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Positive Feedback ISSUE 53
Elation! Line of Cables
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
We've come a long way, baby! The latest generation of top-level audio wires, like the best contemporary components, is doing things unimaginable just a few years ago. The state of the art has not stood still. (Or lost ground, as some audio mastodons and fans of vintage gear would like us to think.)
This opinion does not derive from armchair cogitation in a darkened room. I've been very fortunate to have sampled my share of specimens, including the TARA Labs Zero and Omega, the Kharma Enigma and, just lately, the Stage III Concepts. (I only know the Stage III power cords: I hope to write about their signal wires soon.) Reporting directly from the front line, I can tell you these wires bring us closer than ever to forgetting about the gear, to achieving that state of suspension of disbelief. This is, after all, what we're in it for, right?
Kubala-Sosna at RMAF
The Kubala-Sosna House Sound
Now I'm listening to a complete set of Kubala-Sosna Elation!, the Blue Blood member of the family. I've always enjoyed the K-S house sound. Known for rich timbre and tone, with the kind of body and fullness that is the envy of the competition—what's not to like? The top-of-the-line Elation! carefully balances those house sound elements and, more so than any sibling, comes out squarely in neutral territory.
Before we begin, a note concerning burn-in: be sure to give the Elation! 100 hours before serious assessment. At 70 hours it's short on treble extension and dynamic subtleties: these need the extra time to kick in. At this level of play, the slightest disadvantage can tip the scales.
First you'll notice the quiet. That's funny when you think about it: How can you notice what's not there? In the sphere of reproduced sound, there is always a degree of noise—audiophiles pay attention to this.
Second, your system sounds more powerful. The Elation! has the most thrust of any wire I've encountered. Crescendos literally explode from your speakers.
I'm listening to the familiar RCA Golden Age recording from 1960, Rhapsodies, with Stokowski conducting his handpicked orchestra. Only this is an XRCD by JVC (JM-XR240195). Not only that, it's an SHM-CD, the next-gen in CD manufacturing from Japan. Whew, I gotta tell ya: this disc comes as close to the feel of analog as you'll get. The SHM-CD brings the silver disc side-by-side with analog.
Which forces a minor sidebar concerning the Holy Grail. We talk about digital and analog sound quality, with analog generally considered the gold standard. We have lived with a duality. But really, it's a triumvirate: there's digital and analog and then, of course, there's reality. Let's not deceive ourselves into thinking that analog is the equal to reality. Analog may be the best we have, but it's a LONG way from a live experience.
Back to Stokowski Rhapsodies, Track two, the Enescu Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1 tells the story. The Elation! let's you hear a slight swell on the fourth note of the clarinet's introductory solo, followed by a little diminuendo on the last note of the phrase. The oboe responds with tasteful vibrato on its third note, effectively completing the discourse. It's a conversation, for heaven's sake—they're not just playing the notation by rote.
But that little emphasis on the clarinet's fourth note has a different quality from those preceding it, which got us debating: Was it scored that way? Did the musician intend it to be an expressive device? Or did he simply lose control for a moment? The listening panel's dialogue shifted from audio to music critique—the gear receded from our thoughts.
A little further into the same track, we encounter some wild string glissandos. At one point the winds counter these with runs zooming down the scale from the opposite direction. This is how Stokowski constructs his unique interpretations. (In their excess, I can't help but be reminded of the "magical strings" Mantovani LPs of the same era were famous for.) The shimmering effects were gloriously conveyed in the playback.
These examples highlight the key thing: we were now discussing aspects of music, not sound reproduction. What did the Elation! bring that made this happen and why is it encountered so infrequently?
Aspects of Frequency Response
The items already mentioned—low noise, powerful dynamics and high resolution—are critical but not unique. I was also quite taken with the Elation's consistent traversal of the audible 20–20,000 Hz range. It's not like the midrange is cool while the bottom is warm, or the top is thin and pinched while the mids are full. All of it is cut from the same cloth.
Second, it progresses smoothly over the range. There are no gaps or irregularities—you don't have vagabond frequencies freeloading like nubs on the cloth.
Third, and most rare, the transitions from one frequency to the next are analog-like. The melody moves along with a liquid, flowing line; transitions are not abrupt and ratchet-like. This is a 600-thread count cotton cloth, remarkably densely woven.
Enough on frequency response: Let's move on to dynamics. I've already commented on the tremendous slam the Elation! brings to bear. On the other side of this scale, you will find it has insightful micro-dynamic shadings. Again, nearly stepless and uncommonly fine.
And timbre. While some cables give you the bare minimum to convey timbral signatures, the Elation! does not skimp here. Woodwinds have a marvelous liquidity as they project into the room. Strings have their own woody texture and silky sheen. Brass transients have their signature blattiness followed by bell-like tones. An impressive amount of natural and realistic color is brought to bear! (Somehow, in our quest for neutrality, color has become a derogatory adjective. Too often beauty gets shunted aside.)
All of these are what enables the Elation's wide open lines of communication. When you stop to think about it, I'm discussing these cables with the same adjectives I use with components. They can be dark or light, thin or fulsome, liquid or dry. It's a bit of a stretch, but isn't it time we started to think of cables as components?
I remember one incident when I was listening to soprano Anna Netrebko on Sempre libera (DG 00289 474 8812) a while ago. Whenever she hit a certain high note her voice changed quality. I assumed that critical deficit was inherent in her voice. Well, we happened to have on hand a TARA Zero IC and I swapped that in place of the expensive cable we were using. Wouldn't you know it—the discontinuity went away. Cables can do this.
What does all of this have to do with real sound? A great deal, actually.
I was in Carnegie Hall last Friday night, listening to the visiting Risor Chamber Music Festival with guest soprano Measha Brueggergosman. Her Marilyn Monroe strapless gown aside, I tell you this lady has formidable chops. Her pianissimos were barely audible from up in our top balcony seats, while her crescendos were as fine as any high-class diva. Her dynamic range tested the capabilities of the hall. But what was happening in between the extremes impressed me equally. I was intently focused on her via high-powered binoculars from my balcony seat (on her face, silly—not always checking out that gown!). She traversed this mid-ground effortlessly but, oddly, I didn't see her lips moving or her mouth change shape. The notes were apparently being formed somewhere else—her throat maybe?
OK, I'm off track. What I want to bring home was the combination of her wide dynamic range and its subtle counterpart—her dusky vocalizations had shadings and nuances of infinite subtlety—plus her timbral beauty and the lack of strain. That's what stayed with me into the following morning.
Now think back to what I said these cables are doing. The ingredient list runs parallel. The key adjective that kept popping up is continuousness. Tubes have it; analog often has it, depending on the quality of the gear.
Soup to Nuts
I was advised by Joe Kubala to try two things: Number one, "If you're gonna do the review, it has to be soup to nuts." He insisted that I re-wire my entire rig. There was no bargaining on this score. Number two, he recommended going direct to the wall AC, bypassing conditioning.
In regards to number one, while I can certainly hear the effects of swapping any single wire—the common A/B test—there's a lot to be said for electrical compatibility within the same family. If I took any single Elation! cable, a power cord for example, and went head to head with a TARA Cobalt or a Stage III Minotaur in my reference system, I might prefer one of them. In a test that includes only one Elation!, you won't hear its true capability. To a certain extent, this is an unfair audition.
Something new develops when you aggregate these wires. When you go whole hog, what emerges is greater than the sum of the parts and the Elation! catapults you to a place beyond the reach of the others, a place where you can kick back, contented, and the gear recedes into the background. In this scenario of a fully Elation! equipped system, that comparison comes out in favor of the Elation! power cord.
Number two also proved to be major. When the front-end was unplugged from the TARA IDAT and I used a K-S prototype passive power block, it was as if a water flow restrictor had been removed. A dynamic ceiling evaporated and timbre literally began to sparkle. As expected, the stage became a wall of sound—focus and control backed off a notch. But, interestingly, there wasn't a noticeable increase in dirt and grunge, the major things we use conditioning for.
To be honest, I also liked the IDAT for the weight it gave the sound. This has nothing to do with cleaning up power—I was using conditioning as a tuning device. The sound doesn't need any more weight with the Elation!
Compared to Stage III
The Elation! power cord has about the same tonal balance as the Stage III Minotaur and the TARA Cobalt.
Stage III Minotaur
Elation! Power cord
Swapping between them did not necessitate tweaking or adjustment of tonal balance. The Elation! power cord also matched the body of the Stage III (both have more of that than the TARA Cobalt).
The Cobalt AC
Appearance and Build Quality
Emotion & Elation! AC
The Elation! series is comprised of balanced and single-ended ICs, power cords, and speaker cables. Compared to the Emotion wires, the Elation! is physically bigger, heavier and less flexible.
They all sport a silver-grey woven jacket. The ICs have special K-S modified Neutrik XLRs and RCAs. Cosmetics and build quality are about average for this price point.
You'll recognize the K-S signature in the Elation!, all the hallmarks of the house sound are there. The top-of-the-line Elation! balances these attractive elements and, more so than any sibling, lands squarely in neutral territory. It is the most open and revealing of the K-S offerings and it has the most vitality.
If I only had a single Elation! cable and did a head to head compare in my reference system, I may prefer one of the other top-notch cables in my library. However, when you rig up the entire system with Elation!, something new emerges. When you go whole hog, the system catapults to a new level. The A/B performed under these circumstances comes out in favor of the Elation!. And you get to kick back, contented, because tweaking finally recedes from your thoughts.
The Elation! cables are not cheap—this is, after all, an elite club. However, within the clubs' rankings, it is the most affordable member.
This is great stuff. Forget the checklist—listen to the performance. Marshall Nack
Elation! IC or Speaker cable
Elation! Power Cord
Kubala-Sosna Research, LLC