Network Acoustics are mad about noise, by which I mean they hate it. Their aim is to eliminate the noise from streaming systems and by doing so allow those systems to reveal the full glory of the music. Electrical noise on the AC mains and radio frequencies may not be audible as hum or hiss but they it has a greater negative effect on the end result than you might expect. It’s the noise floor in a signal to noise measurement, it masks the quiet parts of each note or reverberation and makes streamed audio sound ‘digital’ in the hard, flat sense that many complained off in the early years of CD. Ironically CD players had it easier, in those days computers weren’t integrated into TVs and phones and only the obsessive had one at home. Ditto crude switching power supplies run every low voltage device in the modern home, they are as ubiquitous as are wireless networks, another source of problems for streaming audio.
The Muon range is Network Acoustics best stuff, the premium range, so the Muon USB Cable is better at keeping noise out of the receiving DAC than the two ENO models, one of which we reviewed earlier in the year. There has been an evolution of the ENO models since then which now have the same outer sleeve as the Muon USB Cable. That doesn’t surprise me, Richard Trussell and Rob Osbourn are not inclined to let things lie if they find a better way to do them.
The Muon USB Cable is a triple core design with some rather fancy USB plugs at either end, the cables are about average in stiffness and bound together by bands at two points along its 1.5m length. The lump closest to the receiving end of the cable contains proprietary Network Acoustics noise filters, separate ones for the earth and 5V conductors which are just as important as the signal conductor when it comes to passing noise onto the DAC. The shielding and dielectric are specific to this model as well, and both are critical to a cable’s performance.
The nature of the conductors is not mentioned on the website but we are told that it’s a heavy gauge silver/copper alloy UP-OCC (ultra-pure Ohno continuous casting). OCC is a process that is sometimes mentioned in relation to copper cables but this is the first example with a silver/copper alloy to our knowledge. 1.5m is the shortest Muon USB that the company supplies, Rob and Richard spent a lot of time building and listening to cables in 5-10cm increments before they settled on 1.5m as the optimum length. I haven’t heard about other cable makers doing this sort of research and it’s interesting that length makes so much difference. You have to wonder if this is the case with analogue cables too.
The company does not go in for lavish cases for its products, just a cotton bag and a cardboard carton, so you are not paying for packaging. What you are paying for is a lot of research and small scale manufacture by hand in the UK, which means care and attention to detail and, much like elsewhere in this field, high prices. However, this is by no means the only USB cable in this ball park nor the most expensive.
I used Muon USB Cable in a number of streaming systems, with different streamers and DACs, and on each occasion it provided a combination of neutrality, transparency and dynamics that puts it the at the top of the tree. It is simply more revealing of the source and achieves this without emphasising any particular part of the tonal range. There are not a few digital cables around that manage to sound transparent by boosting the upper midrange, this increases the sense of speed and perception of detail, but in a revealing and even handed system the long term result is a forwardness that becomes tiring. It’s exciting in the short term but is essentially a coloration that stops you hearing the finer details of the performance.
Muon delivers drive and power with ease, all the energy from the streamer gets through and the sound is as propulsive and engaging as the music warrants. Cymbals are open and bright without being splashy and bass instruments are deep, powerful and articulate or at least as much so as the recording permits. Imaging is absolutely superb, on the original Helplessly Hoping (Crosby, Stills & Nash) the voices are alive in the room and it’s easy to place the individual musicians despite the relatively crude, or perhaps unexaggerated, nature of the recording. The degree of separation provided is in the premier league yet the harmonies they produce are absolutely beautiful.
Nothing seems to be filtered out except noise which means that if the source has an edginess or tendency to bring out certain aspects of the music you will hear it. Yet when you have got the source sorted, and that needn’t mean expensive – I used an Auralic Aries LE with a Farad power supply for a lot of the listening – the results are addictive. The snap to Rickie Lee Jones’ Danny’s All Star Joint on digital rarely compares to that provided by a good turntable, but here it was positively bouncing along, as snappy as I’ve heard it. Anyone who thinks that digital can’t time well needs to try this cable, it is bang on the money without resorting to sharpened leading edges or any of the tonal balance tricks often used to achieve this effect. This also comes down to the reduction of noise, noise which adds a dirtiness to the sound that clouds the gaps between notes and undermines immediacy. You don’t perceive it has doing so because it’s a low level effect but take it away and everything has a freedom and articulation that sounds natural. With Muon those gaps are clear and silent which means the notes have more impact and their attack is cleaner. That translates to a band sounding more lifelike and visceral in the room, it’s quite a treat.
I had the opportunity to compare the Muon USB Cable with the small selection of similarly priced alternatives via the all revealing Kii Three BXT active digital loudspeaker system (review coming soon). This proved conclusively that the Network Acoustics cable is ahead of the pack by a clear margin, none of the alternatives could match its sheer depth of resolution, the vitality of presentation nor the emotional power of great music played through it. The best alternative delivered a similarly natural and even handed balance but without the richness of detail, while the least appealing brought a forwardness and hardness to the result that was almost uncomfortable through these alarmingly transparent loudspeakers. This experiment reinforced the impression of openness, high resolution and neutrality that the Muon USB delivered in more conventional systems, it also made it very clear when changes were made to components, cables and supports further back in the audio chain.
Network Acoustics are clearly obsessive about delivering the best sounding products that they can, the attention to detail is above and beyond and this is rewarded by exceptionally good sounding products. The price reflects the small scale, hand built nature of this cable but in a decent streaming system the sound quality it delivers more than matches the asking price, it this were a bigger brand you’d have to pay a lot more. These guys aren’t tweaking tonal balance they are blocking noise and that means more musical inspiration; that after all is the aim of the game.