Sisters in Sound Karen Sumner
Transparent Audio, 47 Industrial Park Road, Saco, ME 04072. Tel: (207) 284-1100. Web: www.transparentcable.com.
Steve Guttenberg: Karen, you founded Transparent Audio in 1980, but it must have taken at least a few years to turn a profit.
Karen Sumner: Yes, it took five years. Over the past 20-plus years I've had three or four careers. I packed boxes, did the billing, and coordinated the advertising. My partners—my husband, Jack [Sumner], and Carl Smith—pitched in on evenings and weekends to keep the whole thing going. We didn't even take salaries during those early years.
Guttenberg: I'd guess most Stereophile readers think of Transparent Audio as a cable manufacturer, but you started out importing Electrocompaniet electronics.
Sumner: Right, we built our reputation in the Electrocompaniet days by providing service to our dealers. Many of those dealers are still with us today, and those relationships are based on a partnership where we exchange new ideas and solve problems together. We regularly conduct dealer seminars at our facility to brainstorm new projects.
Guttenberg: Transparent distributed MIT's cables before you made your own cables—I'm a bit confused about that.
Sumner: Transparent Audio and MIT had a mutually beneficial eight-year relationship, and we parted company in '92.
Guttenberg: Karen, let's get down to probably the most important question of this interview: Why are high-end cables so freakin' expensive?
Sumner: All I can say is that most people who have visited our factory don't ask that question. We're not just pulling wire off a spool and putting connectors on. You really have to come on up to our factory and see for yourself. Our website has a wealth of information about what we do.
Guttenberg: Thanks, but that invitation isn't just for, ahem, big-shot writers like me—it also extends to Stereophile readers, right?
Sumner: Yes, of course.
Guttenberg: I hope we'll find out what's inside those hulking network boxes.
Sumner: What's in there is no mystery. Just passive parts—resistors, inductors, and capacitors—the same electrical properties as the cable itself. It's the way the recipe is formulated that's so secret. Our connectors are pretty special, too. Our music and film studios are key to the development of our products.
Guttenberg: Right, those studios let you fine-tune new designs by listening to them with different sets of electronics and speakers...
Sumner: We've learned you can only go so far in the lab—the components' interface requirements are all over the map. We have to listen to our cables hooked up to a wide range of components to know what's really going on. That's why we have the latest Krell, Levinson, Conrad-Johnson, Audio Research, and VTL electronics on hand. For speakers we use Wilsons, Thiels, Revels, Sonus Fabers, and Aerials. We also have an assortment of front-ends and video gear—it's a huge investment. Compatibility is important, so we want to make sure our cables' sound is consistent and predictable from application to application.
Guttenberg: And your more expensive cables?
Sumner: The better cables deliver an even higher level of resolution, refinement, and control. The price goes up because there's more calibration, longer build time, and more expensive parts.
Guttenberg: The top-of-the-line, ultra-expensive Opus cables are optimized for use with specific components.
Sumner: Right. We go out and buy or borrow the customer's components and then design each cable specifically to suit the system's layout.
Guttenberg: Great, but since it's dialed-in so tightly, what happens when Mr. Jones swaps out his single-ended Audio Note Ongaku for a Krell Master Reference amp?
Sumner: He returns the cable, and we make the adjustments at no charge. We also do the same for our Reference XL customers.
Guttenberg: Do men and women listen differently?
Sumner: I doubt there's any difference in the way they listen to real music, but there may be a difference in the way hi-fi is perceived, and that is, in fact, the rub. Men are more likely to be, let's say, involved with the mechanical aspects of the system. They may be looking for one specific sonic detail, and just focus on that. Perhaps it's a multitasking issue...