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Dr. Sardonicus on the Mysteries of Fine Engineering, Nonsense …and the Age Old Question - Does Wire Really Matter?
The JENA Labs Pathfinder Speaker Cables
"God gives quietness at last." John Greenleaf Whittier
When I first started to write for Positive Feedback some years ago, I was faced with a new listening room, the first really dedicated one I ever had. However, it required a significant run of balanced cable. As a freshman reviewer I was having zero luck getting anyone to pony up such a beast for review. Go figure.
David Robinson suggested that I give Jennifer Whitewolf-Crock a call to see if she could help me out, at least on a temporary basis, as a fellow PF'er. I did. In due course, she arrived at my door with a thirty foot length of balanced interconnect (the original was, I believe, a five wire affair). It was pink. That was my first and most enduring reaction. Pink. See, I was anticipating fire hose thick, hugely inflexible, thick jacketed substance. What I got was pink. Oh, did I mention it was PINK?
Historically, the whole wire thing had largely left me unmoved. Yeah, wire sounded differently, but prior to this time the differences I heard were minor and largely annoying. And even a technical dilettante such as meself could see the whole thing was fraught with more snake oil than a John Storms show. So, I didn't really have much in the way of positive expectations at the time. Frankly, my concerns were primarily utilitarian.
In retrospect, I should think this position is probably quite common for the vast majority of practicing audiophiles. They don't want crappy wire, but they are probably a bit jaundiced at claims for sonic superiority from brand to brand.
Anyhoo, I tossed the stuff in between my BAT VK-5i and VK-500, and sat down to listen. To say I was shocked was an understatement. This was no subtle effect, no shading, and no minor impact. One cable and my entire system was suddenly and enduringly different ...better, WAY better. And the 'way better' was a redefinition-level better.
At the time I said,
Positive Feedback Magazine, JENA Labs, Symphony Speaker Cable and Balanced Interconnects - The Tie That Binds or ...Geez dude, I am COMPLETELY Wired!
I think it took about two months or so before I had fronted the necessary kopecks and badgered Jennifer into responding, and voila! I replaced pretty much every scrap of wire in my system with JENA Labs product. Since that time, I have upgraded my JENA Labs products, most recently to the Valkyrie level (which I nominated for as my PFO Writer's Choice award, 2005).
I have seen comments to the effect that Jennifer's cables don't play well with others. This is NOT because of some sort of incompatibility. There are no mysterious functions or weird properties to cause incompatibility. These are very simply, extraordinarily high quality copper cables.
I think there are two things going on, the first of which is a simple additive goodness phenomenon; the more JENA labs cabling, the better the sound. Therefore, all JENA Labs in your system is significantly better than some JENA Labs wire in your system. Depending upon what you mix it with, you can certainly offset the goodness with competing badness. (We writers are soooooooooooo careful about the choices on word, uh, that we make, to choose ...for…)
The second reason is more akin to the experience most of us have had with a big jump in the quality of one link in the chain. You can more clearly hear what is not working.
The Problem with Magic
Here is a poser for you …what if some of the issues we are trying to solve with active components more reasonably have their solutions in what we use to hook these components together?
Lloyd Walker will insist that he can coax excellent performance out of relatively modest audio AND video equipment, if attention is paid to connections, isolation and AC feed. And most experienced audiophiles know all too well that unpacking a bunch of expensive boxes and hooking their contents together is no assurance of sonic nirvana.
But there is a psychological thing here, which is difficult for many of us to get past. How important can something be if it doesn't DO something?
It is at least somewhat irrational to ask this question about wire, because we are quite willing to accept the critical nature of passive crossovers and isolation devices. Perhaps the problem lies with the designation, "passive." And this is why snake oil has to be applied. At least if cables are made using exoteric materials, voodoo boxes and other arcane affectations, we can convince ourselves they do something.
But why can't our senses be sufficient to the task of convincing us of what they do or don't do?
This is such a huge question, because without this confidence you will be unwilling and unprepared to do the creative part of building your own system, which is just as essential as what comprises it. I know audiophiles whose system is precisely the way the dealer or manufacturer set it up. What fun is that? It's YOUR system, play with it! Have you hugged your speakers lately (and shoved them around your listening room in half-inch increments)?
This is a complex issue and it plays to the natural insecurity of audiophiles, who often wonder secretly if they aren't being bilked. Perhaps from time-to-time we all unconsciously fret that Julian Hirsch really was right; that so long as everything is functioning correctly, wire is wire, bits is bits and amps is amps.
I don't think you can be aware of the whole "double-blind" testing morass without at least having had some nagging suspicions that we sometimes talk ourselves into and out of hearing things.
To help ameliorate this insecurity, one of the ways in which audiophiles (especially less experienced audiophiles) use audio magazines, web sites and discussions groups is to seek third-party confirmation for their own sensory experience (or their economic choices). "Gee, I like these speakers; I think I will see what others have to say about them."
When this happens, you have embarked on a slippery slope. As Chris Rea says, "You have strayed upon the motorway …to hell."
First, if you are not completely demoralized by the rancorous Lord of the Flies social interaction of the audio discussion groups, you will be by the combination of techno-babble and obligatory superlatives thrown about by audio writers.
Ah, I can just see the readers who have read my stuff raising that "pot call the kettle black" eyebrow. Yes, I am a fan of hyperbolic language. I write, at least in part, for entertainment (both mine, and hopefully others). I love language and often to excess. But, part of this is that I don't do negative reviews. If I don't like something, I don't review it. So, built in, there is going to be a level of glow, 'cause I only write about things that stimulate me to write. I don't write about lackluster audio experiences, of which I have many.
See, it's a problem with…
Adjectives, Adverbs and Metaphors, OH MY!
Just as Spinal Tap made arrangements for their custom-built Marshalls to go to "eleven" (because, after all, where do you go when ten just isn't enough?), audio reviewers mine the language for colorful adjectives and metaphors. BUT, there is a world of difference between describing experience (made me so happy, I wanted to dance naked and spread apple butter all over myself), and making judgments (best, worst, etc.).
There is vast difference between, "Best I have heard," and "Best there is." When one is simply reporting personal experience, then there is no issue. It's just a description. If I have only ever heard three preamps, and this one is the best of the three I have heard, then …it is the best of the three that I have heard. BUT, if I have only heard three preamps and this one is the best in the world, because it is the best I have ever heard, then I am either narcissistic, or brain damaged.
The Educated Consumer of Reviews, and other Forms of Audio Rhetoric - Part One
Conventional wisdom says, "Ignore reviewers, ignore dealers, ignore web-postings …trust your own ears." This would be fine, except for one major problem; the average audiophile has neither the time nor the opportunity to hear a huge amount of equipment in reasonably controlled conditions. These days, it takes a pretty large population center to support even one high end audio store.
If you live in Moose's Butt, Oklahoma, and even by driving to Enid, you only get to hear five preamps, in wildly varying conditions, how do you know if the Squattenfarker 5.1 is truly better for you than the Whisperednuance 2.3? Add to this hellish admixture that the Whisperednuance 2.3 is $1500 more, and the dealer is a mouth-breathing troglodyte! BUT it got FIVE ears from Pretentious-Audio.com, and the Squattenfarker only got 4.5 ears. Hum, how much better is a half ear?
Whatabout the Trouncemall 7.0 that you HAVEN'T heard, that costs $500 LESS than the Squattenfarker? The blog buzz on the net is that is it is so clearly superior to every other preamplifier out there, it is being nominated for a Nobel Prize.
What do you do?
You do what we all do. You buy every magazine you can find that has preamp reviews. You Google the crap out of "preamplifier" and you visit every discussion board you can find. Some of you build spreadsheets. Kurt Lewin lives on in your force-field analysis!
And …you end up buying the Fuggetabouded 1.0 …why? Who knows? Somehow you got talked into it, probably by yourself, and it was probably no more of a rational decision than getting married was, and just remember how THAT turned out! You got lonely, you got frustrated, and you became vulnerable, and bang, down you went with someone's dart in your ass.
So, you ARE going to pay attention to reviews. You ARE going to pay attention to Internet buzz and you probably will buy something you have never heard, or be tipped into buying based on what you hear and see in these nefarious locales. Caveat Emptor!
As one of the Evil Undead, I suggest that you…
Be sure you pay attention to…
Does a beautifully designed and executed $1000 piece of audio equipment deserve the same enthusiasm in a review as a beautifully designed ad executed $10,000 piece of audio equipment? Yes, maybe even more so, because it is a helluva lot harder to design and manufacture to a tight price point. Must the two pieces be absolutely equivalent in performance or relative value to be praised within their individual contexts? No. That would be absurd.
So, price point, intended application, compatibility (ignore the specs, I don't CARE if it says 25 watts will drive it, it WON'T), etc., are all very important. Frankly, you are most often better off by picking a "family" and sticking with it. Mixing and matching brands raises the level of variables you are juggling to the point where even differential equations are useless.
And as far as picking out speakers goes …you might as well just kill the chicken, spread the innards, and take your best shot. Unless you can audition a speaker in your listening room, with your equipment, you are just rolling the dice.
Reviewers should help more than we do. One way we could help is to place things more clearly within a context that helps the reader define the meaning of what we are saying. This context has to include a great deal of information about the equipment, but also about the reviewer. I will not even pretend to be unbiased, but so long as you understand that, and you know what my biases truly are, you can adjust your perceptions accordingly. It's when, as a writer, I keep secrets, that you are most vulnerable to being mislead.
For example, should the reader know what the reviewer considers to be their references? Yes, of course.
Contrary to popular application, "reference" is not necessarily what I happen to have in my main system at the moment. "Reference" is what defines the outer limit of what I personally have experienced. It is my standard for comparison.
Here are my references, just so ya know.
Reproduction - Real-time machine feed from short-coupled (no mixer, no mic cable longer than fifty feet, etc.), directly recorded, live concerts in multi-channel DSD, with the ability to A/B the feed and the stage, at will.
Analog Devices - Walker Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable, Sennheiser and Neumann microphones.
Digital - Genex Digital Recorder with Meitner (EMM Labs) converters.
Amplifiers - BAT VK P-10 phono preamplifier; BAT VK-51 SE line stage; EMM Labs, Switchman-3, line stage; Mike Grace, microphone preamplifiers; BAT VK-600 SE solid state power amplifier.
Speakers - JENA Labs work-in-progress prototypes.
Cabling - JENA Labs
Even a reviewer you don't like or don't agree with can be useful, so long as you understand the context of his/her work. Focusing on context will help you develop the ability to be a more reliable consumer of reviews. There is one movie reviewer I faithfully read, simply because if he loves a film, I know with a 95% confidence level, I will loathe it. Now, THAT is useful!
A Case of Diminishing Intervals
From serviceable to very good is a huge jump, from very good to excellent, much smaller. From excellent to superb is smaller still, and from superb to extraordinary …even more minute. However, it is within these diminishing intervals that the magic occurs.
Toyota makes damned good cars; Infinity arguably makes better ones, Mercedes-Benz, better still. There are Mustangs and Vipers. I like them. Then there are Lamborghini s and Ferraris. And here there is magic. There are porcini and then there are tartufo blanco. There is ham, and there is prosciutto. There is Kraft parmesan in a can, and then there is freshly shaved parmesan reggiano. Again, there is magic in those differences.
How much real, functional difference exists between a good blue cheese and true Roquefort? Depending upon your sensibilities, either none at all or all the difference in the world. If all I have ever known is the simulated blue cheese my local grocer sells, my first taste of a well-made live-milk blue will be quite remarkable. So remarkable, that I may not be able to imagine (and perhaps not even really appreciate) the differences that still lie beyond.
Ok, this is the point where someone loudly proclaims the evils of elitism and audio snobbery. Granted. To become interested in the ultimate expression of anything, is ultimately to pursue the elite, by definition. Esoteric does not mean "weird," it means of interest to a small number of people. Fine audio is, by definition, an esoteric pursuit.
Knowledgeable, confident, intelligent, attractive (OK, stop) people are often seen as arrogant; it is a personal curse I have labored under myself (big wink). It is an impossible criticism to thwart. How does one reasonably answer the question, "When X is perfectly fine, how do you justify all of the (time, expense, suffering, etc.) to have Y?
What does a Ferrari really do (it's just a car, after all) that a Toyota can't? (And props to Vin Diesel aside, a Toyota Supra, however lovingly and carefully modified, is NOT a Ferrari) The answer to that question has always been the same, "Drive one, and then tell me." At some point, there is a transition from "thing" to art.
The Art of JENA LABS
Jennifer's simple objective is to make the finest audio cable in the world with no compromises. From engineering to assembly, these are artisanal products and the upper end of her product range (where we find the Pathfinder) is intended to appeal to those audiophiles who can no longer stand to drive Toyotas.
Her basic design philosophy is to use similar or identical materials throughout most of the price range for her interconnects and speaker cable, but to use MORE leads for the more expensive iterations. Only the most exquisite skills allow for construction of the higher-end cables, because of the increasingly demanding task of soldiering more and more leads to the same size connector. At some point, soldiering becomes as much of a creative art as hand carving a fret board. The products are cryogenically treated (she has been at the forefront of using cryo-treatment in audio for many years). These are products that cannot be mass produced, even if she wanted to.
But unlike Ferrari (who really doesn't have an "entry" level offering) even modestly heeled audiophiles can enjoy JENA labs products.
But this article is not about entry level. It is about excess, and glorying in the sybaritic, salivating hedonist in each of us.
So what's the Big Deal?
TIME's Paris bureau chief test drives a new Ferrari
I sink down low into the black leather upholstery and stare at the yellow logo with the black stallion at the center of the steering wheel. I caress the sensual, hide-covered seats, breathe in the intoxicating new-car smell and feel my pulse starting to rise. I study the dials on the dashboard. The speedometer goes up to 340 km/hour, the tachometer tops out at 10,000 RPMs. This isn't a car, it's a cruise missile. "What you have here," says Watson, "is a 3.586 cc V8 engine, delivering 400 horsepower. It will take you from 0 to 100 km/hour in 4.6 seconds, and cruise at 290 km/hour."
Off the Beaten Track - Top Gear, by THOMAS SANCTON Maranello
This is the JENA labs Pathfinder. Simply the best there is.
Sadly, unless aliens invade the Earth and make ME their representative to humankind (it could happen), or I get incredibly fortunate and remarry someone with a huge trust fund and chronic myopia, I will never own a Ferrari. I can, however, own a set of Pathfinder speaker cables. Yes, it may require that I beg and plead and essentially debase myself, but remember, I was married for nearly three decades so I am experienced in this.
This is world-class luxury you can have. Not easily, I grant you …but possible.
Is it worth it?
For new listeners to Jennifer's cables, they first thing they will generally hear is an apparent reduction in the high end; then, within minutes, even seconds, most discern this is not the absence of highs, but the absence of noise and time alignment issues we confuse with good treble reproduction (high frequencies being separated from their apparent sources and being reproduced as noise). Sorry to burst your bubble, folks, but sizzle and tizz are NOT fidelity.
The primary auditory characteristic that clearly separates JENA Labs cables from the competition is this absolute quiet, neutrality; this buttery, lush elegance and liquidity, this absence of distraction. Yes, to get anywhere near this level of performance your ancillary equipment will have to be on par. This cable calls for the best.
High end and low end extension get better with more leads (as you move up through her price line), but the overall sonic signature of JENA Labs cables remains very much the same, regardless of price point ...well, so I have always thought …until the Pathfinders.
The Path to Nirvana
Quite by accident, I came into possession of a set of JENA Labs Pathfinder speaker cables when Jennifer and Michael (her husband) came over to my place recently to help with setting up the XHL equipment I'm reviewing (story pending). She brought along a variety of her products, including the Pathfinders (which were intended for David Robinson's system). For some reason, she and David were fooling around with my secondary system (which is also a HT system) and decided to toss the Pathfinders in between the Dussun V-6, 150 watt integrated, and my Swiss made, Piega P-10s. Since that particular combination was completely new to me, I did not get a real sense of the role the Pathfinders were playing.
On a whim, a few days after we did the XLH setup, I pulled the Pathfinders out of my secondary system and put them in between the XLH 600 watt monoblocks and the Reference 1812 loudspeakers, occupying my primary listening room.
The difference between the very fine JENA Labs Valkyrie level cables I personally own, and her Pathfinders, is approximate in scope to the changes made by switching from a very high quality active component to an absolutely extraordinary one. The difference between the Pathfinders and any other brand of wire I have heard is simply not comparable in any fair sense of the word. I am trying VERY hard not to imagine my system with Pathfinder-level cables throughout. I refused to be obsessed.
This issue of scope here needs to be clearly defined here. The impact of this single product covers virtually every aspect of musical reproduction: frequency response, dynamic range, sound-staging, imaging, tonal balance, harmonics …to this ineffable "rightness" your body will tell you about. Stunning, absolutely stunning.
You know, I listen to pretty much everything, but I do listen to a lot of pop and rock music, and I used to blame Red Book digital, as a format, for a lot of my frustration. I find I am able to listen very peacefully to it now. A big part of WHY is Jennifer's wire. Once all that high frequency hash gets sorted out, even Red Book CD becomes much more pleasing. Her wire has done what I have not found possible with active components; a resolution to PCM digititus.
I know you are distrustful. I know you are suspicious. It's just FREAKIN' WIRE!
Well …in the past few years, I have heard so many mega-buck systems fatally flawed by the ham-handed inclusion of ancillaries that killed the system, or poor matching that killed the system, that I am going to harp on this a bit. Pardon me while I go on a rant.
The Good Doctor's Wire Rant
There is more hype and engineering nonsense surrounding cabling in high end audio than there is Clearasil at a junior high sock hop. Overall, it has a voodoo factor of "10," so no wonder if you are somewhat perplexed and cynical. I feel your pain.
There is a high probability that the cable your dealer prefers is the one with the highest markup. I have found high-end dealers among the most overtly cynical about the effects of cable (uh, other than profit effects).
People are nuts about this subject (and their pet materials, from kryptonite laced jacketing, to silver, gold, myrrh and other esoteric unobtainium construction materials). Sheesh, its like cowboy boots, the more endangered and odd the species they skin, the more expensive and apparently desirable the boot. Just imagine what a pair of Tony Llamas made from George Hamilton's sun-cured hide would fetch? And they would probably outlast alligator by a ratio of 5:1!
Anyone can make cable and often anyone does. They may or may NOT know anything about engineering or physics. But remember, Belden actually makes most of it.
But what do I Really Think?
I think that JENA Labs makes expensive cables. No question about it. At the high end of her product line, they cost as much as high quality active components. No question about that either. But unlike active components, they are risk free. Regardless of what system you use them in, they will produce commensurate improvement and the same simply cannot be said for all active components.
I cannot imagine anyone (who can actually hear, and can afford them) putting a set of Pathfinders into their system, and being able to willingly remove them again. If I were selling them, I would do so on a blind, money-back guarantee basis, confident that if the decision is being made on the basis of performance, there would be no question. If you have the means, and you can hear, these are for you.
Oh and here is a nightmarish thought …there is a level ABOVE the Pathfinders called, The Dreamdancer and a new one above the Dreamdancer coming out in the next few months. I am refusing to hear either of them. You have to draw the line somewhere.
I am not a violent man, but Jennifer and David are going to have to pry these out of my cold, dead hands.
JENA Labs "SpeakEasy" Pathfinder Interconnect