If the devil is in the details, then Beelzebub has taken up residence in the collections of cables we use to connect our components. Reviewing the stuff is tough enough, but things are even more difficult for the average audiophile: Inevitably, the wire that sounds fabulous in the store or in your friend's system doesn't work worth a hoot in your own system, and you're left where you began. Equally inevitably, the wire that does work best carries a price more often seen in Tiffany's or Harry Winston. It's enough to drive a hi-fi nut to drink. So relax, pour yourself a nice glass of wine, and sit right back to hear the tale of Robert Lee and his amazing wires...
Everyone loves a bargain. Everyone loves finding an undiscovered gem. But for audiophiles on a budget, finding good, reasonably priced cables isn't a luxury but a necessity. In a $1000 or $2500 system, there simply isn't money for $500 interconnects or $1000 speaker cables. Even a $5000 systemwhich most of my well-educated, music-loving, affluent friends view as pretty extravagant, by the waycan't accommodate premium cables like the Nirvana, Synergistic Research, or Nordost models that we reviewers rave about as "critical to getting the most out of your system."
We've all got our pet peeves, and one of mine is stiff, unwieldy audio cables that simply refuse to bend to my will—or to bend at all. Instructions like "carefully bend to final configuration, ensuring that no bend is sharper than a 36" radius" make my blood boil. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Audience's willowy Au24 cable and wonderfully flexible powerChord positively warmed my heart when I encountered them at the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Call me shallow, but what first attracted me to Audience's Au24 cables when I reviewed them in August 2002 was their looks. In contrast to superstiff cables as thick as garden hoses, the Au24s were slender and elegant. They were wonderfully flexible, too, and even their custom-made RCA plugs were slim and easy to handle. Instead of having to fiddle with a system of locking collet and barrel, merely slipping them on resulted in a tight, solid connection. Compared to the Au24s, a sizable number of audiophile cables seemed excessive, even a little foolish.
A man dies and goes to hell, and Satan meets him at the gate: "Just this once, I'm going to let a newcomer choose his own torment," he says as he leads the deceased from room to room, opening doors on all manner of abuse—burning, flaying, Lou Reed's The Raven, you name it.
Being a metallurgical engineer, I've always been intrigued by audio cables—their construction, the materials they're made of, how they're produced, and, of course, how all of that relates to their sound. Over the years, I've auditioned a wide range of cables, from Nordost's round conductors in a flat cable, to Alpha-Core's flat cables in a round conductor, to MIT's complex termination systems. I've even got a closet full of cables—some quite good—from companies that no longer exist.
It's not unusual for a high-end audio company to originate in another segment of the high-tech electronics world, but it is a bit unusual when the spin-off is a cable company. That's the case with Empirical Audio, whose founder, Steve Nugent, spent 25 years as a digital hardware designer for Unisys and Intel. The key is that, in addition to standard design work, he chased "the more esoteric sides of design, namely grounding, shielding, ESD (electrostatic discharge), EMI (electromagnetic interference), transmission-line effects, and power delivery." Voilà—cable design.
The dCS Verdi/Purcell/Elgar system's ultra-high resolution and superb focus, and its ability to drive an amplifier directly, provided a good opportunity to compare my current reference cables, Harmonic Technology's Magic Woofer ($2000/8' set) and Pro-Silway II interconnects ($399/m pair, $240/add'l. meter) with Analysis Plus's far less expensive Solo Crystal Oval 8 speaker cable ($969/8' set) and Solo Crystal Oval 8 interconnect ($399/m, longer lengths available).
When no one's watching, it's easy to express your opinion. When tens of thousands of people are reading over your shoulder, it becomes more difficult. In fact, it can be downright creepy—especially when what you're thinking sounds like one of those grand, all-encompassing (over)statements you yourself tend to distrust. You don't want to be wrong; on the other hand, if you're too much of a wuss to express what you reallythink just because someone might take it as grandiose, then it's time to give up.
My review of the Audio Research VTM200 monoblock power amplifier elsewhere in this issue drove it home to me big time: Cables are important, and even more important is getting good cable advice from someone who knows and understands the gear you're using.
When Audio Advisor's Wayne Schuurman contacted me about reviewing the Vincent Audio KHV-1pre headphone amplifier, I felt confident that I had everything I needed to handle the task, owning, as I do, both the AKG K701 and Sennheiser HD-650 headphones, which have long been my references. That oughta get 'er done, I thought.
Taken together, these unusual interconnect, loudspeaker, and AC cables brought a new measure of spaciousness, scale, smoothness, heretofore unimagined detail, and overall musical ease and naturalness to my music system. And they did it while sounding neither dull nor bright—just right.
As Mick Jagger has sagely observed, things are different today. Now I don't get complaints only when I give a bad or mixed review: I get complaints when I give a good review, said complaints coming not from the reviewee but from his competitors.
In a related story, America's park rangers and amateur videographers report a near-epidemic of wild animals getting their heads stuck in carelessly discarded food containers. In one such instance, a six-month-old black bear cub in Florida scarcely avoided death when a glass jar was removed from his head, after being stuck there for nearly two weeks. Employees of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who saved the cub, named him Jarhead, for all the obvious reasons.
I'm old enough to remember my family's first table radio that was made out of plastic. It was cream-colored, and it sat on the rearmost edge of our kitchen table: a less-than-timeless design in its own right, destined to be discarded at the end of one era and treasured again at the dawn of another, for more or less the same reason. But in 1958, a cream-colored plastic radio looked fresh, clean, and right, and its cheap wooden predecessor seemed dowdy and sad by comparison. That would all change in later years, of course. Then it would all change again.