MA1 Interconnects and SP4 Speaker Cables - A Budget Reference?
as reviewed by Steve Lefkowicz
I'm sure by now some readers are tired of hearing me carry on about my quest for high quality, low cost gear. I understand that for many of you, lower cost, budget oriented gear is of little interest. I figure people understand that's what I do, and decide to either read or ignore my articles accordingly, and I'm fine with that. Personally, I do think it important that hi-fi enthusiasts who focus on top tier, high priced gear at least know something about the lower cost products, if only to potentially help friends and acquaintances who might ask about more affordable ways of getting good sound. If your answer to that type of inquiry is a $20,000 amplifier or a $5000 interconnect, you're not really helping.
However, even people who aren't otherwise interested in lower cost or "budget" oriented equipment might want to still read this one. Sometimes price and quality aren't all that connected.
I have largely avoided writing about cables. I have written one cable review that has been published, that being back in Listener Magazine, around 1999 or maybe 2000. I have largely avoided cable reviews for a few good reasons. At least I think they are good reasons.
For one, every discussion about cables seems to end in an epic battle between the "wire is wire, and you're a fool to spend money on magic cables" crowd and the, I suppose, people with ears and the ability to hear with them. No, it doesn't surprise me, irritate me, or otherwise make me wonder much that some cables do sound different (and yes, sometimes better) than other cables.
On the other hand, I do get a little irritated when cables become the be-all-and-end-all of the discussion. In a discussion about setting up a low cost system, one fan of very expensive gear insisted the main reason I couldn't set up a "true, high-end system" for under $5000 was that any cables I could fit in that budget system would thoroughly destroy any sense of high-end quality sound in the rest of the gear. Something about there being no "listenable cables" for under about $2500 each.
And I won't even begin to comment on cables that sell for five figures or more, other than to say that though they might potentially, actually sound great, seeing a system at CES where the cables alone cost more than any house I've ever bought just seems downright silly. Or at least it's a concept that I can't quite wrap my mind around.
But one aspect of the whole controversy that I don't buy into at all is the idea, mostly from the anti-cable crowd, that audible cable differences are about believing in them. I suppose there are some people who are easily swayed, or lack evaluative listening experience, or simply lack the confidence to accept their own listening ability, who might have to believe in something rather than just experience it. Just the same, there are plenty of people who believe in something, and no amount of listening will allow them to accept that what they hear goes against their belief structure. So the anti-cable crown will still deny any differences they hear might be due to the inherent design of the cable in question.
As I said, I avoid all that, and don't enter into that discussion. Either cables can and do make an audible difference in your system or they don't. Either way, we should be able to tell by listening. If you're good with that, read on, otherwise, might as well stop here.
On another point, I do generally consider cables from a total system approach. Rather than trade off the characteristics of one cable at one point in the system with the characteristics of another cable in a different part of the system, I prefer to hook up as much of my system as possible with one brand, and even one product line. I feel I get the full measure of the design that way, and either it works well in my system or it doesn't. I've used a full set of Nordost Solar Wind cables in my system for about a dozen years. They were $119 per meter pair of interconnects, and about $550 for the fifteen-foot pair of speaker cables if I remember right. I do remember that all together, the full set (three one-meter ICs, one two-meter IC, and the fifteen foot speakers cables) came out between $1000 and $1100. That made cables the second most expensive part of my system at that time, based on list price. Only my Linn LP12 cost more.
The few times I've talked to cable manufacturers about reviewing their products, these are the two things that usually prevented it; total cost (I prefer to keep the total cost around $1000 or less) and getting enough cable to hook up the whole system. Lots of companies want to send you a single cable, but a whole systems' worth is generally another story.
I don't remember how I first heard of Morrow Audio, but I've been receiving their email blasts for a year or two. I had just given them a quick glance before deleting them. But then at T.H.E. Show in Las Vegas, while listening to the large Legacy Audio Aeris speakers ($17,750) driven by Coda electronics (about $20,000 worth) I was thinking to myself that the overall sound was among the very best I heard at CES or THE Show. At the far end of the room, Morrow Audio had a couple of tables set up to show their cables. It also turned out the Legacy/Coda system was hooked up with all Morrow Audio cable, and it wasn't outrageously priced. Interconnects from $199 to $899, Power cords for $369, and speaker cables that were $1499. Out of my price range, for sure, but not outrageous in terms of today's market.
After a long talk with Mike Morrow (President and CEO) and Marketing Manager Larry Spellman (with whom I had a lengthy discussion about music, and who loved the music on my son's demo CD) I discovered that they make a wide range of interconnects and speaker cables starting at a low $69.99 for a one meter pair. By the time I left their display, we had arranged for a full set of cables to be sent my way.
A few weeks later the agreed upon cables arrived – three sets of one-meter Morrow MA1 interconnect ($69.99 each), one set of one-and-a-half meter MA1 interconnect ($92.45) and a 3.5 meter pair of the slightly more upscale SP4 speaker cables ($698.40, but just $399 for a 2 meter pair). At $1000.82 for the whole set, these fit my price limits just about perfectly. One thing about pricing of these cables, if you subscribe to their email newsletter, they often include discount codes that can save you a fair amount of money. The last one I remember was for 25% off. Unless you are in a hurry, it's worth getting their emails and waiting for a good coupon code.
They also offer a break-in service for their cables (2 or 5 days) for a small additional charge. They broke mine in for a full fifteen days before shipping them to me. That 360-hour break in meant they would be ready right out of the box.
I used a variety of equipment to evaluate the cables. I used the interconnects to hook up either the iFi iDAC or W4S μDAC, the Marantz SA8001 SACD Player, and either a Jolida JD-9 (fully upgraded) or iFi iPhono to one of two preamps (my old PS Audio 4H or a fully upgraded Jolida Fusion). The long interconnect went between the preamp and one of several power amps (Jolida JD1000BRC, Clonesaudio 50p, B&K ST-140 and Antique Sound Labs MG-SI15 DT). The speaker cables mostly were used with my Tekton Lore speakers and a pair of SVS Ultimate Bookshelf speakers, with a little time using the Direct Acoustics Silent Speakers.
However, before I plugged all these cables in, I did something I hadn't done in more than twenty-five years, and something many of you might never have done. I wired my entire system with cheap, throwaway cables, namely ones that came in the boxes of various audio products and cheap DVD players I've purchased over the years. Every one of these interconnects came for free in a box with something I had bought, though I honestly had no idea of their actual origin. These are the type of cables non-audiophiles use, the type that the anti-audiophile-cable crowd says should be perfectly good, and I thought it would be good to start there. For "cheap" speaker cable, I used Radio Shack Mega Cable Flat 14 gauge wire ($24.99 for a 50 foot spool). I left my system set up like this for about a week.
After that week, I had to admit, I just don't get it. I don't understand how anyone with even moderately good equipment, and any level of reasonable equipment setup and speaker positioning, could say cables don't make a difference. Maybe it's because the differences aren't obvious frequency response differences? I doubted there was much, if any, difference in steady state frequency response, and a quick check with a Radio Shack SPL meter and Stereophile's Test CD-2 frequency decade tones, showed little difference. However, every musical track on that disk, and every CD, music file, and LP I played showed clearly, that the system was seriously different, and degraded, in sound quality, as compared to my old Nordost cables.
The first and most noticeable thing with the cheap, throwaway cables was the loss of transparency, especially when using the extremely revealing and transparent SVS Ultimate Bookshelf speakers (review to come soon!). It was as if I had thrown a blanket over the speakers. Everything sounded like it was coming through a grainy, hazy, dirty window. It sounded like what we would expect from the old mid-fi department store rack systems from the 1980s.
Then there was the collapse of the soundstage. Depth was replaced with a single, though ill-defined plane, with little definition and no sense of space. Image size and musical scale disappeared with everything sounding pretty much the same, nothing sounding big or small, just a sense of pervasive sameness.
The list goes on, detail, small scale dynamics, large scale dynamics, any sense of precision, all either seriously diminished, limited, restricted, or other wise gone. Koyaanisqatsi, as some might say…
A most unpleasant week, but one of the things we do for our readers.
So, it was time to finally install the Morrow Audio cables. The MA1 interconnects are thin, small, and flexible enough to install very easily. My review sets had their standard RCA connectors, which seemed nicely constructed, with quality soldering on the inside. They gripped the RCA plugs on all the various pieces of equipment firmly, but no so much as to make installing or removing difficult. For those who are interested, they offer higher quality connectors for a small increase in price.
It was the same with the SP4 speaker cables. Mine came with banana plugs at both ends, through they also offer a variety of other connectors (or bare wire). The cables are fairly lightweight, nicely flexible, and very easy to handle. Installing the full set took just a few minutes. Fortunately, since they were already broken in, I was able to start listening and evaluating right away.
My first, immediate reaction was "ahh, what a relief…"
Though I knew it would take more time to discern the more subtle characteristics of the Morrow cables, I was immediately struck by the return of the transparent, dynamic, detailed sound I had come to expect from my system. Image size and spatial presentation were restored, as were all the little musical cues that are part and parcel of quality audio reproduction. Beauty was restored and life was in balance again.
And that was after just a few minutes of listening.
Over the next several days, extending into weeks and then a couple of months, I came to know and appreciate the Morrow Audio cables. I don't know what they have going on inside, or what their proprietary design or construction might be, and honestly don't care. I am result, not design, oriented. I can say their cables are based on using single strand, solid core wire. But these are remarkable cables when one takes their low price into account. In direct comparison to my old Solar Winds, or I should say my system with the Morrow cables as compared to my system with the Solar Wind cables, showed several differences, some very subtle, others not subtle at all.
Using mostly the fully upgraded Jolida gear (review to come very soon) and iFi iDAC or W4S μDAC (both powered by the iFi iUSB Power Supply) and either the Tekton or SVS speakers, the Morrow cables offered up a slightly more transparent sound, with a more see-through freedom from electromechanical artifacts. This heightened level of transparency, though small, opened up a whole new sense of aliveness, realness, and excitement to everything I listened to. Anything that can distance me, even if just a little bit more, from the reality of listening to reproduced music and all the gear associated with it, and let me connect just a little bit more directly with the music, is a worthwhile improvement. The Morrow cables did just that for me.
One area I hadn't expected much a change in, but an area I've been exploring a little more recently (mostly due to having the SVS Ultimate Bookshelf Speakers in house) is soundstage and image quality. Yes, after years of considering that as merely an interesting side-effect, even if non-essential to the enjoyment of music, the combination of Jolida electronics and SVS speakers have at least got me thinking that all that imaging stuff is quite a lot of fun. With the Morrow cables in the system, the precision, size, scale, and overall quality of the soundstage itself and the images in that stage are both exceptional and possibly the best I've ever achieved in my listening room. The width of the stage extends several feet to either side of the speakers and even beyond the width of the room itself. Depth extends from slightly in front of the speakers to several feet behind, way beyond the physical limitations of the room itself. Within that stage, images are scaled correctly, firmly positioned, yet sharing a real space with the other musicians. Loads of fun, and clearly better than what I had been getting out of my other cables.
Over the last year and a half, using the Tekton Lore speakers, I've been consistently taken in by their outstanding dynamic presentation. Few speakers in the price range I cover can really portray the overall sense of dynamics that music needs. Since hearing it done this well, I'm not willing to give it up, nor do anything to my system to diminish it. The cheap throwaway cables I tried briefly did just that, crushing the dynamics into a boring sense of flatness. The Morrow cables, brought out the full capabilities of my gear, offering up a dynamic presentation that one has to hear to believe. Of course having 100 watts of tube (EL34) power from the Jolida amp powering the 98dB efficient Tektons should have been wildly dynamic, but in this area, the Morrow cables beat out my old Solar Winds by a significant margin. There was something very special about the speed with which loudness could change, giving transients and beats and plucks and anything else that stood out dynamically that extra little bit of precision and power.
One significant little tidbit, consistent with my past experiences, though still something I can't explain. When using my Direct Acoustics Silent Speakers, I have never heard any significant difference in speaker cables, though changing interconnects does create changes consistent with what I hear through my other speakers. I sometimes use the Radio Shack Mega Cable Flatwire with those speakers, though generally I use whatever cables happened to be in the system at the time. That remains pretty much true here in this case too, though not entirely. I simply do not hear any large, significant difference whether I use the Morrow SP4, the Nordost Solar Wind, Nordost Flatwire Gold or the Radio Shack speaker cables, like I do with my Tekton or the SVS speakers (or my old Sound Dynamics 300ti). With the Morrows, there is a small, subtle improvement in transparency and soundstage, and a subtle, though noticeable increase in dynamics. The difference isn't huge, but it's there.
When buying a $745 pair of speakers (the price of the newer Silent Speaker 2), you'd have to decide if a $600 speaker cable is worth it. I consider not necessarily needing extra high quality speaker cables as part of the value of the Silent Speakers, though I also view it as revealing a limitation in their resolution and soundstaging capabilities. Budget speakers should work with budget gear and budget cables. Yes, I still think they are one of the best overall deals in sub-$1000 speakers and a true bargain when one looks at them from a standpoint of being nearly full range, not needing stands, being easy to place in a room, and not needing fancy cables. All you need is enough power, preferably solid state. Moving up to the slightly more expensive Tekton Lore, also means that you do get additional real improvement with better cables, and maybe that adds to the overall price too much? Your decision, not mine! For me, all speakers deserve to sound their best, and for the Tektons (and the SVSs) that means putting a little more thought and money into your cables. Morrow has lower cost speaker cables, starting at about $139. I'll need to try those at some point.
Now, as some folks I know and trust have suggested, after a dozen years in my system, the old Nordosts might just need some time in an Audiodharma Cable Cooker to bring back their liveliness and vitality. Since these comments do come from fellow audiophiles whose opinions I do trust I will look to borrow a Cable Cooker and get my old Solar Winds cooked. My fellow PFO scribes who have used a Cable Cooker swear by its effectiveness, so I do need to try that.
But in the meantime, the Morrow Audio cable set will likely stay in my system as my new affordable, low cost reference cable. They really are that good. Steve Lefkowicz
(Note – I chose not to reference any specific records, CDs or music files in this review, as I listened to hundreds of tracks from LPs, SACDs, and files from my music server (FLAC and Apple Lossless, 16/44 through 24/96) over a few months, and my results were consistent regardless of the individual track. I generally don't use a fixed set of reference disks, but rather let the music guide me to my results. Works for me.)