Introduction by: Brent Butterworth
Reviews by: Al Griffin and Brent Butterworth
Home Theater, June 1996
Is the price of speaker cables swallowing your hi-fi budget whole? Then follow these 10 $2/foot snakes as they slither through our listening room for our first-ever speaker-cable Face Off.
How do you decide how much to spend on cables? Man, there's just no easy way. Any cable will get sound from your amp to your speaker, even a plain or 18-gauge cord you cut off a table lamp. On the other hand, you can spend up to $15K for a pair of speaker cables. And both the lamp cord and the high-dollar stuff do exactly the same thing- no matter how fancy they are, they're still just wires, with no extra features, no automatic gizmos, no knobs or switches, no nothing
To make matters worse, every one of the dozen or so major cable manufacturers has some sort of technical spiel to explain why their cables are far better than anyone else's. And although some of these guys spew gobs of easily dismissed quasi-religious BS that makes about as much sense as a Yanni record or the sayings on the posters in those New Age Crystal stores, most prefer to talk sound engineering theory- namely, the basics of inductance, capacitance, and resistance (LCR, as it's known in the biz)-so they're hard to argue with. That's why we decided to pit a pack of cables from today's leading manufacturers - against each other in a blind panel test. We figured it was high time to find out just how the many cable technologies out there actually compare in performance. And we chose a price range that's about what we'd expect you, the serious home theater enthusiast, to pay: $2 a foot. Some of the manufacturers we talked to didn't make a $2 cable, so we set a minimum price of $1 a foot, and a maximum of $3.
Now, mind you, that's $2 plus termination-you don't get those fancy plugs on the end thrown in far free. For our cables' termination, we chose the only speaker-cable connectors that we think don't suck: banana plugs. Bananas, if they're well-made, provide a pretty secure connection and good conductivity, and they fit into almost any decent speaker-cable billeting post (except those el cheapo spring and friction connectors found on most budget A/V receivers and speakers). we also like Deltron connectors, which are a lot like bananas.
Spade connectors actually provide a better electrical connection than bananas or Deltrons, but be cause there's no consistency in the size of either spades or binding posts, no spade connector we've seen fits every binding post perfectly. All spades tend to work their way loose, and none of them fit the collar-style binding posts found on many receivers and inexpensive amps. We also rejected those little gold pin connectors, because they never seem to fit securely in the binding posts. And of course, we didn't use un-terminated bare wire-not only can it give you a bad connection, but it can even give you a short circuit if you don't get all those little copper hairs in the binding post.
So all the cables wore bananas, and all measured 10 feet long. But the similarities ended there. We got cables from Esoteric Audio, Radio Shack, Tributaries, and XLO that looked at first glance like glorified lamp cord; cylindrical-jacketed, high-end-looking' wire from AudioQuest, Monster, and Wireworld; a biwired pair from TARA Labs; flat ribbon cable from Nordost, and braided cable from Kimber. Straight Wire's stuff didn't make it in time, and Cardas and Canare didn't make a cable in our price range.
We first conducted testing sessions with a pair of NHT VT-2 tower speakers and an Acurus 200X3 amp, fed from a Pioneer CLD-D703 laserdisc player and a Chiro C-800 pre amp / processor through Canare's very neutral-sounding Star Quad interconnects. (Canare Star Quad is one of the most popular interconnect cables for recording studio and sound-reinforcement use.) This system sounded pretty bright, so we decided to conduct a second session with a mellow-sounding rig, swapping out Sonus Faber Concertino speakers and a Sun fire amp for the NHTs and the Acurus.
For the panelists-myself, associate editor Al Griffin, VP/creative Robert Ross, and contributing editor Terry Landry-we identified the cables only by number, and didn't let anyone see which cables were hooked up.
What'd we find? Well, based on our tests, we've come to the conclusion that almost everything you've read about cables is wrong.
On one extreme, you have the guys who swear up and down that there are no audible differences between cables. On the other, you have the guys who talk about how one cable or another "transformed" their system, and go into exhaustive detail about the sonic characteristics of the cables they review.
They're both wrong None of our panelists had any problem hearing differences between these cables, but none heard the dramatic differences we've seen many reviewers write about. ("This is challenging," Robert sighed half-way through the first session.) We were seldom able to settle on a solid favorite, and seldom found a cable we just hated. And we also found much to disagree about- one guy's pick was often the next guy's pan. But we all ended up with a list of cables we definitely preferred. We sorted them into three classes-the best earned the coveted "python" rank, good performers made the "rattler" class, and the merely OK cables ended up in the "garter" category.
So are we deaf, or are the other guys just making stuff up? Try a couple of these cables in your own system and see for yourself.
Unique bananas yield honey-baked sonics .
Instead of regular banana plugs, AudioQuest uses spade lugs with bolt-on bananas.
Sometimes stock items just won't do. In order to achieve optimal results, you have to break the mold and come up with your own solution to a problem. I'm talking here about banana plugs. AudioQuest designs their own version of the banana for audiophiles who opt to use their cable, because they feel that they can do it better than anyone else.
AudioQuest's banana connectors are a slim design which are fastened to spade lugs. They fit into amp or speaker-binding posts at a right angle to the cable. This design makes it fairly easy to connect the cable to a speaker. The cable itself consists of two 20-gauge and two 17-gauge solid-copper conductors which are insulated and then encased in a heavy PVC jacketing. It's a good thing that the design of the bananas makes for an easy connection to a speaker, because the heavy construction of Type 4 does not allow for much physical flexibility in the cable itself.
The Type 4 received a rattler designation from our panel, hovering around the middle of each panelist's ratings. Nevertheless, in commenting on the AudioQuest cables, Robert managed to dip into his florid audiophile lexicon to characterize their sound as having a "warm, honey-baked sweetness." Um...whatever. Less-eloquent panel members commented on the slightly forward, but overall nicely balanced sonic quality of the Type 4, although one panelist felt that the bass performance was slightly less impressive than a few of the cables that received the coveted python rating.-AG
AudioQuest Type 4 $2.50/foot
P.O. Box 3060, San Clemente, CA 92674
This rugged cable is the brute of the bunch.
These sturdy banana plugs and Ultra-Cable Premier's think brown jacket impressed the panelists.
As our VP/creative, Robert tends to obsess on visuals. Picking his way through the cables, he was immediately drawn to Esoteric Audio's Ultra-Cable Premier, which features a translucent tobacco-brown jacket and the best-designed set of banana plugs in the bunch. These people get an A+ for workmanship," he said, and we all had to agree.
Inside that brown jacket, the Ultra-Cable Premier uses what Esoteric calls "perfect symmetry OFHC windings," a dense twist of copper strands. A l/4-inch-wide strip of plastic separates the positive and negative conductors to minimize capacitance and help make the cable very flexible.
Ultra-Cable Premier's sound was OK, but it didn't really excite our panelists-they ranked it in the garter class overall Terry and Al thought it produced a pleasant, average sound. In fact, Terry said the cable was very good, and cited it as one that, for him, typified average performance, although Al thought it sounded a little dull. Robert echoed Al's feelings in saying that the cable sounded soft and too smooth. I thought it sounded big and bold, but like Terry, I thought it sounded too bright. Go figure. Given the disparity of our opinions, we'd suggest you give this cable a listen in your own system if you can, especially if you change speakers or amps a lot. This stuff looks like it could last forever.-BB
Esoteric Audio USA
Ultra-Cable Premier $2/foot
Esoteric Audio USA, Inc.
44 Pearl Pentecost Rd., Winder, GA 30680
This braided design garners a rattler designation from our panel.
The only braided cable in the bunch, 4VS uses a simple but sturdy set of heat-shrunk bananas.
There are many materials in this world which readily lend them-selves to braiding. But as far as speaker cables go, the only braided one that I know of is Kimber Kable. The impulse to braid at Kimber Kable must be pretty powerful,
since it appears that most Kimber products sport unique, Pocahontas-like braids. Of course, the reason for all the twisting is scientific, rather than aesthetic.
The 4VS utilizes eight conductors. Kimber believes that braiding conductors is an effective method for reducing RF interference, which can create unwanted noise and signal distortions, particularly in lengthy cable runs. The difference between the budget VS and entry-level PR series is that the VS cables implement Kimber's VariStrand technology, which groups strands according to specific size ratios, and is supposed to lessen mechanical resonance and increase bandwidth. Among our panelists, the sound of the 4VS proved controversial. I instantly became a Kimber Konvert upon hearing these cables: To my ears they distinguished them-selves as being the most transparent and detailed of the lot. Terry, however, begged to differ, noting that the 4VS overemphasized the treble and under emphasized the midrange in the music we listened to. Perhaps if we braided his hair he'd feel differently.-AG
Kimber Kable 4VS $2.80/foot
2752 South 1900 West, Ogden, Utah 84401
A budget-priced high-end cable from the Microsoft of wire.
The plastic Y-connector and rubber-sleeved connectors give MCX-2s a high-end look.
I've heard several people say they started the high-end cable industry, but I think the guy who really did it is Noel Lee of Monster Cable. Lee was taking his cable around California in the trunk of his car back when I was still listening to one of those plunger style Panasonic 8-track players. That's why Monster is the cable maker so many people recognize.
The MCX-2s is the least expensive speaker cable in Monster's high-end M Series line. It's also the only one of our Face off contestants that really looks like a high-end cable-it's a half-inch-thick design tipped with slick-looking plastic Y-shaped thingies and rubber-sleeved banana plugs. Inside, the MCX-2s has two separately insulated conductors. Each conductor comprises dozens of thin copper strands and one stiff, thick copper strand, all wrapped around a transparent strand of plastic. Monster calls this "multiple bandwidth high-resolution speaker cable." I assume it gets that name because the thick strand is intended to carry low frequencies better, while the thin strands are intended for optimum transfer of high frequencies.
MCX-2s ranked in the middle-performing rattler class, earning good marks from Terry and Robert. an outstanding rating from me, and lackluster comments from Al. I thought it sounded great on both systems, with a very neutral and pleasing sound that lacked just the slightest amount of highs. Al, on the other hand, thought it lacked a lot of highs, sounding very dull.
This well-made cable's definitely worth checking out in your system, especially if you need to tame a slightly bright-sounding amp or speakers.-BB
Monster MCX-2s $2/foot
Monster Cable Products, Inc.
274 Wattis Way
South San Francisco, CA 94080
Although it looks like it came out of a computer, Flatline's right at home in home theaters.
Flatline uses tour flat conductors per side, so it can slip unnoticed under rugs.
With its eight separate, flat copper conductors, Flatline sure doesn't look like something you'd use to hook up a speaker. If you know something about electrical engineering, though, you won't be surprised that Flatline sounds good. Because only a couple of its conductors are in close proximity, and those conductors are very thin, its capacitance is very low. And because it's flat, with no twist, it has no inductance.
Flatline's only about as thick as a piece of construction paper, which gives you lots of great options for installation. It's easy to run under a rug, and I'd imagine you can easily make it invisible by drywall-taping it to the wall and painting over the tape. Nordost terminated our Flat-lines with unusual but very functional cylindrical banana plugs rolled from gold-plated sheet brass. There's one aesthetic problem with Flatline, though-if you move it a lot, it tends to get kinked up.
Every panelist ranked Flatline in the rattler class, citing a fairly neutral competent sound. In both systems, it seemed to slightly emphasize the highs (or perhaps de-emphasize the bass); Terry found that the high-frequency emphasis made the noise in recordings more noticeable. Robert said he didn't care for it at first, but grew to like the sound; Al liked it, but noticed a hint of midrange coloration. This cable's well worth checking out, especially because its flat design gives you more options for that difficult cable run to the surround speakers.-BB
Nordost Flatilne $2.99/foot
420 Franklin St., Framingham, MA 01701
High-end cable's available right around the corner.
We had to crimp on some spades and use these special adapters to achieve banana-plug termination with Megaeable.
A couple of years ago, RadioShack decided to move past cheap zip cord and get into some serious audio cable. This stranded 12-gauge cable, the thicker of the two varieties of Megacable, uses what RadioShack calls "high-definition pure copper," which is a big improvement over the generic stuff that used to comprise the Shack's entire cable offering.
While the Shack sells a variety of banana plugs, none are big enough to fit this cable. To give it bananas, I had to crimp
a couple of the spade connectors onto the cable (using a $6 crimper I found on the rack next to the connectors), then use a few of these 85/pair banana plugs that have binding posts on the end. Thus, I'd recommend using this heavy-gauge Megacable only if your taste in connectors runs to spades or pins.
Our panelists ranked Megacable in the garter class; it came in just under the average-performing rattlers. Terry ranked it in his top three, Robert and Al ranked it among their least favorites, and I fell in between. I found it pleasant-sounding, but thought the highs a little thin; Terry didn't mind this, citing a natural-sounding midrange. Robert, however, thought it sounded recessed, that it made the voices on his medieval-music CD seem to blend together. Al didn't like its vocal reproduction, either, and felt it lacked bass.
While Megacable's not a stand-out, it is a decent cable that's readily available in more than 6,000 stores. And for do-it-your-selfers, it's pretty easy to strip and terminate.-BB
RadioShack Megacable $1/foot
700 One Tandy Center, Fort Worth, TX 76102
(800) THE SHACK
A tasty, inexpensive cable with a poetic name.
We tested a biwired pair of Klaras, with a separate set of wires for woofer and tweeter.
TARA Klara. It's a name that rolls off the tongue like poetry. Aside from having the most lyrical name of any of the cables featured in our Face off, the TARA Klara had several other attributes which make it recommendable. Tara decided to
meet our $1/foot minimum by sending us a biwired pair of $0.79/foot Klaras-the two cables were terminated together at one end, separately at the other. Many audiophiles believe that running biwire-which gives the woofer and tweeter their own cables- delivers big sonic benefits. But your speakers need to be biwire-compatible (with two sets of binding posts) to use this option.
The Klara speaker cable uses TARA Labs' proprietary pressure stranding technique. Pressure stranding ensures that the individual copper strands of the conductors are very tightly wound to protect against performance-degrading oxidation and approximate the construction of more expensive solid-core cables. TARA Lab's formula for the Klara is obviously a success: The biwired Klara received a python rating and elicited several enthusiastic comments from our panel. Seasoned audiophile Robert declared the Klara to be the best cable of the lot, noting a warm, seductive quality which brought out the space between instruments in a recording. Contributing editor Terry Landry commented upon what he perceived as a nice balance in all sonic registers, summing up his analysis with a simple "yum." Terry could later be observed chewing on the cable after the other panelists had departed.-AG
TARA Vision Klara $0. 79/foot, $1.58/foot biwired
2245 Ashland Street, Ashland, OR 97520
A webbed design that should mate nicely with softer-sounding systems.
SP2 features a webbed strip that makes it easy to tack in place.
At $1.25 a foot, the SP2 comes in pretty low as speaker-cable prices go in the Tributaries line. Despite its low cost, the SP2 features one cool attribute that most of the other cables in this survey lacked: a wide webbed spacing between conductors. This web lowers capacitance by separating the conductors, and provides an easy and efficient method for tacking SP2 cable to the wall when running cable lengths to the rear of a room to hook up surround speakers. Right off, this is a feature that gets a nod of approval from us.
The SP2's jacketing is of the translucent kind, revealing the 12-gauge copper wire underneath. The wire includes an unusually high strand count, which will ensure maximum flexibility when snaking the cables through tight places. It's terminated with gold-plated, solid brass connectors. If you're handy with the soldering iron and plan to do your own cable termination, the banana connectors that Tributaries supplies for the SP2 will run you $8 per pair. The panel was a bit under whelmed with the sonic performance of the Tributaries SP2, placing it in the garter category. Some panelists felt that the cable produced an ill-focused sound; others described its sound as tinny or strident. We all agreed, though, that the SP2 improved when used with the softer-sounding Sunfire amp/Sonus Faber speaker combination, so a little experimentation may be in order to find the right situation in which to use this particular cable.-AG
Tributaries SP2 $1.25/foot
Tributaries/Gordon J. Gow Technologies
1307 E. Landstreet Rd., Orlando, FL 32824
(407) 855 0497
Out-of-this-world neutrality in a low-priced cable.
Orbit's terminalstions are enclosed in heatashrink tubing for a clean look.
Wireworld speaker cables use designer David Salz's patented symmetrical coaxial design. Salz conceived this concentric wrap cable in order to more evenly distribute signals and limit electrical interactions. Fortunately, symmetrical coaxial designs are incorporated throughout the Wireworld line, no matter if you buy the inexpensive Orbit, or the top-of-the-line Gold Eclipse II cables.
The Orbit cable features two 15-gauge copper conductors-the first wrapped around a polypropylene foam core, and separated Mom the second conductor by a polypropylene foam casing. The conductors consist of Wireworld's proprietary grain-optimized copper, which is supposed to provide greater structural purity than that used in lesser cables.
Orbit received a very enthusiastic python designation from our listening panel. Actually, in virtually every tally we did on either of the two systems, Wireworld Orbit came out on top. Flattering comments heaped upon it took note of its excellent focus, impressive neutrality and top-to-bottom coherence. Highs were detailed and airy, and the ever-important bass came through with solid, satisfying impact. In fact, when used in conjunction with the Gunfire/ Sonus Faber system, the Orbit's neutrality caused that particular combination's sonic softness to become highly evident. And although using cables as tone controls can be a good idea, the very best cables disappear, revealing any colorations in either the electronics or the speakers, and not introducing any of their own.-AC
Wireworld Orbit $2.70/foot
3320 Griffin Rd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312, (954) 962-2650
From a workaday jacket springs a wondrous sound.
Sturdy gold banana plugs tip XLO's unusual metal composite cable.
"This stuff looks like some kinda &(2 %# Romex!" Robert exclaimed as he examined ER-16. That's no compliment-Romex is the cheap cable used for household AC wiring. But despite ER-16's inauspicious appearance, the label "heavy duty precious metal composite" hints at something more inside.
Cut open some ER-16 and you'll see a single strand of silver wire in the center. Bare copper strands surround the silver, and plated copper strands make up the out-side layer. According to XLO president Roger Skoff, this construction counteracts skin effect. Skin effect occurs because high frequencies tend to run near the outside of a cable, where they travel slightly faster than the lows. Skoff says that silver's high conductivity lets the lows travel as fast as the highs.
The audibility of skin effect remains a matter of debate, but for whatever reason, ER16 sounded good enough to earn a place in our python class. Terry called it his clear favorite; he and Al lauded it for full, neutral sound. Robert ranked it just below his faves, citing a seductive, weighty Sound that lacked a bit in dynamics. I ranked ER-16 among my least favorites, though-I thought it sounded bright and edgy. Funny thing is, XLO's ER-12 (a totally different cable) has been a favorite of mine for years. But for the other panelists, ER-16's clean sound and XLO's sturdy, beautiful banana plugs make this a highly recommended cable.-BB
XLO/VDO ER-16 $1 .49/foot
XLO Electric Co., Inc.
9480 Utica Ave., #612
Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91730
Here's a list of our favorite and least-favorite cables, as ranked by our Face off panelists after auditions with two different amp/ speaker combinations. The panelists ranked the cables in three classes-the overall favorites we called "pythons," the other impressive cables we called "rattlers," and the cables that met with lukewarm response we called "garters." Note that our panelists disagreed on some of the cables. In a couple of cases, one panelist's least-favorite was another panelist's favorite, this from a panel composed entirely of longtime serious music listeners.
So we can definitely recommend the pythons as cables that should sound good in any system, and should please most tastes. We can recommend the rattlers as good cables that will please lots of listeners, but might not suit certain systems or tastes. And don't count out the garters: Some panelists found certain cables in this class pleasing to the ear, and the cables may have benefits that outweigh a minor difference in sound quality-the quality of the Esoteric Audio Ultra-Cable Premier's connectors, or the ubiquity of RadioShack Megacable.
TARA Labs Klara (biwired) $1.58/foot
XLO/VDO ER-16 $1.46/foot
Wireworld Orbit $2.70/foot
Audioquest Type 4 $2.50/foot
Kimber Kable 4VS $2.80/foot
Monster MCX-2s $2.00/foot
Nordost Flatline $2.99/foot
Esoteric Audio USA Ultra Cable Premier $2.00/foot
RadioShack Megacable $1.00/foot
Tributaries SP-2 $1.25/foot
This was possibly the most difficult Face Off I've participated in at HE, because the differences between the competing products were so minute and elusive. Nonetheless, I was able to discern a few differences, albeit subtle ones. I'd be reluctant to come out with a determination that any particular cable sucked, but a few of the cables did sound better than others.
For me, the Kimber 4VS produced the most immediately pleasing sound, followed closely by Wireworld and XLO. These three cables seemed extremely neutral, not adding or subtracting anything from the sound.
I was also surprised to see just how system-dependent speaker cables can be. With the exception of Kimber, Wireworld, and XLO, my assessments of the other seven brands varied widely when we changed from the brighter NHT/Acurus system to the softer Sonus Faber/Sunfire system. No cable received a garter designation twice, and Esoteric, received both garter and python designations (it's better in a brighter-sounding System).
All in all, an enlightening, though lengthy, evaluation. I hope next time we'll get to do those big, thick, expensive cables with the mysterious boxes attached to them. Is it. possible that any manufacturers would be willing to send us some of those?
Comparing 10 speaker cables is a lot like listening to the grass grow-what you hear is more psychological than acoustic, especially after about the eighth set when you start to suspect that your powers of discernment are getting duller. This is hands-down the most difficult listening comparison I've ever experienced.
I rated three of the sets as pythons, with XLO being the only obvious standout-it sounded clear, full, loud, and efficient. I thought the TARA Labs biwired set and, of all things, the RadioShack Megacable also belonged in this group.
The sets in my rattler category all seemed to create some imbalance between the midrange and the treble. Usually, this involved choking the midrange or overemphasizing the upper frequencies. Cables in this category included AudioQuest, Tributaries, Wireworld, Nordost, Esoteric, and Monster, in that order (from fave to least fave).
I only found one set distasteful, and wouldn't you know, it's Kimber, the brand in my own system!
I'm really getting tired of guys telling me how great a cigar is because it got an 89 in Cigar Aficionado. I've smoked a lot of those cigars that magazine rates, and while they do get it right on some, I've also seen so many wussed-out, no-flavor smokes get high rankings that I have to wonder what it is their reviewers are looking for.
This Face off indicates that the same's pretty much true with audio cables. Sure, there are some absolute truths here: Just as a Cohiba is a better cigar than a Swisher Sweet, Wireworld Orbit is better than Tributaries' one-third-as-expensive SP2. But just because I liked Monster MCX-2s better than XLO ER-16 doesn't mean you will. I see speaker cables as tone controls, and everyone likes to set their tone controls differently.
My taste runs toward fat-sounding Blue Note and CTI jazz recordings- lots of drive, sparkly but not bright, smooth but not lifeless. To me, Monster MCX-2s and Wireworld Orbit best exemplified that sound, and the offerings from Esoteric, XLO, and Tributaries didn't. But more than with any other product category we've tested, speaker cables demand that you listen for yourself and choose according to your tastes.
Despite the modest cost of these cables,
the sonic characteristics between the best and worst were clearly audible. Cables like the TARAs, XLOs, and
Wireworlds exhibited greater detail and transparency- the alter at which I worship-good imaging and
recreation of soundstage width and depth, midrange correctness, high-frequency extension without exaggerated edges, and low-frequency attributes which translate to dynamic range. The underachievers, like the RadioShack cables, made the music emerge from an opaque glaze; recessed, pinched, and hard. The differences were not subtle.
Now for the fly in the ointment: Though cheaper by half .. the other cables, the TARA cables were the only ones used in a biwired configuration. My guess is that the biwiring (the NHTs are equipped with two sets of binding posts) was responsible for the superior results, which suggests that if the other superior cables were similarly employed, the results might be better still. (Note that some speakers, like the Sonus Fabers, in fact suffer from biwiring.)
Regardless of your preference-and it is a highly personal choice- what this whole comparison demonstrates is that allocating even a few dollars to good cables is a must. Cables aren't accessories, they're components. Now, what if you decided to spend twice as much?
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