Review samples provided by Audioquest Nederland
Retail prices including 21% VAT:
2.499 Euro for a 0.5-m pair
3.499 Euro for a 1-meter pair
5.499 Euro for a 2-meter pair (as reviewed)
Other lengths available
Regular readers will know that I am a frequent user of AudioQuest Water interlinks. I own several pairs that I use in various locations in both of my systems. The Water is a uniquely robust and characterful-sounding cable and while not the most transparent or highest-resolving cable that I know, it always presents the music with lots of flair and engagement, and in many circumstances, it works highly synergistically. For instance, it works wonders with my Ayon/Xavian system, as well as in the Jadis and Zesto tube systems of my friends MP and JW. And at 699 for a 1-meter and 899 euro for a 2-meter length, it offers great value for money.
In my main system, I use the Water between the CH P1 phono preamp and Ayon Stealth preamp and I frequently use it for review work. For the most critical connection in this system, the one between the CH C1 DAC and the CH A1.5 power amp, I have so far always used the CH Balanced Link that I purchased along with the components. The CH cable costs 2050 euro per meter or 2490 euro as I use it in a 2-meter length and although this is by no means cheap, it’s also not extravagantly priced. The Balanced Link is actually CH’s most affordable cable and in the context of the system, I’d say there is still quite some wiggle room. The AudioQuest Fire comes in at 2.499 euro for a 0.5m pair, 3.499 for a 1-meter pair, and 5.499 euro for the 2-meter pair that I am using now. Not pocket change by a long shot but also not outrageous given the partnering components.
During the time that I have owned the CH products, I have tried countless other cables in this critical position, including the relatively affordable Water and some very costly cables. But never did I find a better match and thus, the CH cable remained in place.
That is until my friend Niels brought the Fire along for comparison after having purchased it himself upon recommendation from our mutual friend Werner. Well, that comparison did not take long to leave a mark. Ouch! This was not just better, it was considerably better! This prompted me to immediately arrange a review sample.
Positioned above the Water in the Elements Series is the Earth, then the Wind, and then the Fire. Going from Water to Earth, the main difference is the substitution of PE air tubes for FEP air tubes which form the dielectric material into which the conductors are loosely held. Although this change may sound trivial, it makes a large difference for the sound, which is notably more linear and transparent. Going from Earth to Wind, the main difference is in the substitution of the copper conductor material for pure silver. I have not heard this cable but I presume that the effect will be substantial. Then, stepping up to the Fire, you get an 8-layer Carbon-based noise-dissipation and shielding system instead of the other cables’ 6-layers and super-sturdy and magnificent-looking WEL-type double contact cold-welded connectors that are machined from solid extreme purity Red Copper and plated with pure hanging Silver. Glancing at these differences from one cable to another, one might be excused for underestimating the cumulative effect, but trust me, the difference between the Water and the Fire is HUGE! I’d even go as far as to say that, sonically, the Fire has almost nothing in common with the Water. It’s simply in an entirely different league.
With the Fire interlink between DAC and power amp, the sound is positively transformed by becoming considerably more robust and incisive as well as more direct and more lively. The cable’s unbridled enthusiasm works wonders throughout the frequency range but the midrange benefits in particular by becoming much more realistic. The effect is akin to the proverbial veil being lifted. I know, an over-used term and, really, how many veils can one lift? But the effect really is striking and this is the best I can describe it.
Throughout all my comparisons in this system thus far, the CH cable had always emerged as the most accurate, most linear, and most neutral but now that I am comparing it with the Fire, it’s as if the CH cable is every so slightly foggy and filtered in its presentation. It’s superbly refined and certainly not in any way colored, but compared to the Fire, it is just a little bit too sweet and friendly. Indeed, you could also call it slightly veiled. But evidently, the other cables that I compared it with so far were even less clear and crisp. And even though I have never thought it to be synthetic in its nature, the pure, open, and communicative Fire does make the CH cable sound less realistic.
Along with purer and more direct midrange, the bass also benefits by becoming more articulate. Even though the CH cable already had highly precise bass, with the Fire, it’s definitely more as if chiseled from granite. By that, I mean that low notes have lost any softness and have become sharply cut and more incisive. The impact and robustness of the bass are also increased, but uniquely, without adding any thickness. Rather, I’d say that the Fire’s portrayal of bass lines is actually tighter and nimbler, and more lifelike than that of the CH cable.
This trend of highly articulate, clear-cut sound continues in the treble, where hi-hats are less rounded, less white-ish, but more direct and impactful and still wide open and airy. Although the CH cable is highly refined and highly resolving, the Fire further raises the speed and accuracy in the transient behavior which makes percussive sounds actually more resemble the real thing.
Re-reading what I just wrote I can understand that one could by now fear that the Fire might introduce a hard and unforgiving sound but that’s not the case. My system may be slightly forgiving in the sense that it is extremely fluid and does not inherently produce any hard edges but it’s also highly revealing and if there was any hardness, I’d hear it. Granted, hard “S”‘es and vigorously hit cymbals and hi-hats are indeed more “concrete” and harder hitting than with the CH cable. But I strongly feel that the CH cable is rounding off the edges, rather than the Fire adding any hardness. That said, the Fire’s neutrality and evenhandedness will reveal issues elsewhere in the system.
Upon first listening, I did feel that the treble was slightly dry in comparison to what I was hearing with the CH cable. That’s what you get with extremely accurate transient behavior and when playing recordings that are themselves a little dry, and not using an analog preamp. I did not mind it but just took note. But with every hour that the cables played, this effect seemed to ameliorate. Already after a couple of days, I was no longer aware of any dryness. Moreover, while the initial switching back to the CH cable still made a case for itself in some aspects, treble fluidity being one of them, increasingly, I found ever less to favor. Rather, the more I listened to the Fire, the more the other cable diminished the joy and involvement that I had with the music.
With the CH DAC and amplifier, I can simultaneously connect two interlinks and quickly switch between them via a tablet. Since all connections are independently buffered, they do not interact. This, I have tested time and again and there really is no effect to be noted. Thus, this enables the ideal circumstances for A-B tests and this is how I compared the cables. Additionally, this enables blind tests for a secondary person and that’s just what I did with two of my audio buddies. First up was JW, long known for being Mr. Smooth and an opponent of any hardness in the sound. This is why he was always such a fan of Jeff Rowland amplification with his Apogee Centaur and Duetta Signature speakers. But with the recent years, having switched to Audio Research, Line Magnetic, and currently Zesto tube amplification, and my own continued quest for bass precision, JW has at long last developed a love for bass tightness, along with a preference for purity and lifelike-ness in the midrange over all-out smoothness. Still, knowing how his system sounds, I was unsure which cable JW would prefer. Only one way to find out, right?! Well, that test took no time at all. Already after the first switch from the Fire to the CH cable, JW experienced a lack of conviction and of a lessened articulation and rhythmic conviction, along with a lowered amount of what he calls the “singing quality”, which can be translated to “engaging tunefulness”. Quite simply, JW was experiencing the same as I did, without knowing what cable he was listening to. We did more tests only to confirm what we already heard. Just for completeness’ sake, I repeated this test with my friend MP, a fellow tube-fanatic like JW. To cut to the chase, MP felt exactly the same way. Enough said, right?
Ok, let’s throw in a last comparison with a new and interesting cable that I found to set the benchmark in its price class and quite a bit beyond: the Driade Flow Link 808 Reference. Even though the difference in cost between these two cables is substantial, they share a handful of properties. Both are very linear, neutral, and transparent, and both have superb low-level resolution. Where the two diverge is in terms of bass impact and incisiveness, overall dynamic impact, and all-around stature of the sound. Whereas the Driade cable is on the gentle side, quite forgiving and always fluid, the Fire is purer, more solid, and more direct and it feels more directly coupled to the music indeed. It takes me closer to the performance and it grips me more. Does that make it worth over 5 times the cost? For me, absolutely! Described like this, the differences may seem relatively small but they are in fact similar in proportion as well as in nature to the differences when switching between the CH cable and the Fire and to me, that’s not subtle at all.
At this stage, I will happily admit that I can no longer part with the Fire. This cable possesses a previously unachievable combination of superb transparency, low-level detail, purity, refinement, and linearity, with fabulous dynamics, rock-solid and highly agile bass, and superb rhythmic qualities. Moreover, this cable manages to sound extremely neutral and absolutely uncolored without ever becoming hard or dry and, importantly, without imposing even the slightest hint of an analytical quality onto the music. Whatever you play, it always comes across wholly naturally, the cable simply bending along with every musical style and genre.
Single-Ended Cinch or Balanced XLR
On this subject, the opinions will probably forever diverge but I will add that I hear consistent differences between these two versions of cables. And I hear them no matter if the interfaces are transformer-coupled or DC-coupled, and whether the equipment is truly balanced or Single-Ended internally. In the case of CH Precision, the equipment is truly balanced and the interfaces are DC coupled. For the longest time, I preferred XLR cables for their wider soundstaging that subjectively felt to be more impressive, as opposed to single-ended cables’ narrower, but sometimes more accurate soundstaging. But since a couple of years, and increasingly so, I prefer precision and accuracy over a subjective grandness. Moreover, since using dynamic speakers rather than dipoles, it’s clear that single-ended connections provide deeper and more 3D soundstaging than balanced connections. Yes, it’s usually less ultrawide but one could ask which of the two renditions is more “real”. I won’t pretend to know the answer to that but I will say that I gladly trade some wideness for more layered and more convincing 3D imaging. And what’s lost in terms of cinemascope effect is not even that much. I’d even be tempted to conclude that balanced connections add some default wideness and that single-ended connections can sound just as wide if this is registered in the recording.
This review was done using the Cinch-terminated version of the Fire cable, versus the XLR-terminated balanced CH Precision cable. Isn’t that apples and oranges? Yes, well, actually no. I have done countless cable comparisons with the CH components and apart from the aforementioned structural difference in terms of imaging, there is by no means a preference for either connection method. Given my current preference for the highest purity and precision, as well as enabling the widest application, I’d opt for the single-ended cinch version. But it is really a moot matter because while some manufacturers charge differently depending on the configuration, AudioQuest interlinks cost the same whichever way you terminate them.
I also tried the Fire in between the Aqua Formula xHD DAC and the Audio-GD Master 1 preamp only for it to repeat what I had already heard with the CH DAC. Although it might seem crazy to combine such a fine DAC with such an affordable preamp and it might make even less sense to use such an upscale cable with these components, all the same, here too, the Fire formed the best cable match that I have heard so far.
The same was true in the secondary system when used between the Ayon CD-10 II CD player and Spirit III amplifier where I have used the Water for years and recently switched to a simple old Siltech Paris cable. Well, as could have been expected, the Fire resolutely showed the Siltech its place. This shows two things. First, it is evidence of the Fire’s superb performance, and second, it shows just how neutral and unbiased it is.
Maybe it’s because AudioQuest is most well-known for its affordable lines of cables that the brand gets overlooked for its high-end lines but if this review proved one thing, it’s that this is absolutely undeserved! Not only can AudioQuest make great cables at low cost, but they also make cables that challenge the best that I have heard so far, irrespective of the cost.
Yes, you do pay for the privilege, quite steeply so. But given the stellar increase in performance that the cable enables, I still think it’s worth it. Beware, though, as hearing is believing. I am the third person in a row who purchased the cable after hearing it for the first time. You have been warned!
The Fire is the all-around best interlink that I have used so far.
Sales Managers Benelux
Jules Withagen and Frederic Veerman
Roosendaal, The Netherlands
Telephone: +31 165 54 1404
J. Withagen: email@example.com
F. Veerman: firstname.lastname@example.org