Stereovox SEI-600II & LSP-600 interconnect & speaker cable
JA's comment was understandable. After all, in 1995 we already had round, flat, and tubular conductors made of silver, gold, and copper, as well as various alloys and combinations of different core and plating materials. There were cables shielded by various fabrics and polymers, Teflon, air, water, and even light. Some were shielded, some weren't; some had exotic termination circuits; a few even came with power supplies that applied a bias voltage to their shields. It seemed as if most of the technical avenues had already been explored and were being represented by manufacturers then active. And now here we are, a decade later, and new high-end cable makers continue to emerge.
Where have I heard that name before?
Stereovox isn't exactly new. It was established as a cable company in 1999 by Chris Sommovigo and longtime partner Antonio de Almeida Santos, and Sommovigo's presence in the industry goes back much further still. He started Illuminati in 1992 with what was, arguably, the first true 75-ohm digital S/PDIF cable, and thus the first design to address the problem of reflections due to mismatched impedances. A later Illuminati model, the Orchid, is widely and fondly remembered as the first really killer digital cable.
Sommovigo then moved to Utah, where he worked with Ray Kimber of Kimber Kable: Kimber distributed Illuminati products, and the two worked together on a product-development effort. That project didn't work out, but during this time Sommovigo and Santos launched a recording company, Stereovox, and began with a recording of the Moscow Symphony made in the winter of 1996. The arrangement with Kimber ended, the existing Illuminati designs became Kimber Kable products, and Sommovigo began designing cables on his own again—to be marketed under the Stereovox banner.
The first two Stereovox cables, the SEI-600 interconnect and LSP-600 speaker cable, were introduced, to rave reviews, in 1999. They sounded great and had unique, machined-from-rod aluminum connectors made by a company called Xhadow. Scratch the surface a bit and you find out that Sommovigo is part of Xhadow as well—his partner there is Stuart Marcus, of Vampire Wire and Sound Connections fame. Unfortunately, the Stereovox cables' introduction coincided perfectly with the dot-com crash—"bad timing for a cost-no-object luxury product," Sommovigo wryly noted. Never deterred for long, he went about redesigning versions of the cables that were less expensive to produce, and incorporated a few new ideas in the process.
It's what's inside that counts
All current Stereovox analog cables share a common design: a twisted-pair arrangement of two identical coaxial conductors, and some other bits I'll shortly describe. At the center of each coaxial conductor is a fine conductor of solid-core silver. Air-articulated, or bubbled, Teflon tape is wrapped helically around this, after which the tape's surface is lightly sintered to produce a consistent interface with the next layer, the shield. The shield is not a standard braided or foil type but an extremely fine, multi-conductor wire of silver-plated copper, which also is helically wrapped around the cable. Teflon is then sintered onto the outside of the shield. Two of these assemblies are twisted together, the bundle encased in a PVC jacket and an outer sheath of Nomex.
At each end of the cable the two grounds are joined, as are the two center conductors, and the appropriate Xhadow connector is attached via a clamp-and-solder process called Intimately Stressed Contact. There are actually two more Teflon-shielded silver-coated copper conductors alongside the twisted pair—the "other bits" mentioned above. These are there but are not used in the single-ended interconnects and speaker cables, but form the third conductor in the balanced interconnect.
Everything about the Stereovox cables oozes luxury, from the spiffy aluminum briefcases they're packaged in to the way they solidly connect with just a light push. I'm no fan of the polished, chrome-plated flash I see in some audio jewelry, and I'm intolerant of the excessively thick and rigid stupidity that's sometimes equated with high-performance cables. The Stereovox wires, on the other hand, are right on the mark. They're small, flexible, easy to route, and, as I noted above, make getting a solid connection nearly idiot-proof, even in hidden, impossible-to-reach places.
Lovely to behold and delightful to install, but...
The performance of high-end gear has improved dramatically since JA made his comment back in 1995. The latest generation of electronics—such as the Halcro dm58 and VTL S-400 power amplifiers—are incredible. They have eradicated enough of the colorations inherent to solid-state and tube designs, respectively, that they sound more like each other than each does its own predecessor. The best modern turntables sound much more neutral, and much more alike, than they did only a few years ago. Phono cartridges, CD transports, and even integrated CD players are all moving steadily toward a common neutrality—or toward a common, apparently fundamental limit in how nearly absolute neutrality can be approached.
A similar maturation process has occurred in the cable world, with each generation of designs sounding less colored and more alike than the previous one. With today's best cables, it's no longer possible to talk about the consistent character of silver conductors, for example, or the different sounds of coaxial, flat-conductor, or Litz-wire geometries. Today's best cables approach neutrality closely enough to challenge the terms colorations and distortions, and can instead be discussed in terms of providing slightly different perspectives on neutrality. Without question, the Stereovox cables fall solidly into this group, and deserve to be compared with the very best. They may or may not be a listener's top choice, depending on his or her gear, software, room, and preferences, but they'll be contenders—provided the listener wants to actually hear what the rest of the system is doing.
My two longtime reference speaker cables and interconnects, Nordost's Valhallas and Nirvana's SX-Ltds, are two of today's very best, and sit at opposite ends of the spectrum in their approach to neutrality. The Valhallas are all about speed, clarity, and definition, and are slightly cool in their reproduction of instrumental timbres. The Nirvanas' strengths are their coherence and their rich, natural portrayal of tonal colors and textures—but they lack the Valhallas' transient speed and edge definition. Two other designs I've reviewed recently, the Audience Au24 and Silversmith's Silver, fall in between: tonally more neutral, but not quite matching the Nordosts' or Nirvanas' strengths.
It's against this backdrop that the question arises: Are Chris Sommovigo's latest Stereovox creations more examples of the state of the cable art, or are they harbingers of the next plateau in cable design? In terms of tonal balance, the Stereovox wires resembled the Valhallas quite closely. Male vocals had slightly less body and solidity than through the Nirvanas, or than they do live. The timbres of closely miked guitars and cellos was leaned out slightly as well, though not to as great an extent as with the Valhallas. Both the Stereovoxes and the Valhallas can sound neutral with the right surroundings, but the surroundings will likely be right more often with the Stereovox cables.
The Stereovox wires distinguished themselves more dramatically in their handling of other aspects of a recording: dynamic range, temporal precision, edge definition, and how well they balanced all of these with tonal complexity, image density, and coherence. To compress my six months of listening to all types of music into an easily digested example, pull out an LP of Dire Straits' Making Movies (Warner Bros. BSK 3480) and cue up side 1. Everyone over the age of 40 has a copy, and it's a nicely recorded album with excellent dynamics, a wealth of detail, and pretty well-balanced portrayals of voices and acoustic instruments.
With my system and in my room, which are pretty decent and, if anything, slightly warm-sounding, the Stereovox cables were the best I've yet heard at balancing this mix of competing attributes. The sharp drum rolls in "Romeo and Juliet" were startlingly explosive, yet had a solid, realistic body and skin tone. Mark Knopfler's arpeggio resonator guitar lines were right on the money as well, each note beginning with a sharp snap and developing into a hollow, metallic tone that combined a shallow, metallic plink with a softer, deeper ring. In comparison, the Valhallas gave the drums and guitar a bit too much contrast, with overemphasized transients and not quite enough body. The Nirvana SX-Ltds, on the other hand, produced wonderfully dense, complex, and dimensional images, but with neither the impact nor the clarity they had with the Stereovoxes or Valhallas.
Other examples: the image of Knopfler's voice was precise, but a bit anorexic with the Valhallas; he was back up to fighting weight with the Nirvanas, though slightly soft in his articulation. With the Stereovox wires, the portrayal came close—not quite there, but awfully close—to combining the best attributes of the Valhallas and the Nirvanas. The nearly spoken passages two-thirds of the way through "Romeo and Juliet" were particularly telling. Knopfler's image and the surrounding echo were crystal clear with the Valhallas, the apparent boundaries of the space around him precisely located—but the three were so sharply bounded that they were almost disconnected. The opposite occurred with the Nirvana SX-Ltds: there was a realistic, natural coherence, but neither Knopfler nor the walls had quite the certainty or specificity they should. Here again, Sommovigo's Stereovox cables approximated a best-of-both-worlds balance.
The way the Stereovox wires re-created space also seemed a bit more "right" than I've heard with other cables. Prior to spending time with them, I found it easy to accept the perspective of whichever cable, Nordost or Nirvana, was in my system at the time. The Valhallas gave me smaller, more focused images and a more dramatic sense of the space between them. The SX-Ltds produced a larger, more coherent soundstage, but with a slightly softer focus. Despite their differences, both seemed reasonable, and more right than wrong. The Stereovoxes' middle ground and combination of strengths raised the bar, however, and made me more aware of the compromises the other two were making.
Analogue Productions' incredible 45rpm set of Creedence Clearwater Revival's singles (Analogue Productions AAP CCR7) arrived about halfway through my listening sessions and thereafter monopolized my turntable. Maybe my sensitivities were heightened through immersion and repetition, or maybe I was just OD-ing on CCR, but I found myself getting unreasonably picky about everything. I kept cleaning my stylus. I revisited my cartridge's alignment. I meticulously scrubbed the records and double-checked the positioning of my Wilson Audio Sophia 2 loudspeakers. I experimented and made sure that the door and windows were opened just so, and made my Catahoula Zippy curl up in exactly the right spot. Everything mattered, and all of it seemed to bug me. With the Valhallas, there was a glare in John Fogerty's voice that I found unlistenable. I could listen through the Nirvanas for hours on end, but I just wasn't getting into the music. With the Stereovox cables, it all fell into place. For two weeks straight, I stopped tweaking and fidgeting and just enjoyed the music.
I was really impressed with the Stereovox cables, and strongly recommend that anyone shopping for cables—or just looking to upgrade and learn more about their system—arrange an audition. I don't know what represents good value in high-end cables any more, or even what that phrase might mean, but $1000 for interconnects and $2500 for speaker cables is probably credible, if not necessarily sane.
The Stereovox cables aren't perfect or perfectly transparent. They have less, though still some, of the cool tonal balance and transient edge that limit the Nordost Valhallas—but they have all of the Valhallas' speed and clarity. The Stereovoxes are more dynamic and temporally precise than Nirvana's SX-Ltd, yet retain much of their coherence and tonal richness. Time will tell if the SEI-600II and LSP-600 are the first of a new generation of cables that will establish a new standard of performance, but they are, at the very least, among the select group of cables that comprise "the best I've heard." Even in 2006, an industry as mature as high-end cables can be shaken up. Fascinating, isn't it?