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Straight Wire Audio System Evaluation Process Review

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If you spend any amount of time in on-line audio forums, you’ll quickly realize that there are some things you just don’t talk about. One of them is the use of cables in high-performance playback systems. Sure, they’re necessary; however, opinions on how or even if different cables can differ in sound quality are all over the map. The “flat earthers” will defend to the death their assertion that lamp cord and coat hangers are as good as or better than any $1k/foot audiophile speaker cables. DIYers insist that they can build cables by hand that outperform most if not all commercially available offerings. Many folks who buy aftermarket cable upgrades simply find a brand that they like, select cables that fit their budget and don’t put much thought into it after that.

I’ve been in that last group for most of my audiophile career. Until recently, I always felt that other deficiencies in my system were orders of magnitude more significant than cables. However, I keep running into audio enthusiasts who approach cables more like system components than merely necessary connective tissue. I’ve even met a few who have invested significantly more money in their cables than in their loudspeakers and components combined! That’s still head-scratching to me, but I can see how one could get there over time.

I wanted to understand this more, but I really didn’t know where to start. After doing some Googling, I completed a survey with The Cable Company so that I could participate in their lending library, but I didn’t get the system specific recommendations that I was expecting. Evaluating several sets of cables in your system over an extended period of time certainly seems like a good way to go but can be rather time consuming. Cables seem to need a few days to “settle in” after being connected, and I don’t consider myself to be a reliable test instrument. On most days, I love how my system sounds, but there are days when I absolutely hate everything that I hear even when nothing has changed. Stress, sleep, my mood, energy levels, ability to relax, and a range of other factors seem to affect how I perceive sound at any given moment. Logging my impressions and behavior over a period of several weeks before and after a change and then reviewing my notes seems to be the most reliable way for me to assess the quality of that change. In a given listening session, did I play one or more albums from start to finish or did I skip around? Did I finish all of the tracks that I started? How long did I listen? Did I feel emotionally engaged? Did the session leave me feeling refreshed or even more stressed? Stuff like that.

Months later, I read about a similar consultation service offered by cable manufacturer Straight Wire, so I thought, “what the heck, I’ll give it a try.” Shortly after completing their Audio System Evaluation form, Jerry Willsie contacted me to discuss options. Jerry is Director of Sales at Straight Wire and has been involved in the audio industry for ~40 years. While Straight Wire is not as much of a household name as brands like Audioquest, they have been an OEM manufacturer for many popular audio companies for years. After a few minutes of chatting, Jerry put together a set of cables that he was confident would help my system to perform its best. He offered to send the cables to me to try out in exchange for a credit card number. Some of the cables he selected happened to be from his demo at last year’s RMAF while others were handpicked for my system. I didn’t think much about the selection process at the time; I was just excited to give these cables a try and curious to know if I could “model” any changes that they made in my system using my digital room correction software. Boy, was I in for some surprises.

I received four pairs of cables – a pair of power cords, speaker cables, and two pairs of interconnects. I put everything in the system at once and just used the system as I normally would for a full month. Cables generally don’t make a huge difference in sound, so I was not expecting much. The system may have sounded a bit better, but “placebo effect” tends to dominate impressions…especially the first few hours and even days after a change like this. After a week or so, I did notice that nearly every time I went up to the Loft for a listen, I’d put just one track on and end up listening to whatever album the track was on from that point to the end. Encouraging for sure.

After that first month, I put my old speaker cables back in. I really had no idea what to expect, but I was astonished at the change. I’d never noticed it before, but my old speaker cables produce a soundstage that’s about four feet tall but very wide. I love the width but never noticed the limited height until I switched back to them from the Straight Wire cables. The other thing that I noticed is that elements in the stereo image significantly lost focus when switching back to my old cables. I never perceived that as a problem before, but after living with greater focus for a month, the reduction in focus was glaringly obvious. So…how do you model image height and focus in software? I have no idea. I was expecting to hear differences like more or less “air,” bass “slam,” midrange “presence,” etc. These things are easy to tweak in software. A convincing soundstage is another story.

Of course, imaging is not everything. Most of us will agree that tone and presence are more important than soundstage. Differences there were far more subtle and harder to characterize. I noticed that my old cables were a smidgen more forward sounding in the mids, but that came at the expense of less “air” and sub-bass extension. Both cables deliver lifelike presence, so it’s really difficult to declare a consistent winner there.

Impressed with my findings, I purchased another complete set of cables from a vendor with a generous return policy, giving me another basis of comparison. Another month went by as the new cables became acclimated to my system and me to them. These cables were detail monsters, so I observed that most of my listening sessions were spent skipping from track to track and album to album to find hidden auditory gems that I had missed in hundreds of previous listens. While this was great fun, I also observed that it was very difficult to force myself to sit through an album from start to finish. I did manage it a couple of times, but it took a lot of discipline, and I did not feel rested or rejuvenated afterwards. I felt exhausted. Not cool.

The approach that this second manufacturer takes is one of progression rather than finding ideal system synergy. You start at one “level” in the lineup and gradually trade-up until you reach the top of what you can afford or justify. The theory is that all of the cables have the fundamental sound, but each level delivers incremental improvement. It’s an interesting approach that many manufacturers use, but it can mean that you never fully satisfy your “upgrade itch.” Not a bad thing from the cable manufacturer’s perspective.

I switched back to the Straight Wire cables after that second month, and while I found that I occasionally missed the extreme detail and resolution, I also observed that I slid back into that comfortable listening pattern. I’d listen to album after album with no skipping around and feeling completely engaged and present with the music. This left me wondering if a hybrid solution might work. I inserted just one pair of the second vendor’s cables into the mix. This did yield more detail without being too distracting. After a week or so, I still never fully settled back into my relaxed listening groove. Ugh! So much for improving on Jerry’s recommendation.

I called Jerry up to let him know what I had experienced and asked him about the next model up in the Straight Wire line of speaker cables. He said with confidence that they would not improve the sound or listening enjoyment in my system over the ones that he recommended. That really impressed me. What vendor passes up on an opportunity to sell the next model up in the line? We talked about his approach to system synergy a bit more and, apparently, a lot goes into it. He considers speaker crossovers, impedance curves, detailed amplifier specifications, input and output impedance of all components, characteristics of the room, etc. What he recommends generally results in excellent system synergy on the first try with no need for customers to keep climbing up the product range.

If you are a hardcore cable DIY person, if you enjoy constant tinkering, or if you believe that cable upgrades are nothing but snake oil, Straight Wire may not be an ideal partner in your pursuit of the best sound and maximum listening enjoyment. However, if you’d like to maximize synergy in your system and then get back to enjoying it, Straight Wire’s Audio System Evaluation process is worth checking out based on my experience working with Jerry. Just go to http://straightwire.com/ and look under “System Analysis.”

 

Copy editor: Dan Rubin
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3 Responses to Straight Wire Audio System Evaluation Process Review


  1. MarkB says:

    Nice article! I am truly impressed with the way you chose to use long-term musical enjoyment as the final arbiter in your assessments. It seems that much of the audiophile hobby has degenerated into finding equipment that lets one better hear the strengths and flaws of other equipment and promotes behavior like “skipping from track to track and album to album to find hidden auditory gems” rather than “put just one track on and end up listening to whatever album the track was on”. Thanks for breaking from that mold.

    Question… I do not personally have a system that lends itself to using room correction software so I have no experience with such. Can one really adjust air, bass slam, midrange presence, etc. without harming other aspects of of the sound, like imaging/soundstage and especially timbre, which are just as important to achieving long-term musical enjoyment? And, it is not clear if you used the same room correction settings for all cables, or if you tweaked them to suit each cable, or if you used room correction at all.

    • David Snyder says:

      Hi @MarkB,

      First, thanks for your kind words. This was definitely a fun project, and I take the same approach with any gear that I can keep in my system long enough. I just don’t trust my ears and aural memory to make a reliable conclusion any other way. 🙂

      Regarding your question about room correction, the answer is somewhat complex. As you likely have experienced in the past, traditional EQ, even advanced parametric EQ, often addresses frequency response issues at the expense of phase accuracy and imaging. This is also a problem for digital room correction systems that use IIR filters (infinite impulse response) filters like Dirac.

      However, DRC systems that use more complex FIR filters can address issues with both amplitude and phase response at the same time. This comes at the cost of latency, but in a home listening environment, latency of a second or so is rarely a concern. I’m using FIR filters that I created using Acourate from AudioVero, and it does a pretty impressive job of addressing frequency response issues while also improving phase and timing. Now that these filters are supported by the convolution engines in both JRiver and Roon, there’s not much excuse for not giving them a try if you’re involved in computer audio. 🙂

      The sorts of adjustments that I’m doing lately are on the order of 1/10th of a dB at various points in the curve, so I’m still preserving tone and timbre. The effect is subtle and not always immediately apparent…similar to swapping cables. It makes a big difference over longer listening sessions though, and that’s what I’m going for. Large adjustments (on the order of several dB) are much easier to detect and will kill natural timbre if you’re not careful!

      During the several months that I was working through my cable evaluations, I made no changes to the room correction filters. Just the cables alone presented more variables than I could easily keep up with. However, now that I have the Straight Wire cables settled in, I have made some very minor tweaks to the room correction curve (again, a 1/10 of a dB here and there) to bring back some of that sparkle and detail that I heard from the other manufacturer’s products. I may have one more tweak up my sleeve, but otherwise, I could not be happier with the sound that I’m getting.

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