Confession time: I don't really like reviewing cables. It's a controversial topic that can often be more trouble than it's worth. And even when dealing with a crowd of cable enthusiasts, most would generally agree that cable upgrades represent a much smaller change in sound compared to swapping headphones, DACs, or amplifiers. I tend to think of cable upgrades as a "last few percent" type thing - squeezing the absolute best performance out of the system I already love. With this in mind, I actually have done the occasional cable review, such as when I first discovered Effect Audio cables way back in 2013. This is opposed to something like Moon Audio, whose cables I use and enjoy but have never reviewed - they are already well-known enough to where I don't feel I have much to add.
Today's topic is Audio Art, a brand which has been around since 2005 but wasn't very familiar to me until recently. Owner Rob Fritz is extremely responsive and easy to work with - one of a small number of folks in the industry with whom I find myself veering off topic to discuss music and other gear aside from cables, because he's just so approachable. I've become so taken with his products over the past year that my reference system is now wired with the power1 ePlus AC cables... keep in mind that I've got many, many AC cables to choose from, including some very expensive/high profile names. But I just enjoy the Audio Art power1 ePlus more, regardless of price or brand recognition. I'm also using the superb Audio Art D-1SE digital cable whenever a DAC features BNC inputs (unfortunately not all of them do). At some point I'm likely to pick up a few interconnects as well, just based on my satisfaction with the rest of their offerings.
Thankfully Audio Art now has a couple headphone cables in their lineup, which I'm told is a fairly new development. The HPX-1 Classic (starting at $300) is the "base" model, and the HPX-1SE (from $380) offers step-up performance for what I consider a reasonable upcharge. These are available in various lengths from 5 feet to 15 feet, and with a variety of termination options on either end. If you end up with some obscure application which isn't covered by the standard ordering menu, I'm fairly sure the company can handle your request via email. So don't be afraid to ask.
Under review is an HPX-1SE terminated with a rhodium Eidolic 4-pin XLR. On the headphone end, I chose the Eidolic mini-XLR plugs because they work with various headphones from Audeze, Meze, ZMF, and Kennerton, as opposed to most other types which only accommodate one specific model. I also like how robust the connection method feels - much more confidence inspiring than either style used by HiFiMAN over the years, and easier to deal with than the MrSpeakers connectors. This means I can use the HPX-1SE with my Audeze LCD-3, LCD-2, and Meze Empyrean, and not be concerned about wear and tear with frequent switching (unlike my HE1000 and Susvara, where I do in fact worry).
In describing the cable, Audio Art tells us the following:
"Our HXP-1SE features 2 paralleled cables with twin 28 awg single crystal OCC Copper conductors in each PVC jacket, insulated with PE dielectric. Left and Right channels are independently shielded with a braided silver-plated OFHC copper shield . The intention of this design is for high resolution audio performance, multiple application compatibilities, and rugged durability. Hand built in San Diego, California."
On looks, the HPX-1SE is what I'd call understated and classy. It's not the thickest cable, nor does it feature any flashy accents. But it's nonetheless attractive in its own way, and feels robustly made, with enough flexibility to be comfortable in use (unlike the stock Meze Empyrean cable which is rather unwieldy).
Although my system fluctuates regularly for review purposes, the bulk of my listening was done using the following gear.
*Core Power Technology Equi=Core 1800 balanced power conditioner
*Nativ Vita streaming Roon, where Roon Server is run on an Asustor AS6404T NAS in another room
*Titans Audio Labs Helen reclocker
*Resonessence Labs Mirus Pro Signature DAC
*Niimbus Audio US4+ headphone amplifier
*Audio Art power1 ePlus AC cables with Furutech FI-28(R) Rhodium connectors for all components
*Cabledyne Silver Reference AES/EBU cable from transport to reclocker (only certain low profile cables fit with the Vita)
*Audio Art D-1SE BNC cable from reclocker to DAC
*BetterCables Blue Truth II XLR cables from DAC to amp
*Audeze LCD-2, LCD-3, and Meze Empyrean headphones
First up was the LCD-2, which is actually my most-used Audeze headphone. This particular set is what we used to call the LCD-2.2, meaning it the last iteration before Audeze rolled out their "Fazor" technology which fundamentally changed the sound, not necessarily for the better in my opinion. I've gone through numerous sets until I arrived at this "unicorn" example, which to my ears has visceral low end impact, creamy mids, and a tastefully smooth top end which is forgiving yet detailed enough for versatile listening enjoyment.
Switching back and forth between the stock Audeze "ribbon" style cable and the HPX-1SE, I notice a subtle but worthwhile improvement in treble clarity. Not necessarily more extension, as the tonal balance is unchanged. Yet I hear cymbals, triangles, and particularly trumpets come through with more realistic attack as well as more believable note decay. For example, on the excellent XRCD release of Tiger Okoshi's Color of Soil, I feel the "bite" of the trumpet more distinctly than with the stock cable, while at the same time finding it less fatiguing at higher volumes. When the sound comes through more clearly, it can be more dynamic and alive while simultaneously feeling less artificial, and thus not triggering the part of the brain that says "turn that down".
Midrange remains untouched by the HPX-1SE - in this case an absolutely perfect outcome. This particular LCD-2 is rich, creamy, almost saturated through the mids, and I would not want to change a single aspect of it.
Low-end extension and body seem very slightly improved. I notice a touch more tonal richness from the double bass on an SACD rip of Gary Karr Plays Bach, along with a similar feeling of increased authority on Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone. Again, these improvements are subtle, and by no means does the Audio Art cable change the fundamental character of the headphone. Yet between this low-end improvement and the superior treble clarity mentioned above, the result is a welcome fine tuning to an already exceptional headphone.
A reasonable argument might be to suggest the money would be better allocated to a higher-end Audeze, rather than using the LCD-2 with the added cost of a cable upgrade. Makes sense on paper, but I have already been through at least one example of every model in the LCD series. In fact I still own a very nice sounding LCD-3 (pre Fazor) that I settled on after going through about 4 different pairs. I quite enjoy it, and admit it is clearly the more neutral, resolving headphone compared to my LCD-2. It would be far more useful in evaluating gear, but I already have other headphones that perform that function even better. In terms of listening pleasure though, my LCD-2 is king.
Still, swapping in the HPX-1SE brings a more substantial improvement to my LCD-3. It sounds more liquid, more flowing than with the stock ribbon cable, while again bringing more clarity to the treble... which in this case feels more significant as the treble is more prominent with this headphone. While my preference remains for the LCD-2/HPX-1SE combo, I can't deny that the recabled LCD-3 sounds pretty amazing. The delta between them becomes smaller, and it really comes down to signature preference... I prefer the smooth, rich LCD-2 but could really make a case for the 3 as well.
Lastly, the Meze Empyrean, which has become my most used full-size headphone lately. I already dislike the stock cable for its stiffness so the Audio Art gets points on feel alone. As for sound, I didn't initially notice a huge difference... sure, treble was more clear, but it wasn't as significant as the Audeze models. After using the HPX-1SE for a week, I switched back to the stock cable (don't ask me why)... and immediately noticed a muffled, compressed sound signature. The difference was striking in this case - definitely on par with the change I heard with the LCD-3, or perhaps even greater. This change was nearly on par with switching between the two sets of bundled earpads that Meze includes with this headphone - a definite, clear change in signature.
The Audio Art cable opens up the top-end of the Empyrean in a very welcome way. It's not brighter per se, but more clear, open, and resolving. I'd call it treble "rightness" though I'm not sure that will make sense to all readers. The ample bass response of the Empyrean needs no further boosting and while the HPX-1SE does increase the sense of slam by a small amount, it seems to bring focus to the sub-bass region. So it's not initially obvious, nor does it significantly change the tonal balance of the headphone. The end result is a more open, clean sounding presentation with improved resolution, along with slightly more sub-bass impact if you really listen hard for it. Which for my taste ends up being pretty much ideal.
In the end, all three headphones benefit by a noticeable margin from adding the Audio Art HPX-1SE. Which makes it a worthy upgrade as-is. But I'd like to discuss one more thing - Audio Art makes an adapter cable system which allows the HPX-1 or HPX-1SE to be used with different headphones. I was able to use the adapters to make my cable compatible with both the Sony Z1R and the Focal Elex, while still being very low profile and comfortable.
Sony's Z1R is a weird headphone. It's certainly not neutral, and the experience brings to mind the boring-looking-yet-expensive Audio Note speakers - tactile, musical, but far from even-handed. Still, with the right supporting gear and the proper expectations they can be wonderfully engaging and fun to listen to. The Audio Art cable seems to make the Z1R a bit more linear and "correct" sounding, which to my ears takes away from the experience. I end up preferring my Moon Audio Silver Dragon which maintains the core signature while tightening everything up a bit.
Having said that, I can see how the HPX-1SE might be preferred by folks who don't necessarily love Sony's tuning on this headphone. It does end up sounding more neutral and controlled, which is something I've heard people wish for on more than one occasion. For my uses though, it's not an ideal match.
Focal's Elex, on the other hand, is a brilliant partner for the HPX-1SE. Again I hear improved low-end authority along with superior treble clarity, but this time midrange is a bit more fleshed out as well. Not enough to change the fundamental character of the Elex but it does make them feel slightly more tonally rich. I also notice improved staging and imaging accuracy. Elex is probably my favorite headphone in the sub-$1K space, and while the HPX-1SE brings it slightly above that number ($~1100 for the combo) I feel the result is definitely competitive with other headphones costing more (including Focal's own $1500 Clear).
Are cable upgrades worth it in all cases? Of course not. Your system has to be resolving enough to pick up on minor changes, and if it isn't then I'd recommend other upgrades first. Once you have everything else dialed in, quality cables can bring that exceptional system to an even higher level of performance.
Audio Art's HPX-1SE headphone cable is a very worthy entry into a crowded field of competitors. It did a superb job with 4 our of the 5 headphones I paired it with, and the 5th headphone was debatable based on listening preferences.
I also love the fact that Audio Art offers the adapter system, allowing users to get more bang for their cable buck. I've seen a few other brands offer conceptually similar adapters but the Audio Art system strikes a perfect balance between low profile and price - others I've seen are either too bulky or cost nearly as much as the entire cable.
Overall I can very easily recommend the Audio Art HPX-1SE. It's not as well-known as some of the big brands, but in my experience it offers better value and performance than many others in this price range. Definitely check it out if you are in the market for an upgrade.