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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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 Money Thing
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.