Toslink Digital Audio & The Lifatec Silflex Optical Cable

Silfleccoil

Lifatec Silflex glass optical cable

The transmission of digital audio signals has evolved and improved over the years, resulting in several standard formats for both consumers and professionals. When Sony and Phillips were creating the Red Book CD standard they also included an option for digital audio to be transported between components. While the S/PDIF (Sony Philips Digital Interface) standard was created using coaxial cables (electrical voltages over copper) with RCA connectors, Toshiba proposed a novel solution. Optical light emitted from a red LED was used to create  binary pulses that distinguished digital 1’s and 0’s.

Toslink, or more accurately EIAJ optical, is the standard for using collimated light in the transmission of digital audio. Optical fibers are used as circular dielectric wave-guides that transport optical energy and information.

Early forms of this technology suffered from jitter (phase noise from inaccurate clocking) and data errors or drop outs from bandwidth-limited optical cables. Using digital audio chips with improved clocking and digital inputs aimed at reducing jitter is a good start, but to ensure those binary pulses of light reach your downstream component (i.e. DAC) without error requires a cable capable of delivering the full bandwidth spec of the Toslink standard.

Silflexhead
                                       Lifatec custom machined Toslink connectors

While I use AES digital connections in much of my professional audio work, Toslink optical interfaces are often the only available digital input/output for many consumer devices. Apple TV, Playstation, Roku, and most flat screen TV’s only provide optical outputs. With mixed results from Toslink cables made of plastic, I began researching Toslink cables made from glass fiber strands.

After some digging, I stumbled upon LiFaTeC® GmbH, and their North American partner Lifatec USA. The American firm specializes in using optical borosilicate fibers in lighting and sensing products for the medical market, and since 2000 Lifatec USA has been manufacturing glass Toslink cables in Elbridge New York – named the Silflex glass cables.

To achieve a bandwidth beyond the Toslink spec, Lifatec uses 470 glass fiber optic strands in the Silflex glass cables. These glass fibers are custom built specifically for audio data applications. Keeping these strands in place is a smooth outer jacket that encases the fine fibers called Optisilk. Before terminating the glass strands, the ends are bonded together and polished to a 1 micron optical finish (including the connector ferrule). Then, a custom machined Toslink connector that is both robust and lightweight ensures a tight connection without light leakage.

silflex_mini

Lifatec glass optical cable with mini Toslink connectors on one end (Apple Laptops)

For my testing, a 10 ft Lifatec Silflex cable was used to link digital audio sources with digital to analog converters. I used my Playstation and a Blu-Ray player’s optical output to send digital audio data to several DACs for testing. All of my DACs quickly locked to the incoming signals without a hiccup. Sonically, the sound of the Silflex glass cable was clear and transparent, imparting no sound of it’s own. The most important difference I found, when compared to other optical cables, was the tight fitting connector in the Lifatec cables. I used one optical cable where the manufacturer thought it was a good idea to machine a Toslink connector with an unnecessary amount of bulk, which added weight. This inferior connector (from a popular audiophile manufacturer) would easily fall out of the female Toslink socket, not so with the Lifatec cable.

silflexconnect2**

The custom machined Lifatec Toslink connector is both lightweight and tight fitting

After spending some time with these cables in my system, it became clear that the Lifatec cable was a well engineered product for optical audio transmission. Fine borosilicate fibers and smooth outer sleeving allow the cable to flex and fit around components with ease. The finely polished ends ensure a strong optical signal, and the robust/lightweight connectors prevent any light leakage. It is rare to find such a well thought out cable with quality in every part of the build. It’s even less common to find these high-end custom designs at real world prices. Without hesitation, it is my pleasure to recommend the Lifatec Silflex cable for all your optical audio connections.

Happy Listening!

Advertisements

Nanotech Systems Japan

org_dsc03317

What happens when you disperse nano sized (1-100 nanometers) particles of conductive copper, silver, and gold in deep-sea shark oil? Well, you get a unique product that aims to fill in any uneven gaps with electrical contact points. Think spades, RCA, XLR pins, and Power plugs.

Nanotech Systems Japan has been developing products to improve audio, video, and even automotive experiences for some years now. Beyond the contact points, This company has also designed speaker and power cables with nano particles in a colloidal liquid, More on that in a minute, but first let’s see how this nanotech can be applied.

6f11e346-d8bc-4c76-b752-77e0a8decd10

Silver nano, half silver half gold mix, and copper nano particles suspended in shark oil

Well, it can be used for just about any electrical contact point. I started off using the silver nano liquid on my speaker cable spades. I was told this would effectively fill in any gaps between the spade and speaker terminal. I also found a use for the copper nano liquid when building power cables and power distribution centers. These nanoparticles (used sparingly) of precious metal ensure that full power transfer is occurring at contact terminals.

I encourage experimentation of application to various contact points in your system. It should be noted that these are enhancers, not cleaners. So beginning with a clean contact is a good start. One experiment I did was with a very worn and noisy guitar cable plug. The solder points were all intact, but for some reason the plug made a noisy connection. I applied the gold contact liquid to the plug and the intermittent noise ceased. Excellent, now to try it in my audio/video system.

As for sonic improvements, these products may indeed help in that area. I recommend that you apply and test for yourself.

EEDL2917

After speaking with Nanotech Systems Japan, I was able to test out fully terminated power cable (Golden Strada) that had been treated with nano particles. Gold and silver nano particles are dispersed in a colloidal liquid, then applied to the full length of conductors in this power cable. In addition, an electromagnetic wave absorption material is also applied to this power cable for reduced interference. This nano liquid, when applied to the full length of conductors may prevent signal jumping -which I suspect is one cause of distortion. See my article on solid core copper vs stranded copper cables.

For my application (audiophile systems), I used this cable to provide power to my power distribution bar (Oyaide MT-UB). I also tested it directly connected to my power amplifier.

With the Golden Strada providing power to my entire distribution bar (which I built with nano copper enhancers) I found a sense of ease and flow to the music which seemed to emerge from a blacker (quieter) background. Initial impressions; Taught extended bass with imaging control. When connected directly to my power amp the Golden Strada truly excelled at bass control/extension and quiet backgrounds.

I especially liked the Golden Strada power cable for picture quality in film. When used for powering a Blu-ray player in my system directly, the contrast and depth of picture was easily improved.

While using other power cables to provide power to my Oyaide MT UB, I found the unique abilities of the Power Strada to shine through when directly connected to my system components. Experimentation is encouraged, and using more than one in an audiophile system will provide varied results – build your own or buy terminated.

Nanotech Systems Japan has created a whole line of DIY products, enhancers, and completed products to improve audio/visual systems. These products are also not excessively overpriced.  If you are ever in the Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo, I recommend finding some shops that carry these unique science-based audiophile products.

Happy Listening!

Channel Islands E•200S Stereo Amplifier

img_3434

Channel Islands Audio E-200S Front Panel

The last time I tried out some of Dusty Vawter’s amps I was toting two hefty monoblock amplifiers down the Pacific Coast Hwy. On this journey, my payload was significantly lighter. The E-200S stereo amplifier box fit snugly into the back of my Subaru, and once home, this small unassuming amplifier took center stage powering my 2 way speakers- Green Mountain Audio Eos HX.

Getting it out of the box, was a snap (14.0”W x 2.75”H x 10.0”D). The size and weight of this amplifier made setup and handling a breeze. While the front panel grants access to an on/off button with blue LED surround, the host of usual connections can be found on the amp’s business end. Whether you choose RCA or XLR inputs, the custom differential input stage is used. Then an updated UcD Class D stage drives the output. Speaker binding posts are insulated and accept spades or bananas, and a trigger input is also made available. Power cable plugged in, and we are off.

img_3433

200 watts per channel @ 8 ohms/ 400 watts per channel @ 4 ohms

For music, I used a Macbook Pro running iTunes/Pure Music 3. The DAC was my Crane Song Avocet, and the Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum. With everything connected via balanced cables and several hours of warm up (this amp had already been burned-in) I was ready to start listening to some of my favorite tracks.

I cued up some acoustic music by Kings of ConvenienceThis Norwegian duo offers a great starting point to evaluate the naturalness of the male voice. Listening to “Rule My World” from “Declaration of Dependence” gave me some lovely acoustic guitars with harmonizing male vocals.

4f590fe9-50c0-4e22-b43a-654119fe02f3-1

View from above, notice the small footprint

The two part acoustic picking of “Declaration of Dependence” maintained all the midrange richness while allowing the male vocals to almost float above the gentle picking style. The clarity of guitars and male voices were presented in an un-hyped and natural way.

Moving onto more complex works, I began listening to Herbie Hancock’s “Steppin’ in It.” This groove laden funk from Mr. Hancock’s “Man-Child” album features rich synth leads, a tight bass lines from Paul Jackson, and a stellar harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder. Allowing all that musical articulation to shine through requires some control over loudspeaker movement. The E200-S gripped My Eos HX and allowed each and every bass note to come through with precision and depth. While everyone in the band holds down the groove, Herbie takes the Rhodes for a stroll… and before you know it Stevie Wonder is syncopating a harmonica unlike I’ve ever heard. With each breath, a new note even funkier than the last is pumped out. All these counter rhythms and complex instruments can be demanding on an audio amplifier, and the CI Audio E-200S never slowed down. In fact, the intricate stereo soundstage was expansive. To top it off, the tonality of instruments (even the squeaky high harmonica) never sounded dull or harsh.

To verify the neutrality, I relied on several orchestral and vocal ensemble recordings I made for NPR, all at the same performance hall. While less capable amplifiers have shown some distortions or break-up, I’m happy to report that the CI Audio amp had none of those shortcomings. Localizing mic placement, hall width/depth, and reverb decay were all amplified without coloration. This provided a sonic portal to the original recorded events, an immersive experience indeed.

Spending time with the E-200S was revealing in so many ways. From black quiet backgrounds to fully erupting orchestral performances, this little beast was in control. Most of all, this CI Audio amplifier proves that green design and audiophile sound need not be mutually exclusive.

Happy Listening

Oyaide Electric Company; A Materials Science Approach to Power Distribution 

Power Distribution Parts by Oyaide Elec & Acrolink Japan

The Japanese hi-fi market exists alongside a healthy DIY audiophile scene. The Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo is a great example. One step off the Sobu line and a world of electronics specialty stores become available for professionals and hobbyists alike. One of my favorites, Oyaide Electric shop provides cables, connectors, and parts for building your own audio, video, and power cables/distributors.

Oyaide is a long established electrical wire company that  has been in business since 1952. Over the last 30 years they have grown to develop products for the audiophile and pro audio markets. Materials for Oyaide Elect. are developed and produced in Japan with a combination of technological innovation and traditional craftsmanship.

a2a36a83-f32a-415f-a7d9-aadfcbecd4b6

 P-004 Beryllium Copper no plating hand polished by traditional Japanese craftsmen

Oyaide power distribution materials are carefully auditioned and produced to provide tonal options for audio enthusiasts and professional musicians. Both the AC wall outlets and power plugs from Oyaide have been developed with several different base alloys and platings.

Their standard 15 amp Power plug and IEC connections (P-004/C-004) have become available with and without the plating of platinum and palladium. This has allowed me to listen to various power cables (Acrolink, Oyaide) and hear how they interact with different plugs and outlets- giving me a better understanding of what the AC conductors sound, which inludes: dielectric materials, shielding, plugs and ultimately the outlets they interface with.

After investigating several brass alloys, I have come to appreciate the sonic qualities of the Beryllium Copper alloy when used for AC power in highly resolving audio systems. Beryllium Copper is used for its spring like qualities combined with electrical conductivity. This alloy has corrosion resistance and maintains its original shape due to its ductile properties.

The Oyaide R0 AC duplex is made of beryllium copper for the contacts and PBT (with 30% glass) for the thermoplastic outlet face. Mechanically, the Oyaide duplexes provides excellent AC blade retention, and the PBT and glass filled body helps dissipate unwanted vibration. The R1 employs the same construction but adds a plating of platinum and palladium to the AC receptacles base alloy.

Homemade Power distribution with Oyaide MT UB Power tap case, R0 & R1 outlets

To satisfy my curiosity, I built a passive power distributor from Oyaide called the MT UB. This 2 mm thick brass and nickel/chrome plated 2 duplex box exemplifies Japanese craftsmanship. Four separate mounting poles with special washers allow each duplex to be well isolated from each other. I wired it with high-purity Japanese solid core copper and used one R0 un-plated beryllium copper duplex and one R1 plated with the platinum and palladium. I will try and describe the sonic differences of each outlet below.

Oyaide R0 duplex: This un-plated Beryllium Copper AC outlet provides an un-hyped and natural soundstage when used on analog and digital equipment. Compared to several other outlets with various metal platings, the R0 has provided me with the most neutral sonic presentation, a robust and taut distribution of power without any accent in the audio band. The R0 excels at dynamic sound with full energy at all octaves.

Oyaide R1 duplex: Beryllium Copper plated with platinum(0.5 μ) + palladium (0.3 μ). This outlet helps create a sound of focused and refined sonic presentation. While the un-plated R0 maintains an organic flow to the music, the R1 also adds a sense of lowered noise floor with some equipment, and I found that digital gear and video (improved contrast and blacks) benefited most from the R1 outlet. While I still hear a neutral presentation (Sonically), the R1 has a highlighting or spotlighting ability, albiet subtle.

Over the last decade I have been experimenting with various aftermarket power cables and power conditioners. Sometimes with fair results, and sometimes the cables or conditioners have effected the sound negatively. Starting with a materials based approach, I have been able to better understand how different conductors, dialectics, plugs, and  AC receptacles will effect the sound quality of professional and audiophile sound systems. Oyaide Electric company has provided a basis for AC materials to be judged in audio systems, see for yourself.

-Happy Listening

Caution: AC power distributors and cables are serious and should only be built/worked on by trained/licensed professional electricians.

Crane Song Avocet with Quantum DAC

QuantumDAC

David Hill of Crane Song LTD builds some genius pro audio equipment. His mic pre amps and compressor designs have always held a special place in my sonic memory. I’ve been lucky enough to use his gear in broadcast studios and through my own personal music recordings.

The Crane Song Avocet is a Class A monitor controller with a built-in DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter). Having undergone 5 iterations, the current  Quantum DAC boasts impressive jitter specs and uses a proprietary reconstruction filter for accurate time domain response. Operating asynchronously with a 32 bit architecture, the reference clock is less than 1pS and all digital inputs are up-sampled to 211Khz.

Upgrade Note: If you are sending in your Avocet for the Quantum DAC upgrade, you will receive an optical input that replaces the original dual wire AES input. Cool, now you have AES, S/PDIF, and Optical.

The design is utilitarian and solid- sporting a modern industrial build with primary colored buttons and center volume knob. This might sound strange, but it always reminded me of Jacque Tati and his modernist take in films like Playtime (go to 23 sec). Monsieur Hulot would surely get lost in the maze of colored square buttons ;). The Avocet proves smart modern design can improve the future for all…err, yeah that is… for Audio Engineers!

AvocetIIA

Talking with David Hill at AES last year revealed his excitement about this new Quantum DAC design. In particular, David felt that the combination of filters being analog and some digital help provide a more realistic impact of sound. His words, if I remember correctly were, “a snare hit now sounds more like the real snare.” Now that I had Mr. Hill’s new Quantum DAC in hand, it was time to test it out.

To listen, I brought the upgraded Avocet down to a studio with Lipinski speakers and amps. There, we also had a previous generation Avocet to listen to and compare. A good hour of warm up was given, and a couple more listening to various digital audio sources from the SADiE DAW. Quantum entanglement aside, we began listening to this latest generation DAC design from Crane Song.

Using some familiar music tracks, we fed the Quantum DAC via AES/EBU, then out to the Lipinski speaker system with amps. It certainly sounded good right off the bat, but only after spending a little time did all the new sonic upgrades become clear. Switching to the previous generation Avocet DAC proved that this new design provided a more robust or dimensional envelopment to sounds. David was right about the snare sound. Even more, the guttural impact of kick drum was solid and more 3D. Instruments achieved a more realistic timbre and acoustic space with this Quantum DAC upgrade. While the previous generation DAC is no slouch, this new design allows a more fleshed out roundness to the instruments in the stereo image. remoteThe user-interface offers simple and functional controls that allow you to smartly and intuitively work. With the precise relay based volume control (with offsets for level matching) and brilliant class A output stage, the 5th generation Quantum DAC furthers audio resolution while maintaining full control of your audio sources. The Crane Song Avocet maintains its place as the hidden gem of my audio experiences. My highest recommendation.

-Happy Listening!

The State of Digital Audio Cables

 

AQUSB

Audioquest USB cables for digital audio, Coffee in focus

After recently writing about solid core audio cable designs, I began listening to various digital audio cables.  To dig in, I started by examining the transmission from computer to DAC (digital-to-analog converter) via the Audioquest USB cable line. For this listening test I employed the Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DAC with 10m Clock – simply connected to amp and speakers (Lipinski, and Green Mountain Audio).

The basis for the Audioquest designs start with solid core copper, then they add silver in varying amounts, a noise dissipation system, and finally a DBS or dielectric bias system.

Starting with a generic USB cable I familiarized myself with the sound. To be fair, I listened to several generic type USB cables…not all are created equal, and yes some sound decent too. After establishing the best sounding generic USB cable, I began exploring the Audioquest designs.

The Pearl, a basic LGC (long grain copper) USB cable was implemented from computer to DAC. Compared to the generic USB cable, the Pearl provided a modest but noticeable step up in clarity to the music files. The Forest, with its mere 0.5% silver over copper was easy to distinguish from the sound of the Pearl USB. A distinct and greater clarity came upon first listen, and continued use proved it more detailed indeed. A layer of background vocals was now more apparent. Moving past the Forest, one encounters the Cinnamon USB. At 1.25% silver over copper, this is still in the range of affordable USB cables (ok, for music lovers). The Cinnamon is yet again, more resolute. Not just more resolute, but better controlled and more balanced than the Forest. Next up, the AQ Carbon USB employs a whopping 5% silver over copper. This is also where Audioquest begins adding a 3 layer noise-dissipation system around the USB cable. If the Cinnamon was better balanced, the Carbon adds a more relaxed presentation – possibly due to less noise riding on the conductors. The Carbon also provided a greater sense of depth.

The last two USB cables in the Audioquest line include a 72v DBS (Dielectric Bias System). First up is the 10% silver over copper Coffee USB cable. After noticing the obvious clarity, balance, and extreme quietness (no background hash), another characteristic to the stereo field becomes apparent. Stereo height and depth information becomes easily distinguished. The arc of sound in the stereo field becomes less congested. Low, Middle, and High frequencies have a specific horizontal plain they reside in. Using the Lipinski Speaker system with subs (in addition to my 2way speakers) made this very obvious.

What comes after 10% silver, well 100% PSS (Perfect Surface Silver) of course. The Diamond USB is the most expensive offering from Audioquest. This USB cable spotlights ultra clear transmission while still being hash-free. Like Coffee USB, the Diamond possesses quiet backgrounds, great dimensionality, and rendering distortion free audio signals. Where it differs in sonic presentation is in the stereo height or arc. Compared to Coffee USB, I found the Diamond to create even greater distinctions between low, middle, and high frequencies. Specifically, center vocals were presented physically higher above the speaker than with the Coffee. While some stereo system might benefit from the Diamond, we found the Coffee USB to have the best overall balance in our systems.

Coffee

Audioquest Coffee AES/EBU

To test out the Audioquest AES/EBU cables, I used my trusty Yellowtec PUC2. The PUC2 is a USB to AES converter. This allowed me to listen with basic Canare AES/EBU cables and compare them to the Audioquest designs. Note: I used the same AQ USB cable as AES/EBU cable being tested, for the Canare AES/EBU I used a generic USB cable to connect the PUC2 to computer. Canare AES and the AQ Coffee/Diamond were compared using the Crane Song Avocet (with Quantum DAC update).

Starting with the Canare AES cable, I connected the the AES out of the PUC2 to my Crane Song Avocet DAC. From the the Crane Song Avocet, I went into Lipinski Sound speakers with amps. Using the same track (Paul Simon, Proof), I began listening. After familiarizing myself with the sound, I quickly swapped the Canare AES/EBU for the AQ Coffee AES/EBU.

I was stunned by the differences, and so was my colleague (a seasoned mastering engineer). Just as I heard when using the Coffee USB, the AES cable provided a clarity and distinction to the many layered tracks of this Paul Simon mix. Bass was tighter, better defined, more robust. Middle and high frequencies also benefited from greater clarity while still being balanced yet distinct. The stereo arc allowed height information to be easily perceived and not exaggerated. Swapping back the Canare AES cable made it apparent that the sound was now congested, or squeezed sounding.

Diamond

Audioquest Diamond AES/EBU

When replacing the Coffee AES/EBU for the 100% Perfect Surface Silver Diamond, the height information became even more distinct. That arc (in the stereo field) I spoke of earlier was even more pronounced than on the Coffee AES/EBU. Extreme clarity and low background noise was obvious, but Paul Simon’s voice appears to be physically higher in the center image. When testing this AES/EBU cable in my home system I noticed the same phenomena.

The Audioquest USB and AES/EBU cables offered a clear improvement that was easily heard. While the Carbon and Coffee were my favorite designs, even the entry level USB cables from AQ provided a clear balanced presentation without any harshness.

-Happy Listening!