Maple Audio Works Cables
Cables do indeed make a difference in a good system, often more of a difference than changing active components, and so it can indeed be worthwhile investing in better cables. Those few diehard naysayers who still insist that all cables are the same and that all cable manufacturers are snake oil peddlers are hopelessly out of touch with reality, and are missing some of the performance joys of a really good system (unless perhaps their system is so poor or their hearing so bad that real differences among cables remain unperceived to them). In truth, the many, many cable manufacturers out there are each trying very hard to come up with the best performing product they can (or a range of cable products at various price points), following the best design philosophy they know of.
But this doesn't mean that every cable sounds good. And it does not mean that you should believe everything you read from a cable manufacturer about his design philosophy and the unique benefits of his design. Oftentimes, the design philosophy and salient features of a particular cable do address some important issues, but they fail to address other important issues bearing on total performance, and thus the final cable product might perform well in those aspects addressed, but perform poorly in other aspects ignored by the design philosophy or salient features. Cable engineering involves many design tradeoffs, and so a designer must be knowledgeable about and take into account all these tradeoffs among various factors. If he has idealistically pursued only the goals he trumpets in his brochure, then it is likely that his design has failed to take other factors into account, and might perform poorly in those other factors.
Most of the many cables we evaluate fall into this category. They have one or two strong points in their performance, which might (perhaps) relate to the one or two unique design features that the brochure trumpets as advantages. In other words, the designer knows what he's talking about with respect to the one or two design features he has pursued, and has also succeeded in getting good performance in the one or two aspects related to his pursuit. However, in this vast majority of cables we've evaluated, there are almost always one or two striking weaknesses in performance, usually related to design aspects that the engineer did not pay much attention to, was not knowledgeable about, or simply didn't hear in his own product. To make a cable that performs well in all sonic aspects requires careful optimization of at least four physical cable factors: conductor material, dielectric material, conductor geometry, and dielectric geometry (including overall cable geometry). But some cables pay attention to and brag about their conductor quality, while say forgetting to pay attention to dielectric quality (or vice versa). Likewise, some other cables pay attention to and brag about conductor geometry, while forgetting to pay attention to dielectric geometry, or dielectric quality, or conductor quality.
Since we have so much listening experience hearing so many products and cables, our ear/brain is well trained to quickly spot and analyze sonic weaknesses, and even their probable physical cause. For example, we were presented with an extremely expensive and complex (multi-strand, multi-material) cable that had taken years of careful work to develop. We put on a solo guitar recording, and then stopped the CD after just one note. Even from hearing just this one guitar pluck, it was obvious that this was a very special cable. We told the designer (who was in our lab with us) that his cable had superb speed and transparency, that we were hearing information about the guitar pluck that we had never heard before on our high resolution lab system. But (we asked the designer), was it possible that the complex innards of this cable contained some Teflon as one of the many dielectrics? Yes, he said, but how did you know? Because of the artificial foreign coloration it imposed on that single guitar string pluck, we replied. If we could hear that foreign coloration on just the first musical note, we knew that we would also be hearing it, with increasingly annoyed awareness, on subsequent music listening as time went on. And thus this was a serious flaw in an otherwise wonderful cable.
The confusion that reigns in the cable marketplace arises because the vast majority of cables have some such flaw (whatever their other virtues) - and because, indeed precisely because, all cables do in fact perform differently (if they all performed indistinguishably the same, then there would not be such confusion). People comparing cables (be they consumers or reviewers) tend to get accustomed to the personality of one cable on a given system, with that one cable's strengths and flaws. When these listeners substitute a different cable, they immediately hear the differences.
But different does not automatically mean better. Listeners tend to focus their evaluative attention on the differences, in particular on the things that the new cable does better, or on the new sonic aspects that the new cable emphasizes (even if not truly for the better). For example, if the new cable has a colored tonal balance that emphasizes the midrange more than the neutral tonal balance of the old cable did (this non-neutral coloration is actually of course a flaw), you might find a reviewer waxing ecstatic about how the new cable sounds more real because the singer is suddenly right there in the room with you.
More importantly, people often don't notice the new flaws that the new cable brings. They start using the new cable in their system, and, by the time they should notice the flaws brought into their system by the new cable, it's already too late, because they have acclimated to its sound as the norm. Until they later try a third cable, which again sounds different and highlights new performance aspects. As you can see, they're on an endless treadmill which goes nowhere, chasing colorations instead of truth. They've trapped themselves like a hamster in a wheel, who goes round and round but gets nowhere in the end. Which is why confusion reigns in the cable market.
Listeners need to get off the hamster wheel. They need to learn to identify performance weaknesses, and quickly, so they can say: yes, the new cable is different, and yes it is better in aspect A, but I also hear it being worse in aspects B and C.
Which brings us to the nominal subject of this review, the cables from Maple Audio Works in Canada. We evaluated their top of the line, the so-called Natural (there are 3 models below it, the Tranquility, Ambiance, and Whisper). The Natural speaker cables and interconnects are relatively thick, stiff, and heavy, and are obviously serious design attempts. Although the Maple Works technical literature is somewhat vague, their cable design evidently incorporates some well established cable design features, such as Litz construction, different wire strand sizes, and shielding. The Natural speaker cables are split into separate cables for the positive and negative polarity, and are also said to be customized for bi-wiring applications, with the upper frequency cable being internally different from the bass cable.
Sonically, the Natural cables are anything but. The interconnect and the speaker cables have very similar sonic profiles, so we'll describe them together. Their tonal balance is violently skewed, with a striking tonal emphasis of the midranges, especially the region around 3-5 kHz. Naive listeners might be misled by this dramatic overemphasis of the upper midrange into the mistake of thinking they are hearing more "clarity" from these Maple cables than from competing, more accurate cables(particularly if they are listening through some brands of speakers which are tonally dark in this clarity region of the spectrum). But experienced listeners can easily recognize the unnatural skewing of music's natural tonal balance, plus the artificiality of the hard glare and clog accompanying this upper midrange problem (see below). The Maple Natural cables' tonal emphasis is very far from being natural or neutral. Here's an example where we could well imagine some na´ve reviewer raving about how these cables make a trumpet sound like it's right there in front of you.
The treble performance of these Maple cables is poor, sounding dull and rolled off, and psychoacoustically sounds even worse than it is, because what little treble there is gets lost in the shadow of the nearby mountain of emphasized midrange energy. Likewise, there is inadequate warmth and bass, so the cables sound lean and cold.
The Maple Naturals' sonic flaw in the midranges is not limited to a tonal balance anomaly. To make matters worse, this midrange emphasis also has a very hard quality, making the sound artificial, ugly, and fatiguing instead of musically natural. It sounds similar to a bad case of solid state glare.
And then, to make matters even worse, this glare actually clogs or blocks subtle musical inner detail, so that we actually hear less information in these midranges, not more, in spite of the fact that they are tonally emphasized by these cables. This clogging or blockage probably comes about as a consequence of the artificial hardness. What we humans perceive as hardness is often actually from an electronic device lingering too long at transient peaks, thereby emphasizing the duration of these peaks and making them sound harder than they do in real life. In an electronic device that is truly fast, transient peaks sound very fast and even delicate, since they are over with so quickly, as the device quickly heads back down the back side, toward what should be intertransient silence. But when the electronic device lingers at or near the peak, the duration of each transient peak is extended, so it sounds harder to us. And then this temporal lingering near the peak clogs or blocks the music's subtle natural timbral and textural detail that follows immediately after each transient, detail that we could hear if the device were instead quickly descending toward intertransient silence.
Some of the glare and consequent blockage we hear from these cables might be due to bad choices in materials (the cables sound as though they employed steel in the conductors). And some might be due to design mistakes. We trust that the designer for Maple Audio has lavished sincere care and attention to his cable designs, but at least in some areas he seems woefully misinformed about the way that electricity operates.
For example, we suspected that the basic topology of the speaker cable would cause a treble rolloff, just as we heard, since the separation of positive and negative cable runs would cause high self inductance (thereby negating most of the advantages sought by the Litz wire construction). But, when we queried the designer about this, he claimed that his speaker cables had very low self inductance that was not adversely increased by the separation of positive and negative runs. In truth, speaker cable inductance is primarily determined by the proximity of positive and negative conductors. Proof of this can be seen in speaker cables such as the famous Cobra cable, which went to great trouble to minimize inductance by placing the positive and negative runs in extremely close proximity, thereby obtaining excellent treble performance.
Another serious design misconception can be found in the speaker cable's shielding. The Maple Audio technical literature emphasizes shielding as the most important design feature of their cables, to prevent all kinds of external interferences. There are indeed pros (and cons) to shielding audio cables, provided it is done competently and shielding is really achieved. So we questioned the designer about the way that he implemented shielding in the speaker cables, especially in view of the fact that the positive cable run is separate from the negative run. He replied that the shield of each polarity run was tied to the source (the power amp output terminal). But in point of fact this wouldn't work at all, especially for the positive polarity run. For a shield to work, it needs to be electrically connected to a ground reference, either the chassis ground or the signal ground of the power amp. But in many power amps even the negative polarity output speaker terminal is not tied to ground (examples are bridged output amps and balanced output amps like Audio Research tube units). And the positive polarity output speaker terminal is never tied to the ground of a power amp. When the Maple positive polarity speaker cable ties its shield to the power amp's positive output terminal (which is the only point it can tie into, since it is completely separate from the negative polarity speaker cable), that so-called shield is seeing and is sitting at the same varying signal voltage as the hot conductor inside the shield, not at ground reference. So there is not true shielding action. The so-called shield itself would pick up external interference just as badly as an unshielded bare conductor out in open space would. And, because this so-called shield is tied to the power amp's positive terminal, it could feed that unwanted interference right back into the power amp's circuitry and feedback loop (and of course into your speaker as well), just as badly as an unshielded conductor would.
To make matters worse, this design might actually cause some intermodulation distortion. That's because the inside conductor is carrying current, while the outside shield is not, since it is only connected at one end. This means that there would be some signal voltage drop along the length of the inside conductor (as is normal for all cables), so that at the far end of the cable, the speaker end, the signal is at a somewhat lower voltage. But the outer conductor, the so-called shield, would not have a similar voltage drop at the far speaker end, since it is tied only at the source end. Thus, at the far speaker end of the cable (and to a lesser degree throughout the length of the cable) there would be a constantly changing signal voltage difference between the shield and the proximate inner conductor. Now, these two proximate conductors form a capacitor (actually a long distributed capacitor), and the constantly changing voltage difference between the two plates of this capacitor could create an undesirable electrostatic modulation between the two conductors, in particular a modulation of the music signal traveling along the inner conductor to your speaker.
Of the hundreds of cables on the market, there are only a very few which perform very well and do not have significant flaws. We are happy to tell you about such rare cables when we find them, and of course that provides a service to you, especially since you're faced with hundreds of products and hundreds of claims and counter-claims. There are vast hordes of cables which are pretty good in some aspects, but which then alas have significant flaws in other aspects. And then there are some cables which, perhaps despite the best intentions of the manufacturer, you deserve to be warned against.
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