Saturday, February 1, 2014

Cables Matter: XLR Interconnect Shoot Out!


Pure silver stranded wire ... the last inch to sonic nirvana, or
hokum ... opinions abound, and all too common is that people
don't actually trust their ears ...
Cables are some of the most hotly contested and infuriating aspects of our hobby.  You can easily spend the price of a component on a single cable if you aren't careful.  People will have opinions, but sometimes the right cable or cables can and do help maximize the money you spent.  And complicating things is the varying quality and levels of electronics - with, generally, better speakers and electronics benefitting the most from high end cables.

A rational discourse about cables of the "Does it/Doesn't it"
variety ...
The same can be said for speaker placement and room treatments, too, but I think the so-called "debate" over cables is probably the most emotionally charged.  And yes, and the arguments go something like this:  

"I tried out XYZ cable, and found the sound improved in ABC"
"You are experiencing the placebo effect.  I have it on good authority that a triple blind test shows there is no sonic difference between the most expensive cable and some simple lamp chord"
"I tried the lamp chord, it sounded bad."
"Did NOT!"

"Did, TOO!"
etc.

I have to admit that we are not neutral on the subject, and wanted desperately to be on the side that declares all of it a pile of hokum.  But it isn't.  And as an engineer, I cannot explain exactly why some cables seem to sound better than others (and in a different system the other way around), but it does, and we'd have to be willfully unscientific to deny the evidence of our senses. (Remember my frustrated wailing about those "ducky" pennies waaaay back when we started this little journey of ours? As much as the Mr. wanted things to be malarkey, I engaged in actual mockery over the priciest cables in the magazines. You know the ones - they seem to come with their own valet and a cashmere wrapper, or at least *should* for those prices. Yup, I was a skeptic, even though I knew there was bound to be a some difference at the beginning part of the cost curve. Lamp cord = BAD, but do you really need to spend hundreds or thousands on cables?)

But ... we have found that how well a cable performs really has a healthy dose of "it depends" and is highly system dependent.  It really is one of the last steps you perform before dialing in your system all the way.  If done right, it is a little like the last millimeter of a twist on a telescope before the nebula you are looking at snaps into focus.  It is subtle, and unless you are almost all the way "there" with your system, it won't make much of an impact.  But if you are ... hold on to your hats!

Siltech "Classic Anniversary" 550L speaker cables
We have been demoing a pair of Siltech Classic 550L cables, and along for the ride was a pair of XLR Reference cables from Crystal Cable.  We spent a few days swapping various XLR cables between the preamp and amp.  The effects were significant enough, that it made us feel the effects of cable synergy as well as their tonal and dynamic qualities are worth reporting.

Our starting point was a system with Transparent Audio speaker cables, Cardas "Golden Presence" XLR cables between Preamp and Amp, CD Player and Preamp, Phono Stage and Preamp and AQ Columbias between DAC and Preamp.  We also had a few other cables we had at our disposal.  Overall the sound was good, and only got better with the new speaker cables.

When we swapped in the Siltech 550L's the transients had more snap, incidental details came through that we didn't get before, and we had a little bit more bass and treble extension, and tonally it was a little less warm than before.  But the magic really began as we began swapping out the XLR cables.

I tried several different cables in the setup for the XLR between preamp and amp:

1. Oyaide TERZO (0.7m) MSRP $500
2. AQ Columbia (2m, XLR) MSRP $650
3. Crystal Cable Reference (1m, XLR) MSRP: $2400
4. Nordost Heimdall 2 (1m, XLR) MSRP: $899
5. Cardas Golden Presence (1m, XLR): $700 (discontinued)

You might wonder that we don't really have a fair fight here - that the Crystal Cable Reference XLR is nearly 5 times the cost of the cheapest cable on the list, and over 2.5 times that of the next most expensive.  So, no it isn't a fair fight, but you can start to see what you get for all that extra money.

Nordost Heimdall ... fast, revealing, extended treble
TIE 4th Place "Honorable Mention" ... The Nordost Heimdall2 XLR's didn't have great synergy with the Siltechs - we have had great success with them in some systems (especially with Transparent Audio), and this was the first time when we used them they didn't give a smooth, extended treble.  While this, or anything did not sound "bad" - the combination didn't play to the Nordost strengths as well as some of the others.  I could also see this is one of those "do you like vanilla or chocolate ice cream" moments with no wrong answer, just a matter of taste.  We had heard somewhere that the wire is much more forgiving in the XLR format when it is 2-3m long.  We'd love to try that out.  Because of the particular system configuration we felt the Nordost did not really shine like it normally does, so ended up tied for fourth place.  We still recommend this cable for those wanting some treble extension, but clearly it is not always happy mixing-and-matching.

Cardas' construction - Golden Ratio, In-House Metallurgy
and Special Soldering.  First rate cables, but not for every
occasion as we found out...
TIE 4th Place "Honorable Mention" ... Cardas Golden Presence.  This was our favorite cable set (we have 3 pairs!) before this comparison.  The benefit of this cable is presenting music with a warmth and detail that is rare at this price level.  The break-in(*) is painstaking, and the cables take about a day or so to settle down once they are broken in, if they are moved around.  You also have to make sure the AC power going into the components is clean as a whistle (think a heavily shielded power cord, and power conditioner) for it not to sound bright and harsh (inexpensive cable upgrades are fine, we've found, but typical stock cables don't work).  In this setup, though, they lost some of their regular warmth that we had with the Transparent.  We can say that for sure, since we had compared to our stock system with Transparent speaker cable before switching out the speaker cable.  Our experience shows that Cardas cables are ruthless in revealing poor synergy, and clearly they aren't synergetic with the cable set we had.  We love love LOVE these cables, but not in this setup, so we had to place them tied for 4th place.
Oyaide Tunami Terzo XX ... Value Champ!

TIE 2nd place: Oyaide TUNAMI TERZO XX.  This "value leader" had a slightly forward midrange, but was almost Crystal like in its clarity.  The initial note of the trumpet in "The Sidewinder" had the right launch, but was not as precise as the very best. Still, not bad at all. Hand claps sounded great, though without the last ounce of the flesh-on-flesh sound (still sounded like a recorded hand clapping).  Easy recommend for someone looking for a XLR cable with phenomenal performance for less than $600!

TIE 2nd Place: Audioquest Columbia:  had a deep bass, and an ever so slightly rolled off treble. It sounded a bit slower than Crystal, and warmer, richer tonality, and ultimately a little less transparent. The trumpet's initial part of the note reproduced perfectly on Sidewinder. The Stevie Wonder was almost overripe with warmth, and plenty of detail, but tonally the treble seems a bit recessed. This was tied for 2nd place with Oyaide, and if you like a slightly warmer presentation this might be your favorite configuration. Made us wonder what things up the AQ line would do with a bit more silver? This got 2nd place for us, and whether you'd want to go with Oyaide or Audioquest really would be what you would be after in tonal presentation - want more transient snap and transparency?  Oyaide.  Want a warmer presentation with texture? Audioquest.

First PlaceCrystal Cable Reference XLR.   Sounded the most real of all of the trials we did. Fast but only because the instruments became less congested, sounded more individually distinct, and the illusion of placement of the instruments was better. Delicate and bombastic instruments sounded individual, so did not seem to affect one another, and the attack on the trumpet and brass was pretty much perfect. Trumpets sounded like trumpets - biting but not harsh. We heard several choral layers in the Stevie wonder we hadn't heard before, too.  Downsides?  Bad recordings aren't papered over, you hear flaws more than with the less expensive cables, but better recordings sound better.  It isn't particularly ruthless, but like any other reference level component,  you will get more truth to the recording, and whether that is called for and desirable really depends upon your goals.  We loved this cable most of all, though, and if your electronics are up to it, you won't be sorry.

Given the way the sound's presentation changed, the old analogy of "Better Performance, More Revealing" for electronics does apply to cabling as well.

So conclusions?  In our system the most expensive XLR gave us the most realistic sound.  It was subtle but significant.  Also, we felt the Oyaide was probably the value leader - giving incredible performance for a small fraction of the cost of other cables.  We were surprised that Cardas and Nordost didn't play well with this setup, considering how great they worked in the past for us with Transparent cable.  And Audioquest was a "faultless" performer - always a little warm and textured, never causing offense, and always agreeable, but not quite as clear as Crystal.

So, the last question we'll try to answer, is if these represent the "house sound" of the cables, why would you want a cable form these companies?

1.  Audioquest:  Always Agreeable.  Warm, textures sound, a little softer on the transients, but a faultless agreeable "could buy this without an audition" cable.

2.  Cardas (Goldens):  Warm, Detailed, Revealing, Demanding.  Warm, detailed, and good for imaging.  A little unforgiving, but worth the sacrifice.

3.  Nordost:  Extended treble, Transient speed. Extended treble, fast, exciting.  Unforgiving to other cables in the system.  We'd wager an all Nordost would be phenomenal.
Crystal:  Might be skinny and small, but packs a punch

4.  Oyaide:  Clear, Magic Mids, Faultless. Mids reach-out-and-touch-it.  Detail and extension.  Falls short of the Crystals by only a hair in clarity.

5.  Crystal:  Clear, clean, utterly neutral.  The ones we've tried down the line give up only a little in imaging, for such a skinny cable, they sure seem to support prodigious bass.  If you remember the "Noisy Cricket" gun in "Men In Black" ... yeah, it is like that.

You might ask if this was a fair fight?  It really wasn't.  The Crystal cable costs more than 5 times the cost of these other cables, so of course it should be significantly better sounding.  But I suppose this is our point.  If it all didn't matter, and everything always sounds the same, then this exercise wouldn't have a clear winner.  We did press into service briefly some Crystal Piccolo RCA's and did note that you get a large measure of the "house sound" of the References for about the price of the other cables.  Might be worth trying out, but realize the playing field is a little more level - so let your ears be your guide with your system.

So, while we'd recommend any cable we tried in this informal shoot out, we'd like to press home the point that cables matter, and good cables can help a system get that last tiny bit dialed in.  Given the amount of surprise we had with Cardas and Nordost, though, synergy is just as important as with any speaker or electronic component, so you are best off figuring out how to demo before you buy, especially as the price creeps higher.  Like the last 1mm of the twist on the focusing ring on a telescope, it is subtle but possibly your most significant step. 

System used:
Ayre C-5xeMP disc player
Berkeley Audio Desisgns DAC-2
Ayre k-5xeMP preamp
Ayre V-5xe Amp
Thiel CS3.7 loudspeakers

Reference music:
Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder" [SACD and FLAC 24/96]
Stevie Wonder "Talking Book" [SHM-SACD]

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