DH Labs Silver Sonic Air Matrix Interconnects and Q-10 Speaker Cables
by Marc Mickelson
As we've discovered with the relaunch of our GoodSound! website, there are lots of music lovers who value, uh, good sound at an affordable price. Darren Hovsepian at DH Labs has known this for years. His Silver Sonic BL-1 interconnects and T-14 speaker cables have long been considered a reference for budget cables, and I know why -- I've been using them for years as part of my budget reference system. Both offer very high value and work well with a wide array of equipment, tubes especially. Readers have told us steadily of their experiences with DH Labs cables, and I've praised the BL-1 and T-14 in reviews more times than I can remember.
Over time, the BL-1 interconnect was upgraded slightly, to the BL-1 II, but the T-14 has not changed. Even though his cables have remained available and virtually unchanged, Hovsepian has been working on other designs, especially for those audiophiles wanting cables that are more upscale than the BL-1 II and T-14. So at CES 2001, DH Labs introduced the Air Matrix interconnect and Q-10 speaker cable, both taking their place at the top of the DH Labs line. But this can be misleading, as top-of-the-line cables from other makers cost much more than the Air Matrix and Q-10 -- $195 USD per meter pair and $225 per eight-foot pair respectively. Thus, those who want to have the best cable a company produces can do so with the Air Matrix and Q-10 and not tap into the kids' college fund.
The Air Matrix and Q-10 are rather flexible cables that both use silver-coated copper wire as conductors. The Air Matrix interconnect uses a proprietary dielectric material that's actually 60% air, which is the best dielectric there is. Locking RCAs or custom DH Labs XLRs finish off the interconnects, which are, according to DH Labs, "the culmination of everything we have accomplished in cable design." The Q-10 features a four-conductor multiple array of "advanced geometries" -- two 12-gauge conductors and two 14-gauge conductors to equal a 10-gauge cable. The Q-10 can be manufactured as a single-run cable, internally biwired, or externally biwired, with two runs connected at the amplifier end. Prices vary depending on configuration, but they never reach nosebleed territory.
I first used the DH Labs Air Matrix and Q-10 in my budget reference system to replace the Silver Sonic BL-1 II and T-14 I had been using. In this capacity, they connected Merlin TSM-SE speakers to an Audio Analogue Pucinni SE Remote integrated amp, with a Panasonic SL-SX300 portable CD player as source. The Merlin speakers sat on 24" Osiris Audionics stands. Later I used the DH Labs cables, both full sets, in my big rig and with a wide variety of equipment: Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 6 speakers, Lamm ML2 and Audio Research VTM200 mono amps, Lamm L2 and Audio Research Reference 2 Mk II line-stage preamps, Mark Levinson No.383 integrated amp, Bel Canto DAC1.1, Mark Levinson No.39 CD player, Pioneer DV-525 DVD player. Power cords and power conditioning/distribution were by Shunyata Research (various power cords and the mighty Hydra), PS Audio (P300 Power Plant), JPS Labs (Power AC and Kaptovator power cords), ESP (The Essence power cords), TARA Labs (RSC The One and RSC Air power cords) and Richard Gray's Power Company (400S). Preamps and the DAC sat on the shelves of sand-filled Target racks, while the amps rested on Bright Star Big Rocks, as did the Mark Levinson CD player. Cables on hand for comparison were primarily from Nordost -- Quattro-Fil interconnect and SPM Reference speaker cables -- but I also used a full Transparent Reference XL setup too. Because the Audio Research amps take only XLR input, DH Labs supplied single-ended and balanced Air Matrix interconnects.
In the air
The Air Matrix and Q-10 proved to be impressive cables no matter the system in which they were used. In fact, they sounded very much at home with the big-money gear I have, bringing something to the mix that was of higher sonic quality than the BL-1 II and T-14. But I found it difficult to discern the character of the cables, which, after a lot of listening, I can best describe as neutral but ever-so-slightly energetic too. I'm not talking here about the kind of differences in character between, say, a lush SET amp and a high-power solid-state bruiser. Instead, to explain things, I was finishing my listening to the DiMarzio M-Path interconnects and Super M-Path speaker cables I reviewed late last year just as the Air Matrix and Q-10 arrived, and the DH Labs cables sounded about as different as any could from the warmish DiMarzio interconnects and speaker cables. Where the DiMarzio cables were rather enveloping, the DH Labs cables were lively, especially through the midrange and into the treble.
But here's the thing. Interconnects and speaker cables can be used as passive tone controls to effect changes in sound that are not necessarily intrinsic to the components themselves. Even with their more lively sound, the Air Matrix and Q-10 are not going to be very successful at this because what they do is not so different from other neutral-sounding cables I've heard -- the expensive Nordost Quattro-Fil ($1600 per meter pair) and SPM Reference ($3350 per eight-foot pair) for sure. From where I listen, both the DH Labs and Nordost cables sound more transparent than, say, the DiMarzio cables, their more lively nature more a point of difference than an actual trait. Even the JPS Labs and TARA Labs cables I have here, both of which are very fine, have a sound more of their own, but neither is so radically different from the other that one is right and the other wrong. It's a matter of small degrees.
But some things about the Air Matrix and Q-10 are obvious, like the way they convey texture in the upper midrange and treble. Acoustic guitar and brass are very well rendered, showing delicacy and steely power when each is on the recording. I'm a long-time fan of late guitarist Michael Hedges, whose Aerial Boundaries [Windham Hill WD-1032] is a tour de force of solo-guitar virtuosity and feeling. On "Ragamuffin," Hedges is tender then more explosive, squeezing the strings as his fingers work up and down them and then slapping the guitar's body. With the DH Labs cables, it was very easy to hear the sound of Hedges' fingers as he went up and down the strings, especially as the song's tempo changed. And my long-standing test for realistic brass is Parker's Mood [Verve 314 527 907-2], a collaboration disc featuring Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride and Stephen Scott. On "Steeplechase," the DH Labs cables helped illuminate the difference between the blat of the horn and the breath of the player, especially as each run died off. On first listen, the cables seemed to accentuate the leading edge of transients, but putting in the Transparent Reference XL cables showed this not to be the case. Instead, from the upper midrange on up, there is a little more delineation of detail, a little more openness. These are things reviewers will work to hear for sure, but it's part of the job.
There is nothing special to note regarding the midrange and soundstaging of the Air Matrix or Q-10 except that they're about as good as those from any other cable I have here with the exception of the Nordost Quattro-Fil and SPM Reference, which do illuminate the furthest reaches of the soundstage a little bit better. Amps like the Audio Research VTM200 monoblocks, with the absolutely immense soundstage they cast, are what you need to hear this difference; more intimate amps like my reference Lamm ML2s sound as open and inviting with the DH Labs cables as with the Nordost.
A nice surprise with the Q-10 was its bass -- a surprise because deep, weighty bass has been a deficiency of the T-14, which is why I've biwired with it. But a single run of the Q-10 was sufficient to make the Wilson WATT/Puppy 6 speakers growl down low, and was only bettered in terms of bass by the very expensive Transparent Reference XL speaker cables ($9800 per eight-foot pair) I had here for an upcoming review. I trot out "Joe Slam and the Spaceship" from Harry Connick, Jr's She [Columbia CK 64376] to test this, and the opening low tones as well as the bass guitar have plenty of depth and heft through the Q-10.
As an experiment, I mixed and matched the Air Matrix and Q-10 along with a few of the other cables I have here, and their best match by far was with each other, with Nordost cables coming in a close second. What I surmised from this is that the two DH Labs cables are similar in sound (something that's not easy to discern when you're reviewing both interconnects and speaker cables together) and, once again, sound rather like the Nordost cables too.
Although the Air Matrix and Q-10 are top-of-the-line offerings, the only cables I had around for comparison that were close in price were the DH Labs BL-1 II and T-14. Nonetheless, I thought this would be a useful comparison for owners of the long-standing inexpensive reference cables as well as those contemplating purchase of either Silver Sonic duo.
The biggest difference occurs between the Q-10 and the T-14, and it's something I've already mentioned: the bass of the Q-10 is just much more complete -- weightier for sure, and seemingly deeper too. Does a single run of Q-10 better even two runs of T-14? Ever so slightly down low and to a much smaller degree -- almost imperceptibly -- throughout the midrange and treble too, which sound more composed, not splashy at all (which is something I hadn't noticed before I started to compare the two cables). The Air Matrix and BL-1 II are closer in sound to my ears, but the Air Matrix does sound a little more solid and palpable, though not to any terrific degree. I honestly believe that either interconnect could baffle blind listeners with even the greatest hearing acuity, and so you should probably listen to both if you are considering either. Doing so could save you some money or the hassle of upgrading in the future.
These new cables from DH Labs are the real deal -- interconnects and speaker cables that don't cost reference-quality money but can be at home in a reference-quality, and pricey, system. I'm sure Darren Hovsepian could have added some outer mesh to the cables, used boutique RCAs, XLRs and spades too, and then charged even more money for them. And perhaps this would draw the interest of some audiophiles who want to spend more money on their cables. Instead, Hovsepian simply made two products he thought were somewhat better than his existing ones, priced them fairly, and left it to you to decide with your ears. If you are a music lover who values cables that seem to have few qualities of their own and are complete enough to make you uneasy about spending more money, here are two products for you. Give them a listen, preferably a blind listen, and be open to being surprised.
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