Since this product recently won one of HPs's product of the year awards for 2010, Steve has asked me to post my review that was originally posted on the Ultra-Hi End Forum in August of 2009. Here it is in its entirety.
I have a nice system that makes delightful music and pleases me daily. I am not a member of the “amp of the month club”, I buy from dealers at (negotiated) retail prices, and generally get a lot of mileage out of my gear. I am not an audio writer or reviewer. When I do change gear, I always try to replace the weakest link. For a number of years now, I’ve been using Nordost Valhalla speaker cables, and slowly but surely, this has become the target of my latest effort to find, well, the proverbial Valhalla. While that remark may raise some eyebrows, I’ll try and explain the basis of my comments so as not be prompt readers to send me free offers for psychiatric care. The Valhallas are unquestionably superb. There are not many who have heard or reviewed these speaker cables that haven’t been extremely enthusiastic about its performance. While I share these sentiments, I have also had the sense that in my particular system, there was a certain property that would occasionally be of some concern that I would characterize as a lack or body or weight in the upper bass and lower midrange. Specifically, I found this to occur the range of 100-200 Hz. How do I know this? The answer lies in the fact that I currently use DSP to EQ my system and have spent a considerable number of listening hours trying to correct for this subtractive characteristic. While I was successful to some degree by adding 0.1-0.2 dB of gain in this (or any other) region, I was perplexed that gain alone did not provide the weight or roundness I was seeking. In fact, if I compensated the gain in that region more than that, I found it was to the detriment of the overall sound as manifest by bloat and fatness where none had existed before. This was disturbing…. and curious. Why was my perception of correct tonal balance not successfully corrected by simple gain supplementation? Hmmm.
A speaker wire is essentially a passive element that should have a flat bandwidth from DC to light, right? Well, not exactly. The key is to understand that all speaker cable has physical electrical properties of resistance, inductance and capacitance and when it serves as the conduit between an amp and a driver, each of which have their own electrical properties, its easy to see why there might be a physical basis that underlies the reason not all speaker cables sound the same in a given system. Or, moreover, why cables might sound different in different systems. One of the great lessons of audiophilia that has been previously reported by many observers is that the compatibility of one key component is often the missing link that accounts for lesser or more spectacular performance in any given system. What’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. Thus, my gradual search for extracting improved performance in my system led my to seek alternatives for my Valhalla speaker cables. So there. That’s not too crazy after all, is it?
But where to begin? With so many excellent choices, was there some principal that I could use for guidance to find my way through the morass of fine products out there? I guess the first obvious question is whether I wanted to explore Zoebel networked cables such as MIT or Transparent. For reasons better discussed elsewhere, I choose not to go that route even though many listeners I respect have found that these deliver superb performance in their systems. Rather, I contemplated as a starting point, the notion that of the physical electrical properties I described earlier, it is inductance that by its very nature opposes the flow of current, and therefore, wouldn’t it make sense to try and find a speaker cable that minimized inductance? In perusing the landscape of newer designs I was unfamiliar with, 3 candidates bubbled to the top of the list. First, were the Nordost Odin cables, which weighed in with inductance at 0.15uH/ft (compared to 0.3uH/ft for the Valhallas). Next up were the Shunyata Aurora cables as 0.1 uH/ft. This past spring, I heard the Shunyata Stratos (lesser expensive) to good effect at the remarkable Goodwin’s Audio in Boston. So I naturally thought, if the Stratos sounded good, the Aurora’s must sound better. After all, SOA was what I was after. Third on the list were the Kubala-Sosna Elations, a speaker cable that I found frustrating to consider as a contender because I could not find a published inductance value for that cable. Rather, Kubala publishes as cryptic graph showing that the product of inductance and capacitance of their previous piece de resistance, the Emotion cable, was lower than virtually any other speaker cable they tested. I therefore called Joe Kubala and asked him to tell me the inductance value of the Elation, but he infuriated me by refusing to disclose it, preferring instead to go into a standard marketing hype about the wonders of his cable. As a scientist, I have little patience for anyone that will not disclose perfectly accessible and obviously measurable scientific data. So I politely excused myself from the conversation realizing I was either going to have to evaluate this speaker cable without the benefit of knowing this parameter, or just eliminate it from consideration altogether.
But the Kubalas had three trump cards that were bedeviling. First, I found that in reflecting upon attending CES and the RMAF for the past two years, I was uniformly impressed that whenever I entered a room that used Kubala cables; the sound was always remarkably good. In fact, not just good, but, musically “right” (don’t ask me what that means- its probably like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography- you know it when you see it, or in this case, hear it). Second, I’m a fan of Steve Hoffman’s mastering skills, and if Kubala cables were good enough for this guy, who surely has access to anything he wants, then I thought, perhaps wouldn’t they be good enough for me? Third, let’s get real. I needed 3.5M of cable. The Odins retailed at 26K, the Auroras were 19K, and the Elations were 9K. Thinking that I’d be happy if any of these surpassed the sound of the Valhallas, I embarked on the journey by selecting the Elations first for audition.
So, how do they sound? The first thing that deserves mention is that I was reminded of something Harry Pearson observed many years ago, which is that great gear generally sounds good right out of the box. This was certainly true for the Elations. In fact, Kubala prides itself on the fact that all their products require little if any break-in. They claim that the performance of the Elations is at 90% maximum immediately, and increases to full performance after a two days. True, indeed. In my experience, the first 12 hours get you mostly there, and three days is where the performance maxes out. And where “max” lives is a very high plane indeed. There is no question this is a superb speaker cable by any standard. I’m not sure this qualifies as a bonafide review because I have no intention of describing individual frequency attributes such as bass, midrange, and treble performance. Nor do I wish to describe soundstage and depth. It’s real simple. All these parameters are outstanding. I am always amused by reviews that include comments such as “Norah Jones was never more present in my room” or “Ron Carter’s bass was fleshed out like I’ve never heard it before”. This is pure idiocy in my view since such subjective comments are the results of a composite of several elements and it always seemed foolish to try and account for such perceptions by implicating that such effects were due to the singular piece of gear under review.
My approach to critical listening is rather to try and describe the changes that occur when a single variable in the system is changed. In this case, I wish to describe what I think is the key difference I hear when the Kubalas are in the system in lieu of the Valhallas. Two observations come to mind. First, I felt that the sound of my system improved to a small degree. In a way, it was comforting that the impressions I gleaned at the shows were validated. My system simply had an improved sense of musical “rightness” to it. Again, this is hard to define. I suppose the best way to describe this was that the timber of instruments had greater “realism”. Well, that’s a nice buzz word too, but what does it mean? May years ago, I recall laughing at an ad I saw on TV many years ago for carpeting in which a man was down on his hands and knees kneading the carpet with his fingers while he asked the viewer “have you ever seen so much carpet in a carpet”? Well, that’s about as close a definition for sonic realism as your going to get from me. Whatever realism comprises in this context, it was most apparent in brass, woodwinds and strings. Second, and most surprisingly, the “body” or “weight” of the instruments were, at least to my ears, more correct than what I heard with Valhallas. Was I pleased? You bet. Unfortunately, my scientist left brain I wasn’t particularly happy because I didn’t quite understand why I was hearing what I was hearing. Was it due to the fact that the reactance of the Elations (particularly the inductance) was less than the Valhallas? Possibly. But a few weeks of serious listening has led my to another observation that I think may underlie the sonic phenomenon I was hearing.
What I think is happening has to do with dynamic compression. When the Elations conduct signal from ppp to fff they seem to do it uniformly. The Valhallas on the other hand, do it less linearly. And where do they stumble? Well, they appear to inflict some compression at both 100-200 Hz and at 2500-3500 Hz. When the music goes past p and ventures in to the f range, and especially when it is greater then ff there appears to be dynamic compression which is what I believe contributes to the impression that the Valhallas are not as “full-bodied” as some other cables. I guess if I had to put it in scientific terms, it would be that the Valhalla’s modulation transfer function for dynamic compression is not as linear as a function of output level, as the Elations. Again, that’s frequency dynamics, not frequency. Big difference.
It’s difficult for me to believe that any well-made speaker cable would be significantly limited when it comes to the simple reproduction of frequency response within in the audio range of human hearing. That’s not to say that all cables sound the same. Count me as a member of the “they do not” school, even though there are plenty of good reasons to think they should all be “straight wires with gain” if simple frequency response is the main contributing reason for their sound. That there might be differences in the physical properties of speaker cables that allow them to sound differently, and that this difference may have more to do with dynamic compression than frequency response, has some appeal. Since all cables have reactive inductance, capacitance and resistance, it would seem to follow that these properties can readily effect the dynamics of an audio signal by effecting the relationship between input level and output level as a function of gain. And to take it one step further, the effects of dynamic compression may be most notable at certain frequencies. In essence, that is what I think is happening to account for the differences I hear when I substitute the Elations for the Valhallas in my system.
One caveat that’s worth repeating, is that my system is exactly that- a system. In the end, a particular component’s sonic character may matter less than the effect it has in the overall gestalt of a system’s sound. For example, I’ve heard Valhalla interconnects and speaker cable sound superb in a Wilson Alexandria, ARC Ref 3, Lamm 2.1 system. In fact, I think Wilsons, in general, and Valhallas are a synergistic match and I’ve recommended them recently to my brother who owns Watt/Puppy 6’s. However, in my current rig (Goldmund Studio modified/T3F arm/Benz Ruby 2/ ASR exclusive phono stage; EMM CDSA; ARC Ref 5; VTL Siegfrieds; Pipedream Hemisphere 18/36 Towers; dual JL Audio Gotham subs; all Valhalla interconnects), it is the Kubala Elation speaker cables that float my boat because they bring the system to a slightly higher plane of musicality than I had previously with Valhalla speaker cables. All of this is to say that for now, my right brain is very happy. That seems to be good enough for me to extract further enjoyment from listening to music rather than to equipment, which often gets lost when wrestling with the sonic merits of a new individual component.
PostScript. June 14, 2010. I've been using the speaker cables for 10 months now and offer no noteworthy updates. They are supremely musical and satisfying. One thing that has occurred to me in retrospect is that I wish I had experimented with using a 2nd parallel set of Valhallas prior to my turning them in for the Elations. Could a double set of Valhallas be the equivalent of the poor man's Odin? I guess I'll never know but it does make some sense on paper (i.e. decreased inductance compared to one set of Valhallas alone). Oh well, that experiment will have to wait for a while- quite while I suspect!!