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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 3
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audience au24

Transparency vs. Opacity in speaker cables, Part Two

as reviewed by Bob Neill

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BOB NEILL'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Harbeth Monitor 40’s sitting on Sound Anchors with Blue Tak.

ELECTRONICS
Blue Circle AG3000 tubed preamplifier and Blue Circle AG8000 mono-blocks.

SOURCE
Naim CDS2 retrofitted by Naim of North America with RCA outputs, feeding into a custom Blue Circle RCA/XLR converter.

CABLES
Speaker cables and interconnects are Nordost Valhalla.

ACCESSORIES
Blue Circle Isolation Cones. Power cords are currently TG Audio SLVR’s plugged into Blue Circle Music Rings which are in turn plugged into dedicated lines.

 

The Stage III Monument speaker cables reviewed in Part One of this series offer a rich and slightly earthy point of view of most music, making a strong argument that the heart of musical reality lies in the lower midrange. The Audience Au24s take a more balanced approach, opting for smoothness and coherence. The "opacity" of the Au24s is subtler and more insidious than that of the Monuments, mainly a slight softening of edges and a mild recessing of the treble. I am told that there is a good deal more going on here technically, having to do with addressing the timing errors introduced into wire by constantly changing electrical field effects.

The result, for someone accustomed to highly "transparent" cable, was initially unsettling. I first thought that something was missing. I next came to believe that the cable was a little too well mannered, a bit on the yin side of things, especially in comparison with the more robust Monuments and the bolder Valhallas. I began thinking of it as "eighteenth century" cable. Then, two weeks or so into the audition, with both the Au24s and Neill broken in, I awakened to find myself on the other side looking back. The Au24s no longer sounded opaque at all. Nothing seemed to be missing. There were no issues of yin and yang, and we were out of the eighteenth century. Music felt more honest and personal than I’ve heard it before. I was at least as much aware of a musician’s performance as his or her sound. Hilary Hahn, whose solo Bach had sounded crisp and businesslike on the Valhallas and romantic on the Monuments, now sounded like a young woman furiously and passionately coming to terms with the composer. I found I was now listening to my reference Valhallas as if they were the newcomers up for review.

Would I have reached this point had I spent that two weeks switching back and forth between the two cables? Very likely not. This is one of those cases where it seems you really have to stay there a while to hear what’s going on. In my case, it also seemed to require some reprogramming of the brain. At any rate, my experience with the Audience Au24s has forced me to at least consider that the "transparent" approach may involve intensified focus on edges—in effect, false transparency. This is the first "opaque" cable I’ve heard—in fact the first "opaque" component of any kind—that successfully demonstrates the legitimacy of this approach.

Everything that passes through the Au24s comes out sounding pleasing—not sweet, not pretty, pleasing, and where appropriate, even elegant. Heinrich Schiff’s recording of the Bach Cello Suites (EMI) is rich, deep, almost floor-shaking, but unlike its sound through more "transparent" cables, it is also emotionally engaging and dance-like. The gruffness of his cello actually wears a smile. I am as aware of Schiff the cellist as I was of Hahn the violinist. As I say, this is not my accustomed take on music. I tend to prefer a little more brio and incisiveness, and more brilliance, and I am used to a more impersonal delivery that focuses directly on the instruments. Yet every time I put this cable back into my system after a check against my reference Valhallas, I am forced to reconsider my preferences. Isn’t this what music sounds like when it’s most pleasing? What is the first thing you hear in a concert hall on returning after a long absence? Brilliance? Excitement? Or how wonderfully tactile, ebullient, and beautiful live music is? This is what the Au24s give: the ease, "lift," tactile immediacy, and coherence of live music, and the uncanny presence of a performer. You are sitting back toward the middle of the hall, where the edges have been softened a bit by air and the room and where the orchestra’s separate voices have come together. The soloist is standing before you, and, as frequently happens during the experience of live music, you find yourself smiling.

To the Music!

I am going to give you my listening notes pretty much as I recorded them. They represent my growing understanding of the Au24s’ relation to music.

John Pickard, String Quartets, Sorel Quartet (Dutton). Firm, clear, warm, sonorous, coherent. The violins, which I expected to be a bit harsh and intimidating in dissonant moments, stop short of that and remain pleasing—not sweet, but not acidic either. Like strong ale. Is this their real sound? The viola is very present and real but doesn’t squawk, as I remember it doing a bit with the Valhallas. Also, the edges are slightly softer, and each instrument is less sharply defined. The musicians are less distinct but also more a quartet, such is the cable’s coherence. Are the Au24s taming this recording or are the Valhallas hyping it? Which sounds truer? Which do I like better? Tonight, I like the Audience.

Robert Schumann, Piano Sonata No. 1, Leif Andsnes (EMI). Again clarity, firmness, and warmth. I have heard it more percussive, brilliant, and dramatic. Sometimes with my Valhallas, the drama and contrast are so great it sounds like the two "ends" of the piano are different instruments! With the Au24s, I hear the piano as a whole, large instrument. The center is in the midrange but naturally so, highs are present but more in balance than they sometimes are in my system. Bass is authoritative and clear. This is the most pleasing piano I’ve ever heard in my system. Would I like more brilliant, sparkling highs? Perhaps, but at what cost? These cables eloquently demonstrate the musical point of the "opacity" approach. They are urging me to listen in a different way, to unlearn acquired listening habits. They are asking me to accept a little less absolute resolution, especially on top, in exchange for a little more effective, musical resolution. I like the Schumann with the Au24s a lot, but old habits die hard.

Wolfgang Rihm, Jagden und Formen, Ensemble Moderne (DGG). This "opacity" thing is a delicate business. I have heard it overdone so often—with CD players, speakers, power cords, interconnects, and speaker cables—that I am a bit gun shy. Take away too much leading edge and the ability of startling music to startle is gone. What would Rihm (or Bartok and Berg) be without their claws? Lap cats. The Au24s seem to take some away here, but not too much. This is exciting, dissonant music, but it was not intended to wield whips and chains. With the Audience cables, it has vigor and enough edge to both arrest and please. It really is a close call, though. Modernism is full of the contrast and drama that "transparent" cables thrive on. It is the ultimate test for an even slightly "opaque" cable, just as Haydn and Mozart are the ultimate tests for cables like Valhalla. I give the Au24s an A- on this piece, not an A+ because I would like a little more edge; but not a B+ because it gets some edge and also a lot of the delicate play in this music that escapes bolder, more assertive cables.

Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (Verve). A 1959 recording, remastered in 1990. EASE is the word—both horns are clear and present, though without a lot of bark. The bass is firm and authoritative. The piano is mainly a bit player, off to the side, presumably as intended. The whole thing is painted in the same shade, hangs together engagingly—and the ease of it all is intoxicating. It could be more contrasty, but I’d hate to give up anything for it.

Karrin Allyson, In Blue (Concord). Karrin Allyson’s voice and Peter Washington’s acoustic bass on this recording are stunningly clear and present. Allyson has the best female jazz voice I know of these days. Everything else on the recording is as it should be, but her voice and the bass are phenomenal. I’d listen to her sing the phone book, but I’ve never heard her sound this good and this real. A turning point in the audition?

Bartok, String Quartets, Emerson Quartet (DGG.) Once again, we get the feel of a quartet rather than four distinct instruments, though each is very tactile. Barbaric Bartok is here but, as with the Pickard, the music sings rather than grates. I have the sense that while the spectrum of sound may have been slightly narrowed, this is working for the music, keeping it together. It is easier to hear late Beethoven in the shadows than it is with a presentation that lets everything fly. How dare we let speaker cable make an interpretive decision like this? We were not there in the recording studio. I do not know whether this is more of an interpretation than what I’d hear with a more "transparent" cable. I can only tell you that with the Au24s, I can hear Bartok in the tradition of Western music. This is not a sedate interpretation, nor is it a dignified interpretation. It is an indoors interpretation, utterly listenable, utterly convincing. On the Valhallas, the interpretation is harder shelled, less tactile, bolder, more impressive, modernist to the core. The Audience cables seem to let me "in" a little more, whereas the Valhallas hold me off. An interesting difference that could easily divide Bartok fans.

Bruckner, Symphony #8, Pierre Boulez, Vienna Philharmonic (DGG). Great orchestral coherence, weight, tactile quality, with the stunning clarity through the mid and upper bass that is essential to Bruckner. Low bass is especially notable, which is always a shock when you can see how tiny this cable is. Its diameter is around an eighth of an inch!

Bach, Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, Monica Huggett, Ton Koopman (Philips). This is probably the best this recording has ever sounded in my system. The harpsichord is clear and percussive but not overbearing, as it can sometimes be. The baroque violin is true blue—not too bitter, not too sweet. Wow.

Mendelssohn, Piano Trios, Prague Guarneri Trio (Praga). A wonderful recording by a group not well known here. There is a natural glow to the violin and cello that I’ve never heard before. Magic. I just ordered their complete Beethoven trios from Berkshire Record Outlet. Get ‘em while they last!

Bach, Cantatas, Nicholas Harnoncourt (Teldec). The Au24s do an even better job of saving this early digital transfer than the Monuments, and remind me how good these cables are at putting instruments and soloists into space. All "opaque" cables seem to do space and venue better than their "transparent" competitors, but the Au24s are really good at it. The job they do on this recording is truly miraculous. There is not a trace of the brittleness that "transparent" cables can’t hide, and I hear no compromises being made in bringing this off.

Tom Petty, Full Moon Fever (MCA). Oh dear, a setback. Tom Petty doesn’t really rock through the Au24s unless you really crank up the system. It feels as if the system is pulling its punches, and this worries me. With the Valhallas, though admittedly Petty himself is a little less real and present, the band really gets you stomping your feet. I hadn’t thought of the Au24s as this gentle. It could be a problem for some folks.

Bob Mould, Sugar, Copper Blue (Ryko). Ah, plenty of punch, edges firm, which suggests that the Petty CD, which I thought I knew pretty well, may have less punch than I believed, and that Valhalla may be putting an edge on it. Switching to the Valhallas, Mould is hotter, with still more punch. My six-year old son complains from two rooms away. But this cable misses the sweet underbody of this recording that the AU 24s get, and that is Mould’s secret weapon. Which cable you’d prefer here would be a matter of taste, but the Au24s do appear to be able to rock respectably if the recording has the goods.

Bach, Solo Violin Sonata and Partitas, Sigiswald Kuijken (DHM). Great timbre, better than I’ve ever heard it on this recording, and it is extremely good on the Monuments. The violin doesn’t quite have the body I remember with either the Monuments or the Valhallas. Switching back and forth between the Au24s and the Valhallas, I can’t be sure which is "correct." Based on my experience with the Audience cables, and remembering the Schiff Bach cello recording in particular, I’m beginning to suspect this recording is lighter in body than the Valhallas have conditioned me to believe.

Stravinsky, Music for Violin and Piano, Isabelle Van Keulen and Ollie Mustonen. (Philips.) One of my favorite recordings of all time—alas, no longer available. Von Keulen's violin is wonderfully present and Mustonen's piano admirably firm and percussive. No issue of light-body here. Compared with Valhalla's presentation, it's a bit more lyrical and less contrasty. At an early stage in this audition, it would have  been easy for me to call Monument naturalistically realistic, Valhalla bold and modernist, and Au24—with its smoothness, balanced eloquence, and wonderful sense of intimacy, ease, and touch—neo-classic. But listening to this magnificent recording of Stravinsky, as I near the end of two weeks of listening to Au24, that comparison seems misguided. Unless you really know and love the eighteenth century—the eighteenth century of Swift, Fielding, and Smollett, as well as of Mozart and Haydn.

This is a good lead-in to some tentative conclusions about Au24. I'll hold off more definitive conclusions until I've heard all of the cables in the survey. But I will say, despite my avowed intention to withhold expressions of personal preference at this early stage of the survey, that Audience Au24 is having its way with me. It does so much about music so well and so convincingly that it has forced me to accept, at least tentatively, the premise that the 'opaque' approach to music presentation—at least executed with the genius evident here—may finally be the preferred path to musical enjoyment. So now, with my head turned and my guard down, I will be interested to hear whether some of the other candidates can better Au 24 at its own game. Or whether, as time goes by, Valhalla will reassert its authority.

Audience Au 24, as I said above, is surprisingly narrow of gauge. It is entirely flexible. A 3-meter pair, single-wired, retails for $1116, bi-wired for $1916. Audience makes a wide variety of products, including most notably Auric Illuminator, interconnects, and power cords. I am using Auric Illuminator now and finding it far superior to my previous elixir, Optrix. I'll do a separate review of it later on.

 

Audience
TEL: 800. 565. 4390
web address: www.audience-av.com

 

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