Musing on Building a
Digital Music Server Returns: The Synergistic
Research Active SE USB Cable, Backing Up Up Your Mac
Mini, and Yet Another Use for Strange Attractors
"Now my life is sweet
The correct name of the cable about which I am writing is the "USB Active SE with Enigma tuning circuits." That means several things. First, it's a mouthful. Second, it sounds very good, better than my Cynosure v2, and has become new my reference standard. Third, it's got these "bullets" that come in black, gray, and silver to fine-tune the sound. (I am currently using the gray, or middle-soft one.) Fourth, it plugs into the wall (NOT into your Equi=Tech or other power processor). Fifth, and last, at $600.00 for one meter—which is what I have—it's actually quite affordable for a cable of this caliber. Getting power to the active shielding is a royal pain in the rear; but, at the suggestion of the store from which I purchased it (Music Lover's Audio in Berkeley, CA), I just use an ordinary brown extension cord from the hardware store. That seems to work fine.
A couple of days before it arrived, I listened to three albums on the digital music server, specifically, the 24/176.4 download of Time Out by Dave Brubeck, the 24/96 download of North by Elvis Costello, and the 24/96 download of 50 Words for Snow by Kate Bush, all from HDtracks.com. I also listened to the Linn SACD of Bach's Mass in B-Minor by the Dunedin Consort, albeit on my red-book-only Audio Note CD 3.1x/II. They all sounded great, and I was quite happy; but you know, there's always the quest for something "better." I have been fine-tuning the music server for a very long time now. I know that all my other cables are stellar. The Harmonic Technology Magic Power Cord, the Kondo Sound Labs KSL-LP analog interconnects, the Audio Note Pallas S/PDIF interconnect are all world class; however, my Cynosure v2 USB cable, good as it is, has always been a bit of a prototype that Lee Weiland sent me and I purchased from him before he passed away.
In any case, pretty much the moment it arrived, I unpacked the box, disconnected the Cynosure v2, and hooked up the Active SE USB cable. I then powered up the music server (I tend to leave it off when not in use), and queued up the 24/176.4 download of Time Out. I was immediately taken by the dynamics of the piano and drums, the overall "air" and openness of the sound, and the slightly sweet treble sparkle. Today, I played part of the 24/176.4 download of Rebecca Pidgeon's The Raven, again from HDtracks, and while I was doing that I also composed an email. To my great surprise, when one song ended, I started to get up to flip the record. Then I remembered that I was playing the music server! That's when I knew for sure I had made a step up in sound. Although I think there's too much reverb on Pidgeon's voice in "Kalerka," the resolution necessary to hear that didn't bother me in an overly defined way; in fact, I found a certain sweetness to the sound quite appealing. While I wouldn't call it tube-like, it also hardly seemed solid state.
When playing the 24/96 download of Dusty in Memphis from HDtracks, I hear much more stereo separation than I had before; but, also, more imaging and soundstaging. I can also hear the heavy reverb on her voice, which bothers me; but at least I know it is there in the recording and not an artifact of the system. I do notice, and this might be in the recording or the fact that I am using the gray rather the silver tuning bullet (the latter hypothetically sounding more open), a slight smearing of the sound; but I have to say that it really doesn't bother me nor get in the way of my enjoying the music. Listening to the Analogue Productions 45RPM double LP of the same title, I would say that the sound is more holistic and that there's less of a sense of detail (in a good way), but that I also miss some of the je ne sais quois of the music server. Having said that, if I had a Lyra Kleos or a Dynavector XV-1s on my Fat Bob S/SME V combination, I might have a very different reaction. There's only so much detail one can pull from the Dynavector 20x2, good as it is. Plus, the reissues are—I assume—mixed and mastered differently. So who knows which comes closer to the master tape? The dynamics of the LP are definitely gentler (but still quite obviously there).
So let's talk about these tuning bullets. They come in black (softest), gray (middle soft), and silver (most open sounding). My cable came with a gray one attached and a silver one in a small, neat plastic bag; I had to contact Synergistic Research to borrow a black one. I listened to the 24/96 download of Glad Rag Doll by Diana Krall (from HDtracks) using the gray tuning bullet; and it sounded great, very lush, and very analog. Then I unplugged the cable from power—because the bullets get hot—and attached the silver bullet in place of the gray one. I let it warm up for a while and put Glad Rag Doll back on. I have to say, it sounded excessively detailed to me very overly defined. Everything sounded forced and forward. I had to immediately unplug the power cable and reattach the gray tuning bullet. Then everything returned to normal and in proper proportion. I'm still waiting on a loaner black tuning bullet, so I can't comment on that yet. I do, however, need to make one thing perfectly clear: it's not my imagination. These tuning bullets really do make a difference in the sound, even on a digital cable; exactly how they do so, I have no idea.
Let me set aside a moment to discuss backups. We all know you're supposed to back up your music; I do, manually, using a program called Carbon Copy Cloner that I found in an OS X support forum. It cost around $30.00, and I run it manually every time I put some new downloads onto the Lee Weiland Memorial Mac mini. It's generally the case that music server experts recommend against Time Machine because it's just another process that can hypothetically mess up your sound. I think that's silly; and, to that extent, I put a 128GB G-Technology external solid state drive at the end of my FireWire chain and set that to be the drive I use for Time Machine to backup the applications and metadata stored on my Mac mini. And you know what? I feel better and can't hear any difference in the sound. It's probably because I use "Memory Play" in Pure Music 1.89d4 with iTunes 11.0.1 where the songs from a given album or playlist all get loaded into RAM and clocked out from there; so anything happening on the machine doesn't really make that much of a difference (within reason). It's not that I'd lose that much data. I have a 128GB SSD in my Mac mini; and, according to "Get Info", I'm only using about 14.01GB of storage including a little music from HDtracks and the B&W Society of Sound from back when I used the Mac mini to download and process albums, which I no longer do. Now I copy and process them on my 27" Quad Core iMac (modified to boot off an SSD with an external Blu-ray drive) then copy the finished files over. It's just the principle of the thing.
On another topic, I got a loaner set of four more Strange Attractors from Spiral Groove. These are the decouple type, meaning that they have Sorbothane on top of them and—in my case—no threads. Quite honestly, I wasn't sure what to do with them at first because I have other isolation methods setup for most things (sort of). Then I thought, "Well, why not put them under the corners of the Mac mini? They look cool." You know what? It makes a real difference in the sound. Perhaps it's because I have an older Mac mini that still has a SuperDrive built into it (although I rarely actually use the SuperDrive); and, of course, the SSD (Solid State Drive) has no moving parts. I'll be darned, though, if it didn't improve the imaging and soundstaging of the music server as well as the overall palpability of the sound and the deep bass definition. They are truly strange devices.
Getting back to the USB Active SE with Enigma tuning circuits cable, I put on the Linn 24/192 download of Phantasm's John Ward: Consort music for five and six viols. While I like the music, I have always had trouble with the sound of this download, something about the strings vibrating inharmoniously with respect to one another. Using the gray bullet, that couldn't be further from the truth. My Sonicweld Diverter HR (there is apparently a new, "Mk. 2" version of this device that has some improvements) in conjunction with my Berkeley Series 2 Alpha DAC (using custom-threaded Strange Attractors for feet) keeps pumping out magic. Also, the 24/192 download of Jen Chapin's reVisions: Songs of Stevie Wonder (also from HDtracks) sounds quite wonderful with the horn having exactly the right "honkiness" and nice, deep bass plus Jen's lush, rhythmic vocals. Listening to the CD rip of Ali & Toumani, upsampled in Pure Music to 24/192, there's really quite an extraordinary amount of detail but at the same time, a depth and richness to the sound that I now hear. Having said that, there's also some form of distortion (perhaps "ringing") and I think that, with the Active SE USB cable, I prefer leaving my music at its natural resolution, even if it's lowly 16/44.1.
What about that black bullet? Well, I listened to the Linn 24/88.2 download of Bach: Cantates, BWV 170 & 35 by Damien Guillon, which is a really wonderful recording with very good sound, using the gray tuning bullet (and was very happy) on the day that the black tuning bullet arrived. I was playing the B&W Society of Sound 24/48 download of Cara Dillon's Live At The Grand Opera House, a very open and spacious sounding recording. Fed Ex finally came by and fortunately, I was able to quickly unplug the power supply to the active shielding, carefully remove the very warm gray tuning bullet, insert the black one, and reconnect the power (all via that brown hardware store extension cord). I can't say I could hear that much of a difference; however, the upper midrange and treble did get a little sweeter and softer—albeit not so much as a heavily modified Audio Note DAC 5 Signature I have heard—and the strings in particular put on a rather glorious shimmer. I needed to listen more; but my initial impression is that this little "tweak" helps to integrate the music server with my all SET (Single-Ended Triode) system much better than the silver one had, which went completely in the wrong direction (for me). The guitar plucks and strums took a more natural tone and Dillon's voice sounded very much as I might imagine it having done so through my old Quad ESL-63 USA Monitors.
Returning to Cantates, BWV 170 & 35 by Damien Guillon, massed strings take on a rather sublime quality and the vocals, again, have lovely sense of bloom or blossom without being overly exaggerated. There's still plenty of air and ambience; it's just not—as I think I implied before in comparing the silver to the gray bullet—overly defined or apparent. The organ, and the space around it, sounds heavenly. While the mechanism behind the tuning bullets remains a secret, I did get a quote from Synergistic Research about active shielding in general and why they need those "walwart" transformers:
I think that about says it all.
P. S. On reflection, I find that—sometimes—I prefer the gray tuning bullet to the black one because it does sound more open and has that "just right" characteristic. This epiphany came to me after listening to some vinyl and realizing that perhaps I had taken things a bit too far in term of upper midrange attenuation with the black tuning bullet. More to come on this topic, I am sure.