POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 49
Reference interconnects and speaker cables
as reviewed by Kent Johnson
Cables differ from the other components in a stereo system. Where everything else is involved in converting the signal in some way, cables are responsible for keeping it as intact as possible. How little they fail at this task is the measure of how good they are.
I have been listening to Zentara's best cabling—the Reference Series—for the last couple of months in my main system. I have used one meter and two meter interconnect cables and a three meter set of bi-wired speaker cables. Listening to these cables has been as enjoyable as writing about their sound has proven difficult.
The Zentara Reference speaker cables are constructed of proprietary multi-conductor wires in a "tubular helical" design. This geometry keeps all the conductors in a truly concentric relationship with each other, regardless of the length of the cable itself, precluding any "signal jumping" between conductors from smearing the sound or interfering with its temporal continuity. Each individual conductor is insulated with proprietary high performance ultra-thin Teflon insulation. The conductor material is 99.9999% (6N) purity long grain copper. Electrically, the Reference design is optimized for high current capability, low capacitance, limited inductance, and minimal resistance. Sonically, the stranded design of the cable works to maximize midrange and treble smoothness and detail. Tight bunching (concentric stranding) of the individual wires provides bass impact, speed, and depth more typical of solid-core cabling.
These are externally bi-wired cables—they bifurcate at the amplifier connections into four physically separate conductors at the speaker terminals. The review cables came with tellurium copper 4mm banana plugs at the amplifier end and standard gold-plated 4mm banana connectors at the speaker end. This arrangement is the result of extensive listening tests. The 4mm plugs fit all of the binding posts that I had available extremely well. The cables were nicely finished in a midnight blue mesh covering. Spade terminals or black mesh covering are also available.
The Zentara Reference Cu interconnect cables utilize multiple strands of Single Crystal copper with the same proprietary ultra-thin Teflon insulation. (A Reference Silver version is available, as are balanced cables.) These multiple, single-crystal conductors are claimed to provide excellent transparency, bass dynamics, midrange bloom, and smooth highs. They are terminated with top of the line Furutech (phosphor-bronze center pin) gold-plated locking RCA plugs. The Furutech connectors were chosen for their sound and build quality. These connectors feature a wire whisk-like design for the pin itself, which consists of individual strands of wire. These plugs are some of the finest that I have encountered. Their locking mechanism works well and provides a very secure hold onto the RCA jack. Like the speaker cables, they are also finished in midnight blue mesh.
All Zentara Cables are designed and hand-built by V. Neng Kue. Neng has a graduate degree in Materials Science & Engineering and over nineteen years of experience in the wiring, electronics, and aerospace industries. With all of his cables, the listener is truly hearing one person's perception of how a cable should sound as well as how it should perform as part of a larger electronic circuit.
When I first unpacked the Zentara Cables, I was impressed by their very high quality, if low-key, level of fit and finish. I was equally surprised by their flexibility and lightness. My earlier experience with Zentara's IC-4 interconnects and TF-8 speaker cables led me to expect a much heavier and stiffer cable. The Zentara Reference cables qualify as neither thick nor thin (to my eye) but have the sort of appearance appropriate to their cost and "Reference" designation. Zentara broke-in the cables prior to shipping them to me so they needed no additional break-in time. I did not hear any change in their sound over the time that I spent listening to them.
I used the Zentara References as a complete cable system except for amplifier and preamp AC cables. My Sony 5400 SACD player was my source component and already has a Zentara AC cable on it. It was connected either directly to the Wyred 4 Sound STI-500 integrated amplifier that I recently reviewed or through my Dodd preamp to my Rogue 90 amplifier or the amplifier section of the STI-500. Listening was done with Grant Fidelity's LS3/5A speakers and PMC's GB1i speakers, as part of their reviews, as well as with my reference Magneplanar MG1.6s. Most of my critical listening was done with the Dodd/W4S setup as this seemed to offer as heavenly a blending of solid-state—low noise, solid bass—and tube virtues—delicacy and soundstaging—as I have heard.
I talked with Neng about his Reference cables shortly after I received them. He discussed the extensive listening that went into their design and his striving for "smoothness" and "neutrality" in their presentation. After listening to these cables for as long as I have, I would suggest that in smoothness and neutrality, he was really discussing coherence. Coherence exists when all the frequencies being carried by the cable arrive at the right time, in the right proportion, and with absolutely minimal losses due to the cable itself.
Due to their coherence, the Zentara Reference cables are unlikely to impress during short-term blind-listening sessions. Their impressive qualities become evident only through extensive listening during which their utter lack of coloration and obvious character become strengths as they reveal information in your recordings that has gone previously unheard.
I have not listened to Dire Straits Brothers in Arms (Warner Brothers 9 25264-2) for quite a while. With the Zentara Reference cables I heard air and atmosphere around Mark Knopfler's voice that I had never heard before. I could easily recognize Sting's voice on "Money for Nothing." The backing vocals on "So Far Away" were much clearer and more intelligible. The soundstage on all the tracks had very good width and reasonable depth.
The CD that I have of this recording is the original 1985 version, which was made in Japan. I have two complaints about the sound on this CD. The main one is that the snare drum has very little resonance. It sounds as if the drum sticks are hitting something solid and hard, like a countertop. The sound is sharp and annoying. My other complaint is that Mark Knopfler's voice is more distant than I would like. I would prefer to hear it more upfront.
Still, the CD's sound was quite good overall. Good enough, in fact, that I thought that it would be worth investigating what SACD or remastered CD versions have been done of this album since my copy came out. If a CD this close to the format's genesis can sound this good, shouldn't something newer sound ever better?
As it happened, I was in one of the chain bookstores a few days later so I looked to see if they even carried a copy of Brothers in Arms any longer. It turned out that they did and it was the 2000 "Warner Remasters" version. So I bought it. (Warner Brothers 9 47773-2)
I re-listened to the 1985 version prior to switching to the remaster. Since I finished with track 9, "Brothers in Arms" I started with that on the new CD. My initial impression of the thunderstorm was very positive as it flooded from the MG1.6s. It sounded much more real and dynamic, with better low frequency depth, than it had on the older CD. Very quickly, I realized that this had a lot to do with the fact that the CD itself was somewhat louder. When I got the volume level, using MK's voice as a reference, more equal to the original CD, I restarted the track. The thunderstorm was still much more dynamic and clearer on the new CD, as was Mark's voice. The snare drum even had some resonance to it. It sounded more like an actual drum. Overall, the sound seemed far less compressed.
I went to track 1 and started back through the CD. Sting's voice was even more ethereal on "Money for Nothing" and had more air around it. MK's voice was more forward in the mix on most tracks, which I considered an improvement. Lyrics were easier to understand.
The remastered CD exhibited improvements in clarity, dynamics, openness, and detail. Overall, I felt that is was a worthwhile improvement over the 1985 version. With one caveat. And that was the snare drum. Its volume level seemed higher and, while it was very nominally more real sounding, the increased volume placed it right in the center of the soundstage, right up there with Mark. I found this increased presence more distracting than the deader sound it had originally exhibited. It sounded as if the drum was located right next to Mark's head on "Walk of Life."
Overall, I found only the tracks "Why Worry" and "The Man's Too Strong" to be unequivocal improvements. Every track with the snare drum was a tossup as to whether the flatter 1985 or more intrusive 2000 drum sound was less objectionable. Only "Your Latest Trick," to my ear, got the drum's level really right on the remaster. If I were forced to choose between the two versions, I would have to go with the 1985 CD version, despite a lot of worthwhile improvements to the remastered CD. It's funny how one aspect of a recording can affect your entire enjoyment of it.
The point I wish to make here actually has nothing to do with Brothers in Arms. Hearing these differences between the two CDs was very easy via the Zentara Reference cables. They are a truly clear window into the music, a neutral observer of the performance. Pick anything out of these CDs that you want to compare and you can. Whether you want to approach these recordings from the perspectives of treble, mids, bass, and soundstaging or guitar, voice, saxophone, and thunderstorm, you can. These cables will let you focus on whatever you want from the smallest subtlety to the recreation of the entire performance. Regardless of what you listen for, you will hear whatever is in the recording, good or bad (and, by extension, how well your system is reproducing it.)
I could get another couple thousand words into this article just cataloging what I listened to through the Zentara Cables and the revealing things that I heard. It would be a lot of work and it wouldn't add anything to what I have already said.
These cables are truly neutral and, for all practical purposes, invisible. They are not for the system that has problems with its tonal balance; they are for the system that wants to rid itself of coloration and replace it with clarity. They are for the grown-up audiophile who wants to hear all the subtlety and nuance of which his system is capable. And wants to do it without sacrificing dynamics, subtlety, atmosphere, inflection, and soundstaging.
The absolute truth is that I began this review with some prejudices in favor of these cables. First, I was impressed by both the IC-4 and TF-8 that I wrote about in PFO 42. Second, in May of 2009, while at AKFEST, I had the chance to visit Neng's home and hear his cables in his own extremely good system. I also got to see the materials he was using and got an explanation of what went into each cable. It was impressive. Neng truly has put every bit of the knowledge and experience he has gained over his working life into making the most accurate and least colored cable he is capable of making.
Neng does not make twelve Zentara products from which the listener can relentlessly upgrade. He makes two. Each is as good a cable as he can make within the sphere of economic sanity. He uses only the best materials and listens to every single component before it goes into the finished product. Fanatical (in the most positive sense) would not be an inappropriate word to use regarding his efforts.
And the best part is that these efforts have resulted in cables that do not fail when it comes to keeping the signal intact, have no sound of their own, worked beautifully with all the components with which I had available to audition them, and can be purchased at a realistic cost.
As I stated earlier, this cable is one man's perception of what a cable should be. The result is, if not absolutely ecumenical, universal enough that we can all share in it should we care to. Speaking for myself, I am thrilled to do so. Kent Johnson
meter bi-wired speaker cables