It was almost a year ago, in one of the earliest entries in this blog, entitled The High End Arrives, that I recounted some of my first experiences with better gear. In both of the specific instances mentioned, my expectations were toppled. First, a different turntable changed my thinking from “turntables just turn” to having a greater appreciation for just how much more is involved in retrieving music from the spiral groove. In the second instance, a change of speaker cables taught me that everything the signal passes through has an impact on the final sound.
That was a valuable lesson, particularly, as I came to learn later, when applied to making recordings, not just playing them back. While I was reading about debates regarding whether cables could make an audible difference, I was bringing my own to work when I started mastering for CD. I’d found that replacing the “pro” cables in the studio (which connected the output of the master tape playback machine with the input of the analog-to-digital converters) with “audiophile” cables let more of the musical information in those tapes get through to the CD master. It wasn’t that the cables I installed were making the sound better. They just did a better job of getting out of the way.
How odd, it seemed to me, that in some quarters, folks were actually trying to legislate audio, lobbying New York City’s Commissioner of Consumer Affairs at the time, in an effort to make audio cable advertising illegal. (!) It is one thing to listen and not hear any difference. It is also understandable that one might not comprehend what mechanisms could possibly be responsible for the sonic differences others hear. I certainly wouldn’t want to force anyone to use cables they don’t want to use. But by the same token, please don’t take mine away because you don’t hear what I’ve been enjoying.
When I started Soundkeeper Recordings, I sought to use the simplest, highest quality signal path to make my recordings. To this end, I tried replacing my professional microphone cables with a set of balanced cables from an audiophile manufacturer. If cables made such important differences in playback systems and helped me create more faithful CD masters, I was interested in hearing what they did at the very front of the signal chain, connected to my microphones. In retrospect, I am not surprised this turned out to be one of the more obvious places where doing a better job of getting out of the way resulted in more Life getting to the recording. They made the pro cables sound coarse, grainy, and closed in by comparison. In short, they revealed the sonic fingerprint those pro cables superimposed on everything.
In a post from November of last year, entitled Three Decisions (Part 1), I talked about my first experience with cables from Nordost. When I first built my own studio, after spending a number of months auditioning a wide variety of candidates for cabling, I kept returning to Nordost cables as they always allowed me to feel like I was hearing past them, to the recording itself—which is exactly what I sought from the monitoring system in the studio. Where other cables I’d used sounded “good” (something I consider to be a coloration), these seemed very clearly to allow the sound of the gear being connected—and ultimately, the recording—to pass without editorializing or superimposing their own sonic fingerprint. I listened to a number of different products within their line and found a family resemblance insomuch as that ability to get out of the way. The more expensive models just seemed to take it further. And the balanced interconnects, used as microphone cables, showed me that my microphones were even better than I’d previously thought they were. Price being a major consideration at the time, I started with their least expensive speaker cables and interconnects, which replaced cables that cost three times their price (and which, in terms of getting out of the way, they sonically left in the dust)! Over the years, I’ve stepped up to more elaborate models within the line.
Cut to the present time. I have used different cables over the years and have enjoyed continual improvements in each one’s ability to get out of the way and let more of the music through. For the past several months, I have been using a new set of cables, covering the signal path from my microphones all the way to my loudspeakers. I have also been using some types of cables that I’ve never tried before. For example, I learned years ago that better loudspeaker cables and better interconnects (both for analog and digital signals) made for great strides in the quality of a recording or playback system. What I’d never tried yet though, were replacements for the AC cables that came with some of my gear. (I’d also never tried using a better HDMI cable for video or anything other than a basic USB cable to connect the hard drive that houses my music library.)
Most of the new cables are from Nordost’s Heimdall 2 series. While I was curious to hear the whole system with the new cables in place, I was intrigued by the AC cables, so I started by replacing only the AC cables on the components that did not have captive cables. The first AC cord went from the wall outlet from one of the dedicated lines feeding the studio, to the power distribution block. The next one went to the power supply feeding my Metric Halo ULN-8, which serves as my digital-to-analog converters in the studio (and also as my microphone preamps, analog-to-digital converters and headphone amplifier during recording sessions). Others went to the studio power amplifiers and subwoofers.
Experience has taught me not to assess any audio component until it has played music for at least a week—and with loudspeakers, many weeks. While the basic character might be evident right out of the box, maximum performance does not occur until the component has been in use for a while, until it has been “burned in”. (I have read a lot of theory on why this is the case, as well as arguments from some quarters as to why it cannot be. Not surprisingly, the latter come from the same folks who would say I’m imagining the differences I hear between cables. All I can say is, if I’m imagining this, I imagine it every single time my assistant switches to these cables without my seeing which are installed. And I’m having a great time!)
As one who has long appreciated what good cabling can do for a system, I was surprised it took me so long to try replacement AC cables. And I was absolutely thrilled at how much more alive the system sounded. By then however, my curiosity about what Heimdall 2 would do for the rest of the system came to the fore and I replaced the speaker cables, analog interconnects, and digital interconnects (S/PDIF from the CD transport and the USB cable from the hard drive housing the music library for the server). The system was now wired with Heimdall 2 all the way from the AC outlets to the loudspeakers. I put the CD player on continuous repeat and left the studio, only returning to occasionally grab a listen or switch to a different disc. I wanted to give the system plenty of time to get wherever it was going.
By the time I started the serious listening, it was one of those events where you want to listen to recording after recording (and can’t hear them all fast enough) to find out what the new changes reveal about them. If the AC cables brought a new and previously unheard sense of “snap” and life to the system, upgrading the rest of the cables forced a reevaluation of the system’s limitations. I am hearing the Magnepan 3.7s do things I didn’t think Magnepans can do. Specifically, there is now a dynamic “slam” within the system’s capabilities that I had long thought was just something I had to trade in exchange for the multiplicity of wonderful things the speakers can do, that make me love and admire them so much. The AC cables are certainly a big part of this but bringing all the other cables in the system to Heimdall 2 solidified it even further.
The other major change I noticed with the new cables is how much easier it is to hear individual parts in a recording, particularly with complex passages played by large ensembles but also with simpler arrangements played by smaller groups. It is just so much easier than before, to focus the attention on an individual voice in a choir or an individual horn in a section, etc. And the system was no slouch about this before. It has just been elevated a couple of steps. Big steps!
In addition to the Heimdall 2 that has transformed the system in the studio, I am using a pair of Nordost’s Tyr 2 balanced interconnects as my new microphone cables. I had the opportunity to give these a real test a few weeks back, when I recorded what I expect will be the next release on Soundkeeper Recordings. In addition to the Tyr 2 cables on the microphones, this was the first time I made a recording with the new Heimdall 2 AC cable feeding the power supply for the Metric Halo ULN-8 (again, serving as the microphone preamps and analog-to-digital converters during recording sessions, not to mention the digital-to-analog converters and headphone amplifier for monitoring during the sessions). Also on hand was a Nordost Purple Flare (figure-8 type) AC cable, which replaced the stock cable on my Apple MacBook Pro laptop, where the captured audio was stored.
Back in the studio after the sessions, I heard the same benefits mentioned earlier, captured in the recordings. How much of this was the result of the different AC cables and how much was contributed by the stellar Tyr 2 cables on the microphones, I don’t know. What was obvious to me though, and to the artist too when he first heard the playbacks and voiced exactly what I’d been thinking, is that we’ve never heard recorded acoustic guitars sound this way, i.e., so much like the instruments themselves. The artist and his band utilized a wide variety of guitars on this project, both acoustic and electric, from nylon stringed classical instruments, to various Martin steel stringed guitars, to a 12-string Guild, to a resonator guitar (along with a number of electric instruments). The sound of each, as well as that of the mandolin, double bass, percussion and other instruments, was captured as we heard them during the sessions, to a degree that is new to both of us.
As I’ve been listening to these cables for a good while now and have been reporting my music and audio experiences in this blog, I wanted to share some of this but had no intention of writing a “review”. There are a number of other models further up Nordost’s own line. Based on my previous experience with the ones I’ve heard, I would expect each of those to take it up another step or two from what I’ve been thrilling to each time I listen. Meanwhile, the new connections have taken my recordings and my listening to a whole new level.