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stage III monuments
Transparency vs. Opacity in speaker cables, Part One
as reviewed by Bob Neill
Several years ago, when speaker designer Dave Cazden introduced me to a special use of the word "opaque," I could not grasp what he meant. A few months ago, trying to get a handle on how Reynaud Offrandes differ from Harbeth Monitor 40s in a review for Enjoy the Music, I instinctively characterized the Offrandes as "slightly opaque," a sign that I was at last beginning to get it. What I sensed, as I look back on it, was that the Offrandes, like Cazdens speakers, were intentionally putting something between me and the instrumentsnot something obstructive, but something that softens and disperses the direct force of the instruments. Seen from JMRs and Cazdens point of view, they were restoring something already there, but attenuated, to its proper role. Getting the "backs of the instruments" into the sonic picture, JMR would say. The medium (venue?) between me and the performers made the music, especially the upper ranges of violins, woodwinds, and piano, less clear, less poignant, less exquisite, but more tactile, less dominant, and more in proportion with their lower ranges.
This relative opacity made the Harbeths seem somewhat lean and assertive, while the Offrandes opacity made the Harbeths seem clearer, more exciting, purer, and more beautiful. At the time, I preferred the Harbeth presentation and still do, but I tried to keep my preference separate from my descriptions because I could glimpse the opposite point of view, because I have enormous respect for Jean-Marie Reynaudwho knows the sound of live music well and with whom I share an affection for some of the same recordingsand because Barry, my trusted pair of alter-ears in backwoods Ontario, has always found the JMRs more musically satisfying.
Now, several months later, several speaker cables have brought me back to the opacity question. Nordost Valhalla, my reference, is not "opaque." It is "transparent." It is clear, fast, smooth, and seemingly well balanced in its presentation, a semblance of the veritable window we all claim to seek. Stage III Monument, Audience AU 24, TG Audio HSR, and Cardas Golden Reference are all, in varying degrees, opaque. Their presentations are warmer, more tactile, more immediate, full of venue, reverberance, and character, a little soft around the edges, reedy, breathy, appealing.
Are these cables tone controls? Yes, probably, if whats happening here is the introduction of different frequency contours, but dont underestimate what that may mean. If you can contour frequency such that you restore a natural balance to your system, bringing low-level bass information, which has been partially masked by flat or slightly bass-attenuated components (or the recording process), into audibility, you will alter the overall balance and significantly change the overall presentation. You are, in effect, using speaker cables to make a decision about what kind of presentation is musically correct. You are asking to be taken to the hall rather than to have the instruments brought into your home. It strikes me that this is a more ambitious and interesting way to describe what may be going on here than "using a tone control." This requires considerable judgment and taste. If what you are after is accurate and truthful representation of music, all is not lawful.
Robert E. Greene of The Absolute Sound has taught me, in one of our rare but real moments of gainful conversation, that live music measures surprisingly un-flat in a concert hall. In a TAS article a while back, he reported that beginning even just a few feet from the stage, treble begins to fall off significantly and bass begins to rise, such that by the time the music reaches us in our treasured row-FF seats, it sounds nothing like what a flat presentation would give us. This is a truth that has eluded many speaker designers. Harbeths Alan Shaws understanding of this state of affairs presumably accounts for the carefully designed response curve of his Monitor 40 designa little ripe in the upper bass, very gradually tapered from around 10 kHz upwhich accounts for these speakers appeal to many music lovers. I doubt there is a more natural sounding speaker in the world.
The artful and disciplined "tone controlling" of the Monitor 40s contributes significantly to their ability to make music sound more real, and has led me to consider the proposition that a little more artful tuning via speaker cables might be worthwhile. Over the next few months, I will be auditioning and reporting on my experience with several cables, most of whose designers clearly believe that a little tuning is a good thing, though that is not how they tend to put it. I will be reporting on what music sounds like in my essentially neutral-sounding system when these cables are inserted in place of my reference Valhallas. I am not out to make or break the reputations of any of these cables. I have already auditioned and rejected several which did not seem to advance the study. My goal is simply to describe how these cables "sound," to explore what various degrees and kinds of tuning have to offer to those of us who love the sound of music. The first cables I have auditioned are Stage IIIs Monuments.
Stage III is a small company in Brooklyn, New York, owned and operated by designer Luis de la Fuente. The Monuments are the top of an extensive line of interconnects and speaker cable. I used State III Baron interconnects and speaker cable, the least expensive model, in my Harbeth/Spendor audition, and found them absolutely first rate, although since that system was not as revealing as my reference, its hard to draw any useful conclusions. The Monument cable is constructed of fourteen flat solid silver conductors per channel (10 gauge) in an open helix configuration. The dielectric is air, and the cable has a silica and lead shot filled, urethane elastomer central damping core. High performance, solderless, solid silver spade lugs or banana plugs are standard termination. Cost is 1 meter: $1600, 1.5 meters/2 meters: $2200, 2.5 meters: $2500, 3 meters: $2800, 3.5 meters: $3100. It is not bi-wireable, but is available in double runs (7.5 gauge). Price runs a little less than double that of the single run.
In comparing cables, I have found that there are significant differences between the A-B comparison method, in which you switch back and forth frequently between cables, and the immersion technique, in which you leave a cable in the system for an extended period of time and take careful notes on what you hear. The A-B method causes you to focus on the ways in which cables differ from each other, while the immersion approach causes you to focus on what each sounds like on its own, in relation to live music. The immersion technique is harder on reviewers because the reference is obviously not at hand, and of course we dont know what really went on at the recording session. But each cable really does deserve to be considered on its own, so I have held off on any substantive comparison of the cable under audition with my reference Valhallas until the end. I will also hold off expressing any personal preferences until the end of the survey, though shrewd readers will hear them peeking through.
I am going to transcribe my listening notes, then draw a few conclusions:
Complete Bach Cantatas, Volume One, Harnoncourt (Teldec). Tactile. Warm. Coppery? Edible. This cable loves viols and cellos. The chorus: a little coppery. There is a slight favoring of the lower mids that seems to pull things down into that range, enriching the presentation but robbing the top of some of its light and joy, even dulling it a little. I am particularly sensitive to this as a long-time Valhalla user. Using the silver links that Stage III offers (in lieu of the brass ones that came with my Harbeths) improves definition a bit, but the overall character of the presentation remains the same. If I owned this cable, I would definitely use the links. I tried them with Valhalla several months ago and they made my system a hair too bright. Voices seem nicely separated, very real. This is not a great digital transfer, but the Monuments make a lot of it. Despite my criticisms, I like this recording and cable combination a lot.
Haydn, Masses, Hickox (Chandos). Top a little closed in again. Low strings very nice. Organ nicely reedy. The Monuments get the grain of the strings nicely, but dont get their brilliance.
Ligeti, Aventures (DGG). The organs natural reediness comes through especially well, reminding me that organs are wind instruments. Also, the Monuments ability to do avoirdupois thickness, heftis perfectly suited to this recording. The piano on the first piece is a bit soft. On the second piece, the top of the piano is delicious rather than percussive. The piano on this and the final piano piece bloom rather than explode. The trumpet is a bit reedy, but it blooms, too.
John Adams, Naïve and Sentimental Music (Nonesuch). I hear a lot of venueis it added or exaggerated? This petulant and defensive owner of venue-challenged Valhallas has to ask! Is this the "roundness" that designer Fuente refers to as one of his main goals with this cable? Rich sounding. The flute is moving a lot of air. Strings are like ribbons rather than wires, as they can sometimes be on cooler cable. Is it a little turgid? Does it sound suppressed on top? Low strings are edible! Brass doesnt have the incisive brightness I expect, violins shriek a little rather than soar. The whole presentation is huskier, less finished and refined than I am used to, more unbuttoned.
Bach Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, Kuijken (DHM). Kuijkens violin is huskier and more tactile than Ive heard it in the past. It feels as if Im close to his violin. The high notes are, as always on Monuments, thicker. I am definitely more aware of the recording venue here. The violin has lots of body. This is a somewhat sexy and earthy view of this recording. Are the Monuments pushing the lower midrange, as Reynaud speakers do a little? I like this presentation a lot. It gives me second thoughts about how it sounds through my reference.
Bach Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, Hahn (Sony). The Monuments definitely pull Hilary Hahns violin down a little into the midrange, giving it the "viola effect" reminiscent of the Spendor BC1s. A little meaty, more emotional than brilliant, unpolished, more breathy than firm. I get the impression shes playing slower than Ive heard on more transparent cable. The Monuments make her performance seem a romantic interpretation. I hear more of the body of the violin than I am used to hearing. It is not as smooth or beautiful as it is with a cable that is more open on top.
Couperin, Harpsichord Suites, Gilbert (Harmonia Mundi). The Monuments dull the harpsichord notably. Here I really miss a more open high end.
Rihm, Jugden & Formen (DGG). With the Monuments, I am more aware of an ensemble in a real space. Contrasts are softened. They are clear, but less individual than Ive heard them. Individuals are subordinated to the society!
Jackie McLean, New Soil (Blue Note). This recently remastered recording is perfect for displaying the Monuments principal strength. McLean's alto sax is extremely natural and very present. It is not as tight, firm, and pure as I am used to. Donald Byrds trumpet is wonderfully rich, earthy, even a little scruffy, and not at all reedy. The recording is looser and more atmospheric than I am used to. It feels like a jazz hall.
Live classical music has a bit more openness and airiness than the Monuments offer. That said, they do a fine job of getting the feeling of music performed in a real venue. They do a good job of getting the backs of instruments in balance with their fronts. J-M Reynaud would love this cable. The warmth and "roundness" of the Monuments feels natural, not colored. Getting this aspect of musical reality does have a price in clarity and refinement, if those attributes of music are essential to you. My Valhallas seem more open from top to bottom, giving pianos and violins more room to move than the Monuments do, but the Valhallas do not get the body of the instruments quite as well, nor do they reproduce the sense of venue and performance space as well. Live performances have a bit more avoirdupois than the Valhallas offer. The greatest difference I noted was on the Hilary Hahn recording, where the two cables give two entirely different musicians! With the Valhallas, her performance is firm, almost businesslikepolished, clear, brilliant, well defined. With the Monuments, it is much warmer, much less polished and refined, earthier. The difference is stunning, and hard to believe. I wonder which performance Hilary would recognize as her own.
I am going to withhold personal conclusions until the end of this series of cable reviews, when I have a clearer sense of how I feel about all of the cables and have thought further about the matter of opacity and cables in the pursuit of music. I expect my conclusions will have less value than my observations along the way.