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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 1
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empirical audio

Holophonic interconnects
and Clarity 7 speaker cables

as reviewed by Ed Morawski and Carlo Flores

 

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ED MORAWSKI'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Alon Capri.

ELECTRONICS
Bryston 4B-ST amplifier and a Muse Model 3 preamplifier.

SOURCE
Muse Model 5 transport and 296 DAC.

CABLES
Synergistic Research Kaleidoscope interconnects, AudioQuest Slate speaker cables, and DIY power cords.

 

one.jpg (6551 bytes)I’m going to give away the plot—these cables are great! Go out and buy them now. Yeah, they’re that good. Read the rest of this while you’re enjoying your music.

Empirical sent us all their cables—interconnects, jumpers, digital, and speaker. The construction quality of all the cables is absolutely top notch. The Holophonic interconnects use the Eichmann Bullet RCAs, which are very nice indeed. I decided to try the Clarity 7 speaker cables first. I was hopeful, but expecting to be unimpressed. I had never found speaker cables that made any impact on my system. I’d tried different brands—nothing, though I heard an improvement from DIY CAT5 cables that was so subtle I could barely detect it. When I first connected the Clarity 7s, I hit play on my Muse 8 transport and sat back to listen, figuring I’d be struggling to hear some subtle nuance. I had been playing Keiko Matsui’s Deep Blue to test some AudioQuest speaker cables. This is one of my favorite recordings. I’ve played it maybe two hundred times, and know every note intimately. When the music expanded through my room, I actually didn’t recognize it, so I stopped the player and opened the tray to check what CD was in there. It was still Deep Blue, but not like I had ever heard it before. That first night it was like I was with a new lover. You know that expression from reviews, about the lifting of a thousand veils? Well, with these speaker cables I not only lifted the veils, I got married and kissed the bride!

The Clarity 7s took my system to a whole new level. Clarity is the perfect name for them. Vanessa Mae has a CD named Storm, released in ‘96 or ‘97, which I’ve had since it came out, but only recently was I able to even hear the first few seconds of the first track. It took a better DAC, transport, amp, and speakers to reveal a very low-level chirping. It sounded electronic at first, then later I thought it was crickets. With the Clarity cables, I now know the sound is birds singing! Here are some of my notes from that first evening: “full,” “rich,” “immense 3D soundstage with great depth and width,” “the music now has personality,” and so on. Instruments sprang to life on many recordings. I’m sure they were there before, but I probably heard them merely as indistinct sounds. Now there was a guitar riff here, a cello there, a trumpet deep, deep, deep in the background.

With the Clarity 7s, music is absolutely crystal clear without being bright. It is fully and totally formed, with each instrument standing out distinctly and clearly. The whole audio range is improved. Not only is the bass tight, but so are the mids and highs. Each note begins and ends precisely as it was played, perfectly formed, with its own nuances and personality. The imaging and soundstage are so incredible and airy that SACD or DVD-Audio seem superfluous and unnecessary.

The following evening I rushed home and listened again, to make sure that what I had heard was real. It was—the sound was amazing. Then I saw the interconnects sitting there and said, “What the heck, let’s go all the way!” Out came my Synergistic Research cables (with Active Shielding no less), and in went the Empirical Holophonic interconnects, one pair at a time. With the first pair between my Muse 296 and Muse 3 preamp, I immediately noticed a slight increase in volume, but even more startling was the bass, which sounded much more focused than before. Music had noticeably expanded in dynamics and range. With the second pair between the Muse preamp and my Bryston 4B-ST, it expanded one more notch, though more subtly this time. Over the next few days, I listened critically for any sign of fatigue or a lessening of the impact of the Empirical cables. Neither was evident, in fact I enjoyed the music more and more.

Empirical’s web site lists some of the problems their cables correct: (1) haze and lack of image focus, (2) bloated bass, (3) lack of soundstage width and depth, (4) poor dialogue and lyric intelligibility, and (5) acoustic instruments, particularly guitar, harp, and mandolin, just don’t sound live. I wholeheartedly agree with all of these claims. There is no haze. The image is totally focused. Bass is just slammin’. The soundstage is unbelievable. As for dialogue and lyric intelligibility—well, on the Tribute to America CD, Billy Joel does “New York State of Mind.” I’m not a big Billy Joel fan, but now it sounded like he was in my room for a private concert. The song was alive, the instruments were alive. Strings were perfectly reproduced, with that shimmer of vibrating air you normally only hear at live concerts. The piano was fantastic and the horn accompaniment dead on, but Joel’s voice was just tremendous and, above all, real.

Do I have any complaints? The Clarity 7 speaker cables are very thick (around an inch in diameter) and stiff, but I can live with that. Empirical sent some power cords. I tried them, but could detect absolutely no difference, although I was warned they may take 100 hours to break in! They also sent a pair of Gecko jumpers, the only items I would have paid for before this audition, because I thought they were a great idea to replace the PMCs’ metal ones. Well, they are so stiff I couldn’t get them on my speakers, and believe me I tried for a solid hour.

For the final phase of this review, I removed all the Empirical cables and reinstalled mine. Then I reinstalled the Empiricals, one pair at a time, in reverse order. Using the first cut of Deep Blue as a reference, here is what happened: (1) DAC to preamp. Immediately noticeable increase in spaciousness. Piano notes were more focused. A fairly faint bongo drum in the left channel also was clearer and more precisely formed. This drum was audible before, but not until well into the track.

(2) Preamp to amp. Bass was improved in volume and structure. Presence increased an entire step. (3) Amp to speakers. Imaging, soundstage, dynamics all vastly improved. Piano notes now had that “tinkling” sound, bass had real slam. It was like putting in a DVD-Audio or SACD disc. Instead of the normal CD.

Finally, I removed my Muse 8 and replaced it with my venerable Pioneer PD-65, and used Empirical’s Bitmeister digital interconnect to my Muse 296. Again the effect was not subtle. Not only had the Pioneer never sounded this good, but it now closely rivaled the Model 8! Bass was extremely strong, and the highs were well-defined and focused. I was hoping this test would reveal the most cost-effective upgrading route with Empirical. Of course, I now say buy them all, but if you can’t I would have to say go for the Clarity 7 speaker cables first, and then the interconnects as you can budget for them.

Empirical has ruined me. I can’t listen to my system any more—it sounds like a tin can in a tunnel. I’m ordering the Empirical cables, and they’d better get here fast!
Ed Morawski

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Clarity 7 speaker cables

 

 

 

CARLO FLORES' SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
PSB Stratus Bronze,
Sennheiser HD580, Grado SR225 and SR60 headphones.

ELECTRONICS
Conrad-Johnson Sonographe SA-250 amplifier, DIY headphone amplifier, and an
Anthem Pre1L (w/Mullard tubes).

SOURCES
H! Njoe Tjoeb CD player (w/Amprex tubes), Arcam Apha 9 CD player, Rega Planar 3/Origin Live RB250/Grado Gold. Vintage Phillips receiver (phono and tuner)

CABLES
TEK-Line power cords, Tara Labs and Kimber interconnects, and diy speaker cable.

ACCESSORIES
Vibrapods, BDR cones, and diy rollerblocks

 

two.jpg (6646 bytes)The point of a cable is to sound like nothing, to be completely passive, to get out of the signal path. However, the majority of cables color the sound and, outside of DIY, the price tag for those that don’t is exorbitantly high. Unlike so many of his competitors, Steve Nugent of Empirical Audio publishes the research he has done and the principles his cables follow. His philosophy is to lower capacitance in order to lessen magnetic field interference. This extends to his entire line—speaker cables, interconnects, and power cords. Nugent also goes out of his way to participate in online forums, providing product support and tips to beginners, and entering into heated discussions about cable design theories. This level of community participation makes Empirical Audio interesting, and I was eager to hear these products.

The power cords and speaker cables are thick and unwieldy, and look very well made. The Holophonic interconnects have a ribbed plastic covering that I’ve never seen on a cable, and feature Eichmann bullet termination, which, instead of a locking collar and a large conductor surface area, uses a small gold point for the return path that is approximately the same size as the center pin. As with all cable comparisons, I wired the entire system with the Empirical products, listened for several weeks, then switched back to my reference cords and tested each review cable individually. I only had one pair of Empirical interconnects, so I switched it between the source/preamp and preamp/amp connections while using my Tara Labs Master Generation interconnects at the other junction. Reviewing products whose entire design principle relies on their not having a detectable sound is inherently difficult, and is even harder when the cables sound this good.

The Holophonics must be the most unassuming interconnects I’ve seen in this price range. Flexibility was slightly better than the Tara Labs Air 3s, but still a pain in the ass. When placed between the preamp and amp, the sound was a touch crisper than with the Taras, which add a rounded quality to instruments and image placement. The soundstage presentation was midway between my feet and the speakers, the perceived depth slightly ahead of the rear wall, and the width slightly past the edges of my speakers. Frequency response didn’t have any glaring faults. I did get the passing impression of a lean midbass, but upon replay would be reminded of my speakers’ limitations. I heard absolutely nothing special with the Holophonics until I switched back to my Taras or to Synergistic Research’s Alpha Sterlings. At that point, the Taras sounded much more colored than before. I have always acknowledged their warm sound, but never felt I was missing out on any detail, and I enjoyed the large soundstage they impart in my system. Compared to the Empirical cables, though, they now sounded too rounded off in the upper registers, and their bass response went from slightly warm to full. With the Holophonics, electric guitar carried the texture that really only comes from the best products—Fenders sound like Fenders, not Fender imitations.

Empirical Audio’s ultra-thick speaker cables make their interconnects look like spaghetti. Everyone has used speaker cables that look like garden hoses, but this cable has so little give that the analogy is an understatement. If you’re thinking about bi-wiring, forget it. Nugent included jumper cables terminated in spades and, I understand, isn’t a proponent of bi-wiring. Once in place, the speaker cables retained their shape, and looked intimidating hooked up to my PSB Stratus Bronzes and the Silverline SR11s I was reviewing, but they’re a chore to install. They grew on me quickly—I loved their sound by the time the first LP, Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, was over.

I hope I’m not being hyperbolic, but my DIY speaker cables (designed by Chris VenHaus) have competed with just about every speaker cable I’ve thrown at them. Some had better this, smoother that, but nothing blew them away, and the ones that came closest cost nearly as much as my amplifier. Compared to the Empirical cables, however, my speaker cables sound brittle and congested. The Empiricals have a massive, linear sound that doesn’t seem possible from a speaker cable. Are they neutral? As far as I can tell, they don’t emphasize any part of the frequency curve, but images sound just a touch more real, and music is a tad more palpable, less analytical, and more emotional. Radiohead’s Kid A is a fabulous album that accomplished what I previously thought impossible: letting electronic instruments sound organic and whole. With the Empiricals, there wasn’t any more detail than with the VenHaus cables, but the sound locked together in a way it hadn’t before. The Empirical cables rendered images that were palpable and rich, large as life, and believable. I believe system synergy is the basis for any improvement in sound, and the Empirical speaker cables simply sounded fantastic with my Conrad Johnson amp and PSB speakers. “Everything in its Place” was a classic trip instead of a conceptual statement. “Discoteque” was jaw-droppingly good. I missed these cables immediately after returning them.

I’m convinced that the reason we spend so much money on cables is that there’s a special, emotional quality that certain combinations have. It’s rare, and it can’t really be described using the standard audiophile terms, but when it’s there you know it. I’ve heard it at fleeting moments with my reference setup, and with a few components I’ve reviewed, and I definitely have it with the Empirical cables. There’s no way I’ll call any cable this expensive a bargain, but their performance makes them well worth their price. This is the first time in years that I’ve been tempted to use cables other than my references. In my opinion, the performance of the Empirical Audio cables is at the level of just about any other company in audio. Carlo Flores

 

 

 

Clartiy 7 speaker cables
Retail $999.98 six foot pair

Holophonic interconnects
Retail $399.98 a meter pair

Empirical Audio
web address: www.empiricalaudio.com
email address: support@empiricalaudio.com

 

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