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.
For years, I thought of Simaudio gear as good-sounding, attractive, and modestly priced, often describing it to friends as "really good for the money." The $5500 Moon Eclipse CD player, which I reviewed in our April 2001 and April 2003 issues, stretched the "modestly priced" descriptor a bit, but its sound was still, I thought, really good for what it cost, and I adopted it as a reference. Simaudio expanded the Moon series and eventually discontinued its older, less expensive Celeste brand, but, I thought, its products could still be described as "really good for the money."
Back in 2003, while auditioning the Burmester 001 CD player ($14,000, reviewed in the December 2003 Stereophile, Vol.26 No.12), I discovered that my system sounded much better if I bypassed my preamplifier and ran the 001 directly into the power amps. I concluded by suggesting that potential customers consider building a system around the 001 itself and forgo a preamp altogether. The response from Burmester fans was immediate and unambiguous: As good as the 001 was on its own, it sounded even better run through its stablemate, Burmester's 011 preamplifier ($15,999). The pair had, they claimed, a significant synergy that I absolutely had to hear. It's hard to argue with determined German logic, and I'd begun shopping for a new preamp anyway. So here we are.
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.
The $3000 moving-coil (MC) PhD, available from Chad Kassem's Acoustic Sounds operation, is a monumental achievement that, for me, sets new standards for the cleanness and transparency possible in a phono preamp—and I've had a lot of experience with phono preamps.
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.
I've encountered a number of audio products over the years whose thoughtful design and intricate craftsmanship brought to mind the expression "built like a Swiss watch." As often as I'd thought or even written that phrase, however, I don't think I'd ever stopped to seriously consider what an audio component might be like if actually built by the nation that produces Rolex and Breitling wristwatches.
The internal battle between the head and the heart, between the analytical and romantic sides of our nature, is a difficult one. I'm an engineer, so it seems as if my cold, calculating side should have the upper hand. This is true in a lot of cases; most of my actions and decisions are based on straightforward, logical analyses. However, things like a house full of castaway dogs, or a garage full of quixotic British cars and Italian motorcycles, suggest that my heart holds sway reasonably—perhaps distressingly—often.
After two decades of motorcycling, I recently achieved a long-held goal by buying a bike built by Bimota, a tiny Italian manufacturer. Although Bimota engages in a wide range of activities, from two-stroke engine design to racing, they're best known for their exotic, hand-built street bikes. They always include the very best components and feature cutting-edge engineering and performance, but what they're truly revered for is their style. Bimotas unfailingly combine shapes, textures, and finishes into motorcycles that are most often referred to as "works of art."