Emerging Audio Developments
From Two Stalwart Sound Sculptors:
Dave Magnan and Steve McCormack
Article by Jim Merod
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So much of the work of high-end audio reviewing deals with repeated listening: going over and over individual pieces of gear to discern their sonic qualities; going back to well-known recordings that serve as baseline musical references... going over and over new audio territory (innovative, sometimes high-priced gear) while going over and over (ad
nausea) old musical material. Infrequently in such activity does a reviewer stop midway to offer a preview. Here are preliminary reports from two well-known audio innovators: Steve McCormack and David Magnan.
Steve McCormack, of course, is the inventor of the famous Mod Squad "tip toes" that started a small industry in audio tweaking. Had he been able to patent that invention, or its generic design structure, McCormack would be off on a yacht somewhere far away.
Over many years, the McCormack line of amplifiers have received praise throughout the high-end audio world and the McCormack series of active and passive
pre-amplifiers have garnered well-earned kudos. Those who have followed Steve McCormack's work across two-plus decades have noted the intelligence of his design philosophy, the care of his parts selection, and the extraordinary musicality of his equipment at extremely affordable price points.
Therefore, when Steve McCormack called not long ago to ask if I'd be interested in hearing his new passive
pre-amplifier, I was more than curious. His invitation called to mind several experiences over the years with other prototype units he devised.
Never disappointed in what I've heard when the gentle McCormack paw lets the genie out of the bottle, I made my way over to his comfortable research and development lab to hear the new creation.
The Genie Once Again Escaped
His Invisible Resting Place.
Steve McCormack does not work with glass and cork but his new pre-amplifier design includes bold material and design innovations. You do not see the musical genie hoist himself out of the mechanical box...
but you do hear a new way of looking at (hearing through) the audio soundstage with this stunning new pre-amp in the signal path. The effect is not negligible.
Inside the eye-catching box, one finds minimalist design strategies that contribute to the
pre-amplifier's extraordinary dynamics and transparency. Other innovations are in play, as well, still in the process of refinement and testing. The unit is powered by two rechargeable lead-acid gel-cell 12-volt batteries. Material structures and signal topologies aside, the exceptional quality of this passive device resides in the compelling integration of the preamp's expected audio transparency with unexpected musical dynamics... as if the truthful womp and woof of live sound is let loose with no -- and
I emphasize "no," none, zero, nada -- reduction or inhibition.
Pre-amplification, by necessity, imposes its own imprint on reproduced music. However slight such an imprint may be,
they do in fact restrict sound in one way or in several others. In the case of some tube pre-amps, the harmonic coloration of that restriction can be seductive. Nonetheless, passive
pre-amplification has the advantage of striving for (and sometimes delivering) far greater soundstage openness and musical transparency than conventional AC-driven devices. The new McCormack
prototype goes further. It seem to achieve immense transparency without sacrificing harmonic complexity or dynamic force.
In fact, it may be that music's harmonic complexity has gained added nuance. A case in point is in order. We plopped into the
CD player an unmastered 16-bit digital recording I had made six years ago. Everything about the music, the room it was recorded in, and the sound of the recording was familiar to me. Or so I thought.
Fifteen seconds into the first track ("Early Autumn," the old Woody Herman/Stan Getz chestnut), nothing about the musical whole was familiar. Quite literally, there was more
there there: the front soundscape was deeper, higher, more thoroughly three-dimensional. More was there by several degrees of vivacity. The movement of the tenor saxophonist's horn was utterly "visible" as an audible presence before us, swaying left to right and back again. Comments on stage, inaudible before, popped into place... the sound, its nuances, the players, their reality increased their tactile vividness.
Most impressive of all was the fact that the music sounded better than ever, completely real and wholly engaging at once. I did not want to leave the sweet spot. The only thing worth doing as this new preamp took command was to relax and listen to one album after another. My own recordings sounded more seductive but real (genuine, authentically alive and available in actual time and space). Well-made commercial albums took on the same stunning audio fate, becoming more alive and vivid...
becoming everything they no doubt meant to deliver previously.
When things previously unheard are revealed by an advance in audio clarity, the ear is startled and the mind is impressed. When such revelations are rendered with greater musical force and candor, pleasure overwhelms intelligence and the ear, like the heart, relents.
While this McCormack prototype is a one-of-a-kind unit, its design logic and innovative use of materials will doubtless undergo further refinement. I suspect that the unit's ability to generate somewhat mind-boggling involvement may (though I'm not sure how) increase. This is an audio product worth waiting for. The eventual release of this pre-amp promises that rare thing in audio: music that frightens you and seduces you without regard for which takes precedence.
David Magnan has an enviable record for crafting audio interconnect and speaker cables dedicated to musical audio truthfulness. Magnan's Silver Bronze interconnects were recently introduced into the marketplace. I reviewed those cables elsewhere earlier this year. Here, with the appearance of his new digital cable, Dave Magnan once more extends the audio frontier. With the increase of one-box compact disc, DVD and SACD systems, digital cables have
receded from the interest they generated years back. When digital-to-analog conversion takes place within the front end music reproduction unit, there is no need for a top flight digital cable.
Simplicity triumphs in such a system, but the choice of digital conversion (which, in the case of the Birdland Audio "Odeon" DAC systems, for example, is worth careful consideration) disappears. Are you certain that Sony or Phillips, or whatever your stand alone digital box may be, has caught the sonic truth and beauty you crave?
I have talked with people in the audio industry who regard the emergence of each new digital media and its supporting gear as the herald of an unambiguously brighter audio future. Progress, you see, is a straight line that leads without deviation to ever higher sonic results.
That may be true. Perhaps not. If this presents an inviolable rule -- a law of unceasing incremental improvement that perpetually drives the logic of the audio industry -- why do we find so many state of the art recordings both dramatic and sonically bland?
One major difficulty among the glut of new releases is their lamentable sonic sameness: clean, clear sound without soul. Is the dilemma located in the convergence of outlooks that capture and master music? Is the constant search for new technologies, both in the recording chain and in the world of high-end audio playback, a destabilizing phenomenon? Some recording engineers admit to a certain fatigue in their work that derives, not from long hours, but from chasing the learning curve with new gear.
No one can keep up with the enormous output of new equipment or, for that, of new musical releases among the various digital formats. But my point remains. The uses to which improved digital sound shaping has been put over the years has created greater sonic purity at the expense of musical creativity and aural
intrigue: antiseptic aesthetics that lack artistic inspiration; sound without the surprise and feel of a human touch.
I am not indicting contemporary musical sound. I'm pointing to the absence of those palpable and emotional sonic qualities that we find in the most engaging recordings made in the so called golden era of analog recording. Think, for example, of Wilma Cozart Fine's rather elegant, altogether streamlined recording techniques for Mercury in the '50s. Take a listen to what the engineers at RCA and Columbia accomplished on apparently "inferior" tube-based equipment during the same period.
In sum, the world of DVD and SACD sound has not (yet) altered or deepened our appreciation for musical risk and aural achievement...
permanent qualities of attraction, reflection, and engagement with both sonic and lyric values that only well made, well reproduced music carries.
Without question, the appearance of longstanding classics, such as Miles Davis's
Kind of Blue, in an enhanced sonic format does hold the possibility of heightened emotional and, perhaps, intellectual involvement. Increased sonic resolution can, of course, enhance musical pleasure.
This, precisely, is where a design genius like Dave Magnan enters the picture. Musical pleasure can be gained from any well set-up sound system. No analog or digital album will sound better than the cables that deliver it. New audio formats are held hostage to the associated equipment that reproduces them. Several things emerge from that obvious fact.
First, you do not need a SACD or DVD version of a classic album to enjoy its full musical value. Second, two-box digital systems own considerable sonic enchantment when they are well integrated -- transport to D/A converter and down through the audio chain.
Third, in such a system, your choice of digital cable has a powerful influence on the music you hear. Every cable is a "sound shaping" device. The best ones are the most transparent...
but, then, other sonic elements enter into play there, too. Dynamics, harmonic nuances, soundstage accuracy...
In short, the voicing of a stand alone digital machine certainly has a good chance of tonal neutrality, musical accuracy, and many of the combined sonic attributes demanded of world-class digital conversion and playback. But no digital machine of any sort that I am aware of is without a voice, without its own specific sonic signature (however hard to discern that sometimes is).
Building a superior sound system around an integrated digital front end has many advantages. Building a sound system by choosing your transport and an upsampling DAC, like the Birdland Audio units, has its own rewards, too. In the realm of two digital boxes, where many serious listeners still dwell, the choice of a digital cable is crucial.
Few digital cables stop you in your tracks with their sonic vivacity and musical magic. Magnan's new cable does just that. Unlike Steve McCormack's prototype passive preamp, Dave Magnan's digital cable is not a work-in-progress. It is a fully developed piece of gear. In my experience, a few digital cables establish the standard for critical listening. A one-of-kind balanced, solid silver cable created several years ago by audio demon Alan Yun at Silverline Audio sets a standard for digital delivery that I have not yet found surpassed. Since that wire is not in production, it serves only as a point of comparison (and for use in recording) but not as a contender for Commercial Digital Cable Champion.
Wonder Link digital cables are contenders for that honor, I believe, and Acoustic Zen's MC-Squared cable is another. Both are immensely musical. Both deliver the difficult-to-capture complexity of harmonic details that challenge any audio system's sonic ability.
Enter The New Magnan Cable
The first thing you see is startling. It arrives in a standard length of 6.5
feet. Shorter is better, one always assumed. Dave Magnan sees it otherwise. "This design," he reports, "is a result of experiments that showed me that minimizing skin effect and achieving time coherence is the key to the ultimate digital interconnect. The theory governing digital pulse transmission would actually predict this much more clearly [for digital] than for audioband analog signals."
Magnan interconnect cables also were designed with the goal of achieving minimal skin effects as well as signal time coherence. His new digital cable, Magnan says, "incorporates proprietary, very low skin effect conductors for both signal and ground, in addition to several other construction techniques which I found to be almost as essential [but] presently not utilized in conventional digital cable technology."
As mysterious as that statement may be, there you have what Dave Magnan is able to share
publicly about his design philosophy. It may be just enough to tantalize the willing audiophile who has experience with the smearing, blurring, and other nonmusical sonic diminutions that lesser digital cables create.
At this (relatively early) point in my listening, the Magnan digital wire delivers the sort of musical coherence that, on one hand, I expected from it -- given the standard established by the recent Silver Bronze interconnect -- while, on the other hand, pushing gently into uncharted sonic territory.
I will report on the fundamental "rightness" that I find there further, at length, after more critical listening. In the interim, let it stand that this digital wire approaches (and may in fact match) the astonishing Silver Bronze wire for its command of dynamic range...
dynamics achieved without loss of the tonal delicacy that, with superior recordings, carries the bulk of music's seductive appeal.
This is a digital wire to be savored. The cryptic allusiveness of Dave Magnan's design commentary is at once deepened and made irrelevant by listening to his new creation. How can a length of wire that is
(counter-intuitively) 6.5 feet long lock musical values so well into place? But what difference does it make whatever the designer of such a cheerful sonic creation says, gnomically or precisely, when the result is so brilliant?
For those who hunger for more technical details about cables, Magnan's helpful website is a worthy stop. Take a look at the "White Paper for
Techies." For those of you who are wondering, the price for the Magnan Digital Cable is $800 for the standard length of 6-1/2 feet in single ended;
$1,100 for balanced.
Magnan Audio Cables
355 N. Lantana #576
Camarillo, CA 93010-6038
Voice: (805) 484-9544
Fax: (805) 484-9544
929 El Pajodo Place
Vista, CA 92084
Voice: (760) 732-0352
Fax: (760) 732-3209