This review focuses on the new generation of Transparent Audio interconnects and speaker cables. It also, however, almost has to begin with a description of the problems I’ve encountered over the years in dealing with “wires” as passive but important components. Thus it is as much description of a voyage of discovery in seeking out the best interconnects and speaker cables as a review of a given set of products.
The Sequel to Joyce’s Ulysses: An Audiophile’s Cable Odyssey
Several centuries ago, I wrote some of the first comparative cable and interconnect reviews published in TAS. In the process, I learned that interconnects and speaker cables can make a very real difference in sound. I also learned, however, that they can be remarkably difficult to review if they are well designed and demonstrate serious efforts to provide the most transparent sound possible, rather than to reshape it and act as the equivalent of tone controls.
Over the decades that have followed, I have found that selecting the right mix of interconnects and speaker cables presents exceptional problems for the audiophile. In most cases, you can easily get a real improvement by buying the lower to mid-priced lines of top manufacturers. A limited investment will provide some improvement in the bass, better dynamics, and an upper midrange that is more realistic and balanced in timbre. Established manufacturers have to deliver better sound quality to survive. Their products sell more on the basis of audiophile and dealer word-of-mouth than advertisements or reviews, and “fool me once” is usually enough to put a given audiophile off a given brand for life.
This does not, however, mean that you will get the best possible sound for money, any more than you will if you buy electronics or a speaker from well-established manufacturers. Buying solely on the basis of brand names excludes the new innovator by definition, and it presents five other problems that become steadily more important as you move towards an investment in really expensive interconnects and speaker cables:
First, given brands and models of speaker cables and interconnects can have very different effects on the sound when they are connected to different mixes of components. At first, I thought this was true largely of speaker cables, but I learned fairly quickly that balanced and unbalanced interconnects can also vary sharply in their sonic nuances when connected to different components in the front end of a system. This can happen even when the speaker cable and interconnects are clearly designed to be “universal” and suitable for any part of a system.
Second, standardizing on a given brand or model doesn’t work. Early on, I assumed that the best solution was to buy speaker cables and interconnects from the same manufacturer in the same price range. I’ve learned the hard way over the years that this simply doesn’t work. Speaker cables are more interactive and variable sounding than interconnects, and need to be chosen to sound best with a specifc combination of power amp and speaker. Really good interconnects for some components do not necessarily work as well for linking other components. You need to try different speaker cables to find the one that really suits your system, and experiment interconnect by interconnect to make sure that it is truly compatible with your system, and that you have the best mix.
Third, most serious cable and interconnect manufacturers try their best to deliver value for money, and to provide better sound with each increase in price. This, however, often leads the designers to “voice” their most expensive cables to suit their own ears or those of some listening panel, rather than to provide the best possible level of transparency. The resulting choice of trade-offs in sound quality may or may not help a given system and/or suit the buyer’s taste. In some cases, the resulting “improvement” is very expensive, but actually colors the sound more than cheaper cables and interconnects in a given line. In others, any improvements are of very marginal musical value.
Fourth, there are no meaningful specifications to warn you in advance of the level of compatibility or performance. Every interconnect and speaker cable has to make trade-offs in its electrical parameters, and every component has some variation in its input and output circuitry. There is no one right answer that you can read off a spec sheet, or find by researching construction and materials. You have to experiment, swap, and listen.
Fifth, it takes time to audition the subtleties in really good cables, and it is simply not possible to do this in a dealer’s showroom. You need a loaner that you can bring into your system—and simply hearing a change that slightly highlights different aspects of the music is not a serious reason to buy. A superior cable has to actually sound better with a wide range of music, and this takes both time and judgment.
Sixth, the increasing use of digital interconnects has not made life easier. To be blunt, far too many really don’t make much of a difference even if they are much prettier than their cheaper generic competition. And when they do make a difference, their performance with a given component often is not maintained when you use that interconnect with other components. This loss of essence, to quote General Ripper, can reflect a design problem in an active component, or the simple fact that improved or different connectors are working better in this case. Many of my fellow reviewers obviously disagree with me, but I would generally put my money into analog cables unless I really hear an improvement with a digital one.