POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 32
as reviewed by Larry Cox
I am writing about another cable because ...I bought another pair of speakers. My speaker purchase is a matter of pragmatism. It has nothing to do with a change of opinion of or satisfaction with the GamuT L5s I bought and wrote about last month. I'm not selling the GamuTs. I stand by every word I said about them. If you're in the market and can afford their price, they're a delight to listen to and look at. I'm looking forward to hearing them again in the near future.
I'm simply parking them out of the reach of my son. When he gave them a thwack with a wooden spoon, I didn't wait for him to create a drum pattern to decide to protect and replace them. He's a two-year-old boy doing what two-year-old boys have the right to do, which is to test things out. Until he can understand "ground rules" like no drumming on daddy's stereo, he has my permission to explore. Preserving his spirit is infinitely more valuable to me than eleven layers of lacquer finish on beautiful speakers.
The speakers I purchased are powered ATC SCM 20A-2 speakers ($7300/pr.). As professional monitors they're not fashion pieces—they to me they do look good. They have black metal grilles and gray laminated side panels that can take multiple thwacks from wooden spoons, Thomas the Tank Engine, and whatever else without showing a mark—we've already passed that test.
The 20A-2 are excellent speakers and I plan to write a note or two about them later this summer. Speakers that are powered, for those that don't know, have an amplifier and active equalization built-in. Thus, rather than connect via a speaker cable, the ATCs connect to my E.A.R. 864 preamp by an "interconnect".
My six one meter interconnects, ranging from $150 a meter to $850 a meter all have one failing, they're too short. I need at least three meters to set the ATCs where they need to go. So now I'm looking for three-meter lengths of balanced interconnects to connect my EAR 864 balanced preamp.
I don't enjoy writing cable reviews. Why? In part because cables are disgustingly expensive for something that's not supposed to be doing anything "to" or "with" the music signal. When I wrote about the fabulous Apogee Mini DAC ($850), it was obvious what went into the design and execution of the product. It's a very functional piece, in that it not only is a very fine DAC, but can also operate as both a preamp and a headphone amplifier. It's a Swiss army knife of audio gear. Between my "modest" Ensemble Dynaflux interconnects ($850) and digital cables ($450), I easily could have used cables that were more expensive than the DAC itself! Ridiculous. Check out Bob Levi's review of the Benchmark DAC1 where his recommended cables are multiples of the cost of the DAC. More ridiculousness.
Do cables make a difference? Yes, but I am still disgusted at the prices charged - which doesn't mean that I might not end up being a hypocrite after this review and spending the big bucks on some ridiculously priced wires. Nevertheless, it doesn't go without acknowledging my inherent abhorrence with their pricing. Sorry, but every once in a while, someone has to mention the elephant in the room. Okay, enough whining.
I looked around at the various cables that I have heard and liked. Given the long length, the cable needs to be pretty robust as the weight of three meters of cable is going to pull hard on the terminations inside the XLR connector. Despite proclamations that cables are "x" good, the "truth" as I experience it is that what's great in one system, isn't great in the next. System synergy, magic, or whatever you want to call it, is a key feature. I know I'll be keeping my turntable, my digital side is going to change, and I'm likely to keep my preamp, unless I'm fiscally irresponsible enough to keep thinking about E.A.R. Yoshino's new 868 preamp; as you can see I keep myself on the quest for "more" from my system.
Well, this quest for more is part of my annoyance with cables—they precipitate thinking about other components and then my system is adrift again, which costs more money and more time thinking about …Oy! I should shoot myself.
I got discouraged when I started to think about using an "entry level" cable. After twelve years of reviewing, cheapskate though I might be, I'm not ready to go back to entry-level wires. Errors of commission require colorations in other components to avoid the offending coloration being inserted into the sound. Errors of omission are easier to accommodate because now you're just missing some information. Inexpensive cables rarely only commit errors of omission. Yet, I really did not want to got the "big-bucks" route.
Then I thought of the nearly invisible (sonically) AC cords I have been using the past five years, the Supra Lo Rad Mains Flex power cords. They're so invisible; I forgot I had been using them. Once prompted, I also remembered Supra's reference quality, Sword speaker cables; another product that seemed invisible, though quite detailed.
Both fit in the "errors of omission" camp (so much for my memory). The Lo Rad Mains Flex power cords sell for $178 for a five-foot length, and $20 buys each additional foot. The Supra Sword is about $900 for three meters, both are as flexible as wet noodles, and they disappear sonically. The Lo Rad Mains Flex, like most Supra cables, is shielded, which I thought would help with my application. The power cord's sound is a slippery one to identify, because it is not only smooth, but also doesn't add an easily perceived signature - like a crunchiness, harshness, or "thinness" coloration.
The "Sword" designation is Supra's current top of the line design. Sonically the Sword had a similar presentation to the Lo Rad Mains Flex, though it has a slightly "quieter" quality in the same way a really high quality tube amp and preamp seem to preserve all of the music while at the same time seeming "quieter". Musical detail was just a bit easier to hear, though it's hard to compare a power cord's sound to a speaker cable. You get the idea. So, I gave a call Tonian Labs' Tony Minasian, Supra's importer, to inquire about what he'd suggest.
I loved Tony's response. Rather than send me straight to the top of the line, he suggested going with Supra's former "top of the line"—the EFF-I interconnect that sells for the ungodly sum of $220 a meter, with a 2.5 meter length going for $320. Supra has added a new Sword interconnect that retails for $795 for one meter and about $1400 for three meters. Tony thought the EFF-I would be fine and though the Sword was a little better, it wasn't a lot better. Given the cost differential, I loved hearing that.
Cutting to the quick, the EFF-I sounds a lot like my description of the Lo Rad Mains Flex, which is to say, its character is not obvious, and frankly, it doesn't have a non-obvious character either. Its timbral balance is neither light nor dark; it's neutral without being neutered.
Detail is delivered with a light, seductive, insinuating touch. It's like the difference between finding yourself attracted to someone versus knowing you're being "hit on" at first contact. Whatever is going on isn't obvious. Though I use the word seductive in this paragraph, I'm not suggesting that the EFF-I is romantic, it just insinuates its presentation of music in an engaging way that didn't telegraph how it did it's magic. I just found myself immersed in music in a way I didn't expect.
Coupled to my E.A.R. 864, using Apogee's Mini DAC for digital sources, bass is full and deep. Midranges were liquid, full bodied, and three-dimensional; treble was good though a bit soft. I was pleased and surprised to have stumbled on the EFF-I. I thought I must have been losing my audiophile ears to be so easily pleased. Maybe I have lost them, but with the EFF-I in my system, music is inviting, it's a pleasure to listen to, and given a good recording, I can get immersed in music—even if I don't forget that it's just a stereo.
Using the Mini DAC as a preamplifier with an audiophile quality digital interconnect—Ensemble's Gigaflux coaxial cable—rather than the really cheap stuff I used in my initial review was a revelation. The Mini DAC is much better to me than the Benchmark DAC1. It loses nothing in detail to the DAC1, while retaining the life in music that is so obviously absent from the sterile DAC1. The Apogee now retails for about $850 without a USB connector. I highly recommend this DAC.
The Mini DAC is at its best going directly into the ATC 20A-2s. It doesn't sound like the excellent as the CEC TL51XR, but it's in the ballpark by offering its own take on transparency, musical information, and seductive engagement. Bass is even better, tighter, and more textured than with my 864. A similar silky, SET/romantic experience was present, rather than a "sound", but now with greater musical transparency; especially in the treble region, though it was transparent across the board.
I have been a big fan of the punk/new wave band, "X." Hey Zeus, however, is not my favorite X album; in fact, I have yet to make my way all the way through it. The opening track, "Someone's Watching", has an amazing display of bass information, from its depth to its speed to the surprising array of detail contained in the bass region. The Apogee Mini DAC, Supra EFF-I, and ATC SCM 20A-2s proved to be a magic combination of organic sound realism by generating the experience of a live event. This has been one of the best systems I've had at home, as well as being relatively inexpensive. If I didn't need analog, the total system cost would be under $8500—far from chicken feed, but WOW! …what a presentation.
Perhaps as you read silky or seductive and think I'm really saying "soft", I'm not. When information is sharply recorded it's sharply reproduced, but the EFF-I doesn't seem to add its own sharpness. The Supras make clear that the ATC 20A-2s are a near-field monitor. If I want imaging, I need to be much nearer the speakers than I normally listen to get the final word and to have their supreme focus—the "right seat" is obvious. Ditto, if I want the minutiae that conjures up the original event, or lets me think it has. Whereas, the "comfortable" or convenient place to sit and listen to my stereo is at the end far end of the room, about 17 feet from the speakers. No more.
I have found myself listening 8-10 feet from the speakers. The Supras do sharply focus the presentation without becoming hard, and in fact retain their natural presentation. Imaging becomes surprisingly focused, localized, and popping not out of a "black back ground", but popping up out of nothing. The ATC's vertical and horizontal dispersion is good enough that timbre doesn't change if I'm not in the sweet spot, but the focus and immediacy that's available at 8 feet isn't there at 17 feet.
I'm brought back to comparing the EFF-I sound to exotic single ended Japanese electronics. The kind of presentation where everything is more easily heard because the noise level has dropped. Yes, balanced connections drop the noise floor substantially, but with the EFF-I the sound is not just quieter. In Wynton Marsalis' Standard Time, Vol.3: The Resolution Of Romance, "In The Court Of King Oliver" has bite that emerges from a silence, and disappears into a silence, indicating a capacity to disappear on its own. And there's a snap and rhythm to music that's just like live music. This insinuates great neutrality in the wires.
It has taken me a long time to get to my sonic evaluation in part because their character is hard to distinguish. I have nits to pick, which may be more about listening to audio gear than to listening to music.
For the money the Supra EFF-I are an easy recommendation. They're harder to recommend without regard to price because it will be hard to believe it, but they're very, very good. Yes, I bought them. I like them. Call me a hypocrite, or audiophile, as you please, I may sample the Supra Swords to hear if there is even more available or I may not. The EFF-I make me think the question isn't that important. Larry Cox