Core Audio Technology
KATANA LITE POWER CABLE
KATANA POWER CABLE
KATANA 2 POWER CABLE
Dr. John Richardson
The dreaded day has finally come. I’ve been asked to do a review of power cables. I’m not saying that these devices don’t work as advertised; I’m just saying that they have never really been a priority in my system. Like many audiophiles on a budget, I’ve always felt that things like amps, sources, and speakers make a bigger difference in tailoring the overall sound of a system, so that’s where the lion’s share of the resources should go. OK, once everything else is in order maybe we’ll worry about fancy interconnects and speaker cables, but power cords? Oh, my! Jeez, when I first got started in this hobby around 25 or 30 years back, most equipment came with captive power cords. Just imagine such heresy by today’s standards. I recall some of the early pioneers in this new field of componentry, names as Kimber and Cardas, among others. Now it seems like everyone is building the damn things, many with asking prices bordering on extortion to boot! What’s a cheap bastard, um, “value conscious audiophile” like myself to do?
At some point I bought into the frenzy and picked up some “budget” audiophile power cables. And yes, I think I could hear a difference. Maybe. Around this time I also had to put up with an electrician buddy of mine who was re-wiring my house who also liked to bust my ass. He thought the idea of fancy power cables was absolute bunk. His point was illustrated with his somewhat colorful rhinoceros analogy. It went something like this: if said rhino takes a piss in the Congo river, will anyone 100 miles downstream give a crap? Would they even know? How could such an inconsequential event possibly matter in the grand scheme of things? As a chemist (but not a naughty one), my own corollary might be “dilution is the solution to pollution.” Put another way, our AC power is generated far away, has to be transferred through many miles of poorly shielded lines and through various transformers, and then when it finally enters our homes, it has to pass through narrow gauge, poor quality copper wiring to reach the outlet where we plug in. Why then should the last few feet of that complex and inelegant chain make any difference whatsoever? Hmm, maybe my buddy had a point.
I was still somewhat bothered, even in light of my friend’s logic. I really felt like I heard an improvement in sound. Better imaging, decreased noise floor, and the like. Why? I got to thinking about what a good power cord should do. I even started reading up on the subject, and what I found was that the cord has two main jobs: first, it should aid in rejecting the noisy grunge coming through our lines, and second, it should effectively shield the precious signal within from the excessive RF and magnetic field noise that we (and our gear) all bathe in every hour of the day. All of this together then aids the power supply of our amp, disc player, or whatever, from having to filter all of this stuff out by itself.
Most of us have also probably spent a lot of money on at least one power conditioner for our systems. I know I have: I’m a big fan of the Spiritual Audio VX-9 conditioner that I use on my main system. These devices serve to clean up our AC power and bring it up to certain specifications before it ever gets to our components, but did you ever wonder what happens in the last three to six feet of cabling that link our conditioners to our gear? If the cables can’t shield and protect against the spurious AC noise and internally generated magnetic fields, then we’ve wasted a lot of money on our prized power conditioners. In other words, maybe the last three to six feet are the most important, or put another way, the rhinoceros is standing right over our shoulders with his leg lifted.
Without further ado, then, allow me to introduce the subjects of this review: three audiophile power cables from Core Audio Technology. This company, headed by Ryan Mintz, is no newcomer to us here at Stereomojo, as we did a review of their modified MAC Mini music server. In that review, I made positive mention of the Katana power cable that Ryan included along with the test sample. As icing on the cake, Ryan was nice enough to send me two more power cables, namely the Katana Light ($150 usd) and the Katana 2 ($1200 usd). The original Katana that I received falls between these two in price, coming in at $300 usd. All in all, Core Audio produces five different levels of power cable, with the most expensive one (the Katana RS), presumably an all out assault on the state-of-the-art, costing an astounding $22,500 usd for a 1.5 meter run. Specific differences between these cables, which include the quality of the connectors, the gauge (and material) of the conductors, and the shielding, are well documented over at Core Audio’s website.
Along the way, Mr. Mintz was kind enough to discuss some of the technology that goes into his power cables, as well as explain his theories about what matters most in making AC cables sound good. He was quick to explain that the primary goal of his designs is to minimize both inductance and capacitance, which ultimately impede the flow of current and distort our power waveforms. He emphasized that none of his power cables are actually shielded; rather, he uses a wire braid geometry that serves to cancel out internally generated magnetic fields. Adding a shield to the cables actually adds capacitance, which of course needs to be minimized, according to Ryan.
Further, Ryan goes on to explain in his own words, “One misconception many people have about AC power is that it is "traveling" down the power lines to your house. In reality "current" is traveling, but the electrons actually stay in the same place and (without our magnetics) vibrate randomly. The magnetics serve to align the electron vibration. In reality, AC power is more accurately starting at the component and working its way back to the wall. And the noise is carried away by ground. What the AC cable's purpose then, is to improve propagation of the AC signals back and forth so that they flow unimpeded. Inductance resists changes in current, and capacitance stores energy that gets released at later times. Inductance is related to conductor spacing (hence our braid) and capacitance is related mainly to dielectric and is the opposite of conductor spacing. Both of these elements determine the slew rate of the AC lines, which in turn dictates the transient response and ringing in the power supply. Power cables make a difference on even great power supplies mainly because they alter the transient response and filter bandwidth. They also react with the LC filters many folks mistakenly install in their power supplies, which creates ringing and slows down response time.” In other words, as Ryan points out, filtering noise isn’t as important as accurate and precise current delivery to the power supply of your component.
I’ll readily admit that I didn’t want to approach this review in an especially scientific manner of listening to a playlist, exchanging one cable for another, and listing the differences I heard. I preferred in this case to look at the process more holistically, randomly using each power cord either to power my DAC or an amplifier and then living with the combination for several days (and maybe a week or two) until I felt like mixing it up another way. Collectively, the cables were used to power custom power supply modules made by YFS which in turn drove my Antelope Audio Zodiac DAC and my Sound Devices USBPre2 DAC/ audio interface; also my REDGUM RGi60 ENR integrated amp and a Job 225 stereo amplifier. Speakers used during the evaluation period were Fritzspeaks Rev 7 monitors and my vintage Spendor SP1s.
I’ll also admit that I didn’t want to drive myself crazy listening for subtle differences between cables, or for which sounded best in a given configuration, for this is the kind of stuff that can drive even the most erstwhile audio fanatic to take up the bottle. What I did want to do was get a feel for whether swapping the cables in for my stock cables made me want to listen more/longer and whether they helped me stay engaged in the listening session. Did I find myself listening more (or less) to a particular type or genre of music? Did I favor my audiophile approved recordings over my “fun” recordings, or vise versa? Was I focusing more on the music or the equipment? What about the “enjoyment factor”?
I’ll cut to the chase here at report that my overall findings using the Core Audio cables were quite positive. I enjoyed having them in my system, especially without the worry of having to really evaluate them. Maybe I just refused to do so for my own well-being and sanity. They just made me feel good, in a self-satisfied sort of way. In the perfectionist audio world, can one really ask for more? And I found myself listening to and loving most all of my recordings, so I didn’t feel that the system was stacking itself for or against a certain genre or type of music. The tunes, whatever they were, were just coming through nice and unconstricted-like!
I know you’ve put up with my stream of conscious thus far looking for some particulars. As much as it pains me to report thereon, here goes. As a family, I noticed that the Core Audio cables really did, in subtle ways that one appreciates over long periods of time, make my system sound more musical. Maybe it had to do with removing a few more vestigal but evanescent layers of audible grunge from my system. The overall effect is a bigger, bolder sound that seems to leap more effortlessly from the speakers. I also noticed the advantages of increased soundstage depth and width (as I had noted above) and seemingly greater timbral accuracy- instruments sounded more like the real thing, presented in a more relaxed and realistic way. Again, let me emphasize that these improvements weren’t of the “slap you in the face” variety, but rather something that washes subtly over the listener and is best appreciated over time. We’re not talking about the “wow” factor of changing out one amp for another or swapping in a new pair of speakers.
Given the constraints of my system, I’m not going to delude you into thinking that one cable was noticeably better than another. Again, what I heard was a family sound- a certain set of characteristics offered by all of the cables. Perhaps the more sophisticated and overbuilt Katana 2 outperformed the Katana Light in certain instances, but I’d be misleading you if I said that it did for sure, all of the time. My feelings here are that those with more expensive and resolving systems than mine will more likely glean the benefits of the more expensive cables. It seemed almost funny to me that I was running the Job 225, a $1700 amp (and a darrned fine one at that...) with the $1200 Katana 2 power cable. The combo did sound awfully good, though.
Of the three, did a particular cable stand out as a really good value from a Stereo for Cheap Bastards point of view? I’d have to say that my favorite of the bunch was the diminutive Katana Light, which is just a scaled down version of the stock Katana. This cable offers more or less the same design as its bigger sibling, but in a more budget friendly package. For instance, it offers sturdy, but more ordinary plastic connectors instead of the fancy aluminum ones found on the Katana and the Katana 2. It uses thinner gauge conductor, and it sports a simple cotton sheathing. Altogether it’s an attractive and hard-hitting package for the asking price of $150 usd. I’d recommend it most heartily for source components such as DACs, as well as for smaller amplifiers that don’t demand as much current from the source. It sounded luscious with my REDGUM RGi60 ENR integrated, with puts out somewhere around 100 watts per channel. I’d be a bit more leery of using the Light with a current hungry amp such as my Threshold SA/3.9e, which would probably benefit more from either the Katana or the Katana 2.
Please don’t get the impression that I’m dissing the more exotic Katana 2 here. It strikes me as an excellent cable sporting a great deal of interesting and well-thought out technology- heck, its three separate runs are individually shielded and clad and then woven together, making the whole affair look like a three-way snake love fest. It also sports what appear to be big magnets on either end, presumably to aid in aligning electron vibrations. Oh, and those gorgeous aluminum connectors are seriously overbuilt and robust. Really a nice cable, and one I totally enjoyed using. However, it’s probably (at least in terms of cost) the equivalent of casting pearls before swine in my system, though the added technological insurance certainly can’t hurt. If you have a lot of money already invested in your system and are looking to get the best possible performance out of it, I’d say give the Katana 2 a try.
As for me, I’m really finding I’m a Katana Light kind of guy (read: Cheap Bastard) . As Core Audio Technology states in its own advertising, this cable goes head to head with competing cables costing 10 times as much. That’s $1500 smackers, folks. I’m not spending that kind of dough on a power cord, at least not with my present system, but advertising hyperbole aside, we at least get a hint of how good this cable is for the money.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed my journey with this family of power cables from Core Audio Technology. In the end, my final evaluation of any component that I review comes down to it falling into one of three categories: (1) I’ll miss it when it leaves the system, (2) I’m ambivalent about it leaving the system, or (3) good riddance, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I’d comfortably say that these cables fall into category 1. I’m going to be sorry to see them go, as they have contributed to my long term enjoyment of my audio system. However, on a happier note, I think I’m going to purchase the review sample of the Katana Light, and maybe even fill in a few gaps in my system by picking up a few more of these gems along the way.
I’ve always been something of a pessimist when it comes to power cords. I guess I always will be. Even so, I have to admit that they do make a difference; such revelations come easy when listening to cables such as those from Core Audio Design which deliver the goods based on sound science and technology. While I got excellent results from all three cords reviewed, I was especially enamored with the Katana Light, which represents an excellent bargain and great all-around power cable for most of us who live and work in the real world of audio. Take a listen, especially all you cheap bastards out there!
Publisher's note: As usual, Dr. Richardson has done an excellent job of reviewing. He makes the point that matching cables, whether power cables or any other type of cable, to your system is very important. I know there are those that think power cables make little if any difference. They are wrong. We've even done a small shoot out of USB cables where multiple reviewers heard much the same significant differences in the ways they sounded. USB cables! That even surprised me.
Linda and I like to do little blind challenges where we will listen to several reference cuts on our main reference system (in total darkness). Then Linda goes into another room while I make a change in the system. Sometimes it's an amplifier, preamp, source and yes, even cables. Sometimes even just ONE cable (or one pair). Linda returns and we play the same cuts again with her not knowing whether the change was an amp, speaker, source or anything else. In all these years, Linda has never failed to hear the differences, whether positive or negative, in the system. Except for one time. But that was, as a test, I made no changes at all. After much cogitation, she ended up apologizing and confessed she heard no difference. Other times she had no problem describing the difference which was just what I had heard. I've had audiophile friends over and done the same thing with the same results.
The point is, cables can and do make a difference, but sticking in an expensive cable that is priced more than your system does not guarantee your system will sound better. In fact, it could sound worse! That's because a very revealing cable might just reveal flaws in your system that you never knew were there. As always, your ears are the final arbiter. Just know that cables are important and you should listen to a few before you decide. A cable that sounds great in the show room or in a friend's system may sound like crap in yours. The difference in impedance alone could be the culprit.
Also as always, just because a cable costs more doesn't mean it is going to sound better in your system.
And yes, new cables do need time to break in. I just thought I would toss that in for free.
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