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Positive Feedback ISSUE 65
as reviewed by Greg Weaver
Noel Lee forever transformed the basic nature of our industry with the introduction of his Monster Cables in 1977. In the following three and a half decades we have seen a fundamental change. Originally entirely ignored, and actually given away, the lowly "patch cord" has risen to become as central to the successful realization of a high performance home audio (or theater) system as the sources and other electronics themselves.
We've evolved from that early time when all components came packaged with their own captured or otherwise indiscriminant interconnect, and dealers routinely threw in some odd number of feet of "zip" cord with your speaker purchase, to a world where many hardware manufacturers now recommend specific cables, or brands of cables, particularly those employed in the design and/or voicing of their components or loudspeakers.
So many new cable manufacturers have sprung into being in just the past twenty years that it is all but impossible to keep track. Over the past three and a half decades, I have auditioned or used many, many different cables, products from Audience to Zu and virtually everything in between. Many make outrageous claims; others are based on solid engineering and materials sciences advances. It is one of the latter varieties under examination here.
Near the close of a listening session with some audio pals recently, one of them asked off-handedly, by way of complementing me on how much he had enjoyed our listening session, "What else could you want?" With little contemplation I responded, "Well, I wouldn't mind having just a tad more body and bloom." Little did I know… But then, I'm getting ahead of myself.
I first met the remarkable man behind STEALTH (a contrived acronym for Sound Technology Enabling Audibly Lucid Transcomponent Harmony) cables, Serguei Timachev, in January 2002. His then relatively new Indra interconnect was making quite a stir as a significant advance in cable design. Over the last decade, through numerous shows, audio events, and countless emails and phone calls, I have had the great pleasure of getting to know the man. I finally had opportunity to audition and write about the Indra, and several other STEALTH cables, in some depth in the spring of 2007. Both Serguei's approach to cable design and his own personal convictions and dedication to absolute performance resulted in my acknowledging his efforts with a Writers Choice award that same year. And though many cables have come and gone, the Indra has been my absolute reference ever since.
Just what makes the Śakra (both Indra and Śakra come from Hinduism – Śakra is lord of the gods, and is another name for Lord Indra) so special? It should come as no real surprise that the realization of a world-class interconnect might follow a path akin to that taken in formula racing, requiring the unique and effective implementation of at least four key essential elements; conductive material/s, construction geometry, dielectric, and termination.
Using just a handful of obscenely thin (less than 0.001 inches!) conductors of an amorphous alloy of platinum, molybdenum, and gold (like the Indra), the Śakra improves upon the Indra considerably. Using a construction method STEALTH calls multicore distributed Litz, the Śakra employs a non-inductive bifilar winding to create a proprietary non-resonant cable geometry.
Next, STEALTH uses what it calls a para-vacuum, employing a combination of sealed tubes of Helium gas and porous, foam-like Teflon®. Helium gas was chosen for its dielectric properties, which are markedly better than the porous Teflon® alone, air, or even a realistic (i.e., a commercially repeatable) vacuum.
The final constituent to the Śakra is the proprietary connectors designed by and built for Serguei. These custom (single-ended or balanced) terminations utilize very low overall mass, solid silver contact surfaces, machined dielectric materials formed from what STEALTH describes as ultra-modified PTFE (Teflon®), custom Kevlar composite frames, and Carbon Fiber/Titanium shells. The bundle of individual fine conductors are integrated to these proprietary connectors using high pressure crimping to create direct contact rather than using solder, effectively yielding a seamless transition between the wire and the termination. While this unique blueprint has been necessarily abridged, greater detail is available at the STEALTH website for those who wish to indulge.
For my evaluation, I replaced the Indra connecting my preamplifier to my mono amplifiers with the Śakra. So, what does the Śakra sound like? As with any truly exquisite interconnect, it should be extremely difficult to describe its sound; by definition, it should have no discernible attributes of its own. In this instance, given the high degree to which the Śakra' accomplishes its design objective, it might make more sense to compare it to its predecessor, the Indra.
Right out of the packaging, and with absolutely no run-in, the sound was extraordinarily relaxed and detailed; far more natural and involving than I have come to expect from a "cold" cable. Yet once I got past how inviting the Śakra was right from the box, the family sonic "signature" was unmistakable. In common was that remarkable and utter sense of calm first brought to the game by the Indra, both between notes and to the overall musical gestalt. It shares the distinctive frequency continuity of the Indra, its unique lack of granularity; an almost conspicuous wholeness to the musical tapestry. It also offers that unmistakable sense of speed, exhibiting no apparent harmonic or fundamental congealing, no minimization of individuality or focus. Musical immediacy is remarkable, with no loss or muffling of transient information, no slurring of musical pitch. Even with the underlying family resemblance, Śakra goes further—much further!
Immediately apparent was how much more defined and fuller the lowest registers were now reproduced. Bass with the Śakra in place was slightly deepened, much fuller, and more harmonically abundant. This result was more perceptible weight to the bottom-most octaves, accomplished with no smearing or bloating, offering greater individuality to information in the lower registers, and providing an eloquent advance in both pitch definition and timbre.
Where the Indra proved to be more than merely adequate in its ability to portray the body of instruments, to create the width, breadth, and height of musical voices, with the proper weight and bloom, it had admittedly fallen somewhat short of the prowess exhibited here by a handful of other über cables, specifically PranaWire's Cosmos or Kubala-Sosna's Elation. Śakra changes everything.
Midrange bloom with the Śakra was significantly heightened. This allows for a much more tangible recreation of the actual body and bloom of instrumental voices. Instruments, most notably piano, massed strings, and the human voice, were more vivid in tone and presented with an inexorable naturalness. Brass and reed instruments had more of that signature "bite" and more complex underlying overtones. Even cymbals were rendered with a "creamier" bronzy sound, much more like the real thing, again pointing to a more correctly recreated harmonic texture. In this regard, the Śakra's performance was easily on par, if not clearly superior, to any other cable I've yet heard.
Given the remarkable degree of instrumental bloom and the resultant naturalness the Śakra permits, it was more than just a little surprising to me to discern how much improved it was by way of midrange and lower treble transparency. String pizzicato, guitar runs, and other intricate fingering work was portrayed clearer—more "in the spotlight" without being overemphasized. It really allowed micro dynamic events to be rendered with superior detail and in more realistic scale, and thereby afforded greater musical significance.
Attributes that I am particularly sensitive to, staging and imaging, also experienced noteworthy improvement. Those who see staging and imaging as merely "artifacts" of the stereo recording process haven't been 5th row center at a London or New York Philharmonic performance in a great hall or had a table near the stage for a James Cotton blues show! In fact, they probably haven't attended many live musical performances at all.
Spatial cues with the Śakra in place were rendered even more distinctly and with clearer demarcation. The soundstage was more delicately layered; more meticulously and accurately outlined in a three-dimensional space. The stage was slightly wider, conspicuously deeper, and notably more focused toward the rear corners—typically an area of the stage very poorly "illuminated" musically. Space between instruments was slightly more visceral, with a striking sense of the "air" between and around individual instrumental voices. The space of the best recordings was unleashed with an unmistakable sense of realistic size and spatial placement, full of air and space around and between the instrumental landscapes.
Images were more solid and accurate in overall size and relationship with each other. Q-Sound effects on recordings like Roger Waters guilty treasure, Amused to Death or Pink Floyd's Pulse, offered strikingly unmistakable locations, both in terms of lateral placement throughout the listening room and in the reconstitution of these freakishly disembodied voices. The size and scale was more lifelike and less "sound-effect," focus more precise, and the overall sense of body greatly augmented. The Śakra allows reconstruction of the most three-dimensional, vivid, and honestly sized soundstage and instrumental voices I've ever experienced from ANY interconnect.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping
Listening with the STEALTH Śakra in place had the unnerving effect of consistently allowing me to forget that I was listening to sound regenerated by an electro-mechanical system; its installation had moved me decidedly closer toward a convincingly real musical event. Its ability to convey a general sense of ease and organic-ness, while rendering every musical nuance and instrumental detail, is simply unmatched in my experience.
Overall, the Śakra's more faithful representation of body, its sense of tranquil relaxation, its faultlessly natural resolution, combined with its more enhanced and accurate spatial abilities, synergize into an extraordinarily more lifelike result; so much so you feel as though you could get up from your chair and walk around and through the musical soundscape it helps to regenerate.
Through all my listening, it became clear that while the Śakra neither emphasizes nor restricts any specific bandwidths, it has the uncanny ability to offer a more detailed view into the music at the same time that it renders more harmonic complexity and musical richness; more resolve and more body—at once. With most cables, even the most expensive and exotic I've auditioned, a cable will tend to be defined as either remarkably and musically resolute or full of harmonic warmth and body. Not BOTH! This may be Śakra's greatest gift, as I can count on one hand the number of other cables I've heard that can even begin to accomplish both at the same time. The result is a fundamentally musical step forward, not just a clearly apparent sonic difference.
In my some four decades in and around high performance audio, this is the first interconnect I've dropped into my system that afforded a scale of musical transformation more akin to the degree of sonic change I would expect to experience by upgrading a preamplifier or DAC! It is the most undeniably musically significant cable I've yet heard, bar none.
Please recall that I mentioned that all these remarkable accomplishments were evident with absolutely no run-in whatsoever! Yet I'm happy to report that most every positive attribute I've described above only improved, by varying degrees, over my time with the Śakra as it settled into my system.
Dropping this remarkable interconnect into my system has been a most rewarding musical experience, one from which, just like the installation of the Indra had been, I simply cannot go back. If those same audio pals were in my room listening today, with the Śakra now in place, and asked that same question, I'd have to give them a different answer. With the introduction of the STEALTH Śakra, I've found that afore-mentioned final tad of body and bloom.
In the end, the STEALTH Śakra is the most musically resolving and expressive interconnect I've ever experienced in my system, PERIOD! If your checkbook can take the hit, I'm sure you'll agree. Greg Weaver