Remember the British movie Bridget Jones’ Diary? The goofy and sex-starved heroine contemplates both permanent spinsterhood and endless strategies to overcome it. Her compulsive mental commentary on life repeatedly crosses wires with her hormonal friskiness. For one, it transforms hapless co-worker Fitz-Herbert into a lecherous dirty old man. Her code name for him? Tits-Pervert. During a publicity party for her publishing firm’s newest literary wonder boy, she must announce Herbert’s imminent taking of the stage and microphone. This causes a craftily voiced-over cerebral combat -- between the pugilistic nickname that stonewalls the faint memory apparition of the man’s real name – and high anxiety. Will she recover her wits in time before her embarrassing speech lapse utterly confounds her already lost audience? Will she spit out the self-referencing wrong name after all? It’s one of this movie’s more uproarious gems. Whenever I see an announcement for yet another cable review, my mind goes blank in a similar fashion. Instead of Cable Review, I see Fable Stew, Fable Stew and can’t get back on track.
“Perfectly pervy”, as Brit Jones would quip.
Waxing poetic about the sonic qualities of cables can quickly turn pornographic – all smoke and mirrors, the real fire mere imagination. More so than any other audio component (certain tweaks excepted), cables are frustratingly system-dependent. While those who refer to all cable as tone controls are probably somewhat overstretching the subject, how far off the mark are they truly? Concede at least an aura of truthfulness to their low-fi indictment. Now attributing very specific and carefully measured sonic traits to any cables with certainty becomes quite difficult. The reader must separate relative truths from generalized facts, or whatever is implied as facts could quickly degrade into fiction.
So here I am with today’s review of the inSound/Mapleshade ClearView cables. Reflecting on how I feel about cable reviews (not cable per se!) in general, I decided to focus on how these products would stack up against Analysis Plus and Acoustic Zen. These are two brands with which I have longstanding familiarity. In fact, the Analysis Plus Oval 9 remains my personal all-time favorite speaker cable, silly-money discounted. Both companies’ products have received enviable and well-deserved reviews. This makes them into useful scales to weigh in today’s contenders. Instead of somehow suggesting that I could predict what the ClearView cables might do in your system, I’ll simply describe what they did in mine (tube-based around Art Audio PX-25/DM-VPS, solid-state around Bel Canto eVo 200.4/Pre1), and specifically, what they did differently from my house cables. My simple question will be whether they seem competitive with well-reviewed cables costing double and triple their own modest asking price, never mind, as their own propaganda suggests, with cables costing up to $1,500/pr. That’s too rich for my commoner’s blood, and the suitably expensive Omega Mikro review cables have long since been returned to their maker.
ClearView cables are available factory-direct only, through the catalogue of record label Mapleshade. This strategy helps keep their pricing way below that of their take-no-prisoners Omega Mikro siblings, marketed by Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio fame and sold through traditionally bricked and mortgaged dealers. ClearView/Mapleshade offers a 30-day satisfaction guarantee – don’t like ‘em, return them for a full refund minus shipping. This policy should overcome any healthy hesitations to use mail order for unfamiliar products in an act of sheer faith. Hopefully today’s review and background data will further undermine this speculative element about the unknown, something still surrounding this line -- available since May 2000 – in a curious case of press embargo. Congressional, er audiophile oversight committee at work? Could this question become the next successful in sonic bumper sticker?
The Rap Sheet
When asked for a mission statement for his ClearView line, designer Ron Bauman replied that he and Pierre Sprey of Mapleshade Records had devoted over ten years of designing, refining and then manufacturing the radically different Omega Mikro wires and cables. Having reviewed them earlier, I can unequivocally state that “radically different” isn’t blithe propaganda but plain fact. It doesn’t exist for the sake of novelty bragging rights. The involved and unusual construction exists purely for hard engineering reasons that bear out where it matters: your ears. Colleagues Bill Cowen and Grant Samuelson – the latter now with Shunyata Research and out of reviewing -- both concurred with my own disturbed, nay disbelieving reactions. The Omega Mikro Ebony 50-gauge dual interconnect accomplished the sort of wholesale sonic transformation in each of our three systems that none of us had ever considered possible in this it’s-just-bloody-cable sweepstakes. If it was not so darn expensive, I’d own at least one short run of Omega Mikro interconnect. It would do more good, hands-down, than the next new upsampling-to-the-nth-power CD player that seems like such an eminently more sane and substantial purchase -- real parts, motors, displays, remote and raw poundage -- than this funky minimalist contraption calling itself a cable.
It’s their intensely persnickety hand labor that makes the Omega Mikro components so - exclusive. Not blind to the fact that four-figure price tags could derail even properly exposed and convinced prospective customers like myself, Bauman and Sprey decided to develop a line of components that would come in far below their Omega Mikro line, yet maintain a significant degree of the musical fidelity they’d achieved with their higher cost components. Hey, some guys thrive on impossible challenges. So give it up for Clearview and chief designer Ron Bauman.
ClearView’s Master Mind
Bauman’s been a self-avowed audiophile from the tender age of 11. Home alone one evening, he perceived the sudden urge to modify his parents’ Zenith record/radio console from a 78 RPM player to one that played the just introduced LP’s. Love of audio has been in his jeans ever since. After getting his BSEE degree from Lehigh University, he worked in the aerospace industry as an RF designer where he solved US Navy shipboard electromagnetic interference problems resulting from operating kilowatt-class transmitters adjacent to sensitive receivers. He’s since stumbled over many parallels between such RF and audio problems, especially in the way dielectrics and other materials affect electromagnetic fields and cause intermodulation and other distortions. Designing small antennas, he recognized exact analogies with moving coil preamps, while during the testing of small hand-held US Army radios in urban environments, he had to wrestle with problems of voice fidelity by mitigating intermodulation effects arising from the use of many radios in close proximity.
Despite this strong academic, theoretical and practical applications background, Ron and partner/recording engineer Pierre Sprey approach audio component design from the perspective that the musical experience takes place inside our brain, not our components. Hence many insights applied to their jointly developed products are said to derive from the latest research on human hearing. According to this research, flat frequency response, low harmonic distortion and sundry frequency domain descriptions, traditionally deemed tantamount to achieving aural realism, are in fact not considered the most important parameters. Rather, Bauman holds that the ear-brain’s exquisite sensitivity to the leading edge of sounds requires acute fidelity to this phenomenon to experience the real thrill of live music. His experiments show that correctly implemented wire directionality optimizes leading-edge fidelity. Hence his belief that time domain accuracy is a more important descriptor of musical realism than the flat lined textbook frequency domain. Ron is a season ticket holder to the National Symphony Orchestra, avid patron of chamber music performances, and resident observer at the Mapleshade studio during live recording sessions. He knows what live music sounds like. He can also compare it, on the spot, to a mike feed running exclusively through his cables.
With such impressive credentials properly in place, the question of course still remained – how would it translate?
Translation Into The Material Domain
Minimize skin and dielectric effects; make the signal path as pure and simple as possible. Implementing this mantra into the ClearView line meant that the design team had to insist on a more manageable extent of pushing the envelope than the actually invisible-to-the-eye, 50-gauge core conductor of the Omega Mikro IC. The Clearview IC conductor diameter remains small compared to skin depth even at the highest frequencies – 0.0025”. Still, it’s plenty robust to withstand regular rather than audiophile anxiety handling and is not particularly fragile. Care is further taken to use magnetic field geometry for canceling remaining skin effect and to exercise extreme fussiness about the dielectric and its thickness. The conductors are drawn and annealed using a proprietary protocol that maximizes directional properties. They’re then coated with a proprietary insulator – claimed superior to Teflon -- that is less than 1/10,000th of an inch thick. The outer polymer sheath or jacket is chemically treated to improve surface conductivity, about 1-inch wide, flat, transparent and only randomly touching the conductor. It is then bundled and neatly tucked into inSound/Mapleshade’s custom locking RCA terminals (claimed to outperform Cardas and WBT, no less) and marked with double banding at the “from” end to specify proper directionality when used with components that output signal in correct absolute phase.
This directionality issue with wire is highly controversial. To rattle our collective common sense chains, Bauman routinely offers a demonstration that is annoyingly effective – annoying unless you like your chain yanked. It proves that at least for his designs, directionality is very much a factor. You see, inSound/Mapleshade sells blue and red flavor power cords in its Omega Mikro line. The only difference between the two is the direction in which the conductors are wired: moving away from the IEC plug or toward it. Sonically, the differences are profound – as though you strangled a microphone with a hood of gauze when you ran the “wrong” color cord on a particular component. Do not ask. It is true. Potential customers for these power cords are always shipped both flavors to determine which one sounds better with their gear. They simply return the “wrong” cords to Ron. But back to ClearView.
The complete line consists of Golden Helix Speaker Cable, Double Golden Helix Speaker Cable, Ultrathin Interconnects, Double Helix Interconnects, Double Helix AC power Cord, and Double Helix Power Strip. Plus versions undergo a special cryogenic treatment and are afterwards exposed to high-energy electromagnetic fields to enhance the musical qualities of the dielectrics and the copper/silver conductors. The Double versions employ two twisted pairs of conductors configured to reduce the fields that interact with the dielectric. We’ll look at the Double Golden Helix speaker cable, power cord and power strip in the second part of this review next month.
Translation Into The Aural Domain
The ClearView Double Helix Plus Interconnect
In my two systems, the primary difference between the Acoustic Zen Silver Matrix Reference ($898/1m/pr) and the ClearView Double Helix Plus ($335/1m/pr) -- equally obvious whether going all-tube, all solid-state or bi -- was literally illuminating: true to its designer’s self-professed aim, the Helix cable was more lit up and, dare I say it, edgier. Before your inner audiophile bully issues a citation for this No-No, glance at the word “leading edge”. Imagine this edge covered up by grime and dust like an archeological relic. Now take a feathery brush and lay it bare until all the softening layers of debris are removed. In musical terms, you will arrive at more immediacy and directness; more jump factor and liveliness; more excitement and vividness. You will certainly also getmore sharpness and incisiveness: a crystalline blade that’s finely honed and cuts. Call it the heightened adrenaline of edge-of-the-seat nearfield listening. It is the immediacy of raw transients before they’re dulled by distance. It is the crispness of leading edges before they’re smeared and weighed down by the fuzz of ambient reflections.
This trait was very apparent on percussive instruments. They enjoyed faster rise times and thus more violent attacks. Timing was tighter and locked synchronously with the other instruments and vocalists. There was a revved-up sensation of drive and élan, a kinetic sense of “live”. On close-mic'ed violin, the stridency of spiccato bow work and the metallic sheen of upper harmonics acquired a ferocity that could have those unaccustomed to it hurry back to the warmer, “prettier” but also more subdued and darker presentation of those systems that are dialed for relaxation rather than this inescapable excitement. On massed strings, the Helix cable clearly resolved individual instruments. The burnished quality of the Acoustic Zen rendered them a more unified mass.
Another apparent trait of the Helix cable – and directly related to the invigorating “edginess” – was a healthy sense of leanness. Again, this is apt to be misunderstood without further elaboration. Imagine low musical body fat by studying the facial details of an athlete with 5% body fat versus a fit average guy with 15%. The former will have very chiseled features: a carved chin, slightly sunken-in cheeks, tight skin around the scalp, cheek and jawbones. The latter will have rounder, slightly fuller contours – more curves, less hard lines. By comparison, our athlete/musical stand-in is distinctly harder and edgier, more menacing and dangerous, less civilized and comfortable - less “nice guy” but acutely present, charged, a contained explosion of action waiting to be set off.
If you transfer these body types onto the whole frequency spectrum, top to bottom, you will arrive at the rendition of the ClearView Double Helix cables as the Olympic gymnast: very taut, slamming, “fast” bass, without the softening fat, roundness and bloom of the Acoustic Zen that seemed less agile and a mite thick but thereby also weightier by comparison. In the vocal range, the ClearView portrayal generated a greater sense of presence, more acute outlines, perhaps even a sense of forwardness not in the spatial dimension (performers were not closer the listener) but in terms of clarity, as though singers were better separated from the surrounding instrumental weave. The size and depth of the soundstage seemed the same with both cables, but image specificity and intrinsic transparency (the ability to see into the soundstage) was considerably more resolved with the Helix – it eliminated a blurring or softening effect that made the Acoustic Zen cable more romantic and dense.
The casual listener might at first call the combination of these ClearView qualities bright. If understood in the conventional sense of an elevated or hot treble with its concomitant appearance of added resolution, this wouldn’t be accurate. Rather, this sense of illumination pervaded the entire audible frequency domain without emphasis in any particular spectrum. If you can envision a sense of brightness also in the bass and midrange, you’d be closer to what I heard.
Another simile for this overall brightness stems from the culinary domain. If you use sugar and tamari soy sauce -- or lemon and honey -- in tandem, you can deftly balance the two opposing flavors of the sweet/salty or sour/sweet palette to create more tension in your food. Unless you misjudge the proportions of either, your dish will not turn salty or sweet or sour per se. Rather, such complementary spicing – I am thinking now first-rate Thai for example -- will simply create more excitement, brighten up textures for deeper contrast, so that the individual flavors of the ingredients won’t congeal but remain sharply distinct: ClearView. If instead, you forwent the salt or lemon but just added a bit of sugar for a less pungent and vibrant but certainly sweeter sound: Acoustic Zen – at least in my system.
Those who are familiar with my personal tastes (as expressed through my fondness for the Art Audio marquee, the Avantgarde Audio Duo 3.0, the Audio Magic Stealth Power Purifier, the Bel Canto eVo 200.4, the Triangle Ventis 222) won’t be surprised that I cottoned onto the ClearView interconnect cables in a big way. In fact, I will purchase them. I’m comfortable that I will obtain what, separated by many months, still appears like an unreasonably large helping of the magic I heard when I first took the very expensive, out-of-reach Omega Mikro Ebony IC for a spin.
Two final observations: the lockable ClearView/Mapleshade barrel, even when tightened down fully, still was slightly loose on certain female RCA terminals – never an audible or practical problem but something that deserves mention and can apparently be adjusted by the manufacturer.
Be aware, too, that poor recordings with a high degree of innate zing and steeliness won’t benefit from the usual taming and smoothing-of-the-edges. Rather, they’ll be rendered with a starkness that could well be off-putting – some of my “acquired taste” Arab Pop, great fun but lousy production values, falls squarely into that category. As usual, you don’t get something for nothing here. The ClearView effect (what a smartly chosen name) can be diluted by following one set (say between source and preamp) with a cable like the Acoustic Zen between preamp and amp, grafting two slightly dissimilar qualities into a mix that’ll contain a bit of either. In fact, one single run of this stuff goes a long way toward “cleaning the plumbing” and “dusting out the cob webs”.
But now we are smack dab back in the cable-as-tone-control snake pit – time to visit the Double Golden Helix speaker cable, power cord and power strip before I get poisoned.
On the way out for today, and asking whether the Helix performs in the same league as the Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference, I would say most assuredly so. They are two very different flavors of sonic ice cream – tart lemon vs sweet vanilla -- but they’re both top caliber. This makes them impervious to my running joke that cables are inherently pervy.
Golden Helix Speaker Cable: 8' set / $85 ($155)
Double Golden Helix Speaker Cable: 8' set / $280 ($395)
Ultrathin II interconnect: 1m pair / $85 ($140)
Ultrathin II Digital/Video interconnect 1m / $42.50 ($97.50)
Double Helix Interconnect 1m / $240 ($335)
Double Helix Digital/Video Interconnect 1m / $120 ($215)
Double Helix Powercord 4.5 meter / $150.00 ($210)
Double Helix MK.II Powercord 4.5 meter / $225.00 ($285)
Double Helix Power Strip 4.5' cord, 6 outlets / $195
Double Helix Power Strip MK.II 4.5' cord, 6 outlets / $270 ($340)
[Pricing in parenthesis denotes Plus versions - ship charges extra]