Figure 1. AQ Sky (blue) and AQ Niagara XLR Interconnects.
All The Way To The Clear Blue Sky
In my Niagara review, I had expressed some skepticism that the Skys would provide a dramatic, revelatory experience over the Niagaras, even though the nice folks at Audioquest promised me such [footnote 1]. After all, the only internal differences between the Skys and Niagaras was that the Skys had 50% bigger Teflon insulating tubes around the silver conductors (50% more air ) and the Sky's larger conductors provided 15% more silver. However, I try to keep an open mind. I have been surprised before by substantial performance gains brought about by a seemingly modest change in equipment specifications. The "TL" mod for my SDA CRS+'s and the improved SDA interconnects are two that come to mind.
Figure 2. AQ Sky Interconnect with 72V DBS. They provide a little more
than a gnat hair's improvement over the Niagara interconnects...but
only for my digital source.
The retail price of the Skys is 70% more than the Niagaras. On the used market, Sky cables are only 18% to 21% more expensive than Niagaras.
A 1.5 meter Sky XLR interconnect was placed in succession between 1)my SACD player and line level preamp, 2)my phono preamp and line level preamp, and 3) between my line level preamp and power amps.
First, listening notes were made with the Niagaras in place. The position of instruments and voices within the soundstage were noted on a chart. Notes were also made regarding the character of sounds within the soundstage. Volume levels were measured with an analog Radio Shack sound level meter and the preamp volume settings corresponding to a particular sound level were noted.
A. Sky IC Between SACD Player and Line Level Preamp
The most obvious difference was the sound was measurably an average 2 dB louder than with the Niagaras. I turned the volume down a couple notches to match the volume level of the Niagaras. Soundstage dimensions and image placement was the same as with the Niagaras. There was a little more detail at the edges and rear of the soundstage. Stringed instruments had a little more overtone and decay. I heard no difference in brass and woodwind instruments. Voices had a little more weight. Low level detail was a little better. I did not notice an increase in pressure against my body from bass notes. On some instrumental music, there was just a subtle difference in detail in favor of the Skys.
When I used a Niagara cable on the left channel and a Sky cable on the right channel, images in the center of the sound stage shifted to the right about a foot. On some music, which had a lot going on at the sides of the soundstage, there was a noticeable difference in clarity and detail between the left and right channels. On other music, where the sounds were clustered in the area between the speakers, the difference between channels was subtle or not noticeable at all. There was a rise in volume with this configuration of about 1dB.
Quantitatively, I only gained about 10% more resolution with the Skys or, put another way, the Niagaras gave me 90% of the Sky's performance for 43% less money (MSRP prices) :) [footnote 2]. Since my Sky's were acquired off the used market, I only paid an 18% premium over the cost of the Niagaras for a 10% improvement.
B. Sky IC Between Phono Preamp and Line Level Preamp
There was no difference other than a 2 dB rise in volume. I only expected a small difference since there was only a modest difference when I replaced the PS Audio Transcendent cables with the Niagaras. However, I was not expecting to hear no difference at all in sound quality. There was only an increase in the quantity (level) of sound.
C. Sky IC Between Line Level Preamp and Power Amp
There was no difference other than a 2 dB rise in volume.
Maybe I would have heard a little bit more difference if the preamp to power amp cable was replaced with Sky interconnects in conjunction with the source to preamp cable. I am content to leave that idea firmly within the realm of the theoretical. Based on these trials, I expect that I might only gain another 2-3% in resolution, if that, by installing a Sky interconnect between preamp and power amp...but at what cost [footnote 3]? After all this, I realize that the Skys might make a dramatic difference over the Niagaras in another audio system, they just didn't in mine.
If the planets and stars align correctly and the right deal comes along, I might even break down and upgrade my tonearm and cartridge...and I'm not even into analog...that much.
As usual, my curiosity got the best of me and I broke down and replaced all the Niagara Cables in my 2 channel system with Skys [footnote 4]. Plus, the devil agreed to pay half.
There was already a Sky IC between the SACD player and preamp. Adding a Sky IC between the preamp and power amp produced the following changes:
1. Increase in volume of 2 dB-C. This provided a cumulative SPL increase of 4 dB-C for the two Sky IC's between each source and the power amp. (The volume was turned back down to match the previous SPL levels with the Niagara cables.)
2. More image solidity and weight, especially at sides of the sound stage.
3. More bass impact and definition.
4. Faster, tighter, bass.
5. Richer, more defined overtones on stringed instruments.
6. Front edge of the sound stage advanced forward 1 to 2 feet, depending on recording.
7. Enhanced SDA effect with a greater sense of space between images. Sound stage width remained the same.
8. More low volume detail and clarity.
9. A little more high frequency clarity.
Figure 3. Sky cables provided a noticeable, rather than dramatic,
improvement in my two channel sound.
Replacing the Niagara cable between the phono preamp and line level preamp, along with replacing the Niagara cable between the line level preamp and power amp, produced the same improvements noted above with the digital source, just to a lesser degree. Seems like the analog source didn't need as much "help".:) Recall that when I replaced the Niagara IC between the phono preamp and line level preamp, the only difference I heard (and measured) was an increase in volume level of 2 dB. I have now had an opportunity to evaluate my audio system wired completely with Niagara IC's and then with Sky IC's. I would quantify the improvements of Sky over Niagara as 15% better on the digital side and 10% better on the analog side.
Associated Equipment ***Edited 2/9/2007***
Pass Laboratories X.02 Preamp
Pass Laboratories Xono Phono Preamp
Parasound Halo JC1 Monoblock Amps (600 wpc into 6 ohms)
Teres Audio Model 255 Turntable with Graham 2.2 Deluxe Tonearm
Sonic Purity Concepts and Design Record Clamp ("The Clamp")
Ortofon Jubilee Moving Coil Cartridge
Cary Audio CD 306 SACD/HDCD/CD Player
Polk Audio SDA SRS 1.2TL Speakers (Modified)
Audioquest LeoPard 72V DBS Phono Cable
Audioquest Sky 72V DBS Interconnects (Preamp/Power Amp and Phono Preamp/Preamp)
Audioquest Everest 72V DBS 9 AWG Speaker Cable
Signal Cable 10AWG MagicPower Cords for Amps and SACD Playsound stagesound stageer
Such good sound.:D
 By phone conversation and through the Sky IC's marketing materials.
 The MSRP of a 1.5m Sky interconnect is $3200. The MSRP of a 1.5m Niagara interconnect is $1875.
 Gowannnnnn do it! You know you want that extra 2-3%! C'mon...I'll pay half.
 ] Remember...curiosity killed the cat.
Yeah, but satisfaction brought him back!;)~DK