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Xindak FA-1 Gold
This was the least pricey of the collection. A black jacket with golden accents covers the exterior while a wooden block acts as both a mechanical damper and placeholder for the name and directional arrow. The cable is terminated with simple gold-plated RCA connectors. When we opened the connector, we spotted a piece of Teflon tape as internal isolator from the connector. Underneath that we were greeted by rather crude soldering. The Chinese manufacturer states that he is using a mono-crystal oxygen-free copper foil conductor covered by a silver-gold layer. The OFC shield is wound in a helical pattern. Using a foil rather than wire for a conductor addresses skin effect since a foil is very thin compared to its width. Used between our Audio Note DAC and Audio Note Meishu integrated, the results were better than expectations based on the finish of the cable. The sound was very balanced except for a small hot spot in the upper midrange. Timbres were natural and transients delivered on time.

Crystal Cable Piccolo
This is the Crystal Cable interconnect with the lowest price tag. Beneath three layers of Kapton insulation, a miniscule thin silver/gold wire does all the conducting. An outer silver mesh shield is clearly visible through the Teflon jacket. The Piccolo is not only the thinnest cable in the Crystal stable, it was also the thinnest complete package in our test assortment. The cable is terminated with Furutech RCAs that seem grotesquely heavy and large by comparison to the actual cable diameter. Handling this cable can induce tangling without proper attention. Our listening notes kept repeating "quiet". The amount of background noise with this cable is very low and the aural picture taut without undue sharpness such as oversharpening a digital image can create.

Van den Hul MC Gold Hybrid
Another Dutch cable, here Aalt Jouk van den Hul employs two leads per leg. Each conductor bundle consists of 7 wires with an inner silver and outer gold plating layer. A thin layer of linear structured Carbon is then applied atop the gold followed by foamed polyethylene before two layers of 194 silver-plated copper wires separated by Carbon foil become the external shield. The outer jacket is a golden PVC Hulliflex. Despite the complex construction, this cable feels very smooth and flexible and does not exceed a half-centimeter diameter. In the auditioned version of this cable, only one side of the shield is connected to the RCA. Our listening notes characterize the MC Gold Hybrid as "friendly and mildly warm". The cable needed to be played for quite a while to perform its best. In combination with many tube components, this cable's intrinsic warmth and softness will have a tendency to overdo the effect. Van den Hul specifies a resistance of 13.8 ohms per 100 meters and .88 ohms per 100 meters for the shield.

Crystal Cable CrystalConnect
Here the Kapton dielectric combines with Peek over the same silver/gold conductor, hence the diameter is substantially larger than the Piccolo but still very thin. The sound of the Crystal Connect proved remarkable similar to that of the Xindak, with the same sonic balance of a slightly pronounced upper midrange but here with an even blacker background.

HMS Gran Finale TOP Match
This special design from Germany sports a black nylon jacket and Cherry box with adjustable resistor. The included specification sheet mentions a coaxial construction with silver-plated OFC conductors and shields. More interesting is the statement that the dielectric is "almost air". We're still wondering what "almost" means, exactly. Again according to the spec sheet, the capacity of the cable is 47pF/m, the inductance 0.342mH/m and the resistance 22mOhm/meter. The cable's RCA plugs are of the WBT NextGen bullet type. Termination resistance can be varied in 10 steps from 2KOhm to 222 Ohm. The idea behind this adjustability, according to engineer Hans-Manfred Strassner, is that not all components sport low output impedance. With the TOP Match solution, this shortcoming and concomitant ringing can be addressed. Our listening sessions had the dial at 0. In our setup, this cable had a deadening/damping effect on the music. The sonic portrayal was wide but fell short in musicality. A piano no longer was crafted of wood, violins lacked nuance. Pop and rock recordings remained unaffected, however.

Siltech SQ88 MK2
This is the most recent iteration of the SQ88. The silver/gold conductors are arrayed in a dual-coaxial configuration and covered in a dark blue jacket. A mechanical damper of a composite material carries the name and preferred direction on one end. The inner wires themselves are twisted at 90° angles. In previous versions of the SQ88, this rendered the cable very stiff and not always practical. The MK2 however is far more flexible and lightweight. Listening sessions time after time showed how this cable was the first in our 10-strong collection to perform the complete cable disappearance trick. It simply sounded as though there was less of a barrier between listener and music. "Detail, speed and quietness" showed up as shorthand terms in our notes. Detail without over-pronunciation, speed without haste, blackground silence without being dull - a solo Steinway was not merely some piano, a D35 no Ibanez.

Harmonix HS101 GP
From Japan arrived the brainchild of Kiuchi-san, a master of tuning audio gear and listening rooms. The cable is built up from very pure long-grain copper successively plated with another type of copper, then gold and lastly Rhodium. Termination is by means of subtle green Harmonix RCAs. This cable from the highest price class failed to feel at home in our setup. As trait d'union between the AN DAC and AN Meishu, it just did not sound right to suggest incompatibility with these two particular electronics. When used in between the Acoustic Research turntable's phono preamp and the Meishu, however, the results were far more satisfying. Tranquility, a deep soundstage and warmth were the assets while transients remained a bit timid even during heavy percussive work. The Harmonix released the musical message free of any aggression yet without killing it (pun intended).

Harmonic Technology Wave
This cable -- no, cable system -- was quite the surprise. Harmonic Technology has transferred techniques from the telecom industry -- where Heaviside worked, by the way -- to the audio realm. Analogue electrical audio signals are transformed into analog optical equivalents. Simplified, the electrical signal lights up a small bulb at the source end of the cable. The louder the musical input, the higher the voltage to results in a brighter light. In related fashion, the higher the frequency, the faster the light flickers. The light signal then transmits via glass fiber to the load end where the process is reversed and the original electrical signal retrieved. Within this process, there are no colorations or losses. Harmonic Technology is able to build the biggest part of the EOC (electrical-to-optical converter) into the RCA plugs proper. An external wall wart delivers the required converter voltage, optionally replaced by a 12V battery pack.

Listening with this cable proved a feast. Background silence and detail retrieval were profound. All music arose from a jet-black silence. No signal = no light = no signal. The resultant dynamics were wonderful. However, the battery pack should be decoupled from the grid while listening or you'll hear the driploading as clicks. In our context, the Harmonic technology cable had a problem with very loud and dynamic parts when a full orchestra kicked in. The cable clipped. Contact with Harmonic Tech informed us that this was a known issue. Some DACs output voltages higher than the industry standard 2 volts. Ours does 4V without a problem. To cope, Harmonic Tech has since issued 3 versions of the cable to adjust to different signal voltages. Listening with the 4.25 V version added greater dynamics to the qualities already noted with the 2V version. A remarkable feat occurs when you listen at very low levels, say background music over dinner. This cable reveals far more detail at such levels than any other cable in this comparison.

Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Reference
The most expensive CC interconnect, it increases the silver/gold diameter and applies more extreme shielding to become the thickest entry from Gabi van der Kley's company at 3mm. The disappearance trick happens again, timbres grow more precise even and details increase in a musically benign fashion. Even the most extreme dynamics gush forth without limitation or disproportional emphasis anywhere in the spectrum.

Stealth Indra
This most expensive of all auditioned cables is a full story in its own right. It is built using an amorphous silver/gold+ alloy of 20 micron or 0.02 millimeter diameter, i.e. 1/3rd the thinnest hair of Cameron Diaz. The mystery continues when you try to figure out how Stealth is able to connect a plug to this. Said plug is another story again, made in-house from Teflon, carbon and titanium, its center pin cold-welded to the conductor.

The fit onto a chassis-mount RCA female connector is very, very tight and hard to manage [since improved with the new lockable Stealth RCA I'm using on my two Indras - Ed.] Once fitted, the connection is not only airtight, it's also perfectly coupled. The final cable assembly is cryogenically treated - not that it should matter for an amorphous conductor but the connectors, Teflon dielectric and silver/gold mesh shield will improve. The raw materials and extensive manual labor involved in this unusual construction mean an astronomical price. Is it worth the price? That we don't know. What we do know is that the moment you fire this cable up, price becomes a non-issue.

The rest of the world becomes a non-issue as well. Without a doubt, this cable is the ultimate in this group. It applies a new superlative meaning to "disappearance". The inter-note silence, airiness and dynamics, the inner gestalt of the music is portrayed in such a way that you have to surrender all rationale.

The last couple of months have been tough - listening, more listening and listening yet again. A cable has to grow on you. Under different circumstances, the same cable sounds different, not simply because of its electrical and especially mechanical properties but also to account for listener fatigue and the listener's psychological ups and downs.

In conclusion, we are happy to report that more and more new roads are explored to improve audio cables. At the moment, thin, thinner and thinnest are the magic words while the perceived differences in cables remain large. In some cases the differences -- not better or worse but simply different -- are noticed with the first note. In many other cases, differences are not that easily detected and present themselves much later in the listening process. "Better" or "worse" in cable land are qualifications that can only be assigned after living with the cables for an extended period. And lastly, these qualifications are highly personal and not necessarily transferable (even though the rather universal acclaim of the Stealth Indra for example suggests that many experienced listeners in fact do hear similar things).

Based on our tests and the superiority of ultra-thin amorphous conductors, we predict that the new breed of glass-encapsulated amorphous wires will become the new ne-plus-ultra offerings in the audio cable industry as soon as a manufacturer learns how to terminate and package this new material. Stay tuned.