Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

The Sound of My Stereo and the Quality of Cables

I’ve written about the sound of my system before – and how it had devolved from its extraordinary condition of more than 20 years to one which was, in hindsight, sort of threadbare. Now I’d like to write about its resurrection.

For many years very little in my system changed: Immedia RPM-1 turntable/arm, EAR G-88 preamp, a pair of BEL 1001 Mk IV/V amplifiers and loudspeakers custom-designed by the great Richard Marsh. I eventually sold, and regretted selling the turntable and the irreplaceable preamp, but no point crying over etc. etc.  Allen Perkins’ designs had moved on, as had Tim deParavacini’s, and I anticipated getting their new designs. I also had Mark Porzilli’s amazing Laufer Teknik Memory Player 64 CD player.

The best laid plans as they say…I went through years of system changes that only made things worse, until recently. Now the system is more or less stable again, so maybe it’s time for me to comment on what’s been happening. For want of a better term: system synergy and sonic coherence.

Virtually all the electronics have been replaced with PS Audio’s top of the line gear. (That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone; being an occasional audio writer gets me accommodation pricing from just about anywhere, but given what Paul and company have been doing, it seemed like a good opportunity to observe.) [Editor’s Note: No one at PS Audio prompted Dan to include PS Audio-related content and I had no inclination to delete it as it’s germane to the story.]

While my electronics are from one company, at the same time they embody some very advanced ideas from some of the best high-end designers there are: Bascom H. King, Ted Smith, and the fairly new guy, Darren Myers, as well as the rest of the PS design team. I’m not supposed to write too much about PS, so I won’t, but at the same time it’s impossible to avoid if I’m going to write about what I’m hearing.

Which is what? In a word: coherence. That’s what I keep thinking about lately; this system’s synergy. Partly that’s a result of moving over to an all-balanced-electronics set-up, but (I assume) it’s also in the implementation of these components. My old system worked by happenstance, and I confess I chose the components that way too. There wasn’t any planned thought involved, other than the usual professional standard of making sure all the components cooperated together. I tried a preamp (G-88) with my old amps (VTL 500s), found one that sounded great, moved on when I found amps that sounded even better and so on – nothing different than what most audiophiles would do.

The sound of my current system is as good, certainly, though slightly different. The BHK Signature 300 mono amplifiers are different from the BELs by small degrees, not orders of magnitude, possibly because of the presence of tubes in the new amp, possibly because of the increased power. They’re slightly (really slightly) less bright, slightly more beefy-sounding.

A brief aside: in the search for the elusive quality of coherence, many years ago Dan Meinwald and I compared the BEL to deParavacini’s 100-watt EAR 509 amps. Dan felt that the EARs were marginally better across the board. I didn’t – I felt that they were better on 2- and 3-mic acoustic recordings, but the BELs had the edge on everything else (the Fab Four, f’rinstance).

My old EAR G-88 preamp was a pure tube design. I used it for over 20 years, hardly ever turning it off and in that time only had to change the tubes twice – it was really the most amazing thing. And strangely, in my older system, the G-88, had a bit more “edge”, a seemingly slightly more elevated upper-mid, than my current BHK Signature preamp.

But mainly I now have a much greater sense of this coherence that I’m writing about, though I’m hard put to describe how it sounds – I ain’t Harry Pearson. It’s as if everything in the music and the sound is moving in a common direction, if that makes any sense. But I wouldn’t know that, if this coherence wasn’t so subtly different from what I listened to for years.

I’m now hearing an ever-so-slightly more-solid low-end and ever-so-slightly less treble information, but also a greater ability to “hear into” the sound, a quality I first wrote about years ago when talking about my Grado headphones. I can hear into the recordings even more, with the result of those “blacker” backgrounds – I know, that’s become the most notorious of audio clichés, yet it’s real.

It’s a trade-off, but a good one.

Regarding the change from my old Memory Player to the new DirectStream DAC: the jury’s still out on this one. As of now I prefer the older player, but I’m not sure yet if I just like PCM compared to DSD (the Memory Player is PCM and the DirectStream converts everything to DSD), the interfacing between their DACs and my new preamp, or something else. So far, I suspect the Memory Player doesn’t have the same depth as the DirectStream, but its presentation of music is more forward, and again, marginally, though crucial, gives the impression of just a hair more upper-mid/treble. Also, I’m waiting for an updated version of the Memory Player to arrive.

Turntable-wise, I’m using a VPI Prime with 3D-printed arm and Ortofon 2M Blue moving-magnet cartridge. I absolutely didn’t like it at first – and then I got the Stellar Phono Preamp. Suddenly I’m in love with records again. Listening to a bunch of Water Lily recordings all recorded with different mics, on different tape machines, the changes from set-up to set-up are completely apparent, and all of them transparently great. When I read that the Stellar’s designer Darren Myers and McGowan chose to set aside measurements and design first by ear, I was interested, and now that I’m listening – it’s a win. And I prefer it to digital – yet again.

So that’s a rough assessment of several years of sideways motion.

There’s something else though that’s helped my system attain that elusive quality of coherence. In Issue 36 I talked about my extreme reluctance to write about cables. In response, I heard from an old friend from a cable company who wanted me to hear their products. He sent a heap of cables, which I used exclusively for a year.

At first, I was delighted at the sonic difference – just because it was different. And quite a bit different. But gradually I became dissatisfied with the sound. I forget whether HP would have described it as yin or yang, but it was definitely leaning towards one of those. (And to defend my pal’s company’s work, they were a class of cables not meant to compete with the best.) I was at a loss.

So: I went to Cardas, specifically newish company head Angela Cardas Meredith, George Cardas’ youngest. I called her, pled my case, and she agreed to send some cables for me to play with.

But I have to say, I didn’t expect what she sent (though I crossed my fingers): Clear Beyond XLR and Clear Reflection XLR cables. First of all, these Cardas XLR connectors are like gorgeous jewelry. My old Cardas stuff used Neutrik; not these massive, gleaming, golden barrels. These are serious connectors.

I haven’t yet discerned quite how Clear Beyond is different from Clear Reflection, but if there is a difference it’s extremely subtle and all falls well within the family. The difference is claimed to be that Clear Reflection is a kind of hearkening back to George’s old Golden Reference cables, which were a real breakthrough. Also, being able to hook up all my electronics via balanced connections rather than single-ended is something that I’m sure leads to a greater coherence, as well. (Now the only pieces that don’t have balanced connections are the turntable-to-phono-stage and the Magnum Dynalab FM tuner.

Am I done? HAH!

As I’ve written, I may be dying soon, and if this is where the system is going to be in the time I have left, I’m happy with it. But you know, if I’m going to survive, well…

There are some very interesting speakers out there.