June 15, 2010

XLO Electric Signature 3 Speaker Cables, Interconnects, Digital Cables, and Power Cords


When, in 1991, Roger Skoff founded XLO Electric to make audio cables using materials and construction methods used by no one else, there was a problem: He couldn’t find a wire-manufacturing company that could or would produce his unusual cables, which some would describe as being diabolical to manufacture. It wasn’t until Skoff discovered Ultralink Products, Inc., that he found his manufacturing source. After that, his helix-wound and -woven Field Balanced designs became widely known and widely praised. Skoff also chose color combinations for his cables that were unique, to say the least. Once you saw an XLO cable, it was hard to forget such two-tone styles as gray and magenta, or lime green and blue.

As time passed and XLO prospered, Ultralink decided to buy their former client while keeping XLO faithful to the principles and construction methods pioneered by Roger Skoff. Today, XLO Electric operates independently in Ontario, California, refining Skoff’s seminal cable designs while keeping to his underlying goal of making cables that sound like no cables at all. And, of course, Ultralink still makes the cables.

XLO makes no silly claims, nor do they create fairytale physics to explain the performance or design features of their cables. Instead, they focus on refining products that work, optimizing their designs while trying to make the cables look cool. XLO’s goal is to remove any sonic character from the cable, so that it “Sounds like nothing at all.” 

Signature 3 

The Signature 3 products are not the most expensive cables XLO sells, but only the UnLimited and Limited Editions cost more. In XLO’s own quality hierarchy of “Good,” “Better,” “Superior,” and “World Class,” the performance levels of the UnLimited and Limited Editions are “World Class,” while the Signature 3 s are “Superior.” With the 8’ biwire speaker cable going for $3700 USD and a 2m interconnect terminated with RCAs for $1260, the Signature 3s are already pricey enough to find their ways into some fairly serious high-end systems. The Signature 3 digital cables cost $455/1m, and the power cables cost $1100/6’. At these prices, the buyer has a right to expect very high qualities of materials, design, construction, and performance. 

It’s difficult to fault XLO’s choices of materials and design for the Signature 3s. The conductors are of 99.9999%-pure copper, made with the Ohno Continuous Cast process to prevent the chaos created in copper’s molecular structure when wire is drawn through small dies at very high pressure. The OCC process produces smoother surfaces and a far more continuous crystalline structure. In XLO cables, conductors are wrapped and braided around a core, in this case of Teflon, which is also used as the dielectric (i.e., insulation). Each tiny strand has its own thin sheath of Teflon: no bare wires touch other bare wires. The Teflon dielectric is kept very thin to minimize the energy storage and release that, XLO says, normally happens within the insulating material. 

Look closely at an XLO cable and it’s not difficult to see that the conductors spiral around a core; look a little closer and you’ll see that, as they spiral, the wires are also woven over and under each other in flat groups. This has to be difficult to manufacture; you wouldn’t expect to see such a thing anywhere but in a fine handwoven basket. I’m guessing the machines that make these cables are pretty interesting to watch. 

Terminating the XLOs, too, must be a job and a half. The thin insulation must be removed from a multitude of fine, delicate wires without damaging them. The RCAs themselves are internally insulated with Teflon, and their contact areas are gold-plated. Nickel is not used under the gold plating because it’s magnetic, and XLO wants no magnetic materials anywhere in their cables. The speaker cable, digital interconnect, and AC cords are all wrapped with expanded, untinted translucent netting. Power cords, interconnects, and digital coax cables have sliding rings with a holographic XLO logo, a Signature 3 logo, “Made in the USA,” and an arrow pointing in the direction of signal flow. These rings can be positioned anywhere along the cable’s length that you like, but they move so easily that it might be difficult to keep them where you want them. XLO says the positions of the rings won’t affect the Signature 3s’ sound, and my listening bore that out. The AC cords have impressive-looking jackets of ribbed silver metal over the plug and IEC sockets, which give them a custom-made appearance you don’t see in cords that use off-the-shelf plugs or IECs. The plug prongs are gold-plated, as are the connections inside the IEC plug. These contact surfaces are much smoother than the ones I’ve seen on most other cords. 

The Series 3 cables have a certain heft that comes from their being made with significant amounts of substantial materials. Their RCA plugs are possibly the nicest-looking I’ve used: the combination of matte silver and polished gold gives them a classy appearance. The biwire speaker cables have cast-metal housings at both the amplifier and speaker ends. The metal housings are finished in the same polished gold and matte silver as the RCAs, and the sturdy spades at each end are XLO’s own. The termination to the spade is perfection, and the spades themselves aren’t massive or cumbersome, but narrow enough to fit barrier-strip connections like those on Vandersteen and some other speakers. Yet the opening in the spade is large enough to accept the beefy binding posts found on better amplifiers and speakers, though you may have to use the posts’ flattened area -- most posts have this feature, though some owners aren’t aware of it. 


The Signature 3 cables had an exceptionally neutral sound, with just a hint of sonic character that I’d never have detected if I didn’t have a system that changes very infrequently and that I’m intimately familiar with. 

Whenever I connected a Signature 3 power cord to a component, it was as if the component was being powered wirelessly. This lack of sonic signature meant that the Signature 3 was, basically, perfectly neutral. Bass from my reference amplifier, a Belles/Power Modules 350A Reference, was tight and powerful, with fantastic definition and detail. When everything is just right, this amp is as intransigent as a Soviet bureaucrat in controlling the potentially wayward bottom end of my Vandersteen 3A Signature speakers. In the past, I’ve used power cords that slightly loosened the Belles’ grip on the speakers’ bottom end, resulting in an unwanted warmth or fullness in the lowest octaves. The Signature 3 AC cord made it possible for my Belles to exert every bit of control it’s capable of, resulting in the best bass performance I’ve heard from this amp. The midrange resolution revealed every detail without over-emphasizing anything. The treble octaves were clean, pure, and entirely grainless, the characteristics that drew me to the Belles in the first place. My reference preamplifier, a solid-state Belles/Power Modules 28A with moving-coil phono stage, became massless, and unrestricted in its ability to resolve everything. In fact, the preamp seemed to “disappear” altogether. It was like controlling the volume by magic. 

I noticed much less difference when I used the Signature 3 cord with my disc transport, a highly modified Pioneer DV-525 DVD player with a high-precision master clock, disabled video circuitry, high-quality RCA and BNC output connectors, a modified power supply, mechanical resonance control, internal RFI/EMI shielding, and more. However, changing a transport’s cord seldom makes much difference in the sound, for better or for worse. The exception is most molded generic power cords, which cause a thick congestion that’s definitely undesirable. Likewise, using a Signature 3 cord for the Monolithic outboard power supply that feeds my Perpetual Technologies combo of P1-A (upsamples, interpolates, and de-jitters) and P3-A (a 24-bit/96kHz DAC) didn’t make much of a difference, even when compared to a generic freebie cord. The Signature 3 did let my digital components sound their best, but even the worst-sounding power cord I have, a generic but ultra-flexible model that must be at least 30 years old, doesn’t affect the digital components nearly as much as it does the preamp and amp. 

Each track of Willie Nelson’s Across the Borderline (CD, Columbia CK 52752) was recorded in a different studio, and the Signature 3 is only the second power cord I’ve tried that has allowed my system to reveal the track-to-track differences in recording venue, microphones, and noise floor. Best of all, no sonic signature was being splashed over everything to color or tilt the sound one way or another. With such a degree of neutrality, each track presented its own sonic world for me to explore, and I heard the recording for exactly what it was, no more and no less. Neutrality is the epitome of truth and beauty, and XLO’s Signature 3 power cord was supremely neutral. 

My analog source is a Roksan Xerxes turntable with rewired SME V tonearm and an ultra-low-output Cardas Heart MC cartridge (wood-body Benz variant). It revealed nothing my digital sources hadn’t already told me about the sound of the XLO cord. Generic cords do impart a somewhat muffled or softened sound to LPs, but the Roksan sounds virtually identical through all reasonably well-made power cords. Sure enough, the Signature 3 had little impact one way or the other when used with the Roksan’s power supply, as has been the case with other power cords. 

All of the other Signature 3 cables (biwire speaker cable, interconnects, digital coax) shared just enough of an identifiable sonic signature that it was consistently audible, however slightly. The power cord excepted, the Signature 3s had just an extra hint of richness and a slightly more silent noise floor than other cables. Like a favorite whiskey or port that demands that one more sip be taken, that extra dash of richness made me want more . . . just keep the notes coming, please. There was no artificial stretching or shortening of sounds, and echo and reverb were just right. If you’re trying to achieve system synergy by choosing wires with strengths your components lack, forget the Signature 3s: All you’ll hear will be the true sounds of your other components. The touch of richness in the Signature 3s’ sound was nowhere near enough to make up for a component that skims even a little cream from the sound. With the Signature 3s in the system, music emanated effortlessly from the “blackness” of total silence. The XLOs added no ambience or ambiance -- if it was in the recording, I got it, no more and no less. In fact, listening to these cables was a bit of a dream for me; it was only the second time I’d heard cables I could just forget about -- and yet, the first cables in this rarified category don’t sound quite like the XLOs, as I shall relate. 

When I listened to the strings in Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony’s recordings of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain  and Walter Susskind and the SLSO’s recording of Holst’s The Planets (Vox Turnabout/Classic 24/96 DAD-1027), the excellent master tapes produced an identifiable change in character between the two different recordings, though both have the same span of sound, from lush to joyful to playful to ominous. The body, string, and bow sounds were separate but united with the XLOs, like teammates playing in perfect sync. There was no stridency or edge from the strings unless the score called for it -- and a few times in each work, the strings are asked to get edgy. Horns through the XLOs had that unmistakable rightness that can be appreciated only if you’ve heard live horns often enough to have their sound indelibly imprinted on your ears: a perfect combination of body, note, and air. When horns are wrong, it’s like hearing a baseball hit with an aluminum bat -- it may be effective, but it just doesn’t sound right. 

Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection (SACD/CD, Island B0003611-36) is poorly recorded; the Signature 3s delivered the good without emphasizing the bad. The piano tone is particularly neutral compared to other versions of this album, but it’s far from what you hear from a great piano recording. Here, the piano lacks the immediacy you hear in person, but the tone and articulation are excellent. One of the problems with what we might think are better-performing products is that they tend to make recordings like Tumbleweed Connection difficult to enjoy; the recording’s faults become too distracting. That wasn’t a problem with the XLOs. Even CDs made from transferred 78rpm discs acoustically recorded from the 1900s to the 1920s could be enjoyed as much as the originals, without wear and tear on the precious originals. “Ruthlessly revealing” doesn’t describe the Signature 3s; “completely revealing” is more appropriate. 


For the last year or so I’ve been using Audience’s Au24e interconnects ($1246/2m pair with RCAs), biwire speaker cables ($2850/8’ pair with spades), digital coax ($506/1m), and powerChord e AC cord ($674/6’), and for good reason: they were the most neutral-sounding cables I’d heard. 

The Audience powerChord e and XLO Signature 3 power cords were completely indistinguishable from one another. I can’t remember the last time that happened with cables of any kind. I tried everything to see if I could hear anything at all that sounded like a difference between them, and came up with nothing. 

The rest of the Audience cables, however, have a slight but identifiable signature that’s different from the XLO Signature 3s’ equally slight but equally identifiable sound. The Audiences sounded slightly “lighter” in character. By this I don’t mean “lightweight,” or “lacking bass power and definition.” Instead, the Audiences’ sound seemed to have less mass, less inertia; the sound was fast, playful, airy, and slightly more spacious, with slightly more echo/reverb/decay. It wasn’t that the music came through at a higher volume level, but simply that it seemed to be audible slightly longer as it faded to nothing. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that one of these families of cables was better or worse than the other. Both were amazingly neutral, with these slight differences. I’m tempted to describe the XLOs as “regal” and the Audiences as “athletic,” but both characterizations overstate the difference, and may carry negative associations I don’t intend. I can say that both were neutral in the best possible sense of that word, yet with slight differences in character that created a paradox: they were neutral with personality. I can’t recommend one over the other. Both families of cable sounded fantastically satisfying in my system. 


XLO’s Signature 3 cables are one of the two holy grails of neutrality I’ve found so far. I have the highest regard for the Signature 3s, for their honesty and for their complete refusal to play games with the sound of my reference system. And I have great respect for XLO: they’ve chosen not to engage in pseudo-science or outright silliness to describe how or why their products are special. Even their advertising slogan, “Sounds like nothing at all,” is appropriate, and lacks any of the audio nonsense that some people seem to need to persuade them to even consider a purchase. 

If you’re looking for neutrality, XLO Electric’s Signature 3s get my highest recommendation.

. . . Doug Blackburn

XLO Electric Signature 3 Digital Cable
Price: $455 USD per 1m cord ($705 USD per 2m cord)
XLO Electric Signature 3 Interconnect
Price: $840 USD per 1m pair with RCAs ($1260 USD per 2m pair)
XLO Electric Signature 3 Speaker Cable
Price: $3700 USD per 8’ biwire pair.
XLO Electric Signature 3 Power Cord
Price: $1100 USD per 6’ cord with 15A NEMA plug and 15A IEC connector
Warranty (all four): Lifetime against manufacturing defects.

XLO Electric
1951 S. Lynx Avenue
Ontario, CA 91761
Phone: (909) 947-6960
Fax: (909) 947-6970

E-mail: inquiries@xloelectric.com
Website: www.xloelectric.com


footer.jpg (5527 bytes)