POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 14
silver circle audio
TimeWise interconnects and CS-12 speaker cables
as reviewed by Vade Forrester
One of the most enjoyable parts of my job as a reviewer is to help prospective buyers sort through the multitude of items on the market, and to find equipment that provides good value. No component is as challenging as cabling, so when a perceptive reader told me that the cables from Silver Circle Audio in Houston were special, I hastened to acquire a set for review. The set consisted of a 1-meter and a 2-meter pair of interconnects, two 2-meter power cords, and a 10-foot pair of speaker cables.
Another fun part of reviewing is getting acquainted with dedicated designers and learning about their philosophies and design goals. Dave Stanard's goal in creating Silver Circle Audio cables is "to provide you with products that truly elevate the quality of sound in your audio/video system without making a large dent in your wallet." That philosophy delights a budget-conscious consumer (aka cheapskate) like me, but many other companies seek to offer high value. Only the product can determine if they have succeeded, so let's take a look at Silver Circle Audio cables.
When new items arrive for review, I inspect them to determine whether there has been any shipping damage. The Silver Circle Audio cables were individually boxed with foam padding, so they should withstand even the most careless UPS driver's efforts to damage them. The cables look very capable of providing trouble-free service, even after lots of connects and disconnects. Silver Circle's emphasis seems to be on making rugged cables, not audio jewelry. The connectors appear to be of good quality, though not the most exotic—a tradeoff that the frugal buyer should expect. Stanard uses LOK locking RCA plugs, which have solid silver tips (actually they are silver tubes, which reduce the mass of the metal). The LOK plugs are not as smooth as the much more expensive WBTs, but that should matter only to reviewers and dealers who change cables a lot. Stanard can provide WBT terminations, for a price.
The TimeWise interconnects are the pride of the Silver Circle cable line, and while that means that they are the most expensive, they aren't overly pricey at $350 for a 1-meter set and $450 for two meters. The 10-foot CS-12 speaker cables at $365 a pair and the 6-foot power cords at $200 apiece are very affordably priced in today's market. I tried the TimeWise interconnects between my amp and preamp and between my CD player and preamp. They replaced the PS Audio xStream Statement interconnects that I have been using between my amp and preamp. The Statements' slight rolloff of the highest frequencies had become quite annoying, so I was eager to hear other interconnects in this position. The TimeWise interconnects are rather stiff, especially the section near the RCA plugs, where heavy internal shrinkwrap covers the cable. In my antique equipment cabinet, they were a pretty tight fit, but after moving to my new equipment rack, the stiffness posed no problem.
According to the Silver Circle website, the core of the power cord is soft, bare, annealed, high-quality copper 10 AWG wire with a 600-volt 90-degree aluminum-mylar shield with drain wire. Conductor insulation is heat- and moisture-resistant PVC. The jacket is clear, sunlight resistant nylon. The cord is terminated with a Marinco 5266 plug and a Wattgate 320 IEC connector. It is covered with a braided PET monofilament sleeving. I plugged the power cables into my Meridian CD player and Hsu subwoofer. To give the power cables the requisite burn-in time, I used the VH Audio IEC burn-in adaptors, which let me connect table lamps to the cables. I turned the lamps on for five hours before connecting the power cables. The power cords are heavy and stiff, as are most cables constructed from ten-gauge wire. Their stiffness can make orienting the AC plug and IEC plug a little dicey. I regard this as a fact of life, not a flaw, and suggest that buyers get generously long power cords.
Dave Stanard calls the CS-12 speaker cables "The Thickies" in recognition of the fact that they are, well, thick. They appear to be two separate runs of cable somewhat loosely enclosed in a single fabric sleeve. Although BFA banana plugs terminated the review pair, spades are available. I'm not a banana plug fan, as they are usually less effective than spades, but the BFA plugs (like those on Nordost cables) use a tubular spring design that may actually provide more contact area than spades, so I welcomed the chance to try them. I was careful to observe the directionality of the speaker cables, which was clearly marked at the source ends. Although the cables were thick, they were relatively flexible, which made it easy to route them away from the power cords and interconnects. The banana plugs slipped easily into the binding posts on my amplifier and speakers. There was some stiffness behind the banana plugs due to the use of internal shrinkwrap.
Silver Circle Audio specifies rather short break-in times for its cables: five hours for the speaker cables, only one hour for the power cords, and no time at all for the TimeWise interconnects. Note that these are minimum times, and that Silver Circle acknowledges that the cables will improve with further break-in. I let them break in for the specified times before listening. Further break-in had a substantial effect on their sound, so I conducted my first critical listening well after the minimum break-in period. The cables exhibited the following characteristics:
My Hsu VTF-3 subwoofer hums if you feed it grounded power. It even came with a cheater plug installed on its flimsy power cord, which looked like it was taken from a computer. I had warned Dave Stanard about this problem, and asked if he thought constructing one of the power cords with the ground lead detached would provide better performance, but he said that the grounding was very important to the cord's performance and that he preferred to leave both cords fully grounded. Sure enough, when I connected the power cord to my subwoofer, there was hum, even before I turned the sub on! I then realized that the hum was coming from my amplifier. Installing a cheater plug between the power cord and the wall socket cured the problem, as anticipated, but I hate cheater plugs, and wonder how much they degrade the sound.
In the case of the Silver Circle power cord, apparently not much. Bass was firm, lively, and deep—very deep. I played the fourth movement of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique (Deutsche Grammophon 453 432-2) with Boulez leading the Cleveland Orchestra. The tympani went deeper than I'd heard them do before, but they were also very detailed, so I could hear the very quiet rolls that increased in loudness until they overpowered the orchestra. I'm not sure that's what Berlioz intended, but it was very exciting. I could hear the sticks just barely touching the tympani heads before the volume drowned out the orchestra.
I am always on the lookout for musical selections to evaluate equipment, and tend to use a limited number of familiar pieces for this purpose. I understand how easy it is become bored with repeated references to a few pieces of music, so I deliberately picked some non-audiophile music for this review. The soundtrack from Titanic (Sony SK 63213) is one of my guilty pleasures, perhaps because composer James Horner makes frequent use of the Irish whistle, an instrument of which I am fond. With the Silver Circle cables in place, it was quite clear how artificial-sounding this recording is, and how the engineer had to patch together musicians and sound effects recorded in different environments. I also realized that the whistle player on Celine Dion's megahit "My Heart Will Go On" is not the one that plays throughout the soundtrack. I had never noticed this before, but the Silver Circle cables made it obvious. The recording also had some really deep bass that I hadn't heard before.
Mobile Fidelity's reissue of Dark Side of the Moon (UDCD 517) is audiophile fare, but not something I listen to often. After the impressive sound effects on the opening track, "Speak to Me," I find the rest anticlimactic, but the Silver Circle cables made "Speak to Me" sound subtle though powerful, a new effect to me.
I'm not generally a jazz fan, so I don't have a reputation to protect, and can admit that I like the song "Forever in Love" on Breathless, by Kenny G (Arista 18646-2). With the Silver Circle cables, Kenny G's sax sounded reedier than I was used to hearing. On other systems, it can almost sound like an English horn, but the Silver Circle cables brought out the details that made the instrument sound like a saxophone.
On the Last Starfighter soundtrack (Intrada MAF 7066), the opening number is spectacular. Instrumental timbre was spot on through the Silver Circle cables, which let the music's dynamics come through unscathed.
Watermark by Enya (Reprise 9 26774-2) is another of my guilty pleasures. I suppose this is also audiophile fare, since the song "The Long Ships" was cited in The Absolute Sound for its subterranean bass. There is a big bass drum that is never really pounded hard, but still underpins the whole structure. I've heard expensive speakers by big-name companies reduce these low-frequency sounds to unrecognizable mush. The Silver Circle cables made the drum sound like a drum. The bass was not only extended, but detailed and coherent. I could hear the initial impact of the stick on the head, followed by the vibration of the skin. This was the best bass I'd ever heard in my system.
JICAL, by Geoffrey Lee, available through CD Baby (www.cdbaby.csom), is an interesting, though hard-to-categorize guitar CD. Mr. Lee's playing is quite spectacular, and the music is very approachable, although not of the easy listening sort. JICAL stands for Just In Case Anyone is Listening. Through the Silver Circle cables, the recording had explosive dynamics and detail, including some of the extraneous but real noises that you never hear on big-label recordings.
About five to six days after I installed the Silver Circle cables, there was a further change in the sound. It was similar to the effect of someone washing a window and obtaining a clearer view of the scenery. The midrange was much clearer, and the bass extended much deeper, with greater detail and dynamics, but the cables now sounded rather forward with my main amp, the Art Audio PX 25. What did I do? I got rid of the amp! For a while, anyhow. First I grabbed the smallest amp at my disposal, a highly-modified Dynaco ST-35 that had been rebuilt on a new chassis with new circuit boards. Joe Curcio, the Dynaco Doctor (www.curcioaudio.com/dynadr_3.htm) had performed some of his magic on the amp, upgrading the power supply and replacing parts on the circuit boards with better ones. The Dynaco was a good match with the Silver Circle cables. There was no problem with the forwardness I found objectionable with the Art Audio amp. Not surprisingly, the Dynaco's 17.5-wpc push-pull output went deeper than the Art Audio's 6 watts. Female voices were smooth and detailed, and the highs, while still extended, now seemed better integrated with the midrange.
I briefly tried a pair of Kailin monoblocks that use 845 tubes to produce about 25 SET watts. The normally relaxed Kailins exhibited more detail and high-end extension but, to my disappointment, little if any improvement in bass. They were nonetheless a good match. Encouraged by these successes, I installed my little Wright Sound WPA3.5 monoblocks. These tiny (10 inches long by 6 inches deep by a couple of inches high) SET monoblocks use 2A3 triodes to produce a whopping 3 watts. I had always admired those 3 watts, and these were my primary amps before the Art Audio came along. How did these mini-amps sound? In a word, glorious. They retained the detailed midrange without any trace of the forwardness, and matched it with detailed, weighty, amazingly extended, and downright powerful bass. I tried the Symphonie Fantastique selection and was amazed to find that the little Wright amps nearly equaled the five-times-as-powerful Dynaco. Kenny G's sax sounded natural, without over-etched reediness. Jennifer Warnes sounded ethereal, except that the instruments accompanying her on the first track of The Well were more prominent than usual, and the bass suddenly became more robust. On "The Panther," the delicate chimes tinkled forth with exquisite detail. There was more detail and body than I had ever heard, and not by a small margin. The Titanic soundtrack was colorful, and seemed better integrated without unnatural spotlighting of its component parts. This was easily the best sound I have heard from these amps.
I always attempt to listen to review components in several systems, so that compatibility problems (like the one with the PX 25 amplifier) can be identified. I took the cables to Roger Tiller's Blue Marble Audio showroom to listen to them on solid state equipment. Roger had a Naim CD-5i CD player driving a Belles 21a preamp and Belles 150a Reference amplifier. We used Blue Marble's own speakers, a two-way reflex system with very high resolution. We installed the Silver Circle Audio cables throughout the system. Roger, who is also a cable designer, and theoretically a competitor, admired the performance of the cables, especially at their price, but he observed that they sounded a bit "brash." When I asked him to explain, he described the sonic characteristic that I have called "forwardness." Though I could detect it, I thought the forwardness was minimal in the Blue Marble Audio system, where it produced an extra level of detail. The Silver Circle cables also produced really good bass.
The break-in periods specified by Silver Circle Audio accurately determine when the cables will be listenable, but in my system the second break-in was more dramatic, resulting primarily in a slight increase in forwardness, greater transparency, and more extended bass. Alas, while the transparency remained, the nearly supernatural bass extension became somewhat diminished over the next couple of weeks, though bass performance remained exceptional. In my experience, these changes are typical of all cables.
I haven't commented on soundstaging because the Silver Circle Audio cables essentially mirror the source in this respect, although they invariably sounded open and airy. Image palpability was spectacular with good recordings like "The Well." Jennifer Warne's voice appeared in a three-dimensional space in which instruments were realistically placed. On the Titanic soundtrack, Celine Dion's voice was fuller and less breathy than I have heard it sound, and though the musicians were recorded in booths, the engineers were able to convincingly simulate a real acoustic space.
It should be emphasized that all of the sonic characteristics I have described were obtained in a predominately tube system, with its more challenging output impedances. Sometimes cables designed for solid state components don't work quite as well in tube systems. For example, the PS Audio xStream Statement interconnects I reviewed in Issue 12 were more extended at both the high and low end in a solid state system than they were in a tube system.
Did I find anything about the Silver Circle cables to gripe about? Not much. Most of the problems I identified while evaluating them had to do with my associated equipment, not the cables. The most serious "problem" I had was with the banana plugs on the speaker cables. While the BFA plugs proved superior to standard bananas, when I tried to bend the cables fairly sharply to insert them into the speakers, the stiffness of the cables popped the bananas out of the speaker jacks. That's a pretty minor quibble, I must admit, and I did quickly grow fond of the ease of use of the banana connectors.
Toward the end of their residence in my system, I started mixing and matching the Silver Circle cables with others in my collection. They "played well with others," but I thought that they sounded better when my entire system was cabled with them. The power cords worked with everything. I liked using a Silver Circle power cord to feed my AudioPrism power strip, so that all the components could benefit. During the mixing and matching phase, I discovered that most of the problem with the Art Audio amp resulted from the TimeWise interconnect between my preamp and my amp. When I substituted another interconnect, the sound dramatically improved. It was just one of those things that sometimes happen when you introduce new equipment into a system. I don't fault either the cables or the amp—sometimes two components just don't play well together. That's why having a liberal return policy is so important.
Speaking of which… Silver Circle Audio's recently updated return policy is refreshingly different. It is a totally reasonable policy, in my view, and one that any buyer should be able to live with. I quote from an e-mail clarifying the policy:
Are the Silver Circle Audio cables the best in the world, better—as one user reported—than Nordost's Valhallas? I don't know, since, believe it or not, I don't own a set of the Nordost megabuck cables. Apparently, what the Valhallas do so well is to work superbly with an extremely wide range of components. It is possible that the Silver Circle cables will not be the ideal match for your system. In my system, they were wonderful matches for three out of four amplifiers, and I thought they were good in a solid state system as well. The Silver Circle Audio cables are extraordinary performers, but when you factor in their low cost, they become insanely good bargains. If you need to upgrade your cables, I recommend that you give these a try before Dave Stanard starts charging what they're really worth. Vade Forrester
CS-12 Speaker Cables
Silver Circle Audio