We do not have dozens of phono cables available from which to choose, as we do interconnect cables. It seems that only a few of the top manufacturers offer cables specifically designed and configured for the critical tonearm-to-phono preamplifier connection. One of these is Audioquest, one of the oldest high-end cable manufacturers.
The breadth of the Audioquest cable line is extensive. (There are currently 21 entries on their Web site under “Interconnects”.) They offer everything from in-wall home theater cabling to ultra-high-end cables, with ultra-high-end prices to match. In that very complete product offering, the LeoPard* is their sole phono cable. It comes equipped with a JIS (DIN compatible) plug for the tonearm and RCAs for the phono stage connection. Balanced XLR connectors are also available. The LeoPard is a nicely packaged cable in a charcoal-colored single jacket, with very high quality RCA connectors that always made a firm connection no matter what RCA jack they met. The wire is Audioquest’s best solid PSS silver conductors with Teflon air tubes. Please visit their Web site (link below) for a complete description of the physical construction.
Where some manufacturers discuss the grain structure or purity of the metal or some other unique qualities of their metal formula, Audioquest stresses the importance of the surface of each conductor, reasoning that since skin effect is such an important electrical property, then the way the exterior surface of each wire is prepared will have a significant impact on the resulting sound. The LeoPard cable comes in a standard length of 1.2m, and with a price of $500. One other item: it uses Audioquest’s DBS battery biasing system. In this cable, the battery bias level is 36 volts. Does it make a difference? Yes, but more on this unique feature below.
I used the LeoPard cable with the Graham Phantom tonearm, and the right-angle JIS plug was compatible. When installed, the cable exits the arm to the right (looking from the front of the turntable. In contrast, the Graham IC-70 cable has the wire exiting straight down.) This may be a tight fit in some turntables, but there was plenty of room with the Kuzma Stabi Reference turntable and the flexible LeoPard cable.
One other item before we take a listen. Break-in. How do you break-in a phono cable? According to Audioquest’s Joe Harley, the tiny voltage from cartridges will never fully break in a phono cable. He suggested that assuring proper break-in was a benefit of the DBS system. Just to be sure, I temporarily installed small wire jumpers in the JIS plug to connect the left and right leads, and then connected one RCA to an audio frequency sweep generator and the other RCA to a 47k Ohm resistor installed in a female RCA jack. The generator puts out 7.5 Volts, or about 15,000 times the voltage of my low output moving coil cartridges. I let it cook for over 200 hours before installing the LeoPard in the system. This is roughly equivalent to playing 9,000,000 record sides, or living in analog bliss for 3,000,000 hours. And you thought you would never use math after graduation! (Q: How many years is that? …A: 342.47 years.)
This evaluation came several months after my Graham IC-70 vs. Hovland MG-2 Shoot Out, and the Hovland cable was no longer available for comparison. So with just the IC-70 on-hand as a benchmark, it is time to cue up a record. And another record. Maybe one more to see how this sounds. OK, now side 2. Get the idea? This is a good cable, and I was enjoying the performance from start to finish. When it was time to get analytical, the first area to draw my attention was the bass. It is more powerful, more resonant and rich sounding, and with slightly increased detail than IC-70. Acoustic bass lines were easier to follow with the LeoPard, and the entire bass register seemed to have greater dynamic range. Tympani and bass drums exploded with greater immediacy. It would not be fair to the Graham cable to say that LeoPard is categorically better in the bass, but it is different and this difference will be a benefit in some systems (most, I suggest), but possibly a bit overpowering if your system in already pushing the upper limits in the bass. Fortunately, few systems I have heard have too much bass, and this is usually caused by a mis-match of the speaker in a too-small room. Or by a heavy hand with the subwoofer level controls.
The LeoPard’s tonal balance became more similar to IC-70 as I focused on higher frequencies. Changing cartridges and phono stages, there were actually just two areas where I preferred the IC-70. The mid- and upper-treble of the Graham cable is more pure sounding, with cymbals having little or no white-noise quality even on less than stellar recordings. This is not an issue of listening to a smooth sounding silver cable versus a copper cable, although I was reminded of the “copper character” as I listened to the LeoPard cable. The IC-70 just had better resolution in the upper frequencies, offering every note cleanly and in greater relief from the surrounding notes. The LeoPard was coarser and not as refined. I suggest the LeoPard’s more obvious texture might be a better fit in a sweet EL34 or 300B SET-powered system, one in which the upper frequencies can sound somewhat soft or reticent. These observations were made more easily discernable when I replaced the IC between the phono stage and preamp, which was either Oritek X-2 or PS Audio Resolution Reference, with the unusually delicate and revealing PS Audio Resolution Transcendent. A full review of the two PS Audio cables will appear on these pages soon.
The difference in the ability of the Graham and Audioquest phono cables to present a convincing soundstage was also interesting. The LeoPard was mostly enjoyable on its own, but when I reinstalled the IC-70 to check this particular trait, it was clear that the Graham cable presents a much deeper and more clearly layered soundstage. There was also a much clearer sense of the size of the recording venue with the IC-70 since it presented the feeling of air and reverberation more obviously. Whether this is important to you or not will probably depend on the type or types of music you prefer. If all of your LPs were originally recorded in a studio, then the difference in soundstage presentation might be inconsequential.
I wanted to see what effect the DBS bias system has on the sound, so let’s pull the plug on that battery and see what happens. ((Sounds of groaning as reviewer leans far over turntable and unplugs wire.)) What? I don’t really believe this! The DBS battery is only connected on one end, with no electron flow through the cable from the battery. Nevertheless and regardless, the difference when the battery was disconnected is large and instantly noticeable on this phono cable. Every audible quality degraded significantly. It was as if the LeoPard transformed from a strong and able predator to a weak and struggling scavenger. Sonically, the cable went from high-end component stereo to a mid-fi rack system. Rough, grainy, flat soundstage, etc. Enough of that! The DBS system is very effective in this application.
The Audioquest LeoPard phono cable with DBS is a true high-end audio product. In other words, it is capable of excellent performance but not everyone will agree on its sound quality. That is fine. This would be a boring hobby if there was only one way to get good sound from a vinyl pancake! LeoPard cable costs about 70% as much as IC-70, but offers 85% of the latter’s reference-quality performance.
Overall Rating: 8.5 LPs
Link to manufacturer’s Web site: Audioquest
* Audioquest capitalizes the “P” in LeoPard to help people remember that LeoPard is for Phono.