Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Cairn Fog v2.0 as transport; Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC; Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 filter/buffer on the DAC's analog outputs
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe6 GenII; Eastern Electric MiniMax [on loan]; Acoustic Reality eAR Pre2 [on review]
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88; Bel Canto eVo 4 GenII; Coda Technologies S5 [on review]; Acoustic Reality eAR Enigma Plus [on review];
Speakers: Avantgarde Acoustic DUO; nOrh SM 6.9
Cables: HMS Grand Finale; Analysis Plus Solo Oval and Oval 8; i2digital X-60; Stereovox HDXV; Mapleshade Ebony active digital interconnect; Furutech Digi. Reference BNC-BNC digital cable; ma recordings BNC/BNC reference digital cable [on review]; Mapleshade Planar power cord with DC bias; Audio Magic Clairvoyant power cords; Crystal Cable Reference wire set [on loan]; Z-Cable Reference cables and Hurricane and Cyclone power cords [on review]
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature; Walker Audio Velocitor for source components
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs; Mapleshade 4" solid maple platform under BPT conditioner
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $2,150 for Live Ref1 one-meter interconnect pair (includes 4 Ultra1 Z-Sleeves); $1,250 for 1 meter Dig. Ref1 (includes 2 Ultra Z-Sleeves); $4,500 for Passion Ref1 speaker cable 8' pair

My older review of Chris Hoff's Balanced Power Technologies BP-3.5 Signature AC conditioner was highly favorable and resulted in an unusually enthusiastic "Best I've Yet Heard" Blue Moon Award. Remembering their sacred oaths of blind fealty to the top brass, moonies Stephæn Harrell, Jules Coleman, Ken Micallef and John Potis -- sound unheard and sight unseen like the trusting souls they are -- have since purchased their own Sigs. Nobody has threatened mutiny yet. Nobody's demanded refunds either. With this consummate lunar embrace of Chris' flagship balanced isolator -- which implies simultaneous endorsement of the openly included Z-Sleeve technology -- it was perhaps writ in them stars that ZCable's Mark Hampton should contact the moons for some coverage of his own products.

As John's recent review of the Z-Sleeves attests, his resident RF situation -- code-named Lair of the Glare in hindsight
-- truly did improve from their use. His experience proved once again how only the eventual removal of certain limitations signals their earlier presence in our don't ask/don't tell audio systems. John has obtained enough Ultra1 sleeves for personal use since then to prevent withdrawal symptoms. The task befalling me now was to report on Mark's top signal cables. They include both built-in Z-Sleeve technology as well as two actual Ultra1 sleeves for each leg of the analog and digital interconnects to optimize what Mark Hampton calls 'signal conditioning' as opposed to ordinary shielding. A further ingredient of these Reference cables is something dubbed 'Anti-Compression Design'. We'll leave it to the designer to elucidate upon its specifics. To wit:

"The 'Anti-Compression Technology' is used in all of ZCable's current interconnects and digital cables including the Live v5, Live Ref1, Digital Duet, Digital Ref1 as well as the new Passion Ref1 speaker cables. A.C.T has to do with the interaction between the dielectric and the signal's electric charge. We know that any good musical cable should have a low dielectric constant. As the dielectric constant increases -- and if all other factors remain unchanged -- the electric flux density increases. This causes cables to hold their electric charge (or quantities thereof) for long periods of time.

Simply put, high dielectric constants cause signal distortion. Almost all audio cable implement their dielectric in such a way as to have a dielectric constant of 2.0 to 3.4. The following are the most commonly used dielectrics and their dielectric constants: PVC (3.4), Polyethylene (2.2), PTFE Teflon (2.0) and FEP Teflon (2.1). With ZCable's 'Anti-Compression Technology', our cables have an approximate dielectric constant of 1.3. [While the general value data here is perfectly factual, the preceding claim that most all audio cables exhibit dielectric constants greater than two is not where superior cables are concerned. Most bona fide HighEnd designs based on actual engineering use variations on air dielectric schemes to reduce their dielectric constant to below 1.6. ZCable is certainly not alone in knowing about the deleterious time smearing effects that insulation-induced signal absorption and re-release causes - Ed.]

Secondarily, as we tested dielectrics and their applications, we found a subjective aspect to do with signal glare and harshness. As we experimented with reducing the dielectric constant, we simultaneously discovered a way to reduce the glare and bite which many audio systems exhibit as the signal compresses during music passages of high dynamics or transients.

Lastly, we have discovered that the ratio of dielectric versus conductor quantity also influences the naturalness of the sound. Our cables use a very high conductor-to-dielectric ratio to give greater body and better dynamics while decreasing dielectric interaction. However, it is very difficult to increase conductor amounts while maintaining overall design and sonic balance. In other words, it takes plenty of trial and error to get it right.

Our Digital Ref1 uses 18 conductors; the Live Ref1 24 conductors per leg, the Passion Ref1 72, all in the range of 24 to 30 gauge and a mixture of copper and silver. The result is a more open, natural, and uncompressed soundstage - hence the name 'Anti-Compression Technology'. Other advantages are good tonal balance, body, dynamics and detail without harshness. Both the Refl Live interconnects and the digital cable are hand-strung - they are handmade cables. Ditto for the high-frequency portion of the Passion Ref1. Its the only possible way to implement all aspects of our Anti-Compression Technology properly."

My visual inspection of the cables revealed silver Eichman bullet plugs whose snugness had a tendency to resist ready connection, then veritably bite into the collars of many component RCA jacks with those gnarly nubs that make up the mininum-contact return area. Reddish copper spades terminated the speaker cable while discretely separated hot/return legs and substantial heft, size and stiffness became further distinguishing features, the latter even more so when adding the Z-Sleeves. My recent visit to HMS' factory outside of Leverkusen in Germany introduced me first-hand to the NextGen WBT equivalents of the Australian bullet plugs. As it was explained to me, WBT's 'bullets' were inspired by Hans Strassner's tenacious prompting that his associates at WBT design terminations that sonically competed with the Aussie upstarts if they wanted to continue seeing themselves attached to the ends of HMS cables. While sonically equivalent to the revolutionary Bullet plugs, Strassner called the latter structurally compromised. He feels that the Germans have remedied their inherent functional flaws while retaining the distinct sonic advantages of the wonders from Down Under. While I can't comment on the specific aural contributions of the Eichman plugs on the ZCables, I will say that I somewhat disliked using them.

While we're still in the functional realm -- and especially because Gabi van der Kley's Dutch Crystal cables prove the folly of our audiophile willingness to be punished for peak performance -- I truly disliked having to deal with the sheer heft and unwieldiness of the Zcables. Mind you, they weren't nearly as bad as the NBS Black Label speaker connections. Those rule the dubious bedspring sweepstakes by a mile. Alas, the Passion Ref wires do measure 4.5 inches in circumference. They don't bend much tighter than into an 8-inch radius as a function of girth. Because they're wider than they are thick (i.e. of ellipsoid cross section), they only bend in one dimension. If that happens to fall outside of how you need to connect the spades to your amp or speakers, it involves serious wrestling and colorful cursing to make it happen.

Now add 8 inches of separate but solid sleeves on either end of the analog and digital interconnects - plus whatever those 2-inch diameter jobbies weigh. Don't even get me started on the endless cotton string Mark Hampton included whereby to tie off and suspend the wires with should their combined weight with the sleeves wreck havoc with the tidy business end of my equipment stack. *@#^! Shouldn't actual use of expensive consumer cables be part of the final performance package? You bet. On that front, the ZCable references perform poorly. To illustrate my point, consider the image below. The Crystalspeak Reference wire in the innermost circle is all of 8 feet worth. To be cruel, I could have wrapped it up a lot tighter. That would really have made the ZCable look as primitive as a muscle-bound Venice Beach gorilla doing hamstring stretches while barely reaching his hands below the shaved knees.

But then not every listener expects Yoga-like suppleness of his cables. If final audible performance warranted or even mandated constructional diameters and internal layering to restrict pretzel positions, so be it. Audiophilia, after all, is veritably saturated with no pain/no gain propositions. Right?

To be fair, these ZCables did perform at the ear. To get right to the heart of the matter, used in concert, they belonged into the add body camp, something especially notable in the lower midrange and bass. Compared to my resident HMS Gran Finales which I consider very neutral but high-resolution designs, the ZCables definitely added bass heft and vocal range meat.

Mark Hampton makes specific claims for the RFI/EMI rejection capabilities of his statement designs. About how those rejection capabilities are incorporated, he had this to say: "As you know from your review of the BPT BP-3.5, Z-Sleeves are not ferrite or resonance-control based. Rather, they are designed to approximate a Zero Gauss Chamber. The tube creates an internal null area that completely obliterates EMI contamination. This is accomplished through the specific combination of shielding materials, dimensional ratios and increased abilities of those shields to hold and store EMI.

Obviously, ZGCs are rigid as are the Z-Sleeves. But I was curious to what degree I could approximate a ZGC effect into a flexible application by building my Z-Sleeve design directly into the cable, a key features of our Reference line. As you might expect, it was necessary to apply the design separately around the positive and negative conductors to keep capacitance low. Hence the interconnects and speaker cables have that unique double-barrel appearance - there are Z-Sleeve applications on both sides of the cable. We use three different materials in a special combination to maximize EMI shielding and absorption. This is a very material and labor-intensive process but I think you can hear as well as see that it makes for one of the most unique cable designs in recent history. The sonic result is unique in that for the first time, people can listen to their audio components free of significant EMI and RFI contamination while enjoying non-invasive signal conditioning."

I'm not about to debate Mark on anything here except for his claims over unique results. Mind you, his cables do perform exceedingly well. It's just that my resident HMS Gran Finale cables incorporate excellent ultra-sonic rejection parameters as well. Beyond knowing it from listening and via comparison, I've witnessed it demonstrated in the factory, directly on a scope and while traversing various ranges of radio broadcast and cellphone frequency bands, with an added "wire antenna" to make for some really nasty input interference. Furthermore, the Kapton/Peek-encased Dutch Crystal cables with their silver-gold alloy micro conductors claim shielding properties up to 100 times higher than conventional designs. Needless to say, I can neither dispute nor underwrite any of these claims. However, my ears told me that as 'quiet' as the ZCables clearly were to resolve low-level ambient detail , subtle decay trails and recorded boundary reflections, they weren't any quieter than the German or Dutch cables.

Now, there's no shame in being equal among exalted company. Alas, HMS and Crystal Cable go about their results in more user-friendly ways. This raises an interesting question. Though clearly efficacious, are specific ZCable ingredients necessary to achieve such results? Within his specific design approach, Mark Hampton would likely have to answer in the affirmative: If you want ultimate performance from me, that's how you're gonna get it - so yes! In the back of my mind, a snide retort counters that others manage equivalent results without cumbersome accoutrements - so no! With that settled, here's what you should know about the ZCable reference sound in a nutshell.

Key attributes include lush and smooth. The former hints at an enhancement of tone, the latter at the parallel absence of irritations anywhere in the audible spectrum. Personally, I don't want cables to add anything no matter how pleasant. Granted, one could argue that my other in-house cables failed to resolve body to the same extent as Mark's designs. I couldn't really refute that notion. Neither can I prove why I strongly suspect that the opposite holds true. Nor could anyone else disprove that the ZCable's didn't editorialize a bit for effect. This 1-forward/1-back dance confronts us directly with the relative uselessness of cable reviews. In the end, how can you really know what qualities to assign to specific cables such that they will hold true universally and regardless of system contexts?

Given these usual disclaimers, I won't describe elaborate musical escapades. Instead, I'll paraphrase my impressions as follows: Good triodes add body - so did the Zcables. Good triodes don't simultaneously go mushy, ponderous, sluggish or thick. Neither did the Zcables. Many good triodes sound ultra-smooth (though they can certainly be implemented differently) - so did the Zcables. The best triodes sound exceptionally three-dimensional - so did the Zcables. Approaching them from the opposite direction, they refused to do glare, zippiness, steeliness and leanness. And while I suspect that the minor voluptuousness in fact is a deliberately voiced additive element, it is certainly most effective and, in the right systems, will be a highly desirable attribute.

These reference wires from the mind and hands of Mark Hampton thus deliver exactly on what they advertise. My only hesitation is the implied suggestion that this type of elaborate yet somewhat unwieldy construction is truly necessary. If you commit to approaching the Eiger north face from a particular track, you'll have to deal with the consequences. Ditto for if you want peak performance from ZCable. Besides considerable cost for complex hand labor, you'll also have to incorporate the Z-Sleeves behind your components in such a way as to minimize torque on your connectors.

If you do that, you'll reap definitive rewards that seem perfectly commensurate with expectations for a first-rate system. Even in an apparently EMI/RFI-secure room, the outboard Z-Sleeves which are part and parcel of the Reference cables do make a difference. The network boxes on the HMS prevented their use there so I can't report on universal need for them. The Crystal Cables would have fit 20 wide through the sleeves but didn't really seem to need 'em, indicating that their claims for "super-shielding" should be factual. As for my running non-sonic commentary throughout this review? Perhaps, as so many long-in-the-tooth movie heroes are made to utter time and again, "I'm getting too old for this shit" - meaning I now want convenience, ease of use and peak performance all in one tidy cost-effective package. Hey, I've got the grey hairs to prove it, too. But this shouldn't prevent audiophiles made of sterner stuff from investigating ZCable's Ref1 products. That's particularly advisable if your rig could use a carefully administered dose of collagen in the butt, lips and cheeks - and any other conceivable place of its anatomy that could stand a bit more jolie enhancements. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the forthcoming low-down on ZCable's Hurricane and Cyclone power cords vis-à-vis my in-house HMS and Crystal Cable equivalents. I can already tell you that stuck into my BP-3.5 Sig, both are an upgrade from the BPT cord that came with it - and yes, they're expensive.But what else is new in designer cable land. Makes you wish for cable outlet stores somewhere, doesn't it?
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