I have no problem telling my non-audiophile family & friends about how such things as AC outlets or room treatments have a clear effect on the output and the enjoyment of my stereo—it’s informational to them. But cables? I won’t go there; AC outlets and room treatments are affordable, and I don’t feel ashamed trying to justify the $50 for an AC outlet or a couple of bills for a room full of highly visible (and thus justifiable, in their minds) insulation panels.
But I’d be ashamed of my fortune and largesse if I tried to justify the obscene prices some cable manufacturers charge. Value is relative to the purchaser but, regardless of affordability, in my neck of the woods, anything over $500 for a cable is getting pricey, prompting such question as if the money would be better served on vacation or my retirement account. But so long as there’s a market for high-end cables, and performance is in synch with price in the audiophile’s mind, people will continue to buy the expensive cable offerings out there. Myself included.
Cable manufacturers get a bad rep, in my opinion. It’s as though the engineering and R&D investments of the cable guys are not as applicable as it is to those of the tube amp manufacturers out there. Just as anyone with an amp cookbook can make a SET, anyone with a spool of wire can be a cable manufacturer, and somehow along the way all cable manufacturers got lumped together, with those charging more being the most insidious, the most evil. (Evil being companies creating products of such refinement and yet so expensive that you still end up buying regardless. The quality is commensurate with the MSRP and they are worth the price but just out of the reach of us. -Ed)
If there’s a head of the class for “Evil Cable Manufacturers,” then Transparent Audio has to be at the top of the list. Not only are their prices for some models more than new car money, but they also employ the secretive and suspicious looking network boxes for which they’re well known. I don’t know what’s in them, nor does anyone outside of Transparent. Unsurprisingly, even obsessive audiophiles have good sense enough not to cut open a pair of multi-thousand $$ cables to satisfy their curiosity. But those boxes do something, and the company has built a host of fans, much like the only other company to use network boxes, MIT, that are sworn believers in the product. Price be damned—the value is there to such people.
I’m not going to comment much on the product line, as 1) it’s confusing to me, and your dealer will know better than I, and 2) the website (www.transparentcable.com) is quite informative and I’d suggest you head there for further info. I will say that the fit & finish of the cables is exemplary, and despite their size and weight, they are very easy to snake around into the tightest of corners. The only downside to usability is the size of the network boxes, which have to be accommodated for when routing the speaker cables prior to connecting them up.
It takes a few hours for these cables to settle in, so don’t make initial judgments on them; but some overarching characteristics emerge with these cables that only become more pronounced as they settle in.
First and foremost amongst them is the bass, which takes on a physical, tactile and visceral character that is much like going from an underpowered tube amp to a solid-state beast that doubles current as impedance drops in half (the hallmark of good power supply design). Listening to “Cold Water” off of Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, I was struck by how much more visceral the performance was; the Transparent Reference SC’s built the foundation of the music with their portrayal of the depth & impact from the drums and the bass guitar, which greatly enhanced the believability of what I was hearing. And with the deep bass provided by a synthesizer as found on “Spoonful Weighs a Ton” by the Flaming Lips on Soft Bulletin, it not only extended further down the frequency spectrum, but now with much better pitch and definition. Simply, the bass performance of the Transparent Reference SC’s is unparalleled in my experience.
Now, what’s interesting is that I’ve found that the more an amplifier has a well designed power supply, as I previously defined, the less impact the Transparent Reference SC’s have on the bass. I’ve used a Belles 350a Reference for a spell, and the amp has a world-class damping factor (simplistic definition: control of driver movement), and current delivery. It didn’t benefit nearly as much from Transparent cabling as did the McIntosh 501’s or a Wavac SET that I owned, which do not double current as impedance is halved, and benefited mightily from the Transparent impedance matching (the 501’s and the Wavac SET have separate taps on the amp for impedance matching, but a loudspeaker is a complex load and not a convenient 4-ohm load as the amplifier taps would suggest).
If there is one other characteristic that defines Transparent cabling, it’s the ability of the cables to carve out physical space and insert incredibly dense images of the musicians. Much like the bass, there is a sense of physical presence in the recording, and as cliché as it sounds, it is as though the performers are in the room. Listening to simple arrangements like Jack Johnson or Miles Davis, each performer took on not only a well-defined horizontal placement on the stage, but also a layering effect upon the stage, with the space around them well defined by virtue of what’s not there. And this is where it gets interesting: the Reference SC’s deliver what is likely the lowest noise floor you can find, and this black-hole darkness gives rise to the well-defined presence of the performers within their locales. I can only suspect this has to do with the networks cleaning up EMI / RFI pollution that infects and pollutes the signal, as the effect is similar to that of using a really good power conditioner.
However, this has a downside. Whenever I’ve lowered the noise floor of my system, I’ve also cleaned up the treble, taking away hash and noise and white energy that didn’t belong. The Reference SC’s do this better than any cable / power conditioner / tweak I’ve tried, but I very much get the sense that they throw away the baby with the bathwater.
While non-networked cables are not as aggressive in lowering the noise floor as those mysterious Transparent network boxes are, by the same token treble extension and decay through the SC’s are muted when compared to other non-networked cables
(which simply employ conductor shielding & geometry optimization to minimize EMI / RFI). Listening to Pete Townsend play the ukulele on “Blue Red & Grey” off of The Who By Numbers, it’s obvious that the decay of this simple instrument is substantially attenuated, as though the ukulele were behind a curtain, and even the leading edge seems a bit subdued, but the error is most prominently noticed on the decay side. Pete’s voice never sounded better, mind you, and I never felt Pete in the room as strongly as with the Reference SC’s, but the ukulele was definitely editorialized. Additional cuts from that CD only confirmed it for me. While the visceral portrayal of Keith Moon’s drumming was beyond anything I’ve experienced from a cable, the treble decay of his cymbal work was strongly attenuated; yes, I could hear a brass cymbal decay, but it didn’t decay for nearly as long as it should, nor at a volume that it should.
I find it ironic that insofar as a drum kit goes, the Reference SC’s are both incredibly right and incredibly wrong. Same thing for acoustic guitars and the upper registers of a piano; the ring of the guitar string that gives rise to the decay harmonics just doesn’t seem to last long enough for me to think “yup, that’s how a guitar sounds”, nor is the initial pluck as dynamic and fast as I’ve found on other cables. There’s some information missing here, and while there is some low-level detail obfuscation throughout the frequency spectrum, its most noticeable in the treble, and far less evident in the midrange (though still a character of the cables).
Tonality through the Reference SC’s is as good or better than any cable I’ve encountered, no matter what instrument we’re talking about. Female vocals and piano were rendered naturally and with the pitch definition that one needs for long term satisfaction. Listening to El Perro Del Mar, the track “Candy” opens with room shaking bass followed by a little-girl tenderness in the vocals that the Reference SC’s had me just drooling over. The track “This Loneliness” is again delivered with excellent tone across the entire band, and while the upper registers of the piano had the correct tone, they did not have the decay or volume that one would find in real life.
Now, I’ve knocked these cables a good deal on their treble performance and extension, and rightly so. But every silver lining has a touch of grey, and with the Transparent Reference SC’s, it comes with poorly recorded digital software. I’m not an analog guy, and never will be—I sold my records long ago (and regret it to this day), and have committed to digital software as my medium. And digital, as we know, can sound like a fingernail on a chalkboard if the setup and software is bad enough.
Some of my favorite performances are poorly recorded, but the Transparent Reference SC’s allow you to ignore the flaws in the recording better than any cable I’ve encountered (thanks to the “editorialized” treble) and dig into the performance for the reasons that matter most: the love of the music. I make no secrets about the fact that I find The Who to be the best band that ever existed, but Good God their live recordings stink. The Isle of Wright is quite possibly the best live rock performance I’ve ever heard, as it captures the ferocious energy that The Who was known for at the height of their powers, but the sonics are very poor—it’s bright, edgy, and not the sort of CD you play to demo gear.
However, with the Reference SC’s in the system, not only was I able to jam out with no hint of listener’s fatigue typically found in bad recording, I was also able to do it at obscenely loud levels without getting a piercing pain from the brightness endemic to the recorded music. And that’s why I’m an audiophile—the music. And whatever serves the music I love the best, so shall I love it. So, while I take issue with the fact that the Reference SC’s throw out the treble extension of the best recordings I have, I am absolutely grateful that they make the worst recordings so much more enjoyable and listenable. These cables are a panacea for audiophiles cursed to love certain bad recordings.
I hope I’ve made clear the strengths and weaknesses of the Transparent Reference SC speaker cables. It’s hard to justify something so simple as cables at these prices, but if you think of it as an essential component for your system, then the price loses relevance and the question of value takes precedence.
On that basis, for the princely sum of $6k MSRP, the Transparent Reference SC’s deliver a visceral rendition of the recording via best-in-class bass depth and weight, spot-on midrange tonality, and a palpable image density / space thanks to the lowest noise floor I’ve ever encountered, but at the expense of treble extension and the air around the leading edge of transients. Some musical genres will be well served by these tradeoffs (i.e. rock & roll, world music, post-mod), and some will be ill-served (folk, acoustic), so whether you approve or not will depend on your system and your preferred music choices. And as I said, some beast-like amplifiers will not need the impedance-matching function that the cables provide which manifests itself in the improved bass performance.
Let me be perfectly clear: these cables are not for everyone. Well, that applies to all cables, but especially so for Transparent Audio. The treble extension and decay that defines a cymbal or a ukulele is MIA for the most part, and I am unable to resolve the issue of whether the attenuation of the leading edge is a function of removing unwanted EMI / RFI noise (good thing) or outright signal loss (bad thing); given my experience with cymbals, piano, and the ukulele, I imagine it’s both.
The thing to ask yourself, dear reader, is if the accurate portrayal of these instruments’ overtones is the raison d’etre for your audiophile affliction. If it is, I encourage you to audition these and other cables, and I won’t be surprised if you find yourself preferring other brands out there. In this hobby, it’s all about listening preferences and what floats your boat. These cables might be it, or they might not.
The Reference SC’s and their suspicious-looking network boxes filled with magic beans / fairy dust / kryptonite / etc. obviously clean up the treble of hash and noise while performing some critical impedance-matching function that all but the beastliest solid-state amps provide. How these cables do it, I don’t know, nor do I care. What I do know is that, despite the significant trade-offs and errors specific to these cables, they deliver a dynamic, visceral and eminently musical performance that is perfectly complementary to the music and performances I love the most, and while I don’t consider them an ideal reviewers’ tool or an open window to the event, I must say I’ve never found as much musical satisfaction in my stereo as when the Transparent Reference SC’s are connected to the back of my speakers.
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