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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Chicanery, legerdemain and snake oil

I don't own an iPhone.  I sent my first text message over a cell phone in the fairly recent past, and I didn't have a voice mail box until this past spring.  I have no idea what I would do with an iPad.  In the past year however, I have purchased no fewer than four pairs of speaker cables.  I suppose I should change the name of the blog to: "Hello, my name is William, and I have a problem. . ." but I am not even considering the first of the twelve steps for my stereo habit.  Now, if the people in the back will sit down and stop shouting: "NERRRRRRRRRD!" I will get on with the purpose of this post: new speaker cables.  My wife (the Saint- as you may recall her) has never really had any issue with any of the various peices of stereo gear I tote in and out of the house.  In fact, right now she is (happily, I presume) listening to our Marantz home theater receiver (wait, now she's yelling: "What?!  Gort doesn't reconstitute?!  What a terrible ending!"  It's best not to know, sometimes).  The only thing she generally can't stand is messy wiring- you know, the rat's nest behind equipment racks that makes the overloaded outlet in "A Christmas Story" look neat and orderly by comparison, and speaker cable splayed all over the floor like visiting day at the Reptile House.  I sometimes have to turn Pentecostals away at the door- no snake handling here!  Who can blame her? 

So, since we are in the midst of painting and re-doing the listening room, I figured that I would hunt for something a little less industrial-looking than the Tara Labs stuff I had been using.  Susan especially hates the fact that the Tara cables are white.  They really are meant for in-wall use.  Furthermore, almost all of my vintage Sony stuff accepts bare wire connections, but not standard banama plugs (can anyone tell me why on Earth they are called that?).  At first I checked Audio Advisor for the Kimber cable I have long wanted to try, but I couldn't bring myself to spend $440 on an 8' pair, plus the jacket is partially you guessed it- white.  The local shop, Audio Den carries Nordost and Tara, but truth be told, they gave me some of the entry level Nordost as a loaner and: a.) the flat ribbon's potential for creasing and b.) the sound I heard did not thrill me for the money. I am sure they thought I was nuts when I returned it.  Kudos to Bob for letting me try it, however- that's the thing that will keep the brick and mortar shops in business- well that, and whomever is still making money on Wall Street buying lots and lots of expensive flat screen TVs and remote starts for their hot tubs.

Then I remembered a catalog from a company called Mapleshade that I had received a while ago, so off to the closet (much of the contents of which are strewn about the house as it awaits new paint and carpet) to find it.  I ordered an entry- level 10' pair of Golden Helix for a little over $100, and it was here in two days.  I had never read any reviews, nor had I seen their cable anywhere but on their web-site.  It was vaguely Kimber-esque in looks and much nicer than the white-jacket Tara stuff Susan detests.  But when I opened the shipping box, I was a little taken aback to find an invoice and a box only slightly larger than a paperback novel.  "Darnit, they only sent one 10' length" I thought.  Wrong.  As you can see in the picture above, that tiny box contained 20' of neatly coiled double strand wire.  In fact, the cable is one lead for positive, one for negative, with something like a thousandth of an inch of dielectric coating.  Check out the link to get the full story from Mapleshade. The ends are nicely tinned and marked for speaker/amp connection.  They immediately met with Susan's approval: "MUCH better" she said. "We'll see" I thought to myself.  No warranty, but a thirty day return policy.   Off I went to hook them up.  She's right though- these cables definitely look cool.

Everything about the set-up is in such a state of flux (much like my career), that I didn't worry about elevating the cables off the floor as recommended, nor did I sweat routing them around other cables as the whole shebang is getting disassembled in a day or so.  Didn't even warm anything up, just uncoiled the little suckers, carefully inserted them into binding posts (lest I put out an eye, I worry about these things, you know) and turned on the power.  One SACD loading cycle later (I will name this unit of time in the future, I assure you), and I was listening to Norah Jones.  Standing back from the setup, I could barely see the cables.  Just what Susan is looking for.  It's too soon to get a handle and the sound but. . .

First impressions?  The presentation is bright.  Not harsh, mind you, and remember that there is absolutely NO furniture in this room right now other than the system and a chair (and a step ladder to spackle holes in the walls that are mysterioulsy close to the ceiling).  The room has a definite echo it did not have before when it housed two book cases.  It merely sounds as if the treble had been adjusted slightly upward.  With that brightness there is a clear sence of greater immediacy, or "space" around the vocals, I think that real reviewers (HA!) call this phenomenon "air" or "presence."  It was a definite contrast to the dark sound that the Dynaudio Focus 220 speakers are known for.  And. . . I like it. 

Right now, FM stereo is running low in the background until things settle in.  Of course this may be futile as the system soon comes down, but I am very much looking forward to some serious listening in the near future.  I have concerns that some of my older progressive rock my be a very poor match for these cables, but I really want to hear some of my classical SACD stuff.  Time will tell.  As for the title of this post, I am as yet unwilling to come down on one side or the other as to the differences cables make in a system's sound, other than to say that should they exist they are surely subtle.  And I know just enough about the science to know that about 99% of what the packaging says is absolutely meaningless.  So why 4 pairs in a year, you ask?  Well, it beats having to answer voicemail on my iPhone.

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