A Brief Survey of Phono Cables
Bob Sireno

Many people have buried their turntable because they thought compact discs sounded better when they first became commercialized. And they did — to people who didn’t clean their records, and handled them like they were Frisbees. If you are one of these people, then, in spite of what you read elsewhere, leave the old beast where it lies.

Instead, along with handling LP’s by the edge only, you need a new turntable. You will never get the sound you have grown accustomed to from CD’s using a cheap turntable. Get on the phone and order yourself a new $650 VPI HW-19JR. Order the tonearm of your choice. The AudioQuest PT-6 is my reference for the review. You may also need an upgrade cable and new phono stage to optimize your new investment. So what if it seems like the goodies cost too much? Pleasure is priceless. With a new table, cable and phono stage, you will be happier than if you purchased savings bonds. For those who don’t get it, I’m not recommending anyone foolishly spend money. I’m recommending a sound investment. And for those of you who never gave up on records — read on!

Okay, so I didn’t review a million tables in the comfort of my home. I merely recommend the table I use, which I’m utterly pleased with. Sure, you could spend a lot more. But why do that, unless you have deep pockets or like to show off your shiny new "things"? Spend only what you can afford. If you can not afford a good turntable now, save your money and buy one when your cash flow improves. And when you do, make sure you get a good phono cable to complement your turntable. They make a major difference in listening pleasure. Under no circumstance should you ever buy anything less than what you need to be "happy". To avoid letters and philosophical debates, "happy" here refers to owning a "thing" that will bring you pleasure throughout its useful life — or, better yet, throughout your life.

Ancillary Stuff: For the edification of our readers, here’s a summary of my current system: Analog Interconnects were Kimber KCAG, Flatline Blue Heaven and Red Dawn, and Alpha-Core. The amps were Parasound’s HCA-2200 mk.II. Speaker cable was a dual run of Apex Signature. Turntable was a VPI HW-19 Jr. with mk. 3 platter, AudioQuest PT-6 tonearm with Emerald+ cable, and Dynavector DV-10X4 cartridge. Speakers were Legacy Focus; power cords were Apex AmpCord. Seakay’s Line Rover LR-1200 filtered all AC, except the amplifiers. AudioQuest Big Feet, Townsend Seismic Sinks, and Gold Aero’s very excellent DB-45 phono stage round out the supporting cast.

Phono Cables: The AudioQuest tonearm pre-installed on my VPI uses a DIN terminated cable on the turntable end, with RCA plugs for the phono stage. The comparisons in this review are to the standard cable supplied with a pre-installed AudioQuest PT6 tonearm on the VPI table. The cables used were the XLO Signature Type 3.1, Straight Wire Virtuoso, Kimber PBJ, Kimber KCAG, and AudioQuest Emerald+. I used four test records, including the 1963 Stereo Review Model 211 Stereo Test Record. A trivia note: The SR record was produced in the days when Stereo Review was owned by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, the Z-D that now virtually controls the computer magazine industry.

The reference album, used to begin and end my review of each cable, was Raiders of the Lost Ark (DCC LPZ(2)-2009), a 180+ gram virgin vinyl analog pressing. Many other quality LP’s were enjoyed when the various cables were connected.

I’m not going to go into long diatribes that require me to use a thesaurus. I’m simply putting on paper how the music sounded to me as affected by each cable, where the phono cable was the only system change. Short and sweet. Check your local dealer for more...

First up, the Straight Wire Virtuoso. This $275 cable is physically stiff, with an industrial strength heft. No lightweight cable here. What matters is that the signal it transmitted produced excellent music, with tight, sharp images on a natural soundstage. I found that there was a slight distortion near the center of the stage, leading to a more distant center image than on the sides.

XLO Signature Type 3.1 ($775 for one meter) had good definition, except for a slightly harsh high end, and flabby low frequencies. This was how it sounded out of the box. The XLO 3.1 requires about 40 or more hours to burn in and mellow out. Don’t believe in burn in? Read "The Quantum Tunnel of Love" in Bound for Sound issue 8a/9a-1992. The article explains how quantum tunneling and ion transfer of impurities affects electrical paths over time. If you don’t subscribe to BfS, e-mail me at sireno@usa.net and I’ll e-mail back a copy. The article is copyrighted, so don’t plagiarize or photocopy without permission. Back to the XLO...

I didn’t expect any cable to produce a soft, ringing bass. This one did prior to burn in. Afterward, it slaughtered the stock cable with wonderful soundstaging, a neutral sweet sound, superb crispness, mellow mids and tight deep bass. Musically it was almost analytical. Great for classical fans who like to hear pages turn. While costly, the XLO is worth considering if your budget will stand it.

Kimber KCAG ($225 for meter, $390 for 1 meter, with a $30 DIN termination upcharge) phono cable is identical to the standard KCAG, an excellent cable. With the DIN plug, its performance was as expected from years of using standard KCAG’s. The sound was clean and clear. Imaging was very good. There was slightly excessive depth to the center image. Ambiance was a bit on the bright side, but not by much. This cable will please those who audition it with their ears open.

Kimber PBJ ($59 for meter, $68 for 1 meter, with a $30 DIN termination upcharge) is the low cost cousin to the KCAG. The cable allowed good spectral balance with a correspondingly good presentation that featured a balanced soundstage. There was a lack of sharp definition, resulting in a bit of smearing. The cable still outperformed the stock cable, which had good tonal balance but a poor presentation of music, with a very flat soundstage. If you can’t afford better, more expensive cables, this is the one to use.

AudioQuest Emerald+ ($350 for one meter) This was the surprise cable of the review. I started out believing it delivered too much of a good thing. Many moons later, I gave it a final try against the other cables to realize that it had excellent presence, and a superb soundstage with the right balance of lateral imaging and depth of image. Overall clarity and ambiance were superb. This cable was a near perfect sonic fit. Tip: If ordering an AudioQuest PT-6 tonearm ($495), upgrading to the PT-8 ($750) gets you the Emerald+ cable instead of the only so-so stock one.

Conclusion: I do not discount any of the above phono cables. They all wiped the stock cable. Each has electrical characteristics that may or may not suit your gear. You may not mind waiting 40 plus hours for the superb XLO to break in and deliver its money’s worth. Most audiophiles don’t mind. But having heard zillions of setups over the last few decades, my ears tell me that the characteristics I described will hold true in a correctly setup turntable with a high quality cartridge and excellent electronics. In other words, get what you can afford and you will be satisfied for the rest of your life — or longer, if you’re an optimist.

Now for a ridiculous word of warning: Don’t expect to get any improvement using granddad’s old plastic turntable with ceramic cartridge driving a $99 Symphonic "Stereo" system.

Of course, you already knew that.