Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Capacitor shoot out

Oh No ! Not another capacitor comparison test !

Actually, no one likes comparing capacitors. Do we really have nothing better to do in life but to swap capacitors in and out of circuit, burning in numerous capacitors just to find out how they sound ?

Right now, the stock Wima MKP10 output coupling caps in my Diva Audio M7 have been taken out and the wires soldered to alligator clips instead, to facilitate ease of swapping the caps in and out.

Unlike some testers than undergo thorough and scientific methodology, there was no blind testing, or gruelling 500 hours burn in test. Neither are all caps of identical value because many of these caps just happen to be lying around for trial. But according to my calculations, all of the capacitors tested are large enough in value to not cause any audible degradation to the bass response in my system.

I also happened to need to conduct some tests on the power supply, so some of these caps were used as a bypass cap in the last stage of the C-L-C power supply of my M7. The values used weren't consistent, and the listening notes there are included just for interest and completeness sake. I've included some of my personal experiences of these caps for crossover use too.

Please do not use any of these capacitors in AC mains filters - they are not properly rated for such applications !

The line-up (in no particular order) :-

1. Clarity Cap ESA
2. Solen Fast Cap
3. Auricap
4. Obbligato Gold Premium Cap
5. Jantzen Superior Z Cap
6. Mundorf M-Cap
7. Mundorf Supreme
8. Mundorf Supreme Silver in Oil
9. Mundorf Supreme Silver / Gold
10. Ampohm Paper-in-oil Tin Foil


(Top Row, Left - Right, Solen, Obbligato, Clarity Cap, Auricap, Mundorf M-Cap)
(Bottom Row - Left - Right, Jantzen, Wima, Mundorf Supreme, Mundorf Silver / Gold, Mundorf Silver in Oil)

For a value reference, here are the online prices of the above caps for 1.0 uF in USD arranged in order from the cheapest to the most expensive.

Solen                                               $1.76
Mundorf M-Cap                              $3.54
Wima MKP10                                 $4.00
Clarify Cap ESA                              $8.90
Obbligato Gold Premium                $10.50
Jantzen Superior Z Cap                  $12.00
Mundorf Supreme                          $20.00
Auricap                                          $21.50
Ampohm Paper-in-oil Tin Foil        $29.95
Mundorf Supreme Silver / Oil         $48.00
Mundorf Supreme Silver / Gold      $68.00

Stock Cap - Wima MKP10

Absolutely nothing wrong with the Wima. The MKP10 is a common sight in quite a lot of expensive equipment and instantly recognisable by its red rectangular box appearance. I know that T.S. Lim of Diva Audio favours this cap for its neutrality and dynamics.

It is a neutral cap and in the wrong systems can sound a bit lean. It is quite open and gives the impression of an overall lack of euphony or bloom. Although it has a relatively smooth midrange, when things get busy, the midrange can take on a bit of glare and hardness. In such situations, the treble becomes a bit tizzy and messy. This was made very obvious when going back to the Wima from the Mundorf Silver / Gold.

In terms of soundstage depth and presentation, the Wima is like sitting close to front row. Mundorf capacitors in comparison are more like sitting in the middle row.

Clarity Cap ESA


A very pretty cap and its metal foil body looks impressive. Initial impressions are that of a very dark capacitor with recessed midrange and not much treble extension. Thankfully, after a few hours of burn in, things improve  quite  lot.

This is an interesting capacitor. It has a weighty mid-bass that gives lower piano notes good solidity and feel. Vocals sound inviting and smooth, with almost no trace of sibilance on the usual problem tracks. Further listening reveals that the midrange is recessed and slightly less resolving as the Wima MKP10. Unlike the Wima MKP10 that has a dry and honest treble, the ESA has an airy treble and high frequency sparkle that highlights the decay of cymbals and high hats, and "enhances" the sense of acoustic space in recordings.

This could be an ideal cap to tame overly bright and lighweight sounding systems without making the overall presentation too dark. Given its relatively modest price by high end cap prices, this cap has plenty going for it.

Auricap

Auricaps come is a nice bright yellow wrapper and have insulated multi-stranded leads, one of which is black and the other red, presumably to differentiate the outer foil of the windings from the inner foil.

Audience, the manufacturer of Auricap, recommends that the signal enter through the black lead and exit through the red lead for signal coupling purposes, which is the way I installed them.

Moving from the Clarity Cap ESA to the Auricap restored my system back to the same tonal balance as the stock caps - neutral. Don't make hasty conclusions about this cap. For the first two hours, although it sounded neutral, high frequencies had a strange wobbly quality, a bit like tape speed variation. After about five hours, this more or less disappeared.

Compared to the Wima, the Auricap has a smoother midrange but a neutral balance through the whole audio frequency spectrum. The ESA has more air and high frequency sparkle than the Auricap. You can say that the Auricap does nothing wrong, but look elsewhere if you are looking for a cap to colour the tonal balance of your system.

Used in the power supply, this falls somewhat between the Solen and Mundorf Supreme. Definitely more open sounding that the Solen, but it doesn't quite have the musicality or openness of the Mundorf.

Mundorf Supreme

The Mundorf Supreme is the bottom of the Supreme range and is physically huge for its rated value. This is probably some part due to its induction free design which effectively uses two capacitors in series within the same casing. Do check the space available in your casing before you buy !

The Supreme ended up with a little more burn in than usual due to a strange phenomenon. The first few hours were fantastic ! Smooth, liquid and the most beautiful and lingering decay from notes. Things then took a turn for the worse, with the caps entering into a decisively unhappy state - the midrange in particular was hashy and grainy.

Way past the 10 hours mark, things began to settle down and serious listening could commence.

Coming from the Auricap, the Supreme was on the other side of the fence, highly musical, entertaining and perhaps not the most accurate sounding of capacitors. Although the tonal balance is quite neutral, the Supreme has a very polished and refined midrange with the right amount of meat throughout the frequency range. Musical notes are presented with texture and fine nuances, making the Auricap sound dry in comparison.

Easily the most pleasing of the caps tested this far, the Supreme combines the weight and treble extension of the Claritycap ESA with the speed of the Wima MKP10. Coupled to its highly resolving and musical nature and affordable price, do consider the Supreme for your next purchase. To nitpick, the only criticism against the Supreme against its competitors so far would be a slight loss of resolution in extreme high frequencies, and its artistic rather than honest approach towards music. The latter point is subjective anyway and you may personally have a preference for this.

This cap is also very good in power supplies. Apart from weight, it has speed and bloom.

This is also my favourite capacitor for crossover use.

Mundorf Silver/Gold


The Mundorf Silver/Gold sounds remarkably like the Supreme. What does spending 3 x more get you ? Highs are more extended with a better sense of air and resolution. Midrange has a warmer glow to it. Overall this cap sounds slightly more liquid, a bit like how the Supreme sounds initially (the subject cap here is very well run in since it is on loan from a friend who has put considerable hours on it) However, despite the subjective improvements, the value proposition is hard to argue. If funds are unlimited, this is a moot point. But if you have a choice between choosing the Supreme for 3 critical locations, compared to using the Silver/Gold for just one critical location, I would choose the former without hesitation.

Mundorf M-Cap

Compared to the Wima, the M-Cap sounds softer and more rounded. As a result, dynamics suffer a bit, with bass notes lacking in impact and extension. The Wima sounds a lot more open in comparison although the M-Cap does have a pleasingly smooth midrange. Unfortunately, the M-Cap sounds smooth yet has a sibilance problem in the midrange. In the upper frequencies, this cap sounds dry and restricted. The treble also has a tendency to get splashy when things get busy. The only conclusion I have is that this cap is probably more suited for some other application and is not suited for high voltage coupling use. This is the only cap so far in listening tests that make you want to reach for the power switch !

Mundorf Supreme Silver / Oil

What a breath of fresh air ! Coming from the M-Cap, the Mundorf Supreme Silver in Oil is a treat for the ears. The Mundorf Supreme family of capacitors have a distinct family sound. The Silver in Oil is much more liquid and open compared to the Supreme. I actually prefer this to the Silver / Gold. The Silver in Oil is very extended at both ends with excellent microdetails in the midrange and high frequencies. It is also exquisitely refined with an excellent balance struck between being analytical and musical. It lacks the midrange glow of the Silver / Gold but is more even throughout the entire frequency band. At all times, it sounds effortless and natural. Strongly recommended !

Obbligato Gold Premium Cap

Initial impressions during burn in time were quite promising. A very even handed performer with a neutral balance and good detail throughout. Balance wise, this reminds me of the Auricap the most except that the Obbligato has more extended and wetter highs. Midrange is pleasingly smooth without being muffled and there is plenty of information being conveyed in a tidy and controlled fashion. The Achilles' heel of this cap is its bass which is slightly rounded and not particularly deep, especially compared to the Mundorf Supreme series. This results in a somewhat lighweight sounding presentation. That being said, this is a very good cap, especially considering its competitive price. Subjectively, I feel that except for the bass issue, the Obbligato is more pleasing than the Auricap at a much cheaper price.

Jantzen Superior Z-Cap

The Jantzen Superior Z-Cap struck me as being remarkably similar to the Obbligato except for two material differences. Firstly, the Jantzen has a more extended and prominent bass, and high frequencies are fractionally more open and extended. With outstanding neutrality from top to bottom at a modest price, this is a very good cap with excellent price to performance ratio. From a subjective point of view, I prefer this slightly over the Obbligato. If the Obbligato could be said to be a wee bit off neutral towards the warm side, the Jantzen is a wee bit off neutral towards the cool side. My usual comment on neutrality applies, the Jantzen communicates the signal with an even hand - look elsewhere if you are looking for added “spice”.

Solen Fast Cap

According to common Audiophile wisdom, using a cap like Solen in signal carrying duties earns you a one way ticket to the Audiophile Hall-of-Shame. Well, surprise, surprise. Maybe using Solen caps is not the Audiophile faux-pas it is made out to be. The Solen can best be described as inoffensive but not particularly inspiring. On the plus side, it is smooth and pleasant. You can listen to it and fall asleep. Comparisons to the other caps  show that the Solen looses some low level information, with high frequency air and information being most obviously affected. The overall outcome is not life threatening and Solen would probably do fine for limited budget projects. In the test set-up, it fared better than the Mundorf M-Cap. Sonically, its second from the bottom of all the caps here on test. To put things in perspective, given its almost giveaway cost, you could do a lot worse.

This is quite decent in power supply use, with a big and chunky sound.

Ampohm Paper-in-Oil Tin Foil


Words cannot describe how big this capacitor is. I was filled with pride when my package arrived from the distributor of Ampohm, www.audiocap.co.uk (great buying experience - try them !). I excitedly  showed my partner the oil filled capacitors that looked more like a smoke grenade. Don't even think of using them in tight spaces.


 Ampohm capacitor with a Solen cap of the same value for comparison.
You didn't think I was joking about the size did you ?

The Ampohm sounds quite good. Good enough to fall nearly at the top of the heap. Taking into account its relatively affordable price, this is quite an achievement. Unlike vintage paper-in-oil caps or some other current production brands, the Ampohm manages to sound rich, liquid and extended at the same time. Its tonal balance is similar to the Mundorf Silver / Oil or Mundorf Silver / Gold. If compared side-by-side, the Ampohm sounds "blacker" with very silent quiet passages. Initially, there is an impression that instruments like cymbals and high-hats have less detail and decay. However, after extended evaluation comes the realisation that such instruments are equally detailed and extended but put in less stark contrast compared to the Mundorf Silver / Oil. Value for money wise, the Ampohm definitely beats the Mundorf hands down. Although I still prefer the Silver / Oil, I can imagine that the Ampohm could suit other systems better. Highly recommended !

This capacitor also works quite well in speaker crossovers, especially in the tweeter circuit.

Conclusions

Despite having personal preferences, it is worth stating that most of these capacitors would do perfectly well in all but the most critical applications. My favourites at the end of this test are :-

Cost-no-object - Mundorf Supreme Silver / Oil. Close runner-up, Ampohm Paper-in-oil Tin Foil.
Best of the rest - Jantzen Superior Z-Cap, Mundorf Supreme, Obbligato Premium Gold

For the selection of the best of the rest, it is a bit like baby bear's porridge - the choice of "just right" depends on your system. Jantzen if your system needs a wee bit opening up. Obbligato if your system is just right. Between these 3 caps, the Mundorf is for the heart (emotionally expressive) while the Obbligato and Jantzen are for the mind (neutral and truer to source).