FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 34
Phono Cable Hoedown
Whether mediated by an auspicious orientation of the astral entities—or just my good fortune—this survey fell into place seemingly on its own. Facilitated by the arrival of the V.Y.G.E.R. Baltic M turntable and its ease of swapping them, phono cables began to show up at my door. As I reported in my review, the Baltic M table with SME 312 arm and the new and sensational Shelter 9000 cartridge is slightly warmish, but otherwise uncolored and quite accurate. Thus, it provides a cooperative operations platform on which to go prospecting for phono cable differences large and small. (And all you have to do is slide the cables' DIN plug into the receptacle on the back of the arm tube column, unlike with my Linn LP12, for example, which has to be put on a special jig to get at its underbelly—an evening's task and a pain in the neck.)
Van den Hul MC D-501
We begin with the Van den Hul MC D-501 phono cable because it comes packaged with the SME 312 arm, which in turn comes with the Baltic M table. It is made to order at SME's request—you can't buy it on your own. I imagine it would retail for around $500, if available.
It sounds like a Van den Hul cable. By that I mean it is well-integrated, coherent, with good body, and a tonal center a little high in the midrange (the lower mids are under-represented). It has a silvery kind of buff smoothness, which tends to subdue inner voices—some mental effort is required to pull them up out of the mix.
The VdH doesn't stop to smell the roses while traipsing through the garden. While it produces reasonably developed timbre—enough to be satisfying—you won't get much in the way of nuance or subtleties. It's not the most insightful cable.
Space is only partially developed. Two dimensions are good, width and height, but depth is somewhat flat. Image separation is sub-par and caused congestion. The cable does better with loud passages. Its dynamics are forceful enough, especially paired with the Baltic M, but the treble could be shrill at times.
Overall, it's a good sounding entry-level cable, but it was obvious the Baltic M's potential went unfulfilled. Still, I enjoyed music with it: the VdH's voice was in the right place.
Appearance & Construction
Black, skinny and very flexible, the Van den Hul MC D-501 has a silver-colored SME right-angle DIN at the arm end and similar silver-colored SME RCA plugs at the other. The left and right conductors are physically separate and there are two grounds: a long one from the DIN end and a short one from the combined RCAs. Each conductor side has 19 runs of 0.1 mm oxygen-free, halogen-free, silver-coated copper. The whole is decently put together out of what appear to be low-cost, but audiophile grade, parts.
Purist Venustas phono cable $1775
First I noticed it in the attack. Is it slower, dragging the beat maybe? Then I heard it in the decay. Now I'm certain. From beginning to end, the Venustas is putting more clues at my disposal, informing me about such things as; how the instrument is being played: the musician's interpretive style: even telltale hints as to its manufacture. The Venustas is stretching time to give the listener heightened acuity. To put it simply, it crams more musical information into a given measure of time. Its special way of conveying musical flow reminds me a little of the ART Audio Vinyl Reference phono stage.
This is due to its complex, nuanced and audible timbre. By audible timbre, I mean the overtone makeup is on display—you can slice and dice individual frequencies in its overtone structure, you can almost notate them. I like to contrast this with what I describe as a centered tone—when all overtones are present but none are audible independently. The VdH MC D-501 has some of this quality in its inviolable, silvery smoothness. In the end, though, the Venustas takes overtone production up a notch or two too many, into the realm of a pleasing coloration.
The tonal balance is not that far from the VdH, having a similar center a little high in the midrange. However, the bass and treble are outsized compared to the middle.
The low-end comes on very strong when called for—when it's in the source. Otherwise, it's unnoticed but not absent. I say this because transients from bright instruments, which don't have much low frequency content, still have a startling amount of force. It ain't a frequency-based coloration, just an expression of the Venustas' extrovert personality. It's also quiet: noise and non-musical sounds are suppressed. It does this and still manages to sound reasonably fast.
Overall soundstage dimension is similar to the width and height I heard with the Van den Hul, with the addition of a first-class depth component. Make no mistake though; the Venustas' illusion is much more compelling—I'm tempted to call it transparent.
The key to the Purist Audio Design Venustas' character is its fluid, singing line, enhanced timbral display, sweet tone, and its dynamic virility. Its soundstage is definitely not lazy or laid back.
Appearance & Construction
Black is also the color of the Venustas' dielectric. The DIN is connected via a skinny, flexible 9" lead, but beyond that we're looking at normal-to-large-sized conductors of average girth and flexibility for an IC. At its load end are what appear to be RCAs made from solid silver and copper. A long ground comes out of the DIN end. The cable has the first-rate construction quality we've come to expect from Purist Audio Design.
Kubala-Sosna Expression phono cable $1800/1.25 m
Like the Purist, although not to the same degree, time seems to stretch with the Kubala-Sosna Expression cable, with its intense descriptive ability concerning the musical makeup of notes. But where the Purist has notable air and a see-through quality, the K-S presents fully formed, weighty, centered chunks of sound information.
The sound of the K-S is dense. It has more flesh and body than either the VdH or the Purist. The sweet and detailed top-end I remarked on with the Purist is gone. Actually, you don't particularly reckon the K-S top-end one way or the other. And you don't hear its "bass," per sé.
That is because it is impossible to break apart the K-S sound into its frequency makeup. It puts out a blended, continuous, inviolable tone, such that no frequency can be identified in isolation. The only way this can happen is when a full complement of frequencies is presented and, most important, they are temporally coherent. Discrete bands make their appearance when there's a discontinuity caused by either a missing or an out-of-sync frequency nearby. (This partially explains why the Purist top-end is so detailed and exposed: there's a suckout somewhere below, in the neighborhood of the upper mids.)
I don't mean to imply that the K-S has a ruler-flat response—it is generous in the upper bass through the lower midrange, almost thick in that area—but the degree of frequency integration and coherency is unmatched in this sampling. This quality brings to mind evenings in my center balcony seat at Carnegie Hall. (And also the silver wires from Audio Note Japan. Another paragon of naturalism, the ANJ cable is the antithesis of Hi-fi hype, as is the K-S. The two wires are notable for their holistic and acoustic sound, but otherwise have little in common.)
The K-S tonal center is decidedly in its generous lower midrange. It is darker than either the VdH or the Purist. Maybe the Purist's top-end sweetness has moved to the lower mids? Whatever: the lower strings are definitely benefiting from the energy boost and vitality in that band. The richness and presence imparted remind me of my Linn LP12. Vocals are magical. Dynamics are controlled and powerful. The Expression Phono Cable has that attractive timbral fullness and tonal weight that K-S is known for.
Images appear larger and less discrete, more holistic across the span and further back than with the Purist. Sometimes the images are outside of the speakers, extending to the sidewalls. The K-S sound is about tone and naturalism.
Appearance & Construction
Black is the color of the Expression, the penultimate K-S phono cable. It is much skinnier, lighter and more flexible than a comparable K-S Expression IC. You can feel braided, large-gauge conductors under the soft mesh sheath. The conductors are OFC copper. It is available with a choice of Cardas or SME DIN, and with Neutric RCAs at the load end. A single ground wire comes out from the RCA end. Construction quality of the K-S Expression phono cable meets expectations at its price point.
TARA Zero GX $3800/1.2 m
Shazam! What an exciting vision to behold! When I put the TARA Zero GX cable on the arm, my first stupefied reaction was: "Huh? What the …" Incoherent, unintelligible babbling followed as I was at a loss to make sense of the terra incognito landscape before me. I was hearing things I've not heard from an audio system before. Once again, I'm not talking about "detail," per sé. While there was more of this, that doesn't impress me in and of itself. I'm referring to the wires' TLC conveyance of the signal, vouchsafing that delicate nuances reach your ears right alongside massive crescendo broadsides.
Eventually, I began to make sense of this novel frontier.
For one thing, the start and stop action of the cable establishes a new benchmark. I've never heard such a uniform wave front on both ends of the note. There is absolutely no hesitation or lingering about. The Zero GX is by far the fastest and cleanest of the coherent cables I've met. (Sure, you can find faster. All you have to do is compromise coherency or body, or introduce a jagged, bleeding-treble edge.) This is the fastest draw in town among the cables with fulsome body and complete timbre.
And yet the delicate stuff is there, and it doesn't sound phony. Hall cues and air abound. Timbral signatures and bloom on woodwinds are sufficiently robust to be realistic, without overdoing it.
Beware! The Zero GX causes "active eye syndrome." The auditory cues are so intense your brain has no choice but to begin involuntary reflexive tracking of the phantoms traipsing along the periphery, causing your orbs to jump about trying to locate all the ghost images. This is not a blended sound, not a relaxed, easy on the ear kind of sound. This is high magnification. It is exciting because you get into all the nuances of the orchestration. You hear every instrument's action distinctly, and it is densely packed from side to side, from front to back. Crisply demarcated, well-supported and well-articulated images appear in all dimensions.
It has as much bottom, but it is tighter, more controlled and the response is more even than the Purist. It has less bloom, but as sweet a tone as the K-S. (The Purist is the most far gone in this regard.) The Zero GX tonal center and treble integration are much like the K-S.
While none of these cables had a problem with noise or grain, the TARA has the highest S/N ratio. This is no doubt due to the advanced grounding schemes Tara's designer came up with (more on this in a minute). Like the Purist and the K-S, the TARA suppresses the telltale cues as to the mechanical genesis of the sound.
Seems like everything is ratcheted up in the Zero GX presentation: dynamics, timbral differentiation, hall perspective… I'm still trying to figure out how a cable can be both sophisticated and exciting at the same time… Where the K-S puts you in a balcony seat at Carnegie, the TARA offers a front-row ticket. Step right in and enjoy the show.
Appearance & Construction
TARA's Zero-class phono cable was new and took about 30 hours to burn-in. (TARA wires generally have fast burn-in; the others in the survey needed 100 hours.) The SME DIN has a thin, flexible .2 m or 8" lead, which becomes two normal-sized and somewhat stiff conductor runs (about the same thickness but less flexible than the TARA 0.8 IC). All is encased in a dark grey mesh with silver underneath. The load end terminates in gold-plated RCAs. Build quality is on par with the classy TARA 0.8 interconnects.
Each channel has a pair of copper RSC conductors and eight small diameter Teflon tubes. These are bundled in a helix pattern around a central, larger diameter, Teflon tube. Then the entire assembly is wrapped in Teflon tape. The Teflon tubes are removed at the DIN end, resulting in a thin and flexible section of cabling, small enough to fit into the DIN plug. In this way, a continuous conductor run is achieved from DIN to RCA, without a break.
As you can see from the many pigtail sproutings, Matthew Bond has a fondness for novel grounding schemes. He gives you a couple of options with the Zero GX. Most often, all you will need to do is connect the two fly leads together at the DIN end, and the long ground wire to the phono preamp chassis ground.
If your system is noisy, if the phono has hum or buzz, there is an extra pair of leads at each RCA with which to experiment. Connect the male and female of each channel together, or cross left male to right female, for example. I didn't have noise issues: engaging these made no difference sonically.
I'm tempted to jump to the risky conclusion that phono cables are right behind cartridges in getting the sound you want from an analog front-end. Heck, except for the compatibility issues between cartridge and tonearm, the phono cable may even be the equal of the cartridge.
Enough manufacturers offer DIN terminated phono cables to give the consumer a wide range of voicings, maybe less than for standard interconnects, but still plenty. The major players have at least one. Some are literally a stock IC terminated with a DIN; others are purpose-built for the very low level signals. You can certainly spend equally on them. In this survey, they made quite a difference. Reactions to analog playback spanned the range from "Sounds good" to "Wow—I've never heard that from a table before," just by swapping from one phono cable to the next. A bad choice can compound existing problems and make analog nearly unlistenable, while the best choice can lift the rig up into a higher performance class.
You choose your cartridge wisely: the phono cable deserves the same attention. In other words, if you do your homework by auditioning many tables, and then neglect the phono cable, you're spinning your wheels—and not getting your time and money's worth.
Van den Hul