The good news: Domestic audio has survived its first half century and continues to live above ground. The bad news: At an age when most hobbies can enjoy the luxury of splintering into smaller factions that hate each other with impunity, ours isn't big enough. There are too few audiophiles on Earth to indulge that kind of specialization, let alone support the very different magazines that would ensue—so we'll never get to enjoy such promising titles as Liberal Tube Lover (not that I didn't try), The Elderly Skeptic, or, of particular interest, Cable Hating for People Who are Barely Audiophiles in the First Place.
Nirvana Audio's cables have long been fixtures in my audio system: first the SL interconnects and speaker cables, and, after their debut in 1998, the S-X Ltd. interconnect. In 2002, after a long development process, designer Stephen Creamer introduced the companion S-X Ltd. speaker cable ($2780/2.5m pair, add $50/pair for biwire configuration). He explored a wide range of options, including dramatically different structures and materials, but always returned to the elements he'd used before—and ended up with a design that combined elements of his two existing speaker cables, the SL and the entry-level Royale. At its core, the S-X Ltd. has the Royale's two conductors, each a symmetrical Litz element consisting of 285 isolated strands of high-purity copper of several different gauges. In the S-X Ltd., the conductors are spaced slightly apart to minimize capacitance, wound into a twisted pair, and wrapped in FEP insulation.
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.
The possible approaches to any technical problem range from trial and error to first-principles physics. Then there's the "purist" approach—the simplest, most direct way to meet the challenge. Often, the purist approach doesn't pan out because of such phrases as "we need 60 tons of molten gold" or "can we cool the entire building to absolute zero?" But in the world of high-end cables, the purist approach is viable, and is exactly where you find Jeffrey Smith.
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.
Introduced in 2003, Siltech's G5 Classic series of cables evolved from their highly regarded Generation 3. The G3 series introduced a new metallurgy in which small amounts of gold were incorporated into the silver used as conductors. The G5 Classics use a proprietary geometry called X-balanced Micro Technology, which, according to Siltech, makes the G5s the quietest cables, with the lowest distortion, to be found. Kapton, Peek, and Teflon insulation is used, and the cables are designed to minimize the pickup of RF and EM interference, with low inductance, low capacitance, and low resistance as design goals.
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.
I've been in a nostalgic funk of late. What started it was visiting Golden, Colorado, where I spent my graduate-school days, and seeing all of the changes, not to mention the lecture halls full of kids who couldn't be a day over 12. When I commented on how young the freshmen looked, our host—a colleague of mine from grad school, now a professor—responded, "Those are seniors, Brian." I felt a little old.
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.
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).
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...
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.
One of the highlights of any Consumer Electronics Show, I have found, is Nordost Corporation's demonstration of their cables. Using a relatively modest system and non-audiophile source material, they run through a simple, straightforward sequence, climbing up through their product line, culminating with their new, just-introduced model. At each step, the system sounds distinctly better—clearer, cleaner, with more body and tonal purity—than with the previous model. There's no hype, artifice, or magic, just a clear demonstration of the progress that Nordost is making as they refine their designs.
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."
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.