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Considering the Liveline's price, I was surprised to see expensive WBT NextGens on the first submitted photos. "My German distributor Thomas Fast requested them. WBT rules in Germany. Customers there equate them with top quality." But that's not where the story ends. Franck had ordered Eichmann Bullets, WBTs, Furutechs, Neutriks and other connectors for testing: "Most cable designers think low-mass connectors sound better because it helps their cable to sound 'live'. After I tested some here, I found that their light weight didn't have enough resonance control. It had a lot of noise because the light-weight construction and thin copper inside caused ringing and dry sound. I had to use more solder to damp down the connection but then lost harmonics. The Furutech was more robust, hence more dynamic and controlled but had less high frequencies because of its heavy gold plating. If those guys tried to understand material physics, maybe I didn't have to go into cables."

No strangers to how Franck's mind works, Marja & Henk suggested on a lark that he might use either gold or Rhodium Furutechs on one end, then their solid copper plugs on the other. Franck's response: "That's a very good idea, Rhodium sounds clean and a little bit cold, gold sounds warm. Can team up very nicely. I did small modifications on the Furutech. I think you already know how. I drilled a small hole and things work perfectly. But I found another way to get the same results by readjusting the metal
splices on one end of the cable so in the end, I didn't have to drill." I'm reminded now of Steve McCormack who, for his SMc Audio mods of earlier McCormack Audio amplifiers, experimented extensively with hookup wires. He chanced upon an unusual combination of Van den Hul carbon fiber for low-level junctions and Siltech silver/gold for high-level speaker post leads which the link details out. The notion of strategically exploiting dissimilar conductor materials in series isn't exclusive to Acoustic System International.

"Like everything in life, no metal is perfect. You have to know how to combine them. Copper has no frequency extension but better resonance control. Silver is very airy and soft, with low tonality and no resonance control. You can achieve more control by structuring the silver but that will produce compression and poor harmonics. Gold has no high frequencies and a slow response but is rich in the bass and midrange. Platinum has a high damping factor and is clean but without modulation. Rhodium (super expensive, twice the price of Platinum) is fast and clean but hard. Palladium costs the same as gold but isn't good for sound."

This brief primer* is full of tchang. Resonance control. Tonality. Compression. Modulation. To fully understand Franck, one has to learn how he employs these terms. English is not his first language. Don't assume that this autodidact uses such terms in textbook fashion. Yet even at face value, that paragraph gives an inkling of how this trained jeweler, gifted guitar player and l'enfant terrible of audio observes, perceives and evaluates. Because of his ultra-short splices tucked into the connectors, our cable designer has to "use high-temp 750° solder to connect the ends to the main copper/silver conductors. Big trouble for those who want to copy my design later. But then, it's really 14 digits (parts - there's another secret one). Translate that to bits as in digital bytes and you have 16384 possible combinations. It's like a vault security code. It'll be very hard to break. I also have a balanced interconnect which is really good and truly balanced, very stable and low noise. A power cord and speaker cable will come out soon, too. The power cord will use exactly the same structure as the balanced interconnect because the nature of my metals already has the resonance control factor I need. Electricity has much more energy so I only need to rearrange the code. I'm merely waiting on the raw copper wire. As a small manufacturer, that's a problem. I have to find a supplier who is willing to sell me a low quantity."

*For a primer on signal propagation in wires, Marja & Henk provide this link to Jim Lesurf's pages.

But the connector question hadn't been settled yet: "After one week of intensive back and forth auditions which eventually also involved my Korean, German and US distributors, we arrived at these surprising results:

  • Furutech = super hifi, so should be called "superhifi-line"
  • WBT NextGen = more natural but still hifi and a little dry sounding caused by their pure copper metal. The silver version sounds cold and thin.
  • Neutrik = cheap, very cheap. This is the "Liveline" - musical inspiration at first bar.

Franck's comments on the various connectors are obviously in the specific context of his cable and its final voicing. Furthermore, by changing connectors, the cable's performance can be shifted as had his prior preference for the Furutechs. "For the first hour, the Furutech was cleaner but after two hours, things changed." Would he offer his cable with Furutechs or WBTs on demand? "I will build all cables with Neutriks in stock form but for those distributors who need nice-looking expensive connectors, I will accommodate them."

Which way was Thomas Fast leaning who had originally requested the WBTs and then taken part in the listener panel? "The difference between WBT and Neutrik is mechanical and music. When Thomas heard it, he said 'shit'. I also tried the Bullets of course. They sounded plastic." Never fear, Franckenese means saying what you really mean. "I have an obsession when I start to do something - I try to make things as close to perfect as is possible with my modest knowledge. Things always link to other things so I spend a lot of time discovering and I always learn something new and unexpected."

What electronics had Franck used during R&D on the Liveline? For analog, a Kuzma Stabi XL with Airline tone arm and Lyra Titan cart. For digital, a dCS Scarlatti system with Oracle CD2000 transport or Abbingdon Music Research's CD-77. For preamps, he ran either Karan Acoustic's Reference preamp or Boulder's 1012 DAC/preamp. For power amplification, Karan's KA 1200 monos or Nagra's MPA. For speakers, you'd expect and get his Tango D. "Don't fret over the look of the cables. It's not impressive. I made it look nice but I can't compromise the musical quality so I kept it simple. We can hear any material on the cables so there's nothing fancy here. After all, I design for the ears, not for the eyes. The Neutrik connectors are heavily modified* inside and out and the cables ended up with a total of 44 discrete pieces to assemble one pair. The red ends signify the load/receive end - unless you want to install the cable in 'inverted' polarity."


*As my connector closeups show, one of those modifications involves three small holes in the RCA barrels. What else Franck is doing to the connectors I did not want to know. Some things should remain secret.

For many users of his products, Franck has become a trusted advisor. Because his Acoustic Resonators are far from cheap in a comprehensive whole-house Feng Shui installation, many such users occupy the upper strata of the hobby. That naturally includes ultra-expensive cabling. Was Franck expecting perception issues with those clients because his Livelines remain deliberately affordable? "If they're into trophy hifi, that's not my problem. If they trust their ears and prefer my cables over what they presently have, they should thank me if mine are a lot cheaper." One of those clients has already ordered a loom of Livelines based purely on that prior trust from using Franck's room acoustics products and having heard his Tango speakers. "But let me get rid off my expensive wires first before you ship anything, Franck. Otherwise it'll be impossible for me to sell any of it once word gets out here that your stuff is better." Mind you, word wasn't out yet. Nobody beyond Franck and a few of his distributors had heard the Liveline yet. But such is Mr. Tchang's renown in certain quarters that it didn't matter. The fact that he had entered a new product category and authored something he was very proud of proved sufficient. Truly? After all, I too had my fair share of good but trophy-priced cables. Would they get into trouble?

I started off ultra mellow. Semi boring you might say. Reibert de Leeuw's reading of Erik Satie's Early Piano Works Vol. 1 [Philips 412-243-2]. I'd just played it for a Brit/Dutch expat couple the evening prior while socializing. And, structurally and dynamically, it's such simplistic fare, there are no aural effects to distract from the essentials. Tone or no tone. Lo and behold, the low-key tickled ivories so limited in dynamics and bravura fireworks had distinctly more texture. Not just hammer falls but sounding board. More finger pressure differentials too. This was easy to tell. Impressive as far as it went. But it couldn't possibly prepare me for the next track, another I'd just played 12 hours earlier when the couple's husband had occupied the hot seat. I treated him to a few super-fine track specimens related to our shared semi-Grecian location. He proved receptive, eyes closed for the duration. This was Glykeria's "In my Village", a powerful song on a private compilation. I knew instantly why Franck had called his skinny, ribbonesque springy black leads the Liveline. I also knew that for once, we were looking at utter truthiness in advertising.

First off, the voice. It was much bigger than before but not by virtue of image bloat. Rather, some circumferential filter or restriction around it had vanished. If the voice was like a rock dropped into water, the rock wasn't bigger but the surface impact was greater to splash farther and deeper into the room. The encoded charge simply energized the air in the room far more directly. The perception of 'much bigger' thus didn't have the phantom origin point between the speakers expand. What scaled up was this point's effect on the surrounding medium. The keen sensation thereof was the removal of a concentric restriction surrounding all sounds. The bared voice was simply the most shocking. Put yet differently, the old reach-out-and-touch factor had been turned around. The performers reached out, through the room from the virtual stage behind the speakers and into my listening seat. I didn't touch them. They touched me.

Next I noticed how drum whacks and bass pulses were significantly wirier and had more sock way down in the 30Hz band. Plucked strings had more metal to them. Interestingly though, this occurred distinctly not in a transient-hyped etched way. The apparent speed now on tap didn't interfere with tone and decay. No Mapleshade treble tilt effect in other words (I refer to their older nylon-stocking'd ribbons with active bias). However, definitely a related sensation, if memory is true, of greater directness; of some removed barriers.

My point-source ultra-fast Lowther DX-55s in the Rethm Saadhanas soundstage completely out of the box. Their sound is simply in the room, not over there. That was the first thing Sasa Cokic of Trafomatic Audio commented upon when I switched his amps from the DeVore Fidelity Nines to the Rethms. It made the Saadhanas his favorite speakers in my arsenal. Driven from Esoteric's stupendous A-100 all-tube amp, the DeVores now pulled a very similar stunt. This made me very curious how much more unfettered the Saadhanas might react. To explain the effect, one might call the major Liveline contribution unmitigated speed. It's a sympathetic call because dynamics, the startle 'n' jump factor, scale up in lockstep particularly at higher levels. Things sound louder sooner. A side effect of that is increased size once more, not in a yard-stick fashion --no one-foot throats or 1-meter guitar fretboards in other words -- but because there is simply more energy in the room.

However, speed alone doesn't account for the improved textures. At least not in any way I find intuitive. Here audio sleuths might invoke metallurgy and its effects on harmonics. Not that it matters. Results do. It's important to stress then that the speed aspects of these cables don't strip away tone. They don't lean anything out from the midbass on down as some popular fast cables are known to do. Low drum rolls and recorded lightning rumble have superlative subterranean growl. There's distinctly nothing at all amiss way down low. Yet it's impact and pitch definition which characterize the bottom registers, not bigger mass.

I love striated instruments like the oud and tambur, two Oriental lutes with potent metallic timbres. Ditto for Arabian violin. That's often played semi-flageolet. The player skillfully invokes the fundamental with simultaneoulsy emphasized overtones which shift fluidly up and down the harmonic rungs. It gives a fantastic dirty sound full that's of very live harmonic content and a goodly amount of bow scratch. This on-the-string action is another very strong point for the Livelin, perhaps not surprising considering Franck's guitar chops. Ditto for all manner of tiny noises surrounding reeds or percussive instruments. Such capture of fine micro detail also serves the Turkish qanun and Romanian cymbalom with their dense rains of rapid attacks. Those are now more differentiated.