POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 23
Clairvoyant 4D SE interconnects
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
Light, but not Bright
You enter the hall and are seated in the best possible location (the sweet spot). Distant timpani rolls emerge out of a deep quietude, building from barely audible to no more than pp. Some very soft brushwork on the cymbal joins in. The orchestra commences the Britten: Violin Concerto (EMI 5 57510 2, with violinist Maxim Vengerov and Rostropovich conducting the London Symphony Orchestra). You perceive a developing spaciousness. It is very quiet. A bassoon pipes up from center-left, followed by a flute in the next chair over on the right. Vengerov makes his entrance, perpetuating the somber, moody atmosphere. You notice the lack of artifice, the lack of noise and, curiously, the lack of air, even though it certainly doesn't sound closed in.
On the contrary, it is kind of illuminated from within. The same applies to Vengerov's violin. The score demands the instruments top register but, not to worry—even though Vengerov is a disciple of the Heifetz school of attack, the instrument won't get brittle or edgy on you. This is in spite of the fact that it has a bright sound (it's mostly reproduced in the midrange through low treble). The massed strings also favor this tonal range, accounting for the openness (these are the first clues to the conductor material).
The concerto is laid out in clean, easy-to-follow section lines. Distractions have somehow been eliminated. Everything you are hearing contributes to the illusion, and the leap required to place yourself in Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, in December of 2002, is much less than the usual great credibility divide. But the cleanness and quiet are a bit disconcerting.
The Clairvoyant 4D Special Edition
The sound of silver comes in two flavors: lean, bright and hard (typically found in less ambitious, less pricey implementations), and warm, full and smooth (in the more expensive designs). In either case, there is an emphasis in the upper-midrange. The Audio Magic Clairvoyant 4D Special Edition (CSE) we're listening to now sounds like expensive silver—very good, among the best, pure silver implementations I've come across—but all the same, the hallmarks of the dull, shiny metal are identifiable.
There's no doubt about it—these cables are ungainly. They look like rogue props from Lost In Space (a cheerful 1960s TV Sci-fi serial, which in turn attempted to conjure up a 1950s Hollywood vision of the nascent space age). While of negligible thickness (0.25 inches), their silhouette is unnatural—a four-inch wide ribbon. This presented logistical connection problems. The only way I could fit them to my preamp was by removing the neighboring cables from their input RCAs, and the only place they could work was between the DAC and the preamp. They are not cheap—a one meter interconnect will set you back $5K. At this price you should get at least Class A+ performance. That was my expectation: they complied. Now—on to the idiosyncrasies of the CSE.
(For the record, I used only one pair of CSE interconnects. Usually when I do a cable review it's soup to nuts—some people claim that's the only way you can hear the cable's true sound; mixing and matching may result in electrical incompatibilities. This report is based on one length of the CSE.)
The Consequences of Noise Reduction
The striking quiet and clarity are the result of Audio Magic's particular concern with noise reduction—they go to uncommon lengths to subdue this gremlin. Their entire product line of wires and power conditioners receive multiple advanced noise reduction treatments. Those I've heard acquire a distinctive flavoring—the Audio Magic "house sound."
In my experience, where there is noise reduction, you can almost always count on other things unintentionally disappearing. This was the case in the millisecond preceding and the transient itself when Vengerov's violin spoke. Little filigree sounds I'm used to hearing with any of my reference cables simply vanished, disappeared when the CSE was swapped in. Some of these filigree sounds may be construed as artifact (edge or grit). Others, though, might just as plausibly be interpreted as the mechanical noises from working the instrument—keys flapping, bows scraping, maybe a string not fully engaged at the start of the bow's traversal. (These minute noises are different from the acoustic halo some gear floats around the core image—what some people call "air". The halo effect, when present, is always there, around most everything, while the filigree events are discrete; they are heard once, and then gone for good.) I always assumed the lot of them part of what was captured at the recording—I even considered them to be some of that precious detail audiophiles crave. In any event, they ain't there now. For sure, this makes what's left go down easier, for everything even remotely objectionable has vanished.
When Joe Lovano starts blowing on track 5 of Viva Caruso, the soprano saxophonists tribute to the historic singers most popular tunes (Blue Note 7243 5 35986), I'm used to hearing a bit of noise that I construed to be spittle in the mouthpiece. This "noise" makes it sound like Lovano's attack is not supported. You take that away and, yes, the musical message is conveyed more cleanly—plus, Lovano starts to sound like an even better musician. On the other hand, it is a reduction, a simplification—if it is on the recording, don't you want to know about it? And it is present with all of my reference interconnects but, you know what, no two do it alike. It varies with each cable—it is not a fixed quotient. So, which is right? This is a more difficult question than it would seem.
There's more. The CSE also cuts back texture and bloom. Compared to my references, tonal color and timbre are downplayed. What you get with the CSE is mostly the principle, or fundamental, a mass of pure tone, with just enough texture and bloom to be credible and no more. To me, it seems like the note's complexity is short-changed.
A Soundstage Champ
The action starts at the speaker plane and recedes as deep as any of my references, but it's as if an invisible scrim or curtain had been dropped. Nothing pierces through that invisible barrier at the speaker plane. What I mean is, all instruments, regardless of their frequency, from 20Hz to 20kHz, are held to the plane of that invisible curtain or further back. You won't find yourself dodging sharp treble projectiles (as is the case with so many signal wires). This is realistic, and the CSE managed this especially well.
The CSE is a champ at dimensional layering and discrete imaging. There's a flute pair at the beginning of track two of Viva Caruso arrayed from center, fanning out leftwards—flute, oboe, and then second flute—and there's physical separation between them. It's important to your appreciation to hear them play their slightly discordant notes separately and the CSE conveys their locations excellently. The flutes are big and soft at the edges, more wide than tall, and very stable in their locations. The CSE manages this feat based primarily on soundstage positioning cues and tone—timbre doesn't factor in much, if at all. (Other wires use timbral information to clue you in to the duet activity; few give you as much space between the flutes). Separation in the bottom register, on the other hand, is always difficult. On track one, where there's a duo of double basses, along with a kick drum and tom-toms, it all tends to merge. This is a shortfall with all of my cables. The CSE managed it about as well as my references.
You must have noticed by now I keep talking about the mid-range through low treble. That's because that's where most of the action is. This makes for a lively, energetic presentation and accounts for some of the "lit from within" quality that lets you hear so deeply into the soundstage. This also makes for BIG spaces and lots of separation between instruments. I'm tickled when Vengerov does his thing front and center and a squadron of brass bellows forth, clearly behind him and to the right, with no merging of identities or confusion of spatial cues—dimensionality is superb.
On to the rest of the CSEs scorecard. Double bass solos are tight—actually everything is tight, in the sense that there's no fat—but not to the point of rigidity. The lack of texture down below gives it a thud-like quality. The CSE has a big, full-bodied, fast and punchy sound. Vengerov's violin transient is well behaved—it is never grating or etched and always resides at the plane of the scrim. You'll not experience the sensation of an in-your-face wall of detail. Even though the CSE is warm and smooth in a silvery way, it is definitely in the neutral camp. It may seem dull and less "exciting" compared to other wires. You'll find yourself further back from the instruments, seated in the audience.
Dimensionality, noise reduction, diminished bloom and texture, along with silver's smoothness—all boost the impression of high purity, of less "stuff" between you and "it". Some very good, well-known concert halls have this kind of sound.
I have another pure silver conductor cable, the Audio Note Japan KSL-LPz ($3000/meter). The ANJ is all about tone, timbre, texture, and ease. This silver cable does not speak with a silver voice—there's none of the upper midrange emphasis. In fact, there's no frequency bumps anywhere. The ANJ is a little darker, bass is more spot lit, treble is more energetic. It is more dynamic on small-scale events and has a longer decay. While not as sweet and smooth as the CSE, it is more exciting. (That's funny; I used to think the ANJ was the most plain-Jane, even-handed cable around.) Now the very soft brushwork on the cymbal alongside the timpani in the first moments of the Britten: Violin Concerto is more pronounced. And Vengerov's violin has more filigree (or noise) around it.
The Kubala-Sosna Emotion ($2700/meter, of unspecified conductor material) is more liquid and colorful still. Where the CSE gives you pure, fundamental tones, the K-S gives you bloom and mystery—the K-S is great at lyrical passages. While I wouldn't criticize any of these cables' extension, I will say the K-S puts out more at the frequency extremes—it encounters little resistance and moves very easily into the mid or upper treble or low bass. This gives its portrayal tonal differentiation and vitality. The ANJ is reticent to put out anything extreme—mostly, it likes to stay in the midrange. And the CSE moves more easily into the low end than the top. These two silver cables have some trouble moving into the mid and upper treble—tonal homogenization and fewer nuances on top is the result. (But this is why they easily fit into so many systems. It's a sad fact, but most systems, including mine, have problems in the treble. The K-S exposes this.) The K-S has more of the little garnishes around the violin than the other two.
Now understand that context is everything. The current system, comprised of the Kharma Exquisite-Midi speakers (in for review) and the ART Audio Jota SET amp (also for review), is exceedingly colorful, and potentially too much so, depending on the ancillaries. Dropping one piece of the unaffected, neutral CSE into the mix tamped things down, pulled it back a bit. In this situation, the CSE was, in some people's opinion, the best fit of any of my wires.
Construction and Design
The CSE is two layers of 3-inch silver ribbon with some insulation between them to prevent shorting. There is no dielectric covering—the cable is not shielded. It is subjected to twice-over deep cryo treatment and something proprietary called MST. Strategically deployed strips of ERS material are placed along its length to combat EMI/RFI. The outer translucent, textured, white plastic sleeve brings total width to 4 inches. A silver Eichmann Bullet RCA plug protrudes from black plastic shrink-wrap covering the terminus points, and is direct-connected to the conductors. This little silver nipple protruding from the bulky ribbon made me nervous—looking at it made me worry about something breaking and connectivity being lost, possibly causing damage to the glorious, but unaffordable to me, review speakers down the line.
After a week of listening and much A-B testing, my premonitions came true: the termination materials began to come undone—one of the RCAs became loose. This shouldn't be the case in a cable costing $50, let alone $5000—the termination MUST be re-designed. All in all, I had the CSE in line for a week.
Noise reduction is high up on Audio Magic's list. The Clairvoyant Special Edition is their statement wire and employs all of their advanced techniques. It works—there are less of the filigree events, or noise, especially at the transient, than with other wires. I'm just not convinced that everything they're removing truly deserves to be categorized as noise.
This pure silver wire is warm, smooth and has very little bite—it never sounds strident. It has the upper midrange emphasis silver is known for, but is still well within the bounds of neutrality, and it is a champ at soundstage dimensionality. Its ungainly silhouette must be factored in: it simply won't fit in many applications.
At the time of audition, the system consisted of the Kharma Exquisite-Midi speakers (for review) and the ART Audio Jota SET amp (also for review). There was a tremendous amount of color and tonal richness—the last thing I needed was to introduce a cable with more of the same. What it actually wanted was some restraint, something to tone things down. The CSE does just that—in addition to noise reduction, it tamps down texture and bloom, leaving you with a purer, albeit simpler rendition. That's why, in this context, some people considered the CSE the best fit of all my wires.
It strikes me that if one tallied up the CSE's personality in a ledger, assigning the entries a value and a weighting, some will find the sum total attractive; others may consider one or more items unconditional clunkers. I tell you this: without the availability of instant A/B comparisons to my references, the CSE was compelling. It is not the most exciting cable available, but it is, without a doubt, overwhelming. For when I forgot about the A/B and just listened, sometimes for several days consecutively, I couldn't help thinking how high playback quality was and how easy it was to succumb to the illusion. The CSE makes you forget about the mess of gear lying in front of you.
Putting personal preferences aside, the bottom line is this: build quality—the RCA termination—is unacceptable and precludes recommendation. Audio Magic needs to address this issue, and until then, the Clairvoyant Special Edition is not ready for the consumer. (The interconnect here for review is an early version with "older style" end-caps. All subsequent production of the Clairvoyant SE utilize a slightly different termination-end-cap-design eliminating the potential for the RCAs to loosen over time. These are rock-solid and should not pose a problem unless you are a sadist with your system - Editor.)
Now then, back to the evening's program. Maxim Vengerov has just laid out the theme on top of a repeated ground comprised of the bassoon center-left and the flute behind him, both playing off the higher strings. The lower strings join in with percussive thrusts, which become successively louder, so that by the time two minutes have elapsed, we're immersed in a full tilt, highly dynamic and persuasive accounting of what, by all rights, should be heralded as a twentieth-century masterwork: the Violin Concerto by Benjamin Britten—highly recommended for your listening pleasure. Marshall Nack
For more on the Clairvoyant 4D SE, read Audio Ramblings in Issue 22.
Clairvoyant 4D Special Edition interconnect