When the world is not enough and the cable you want doesn’t exist, Paul Rigby reviews a bespoke, one-of-a-kind cable from Chord
What happens when you have a cabling problem but there is no solution? What happens when you need a hi-fi cable to fulfil a particular task but the market cannot supply the product you need? What, indeed, happens…when hi-fi fails? You must create something from nothing.
In this case, I placed an order for a cable that doesn’t exist.
My issue revolved around a digital audio player from Astell&Kern and a pre-amp from Aesthetix. The two just would not connect.
Let me explain. The Astell&Kern AK120 is a classic DAP (Digital Audio Player) and one that offers great value for money on the second-hand market. A while back, I heard that you could modify the AK120 to improve its sound quality. The improvement would require major surgery, though. Red Wine Audio, based in the USA, was in the frame to to the job.
The original idea was to upgrade the DAP so that I could connect the AK120 directly to a portable headphone amp. Red Wine upgraded the AK120, adding an improved DAC chip inside and a better connection port. That is, a single-ended port. The modification meant that they had to remove the standard volume knob normally found on the right side of the DAP. That was binned completely. That’s where the new port was installed. You can read more about the modification HERE.
The idea then was to plug in a 3.5mm plug into the AK120 and, at the other end of my cable, plug that into a headphone amp.
Actually, I sort of had two working DACs in the one chassis. How so? Well, if you plugged a cable into the AK120’s optical port, you’d access the old, original DAC. To access the new Red Wine DAC chip, I had to plug a cable into the new AK120 3.5mm socket, on the side of the chassis. Which I did.
And that was that. If worked very well. Until I wondered about connecting the modified DAP directly to my hi-fi.
Normally, to connect my DAP to a larger hi-fi system of some sort, I would hook it up via an optical cable that sits at the top of the DAP’s chassis and be done with it. In my case, I was connecting the DAP to my Benchmark DAC, via the Benchmark’s optical port.
I had done such a thing on numerous occasions with decent results but I wanted more. The potential of a direct connection to my pre-amp, simplifying the connection chain by taking the DAC out of the picture and connecting the DAP straight into my pre-amp, was tempting indeed. Especially as the pre-amp would be my superlative Aesthetic Calypso.
Trouble was, my pre-amp offered no optical ports. The only way to connect my Astel&Kern to my pre-amp was via a convertor cable.
The solution appeared simple. Grab a cable with two RCA plugs on one end and a simple 3.5mm plug on the other. The former would connect to the pre-amp, the latter to the DAP.
The issue is that my Calypso pre-amp is of a monoblock internal construction which means that the left and right channels are a long, long way away from each other. Much further than you’d normally find on a standard pre-amp or integrated design.
Standard convertor cables, of the type I was searching, limited the amount of free cable length at the RCA end. Hence, if I plugged an RCA cable into the right channel, there would not be enough cable length to safely plug into the left channel into the pre-amp. It just would not stretch. The issue was cable length. There wasn’t enough of it to go around.
What to do?
I talked to Chord. I explained my dilemma and the fact that such a cable did not exist. There was a pregnant pause. Filled by Chord suggesting that they could build a bespoke model from scratch for me.
CHORD TO THE RESCUE!
This bespoke service is one that Chord offers but never talks about because the whole task is an expensive chore. Building one-off cables has terrible economies of scale which normally means that, the more cables you build, the cheaper the cost and the more profit for you.
Hence, a one-off cable (can be) much more expensive to the customer than would normally be the case. That said, if you are that desperate, money becomes a secondary consideration.
I wanted a quality, bespoke item so Chord hunted around its cupboards and drawers and found a solution. To do the job and to make sure that everything fit as it should and that the entire thing was not too cumbersome, Chord looked at its ShawCan headphone cable, added a 3.5mm plug on one end, two RCA plugs on the other and left plenty of cable in between to reach my awkward pre-amp’s plugs. Hence, I had a bunch of cabling parts that were not supposed to be used for a convertor cable such as this but, because of my unique demands, were the only parts that could be utilised.I now have a one-of-a-kind cable. Unique on planet Earth.
So how did this sound in comparison to the standard optical?
Another idea behind this newly modified, bespoke cable configuration was to shorten the chain, having one less piece of equipment for the music to travel through. Removing the DAC would, with a bit of luck, aid the sonics.
I initially hooked up the AK120 to my Benchmark DAC via an optical port which was routed through my Aesthetix pre-amp, allowed those vibes to sink in, then transferred the AK120, plugging it directly into the pre-amp using the new Chord cable. And it did just that.
I played a selection of Dire Straits tracks from their Brothers in Arms album. The DAP-Pre connection enhanced the imagery of the music, adding a 3D effect to the lead vocal which now had slightly more air around it. Drums had an organic feel to them, being less digital in flavour and edgy in feel while the backing harmonies were more noticeable and had a greater part to play in the mix. A lowering of noise also helped the rear-mounted synths which now had a full and significant sound while secondary percussion was tonally more accurate.
I tried the experiment with other variants of music including jazz from Miles Davis and Soul from Aretha Franklin and the same enhancements were visible to the ear here too.
The initial aim of this test was not so much the sonic results but that the job could be done successfully in the first place. That was certainly the case here. I had a connection problem and, basically, couldn’t play my DAP in my desired configuration. I had hi-fi equipment going to waste on the shelf, in other words. With Chord running to my aid, I was able to press my DAP into action. The proof of the pudding was that the cable worked perfectly, sound improved dramatically and I’m now a happy bunny.
Now, of course my sound tests can hardly be applied generally. They were rather bespoke in nature. The reason I undertook them was to prove that improvements can be made by changing the configuration of your hi-fi and, just because there are barriers in the way, with a bit of persistence, you can enhance the sound of your hi-fi too.
So, if you have a cable issue, if you can’t find the audiophile connections you want and are growing in frustration because of it then don’t fret, call your favourite, neighbourhood cable company. They’ll help you out. Many companies will address your issue with a bespoke design. Be prepared to wait for the build and be prepared to pay over the odds because one-off designs are more expensive but the sense of relief on knowing that your problem will be solved is well worth it, let me tell you. Oh, and if your favourite cable outfit won’t play ball and reject your pleas then call those very nice people at Chord!
CHORD BESPOKE 3.5MM TO RCA INTERCONNECT CONVERTOR CABLE
Tel: 01980 625700
GOOD: a problem…solved, tonal accuracy, low noise, midrange insight
BAD: price, build wait
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Astell & Kern AK120 (Red Wine modded)
Aesthetix Calypso pre-amp
Icon Audio MB845 Mk.II monoblock amplifiers
Quad ESL-57 speakers with One Thing upgrade
Tellurium Q Silver Diamond cables
Blue Horizon Professional Rack System
Harmonic Resolution Systems Noise Reduction Components
All vinyl was cleaned using an Audio Desk’s Ultrasonic Pro Vinyl Cleaner