ONLINE - ISSUE 21
Bullshit, Truth, Lies, and Palladium Ribbon Cables
As you who read my stuff know, I'm not above a distortion here and there to catch your eye, or a non sequitur to make a point, or an exaggeration to whet your appetite for the kind of audio information stew I try to brew up for you. To entertain and instruct is what the ancients said was the task of the ancient audio reviewer, and as I am ancient it seems to apply to me. Some readers think me a compulsive truth-teller, while some acquaintances have told me to my face that I am a liar. Recently, at a local performance of Puccini's opera, The Golden Girl of the West, I wore a J.B. Stetson cowboy hat. As I got to the end of the coffee queue I noticed there was another guy who also wore a cowboy hat. I said, "Howdy, Cowpoke." He answered, "Howdy." I asked, "Do you think this town is big enough for the two of us?" He asked, "What makes you ask that?" I said, "Well, you look like a cowboy, right enough. But this hat was given to me when I was made the ‘Honorary Sheriff' of Dodge City." He said, "I don't think you're any kind of sheriff. I think you're one of the biggest liars I ever met," grabbed his coffee and walked off.
I think of myself as a monologist, one who delivers monologues like Garrison Keillor, only chock-full of audio information instead of Lake Woebegone lore, with a few yuks sprinkled around. I will admit that I take a little longer to come to the point than the average audio journalist, who has space limitations imposed on him in hard copy magazines, what with all that stone-carving. I have considered my place in the world of electronic audio journalism, and the worst descriptor I can come up with is "self-indulgent." If you don't like my style, what my wife calls my "turn of mind," it's O.K. with me. Regrettably, all you have to do is click on the next article in this issue. What I fear most is that folks might consider me a bullshitter.
Bearing all this in mind, it was with keen interest I read an article in The New Yorker (Aug. 22, 2005), by "critic at large" Jim Holt, entitled "Say Anything." In it he describes a phenomenon of modern life, "bullshitting," that has also been dissected in a best selling essay, available in book form from the Princeton University Press, by moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, entitled On Bullshit. Anyone who would know about the fine distinctions between truth-telling, lying, or say, making flattering (or other) statements just short of lying, and bullshitting, should read the magazine article ($4.00 at your news stand), and those who would know still more should read the book ($10.00 at your favorite on-line book store). This reading is highly recommended for audio heads because very few audio writers will tell you into which category they fall, and it is good to have a conceptual framework for deciding into which category your favorite critics deserve to be placed.
Believe it or not, I will get to the wonderful Palladium Ribbon Cables after a while, though at this point I'm as unsure as you are as to when. Stick with me. Before that, I've got to spell out a few more things. Plato, somewhere in his writings, would have eliminated the theater in his Republic on the grounds that "figurative language" (metaphors, similes, and other complicated rhetorical devices) had more negative than positive value; that is, while pretty or moving, they led people away from the strict and literal "Truth." You'll remember Plato valued "The Good, The True, and The Beautiful" above all. For him there is a world of difference between, "My love is like a red, red rose," and "My love is a red, red rose." We, with our twenty-first century sophistication, should be able to see poets choosing between rhetorical devices, and how they use them, and how, say, metaphor or simile are to be used for differing chores.
Moreover, I fear the Platonic view of figurative language is shared by the scientific mind, as opposed to the aesthetic mind. One of which is driven by right-brain dominance, and the other by left-brain dominance, though I can't remember which. It seems people are wired differently. Men and women are wired differently with regard to hearing, and I've recently heard on National Public Radio that according to brain-scans, men and women use different parts of the brain for the same tasks. My life has been a constant tension between fact-oriented analysis valued by my, ahem, historian father, and beautifully turned phrases as valued by my, er, poetess mother. When I say I am of two minds about something, it might be more than a conceit. My right and left brains might be slugging it out. Slogging, more likely.
Briefly, the ideal scientist would need factual accuracy on which to design experiments. These experiments might have some benefit for humankind, and make the scientist some money. But imagine scientists who are liars. They might falsify their data in articles to throw lesser scientists off-track in the quest for some basic new scientific breakthrough and prize monies that go with it. (There is actually still some controversy—fifty years later—as how strictly ethical were Crick and Watson in publishing misleading items relating to their DNA work.) The liar would have to have an expert grasp of truth and know how to obscure it for his own ends. This distinguishes him from the scholar who might be acting in good faith but just happens to be "wrong." Usually, this comes to light quickly enough. The difference between the wrong-headed scholar and the liar is the liar's intention to misrepresent the truth. One could see how the liar might be tagged as an "evil-doer."
Then there is the bullshitter, a player in some (formal or informal) game where he bends the facts so as not to actually lie ("Read your last article. Really fine work."), but his purpose is not to be a strict truth teller, either ("Read your last article. What a crock."). Whatever his motive, the bullshitter has little regard for the truth value of what he may say. He may be a "put-on artist" who enjoys leading the gullible astray. (By the way, I recently read the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have removed the word gullible from the latest edition of the O.E.D.) Or he may have some insidious power motive up his sleeve. Usually the bullshitter is a charming rogue, given to flights of fancy, endearing stories and purple prose that get the readers to drop their guard. He values the art of story telling for its own sake. Or maybe he's just so clever, so charming, so fanciful, that he has earned the honorary title of Bullshit Artist. He's so good he can use the task at hand as a springboard for whatever his agenda. Then again, maybe he's just a benign bullshitter.
What would Plato have to say about him? He who values neither good, nor truth, nor beauty? Plato might see him as an evil-doer. Harry Frankfurt sees the bullshitter as a worse influence on society than the liar. But he seems to make one qualifying characteristic of one type of bullshitter—hiding behind his official credentials. This obfuscation by people in high positions seems to Frankfurt, and me, as the worst type of bullshitter. I fear some audio reviewers use this ploy.
No surprise, then, that among audio writers there should be a more or less bell shaped curve, with the liars and truthtellers at the extremes, and the bullshitters in the large middle section. Of course the bullshitters probably would break down as leaning more towards liars or truthtellers according to intuitive estimates. So we might get a two humped curve, instead of a bell-shaped one. In either case, we have to take all these things into account. I hereby pronounce myself a critic with points of identity with bullshitters (I like to use irony, digressions, and fanciful stories that together sometimes verge on the "put-on.") and truthtellers (I also do a lot of fact-checking.). I'm essentially a truth-teller beneath my literary tropes. I have a higher ratio of truthtelling in my work than many, and I guess you agree or you wouldn't have read all my self-indulgences this far. For example; I hate to give nasty, negative reviews. If a product is that "bad," or me-too ordinary, I usually send it back to the manufacturer with a note explaining what I think is necessary before it would be up to snuff enough to review. A bad product gives the whole industry a black eye. Someone seeking to avoid such a shiner might praise a bad product, and that would be lying. I see my job as reporting to the reader what is new and interesting, and that might include new materials (palladium), or new engineering strategies (fiber-optics), or both. I try to generate interest by being enthusiastic. It is seductively simple to be a knocker. It is hard to find and praise new products. How would you rate me? How would you rate yourself? Are you a truthteller? All the time? Could anyone be?
So much for Truth, Lies, and Bullshit. Now for a review of Jeff Smith (He's the Smith at Silversmith Audio.) and his remarkable Palladium cables. Jeff is an engineer trained at the U.S. Naval Academy just down the road from my little beach shack on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, dudes. I've known a handful of guys who've graduated from The Academy, and a few fathers of my friends went there as well. (One of my pals, Audiophile Alan Shapiro, had a father who was one of the first Academy grad casualties in WWII. The Department of the Navy named a ship after his dad, that was only recently de-commissioned. He listens to Lowther PM-5s through a Pass class A amp.) An Academy education, especially in the engineering fields, is as first class as it can be. Jeff Smith knows a lot about a lot of things: materials, circuit design and layout, interconnect wire, speaker cables, metallurgy, capacitive quality of insulation, signal passing through conductors, time smearing effects, and the like. We have spoken about these things at length on the telephone. He joins the really impressive group of my teachers including Sid Smith, Dick Sequerra, John Curl, Walt Jung, and others less well-known and too numerous to list. I find him to be a truthteller.
For example, Jeff has tried explaining to me the difference in the theoretical model of signal behaving as a molecule of "water in a pipe," versus the theoretical model of signal behaving as a "electromagnetic waveform," that actually moves down the space between the two conductors, and how you design and build a carrier for each. Without giving away proprietary secrets, I think I can say the family of Silversmith products all use the same physical geometry, with two metal ribbon foil conductors, back to back, insulated by air in Teflon© tubes, one each for "signal" and "return," with a braided shield that acts as an EMI/RFI antenna and as a chassis ground. The Palladiums use a non-oxidizing palladium alloy that Jeff describes as an "alloy (whose) skin-effect related properties are up to 25 times superior to silver, copper, gold, aluminum, or even pure palladium itself." They consequently minimize the various forms of measurable distortion that devil all other types of interconnect and speaker cables. By reducing these distortions and time-smearing, he says, the listener gets a more holographic image of instruments in the sound field, hence a more "in-the-room" facsimile of the recording venue. This is a mighty claim to make. He backs it up with reviews on his Website. Take a look over at http://www.silversmithaudio.com.
It was with some disbelief that I connected up a set of his cables to my system, which was already enjoying the excellent Harmonic Technology CyberLight optical interconnects that I find quite neutral. For this review, I had Palladium connections between my CD player (Marantz 8260), my Levinson JC-2 pre-amp (designed by John Curl and modified per his instruction), a damn near sonically invisible Shadow electronic crossover (with a specially Curl selected chip), and two of Curl's Parasound Halo JC-1s (with a few tweaks and pooges here and there: I couldn't stand the stock feedback resistor and replaced it with a Holco of the same value on each channel; I swapped out the fuse holder assembly, and the E.I.C. power cord socket replacing them with solid silver ones. Things sweetened up a noticeable tad). The Palladium sound was truly great -- knocked my socks off. Among the best I've heard through my system it was, and those of you who follow my travails know I've been listening hard for some years to various cables in my never-ending war against tizz and boom. See a fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty "Hi-Yo-Silver." Ride the prairies with the masked-man of the pooges as he wages his unyielding battle against sonic corruption in the land of misleading advertising, sycophantic public-relations, pusillanimous politics, and just plain bullshit.
And speaking of silver—did you ever notice how (in most applications) silver just out-performs copper in audio related matters? Some audio designer dudes insist on silver wire of various geometries, and usually the same dudes insist on silver solder, on silver contact switches, on silver fuse-holders, and on silver E.I.C. connectors. How can one explain that? If your system is good enough to hear the difference, the evidence seems to be mounting that silver is, in a word, "clearer" than copper. It presents less tizz and boom, less veiling, less time smearing, etc. Though silver is only about 20% more conductive than copper, it seems to do a lot better with music. Maybe, and this is only a hypothesis, it has to do with how each of the metals oxidizes. I'm told they are different, that copper oxide looks like a short to the signal while silver oxide is still a conductor but more and more "indistinct" over time. Well, palladium is to silver as silver is to copper. And the U.S. Navy uses nearly inert palladium contacts aboard the dappled-dawn-drawn and salt-sea-sprayed corrosive environments of its ships. Not a small surprise, then, that Jeff Smith would know about and begin to experiment with palladium in audio.
Some caveats: these Palladium cables are so good that what I'm about to report are quite minor quibbles compared to the overall effect they have on my system. First, the highs (roughly, above 4 kHz,) are soft and most folks either love or hate this. The haters are usually younger dudes who like to hear all the trebles. Older dudes, who don't hear all the high frequencies they used to, relish the lack of stridency which drifts down into the midrange. These observations make up my historical baseline data (though anecdotal) from decades of "playing-audio" with "listening panel" friends and family. To my ears a solo violin, through the Palladiums, appropriately emphasizes its woody quality as opposed to the raspy, etched, and wiry quality we sometimes hear on violin recordings.
Secondly, the very bottom two octaves (say, below 80Hz), were not as big as through any of the other interconnect cables I've been used to; Goertz (copper and silver), Harmonic Technology (metallic and photo-optical) and numerous others. Since I have an active electronic crossover I could indulge in a little bit of "bass management" and adjust for the drop in bass level, which I noted was two clicks, or very roughly speaking, between two and four dB. This, I feel gives the Palladiums a chance to act at their best, and one of the reviewer's obligations is to get the system to perform optimally. Other reviewers have noted the bass level needs management, though it is free of overhang, or "boom." Oftentimes this can be dealt with by moving speakers around in a room—toward the floor, if they are up; or toward the walls, if they are too centered; or, if you really are in need of bass, into the corners. If I were a bullshitter I might say that the extreme highs and lows are right there but only seem down in volume, they are so clean. I agree: they are very clean, free of tizz and boom (false highs and lows), and they are a noticeable notch down in gain on both ends. When I turn the bass up to what I think is about how bass sounds in my favorite seat in my city's concert hall, I am pleased by how clean the bass is. It adds an element to my musical enjoyment.
These quibbles are far outweighed by the Palladiums strong points. It does give a better picture of the recording venue, as many reviewers report. Corno di Bassetto was very adamant on this point, when he visited last month. "Is miraculously clean," he yelped dancing around the room. "The sound-staging and imaging are supernaturally good. The ghosts of Szell and Reiner are in the room." It is noticeable, just shy of startling. My system was doing a pretty good job on this aspect before the Palladiums. I must concede that it is doing those things a notch better than before. That matches what my friends and family tell me. Jeff Smith tells me that the Silver versions of his design also offer a relatively spacious illusion, and that the Palladiums manage to give a more spacious illusion. This is as predicted by his theoretical model. Being a better conductor, the palladium alloy ribbon passes the signal with less degradation (particularly less time-smearing) of the sound, resulting in better spatial cues.
Twenty five years ago, Walt Jung, in his watershed article on capacitors, spoke of time-smearing as analogous to "tracer bullets." When the signal arrives at the loudspeaker, if (due to any of a range of causes; capacitor-based, metallurgically-based, insulation-based, geometry-based) the signal is "time staggered" according to frequency by some combination of these causes, "time-smearing" will result. If you could watch on an oscilloscope, and if you could send an instantaneous spike down the line, and if you get small delays due to each of the above causes; then, what you would see coming through an ideal system would be a large spike (say, 85% as large–the first tracer bullet), followed in time by a smaller one (say, 7% as large, the next tracer bullet), and another (maybe 5% as large, the next bullet), another (say, 2% as large, the next bullet), and the final spike (1% as large, the last tracer bullet). These after-images would be, in real time, not distinguishable as "echo" or "reverb," but they would rather be heard as individual moments that lasted just a hardly noticeable instant longer than they existed in the live performance. To the extent that all the frequencies could reach our ears without time-smearing, the greater they would resemble unamplified sounds. To the extent that one set of cables are so well engineered as to minimize time smearing, they ought to be damn good. And, they are.
According to Jeff Smith, the Palladium image hangs individual instruments and human voices in space better than the identically manufactured Silver product line. It sounds good because he has done the math and his other engineering chores well. And this cable is the second iteration of his design. He has spoken of researching copper cables that eliminated themselves at that stage, so he never bothered to fabricate a pair. He did build silver cables, and palladium cables to the identical design specs, with the same insulation, and the same "Bullet" terminators. I'm in favor of many iterations of the same basic design.
In my experience as a tweaker, that is how I get the gremlins out of my system. In my own system I've changed certain parts of my V.P.I. turntable and gotten an increase in some dimension with each upgrade: less noise, better bass, better imaging, etc. Similarly, in my loudspeakers, I rebuilt my crossovers with Goertz Alpha-Core ribbon chokes instead of wire chokes and picked up about three dB at the loud end of the spectrum. My wire chokes were saturating and distorting, and when I went to ribbon chokes I gained 3 clean dB. That's like doubling the output of your amplifier. Imagine how much that would cost. Similar gains were made when I substituted ring-radiators for obsolete tweeters, linear mid-ranges for a pair much more non-linear, a treated-paper and more linear mid-woofer for a chesty polypropylene treated-paper, more accurate version of the same driver. The results were improved over-all performance. – Max the Magnificent
I'm sympathetic to designers who stay with a design through many iterations. The early attempts prove the viability of the design: the middle iterations are to get the bugs out: and the late versions are to take the design as far as it will go. This is what the Palladiums seem to be: Jeff Smith's no-holds barred, cost-be-damned shot at optimizing a design, and they come as close as I can imagine to an "ideal cable" in their most effective operating range, the middle six octaves of the audio range, from 80Hz to 4kHz.
The Palladiums are very voice friendly. Chicks and dudes sound less electro-mechanical as a result of using a whole system of Palladium interconnects and speaker cable. By "electro-mechanical," I specifically mean less like a giant P.A. system you might hear at a rock concert. My big rig was doing a pretty good job of reproducing human song and speech, but through the Palladiums there is more of a feeling of live people in the room. On the Chester & Lester album, Chet Atkins and Les Paul are goofing on one another, talking about this and that, while the recording was taking place. Once, with a guitar-playing neighbor of mine in the room, I couldn't tell if he was speaking to me, or if it was the musicians talking to each other. We had been talking while the music played, and I started reading the liner notes, looking for the next demo tune, when I thought he said something. I asked him to repeat himself, as I had been concentrating on the liner notes. He said, "I didn't say anything." If the actual speech of a live person in the room could be mistaken for recorded speech played back in the room, the cables are doing a hell of a job. Other cables are capable of creating that illusion on my system, too. The Palladiums do it a just noticeable difference more convincingly. I was startled that I had been fooled. I'm usually the one who plays the tricks in my house.
One other thing the Palladiums do well is reproduce string playing, as on the FIM SACD recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. I don't know how many of you have ever had a very fine violin in your hands and strummed your thumb across the strings. The damn thing comes to life. There it is, this wooden box, essentially, with vibrating strings attached, and it starts to pulsate with sound, and when you feel the vibrations in your hands, it's the heartbeat of a small animal. Through my Palladium connected system, the playing of the violins in Vivaldi reminds me of the times I've held very old and esteemed violins in my hands and felt them vibrate after I'd thrummed them. Is it the woodiness? the soft highs? my ancient ears? Or is it the endearing engineering of these cables? I don't know, but I think I'll give Jeff Smith an "attaboy" for being able to bring about the next layer of illusion.
And so it went: Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, Reneé Fleming's powerful soprano voice, Johnny Hartman's jazz inflected baritone, John Coltrane's tenor sax, Max Roach's cymbals, Charlie Mingus' bass—everything seemed a bit more life-like, more in the room. Recordings that pay special attention to spatial elements, some of the SACD re-releases like RCA's re-masterings of Reiner and Monteaux efforts from the '50s and early '60s, the Sony re-masterings of Szell and Ormandy performances from the same time period, sound just fabulous in terms of inner detail and sound-staging. A lot of these are older recordings, but they were new in their time and recorded to show off the new stereo technology. A lot has been made of the value of these recordings for the archivists among us. Among their virtues is great sound.
If you are a serious collector, you might as well get used to thinking of cabling as another component. When the recording studios hear of a new microphone that is really good at some audio task or other, they get one. A better editing machine, mixer, and yes a better set of cables, they go out and get it even if it means tearing up the studio to rewire it. They are economically motivated to offer us a better product.
We hobbyists must balance out our cost-benefit analysis while figuring in what it costs to send the kids to private school, or for braces, and other family type expenses, before we can justify an expense that amounts to another automobile for our audio systems. If you're not in that income-bracket, like me, then you'll have to figure out how you might purchase one pair of cables at a time until you have a full complement. I won't run a price breakdown here, but I'll remind you that you can see Jeff Smith's price list at his website, http://www.silversmithaudio.com. You ought to go there to find out if you can swing it. If you can, it is definitely worth it.
If you are a dude with a lot invested in his system, you have to consider these Palladium cables as another component analogous to a noise-reduction unit. If you own a recording studio, you have to hear these cables. If you are a fetishist who must have the latest technological breakthrough, you must own these cables. I got Jeff Smith to send me an extra pair of interconnects for me to sleep with. If you are the kind of guy who has a system that's "good enough," well then, you're in luck. Silversmith Audio's new Palladium cables are out of your league. You won't hear the difference they can make on an indifferent audio system. You'll have to be the one to make that evaluation. And that's no bullshit.
To summarize: Jeff Smith's a guy who is a U.S. Naval Academy trained engineer. As such he's become conversant with issues of metallurgy. His hobby has been audio. His natural inquisitive personality has provoked him to draw these two together and the result has been Palladium alloy speaker and interconnect cables. They seem to do a lot of things very well, a noticeable difference weller than most of the top-tier products I've heard that purport to do the same things. They are very expensive. Is this expense worth it as an improvement in your system? I think so for the deep pocketed reader, as only the dedicated audiophile might justify the expense of an electronic crossover and amplifiers to achieve "bass management." I've had such a system for over twenty years, but that's me. Bi-amplification just made sense to me, splitting the workload with tubed amps on my (then) double stacked Quad electrostatics, and transistorized amps on my 18" K-horn sub-woofers. You'll have to decide if the Silversmith Palladiums are you. It's your call.
This is Max Dudious, signing off, saying: Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Out of the past come the thundering dynamics, the superior speed, and the spacious imaging of the great cable, Palladium. Hi-Yo Palladium, A wa-ay!