POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 13
blue marble audio
Lightning AC cords
as reviewed by Vade Forrester
Blue Marble Audio is a small company in San Antonio, Texas owned by Roger Tiller, who originally offered a line of cables to local customers. When word of mouth increased demand, Roger went public. The subject of this review is the first cable he offered, the Blue Lightning power cord. Roger and I are good buddies, so take these comments accordingly, but Roger describes me as "brutally honest," and I shall endeavor to employ that trait here.
The Blue Lightning uses the best quality parts—top of the line (and pricey) Wattgate power plugs and IEC connectors, 15-gauge wire (combined), and a silver and copper shield. The cord is constructed with a special geometry, using a construction technique that assures uniformity. The cord is then cryogenically treated to further improve its performance. A black nylon mesh protects it from the environment, and spiffy-looking heat shrink identifies it as a Blue Marble product. The cables are built with the fanatical attention to detail typical of Roger’s experience in the aerospace industry, but all of this audiophile stuff would be meaningless if the cables didn’t sound good—after all, they aren’t cheap.
My listening preferences make me pretty demanding. I require lots of dynamic range from my audio system, including the ability to play very softly and still retain clarity. I listen to everything from quiet solo instruments and voices to massed choral and orchestral forces. I’m not too concerned about whether I can hear the back wall of the concert hall (I can’t hear it when I’m in the concert hall), but I do enjoy the type of spatial definition that makes a performer appear to be inhabiting a space in front of me. Call it palpability, for lack of a better term. Most of all, I value harmonic accuracy, which means that the reproduced sounds must resemble real instruments or voices.
I’ve tried various power cords, but until recently, my experiences with aftermarket cords were inconclusive, so I dismissed the notion that they could make a significant difference in an audio system. Out of curiosity, I accumulated an assortment of eBay "bargain" cables, including a very early Kimber power cable, and while some were audibly different, none were clearly better than the stock cords that came with my equipment. Some were clearly worse. When Roger told me he was building a power cable, I was pretty skeptical. When he offered to let me audition his prototype power cable, suggesting that it would make the most difference on my CD player (a Meridian 508.24), I panicked. How could I tell him that his cable didn’t make huge improvements in my system without hurting his feelings? I didn’t need to worry.
Though the Blue Lightning is only moderately rigid, it was a bit challenging to squeeze it into my antique equipment cabinet. I managed to get the IEC end of the cord plugged into my CD player. The other end went into my Audio Prism power strip. Since most cables benefit from a break-in period, I intended to let it cook for several days before listening, but I was too curious, so I fired up my electronics (Audio Note M2 Signature preamp driving Wright Sound Company WPA3.5 monoblock amps). The system takes about two hours to warm up from a cold start, but I wanted to see if the Blue Lighting made any immediate difference. At first, the system sounded thin and mechanical, with a marked lack of bass and restricted dynamics. Most uninviting! I almost unplugged the cable and returned it to Roger, but I persevered, and after the usual two-hour warm-up, the sound improved dramatically.
I then trotted out my usual assortment of evaluation tracks. On the Boulez/Cleveland Orchestra recording of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, the bass was deeper and the dynamics wider, and there was noticeably more depth than I was used to, making the images more three-dimensional. On one of the most natural recordings of female vocals that I have heard, Jennifer Warnes’ The Well, her voice emerged from a silent background, framed three-dimensionally in front of me. On the CD Laments and Dances (MusicMasters Classics 01612-67145-2), the harmonic structure of the guitars and fiddle on the track "Planxty Irwin" (a tune written about 1713 by the blind Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan) was very realistic. I eagerly listened to other favorites in the CD, and noted that after a six-hour warm-up, dynamics improved dramatically. As I expressed it to Roger, my system had been transformed.
The Blue Lightning power cord considerably reduced the distortion of the Meridian player. On the Tallis Singers’ recording of Allegri’s Miserere (Gimmell 454 939-2), the soprano voices became crystal clear, not slightly smeared, at high volumes, as they had been previously. They also gained a three-dimensional quality, which made their images more believable. I used to think my amps were clipping, but the distortion originated in my CD player.
My favorite track for evaluating instruments is by Rodrigo Martinez, from the CD La Folia (AliaVox AV 9805), with a band of early-music specialists led by the immensely talented Jordi Savall. The attack and decay of notes was precise and distinct. When an instrument finished playing a note, it lingered for a long time in a resonant space, just as it would in real life. Dynamics, both macro and micro, were clearer and easier to follow. I could distinguish different sound levels between notes in familiar passages, making the musical performances more complex and enveloping. The music also gained great pace, rhythm, and timing (PRAT), moving forward with enormous momentum. This piece falls apart on systems with poor PRAT. I often wonder why so many reviewers treat PRAT as only important in rock music, where it is inarguably important, but I find it equally necessary in other types of music.
After using the Blue Lightning power cable daily for a couple of months, I unplugged it and reinstalled the original power cable on my CD player so that I could compare them. The first thing I noticed was that the music was louder with the Blue Lighting cable. It seemed like the Meridian was limiting the current to the player. With the Blue Lightning, images were more precisely defined in three-dimensional space. Bass, which originally sounded stronger, now sounded less powerful but much better integrated into the sonic picture. The horizontal placement of performers was quite a bit more precise, showing me that it had been bunched up by the stock cable.
The Blue Lightning totally confounded my impression that power cords didn’t make much difference. In my system at least, the Blue Lightning made a stunning difference, showing me that CDs sounded better than I thought they could. It also showed me that my CD player was much better than I realized, and made my entire system sound more powerful and higher in resolution. The Blue Lightning needs only a short break-in period before it sounds good, and continues to get better as it ages. After the first 8-10 hours, it never got nasty, as sometimes happens with other cables.
Was the Blue Lightning a one-trick pony, good only with digital sources? To find out, I used a second Blue Lightning to power my Hsu VTF-3 subwoofer’s built-in 250-watt amplifier. The Hsu comes with a nondescript cable that would look right at home on my Dell computer. One of my fears in getting a subwoofer was that it couldn’t keep up with the extremely fast Lowther drivers in my ReTHM speakers, which produce lots of detail and fast, dynamic, but not very extended bass. The sub blended pretty well with the ReTHMs, or at least I thought it did, but I found myself turning it off when loud, deep bass wasn’t needed.
The stock Hsu cable had a cheater plug installed to eliminate a tendency to hum if the ground wire was connected. I felt that it would be goofy to connect a $75 Wattgate power connector into a $55 FIM wall socket via a 69¢ cheater plug, but Roger humored my concern by constructing a two-meter Blue Lightning cable with the ground wire disconnected. (It can be reconnected easily if I want to use the cable with a component that requires a ground.) I connected my new Blue Lightning to the subwoofer amp and flipped on the power switch. Again, the word "transformed" popped into my mind. I played my usual assortment of bass test tracks, including the dramatic third movement of the Saint-Saens Symphony #3, on the demonstration disc that comes with the Hsu subwoofers. This track has a 16-Hz organ note that you feel rather than hear. The organ seemed more powerful, with deeper bass than before, but my real concern was the integration between the subwoofer and the ReTHMs, so once again I turned to familiar favorites.
The fourth movement of Pierre Boulez’ recording of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique does complete justice to the tympani, starting out with a barely perceptible roll (you can just hear the sticks barely touch the drum heads), then a crescendo louder than the rest of the orchestra. With the Blue Lightning, the tympani strokes were clearer, faster, and more powerful. The bass was deeper, but the really rewarding thing was the improved blend between the subwoofer and the main speakers. It was a case of not recognizing a problem until it went away. My subwoofer now stays on!
When I got my six-watt per channel Art Audio PX 25 amplifier, it sounded pretty good, even extremely good, with the German power cord provided by the individual who sold me the amp. The PX 25 was nice and airy, and the bass went way lower than it had with my 3-watt 2A3 amplifiers. Having a couple of Blue Lightnings at my disposal, I had to try one with the new amplifier. The results mirrored those with the Blue Lightning in other positions—faster, quieter, and more dynamic, with deeper bass. Putting things in perspective, the Blue Lightning made less difference with the tube amp than it had with the solid state subwoofer amp, but the bass and dynamics were better than they had been with the original cable.
The Blue Lightning have taken me much closer to my hi-fi goals, but remember that I’m a close friend of the manufacturer, so what I say could be biased. Like any component, the sound of the Blue Lightning will depend on the rest of the system, and the sound in my system may not mirror yours. I also have very little experience with competing power cables, so cannot assess the value of the Blue Lightning relative to that of others in the same price range. Fortunately, Blue Marble Audio will refund your purchase price if their cables don’t work in your system. If you are looking for a power cable for around $500 (for a 2-meter length), consider the Blue Lightning. It could transform your system, as it did mine. Vade Forrester