LessLoss Digital Cable
|LessLoss Digital Cable|
|Further Adventures in Listening|
"'Break In' is not a proven audible or measurable phenomenon. The perception of changes in sound quality with time is likely attributable to the classical placebo effect, i.e., a listener anticipating a possible audible difference is predisposed to hear one whether or not it exists. This is actually quite a popular myth touted by many...exotic cable vendors and cable forum cult hobbyists alike.”
Here we go again: the objectivists still scrapping with the subjectivists, the short sighted versus the deluded, just as they were more than a decade ago when I frequented rec.audio.high-end with an attitude of amused skepticism and, I admit, a lot more tolerance than I now own. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. “Break-in” is one of those things that may elicit strong emotions. Some people “believe” in it. Some people do not “believe” in it. In my opinion, neither stance is strictly necessary in any absolute sense. But it remains a truism, not limited to mere audiophiles, that H. sapiens will cling to opinions and viewpoints as if they are dearest possessions, protective garments against the winds of uncertainty.
And the winds of uncertainty have certainly been blowing 'round our paradise among the oaks as I've groped my way through research and auditions for this review. To say the journey has been less than straightforward is perhaps shy of the mark.
A couple of observations here. I know of audiophiles (and non-audiophiles) who think the effect of power cords is subjective nonsense, is not real, for many of the same reasons that Audioholics readers presumptively think that the effect of “burn-in” is purely subjective and is not real. At the core of this rationale is the dictum,“If it can't be measured, it doesn't exist.” All I can say is that, if my first experience with audiophile power cords was purely subjective, it was the damnedest delusion I (and my non-audiophile wife) ever heard. I'm not sure just why, but the strict “objectivist” viewpoint reminds me of the official medical establishment's dismissive response to the “placebo effect.” As if a cure by non-allopathic, perhaps non-describable, or even non-attributable means is not a real cure because the medical brain trust cannot explain how it works or put a name to it. Like perceived changes as a cable “burns-in.”
Regarding the “burning-in” issue, may I relate my initial experience with the LessLoss Digital Cable? Purely anecdotal evidence to be sure, but I think indicative. The cable arrived this morning by UPS. I thanked the driver and carried the package into the house. I pulled the cable I had been using, a professional quality OEM XLR cable that came with my Accuphase DP-90, and I installed the fresh-out-of-the-package, completely unbroken-in LessLoss Digital Cable (hereafter LLDC). And I sat down to listen to it. My expectation and indeed my hope: that the new cable will sound better than the old one. My experience (with obeisance to Audioholics): it sounded far worse, stripped of body, thin and flat. I switched back to the OEM cable: gorgeous sound once again. The simple fact of this rather amazed me, that two relatively short pieces of wire, one “broken-in” and one not, could affect the sound so drastically and so differently. And so contrary to my 'predisposition' as Audioholics would have it.
There are no doubt certain physical differences between the Cannon and Neutrik connectors used, respectively, on the Accuphase and LessLoss cables. But both are obviously good quality, although neither is what you'd call an extreme “audiophile” device, no exotic platings, single-crystal pins, cryogenic treatment and such like extravagancies. But when it comes to the wire used in these two cables, there are concrete, significant differences.
The Accuphase cable uses Canare DA206 wire that has a twisted pair of multi-strand 20AWG annealed copper wires insulated with XLPE (cross-linked polyethylene) and two polyester filler cords, all four wrapped in a tinned annealed copper shield, then wrapped in a distinctive blue PVC jacket. (I know a high-end cable manufacturer who would cringe at the thought of a PVC jacket, although light blue might fare somewhat better in his opinion than dark red.) I am given to understand that this particular Canare cable is a sort of de facto industry standard for commercial XLR interconnect cables.
The LessLoss cable consists of a twisted pair of high purity copper wires with polybutylene and cotton insulation. The elaborate shielding is described on the LessLoss site: “five individually tuned shielding methods...copper foil, high density silver plated copper shielding...dielectric spacer...even higher density copper shielding...extremely dense double layers of carbon fiber...long ferrite rings at both ends.” (The coaxial version of the LLDC uses solid-core silver wire with identical shielding.) These various shielding materials, including the ferrite rings, are designed to filter specific frequency spectra. While there may be disagreement about how best to construct a digital cable, there can be no question that a lot of thought, time and expense went into LessLoss wire. When you purchase any cable of this caliber, you're recompensing for the expense of development and testing, as well as cost of materials and labor.
If I were to relate the story of my very initial impression of the LLDC to LessLoss's Louis Motek, I'll bet you twenty-five subjective dollars he'd tell me to burn it in for a certain number of hours. (In fact, Mr Motek subsequently suggested at least couple of weeks.) And what if, over time, the cable sounds better? (Which it, in fact, did.) Well, you read what Audioholics had to say about that. There was a time, in living memory, when audiophiles simply didn't hear any difference between wires. After all, the theoreticians and engineers assured us that wire could not make an audible difference. And if audiophiles did hear a difference in wires, they didn't much talk about it, perhaps for fear of being labeled kooks and laughed at. (With at least one notable exception, J. Peter Moncrieff, who was experimenting with loudspeaker wire 40 years ago. I remember reading that he had custom-made silver knife switches so that he could quickly switch between loudspeaker cables. Imagine going to such extremes to maintain signal purity and to circumvent the brevity of aural memory. Ah, the good old days.)
No, it's not that the effects of power cords, minerals, single crystal copper, plating materials, or burning-in cannot, in principle, be measured; it's that we haven't yet figured out how to measure them. As for the “proof” offered by double-blind testing, it is a step in the right direction and may yield statistically valid results, but not with a sample consisting of only two or three audiophiles (a genus whose peculiar psychology defies analysis). However, double-blind testing seems to me to aim at particulars, whereas in this case, with this particular listener, gestalt may be called for.
Over the past couple of years my ears have been opened to the possibilities inherent in proprietary power conditioners and power cords. I have some of these, and I wouldn't part with them for a lifetime subscription to The Objectivist's Review. But, except for a brief flirtation, perhaps 15 years ago, with Cardas cables, I have abided with home-made wires of Belden/Neutrik provenance. I made them all with my trusty soldering iron — with the exception of the OEM digital cable.
To begin. As a preliminary I have set the Accuphase to continuously loop through a music CD, with the volume turned inaudibly low, and I will run it thus for a couple of days in an attempt to hasten the break-in of the LLDC. Already, after five or six hours, I would no longer characterize the sound according to my initial impression, as thin, flat and stripped of body. But this perceived change, the “objectivists” will tell you, is merely psycho-acoustic accommodation, familiarity, or worse, wishful thinking. Of course, they might be right. I don't think they are, but that's as far as I can take it. I'm going to live with the LessLoss for awhile. Then I'll do a comparison.
A few days later. I've one strong impression so far. I've spoken before of Peter Walker's (founder of QUAD) comparison of the volume control of an amplifier to the focus control of a camera. Well, the veracity of this analogy seems remarkably obvious with the LLDC. Playing large scale music at more realistic volume levels is particularly impressive and instructive. Loud music has always been problematical in this room, but it really is less so now. I can offer a number of off-the-cuff speculations about this, that the dynamic range has improved, that the noise floor has diminished, that there is less intermodulation distortion, that transients are quicker with less ringing, that group delay is lowered. Or perhaps Mercury is in trine with Venus and it's a propitious time to change cables. For example, Finlandia Records 3984-21439-2, Nielsen Symphonies 4 and 5. There is a level of lucid detail, a gutsiness to the bass, a knife-sharp clarity to the strings, without stridency, a dynamism that, as I say, works well at high volume levels. As far as I know, a digital cable is all about waveform and timing, or in a word, jitter. It seems that improving these, even marginally, can have noteworthy effects.
Much later. The LLDC had been in use for weeks now. I figured it was safe to assume that the cable was reasonably well burnt in at this point. And it was high time to begin swapping the two cables and listening for differences. I've only just begun comparison testing, but I must say the experience is highly reminiscent of the not-so-good old days: the uncomfortable, frustrating struggle to hear differences when differences are uncertain, small and elusive. Latching on to a particular bit of sound — the overtones of a violin string, the resonance of a violoncello cavity, the transient attack of a piano hammer — and trying to hold on to that exact bit of sound while juggling cables, setting aside the fact that acoustic memory is notoriously short lived; and winking at the fact that cable changes are fully sighted. I've never been comfortable with test procedures where extremely small differences are involved, especially considering the continual shifts in perception that flesh is heir to. So that I am left uncertain if I've heard something or only imagined it. As I say, it's been a long time since I've faced this dilemma. And as one experienced audiophile/engineer told me, digital cables are singularly difficult to audition for differences. Even under the best of circumstances.
So I turned to the manufacturer and asked just what he'd suggest I should listen for, where differences in jitter levels might be most audible. This seems to me a legitimate procedure. Not unlike someone asking me, as a former typesetter, what factors to look for in the text of a magazine advertisement, things like kerning, letter spacing, ligatures, word spacing, layout, legibility. People generally do not notice such things till they're taught what to look for. An untrained ear (and experience is not equivalent to training) is like an untrained eye or an untrained palate. Which is why some people are able to earn a very good living tasting food and wine. (And this qualification was confirmed by Mr. Motek who wrote, “Truth is, I also needed to 'learn' the differences to look for, much like I had to learn about the concept of tone quality during some of my first 'cello lessons as a boy of 6.”)
Nevertheless I was beginning to suspect that I was, frankly, getting nowhere. Mr Motek spoke of listening wholly to the music. Which I took to mean that if listening for particular details failed to reveal concrete, repeatable differences, feel the musical experience itself instead. The gestalt. Not critically. Not as an audiophile. But with the heart. Perhaps as Don Juan taught Castaneda to concentrate on peripheral vision, to deliberately not look directly at things, because “things” always elicit a specific name and associated experiences, and when you see only “things” you're apt to miss what's really going on.
Now, about a month ago I had received a highly-regarded digital cable from yet another manufacturer; let's call it cable X. It is beautifully constructed of special copper wire in a proprietary configuration, with Neutrik XLR connectors (same as the LLDC). And for the past couple of weeks I've been breaking it in. Tonight I sat down to listen to some late Beethoven sonatas,Gerard Willems playing Opera 109 and 111 (ABC Records 465-077-2). In the dark I sat cozy in the cat bird seat “looking” at the piano, considering how real it seemed, its spacial focus and dimensions; and the sound, was this how felt covered wooden hammers striking metal strings really sound, how the resonance of a piano cavity really sounds? And I found myself inexplicably feeling a little uneasy, with sort of a sense of discontent. Was I noticing things unconsciously and feeling that odd sense of discontent because the sound was, however subtly, not quite convincing? I had not intended this to be an ostensible test, I had not planned to compare cables, but I was suddenly intrigued to do just that. I paused the transport, removed cable X and installed the LLDC. That did it. At last, after all these weeks, obvious differences between two broken-in digital cables!
With the LLDC the piano shrunk to a realistic size, receded further back into the sound stage, gathered a cloak of coherence about itself. There was more sparkle to the sound. It was, in short, moreconvincing. Both the audiophile and the music lover in me felt happier. The former because at last here was a bit of meat into which to sink my reviewer's teeth. The latter for the same reason we all became audiophiles in the first place: love of music and an intense pleasure in having it presented with convincing realism.
Again, this is not a neatly quantifiable, black and white matter. I immediately noticed the difference in the ambience of the venue when I swapped in the LLDC. But when I swapped back cable X, I heard it then too. Because I was now listening for it. The distinction is in the nature of a sort of aural equivalent to the sidelong glance: initially I wasn't listening for anything specific, rather I was listening — as well as I was able — with my heart and body. Just like you'd do at a live performance. You're there to experience music, to be moved emotionally. And when I switched to the LLDC the liveness, the ambience of the recording studio popped out at me. It was a factor that made the piano more realistic. Cable X was good. The LLDC was better.
A couple of weeks later. Louis Motek, who was in the States for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, was driving through our neck of the woods and stopped by this afternoon. Naturally enough, a certain amount of cable swapping went on, as well as technical talk about the nature of jitter and about synchronous versus asynchronous digital interfaces. One test we tried was swapping between the LLDC and my OEM cable using music that for me was both familiar and deeply emotional. Would one cable convey the emotional impact of this music better than the other?
The music I chose was the Pie Jesu from Faure's Requiem (EMI Classics 7243 5 66946 2): a breathtakingly beautiful soprano solo (the great Victoria de los Angeles), strings, pipe organ, harp. As you can readily imagine, an audio designer/manufacturer has a great deal riding on the accuracy and meticulousness of his perception of sound — nothing less than the success or failure of his business. Mr Motek's hearing (in addition to having nearly thirty years less mileage than my own) has been trained of necessity. He also plays several instruments and has performed jazz, ethnic music, sung in choirs and played in orchestras. And he quickly made a number of specific and telling judgments about the sound of these two cables. He noted things like, “The distance of the various pipe organ registers from the main case towers, from the front to the back of the instrument, the bowing direction (frog to tip vs. tip to frog), the resonance quality of the string instrument bodies, the diction and articulation of the vocal soloist.” These discernments correspond, intriguingly, to some of the same differences noted in his web site article about synchronous versus asynchronous clocking of digital interfaces. The core issue of that article being jitter, where less is definitely more. In other words, the audible differences between digital cables likely correspond to the different levels of jitter those cables introduce. There are other factors, but jitter is the big one.
I am afraid these venerable ears of mine did not clearly perceive some of the nuances Mr Motek noted with such exactitude. But I did have one very concrete reaction: while the OEM cable sounded perfectly fine, the LLDC immediately produced goose bumps — before my 'rational' mind could stick its nose in and muck about. Not so with the OEM cable. No goose bumps. The goose bump criterion is not as far fetched as it may at first appear. In fact I am not alone in having this reaction auditioning components, nor in granting it critical validity. I mentioned the “goose bump” criterion to an audio designer friend and he knew just what I was talking about. I don't mean to sound flippant, but in addition to attempting to electronically measure minuscule levels of distortion, noise, phase irregularities, group delay and such, particularly when we don't always know where and what to look for, perhaps audio designers and manufacturers should also be measuring the physiological changes in auditioners. As a sort of physical reflection of the experience of joy, delight, transcendence; or their absence. It's a thought.
Having had success with the Faure, I wanted to compare the LLDC against the OEM in another highly emotional work, the second Kyrie from Bach's Mass in b minor (Archiv D 225064) with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. In my opinion one of Bach's supremest efforts, full of drama and chromaticism. I found the LLDC noticeably more involving, musically and emotionally. Not that the OEM seemed lacking in any sense. It sounded just fine. But that extra something, call it clarity of perception, call it emotional impact or truthfulness, was greater with the LLDC. Albeit, in light of what I already had written about the subtle differences between these cables, I figured my response would inevitably be biased in favor of the LLDC (and, after all, I knew which cable was in play).
So for this test I called the big guns, an unbiased auditioner with unquestionably better hearing than my own, who neither knew nor cared which cable was which, and whom I had not prejudiced with tales of my prior experiences — my wife. She described the first cable (the LLDC) as presenting a “wall of sound,” noting that she could feel the bass notes of the pipe organ vibrating in her chest. (If you've ever been to a live organ performance, you will know exactly what she meant.) She did not have this experience with the second cable (OEM), which she further characterized as “sounding a little flat.” The first cable felt more like actually “being at the performance” presenting greater image clarity and specificity. With the first cable she was able to easily picture the space in which the musicians played, that is, there was greater ambient retrieval. She had a sense of actually “being there.” Whereas she had no such sense with the second cable. Nor did she have to struggle with the comparison by having me swap cables repeatedly back and forth: the differences were immediately obvious. Nothing subtle about it!
In sum, I, or should I say we, found different digital cables do make an audible difference, though how great a difference may have to do with the age and condition of one's ears, the equipment amplifying and reproducing the sound, one's listening habits, and the type of music being reproduced. For those striving to make their stereo the very best it can be, the choice of digital cable is clearly a significant one. And the LessLoss Digital Cable is well worth considering. It has distinctly enhanced our musical pleasure.
* Standard Length: 1 meter
* Custom lengths available on special order
* True 75 - 110 Ohm impedance.
* Five individually tuned shielding methods.
* Solid high purity silver center core.
* Eichmann connectors from Australia with laser engraved aluminum housings.
* Price $595.00 includes shipping and all PayPal/conversion fees.
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