- 3ft Audio Art Cable Power 1 terminated with Furutech FI-11G ends ($145)
- 5ft Audio Art Cable Power 1 terminated with Wattgate 5266i/ IEC320i ends ($125)
- 5ft Zebra Cable ZC-PWR10 terminated with standard Marinco ends ($58)
- 5ft Zebra Cable ZC-PWR12 terminated with standard Marinco ends ($77)
- 6ft Soundstring Tricormaxial High Current Draw Power Supply Cord ($304)
- 6ft Soundstring Low Amperage Digital Power Supply Cord ($34)
- 5ft Signal Cable MagicPower Power Cord with standard termination ($69)
- 5ft Signal Cable Magic Power Digital Reference with standard termination ($83)
As I recently had a complete overhaul of my main system, I spent some time thinking of my next move. We’re all familiar with the hi-fi game by this point, upgrade, upgrade, upgrade in search of our personal audio nirvana. However, with summer purchases of Quad’s well regarded 12L2 monitors and an Underwood Hifi modified Onix CD-5, I was just breaking in my new gear, not mention giving my savings CPR. The previous year I had treated myself to some high end speaker cable and some nice interconnects, but the thought of upgrading power cables never crossed my mind. Hell, at that point I had no idea hi-fi power cables even existed. Well, with all my new gear, I needed something to protect my system so I looked into a PS Audio Duet power conditioner. And so began my excursion into the realms of hi-fi power. It became a summer obsession; I spent many nights cooped up and reading forums, e-magazines, and our very own Affordable$$Audio. Finally acknowledging that there must be something to this high end power cable business, I rationalized to myself that it was the final tweak for my system, the cherry on top if you will. Disregarding the $1000+/m behemoths, I scoured in search of the highest regarded budget power cords. Anyone familiar with AudioKarma surely knows the name Signal Cable… and through similar comparisons I came across the names Zebra and Soundstring. Audio Art, on the other hand, was due to a link in Affordable Audio and a quick inquiry to the owner. After a month of saving up and searching, I had found numerous options to supply my new gear, and simply couldn’t decide. So why not get them all and have an in house comparison? Genius… they all have a standard 30-day money back guarantee, and in some instances extended the trial period for the comparison. Without further delay, I present to you my impressions.
I can say that designing an experiment to qualify the character of 8 different cables is extremely difficult. To save myself some hassle, I talked to each vendor and inquired as to which of my components would pair best with their cable options. Aside from Audio Art, all vendors distribute a high current cable which is best paired with an amplifier, subwoofer, and/or a power conditioner, as well as a lower current design that would pair well with digital components. Audio Art only distributes a high current cable, so no digital offer was purchased from them, but they tout the Power 1’s ability to serve as a cable for all components. However, A.A. offers different terminations for approximately the same price point, and my curiosity would’ve never let me sleep again if I hadn’t tested them both. For the actual testing, I swapped high current cords into my power conditioner, the lower current cords into my Onix, and swapped high current cords into my Cambridge amp. The high current cord lineup consisted of both Audio Art Power 1 cables, further denoted as with an F for Furutech terminations and W for Wattgate terminations, the Zebra Cable ZC-PWR10, the Signal MagicPower, and the Soundstring Tricormaxial High Current cord. The digital cables included both Audio Arts, the Zebra ZC-PWR12, the Signal Digital Reference, and the Soundstring Low Amperage Digital cable. Since I have very eclectic tastes, I picked out music from various genres for my testing and played the same songs in the same order across all cables. In the end, I had three smaller comparison “sessions”. I only swapped out the cables on one component at a time to find which cables I felt meshed the best with my individual electronics. At the start of each of these “sessions” I attached the stock cable and listened through all of my test songs. This would serve as a basis to compare the character of the hi-fi cables and give me a clear picture of the enhancements (and heaven forbid distractions) that the cables presented to the music.
Session 1 – Through the Power Conditioner
The first cable that I tested out was the Audio Art F cable. My initial impression was, “wow, this really separates all the sounds, really shows off the layering of the music.” I really felt the depth increase and was able to hear subtleties that were perhaps masked before. In either case, they were better pronounced. This cable is warm and deep, deep, deep. I suppose this initial impression was a bit biased as it was the first cable compared to the stock cord and all the cables enhanced the musical depth, but I never noticed it as much as I did with the Audio Art F.
Next up was the Audio Art W. Again, I felt that there was an improvement upon what I’d heard with the stock cable, the resolution was more precise and tones of string instruments struck me as more musical, but it didn’t deliver the deep stage provided by the Audio Art F. I also didn’t feel that it had the same degree of separation that the Furutech terminated cord did, but the highs were crystal clear, even in comparison to the Audio Art F. But me, I’m a bass man, so I suppose I wasn’t as enamored with this find as others.
Following the Audio Art pair was the Soundstring High Current cable. If there’s one word I would use with this cable it’s detail. Of all the cables I tested it was the most distinct with a supreme ability to convey everything in the music. All the details were sharp, accurate, and resolved. The bass was noticeably tight. However, the loss for this kind of gain was the separation from the Audio Arts. Also gone was the noticeable black background. In my mind I couldn’t help feel that it just wasn’t as fluid as the music was meant to be, that the cable was taking extra liberties in presenting all those small details with such force.
Following the Soundstring was the Zebra cable. Some notes proclaim how neutral and revealing it was. It is a very subtle adjustment to the music, but a very refined one, and at a point during testing I got lost in the music for a bit. My mind just stopped analyzing and listened. The resulting note read, “Emotional!”. The Zebra made a small adjustment that made the music that much more engaging, and seemingly more beautiful. It wasn’t nearly as black or deep as the Audio Art F, but it refined. Last up in the first session was the Signal Cable. My initial impressions were overjoyed. If you haven’t inferred yet, I was quite a fan of the depth of the Audio Art F, and the layering was excellent, but here came a cable that did nearly the same while tightening the tone and enhancing the musicality like the Zebras. My notes read, “Very fluid, deep, lively.” So it didn’t have the most resolution, that would be the Soundstring, and it couldn’t match the layering of the Audio Art, but it had the emotion and the depth. I was torn between the Audio Art F and the Signal Cable MagicPower after my first round of audio testing, and I was curious to see how they’d compare in different components in latter testing.
Session 2 – Through the digital source
I decided to switch up the order of the vendors, so I started my testing with the Signal Cable Digital Reference. Before doing so, I replaced the stock cable on the power conditioner, and listened to the songs with stock cords in each component. As I later listened with the Signal cord, I felt that the music was cleaner, more three dimensional, tighter, and the sound had more body. However, all of these characteristics were minor; they were not the large changes I experienced in the power conditioner. The improvement to the music was noticeable, but not drastic. It was a bit like applying a sharpen filter to some blurry pictures, it just helped define the music more, but it didn’t change the picture.
It wasn’t until I compared the Zebra that I really started to get a feeling for the Signal cable. The Zebra, in accordance with its earlier performance, provided pitch perfect string instruments and very musically moving sound. The sound stage was noticeably narrower than the Signal, though, and the sound was tighter. It had a midrange warmth that was obvious, conveyed all the subtle details (that I know of) but I couldn’t help feel like it flowed the same at the ends of the spectrum as it did in the midrange.
Although the Audio Art cables were not designated as digital cables, since the man in charge, Robert Fritz suggested them for use in digital components as well, I had to test them out. I can say that in comparison to the other digital cords, they didn’t perform as well (in my opinion). They were a bit heavy on the low end, especially the Audio Art F, but still had the same separation as before. Subtle details were muffled while bass was overemphasized, although the Wattgate terminated cable delivered divine midrange. An alarming find was that the Audio Art W couldn’t present some subtle voices in a restaurant setting at the beginning of one of my test tracks. It was there, but I really struggled to hear it. It was obvious to me that these cables weren’t as neutral as the others, and their characteristics were misrepresenting the music.
Last up was the Soundstring cable, and it was quite impressive, especially considering the price. I felt it had good resolve and also nailed the tone and musicality of string instruments. It had a looser grip on the bass control in comparison to the Zebra and Signal, but it did present a noticeably blacker background when compared to the stock cable. Like the Signal, the changes weren’t obvious, but subtle. At the end of the listening session, I was undecided between the Zebra, Signal, and the Soundstring.
Session 3 – Through the Amp
As customary, I replaced the stock cables and gave a listen through. Again, to switch up the order, I listened to the Soundstring high current cable first. When compared to the stock cable, I was really impressed, initially. I felt that the sound was coming through a bigger pipeline, that it was less restricted and allowed to open upwards more than before. Again, the detail was all there, and this time more natural. The string instruments were superb and everything seemed to be conveyed exactly as it was on the disc. It just seemed natural, but not necessarily more musical. Again, the Soundstring didn’t do much for deepening the soundstage, nor for widening it either.
Next up was the Zebra Cable. This cable didn’t just display all the details at the same level like the Soundstring, it really makes the details pop. Sound effects that are emphasized in songs had significantly more body and swell. The noise floor was lowered and the layering was also improved. It wasn’t as natural as the Soundstring, and I didn’t note being as enamored with the string instruments this time around. However, the improvements above the stock cable were obvious.
Since the poor Audio Art W was always second to the Furutech version, I decided to test this one next. Immediately I noticed how it really filled the room with sound. At this level of hi-fi we can all appreciate hearing music instead of hearing the speakers, but this cable really immersed me in a wave of sound. I heard it from everywhere, and it sounded good to boot. The bass was tight, the Audio Art separation was there, and it was rich sound. I did notice in a particular track where there are male and female vocals that the male vocals sounded particularly alive and emotional. The detail didn’t have the resolution of the Soundstring, but I never felt that it was lacking.
After the Audio Art W I had the Signal ready. Signal had impressed me again, only this time I needed surgery to get my jaw reattached. I heard recording mistakes I had never known existed (not that this is a good thing, but it shows the kind of detail this cable has). It was full, it had body, it was so much more open relative to the stock cable. The subtle voices I mentioned earlier were so clear I thought I could make out what they were saying. It was deep, moving, and above all, emotional. The layering was quite good and resolved. The only hindrance to the cable was that I felt the bass could get a bit unruly on heavy hits, but this was only experienced while listening to techno tracks where the bass is supposed to hit hard. So maybe that’s not a bad thing? I seemed to detect some bass warble in these instances, so perhaps that’s why I noticed it in the first place.
The Signal had already stolen my heart, so it was a bit difficult to listen to the Audio Art F. I was expecting it to fade into the background after hearing the Signal, but to my surprise, it held its own. Again, the fluidity and richness were noteworthy, and the characteristic separation and layering were in spades. It was warm and emotional, and perhaps more than when connected to the power conditioner, it was musical. I also felt it handled the bass better than the Signal, but it just didn’t match the detail and openness.
If it’s not obvious at this point, of the different characteristics that each cable added to the music, I valued the overall depth, musicality, and emotion above resolution and neutrality. Also, I can’t deny being a fan of warmth. It’s simply what I felt sounded best and satisfied my musical appetite best. That said, I felt the Signal MagicPower and Audio Art Power 1 with Furutech terminations were great cables. With the sound conditioner, I had a slight bias to prefer the Audio Art, and with the amp I was thrilled with the Signal. At this point, I was settled that these were two of the cables I was getting, now I just had to pick a third. I put these cables into my system, put a stock cable into my CD player, and listened through my test songs. Now the comparison came down to the Zebra, Signal, and Soundstring digital cables. I must admit it was very tough distinguishing much difference between the three cables when paired with the stellar Audio Art and Signal high current cables. They all sounded tighter and more refined than the stock cable, but that was about all that could be discerned. I had to bring down my roommate to help me out on this one. We listened to no less than 10 different songs. He’s not familiar with hi-fi equipment, and therefore didn’t pay much attention to the cords I was swapping in and out. As such, lucky for me, it worked out to be a bit of a blind test on his behalf. Six out of ten times he couldn’t determine one that he thought sounded better than the rest, but four of ten he consistently picked out “that one”, i.e. the Signal Digital Reference, because he thought he could hear more with it. I was prone to agree with him, I could detect small details like string warble on background violins and breathing with the Signal that I couldn’t resolve on the other cables. It was with the attention to small detail that made my decision to keep the Signal Digital Reference as the new power cord for my Onix player.
So what conclusions can I make? Well, for starters, there are losers. Stock cables. It’s not to say that your music isn’t good without swapping out some your power cables, but it isn’t as deep, detailed, emotional, rich, and/or full as it could be. I can also say that as far as cable recommendations go, if you’re looking to enhance the detail of your system, look no further than Soundstring, their character was spot on in this regard. It was irrefutable that Soundstring provided the most resolve of all the cables in the lineup, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for. If you’ve got a deep sound already, pick these up to fill up that space. If you’re looking to create more space, however, then you’ve got to really spend some more time making a decision. The Zebras were subtle and emotional, the Audio Arts were powerful, layered, and deep, and the Signals were a combination of them both. All of them helped deepen the sound or blacken the background to some degree. As far as my own system goes, with tight English designed equipment such as Onix, Cambridge, and Quad, the openness of the Audio Art and Signal really hit the sweet spot, and they’ll be taking up permanent residence in my system.
- Cambridge Audio Azur 840A Integrated Amp
- Underwood Hifi Level 1+ Modified Onix CD-5 CD Player
- Quad 12L2 bookshelf speakers
- Axiom Audio EP600 subwoofer
- Zu Cable St. Julian speaker cable
- Zu Cable Gede Interconnects
- PS Audio Duet Power Conditioner
from aﬀordableaudio, By Ian Thorson