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Positive Feedback ISSUE 56
as reviewed by Jeff Day
It's through the 'audio underground' that I get some of my best tips about new or relatively unknown Hi-Fi products that really deliver the musical experience in spades. It's also in the audio underground that some of the best Hi-Fi gear is quietly being developed, and that spirit of passionate experimentalism has caused significant evolution in the state-of-musical-art in vacuum tube amplifiers, vinyl and digital front ends, and power cables and interconnects.
For example, it wasn't all that many years ago that single-ended-triode (SET) amplifiers were unheard of in the mainstream North American audio scene. Then Noriyasu Komuru started building SET amps, as did Gordon Rankin and Don Garber. Back in 1996 the underground whispered in my ear "Don Garber's Fi 2A3 SET amps are magic." I got a chance to listen to Don's Fi 2A3 stereo amplifier one afternoon and it was magic. That Fi amp forever changed my expectations for musicality in amplifier designs. The fires of SET magic had been lit in my heart on that fateful day by that little Fi amplifier, and as with me, the SET fires had begun burning in the consciousness of audio enthusiasts across North America, where whispers from the underground were heard to say "SETs live again, and they can bring your music back to life." The SET resurrection fires raged on through time and place to a point where most enthusiasts now consider the SET amplifier a normal part of the Hi-Fi scene, but it wasn't always so.
These same sort of happy surprises from the underground have sprung forth in vinyl playback with the introduction of turntables like Ken Shindo's 301 Player System, and with the emergence of USB DACs like those from Gordon Rankin, and now with interconnects with the Panatela from Mark Coles, the subject of this review.
The Panatela Interconnect
Mark Coles, like quite a lot of talented designers, got his start in the audio underground, with his results being so good, so unique, that people started noticing, and whispering, "Have you checked out what Mark Coles is doing?" Mark had gotten peoples' attention, first with his Robusto power cord (Issue 52), and now with his Panatela interconnect, which I've been listening to for awhile now.
Mark's Panatela RCA interconnects use silver conductors insulated with a natural fiber dielectric, with no shielding used, and the design has extremely low capacitance at 5.7pF per foot. Mark terminated the Panatela with Xhadow RCA connectors, which allowed connecting the silver conductors to the contacts with a set-screw, avoiding the signal degradation inherent to solder joints. The Panatela is finished in a tasteful white cotton covering that really makes it stand out visually.
Mark doesn't use plastic or Teflon for a dielectric, or shielding, or solder joints, which he feels all degrade the signal too much, robbing the music-playback of sonic performance and musicality. Additionally, all of the signal carrying components of the Panatela have undergone cryogenic treatment, and then are pre-conditioned with an audiodharma Anniversary cable break-in device.
I installed the Panatela interconnects into my 'big' system of turntable/SET amps/horn loudspeakers (see sidebar), connecting the VPI Classic turntable to the Leben RS-30EQ phono equalizer through an Auditorium 23 step-up transformer. Then I put an LP on the 'table and sat down for a listen. As the music emerged from the big Tannoy Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers I was bowled over!
Every once in a while you listen to a piece of Hi-Fi gear and it completely resets what you think is possible for a genre of gear, and this is what happened with the Panatela interconnect. The difference I heard in musicality and sonic performance in my system was as much of a shock to my expectations as was my first listen to a SET amplifier on that fateful day back in 1996. The Fi 2A3 Stereo was a revelation to me then, and the Panatela interconnect is a revelation to me now—it reset my expectations for what is possible musically and sonically from interconnects.
I tried to calm myself a bit after that first LP ended, because that magnitude of improvement just wasn't the norm of my experience with interconnects. It was obvious that the Panatela interconnect was doing something really special for my system and music, and of a magnitude which just doesn't happen every day.
My immediate impressions of the Panatela interconnect during that first listen were those of incredible transparency and detail recovery, natural warmth, deeply infused tone color, expressiveness, and extreme musicality. Compared to my reference interconnects, the Acoustic Revive Single Core, which are in their own right superb interconnects, the Panatela were more transparent and detailed, warmer sounding, and more colorful.
The resulting musical presentation with the Panatela was considerably more dynamic and nuanced, which made the music come alive with an excitement that really drew me into the music. That's really saying something, because the Acoustic Revive Single Core already excels in many of those attributes, but the Panatela takes them to a new level.
I would never have guessed the Panatela had silver conductors based on my listening sessions (I didn't find that out about the silver conductors until quite a while later in the listening process), because the Panatelas exhibit absolutely zero of that 'tipped up silver signature' as Mark would say. Whatever the reason, the absence of a plastic or Teflon dielectric on the conductors, the absence of shielding, the absence of solder joints in the RCAs, or the use of cryogenic treatment and pre-conditioning with a cable break-in device, the Panatela sounds superbly natural and undeniably musical.
I put a copy of James Taylor's Gorilla (1990) LP on the turntable and did a little more listening. As I listened to the album with the Panatela in the system, I was so impressed with the really great music I was hearing on Gorilla that I picked up the album cover to take a look at the roster of musicians: Besides James Taylor there is David Crosby, Graham Nash, Carly Simon, David Grisman, Victor Feldman, and… so many other awesome musicians it's enough to make you feel faint! Wow. The fact that the first thing you think about with the Panatela is how amazing the music is, is a really, really, good sign.
If you can tear yourself away from being enraptured with the beauty of the music on Gorilla—as portrayed by the Panatela—and listen closely to what the Panatela is doing with the sound, you'll notice how vast, spacious, and detailed the soundstage is, with layer upon layer of instruments making themselves known, with true-to-life timbral textures, vivid tone-colors, and a presence and body to the images that are just plain spooky-real.
The Panatela provides an almost direct connection to the musical attributes of what timbral listening is all about (textures and colors in music), and will likely be a revelation to a lot of listeners in that regard—it certainly was for me. If you don't know whether you have leanings towards being a timbral listener or not, drop a pair of Panatela interconnects into your system and note your response: if you're drooling all over the floor after the first song ends you probably lean towards being a timbral listener.
Back to comparisons: my reference Acoustic Revive Single Core ICs sound less detailed, slower, and more veiled, even though those are not traits you'd normally ever use to describe the Single Cores. The timbral cues you hear through the Panatela are diminished with the Single Core, as is the soundstage layering and depth, the recovery of recorded detail, the imaging becomes more diffuse, and the sense of space around instruments is less. I kind of hate to compare the two, because it makes it sound like the Single Core isn't something special, which it most certainly is, but the Panatela has definitely gone into totally new territory performance-wise, and particularly—as I noted earlier—for those timbral elements that make the textures and colors of music come to life.
The same sort of thing happened rapture occurred when I put an old David Bowie Diamond Dogs (1974) LP on the Classic: I was inescapably drawn deeply into the music as David Bowie's performance came alive in a swirl of colors and textures in my listening room. Herbie Flowers' bass notes were banging full of texture and impact, and Newman's and Dunbar's drum hits had enough whacking presence to raise the attention of the dead! The band wove the keyboards (Garson), guitar, saxes, Moog and Mellotron, bass, drum kits, and vocals together in a musical tapestry-like wild-ride experience—David Bowie! Good Lord, I didn't even used to think I liked David Bowie!
That's the sort of effect the Panatela can have on the music and the listener, it provides the most direct and involving link to the textures, colors, and flow of the music of any interconnect in my experience. The same sort of rapture ensued when I listened to the Miles Davis and Bill Evans 45 RPM box sets from Acoustic Sounds, which I ended up listening to pretty much non-stop in complete amazement. Ecstasy broke out again with Carly Simon's (1971) eponymous album.
As I said earlier, I've been blown away listening to the Panatela, as I have never heard a IC cable that possessed this level of sonic performance with such incredible musicality, making music sound so fresh, natural, and alive, from super-smooth James Taylor to creepy David Bowie, to sweet Carly Simon, to jazz gods like Miles Davis and Bill Evans: they were all so incredibly intoxicating to listen to—it was shades of SET shock!
Wanting to make sure that what I was hearing from the Panatela interconnects wasn't just a particularly positive synergy with my 'big' system of turntable, SET amps, and Tannoy horns, I also installed it into my second system with Leben CS-600 integrated amplifier and Harbeth Super HL5 loudspeakers. These days, I primarily use this system for watching movies and concert videos, so an Oppo BDP-83 Blu-Ray player does source duties.
I started out by listening to some wonderful recordings from T-Toc Records in Japan: The Simple (MCDR-3003, pop female vocals), The Grand Trio (MCDR-3001, Ravel and Schubert), and the R-men (MCDR-3002, jazz trio). The fact is, I've never heard any digital discs come anywhere close to the musical and sonic quality T-Toc Records has achieved on these discs, which are transferred directly from the hard-drive master to the CDR-II disc with no intermediate steps (they even use an Ongaku in the mastering process!). Even through the humble Oppo BDP-83 these discs were ravishingly beautiful, so I was curious what the difference would be after installing the Panatela interconnects.
The Panatela didn't disappoint, providing a warm, dimensional, and natural sounding presentation with a lot of detail, a colorful and lively presentation, and a spacious soundstage with vibrant images. Even with commercial pop CDs of average sound quality, like Counting Crows' August and Everything After, the Panatela brought the music to vibrant life. I didn't get quite the same magntude of 'the voice of God' effect as I did on my big system, but the Panatela still delivered in spades.
I also switched back and forth between my Leben CS-300X SE and CS-600 vacuum tube integrated amplifiers to see if the Panatela would both preserve and enhance their unique musical characters: The little 15-watt Leben CS-300X SE is like a bottle of Dom Pérignon Champagne with all its bubble, sparkle, and excitement, and the 32-watt Leben CS-600 is like a bottle of fine Pinot Noir, being darker, richer, and with a relaxed clarity. The Panatela preserved and enhanced (to a significant degree) the fireworks versus candlelight character of these two fine amplifiers, and I couldn't have been happier with the results. If you are a Leben owner you should take note that the Panatela interconnects are a particularly fine match to the Leben take on what Hi-Fi and music listening is all about.
Is there a downside to the Panatela? There's no downside from a musical or sonic perspective, but there are a couple of considerations you should keep in mind when buying Panatela interconnects for your system: First, they are unshielded, which means that you need to keep them pretty short if you don't want to pick up stray RF. I had zero problems with the 1-meter length, but for my preamp to power amp connection where I need a 3- to 4-meter IC length, unshielded interconnects just wouldn't be advisable.
Second, if you use an Auditorium 23 step-up transformer, which Keith designed in relation to parallel symmetrical, grounded, interconnect cables, the Panatela can only be used on one side of the tranny if you don't want to turn your system into a hum-o-matic, as I found out when using Panatelas on both the in and out sides of the tranny. My solution was to use an Acoustic Revive Single Core IC on one side of the tranny, a Panatela on the other side, and then using the second Panatela from my Leben RS-30EQ phono equalizer to the Leben RS-100U line stage. That kept everything amazing while keeping my system hum-free.
The Sablon Audio Panatela, designed by Mark Coles, is easily the best interconnect I have encountered, almost causing me to go into shock during listening sessions. I think the Panatela is a paradigm shifting design, combining incredible sonic prowess with a musicality that has to be heard to be believed, giving an overall presentation that provides the most direct link to the music of any IC I have ever encountered, and it just makes music listening more fun.
Sonically, the Panatela is warm and natural sounding, has remarkable detail recovery and tonality, is colorful and lively, has a huge spacious soundstage with vibrant images, and a seemingly unlimited instrumental layering ability. The dynamic ability, along with an abundance of nuance recovered makes the music come alive in my listening room to a precedent setting degree.
I suppose it is fitting that Mark names his products after fine cigars, because the Panatela is one smoking hot interconnect! The Panatela gets my highest recommendation; it is an awesome achievement in interconnects design. Mark you are amazing!
The Panatela RCA interconnect comes in a standard 1-meter length for $850 USD.