Fear of Cables, Act One

Black wires against bare walls usually gets one of three responses from women: If you're married, she'll tell you to either put something in front or get rid of them; if you're dating and she likes you, she'll tell you later; if she doesn't like you, she'll tell you they look great.

My current set of black wires hides in plain view right underneath the window. My wife hasn't said anything yet. I think I know it's because she still likes me. One of these wires is a three-pronged stock power cable from Taiwan; the other is a mystery cable borrowed from a friend. Connected to the Audio Refinement Complete integrated amp, the mystery cable offered slightly improved detail and bass. When connected to the matching CD Complete player, the mystery cable was generally awful - so I won't say anything else about this lone loaner. For the purposes of this review, we'll consider it a stock cable with a generous application of snake oil.

When I described my current power cable set-up to Grant Samuelsen of Shunyata Research, his first comment was "Yikes!". That was followed by a fair description of what the design of the PowerSnakes offers over the mysterious designs of some competitors. Of course the power supplies in each component have the greatest impact on the final sound. But what you use to connect the component to the wall can also significantly effect the performance.

That said, some of these fancy cables are so, ahem - over-emphasized that they would make a donkey blush. Add to that the complete inflexibility of these lingam wires and your audiophile alter ego might well start rationalizing your satisfyingly flexible, albeit less-endowed stock cables as being just dandy. That is, until you hear what these can do. I'll say more about this in a moment.

Snake in a box

When the boxes from Shunyata Research arrived, my daughter watched me carefully unpack the two 6' Diamondback power cords. Everything about these cables is custom designed and manufactured, from the purple translucent connectors with heavy gauge gold and copper co-plated contacts, to the power cable with 12 gauge OHFC conductors of CDA-101 copper rated at 20 amps of current, and aluminized shielding against RFI/EMI.

While these cables aren't as thick with shielding as the more expensive Noise Reduction PowerSnakes, they are still very impressive. Also, they don't use the FeSi-1000 compound, so won't sound like rain sticks when you move them about. However, they are flexible and at $175 retail, competitively priced with many other "audiophile grade" power cords on the market. Factor in Caelin Gabriel's fanatical approach to implementation of his designs, described in Srajan's interview, and these could be considered a bargain. Because my daughter is five years old and has already acquired her father's fascination with music and the things that make music, she had lots of questions. I explained to her, briefly, that the Diamondback power cables were going to be used on Daddy's stereo upstairs:

"To connect the amplifier and CD player to the wall, hopefully making everything sound better." Then I opened the box to the Guardian 4-HT and carefully removed the tidy urethane packing materials. The Guardian is an equally impressive looking, powder- coated, 14-gauge steel box with four receptacles, a green LED, and a 4' length of Diamondback power cable to connect it to the wall.

"What does that do?"

I explained to my daughter that the Guardian goes between the power cables and the wall to help protect the stereo from electrical surges. She knows all about these electrical nasties. Before the cables arrived, we just went through our third ice storm over the weekend. The power cycled off and on 6 times during the storm. Too bad the power cables and Guardian didn't arrive earlier. I could have given them a real workout!

"So when the electricity goes out, these will protect the stereo from the fires," my daughter told me with conviction. "Well, sort of," I replied, "but don't quote me on that." For the 6moons readers who are over 5 years old, here's a distillation of the specs from the Shunyata Research website where the Guardian is referred to as the "Cadillac of noise reduction" (which makes me think of Escalades blasting Led Zeppelin at stoplights):

The Guardian 4-HT sports a solid brass buss structure to distribute current to the four outlets without the potential losses of interceding wires and their solder junctions. This is quite unlike affordable power strips where wires from the IEC inlet daisy-chain each outlet to the next. Guardian power conditioning is provided not by current-limiting coils, chokes or transformers but via a 2000-volt rated, audio-grade, oil-filled, metalized polyester capacitor that filters out high frequency noise and short-duration voltage spikes originating from your wall outlet. As Caelin pointed out in his 6moons interview, the noise generated by household electronics is of greater concern than the small amounts of noise leaked by your power company. The Guardian is designed to remove this grunge seeping into your music system.

6500-amp surge protection is provided by the latest-generation high quality, thermally protected MOVs (metal oxide varistors). Uncommonly, each of the three electrical modes is isolated - hot-neutral, hot-ground and neutral-ground. MOVs are known for their quick response to voltage surges. However, their unfortunate sacrificial protection mode in the past caused them to not only fuse in a shorted condition but often also to burst. Next generation MOVs as used in the Guardian overcome this previous limitation with parts-specific thermal protection.

For slightly better sonic performance, there's also a version without surge suppression thar retains the noise filter. It's compatible with 125V and 240V service outlets. You'll have to custom order this type of Guardian directly from Shunyata Research or through an appropriate dealer/distributor.

Once I brought the boxes upstairs, I powered down the amp and CD player, unplugged them from the walls, and removed the stock power cables. The helpful instruction sheet says that the female connectors are made a little tighter to ensure a snug fit. I carefully wiggled the female connectors onto the IEC inlets of the equipment. Then I plugged the male connectors on the Diamondbacks into the Guardian receptacles and the Guardian cable into the wall. All connections were firm and secure. Whew! Daddy needed a tall cool glass of water after that!

When the Guardian is plugged into the wall, a green LED lights to provide "assurance that Guardian is on-the-job providing protection to your system at all times." That's because though far more robust than earlier MOVs, the surge protection parts of the Guardian, if repeatedly hit by excessive lightning, could eventually self-sacrifice. While still passing AC, the Guardian's sruge protection would then be inoperational. Hence the LED for visual confirmation after such incidents. Should it fail to light, the Guardian's MOV needs replacement at the factory. There you go! Green is the color of assurance. Besides, blue LEDs are sooo overdone nowadays!

After all of this contemplative nonsense (what do you think about when setting up audio equipment?), I switched the CD and integrated into stand-by and then powered them up.

And then my daughter, a gift from Heaven who just happens to stand a little closer to the Earth, made an observation. "Daddy, something's smelly!" I sniffed the air. Sure enough, the review samples from the factory were so new that the insulation was still gassing off. It wasn't bad, just new. I told my daughter not to be bothered. In the meantime, I made it a point to open a window and let the smell air out of the room. I didn't want any olfactory distractions for this review! However, if a cable manufacturer wanted to market their products to people with sensitive sniffers, a little potpourri in the packing peanuts could perhaps prevent any potential proboscis problems. Phew!

Same snake, different scales

One thing I noticed when I first unpacked the Diamondbacks and Guardian? The Diamondback cables looked different than the captive one on the Guardian. The Guardian cable looked like the Diamondbacks on the website; translucent purple male connector, twisted cable, aluminum shielding with additional plastic sheating. However, the Diamondback cables I received had an additional braided shielding between the twisted cable and the outer cover (see picture). The prongs on the connectors also appeared slightly different.

I e-mailed Grant Samuelsen to ask if the cables had been upgraded. Grant replied that the cables were not upgraded to a new version, but that "Caelin wanted to add a shield to the [latest batch of cables] and change the plating on the IEC from gold to silver with rhodium to lower the impedance at the component AC junction. Caelin simply made a running change to improve the product, albeit without raising the price."

Sounded perfect to me. Let the cable guys do the product tweaking! If you like the "twisted" look of the earlier batches of foil-covered Diamondbacks, you'll have to find a store with surplus stock, buy used, or start budgeting for the even fancier (and more expensive) Taipans. As a reviewer, I can't make a performance comparison of these small changes. I will, however, scrutinize the heck out of this new batch of Diamondbacks with braided shielding. They certainly look cool enough, and the twisted conductors are visible beneath the braid.

Running with the chicken

Grant and Srajan both suggested hooking up the Guardian to my fridge to run lots of current through it for a couple of days. I couldn't do it. Bkuk! Bkuk! I can clean up messes from babies and pets, but, aesthetically speaking, I can't subject something I want to make music to a dark corner where there'll be dust bunnies, lost cat toys, and alphabet fridge magnets. Besides, what if using the fridge to warm up the Guardian actually made all of my music sound like leftovers?

Instead, I warmed up the Guardian the old-fashioned way, with whale song, ocean surf, heavy techno, and Bob Dylan. I also connected my PC and a new set of lamps (see picture) to the other outlets on the Guardian and alternated which outlets I used so as not to show preference.

Can electrical equipment pattern like our brain engrams? Was connecting my PC to the Guardian worse than refrigerating it? Will the lamps make the Guardian sound more illuminating? It would be several days before I would attempt a critical listening session to determine these break-in results.