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November 2001
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Nordost Valhalla Interconnect And Loudspeaker Cable
Review by Bob Neill
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Nordost Valhalla Loudspeaker Cable  Wire, wire, pants (pocket) on fire. Easily the most controversial subject in audio if you follow the perpetual web skirmishes. I bring to the discussion of this deceptively occult subject, about which only the smug believe we have not a great deal yet to learn, the advantage of knowing very little. I don't believe or disbelieve anything in this field on theory. I am an unabashedly - not to say undisciplined - subjectivist in these matters. And, I tend to believe that where experience leads, theory will rise to explain. I believe my ears, at least partly because I do not believe natural selection could have imagined any competitive advantage in designing ears that deceive us on a regular basis. Mine have proven, though not always trustworthy on a given day and especially under pressure, dependable over time.

I don't even disbelieve in double-blind testing. I have 'no opinion of it whatever,' though when recalling that expression, must confess I invoke Beatrix Potter's Old Mr. Benjamin Bunny, who, you may remember, "had no opinion whatever about cats." I simply discovered early in my quest that wire - any wire - can turn a system on its ears, smother it, or unleash the powers designed into it. AC cords, interconnects, and speaker cables. They all change things. Experience tells most of us, like it or not, that the best of them are all full-fledged components. Unbelievers need read no farther. Nothing I have to report here will change your minds.

My cable experience began when I substituted, by sheer luck, Nordost Blue Angel (not even Blue Heaven) for Chord cable in a home audition of a Naim CDX three years ago because I was bored and North American Naim rep Chris Koster had some Nordost on hand for troublemakers like me. It "tore open the shutters and threw up the sash." Nordost stayed, Chord left... looking sheepish. The experience continued when Captain Tweak (Clark Johnsen) sneaked Electraglide power cords onto my Naim XPS power supply, Krell KRC 3 pre-amplifier and KSA 50S amplifier. Ambience, especially in the low bass, walked into the room. And deep silence. EG stayed too, though it got upgraded later. This first chapter of my cable education concluded with an urgent invitation by Ralph Spear of Boston's Spearit Audio to replace my long-lived Naim speaker cable with some Straightwire Virtuoso, thereby enabling me, finally, to hear what an oboe sounds like. None of these experiences was expected (by me) and all were revelatory. I now attend the Church of Wire regularly.

 

SPM
Since the Nordost experience seemed the most dramatic to me, a year or so later I pushed that one further. Rushing past highly praised Blue Heaven and somewhat more equivocally praised (in its first edition) Red Dawn to SPM. Reviewers and dealers alike were telling me it was the plateau beyond which improvement begins to fall off rapidly relative to cost. I tried out a meter on the Naim and then, utterly delighted, got another to run between my then Blue Circle BC 3 pre-amplifier and BC 2.1 monoblocks. SPM, despite recurring rumors about 'leanness in the upper bass' which I have never been able to verify in my system, is to my ears the cable that everyone who is neither poor nor well-to-do ought to find a way to own. Up until a month ago it was the best cable I'd ever heard and good enough to crown any rational search for perfection.

It has great power to release music, opening up even relatively modest systems from bottom to top, systems you didn't know were closed in, without a hint of the glare that generally comes with that kind of improvement. Its effect is cumulative, though I have not heard it as speaker cable, which is where it gets the most praise. It is neither warm and forgiving nor cool and silvery. It is smooth, open, fast, immediate, natural, and clear. Great wire.

 

Quattro Fil
My SPM adventure took place two years ago. Still happy with it but growing anxious about the upcoming four-meter run of interconnect my new setup was going to require (SPM is unshielded) and attentive to how Quattro Fil was becoming widely accepted as a reference by other Nordost faithful, a few months ago I stumbled not all that innocently onto a four-meter pair of used Q.F. cable on Audiogon and scarfed it up. Soon thereafter, I replaced the one-meter run between my Naim and preamp with Q.F. as well. Vin Garino of Nordost told me back when I bought the SPM that Quattro Fil was better only if you had a system with enough resolution to bring out its superiority. And in TAS, reviewer Roman Zajcew assured me that "Quattro Fil and SPM interconnects sound alike, though the former has "less leanness," "a bit more inner detail," and is "slightly clearer." Not the kind of recommendations to get ones expectations up.

Quattro Fil is, as Zajcew says and as any SPM lover would hope, better in degree not in kind than SPM. But in my still relatively brief experience with it, the improvement with Quattro Fil is not at all about "bits" and "slightlies." With it in the system, I find myself riveted to the music. "A bit more inner detail." Right. My guess is, even at the 50% increase in investment required, Quattro Fil will eventually replace SPM in most systems. It is significantly better. (And it's shielded.) What I hear, to be more specific, is added refinement and detail in the mids and highs, both of which I more or less expected; but also more detail, clarity, and even impact in the bass. A nice surprise. I continue to hear no Nordost leanness, which may or may not suggest that the rest of my system has always been a smidgen on the fat side. Naim? Blue Circle AG's? Nah. Harbeth Monitor 40's? Maybe. A smidgen.

Note: There is and will be no Quattro Fil speaker cable. Garino says that SPM serves this function so well there is no need for a Q.F. speaker cable.

 

Valhalla
Okay, previews and short subjects are over. All of the foregoing took place and was written before putting the Valhalla into my system. I wanted to be absolutely honest with myself and my audience about how satisfying both SPM and Quattro Fil are before experiencing what Nordost thinks is still somehow better than what I was hearing. What could conceivably lie beyond this perfection? Which, alas, we all know is a real standard which nevertheless recedes relentlessly before us.

Nordost Valhalla Interconnect Cable My procedure with the Valhalla has been as deliberate as possible for someone who as a kid used to hear sleigh bells a month before Christmas. First I took out the Straightwire Virtuoso speaker cable which has served me extremely well for eight years. Put in a one-meter pair of single-run Valhalla speaker cable... (Allan Shaw of Harbeth, REG of TAS, and a much admired Harbeth owner/web friend in Taiwan all assure us that bi-wiring does nothing for Monitor 40's.) For the time being, for all of our sakes, economically speaking, I left the Quattro Fil interconnects in the system. I was told to let the new Valhalla play for 70-100 hours before beginning "critical listening". Alas, that much discipline for me is impossible. Also, it would have been useful if there had been an interim step - trying out SPM speaker cable; but I did not ask Nordost to send me that. I am still new to this equipment begging business.

So the omission of that comparison along with other relevant, comparisons such as NBS Statement and Opus, let alone such modestly priced wires as Stage III, Acoustic Zen and the rest represents the hole in this review. All I can say in defense is this is not a critical survey, it is a focused study. I hope the care with which this is carried it out and my efforts at accurate description can make it as useful as the other kind, which I'm sure will follow.

I used the word "revelatory" casually above. I would now like to use it seriously. Those who profess to know about revelation, tell us that with the real thing there is no blinding light, no burning bush, fanfare, or thunder. You turn and He (or It or it) is simply there. There is no display or sense of effort. This was my first thought on hearing Valhalla speaker cable in my system and it is nearly always the first feeling I have when I hear live music after having heard only my music system for a long time. This is the quality that keeps so many clinging to analogue and praying for SACD and DVD-A.

The basses in a Josquin mass by A Sei Voci (Astree) were stunningly and firmly there, the counter-tenors road above them clear but non-insistent, the tenors stood directly before me - their voices spread across the midband. All three separate vocal lines simply unfolded while my coffee grew cold. With Valhalla speaker cable in my system, music is spacious, clear, full, effortless, and both emotionally engaging and intellectual discriminating. It is manifestly present. Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. SPM and Quattro Fil are distinctive mainly for the sense of openness and light they bring, illuminating all corners evenly and naturally. Valhalla appears to expand on this quality dramatically - and everything rides on a cushion of air.

Nordost Valhalla Loudspeaker Cable I planned to let myself adjust to the system without Valhalla interconnects in it but could not. Later that first day I took out the four meters of Quattro Fil between my Blue Circle AG 3000 and AG 8000 monoblocks and put in the Valhalla - and discovered that Valhalla IC takes longer to break in than the speaker cable. A quick call to Vince assured me that this is the case. It's apparently about the architecture of the cable: with Quattro Fil and Valhalla interconnects, everything's all close together in a cylindrical structure - though the Valhalla cylinder is at least twice the diameter of Quattro Fil; with the speaker cable there is a broad (twice as broad as SPM) plain, that keeps the important strands apart. What I heard from the system for the first hour or so was a little crisper and drier than with the Quattro Fil. As it began to break in over the course of a week, in which the system ran all day in my absence, things gradually changed.

With the speaker cable the only Valhalla in the system, the effect - the change - had been simple and obvious. It was the pleasant surprise of hearing enhanced clarity coupled with ease and effortlessness. But once the interconnect was in and beginning to break in, everything got less simple. Sure, it worked its way back to clarity and ease but the clarity had become more complex. Now there was much more depth and focus to the soundscape, instruments' and singers' locations were clearer and there was more distinctiveness among individual performers, all of which vividly asserted claims on my attention. They all fit together well enough - there was no confusion - but they refused to melt into the euphonious soup we often expect and even praise as being 'musical.' If I end up telling you that Valhalla cable has had a greater impact on my system than any other, this extraordinary simultaneously opulent and highly detailed complexity is what I'm getting at. Of course it's on the records and in the components - but it has never come out of them until now.

 

Miscellaneous Field Notes:
· Timbres are especially noticeable, in particular acoustic basses, which I'm not used to hearing so clearly. Actually, I'm more aware of bass altogether - because its impact is greater but really it's the clarity and detail down there that's really getting to me. 

· Periodically, I catch myself asking, "Is it a tad warm?" Then smiling and remember that I always notice that live acoustic, especially live orchestral music, is always surprisingly warm. Concert hall measurements (by REG) can be a real shock - "bass up, highs way down." The difference between real warmth and the artificially induced kind (highly colored amps, mellow cables) is that the detail is still there. Hi-fi means an excess of clarity over warmth; "musical" often means warmth and softness at the expense of clarity; truthfulness is warmth with clarity. Live acoustic music never sounds bright but always sounds wonderfully clear.

· Listening to Volume 11 of Koopman's Bach Cantata cycle at low volume early Sunday morning, I'm struck with how much more "hair" there is on the strings - don't know a less figurative way to put it. They're not just liquid 'n' airy, as audiophiles require, there is also a soft brusqueness to them. I can imagine that I'm hearing the hair on the bows and gut on the strings. Hell, there's hair on the woodwinds too, must be the reeds.

· The blessed curse of adjustment. One reason it's wise to record ones early impressions of anything is that if it's really good, you will adjust to it and to some degree cease to hear it. Familiarity breeds content, if the product is good enough. It becomes the new norm, as it should. If someone asks me what one of my other components sounds like these days, I generally say something utterly useless like, "Better than its predecessor." How better? "Better, overall better." A week into this audition with both interconnects and speaker cables coming up on 50 hours, I had to make an effort to hear the improvements by themselves. All I could hear was the music which kept drawing me back. Couldn't turn off Rufus Wainwright's new Poses (Dreamworks), David Finckel and Wu Han's Beethoven Cello album (Artistled), or Isabelle Van Keulen's new Bruch Violin Concertos CD (Koch Schwann). It's the revelation thing again: if it's the real thing, it very soon ceases to seem all that special and simply becomes…real. I'm working my way toward a T.S. Eliot quote - can you hear it coming?

· Coming up on 60-70 hours, a moment of alarm. As the cable opens up, I have the feeling that strings have lost a bit of their float and become a little harder. What the hell is THAT? Densen disk, some ECO on all of the cords: better but only marginally. Is the Valhalla beginning to reveal the comparative weakness of the Naim player? Then I remembered a casual remark from Naim N.A. rep Chris Koster to the effect that "Naim players don't like isolation devices." What the hell. I took the BC cones out from under the CDX - the little jewels that made a noticeable improvement in my pre-Valhalla system, and bingo. Hardness gone. More air, more softness in the right places. No loss of clarity or impact. Whew and damn. So in a system without Valhalla the CDX benefited from the gentle goose of the BC cones but doesn't want them with Valhalla. Okay, live and learn.

 

Happy Man?
I am happy, no need to do anything else. Leave everything as it is now. But wait, this is not life, it's a review, so I have to take out the four meters of Valhalla interconnect and put the Quattro Fil back in to see what kind of "loss" I notice. Valhalla speaker cable still in, Virtuoso gone to buyer in New Zealand - that's life. And Quattro Fil is between the Naim and the pre-amplifier because Nordost cannot get all of Valhalla into a din connector.

So in goes the Quattro Fil interconnect - and the first thing I hear is an affecting, smooth, refined midrange - I remember that - and the Valhalla loudspeaker cable is still contributing its marvelous sense of ease. With the Q.F. interconnect essentially in charge, everything feels lovely - but compared with Valhalla IC, it all feels a little idealized. And over the next half-hour that is the strongest impression: the lovely, effortless presentation and a sense of refined near-unreality. Pinning things down a little, the overall presentation with Q.F. is a bit lighter. (Now perhaps I'm hearing the alleged leanness of SPM and Q.F. ??) Bass is there, clear as before, but different from the Valhalla's bass. This difference has as much to do with overall sense of space as it does with notes. With the Valhalla IC in the system, the overall presentation is richer, bigger, spatially deeper, fuller - also more exciting, intimate, real. When some people say that Valhalla is warm, what they're responding to is probably the increased level of information and ambience in the bass, which changes the overall balance toward a more natural and whole, less lyrical and exquisite presentation.

With Q.F. you have the distinct feeling that while it's all pretty much there, the focus is on the midrange. With David Finckel and Wu Han's recording of Edward Finckel's music for cello and piano (Artistled), we get more cello and more piano with the Valhalla, on the bottom and on the top. It's exciting to listen to. With Quattro Fil, the effect is more lyrical, less dramatic. Very attractive, less interesting. With Podger and Pinnock's Bach sonatas for violin and harpsichord (Channel Classics), on Valhalla there is not only the power of Podger's dynamic approach to violin playing but also a firm and spatially distinct harpsichord.

With the Quattro Fil, they are harder to separate, sonically and spatially, and here that cable's seeming midrange focus makes it all feel a little constricted and overly intense. We need more of Podger's violin - more of its wood - to keep it from being a bit overbearing through the mids. Important point: you wouldn't notice this, I'm sure, if you weren't coming to it with the experience of Valhalla. Quattro Fil is extraordinary wire. But that's what high end comparisons are all about, aren't they?! A new experience changes an earlier one. Quattro Fil revises how we heard SPM and is revised by Valalla in turn. "The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them." 

The truth is that Valhalla is really new - and when it becomes the principal cable in the system, even compared with wonderful Quattro Fil, we feel we have taken a clear and unmistakable step toward the real thing.

 

Summary Time
Obviously what I am talking about with Valhalla amounts to a categorical difference. As on a 12-speed bike when you shift the left lever and all of the gears move up a whole range. We all know in our hearts that tweaks and wires don't really add up to more than about a ten percent improvement overall, though at the time of their introduction the improvement generally seems monumental. I believed for a while, when SPM, Electraglide, and BC cones - and Optrix, ECO, the Densen disk, and the Bedina Clarifier entered my system that they made "all the difference." I value all of my wires and tweaks. But sober and on the record, I don't think they have upgraded what I hear more than a total of ten percent. Ten percent is a lot. I am grateful for it and would not give it up. It refines. But it is not enough to transform. Valhalla transforms. Utterly.

Downsides? I would say, like Quattro Fil only more so, it would be wasted in a reasonably priced system. It is designed to excel by passing along subtleties that the adjacent equipment must be able to pick up and receive. Actually, maybe that's an upside. With Nordost, in a sensible system, Blue Heaven can deliver the kind if not the degree of benefit that SPM, Quattro Fil, and Valhalla deliver to more highly resolving systems. Fair enough?

 

The Money Thing
Does this degree of perfection really have to cost this much? We are talking about $2,100 for a one-meter pair of speaker cables in a single run, $4,200 for bi-wired - as most folks will buy it! Then there is $3,300 for a one-meter pair of interconnects? I am more willing than most to find ways to put my (and my bank's) money down when genius calls. But this, as Art Altman says in a recent post on Rec.Audio.High-End, is a "tragic" price for most of us. And yet. And yet I am told and believe that in the case of the speaker cable, the profit margin has been set deliberately lower than it is on SPM or Quattro Fil. So yes, it has to cost at least this much. Is it "worth" it? Within five minutes of listening to the speaker cable I would have done virtually anything to own it. To go where we are all trying to get, to get to revelation, manifestation, presence yes, it is worth it. "And yes I said yes.'

I know my credibility as a reviewer will fade soon if I don't get my hands on some piece of equipment that is less than wonderful. But one of the luxuries of writing for Enjoy the Music is that you can choose what to review. I am clearly assembling what as I reviewer I will soon have to refer to as my "reference system," and so far, my guesses about what comes next have been good ones. And the "reference system" is nearly there. I am auditioning and will review a Naim CDSII next month to discover whether or not the late Julian Vareker's best can add its fair ten percent beyond my CDX/XPS; and at least one logical competitor, the Accuphase DP 85v should be here soon for comparison. I do not expect Blue Circle's Gilbert Yeung to exceed the AG 3000/8000 in my lifetime. If Harbeth's Alan Shaw decides to improve on the Monitor 40's or build some new premier product, I'll certainly listen. And I can't believe that he won't. But my cable tithing is very likely over.

Can it get any better than this? Of course it can! How? I don't know but as with Valhalla, I'll know when I hear it.

 

The Numbers
With Valhalla cable, since it is so much a part of a system that I've already numbered pretty thoroughly in the previous Harbeth and Blue Circle reviews, the numbers should be seen in relation to my earlier ones. Valhalla improves attack and decay a bit. It also clarifies and deepens the soundscape and makes individual images more stable. In this system, with the Harbeths, the sound still does not project much out into the room, which since I sit eight feet away with the speakers nine feet apart, is just fine with me. I'm getting plenty of 'spatial drama' as it is. Deep bass is limited at this stage by the bottom end of the Harbeths, which is somewhere in the upper thirties, according to REG's graph of his M40's output in TAS. If I ever get a speaker in that goes lower, I'll report back on this category. I would say that more than with any other components I've heard, the numbers can't really tell the story with Valhalla. Unless we added a category for Incarnation. I am giving this cable 100 in the value for money category based on what I said above. This is what it costs to get what Valhalla delivers. In my experience, you can't get it for less.

 

Tonality

100

Sub-bass (10 Hz - 60 Hz)

90

Mid-bass (80 Hz - 200 Hz)

100

Midrange (200 Hz - 3,000 Hz)

100

High-frequencies (3,000 Hz on up)

100

Attack

95

Decay

100

Inner Resolution

100

Soundscape width front

90

Soundscape width rear

95

Soundscape depth behind speakers

85

Soundscape extension into the room

85

Imaging

100

Fit and Finish

100

Self Noise

100

Value for the Money

100

 

Specifications

Loudspeaker Cable
Insulation: High purity "Class 1" extruded Teflon®
Conductor: 40 optimized diameter
Material: 78 microns of extruded silver over 99.999999 OFC
Capacitance: 11.8pF/ft
Inductance: 0.096uH/ft
DC Resistance: 2.6ohms/1000ft/304M
Dimensions: 2 1/8 inches or 5.5cm wide and 0.039 inches or 0.1mm thick.

 

Interconnect Cable
Insulation: High purity class 1 extruded Teflon®
Conductors: eight optimized diameter in Micro Monofilament construction
Material: 78 microns of extruded silver over 99.999999 OFC
Capacitance: 22.0pF/ft
Dielectric constant: 1.38
Inductance: 0.055uH/ft
Propagation Delay: 87% speed of light
Dimensions: 0.25 inches or 8cm diameter

 

Price
Speaker cable: 1 meter pair, bi-wired $4200
2 meter pair, bi-wired 6100
3 meter pair, bi-wired 8000
4 meter pair, bi-wired 9900
5 meter pair, bi-wired 11800

(Add $950 per additional half-meter)

Interconnect: .6 meter pair 2800
1 meter pair 3300
1.5 meter pair 3800 

(Add $60 for XLR. Add $500 per additional half-meter.)

 

Company Information
Nordost Corporation
420 Franklin Street
Framingham, MA 01702

Voice: (508) 879-1242
Fax: (508) 879-8197
E-mail: Nordostflatline@msn.com
Website: www.Nordost.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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