Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
It is no secret that the choices we make in audiophile listening evolve with each new sonic discovery, and some of them are only comprehensible to those who have fully grasped the dimensions of what is possible by having walked the path themselves. This is especially true for the subject of cables. Whereas to the average listener the purpose of a cable is simply to establish a connection, most audiophiles will report from experience that even microscopic deviations in cable design will make or break a system, regardless of how much money was spent. This understanding is especially relevant for interconnects closest to the music source and for the power cables that drive the source.
At the time of purchasing our first Audioplan PowerCord S, we had already been running our Martin Logan SL3 speakers in the main listening room for a number of years. These were fascinating speakers, because their large electrostatic drivers were of such light-weight material that they hardly showed any resonance or time-lag issues in and of themselves. In theory, this meant that the sound they conveyed was identical, or at least very close, to that created by the music source of our system.
In music reproduction, it is difficult to find components that become invisible themselves — a commendable trait of the Martin Logans — and still, I confess, there were moments when I thought that I had them pegged and could detect a signature sound that was intrinsic to these speaker. I even described such character traits in previous articles of this blog, when — as I know now — what I was describing was simply the total synergy of our system in its many stages of development. This is not to say that my descriptions were inaccurate, they were rather a total record of our system at the time.
In fact, the Martin Logan sound went through many stages of formation with us. From the outset, I had quickly understood that our 60 Watt Hafler DH-120 amp would be too weak for the job. The speakers’ hybrid design needed high-current delivered in abundance, which was beyond the Hafler’s abilities. At the time, I hoped that bi-amping with our 60 watts Rotel amp might be a solution. However, I soon realised that we were missing out on genuine homogeneity, with the speakers being unable to unfold their full potential. It was only when we changed to the B&K ST140 amplifier that the music really began to sound coherent. With the new amp in place, a few months went by, during which our system underwent further transformations.
For example, upgrading our music sources to a Sansui SR-525 turntable and a Rega Planet 2000 CD player brought some improvements in dynamics and transients. These changes became even more notable, when we upgraded our interconnects from twisted or braided OFC and OCC copper to silver solid-core. Suddenly, there was a new robustness and sincerity to the music that I had hardly heard anywhere else before. And, of course, having upgraded to the Belden 9497 speaker cables surely helped the overall result. Allowing for some months break-in time of all cables and components, I was indeed very happy with our setup and the tonal balance that it was capable of.
The Martin Logan appeared at ease with any song material. Voices, especially, had this sweet honesty to them that is only possible to achieve in a tonally balanced setup. The silver cables brought wonderful bass extension that was perfectly capable of sending shock-waves through the stairwell of our 100-year-old building, and, to our neighbours’ delight, all in graceful and multi-layered fashion. I must confess that mid-bass punch could have been a little more forceful, perhaps, but I attributed this to the age and design of the Martin Logan panels. All the more, I was surprised to feel bass punch again when changing the pre-amp to our Thorens Restek V1 (fully refurbished with new caps and ops by Restek and with custom power supply by Mr. Kassel). Before making its re-entry in our main system, the V1 had been sitting on our shelf for a few months, waiting to be sold. I had simply never tested it on our Martin Logan system and, in an instant, decided for the V1 preamp to stay. It was simply too good to be sold.
Thus far, it had been the typical story of Audiophile listening. One change had followed another, and there had been many weeks in-between, during which there was no progress to be made. Improvements came in increments and often from the realisation that some aspect of the music did not sound quite right, yet. Such discoveries took lots of time and experience. Product marketing had made people believe (including myself) that one could go out and buy an audiophile system, but this had long since turned out not to be true. With each unit (speaker or other equipment), room and house being different, audiophile systems took months, if not years, to set up. This was especially true, if the listener, as well, was still learning what to listen for during the process. However, with the Thorens Restek V1 playing on the Martin Logans, I was finally convinced to have reached perfection within my available budget and quite possibly beyond. — Until this happened:
While installing the V1, I realised that I was missing one audiophile power cord to connect all our units. This was so, because our DB Systems preamp had come with its own fixed power cord, whereas the V1 required a separate cord. Looking around our house, I saw that all our Lapp Oelflex cords were in use already. Hence, I decided to help myself with the standard cord that had come with our Dynaco PAS-4 preamp, until a good offer for a more worthwhile cord was to be found. Power cords were important, of course, and I had always noted some improvements in both timing and rhythm when changing from the standard to our Lapp cords. However, the improvements to be expected were usually the frosting on the cake, not strictly necessary to feel nourished, but nevertheless helpful for a well-rounded experience.
I went ahead and placed a search for audiophile cords in the usual channels and then forgot all about it, until I received a notification regarding a certain “PowerCord S” by the German HighEnd manufacturer ‘Audioplan’. The offer showed the cord for less than half its usual offer price — not a common thing to happen on audio power cords lately — and so I decided to give this a try. Audioplan was already a familiar name to me, as I was using their classic ‘PowerStar’ grounding-optimised distributor and had previously used their infamous Sicomin ‘AntiSpikes’ for acoustic decoupling.
When the PowerCord S arrived, I was surprised by its rigidity, a fact that was additionally highlighted by the circumstance that it had just come in from the cold. The outer material also felt a little rough when compared with other cords. I decided not to mind and allowed it some time to warm up to room temperature, gave our system a last discerning listen with the standard cord on the V1, and then swapped the old standard cord against the new PowerCord S. It is no exaggeration that nothing that anyone could have told me about this cord would have prepared me for the changes I was about to hear. And this was true, despite my previous experience with silver cable connections.
When changing from one interconnect to another, the difference in sonic presentation may also have been perplexing at first, but it was also explicable, due to the fact that the music signal actually needed to pass through these cables. In the case of power cords, however, the improvement was just to mains voltage, which, in our parts of the world, was at 230 Volts and 50 Hz. It was not easily comprehensible how changing the cable of just the final meter of such a connection would lead to improvements at a significant scale, especially when connected to a preamp that required very little power on its own and in which some aspects of line signal operation were passive.
I was so surprised by the increase in our system’s musicality that I asked my wife to stop baking Christmas cookies for a moment and to join me for a quick sound check. In our beginnings of audiophile listening, I had quite frequently asked my wife to check out the improvements with me, but such moments had become less over the years with progress becoming more predictable. And still, here we were once again, trying to make sense of what changes had taken place on our system.
The most obvious difference was that the stage seemed more solid and deeper. There was more nuance between left and right, and spaces between individual instruments seemed larger. Bass extension had been impressive before, but now seemed better integrated and naturally translucent. The position of the speakers seemed less obvious with sounds being able to free themselves better. There was renewed speed and agility to the Martin Logans, of the kind I would have expected from refurbishing their Mylar foil, perhaps. Our Christmas CD “The White Christmas Album” had suddenly become an extremely intimate event with strong and separate tonal character of each instrument.
I spent the final hours of the day typing this article, listening to music and watching a film. And I noticed three things: At the same volume setting, the music seemed to play louder than it did before. This may have had to do with the increase in dynamics, but I had to turn it down in order not to over-exert my ears. Second, watching a movie made sound effects more three-dimensional than before, with the sounds of action sequences bouncing off the side and back walls of our listening room to a greater extent than usual. And, finally, the voices of actors appeared more life-like, to the point that I had a “this is real” sensation a few times during the (rather exceptional) movie “Motherless Brooklyn”.
And, although I am aware that we get used to even the most sophisticated of sounds, it was a revelation that I will keep in good memory as one of the milestones in setting up our system.
Note: While running one PowerCord S on our preamp was highly beneficial to the performance of our system, connecting a second one on the amplifier turned out to present almost too much musical detail, taking us from our comfortable seat in the audience to the more intimite processes left and right of the singer's tongue. Norah Jones's album "Come away with me" seemed overladden with unneccesary (because normally hidden) information. In the end, it is all a matter of taste, of course, and technically-minded listeners might get a kick out of this microscopic presentation. For our own listening preferences, however, it looks as though the second PowerCord S will serve better elsewhere.
Audioplan was founded by the German couple Volker and Renate Kühn in 1980 as a high-end studio. They started out compiling a catalogue of audio products based on strictly listening to them. The company soon started the development of their own range of loudspeakers, in 1982, which lead them to the realisation that the integrity of the source signal was already corrupted by the poor design of power cables. Audioplan had been among the first companies to identify the importance of interconnects, but when it came to the design of power cables they were true pioneers. By 1986, Audioplan had developed a whole range of unique and patented audio solutions and become an official distributor for Jadis. Renate Kühn died in 1993 and Volker handed leadership of Audioplan over to his son Thomas Kühn, who has been leading the family business in its second generation.
From the Audioplan website
“PowerCord is a symmetric power cable with four (instead of the usual three) leads. The fourth lead is a second ground conductor placed opposite the first. This creates a quasi-symmetric arrangement. PowerCord uses high-purity, heavy silver-plated copper litz wire with increased conductivity. The litz wire and cable design meet the requirements of the VDE. The individual conductors are isolated with materials demonstrating low loss and accumulation effect. This unique construction ensures low scattering, high noise suppression and the best possible dynamic behavior of the conductor and makes shielding unnecessary. This would otherwise result in the loss of dynamics from eddy current and dielectric effects. Finally, the use of Sicomin ensures that mechanical vibrations do not become electrical noise due to induction effects.”