Newport 2014: Nordost and the last word in system refinement?

According to many, many not-so-little corners on the Internet, none of this stuff is supposed to make a lick of difference. Cables, power conditioners, footers — all of it is supposedly irrelevant. Any impact you hear is all “you” and zero “hearing”. And there’s pretty much no arguing the point.

Which is probably why a/b comparisons done in the wild are interesting. Dismissable, if you’re predisposed to do so, but if you do happen to have the inclination to explore, then this is about as interesting as it gets before guys with white lab coats get involved.

So, if you’ve never heard the Nordost cable and/or footer demo, you should consider yourself ill-informed. Why? Because this is easy to do — they show up at least half the audio show circuit, with their full line of cables and other system tweaks, ready to do the hot swap. Don’t “believe in” fancy cables? Don’t think power conditioners affect the sound of your system? Don’t think isolation or dampening has much effect? Yeah. Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe this demo is all flimflam. Or maybe not.

The gear in this room was pretty much beside the point. There were speakers from Nola, electronics from Jeff Rowland and Burmester, but the star of the show was very clearly the Nordost product line. You were invited to hear the impact that cable changes, power line conditioner modifications and footer swaps did to the sound of this quite nice and quite expensive system. And before you ask, yes, I thought that it all makes a difference.

The differences, however, were not huge. Not in this context. The differences may well be huge, but fast-swapping is a rather blunt tool and may well mask what might turn up over a longer term. But “not huge” is a far cry from “no effect”. If you ask me, I’ll tell you: cables matter. Hell, everything matters. But in the end, what matters most is, and always will be, the system itself.

That’s why I tend to think of this entire category of product as a “tweak”. That’s not entirely fair, and I apologize for any negative connotation you attach to that term, because I’m not doing that. What I mean is this: add as many from this category as you like; you’re never changing the character of the primary transducer. An open-baffle Nola is not ever going to be suddenly transformed into a horn system from Avantgarde, for example, regardless of how special all those cables are. This is worth emphasizing as no one, other than some random voices from the corners of the Internet, is really attempting to claim otherwise. Instead, it’s more about this: Once you’ve found a system and synergy that speaks most clearly to you, there may be a whole other level that you can take that system. And that’s where companies like Nordost make their bread — taking you to their vision of that place. Which brings me to the headphone section.

Set up on the bar, tucked off to the side from the main demo area, was a small rig showcasing the new Heimdall 2 cable line, featuring a new USB cable and a headphone cable. Using Auralic’s new Gemini headphone DAC/amplifier/stand, Nordost layered in new cables, a Qx power purifier and a set of Qv2 AC Harmonizers and Qk1 Enhancers. Headphones were top-shelf, a pair of the HD800 from Sennheiser and the LCD3 from Audeze, both strung with the new balanced Heimdall 2 cables from Nordost. Yes, yes, the skeptic will undoubtedly flap his hands and worry that all this seems like magic and voodoo. Whatever. If you’re familiar with both of those headphones, I recommend not doing this demo.

In my short, no-controls, comparison with my memory of what this gear sounds like sans Nordost gear … um. Yeah. Something has gone completely sideways. The HD800 don’t really “do” bass like what I was hearing here, not without an amp with massive grunt and more likely some tube-bloom. But I wasn’t getting bloom, just punch. On the other side, the LCD3 felt so open … which is fine and all as it’s an open-back headphone, but the LCD3 is a pretty dark can. No, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and everyone loves it and all … but this was not that. Not lean, not bright — this is still obviously an LCD3, but the sound was much more neutral/less dark. This happened pretty early on in the show-tour here at Newport, and I can tell you that I ran across both those headphones in many different rigs. None of those setups sounded like this.

That’s it. This isn’t a review so that’s all you get. All I can add is a hearty suggestion that you take advantage of any opportunity you get, to see if Nordost is pouring your cuppa. I’ve been saying for a million years that it’s the job of the “everything else” in the audio chain to let the speakers (or headphones) do what they’re able to do, and I think this may be the closest I’ve gotten to what that might sound like with those two reference cans. And that’s fascinating.

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