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Equipment Review

February 2002

Zu Cable OxyFuel Interconnects and Julian Speaker Cables

by Tim Shea


Zu Cable's OxyFuel interconnects...

Review Summary
Sound "Detailed, transparent, and quick," well-damped bass too; "neither adding to nor otherwise editorializing what was being pumped through them," except for "a little bit of reticence in the upper bass and lower mids"; "a very impressive showing" overall, especially given their price.
Features "Materials are important to Zu Cable, but secondary to electrodynamics -- signal propagation as well as the electromagnetic/electrostatic fields and virtual ground geometries that are established"; sold direct with a money-back guarantee, which keeps costs down and value high.
Use Interconnect RCAs fit very tightly, so you'll need to be careful when disconnecting the cables so as not to perform a "jack-ectomy"; copper spade lugs on the speaker cables will need cleaning once or twice a year.
Value Reasonably priced cables that "you will be able to live with happily for a long, long time while they allow you to benefit fully from upgrading the components around them."

As audiophiles ever in search of the perfect system and sound, we continue to reward cable companies by plunking down our dollars in large numbers in the hopes of achieving sonic nirvana. Is this irrational? Well, once you’ve found and obtained your ultimate front-end, preamp, amp, speakers, and treated your room to the point where it looks like a playground for geometry teachers, what else ya gonna do? At this theoretical limit, the cables become just as important as the individual components themselves, and to skimp on them would be to degrade every other hard-earned link in your audio chain.

But what of the rest of us with real-world budgets who, one agonizing piece at a time, are in the process of slowly building our ultimate systems? For many, incremental system dollars may well be better spent on upgrading an electronic component or speakers rather than on esoteric wire. So what to do about cables while we’re toiling away at constructing our own personal version of sonic bliss? Well, the obvious strategy would be to maximize value, which, put more concretely, means get the most possible performance for your cable dollar so you can live with your purchase happily as your system evolves and improves.

This is where the good news comes in. New cable competitors are popping up seemingly every other month, and judging from the price/performance ratio I’m hearing, there must be some serious hand-wringing going on within the ranks of the old guard of the cable world. It’s not that the more established companies’ products aren’t very good -- by and large, they are. It’s just that the value scale is shifting in favor of the consumer, and it is precisely companies like Zu Cable that have their hand on the gearshift.

Who is Zu?

Located in Ogden, Utah, Zu Cable was started by a group of four guys who have known each other for many years and have been working in and around the audio industry since the mid 1990s. Their wide range of experience in the audio industry includes stints at companies such as Kimber Cable, Talon Audio, and Wasatch Cable Works and has culminated in the formation of Zu Cable, whose products were officially launched at the 2001 CES in Las Vegas.

As a company, Zu Cable seems intent on going it alone. They make all their cables in-house, which will no doubt lower costs in the long run and yield the ability to more efficiently develop and test new design ideas. To further maximize value to the consumer and to be more intimately involved in the customer interaction and support processes, Zu Cable has chosen to forego the traditional dealer route and instead sells their cables directly with a 30-day money-back guarantee. More evidence that the cable world is rapidly changing.

Every serious cable company seems to have its own "claim to fame" design feature or production technique that sets it apart on paper (if not always in performance). The guys at Zu Cable actually pride themselves on avoiding the use of extremely expensive or esoteric "rare earth" materials if they don’t serve the music, but that doesn’t mean they don’t bring anything unique to the table. In speaking with the lead designer, Sean Casey, I discovered that materials are important to Zu Cable, but secondary to electrodynamics -- signal propagation as well as the electromagnetic/electrostatic fields and virtual ground geometries that are established. So in an overly simplistic nutshell, Zu Cable strives to expend brainpower on design first rather than throwing dollars at expensive materials that have relatively less impact on cable performance.

This is not to say the Zu guys haven’t incorporated some proprietary technology into their cables. Key elements such as their 99.99%-pure copper-skin conductor and micro-cellular foam dielectric are two examples where they felt the innovation and expense were justified by the commensurate sonic benefits. More outwardly visible features are the unplated copper spade lugs on the speaker cables, which Zu Cable maintains are sonically superior to the more common plated variety. More on this later.

Setup and use


...and Julian speaker cables

For this review I had two one-meter pairs of Zu Cable’s OxyFuel interconnects and an eight-foot biwire pair of their Julian speaker cables. The Julian biwires are actually a single run of 11.5-AWG Julian cables for low/mid frequency duty combined with a run of Zu Cable's 14-AWG Gauge cable for the highs, but a dual run of Julians is recommended for larger three-way speaker designs. At $110 USD per meter pair, the OxyFuel interconnects are the second-most expensive in Zu Cable’s interconnect range behind the WarMouth, and the $440 eight-foot pair of Julian biwire speaker cables are likewise the second-most expensive behind the Wax. The Julian speaker cables are also available in non-biwire form for $282 per pair.

The OxyFuel interconnects are quite thin and easy to work with relative to some of the thicker and more expensive alternatives out there, but they are still a little on the stiff side. What required more effort were the RCA connectors, which produced an extremely tight fit with my equipment. They made it difficult to swap interconnects and had me a little worried that I might inadvertently perform a jack-ectomy. A tight fit is generally a desirable feature and one I’m sure Zu Cable intended, but it would have made life a little easier if the connectors sported some beveled edges for a better grip, la D.H. Labs. This is obviously more of a concern for reviewer types and will not likely be much of a problem for most people who are more likely to set the cables and forget them.

The Julian biwire cables, like the OxyFuel interconnects, are also relatively thin and stiff, but due to the longer length of the speaker cables, the relative stiffness can result in somewhat annoying and gangly coils if there is any slack in the cable. The spades were a little higher maintenance, as they were not quite large enough for the admittedly beefy binding posts on my Soliloquy 5.3s (larger spades are available). But I was able to get them to work without resorting to any creative manipulation or gymnastics. In addition, you must periodically clean the unplated copper spades to maintain an optimal connection. This can be done cheaply and easily with some Brasso (cleaning instructions are posted on the Zu Cable website). Most spades are plated to avoid corrosion, but Zu Cable felt the sonic benefits from an unfettered copper connector outweighed the cost of having to clean the spades once or twice a year -- depending on your climate. Anyone halfway serious about audio should be cleaning their connections periodically anyway, so I don’t view this as that much of an inconvenience, and I applaud Zu Cable’s purist intentions.

The new Zu Review (you had to know that was coming)

I started with the OxyFuel interconnects mainly because I generally find differences in interconnects easier to identify than differences in speaker cables, and I wanted to hit the ground running. Right off the bat I noticed the lower frequencies were markedly different. The bass was so well damped that it was as if I added room treatments or even room correction. For those of you familiar with using room treatments and/or correction, I am not exaggerating -- the difference was that noticeable. This effect was perhaps overstated due to the fact that I am currently battling some bass issues in my relatively new and almost perfectly square listening room, so I may be experiencing more of an impact in this regard than others might, but it is still remarkable.

The other aspect that was immediately obvious was that the OxyFuel interconnects were very neutral-sounding, neither adding to nor otherwise editorializing what was being pumped through them. Particularly noteworthy were the highs, which came across as very detailed without being etched or smeared and were nicely balanced with the rest of the music. Even with very little break-in time, the OxyFuel interconnects were impressive at the frequency extremes, which is definitely not common in my experience, especially at their price level.

Associated Equipment

Loudspeakers –  Soliloquy 5.3.

Amplifiers –  McCormack DNA 0.5 Revision A.

Preamplifier – Rotel RSP980 preamp/processor.

Digital – Pioneer DV-C302D DVD player (used as transport), Electronic Visionary Systems Millennium DAC 1.

Interconnects – Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference and Silver Reference, DH Labs Silver Sonic BL-1 Series II.

Speaker cables – Acoustic Zen Satori, Generic Monster Cable.

Digital cable – Apogee Wyde Eye coaxial.

On Joe Sample’s Old Places Old Faces [Warner Bros. 9 46182-2] I’ve found the piano chords played at the beginning of the opening track, "Free Yourself," can become smeared on budget gear, but the OxyFuel interconnects presented all of the individual notes and chords as clearly and cleanly as I’ve heard. Likewise, "Black and White" starts with some very distinct piano strokes that produce a noticeable echo from the back of the room, and the OxyFuels let all of it through. There are also various percussion instruments that appear in distinct areas throughout the soundstage on this track, and the level of detail communicated by the OxyFuel interconnects allowed them to be easily characterized and located within a realistic and clear 3D space. At the beginning of "Clifton’s Gold," the light and airy quality of the cymbals was preserved along with all the tonal variations and intricate detail brought about by the delicate and varied stick work. Just after this intro, the sax kicks in, and although nicely detailed and coherent, it lacked the ultimate depth and tonal weight I’ve heard with my reference cables. But this was overall a very impressive showing for a reasonably priced pair of interconnects.

Next I went for Tony Falanga’s Soul of the Bass [plane 88846], which is an excellent recording to explore tonality, imaging and portrayal of space. Another useful acid test this disc provides is with regard to the balance of detail. If a component tends to overly hype detail, the sound of the bow scraping on the strings of Falanga’s double bass tends to overshadow the resonance and body of the instrument, making it sound somewhat harsh and unnatural. The OxyFuels nailed it and allowed me to enjoy the performance thoroughly without being distracted by the actual playing of the instrument. Again I noticed the bass was more damped than I was used to, and in this case the natural hollow resonance of the big bass seemed a bit stunted and not able to fully express itself. The flip side was that on quick, lower-octave phrases, things sounded a bit faster and cleaner since there was less resonance hanging over between notes. With regard to spatial information, on "Jota," which is a piano/bass duet, the piano was very well represented, but the dynamic cues that reveal the sheer scale of the piano and the recording venue were less apparent, making the presentation seem smaller and a little less involving. Detail and imaging, however, continued to impress, and on "Iberique peninsulaire," the myriad of extraneous percussive sounds came through clearly and distinctly from the furthest reaches of the stage.

To further explore the dynamic and bass capabilities of the OxyFuels I pulled out Keb Mo’s Slow Down[Okeh/550 Music BK69376], which has an abundance of low-bass guitar riffs and a pounding bass drum on certain tracks. Once again the bass lines were quick and tight no matter how low they dove, which made it very easy to follow every note and kept things moving nicely. On "A Better Man," the lowest bass notes did not invade the room to the extent I’ve heard before, but most of the depth was there and was portrayed with a level of agility that was noteworthy. The bass drum came through with a deep and tightly controlled "whomp" that infiltrated my chest cavity such that the OxyFuels left the impression that I was missing nothing there. In all, the OxyFuels were able to produce a nice, deep, and satisfying level of bass without sacrificing speed or musicality.

So with the possible exception of a little bit of reticence in the upper bass and lower mids, which may well vary in matching with other systems, I found very little to fault with the OxyFuel interconnects and would characterize them overall as big-time overachievers in their price class. Although these interconnects would serve even mega-buck systems well, it also may be perfectly suited for lower or mid-price systems that often have issues at the frequency extremes, usually in the form of sloppy bass or overly energetic highs.

After the very positive experience I had with the OxyFuel interconnects, I found myself secretly rooting for the Julian speaker cables to be just as impressive. I was thinking how nice it would be if Joe Schmoe could simply order a couple pairs of OxyFuels and a pair of Julians (if Joe went the non-biwire route) and know he was getting near-reference quality for less than 500 bucks all in.

I first plugged in the Julians with my reference interconnects to see how they sound on their own. Immediately they reminded me of the OxyFuels in that they were very detailed, transparent, and quick, and it was obvious there are some strong family ties going on here. Actually they sounded so much like the interconnects that if you’ve read the above comments of the OxyFuels, you pretty much know the Julians too. Like the OxyFuels, the Julians also came across as very neutral and with a little less weight in the lower midrange and bass regions, but never so much that it distracted me from the music or created a noticeable imbalance in the sonic picture. If anything, the Julians were a little more energetic in the treble region, making cymbals and sibilants sound a little more forward. Other than this, the two Zu Cables came across as dead ringers for each other in my system, and that is a good thing to be sure.

Zu Zu Cables

So what happens when you combine the OxyFuels with the Julians? Since the two come across sonically like nearly identical twins I was fairly sure what to expect. My only concern was that their aforementioned individual penchants for a touch of lightness in the upper bass/lower mids would result in more of a noticeable leanness in those regions when coupled together.

As it turns out, that fear was unfounded. The Zu Cable interconnects and speaker cables blended seamlessly together, and the little bit of brightness I noted in the Julians totally disappeared. Where the combo did suffer a bit was in the area of dynamic impact. Although I noted above that neither the Julian speaker cables nor the OxyFuel interconnects were the last word in this area, when paired together there was a slight recession of visceral presence about individual instruments and vocals. This made the entire presentation seem a little more distant -- almost as if I were pushed back a couple rows. All the good things mentioned earlier were still there in spades, but it’s possible that my reference cables were providing a little boost in this area when the Zu Cable interconnects and cables were in my system individually, resulting in some loss of impact when they occupied my system exclusively.

Comparisons

An obvious direct competitor to the OxyFuels that I had on hand were my trusty DH Labs BL-1 Series II interconnects. While the BL-1s exhibited a bit more weight in the lower midrange and a smidgen more transparency and snap, they did so at the expense of some forwardness and sizzle in the upper octaves that the more refined OxyFuels would not allow. I find both interconnects to offer exceptional value for the money, and the choice between them should be dictated by how they mate with your individual system and personal taste. If your system tends to be a little bright or lacks bass definition, you may be better off with the OxyFuels, and if your system is a little on the dull side or lacks detail, the BL-1 IIs might be the better choice.

I didn’t have on hand any current direct competitor to the Julians for comparison, but I still have my vintage Monster Cables, which I thought might prove useful to see where the Julian speaker cables can provide advantages for those music lovers still using lower-tech cables or -- heaven forbid -- zip cord. The vintage Monster Cable didn’t sound particularly bad, but after I installed the Julians, the shortcomings of the older stuff became obvious. The Julians removed a haze that hung between the images and presented a more quiet backdrop in general, not surprising since the old Monster Cable incorporates a simple twisted-pair geometry and is completely unshielded save for its clear vinyl sheath. The soundstage expanded, and everything in it sounded clearer and in better focus -- kind of like getting a new pair of glasses. The bass also went noticeably deeper. In general, the Monster Cable presented the music with a flat affect that was adequate but uninvolving, while the Julians breathed life and energy back into the music. The moral: stick a crowbar in your wallet and ditch the generic bargain cables. Your system will thank you for it.

Compared to my reference Acoustic Zen interconnects and speaker cables, the Zu Cables actually faired quite well. The most notable difference was that the Acoustic Zen cables were better able to dig down and get more at the guts of the recording, mainly in the midrange, and came across generally with more weight and authority. They were also a bit more coherent in presenting the structure of individual instruments, and although the Zu Cables were actually more detailed and captured more air, the Acoustic Zen cables' slightly more laid-back presentation still did better at catching and relating the subtle harmonic nuances embedded in the recording. But the Acoustic Zen cables will cost several times the entry fee of the Zu Cables, and in many respects the Zu Cables were right up there anyway.

Conclusions

Do the Zu Cable OxyFuel interconnects and Julian speaker cables exhibit that crystalline, see-through transparency and snap often associated with silver cables? Very close. Do they surface every last ounce of midrange information dripping with emotion to the point where you’re reduced to a sonically seduced pile of goo? No. Do they deliver a front-row level of impact such that they should carry a warning label for those with pacemakers? Not quite. But they do a very respectable job on all these counts and deliver the goods in every other area I can think of without putting a foot wrong, and at this price point that puts them at the top of their class in my book.

These are the kinds of cables you will be able to live with happily for a long, long time while they allow you to benefit fully from upgrading the components around them. Companies like Zu Cable, with their ultra-lean business models and surprisingly high-performance/high-value products, are a sure sign to me that times in the cable world are indeed changing -- and fast. So in your face, Bill Gates, and score one for the little guy.

...Tim Shea
tim@soundstage.com

Zu Cable OxyFuel Interconnects and Julian Speaker Cables
Prices:
OxyFuel, $110 USD per meter pair; Julian, $282 per eight-foot pair, $440 per eight-foot biwire pair.
Warranty:
Lifetime.

Zu Cable
1367 East 2600 North
Ogden, UT 84414
Phone: (801) 605-0535

E-mail: info@zucable.com
Website: www.zucable.com

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