Why Do We Need Bet­ter Ca­bles?

Con­tin­ued In­no­va­tion In Au­dio Equip­ment Drives the Need For Higher Quality Ca­bles


We should ex­am­ine the work of a bunch of pioneering guys – Peter Walker, Ivor Tiefen­brun, Ju­lian Vereker, Bob Stu­art, Mark Levin­son, Dan D’Agostino, Ed Meit­ner, Dave Wil­son, Alon Wolf and Yoav Geva. Who are th­ese guys? What did they do to awaken the in­ter­est of Joe Reynolds (Nor­dost), Ge­orge Car­das (Car­das Au­dio), Dr. Ray Kim­ber (Kim­ber Kable) and Ed­win van der Kley (Sil­tech), lead­ing lights in the ca­ble in­dus­try?

So let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, am­pli­fiers, turnta­bles, speak­ers and ca­bles all pro­duced con­sid­er­able lev­els of dis­tor­tion and had poor lev­els of def­i­ni­tion, with speak­ers at the top of the list of of­fend­ers. One lone English­man, Peter Walker, threw out con­ven­tional wis­dom and aban­doned the tra­di­tional mov­ing coil speaker de­sign we all know and love, in favour of flat elec­tro­static pan­els – in­tro­duc­ing the fa­mous Quad Elec­tro­static Speaker in 1957, fol­lowed by the Quad ESL-63 in 1982. Th­ese early Quad speak­ers had their faults to be sure. They couldn’t play loud, they were weak in the bass, and they beamed their im­age to a very nar­row hot spot, but they raised the bar dra­mat­i­cally in terms of speed and ac­cu­racy, and showed the world just what was pos­si­ble. The rest of the speaker in­dus­try has been in­no­vat­ing to match and im­prove upon Walker’s de­signs ever since. Mov­ing coil speaker de­sign­ers have now fi­nally suc­ceeded in chal­leng­ing the elec­tro­static de­signs on all fronts, while sur­pass­ing them in dy­nam­ics, band­width and im­age width. For many years the high end in mov­ing coil speaker de­sign re­volved around Dave Wil­son and his Wil­son Au­dio speak­ers. More re­cently Wil­son Au­dio has been chal­lenged by Alon Wolf’s Magico and Yoav Geva’s YG Acous­tics among others. High tech ma­te­ri­als, in­cred­i­bly close tol­er­ance con­struc­tion and ad­vanced com­put­er­ized de­sign and man­u­fac­ture are be­hind dra­matic re­duc­tions in dis­tor­tion lev­els.

To­day we can say the loud­speaker is no longer the weak­est link. If it’s not the speaker, then what is it? Linn Au­dio’s Ivor Tiefen­brun sur­prised al­most ev­ery­one in the 70’s with his claim that the turntable was now the most im­por­tant com­po­nent in the sys­tem. His fa­mous maxim “Garbage in- garbage out” and his iconic Linn Son­dek LP12 turntable changed the world. HiFi Choice re­view­ers voted the LP12 the most im­por­tant hi-fi com­po­nent ever sold in the UK. It in­spired a bunch of im­i­ta­tors. Now in its 54th year, it re­mains in lim­ited pro­duc­tion, its ba­sic de­sign un­touched by time. The LP12 of­fered re­duced rum­ble, greater speed sta­bil­ity and a plat­form to sup­port ever finer ton­earms and car­tridges. The LP12 pro­pelled other turntable man­u­fac­tur­ers to new heights, us­ing high tech ma­te­ri­als, ad­vanced de­sign, mas­sive con­struc­tion and ever more re­fined car­tridges to lower dis­tor­tion and ex­pand the ef­fec­tive fre­quency range. The LP12 has been the sub­ject of nu­mer­ous op­tional up­grades, from Linn and others, to the plinth, the power sup­ply, the sus­pen­sion, you name it. To­day’s best turnta­bles can set you back over $100,000, and then you can spend large amounts on highly re­fined arms, car­tridges and phono stages de­signed to ex­tract the very best from the black vinyl disks, now ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a resur­gence of pop­u­lar­ity. Th­ese too ex­hibit greatly re­duced lev­els of dis­tor­tion, and a cor­re­spond­ing im­prove­ment in im­age size and pre­ci­sion. We live in a golden age of ana­log.

The CD kicked the LP off its perch as the medium of choice, but early CD play­ers were not ca­pa­ble of chal­leng­ing the sound fidelity of a well set up high-end turntable. One small

step for con­ve­nience but no gi­ant leap for fidelity. One man was up to the chal­lenge of im­prov­ing the sound of those early CD play­ers, and that man was Bob Stu­art (Bob Stu­art) of Meridian Au­dio. Al­though many will know him bet­ter from his pioneering work on ac­tive speak­ers, DVD-Au­dio and now MQA, his work on im­prov­ing the sound of Red­book CD is per­haps his great­est achieve­ment. In 1985 he in­tro­duced the Meridian MCD player, the world’s first au­dio­phile CD player. His lat­est of­fer­ing in this field is the Meridian 808v6 Sig­na­ture Ref­er­ence CD Player, a won­der­ful ma­chine which any mu­sic lover should be proud to pos­sess.

As won­der­ful as Red­book sounds through the 808 and some other high-end CD play­ers that com­pete in that space, dig­i­tal au­dio can sound bet­ter if it cap­tures more bits per sec­ond. While DVD-Au­dio and other high sam­ple rate mech­a­nisms of­fered one way of im­prov­ing on the 16 bit, 44.1k sam­pling fre­quency of Red­book, Philips and Sony pushed for and pi­o­neered an­other method al­to­gether, DSD, in­tro­duc­ing SACD play­ers based on that stan­dard in 1999 (Sony SCD1). Cen­tral to this devel­op­ment was Canada’s Ed Meit­ner, whose EMM Labs is among the lead­ers in the field of DSD and DAC tech­nol­ogy to­day. He is not alone but his work is re­mark­able and he has pi­o­neered a pu­rity of sound that sets the stan­dard for the in­dus­try, and which leaves the hum­ble CD well be­hind. Ed Meit­ner was the first to iden­tify jit­ter as the vil­lain be­hind the edgy sound of early dig­i­tal au­dio and de­vel­oped ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy to min­i­mize it.

To­day we see high bit rate stream­ing and down­loads of high res­o­lu­tion au­dio files with more in­for­ma­tion even than the DSD stan­dard. The high pro­cess­ing power of to­day’s chips and a greater un­der­stand­ing of dig­i­tal pro­cess­ing has pro­vided some re­mark­able im­prove­ments in DAC tech­nol­ogy. You only have to look at what PS Au­dio and Chord do to­day in pro­duc­ing bet­ter sound for far less money than the best dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy of a few years back. Com­mon to the ap­proach of EMM Labs, PS Au­dio and Chord avoid the mass pro­duced DAC chips that main­stream con­vert­ers rely on, since they see them all as fun­da­men­tally flawed.

So we’ve seen dra­matic im­prove­ments: in source com­po­nents (ana­log or dig­i­tal) and equally dra­matic im­prove­ments in loud­speak­ers. What about am­pli­fiers? Well yes, we’ve also seen some im­prove­ment there, but not to the same ex­tent. That’s be­cause in the good old days of tube elec­tron­ics, the stan­dards were al­ready pretty high. It has taken decades for sil­i­con based am­pli­fiers to im­prove so they can stand up to com­par­i­son with the best tube

amps of yes­ter­day, and the best tube amps of to­day set even higher stan­dards for many lis­ten­ers. Who do we have to thank for the high achieve­ments of to­day’s ref­er­ence level sil­i­con amps? I would men­tion Ju­lian Vereker of Naim Au­dio, for his pioneering work on power sup­plies, and Dan D’Agostino for his ground­break­ing Krell Class A amps and the lat­est re­mark­able ef­forts un­der his own name.

Be­fore all th­ese im­prove­ments, the wires were quite pos­si­bly the strongest link, and no one re­ally paid much at­ten­tion to them. Only when the stan­dards of re­pro­duc­tion achiev­able in the home reached more el­e­vated lev­els did it be­come ap­par­ent that ca­bles could make a great dif­fer­ence. To many in the in­dus­try, mak­ing ca­bles is an art, but to the real in­no­va­tors, Ge­orge Car­das of Car­das Au­dio, Ray Kim­ber of Kim­ber Kable, and Ed­win van der Kley of Sil­tech Ca­bles, it’s a sci­ence. Tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tive en­gi­neer­ing is the name of the game. Of all the ca­ble in­no­va­tors, per­haps the most in­flu­en­tial or no­to­ri­ous is Joe Reynolds of Nor­dost, pic­tured on this page with lo­cal Toronto au­dio le­gend Ernie Fisher. If you at­tend hifi shows, you may run into Joe and you might have a chat with him. I would rec­om­mend the ex­pe­ri­ence. He is itching to tell you what he’s up to, and to set up demos where you can hear for your­self the changes in sound be­tween the var­i­ous Nor­dost ca­bles, and to demon­strate the other prod­ucts Nor­dost makes to im­prove the sound of your home sys­tem.

By set­ting the high­est stan­dards, th­ese four gentle­men have raised the bar for the ca­ble in­dus­try as a whole. But those high­est stan­dards have come with a price. Such ca­bles can be ul­tra ex­pen­sive, they can run you into five or six fig­ures. For­tu­nately a lot of the in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions they have de­vel­oped has trick­led down into the more af­ford­able ranges of ca­bles they make, so that the best three fig­ure ca­bles to­day are vastly su­pe­rior to their equiv­a­lent ten or twenty years ago, and things con­tinue to im­prove apace, to keep up with the im­prove­ments across the board in au­dio per­for­mance. If you have an ul­tra-re­veal­ing sys­tem and you are re­ally chas­ing the state of the art, then you should in­ves­ti­gate the top of the line of­fer­ings from Car­das, Sil­tech, Nor­dost and Kim­ber. That way you will do full jus­tice to your in­vest­ment. Look for a re­view of the ex­otic Val­halla 2 ca­bles from Nor­dost in this very is­sue.

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