Opening a box of audio cables is a uniquely Zen-like experience: the exposing of silent components that are so important to your system that it can’t function without them.
And who doesn’t enjoy opening up a box? It’s just like Christmas! And when that box is full of cables, it’s like the best parts of Christmas morning all rolled into one: there’s not just one big gift -- a single stinking CD player -- in there. No sir! There’s a whole bunch of stuff in the box. The opening process is deliciously extended.
Then you get to plug it all in, down there on your hands and knees disturbing dust rhinos, crumbs, and that button you lost a few years back. Plus, if you’re sufficiently obsessive and were toilet-trained early enough, you can take the opportunity to clean off all your connectors with some metal polish. What fun!
These observations recently roiled around in my head as I spent the better part of a day installing a full set of Nordost’s Norse Frey cables. It had been quite a while since I’d last changed the cables in my system, and let me tell you, I was due.
Nordost Norse Frey speaker cable
I recently gave a party (I forgot to invite you? So sorry!), and the MartinLogan Ethos speakers, currently in for review, were, as you might expect, a big hit. However, a surprising number of people (three) also took note of the Nordost Norse Frey speaker cables ($2059.99 USD per 1m pair, $220/additional meter). Well, they certainly look distinctive, with their flatness, their significant width, and their iridescent finish. The real surprise was that the most interested partiers were women. "Can you put them under the carpet?" I was asked on two separate occasions. Well, I suppose you could. Sigh.
The Norse Freys embody Nordost’s highly distinctive "ribbon" shape. Each of each cable’s 28 conductors (14 per leg) is made of 24-gauge, silver-plated, oxygen-free copper (OFC), but it’s the construction of the dielectric that’s the cornerstone of Nordost’s claims to their cables’ fame. Nordost spirally wraps around each of those skinny conductors an even skinnier monofilament of fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP), a fluorocarbon with properties similar to those of Teflon. The actual insulating dielectric is extruded on top of that. This way, Nordost is able to keep the insulation entirely separate from the conductor, which is touched only by the FEP monofilament.
If you’ve ever doubted the value of high-end audio cables, take a look at the Freys with a jeweler’s loupe, as I did. I found myself mesmerized by the near-microscopic world inside that ribbon. The conductors looked polished and precisely spaced, and clearly visible, winding its way down each, was the monofilament. Nordost’s design and tooling costs must have been enormous, but according to the company these technologies were initially developed by them for the aerospace and medical industries; the overall costs were defrayed by the significant amounts of non-audio wire sold by Nordost’s parent company. Whatever the genesis of the Norse Freys, these aren’t lengths of Romex jammed into pretty sheaths.
According to Nordost’s Roy Gregory, the company’s original reference product, SPM, was originally designed for fly-by-wire usage in aircraft. The other lines, including the Norse Frey, are also offshoots from other such demanding applications. Gregory was quick to point out that the company’s previous top cable line (before Odin), the Valhalla models, were the first Nordost products designed from the ground up for audio applications. But if pilots are willing to entrust their lives to the cable used in the Norse Frey, it’s probably adequate for use in your audio system.
The review samples of the speaker cables I received were terminated with Nordost’s Z banana plugs, which the company describes as "low mass," and which nicely complemented the minimalist RCA plugs on the interconnects. The Z plugs are essentially thin, springy sheets of gold-plated metal rolled up into small cylinders. The Z-plugs seem built to a standard well matched to the cables themselves, and fit nicely and snugly into the jacks of both of the speaker models I used them with.
Just about the only problem I could see with the Nordost Frey speaker cables was their relative delicacy. The insulation itself is really tough, like that of the interconnects, but the ribbon’s thinness could be its Achilles’ heel. Although I didn’t try it, I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t be too difficult to put in the ribbon a serious kink that would be nearly impossible to completely straighten out. But according Roy Gregory, a kink in the cable -- even a kink seriously pressed flat -- won’t affect its functioning.
So if the Norse Frey speaker cable appeals to you and you’ve got a bunch of little feet running around the house, you might indeed be better off running these ribbons under an area rug, which would no doubt please your significant other as well. But you don’t have to hide it, and that’s nice.
Nordost Norse Frey interconnect
The Norse Frey interconnect ($979.99/m, $210 each additional 0.5m) is exceptionally easy to work with. It’s thin, slinky, and flexible, but exudes a feeling of toughness. I tried to dig a fingernail into the cable’s outer sheath but couldn’t make a dent. I then repeated this experiment with a dull dinner knife, with much the same result. The manufacturers of plastics are getting more and more cagey as time goes by, and Nordost’s industrial background may explain both the resiliency of the shield and the overall impression of solidity.
The single-ended version of the Norse Frey is terminated with WBT NextGen RCA plugs -- a low-mass design with a single point of contact on the negative leg and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Eichmann Bulletplugs. These plugs feel light and somewhat ethereal, but they’re certainly sturdy enough. Continuing my mission of destruction, I unscrewed one of the wispy barrels of an RCA plug and tried -- real hard -- to crush it between my fingers. Despite its wafer thinness it held up, showing not the slightest inclination to crumple. While I was unable to ascertain the manufacturer of the XLR connectors on the balanced version, they certainly felt sturdy, locking and releasing in a very positive manner.
Nordost firmly believes in system synergy, and included in their gaily wrapped box Vishnu power cords ($659.99/2m, $220 each additional meter), a Norse Frey tonearm cable ($559/1.25m, $105 each additional 0.5m), and a Nordost Quantum QBASE QB8 power distributor ($1299). But I wanted to do the dutiful reviewer thing, so I didn’t just hook up the whole shebang. For the first part of the review I simply plugged in the speaker cables and left it at that. Because the first shipment hadn’t included the 3m balanced interconnect that I needed to lash my preamp up to my power amp, I settled in for a week or so to listen to the speaker cables alone.
Knowledge is the greatest barrier to learning
Of the many scoffers in the world of audio, some go so far beyond the appellation skeptic that they’re closer in spirit to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gollum than to the men of science they think they’re emulating. By their very nature, these sour, bitter people can’t open themselves up to the possibility that there may be some effects in the world that they don’t yet have the ability to measure.
While they definitely won’t let themselves hear what they do, I wish some of these dry husks would give a listen to Nordost’s Norse Frey speaker cable. Never in my reviewing career have I heard such an immediate and intense difference from a simple swapping out of cables. The fact that I heard these differences right away is important; it usually takes me at least a couple of weeks to get a solid grip on what, exactly, a new cable has brought to my system. But with the substitution of the Norse Frey speaker cables alone, I experienced a sea change in the sound.
For years now I’ve been a huge fan of Giant Sand, and one of the first records I put on while listening to the Frey speaker cables was their Is All Over the Map (CD, Thrill Jockey 70142). Listening to "A Classico Reprise," I was immediately impressed by the additional level of dimensionality in Vic Chestnutt’s voice. His rich, gravelly tenor has overtones bursting out in every direction, and the Freys accentuated both the leading edge and the body of those overtones. Is All Over the Map has a sparse, processed sound that somehow manages to sound authentic and natural, and the addition of the Nordost speaker cables cleared up some of the grunge in the midrange, rendering a more crisp view of what is undoubtedly a synthetic acoustic.
But synthetic or not, that southwest vista that Giant Sand so craftily creates was opened up by the Norse Freys, which delivered welcome increases in definition and articulation. Although I didn’t know it yet, having listened only to the speaker cables, the Norse Freys would carry this theme right through the review period.
Still awaiting the arrival of the final interconnect, I continued listening to the speaker cables. The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to difficult, complicated, somewhat atonal music. Like is drawn to like, I suppose. At any rate, I don’t listen to it often, but every once in a while I feel the need to yank out of the record rack something like Frank Zappa’s Sleep Dirt (LP, Discreet/Warner Bros. DSK 2292). While the album is an orgy of echoed, amplified guitar work, the title track’s natural-sounding guitar is almost delicate. The Norse Frey speaker cables spotlit Zappa’s quick fingerwork, making each left-handed slide stand out almost holographically.
The Freys added a sense of clarity and transparency that carried right though the midrange and up into the treble, accentuating the spaces between instruments, the scale and size of those instruments, and the overtones they generated.
So yes, the Norse Freys added definition to the midrange, but they didn’t do that by leaning out the sound. The Freys struck me as honest, truthful cables, but depending on your system, you might not want quite so much honesty. Inserted in my all-tube system, the Freys dealt up most welcome doses of detail, perfectly complementing and accentuating the richness that’s bound to dominate in a system lacking a single transistor.
Belly up to the bar
About midway through the review period, that system without a single transistor went dark on me. A power tube in my Audio Research VT100 went Chernobyl, taking a resistor and the fuse with it. Since he was already planning to drop by and deliver his BC509 DAC (review forthcoming), Gilbert Yeung of Blue Circle Audio generously offered to let me borrow his demo BC202 amplifier as well, accompanied by an optional external power supply about the size of my mains fuse box.
The BC202 is a hybrid amp fronted by four 6922 tubes, but it doesn’t sound anywhere near as plummy as my VT100. With the Blue Circle in the system, music lost some of the misty romanticism I so enjoy, but also gained a fair bit of crispness and definition -- which I also really, really like. Even with the matter/antimatter conflict now playing itself out in my system, the Nordost Norse Frey speaker cables continued to do their space-enhancing thing, but I was most pleased to hear that they didn’t remotely make things leaner in the upper mids and treble, which is where the BC202 cleaned up the sound.
Encouraged by the Freys’ flexibility, I inserted the Norse Frey interconnects between all the other components. First up was the phono cable, which is a fair bit more slinky and slightly thinner than the other Frey models. I was a little nervous about this cable, as my analog system tends to pick up signals from an Eastern European radio station when my cartridge’s low-level signal flows through an unshielded or minimally shielded cable. No such worries here -- a quick listen revealed no post-socialist interference whatsoever. The rest of the lash-up was equally uneventful, so I sat back for a listen.
With my entire system now wired with Frey cables, the changes I’d noted earlier with the speaker cables alone remained audible, but the scope and scale of the sound changed. In the past, I’ve noticed the addition of a slight but worthwhile sense of coherence when I connected an entire system with the same brand of wires; that was the situation here, but with a much greater realization of overall cleanness and clarity.
I’ve been on quite a 1980s jag lately, and it’s starting to worry me. Then again, a ton of fantastic music was buried along with that tacky, lost decade. I’ve owned Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden (LP, EMI E1-46997) since it was first released in 1988, and I still regularly listen to it. This album is all about texture, dynamic shadings, and tension, building up from moody atmospheric noodling to raging hurricanes of guitar and harmonica. Listen to "The Rainbow" and check out how the band paints a deep, rich, sad picture, imbues it with a maelstrom of electricity, then drops it back down into oceanic depths. As you might gather, I know this track well, and with the full Nordost array I was much better able to differentiate between the disparate, often clashing instruments. Spirit of Eden can erupt from just above the LP’s noise floor into a raging inferno, and I was thoroughly delighted by how the Norse Freys handled the dynamics of this wonderful album. It’s not so much that there was a greater absolute difference between the record’s loud and soft passages; rather, it was that the Freys better sorted out the louder sections, reproducing the music in a more cohesive, organic manner that better disentangled the different musicians and laid bare their intents.
The guitar in "The Rainbow" and throughout the entire album can get rather clangy. Playing Spirit of Eden at fairly high levels, I was aware that while adding the Norse Freys made the already intense overtones somewhat more abrasive, I was fairly confident that the Nordosts were simply revealing more of what’s actually on the album.
Is it fair to attribute bass characteristics to a speaker cable while using speakers with powered subs? I think it is. Lately, we on the SoundStage! Network’s internal mailing list have been trading music recommendations, and one of the more obscure titles to surface was Chris Squire’s Fish Out of Water (CD, Atlantic SD 18151). When it did, I experienced one of those rare flashes in which a huge chunk of memory crashes down to crush me under its weight, as I relived a particularly nasty breakup with my first real girlfriend.
I listened repeatedly to Squire’s "Lucky Seven" during those days of misery, and the rediscovery of this album brought back those emotions in all their self-indulgent glory. Bill Bruford’s crisp, sparse drumming, combined with Squire’s fruity Rickenbacker bass, doesn’t yield the deepest low end, but there’s a boatload of bass definition free for the unearthing, and the Frey cables dug out the top-to-bottom complexity of that bass, and the space around the drums. I listened to "Lucky Seven" just before and immediately after inserting the Freys, and despite the MartinLogans’ powered subs -- or perhaps because of them -- I was immediately aware of a new level of bass definition.
Big bucks, no whammy
In the world according to Nordost, you don’t just slam in a set of interconnects or speaker cables and call it a day. In order to gain all the benefits the company believes can be realized by its products, you need to use them throughout your entire system.
I agree that this can be worthwhile. In the three stages of my quest for Nordost enlightenment -- first the speaker cables, then the interconnects, and lastly the power cords -- I gained further, similar, eminently worthwhile results at each stage. But just swapping out the speaker cables alone was thoroughly beneficial to the sound, so I’m not comfortable recommending that you either pony up for the whole enchilada, or stay home and give all Norse Freys a pass.
Which is just as well. I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly have access to enough cash to rewire my entire system in Nordosts -- at least not at one go. That said, after listening to the Norse Frey cables in my own system, researching their construction, and examining them firsthand, I have no hesitation in recommending them for either upgrade approach: all at once or one at a time.
Whichever way you go, I have no doubt you’ll like what you hear. I did.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog source -- Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable, Roksan Shiraz cartridge
- Phono stage -- AQVOX Phono 2 CI
- Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifiers -- Audio Research VT100, Blue Circle Audio BC202
- Speakers -- MartinLogan Ethos, Definitive Technology Mythos STS
- Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8
- Interconnects -- Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval
- Power cords -- Shunyata Research Taipan
- Power conditioner -- Shunyata Research Hydra Model-6
Nordost Norse Frey Interconnects
Prices: $979 USD per 1m pair.
Nordost Frey Speaker Cables
Price: $2059.99 USD per 1m pair.
Warranty (both): Lifetime.
200 Homer Avenue
Ashland, MA 01721
Telephone: (508) 881-1116
Fax: (508) 881-6444