Well, here it is mid April, and even in good old New Hampshire, spring has sprung. This has been the mildest Winter I can remember in twenty years of living here. I even had ICE-OUT on my swimming pool cover in mid March, which normally does not occur until mid April. If this is global warming, I'll take it. I don't understand the wacko-types who complain about the warming. The greatest human advances have occurred in times of warming, and the worst of times have occurred during the cold snaps. Can not go into details here, just look it up in your history books. Besides, all of us want the best electricity to run our systems, and you can't get that cranking a hand generator. Well, enough of that. Do not want to get the Tree huggers too mad at me.
First, today, I wish to apologize to Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio for a mistake I made in my last article (Chapter 32) that featured his Vivid digital disc cleaning and destaticizing fluid. I do not know where I got it, but I misnamed it as Vital, for which I should be drawn and quartered. Maybe it was a Freudian slip, as I have found it vital to my digital playback, and would not play a disc back now without using it. On coming back from vacation a couple of weeks ago, I did play a disc which I thought had been processed with the Vivid, and after about one minute realized something was wrong. Even though this was a disc I had listened too several times before, and had previously enjoyed without the Vivid application, I realized the Vivid treatment hadn't been performed. After a quick polishing and run through my Bedini, the transition from digital caterpillar to butterfly was evident. Get some of this stuff. You'll like it. (Editors note, we have since updated AA Chapter 32 to reflect the correct name)
Second, I have bought several more SACD and DVD-A titles, and again, I have been convinced that the engineers can elevate both playback systems to heavenly glory, or drop the music into the abyss of Hell. Also, at least with my Apex 7701 combo-player, both mediums share equally in this fate. My two picks for best of the best are a DVD-A Naxos recording [5.110001] of the Vivaldi Four Seasons with the London Mozart Players, and a Telarc SACD  of the Mahler Sym. #5 with Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Both have superb six-channel sound and two of the best interpretations I have heard of both pieces. Well worth the money.
On the other hand, my two worst discs so far are an SACD of the Four Seasons with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra on Delos [SACD 3280], the sound of which harks back to the digital nasties of yore, and a DVD-A of Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks by the London Symphony Orchestra [EMI 72434924004], that sounds like a fourth generation muffled analog tape. Both of these discs suck. Save your money.
Interestingly enough, at the same time I purchased another EMI disc of Bach's Magnificat [EMI 724349240193] with The Academy of Ancient Music that is a real winner and having playback tracks of AC-3 and 16-bit PCM on one side, DVD-A MLP 4.0 and 24-bit Stereo on the other. Each track has a playing time of 152.35 minutes, or almost 2 1/2 hours of music. Each sounds very good with excellent interpretation of the music. The only fault I can find with my Apex player is that it defaults to the two-track DVD-A and one has to stop the disc, go into the menu, and change to the multi-track playback. What a pain in the ass, but well worth it.
So there are two discs from the same company, mastered at the same studio (Abbey Studios). One of which is great and the other a piece of crap. Buy the Bach and leave the Handel. And there are two discs from each playback system, one of which sounds superb, the other horrible. So while both SACD and DVD-Audio, especially the multi-track versions, are a true step forward from 16-bit PCM, both can be screwed up by the recording and transcribing engineers.
One other DVD-Audio that l just purchased and find worth the cost is an Organ Spectacular by Ton Koopman [Teldec 8573820419]. Here we have 72 minutes of Bach six-channel organ, which has got to be the closest I have come in my home to capturing the acoustics of a church with its organ belting out Bach at its most Earth shattering. Better make sure your house insurance is paid up for quake damage for this one. By the way, the playing and interpretation are exemplary.
Now on to the meat of this month's column, a cable review. I know way back when I swore I would never do a cable or phono cartridge review again due to their difficulty. Why? Because of the set-up problems with cartridges, and the system dependence of both. This is especially true with audio and AC cable where each piece of equipment seems to need a different wire for optimum interfacing. But I just had to. This time was different. I had added a couple of new pieces of video equipment to my system, an Electrohome 9500LC projector, a Zenith 1080 Direct TV HDTV receiver, and a new S-Video tape deck. Therefore I wanted to see if types of cable made as much of a difference in video as in audio.
I know that at this point there are multiple skeptics out there, primarily engineers, who are either fuming or laughing at the preposterous notion that the quality of the cable. As long as it is made to a certain standard of impedance, capacitance and resistance, cables can not make any difference in video signal transmission according to some scientists. After all, if a few feet of cable is so damaging to the signal, then how can we receive cable TV into our homes with such "pristine reproduction" (sarcasm intended) of the signal. And how about in television studios which run miles of cables? Just go out and get some RG-59 cable from Radio Shack and be happy. Or, if not satisfied with that, spend a few more dollars on RG-6 cable (that should be overkill). After all, with good Belden or Canare cable the signal should be able to go through long distances of the stuff with only slight drop-offs in signal strength. And if the cable is true 75 ohm and the connectors are appropriately built and attached so that they are also of 75 ohms impedance, then the cable should not suffer from impedance mismatch with echoing of the signal. And if the shielding is sufficient, then RFI and EMF from the environment should not interfere with and degrade the signal.
Well, all is not perfect in the video world, at least not for consumers because all video cables are not perfect and all transmission methods are not of the same robustness. While video cable has to pass only an octave or two of information compared to audio's ten, video cable has to pass Mega and Giga Hertz wavelengths, which are more prone to degradation from impedance mismatching, RF interference, and cable resistance. Composite signals can be carried for greater distances without degradation, with S-Video signals being even more fragile. Thus, where a composite signal may be watchable after miles of decent wire, the S-video signal may degrade in the same wire after meters.
I had not thought about whether there could be transmission differences in video cables, although I had been a big believer in the differences that good audio cables can make. Therefore I had previously purchased a $650 studio grade fifty foot long RGBHV cable to run from my line quadrupler to my projector. But my second long cable run from my Home Theater PC to projector was an inexpensive computer type RGBHV 3/8" diameter cable with all five lines running through it. I thought the picture was very good. Otherwise, I had been using home made RF cables from Radio Shack RG-6 with their connectors, and the S-Video cables supplied with the equipment. I had noticed a difference in picture quality substituting 75 ohm audio digital cabling for the supplied RCA type composite video interconnects, but for some reason did not consider upgrading to better video cable. And I was happy in my ignorance.
Then, at the 2000 CES, a well-known audio cable manufacturer from Maine was demonstrating their newest addition to their line of S-Video cables. They used a two-meter run of the typical S-Video cable supplied with the typical high end S-VHS VCR. The image looked quite good on their Proton 21" TV. Then they ran the same signal through 100 feet of their proprietary S-Video cable and the image actually improved with superior color saturation and high frequency information. The audio equivalent would be improvement in soundstaging and micro-dynamics. I looked around to see if there had been any tricks played, but could find none. This really impressed me as S-Video is a difficult signal to transmit without loss, the pundits saying you can only use very short cables, and here, they were running 100 feet! Unhappily, when I heard the price, I almost fainted. While somewhat less than the gross national product of Chile, supplying a whole system with the cabling would have set me back financially for months. So I lived unhappily with what I had until two occurrences changed my luck.
First, I traded in my Electrohome 8500 projector for a refurbished 9500LC from Gary Guidi at Hi-Rez, which is felt to be the best stock CRT projector made. And no, I did not receive any kickback for this mention and paid their full price for the projector. They have just been superb at installing and maintaining the three projectors I have upgraded with them over the years and are honest and wonderful to do business with. Thus, the mention. This is a great way of purchasing the best projector made, and from which Runco, TAW, and Madrigal make their $60,000 units. For $17,000 I received a fully refurbished projector with new tubes in virtually new condition. They also do some tweaks to the power supply, vertical amplifier, gamma correction and fan quieting, and upgrade known troublesome capacitors and load the latest software, for the price.
They looked over my cabling, approved the Canare behemoth for all my line quadrupled and HDTV stuff, but suggested I purchase a new run for my home theater computer-DVD unit as I run that at 1080P/72 Hz. This setup requires a cable that will pass a 150 MHz signal without loss. And indeed when they added the new 45 foot VGA to five BNC cable, the picture definitely improved. The DVD picture quality in some ways exceeded what I was getting from my HDTV receivers. The biggest gain was in picture clarity, related to more high frequency B/W information being transmitted without distortion. Also, colors became more saturated and the image were more three dimensional. Lastly, the blacks became blacker. While the 9500LC had added to all of these compared to the 8500, the cable made a definite improvement.
Putting this together with what I had seen at that CES demonstration, my mind started working on how changing the other video cables in my system might affect the picture from the other components. Once one has looked at true 1080I or 720P HDTV, or computer derived 1080P/72 Hz. DVD reproduction, going back to line quadrupled NTSC video is sickening. But being of Scottish descent and cheap, I had to figure how I was not going to break the bank... especially after getting the projector. I lusted after those mega-bucks S-Video cables.
Then the second "footfall of fate" occurred. Steven R. Rochlin, our Fearless Leader (he even looks a little like Fearless Leader, at least as much as Robert Deniro), asked if I would be interested in doing a video cable review. Would I? Well maybe. Hell yes. He then hooked me up with Brad Marcus of BeterCables who was willing to send me anything I needed in cabling for a review. Well, let's see, how about a couple of runs of S-video for the new SVHS VCR, a run of two-meter VGA to five BNC for the DirectTV HDTV receiver, and maybe a 45 foot run of their VGA to five BNC to compare with the new one I had just added. What is your address he asked? I could not believe it. I was getting it all. (Fearless Leader sez: i look more like Weird Al Yankovic than Deniro, though as Deniro enjoys driving a Ferrari, then feel free to call me Deniro anytime.)
Then, something made me look at the Fed-Ex box the new 45 footer had come in, and guess what. It was their cable. Now I was getting excited, as it had only cost $275 msrp for 45 feet, which was much less than my Canare, was 1/3 the thickness, 1/8 the weight, much more flexible for easy runs, and worked at least equally as well (if not better). So I scratched the long run from my order, and received the rest in two days.
Better Cables, based in Virginia, sells both audio and video cables primarily directly over the Internet. They manufactures all of them in the good old U.S. of A. and include ground shipping in their charges. They offer a 30 day money back guarantee if you are not satisfied, and will make up lengths to order. Each additional length of cable beyond the first 1/2 to 1 meter adding a negligible amount since all of the work on the cable goes into making a clean plug to cable connection. As a freebie, they will add an Avia audio-video DVD test disc for orders over $350. Their web site is one of the most straightforward and easily perused I have encountered. If only all web sites were as easy to use.
The following paragraph are direct quotes from Brad Marcus.
The BNC connectors are from Canare, but Brad has stated that the wire is made to his specs by a different company, and thus not from the same manufacturer. I have used the Canare RF and BNC plugs for years when making up my own RF wire, and have found them to be superior in every way to other types. The Silver Serpent S-Video cable uses the same purity silver coated copper, high density foam PE dielectric and double shielding, gold plated connectors, giving 17.3 pF per foot capacitance, less than 5 nanoseconds per foot timing variation between the two conductors, and a true 75 ohm impedance for both wire and connector. The first 1/2-meter costs $50 with each additional meter costing $10. Most of the above cables will be shipped within one business day, except for orders that require weird terminations like RCA on one end and BNC on the other. Brad states that they'll be able to accommodate one day shipping on these in the near future.
They also make audio interconnects, loudspeaker, Toslink and SPDIF digital cables, but I did not have a chance to audition those. Thank G-d. Fearless Leader Steven R. Rochlin reviewed their digital interconnect and found it to be a very good performer for little money compared to the other digital cables out there. See Steven's review by clicking here.
So enough of the statistics. How did the BetterCables compare to the best that Radio Shack, Canare and Monster Cable have to offer? Better enough that I am planning on keeping and using them in my system. Comparing the Silver Serpent S-Video to a Monster Cable one that I had used to this point, which costs about the same, and the Rat Shack at 1/4 the price... the biggest difference was in image clarity. I used the cable both with my new S-VHS tape deck and my Pioneer CLD-99 laser disc player, which outputs a beautiful S-video signal. Especially with the laser disc unit, more high frequency information was visible. More interestingly, while with the other two cables I had to do a slight adjustment of the Y/C timing on the Pioneer; with the BetterCables, this was unnecessary. And this was with only a two meter run. So their low timing variance does make a difference, although this could be adjusted with the Pioneer, but not the S-VHS deck.
The two-meter VGA-RGBHV cable was run between the Zenith HDTV unit and my IEC video switcher in place of a standard computer cable. Again, the two biggest differences were in clarity and color saturation, especially the latter. Especially on HDNET, a high definition station on direct TV always broadcasting in 1080I, everything became more three dimensional with more saturated colors. The best word to describe it would be vivid. While not quite as big a difference as with the S-Video cables, it was worth the price differential at least to me.
The biggest surprise came with the 45 foot VGA to RGBHV cable mentioned above. I could find no difference between the BetterCables and my Canare behemoth. (You sure the silver did not look a little better?) No Brad, I did not find any difference, except I did not swear quite as much at your cable as I was trying to run it around corners to my projector. With the Avia test disc run on my HTPC, the BetterCables allowed me to see the lines right out to the 6MHz. level (as far as DVD can go). Each gave a beautiful transmission of signal with little if any degradation. I just wish one of the HDTV channels in my area or HBO or HDNET would run some test patterns so I could further evaluate this cable, as I think it would test superbly with HDTV. Why? Because the signal I am running from my HTPC has four times the frequency range of 1080I and still showed no degradation.
Remember, the Canare consists of five parallel runs of their best professional studio level multi-shielded RG-6, giving a final cable diameter of 1 1/2 inches, heavy as hell and twice the price of the 1/2 inch diameter BetterCables. So, while not demonstrably better, it certainly was equivalent to the best studio grade cable available to the professional video industry... and a hell of a lot easier to install.
So, in summation, you get what you pay for. These cable, while more expensive than the Rat Shack and Belden types, they do give good value for the money and are certainly not priced in the stratosphere. If you are becoming a videophile like me, remember, cable is probably as important as with audio. (It could certainly be argued that good video cables are even more important than with audio as video is a much more demanding task to handle than analog audio.) Again, Brad, I think I have to disagree. While video cables do run a much higher frequency signal, the signal is usually only an octave wide, while an audio signal can cover eleven octaves. On the other hand, its not worth running mega-bucks video equipment if the cable is degrading the signal. Penny pinching on cable does not give a good return on your investment.
Enough for now. June's article will hopefully be direct and live from PRIMEDIA Specialty Group Inc.'s show in New York City. I will be there on Thursday, and will hopefully have a report for you by the Friday so you can decide whether it will be worth flying in from Hong Kong that night to attend the show over the rest of the weekend. First Class of course.