January 15, 2008Cable Research Lab Copper Series Speaker Cables and Interconnects
No audio component crosses class lines as easily as cables do. Maybe its because there arent many parts to affect the sound, maybe its because their manufacturers seem to set prices using a dartboard, but among cables theres definitely less correlation between cost and performance than with, say, preamps. Can you imagine actually improving the sound of your system by swapping out a $20,000 preamp for a $1000 model?
Speaker cables, however, rely heavily on the components they join to govern their sound, or lack of same. If youve got, say, a dull top end because of your long, super-expensive runs of high-capacitance wire, switching to a cheaper, low-capacitance design might let through more of those brushes and cymbals. So big differences are there to be had, whether hated or enjoyed -- especially with tube amps, whose high output impedance can play havoc with your speakers frequency response. On the other hand, all but the lowest-impedance preamps are designed to work well with virtually every power amplifier.
A cables statistics of capacitance, induction, and impedance are vitally important but virtually nonexistent. Without these, no predictions can be made about the synergy a cable might enjoy with your equipment -- hence the lending library established by the Cable Company. The quality of construction matters too, of course, and can make a cable relatively expensive, but it never costs a mint. These things arent going into space, you know.
I havent seen much better construction quality than what I see in Cable Research Labs (CRL) Copper Series speaker cables ($1150 USD/8 pair) and interconnects ($850/1m pair). As good, yes; better, no -- and nothing that would inspire a purchase based on that alone. Ive seen prettier cables, and some that even glow in the dark.
The CRLs dont -- theyre just pure, braided copper in a Litz array, wrapped in a polypropylene dielectric, and covered with an apparently military-grade, abrasion-resistant black mesh. (My cats, who fondly remember their old Nordost chew toys, are thoroughly uninterested in the CRLs.) Terminations are top-shelf Bocchino compression spades -- no solder. The Bocchinos are beautiful in photos, and Im sure they make a flawless connection, but, as a longtime fan of banana plugs, I opted for WBTs. I cant stand spades, which always seem to need tightening, whether or not you ever touch them, and I always forget how easy it is to strip the damn posts. WBT bananas slide in, expand, and lock -- in like Flynn. I could literally pick up the Coppers and drag my Virgo loudspeakers around the living room. Try that with spades, Bocchinos or no.
At 3" around and very well shielded, youd expect the CRL Coppers to be unmanageable, but I found them awfully easy to work with. I had to thread them under, behind, and along a built-in bookcase 16 long, and they had no problem whatever navigating the first 90-degree turn. A snake would have more trouble getting back there. At rest, with the left stretched out and the right coiled around a small table, they exuded power.
One of the reasons my backup solid-state amp never stays in my system longer than a couple of weeks, despite its iron grip on the Virgos petite woofers, is an annoying stuffiness that makes me want to throw all the windows open. Vocalists all seem to suffer from head colds. (One Chet Baker CD, Daybreak, drove me nuts until I acquired my present tube amp and realized that he actually did have a head cold on that date.) Worse, even though my solid-state amp is more powerful than my VAC 30/30 tube amp, it doesnt sound as if it is. What it sounds like is dull. I wasnt prepared for the lift it got from the CRLs.
CRL touts its cables as "high energy." That may be ad copy, but it wasnt far from the truth. Some cables do restrict, or roll off, sounds at either end of the audioband, and many audiophiles like the effects of those filters, especially if theyre trying to hide a systems Achilles heel. If thats your problem, forget the CRLs. With the Coppers, it seemed as if the music was flowing through a wider pipe -- all things must pass. I dont know if the apparent rush of information was owing to lower inductance, lower capacitance, or both, but these cables definitely sounded bigger than do my Cardas or Synergistic Research references. I heard a similar "opening up" of sound during my Nordost period, but the burly CRLs dont suffer from the sonic thinness that those, well, thin cables did.
On Vignola Plays Gershwin [CD, Mel Bay 10122], New York City guitarist Frank Vignola plays relentlessly straight-ahead jazz, backed up by an amazingly propulsive trio (I mean it; you wont be able to stop your foot). It begins with a snappy, well-defined, bass-and-brushes intro to "I Got Rhythm" that mercifully replaces Diana Kralls "All or Nothing at All" as a reference for that sort of thing. This one is better recorded, too -- the guitarists dont sound as if theyre playing in a closet. As a matter of fact, through the CRLs, even with all those MOSFETs in the circuit, this sparkling music just seemed to blossom through the Virgos. Very impressive.
But Chip Winston didnt buy Cable Research Lab because he liked the way CRL cables sounded with transistors. While I enjoyed my fling with solid-state -- a solid month, my personal best -- it wasnt until the little giant, my VAC 30/30, was back in the rack that I could fully appreciate what the CRLs were capable of. Unlike many euphonic, emotional, or otherwise syrupy-sounding amplifiers based on the 300B tube, the VAC is a no-bullshit reproducer of music. Vocals can be spectacularly lifelike and the stage panoramic, but thin, boxed-in, and/or edgy recordings will sound thin, boxed-in, and/or edgy. Also, because of the 30/30s highish output impedance of 1.1 ohms (still much lower than most tube amps), the wrong cable -- i.e., a high-capacitance model -- can cause a bit of a spike at around 1kHz. In general, the longer the wire, the more it will overwhelm any tube amp and rob it of its personality. My current setup forces me to use 20 cables, so when I hooked up the CRLs, I was prepared for the letdown I usually experience with "open" or "lively" cables.
I love bluegrass, but it can be torture to listen to if the system has an impedance spike at or near 1kHz -- too many instruments and voices fighting for the same middle frequencies. Thats great if you listen to your music via MP3s or over the phone, but a great stereo doesnt always bring that much extra to the party. Mapleshade, a label that specializes in discs for people who are deaf to anything over 2kHz, offers Still Light of the Evening, a wonderful collection of songs by North Carolinas Williamson Brothers [CD, Mapleshade 08952]. What little bottom there is comes through with flying colors, the harmonies are so close they can sometimes sound like a single multitracked voice, and the dobro, guitar, mandolin, and banjo battle at moderately high volumes in the upper midrange with no harmful effects. I might go so far as to say that I detected a bit of warmth in the vocals, but I think its enough that I never leaped for the volume knob. For me, thats as good a sign as any that no gross interface mismatch was taking place.
Frank Sinatra has always been, for me, an excellent indicator of "body" in a components sound. One of my favorites is Swing Easy & Songs for Young Lovers [CD, Japanese Capitol TOCJ 5958]. Detail- or treble-oriented cables make The Voice thinner and reedier than it should be -- he is, after all, a baritone -- and the always-present backing brass too bright, bordering on piercing. Low-pass cables can make the orchestras easier to take, but often cause Sinatra to sound just a touch older and fatter -- a mite slower, if you will. Through the CRL Coppers, his voice shone as it should, spotlit at center stage, but the brass (including those often horrifying muted trumpets), thank God, retained all their lower fundamentals: they were perfectly brassy, but with little or no irritation. It was all there.
With disc after disc, the CRL-VAC combo did what it seemed to do best: present a relatively deep, well-defined bottom end while offering a tremendous amount of treble detail with no edge whatsoever. The Apollo Ensembles Hidden Haydn [CD, Dorian 90226] is a period-instrument minor masterpiece that goes after the dynamics of these little-known symphonies with closer miking than is usual for the label, and engineer Brian Peters absolutely knocks it out of the park. Simply gorgeous string tone.
Harpsichord is another stiff test for any component. Im very happy to say I could sit down for a full CD of Trevor Pinnocks recording of J.S. Bachs Partitas [Hänssler 825-830], marveling at the richness of the vibrations produced by this spindly plucked instrument. The lower registers were very satisfying, but even the upper never sounded like "skeletons mating on a tin roof," or however harpsichord haters describe it. Here, the right hand was delivered in full, but with a sense of warmth I hadnt before heard from my system. And it was wonderful to hear Bach played on the keyboard his music was written for without having to worry about the usually unbearable sound. Other cables and components Ive had in my system have made the instrument listenable only by rolling off the top end, which robs the harpsichord of those magical upper registers. Every vibration in the music that is available to be reproduced should be allowed to live and breathe. One day you wont be able to hear them, and you will not be happy about it. For now, celebrate any component that is able to present them in a musically natural manner.
Which brings me to a bit of audiophile advice: Dont use one component to defeat or otherwise foil another. Unless you have a lot of money, you arent going to build a system that can do it all. The next component or accessory you buy should pass along undiluted what your system already does best. Identify your program and stick with it. Buying wires -- or anything else, for that matter -- to mask or reverse your systems sonic signature is a losing battle.
Though the CRL Coppers arent exactly cheap, they reside in the cable worlds crowded middle class, which is where Ive lived for most of my audio life. Im familiar with the natives, and, for very different reasons, Ive liked much of what Ive heard and all of what Ive owned. With each cable Ive bought, Ive hoped to nudge my system in a slightly different direction.
But the CRL Coppers opened the floodgates and let everything rush through. Hell, I paid a lot for a front end (dCS Verdi and Delius) capable of delivering bushels of detail and 3D images -- why let any of it be filtered out? Many good cables that act as high-pass filters present spectacular top-end detail; the CRLs transmitted the same lively sonic picture, but with absolutely no lack of support from the lower end. All parts spoke, and none offended. I wouldnt go as far as to call the sound of the CRLs warm, but in my system, their high doses of detail went down very smoothly: Upper-middle-class sound at a middle-class price.
Cable Research Lab Copper Series Speaker Cables
Cable Research Lab, Inc.
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