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my audio cables
A follow-up with the Palladium Sound Pipes interconnects
as reviewed by Tom Campbell
In late 2005, I favorably reviewed the full line of Sound Pipes from fledgling cable company My Audio Cables, more commonly referred to as "MAC." (See PFO Issue 21, September/October 2005, at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue21/mac.htm.) These highly affordable interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords have remained in my system ever since and have served me extremely well. In the meantime, the MAC business has established itself well in an exceedingly crowded field, with owner, designer and one-man-show Stephen Hallick working feverishly to keep up with a healthy queue of orders while continuing to refine and expand on his initial product offerings.
As explained in my review, the first-generation Sound Pipes struck a near-ideal tonal balance across the limits of their frequency range, but were not the most extended on either the top or the bottom. Hallick subsequently supplemented his first, silver-plated copper interconnect with a more expensive, all-silver design, which I auditioned as an appendix to my original review, and which I found shed further light on the top end while delivering deeper, tighter, but still very tuneful bass.
Even so, the essential character of early Sound Pipes was slightly warmer-than-neutral. The balance of their virtues in my system, however—pure and open midrange, great imaging, detail and presence—made a believer out of me. From the start, Hallick displayed an exceptionally good ear in the voicing of his cables (or, at least, an ear that was exceptionally simpatico with mine). But he was just beginning, and his best work was still to come.
In the past year-and-a-half, the MAC line has expanded to over a dozen different offerings, with no fewer than eight separate interconnect designs distinguished by their metallurgy (silver vs. copper) and application (two-channel analog, iPod, digital link). In the summer of 2006, I auditioned the then-new Ultra Silver+ interconnects and found them to be another significant step forward: more neutral, more extended, more detailed. Then in January, Hallick contacted me to see if I'd like to hear his latest ne plus ultra: the top-of-the-line Palladium Sound Pipes ($399 for a three-foot pair). Needless to say, I was interested to hear what he'd come up with.
The Palladiums fall in line with MAC's penchant for ultra-lightweight design. They have a fairly wide, flat outer jacket, but there seems to be little inside apart from a few essential strands of wire. Unlike the standard, heavily insulated audiophile cable, the Palladiums are as light and flexible as any you will ever use. Many cable companies spend a fair amount of money to make their wires look expensive, but I appreciate MAC's minimalist ethic, which foregoes any attempt at "eye candy" (as silly as that idea may be in the context of audio cables) in favor of function over form.
The Palladium Sound Pipes retain the signature MAC sound: musical, involving, tonally sweet. But each new generation of MACs has been a considerable refinement, and the Palladiums are the most impressive yet. In audiophile accounting—where small differences are ascribed major significance—the improvements are pronounced.
One of the first discs I listened to was the new Living Stereo SACD of Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony conducting Schubert's Eighth and Ninth Symphonies (the "Unfinished" and the "Great"). This is one of my two favorite recordings of the Ninth, the other being Wilhelm Furtwängler's famous 1951 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. The performances are a study in contrasts: whereas Furtwängler is slow, grand, solemn and spiritual, Munch is fleet and dramatic almost to the point of over-the-top. Furtwängler takes 55 minutes with the whole work versus Munch's Toscanini-like 45 minutes. But even at the exceptionally fast tempos, Munch maintains grace and musicality, the orchestra has a ball, and the recording is glorious. I am a regular attendee of the BSO, and this is one of the RCA team's best efforts in Symphony Hall.
I have both "Red Dog" and "White Dog" pressings of this LP, and the SACD re-mastering here strikes me as beyond reproach. The SACD sounds almost exactly like the LP except in those areas where digital has an inherent advantage over analog: textural clarity and the ability to hold things together when dynamic contrasts turn extreme. The LPs have just a bit more weight and body (my White Dog beats the Red Dog, though that may just be a comment on my particular copies), but that is splitting a very fine hair.
While the Ultra Silvers were a step toward greater neutrality and extension compared to the original Sound Pipes, the Palladiums are a good two or three. Previous Sound Pipes were able to recognizably convey Symphony Hall's distinctive acoustic, but the Palladiums captured the hall's lushness and spaciousness to a substantially greater degree. They really kicked the ambience factor up a couple of very significant notches. Overall, the music was bigger, wider, and deeper than I had heard in my system before, with great separation and a superb sense of scale.
The Palladiums' way with spatial effects was also strikingly displayed on Richard Thompson's 1,000 Years of Popular Music (available as a DVD set with bonus CDs containing the full video program). This set is a useful reviewing tool in that the DVD shows the performers' stage positions for the various numbers, allowing you to assess how well the aural picture is matching the visual one. On most tracks the spread consists of Thompson in the middle, percussionist Debra Dobkin on the left, and vocalist/keyboardist Judith Owen on the right. Switching again from the older cables to the new ones, each of the performers became more of a flesh-and-blood presence, with the three musicians all occupying their own distinct space within a unified sonic picture—not "ping-pong" stereo with dead pockets between left, right and center, but an expansive, continuous sound stage.
Ray Davies once used a great visual analogy to describe the sound of early digital compared to analog: with CD, he said, the players "aren't sitting on anything." Any one who recalls the sterile, disembodied sound of early Red Book CD knows exactly what he meant. While I still generally prefer my LP rig, digital has come a long way in recent years, and the Palladiums helped close the gap in my system between waves and digits: using the CDs (not the DVD) as my reference, Thompson, Dobkin and Owen were full-bodied, three-dimensional figures with their feet planted firmly on the ground.
Johnny Cash's final album, American V, is a spare production with the ailing legend's strained vocals accompanied on many tracks by just two or three softly played acoustic instruments. What the MACs did on the bigger, more realistic sonic stages – increasing perceived width and depth—they also did on this layered, studio-assembled recording. My Harbeth speakers are mid-sized monitors that image extremely well but can't quite project life-size scale. The Palladiums, though, made Cash and his accompanists much "bigger" than before, while getting deeper into the details of the recording and capturing every nuance of Johnny's voice.
My experience with these cables served as a reminder that whatever components you may have in your system—and no matter how well you think you know them—they can still surprise you and, when matched with the proper ancillaries, are often capable of a good deal more than you realize. After all, though we frequently talk about cables as having a particular soundvand many do in fact tilt tonal balance in one direction or the other —cables are the great "enablers" of a system. If they do their job properly, they let you know just how good your components are.
That's exactly the feeling I had with the Palladiums in my system. While these cables have a wider range, and in particular a more extended treble, than previous MAC Sound Pipe designs, there is no sense of harshness or over-etched detail. On the contrary, by getting the timbral quality of instruments really right, they seem even sweeter and easier on the ear. Jascha Heifetz's violin, which can sometimes sound pinched on his close-mic'd Living Stereo recordings, comes through with a good deal more of the silkiness for which he was known in the concert hall, and acoustic instruments in general have a well-rounded character that captures each instrument's range in proper proportion. This sense of balance—with no significant emphasis on any area of the frequency scale—is what Sound Pipes have always done well. But the Palladiums take the balance of the older MACs across the limits of their range and extend that range further, on both ends, to achieve a remarkable purity. For me, they render moot the whole idea of "warm" versus "analytical" and just sound correct.
Reviewers can't help but feel sheepish when they realize they've heard another "best" on top of all the other bests they've previously heard. But there you have it: of the interconnects I've auditioned over the past several years in what has been a mostly stable system—well over a dozen brands, between $100 and $1000—the Palladiums are the best yet.
I am on a pretty short leash these days when it comes to audiophile acquisitions—my wife and I have too many more pressing concerns to think about spending large on stereo equipment. But you can be sure that the MAC Palladium Sound Pipes will not be headed back to their maker. Although the Palladiums are a fair bit more expensive than MAC's previous offerings, they still represent terrific bang for the buck. And ultimately the nice price, while welcome, is almost beside the point. These ICs are not simply "good for the money"—they can compete on any level. Tom Campbell
Palladium Sound Pipes
My Audio Cables