Acoustic Zen’s “MC-Squared” Digital Cables

Acoustic Zen’s “MC-Squared” Digital Cables
A Pro’s Point of View
Jim Merod
21 December 2000


Zero Crystal” silver 110-ohm digital cable
One-meter RCA: $298
One-meter XLR: $328
Each additional meter: $200
800 Los Vallecitos Blvd. Suite P
San Marcos, CA. 92069
Telephone 760/471-4899 (fax) 760-510-9188

“The very best digital cables get out of the way and let music emerge on its own terms. The “MC-Squared” cable does that in spades but with a ne plus ultra quality of indescribable rightness and exquisite aural intimacy . . . at a dirt-cheap price point.”

Recently I was given an assignment by a remarkable and gifted musician who wanted me to transfer out of print LPs of his music to compact disc. The exercise is not particularly onerous. It does, however, demand a certain degree of care in preserving as far as possible those hard-to-define but wholly discernible “analog quality” that superior vinyl recordings deliver. I was, in short, asked to minimize any pops and hisses that the vinyl grooves may hold while, in the other sonic direction, maximizing analog “warmth” and musical fluidity.

I like such assignments. One can merely “transfer” the LPs to discs and let it go at that. Alternatively, one can set up a sonic transfer chain that, on one pass or several, minimizes vinyl grunge while preserving vinyl beauty. For this particular assignment – two full LPs transferred (if possible) to one compact disc – I chose an initial sound path that led from a Linn LP-12 table, using a Grado “Sonata” cartridge. I employed Acoustic Zen’s “Silver Reference” interconnects direct to a Crane Song 24-bit HEDD {Harmonically Enhanced Digital Device}, whereupon the analog flow was converted to digital chunks and sent to a Marantz CDR 615 for burning music onto plastic.

The Acoustic Zen “MC-Squared” digital cable was the purveyor of final musical delivery. Without a hitch, all went as I imagined it would. I used the initial digital transfer to scope out how pops, hisses and other vinyl irritations could be eq’d into oblivion or, at least, increased silence.

On the second transfer to create gentle upper end sonic shaping, I used one Acoustic Zen “MC-Squared” cable between my modified McCormack digital transport and a Z-Systems rdp-1 (Glenn Zelniker’s magic machine that stormed our digital world to great effect not too long ago). I used a second “MC-Squared” cable between the rdp-1 and the Marantz CD duplicator.

I have already discussed my admiration for the rdp-1. Suffice it to say that this little monster box sits up and sings if you give it a chance to do its work. If you compare the rdp-1 to a Manley “Massive Passive” box, you will find how utterly different the worlds of eq calibration and adjustment can be. While the rdp-1 is unobtrusive in every sense of the term, the Manley imparts a gorgeous (undistracting) golden hue to sound that passes through its circuitry. Or, at least, the Manley’s tube circuitry allows such golden sonic warmth to appear on your eq’s masters. Note: this warm signature is not an intrusion. It is very much like the view of an Italian piazza near sunset — a subtle golden light that caresses the scene with understated but dramatic illumination.

Z-Systems’s rdp-1 demurs. It refuses to add golden light or any light at all except the glow, sheen or shimmer of what a sonic signal delivers upon entry. You can alter the sound spectrum of any recording by a deft use of the rdp-1, but you’ll never find that you’ve enhanced or altered it with chiaroscuro light.

I love both machines. They are made for different sonic purposes. For the task of transferring an already beautiful (tube-based) vinyl recording, the rdp-1 was the way to go. But there is a caveat that structures your use of the rdp-1. It will reveal, perfectly, any signal shaping inherent to the digital cable that sends it musical information. Choice of digital cable is extremely important, therefore.

After I had set up my second transfer, so that hisses and pops might be lessened, I was pleased. While all the vinyl grunge that one might ideally want to disappear was not eliminated, I heard (nonetheless) a vast improvement in the original LP sound. The rdp-1 did exactly what I asked it to do. Short of running the sound through a Cedar declicker, or some such state-of-the-art vinyl vacuum cleaner, the sound I heard coming from the rdp-1 was remarkable: warm, coherent, and precisely aligned musically with the original LP copies that stood behind its improved sonic reality.

“I am still a fan of Nordost’s cable work. They have set a certain standard for musicality over the last few years. I have a difficult time dismissing these fine wires merely because I find here, with the “MC-Squared,” a digital cable that is more musical.”

After the transfers were complete — as an exercise in sonic “what if?” — I decided to swap the “MC-Squared” input cable. I tried eight different digital cables: Nordost “Moonglow,” Kimber “KCAG,” XLO, Wire World, Harmonic Tech, Apogee, and Wonder Link. In each case, the music shifted its basic sonic frame. With the XLO, the soundstage narrowed. With the Moonglow, a greater heft in the lower mid-band was added and a slight thinning in the upper sonic region appeared. The Wonder Link came close to equaling the “MC-Squared,” but it was slightly veiled by comparison, a very subtle difference, in fact, since the tonal and dynamic values of the Wonder Link are similar to the Acoustic Zen cable. Neither the Harmonic Tech [Robert Lee’s earlier digital design] nor the Apogee cables (the Apogee is a remarkable value, by any standard) came close to the sonic glory of the “MC-Squared” wire.

Just for added information and sustained inspection, I made a test disc using each different digital cable with the same piece of music. I wanted to have more than a momentary audition of these cables. The disc let me hear, repeatedly, what I heard immediately as I switched and swapped digital cables.

I am still a fan of Nordost’s cable work. They have set a certain standard for musicality over the last few years. I have a difficult time dismissing these fine wires merely because I find here, with the “MC-Squared,” a digital cable that is more musical. The Acoustic Zen wire, in ways that are very clear to discern, goes beyond not only the excellent Nordost wire but beyond other high-end digital cables, as well. The distinctions that I hear (directly and via the comparison test disc) among these nine digital cables are not all that subtle. One hears significantly greater soundstage height, depth and width with the “MC-Squared.” One also hears more inner detail, especially the subtle decay of long transient edges as they decrease and the wispy evaporation of ambient decay reverberations. One hears a much greater sense of the acoustic space where live music has been recorded when the Acoustic Zen cable goes into the sound chain. Since my work is to record live “in performance” music, such information is extremely important to me.

A word here about analog to digital conversion. As a test of the resolution that is possible with 24-bit digital masters, I transferred a recent master tape that arrived for final mastering work. The chain began with a Tascam 45-HR that fed the master to the HEDD 24-bit A/D & D/A. That was then sent to the Marantz. In doing this, I employed two sonic “routes.” First, I transferred the 24-bit information via the TASCAM’s internal D/A. Second, I transferred the same information directly from the balanced digital “out” of the Tascam … both transfers going through the HEDD.

With the first route, using the TASCAM’s internal D/A, the HEDD converted the analog signal back to a digital feed. Of course, the HEDD’s circuitry is not perfectly inaudible, even if there is only a very (very) slight veiling that appears when this (more circuitous) route is used. In the second iteration, the HEDD stood as a silent “pass through” for an all-digital signal. Its circuitry again added more sonic hurdles to achieve the end result. But, again, the HEDD demonstrated its clean, clear, undamaging signal delivery. I am, in one word, impressed. This Crane Song A/D and D/A box is special.

The point of this twin exercise was to hear how the TASCAM’s A/D and the Crane Song’s D/A (and A/D) conversions “shape” a musical signal. A subsidiary point was the chance these exercises offered to hear differences among digital cables: to discover sonic degradations or changes exacerbated in the process of less-than-ideal signal transfers.

This double transfer of identical musical information allowed a close “look” into the ways that individual digital cables alter, or impose their sonic signatures upon, transferred musical material. A few years back, I ran a lengthy, somewhat difficult and cumbersome series of comparative cable tests (in that instance, microphone cables) for a top-end cable manufacturer. Differences then, as now, were uniquely revealing of each wire’s way of delivering – and tailoring — low level musical sound.

I am sure that such laborious, somewhat addle-brained exercises with cables are the work of a kid who never grew up. Beyond the enjoyment of affirming less than systematic impressions of equipment (such as the wonderful Crane Song HEDD), these exercises reveal how additive and indisputable are the imposition of individual cable identities. The bottom line is this: when supplemental cable lengths are included in the (intentionally oblique) transfer of music from original master to copy, the innate sonic signature of each cable is magnified.

The end result of this daylong fiddling with cables confirmed previous auditions. Nordost wire is still (of course) a very good wire. One’s work or listening is not at much loss when it sits in the signal path. The Wonder Link digital cable, not so easy to find, it seems, is a remarkable digital cable that deserves the praise it has received. But the new Acoustic Zen “MC-Squared” digital cable achieves a level of performance — enormous soundstage replication; musical beauty by the bushel loads; timbral accuracy and unequaled dynamic heft and slam – that makes it stand out among a strong group of top-end digital cables. The very best digital cables get out of the way and let music emerge on its own terms. The “MC-Squared” cable does that in spades but with a ne plus ultra quality of indescribable rightness and exquisite aural intimacy . . . at a dirt-cheap price point.

One can afford to have two or three of these digital cables because they are priced well below their true value. They are a genuine (massive) bargain among high-end audio gear. In the near future, I am going to throw more challenges at Robert Lee’s “MC-Squared” cable.

I have the sense that I have not yet gotten to the bottom of this remarkable digital cable’s full musical truth. I think that’s the case because, when I put an “MC-Squared” cable in the mastering or auditioning sound chain, a seductive, arresting, essentially emotional but (also) vividly detailed experience of “being there with the music” sweeps my monitoring room up into it. This is a strange thing to say about a mere cable — a digital cable, at that. But the illusion one gets when the “MC-Squared” wire goes into the musical equation is that something undefinable and wholly glorious happens to the world around you. It is as if your listening room is transported to another place: to the place where the music you are hearing was made.

I am slightly uncomfortable saying such things as this because someone may think I have been sniffing glue. Perhaps the after dinner apple pie was baked with hallucinogenic raisins. None of those. Only music that I’ve recorded, a superior playback system, and Acoustic Zen’s very welcome addition to the sound of REAL music: live music in REAL SPACE . . . the space where I recorded the music long ago or, more memorable yet, last week. This illusion of being taken back to places where I recorded (and, live, first heard) such great music is spooky but awesome and wholly gratifying as well. With the “MC-Squared” digital cable, Robert Lee’s magic touch is still at work: unimaginable and inspiring.

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