Valhalla 2 Cables The State of the Art
Valhalla is the cable that turned the cable industry upside down in the year 2001. Unconventional in appearance as in performance, Valhalla set a new standard for many, and became my reference cable back in 2004. The key technology behind Valhalla is Micro Mono-Filament. By winding a single FEP filament in a precise spiral around each conductor, before extruding an outer FEP “sleeve” over the top, Nordost created a structure combining the best available dielectric material while spacing the insulation away from the core. This minimized contact and dielectric absorption as well as created a virtual air environment.
DESIGN & FEATURES
Today we are testing the Valhalla 2 which debuted in 2013, a culmination of 12 years of development. While there are many similarities to Valhalla, every aspect of their construction was reexamined. Major innovations include Dual Mono-Filament technology, HOLO:PLUG connectors, and revisions to the number and diameter of the conductors. By spiraling a carefully controlled thread of FEP clockwise around the conductor, and another wound counterclockwise (Dual Mono-Filament), the insulating material
can be held at a fixed distance from the surface of the conductor and the air trapped between the conductor and the insulator acts as an excellent dialectic material. FEP itself is an expensive synthetic, the very best available for this purpose, and is of even higher purity than the version used in the original Valhalla. The technology used for this highly accurate extrusion process is exclusive to Nordost, very time consuming and costly to implement.
Terminations have come in for radical changes. Not satisfied with any commercially available components, Nordost designed their own connectors, which they call HOLO:PLUG Connectors. They found that much of the information loss in cables happens where the cable interfaces with the conductor. With HOLO:PLUG Interconnects and Speaker Cables, each conductor is assigned a point on an internal ring which continues to the tip of the connector. This ensures that each conductor is transmitting to the connector with the lowest signal loss possible. HOLO:PLUG Power cords utilize a carbon fiber back-shell connector, solid core bronze alloy pins with 85 microns of gold, a low mass dual ring design, vibration control and a 360 degree contact mating surface to minimize eddy currents.
The conductor material is made from an extremely pure solid copper core (99.999999%) plated with 85 microns of pure silver. The interconnect now uses ten 24 AWG conductors, the power cord uses seven 16AWG conductors and the speaker cable uses twenty eight 22 AWG conductors in four groups.
Cable lengths are carefully mechanically tuned to minimize resonances which can have a harmful effect on the sound. Nordost now recommends spade termination for speaker cables and biwire speaker cables are no longer available. Instead Nordost offers Valhalla 2 Bi-wire Jumpers which I used in my testing.
My reference system features the latest version of the EMM Labs XDS1 SACD/ CD Player feeding an EMM Labs Pre 2 Preamplifier. The power amp is a ModWright KWA150 SE driving the new YG Carmel 2 speakers. It’s a breathtakingly revealing system, with vanishingly low distortion, and one that should easily show any differences between cables. In the left corner, we have the Nordost system of yesterday, featuring a Nordost Thor Power Distribution System and Valhalla cables end to end. In the right corner, I asked Nordost for a QRT Power Distribution System and a full loom of Valhalla 2 cables. Let the games begin.
The older Valhalla setup is very revealing, has massive articulation and pinpoint locational accuracy. It’s also a little hard driving and decidedly lean. I like the sound very much, but I don’t find it fully satisfying. It is perhaps a little clinical. The new setup is immediately more relaxing to listen to. Instrumental color is richer, the bass is more fulsome and the treble gloriously open. It sounds more like the real thing. I’ve made a conscious effort to compare the sounds I heard from the third row of the wonderful Koerner Hall in Toronto with excellent recordings by the same artists. We’re talking the Buena Vista Social Club, then Joan Baez, and finally the classical pianist Andreas Schiff. Although audio memory is far from perfect, what works for me is the feeling of connection to the music that you get in the concert hall, and how very close to that feeling the new Valhalla 2 based setup brought me. The older setup was just as exciting but not equally musical or realistic. To me it was like moving from Redbook CD to SACD. Things are not so black and white any more, they are more colorful and much easier to listen to. The other big improvement was in the very lowest bass, which while still completely pitch accurate as only a sealed box speaker can provide, was also firmer, stronger and clearer.
Now not every recording benefits to the same extent from this transformation. I notice the improvements most in large scale symphonic music and whenever there’s a piano playing, and less on vocals and small scale classical music. With anything widerange and well produced it’s almost night and day.
Piano is the acid test for system testing. There’s a powerful new recording of Bach’s English Suites played by Piotr Anderszewski which illustrates these differences to the full. Where the sound was somewhat harsh, thin and even aggressive, now the piano tone is fuller and cleaner, with an increased range of dynamic shading. It sounds more like a piano and less like a recording of a piano. Some slight ringing has vanished. This is contrapuntal music which means there are multiple voices playing simultaneously. It is so much easier now to make out the various strands that my brain doesn’t have to work so hard to follow them, making for greater relaxation and enjoyment.
If Bach is not your listening pleasure, this same musical flow allows you to listen to all sorts of music with less strain and increased appreciation for the artistry involved. I found the same immersion on the Beatles Love album. Even on the opening track “Because”, which comprises just a cappella vocals from the original recording and assorted birdsong / insects humming, the image width and depth were both heightened and the voices more lifelike than ever. Moving to “Get Back”, the drum thwacks are now stronger, there’s more drive and momentum and you can hear deeper into the complex drum rhythms. Paul’s bass is cleaner and more present in the mix.
But “Chanchullo” from Cuba’s Ruben Gonzales (star of the Buena Vista Social Club) showed smaller differences. No increase in detail, but some extra nuances
perhaps. The brass did come through with a richer tone, especially in the lower registers, but you are not getting all your money’s worth here. “Diamonds and Rust”, Joan Baez’s great song, also showed only modest improvement. Mozart’s “Divertimento for String Trio” lies between these two extremes. The imaging is improved and there is so much detail in the string tone of each instrument that you can follow each one, where before the instruments were often blended. You get the impression there is all the time in the world now. It’s not that the music has slowed down, but you can hear into the music more deeply. And let’s not forget that the sound was superb to begin with. Now it’s just more palpable.
I’ve been living with the Valhalla 2 cables for about six months, and I find myself listening to a lot more music than I used to. It’s not that I love cables. I love music. These cables bring out the music more than any others in my experience. They do this by offering the flattest and most extended frequency response, the highest level of detail, the greatest accuracy of instrumental and vocal tone and full responsiveness to transients and sustained harmonics. All these are technical considerations which can be measured in the laboratory. But to the listener, it comes through as transparency to the source, which is the measure of every element in the chain. There is no editorializing, no false emphasis in the lower bass, no blending of individual voices, no loss of texture on a stringed instrument, nothing that harms the flow of music or reduces its level of detail or dynamic range. Well, nothing I could hear in my imperfect listening room.
Nordost cables are easy to use – generally slimmer and more flexible than most competitors. The speaker cables have a unique flat design with each conductor held parallel to its neighbour in four groups of seven, while the interconnects and power cables are relatively slim and circular in cross section. They are finished to astonishing standards.
Nordost recommends its own QRT Power Distribution system, so I used that for testing. The first stage is the QBase QB8 Mk II ($1920 Cdn) which provides 8 power outlets. The second stage is the QX4 Power Purifier ($3,240 Cdn), which is installed in line between the QB8 and the power amp. These products seem to do their job very well. There is no hum at all in the system and the speakers are eerily silent even at high volume levels between the tracks of my CDs.
Valhalla 2 power cords start at $6,000, interconnects at $8,000 and speaker cables at $11,520 (Cdn). So we are certainly in a very special realm. In terms of sound quality, these are the finest I’ve heard at any price and make a huge difference to the enjoyment I get from listening to music in my reference system.