POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 15
Magic Reference Woofer speaker cable
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
Harmonic Tech versus Harmonic Tech: The new Magic Reference Woofer speaker cable vs. the Magic Woofer speaker cable
Harmonic Tech has been making fine sounding cables for many years. In 2000, when the original Magic Woofer speaker cable (MW) was introduced, we were all kind of startled by its unusually rich and smooth midband, very full low-end and the sweetness of its treble. It didn't deviate far from neutral, but its design goals were refreshingly leaning towards listener-friendly voicing, as opposed to the "let them have detail" accuracy that was prevalent back then. The well known and well regarded MW soon took up residence on the Stereophile Magazine Recommended Components list.
As time passed, the pendulum swung: the MW, in retrospect, was prophetic. The trends in system voicing and listener preferences in general have moved in the same direction—towards a warmer, more inviting sound. (This hypothesis is more fully expounded upon by my PFO associate Max Dudious in his recent opinion piece. He suggests we are trying to re-capture the fabled Golden Age of Audio from the late fifties, early sixties.) Look around at the newfound interest in the relics of the early days of audio. SET devices, horn loudspeakers, obscure, out-of-production tubes, even the retro cosmetics of the bygone devices are being resurrected in modern renditions. Sometimes the original is faithfully reproduced intact—the sold-out McIntosh limited editions, for example. Other times a piece of yesteryear is incorporated in a new, modern schematic—the use of chokes in the Lamm ML1.1 amplifiers.
The shift has also occurred in wires. I find many cables today do the things that the MW was known for, only more so. Why, just in the past ten months, I've had the pleasure of getting acquainted with a bevy of speaker cables that embody listener-friendly voicing, and all sound better than anything I'd heard even two years ago. These include the Analysis Plus Gold, Argent Audio Pursang-S, Harmonix HS-101 SLC and the Kharma Grand Reference and Enigma models. In comparison, the MW now sounds more like the older voicing.
HT has not been resting on their laurels. They've come up with a replacement product called the Magic Reference Woofer (MRW). Looking much like its forebear, it has the same materials and wire geometry, the same purple colored sheath with some sparkly metallic glints added. The difference lies in proprietary improvements in the patented single crystal copper and silver process. My review of the MW back in March 2003 had a good physical description, which largely fits the MRW:
"The Magic Woofer is made of massive amounts of 7N (99.99997%) pure silver and 6N (99.9997%) pure copper, bundled into conductors of varying gauges. These refined metals are smelted using HT's patented low temperature ‘OCC' process, which gives it the characteristic single crystal structure. The varying gauge conductors are configured in a geometric design that HT calls Balanced Field Geometry that is claimed to be optimized to help reduce inductance and capacitance; a good thing, I suppose. The positive and negative conductors are in physically separate sleeves, so this mono-wire configuration has a total of four individual cables. The cable is flexible, not particularly heavy or of wide diameter, and conventional in appearance. Pigtails extend some 5" from the casing. The positive (red) pigtail is thinner and more flexible than the negative (black) one, but neither presented any connection issues. Other than that, the cable has the high-quality construction we've come to expect from HT."
In the MRW the positive and negative pigtails are now the same physical gauge and the pigtails are transparent—you can see the twisted pairs lurking beneath the sheath.
First impressions are important. I distinctly remember my reaction to the MRW. After weeks of swapping cables for various reviews, the MRW's turn came up. My usual procedure is to install the cable in the system after sufficient burn-in on the old Duo-Tech Cable Enhancer (at least 100 hours: 200 hours in the case of the MRW), then walk away, letting it settle with the tuner playing. Towards the end of that first evening, after I had returned to the couch to read, half listening, I suddenly snapped out of my article. So completely had I relaxed into the sound that I had forgotten about it. It was so smooth, even-handed, unostentatious, and yes, unremarkable—so satisfying that it didn't occur to me to don my Doctor Tweak alter ego and fetch the audio toolkit. It was all there, all the audiophile stuff, and nothing called out for curative surgery. I was taking in the music and quite content.
MW vs. MRW
So how does the MW compare to the new MRW? In keeping with my introductory description of the changing trend towards more listener-friendly voicing, the MW brings to mind a ‘90s vintage solid-state amp, while the MRW is like a contemporary tube amp.
On Entre Amigos (Chesky 90368-0247-2) Rosa Passos spins some tunes in the breathy Brazilian samba style made popular in the ‘70s by the Stan Getz/Astrud and João Gilberto pairings. These are simple arrangements consisting of one or two acoustic guitars, Ron Carter's double bass, an occasional sax, and soft percussion lurking in the distance, far right. Rosa's pitch is close to Astrud Gilberto's—she sings in a fairly short range bounded by the midrange through lower treble. Through the MW, the tune comes across with lots of presence, immediate and realistic. That faraway percussion in the right corner manages to be credible, a neat trick, because it usually sounds like it was thrown in as an afterthought. The soundstage is a bit shallower and flatter than I've heard with other speaker wires.
When you slip in the MRW, Rosa's voice matures, losing some breathiness, becoming darker, richer, more supported, more like there's a body attached to the throat voice. Some of the strong points of the MW are midband smoothness and graceful frequency transitions—the MRW does that, and takes it a step further with some additional warmth and body for good measure. Images sit solidly on the soundstage and do more of the weaving and bobbing of the real thing, avoiding the rigidity you sometimes hear. The midrange has a lower tonal center, which accounts for the darker tone of the voice. The minor treble colorations of the MW have been ameliorated by a bit of sweetening. There's more body across the board, although the treble is still thinner than the lower register, as was the case with the MW. Finally, the abundant low-end, a signature of the MW, is intact. There's nary a speck of grain in sight on this Chesky-engineered CD.
I bought the Sonatas for Violoncello by Antonio Vivaldi (Sony SK 51-350), because it features Anner Bylsma, my favorite period instrument cellist. The sound is OK, the tunes are alright—you probably don't need to rush out and buy it, unless you too are a Bylsma fan. If you're in the mood, it's interesting to contrast this performance with Pieter Wispelwey's (Channel Classics CCS 6294), a master cellist of the younger generation. Using a little rubato here, a little accelerando there, Bylsma, the intellectual philosopher, is interested in the relationship between any given two notes, whereas Wispelwey, the romantic, is interested in the broader, longer musical line. The instrumentation is unusual. For the most part, the basso continuo consists of another cello, archlute, violone and organ. The tonal and timbral likeness of the string instruments can be a real challenge or treat depending if you can disentangle the various musical lines. What I perceived through the MW was cloudy. Yes, the solo cello's transient identified Bylsma's instrument, but he was soon lost, because the follow-through was weak. The sustain and the tail end of the note dissipated too quickly. This was a general characteristic of the MW. It has an articulate, crisp attack, which delineates instruments precisely, partly due to a bit of etch on image outlines, then a weak follow-through. Maybe that's why the lute, like the guitars on Entre Amigos, sounds good—they have strong "pluck" sounds on the transient, which is enough to reveal their signature.
The MRW has no problem presenting the soloist's line. Transients, always a strong suit for the MW, are equally good in the MRW, but now the follow-through is there, the instrument's texture and tone hang around for the duration. This allows you to lock onto the instrument. The grain structure is closer knit, less obtrusive—in fact, I only know it's there on certain difficult string instrument recordings—and the etch on image boundaries is just about gone. Other than the archlute on the left, the weighty continuo is a uniform mass on both sides and under the soloist. (Yes, Bylsma images just above it. Don't ask me why.)
MRW vs. the lower-price spread
Trading up to the MRW after spending time with a couple of good cables I had on hand in the $1000 range gives an indication of what your $2,500 buys. Visitors' overall impression with the lower-priced spread was the sound had taken significant steps backwards and had serious problems. All I heard were complaints. This was instantly Rx'ed when the MRW was inserted. Improvements appeared across the board. The soundstage inflated to fill the room as energy moved out from the center, where it was concentrated, to flesh out width and depth. Events began coming from the far corners, previously dead spots. The soundstage acquired layers. One of the things that routinely happen when you step up to a Class A cable is the timbre becomes more refined, truer. So it was with the MRW—a finer, more complete finish replaced a raw quality, and made differentiating the various instruments a piece of cake. The message here is if your gear is at a certain performance level, you can do serious harm if you compromise on the speaker wire.
MRW vs. the worthies
Now let's compare the MRW with a select group of worthies. The Argent Audio Pursang-S speaker cable is darker and has more body than the MRW. Same with the Analysis Plus Gold, the Harmonix HS-101 SLC and a von Gaylord Audio (vGA) prototype I'm auditioning. All these are warmer and lusher, while the MRW is more in the neutral camp. In particular, the vGA makes interior voices sing with a bit of romance, and bigger, fuller images on a more dimensional stage. That is not to say images are more stable and focused; Bylsma is still located above the continuo, but he's a much fatter image. Methinks the vGA speaker cable sounds attractively larger than life; the smaller, leaner sound of the MRW is more realistic and also faster. This all holds true when comparing the Harmonix wire to the MRW. The Harmonix cable has more bloom, longer reverb trails, and is smoother, warmer, weightier and more "beautiful" sounding. But it's not as fast, nor as accurate.
The MRW has the same tonal center as the Kharma Enigma, but with more low-end and less body. On Always Let Me Go, a double CD by the Keith Jarrett trio (ECM 440 018 787-2), the noted transient attack of the MRW brought out the percussive component on Keith's piano, the Enigma its acoustic qualities. Track three, "Tributaries", begins softly with Jack DeJohnette's cymbal artistry and gradually becomes a pounding, repetitive rhythmic ground as the kick drum and the double bass, two walloping low-end instruments, team up to drive your woofers into a frenzy. Most of the time the two instruments came out as one—I could not differentiate the kick drum from the double bass regardless of which wire was in place. This was exacerbated by the MRW's abundant low-end—some tweaking was required to keep it from booming. Normally, this wasn't an issue—I liked the articulation and focus of the low notes through the MRW, they had pointed transients and avoided warmth and looseness.
Audiophile taste has shifted since the Magic Woofer speaker cable was introduced back in 2000. The trend has moved towards listener-friendly voicing—softer treble, more warmth and richness. Proof of this are the many excellent speaker cables I've had the good fortune to experience in the last ten months. Each offers superior performance compared to the best of the older crop and all embody these listener friendly traits. The MRW moves the Harmonic Tech speaker wire line further in this direction, while managing to stay closer to neutral than most.
You may have noticed I have leveled very few criticisms at the MRW. I liked its unforced, even-handed, balanced presentation right away. This initial impression came back to me often over the audition period. The MRW is less "exciting" than many cables, but there is virtue in this—it steps aside, lets the music flow, while it gives you all the high-end bells and whistles. The Magic Reference Woofer is a solid advance beyond its parent cable, which, by the way, has been discontinued, and re-affirms Harmonic Technology's status as worthy of the "A" list. Marshall Nack
Magic Reference Woofer