January 15, 2004
Nordost Valkyrja Interconnects and Speaker Cables
Valkyrja. Wotan would have been pleased -- they got the spelling right, albeit too late. The gods had their Götterdämmerung and dear old Valhalla collapsed in a heap. As a preface to that bit of climactic stagecraft, Der Ring des Nibelungens warrior maidens ranged about the field of battle, gathering up the fallen and trotting off with their harvest of the temporarily lifeless to that nightly banquet in the sky for which Mediterranean types, et al., need not apply. These were Nordic doings.But it's never too late to participate. In the spirit of wishful attenuation, we depart mythology for the sweet spot, where imagination also plays a role. When I first got wind of Nordost's Valkyrja cables, I yelped with dismay. Valhalla takes second place?! Unthinkable! Happily, yes, unthinkable. At the head of Nordosts long product line, we still find Valhalla, then Valkyrja, then Quattro Fil. Lest youve gone all misty-eyed thinking that the hoi polloi is now able to score Valhalla know-how at Circuit City prices, permit me to stanch those tears of gratitude. We call this place Ultra Audio. Thats Ultra, as in routinely over the top. If youve been here before, it comes as no shock that a 1m-long pair of RCA-terminated Valkyrja interconnect costs $2000; the speaker cables first meter costs $2800/pair. Not exactly free.
On the other hand, one can lay out $4200 for a 1m pair of Nordosts top-of-the-line Valhalla speaker cables. We all understand that the tags dangling from designer cables bear disproportionately high numbers vis-ā-vis audiophile electronics, the MSRPs of which can also appear unseemly compared to, say, major appliances. In pursuit of a similar point, I mentioned in an earlier review what my wife and I laid out for a big, fat, fancy stove. Since then, weve spent another $10,000 to have our 165-year-old house retrofitted with a computer-operated heating and hot-water system.
Ten thousand bucks will paper but one corner of a high-end audio rig. My electronic components, whose prices are similar to those of the Nordost cables, are stuffed with meticulously engineered, carefully assembled, high-quality parts. But theres not much to an audio cable, and their designer-manufacturers sometimes feel obliged to provide justifications. With the Valhalla, its the trouble Nordost takes creating the stuff.
The Valhallas Teflon Microfilament technology looks like an accomplishment that requires some doing. This ribbon speaker cable, "no thicker than a credit card" (an apt comparison), consists of four closely spaced tracks, ten strands to each, of highly polished, silver-plated copper wire around which spirals a fine monofilament, its purpose to maintain a consistent distance between the conductors and their extrusion of clear Teflon dielectric. The trick is to come as close to an air dielectric as is possible -- there appears to be a consensus among manufacturers that audio cables work best when their immediate environment approximates air. Nordosts precisely spaced monofilament wrap permits their speaker cables and interconnects strands to maintain their performance characteristics even when sharply bent. The Teflon extrusion keeps its distance in a uniform and predictable way. Nordost also claims a signal transfer at about the speed of light. (The tubular IC perforce conceals what the speaker cable reveals.) One pays for pains taken.
The Valkyrja speaker cable closely resembles its big brother, the Valhalla. Nordost explains that the Valkyrjas lower price is due to "new production methods and tooling, which [have] allowed [us] to refine and simplify the manufacturing process to a point where [we] can now produce a more affordable . . . cable." As to visible differences, the Valhallas four parallel tracks of ten spiral-wrapped conductors have been reduced in the Valkyrja to four tracks of seven each, yielding a narrower ribbon: 1 1/2" across compared with the Valhallas 2 1/8"; same credit-card thickness. The pale violet monofilament imparts a pastel hue. Nice touch, that. The Valkyrja interconnects likewise pale-violet tube looks to be about a third skinnier than the silvery Valhalla, and its wrapped differently: under a clear Teflon film one sees a braid of fine strands, as compared with Valhallas winding of similarly fine strands.
For the purposes of equipment evaluation, I use classical and jazz recordings in which musicians perform simultaneously on acoustic instruments. No exceptions. While Im not much persuaded by differing opinions, I do understand that some enthusiasts place other qualities ahead of verisimilitude -- that is, convincing imitations of live acoustic music.
One of my principal test recordings for this review was a new Hat Hut jazz release Ive been enjoying for the past few weeks: Strandjutters [hatOLOGY 590], with Daniele DAgaro, tenor sax and clarinet; Ernst Glerum, double bass; and Han Bennink, drums and percussion. Its very nicely recorded and ideal for this kind of work: an uncluttered, beautifully resolved view of a wide range of timbres and harmonic detail, with good dynamics and a lot of low-end activity (that closely miked double bass).
I began with a comparison of the Valhalla and Valkyrja speaker cables. In my experience, sonic differences among high-quality interconnects are more easily detected than among speaker cables of a similarly high quality. But during this first session I frowned, grumbled, actually got a little upset, and broke for lunch. Rather than return to what seemed to me a wash, I moved on to the interconnects.
I reinstated my reference Valhalla speaker cables between my two mono Mark Levinson No.33H power amps and my Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 6es, and hooked up my Mark Levinson No.390S CD player with the review pair of Valkyrja interconnects.
Early impressions: The Valkyrja interconnect is a lovely piece of work. Its immediate attractions were a rich yet spot-on midrange and a strong sense of presence. My review pair defined the recording venues space remarkably.
Later impressions: This report gave me fits. I received a review CD that, like Strandjutters, was well suited to these comparisons -- not that it helped all that much. The Rotterdam Chamber Orchestra, under Conrad van Alphens direction, performs three popular works for small string orchestra: Griegs Holberg Suite, Op.40; Dvoráks Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op.22; and Elgars Serenade for Strings in E Minor, Op.20 [Telarc CD-80623]. Play this disc a little too loud or on a system however much wanting in resolution, and the grouped strings can sound thick, as is the custom with Telarcs orchestral recordings: plump in the midrange downward and, compared with other recording techniques, less obviously airy in the upper reaches. Its that touch less that should help in these tasks: detecting shades of difference between smooth enough and deliciously silken. What I listen for is a nicely resolved string texture. Shouldnt be too difficult.
I took another break -- more like beat a retreat -- from what was developing into one of the more arduous reports Ive had to write. Its still giving me fits. Im paid the big bucks (not to neglect the signing bonus) to sort out differences, and those differences are not pounding on the door.
This mornings listening concentrated on a delightful between-the-lines release, Peter Herberts Youre My Thrill [btl 032], with vocalist Christine Tobin and the 14-strong Ensemble Plus, Herbert directing. Herbert takes Billie Holiday numbers and sets them to mildly modernist chamber arrangements. Its a beautifully executed idea that I recommend. The good recording offers a lot of lush midrange activity and a fine sense of space and air. But I could detect no difference between my Valhalla interconnects and the review Valkyrjas. Make that a failure to detect a difference this side of "creative" listening -- a strong possibility when ones task challenges ones capacity to discern vanishingly slight distinctions.
A different kind of recording provided what I thought I heard as a difference, though it never left the realm of the excruciatingly subtle. Handels favorite oratorio, Theodora [Erato 0927 43181-2], features vocal soloists, a big, lusty chorus, and Les Arts Florissants, a treble-prominent, original-instrument band, William Christie directing. I stepped from Youre My Thrills candle-flame mellowness into sunlight. Several comparisons of a couple of tracks led me to believe that the Valhallas surpassed the Valkyrjas in topside sweetness and overall air and coherence. Hang on to subtle.
But later, when I returned to the oratorio, not only did I find little wanting with respect to the Valkyrja ICs, I wasnt even sure of the differences Ive just described. This hasnt been much fun.
The ideal audio cable is sonically invisible. If its color you require, or character, something to compensate for problems elsewhere in the system, youd be wasting your money -- great heaps of the stuff! -- on the Nordosts. When a reviewer evaluates audio components this good -- which is to say, components this close to invisible -- differences become vanishingly small. One had better be sure one is getting it right. Keep in mind that everything I report here is what I heard coming out of a system that includes several effective grunge filters. (See my reviews of the Harmonix Reimyo ALS-777 line conditioner, to which Ive added a pair of Harmonix X-DC Studio Master power cords, and Walker Audio UHD Links.)
I again replaced my 1m pair of reference Valhalla speaker cables with the 2m pair of review Valkyrjas, and indecisiveness and its attendant bewilderment at last gave way to a visceral Yes! It was as Id earlier thought: The Valkyrja speaker cable is a terrific piece of work. The Valhalla, if not the worlds greatest speaker cable, is surely up there among the frontrunners. To explain my initial confusion and indecision: It just doesn't seem reasonable to me that a manufacturer's second-best cable would compare so favorably with its flagship model, especially when the latter costs significantly more. Is it possible that I actually preferred the Valkyrja to the Valhalla? The elegance I heard -- the silken strings, the crisp, dynamic brasses, the flesh-and-blood voices, the tuneful, utterly unthuddy low end; in short, the spot-on verisimilitude -- prompts me to suspect that the Valkyrja is the best speaker cable Ive had in this system.
A wild guess why: In contradiction of the received wisdom of "shorter is better," it may have to do with length. As my amps are close to my speakers, Ive been using a pair of 1m Valhallas. The review Valkyrjas are 2m long. Be that as it may, on first hearing and then returning to the Valkyrjas, I experienced that alls-well-in-the-sweet-spot rush that is as precious to the audiophile as a night with Aphrodite (or Adonis, depending on gender or preference). It isnt so much hearing what makes a component great as feeling it subliminally: first heart, then mind. The Valkyrjas brought me that much closer to heaven -- that nondenominational fools paradise for which we audiophiles would barter our souls.
Against expectations, the Valkyrja speaker cable sounded to me as good as it gets. As a thoroughly revealing medium, it encourages patience. Ive made further IC comparisons and can report with a tad more confidence that the CDs Ive continued using for these evaluations tell me that the Valkyrja and Valhalla interconnects sound much like each other, as designs so close in concept should. The difference I now hear has to do with refinement. By the slightest degree, the Valhalla IC is smoother than its cousin, smoother translating to better resolution and what that brings to the picture: heightened senses of spaciousness, air, and soundfield definition -- but again, only by the slightest degree. The Valkyrja is a dandy IC, and the difference I perceived between it and the Valhalla seems to me appropriate -- similar cables ought to line up qualitatively as their designer-manufacturer intended.
The Valkyrja speaker cable remains the great surprise: In my system, it was in no way the Valhallas inferior. The Valkyrja is expensive, but if your budget permits it, youre well advised to look into so remarkably fine an accomplishment.
Prices: Valkyrja speaker cable (terminated with Nordosts Z Plug or gold-plated copper spades), $2800 USD per 1m pair, $570 USD per additional 0.5m; Valkyrja interconnect, $2000 USD per 1m pair (add $60/pair for balanced XLR connectors), $300 USD per additional 0.5m.
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