Listening #80

I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I'm with isn't it, and what's it seems scary and weird. It'll happen to you.—Abraham Simpson

Unsurprisingly for such an insecure lot, we audiophiles can't help filtering our joys through the perceptions of others: Will our wives tolerate the looks of those speakers, or the tangle of wires behind them? Do our children risk being burned or electrocuted by our creepy-looking amplifiers? Why don't our younger friends share our passions? Why are there so many ugly people in this neighborhood?

The bad thing—or maybe the good thing—is that I've become less like us and more like them. I won't sacrifice any more floor space to the hobby than I have already. I won't allow in my living room any more record players that look like something a 14-year-old boy would sketch in the margins of his math notebook. Even though my daughter is old enough not to mistake an output tube for a Fisher-Price Chatter Phone, some of my friends have very small children, so I won't allow any more dangerous junk in my home, either.

And those stupid-ass cables are outta here.

Tightwire
Years ago, I spent about $200—audiophile chump change today, but a considerable sum for me at the time—on a 30' pair of Naim Audio NACA5 speaker cables. I bought the cables to use with a fine-sounding Naim 250 amplifier I'd acquired second-hand; although that amp is now long gone, I've held on to the NACA5s ever since, to use whenever some or another Naim amplifier comes my way for review.

My reasoning: Naim Audio has always insisted that their amplifiers be used only with their own speaker cables. They justify that policy by pointing to the former's lack of a series output inductance and the latter's abundance of same—both of which qualities they say are intentional—and warn that a mismatch can result in suboptimal performance or even amplifier damage. And Naim won't honor warranties on any products whose repairs, in their opinion, were necessitated by using the wrong wire. Insert skull and crossbones here.

That's never been too big a deal for me. Then as now, Naim's speaker cables were among the most affordable accessory cables in all of high-end audio, often by a significant margin. And the warnings of incompatibility, while arguably overstated and underexplained, never struck me as unreasonable.

What did trouble me—and what troubles me a great deal more today, as I enter my irritable years—was the cable's lack of consumer-friendliness. The NACA5, which has remained unchanged in Naim Audio's product line since 1986, is essentially two chunky runs of stranded heavy-gauge wire twisted into a very tight bundle and molded into a thick sheath of Teflon, or something very much like it. Consequently, the NACA5 is stiffer than Swedish roadkill (footnote 1).

And the problem with that? Three come to mind:

1) When attempting to make connections that are twisty, tight, or otherwise clumsy, NACA5 is worse than unwieldy: It's often flat-out (haw) impossible to use.

2) In stereo installations in which one loudspeaker is closer to the amp than the other—which most of them are, to one extent or another—the longer of two runs of NACA5 can't very easily be coiled up and hidden from sight.

3) Worst of all: In my living-room system, one especially recalcitrant NACA5 cable persists in disconnecting itself from its respective Quad II mono amplifier. It is, in effect, a wire that doesn't work: an extraordinary thing to say about a product of which so little is asked.

The last time Problem #3 happened was the day I decided to take the most drastic step of all: I drove to RadioShack.

Tightwad
In rural America, the local RadioShack outlet is often a smaller part of some larger retail business: a hardware store, an auto-parts store, a drugstore. So it is in Cooperstown, New York, where the RadioShack exists within Bruce Hall, Inc., a locally owned Ace Hardware franchise with which my family has done business for years. Thus, in my community, RadioShack wears a smarter, more helpful, and altogether more familiar face than I otherwise associate with the chain. No offense intended.

Nor do I mean to offend when I speak disdainfully of a recent past when the products sold at RadioShack stores were all made in the company's own factories—to minimize middlemen and maximize profits—and branded with names that meant nothing to anyone: Realistic, Archer, Optimus (footnote 2). Today, RadioShack sells real products with real names: Blackberry, Sony, Apple, Monster.

That's right: You can now visit RadioShack for select audio accessories made by Monster Cable Products Inc.(footnote 3). And I admit that I was tempted to do so, especially when I saw that my local RadioShack sells 14-gauge Monster Cable in bulk for 49 cents/foot—and when I learned that Monster Cable would coax deeper bass from my music system. Everyone wants more bass.

But that would have been a step in the wrong direction: I wanted off of the high-end cable-go-round, not just a horse of a different color. So I reached for the cheapest insulated wire capable of doing the job (scientifically speaking, of course), which turned out to be RadioShack's SW-1650 16-gauge speaker wire ($8.99/50' roll). My only extravagance was to splurge on RadioShack's 274-721 solderless banana plugs ($2.99/pair), rather than depend on bare wire to make my connections. It was, after all, payday. I brought home the RadioShack wire and plugs and put together my new cables that evening.

The next morning, I tore with real enthusiasm into my living-room system: Quad ESL loudspeakers, Quad II mono amplifiers, Fi preamplifier, Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player, and Linn LP12 turntable. I'd originally intended to do a careful A/B comparison between the old cables and the new, but after reaching behind the Quad II amplifiers and discovering that one leg of the right-channel NACA5 run had pulled itself free of the amp yet again, I became so angry that, without additional bother, I unplugged the Naim cables at both ends and substituted the RadioShacks. The new stuff worked: End of story. I left the old stuff tucked behind the speakers for the time being, vowing to haul it out the next day.

But the next day, I was ashamed of my haste. So I warmed up the amp, listened to Punch, by Chris Thile's new group, the Punch Brothers (CD, Nonesuch 181732-2), and then, reluctantly, gave the Naim cable one more chance, cursing all the while its hateful unwieldiness.

The Naim NACA5 was noticeably better. Damn it.

I won't trot out the sickening exaggerations some folks reserve for cable reviews. The NACA5 did not add an octave of bass. Its use did not permit me to locate each player on the "soundstage" with "surveyor's accuracy." It did not, by any means, call to the wives in the homes nearest mine.

What I did hear, however, were differences that had as much to do with music as with sound—so they couldn't help but catch my attention. Each verse in the Punch Brothers' "Punch Bowl" contains a very cool hook, the success of which depends on a drop of a half-step, from A to A-flat, by the double bass (and echoed in the chord voicings of some of the other instruments). The Naim cables allowed my decidedly non-Naim system to get that across; with the cheap RadioShack cables, pitches and pitch relationships in the lowest octave were smeared and comparatively unclear.

For confirmation I tuned to another good, if more obvious, musical selection: the opening bars of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's classic recording of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra (CD, JVC JMCXR-0011). The bass pedal pitch was clearer through the Naim NACA5 cable, the "pulses" easier to count: Through the Naim cables, I knew what was coming (and when); through the RadioShacks, I was in the dark.

The Naim NACA5s also allowed my music recordings to have a more realistic sense of flow: The listening experience was slightly but unmistakably easier and more natural than with the RadioShack cables. (I offer that observation in the utmost sincerity, of course, but I hesitate to mention it, if only because some readers still don't know what the hell I'm talking about when I go off about flow and momentum and pacing and humanness and other things that characterize music but not mere sound. Yet when I talk about bass, people from all walks of audiophile life seem more accepting. Everyone wants more bass.)

So then: a negative expectation produced a positive result, an axiom the likes of which is completely unknown in every science except developmental psychology.

Tightfisted
Although the RadioShack cable played music well enough—and did an altogether superior job of staying plugged in—the Naim NACA5 clearly and repeatedly outperformed it in my Quad-based system.



Footnote 1: From something called The Unofficial Naim Audio FAQ: "[Naim NACA5] will bend quite easily to allow it to go around corners." No, in fact, it will not: That's the kind of bullshit, along with nonsensical "advice" to let your stylus clean your records for you and to disregard cartridge alignment entirely, that makes Flat-Earthers look foolish to most other audiophiles, especially here in the 21st century. Nor has the fact that their observations are always worded precisely the same way—whether appearing in consumer magazines and websites or the manufacturers' own literature—done much to enhance the Flat-Earth cause.

Footnote 2: It's also nice that, in recent years, the RadioShack corporation has made their logo a little less goofy and nerdy. That pleases me no end, although I suppose it displeases those electronics enthusiasts who are themselves goofy and nerdy, and of whom there seems to be no shortage on the Internet.

Footnote 3: But at RadioShack you can't drink Monster Energy Beverage, play Monster Miniature Golf, or get a job through Monster.com.

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