Ultra High-Resolution "Acoustic Zen" Cables
From Cable-Design Legend, Robert Lee
Jim Merod
18 September 2000

Specifications

SILVER REFERENCE: $898/one meter pair
MATRIX REFERENCE: $498/one meter pair
ACOUSTIC ZEN TECHNOLOGIES
858/487-7429
17557 MONTERO RD.
SAN DIEGO, CA (92128)
e-mail cableguy@cts.com
Web: www.acousticzen.com

"Robert Lee's work with Harmonic Tech brought superior cables into the market at a real-world price point. After I read Lee's 1998 'white paper' outlining his cable design philosophy, I asked him about the possibilities of "stretching the sonic envelope of cable design" further yet -- beyond anything available on the market."

As a recording and mastering engineer, I can attest to the importance of careful cable selection in the creation of recorded music. One of the surprising facts of studio recording operations is the prevalence of mid-grade and, often, inferior cables. One finds long runs of low-end cables strung between expensive pieces of gear throughout otherwise high-tech recording real estate.

When state-of-the-art-mixing consoles are cabled with less than transparent patches, microphone cables, and monitor feeds, the sonic result will fall short. Significant degrees of clarity and timbral delicacy that any musician, recordist, or audiophile music lover should seek will never appear. Such lack or sonic absence is often not detected since you cannot know what you are missing if you've never heard it in the first place. The result, in one phrase, will be at best a compromised success. At the opening of a new century, a new series of advanced cable designs is set to enter the field of audiophile musical operations: ACOUSTIC ZEN TECHNOLOGIES, Ltd.

The "Acoustic Zen" line is the culmination of years of cable and sonic research by Robert Lee, the ground-breaking cable design engineer who spearheaded the use of single-crystal copper wire configurations at Harmonic Technology. In addition to his more than two decades of high-profile cable research work, Lee has long been known for his elegant amplifier circuit designs and for his limited-edition production of extremely musical, high-resolution speakers that are champions at sound stage reproduction.

Lee now brings thirty-plus years of research and development experience to the creation of an innovative line of analogue and digital interconnects, speaker wire, and power cords. Acoustic Zen's "ultra high-resolution cables" use exotic pure grades of silver and copper wire. Lee calls the material that he is working with "zero crystal" because each run of copper and silver wire in his new cables is drawn from a continuous metal crystal that reaches more than one hundred and twenty-five meters in length. Lee has found that the inherent structural integrity of such materials, free of impurities, creates maximum signal coherence with the fewest dispersion artifacts.

I have had several engaging conversations with Robert Lee about cable design over the course of the past two years. When Lee designed and directed the emergence of Harmonic Technology's line of cables, I reviewed his design work. Lee's understanding of the behavior of transmitted musical signals is based upon literally thousands of hours of critical listening and several hundred signal delivery configurations.

Lee has created Acoustic Zen cables so that they can be refined to maximize performance in individual sound systems. Lee calls this feature of his new line of cables "precise fine tuning." He explains that his soon to be published "Acoustic Zen Design Philosophy" document will describe this additional feature.

When I reviewed Harmonic Tech cables in 1998, I found them to be a good value. Their power cords are fine performers, too, almost up to the level of dynamic integrity as the remarkable (and still little known) Silverline power cords. I am now awaiting delivery of Harmonic's new power cord, brought forth after Lee's departure from that company, since I will soon look closely at the current state of power cords, including Robert Lee's new design for Acoustic Zen and cords from Vans Evers, Kimber, Shunyata, Stealth, and ESP, among others.

Robert Lee's work with Harmonic Tech brought superior cables into the market at a real-world price point. After I read Lee's 1998 "white paper" outlining his cable design philosophy, I asked him about the possibilities of "stretching the sonic envelope of cable design" further yet -- beyond anything available on the market.

Lee's characteristic humor and modesty serve him well, but I had to push a bit to get a detailed response. He suggested, somewhat obliquely, that "research can always advance our knowledge in every field of sound delivery." Pressed further, his affable good humor came to the fore. A cable designer's mind, he told me, "is restless day and night. I never stop trying new things. I want all the sound [that] we hear at live concerts to be caught by microphones when you record. In addition, I want all that sound in its whole power to be reproduced through my cables. I don't want any compromise."

Lee laughs as he tells you things such as this. He was, on that occasion, teasing someone he knew to be devoted to live recording work. But he was kidding on the square. I was pleased, therefore, when he called to tell me of his new company. I asked if I could review his new cables and he delivered several pairs of Acoustic Zen zero crystal "Silver Reference" cables, two pairs of "Matrix Reference," one of his big, new power cords, and a one meter digital cable. Two more power cords arrived later. I began the long work of critical listening.

There is nothing that immediately meets the eye to distinguish Acoustic Zen cables from many others on the market. They are handsome and serious looking pieces of equipment. One feels the bulk of material and the care with which they have been crafted. But their telling difference emerges after visual inspection -- in the sound.

"When the first two pairs of Acoustic Zen cables went into my system (displacing, for this listening, a pair of Magnan and a pair of Harmonic Tech cables), the soundstage both deepened and grew wider. It more fully resembled the actual physical location where the music that I recorded was captured live-to-two-tracks."

Immediately -- and I mean RIGHT AWAY upon installation -- the first pair of Acoustic Zen zero crystal "Silver Reference" interconnects changed, for the better, the sonic envelope of my initial listening area. This occurred despite the fact that the cables, Lee told me, had not been broken in. He suggested that thirty hours of pink noise would allow the wire to settle into its best sonic qualities.

I followed Lee's advice and began to take notes after his wire had been burned in fully. I kept in place the four-foot run of Magnan Vi single-ended cables that linked a Conrad-Johnson "Premier Eleven" tube-amplifier to a custom-built cross-over for my Cabasse Baltic-Stromboli speakers. Magnan wire has been a near-fixture in that system for almost nine months of continuous critical listening in preparation for a review of the glorious C-J amp [to follow]. With the inclusion of the Acoustic Zen cables, I not only heard more information from that large, stunning amplifier. I heard how the cables handled musical signals. My long time listening and taking notes on the C-J tube amp allowed me an unconfused view of what the new cables brought to the system.

A significant difference was discernible right away at the top of the spectrum. The Acoustic Zen "Silver Reference" cables gave a greater sense of ease in the higher frequencies (above 12 kHz) where a sense of "air" and room ambience are largely concentrated. This was particularly apparent with the exquisite cymbal work that Chico Hamilton executed on late-'50s recordings with his quintet (Pacific Jazz recordings now re-issued on Mosaic Records). Acoustic Zen's upper end resolution was vivid, as well, in the reproduction of snare drum textures when Hamilton used soft mallets. The instrument's size and mass became fuller, more delicately percussive.

Next, I replaced a one-meter single-ended pair of Harmonic Technology cables with a one-meter pair of Lee's zero crystal "Matrix Reference" interconnects. The Acoustic Zen wire then linked the output of my hand made Cabasse cross-over to a modified Audio Research LS-2a (tube) pre-amp. Everything that the Cabasse satellites and sub-woofers received, therefore, was now delivered from the new Acoustic Zen cables.

WHAM! Images that had already been holographically dead-on (a characteristic of Dave Magnan's Vi and Signature interconnects), images texturally-complex with musical nuances, expanded and locked into even more vivid three-dimensional resolution.

The first track I played with two pairs of Acoustic Zen cables in the system was "I Concentrate On You," a gorgeous rendering by San Francisco vocalist Jackie Ryan, with Mike Wofford's trio, from an album soon to be released. This is a track that I know very well. I recorded it live-to-two-tracks at 24-bits using several tube microphone pre-amps. In addition, my colleague Steve McCormack and I worked dozens of late night hours to master it and eleven other songs on the album "For Heaven's Sake," BluePort, [BP-J004].

Nothing about the sound of this recording is foreign or mysterious to me. I had, literally, heard the music as it was being created, while it was recorded. After those fleeting moments on two evenings of live performance, I had listened to this song at least eighty times during various stages of the selection, editing, and mastering process. Parts of the material had been inspected even more than that. I had, in addition, heard the track on more than thirty high-end sound systems during the weeks that Steve and I were mastering it. I am aware of our exuberance and long hours. This is our work and our passion.

I was somewhat startled by what I heard on my Cabasse system when the first pair of Acoustic Zen cables went into the network. I am understating the case. I was more than surprised by what I heard -- and surprised not only because individual sonic details previously blurred or buried stood forth with their own integrity.

I was surprised, to the point of genuine amazement, hearing subtle musical elements that had been obscured or absent details that had never before emerged from this material on this system.

The truth of the sonic change was larger than this statement suggests. The simplest way to name the change is to say that I heard a MUSICALITY -- a presentation of the music's inner pace, with an utterly convincing rhythmic and harmonic cohesiveness -- from Jackie Ryan's stellar, mid-performance quartet that had never before been delivered by this monitoring rig.

A footnote is in order here. Recording studios routinely employ very long runs of microphone cables as well as patch bay circuits and patch cords. The number of linear feet of wire that sits between an artist's voice or instrument and the tape that captures it can be measured in three figures or more. Despite the importance, and the prevalence, of cables in studio recording work, the vast majority of recording engineers adamantly believe that wire is wire -- that no difference can be heard among cables. Mogami is akin to Canare. Canare is equal to Belden, with Clark or Monster no more, no less sufficient. A recent two day recording engagement at a major Los Angeles studio once again confirmed this mind set. One is tempted to laugh or cry.

The assumption of cable equality is a joke. Sufficiency does not suffice. And one wonders, concluding such adventures, about the quality of home sound systems used by those who feed the sound of great musicians through ordinary wire at the beginning of your (and their own) listening pleasure.

My Cabasse monitoring system has been set up to deliver a high degree of detail so that I can hear as far into the sound chain as possible. I use it as part of my mastering playback work. It is one of several systems I rely on to work with recordings, one of several used to review equipment, as well.

I've found few rules of the audiophile road that are one hundred per cent certain, but I am sure of this one. The proof of great cables is in the details. I have never encountered any interconnect that is utterly neutral, without tonal character. I doubt there is or will be such an entity. Therefore, I take REVELATION of detail and ACCURACY of musical representation to be a strong sign of virtue in interconnects. If the music being played through such wire is beautiful, (beautifully played, beautifully recorded) then the wire should deliver it beautifully and vividly.

That predilection on my part has lured me to admire Nordost Quatro-fils cables as well as Magnan cables. Very few interconnects that I have used combine rigorous analytical revelation with extraordinary musicality. The best Magnan and Nordost cables do that. Others approach this ideal. I have long been a fan of AudioQuest "Diamond" cables for that reason.

When the first two pairs of Acoustic Zen cables went into my system (displacing, for this listening, a pair of Magnan and a pair of Harmonic Tech cables), the soundstage both deepened and grew wider. It more fully resembled the actual physical location where the music that I recorded was captured live-to-two-tracks. Such recordings are in some sense fragile. When recordings are done well, they carry an explicit sense of the ambience in which music is created as musicians, in performance, dig deep into their inspired work.

A single pair of Acoustic Zen cables increased the Cabasse system's transparency. Two pairs created a sense of intimacy and musical "palpability" that riveted me to the listening chair. My experience at that moment was very much like being back at the club, in person, the night that "I Concentrate On You" was recorded with musicians less than twenty feet from my console -- using a twenty foot pair of "Diamond" mic cables, a thirty foot pair of Magnan, and a twenty-five foot pair of van den Hul cables.

Notes that I took on the occasion of my first extended listening to the Acoustic Zen cables capture observations otherwise lost. The first concrete result of hearing Zen's "zero crystal reference" cables was "added upper range clarity" and "deepened soundstage resolution." My scribbled notes point to "transient reverberation tails that linger eerily" and "quicker attack from vocal dynamics" as well as "solidity from the piano's percussive heft given added body and placement." The singer's "height and presence," the notes say, "take on greater resolution than before."

There was more "there" to be heard and felt with the Acoustic Zen wire. I was struck by the liquid ease of Jackie Ryan's voice. The Zen cables seemed to cradle and adore middle registers, the rich harmonic core of musical feeling. When the midrange is right, everything else stands more solidly in musical perspective. The Zen wire seems to love the broad middle register of this singer's magnificent expressive voice.

As a reality check, I went back to the original configuration of cabling in order to verify my notes. My initial experience with the Zen wire left me somewhat perplexed or, at any rate, disbelieving. I was perplexed because such a stunning difference, next to the marvelous Magnan cables, was wholly unexpected. I was disbelieving, in part, because ancillary differences -- the air's humidity and one's own mood or alertness, as immediate examples -- play a significant role in critical listening. I wanted to be sure that such a graphic sonic change had truly emerged from the simple act of swapping two pairs of very good (and steadfast, time-tested) cables for the Zen cables.

"The bottom line is this. While Acoustic Zen's pure silver cable has an almost magical ability to reproduce the smallest (most evanescent) sonic details I've ever heard, I'm not certain which of these two remarkable interconnects I prefer. Each is relaxed and deeply revealing. They are both musically seductive."

The bottom line on the difference became clear with ongoing listening. With the Acoustic Zen wire in the chain, the emotional connection between the ear and consciousness became more intimate. I do not want to dwell here with the emotional impact of the Zen cables. Nonetheless, the seductive aspect of these cables is very real. It does not occur at the expense of sonic accuracy.

The surprise I first encountered on hearing an extremely familiar piece of music rendered more life-like in precise ways that recreate the truth and feeling of the original performance -- the event's musical textures and energy unfolding with relaxed sonic ease from the master tape that holds it -- was, for me, unexpected.

No doubt, surprise (by definition) is always unexpected. In this instance, the experience was joltingly unexpected because the cables that routinely link this (and every other) sound system that I use for mastering and post-mastering comparison are, in fact, the best cables that I have ever been able to locate. Perhaps I value interconnects, cables, analog and digital wire, and all of the network paraphernalia that an audio engineer must rely on simply because I am an audio engineer. Without cable, no sound. Without good cable, bad sound.

Therefore, my devotion remains steadfast in pursuit of the mysteries of cable and cable design. Let me itemize. I followed my initial scrutiny of the Acoustic Zen cables by replacing every interconnect in my Cabasse-system with either one-meter or one-point-five meter runs of "Silver Reference" and/or "Matrix Reference." My trusted Magnan Vi cables came out. Nordost Quatro-fils cables came out, also. Zip, as well, to Robert Lee's previous cables from Harmonic Tech.

The entire network of wire, including the digital cable to the Birdland "Odeon Lite" 24-bit DAC, was now comprised of Zen wire. One by one, as Lee's cables went in, the sound of the master tape through the system, via a Tascam 24-bit recording unit, grew more accurately complex -- true to the mic-feeds that hit the tape from the on-site mix.

I have enormous respect for a few privileged cables. Over many years of use, in truth, I have felt "privileged" by their sonic integrity. In my estimation, Magnan Vi cables carry a nearly unrivaled sonic coherence. Dave Magnan's "Signature" cables are (also) unique, eccentric, and superb. Both of them represent genuine gold standards for any cable designer. Their ability to discriminate frequency intervals among instrumental voicings -- and within the complex structure of the piano, as well -- is unusual by any measure.

Nordost Quatro-fils cables deliver excellent spectral extension. For the past two years, I have regarded the Quatro-fils as part of my working equipment in the field and back in the studio. To the Nordost and Magnan cables, I'll add one more, less recognized (in truth under-recognized): van den Hul's "Thunderline," along with their carbon-filament "Second," cables are truly magnificent (if, also, eccentric) cables that have no easy comparison.

Alongside these top-end manufacturers of sonic nirvana, Acoustic Zen Technologies, Ltd. has now pitched its tent. When Robert Lee called to inform me of his ongoing research, and his new cable designs, I was interested because his record over many years is impeccable. I was not prepared for the simplicity and elegance of musical reproduction that his new work has wrought. I can honestly say that, in the months that I have listened to his pure "zero crystal" silver and (silver- copper) matrix cables, my relation to recording and mastering equipment has taken on a new dimension.

I hear more of what I've recorded.

I trust Acoustic Zen's cables. They have all the sonic fundamentals right: accurate tonality, spectral extension, dynamic range, coherence within (among) sonic registers, textural delicacy, ambient openness, and that hard to define quality that I'll call musical pace. The proof for me is in the recording of music. I now regard Acoustic Zen's cables as an unimpeachable standard for my own recording work. If these wires were priced at the top, among the most expensive interconnects, I would not be at all surprised. They are not. How often, in the world of audiophile ecstasy, do we find bargains? Seldom. Here you have one. Acoustic Zen cables are priced lower than most high-end interconnects. Of the small group that I deem extraordinary, they are by far the least expensive. Acoustic Zen cables are the real deal at a modest, no nonsense price.

Conclusion

Nothing will dissuade me from my longstanding ambivalence about cables. They are, for me, necessary evils. I cannot live without them in large numbers. Thus the need for a negotiated settlement with some. These cables make such negotiations easier.

The bottom line is this. While Acoustic Zen's pure silver cable has an almost magical ability to reproduce the smallest (most evanescent) sonic details I've ever heard, I'm not certain which of these two remarkable interconnects I prefer. Each is relaxed and deeply revealing. They are both musically seductive.