or . . .Geez dude, I am COMPLETELY Wired!
By Rick Gardner,
Jena Labs, Symphony Speaker Cable and Balanced Interconnects
First things first . . . if you are going to understand this review, you need to know about the listening room, and since I have moved into a new house.
Necessity can be a mother, or so they say. Since my last writing I have uprooted the family unit and relocated to the historical Irvington District in northeast Portland, Oregon. Sufficient time has elapsed to allow recovery from the trauma of moving, almost.
Perversely, we chose to purchase a century old Craftsman "money pit" complete with knob-and-tube wiring and a veritable menagerie of period wallpaper that still baffles me (even as it is slowly disappearing in the inexorable, if glacially paced remodel we will be engaged in until we die). The house is much like the two of us . . . past our prime, more than a bit eccentric and simply overflowing with charm and personality!
One of the negotiated conditions of this most recent house hunt was that I got my dedicated listening room. You would think once this condition was agreed to things would be relatively simple. We had sufficient funds to afford a house of reasonable size, even in Portland's grimly inflated real estate market. There were lots of houses on the market, scattered throughout the various, distinctively different neighborhoods that comprise Portland. All I really needed was an unimpeded shoebox sized room of reasonable volume, and I am not a perfectionist. What could be so hard?
We looked at over twenty houses, while our determinedly cheerful agent kept repeating, with greater and greater urgency, "Now help me understand what is wrong with this room for your stereo . . ." All the while I knew she was adding mentally to that sentence, You twisted geek."
Finally, and against our better rational judgment, our hearts were won by this big old Craftsman house on a quiet street, within walking distance from Lloyd's Center and countless shops and restaurants. The intended listening room? A former second story "sun" room, 14' 9" x 19' 6". Hardwood floors over heavy sub-floor, over heavy and closely spaced joists. Once we add carpet (good). Lathe and plaster construction (very good). Neat storage places conveniently located at either end for built-in storage of all of my audio media (really good). Heavily framed, smallish windows, all on one wall and easily draped (good). 100 amp electrical service to the house and a labyrinth of knob-and-tube wiring, daisy-chain connecting God-Knows-What (really bad). Seven and one/half foot ceilings with black floral wallpaper (really awfully horribly bad).
Run heavy shielded line up from
the mains with external shielded conduit
and install a dedicated breaker box and lines
with the best quality breakers we could bully
our electrician into finding for us. Punch
a ground down until Chinese people complained.
Hospital grade outlets. Tear out the ceilings
and vault them to nearly eleven feet (asymmetrically)
. . . pack the overhead space between the
new ceiling and roof and front wall (behind
the speakers) with doubled solid polyurethane
insulation panels, cut to fit.
Finish the mix of lathe and plaster and sheet rock with heavily textured stuff. Theatre weight drape (with thermal backing) over the windows. Non-rubberized pad and a good carpet. Throw up the requisite ASC traps and panels in the predictable places . . . add some paint, some flexible zone lighting, some pocket doors and shelving . . . and . . . voila!
With the incomparable ESP Concert Grands arrayed in front of the long wall given plenty of depth and lateral space to breath . . . the listening area arranged against the back wall (under the high part of the ceiling vault, just like in a concert hall) and equipment racks tucked away against the short wall, I was ready for sonic nirvana.
Oops, one slight logistical problem. For various reasons, I have always had to put equipment racks between the speakers, but the new room allows me to get them out of the way. Only one problem . . . I needed thirty feet of balanced interconnects from the line-stage to the power amp. Compounding this problem is the fact that Sean from ESP now lives in England and only comes back every few months (Sean built all of my wire). Damn . . . what to do?
Wait, I am a reviewer! I can call one of these fine wire manufacturers and they would surely be willing to supply a review piece, until Sean comes back and I can have him build a permanent replacement . . . right? Aaaaaaaaaaa! Wrong answer. I couldn't get Nordost and Goertz to even return phone calls, let alone supply product. Ah the lot of a freshman reviewer who doesn't work for Stereophile. Sigh.
Life is funny. Some initial disappointments are fortuitous precursors to something infinitely better (witness my first marriage). Our fearless editor, David Robinson suggested I approach Jennifer Crock, of Jena Labs fame. Jennifer and I had spoken briefly in the past, but I hadn't really gotten a chance to talk with her. After some interesting conversation, she graciously agreed to build a set of her top-of-the-line Symphony interconnects for review.
I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but I certainly didn't get it! See. . . I am not particularly enamored of the whole wire thing. Sure, some wires sound better than others, but I have always found the differences less than overwhelming, certainly nothing to flip a major switch over, as many reviewers are wont to do. As often as not, I have found the match between components and wire the more significant issue. This is the only way I can
explain my ho-hum response to many highly rated wires.
I suppose, like most speakers, the ESP Concert Grands in my reference system are idiosyncratic. Their full, rich, emotionally holographic presentation is at least somewhat at odds with the hyper-detailed presentation much favored in HIFI. This is not an equivocation, but readers must always understand the written review in light of the reviewers references and their own desires and preferences. However, I have heard a lot of wire on a lot of different systems, from Sean's custom stuff to Audioquest, Cardas, Kimber, Tara, Transparent and many others. Well, none of those more pedestrian experiences
prepared me for this experience.
Symphony Digi-Link Interconnect
SpeakEasy Twin Eleven Speaker Cables with Cardasâ Spade lugs
First, the wires are . . . well . . . pink. It seems that exceptionally pure copper (better than six nines (99.9999) is a rosy . . . pink. Apparently there are only two wire foundries on the planet who are able to consistently achieve this level of purity. Each 18 gauge wire consists of 127 ultra fine copper strands encased in a transparent material she says is "similar" to Teflon, but without the fluorine (apparently fluorine is a bad thing). For the Symphony interconnects, Jennifer neatly braids seven stranded runs of this precious 18-gauge copper in flat braid configuration. Termination is with either customized Cardas Rhodium over copper on brass RCA's or, in my case with imported Neutric XLR's.
I routed the interconnects up from the power amp and along the wall behind the Concert Grands, using antique insulators taken from the removal of the knob and tube wiring . . . worked great. I popped them into the back of the BAT VK-5i line stage, stuck in a CD and fired my system up.
The moment coherent light touched pits, I knew something very special was happening. Cold out of the bag, I immediately knew the rest of my wire was history. A few days later and I was awash in pink . . . Symphony Digi-Link, digital RCA interconnect, balanced pieces for the Timbre DAC and the BAT PK-5 phono stage and a "split eleven" SpeakEasy (six leads to the bass, five to the mid and treble) speaker wire.
I am embarrassed to say this but sometimes I forget how important this foolish stuff (audio) is to me. I found myself overwhelmed, tears welling up, listening and pondering on the fact that while wondrous adjectives are common in our hobby, there are a very small number of designers and products where superlatives are not only suggested, but demanded. This is simply the best wire I have ever heard. I am thinking it may well be the best wire you
have ever heard too. The overall effect on my system easily equals or surpasses active components.
I suppose a responsible reviewer will remind the reader of the inevitable synergistic effect of matching wires and other components, in the process of declaring universal excellence. Yeah, OK . . . consider yourself reminded. However, it is still the best I have ever heard, period.
Jennifer suggested the wire would benefit from break-in, but not to expect huge changes. I think she is understating this. The wires just got better and better over about thirty hours, with minor improvements up to about the fifty-hour mark. Some of what the wires do, I think I understand . . . but there are some things that still baffle me. Let's start with what I do
Extension and Transparency
I would reasonably expect wire at this price point to sound open, extended and highly transparent. However, I was not expecting to have my definition of these words pushed to their very limits. Frankly, they make everything else have heard sound wiry, fogged and closed-in at the frequency extremes. I found myself sadly contemplating the ability of the ESP Grands to resolve whatever they are fed, and the vagaries of creative versus business success that doomed ESP to obscurity.
Resolution and Smoothness
You can often get one or the other, but the hyper-detail that so frequently passes for HIFI resolution with many sets my teeth on edge. "Incisive" often sounds like "incisors" to me. A presentation that allows me to hear the individual peas in the gourd quickly looses its charm, when it robs the emotional content of the music and renders most "average" recordings
unlistenable. At the other end of the continuum, smooth sounding stuff often obscures important musical details. Not here. With the Jena Labs products you will hear new things from your most familiar recordings, more than you may have thought was there, and you will hear less too; less bite, less tizz, less hardness . . . a lot less.
If the Jena Labs wires did only these things as brilliantly as they do, they would still be extraordinary products . . . but we are just beginning.
Ok . . . so much for what I DO understand, now lets talk about what I DON'T understand.
Perhaps the most valuable attribute of Jennifer's wire, and certainly most difficult to understand and describe, is the sense of quiet, as though a significant amount of very low-level system noise was simply eradicated.
It is a familiar life experience to most of us; we experience something subtlety irritating in some aspect of sensory awareness (visually, noise, smells or some uncomfortable emotional or physical sensation). The exact origin of the discomfort is outside our conscious awareness. We just know we are uncomfortable . . . and then it's gone. Suddenly and profoundly we
can breathe more easily. We can think more clearly. Muscles relax . . . we feel peaceful and contented. This is the most profound and musical part of listening to music through these extraordinary wires.
I sought explanation from designer Jennifer Crock on how this could be. She laughed delightedly at my description and launched into the "whys." Her explanation made Douglas Hoffstadter's Metamagical Themas seem about as intellectually challenging as the Teletubbies© episode where they explore the color orange. I know I as clinically dead through a substantial part of it (CLEAR!). Do YOU know what phonons are and what they do? I sure as hell don't. Jennifer is a dear, but she is out there man.
Intellectual confusion aside, I will tell you what I hear. I think a lot of upper midrange/lower treble energy in digital reproduction comes out as "noise" because of time coherency problems. We call this "tizz" and we all abhor it, while assuming it is just part and parcel of the current digital standards. Well, that may not entirely be the case. Imagine wires that can
sort the tizz and upper midrange crunchies into something very much like music. Think about all of the hard, tizzy, overly sibilant digital recordings you have (especially the ones where you love the music and hate the recording). Now, think about those recordings transformed into something that is not only survivable, but also actually rewarding.
There are several important audible benefits of this effect. The typical edginess and hardness of many digital recordings is resolved into spatial cues, which adds enormously to the perception of realistic space and air surrounding instruments and vocalists. While the differences between digital and analogue are still apparent, digital is rendered in a smoother,
warmer, more lifelike manner. The heightened resolution and coherency translates "tizz" into "sparkle." This phenomenon extends to resolving and calming harsh sibilants. I cannot overstate this effect in reducing the perception of noise and edge in most digital recordings.
Although my amplification is a mix of tube (line stage and phono stage) and solid state (power amp), I have had a number of recent comments from listeners that it is very difficult to discern whether they are listening to tube or solid state. I translate these comments to mean that they are hearing a significant diminution of the "electronic" signature so often
associated with solid-state amplification, without the compromises in low-end control and treble extension present with many tube-based systems.
I realize I have not said much to this point about the effect of the wire on analogue recordings. The simplest, coherent description I can give is "buttery." I am using this term to suggest the liquidity and harmonic richness of single-ended tube amplification, without the artificial sweetness and weird tonal shifts. Utterly seductive.
The reason why I emphasize digital recordings in this review is because of the solution Jena Labs offers to one of the most vexing irritants of digital reproduction. If you, like a lot of us, have a large digital connection, you will find an investment in Jena Labs wires will dramatically increase the perceived value of your digital recordings.
These are very important products. Whatever you may think you know about the vagaries of connectors (interconnects, digital links, speaker wire, etc.), the Jena Labs products are passive components that will open your music collection to the far corners, and they warrant the most serious consideration.
Jennifer's wires have driven me deeper into my large CD collection than I have been for some time. Recordings I had decided were simply digital disasters I now find enjoyable. This translates to finding literally hundreds of "new" discs in my collection.
most significantly for me, I no longer
pause before selecting a less than stellar
digital recording, balancing my interest
in the music with the memory of annoyance
with the recording. The Jena Labs wires not
only add enormously to the pleasure of listening
to my "core" recordings, but also
add greater value to my entire collection
The Symphony products are the top-of-the-line for Jena Labs (short of Jennifer's custom designed products). Jennifer uses the same materials and construction techniques in all of her products. Price differences reflect the number of leads (three, five, seven, etc.), rather than lesser materials or care in construction (interconnect prices begin at $130.00, speaker wire $800.00). Each piece is hand built by the designer (try to find that in with any of the majors). This means that the buyer can purchase the entry-level wires and upgrade at any time for the additional materials and labor to add more leads.
These are hand-built, artesinal products (like comparing a Formula One racing car to a mass-produced BMW or Mercedes), made with the finest materials available, and priced accordingly. However, you can spend a great deal more and not achieve their rarified performance. These are extraordinary products and worthy of the often-misused appellation... state-of-the-art.