POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 45
as reviewed by Mike Wechsberg
It's been months since my byline appeared in PFO and it's great to be back! My absence was due to two primary factors. First, unrelenting demands from my day job, and second the nearly complete replacement of my reference audio system. Yes I've replaced almost everything this year. My former system had become a friend over several years, but was getting tired. The advantage in audio reviewing was that I knew my reference sound thoroughly and could easily discern and describe changes introduced by any new components. I began writing for PFO about two years ago and during that time have had the honor of listening to some very fine components spanning a wide price range. Some components sounded better than my reference gear in one or more areas and others were less impressive, but the experience motivated me to try to close the gap my reference system had between listening to live music vs. recorded music. Initially I thought I would just replace my amplification gear where I felt the shortcomings were greatest, but eventually I decided to make changes in speakers and source components as well. I won't go into a long treatise on my quest except to say it was fun receiving and burning-in a whole new set of toys. My objective was to increase the enjoyment of the audio listening experience by raising the emotional impact of music played through the system. I was looking for more excitement and a stronger connection with the music and its players. I ended up with all-E.A.R. electronics including the 890 amplifier (reviewed in PFO Issue 9 and Issue 27) and 868 preamp, plus the Acute CD-player (reviewed in PFO Issue 27). My new speakers are Marten Miles II (reviewed in PFO Issue 17). Marten has replaced these by the Miles III, but I opted for a used set of the older model. I'll comment about the sound of this system in this and future reviews, but I don't want to delay discussion of the subject of this review, the XLO Signature 3 cables.
Replacing all of my audio gear required a re-examination of all the cables as well. My old system used a hodgepodge of cables acquired over the years, mostly low cost models looking for the most bang for the buck. As an electrical engineer by training I grew up with a healthy skepticism of the value of fire-hose sized cables for audio and I recognized the colossal markups between cost and price of many brands. But I've also heard some startling changes by switching out just a single interconnect, power or speaker cable in my old system. So, I begged and borrowed some cables from audio friends to try out and even bought a couple that I liked, but I knew I could do better. Along came the kind folks at XLO™ who agreed to fix me up with a complete set of their high quality Signature 3 series wires to use for a review in PFO. I received five power cables, various single-ended and balanced interconnects and two pairs of speaker cables.
The Signature-3 cables are not top of the line for XLO, but a couple of steps down though using many of the same materials and processes as their most expensive compatriots. Good bang-for-the-buck, just what I was looking for. For example, the Signature-3's use six-nines pure copper conductors just like their Limited and Unlimited Edition cables.
This inspires me to another brief side trip. When I was in college I worked part time for a company in New York City that imported specialty metals from around the world and distributed it in small quantities to government and private research labs and universities. I can remember preparing samples of 4, 5, and 6-nines pure copper and custom packaging them for distribution to various customers. Here's a true story from that era. We also sold high-purity aluminum that was usually sold in thin sheets. Occasionally someone would order a sheet of 99.9% pure aluminum. When such an order came in I can still remember the lead chemist walking over to her desk, taking out a roll of Reynolds Wrap from a drawer, tearing off a sheet and handing it to me. I then packaged this up in our special way to make sure no contamination was introduced during shipping. I think we charged $10 - 20 per sheet for this service back in the 1970s. That's free enterprise for you.
Back to the XLO Signature-3 cables. First, these are very finely made cables using high quality plugs, sockets and connectors. You will not feel cheated should you purchase any of these cables. In addition to using high purity copper, which they further subject to two proprietary treatments, they also use Teflon® dielectric material with low dielectric constant, and a proprietary Field-Balanced™ winding technique to array individual conductors in the cable in an optimum way. I refer you to the XLO™ web site for a technical overview of the cables in their white paper "XLO™ Electric Cables… Sounds Like Nothing At All." I found this paper very readable and full of informative material about cables in general. It explains the rationale for the materials and fabrication techniques used in the cables. In short, XLO™ strives for low resistance, capacitance and inductance in order to minimize interaction between the cables and the audio equipment they interface with. In this way they hope to render the least damage to the sound. All cables act like filters to some degree, and for the reviewer or consumer it's really hard to separate out cable effects from the sound of individual components. XLO's™ design philosophy, if properly executed, should make this easier. We'll see.
Because I had so many cables to review I started with a small set of music (all CDs until the end), then added a few additional cuts to check out specific areas. Rather than just insert all the cables at once, I decided to proceed in steps to get a better sense of the interactions between the Signature 3's and my equipment. The XLO™ cables arrived about the same time that I got my Marten Milles II speakers, which are configured for biwiring. I tried several pairs of speaker cables I had around the house and some borrowed ones to get the best overall sound. I ended up with the Harmonic Technology Pro-9 Reference for the high end and the XLO™ Signature 3 for the low end. At the time I made this choice I was not aware of the special magic the Signature 3 line of cables seemed to have in the low end, I just chose this speaker cable because it gave me the best overall sound from among the ensemble of cables I had available to me to try. After a few weeks of on-and-off listening with this cable set I felt I had a good handle on the way my new reference system sounded. I was very happy.
'Since I was using one of the Signature 3 speaker cables in my reference let me start with a few comments about this cable. It consists of two round multistranded conductors that are each jacketed and braided around each other. The pair of conductors is then encased in a semi-transparent outer plastic jacket. The finished cable is a little more than 0.5 inch in diameter but the construction makes them pretty stiff and it takes some effort to get them to lie flat. In fact I had enough slack that I could leave the cables with a natural coil keeping most of the wire off the floor, equivalent to having cable lifters. I don't use cable lifters any more since my dog likes to steal them and chew them up. There is a small box at each end of the cable that transitions to the shiny gold spade lugs. This is similar to, but smaller than, the interface boxes on most MIT® speaker cables. I'm not sure whether they contain matching components or not. Sound wise in my system the Signature 3 cables gave the music a solid foundation and a clear and transparent midrange. Imaging was very precise and coherent. I'll have more to say about the sound of the speaker cables later in this review.
The first step in my review process was to pull out all the AC cables in my system and substitute the Signature 3 power cables. I would rank these cables as a medium in the size range of audiophile power cables and they are relatively flexible and easy to use. The male and female plugs are pretty large but the cables are not so heavy that they pull the plugs out of their sockets. I left the cables to burn-in for about a day before serious listening began but I'm not sure this was necessary. At the end of the reviewing period I made another sound check and I don't believe the sound with just the XLO™ power cables changed from beginning to end.
I should mention first that one of the power cords replaced was a Harmonic Technology Magic™ Reference (since replaced in their line with the Magic Reference II) that I was using as the power cord for the E.A.R. 890 amplifier. This is a $2000 cord (about twice the cost of the XLO™), and when I first inserted it into the system, it did indeed perform magic with the sound. With all XLO™ power cords in the system the sound did change a little bit. I noticed a subtle shift in frequency balance in favor of the low frequencies and a slightly more forward midrange, especially evident on vocals. Highs had slightly less bite and definition. These are relative changes, but the overall sound was outstanding with great imaging, a wide soundstage (especially on classical cuts), and pleasing timbres. But I think I was missing the extra sweetness and transparency I had with the Harmonic Technology cord.
There was a noticeable improvement with the next change I made; substituting the Signature 3 single-ended interconnects between the Acute CD play and E.A.R. 868 preamp for the DH Labs Silver Sonic interconnects. The Signature 3 interconnects are flexible, relatively thin, use high-quality RCA connectors, and are very colorful to boot. This cable change brought the midrange more into balance and rendered female voices such as those of Allison Kraus, Linda Ronstadt and Annie Lenox both sweeter and more natural. Bass definition was also significantly improved while low-end extension remained about the same. Highs were also subtler while image depth and definition were better especially on classical music.
Next I moved to the connection between preamp and amp. Here I inserted a 3-meter balanced Signature 3 cable in place of the Harmonic Technology Magic™ Link Two. This change reinforced the changes I heard from the previous interconnect substitution between the CD player and preamp. The sound had deep and powerful bass with great definition and an overall big sound with very natural timbres. I especially enjoyed the Mehta LA Philharmonic XRCD™ recording of Holst's The Planets with its wwwwiiiiide soundstage, coherent imaging, biting brass and powerful tympani. I slightly preferred the highs with the Harmonic Technology interconnect. They were more refined and transparent.
My next experiment was a venture into vinyl. Here my reference was another DH Labs Silver Sonic single-ended interconnect that I replaced with a second Signature 3 interconnect. This was the one cable that I did not burn-in during my evaluations. I'm still tinkering with my turntable/cartridge set up so I didn't want to use vinyl for the bulk of this review, but right out of the package the XLO™ interconnect revealed itself as the superior cable. I heard increased airiness and transparency across the frequency spectrum, especially in the bass and midrange. Using vinyl as a source the highs also had great delicacy and image specificity. In complex classical recordings, everything sounded more orderly with the Signature 3 interconnect. On rock and jazz recordings the sound was big and bold with a wide and deep soundstage. Vocals and instrumentation were very coherent with each other. Transients were great although a little better on the low end than at the top end. Overall the Signature 3 interconnect was a smashing success in the vinyl playback chain of my system.
At this point my entire system was wired with XLO™ Signature 3 with one exception—the speaker cable connected to the high end of my bi-wire speaker setup, which used a Harmonic Technology cable. So, as a next to last review step I replaced this cable with a Signature 3 as well. This change brought another level of coherency to the sound. Individual instruments seemed to occupy the same acoustic space, pace was improved and dynamic range was expanded at the low end. Music seemed to emanate from a distinct and silent background. The solid low end consistently remained but the midrange seemed to pop forward, foreshortening the illusion of depth. This may have been some interaction with the crossover in the Marten Miles II speakers and you may not experience the same effect with your equipment. Highs remained extended and natural but not quite as transparent as with the Harmonic Technology cable. From this experience my recommendation would be to wire your entire system with XLO™ Signature 3, rather than just parts of it, in order to obtain the best sonic effect.
One last thing I did was to connect my Velodyne subwoofer into the circuit using the single-ended Signature 3 interconnects. Since I received the Marten speakers I have not been using the subwoofer since the Martens extend to below 30Hz in my room. However, since the Signature 3's distinguished themselves so well at the low end of the sound spectrum I thought I would try out the sub. This experiment was a success. The addition of the XLO™-connected subwoofer improved dynamic range and ambience retrieval, especially in large as well as small-scale classical music. Bass definition also improved but I didn't notice any particular increase in low-end extension with the few recordings I played in this configuration.
The XLO™ Signature 3 cables are great for high-end audio systems. They represent good value and provide all-around excellent sound. I was able to appreciate the interconnects and speaker cables more than the power cables, but this is likely an artifact of my system and not necessarily yours. Workmanship and material qualities are very good (and are made in the USA). In my system the cables seemed to favor the low end over the top end. I felt they were balanced best for classical music although they had lots of punch for the more popular music forms as well. Performance was best when the entire system was wired with the Signature 3's. While I can't say for sure that XLO™ is successful in offering cables that "sound like nothing at all" I can say that they will let you hear through to the music and allow your source and amplification components to reveal the music best they can, and that's about all you can ask for from a set of cables. Highly recommended. Mike Wechsberg
Signature 3 AC Power
Signature 3 Speaker
Signature 3 Interconnect