2020 Line of Cables
as reviewed by Gary Lea
Until a few years ago I really never considered doing any cable reviews. I came out of the audio era where buying Monster Cable Speaker wire at a $1.50 a foot was a very sketchy idea at best and gave one more bragging rights than anything. Don't get me wrong, the sonic improvements were more than just a bit noticeable, but they were expensive for college students like me building their first real dedicated high end systems. That should just about give away my advancing age! I really became aware of the advances made during my hiatus from audio (1980-1986) when I put together another system, and then when I put together my first tube based system in 1993. During that time we went from Monster Speaker wire and generic RCA cables, to garden hose thick speaker cables with very complex designs.. and interconnects just as complex. I remember buying a pair of KimberKable TC8 speaker cables and 2 sets of Audio Magic Excalibur interconnects, and choking on spending $1800 for the three of them. What a long way we have come and boy have my views changed. My reference XLO cable set has a retail price of over $14,000 for the system. That is about 3 times what I paid to put my whole system together in 1993. Of course my system has changed half a dozen times since then, and the cabling is now appropriate to the cost of the rest of the system, but when you think in retrospect it is a real eye opener.
At any rate, I have found myself more open to reviewing cables and to discovering the world of infinite nuance that distinguishes one set of cables from another. Unless you are talking about cables having thousands of dollars of price difference, the differences in the delivery of sound are often very subtle and require detailed listening for long periods of time and repetitive A/B sessions. I find the challenge of this to be more attractive than it was in years gone by. I am now a devoted convert to the idea that cables can change the entire sound and synergy of a system, and in many cases could bring, what at least appears to be, a tired old system come alive as if it was just born. One of the downsides is you begin to tread in that realm where incremental increases in sonic improvement become geometrically progressive in expense. Just as it is with another of my passions, cycling, once you get to a reasonably low weight on a bike, shaving off half a pound can cost you thousands extra. Me, I would rather shave weight off the engine for free!
Of course that same law of diminishing returns applies and subsequently increases in cable performance, and can cost quite a bit. The good news is that this Skywire Audio system of cables will set you back a cool $7k to $10k with power cords or roughly half of the equivalent XLO Signature 3s. That is no small amount of change, but in most cases where one would be using these, it is probably a lot less expensive than buying new speakers or investing in a new system. Generally speaking, if someone is going to cut back on an audio system, especially in the initial stage of putting a system together, they are most likely to skimp on the cabling which makes it the most obvious choice for a full upgrade. In this respect the idea of a new set of cables as a system upgrade makes the most sense, and will most likely bring the greatest improvements to the system.
So for a bit over the past three years I have been using XLO Signature 3 cables as my reference throughout my system. I have yet to find a set of cables that make me want to change, as the XLOs are simply magical, and to find any appreciable improvement in sound would not be at all cost effective. If I ever hit a giant lotto win maybe, but until then I am content. That does not mean, for instance, that I am not interested or excited about great cabling that is reasonably priced crossing my path from time to time. Such is the case with the Skywire Audio cables that are the subject of this review. These are very good cables and were I to be in the market they would easily be at the top of my short list of cables to buy.
On the opening page of their website you will find this blurb:
Good, sound (no pun intended, really!) advice, and I wholly agree that if you are in the market for cables you owe it to yourself to check these out before you buy anything at all. Okay so there is the end of the review! If you want to know more about how I got to that point then read on. If that satisfies it for you then arrange to audition the cables!
So what led to that conclusion?
Well if you are still with me, let's get into some of the other pertinent matters shall we?
So who is Skywire, or more specifically, who is the man behind the curtain? That would be Don Palmer, the owner of Highwire Audio (ne Skywire). Don has designed and manufactured high end audio cables, and Powerwraps incorporating noise suppression for cables and power chords, for a number of years and has been granted the following patents for his work:
United States Patents:
Impressive in its own right!
Don has worked for 34 years as an electro-mechanical engineer on a wide variety of analog, digital, and Radio Frequency (RF) electronics products. This makes him way smarter than me! Some of the projects he has worked on include:
Don was also a Lead Engineer at Ford Aerospace working on communications satellites. Yes another rocket scientist in the audio community. Don, have you ever chatted with Albert Von Schweikert?
Don has other notable work achievements to his credit, but that would take another full article to delve into. There is plenty of good info on the website.
Don started Highwire back in 1986 and the Skywire cables distill the best of what he has learned over the past 20 years developing and manufacturing cables. He is most notable for using RF suppression around the cables, accomplished by encircling the signal conductors with an efficient electromagnetic RF absorbing material.
According to Skywire's own literature: "Skywire Audio discovered that many of the problems in audio cables are the results of Radio Frequency (RF) noise and ringing in the cables. The ringing is caused by RF reflections from the ends of the cables at the fundamental and harmonic frequencies. Since the RF is above the audio band, it does not show up in normal audio band test measurements and is ignored. The sources of the RF in the system include being conducted in from the power lines, received from airborne radiation (radio stations, wireless telephones, etc.), and internally generated within the system. All digital circuits create megahertz square waves which generate broadband RF. Ringing is easy to change and hard to kill. The technique that we use to reduce the ringing is to put highly efficient RF absorbers around the cable. The RF absorbers kill the ringing that builds up in the cable. The RF absorbers are metallic and do not contain any ferrite. We have found that the use of ferrite is not sonically desirable in the application. Ferrite tends to cause a dry analytical sound and thin out the higher frequencies. Skywire RF absorbers are the key to the sound quality of our cables and are covered under US patent."
I live in the desert of southwest Nevada, static and RF noise are in abundance here. I was definitely curious to experience any difference that the cables could provide during the review period.
The Skywire 2020 cables appeared to be exceptionally well made. They were definitely handsome units that oozed that high end look and feel. The speaker cables and the interconnects were light and flexible which made routing them and elevating them a breeze. I have had some cables in the past that were next to impossible to bend around tight spaces, etc., without feeling like I might crimp or otherwise damage the cables. I found the Skywire very easy to deal with.
Fit and finish appeared first rate with a white mesh covering. These cables are most attractive and actually elegant looking.
So as I stated earlier, the more I review cables, the more I find their effect on music playback becoming more similar, and not so radically different as I did 15-20 years ago. The differences are much more subtle than the impact brought on a system's sound from other components, like speakers, phono cartridges, tubes vs. solid state amps, and so on. It was also difficult to discern describable differences when the Skywires were first installed in the system. It actually became more apparent, after a significant amount of time settling in, that I began to notice differences. The single most interesting characteristic of the cables was seamless and natural presentation that integrated itself into a holistic one, as opposed to a bunch of individual sonic traits that could be pointed out. The cable system, as a whole, just delivered a coherence and a knitting together of the various components into a supremely enjoyable whole. No easy task is that. I have reviewed other cables that stood out for a stronger presence of low level detail, or perhaps a more detailed bottom end with a bit more slam or more pronounced treble. While that could be more noticeable immediately upon entry into a system it does not mean that it will equate to an enjoyable overall experience long term.
Some cables or even components can lead to the creation of a black background that sounds, at least to me, to be dead. Even in the quietest of times I have never been exposed to absolute silence and I think were I to be forced into a void like that it might have the same effect on me that hearing, or I should say felling, a 1Hz signal at 95dbs. Suffice it to say that was not at all enjoyable and it made me physically sick!
In essence I noticed a grain free smoothness and definitely lower noise with a great degree of detail retrieval and low level detail but without it sounding unnatural or dead. Like Dr. Frankenstein after he jolted the creature with a mega million watts of lightening I felt like shouting, "These cables are alive" They are aliiiiiveeee! Other words came to mind but nothing came across as better or more accurate in description than the fact that they breathe life into the sound. Musical flow and rhythmic delivery were exceptional and at least as good as with many other, more expensive cables I have tried. The cables provided a delivery of well-defined attacks and natural decays that faded rather than stopped abruptly. Musical texture, presence, flow, and momentum were all realistic and kept me engaged throughout my time with the Skywire 2020 cables. No real edginess, harshness or electronic fogginess. When directly compared against the significantly more expensive XLO setup, the Skywire 2020 kit provided a bit less textural complexity, but they are certainly convincing enough, especially at the price point. The differences in prices were greater than sonic changes. That being said, it is those minute differences that audiophiles are always striving for. The listener has to decide what those tiny differences are worth. As a reviewer that difference between the Skywire and the XLOs are worth the price but not everyone might be so inclined.
And now for something entirely different but the same!
Towards the end of the review period I was offered a set of upgraded interconnects to try and in A/B sessions and it was easy to hear the difference in the new cables. The sound stage was a bit broader and the detail was definitely sharper. Had I not A/B tested both, I would never have been disappointed with the original cables that were sent, but after a couple of weeks with the new cable it was clear that it was superior and not by a small margin. Everything that I mentioned above as good sonic traits was enhanced by the new cable. There was nothing startling or overly dramatic, just a better delivery and stronger dynamics with the new cable. The newer cable provided a definite sonic improvement. I was pleased to hear that that they were making the change and the upgraded cable is now standard.
If you go to the Skywire website there is a wealth of material on Don, his ideas regarding design philosophy, the importance of directionality of cables and much, much more including why it is good to elevate your cables (as I do). The company offers other cable options and so far the 2020 cable is the top of their offerings. They also offer XLR cables, digital cables, and Power cables but I did not sample these. If they are of the same caliber that the 2020s are, then they will most certainly represent a great value. Skywire also offers a 30 day money back guarantee.
These are outstanding cables at a relatively reasonable cost and if it were not for my reference cables I would definitely throw down on a set of Skywire 2020s. It is a sound investment! (Dammed there goes that whole pun thing again).
Contact Skywire for a quote on a cable system for your rig and give them a spin. I doubt seriously you would be at all unhappy and you may actually find yourself in your audio lab, with gear fired up and sparks flying screaming "It's alive, it's alive!" Gary Lea
2020 speaker cables