A must-visit room at any audio event is AudioQuest (website) if only to see their esteemed engineer Garth Powell. It’s absolutely fine for us as audiophiles to be subjective, but Garth’s engineering curiosity to understand why something is the way it is, is so refreshing.
Garth was originally hired six years ago to develop a line of power products, resulting first in the Niagara 7000 Power Conditioner and more recently the Storm Series power cables, both of which currently reside in my listening room. Garth realized that many of the technologies and tools that he used to develop power products were applicable to the design of speaker cables. This work resulted in a new generation of speaker cable that AudioQuest introduced at CES 2019. Specifically, the new top-of-the-line “Mythical Creatures” Series and the new middle-of-the-line “Folk Hero” Series speaker cables.
The AudioQuest Mythical Creatures Series is made up of 3 models: Dragon, FireBird and ThunderBird, with Dragon being the crème de la crème. The midrange Folk Hero Series is made up of the William Tell and Robin Hood speaker cables. All are available as full-range “ZERO” cables or as BiWire configurations in combination with various dedicated “BASS” bass/midrange models. Prices range from $1,790/pair USD for the 8-foot Robin Hood ZERO full-range model all the way up to $48,600/pair USD for the crack-open-the-vault Dragon BiWire Combination speaker cable.
CES 2019 was quiet, allowing us to hang with Garth for over 40 minutes as he took us through some history and the journey to develop these new speaker cables.
Garth’s Journey and Curiosity
Garth shared stories of his early work as an apprentice to great engineers who showed him the ropes. He talked about how these dudes could build a transmitter with their eyes closed, and make impossible repairs look like child’s play.
But even as brilliant as they were, and for all that advice he took back then (this was the ’70s), Garth knows for a fact that if he ever suggested to them that one day, he would be championing loudspeaker cables making a difference, they would have thought he was an idiot and had his head. Like the experience some of our wonderful internet forums offer….
Garth went on to explain the importance of curiosity and why sometimes you need to look at something from a different angle:
“To be fair, my teachers came from rigorous tech and math-based Engineering where they were looking at Ohm’s Law and basic measurement techniques when considering speaker cable. When you look at Ohm’s Law as it applies to speaker cable, you are basically talking about power delivery. Beyond that, you are looking at the most basic terms of inductance, capacitance, resistance, and characteristic impedance in a speaker cable (L, C, R, and Z). After a certain point, why go any further then what we had at that time? Because even with the large amplifiers we have today, to deal with the improvements in dynamic range (and, thus, larger power output), they would tell you that you could probably get away with 16-gauge lamp cord. Even with the most powerful amplifiers, why would you ever need more than 12 gauge?
“You could put that cable in a laboratory, and, over a very long run, you would see good power transfer, excellent damping factor, lots of bandwidth, very flat in frequency response. So we ask, why go beyond this?
“What the doubters and many electrical engineers miss when they make that assumption is that they are simply not being intellectually curious. These differences and effects between cables are actually quite measurable, but you have to search for these differences and not assume it’s a waste of time. It requires scientific rigor. You must be willing to find these problems and look for appropriate solutions. If you can identify the problem, you can often resolve it. In the past, they have simply gone into the lab, typically used fixed impedances, set the signal generator for 0dBu (0.775volts), used 20Hz to 20kHz for bandwidth, and put up sine and square waves. If you measure that way, the differences between lamp cord, Monster, AQ, Nordost, and Transparent will not be apparent. They will all look the same. This gives proof to the lie that all of these cables are essentially the same.
“But measuring it under that criteria is not much different from saying, ‘Well, let’s see. I’ve gotten a broken-down Chevy Vega, my Honda Fit, and a Ferrari, and they all have four wheels and tires. They are all the same. Four wheels and tires, that is my only criteria.’
“If we look at dynamic range, the harmonic series, instrument placement, extreme high frequencies, the transients that come at the beginning of low frequencies that have slam and visceral impact, the emotional transport into where the music comes alive, there are many things that need to happen. But the main thing is that you must faithfully reproduce low-level signal. Additionally, it’s the low-level signals that occur simultaneously with what’s occurring at 0 to +20dBu.
“This is something I have been preaching about for years regarding AC power and the effects of parasitic noise signals induced into low-level audio via ground and the power supply. This is also true for speaker cable.
“You must faithfully reproduce all signals. What you must look at is not just 0 or +20dBu, you need to simultaneously investigate -60, -80, -90dBu and below that to see what is happening. You need to see what effects are being caused by RF noise many octaves above the audio bandwidth. If you do that, what you will start to notice is that there is a measurable difference between a 6-foot pair, an 8-foot pair, a 12-foot pair of the very best speaker cables available. In fact, you will see a substantial difference.”
Interesting. Gives some credit to why the doubters think that there are no differences and why in reality folks like myself who listen to a lot of cables can definitely hear the differences.
Speaker Cable History
Garth gave us a history lesson on speaker cable. He talked about a speaker cable that was used in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. It looks like a lamp cord, it was cheap, and was always provided in the box. In fact, it’s not that different from the speaker cable you can buy today from your local hardware store.
It’s usually a stranded tin on one side and the other side is copper. It’s limp, ugly and usually oxidized.
Although many people tried (editor: Polk Audio being one notable example), it wasn’t until Monster came to the market with their original cables in the late ’70’s that we saw broad interest in cables.
In fact, that cable is still made by Monster today, almost 40 years later. This started the beginning of the plethora of companies making cables with different stories, ideas, colors, technology and a wide variety of prices from normal to insane. But in the end, all of these companies have something in common: they are usually trying to minimize distortion. They typically attempt this by using the best conductors, various dielectrics, geometry, etc.
The Modern Noise Problem
In developing the Niagara Series of power conditioners and Storm Series products, Garth Powell focused on addressing noise. In the past, we fought noise from radio and TV towers that was in the low- to mid-megahertz spectrum. In the modern world, we are battling noise from the gigahertz range generated by the ubiquity of wireless devices using cellular, Bluetooth and WiFi. These incredibly small sinewaves introduce new challenges.
In the past, you always had shielded mic cables, power cables, etc., although they didn’t always shield a speaker cable. Garth explained that new high-frequency noise needs to be combatted even in our speaker cables. Garth’s original premise was to use all the tricks that he learned from building the Niagara and Storm Series power cables to see just how far he could elevate the modern speaker cable in our noisy wireless world.
AudioQuest Mythical Creatures Cable Approach
As Garth discussed the development of the AudioQuest Mythical Creatures Speaker cables, he focused on two investment areas:
Every cable has a characteristic impedance. This was originally derived from transmission-line theory during the times when we were laying communications lines across the Atlantic. They determined if these lines had a characteristic impedance in which the output impedance of the transmitter/amplifier was the same as the receiver, then distortion and noise significantly dropped. But how do you apply this to a speaker cable when the output stage of the amplifier can be a fraction of an ohm and the input of the speaker is typically around 4 to 8 ohms?
Garth’s approach was to remove this problem by attempting to get to what AudioQuest calls “Zero (or No) Characteristic Impedance.” To achieve this, they looked at the dielectric. By shielding the high and low conductors 100% from each other, it allows for no dielectric between the two and hence no characteristic impedance.
Similar to the Niagara & Storm Series products, Garth employed his tricks to remove noise linearly across the entire distance of the cable. Garth described this to me back in 2016 as he discussed the AudioQuest patent on Ground-Noise Dissipation. Garth provided some additional details on their Ground-Noise Dissipation (US patent 8,988,168 B2).
“The research that was performed for the Niagara Series of Low-Z Noise-Dissipation Systems had application for the new series of AudioQuest NRG AC power cables, as well as the new Folk Hero and Mythical Creature Series of AudioQuest speaker cables. The critical concern with any noise-dissipation circuit (be it Ground or signal), is to ensure it is low impedance and that it is linear. When noise reduction is attempted via a small circuit chip or with an electrical circuit inside an enclosure as a portion of the cable, the RF (radio-frequency) noise will be induced into the cable as a parasitic signal post that filter circuit. A linear or consistent approach requires real-world measurement with variable impedance and a circuit that dissipates noise across the entire length of cable.”
Additionally, AudioQuest will offer BASS bass/midrange models of each of the new Folk Hero and Mythical Creature speaker cables that can be added to the full-range ZERO model to create a complete bi-wire combination. And the customer will be able to choose from a variety of possible combinations at different price points. These BASS cables include a new phase-cancelling network that drains noise both from the cable as well as from the output stage of the amplifier.
Listening was provided as an audio journey starting with the Monster Cable, then moving up to the prior-gen AudioQuest Wild, followed by the ThunderBird, and then the eat-your-lunch Dragon. All in bi-wire configuration.
Music selected was “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” by Ry Cooder and was played back on B&W 802 D3 speakers. A Niagara 7000 power conditioner and many Storm Series Power cables were in full effect.
In round one, a bi-wire Monster Cable was used to connect the amplifier to the B&Ws. Once Garth hit play, I was incredibly underwhelmed. I was not familiar with the track, but it sounded lifeless and I was not engaged. It gave me some time to squeeze in a few additional photos.
Moving up to the silver-conductor AudioQuest Wild, I sat up in my chair. You could actually listen to the track and Ry’s voice was no longer nasal. His guitar started to have tonality. Maybe I should pay more attention…
AQ Wild price for 8 feet full-range: $18,400/pair USD.
New AudioQuest Folk Series Thunderbird
Next up was the new AudioQuest Mythical Creatures Series ThunderBird speaker cable. The new ThunderBird is copper-based and is cheaper than the Wild that we’d just heard. At this point, I put my camera down. The system got super quiet, the track got interesting, and I was getting more of everything. For the first time, I actually noticed a beautiful choir backing Ry’s voice.
AQ ThunderBird price for 8 feet full-range: $4,500/pair USD. A fraction of the price of the AudioQuest WILD that we had listened to earlier.
New AudioQuest Mythical Creatures Dragon
The jump from Wild to ThunderBird was in your face and was significant. Moving up to the top-of-the-line Dragon continued to provide refinement, but the delta was less, as expected. For the first time, Ry’s voice was additive, and the full tonality of the guitar could be heard, as texture appeared as he slid his fingers across the strings.
AudioQuest Dragon price for 8 feet full-range: $27,500/pair USD or $48,600/pair USD for BiWire configuration.
A fun demo and quick history tour. These updated speaker cables are definitely worth a listen.