Transparent Music Link Reference interconnect & Music Wave Reference speaker cable

"They cost WHAT? A hahahahahaaa!"

Nothing is more guaranteed to amuse non-audiophiles than the subject of high-end cable pricing. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to laugh at you, but...bwah ha ha haaa!" Who can blame them? Even in the hi-fi camp, there are those who are convinced that wires are no more than hideously expensive tone controls. "Hmmpf, cackle. Snort!"

Others hold that, differences in resistance, capacitance, and inductance aside (footnote 1), the whole high-end cable market is just an exercise in mass self-delusion. "Really, how much are they?"

Regular folk, like my friend Randy—who has one child in college and two more in high school—just purse their lips and bite their tongues to keep from commenting on the whole subject. "WHAT!?!"

In my experience, however, I've heard audible differences among the available interconnects and loudspeaker cables—no matter how much I might devoutly wish otherwise. Don't look to me to explain why. Far from finding that there's one true path to audio nirvana, I have a boundless gullibility when it comes to cable technology theories. I love 'em all—especially the really goofy ones.

My problem is that it all makes perfect sense while I'm listening to designers expounding upon them; only several hours later do I do a double take: "Hey, wait a minute! How did that traffic cop get into the wire in the first place?" This is because I try to keep an open mind—well, certainly one that's unburdened by any real grasp of theory.

My dalliances with cables of the week lurched to a screaming halt last year, when I received a set of Transparent Audio Reference interconnects and speaker cables. These were products unlike any in my experience. Forget veils lifting, windows opening, or any of the tired old audio clichés: I'm talking about nothing less than communion—an act of sharing thoughts or feelings in spiritual fellowship. If Cecil B. DeMille had directed the encounter, clouds would have parted, a ray of light would have fallen on my speakers, and choirs would have sung hosannas.

Instead, I tore my finger on a splinter while crawling around to connect the speakers, and then sat bleeding onto the couch, enthralled listening to Beethoven piano sonatas. But you get the idea.

Wire we talking about this?
What are cables supposed to do? On the most superficial level—and also at the deepest, most functional level—they're supposed to connect everything together. They transmit the signals from source components to the amplification chain and then on to the speakers. No matter how great the components, if you don't got no cables, you don't got no sound.

Ideally, cables would perform their job without adding anything to the signals they're carrying, and would deliver up all of the signal going in. You're probably already hip to the fact that such a simple-sounding description is an impossibility here in the material world, but why?

First is the physical nature of metallic cable—its molecular structure alone ensures that noise will be added to the signal. Second, no matter how you design the cable, you have to deal with the trinity of resistance, inductance, and capacitance. Resistance, which refers to how hard it is to push current flow through a cable, is the easy one to design around, and is seldom a problem for metallic cable designs. Capacitance and inductance, on the other hand, really throw a kink into designing a cable which resembles our theoretical ideal, because they're storage elements—which means that they have a strong (ahem) resistance to surrendering all of the signal they carry. It's their nature to retain it (footnote 2). Moreover, inductance and capacitance perform a kind of dance in an audio cable: the cable is primarily inductive, but at some frequencies, it becomes capacitive.

The point in frequency where a cable changes from inductive to capacitive is referred to as the resonant point, and that point is approximately 1300Hz, generally speaking. As the frequency approaches 1500Hz and below, the cable starts offering increased resistance to the LF component of the signal. Random noise, not to mention a host of other interactions, dictates that the changeover is not a specific point but rather a broad band, wherein the signal changes from inductive to capacitive and back again. The ear perceives this interaction as cancellation—you end up losing information that cannot be recovered.

Finally, we come back to the most basic of all cable functions: It connects everything together. The problem is, at each stage it connects items of differing impedance. The signals that are rejected because of this mismatch reflect back toward the source, where they mask low-level detail.

Whew! In this very much not ideal world, cable has a Sisyphean task.

Network theorem
Designers get around these problems in many different ways—and some just ignore them. Jack Sumner of Transparent Audio maintains that building a compensatory network into the cable itself is the way to go. In this, Transparent cables are not sui generis; MIT's cables also employ networks, although the two product lines are quite different. "We sold, and built, MIT products for eight years," explained Karen Sumner, "so it would be pretty surprising if we didn't learn a few things, including where our design philosophy diverged from theirs."

The first thing that most folks—even non-audiophiles—notice about the Transparent cables is the network itself: the pods sprouting off the cords give the cables the air of electronic componentry rather than mere wires. The natural question is, "What's in the box?" But other than replying that it consists of a low-pass filter network, Transparent ain't saying. Ask what it does, however, and it's hard to get them to stop talking.

"By increasing the amount of inductance, we change the point where the cable changes to capacitive," Jack Sumner explained in an interview last February. "The first thing that we're concerned with in a network is rolling off the ultrahigh frequencies. A lot of people just don't understand how this can [favorably] affect what you hear. Our model comes from thermodynamics: if you put heat into a system, a certain amount is transformed into a lower form of energy, so it's not usable as heat. The same thing is true in a cable: if you have a lot of very-high-frequency component, like RF, some of that is actually changed into a lower form of energy. And that gets down into the audible bands as noise—which obscures low-level detail, like the first and second reflections off the walls and ceilings of concert halls. It doesn't necessarily make common sense, but we're throwing away information—information that you don't need.

"The second thing a network does is more closely match one impedance to another. You always have a change in impedance going from one component to another. The signals that don't pass through the interface are reflected back into the amplifier as out-of-phase information—which really screws up such things as low-level detail.

"The third and most important function of the network is that it lowers that resonant point where inductance changes to capacitance, by adding inductance to the cable. This is the part that's proprietary—you can't just add inductance. Take a cable without a network: it has a flat frequency response and uniform group delay. Uniform group delay means that the harmonic structure stacks up the same way at the end of the cable as it did in the beginning. When you hear a real cymbal, you hear the stick striking the brass, followed almost immediately by the overtonal structure that finally results in the shimmer. Just adding inductance to the cable would give a more accurate impression of the fundamental frequency—the strike of the stick—but it would destroy the time and frequency relationship of the shimmer. When we add a compensatory network, it becomes possible to lower the resonant point without affecting the group delay or frequency response. We believe lowering the resonant point is the only way to achieve the proper relationship of fundamental to harmonic."

See what I mean?

Music is the art of thinking with sounds
Now, I've already said that I'm a sucker for all cable theories, so I'm probably not the one to look to for verification of Sumner's design brief. But I've spent the last year or so listening to these cables—and to some earlier samples of the Music Wave Reference speaker cable—trying to suss out precisely what's going on. During that time, I've used the Transparent products with every component that's passed through my house, and, except in conjunction with a couple of loudspeakers—the Monitor Audio Studio 2s and the Sonus Faber Minuettos—I think they've stood head and shoulders above any other cables with which I've had experience. (I have not yet listened to the latest designs from either MIT or Kimber, which have impressed me in systems other than my own.)

First of all, you have to notice the silence of Transparent's wires. We commonly think of silence as the lack of noise—not incorrectly, I concede. But in music, silence is not just the absence of something else, it's a value—a thing unto itself; in fact, in most theory classes, the rests are taught before the notes are. The Transparent designs portray silence as a physical, not just theoretical, reality. For the first time, one can hear low-level details that have never been audible above the inherent noise of the wire. My long-time reference CD of Leonhardt's and La Petite Bande's performance of Bach's Mass in b (EMI CDS 7 47595 2) illustrates this surprisingly well. In the "Credo," there's a pair of playful moments which reveal both Bach's wit and his religious passion. The "Credo" is the part of the Mass wherein the core beliefs are articulated, and most composers set it to fairly serious-sounding music.

Not cool papa Bach, though. Over a descending ostinato from the lower strings, he has the various choral sections come in sequentially, round fashion, with the first line, "Credo in unum deum." Set over the walking bass of the cellos and basses, it's a surprisingly lighthearted—some might say rocking—reading of the creed. But Bach doesn't stop with this display of religious joy. Set into the overtones, and quite independent of the fundamentals, is an ecstatic little dance that displays a completely different rhythmic emphasis from the sung—and played—tones. You don't even hear it on most hi-fis—it's one of the obvious ways in which live music is richer and more profound than the canned variety. I have never heard it more explicitly stated on this disc than when using the Transparent cables.

Almost all components have an effect on the tonal balance of recorded music, and cables are no exception; but I never felt that the Transparent Reference products were imposing a particular sonic signature on my system. Changes in individual components produced clearly audible changes in system character—frequently radical ones. If the cable were asserting its own personality, I don't believe this would be the case. The (forgive me) transparent nature of these wires helped me to hear much more clearly the shortcomings of individual pieces of gear—especially those of less-ambitious equipment. This is primarily a comment on the bizarre world of audio reviewing, as no sane person is going to attach a $500 integrated amp to a pair of $4k speaker wires, are they? Well, if you're thinking about it, don't. Both Transparent and MIT make reasonably priced networked cables. While wire is essential—no system will work without it—wires are not the first place to put your silly-money.

I was also consistently impressed with the coherence of the Reference cables. I don't believe I have ever heard my systems sound more seamless from fundamental to highest overtone. This consideration is important, and almost universally overlooked. It also takes us out of the purely tonal and into the temporal realms. It's not uncommon to refer to the overtone structures as stacking above the fundamental. This would almost be an accurate way to illustrate them graphically—if we were to carve them out of a piece of music. But the truth is that overtones are inherent in and inseparable from the fundamental. We describe them as having a separate existence, because our auditory system favors some frequency ranges more than others. And, not so coincidentally, because many components lack uniform group delay—further distorting our perception of the individual note. If you start those individual notes in motion—in time as well as in pitch, creating music—things really start getting confused.

Footnote 1: I'm always puzzled why those of the logical positivist persuasion, expounding interminably that L, C, and R are the only parameters that matter in cable design, forget that such well-documented factors as dielectric absorption and hysteresis also play a major role. I remember arguing this with a brilliant RF engineer. Ultimately, frustrated by the non-communication, I asked him if he would use cables with a polarized dielectric such as PVC for his RF work. "Of course not," he spluttered. "It would be useless!" "So why do you continue to insist that the dielectric doesn't matter when it comes to audio?" "Because who cares about audio-frequency performance?" was his angry response. "I do!" I said.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: Inductance and capacitance are both reactive elements, which means that they react to AC signals. They differ, however, in that inductance becomes more reactive at high frequencies, while capacitance is more reactive at low ones. By more reactive, we mean that the effect increases; thus, capacitance resists the transmission of LF, just as inductance resists high-frequency components.

Transparent Audio, Inc.
47 Industrial Park Road
Saco, ME 04072
(207) 284-1100

monetschemist's picture

Thanks to Stereophile for putting these interesting articles back in circulation. And thanks to Wes Phillips (requiescat in pace) watching over us all.

eriks's picture

My point of view is that amps are more susceptible to impedance changes than we think, but that in the dawn of the 21st Century, we should have updated our measurements.

Hard disk space is cheap, calibrated microphones and data logging devices can be had for a fraction of what they would have been in the 1970's when most audio measurements were standardized.

It is time for a revolution in measurements to happen. Let's figure out what is being heard, let's make it repeatable, and it will become inexpensive.

So long as we avoid these questions and opportunities, cables cannot help but be in a murky realm.

ok's picture

..I have recently bought some decent 20$ 1.5m headphone cable in order to use it with my smartphone as a replacement for an inconvenient 200$ 3m luxury cable that came along with my cans; I’m a skeptic and a cynic and a practical guy and after all it’s only a smartphone –so what could possibly go wrong? Didn’t take long 'fore I found out that the dearest king-size one might be snake-long or even snake-fat, but snake-oil it definitely ain’t. Not that all cables always make an audible difference to everyone nor that the cash involved necessarily worth it – but whoever says that no cable makes any difference whatsoever is simply a liar.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

It all depends on several factors ........ If your headphones are dynamic driver type and, if your phone has high output impedance, yes, cables can make a difference ........ Dynamic drivers present variable impedances and phase angles to the amplifier in your phone ........ If you use a planar magnetic type of headphone, which present a uniform resistive load, the cable change may not make a big difference ........ If you can use a well built, conventional headphone amplifier between your phone and your headphones, you may not notice that much difference with cable change ........ Just like most of the well built loudspeaker amplifiers, well built headphone amplifiers can handle variable impedances and phase angles, and are less susceptible to cable change :-) ........

ok's picture

..I have also tried them with my dedicated amplifier (equipped with variable output depending on headphone impedance) and the outcome is always the same.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

What are your headphones and what is your amplifier? ....... I can check with some of the available measurements at Stereophile and Inner/Fidelity websites, which may be helpful :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May I make another suggestion? ........ If you get a chance, give a listen to the new Benchmark HPA-4 headphone amp/pre-amp (about $3,000, with or without remote) .......... HPA-4 can drive any headphone, which was ever made on this planet before and, can drive any headphone which will ever be made on this planet into the future ....... May be a little exaggeration there, but, almost true :-) .........

Electrostatic and ribbon headphones are excluded from my comments above :-) ..........

Of course, if you like Bluetooth headphones, you don't have to worry about any wires and external amplifiers :-) ...........

ok's picture

but I’m quite happy with my current hardware (names and measurements available if you insist, though I’m not especially keen on promoting my own gear) and, mind you, I’d rather improve my existing setup through sensible cabling than investing big time on elite electronics. As for the aforementioned "cable effect": yes, it could be the result of the 1/3 amplifier-output/headphones-input impedance ratio or maybe of the 7N vs unspecified purity copper wiring or whatever one wishes to believe – but if you ask me (disclaimer: Tony don’t read this!) at least as far as my smartphone is concerned, well, it’s all about that evil chinese plot to take over the world initially by forcing western audiophiles into a terminal cable-ignited civil war..

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Regarding input/output ratio ........ If the headphone impedance is 20 Ohms and the headphone amplifier output is 1 Ohm, the 'damping factor' is, 20 divided by 1, which is 20 ........ That 20 damping factor is good but not great ....... If the head-amp output is 0.1 Ohm, then that damping factor becomes 200 for the same headphone ....... that 200 number is excellent ...... Damping factors of 100 or more are in the excellent range for all impedances ....... That 1 Ohm output is more suitable for high impedance headphones in the 100 Ohms or more, impedance range :-) .........

BTW .....Same input/output ratio applies to loudspeakers and loudspeaker amps, as well :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Hope you didn't buy a $100 Rolex from the same people who sold you that $20 cable ..... Just kidding :-) ........

BTW ..... I think The Cable Company may let people 'try before you buy policy' for headphone cables, also :-) .......

ok's picture

..don't even think that the cheap cable sounded really bad in typical "audiophile" terms; my first reaction was in fact rather positive (hey, I've spent a whole bunch of 20$ after all..) I actually believe that many a folk would rather prefer it over the "stock" cable –me also perhaps at some brief blind procedure (Archimago, you haven't read this..) Quite a construction and a lively character into the bargain, but its highly artificial, plastic rendering I just can't stand it no more.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'Plastique' music ...... not C-4 :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be not a healthy life style but, 'short and fat' seems to work with cables :-) ........

ok's picture

..though "long and fat" works also fine for the time being :-}

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The long and short of it is, may be no need to use 'elevators' :-) .........

ednazarko's picture

I know several people who swore that their lamp zip cord speaker wires sounded no different to them than the high end speaker wires I loaned them. One seemed disappointed that I didn't argue back. I don't, other than to say, be careful about generalizing what YOU hear on YOUR system.

I have two pretty nice systems where I can definitely hear the difference between speaker wires. Got a lesson in that when I moved and could only find system #2's wires when I set up system #1. My wife arrived that evening and wanted to know if the movers broke something in the system. She doesn't have spectacular listenings kills (listens mostly to books on tape through cheap earphones) but could hear something was off. The next evening, I'd found system #1's cables and swapped them in. She came home from the store and said, ah, what happened, now it sounds right. Both sets of cables are in the premium (not super premium) category. System #2, I went through three or four different sets of speaker cables (on offer from the audio shop) and one set stood out. But, they aren't the best choice on my other system.

I have two systems where I use relatively cheap Monster speaker wire. I've tried both sets of premium cables on them, and there was no real difference between them and the retail Monster wires. Neither system is what I'd call high end. I call that phenomenon "putting slicks on a stock Ford Pinto." While slicks let me go way faster in my race cars, a Pinto would still be a Pinto. The hardware package matters when you're trying to detect nuance.

I've also had a couple of my "can't hear a difference on my system" friends ask me why I have those ugly fat stiff cables. So, I did a listen, switch, listen, switch with three different cables. Most of them COULD hear the difference, where they couldn't on their systems. (Just like I can't on two of my systems.) A couple of them could not, though. And that's fine - it says their wetware is the system limitation in nearing nuances. I can't tell a 2014 from a 2015 same vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. One of my friends can taste a glass and tell me the label, year, and where (inside the specific region) the grapes were from. My wetware can't do that.

What I save on fancy wine costs, I spend on things where I can tell fine nuances.

ok's picture

..a single woman's take is worth of a million blind men tests no less.

JBLMVBC's picture

Thanks to this article, I ventured to the manufacturer's 2019 website and decided to price the ultimate upgrade for my 4 way active system, using their state of the art products, since one has to go all or nothing in order not to lose the precious signal along the way. I am happy to report that the entire thing, including power cords, can be had for just under $1,000,000 USD without taxes.
And now, since all the components of the recorded music we have access to were likely NOT connected with the aforementioned cables, should we expect the quest for these micro details that have likely been irremediably or selectively lost from the very start might be... meaningful in this context?

drblank's picture

I had a conversation with Bruce Brisson of MIT Cables back in the early 2000's about using MIT Cables for a recording studio, and he showed me a box MIT custom made for SkyWalker Sound. Apparently, they could hear losses of quality in the long microphone cable runs and they were in contact with MIT Cables and they had custom designed/built boxes with their passive components for microphone cables that are still used (to my knowledge) for their main tracking room and for recording foley artists. They also use their cables in the playback systems for their main control room.

There are more and more top end recording studios that have been upgrading cables over the years and where the cables make a difference is in the playback system as the recording engineers and mastering engineers are altering the sound of the recording based on what they hear.

I do agree that microphone cables and all interconnects in the studio is an area of concern here, but we have to remember that microphones filter the incoming signal based on the response curve of the microphone, and recording engineers sometimes take great care in picking the right microphone to capture the voice/instrument to their liking.

But at least if more engineers at least used these types of cables in the playback system, etc., then at least they are getting a more neutral representation.

What I find a little annoying is that Transparent not only puts networks inside their boxes like MIT, what they don't do is explain how theirs is different in a clear and understandable manner. MIT's much better at explaining their method of using passive components and they even have boxes that have been cracked open so we can see inside.

I've used both MIT Cables and Transparent cables and would recommend both. HOWEVER, if I was to choose one over the other, then my decision would be MIT. They initiated this type of design, they are definitely pumping out more revisions to further improve sound quality, but I feel MIT"s build quality is better. At least they give the customer a number that relates to the number of networks inside, and yes, the more the better.

MIT also has a loaner program so one can try before they buy, which I think ALL expensive cable mfg. should provide. I know it's expensive to administer and the companies end up with a lot of demo units they have to sell at drastic discounts, but at least people can try for a month before they plunk down sizable amounts of money.

JBLMVBC's picture

This kind of investment may, in the absolute, make sense for very successful commercial studios that can afford it and amortize it fast i.e. not passing an unreasonable cost increase onto their clients. Yet, all should be aware that 99% of their music will be heard, degraded and through little boxes. Are we closing on the the point of diminishing return here?

Brian C Stewart's picture

Perhaps cables at these prices make another argument for active speakers. You could purchase a great pair of monoblocks for $30k to &50k. Maybe a pair of Magico M2's D'Agostino or Constellation editions.Eliminate the cables altogether

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Active speakers are like Bluetooth headphones (almost) ........ No cables, no amplifiers, no worries :-) .......

drblank's picture

would at least remove the speaker cable component, but it still leaves the interconnect cable, unless it's an all digital design. The problem with active speakers is you are held hostage with the internal electronics and the internal electronics of most active speakers aren't typically as good as what's available for separates. Plus, I haven't seen any tube electronics used in internal active speakers. So you are held hostage in the internal electronics, which to me, is also critical.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Bryston offers active versions of some of their speakers, where multiple external amplifiers are used ....... Of course, Bryston uses their amplifiers with those speakers ........ I don't know whether they allow other manufacturer's amplifiers and electronics for use with those speakers ......... I don't know whether any other manufacturer sells such a type of active speakers ....... :-) .........

B&W has come out with the new Formation Duo active speakers, which are totally wireless ....... No need for any inter-connects .... not even between the speakers ... except for power cord connections, of course ........ If and when B&W comes up with a battery powered version of the Formation Duo, then we can call them Ultimate Formation Duo wireless speakers :-) ........

Archimago's picture

Regardless of whether one could hear a difference or if "communion" was achieved, I think we can agree that since 1995, the idea of cable designers putting "compensatory networks" into the designs of cables (and presumably needing to charge big bucks for this) has not survived the test of time. The folks who did this clearly enjoyed sharing their theory.

A nice entertaining read in any case... RIP Mr. Phillips.

drblank's picture

MIT has been putting networks inside has lasted 24 years and companies like MIT and Transparent are still in business. It's just that they have to be expensive for several reasons.

1. They are more expensive to mfg.
2. They have to hand match each component for consistency and they have to use expensive high precision measurement tools. And they have to throw out a lot of components that don't "match".
3. There is a lot of R&D involved which has to be recouped.
4. These are cables for a small niche market, and dealers still need their markup, which is why the price gets increased.
5. Pricing has come down. Both MIT and Transparent also offer models at lower, more affordable price points, so one doesn't necessarily have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on cables.

They both offer add-on boxes to be used with generic 12guage wire and they cost around $200 or more per box.

Archimago's picture

Basically what I mean is that over the decades, there has been no general acceptance that the theory being discussed here is beneficial for playback other than presumably a form of tone control.

Would be interesting to see the impedance curve of speakers using these add-on boxes in speaker cables. Maybe have a look at what happens to frequency response when using this type of cable with interconnects to one's DAC or CD player.

Unclear what kind of R&D we're talking about here specifically.

Allen Fant's picture

Agreed- R.I.P. Mr. Phillips.

I can attest to owning the TA Musiclink MM2 Super level loom.

On several occasions, I have had the pure listening pleasure of TA Reference/Reference XL and OPUS cabling systems.

Lars Bo's picture

A very interesting read. Thanks for republishing.

Especially the subheading "Music is the art of thinking with sounds" and WP's thoughts on uniformity, here in tone and time, made me think--perhaps--more clearly on the fabric of musicality:

An aptitude for coalescing, rather than separating, music's parts and elements into a moreness of meaning. As such, vital contents of music, and thus musicality, be it the art of thinking with sound or humanity's aesthetic communication by sound, are "not even there" in any material sense.

In any degree of accuracy, hi-fi does not sound sound musically.

David Harper's picture

and there's a lot more going on in our heads than we're aware of.