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Gryphon Diablo 300

When Steve Silberman, AudioQuest’s vice president of development, approached me a few months ago to review their Cinnamon Ethernet cable, I was a bit hesitant to respond. Despite having witnessed notable improvements from using other analog and digital AudioQuest products, I didn’t believe that the cable making an Ethernet connection could make an audible difference. Silberman told me that he was so confident I would hear an improvement that he’d send me both AQ’s Cinnamon and Vodka Ethernet and AES/EBU cables.

AudioQuest Cinnamon

Getting wired

AudioQuest evidently puts a lot of thought into every aspect of each cable they make, and the packaging that protects and encases those cables reflects that. The cardboard packaging my review samples arrived in was covered with useful information about the cables within. The matte finish of the packaging felt soft in the hand, instilling an immediate sense of luxury and quality. I listened first to the Cinnamons. This required running one Cinnamon Ethernet link from my QNAP NAS device to my Cisco router, and another from my router into the back of my Simaudio MiND streamer. From the MiND, I ran a Cinnamon AES/EBU cable to feed digital signals to my Calyx Femto DAC. Analog signals were sent from the Calyx to my Simaudio Moon Evolution P8 preamplifier, then to a pair of Classé CA-M300 monoblocks via Analysis Plus’s latest Silver Oval balanced interconnects. The final connection, from the Classés to my Rockport Technologies Atria speakers, was via Kimber Kable Select KS-6063 speaker cables, terminated at both ends with WBT-0610 Ag connectors.

Assembly

With the AQ Cinnamon cables installed and burning in, it was time to try to understand how these controversial products might improve sound quality. I sent Steve Silberman an e-mail with myriad questions, to which both he and Bill Low, designer of all AudioQuest cables and the company’s founder, promptly responded. After getting a grip on the theory, I began to understand that while several aspects of these cables can affect sound quality, the two most pertinent aspects appeared to be speed and purity of signal. All AQ Ethernet cables are Category 7 (Cat 7) in design, which can support speeds of up to 100Gbps -- about ten times faster than Cat 6 cables. Some believe that the capacity for faster data transmission alone can provide a slight improvement in sound quality over the more commonly used Cat 5, Cat 5e, or even Cat 6 cables, but according to AQ, that’s not what makes their Ethernet cables special. Instead, the company claims, the real improvements are realized through metallurgy and shielding.

AudioQuest currently offers five levels of Ethernet cables. The Pearl ($45 USD/10’) makes use of solid, long-grain copper (LGC) conductors, a geometry-stabilizing dielectric of solid high-density polyethylene, and a PVC outer sheath. The Forest ($69/10’) is fundamentally the same cable as the Pearl, but coats each of its solid conductors in silver, to yield 0.5% of the cable's total diameter comprised of silver. The Cinnamon Ethernet ($119/10’), again fundamentally the same design as the Pearl, ups the silver content to 1.25% and adds a heavier-duty sheath of braided PVC. All three cables are terminated with shielded gold-plated nickel connectors.

AudioQuest Cinnamon

AQ’s top two Ethernet models, the Vodka and Diamond, are considerably more robust. The Vodka ($529/10’) supersedes the Cinnamon by receiving a healthy boost in silver, to 10%, and is terminated in possibly the largest, best-made RJ-45 connectors I’ve ever seen, and is the first AQ Ethernet cable to incorporate AQ’s unique Noise-Dissipation System. NDS uses alternating layers of metal and a semi-conductive material to dissipate as much radio-frequency interference (RFI) as possible, which is said to result in an exceedingly low noise floor. The huge, precision-made, low-loss, ultrawide-bandwidth Telegartner connectors are unique in terminating the individual barrels that connect directly to a circuit board. The housing is bulletproof, making it excellent for strain relief, and is made of die-cast zinc, which also aids in RFI rejection. This is why AQ makes the case of their DragonFly USB DAC-preamp-headphone amp of zinc as well. Finally, the Vodka Ethernet cable is sheathed in an attractive yet durable outer braid of black and blue.

The crown jewel in AudioQuest’s Ethernet line is the aptly named Diamond. Guaranteed to lighten your wallet at $2195/10’, the Diamond is a no-holds-barred, copper-free design using conductors of 100% Perfect-Surface Solid Silver, terminated with the same Telegartner connectors as the Vodka. The Diamond also employs AQ’s Dielectric Bias System and NDS, as well as the same geometry-stabilizing, solid, high-density polyethylene dielectrics. Other than the 100% silver conductors, about the only thing that physically differentiates the Vodka from the Diamond is the latter’s braided, black-and-silver outer sheath.

Looking at the fundamental differences among AQ’s five models of Ethernet cable, I assumed that speed and signal purity are the most important factors in extracting greater levels of sound quality from digital cables. Signal purity is self-explanatory: the less distortion and noise allowed into the digital audio signal, the less polluted or altered the signal, which means the higher the sound quality. The importance of speed, however, is not so obvious, as it isn’t only the transfer rate of the cable at work. I asked Silberman to elaborate on this. This is what he said:

Solid silver-plated conductors are excellent for very high-frequency applications, like Ethernet audio. These signals, being such a high frequency, travel almost exclusively on the surface of the conductor. As the surface is made of high-purity silver, the performance is very close to that of a solid silver cable, but priced much closer to solid copper cable. This is an incredibly cost effective way of manufacturing very high-quality Ethernet cables.

In other words, the skin effect is a huge contributing factor when optimizing the transference of digital signals through an Ethernet cable, and due to the high frequency of such digital signals, the more silver you use the better; theoretically.

Sound

Before installing the Cinnamon Ethernet and AES/EBU cables in my system, I was using standard Cat 6 Ethernet cables for all computer-audio connections, with the exception of an Analysis Plus Digital Crystal AES/EBU linking my Simaudio MiND streamer to my Calyx Femto DAC. After installing the Cinnamons, I didn’t notice a difference right away, so I let them burn in for a couple weeks, to give them every opportunity to paint a better picture. After about 100 hours of burn-in, I sat down, somewhat skeptical, to do some serious listening, and noticed something strange.

The music sounded better. Not just subtly better, but really better, with a newfound fluidity and suppleness that I hadn’t heard through the standard Ethernet cables. The sound was now more welcoming: Tonal colors were slightly richer, the bass a hint denser, backgrounds a shade darker, image focus a measure sharper. Even more pleasing was the overall balance of these attributes.

AudioQuest Cinnamon

As I listened to Diana Krall’s cover of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally),” from her Wallflower (CD, Verve B0020989-02), the notes from her piano were melodic and gentle, yet still obvious in their intended impact. The tonality of each note was marginally more obvious -- perhaps due in part to the darker background from which it emerged -- and decays lasted ever so slightly longer. Despite the slight increase in velvetiness in the overall sound, I also heard an improvement in tonal contrasts between the voices of Krall and guest Michael Bublé, when he entered. This was most obvious when the two sang together -- I could better differentiate between their voices, tonally and spatially. Microdetails, such as the natural grain, rasp, and smokiness in their voices, were also a tad easier to hear, though I could still easily miss them when not consciously listening for them. I’m a bit of a stickler for such textural cues and microdetails -- they greatly contribute to a greater sense of reality of a singer’s actual sound. The fact that I was hearing these sorts of improvements due to a change in Ethernet cables was forcing me to re-evaluate my initial skepticism.

Listening to my usual reference recordings, I also picked up on a faintly but consistently heavier bottom end. This bit of extra kick proved particularly welcome with such genres as rock, pop, and electronica -- it added a bit of bass presence in just the right area, particularly with classic rock. However, when listening to more nuanced fare -- jazz, folk, or well-recorded country -- I found myself wanting a bit more dexterity in the delineation of the textural and tonal aspects of the sounds of bass instruments; the level of articulation was not commensurate with the amount of added heft. For example, the synthesized kick drum in “Bad Blood,” from Taylor Swift’s 1989 (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Big Machine), sounds rather electronic, and is pretty much devoid of natural texture, tone, or timbre, yielding little to no instrumental character other than a fast, electronic double beat repeated throughout the track. Through the Cinnamons, the leading edge of each beat was cleanly delineated with good transient control, just as it was using a standard Ethernet cable, but the punch of each beat was slightly heavier, complemented by marginally longer albeit artificial decays.

Conversely, when focusing on Tommy Shannon’s bass guitar in “Tin Pan Alley,” from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Couldn't Stand the Weather (16/44.1 FLAC, Epic/Legacy), the added bass presence remained, but I was unable to hear any textural or microlevel advantages over my standard Ethernet cable. What did grab my ear was the sheer impact and liveliness of Chris Layton’s drums. The Cinnamons clearly proved a cut above here, providing not only more slam as Layton pounds the skins, but an added degree of visceral dynamic intensity to each stroke. Cymbals shimmered, with more air around them, allowing the sound of the brass to linger a bit longer in the air before fading away. Similarly, as Vaughan plucked his electric guitar, each note sounded a wisp stronger, cleaner, and more pronounced against a wider, more cavernous soundstage. Despite my nitpicking about bass detail, this track was more arresting.

AudioQuest Cinnamon

The more I listened to music through AQ’s Ethernet cables, the more I found myself developing a hunger for crow. Yes -- there are advantages to be had in upgrading to AudioQuest’s Cinnamon. The secret to its charm was how each subtle advance in sound quality combined with other advances to form an overall improved sound picture. I recommend replacing all Ethernet cables in your audio system -- I found it more difficult to hear these improvements by swapping out just one cable. With that in mind, it was at last time to replace the Cinnamons with the Vodka cables Steve Silberman had sent along for comparison.

This swap produced profound results. The combination of Vodka Ethernet and Coffee AES/EBU (equivalent to what a Vodka AES/EBU would be if AudioQuest made one) immediately exhibited a tonal character different from the Cinnamons’. Sounding cooler overall, and clearly more neutral, the Vodkas provided definite advances in transient speed, microdetails, dynamics, and bass articulation. Gone were the hints of warmth and suppleness I’d found so alluring with the Cinnamons. Listening again to Krall and Bublé singing “Alone Again (Naturally)” highlighted other obvious advances over the Cinnamons, most notably the sheer transparency of their voices. Where the Cinnamons delivered a hint of additional tonal color, the Vodkas sounded downright vivid, exhibiting even more tonal accuracy, texture, air, and clarity. I could now more clearly hear Krall’s breathiness, and how smooth Bublé’s voice sounded by comparison. Piano notes were presented with even sharper leading edges, longer decays, and notably better pitch definition.

The Vodkas also seemed to revel in conveying the utmost from high-resolution recordings, as evinced by Randy Brecker’s precisely imaged trumpet in the first minute of “Your Latest Trick,” from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (24/88.2 FLAC, Vertigo). In the first 30 seconds, the trumpet seems farther back on the stage, complemented by the tapping of a single cymbal toward the left. The cymbal imaged well beyond my speaker, with excellent dimensionality and air, until a brief pause, after which the saxophone of Brecker’s brother, Michael Brecker, emerged out of nowhere, farther forward in the mix and presented with remarkable image focus and immediacy. The Vodkas were strutting their stuff here, giving me all the nitty-gritty details I couldn’t quite hear through either regular Ethernet cables or AQ’s Cinnamons. In the low end of “Your Latest Trick,” John Illsley’s bass guitar kicked in with newfound dynamic drive, again eclipsing the Cinnamon cables -- not only in punch, but now in perceived detail as well. As Mark Knopfler’s voice took center stage, I heard again the Vodkas’ precise image focus, and how free of the speakers his voice now was.

I could easily write more about AQ’s Vodka Ethernet cables, but they’re not actually the subjects of this review. Suffice it to say that they offer higher levels of build quality and sound over the Cinnamons, but are also less forgiving, have a cooler nature, and cost significantly more.

In the end

I began this review expecting to hear no improvement in sound quality from an “upgrade” of Ethernet cables. I didn’t understand how a cable responsible for nothing more than transmitting packets of information from point A to point B could possibly have an impact. Well, evidently it can, and the AudioQuest Cinnamon Ethernets most definitely do. While all of the differences I noted -- more bass slam, greater revelation of soundstaging nuances, arresting dynamics, seductive fluidity of sound -- were individually subtle, they combined to evoke a more natural, organic, and intimate persona from pretty much anything I played through them.

AudioQuest Cinnamon

Perhaps the Cinnamon’s greatest attribute is its price. In audio, there are many easy ways to spend $119 (for a 10’ cable) and get less. Throw in AudioQuest’s five-year warranty, and I can’t help but conclude that the Cinnamon is a steal. Highly recommended!

. . . Aron Garrecht
arong@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- Rockport Technologies Atria
  • Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom f112 (2)
  • Amplifiers -- Classé CA-M300 (2), Halcro MC50
  • Preamplifier -- Marantz AV8801, Simaudio Moon Evolution P8
  • Sources -- Ayre Acoustics C5xeMP CD player, Oppo BDP-103 universal BD player
  • DAC -- Calyx Audio Femto
  • Interconnects -- Analysis Plus Silver Oval (balanced), Analysis Plus Digital Crystal (digital), Cardas Clear Blue Beyond (AC)
  • Speaker cables -- Kimber Kable Select KS-6063
  • Power conditioner -- Torus Power AVR2 20A

AudioQuest Cinnamon Ethernet Cable
Price: $119 USD/10’.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

AudioQuest
2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
Phone: (949) 585-0111
Fax: (949) 585-0333

E-mail: info@audioquest.com
Website: www.audioquest.com