While walking through the parking lot of the Alexis Park at CES 99, I remarked to one of my fellow SoundStage! writers that I really liked the BMW M3 parked near the front door. Without even a momentary pause, my colleague responded, "Cable manufacturer."
As we walked around back trying to find a specific room, we passed a rather beat-up Dodge Caravan and once again my smirking cohort opened his mouth, "Speaker manufacturer."
It's probably an unfair generalization that all high-end cable manufacturers drive expensive cars, but I dont think it's unfair to say that the mark-up on some high-end cables seems extreme. Do all cables sound the same? Of course not, but is there any rational reason to spend $7000 on a one-meter pair of interconnects when excellent, perhaps superior, products exist at less than 1/10th the price? Could there be a bigger turn-off for a late arrival into the exciting world of high fidelity than discovering that a new $5000 entry-level system requires $2000 worth of cables?
What I find even more disturbing are some of the claims made by manufacturers about their products. While not alone in this practice, some cable manufacturers seem to be the worst offenders. Pick up a copy of any audio magazine that strikes your fancy and read through the advertisements. My favorite ads are the ones that claim a certain design is the only cable free of RFI/EMI distortion. And Mark Chmura is going to be the next president of the Green Bay PTA.
They blinded me with science
As a devoted member of the single-ended crowd (which has nothing to do with any accident at birth), I recognize that I am leaving myself open to criticism and a mailbox full of e-mails addressed to Mr. Hypocrite as I heap abuse on those whose products are promoted with some rather questionable scientific claims. Yes, single-ended amps generally measure rather poorly on the test bench. Some measure so poorly that it's hard to believe competent engineers designed them. That said, most of the single-ended designs that I have heard or owned were, in fact, created by some very skilled engineers with an obvious knack for great sound when they hear it. My point? When was the last time you heard a legitimate single-ended designer boast about the technical superiority of his product (compared to other amplifiers) or about how it bends all of the laws of physics and still manages to outperform the competition? This isnt about voodoo -- its about circuit design. Either you know what you are doing or you dont. The same standard should apply to cable design, and based on what my ears heard, there is something very scary going on in the woods of central Michigan. Be afraid -- be very afraid!
Analysis Plus may be a newcomer to the world of high-fidelity manufacturing, but how they ended up in Dodge will probably be rather amusing to most of you, except for those who make cables, of course. Analysis Plus, Inc., which was formed in 1993, is a high-tech consulting firm that provides leading-edge research in the field of electronic systems and components for major corporations. All three of its principals (Mark Markel, Dr. Sun, and Steve "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die" Pennock) bring a rather impressive list of academic credentials and experience to the table, not to mention a rather impressive (or should I say scary?) list of clients -- Motorola, Ford Motor Company, TRW, ITT, Boeing, NASA, and the CIA. Included in this list are a number of high-end-audio and home-theater manufacturers, who unfortunately, due to non-disclosure agreements, cant be named.
Its not enough that these three guys could probably clean up on Jeopardy (dont even try to beat Mark when it comes to Michigan sports trivia), but they have access to some rather advanced measuring equipment -- the kind that read BS when a certain high-end cable manufacturer (even the threat of me coming to visit didnt help me learn the identity of the guilty party) came to Analysis Plus and hired them to perform some measurements on his designs. To make a long story short, the cable manufacturer didnt react well when Analysis Plus offered to help improve the cable they measured, and the relationship ended. In subsequent tests of other well-regarded high-end cables, our trio of engineers discovered that something was rotten in the proverbial State of Denmark. After some debate, the three entrepreneurs took their idea down to the patent office, the patent was granted, and a new cable company was born.
Do you follow me? Well stop or Ill have you arrested!
With so many different types of cable available, its almost hard to fathom how Analysis Plus could have come up with something so unique that it required a patent, but our creative friends did just that. For those expecting to find some exotic, ultra-expensive alloy, prepare to be disappointed as Analysis Plus cable designs use ordinary or silver-plated copper that Mark Markel sourced from a company that proved to be the only manufacturer capable of building the Analysis Plus designs to the exact specifications. After seemingly endless hours of testing, computer simulations and the equivalent of a mental Wrestlemania, our budding engineers came up with the concept of a hollow oval. While Im sure that the full technical explanation is very exciting (especially to those with a background in electrical engineering), my explanation is going to be for those of us in the peanut gallery with a scientific vocabulary of words consisting of one syllable.
Analysis Plus knew that with a round cable, as the frequency rises, less of the conductor is used, causing resistance to increase. A majority of the high-frequency signal moves along the conductor's surface, bypassing the conductor's center, the well-known skin effect. This realization caused the Analysis Plus engineers to wonder about the usefulness of the center entirely and if a hollow cable could solve this problem. While a nice idea, the concept of a round hollow cable wasn't going to work, as it couldn't be bent without changing its basic shape, which would alter its inherent characteristics. After a great deal of experimentation, the round hollow cable became an elongated hollow oval. Analysis Plus combined the hollow-oval shape with a unique braided pattern that statistically places every wire as close as possible to the return current as every other wire, to minimize the proximity effect, another cause of increased resistance with frequency. To overcome the solid conductor's inherent problem with mechanical stress when bent, the braided pattern was implemented as it proved to be more resilient and the most flexible.
The result of this innovation had two significant benefits. By using a flat oval shape, the inductance of a cable may be lowered, which in this case allowed Analysis Plus to minimize the impedance mismatch between the amplifier and speakers. In theory and in practice, Analysis Plus found that this provided for a proper electrical match to the speakers across the entire frequency band. Secondly, the conductors geometry helped to increase the cables transfer efficiency. By minimizing the skin effect, more of the cables conductor mass would be used at all frequencies. After comparing their new design against some existing high-end cables, the Analysis Plus gang realized that they had something that not only measured more closely to the original signal, but sounded more neutral as well.
Time for a reality check?
The premier Silver Oval and all-copper Oval Nine (model under review) speaker cables are terminated with one of the most impressive sets of custom spades I have ever seen. Machined from massive solid-copper blocks, the spades are finished with silver plating and feature dual-screw sockets that allow for either in-line or right-angle terminations. My bi-wire set of Oval Nine speaker cables were a joy to connect to both my amplifier and speakers, as the spades fit snugly around the different binding posts and required a minimal amount of tightening. Banana termination is also available for those who wish to use this type of connector. The Oval Nine cables are rather neutral-looking in appearance, with the braided copper wire visible on one side and a mauvish color on the other side of the shield. The shape and flexibility of the cable will be a boon to those who may have to run the cable behind an equipment rack or under an area rug. The Oval Nine is a massive 9-AWG cable made out of oxygen-free copper with a computer-matched dielectric. When I removed the Oval Nine from its box, I was quite impressed with the look and feel of the product. The overall construction and quality of the termination inspired confidence right away.
The other product under review is the Silver Oval-In interconnects. Built from pure silver and layered over a stabilizing strand of oxygen-free copper, the Silver Oval-In are braided into Analysis Plus hollow-oval geometry. The conductors are then combined with a computer-matched dielectric and surrounded with an open-braided shield to minimize noise. Consumers have a choice of either the locking WBT-0108 RCAs or XLR connectors for those who require a balanced connection. The Silver-Oval-In are extremely thin and flexible -- enough to be used in the tightest of spots. My pairs came terminated with the WBT RCA connectors, and I found that I did not need to tighten them excessively in order to ensure a solid connection.
The admission price to musical nirvana just fell
Ive never heard a cable sound spectacular right out of the box, but the Oval Nine speaker cable threw me a nasty split-finger fastball. Not only did the sound improve in the areas of transparency and low-end resolution, but there was an added sense of depth to almost every recording that I tried. My MartinLogan ReQuests border on being ruthlessly revealing (hence the reason why I use the slightly warm-sounding Blue Circle BC6 power amplifier), and as a result, the speakers let me know when something has been altered in my system. With the Oval Nine inserted into the chain, I could hear an immediate change in the overall presentation of the system. The midrange was not as forward, but I found that both vocals and piano sounded more natural. At first I wasnt sure if I liked the slightly relaxed presentation, but over time I realized that what I was hearing was a more neutral-sounding cable in comparison to my Cardas Cross and van den Hul Revolution speaker cables.
Tracy Chapmans latest release, Talking Stories [Elektra CD 62478], sounded absolutely brilliant with the Analysis Plus cables in the chain. The biggest difference between the presentation of the Oval Nine and Cardas Cross in this particular case would be that Chapmans voice sounded more natural and cleaner with the Oval Nine. The Cross added some warmth to her voice, but it also made her sound less clear. In the treble, the Oval Nine added some airiness to the presentation, while the Cross seemed to be more rolled off. It was certainly easier to pick up the little nuances of her fingering on the guitar with the Oval Nine. The added transparency was a positive aspect on well-recorded CDs.
This improvement in the area of transparency was made even more apparent when I dropped Jerry Garcia and David Grismans Shady Grove [Acoustic Disc ACD-21] into my CD player. Ive only recently become a fan of folk music, but I absolutely love the energy and quality musicianship on this recording. This HDCD-encoded disc has stellar sound, and the Oval Nine was the king of the castle. Garcias guitar playing was quick, detailed, and very real. The Oval Nine bested the Cardas Cross and van den Hul Revolution with this disc as far as clarity, tonality, speed, and soundstage depth were concerned. Were the differences subtle? For $299 for an eight-foot pair of speaker cables, Id say they were downright embarrassing.
Oops, I finally let the cat out of the bag. The most amazing thing about the Oval Nine, aside from its stellar performance, is the fact that it only costs $299. How do they do it? I dont know. Quite frankly, I dont care. After my time with this cable, all I could think about was how good it made my system sound.
Even though I hated Stanley Kubricks Eyes Wide Shut, I really liked the films soundtrack and have made it a part of my weekly listening schedule. Chris Isaaks "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing" opens with a thundering bass line, and it was here that the Oval Nine began to deliver the knockout blow to the Cardas and van den Hul speaker cables. My ReQuests are not the last word in bass response, but they do go deeper and possess greater dynamic capability than most hybrids on the market. Until I inserted the Oval Nine into my system, I had never been truly satisfied with the low-end performance of the speaker. The difference between the Oval Nine and Cardas Cross in this case was huge. Not only did the bass not sound rolled off, but it had greater definition, more control, and I finally received a noise warning from my landlord.
Did I mention that the Oval Nine only costs $299 for an eight-foot pair? Just wanted to make sure that I didnt forget anything important.
As good as the Oval Nine speaker cables are, a part of me wanted to make sure that I wasnt going completely overboard with my observations, so I borrowed a pair of speaker cables that I consider to be the absolute best in hi-fi land -- the Nirvana S-L. The S-L are my absolute reference in the areas of transparency, low noise floor, treble extension, and bass response. My long-term interconnect of choice has been the Nirvana S-L, so I was more than prepared to compare the two products.
Drink Smalls Electric Blues Doctor Live! [Mapleshade 01832] begins with a flourish and perhaps the best recording of an electric guitar that I have ever heard. How close was it? The Nirvana might still be the absolute best that Ive heard, but it doesnt cost $299. The silence between notes was a little quieter, the gestalt factor a tad higher, and the bass was definitely tighter and more robust. But the Oval Nine certainly stood its ground. Stephen Creamer still makes one of the best that there is, but the three engineers from Michigan are hot on his trail.
When it comes to the Silver Oval-In interconnects, the differences between it and the competition are more difficult to discern. It sounds more neutral than either the JPS Superconductor+ or the Cardas Neutral Reference, but the margin is fairly slim. The Neutral Reference interconnect doesnt sound as rolled off as some other cables from Cardas, and it works extremely well with my Blue Circle equipment. One area where the Silver Oval-In surpasses both cables is in the area of treble extension. To my ears, the Neutral Reference still sounds more rolled off and the JPS Labs slightly grainy.
When I substituted the Silver Oval-In for my Nirvana S-L, I began to hear larger differences. The Nirvana definitely sounds quieter and has greater resolution in the bass. When I listened to the aforementioned Chris Isaak track again, I noticed that the bass wasnt as powerful or defined. The Silver Oval-In sacrifices some meat in the bass for greater neutrality across the entire musical spectrum. If the cable happened to cost $299 for a one-meter pair, Id call it one of the best buys around. At $630 per one-meter length, its a very good cable at a price point with some stiff competition. Listeners with single-ended amplifiers should most certainly check this interconnect out.
This is the end, beautiful friend, the end
With so many choices (perhaps too many) in the cable department, it must be a nightmare for those new to this crazy hobby, as far as picking the "right" cable is concerned. In my experience, it's hard to find the perfect cable that will work well with every component in your system, unless you go with one brand of electronics and one of their approved cables. Throw in some insanely priced products, and the situation becomes a nightmare.
The Silver Oval-In are a very solid option in the interconnect department, especially if you use single-ended gear. But at $630, they are not the bargain that their sibling is. If you are looking for a flexible, well-made, and neutral-sounding interconnect that will probably add some life to your murky-sounding gear, the Silver Oval-In are a great option. Highly recommended.
The Oval Nine speaker cables are without question a leading-edge product at a tremendously low price. Not only did this newcomer defeat some well-respected cables from two of the bigger players in the market, but it put up a solid 12 rounds against the heavyweight champion of the world. At $299, it is a 7.8 on the Richter scale and not some passing tremor that the competition can ignore. Move over Rega Planar 3 -- the best bang in audio just arrived. The Oval Nine speaker cable is a Reviewers' Choice product if there ever was one.
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