October 1, 2006
Absolutecables Interconnects and Speaker Cables
Jim Sautter, founder of Absolutecables, thinks wires are much simpler -- and a lot less costly -- than a lot of people in the business make them out to be. Manufacturers complicate things, says Sautter, by addressing one or two side effects of cable design, such as capacitance or skin effect, and then aggressively advertising their solutions while ignoring the fundamentals. Sautter recognizes four critical parameters that affect a cables performance: conductor geometry, cable geometry, dielectric, and termination. Of course, within even those boundaries are plenty of permutations to sort through, but for his speaker cables Sautter prefers parallel conductors of pure solid copper covered with a Teflon foam dielectric and smartly terminated with chunky rhodium spade lugs from Cardas or impressive WBT locking banana plugs, the last a very useful (and fairly expensive) touch on what amounts to a "budget" cable.
You may be a bit disheartened when you open the shipping carton and find under the peanuts only a generic white cardboard box. No writing on the back congratulates you on your wise purchase, or welcomes you to a new dimension of sound quality. But you should be able to support yourself emotionally while struggling through the early stages of buyers remorse. After all, the speaker cable costs only $499 USD per 3 pair (or $749 per 8 pair), the interconnect $349 per 3 pair. By the way, do you know what they call a Royale with cheese at Absolutecables headquarters in Blue Grass, Iowa? A Quarter Pounder. They dont use the metric system; their standard interconnect length is 3 instead of 3.28 (1m). In my unforgiving setup, I actually missed that extra 0.28, and had to move my amp and rearrange some AC cords to make it work.
The speaker wires I received were 10 long, with spades on the amp end, those grippy WBTs on the speaker end. The extra 7, which youll probably need unless youre running monoblocks, cost $50/pair per foot, which raises the price to $849/pair. While this probably still qualifies as "budget," it does put Absolutecables squarely in the same ballpark as a number of other fine products.
One high-end truism states that the more expensive a product, the more difficult it will be to set up and maintain. The corollary to this should be the cheaper the product, the easier. Well, thank God these cables sounded as good as they did, because getting them into my system was like wrestling a 0-gauge wire coat hanger into a straight line. Those solid-copper conductors are solid. My first attempt resulted in aching knees and a flash of pain in my lower back. Even so, I was thankful that Jim Sautter had decided to go without shielding to make his wires easier to work with. The problem was getting the long leads, which are just as stiff as the rest of the cable, to bend enough to fit between the amplifiers binding posts and the floor, so I wouldnt have to install them from above and watch the cables crawl 2 up the wall before arcing back down behind my equipment rack. Once I did get them in place, I noticed that all the bends Id put in the cables now caused them to sit funny. I like my cables to drape, but smoothing out these kinks required patience. Absolutecables distinguishes hard-core audiophiles from dilettantes such as I, who like to listen to equipment but hate to handle it. Fortunately, the black spaghetti-strap interconnects are supple, and were a breeze to hook up.
When I received the cables, Sautter was still working on a power cord and a digital cable, which by now should be ready to ship. I would prefer to have had a complete set at the time, but the two pieces I had in hand were more than enough to alter my systems sonic signature and tell me plenty about Absolutecables house sound. They replaced my Synergistic Resolution Reference FXs speaker cables and Cardas Golden Reference interconnects (from DAC to amp). Synergistic and Cardas provide stark counterpoint to Absolutecables -- their approaches are as antiminimalist as you can get, although this is not a shoot-out by any means. Synergistic uses a copper-silver conductor matrix and active AC-powered shielding. Cardas uses helical, triaxial, multigauge symmetrical stranding and reduces resonances with controlled propagation and Crossfield construction (seriously). Anyway, both companies cables sound really good.
My system, though tube-based, features an X-ray-like digital front end -- dCS Verdi and Delius, and Audio Physic Virgo loudspeakers with metal-dome tweeters -- in a reverberant, medium-large room with a 13 ceiling. This adds up to a sound that, while extremely transparent, involving, and nonfatiguing, can lean toward thinness with some recordings. It may not be a friendly test track for every cable I audition, but at least you know how Ive handicapped it. The rest of the system was a Z-Systems rdp-1 digital preamp, VAC Renaissance 30/30 Mk.III power amp with Signature upgrade (stock tubes), and SRA V-series bases under all components.
After the trying installation, my jaw was set for immediate critical listening. I cued up "Solar," from Béla Flecks Two for the Road [CD, Sony Classical SK 92106] -- just driving banjo and bass -- and was startled before I could get back to my seat: Edgar Meyers bass leapt into the room. The instruments very bottom was probably limited by the Virgos 6" woofers, but its clarity, definition, and presence lifted the track to another level of involvement. Meyers instrument wasnt placed quite as far back in the soundstage as it had been with the Synergistic-Cardas combo (its still back there, behind the right speaker), but I heard more of his fingers on the neck, more grrrrrr from his bow on the lower strings. Flecks banjo technique is one of blinding speed and incredible precision. Like Eric Clapton, he attacks every note right in its sweet spot, with no mis-hits. Compared to my reference wires, I clearly heard more of that wonderful plunk of pick against string. Flecks lines were now even sharper; his playing seemed more urgent.
It was the same story with Bucky and John Pizzarelli. Playing acoustically on Live at the Vineyard Theater [CD, Challenge CHR 70025], the pair burn through the usual swing chestnuts with alacrity, but when they change gears and shift to rhythm to bring a tune to a climax, as on "Stompin at the Savoy," I feel a physical lift from the resonance they create. It was unmistakable: with the Absolutecables, there was definitely something going on with this tracks microdynamics. Not that I havent always enjoyed it through my reference cables, but with these, from time to time I found myself jumping like a deer hearing a twig snap.
On Nirvana [CD, LRC 29090], another great-sounding Pizzarelli guitar disc, the drums are spread from left to right. You might not like that sort of mix, but when the drummer rolls from one side of his kit to the other, I can easily hear the tom-toms out there, a few feet beyond the speakers outer edges. Dont get me wrong -- the Virgos can throw a panoramic soundstage via lamp cord. But Ive been listening to this disc with exactly this setup for years, and I know that with the Absolutes Im hearing a slightly wider stage. Part of this has got to be due to their lack of shielding (my reference cables are heavily shielded), but Ive listened to various unshielded Nordost wires at length in my system without the same sense of envelopment.
Unlike so many audiophile chanteuses these days, Diane Hubka is a wonderful jazz singer, as opposed to a jazz whisperer or heavy breather. She not only carries a tune with a voice as clear as glass; she can also hit high notes, sing actual uptempo numbers, and has zero desire to become a middle-aged pop star or sing torch songs in front of syrupy strings. Discs such as Look No Further [CD, A Records AL 73182] are filled with rarely recorded tunes -- for example, Malachi Thompsons "In Walked John," about jazz musicians waiting for Coltrane to show up for a jam session. Halfway through, theres a driving trombone solo by Scott Whitfield that distinguished itself through the Absolutecables with a decadently rich, brassy, baritone blat just a touch thicker and a touch more present than Im used to. Hubkas voice was slightly more forward and sounded somewhat bigger as well. Im beginning to think that my reference cables may be slightly recessing the midrange, if thats possible, while the Absolutes are flatter. But one way or another, it was clear that the Absolutes were letting more information through.
Transients were the Absolutecables obvious strength. Discs featuring percussion instruments were bracing, and vibes were rendered especially well. I did get a little bit more of the mallet hitting the metal than I got of the sustain, but because of that definition, aural images popped out at me just as visual images do from a good plasma display. Everything had its unshakable place in space. Three Guitars [SACD, Chesky SACD-289], an acoustic disc so wet with reverb it sounds like rain, became a touch dryer; the drops hit a bit harder. I heard more of the Beach Boys and less of Sunset Studios on Endless Summer [CD, DCC GZS-1076], but the guitars, drums, and handclaps brought home the realism.
The Absolutecables, however, could be tough on bluegrass. Throw a dobro in there with all those mandolins, banjos, and fiddles, and it was like a box-cutter fight on the F train: sharp and tense. String quartets and baroque chamber orchestras sounded somewhat strident unless theyd been recorded at a respectful distance, although the same could be said for almost any cable. Still, original-instrument ensembles could grate. The Dixie Chicks Home [CD, Columbia CK 86840], a gorgeous acoustic vocal recording, features honeyed harmonies that can make any C&W snob smile. Sadly, that album was a one-off -- the Chicks are now back to electric -- but the Synergistic-Cardas combo rounds off all the edges and warms things up until the voices melt together like vanilla ice cream and hot apple pie. The Absolutecables emphasized the twang of the Chicks individual voices, which to some may sound as shrill. On the other hand, my references remove from a trumpets sound some of the bite that would normally put it right in the room. The Absolutes gave me that live metallic brilliance with surprisingly little acid -- unless, of course I was spinning Miles Davis Sketches of Spain, or something else by His Royal Sourness. No cable on earth can help muted trumpet without muting it some more.
All this talk about presence and edge definition makes me wonder if the Virgos impedance spike at 2.5kHz was interacting with the capacitance of the speaker cables to liven things up when it may be just an artifact of tube amplification. VACs Kevin Hayes, who designed my Renaissance 30/30 Mk.III power amp, assures me that the spike would alter the frequency involved by less than 1dB. That said, there was an unmistakable tendency for the Absolutecables to accent upper fundamentals rather than the lower. A piano has much more definition on the left-hand side, where those upper harmonics help each note achieve its potential. You get every precious vibration. The right hand, however, doesnt share this benefit; some notes, when struck firmly, can sound hard, depending on the recording. Arcadi Volodos awesome disc of Schubert piano sonatas [CD, Sony Classical SK 89647] can be somewhat fatiguing on SACD, but the "Red Book" CD, with more perceived low-frequency information, is powerful and compelling. And Charlie Haden, a bassist whose deep, soft lines have been virtually inaudible on my rig for years (does he use nylon strings?), took a giant step forward; he greatly benefits from any component that can put some pop into his pizzicato.
If you want to nudge your system in the direction of openness, clarity, sparkle, presence, and bass definition, you should definitely shortlist Absolutecables. They offer more body than comparably priced Nordosts, and more of all the above than my reference Synergistics. Of course, if your system is as tightly wrapped as mine, youll be looking for something more forgiving.
You wont be wowed by the Absolutecables appearance. A cynic may say that their parallel solid conductors and generic black-mesh casing give the products a chopped-off-the-spool look. The leads could be more securely covered. When I removed them from my amp the first time, all the bending Id subjected them to had exposed a sticky half-inch of dielectric because the covering yokes the leads together instead of wrapping them individually. And there simply must be a logo: screening one on cant cost that much. Brand identity is not a luxury; neither is pride of ownership.
But are the Absolutecables worth the money? Without question, yes. Unless you need very long runs, the prices are right for their sound and build.
Absolutecables Interconnects and Speaker Cables
First, let me say that we truly appreciate the efforts of Sal. Not only is reviewing cables a thankless job, it also requires a great deal of effort and patience. After reading this review, I think there is no doubt that the reviewer took his job very seriously when listening to our products. With very few minor exceptions, I think that Sal has done a superb job of characterizing the sound of our cables. It was our design goal to make as neutral a cable as possible. We did not design this cable as a "tone control" and at this point have no intention of producing additional cables, each with different sonic characteristics. This may sound strange coming from a cable manufacturer, but it is our firm belief that audio enthusiasts reach a point of diminishing returns very quickly with cables and that the money saved from buying more modestly priced designs is better spent on new components, room treatments, and such. We deliberately employ Spartan packaging because all of our money goes into the manufacture of our products. Simply put, if something doesn't improve the sound of our product it isn't used, regardless of appearance.
I would like to add that we greatly appreciate the time that Sal has taken to inform the reader of the sonic characteristics of his reference system. We think that this information is invaluable and shows a great deal of integrity. Mr. D'Agostino not only tells you which components are used in his system, but he also tells you how his system sounds. We feel that the immediacy of certain aspects of our cable's presentation is the result of a cable design that does little to change the sound of its associated components. The word "forgiving" can have a number of connotations as this word relates to audio -- most of them negative. To be more precise, a "forgiving" product is one that is altering the original signal. It is interesting when Sal compares the SACD and Red Book recordings of Volodos: Very compelling that our cables were able to cast such a different light on the SACD and Red Book versions of the same recording. It could be that Mr. D'Agostino is hearing these recordings more accurately than in the past and that the intrinsic advantages of each format is more clearly illustrated.
Once again, many thanks to Sal and the entire staff of Ultra Audio and SoundStage! for giving Absolutecables a listen.
Ultra Audio is part of the SoundStage! Network.