Two snakes and a mongoose

Listening to my system connected to the Diamondbacks and Guardian reminded me of the excitement of my first high-end purchase. My recordings sounded better than I had ever heard them sound before. The music sounded controlled and full, with surprisingly realistic detail.

I wanted to start with a simple, mellow recording so I played the first CD of the Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship Starship Hits collection [RCA 67705 1998]. This chronological box traces the Airplane from the psychedelic '60s to the tripped out '70s to the sellout '80s. I started with "Comin' Back To Me," a hippie-era song for voice, guitar, and flute. The recording has a bit of microphone hiss, but the guitars and flute sound very good considering this is almost a 40- year old recording. The first thing I noticed? The guitar had a greater physical presence in my listening room. I could hear more of the shape of the instrument as well as the notes being played. This wasn't just a factor of the quieter background. The midrange sounded more controlled. In particular, Marty Balin's voice sounded fuller than before, in spite of all the studio reverb in the vocal mix.

The voice was a more palpable presence in the room and sounded much more exciting. By removing distortions, the Diamondbacks/Guardian allowed my equipment to stop multi-tasking, to get back at the original job description of representing the music. It was as if my slightly dry system had just received a splash of spring water. This added moisture wasn't at the expense of tonal accuracy, however. The music sounded very natural. With the stock cables, my system could sound so dry that you would think its lips were chapped. The Diamondbacks/Guardian provided some needed lip balm.

All of this added presence and control did not cover up flaws in the recording. Still, my system never sounded 'finicky' with the Diamondbacks/Guardian. Systems that are too unforgiving of B-quality recordings are a pain in the ass. Who wants to be constantly reminded that most recordings made before 24-bit remastering were grossly inferior, even though many of those older performances still have a lot of mileage left? Living with a finicky system is like driving with a passenger who has to read every single billboard and street sign out loud. How can you enjoy the ride with so many over-emphasized details? With the Shunyata power distribution system, I was still aware of "flawed" recordings, but so much more of the music rather than just details was allowed to come through that it didn't present a problem. It was a sunny day with the top down.

Reverse osmosis audio filter

What do the passive Diamondbacks/Guardian keep out of my rig? Impurities! According to the movie Dr. Strangelove, all of those impurities that would "sap and impurify all our precious bodily fluids!" With this setup, the "drinking water" flowing from the electrical outlet tasted more like spring water than the usual heavily chlorinated and fluoridated city swill. To be more specific, it filtered out all of the new 'wireless' electronics that pump carcinogenic frequencies into the air (the Shunyata website points at the 900MHz to 5GHz band). Another movie, Things to Come, has a quote that sums it up for me, "Radios are everywhere. This modern world is full of voices. Stop this progress!"

Next I tried something more complex. "Caroline" from the same Hits collection, is a syrupy '70s love concoction with a surprising amount of subtlety for a multi-tracked recording of voices, guitars, drums, bass, and piano. The electric guitar had more muscle. The multi-tracked vocals and lead guitars were more pronounced and better defined, without sounding etched or fatiguing. Finally, my 'refined' system was starting to lighten up a little and groove. This really benefited the playback of drums. Cymbals sounded clear instead of suffering the less-defined sound I used to hear. 'Tish' instead of 'Kish'. The toms also hit more crisply, the kick drum was tight and localized more firmly in the soundstage.

Trying a slightly more recent recording, I cued up "Blue Train" from the Jimmy Page/Robert Plant CD, Walking into Clarksdale [Atlantic 83092 1998]. Yes, people still listen to Blues rock! This song in particular has a decent dramatic sweep, from soft to loud. Jimmy Page gets to open up on guitars, the kids on bass and drums offer fine support, and Robert Plant is in his element. While Plant isn't singing quite as high as in his heyday, he has significantly greater control. Chalk one up for wisdom. And that's just what I could hear with the Diamondbacks/Guardian. Less impurities/noise = more of what the music actually sounds like. You get to hear more of what your system is capable of reproducing. My system has always been great at reproducing vocals, but now I could hear more of the singer's heart in the song, even if the song did remain the same.

S-s-siren s-song

"Song to the Siren" from Robert Plant's solo CD, Dreamland [Universal 69622 2002], is a very gorgeous and intense song from an equally intense album (although I won't listen to his cover of "Hey Joe" because it irritates me and scares my daughter). It's a loud mix with some microphone and tape hiss that gives a slight razor edge to the vocals, and makes everything else sound a little thin and bright.

Assuming this was a result of the recording quality, I played one of my favorite CDs of Leonard Slatkin conducting the Orchestre National de France in the music of Dukas [BMG 68802 1999]. This is a 20-bit recording that can sound a little dry, not inappropriate for French classical music. "La Peri" opens with a brilliant fanfare for horns which proved that the Diamondbacks/Guardian were not to blame - no brightness or overetching of detail. So the razor-edged vocals on the previous CD were just part of the mix. The horns on the Dukas CD had plenty of bite, yet also a new fullness to the tones they didn't produce before. Without the Diamondbacks/Guardian, the horns just did not sound as robust and true. This CD also includes the "Symphony in C", which is fun music that will have you jumping around like Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. if you're not careful!!

After the 20-bit recording, my inner audiophile judge started screaming for something even more "Hi-Fi," so I found a recording we could both enjoy. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was the first classical CD I ever purchased. The recent recording by Valery Gergiev with the Kirov Orchestra [Philips 80352 2001] is a very growly, snarly affair with wonderful rhythmic thrust, although not quite as danceable as Dutoit's version with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. This recording of the Rite was made with Jaap de Jong's vacuum tube equipment (that's what it says in the liner notes) which makes everything sound well-rounded and sparkly on top. The Diamondbacks/ Guardian allowed Stravinsky's orchestrations to sound gorgeous and terrifying at once, the percussion defined and refined without sounding confined. I never knew my system could handle percussion this well. I think the Who said it best: "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy!"

Two snakes, no mongoose

Next I tried the Diamondbacks plugged directly into the wall. I relegated the Guardian to PC/lightbulb duty in the meantime. Would the risk of listening without the Guardian prove to be more exciting and provide a more natural feel? Sounds like an excuse not to wear a condom.

With the Guardian removed, I listened to the two Jefferson Starship/Airplane/Whatever tracks again. My audiophile ego immediately became pensive and then flew into a fiery rage! Without the Guardian in the mix, the different instruments and voices weren't as clearly defined. The bass wasn't shaped as nicely and sounded flatter. Sibilants were slightly overdone, everything sounded a little brighter and less controlled. While the Diamondbacks alone offered a slightly bigger soundstage over the added Guardian, the compromise was the sound of "impurities" flying out of my speakers. While these differences were noticeable, they were also subtle. There may be systems that could benefit from the rawer, Guardian-less approach. Judging from what I heard, the compromise is less control over the music, less of that palpable presence.

The Diamondbacks alone, and compared to my stock cables, offered more pronounced clarity and added detail, with a larger soundstage and slightly better imaging. When I played the CD of Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr performing the violin sonatas of Pandolfi [Harmonia Mundi USA 907241 1999], I could hear the bow against the strings of the violin as well as the sustain and decay of each harpsichord note. I wasn't just hearing sounds floating in space, but the actual instruments making music. I've had the pleasure of hearing Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr perform live and can attest to the excitement of hearing these spatial cues again. Before the Diamondbacks, I didn't know my system could transform this recording to sound so realistic.

With the Diamondbacks (no Guardian), I listened to Joanne Shenandoah singing "Eagle Cries" from her eponymous CD [Red Feather Music 70052 2001]. Sibilants sounded a tad overdone. Granted, Shenandoah does over-enunciate her "s-" here and there (could this be a fault of the HDCD encoding, since my CD player can't decode it?), but there were other cues that the sound was becoming slightly hyped. The woodblocks on the drums sounded a little thin, like tinker toys instead of a good solid clop! The bass was warm and inviting, but the whole picture of bass and treble wasn't quite as seamless and coherent. Some of the sharper high frequency sounds remained less clearly defined. However, the decays on voice, bass guitar and drums did trail off very nicely. For systems a little too polite and refined and in need of a little more encouragement to let go of the notes, the Diamondbacks might be just the ticket to add some excitement.

Returning to the sound of my stock power cables, my system had less bass, a murkier midrange, muted highs, a smaller soundstage, and generally behaved like a wallflower. The Diamondbacks gave my system a gentle nudge out onto the dance floor. Reconnecting the Guardian to the Diamondbacks made this excitement more palpable yet, better balanced. The sibilants weren't overemphasized, the midrange sounded more natural. One could hear the shape of the instruments, with the technical aspects fading in importance to the music being played . . . right there . . . in my listening room . . . lucky bastard!

Fiddling around

Playing Her Infinite Variety: Celtic Women in Music and Song [Green Linnet GLCD107 1998] clarified the trailing note experience presented by just the Diamondbacks. Liz Carroll is a fantastic traditional fiddler from Chicago who has released two albums as one third of a trio called Trian. "The air tune/the cliff dwellers/cutting the waves" has a slow build to a wild reel for fiddle, guitar, and accordion. While the sound of decaying notes on the guitars sounded more realistic, the decaying notes of the accordion didn't trail properly and sounded recessed. When I resumed the same track with the Guardian in place, the accordion didn't blend into the sounds of fiddle and guitar; it became as vital and important to the song as the other two instruments.

S-s-summing up

So here's my recommendation. If you're interested in the Shunyata Research power cables and can swing the extra cost of the Guardian, you've gotta try it in your system. The Diamondbacks and Guardian together retail for $750, less than half the price of the forthcoming Hydra. The Diamondback/Guardian combination really made my amplifier and CD player come on strong to offer better definition, improved rhythmic control, weightier bass. The music and voices shone through more realistically, and the excitement factor went up a notch.

If you still need some arm twisting to try the Diamondbacks/Guardian in your system, here's the clincher: Even though she raised an eyebrow at these additional toys, my wife immediately noticed the enhancements they made to the music. She was won over by the more exciting sound. To be more concise: Girls dig it! Not only do you get to enjoy the greater realism in the details, but you can invite someone to share the excitement with you!

Is this caused by the buss array, allowing CDP and amp to sip from the same power, like one Daiquiri with two straws? Did the MOV manage to move out of the way enough to let more musical presence pass through? Perhaps the power conditioner dispensed mineral water instead of distilled? No? Then I'll bet it's that green LED!

How much does the newbie have to spend to improve over stock cords? It was no contest comparing the Diamondbacks to my generic cables and that mystery cable. As soon as I can make the arrangements, the stock cables must go. While I have no idea what a Halcro amp sounds like (maybe I need to get out more often?), I can understand why the Halcro manufacturer would include Shunyata cables with their amps. The Diamondbacks allow your existing components to deliver more performance. For a relatively paltry $175 per 6' cable, the improvements will make you wonder why you didn't upgrade your stock cords sooner.

By the way, I did try the Guardian with generic Beldens. While it offered an improvement, the combination of Diamondbacks with the Guardian was too big a forward step to pass up! Besides, listening to the Guardian with stock cables is like going to work on a weekend; surely you can think of something better to do. Plus, the Guardian offers four additional outlets and can be tucked neatly behind your equipment, thus limiting the number of exposed cables (and comments from your lady friends).

We did have one electrical storm during my time with the Guardian. No strikes to the power lines, but it was the first time I didn't unplug my audio components from the wall. Personally, I consider this to be a major first step. The Guardian not only sounded better but expanded my psychological comfort zone as well. How much is that alone worth to you?

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