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Positive Feedback ISSUE 7
signal cable Interconnects and speaker cables
as reviewed by Thomas Campbell
I can't believe that there are still those who insist that cables make no difference in an audio system. These naysayers, who pop up regularly in the Letters section of audio magazines, tend to be engineering types who insist upon evidence via charts and measurements, and discount all accounts based on actual listening. Unfortunately, cables are difficult to measure in any informative way, and specimens that measure identically often sound very different.
In my experience, however weird the science, interconnects and speaker cables make the largest per-dollar difference of any component or accessory. In the last couple of years, I have been on something of a cable odyssey. Quality cabling was the last addition to my system. Like a lot of people, when I was new to this hobby I had a hard time laying out hundreds of dollars for wire. I still cannot conceive of paying four figures for a pair of cables, and hope I never will. However, in the last two years, with the rest of my system determined, I have extensively sampled cables from manufacturers such as Siltech, Analysis Plus, Alpha-Core, Kimber, Audioquest, MIT, and others.
Every time I switched cables, I was struck by differences that were often greater, quantitatively and qualitatively, than the swapping of a preamp or source component. I also found that I had to spend a certain amount of money to achieve an objective level of performance. (I use the word "objective" because I believe that there are parameters, like frequency extension, that are so clearly audible as to be beyond dispute.) I tried many interconnects and speaker cables in the one- to three-hundred-dollar range, but always found that the sound was constricteddynamically, spatially, and in extension at both top and bottom. The sound of the music hitting a ceiling was unpleasant, as if my amplification was writing checks my cables couldn't cash. As I spent more, then a bit more, the window onto the music became wider, but I still wasn't getting the whole picture.
After a good deal of trial and error, I settled on a combination of Siltech ST-48 interconnects (about $500 a pair), and Analysis Plus Silver Oval speaker cables ($600 for an 8-foot pair). These products were the best I'd tried to that point. My system sang like never before, with air, extension, and sweet tonality. For the first time, I felt like I was getting the whole picture. I was convinced that the amount of money I had spent represented entry level for cables that delivered a full-bandwidth signal, and first and foremost "did no harm." Now, Signal Cable has dashed those preconceptions. (I wrote about their power cords in Issue 6, and those seeking a detailed description of the company should check out that review.) Signal is a direct-sale company that finally proves the claimoften trumpeted but, until now, not achieved in my experiencethat you don't have to spend a lot of money to get top-quality cable.
Signal owner Frank Dai offered to send me his top-shelf Analog Two single-ended interconnects, which sell for $49 for a 2-foot pair, plus $5 for each additional foot (premium bullet plug terminations are a $25 option), and a pair of Double Run speaker cables ($109 for 6 feet, plus $6 for each additional foot). I tried the interconnects (which had the premium terminations) first, swapping the Siltechs for the Analog Twos between my amp and preamp and letting them run in for a couple of days. Unlike many other cables, the Signals did not need much more than a week to break in. My first impression was that the Analog Twos were more forward, with a lot more punch. They brought the musical perspective closer on every discif the Siltechs are middle of the hall, the Signals are third row center. As I listened more, I felt that the new cables had better pace, rhythm, and timing than the Siltechs, and much better bass. I still slightly preferred the lusher Siltechs on orchestral music, but preferred the more immediate Analog Twos for most other types of music.
This is quite an achievement. Against the best $500 competitor I'd tried, the $74 (with the premium connectors) Signal cables were objectively every bit as good, and subjectively preferable. Richard Thompson's The Old Kit Bag leaped out of my speakers with three-dimensional depth and staging. The Penta Tone SACD of Rossini overtures was thrilling, with the Analog Twos bringing forth the lithe, dancing qualities of Neville Marriner's rhythmically alert interpretations and brilliant orchestra. Though I have characterized these cables as forward, they are not brightthe string tone on this SACD was as sweet and silky as I could ask.
After about two weeks, I decided it was time to get the speaker cables in the system. As their name suggests, the Double Run cables are single wire, but "double run." Rather than using a single cable for each speaker with split terminations at the end, these consist of two cables for each speaker, one for each binding post. While I am sure that there are benefits to separating the wires in this fashion, having four fairly thick black cables winding their way across the floor is not a winning aesthetic. However, just as you have learned to love the looks of ugly components if they captivate you musically, so will you learn to love the Double Run cables.
If the Signal Cable interconnects are excellent, the speaker cables are fantastic. Despite costing only a hundred and twenty-one clams, they bested every other speaker cables I've tried, some costing up to a thousand dollars. They seemed to do everything extremely well. There was speed and detail, but also the warmest and most natural tonality I've heard at home, with little or no listener fatigue on LPs or even CDs(!). The location of instruments and singers was sharply defined, but not the least bit hard or over-etched. Soundstaging was super-wide and deep, and the music seemed to hold together better at all volumes. Best of all, every style of music sounded great.
Examples? The sonic textures of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had me glued to my seat. This CD combines warm acoustic instruments and mellow song craft with the occasional jagged white noise, topped off with Jeff Tweedy's melancholy vocals. It sounded so beautiful through my system that the year-old disc was instantly back in heavy rotation. The Rossini Overtures SACD was even more stunning, clear, present and palpable with the new speaker cables. The XRCD version of Franck's Symphony in D Minor with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a recording I had previously regarded as one of the lesser ones in this series of Living Stereo reissues, suddenly sounded superb. Most significantly, it suddenly sounded much more like Symphony Hall, which this Bostonian attends on a frequent basis. This confirmed to me that the Signal cables were helping my components get to the bottom of things.
The Signal cables refined and enhanced the capabilities of my Harbeth Compact Seven speakers, and made me marvel anew at everything they do so well. I've had them for three years, pretty long for a hobbyist, but they are the one component I've never considered replacing. The Harbeths are uncanny in the beauty and realism with which they present music. They're small, and only go down to about 45 Hz, but their scale is perfect for my city apartment. I had always thought their greatest weakness was in the bass department, since however much I toyed with placement, they were just a little loose in the caboose. Nevertheless, with a full complement of Signal wire in my system (power cords, interconnects, and speaker cables) that weakness became yet another strength. Bass was tight and tuneful, but not exaggerated, and the overall presentation was completely coherent. This last point can't be overstated. Top-to-bottom coherence is one of the hardest things to achieve in a loudspeaker, though it is something you may not appreciate until you hear it done properly. Within their range, the Harbeths excel at this type of balance, and the Signal wire did a marvelous job of optimizing this strength.
Each time I added a Signal Cable product to my systemfirst power cords, then interconnects, then speaker cablesthe level of depth, clarity, and spaciousness improved. To bring this review full circle, I removed the Analog Twos and reinserted the Siltechs. While the excellence of the Double Run speaker cables remained evident, I missed the sense of ease the all-Signal system possessed. It was subtle on first listening, but unmistakable over time. The desirability of using only one brand of wire is questionable. Cable matching involves impedance issues, and the use of the same manufacturer's products will usually ensure that all of your wire is speaking the same language." On the other hand, not all manufacturers are equally good at making all types of cable. In this case, there was no question that all of the Signal wires synergized beautifully, both with each other and with my equipment.
The audiophile cable business has a fairly dubious reputation. It is widely regarded as a sideshow involving voodoo science and obscene profit margins. Nevertheless, there is no denying the major effect that cable has on a music system. While many suggest that cables needn't cost a lot to sound great, Signal Cable is the first company in my experience to really succeed at the task. I have put the Signal interconnects and speaker cables up against much more expensive competitors, and it has come out on top. Of course, Signal is taking advantage of direct selling, with no distributor or dealer markup, but Frank Dai has also put his money where his mouth is. His company was founded on the idea that top-shelf wire does not have to carry a top-shelf price, and he has priced his wares well below what he could reasonably ask. His cables are worth checking out while this business model lasts, no matter how illustrious the name, and price, of your current cables. Tom Campbell
Two single-ended interconnects
Run single-wire speaker cables