was that the sound of the Audience interconnects and speaker cables was completely identical in every way. This isnt often true because many companies design their interconnects and speaker cables very differently. Because of the identical sonic character, my listening impressions will apply equally to both the interconnects and speaker cables.
The Au24 cables reached peak sound quality after a very short three-day break-in period, and there was less of a dramatic improvement than I have experienced with many other cables in the first week or two. Listening to favorite recordings revealed a relaxed, neutral presentation without any injected drama. There was no hype to the sound of any instrument. The Au24 listening experience is less "audiophile" and more "music lover." You wont find yourself deconstructing each recording in minute detail -- youll be having too much fun re-listening to your music collection. Leo Kottkes acoustic guitar on Ice Water [One Way Records S21-18458] contains passages of rapidly played notes in a dizzying array of tonalities. At times the notes come so fast that the playing seems not to be humanly possible. Yet the Au24 cables sort out all the incredible acoustic-guitar mayhem into a complex musical dervish of a performance that can be followed and appreciated in a different way each time you listen to the recording. This is heady performance for interconnects in the $400 price range, but $1600 biwire speaker cables really should be able to deliver this level of performance, and the Au24s do.
Cymbals give many cables fits because they can be made to jump forward of the rest of the drum kit if all is not sonically right. With the Au24 cables, the cymbals stayed right back there with the rest of the drum kit no matter whether I was listening to a modern masterpiece like Don Byrons Bug Music [Nonesuch 79438-2] or Leo Kottkes Ice Water.
While the Au24 sound is definitely in the smooth, round, musical realm, from the upper bass to the bottom octave it is considerably more linear than that of some similarly priced cables and displays no trace of boom or bloat. The Au24s avoid the artificial warmth some cables impart due to an emphasis in the bass or upper bass. I was able to hear the remarkable bass extension, power, and control of the Belles/Power Modules 350A amp with complete neutrality through the Au24 cables. It took some getting used to a 1/8"-diameter speaker cable delivering this kind of bass performance.
The Au24 midrange has no obvious shortcomings or colorations of any kind. You could pick nits all day about whether it sounds dynamic enough or detailed enough, but many listeners, including me, will find the Au24's midrange to be perfect. Others will think the midrange is a bit laid-back because it isnt as hyped as with some other cables. Leo Kottkes baritone-and-below vocals on Ice Water are appropriately chesty and full, while the higher nasal tones are without harshness or artificial edge. Emmylou Harris vocals on Wrecking Ball [Electra/Asylum 16854] have great top-to-bottom balance that gives the feeling that what you are hearing is her voice exactly as recorded by king-of-atmosphere producer Daniel Lanois. Harris' lower register is full and rich, while the higher notes refrain from sounding thin or weak. Cables like the Au24s, which properly execute echo, reverb, and decay, make this recording quite a listening experience, even if the recording isnt the last word in natural sound.
The psychological score of the Au24 cables is very high. What I mean by this is that these cables produce a sense of calm and unquestionable quality when you listen to them. I dont know if youve noticed this before, but some components and cables never let you relax when you are listening to music. Your mind constantly wanders over the sonic aspects instead of involving you in the performance. The Au24 cables are the opposite. They make you want to forget about the mechanical and analytical aspects of listening to music at home. You are free to let the music envelop your consciousness and forget about all the distracting technical details and audiophile paranoia and anxiety. I didnt really care if there were cables that were better in one way or another. I could just listen with the Audience cables without worrying about whether they were the best in the world. The music was compelling, and I just wanted to listen.
Single wire versus biwire
Audience provided both single-wire speaker cables with jumpers and a biwire set of speaker cables for evaluation. They believe that in many systems single-wire cables can sound better than biwire. Well, I can tell you without hesitation that in my system, with the Belles/Power Modules 350A amp and Vandersteen 3A Signature speakers, biwire was obviously the better-sounding choice. Was the improvement worth almost double the cost? Probably not on an absolute scale, but once I experienced the difference between the single-wire cables and biwire, it was biwire or no wire for me. Keep in mind, however, that Vandersteen loudspeakers are designed from the outset to be optimized for biwire connections. There are subtle details in the crossover network that anticipate the use of biwire cables. This isnt the case with all speakers. Some speakers with biwire connections may have the connections because dealers demand them on "serious" speakers, whether the speaker actually benefits from the biwire connection or not. Single-wire connections should be compared to biwire connections whenever and wherever possible to determine whether your system is better served by one or the other.
How did the sound change? In my case, the biwire setup was more open, more transparent, more detailed, and more harmonically rich. The enjoyable characteristic of being sucked into the performance was enhanced. The single-wire setup seemed closed in, was less interesting, and left me feeling as though I was on the outside looking in -- disengaged from the music.
Its always difficult to have around worthy comparably priced products for comparison when it comes to cables. I have Magnan Vi interconnects and Analysis Plus Copper Oval that bracket the Au24s in price. The Magnan Vi gives richer harmonic content, greater transparency, and a sense of delicacy and precision that the Au24 doesnt quite match. The Oval 9, in my system, is not as linear or well-balanced top to bottom as the Au24. The Au24 had more natural-sounding sibilants and a more integrated soundstage. The Oval 9 produced a wider soundstage with more detail compared to the Au24.
The Magnan Signature speaker cables are close in price to the single-wire Au24 speaker cable and more expensive than the biwire Au24 speaker cables. The Magnan Signature has a slight edge in harmonic richness and transparency, but is surprisingly similar to the Au24s in other areas of performance. The Magnan Signature is awkward to use with its 5"-wide copper ribbon conductors, while the Au24 is the epitome of easy-to-use speaker cables. Picking one of these cables over the other would be very difficult on the basis of sonic performance alone.
All of the Au24 cables are painless to use, though their appearance wont satisfy those with a music-hose fixation. The Audience Au24 interconnects provide excellent performance at a price point thats serious but not out of reach. They have been difficult to remove from my system -- only a few of the more expensive cables I have on hand make satisfying substitutes. Its easy to recommend the Au24 interconnects to those looking for high-end performance without ultra high-end prices. The Audience Au24 speaker cables sit at a higher, more competitive price point, but they could be your ticket off the hamster wheel of constant cable and equipment changes. I used Au24 speaker cables with three different amplifiers, and they sounded essentially the same with all of them. I expected a cable so tiny to limit dynamics, but nothing like this happened -- even with amplifiers up to 250Wpc. Also, spouses and decorators are going to find a small-diameter cable like this a lot more domestically acceptable than a music hose or other visually distracting cables too.
The Audience Au24 interconnects and speaker cable may not be the best cables money can buy, but they are commendably neutral and natural, and they help you forget about chasing the pot o' gold at the end of the audiophile rainbow -- these are attributes that the best cables should embody. They are also characteristics I value highly, so the Audience Au24 interconnects and speaker cables get a hearty recommendation from me.
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