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Reference III Alpha interconnect and speaker cables
as reviewed by Lester J. Mertz, and a word or two from Dave Clark
I'll just cut to the chase and tell you that my initial impression of Furutech Reference III Alpha cables are that they are a sonic leap forward! They are one great line of cables! So if you are interested in new interconnects or speaker cables of the best "high end" variety (along with being not that expensive—well not on high-end audio terms) read on!
Now that we have gotten that out of the way, here is a little of the technical background to Furutech's new line of interconnects and speaker cables. First a summary, kind of a "readers digest" version of the cables' new features, so if you want or need more information than what's here, check out the Furutech website. If you insist on doing your due diligence, that is, finding out everything you can there are other sites for information on the different technical processes used in making cables and heaven forbid, there may even be other reviews to check-out.
I know most of you who keep up with new things in the audiophile world are probably already aware of the Furutech power line products such as their power distribution boxes, premium wall outlets and the male and female power cable connectors. You will find many of these hyper-quality connectors on other manufacturers' power line products. Furutech has recently jumped into the interconnect market in the USA, as they have been available in Japan and Europe for some time now. So, here's the skinny (Navy talk, for the facts.)
Furutech is a Japanese company, started in 1988 that uses an extremely high purity PCOCC process they call α(Alpha)-OCC for single crystal copper for analog, digital and power products. It sells their α(Alpha)-OCC (pure copper by Ohno continuous casting) cable both in bulk and in factory terminated products. In their Reference line, the α(Alpha)-OCC wire, (30 pieces of 0.18 mm gauge in three bundles—for interconnects) and all of the metal components are treated by Furutech's "Two-Stage Alpha process". The first stage consists of the super cryogenic step followed by demagnetization treatment as the second step.
The cryogenic step, cooling materials to low temperatures to change their properties, is often touted in the product information packets and has almost become the standard buzz word phrase for any expensive power outlet. Furutech's custom treatment is an advanced cryogenic technology that uses liquid carbon dioxide (-70 degrees Centigrade), then liquid nitrogen (-196 degrees Centigrade) and finally liquid helium (-250 degrees Centigrade) in the making of their cables. Note that only the wire and metal are treated in this cryogenic step. Getting anything that cold other than the metal itself is not a good idea, as it can cause plastics to weaken or even fail when used in an AC power line application. Therefore, other manufacturers may not take things to the temperature extremes used in the Furutech Alpha process, but if they do not, then they are not getting the full benefit of the cryogenic treatment. It is these super low temperatures that relieve internal stress by changing molecular structures in the metal—leading to audible improvements such as increased resolution, especially micro-details, clean backgrounds and wide bandwidth.
The Alpha process also uses a demagnetization step, which is a patented Furutech process. It is not one of ordinary super magnets, but instead uses what they call their "attenuation method" to eliminate any possible magnetization with the metals and wires. This technology provides positive sonic effects over standard methods. Both of these Alpha process steps are engineered to ensure the lowest noise and distortion levels in their cables.
FYI, the Furutech's α(Alpha)-OCC uses Professor Ohno's (Chiba Institute of Technology of Japan) patented process for manufacturing single crystal copper by heated mold continuous casting. The resulting small rods of copper are then drawn into long wire producing crystal grains greater than 700 feet in length. The long single-crystal wire has attributes that are ideal for audio purposes such as low electrical resistance, corrosive resistance, rapid transmission of signal and high resolution.
The old story of copper purity rated as four nines (99.99%), six nines (99.9999%) and so forth, meaning the specification of percent purity, are not relevant with the α(Alpha)-OCC cables because of the superior grain structure and surface finish. Cable and wire construction by the use of Ohno's cast rod technique leads to a very high quality surface finish that has been found to have more of an effect on the cable sound than previously suspected.
Another shortcut manufacturing issue is not applying the proper insulation in a timely manner, that is, as fast as possible once the wire is through the die so as to minimize airborne contamination issues. The finely drawn surface finish of the α(Alpha)-OCC wire provides better cable longevity by exhibiting that tighter surface grain structure, which helps reduce chemical contamination during processing, that is, before being covered by the protective insulation. Insulation is another area that we are just now becoming aware of as sonically important issue. Early audio cables were just covered with colorful PVC (polyvinylchloride) to differentiate them from the standard black cover used by the original wire manufacturer. Since then we have found that the PVC insulation breaks down over time releasing reactive chemicals (plasticizers) into the conductors producing undesirable contaminates which deteriorate the sonic qualities of the cable. Furthermore, PVC's sun exposure to UV (Ultraviolet radiation) leads to increased break down of the insulation that allows undesirable airborne contaminates a chance for additional detrimental reactions with the conductors. Newer insulating techniques are using halogen free compounds such as polymerized silicone and other materials that avoid the old PVC break down issues. All of the improved manufacturing techniques and better wire qualities add significantly to the value of high-end audiophile grade interconnects speaker cables and video cables, adding years of life to your investment.
The Reference III cables use Furutech's GC-303 antimagnetic and electromagnetic interference (EMI) absorbent coatings in their design. This proprietary material is found in the hexagonal metal fixture placed about 8 inches from one end. The cable is a completely passive design and there are no capacitors or reactive components hidden within the fixture. This module is covered with a dark green felt bag embroidered with the Furutech Reference III logo, very plush looking. The cables also have double shielding that provides extreme low noise, eliminating RFI and EMI from the signal path. As the world becomes more sophisticated adding more mobile phones, blue tooth devices and increasingly more electronics to our life, we are also adding more sources of interference to our precious audio systems, increasing the need for the best shielding in our equipment. One of the reasons that late night listening is always better than daytime is because of the reduction in RFI and EMI at those hours reducing impact on your gear and improving your reproduced sound.
Reference III interconnect cables feature low capacitance dielectric insulation, using Air-formed HDPE (High Density Poly-Ethylene) and natural fillers as barrier layers for the double electrical shields leading to a quieter cable.
The RCA locking connectors are made of Rhodium plate over non-magnetic phosphor bronze. These connectors are similar to the famous WBT types and I could not help but notice the unusual center pins of the RCAs—they are multi-faceted wires for superior contact and outstanding transmission.
Many internet audiophiles are reacting to the cable market and high pricing by saying that today's cable descriptions are all hype, snake oil or worse. Those of you that have been involved with this hobby for years have seen similar reactions to both equipment and software in the past. Remember the amplifier wars of the sixties "all amps sound the same" and you know they do not. Then it was the turntable debates of the seventies: "how can just the spinning of the record affect the sound?" Virtually all of the makers that did not evolve are either extinct or currently having their nameplate purchased and used for products from the Far East. In the eighties there was the great media change with the introduction of the CDs: "perfect sound forever." Well, we all know what that promise meant. Nothing! Then it was the SACD/DVD-A verses the Redbook CD debates. What is the current debate—Blue Ray verses the HD DVD?
A cottage industry of cable makers has flourished over the internet. Have people been bitten by quick buck hucksters? Sure they have, but this does not mean that every cable is nothing more that a piece of wire. Naysayers argue—why not spend your money on more equipment and stay with the basic cables. In time, cables will be recognized as being as important as any other part of the chain in achieving great sound. By now, you might be saturated with these peripheral issues and are ready to get back to how these Furutechs sound.
Initially, I added just one pair of interconnects, running between one of the Arcam CD 33T dual outputs and the Blue Circle BC 21.1 line stage inputs. This allowed comparison by just switching to the selected input on the line stage. At first listen the Reference III did not sound overly impressive, but after thirty minutes or so they started to bloom and I left them in the system for a week. They certainly equaled my current cables ("the second" by vdh) with their top end's beautiful delicacy and openness! Maybe just a tad less in ultimate low bass depth but certainly very detailed in the frequencies they did cover. They did not have the overwhelming shrill harshness common to other cables I have auditioned at this price point. I had tried other single crystal cables, silver cables, cables with voltage applied to their shields and so forth, and they all delivered a lot of high frequency energy, but with the kind of sound that wears you out after a while. This sound is characterized by an overwhelming metal harshness. Once you have this harshness eliminated from your sound you never want to go back. The Furutechs are musical.
Many audiophiles are leery of the word musical. They think it means rolled-off and lacking details. This is definitely not the case here. The Reference III cables are extended and open in the top end and at the same time extraordinarily inviting and clean in the midrange. They provide a wealth of nuance that leads to genuine involvement with the piece of music playing. I listened to the entire double CD from guitarist Paul Galbraith, Bach the Sonatas and Partitas (Delos DE 3232.) What an amazing experience! This guitarist has a unique sound that holds you right there and the system did absolutely nothing to interfere with the performance. This CD was brought over by an audiophile friend who is a classical guitarist and we often share our guitar music finds with each other. He and I listened together for a few minutes, when he asked if I was having trouble breathing. I said, "No, that's not me it's on the recording." You can make out Paul's breathing because of the microphone sensitivity and close positioning to his guitar and body, as his guitar is held upright like a cello. He had listened to the recording many times but had not heard this breathing on his expensive home system. The Reference III cables capture his breath and playing technique leaving nothing out. However, they do not overly accentuate making details unbearable to listen to over the long haul. By the way, this CD is so good, that even though he loaned it to me for the week, I went out and bought it just a few days later. If you are a classical guitar music lover this is a must have recording. I didn't want to be without my own copy even for a day.
I put on several Alison Krauss recordings (Forget About It, Rounder 11661-0465-4 and New Favorite, Rounder 11661-0495-2) because of her angelic voice and beautiful tone. She is something special to listen to and her sound is very useful for evaluating gear. Most of her recordings have added reverberation (echo) and this artificial artifact usually makes for a quick test of cables and systems. With some gear and cables you can distinctly make out a disturbing graininess, an overly accentuated brightness that leads an almost unbearable harshness in her recorded voice. Remember the human vocal range is usually below 1000Hz, so there is something else going on here in the octaves above those fundamentals. The overtones can easily be in and above the 3000-hertz range where our ears are most sensitive—any over accentuation leading to a harsh over wrought sound can easily become fatiguing.
Upon adding the second Furutech interconnect between the BC 21.1 and the Sonic Frontier' Power 1 (55-watts) the sound space opened up considerably, with the proverbial "raising the curtain" effect. With all Furutech interconnects in the system it was a special listening event. Believe me when I tell you they are very open without being glaring, harsh and over the top. Certainly that very openness could push things past the point of acceptability with some older CD recordings (pre 1990s) and certain gear, I'm thinking here of particular solid-state amplifiers and certain speakers with metal dome tweeters. With a hard sounding system adding these revealing cables may not be the answer for you. If this is your chosen audio path then you simply must try them in your system before laying out your hard-earned cash. Please be certain beforehand that you are able to return things when you try any new gear or expensive accessory items in your system. Returned items should have money back or specified restocking fee from the dealer or manufacturer.
You may be wondering just how I am hearing this openness on an all tube system, but these pieces of gear are not laid back in any way and easily allow one to hear the differences that cables make in the system. I have to digress here—a certain manufacturer's representative once told me when I was buying one of his expensive tube line stages that I would not have to worry about cables anymore, because the line stage's input impedance was so high that all cables would sound the same—equally wonderful. Weeks, many weeks actually, later after breaking in that line stage I was trying different interconnects and was wondering just what he had been listening to all that time to come up with such an erroneous conclusion? The cables had an obvious effect on the overall sound. I say this, every change and every damned thing sounds different, period.
Lastly, I installed the hefty Reference III speaker cables in place of my trusty Van Den Hul D352 Hybrids (10-gauge.) The Furutech speaker cables have large spades at the amplifier and expandable locking banana connectors at the speaker end, all Rhodium plated. The main section of the cable, the black woven section is flexible enough but the end leads are quite stiff and a handful in tight places such as the output terminals of your amplifier. The same open attributes of the interconnect cables were heard immediately after connecting the speaker cables, but now with an extra expansion of the sound field and more layering of the instruments. There was even more clarity across the audio frequency ranges especially air in the upper registers. There was that speed, the instantaneous delivery of the recorded sound that I thought was the exclusive providence of the super kilo-buck amplifiers. I remember the first time I heard the Halcro amplifier demonstration (with the Eggleston Works "Rose" speakers) at the 2000 CES. We were ushered into a large room with chairs set up in rows like a theater and once they were filled the door was closed, and we were asked to be very quiet and listen. Wow, there were things happening in the CDs that made the music incredibly life-like and I never forgot it. With all of the Furutechs installed they bring that kind of realism to my system.
For a solid-state session, I used my B&K ST-140 (105wpc) instead of the SF tubes and I was impressed. If the B&K had sounded this good so many years ago, it may have stayed in my system a lot longer. With the Furutech cables it was like having a brand new amp, but unfortunately owners of this caliber of gear cannot imagine buying cables in this price range. I also pulled out several different speaker types to try with the Furutech speaker cables in the set up. The B&K with the Dynaudio ported box was just divine, deeper and tighter than I have ever heard from them. Solid state amplifiers just seem to be able to deal with the ported boxes double humped impedance rise, (that jumps up to more than four or five times the speaker's rated impedance,) better than the tube circuits. There was no harshness in the top end either; in fact, the top on the B&K was slightly depressed compared to the SF tubes.
I love the way that more of the music was emphasized with the Furutech cables; it was a sonic miracle. The speaker cables portray the music with an exceptionally fast paced delivery, one in which nothing lags behind. The entire orchestra had a pace that moved along with a very realistic speed. Listening to the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Sony) soundtrack was a whole new experience. Explosive drum hits and crashing cymbals were scary and caught you off guard with their live dynamics. It was like the amplifier had suddenly doubled its power, and the sound had the major slam of the high priced amps. The speaker cables were an obvious improvement within minutes of listening. There is something beguiling about their performance and airy effortlessness that tricks you into believing that you are listening live to the real thing more often than not. You're My Thrill; Shirley Horn (Verve) was another revelation. This Furutech sound had me enthralled on her wonderful recording. By the way, I am certainly one who will miss her wonderful jazz.
I loaned out (big mistake) my beloved copy of Autumn in Seattle, with Tsuyoshi Yamamoto, piano; Ken Kaneko, bass and Toshio Osumi, drums (First Impression Music) and never got it back. After looking everywhere for the CD version that now seems to be out of print, I finally broke down and bought the "hybrid" (SACD/CD) version. Amazingly, the sound is even sweeter than I remember it being on the original CD version and jazz aficionados will certainly appreciate this beautiful recording and performance. This album is top shelf all the way, and each time I play it someone comments favorably and asks where to buy it. It's that good.
Everything in audio, as in life, is a series of compromises; the musical presentation, the details and whatever else you can think of are a series of trade offs in engineering and value. It seems to me that Furutech has made these cable products as vibrant, lifelike and balanced as they can without going over the top into the glaring hyper-detailed presentation that wears me out. Most of us will change our priorities over time and as we grow and mature with our musical tastes and interests. The VDH cables have that balance of satisfying sound that have kept them in my system against all challengers up to now. But, I think Furutech may have come up with something better than anything I have heard up to this point. Audio products can sometimes satisfy you in your quest for a brief period and some of them—even over the long haul. However, because everything changes as newer technologies come along and evolve, they make older technologies sound dated and lacking in the life of the music. Furutech's interconnects and speaker cables are a culmination of newer technology providing brilliant energy and life to music. It is not one of those flash in the pan - science fiction type breakthroughs, but instead a compilation of evolving technologies that has led to better sounding cables. If you're working up the quality / price scale, and most of us are, only you can decide if you're at that point in your quest where you are ready to move up to the Furutech cables. For me, I am trying to go for it. I am looking for my checkbook to see if I can hurdle that "final frontier"—the bank balance. The Furutech cables are great!
Thanks to Furutech, to Dave for sending them over, and to you for reading, Lester J. Mertz.
A word or two from Dave Clark
Damn you Les... damn you... again one of our writers beats me to the punch by clearly and succinctly (well, perhaps not all that succinctly here ...Les did write quite a bit!) about a product that I also had in house. Not sure what I can add to Les's review, but let me say that the Furutechs do offer a big, BIG sound that in many ways brings to mind a muscle car of the 60s. J10 mentioned in an email how he felt that the cables possessed a sonic signature that was like a big V8 that's only ticking over but can burn it out when needed.... big and powerful with a nice sense of pedal to the metal when called upon.
An excellent image to be sure. The Furutechs (as compared to the Audio Magic Clairvoyant 4Ds) are "darker" in the sense that the mids and up have less emphasis or presence. There is less "light" making them sound bolder (heavier?) and solid. Solid in all respects; imaging, soundfield, dynamics, bass, musicality ...you get the idea. Bold in the sense that the music has serious heft and power. They have less edge to the music, perhaps being a touch less delineated or detailed ...though this could simply be less noise and crap getting into the signal and being interpreted as detail and resolution. Or the difference between very good silver versus very good copper—copper with an attention to eliminating noise and other external gremlins. Your call as to preference.
As such, their shortcomings might be perhaps this less apparent resolution or presence, though the Furutechs may be more right than others. That is they do not shout out to be heard, nor do they come across as splashy, flashy, and being all that! No, they seem to be rather humble in how they present the finer details—all the little subtle things going on in the sonic tapestry. They are there, they just don't prick you on the nose to make themselves stand out. It is called listening to the music. With the Furtutechs, that is what one will do.
These are very nice cables that will not break (or as a V8, brake) the bank. Beautifully finished and built to last through the next millennium, they are highly recommended. Dave Clark
Reference III interconnects
Reference III speaker cables