It’s a fact — I am on record for being a cable doubter. I have sworn, at various points, that cables must be entirely irrelevant to the overall sound of the system, that cables might have impact if their specs are out of whack, and that cables sound better IFF (if and only if) their specs are in the “good” range and (more importantly) are better than what’s already in the system.
I could go on, but let me cut to the chase: it’s all a load of bullox. Here’s the sad, miserable, unhappy fact: cables matter a lot. Dammit!
Here’s why I’m pissed: which cables sound best seems to be totally system-dependent. Oh, and they all tend to be wildly over priced. Both of which stinks. Would it shock you to know that I was looking for a cheap and easy way out here and just not finding it? I mean, why not, right? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could actually save some dough in this sink-hole of a hobby?
Alas and alack, the answer is a firm “no”.
I spent a couple of hours down in Falls Church, VA at Command Performance A/V this morning, stuck between the appointments that bookended my day. Not an unhappy occurrence and luckily I was only a few miles away in Tysons Corner when I found myself at loose ends. Jeff kindly invited me over to listen to his hot little Totem Element Metal loudspeakers — more on them another time — but as we were fiddling around, Jeff and I started swapping cables.
Jeff was burning in some random speaker cables/interconnects on his new Totems, wiring in a Bel Canto DAC3.5VB and a pair of Reference 500 amps to drive them. Quite frankly, the sound was uninvolving. Not bad, just not … great. Kinda blah actually. If I had to nit, I’d be forced to say that the sound was a bit thick, muddled if you will, and just a bit tonally off. At first, I thought it was just the speakers and I was wondering if they hadn’t been broken in — or perhaps they just sucked. Anyway, I shrugged and went with it. I had nothing else to do!
So, I queued up some music on my laptop, but for some reason, couldn’t find a player on it anymore (oops) so I tried iTunes “bare” … Anyway, Jeff promptly accused my laptop of being the problem, so we switched over to his sources and his music (Jeff’s a recording-quality snob) which sounded a mite better (maybe). In defense of my laptop, it was clear that something was definitely still missing.
Out went the demo cables and in went the Cardas Clear Light ($1048/2m pair for speaker cables, $856/1.5m pair for single-ended interconnects). With the swap, the bass came in and the midrange bloomed and dare I say it, several layers of grunge dropped away. Hey there, sexy! Howya been? My thought was: wow! And I just sat there, marveling. This was a very noticeable change — and no, nothing else in the system had changed. Just one pair of interconnects from the DAC front-end to the amps and their matching speaker cables to the amps. That’s it. And it was like the speakers were suddenly able to take deeper breaths. I must be getting pretty sanguine about audiophilia generally, but when I bothered to think about what Jeff was doing right in front of me — my own “Cables Really Do Matter” seminar — I was crushed. My wallet cringed and began to weep fat green tears.
Anyway, back to the Totems. In the spirit of exploration, Jeff jumped up and slotted in a set of Cable Research Labs (CRL) Bronze cables. These cables are pretty interesting as that they’re only sold as a set. $900 gets you 2 pairs interconnects and one set of speaker cables (pricing alert: seems that retail prices might have recently increased — check with your dealer). This is quite a deal, well, at least in audiophile terms. Well, in they went and … BAM! Another big change in the overall sound of the system. The midrange took a step back into what now felt like a more coherent and extended whole. Most notably was how the bass deepened. Nice sound, but it definitely felt like more of a solid-state move from the Cardas, which by comparison, now seemed to have been more tubey. In this instance, the CRLs worked a trick. There was something about the CRL Bronze cables with the Bel Canto and Totems that was really working. Synergy! Was it perfect? No. Perhaps a bit of sparkle was missing. Perhaps the bass was a bit flabby. Perhaps? But the CRLs were definitely a great fit for this setup.
So, here was another set of cables and another revolution in sound quality. Bizarre. The Cardas Light sounded great — Jeff tells me that Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio shows with Cardas exclusively because of how well the Cardas matches up with his speakers. The Cardas is great, and I’ve been completely wowed by the sound of Joseph speakers (with Cardas) at both Axpona, RMAF and CAF, but here, with the Totems and Bel Canto, it was the less expensive CRL that clearly showed the better synergy.
WTF was going on? What could be going on? This wasn’t footer-difference (ie, audible only to dogs), this was the difference between studio remasters and crappy bootlegs. Like the difference between crappy speakers and something fine. It was a BIG difference. I mean, the Totems didn’t sound bad when I walked in — but by comparison with how they sounded now, we had a totally different speaker! And let’s just say that, had I been shopping, the sound with CRL Bronze would have sold me on the Totem/Bel Canto system. Music was sweet, clear and beautiful — and thunderous and powerful — and dynamic and punchy. All that and more.
And that’s when Jeff said, “Well, if you have a couple of extra minutes ….” and busted out the Shunyata Python signal cables. Python is part of Shunyata’s new signal cable lineup and sits squarely in the middle, retailing for a cool $2500 for the speaker cables and $1500 for the interconnects. They’re bracketed by the Black Mamba on the low end and Anaconda on the high. We pulled the CRL cables, popped in the Pythons and …
… that’s all she wrote. Game over. Done. Sign me up! It’s a done deal.
In comparison to the CRL, the Python combo was the best of the bunch. The only flaw was that the Pythons might have had (a mite) less bass than the CRL — I thought it was just faster and less bloated but Jeff thought it didn’t reach as deep. However, everything else was there in spades: the midrange was more rich tonally than with the much less expensive CRL, but neither were as lush as the Cardas. The Pythons beat them both with air, sparkle and separation from the mids on up. I heard the crickets loud and clear with these cables! Detail was there, but not at the expense of anything else. Both of us thought that the Pythons were a slam dunk.
That is, they sounded like a winner with the Bel Canto DAC. Jeff later swapped that DAC out for the Berkeley Alpha DAC … and there went the synergy. Poof. Back to the drawing board.
Crazy. Baffling. Infuriating. But real, nonetheless. And even ol’ Tin Ear (me) heard it plain as day.
So, this little side jaunt of mine proved to be educational and distressing, in equal parts. As for the distressing — my growing fear is that every speaker/component matchup might well require a unique cable pairing to sound it’s best and this would royally suck. How the heck are we consumers supposed to figure this stuff out?!?
Oh, right — dealers! Duh. Go to one already.
Jeff very helpfully sent me home with a set of Clarity Cables to try out with my rack of Plinius gear. He says he’s had good luck with that pairing.
More on that mashup soon.