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Positive Feedback ISSUE
as reviewed by John Beavers
The Empress Cable story begins with my finding a manufacturer who was selling silver cables at very reasonable prices. Not only that, but folks who had bought them were saying that they sounded better than megabucks brands they'd owned. I had been around the online audio discussion groups for several years, so I took such statements with a large grain of salt, but my curiosity was piqued, and given the attractive asking price I decided to take a chance.
Before I give my impressions of the products that, at the time, were called the Grover Silver Reference cables, let me describe my previous experience with high end cables. Before I got involved in the continual online debate over whether wire makes a difference, I discovered the difference for myself. My first experience was with Tara Labs RSC speaker cables. I had been using large-gauge wire that I had purchased off a roll at Home Depot, and the RSC wire had an immediate impact. I did not yet have enough experience to pay attention to anything other than tonality, but what I heard was different, and I liked the difference. The sound was warm, smooth, and finely detailed, but over time I found that I was bored. The warmth had become a handicap to my ability to connect with the music. My dealer suggested I try the Rhapsody II cable from Straightwire. This cable sounded more neutral and tonally crisp, and that excited me. The music was even more finely detailed, and I got my first hint of what an expansive soundstage was about. I purchased the Rhapsody speaker cables and their interconnects, and stayed with them for quite some time.
My next foray into high-quality wire was Harmonic Technology Pro-9 speaker wire and Truth Link interconnects. These were a significant step up from the Straightwire in clarity, dynamics, and soundstaging. They were also much thicker, and the interconnects were sometimes difficult to work with because of the close spacing of the inputs on my components, but the sonic improvements made it worth the effort. Over the years, I slowly advanced up the chain of high-end wire, including the Tara Labs Air 2 speaker wire and interconnects, the Synergistic Research Resolution Reference interconnects (the ones with the active shielding, which had to be plugged into a wall outlet). As much as I liked these cables, I could not say that the improvements justified the audio dollars I spent. I believed it possible that the same investment in other parts of my audio chain would have had more effect—until the day I received my Grover Silver Reference cables.
Having recently graduated to the $1000 Synergistic Research Resolution Reference interconnects and the $1800 Air 2 speaker cables, I did not know what to expect from the Grover cables. I had spent $125 per pair for the interconnects and $230 for an 11-foot pair of speaker cables. I had found that you usually get what you pay for in audio, and had yet to buy a higher-priced product that didn't provide an improvement. I research my purchases carefully, though, so I'm not surprised when I get the improvements I expect. The Grover wire was stunning. The first thing I noticed was the soundstaging. Instruments moved significantly away from the speakers, and the space between instruments and voices increased. There was also more transparency. The tonal character of the sound became more sophisticated, and I got a more accurate reproduction of live sound. I could hear more subtle musical detail, along with a more correct frequency balance. As time went by, and the cables broke in, these qualities increased. I was very excited by these affordable cables that provided better performance than the $1000+ products I'd tried. I became curious about Grover Huffman, and spent some time getting to know him. He told me the following about his journey into the audio world:
I have had an intense interest in hi-fi since I went with my dad to buy a Scott Stephens stereo system from a TV repair shop in 1964. In those days, that was where you went to buy hi-fi systems. I built my first tube stereo system in 1967, again from the TV repair shop—a Dynaco 70 system. I have had many hi-fis since then, and began to understand tube circuits in earnest in the 1980s. I spent the next fifteen years developing the finest tube amplifiers I could make. This included determining the best-sounding tubes for all the various applications. As a consequence of this work, I met Steve Hoffman, a preeminent mastering engineer. His need for accurate and linear sound reproduction led me to design a vacuum tube system for his mastering lab, one that remains preeminent to this day.
My work with audio cables began in the early 90s. To this day I am amazed that I so successfully designed amplifiers with the cable technology of the time. I, like so many designers, felt that wire had minimal influence over the reproduction of sound, but due to a lucky accident I began to see the light. That accident was the discovery that pure silver yielded a cleaner signal. As I investigated this, I began to see that there were many factors that influenced signal transfer. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the cleanest electronics in order to evaluate my research. I now see interconnects as a limiting gate to sound reproduction, and as important—or more so—than electronics, for no matter how excellent your electronics or speakers are, they will always be limited by the connecting cables.
My design goal has always been the accurate reproduction of music, including presence, soundstage, and realism. There are so many factors that influence the design of audio cables. Many are well known: the skin effect, conductor material, size, physical relationship, shielding, dielectric, etc. I have found that the shape of the conductor is also critical. The size and shape of the conductors and the position of the conductor in the dielectric all contribute to the accuracy and linearity of the sound. Soundstaging is also a difficult factor in the design, because soundstaging defines clean design in cable and electronics. Obviously there are a million variables in every system, as well as personal preferences. My design goals are to produce the finest product with the most reasonable cost. I personally rebel and am offended by the outrageously high prices involved in hi-fi. I will put my products up against any of the megabuck products. I am always seeking to improve my products, always researching new designs and materials. Once a design shows itself inferior, it is discontinued. I continually work with my customers to inexpensively upgrade their cables to the new standard. All materials in my products are selected for the ultimate results, not the cost.
The connectors are unique in that the plugs are thin copper tubes. The silver conductor is silver soldered at the end, eliminating the solid copper or brass plugs so often encountered. The silver speaker cables are terminated with solid silver 18-gauge wire, which is superior soundwise to the huge copper spades that are the norm. The silver speaker cable is revolutionary, and is unlike anything available on the market. They are designed for accuracy, linearity, and especially soundstaging, the last being surprisingly difficult to achieve. The huge-gauge speaker cable that has been the norm is quite lacking in this respect. On a personal note, I take great pleasure in helping people to increase their enjoyment of music. It's a wonderful mission, and it is the reason I personally sign each of my products.
Around this time I did my first Positive Feedback Online review, on the Michael Wolff carbon ribbon power cords (see www.positive-feedback.com/Issue14/wolff.htm). This was another product that exceeded expectations at a comparatively reasonable cost. Michael then invited me to visit him in Seattle so that he could show me how his power cords were made. He was also offering a modification to interconnects and speaker cables that would incorporate his carbon technology. I brought the Grover interconnects with me, to see if his modification could improve upon their already great performance.
When we sat down to listen to Michael's system, I did not know what interconnects he was using. I asked him if we could A/B my Grover cables with his. He agreed, but kept silent about the interconnects that mine would be facing off with. Up first were his interconnects. The sound was very detailed, with extended highs, a lush midrange, and hard-hitting, controlled bass. The soundstage was very wide and deep, with plenty of air and transparency. I really liked what I heard. Then he switched to the Grover cables. His cables had the edge on high-frequency extension, had a bit more air and transparency, and the bass was slightly more controlled and potent, but the synergy of the Grover cables was more to my liking. Nevertheless, his cables were very attractive, and I considered switching to them if they weren't too pricey. I asked what they were, and he showed me a review of them on his computer.
I had noticed that he was not so much focused on how well his cables were performing, and that he seemed excited about mine. I was curious about his reaction, but didn't bring it up as I was focused on finding out about his cables. The website revealed that they were called Stealth Indras. At the end of the review was the price. Oh my! His were balanced, at a mind-bending price of $7000. "Let's do my carbon tweak on your Grover cables," Michael said next. He went to his workbench to do the modification while I continued to A/B the two interconnects. I again found the Indras to be very special, but the Grover cables had their strong points, too. Considering the price difference, I understood why the Grovers had sparked Michael's interest.
When Michael returned with the modified Grover interconnects, we did another comparison. The modification improved the handling characteristics and appearance of the Grover interconnects, which was a plus. We first listened to the Indras, then switched to the Grovers. After only a few notes, Michael and I looked at each other with excitement. It was almost too close to call. I still gave the edge to the Indras for high-end extension and air, but it was now a finely feathered edge, and the wonderful frequency balance of the modified Grover cables was even more solid. I had more of a sense of being at the recording venue than ever before. Bass was quick and deep, midrange and vocals were smooth and natural, and the upper frequencies shimmered. I preferred the modified Grover cables to the Indras, and so did Michael.
I was in the process of writing my review of the Grover Silver Reference cables at the time, and decided after the demonstration of Michael's carbon tweak to put Michael in touch with Grover. The birth of the Empress had occurred. A few weeks later, I heard that Grover and Michael had formed a partnership (see hgrover.wolff.home.comcast.net/). Soon after, I received the carbon-tweaked Grover speaker cables, which also benefited from the modification. I now had a fully Empress-wired audio system, as well as all Wolff carbon power cords (except my amp, which is hard wired). The system sounded the best I'd ever heard it.
My goal as a reviewer is to give an accurate assessment of a product's merits, along with its value relative to that of similar products. I had previously used either all-copper cables, or copper coated with silver, so I decided to investigate at least one more all-silver cable product. I prefer to buy American products from smaller manufacturers, when possible. There are some gems out there if you take the time to research less well-known brands. I narrowed my choice to a product called the Silver Slam, made with military grade silver wire, from the Wegrzyn Loudspeaker Company (see http://cgi.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/cl.pl?cablspkr&1102319808).
I had a vacation week scheduled, so I invited Michael Wolff to visit. He and Grover had never met, and it turned out that Grover could make the trip up from Los Angeles. I got the Silver Slam speaker cables a few days before they were due to arrive. On first listen, I heard increased dynamics from my VMPS speakers. The ribbons seemed to have higher dynamic output with the Silver Slams than with the Empress cables, even at matching volume levels. This produced much more impact, although I felt that the soundstage of the Empresses was still superior. At this point, the Silver Slams still needed a hundred hours of break-in, so I held off making a final judgment. I mentioned my initial impressions to Grover and Michael, and they were intrigued, though doubtful that the Empress cables would be bettered.
The day they arrived, we did some intense A/Bing of the two speaker cables, and agreed that the Silver Slams excited the ribbon drivers more, but were rough around the edges, while the Empress cables were tonally more sophisticated, with a wider and taller soundstage. Three weeks later, after the Silver Slams had had more than 100 hours of break-in, things changed. The edge in sophisticated tonality, dynamics, and soundstaging now belonged to the Slams. I figured that this was due in large part to the thicker wire contained in the Slams, as I had heard that VMPS speakers performed better with large-gauge wire. The Empress, a ribbon wire, might not pass as much signal to the speakers. Not to be outdone, Grover and Michael, agreeing that the Empress speaker cables would benefit from a redesign, were making a new version for me.
Great improvements in sound quality sometimes happen with the introduction of a single component, and when it happens, there is an excitement of discovery that makes all the effort and expense worthwhile. With the addition of the new version of the Empress speaker cables, that magic came upon the stage once again. I've used the word "sophistication" to describe the Empress cables, and it popped into my mind again when I heard the new version. What were the differences between these and the Silver Slams? The Empresses had a blacker, quieter background, possibly due to the fact that Michael's carbon technology was now being used to greater effect. Dynamics, which had been the Silver Slams' domain, were matched by the new Empresses, and the new cables produced a smoother, more natural rendition of the sound of musical instruments. For example, tenor sax, a difficult instrument for an audio system to portray painlessly, came across with tonal precision, The new Empress cables caught the entirety of its brassy signature without the harshness that can impinge upon my enjoyment of that instrument.
Soundstaging was also improved. With the Silver Slams, the stage had extended beyond the sides of the speakers and most of the way up the back wall. Now it extended well beyond the sides of the speakers, which disappeared within the much larger presentation. Instruments were cleanly delineated, defined in space and separated by what sounded like a vacuum. The soundstage was ceiling high, and seemed to spread forth from that corner boundary out into the middle of the ceiling. I was engulfed by the presentation, no longer focused on that area between the speakers, but captivated by a feeling of immersion in the music. I was being drawn into the musical space, no longer a sideline spectator but feeling as if I could commune with the musicians. I felt that I could go on listening all night, listener fatigue a thing of the past. When the first drum solo hit, I went from fascination to love. Previously, bass could get a little sloppy at times. I assumed it was a room issue, but now, bass drums were as solid and controlled as a gun shot, and the tonal textures of the drum skin, struck repeatedly and quickly by the drum pedal, were exquisitely portrayed in three-dimensional space before me. What a rush!
The new Empress speaker cables, along with the Empress interconnects and the Wolff power cords, have created a spectacular and unique sound in my system. The Silver Slam cables are a great buy at factory-direct pricing, but the Empress cables are very special, creating a unique experience that is closer to real music than anything I've heard before. Michael Wolff and Grover Huffman have achieved something worthy of investigation, and I hope I have given readers impetus to investigate my findings. This is a spectacular audio product, and it is highly recommended. John Beavers
Empress speaker cable