September 15, 2006
Shunyata Research Taipan Helix Alpha Power Cord
About a year ago, I made myself a promise. I looked myself in the bathroom mirror and swore up and down that Id never review another cable. I even went so far as to tell Marc Mickelson (in writing) that if I ever again expressed an interest in pursuing a cable review, he should totally ignore me. If we were in the same room, I continued, he should cuff me a dry one across the ear.
I swore off reviewing cables not because of any doubt about their efficacy, or because of any inability to hear that they can, in fact, make subtle but very noticeable and important differences. Thats not it at all. I swore off because I am, at my core, lazy.
If theres a way to avoid excess work, Ill take it. Though not to the extreme -- I wont let suffer the quality of the work I actually produce. Instead, my laziness manifests itself, where possible, in choosing work thats easier rather than more difficult. And cable reviews are so much work. Theyre hard work, too, for reasons Ill get into shortly.
So imagine my surprise, and Marcs concern, when I found myself setting in motion a review of Shunyata Researchs Taipan Alpha Helix power cord.
March 2006 had found me in Poulsbo, Washington, for Shunyata Researchs open house, at which they unveiled their new listening room, replete with equipment that was the highest of the high end. During my visit, Caelin Gabriel, Shunyatas head power guy, performed some very convincing demonstrations that showed just how audible power-supply components can be. I came away with an irresistible urge to try for myself, in my own system, some of Shunyatas products.
If you dont want to read the full account of my tour of the Shunyata factory, heres the executive summary: These guys dont just pull wire off a spool and jam it into a pretty sheath. The assembly of the Helix braid alone is a freakish act of savant complexity that can be performed only by hand. Every possible design parameter is incessantly tweaked by Caelin Gabriel and his design team, right down to the amount of torque needed to tighten the connectors. No matter what your views on cables in general and power cords in particular, a Shunyata factory tour will convince you that their power cords are worth the retail price, if only for the labor and R&D that go into them.
So, after some significant cross-border hijinks involving tariffs and taxes, I eventually received enough Shunyata Research Taipan Helix Alpha power cords to run my entire system, and a Hydra Model-6 conditioner into which to plug the whole shebang.
The Taipan Alpha ($695 USD) is a chunky, 1"-thick sausage of a cord that sits at the entry point of Shunyata Researchs Helix line. While its very flexible -- a godsend when youre trying to maneuver behind a heavily spiked equipment rack -- its still solid and sturdy enough to inspire confidence. The silky outer sheath and tightly integrated heat shrink spell high-end quality even before the cord is plugged in. Inside, the Taipan employs five conductors, hand-braided in Shunyatas patented counter-rotating Helix geometry. Each conductor crosses its neighbor at close to 90 degrees, which, according to Shunyata, results in exceptional reduction of AC reactance and rejection of EMI and RFI.
The conductors are of CDA-101 copper, which Shunyata emphatically states is the purest, highest grade available. The five conductors combine to an aggregate of 10-gauge. The AC and IEC connectors are Shunyatas proprietary Venom model, thickly plated with silver and treated in the companys own cryogenic facility.
Snakes in a system
I relied on the system-matching talents of Shunyata Researchs Grant Samuelsen and Matt OReilly to determine the mix of Shunyata products that would be appropriate for my stereo. My strong analog bias precluded the need for Shunyatas patented FeSi-1000 noise-reduction compound. FeSi-1000 is used in their VX series power cords, which are designed specifically for use with digital gear; my lonely-looking little Benchmark DAC1, which sees only occasional use, didnt really warrant the added expense of a VX cord.
To evaluate the Taipan Alphas I used my core system, comprising a Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp, Anthem Statement P2 power amp, Ayre P-5xe phono stage, and Hales Transcendence Five loudspeakers. The sources were the aforementioned Benchmark DAC1, fed by a Toshiba SD-3750 DVD player, and my Pro-Ject RPM 9 turntable with Shelter 501 Mk.II cartridge. Special guest stars were the new Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable (review in the works) and the delightful Song Audio SA-1 preamplifier.
Other wires consisted of Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables, Acoustic Zen Matrix (single-ended) or Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Ovals (balanced) interconnects, and Cardas Hexlink 5 power cords (which the Taipan Alphas replaced). All listening tests were conducted with the Taipans running through my Chang Lightspeed 6400ISO power conditioner.
An auspicious beginning
Due to an extended game of System Musical Chairs over the past few months, culminating in the room-filling infrastructure required to support the fully-active WLM Gran Viola Signature speakers, it took me longer than usual to get down to determining exactly what the Shunyata Taipan Alphas were bringing to Chateau Thorpe.
I got an initial suspicion that the Taipans were pulling their weight when, on a whim, I replaced the 5 Cardas Hexlink cord that was feeding my Anthem P2 Statement, one channel of which I was using to drive the obscenely good WLM Duo18 subwoofer. The swap netted subtle but important increases in bass quality. Not bass quantity -- the WLM sub consistently discharged the deepest, tightest bass with which Ive ever been assaulted. No, the benefits from this simple cord swap centered around the apparent sizes and outlines in space of bass instruments and the materials of which they were composed. Ray Browns Soular Energy [LP, Pure Audiophile PA-002] contains some of the richest, most prominent bass Ive ever heard from a jazz album, but it can sound a bit overblown through a system that cant unearth the wood beneath the notes. The addition of one Taipan brought forth a subtle improvement in the absolute size and position of Browns 10-wide double bass, the instrument becoming less disembodied, more corporeal.
Impressed with this change, I waded into full Shunyata cableage after Jody Hickson of Globe Audio forcibly removed the WLMs and my wife had coaxed me out of the resultant deep despair in which I found myself mired. After my sobs had subsided and Id wiped my eyes, I reacquainted myself with my Hales Transcendence Fives and my own electronic components for a short spell, then began hooking up the rest of the Taipans. After plugging in each cord, I sat back and listened to a few songs before plugging in the next.
When Id finally inserted all of the Taipans, I remembered why Id sworn off this particular vice. Everything sounded exactly the same, only better. The changes were immediately apparent yet difficult to describe. This is when the hard work began.
Its my opinion that the subtle sonic improvements imparted by good power cords are a large part of the reason for the deep schism between cable believers and cable doubters. Among other traits, the full Shunyata treatment effected a reduction in noise, a resultant increase in dynamics, and a general increase in space around instruments. These changes arent easily quantifiable and dont generally sit well with those predisposed to statistics. You cant measure a good mood, nor can you bottle a soundstage.
Right now Im listening to the Cowboy Junkies Pale Sun, Crescent Moon [CD, RCA 66344-2], the most underrated album by this chronically underrated Canadian band. "Pale Sun" begins with distant atmospheric guitar feedback followed by a big-ass drum whack, and then, right out of nowhere, comes Margo Timmins rich, evocative voice: "15 miles from Dakota territory / Cheyenne scalps hang from his belt." Although its sound quality is nothing to write home about, this album has always enchanted me, and the addition of the Taipans to the system inspired new enthusiasm from me by adding a dollop of atmospheric realism to the obviously faked yet oh-so-satisfying studio acoustic. Timmins voice has a velvety texture that manages to retain an earthy grit, and the Taipans added a physical sense of that voice emanating from an actual female head. Her voice was suddenly rounded, more three-dimensional, her lips opening and projecting words with a sensual, holographic realism.
The more I listen to Beth Ortons Central Reservation [LP, Arista/Classic RTH 2011], the more I like it. Songs such as the title track have a core of honesty that immediately gains my respect. Orton is far from being a hit machine, and you can really get a sense that shes working hard as she grabs your attention with lyrics such as "I can still smell you on my fingers / and taste you on my breath." You go girl! While I have only the superb Classic Records LP to judge by, Central Reservation seems to have been recorded kinda hot -- theres a fair bit of sibilance to Ortons voice, and some excess sparkle to the acoustic guitars. The addition of the Taipans made the highs make more sense. That may sound strange, but with the Shunyata cords in the system, the sibilance was better integrated into Ortons vocals. It was as if the timing of the wave launch from my Hales tweeters was now somehow more coherent -- instead of hearing the sibilance and the vocals as two separate items, they merged into one cohesive event. I could now more easily incorporate these recorded artifacts into the overall context of the music.
The Taipans subtly brought treble instruments to the fore, but only in such a way as to highlight their purity. Tony Williams ride cymbal runs throughout Miles Davis Filles de Kilimanjaro [Columbia PC 9750] like a carrier wave -- its the dominant rhythm instrument, as the bass line plays up its own lead line far to starboard. I just love Filles for its long, noodling groove. This album completely relaxes me while managing to make clear the brilliant long view that Miles took in his extended musical works. The Taipans removed a fine layer of grit from the cymbals, laying bare both the fundamental and the shimmering overtones. In doing so, they also brought the instrument to the fore just a tiny bit, which some might confuse with an increase in brightness. A close listen (which is what I do, of course) revealed that while the highs werent louder or more forward, they were cleaner, crisper, and better resolved. Nonetheless, I wouldnt recommend adding Taipans to a system with the hope of calming down a forward top end. While theyll help to eradicate any subcutaneous grain from the highs, they probably wont make that grain any less prominent.
The last obscure jazz album Ill berate you about not buying is Masada Guitars [CD, Tzadik TZ7171]. Its ostensibly a John Zorn project, but, as on many such, Zorn doesnt perform. The Masada ensembles are part of what Zorn calls radical Jewish culture, which can manifest itself as squawking free jazz, soothing, introspective klezmer, or anything in between. Heavily biased toward the minor chords, Masada Guitars falls very close to the introspective end of things, and this beautiful collection of music epitomizes all that the Shunyata Taipans do so well. The Taipans imbued the entire album with additional dynamic crispness, enriched and solidified the images of the disparate guitars, and enhanced the feeling of space around the instruments.
I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed first-hand just how professional and result-driven Shunyata Research is. In the cable world, the choices of power cords are legion, and it was reassuring to see that Shunyata produces a good product at an honest price. At $695, the Taipan is in no way cheap, but its not out of line with similar products from competing firms, a good number of which dont invest nearly as much in research and development as does Shunyata. Considering the amount of labor-intensive work that goes into each cable, the Taipan power cord could easily be construed as a bargain.
But it dont mean a thing if it aint got that swing. No matter how the Taipan is made, its got to produce good sound in order to be worth the money. In my system, the Shunyata Taipan performed. Although my gear is far more modest than the NASA-level infrastructure Shunyata uses in their custom-made listening room, I was able to re-create the results Id heard during my factory visit. Considering that Shunyata was using the most highly resolving gear Ive so far heard, Id have to say that this success alone is a strong endorsement of the Taipan Helix Alphas efficacy.
In the end, its the listening that matters. The addition of the Taipans to my system made music make more sense, letting me hear deeper into the recording. Its that attribute that makes them worth the dough.
Shunyata Research Taipan Helix Alpha Power Cord
Shunyata Research, Inc.
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