When I begin to write a review, I try to imagine who will read it--a ritual all writers go through during the early stages of the creation process (writers also like to refer to their work as "creation"). SoundStage! has a highly visible place on the Internet, and our readers have easy access to us via email, so it's important that we reviewers always keep them in mind--or they let us quickly know that we haven't.
So given this, you can imagine my dilemma when I began talking with Audio Magic about a review of their top-of-the-line pure silver speaker cables and interconnects. First, the value of the cables they wanted to send was over five figures--or more money than many of our readers care to spend on their entire systems. And then to further complicate the matter, Audio Magic wanted to send me a brand-new item, one that I'd already heard a few chuckles about: the Tubed Interconnect. I was interested in sampling the megabuck cables, and especially the new dish Audio Magic had whipped up with tubes, but I knew I'd have a hard time selling my interest to our vocal readers. But try I must.
The Illusion cables--of which I received single-ended interconnects, coaxial digital cable, and non-biwire speaker cable--all have ribbon conductors made of five-nines pure silver. (Other less-costly Audio Magic cables also use pure silver conductors.) Why silver? According to head audio magician Jerry Ramsey, "...conductivity, which silver excels at, having no peers--not even gold." But Audio Magic doesn't rely on this electrical reality alone to craft their sound. Ramsey is picky about his silver, having found out early in the design process that silver conductors from different sources sound very different. Consequently, all the silver for Audio Magic cables is sourced from only two suppliers, and it is then run through an electrical and thermal process to enhance its "integrity" and thus better its sound. In addition, the all-silver conductors in the Illusion cables are hand polished and chemically treated so they won't oxidize for 20 years or so--not that any audiophile would keep something, especially cables, for 20 years, but if you happen to see a used set available, you're safe well into the next century.
The highly flexible Illusion interconnect and coaxial digital cable use top-of-the-line locking WBT RCA connectors and are protected on the outside by an attractive blue mesh sheath. The Illusion speaker cables also use the mesh, but they give new meaning to the word uncooperative--as it is used to describe audio cables, that is. They--two runs are required per stereo channel--don't resemble garden hose or bratwurst as much as a pair of boa constrictors. (I kept my cats away from them for fear that one morning I'd see a lump somewhere down one of the lengths.) The conductors are encased in a heavy tubing that's then filled with sand for damping. Thus the entire cable is very heavy and rather unwieldy--until you have it rolled out and under control. In keeping with their size, the Illusion speaker cables use bulky rhodium spades the likes of which I've never seen. They're so substantial that they almost look like pieces of medical equipment--perhaps something used to hold back a stray organ during surgery. We all know that the high end is life-and-death serious anyway, so why not flaunt it?
And this brings me to the $3,995 Tubed Interconnect, which comes in its own padded suitcase decorated with an attractive black-on-gold plaque that announces its contents--subtly, in two-inch letters. Open the case and you see a tangle of cables and packing materials, a sleeve of bubble wrap that contains the tubes (a matched pair of Sovtek 6922s), and two black boxes--the main output stage of the interconnect that holds the tubes, and the power supply. Assembly is easy: plug the power umbilical into both the output stage and the power supply, plug the power cord (an Audio Magic Sorcerer, which is included with the Tubed Interconnect) into the power supply, and finally install the tubes. You'll need a free shelf on your rack to house both of the black boxes (which each measure roughly 4.5 inches x 7 inches), and then you can finally connect the appropriate leads to the output of your DAC or CD player and the input of your preamp. The ribbon conductors used in the leads are even more costly than those in the Illusion interconnect. There's a small on/off switch on the back of the power supply.
The tubes sit proudly atop the case for the output stage and are unencumbered by cages or other contraptions. Their glow along with the cool-blue indicator LED on the front make the whole thing look very lovely, especially with the lights off.
In discussing the Tubed Interconnect, Ramsey was almost apologetic: "We know it's expensive, but we used only the finest parts we could find, sound being the only determining factor . We knew exactly what we wanted to create, and we did it."
"Which is?" I asked.
"A self-regulated inversion stage that adds 3 db of gain."
"Well, we can't say too much, but we wanted to bring some of the things that analog does well to digital--like the air around instruments, the soundstage depth, and the general sense musicality."
As often happens when some new audio doo-dad arrives, I was in the middle of a review and couldn't tear my system apart to put in something new--and thus change the sound. So as I have done in the past with other gear, I lugged the Audio Magic cables over to the house of Head Audio Testing Engineer (his new honorary title) Grant for some burn in and initial impressions. We spent a couple of hours one Saturday afternoon wrestling with the Illusion speaker cable and wiring Grant's rig with the rest of the Illusion line. We did have a problem though with the Tubed Interconnect: we couldn't stretch it to fit between his DAC and preamp, its recommended position. Instead, we had to connect it to his preamp and monoblock amps, and we then used the length of Illusion interconnect in the other spot. Not optimal, but we had no other choice.
Grant disliked the new setup immediately, describing the sound as "too tubey." I knew what he meant, even though I didn't agree with his assessment of his system's sound. He thought the bass was mushy and lacked its normal impact, and he talked about the treble losing its "incisiveness." I suggested that he burn the cables in and then do some more listening--both of which he did, to no avail. Still too soft. He then removed the Tubed Interconnect, and the sound more suited his tastes. Grant thought the Illusion cables sounded airy and helped resolve copious amounts of low-level detail. He especially liked the Illusion speaker cable, noting that it seemed to tighten the bass of his Aerial 10Ts. But he also remarked that the Illusion cables had a noticeable "wow factor," the ability to sound different at first but not necessarily better in the long run.
So a mixed review from Grant: a conditional thumbs-up on the Illusion cables, a thumbs-down--way down--on the Tubed Interconnect. I have to admit that after I got the cables back, I wasn't nearly as excited about putting them into my system as when they first arrived. So they sat in their boxes until I finished the review I was working on and had the time to install them. I decided, however, to put in the Tubed Interconnect first--so that I could isolate its sound and perhaps remove it if it didn't work out--and then put in the Illusion speaker cable, interconnect and digital cable to get the full effect. A reasonable approach, I thought.
So I installed the Tubed Interconnect between my Timbre DAC and CAT SL-1 Signature linestage (just where it wasn't used in Grant's system), making sure to compensate for its inverted phase by flipping the + and - connections at the speakers and backing off the CAT's volume by one click to effectively nullify the 3 db of added gain. I threw the switches and waited 45 minutes to let all of the tubes warm up (a good rule to follow for tube equipment, unless the manufacturer recommends a longer duration). I pulled out Danilo Perez's Panamonk and sat down to listen, the big ProAc Response 4s staring back at me, as if to say "get on with it already." It was around 8:00 PM on a Saturday night, and I think I may have been drinking a beer, probably a Killian's Red. I had just recently retubed my Quicksilver M135s with a new set of Tesla E34Ls, the same tubes that were replaced.
I offer all of this detail as proof that I don't take reviewing lightly--even though I had modest expectations for the component I was going to evaluate. But from roughly the first 30 seconds of Panamonk to its end, I could only agree with Jerry at Audio Magic about his baby: it adds a natural sense of air to the music--and this was obvious even with all of the tubes throughout my system. The instruments were separated more, and the music sounded more organic, even less the product of a long and expensive electrical chain of command. And this was not isolated to just one or a few recordings. It was obvious with every CD, and it was something I didn't want to remove from my system.
Weeks passed, and I began to listen more critically to the Tubed Interconnect, trying to discern its general character and pin down its weaknesses. My conclusion? All gain and no pain--and this still surprises me. I couldn't detect anything that my system did more poorly--including the bass, which actually seemed a bit tighter--and I ultimately preferred the sound with the Tubed Interconnect in place. So it's safe to say that I liked the Tubed Interconnect at least as much as Grant disliked it, and I guess that you'll have to break the deadlock by auditioning it in your system. I want one--and bad.
Adding the Illusion cables into the mix didn't noticeably increase any of the wonderful qualities of the Tubed Interconnect. Instead, the particular nature of the cables themselves was very evident--and consonant with the music itself. The Illusion cables were a touch lighter in the upper midrange and less weighty in the mid-bass than my reference JPS Superconductor cables, and in particular they highlighted the attack and decay of each individual sound. I especially enjoyed them with well-recorded jazz--like Panamonk and the new Sony/Legacy reissues of Kind of Blue and Time Out, the latter of these in particular taking on a sense of liveliness that I'd never remembered it having.
I don't, however, want to give the wrong impression of the Illusion cables--that they have a recognizable sonic signature and thus draw attention to themselves. In fact, the Illusion cables are rather hard to review because they don't sound like anything in particular, having no obvious tendencies or quirks, and this is the pinnacle for cables--to neither add to nor subtract from the music itself. They're crystalline clear, without fluff or pomp, and like the JPS Labs Superconductors, the Audio Magic Illusion cables sound incredibly balanced--nothing is exaggerated or out of place. All is as it should be. They do have a superior attack-and-decay game, allowing the leading edge of transients to enter with more speed and make a more prolonged exit, but this is just a closer re-creation of the real thing and not some sort of sonic earmark. Enough said.
More CDs. One that I've been listening to over and over again is Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire, a well-recorded collection of intelligent and quirky pop tunes. It's a warm recording with sloshy bass, and it sounds just this way with the all of the Audio Magic cables in place--nothing diluted or prettified. I've also been listening to a lot of jazz lately, especially the MCA/GRP 20-bit reissues of the Impulse! catalog. Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth has never sounded better--more resolved--than it does on the reissued CD, and the Audio Magic cables added to this effect, making the instruments inhabit even more distinct space--a fine bit of abstract truth.
Fainting with Damn Praise
Life in audio paradise can be pretty boring; one day is just like another. You listen to great music through a hot speaker on an all-tube system with great cables--ho-hum. Not! Although it's easy to become jaded, anyone who reviews high-end audio equipment better be intrinsically fascinated with its potential or the work will be drudgery.
The Audio Magic Illusion cables and Tubed Interconnect are easily the most expensive lengths of wire I've reviewed, auditioned, or even seen in a high-end shop. They're also some of the finest cables I've ever used and of absolute reference quality. They're musically harmonious and will help your system deliver every bit of nuance it can muster without the distraction of coloration or embellishment. Silver cables come with a reputation for sounding exceedingly clean and clear but often at the cost of shrillness. This is not the case with the Illusion cables, which sounded nothing but smooth and languid in my system--which I've built to excel in these areas, so I'd instantly notice and condemn any change. And what more can I offer about the Tubed Interconnect? It's expensive, unconventional, gimmicky, and sounds glorious. Call me foolish, but I'm buying one--so I can write better reviews of course!
I'd like, however, to issue an invitation to Audio Magic: send me some of your less costly cables so that I can perhaps sing their praises to our eager and bargain-conscious readers. I offer this in summing up the review of the top-of-the-line Illusion cables because they represent the ultimate goal. I've heard what your best can do--and it's mighty impressive--so let's see how close your other cables can get.
On the other hand, if you don't want to settle for second best, find an Audio Magic dealer who can lend you the Illusion cables and the Tubed Interconnect. They're not cheap, but they might affect you as they have me, leaving you to lament your modest bank account but saving every penny.
|Audio Magic Illusion Cables
Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect
Audio Magic responds:
To SoundStage! and my fellow music lovers,
I would like to take a moment and thank Marc Mickelson (and Grant) for taking the time to listen to our Illusion cables and Tubed Interconnect. And I applaud them on their courage to handle the Illusion speaker cables. I'm sure glad no one was hurt, as the cables can be a little unruly. (By the way, Marc, we're not insured if they swallow anything.)
On a serious note, I am sorry that the Tubed Interconnect did not work in Grant's system, but as I stated to Marc, it was specifically designed to be placed between the CD player/converter and the preamp, so the results Grant obtained were predictable.
We will be glad to send review samples to SoundStage! in the near future of our lower-priced cables. We are preparing to introduce a new line of cables that will feature interconnects with pure silver conductors from $169 on up. We also have silver-over-copper interconnects from $49 to $125. We also do silver power cords, video products, and many other digital cables and speaker cables.
As a company, we are very dedicated to our music. It's not just a job or a way to make a buck; it's a labor of love to make cables that will bring musical pleasure to us all. Again, thanks Marc for your wonderful review.