Sunday, September 29, 2013

Clarus RCA Cable Review - Crimson and Aqua

Clarus Sound of Orlando, FL, is the high-end daughter company of Tributaries® Cable. The Clarus line of cables is assembled in the USA using ultra-quality foreign and domestic parts.  In this first of a series of evaluations, I will review the 1-meter Clarus Crimson RCA interconnect cable, Part Number CCA-010 (MSRP of about $1,000) and the 1-meter Clarus Aqua RCA interconnect cable, Part Number CAA-010 (MSRP of about $500). These cables were allowed to “burn in” to the manufacturer’s suggested play time of at least 120 hours before final evaluation.

The Clarus cables come in a highly attractive box with handsome gold-plated connectors with a unique tooling on the outer ground contact. While the inner contact is a traditional single slotted tip, the outer contact sports six slots that are then drilled at the base making each slot appear in the shape of a tiny old-style mercury-bulb thermometer. According to the manufacturer, this hole permits the edges of the contact to compress independently thereby more uniformly contacting the surface of the mating RCA plug. Both the Crimson (red jacket coloration) and the Aqua (blue jacket coloration) cables feature this same connector.

The audio evaluation system consists of an OPPO BDP-105 Bluray player (firmware version 58-0719) directly connected to a highly-modified McIntosh MC2100 power amplifier via a 1-meter cable.  Both electronic devices are connected directly to a modified PowerVar ABC1200-11 Line Conditioner (ground loops removed, all terminal lugs soldered). The speakers are a pair of highly modified Bozak B-302A speakers bi-wired to the McIntosh amp via my own hand-made 3.5-meter Litz speaker wires.

All evaluations were done in the evening after the sun had set for at least one hour, all window shades drawn, and all furniture in exactly the same position. Everything that could have influenced change from external and environmental sources was eliminated so that “apples were consistently compared to apples.”


I had a home in Confer, CO, located about 7 miles from the main highway and built on the side of a 10,000 foot mountaintop. The design of this home began around a listening chair and then the listening room was designed around that chair.  The house was then designed around that listening room and I incorporated many additional features into the house design that complimented a solidly constructed room. Few if any compromises were made in its wiring, foundation, wall coverings, insulation, door layout, and dimensions so that optimum listening would be provided. The room sounded pretty darned good.

In the pursuit of the ultimate high-end grail, it became clear that the signal source was the limiting factor in the playback chain.  The “delayed-reality” I sought (the feeling of “being there” at the actual recorded performance) just was not possible to achieve from even the best vinyl and analog playback systems, so I started to do my own live recordings.  Dragging my modest gear to concert halls, churches, and auditoriums, I captured some outstanding performances and used these master tapes as my “reference” signal sources.

During this series of incremental improvements to the playback system using these live recordings to help it climb up the next rung on the audio-quality ladder, it was clear that commercial cables in this era fell abysmally short. Many, many were tried, none of which could reveal the total dimensionality the obtained from these live recordings. Most cables sounded narrow, flat, and short creating a severely squashed sound stage. Others were compressed or favored one particular instrument or frequency band. Still others were noisy or grainy or somehow time-smeared destroying coherency or image stability in the 3-D soundstage space. Nothing commercially available revealed the depth and clarity the reference tapes preserved and what I believed the playback system was indeed capable of reproducing.  So I applied what I knew about cable design and built my own interconnects with the best available commercial components.

After attempting many of my own interconnect cable designs, the one that revealed the ambience and energy of the live recordings was a hand-made polarized Litz RCA cable using OFHC #26 conductors in an a star-quad configuration shielded with a heavy OFHC copper braid. Connectors on the ends of these cables are recycled from an old pairs of Monster Cables. A picture of one of these cables is shown below.

My Own Design RCA Interconnect Cable

These cables have held up sonically over the years and provide a uniform, smooth, time-coherent, and faithful reproduction of all signal sources I have ever connected to my system. But as it is with all technologies, evolution is inevitable and even the best designs change. For example, the OFHC copper wire used in these cables was the best option available for their time but today the OPOCC technology has trumped this somewhat dated OFHC technology.


I am a person who is interested in results rather than sales or marketing hype. Statistics, while useful in eliminating some mediocre gear, do not tell the entire story and I rely a lot on my own subjective evaluations accompanied whenever possible with my own measurements. There is nothing that compares to hearing or seeing something change and being able to substantiate it with real data. However, such subjective observations cannot always be objectively confirmed and reviewers rely on etheric words with inconsistent meanings. I attempt to capture details about the performance of a particular piece of gear by using as much objective data as I can provide.

In other words, while I prefer measuring how something changes I do not always have the resources to measure what I hear. In this case, I defer to my subjective opinion and try to reference my subjective wording with specific examples so you can relate to what my terminology means. Hopefully from this approach you can judge for yourself if you wish to consider this reviewed piece of gear as a viable option to your own system.

I also prefer not to read what other reviewers say about something prior to my own evaluation.  I believe this biases my opinion and I try to remain as neutral about something as I can. Even comments from friends about things can influence how I (or you) react to something. For example, when I record a football game and someone tells me what the final score is before I watch the game, it takes the wonder and joy out of viewing just like it does when you know the ending to a book or movie. It changes my (your) personal opinion and this effect is what I try to eliminate in my reviews.

Unlike most reviews, I will tell you about the COMPromises I hear first to get them out of the way. Nothing is perfect and knowing this everything falls short of that. So knowing how something misses the target (one possible definition for the word “sin”), you can interpret from my subjective words how this compromise may impact your system. I call these compromises “COMPs” where in fact they can also be viewed as ways to tame other aspects of your playback chain. For example, if I say that a component sounds “lively” as a COMP and your system sounds dull, using this characteristic may restore balance to an otherwise lifeless performance on your system. And if I say that a component sounds “thin” as a COMP and your system sounds bloated, again using this thin component may restore an otherwise edgy balance to your system. I believe you will get the hang of this as time goes on and I will attempt to be consistent in my use of terms and words.

Aqua COMPs:

The Clarus Aqua cables take about 20 hours to burn in. Recommended burn in by the manufacturer is 120 hours and I believe that to be an overly conservative figure. These cables initially sound spectacular with a huge left-to-right sound stage and a lot of high-frequency inner detailing.  But deep front-to-back sound stage - while very good - was not as deep as my reference cables nor as deep as the Clarus Crimson cables.

After more critical listening, the lower midrange and upper bass regions were a bit muted leaving one hoping to hear more. For example, instruments that should have a beautifully resonant hollow sound were less full than my reference cables and although sounding very good they were just not spectacular. This minor deficiency drew attention to everything above the bass region and created a mild sense of elevated overall presence with a persistent feeling that something was missing.

Deep bass was very good also but still a bit thin. The solid feel one anticipates in a tympani crescendo is there but the punch one expects to hear is muted and the overall effect is one of lower dynamics. The resulting excitement one anticipates in the performance is lost and the magic of the high-end is compromised. For example, the Turtle Records’ SACD recording of the band Jungle Boldie (Track 1 “Dancing the Waves”) has a wonderful performance of a bass clarinet. Low notes linger in the air revealing the mellow character of this large and unique instrument. While yielding superb midrange and higher-frequency clarity, these cables to not convey that lush woodwind or “round” sound associated with deep body resonances.

 A Bass Clarinet

Lastly, the high sibilance region is slightly exaggerated with these cables. With the bass region being soft, focus is lifted to the upper frequencies and unfortunately this characteristic becomes obvious. For this reason, vocals are clear but a little unnatural sounding. The difference is a little like how an improperly equalized horn-based sound reinforcement system makes vocals sound rather than a properly positioned high quality planar speaker.

Crimson COMPs:

Recommended burn in by the manufacturer is 120 hours and I believe that to be a high estimate. The sound settled down after about 40 hours of listening. During this break-in period, the front-to-back depth, while considerably better than most cables, was neither as good as my reference cables nor as good as the Clarus Aqua cables. Initially the sound stage was deep, tall, and wide with adequate time they finally removed this shortcoming.

The only COMP worth remembering for the Crimson cables is a slight feeling of slowness or compression in the top octave. This impacts inner detailing of percussion instruments and fingering on guitars and other strings. Drum cymbals are lush and mellow but there is a sharpness missing in the inner tap that translates to a soft knock rather than a sharp tink. A great track to hear this effect is Turtle Records’ SACD recording of the band Jungle Boldie. Track 1 “Dancing the Waves” is an energetic performance of a bass clarinet, double bass, and drums where all instruments are very nicely balanced providing enough quiet time between bars to appreciate the resonances of these well played instruments. The cymbals, while yielding a superb luster and sheen, do not have that subtle top-octave sparkle that whisking brushes should reveal.

Aqua PROs

These are some pretty sweet cables. With a slight lean to the bass-deficient side, these cables really bring out the left-right size of your sound stage possibly making it larger than you thought it could ever be. They have a WOW factor that few cables provide. Listening to dynamic music, these cables do not collapse under intense and complicated pieces not breaking down in their imaging stability. For example, the 1996 Cirque du Soliel performance of Taiko by Asano (Mistere – Live at Las Vegas, track 12, Catalog #20009), there are over a dozen drums of various sizes arched around the stage and on various vertical platforms. The position of these drums remains solid regardless of how many of them are played. Good cables retain this ability to maintain image focus under changing volume levels and the varying numbers of instruments. And when the echoes fade off into the distance, these cables capture these subtleties and their acoustic stability remains in a psychoacoustic illusion down to the level of the noise floor.

Crimson PROs

These are some pretty dad-gummed amazing cables. With a slight lean to the soft side in the lower midrange, these cables really bring out the character in the upper midrange. Vocals are an absolute delight. For example, one of my favorites to test the capabilities of accurately reproducing vocals and midrange details is track 8 Lonestar on the Norah Jones’ album “Come Away With Me.” Most interconnects slur these words making it difficult to discern the nuances in Norah’s quiet and angelically soft voice but these cables do none of that.  Words with the Clarus cables are succinct with a total lack of ringing, glare, or edginess.

As mentioned in the COMPs, the attack and decay of these cables is very good to excellent above the bass region.  Rise and fall times of percussion instruments are smooth and lifelike revealing low-level resonances normally lost in the noise floor. They have a very neutral sound with only a slight deviation in balance from top-to-bottom in the lower bass region. For example, as a bass-guitar lick slides down the scales (e.g., Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms, track 9 Brothers in Arms) you notice a slightly non-uniform output in this region but deep bass is not an issue. Here thunderous explosions are handled with ease and delicacy adding no coloration to the sound whatsoever.

There is a minor de-emphasis in the lower midrange that brings attention to regions just above and below it. For example, the Marieanne Thorsen’s performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto #4 in D Major (2L SACD #2L038SACD) brings your acoustic attention to the bridge of the 1856 G.F. Pressenda violin used in this performance and its influence on the body rather than basking in its beautiful timber and resonance. Although the engineering techniques used this recording integrated her into the orchestra as opposed to a distinctive front-center stage soloist position, the presence and emption of her delivery is easily understood.

The ability of these cables to extract extreme width from the sound stage is where these cables really shine. In the Alex Degrassi DSD performance of The Water Garden (Blue Coast records “Special Event 19”), the sound stage is very wide and deep bringing life to the performance unachievable with my old reference hand-made cables but the midrange is again – while very detailed – a bit more laid back. Where my old reference cables could resolve a width to about a foot to the left and right of the speaker centers, the Clarus trounced this by expanding the width of the sound stage to well beyond three feet in either direction.


After initial listening, it was time to see if what I heard could be correlated to real time analysis measurements. I like using RTA measurements to confirm my impressions because they reveal the effects of all impacts on the total transfer function of the whole system. In other words, accurate RTA measurements in real-life situations reveal those added or subtracted sonic subtleties resulting from changing out a single component. Saying it another way, seeing what components measure should show evidence about a perceived change. Let’s see what happened.
Below are the superimposed RTA measurements of two cables taken from my usual sweet spot. In the first graph, the GREEN dots are my old hand-made reference cables, the lighter BLUE dots are the Clarus Aqua cables, and the darker AQUA dots are where the two cables measured identical. Both blue and green measurements were made within 1 minute of each other with the RTA mounted on a stationary tripod using exactly the same output level of the OPPO (+60). Adjacent dots (one dot above or below another) are about 1dB different in relative sound pressure level.

From this chart, the relative differences between cables can be observed. The differences between these two colors are hard to see and I apologize for that, but I wanted to color code the name of the cable to the color used in the graph so you could tell by its color which was which. Notice in the region under 400Hz where the Aqua cables are a little softer than the reference cables as noted in my subjective evaluation.

In the second graph, the GREEN dots are my old hand-made reference cables, the RED dots are the Clarus Crimson cables, and the YELLOW dots are where the two cables measured identical. Both red and green measurements were made within 1 minute of each other with the RTA mounted on a stationary tripod using exactly the same output level of the OPPO (+60). Adjacent dots (one dot above or below another) are about 1dB different in relative sound pressure level.

If these two cables were identical, then almost all of the dots should be yellow; but as you can see, they are not. In fact there are only about 21 places where these two cables measure identical. Note that color enhancement was used to make it easier to see the color differences on a computer screen and the red had to be enhanced more than the green (this is why the red dots appear slightly blurred and the green dots more distinct).

The region under about 40Hz is essentially identical as it is in the 3KHz-5KHz region. However, elsewhere there are measured differences, most of which are 1-2dB meaning it would be hard for most people to hear these minute differences. But some of which are 6dB meaning they may be audible to some – if not many. The region between 1kHz-3KHz is the place where most differences are probably audible as at points about 5KHz and 14KHz. This means that the vocal region should sound different where fundamental frequencies in voices in the Clarus Crimson cables should sound more muted and the reference cables should sound a bit louder. Conversely, the harmonics of the voice region should sound louder in the Clarus Crimson and muted in the reference. And the Clarus Crimson cables should have better ambience (the 14KHz extension) and should more greatly emphasize sibilance at 5KHz.

Below is a graph of the difference between the Clarus Aqua and the Clarus Crimson.

Here you can see the differences measured between the two Clarus cables alone. Notice that they appear very similar in the region below about 100Hz and above 6KHz (especially consistent above 6KHz) but in between that things really begin to change.

And one last graph that came out dim because of three overlays was how all three cables compared in one graph.

From the last chart, the relative differences between all three cables can be observed. While the deviations are small, the audible effect is quite large. At a recent meeting of the Suncoast Audiophile Society, 20 members listened to these cables and the subjective results of their reactions were quite similar to mine.

Although the accuracy of these measurements may not be absolute, the relative differences are. That is, the sound pressure measured at 16KHz is shown as 35dB and may in fact be higher than that. However, the -1dB or -2dB differences will remain the same. And although measurements will change with time (called the Standard Deviation), these measurements attempt to show you how measurements coincide with subjective conclusions. Note that all three cables measured very similar implying a reasonable amount of consistency between all three measurements.


While some persist in believing that wire is wire, let those folks be happy with what they believe. For those of you who want more, try changing your interconnect cables. If you have spent thousands on your amplifier, preamplifier, and CD player it only makes sense to match quality components with quality interconnects. Moving up the interconnect ladder to the right cable for your system can yield countless hours of enjoyment for a relatively small investment and keep you from tearing your hair out when trying to tame that last little anomaly in your system.

Swapping interconnect cables is a quick and easy way to improve the audio quality of your system. With the right combination, you can tame or enhance the balance of your system with their inherent characteristics. For example, if your system is overbearingly bass heavy, you may want to give the Clarus Aqua a try since they will help settle down these unnatural low-frequency characteristics.  If you need a quieter cable, either of these cables will do a great job. If you are using budget interconnects in your high-end system, the Clarus Crimson cables will really surprise you and show you what you have been missing.

I was thrilled to hear the size of the psycho-acoustic illusion (i.e., the sound stage) enhanced with either of the Clarus Crimson cables since my preference in distinguishing between really good and mediocre cables is in their ability to do just this. I can tolerate a lot of minor issues in high-end gear but when something shrinks the size of my sound stage I immediately react negatively toward that component. Both Clarus cables do not do this and is therefore they both are top-shelf cables. Their ability to bring not only excellent sonic accuracy but also a larger listening environment into your listening room makes them score exceptionally high points in my book.

Ranking which cable of the three I prefer listening to in my system tells a lot about how I viewed each of their overall performance. The cable I listened to most is the Clarus Crimson since it revealed more information than either of the other two cables. The Crimson is very easy to get used to and gave me hours of immensely pleasurable, unstrained, natural-sounding entertainment. Next I would listen to my hand-made reference cables since they reproduced much of the same clarity as the Crimsons but with the compromise of a smaller sound stage. Last, I would listen to the Aqua cables to recreate hall ambience and deep-corner sound stage character. Despite their thin bass this is a stellar feature.

Both Clarus RCA cables deserve serious consideration in your system. Will either of the Clarus cables yield the same results in your system as they did in mine? That is the million dollar question since there are many factors in amplifier and preamplifier design that impact this answer. One thing is certain: you can use cables to tweak nuances and make your system sound the way you prefer thereby adjusting its sonic signature. Using the right cable to boost this or cut that can help you create a sonically accurate and superior sound stage. While changing speakers makes the biggest difference in the sound of your system, changing cables can help you fine tune the entire system and tame it to your liking.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.

My other titles include:

·  Extreme Audio 1: House Wiring ·  Build an Extreme Green Hot Water Solar Collector
·  Extreme Audio 2: Line Filtering ·  The Extreme Green Guide to Wind Turbines
·  Extreme Audio 3: Chassis Leakage ·  The Extreme Green Guide to Solar Electricity
·  Extreme Audio 4: Interconnect Cables ·  Meditation for Geeks (and other left-brained people)
·  Extreme Audio 5: Speaker Wires ·  Althea: A Story of Love
·  Extreme Green Guide to Improving Mileage ·  Build an Extreme Green Raised Bed Garden
·  Extreme Green Organic Gardening ·  Build an Extreme Green Rain Barrel
·  Extreme Green Organic Gardening 2012 ·  Build an Extreme Green Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder
·  Build an Extreme Green Composter ·  Extreme Green Appliance Buying Guide

Copyright © 2015 by Philip Rastocny. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 13, 2013

My Journey into Streaming Audio

I am a child of the vinyl era transitioning from tubes to transistors to cassette tapes to digital. Source material has always been a two edged sword where one type offers convenience (e.g. CDs) while another type offers quality (e.g., virgin-pressed vinyl). But along the way, the convenience of digital music for everyday or background listening has become more prevalent for me and I thought it would be interesting to relate the journey to those just getting started into high-end streaming. Hopefully, the lessons I’ve learned can help you not to repeat them.

As mentioned, my love for music began with tubes and vinyl consisting of a Sansui integrated amp, an Acoustic Research AR-XA turntable, and a Shure V-15 Type III cartridge. While this playback system "worked," I was not truly happy with the realism and abandoned the low-budget electronics in attempts to find a higher quality experience. A reel-to-reel appeared one day and I did a few unsuccessful attempts at live recordings so I fell back on vinyl as my reference signal source.

Tolerating its limitations, I amassed a large collection of albums and found that recording quality varied greatly from one label to another. Studio recordings sounded - in general - uninteresting with fake echoes and a production lean to sensationalism emphasizing one part of the audio band or another, favoring one instrument over another, or just creating chaos in blending all of the instruments in a band together. Vocals took a back seat to instruments and sounds became more meaningful than thoughts. It seemed that although it was the medium of choice, it was also filled with junk.

In 1983, Sony and North-American Philips introduced the first digital playback systems and called them CD players. For the first time, pops, ticks, and surface hiss was absent from the source material and I was intrigued by its potential attracted mainly by its technology. Buying a Magnavox player and a few CDs, hacking into its electronics to coax more sound out of an apparently compromised playback system, I soon found my hopes for this medium dashed upon the digital rocks. The screeching and annoying ringing made the music sound unbearable and I became quickly intolerant of “digital” sound preferring the magic of analog in comparison. Abandoning the digital media in its entirety, I waited for it to come of age believing that like cassette tapes it would take about 20 years for engineers to produce something worth listening to.

As the handwriting on the wall foretold, it didn't take 20 years for this to happen, it took more like 30. Only within the past decade has digital music begun to sound like the vinyl albums they promised to replace so long ago. After auditioning a serious investment in a streaming media system at a friend’s home, the hint that digital music had finally come of age was confirmed and my hopes for this media as a reference source was again rekindled. Although not the equal of the best analog, the digital medium has made huge strides in understanding many things about how to properly preserve a performance.

Preferring not to invest as much as my digitally-hooked friend, I started with a Pioneer Elite 300-disk carousel to house my growing CD library. While it "worked," it kept me listening to the initial 16/44 standard and the unit itself was really clunky. On occasion, it would "forget" everything I programmed into it, a truly frustrating feature for a “perfect” reproduction system.

My next step was a Western Digital TV Live streamer and a Buffalo 0.5TB RAID-1 NAS. Using a Windows ripper, I saved my CD library in a lightly compressed format and streamed it with the WD unit. At the mercy of the built-in DACs, this system provided good background listening and a few steps up from elevator music and i-toys rampant in the audio realm at the time. With this system I also streamed Pandora and, well, I got the streaming bug.

After hearing another friend’s OPPO BDP-95, I realized that streaming was not the only reason to listen to digital music and also that it had potential as more than background noise. I presently own an OPPO BDP-105 that streams from a USB 1.0TB drive on which is replicated my audio library from my Seagate Black Armor backup NAS. This system is “decent” in that the Sabre-32 Reference DACs sound pretty good even when the music gets dynamic and complicated. The toroidal transformer provides adequate power to the system components without collapsing too terribly. I just wish the analog output board was better designed as to eliminate the embedded ground loops. 

One word of caution I have discovered in networking streaming systems: all DLNA is not created equal. The Seagate uses a mini-DLNA version and the OPPO software cannot yet talk to it directly so I advise getting a NAS with known compatibility to whatever your streamer of choice is.  On occasion, I'll pop in one of my old live master tape recordings to remind myself of the value really good source material makes when evaluating any kind of playback system.

Streaming is a really convenient way to listen to audio and keeps me from getting up and spinning vinyl for everyday convenience. The DACs in the OPPO do a decent job and my wife appreciates the fact that the component count in the system is low and easy to use. While I still prefer spinning vinyl as my reference source, the new high-res audio formats are slowly creeping up to what really good vinyl playback systems offer with none of the hassles of analog.

There is another caveat needed here beyond the normal one about wasting your money on snake oil: Each step you take in climbing the audio-perfection ladder reduces the number of recordings of which you prefer to listen. After reaching a certain crest in quality, most recordings sound ho-hum and the value you once placed on them quickly disappears. You "favorites" library shrinks to a precious few and searching for more of those magical moments in recording engineering becomes one of your primary quests in supporting your audiophile addiction.

Sometimes I think that the boneheads who believe that MP3s are the bomb are in fact correct in this way: the less you know, the happier you are. After regaining my digitally-swayed sanity, I still reach for those master tapes or a really good high-res analog or digital recording, sit back, and just listen to the magic...the music.  After all, that’s what it’s all about, right?

In summary, high-end digital audio has come a long way from the first 16-bit DACs and the glaring overbearing noise they created. Things are starting to sound like music and if I were to give it a rating the reference being a well-engineered analog master tape, vinyl is about 75% as good and digital a close 60%. In 1983, these figures were 60% and -20% respectively. While SOTA analog is still ahead of SOTA digital, the gap is narrowing and with DSD and other high-resolution playback media becoming available, I see the gap closing far more quickly than in the previous 30 years. Who knows, maybe it will only take another 5 years or so for digital to surpass analog – unless another analog breakthrough occurs.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.

My other titles include:

Copyright © 2015 by Philip Rastocny. All rights reserved.