May 1, 2006Shunyata Research Moving Forward
Cable manufacturers get a bad rap. Many people believe that because theres only wire inside cables, the profit margins must be big. Add to that the belief that cables are all the same anyway and thus require no large R&D costs, and the markups must be huge. If you think this way, you should visit Shunyata Research, as I recently did. Your view of cables will be altered forever.
Founded in 1998 by Caelin Gabriel, Shunyata Research is located on Bainbridge Island, a rural community 30 minutes (by ferry) from downtown Seattle. Since making their mark in the audiophile world with products such as the Cobra and King Cobra power cords, Shunyata has continued to improve their product line, refine their technology, and, in such notable instances as their Hydra power conditioners, reduce their prices.
Over the past three years, Shunyata has experienced a staggering growth rate, more than doubling in size each year. Another indication of Shunyatas success is its penetration of the professional audio industry. With their products being used by studios such as Skywalker Sound, Sony, and Philips International, and recording luminaries such as Doug Sax and Rick Rubin, Shunyata has attained a level of success and acceptance in the pro ranks that few, if any, home-audio companies could hope to achieve.
Shunyata currently inhabits four fairly large buildings in an industrial park, and is poised to expand into a fifth. Also housed in this same industrial park are the companies that supply Shunyatas sheet metal and powder-coating services. With the exception of its value-priced line of shielded power cords, all Shunyata products are designed and manufactured in the US.
The patented Helix geometry is one of the cornerstones of Shunyata's technology (image). Each separate strand in the cable is braided in such a way that they cross each other at 90 degrees. According to Shunyata, this helps reject (EMI) and (RFI) while minimizing inductance and capacitance.
All wires and connectors used in Shunyata cables are cryogenically treated. Over three days, their temperature is gradually lowered, then ramped back up to room temperature. This slow cycle of cooling and warming ensures that the materials incur no stresses that might compromise their physical integrity. This procedure is quite expensive if you have to send the materials to an outside company. In order to circumvent this expense, Shunyata has purchased its own cryogenic tank, which, according to Gabriel, makes financial sense given the companys growth (image).
Shunyata uses only CDA-101 copper in their cables, and a big, honking ingot of the stuff acts as a bus bar in each Hydra Model-8 power conditioner. According to Shunyata, CDA-101 is the highest-purity copper available on the market, regardless of price. Gabriel is quite passionate about this. When asked about "five nines" pure copper, he said, "I dont know about this 99.999% pure copper that everyone talks about -- Ive checked everywhere in the copper industry, and nobodys ever heard of it. I get the feeling that its a marketing strategy."
The high-grade, industry-specific materials continue on to the dielectrics that Shunyata has chosen for its cables. Shunyata uses "medical-grade" dielectrics, not necessarily using the most expensive materials for fashion purposes, but instead choosing those that work and sound best.
During my tour I saw, up close, how the Helix power cords are made. The braiding of strands is all done by hand, and the Python Helix Alpha power cord that Clint was assembling consists of nine strands (image). Such complex, labor-intensive work by itself would seem to justify the Pythons retail price of $1095. According to Gabriel, it takes about a month to learn how to manipulate the 13 separate strands in the Anaconda power cord, and a full day to produce just one of them. Because all of the strands that make up a complete cable must be laid out straight before braiding can begin, the maximum length of cable that Shunyata can construct is effectively limited to the length of the room they have to work in. Judging by the big, horn-like calluses on Clints thumb, the job is not without its hazards. This is not work for soft-skinned pansies -- its pure craftsmanship.
After the cables have been braided, twisted within an inch of their lives, tied off, and covered with their respective multilayered sheaths, the speaker cables and interconnects are sent to another area, where Mike and Pat, Shunyatas precision soldering team, install the connectors. Pats many years of soldering experience include 15 years with Motorola.
Shunyatas power cords are terminated with plugs plated with several different types of metal, all to much greater thicknesses than are standard in the industry. Before assembly, each cryogenically treated connector receives an application of a proprietary fluid that inhibits the corrosion that can be caused by the difference in voltage potential resulting from the contact of two different metals (i.e., the copper of the wire and the plated metal of the connector). Rather than solder the wire to the connectors, Shunyata has found that the best sound results from tightening each screw-terminated contact to a specific tightness achieved by using a precision torque wrench. That specific tightness was determined through listening sessions.
One of Shunyatas expansions has taken the form of a new, dedicated listening room equipped with some seriously top-flight gear. As part of Shunyatas open-house event, Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio Specialties was present to install and set up a full surround system consisting of Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX Series 2 loudspeakers up front (image) and two WATT/Puppy 7s in the rear. Halcros Phillip OHanlon was also there, to oversee the installation of a pair of dm88 monoblock amplifiers for the main speakers and dm58s round back. A dCS suite of Verdi transport, Elgar DAC, Purcell upsampler, and Verona Clock was only one of the juicy front-ends on hand. An EMM Labs CDSD transport, DAC 6, and Switchman player filled out the all-star cast. McGrath also provided some of his own surround recordings, which he carts around with him on a portable hard drive. All cabling and power-filtration duties were performed by, of course, Shunyata products.
McGraths room-tuning efforts completed, we were invited to participate in a comparative listening session of the type that Gabriel et al. use to test and improve their products. We listened to a number of different configurations of power-line products, but two demonstrations stood out.
In the first, Gabriel switched the cords connecting the amplifiers to the fuse panel. First we listened with the Halcro amps plugged into an outlet that terminated approximately 20 of 10AWG Romex, the standard cable (albeit of thicker gauge) used in residential wiring. This wire ended at the fuse panel. After wed listened to a couple of tracks, Gabriel unplugged the Halcros and attached them to a really long Shunyata Anaconda cord, which he then plugged into an outlet adjacent to the same fuse panel.
I sat there with my arms crossed, my body language radiating skepticism. Swapping out Romex? I thought. Thats a bit much for Sensible Jason.
Then, without changing the volume setting, Gabriel played the same Fiona Apple track. The difference was profound. Suddenly Apples head came into clear focus, along with an appreciable sense of ease and lack of sibilance. The bass tightened up and gained definition, and the entire picture improved to a degree for which I was completely unprepared. After we had all looked askance at each other, Gabriel noted that people often question the efficacy and relevance of power cords by reasoning that because literally miles of wire run from the generating station to your wall outlets, what possible difference could be made by replacing a mere 5 of cable at the very end? But as this demonstration proved, its worth replacing every foot you can.
The second demonstration of note was even more outrageous in its lack of intuitive sensibility. Gabriel had taken a bunch of different AC receptacles and made up adapter dongles so that he could insert them between two power cords. In his understated, low-key manner, Gabriel inserted one receptacle into the system, played a track, and asked us what we thought. The reaction was unanimous -- we hated it. He then informed us that wed been listening to the most expensive receptacle of the bunch, and that it was the current darling of the Internet forums.
He then inserted another receptacle in the system and repeated the track. Our unanimous decision: This was much better. Again, the benefits were in solidity of image and bass, along with a new ease in the treble. This receptacle, it turned out, was one of Shunyatas own SR-Z1 outlets. We then listened to another version. By then it was late in the day, and I couldnt hear much difference between the SR-Z1 and this last outlet. Gabriel then confirmed that, yes, the last outlet is a very good unit. However, its retail price is three times that of the SR-Z1.
Throughout the demo, it was patently clear that the differences we were hearing among different power-supply items were being revealed by the incredibly high resolution of the Wilson Audio speakers and the Halcro amps, which is no doubt why Gabriel et al. chose those components for his research system. There were no dynamic limitations in Shunyatas large listening room -- some of McGraths recordings reached peak levels of 110dB. But even at such insane levels the sound was effortless and crystal clear, with finely delineated, incredibly extended highs and crunching, subterranean bass. At more reasonable volumes, the sense of detail was astonishing. Shunyatas reference system is very revealing, ideal for use as a comparative listening tool, entertaining as all get-out, and musically satisfying to boot.
The highlight of the day was McGraths recording of a Mass by David Maslanka. I forget how many singers were in the choir, but it sounded like hundreds. According to McGrath, the hall was much too small for the assembled musicians, but the sound was startling. This complex, very dense composition was reproduced by the Wilson-Halcro-Shunyata-dCS-EMM system with a sense of scale that verged on the visceral. What a way to end the day.
As always when surrounded by audiophiles, the common bonds of love of music and deep interest in its methods of reproduction made for a most pleasant afternoon of listening and geezering (that is, when men stand around talking, typically while the women are anxious to leave). Beyond the fun we all had in listening to a killer state-of-the-art system, it was also fascinating to see, first-hand, the in-depth research and development and pride of workmanship that go into the products made by Shunyata Research.
To learn more about Shunyata Research, visit www.shunyata.com.
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