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Positive Feedback ISSUE10
FLEXYGY speaker cables
as reviewed by Thomas Campbell
In the high-end audio carnival, cable manufacturers are often regarded as the snake oil salesmen. This reputation is not entirely undeserved; stories of obscene profit margins for manufacturers and dealers are common. In fact, high end dealers not only make a higher margin but a higher profit on wire than they do on some components. Consumer wariness is further exacerbated by the arbitrary pricing schemes of some of the big cable companiesthe way, for instance, that their prices conveniently double each seemingly minor enhancement. Is this sensible marketing or systematic rip-off?
Unfortunately, audiophile reviewers are often perceived as aiding and abetting the scam. I have written a couple of cable reviews for Positive Feedback Online, and I get more email about them than about any of my music or equipment reviews. The tone of these emails tends to range from polite apprehension to quiet contempt. One reader went so far as to ask if a particular review was in fact some sort or standard template with different names pasted in. Ouch.
However you may feel about reviewers, I think the perception of the cable industry deserves some readjustment, because the availability of truly high-performance cables at reasonable prices has never been better. This is due in part to the effect of research and development trickling down to the lower-priced offerings in high end product lines, but it's also due to the decision of a number of manufacturers to sell their wares directly to consumers, with no retail markup. The companies that continue to adhere to the dealer chain cry foul with some justification, but it can be argued that the generally small direct-sale companies, some of whom are making first-rate products, are helping to keep the big boys honest.
River Cable, whose new FLEXYGY speaker cables are under consideration here, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Under a couple of different names (including Sound and Video, which you may remember for its Digiflex digital cable), River has been around for a long time, and is a successful OEM provider to the pro audio market. Out of sheer laziness, I quote their website copy:
As a company that prides itself on engineering expertise, River is very concerned with providing science that backs up its marketing claims. Their press kit and website are filled with cable talk of exceptional rigor. In addition, every one of their cables arrives with its own "birth certificate," complete with a graph that shows that individual cable's performance in several parameters. Even if you don't how to read it (I certainly dont), it is impressive that River goes to the trouble and expense of testing every one of its cables, and indicative of the fact that they believe their products can hold up to technical scrutiny.
I'll give you the bottom line up frontthe River and the Signal cables (about which I waxed enthusiastic in PFO Issues 6 and 7) are the two best I've tried, and I've tried more than a dozen different brands over the last few years, ranging in price from $200 to just under $1000. The Signal double-run speaker cables sell for around $110 for a three-meter pair; the River FLEXYGY cables are $215 for the same length. Both beat the much more expensive competitors I've auditioned, and while I have never ventured into the waters of four-figure wires, I have no real desire to, as I find both the Signal and the River cables very satisfying, though for different reasons.
The two brands will not be equally appealing to all listeners, as they represent something of a yin-yang proposition. The Signals remain the most ostensibly neutral and resolving cables I've tried, while the FLEXYGY cables have a slightly warm, honeyed character. I do not view this as a defect or deficiency. Rather, I get the impression that the River folks know exactly what they're doing. The FLEXYGYs may not be quite as fast or dynamic as the Signals, but they're close, sacrificing that last smidgen of top end air and extension in favor of a slight sweetness that is at all times musically consonant.
This brings us to one of the vexed questions of audiophiliathat of truth to the source vs. truth to music. Of course, when you hear live acoustic music, you get the whole shebang: the piercing highs, the floor-thumping lows, the natural warmth and woodiness of strings, the in-your-face blast of brass. Unfortunately, most recorded music is considerably brighter than reality, sometimes unpleasantly so. There is no sound more heavenly or easy on the ears than that of a live orchestra, so why are orchestral recordings so often steely and astringent? Why is the perspective on classical recordings so often three inches in front of a violin soloist, or with your head inside a piano? Close mic'ing is the obvious culprit, but the question of why producers routinely feel the need to make records much sharper and more etched than realityand why many audiophiles prefer it that wayneeds to be addressed more frequently. (Robert E. Greene wrote an excellent article on this very subject a few years ago in The Absolute Sound. For a fee, you can find it in their online archives.)
The FLEXYGY cables do a wonderful job of making classical recordings sound not just beautiful, but palpable. One of my most-used reference CDs in recent months is Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra's performance of Berlioz' Harold en Italie, a warm, wide-range Tony Faulkner recording. With these cables in place, those London strings were as silky as I've heard in my system. Live strings have a quality of "floating" in the air that is seldom captured on record. Listening to the Berlioz and other well-recorded discs, like the Naxos CD of Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2 (Schermerhorn/Nashville Symphony), the strings were floating quite nicely, with precise staging and good depth. Of course, it's not hard to make a cable that imparts euphonic colorations. What's impressive here is that the FLEXYGYs are warm without sounding obviously colored. The sound is lush, but naturally so. Yes, top end sparkle may be slightly muted, but these cables are very even across the rest of the frequency range, with good (though not great) dynamics, and exceptional harmonic accuracy (one of the keys to that elusive term, "musicality").
In the Engineering Corner on their website, River's chief engineer writes at length about impedance issues and the importance of cable geometry. I will not try to summarize his thoughts here, but I recommend the essay to anyone interested in the science of these things. I will say this: What he writes makes sense to me when I hear how smooth and even these cables sound in my system. The FLEXYGY cables are also aesthetically pleasing. I get a kick out of reviewers who refer to some shiny, inordinately expensive cables as "sexy." While I am not immune to the attractions of a beautifully turned out amplifier or pair of speakers, I fail to be aroused by wires. However, the FLEXYGYs disappear better (visually) than the vast majority of their competition. Theyre flat, not too wide, and above all unobtrusive, jacketed in a smart dark blue.
I auditioned the cables with two different pairs of speakers and two sets of amplification. Their character, with small, expected deviations, remained the same. My reference Harbeth speakers are on the warm side to begin with, but teaming them with the FLEXYGYs did not prove to be too much of a good thing. Another of my current reference CDs is The Soul of a Man, the soundtrack to Wim Wenders' installment in the recent PBS series about the blues. It features updated covers of blues classics performed by such artists as Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed, Los Lobos, Beck, and Bonnie Raitt. Each track has its own sound, but several are done in a similarly stark, acoustic setting, with no more than three or four instruments. Some listeners like to test audio equipment with Mahler symphonies. I love to test with material like thisquiet recordings with subtle spatial cues, nuanced vocal and instrumental textures, and lots of air and open space. Through the Harbeths, Cassandra Wilson's dark, late-night version of J.B. Lenoir's "Vietnam Blues" was gorgeous, perfectly capturing the smoky sensuality that is Wilson's stock in trade. I listened to the same cut with the slightly more analytical Morel Renaissance Prelude speakers ("analytical" is not intended in a pejorative sense; perhaps "crystalline" is a better word). The sound was a bit sharper, a bit less suave, but the additional clarity was its own reward, and the FLEXYGYs still exerted their influence, teaming with the Morels and my Coda Unison integrated amplifier to produce a warm and non-fatiguing sound.
Readers may raise their eyebrows when reviewers attach so much significance to a pair of cables. Aren't the amplifier and speakers doing the heavy lifting? The answer, in short, is that everything matters. Cables help your components achieve their best, and while speakers have a particular character, cables can bring out aspects of that character and tweak the sound to your taste. System matching is all-important. Some may say that audiophiles simply use cables as tone controls. This is a bit glib, in my opinion. I've never heard actual tone controls that did not muddy and distort the sound. Good cables don't do thatthey simply bring out different performance characteristics of your equipment through the way they deliver the signal. Despite the dogma, there's no such thing as a straight wire with gain. It's all about how the current coming out of your wall is handled by every component in your system, and nobody who really listens can dispute the importance of cables.
Before wrapping up this review, I wanted to make sure my praise of the River and Signal speaker cables wasnt simply due to their being the "new thing." I took out two additional pairs priced between $200 and $300 that I had on hand from two or three years ago, and compared all four. There really was no contest. One of the older pairs happened to be a flat copper cable like the FLEXYGY, but it sounded thin and bright by comparison. The other had a notably plump midrange, with little in the way of dynamics and no top end at all. Both my reference Signal cables and the new River cables delivered more of the music, more of everythinghigh end, low end, depth, dynamics, imaging, tonality, frequency balance. They don't sound the same. The Signals are more analytical, the FLEXYGYs more romantic, so those with predilections towards one or the other are duly notified, but both deliver truly fine performance at a price that's not just real world, but considerably below what the audiophile press typically refers to as real world. Highly recommended. Tom Campbell