Cable Reality Check
|Cable Reality Check|
|25 April 2001|
Items under Review:
Kimber Bifocal XL speaker cable. Price 8′ pair $1920.00 USD
Kimber Hero Interconnect. Price 1.0 M pair $150.00 USD
Kimber TAC Hybrid tonearm cable. 1.0M $400.00 USD (TAK-Cu copper is $250).
Nothing in this sport is more subjective and controversial than cables. I don’t know if any of you have been following the gang wars on rec.audio.high-end, but they go something like this:
Subjectivist: I hear differences when I try different cables/amps/cd players.
Objectivist: There is no difference. It’s placebo effect. All well-designed cables/amps/CD players sound the same.
Subjectivist: But I definitely hear those differences. Maybe your system doesn’t have high enough resolution for you to notice.
Objectivist: My system is fine. There is no basis in science for any of the differences that you mention. They don’t show up in double blind listening tests, so they don’t exist.
Subjectivist: But I definitely hear those differences.
Objectivist: You’re deluding yourself
Subjectivist: You’re deaf. And your system sucks too.
Objectivist: You’re a gullible snob.
And on, and on.
There really seems to be no middle ground in this battle. Either you use Radio Shack interconnects and run lamp cord to your speakers, or you buy the best cables that you can afford and worry about them incessantly.
I’ve had cables in my system that cost thousands of dollars. I truly get a kick out of telling non-audiophiles that a 10ft pair of speaker cables costs about the same as a decent used car. It’s like telling him them you have both male and female sex organs – they step back and look at you in disbelief.
The only relevant question is: how much of a difference do high-end cables make? Well, they do seem to sound slightly different from the more reasonably priced items, but just how much, different, and how much better? And could it all be in my head? I truly don’t think that I’m imagining things, but that’s a lot of money to have wrapped up in what I consider to be a small difference. For instance, I recently tried a set of hyper-expensive speaker cables that many people think are absolutely marvelous. They’re about $1400 more than my current Audioquest Midnight cables. Did they sound different? The bass was just a tiny bit tighter, and the highs were just a tiny bit more extended. Were they superior? Well, yes – slightly. Were they $1400 superior? No. But having them in my system certainly made me feel better about my tiny pecker. I must say that I was quite reluctant to send them back to their owner. Oh well, at least my AQ Midnight is thicker than zip cord.
I have to admit that if money were truly no object, I’d buy big, thick, expensive cables just for the ooh-ah factor. And they’d likely sound good too. But I’m not rolling in money, so I can’t do that, and neither, probably, can you. One way I justify using relatively inexpensive cables is that the improvement gained from big-buck wires is quite small. Let’s face it, the change wrought by an extra $1400 in speaker cable is not even remotely close to that same money pumped into a new speaker, cartridge, powered sub, or room treatments.
The only time that I could see justifying such extravagance is if EVERYTHING else in your system is top-notch. To me that means that you’ve already lain down over $50 grand, probably more. Then, since there’s nowhere left to go, you can start looking into cables woven out of strands of hair taken from only the hungriest orphans. Unfortunately the gluttonous rich who can afford these ultra-exotic cables leave the rest of us who live in the real world with a nasty case of penis envy.
After reading up to this point, you may feel that I’m hypocritical in saying that I honestly do feel that there is a need to try different cables in your home system. My rationale is this: You should ALWAYS listen for yourself. Don’t base your opinions on what you read on the newsgroups. They’re all biased. The guys with the cheap home theatre receivers, zip cord, $200 Sony CD players and Ohm speakers aren’t willing to open their minds to change, for this would potentially invalidate their entire world view. And many of the people who believe that EVERYTHING makes a difference are probably exaggerating the levels of change brought about by aligning their systems to magnetic north and by wrapping solder around their cold-water pipes.
Remember that the truth lies firmly in the middle of these two viewpoints. And hey, if a new set of cables makes your system sound better, who gives a shit whether it’s due to skin effect or placebo effect? Go ahead! Have fun and enjoy your system. If a change in cable makes you sit up and say “Jesus! What happened?” then they’re worth the money. Conversely, even if zip cord does sound indistinguishable from the most expensive cables in ABX testing, if you’re not happy looking at them, it will detract from your listening enjoyment. If you perceive them as sounding bad, how is that different from them actually sounding bad?
Like me, maybe you just don’t feel comfortable with Rat Shack interconnects, and maybe zip cord (the name alone!) offends your sensibilities. If so, what do you do? There are choices, people.
One of the most obvious choices in interconnects is Kimber Kable. These guys make the venerable PBJ that consists of three strands of wire braided into a single run. The RCA jacks are nicely plated and of excellent quality, and the wire is Teflon insulated. Before you skeptics out there wonder why you’d ever want to pay $65 for a one meter pair, just go ahead and try and braid your own. Bet you can’t get it to look as nice as the Kimber people do. After you get your version woven, you can get started sewing your own shirts out of old potato sacks. You might want to try cutting your own hair too.
I used PBJ for years, and never felt that they were doing anything wrong in my system. I later bought some used KCAGs, which employ the same geometry but are made out of
braided silver. These look much cooler, but I honestly wouldn’t want to bet good money that I could identify which was which by sound alone. The KCAG does seem slightly more extended and clearer on top, but then again, that’s the way they look. Coincidence? You decide.
You will probably notice in the previous paragraph that I’ve used the word “seem” to describe the changes wrought by KCAG. This tends to be my experience with cables in general. When they’re doing the job properly, I tend not to notice them. It’s only when something is amiss that I react. And so it is with my Audioquest Midnight cable. I’ve always been happy with the smooth, rich, slightly dark sound that it imparts to my system. Wait a minute! That’s what this cable looks like as well… What’s going on here?
At any rate, I have had cables in my system that I just couldn’t get on with. Any deficiency in sound quality that is attributable to cables may not be immediately noticeable, but will tend to become more irritating with time. That’s why I hold the entry-level Kimber stuff in such high regard – it’s passed the test of time – and that’s what brings us (finally!) to the subject of this review.
I recently received from Don Rhule at Denon, Kimber’s Canadian distributor, two pairs of Hero interconnects, a set of Bifocal XL speaker cables, and a TAC silver/copper tonearm cable.
Hero is one step up from PBJ, in that the braided cables are encased in a fabric jacket. This jacket makes it difficult to determine what’s going on inside, but by feel I gather that it’s a braid, somewhat similar to PBJ. The RCAs are of WBT manufacture, and feature a richly plated surface with matte black “tactical combat” barrels. These male RCAs grip female RCA jacks tight and smooth – which is as it should be.
Bifocal reminds me of a Japanese finger puzzle. It’s comprised of a whole bunch of individual strands, something like those used in PBJ, tightly braided around a solid core into a VERY complex configuration. There’s no way you’d be able to put this one together yourself. The spade lugs and bananas are by WBT also, and border on the extreme. The spades have an elastomer centre that makes for a very snug fit with very little torque required, and the bananas have a tensioner that spreads the pins for even tighter contact. This cable is also VERY thick. Imagine radiator hose. It’s the kind of cable that generates double takes in non-audiophiles. Full audio pornography marks.
The Kimber guys also sent me a TAC copper/silver hybrid tonearm cable. This unit is very Star-Trek in appearance, with a shimmering bronze mesh jacket. The evil, alternate-universe Mr. Spock probably uses one of these on his Platine Verdier. The TAC tonearm cable also seems to have a braided interior, and, I would postulate, may even be Silver-Streak-like under the shielding.
OK then, how does this setup sound? It sounds pretty damn good, but first, more idle chatter. In order to prep myself for this review, I replaced all of my Audioquest cables with – horror! – zip cord, and cheap interconnects that I had left over from an old car installation. Rockford Fosgate makes them, if anyone’s interested. Zip cord, I believe, is one step up from using car booster cables, and the usage of such is grounds for having your entire system confiscated for one year. I suffer for you, boys and girls.
Surprisingly, the world’s cheapest cables don’t sound like hammered shit as I expected them to. At first listen, you would probably wonder what all of the fuss is about with this cable business. You might even say that it – gasp – sounds the same as the expensive stuff.
But it doesn’t. In some hard-to-describe way, the music just isn’t as involving. Depth is subtly drained, and music ceases to demand attention. Reading, and other diverse activities become easier. While there isn’t a huge shift in tonal balance, the entire presentation of the music becomes much less convincing. Needless to say, I didn’t spend a lot of time listening to the zip cord.
I switched to the Kimber stuff a bit at a time. Interestingly enough, the speaker cable made the most difference. If I were to judge it on looks alone, I would guess that the Bifocal would be warm and rich, and, well, fat. ‘Cause that’s what it looks like. But this is one instance where my theory of appearance and sound convergence falls down. Imaging was immediately improved. Where before it was loose, diaphanous (great word, no?), now you could use a laser pointer to outline instruments in space.
I recently gorged on used vinyl at a local music company’s rummage sale. Much to the puzzlement of the volunteers working at the cash desk, I loaded up on classical and opera LPs and boxed sets for $.50 each, not bothering to check the condition after examining the first one or two mint specimens. I ended up with about two linear feet of mostly unplayed records for just under $30. One of the gems that I later discovered in this musty pile is a 45 RPM Angel LP – The Grand Canyon Suite by Grofe (Angel SS45028). This recording has the most absolutely pure high frequencies that I’ve ever experienced. There’s a triangle-type thingy in the right channel that is almost at the threshold of my ability to hear. Via the Kimber Bifocal, I could delineate a clearer picture of the instrument itself, rather than a recording of an instrument. It was captured in space, and the overtones added flesh to what was, through the zip cord, an otherwise disembodied, metallic sound.
Whether it’s a combination of biwiring, or braided strands, or whatever, the bass was solid and tight via the Bifocal. Nothing to complain about here. The highs were a little bit more tipped up than via my reference Audioquest Midnight, but not enough to cause me any grief, or otherwise detract from my enjoyment of the music.
Unfortunately I wasn’t exactly bowled over by the TAC phono cable. Right now I’m using a Cardas Hexlink phono cable which is, unfortunately for the TAC, a tough act to follow. Whereas most other cable swaps result in subtle differences, inserting the Kimber TAC into the chain resulted in a dramatic change. Boy! Is this thing bright. The same triangle in the Gofe piece made my teeth hurt like I was chewing on tinfoil, and caused my Siamese cat to start spraying in the hall closet.
Are you a jazz and classical snob? Only estate Bordeaux? Let’s get a six-pack of Old Milwaukee and go slumming. I’m a huge fan of the very sexy Liz Phair, and herWhitechocolatespaceegg (Matador –OLE 191-1) is a working-class tour-de-force. It’s full of catchy pop songs, but it in no way falls into the category of fluff. Liz is streetwise, but sensitive and yet manages to avoid tartiness, and her songs show much depth yet still retain a sense of fun and lightheartedness. Also, it’s on vinyl, it’s cheap, and it’s beautifully recorded. I tend to listen to this album at a higher volume than most of my other favourite recordings, but with the TAC in the system, my ears were not up to the task – I could feel the cilia shriveling up as if they’d been napalmed.
I spent a couple of weeks listening to the TAC, hoping that it might relent, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. BUT, keep in mind that I’m extremely sensitive to any excess high frequencies. If you have a dark-sounding system and want to liven it up, by all means try this very attractive-looking cable. It’s all about system matching, right?
The Hero interconnect is another story. It falls squarely into the “not doing anything wrong” category. I replaced the car interconnects with the Kimber stuff, and noticed… well, not that much right off the bat. Tonal balance remained unchanged, images remained the same size, and the musical enjoyment factor remained high. My ability to read and ignore the music went down with the Kimber, which tells me that it is a move in the
I use the song “For Company”, from Patricia Barber’sModern Cool (Premonition PREM 741-2)to test any changes in my system. But, rather than expecting MORE of anything in particular, I use this track as a stress indicator – I see how loud I can take it. I usually throttle it up to where it was last time I was listening to it, and take it from there. This type of testing is a good indicator of whether the highs have changed, for better or for worse, as even the slightest bit of added grain will manifest itself in the form of broken glass and razor blades drilling into my head. The full Kimber setup (minus the TAC, as I only have this album on CD) passed with flying colours.
Although I stated above that I noticed no overt difference between the Hero interconnect and other, admittedly much more expensive cables, I couldn’t help thinking that something was missing from my overall response to the music. This is hard to admit here in print, but I couldn’t really tell you what the difference in sound was between the Hero and, say, KCAG, but the way the music affected me was very subtly changed. This change manifested itself in me being more capable and willing to read while listening. With the KCAG in the system I was captivated.
So how do I break captivated down into value? That’s a tough one. If I had only ever heard the Hero interconnect, as compared to the crap that comes in the box along with your mass-market gear, or even to other mid-line cables, I would probably say that it’s about as good as you can get. And in some ways, it is as good as you can get. If I had to buy cables today, with my own money, I would probably buy these.
The Bifocal speaker cable is also pretty damn good. But it’s an order of magnitude more expensive than the Hero, so it has to perform at a higher level in order to justify itself.
And perform it does.
This speaker cable is fast on its feet. There’s no smear or homogenization of images, bass is tight and highs are extended. In many ways, the Bifocal reminds me of Goertz copper cable, which, I might add, is significantly less expensive, and significantly less elegant looking. Draw your own conclusions here, folks, but give the Bifocal a try. You may like it as much as I, and feel that it’s worth the money.
In all, the Kimber cables that I’ve tried in this small sampling exhibit a family similarity to each other and to other Kimber stuff that I’ve tried through the years. This is commendable, as it seems to indicate that you can sift through their catalogue, pick your price point and end up with a quality product. Good stuff.
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