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In Pursuit of the Perfect Conductor: Dick Olsher Examines the State-of-the-Art in Audio Cable

Reprinted from Fi - The Magazine of Music and Sound
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It’s been over seven years since I last grappled with the art and science of audio cable. Why do it again? For one thing, the painful memories of doing battle with the "serpent masters" have largely faded away. And besides, in the interim the art has moved inexorably forward. So it seemed logical to venture once again into the wild and woolly world of cable. While I don’t consider wading, knee-deep, in a sea of wire to be a utopian endeavor, it does appear to be, as Lord Darth Vader would have put it, my destiny. It is clearly the Dark side of the Force that points me cyclically--much like a compass needle--toward a lode of cable.

To be sure, there was more product to behold this time than ever before. The persistent stream of new and exotic wire into the marketplace underscores audiophiles’ enduring support for cable as an essential link in the pursuit of good sound. During a recent cyberspace surfing expedition, I came across a cable survey posted on an audio web page. While the survey makes no pretension to being hard science, it emphasizes the cable budget of some audiophiles. Out of a sample of 274 audiophiles, 15% had invested at least 10% of their system dollars in cable. Of these, 3% had spend over 20% on cable! I can only nod approval at this trend. My advice is as follows: spend less than what you can on amplifiers; what you can afford on loudspeakers; and more than you can afford on cable.

The Silver Bullet

This is about as good a time as any to broach the subject of silver as a conductor material. As a conductor of both heat and electricity silver has no equal. The resistivity of 4N copper is 4/4% higher than that of 4N silver. It is second only to gold in malleability and ductility. One ounce of silver can be drawn into a fine wire about 30 miles long!

I do not find silver to be inherently bright sounding, as others have. In my experience, some of the brightest sounding cables have turned out to be stranded copper designs. The worst of the lot could fry a gnat at 10 yards. In contrast, some of the sweetest and most liquid cables I’ve heard to date have been pure-silver Litz construction. For example, the Audio Note AN-SPX facilitates the upper octaves with remarkable finesse and grace--without even a hint of brightness.

Audio history was made in 1976 when Hiroyasu Kondo, president of Audio Note Japan, unveiled the world’s first 4N pure silver cable (the AN-V). Mr. Kondo, the "Audio Silversmith," is single-handedly responsible for putting silver technology atop the high-end totem pole. The current reference interconnect, the AN-VX ($900/1m pair), and the reference speaker cable, the AN-SPX ($400/1ft pair), were introduced in the early ‘90s. And it’s really a shame that it has taken this long for these products to find their way into my reference room. My listening impressions to date, however, are almost entirely limited to the AN-SPX speaker cable.

Audio Note uses 4N silver exclusively in all of their silver-wired products. This is lab-grade silver, and much more expensive than the garden variety silver which is alloyed with copper, such as sterling silver (7.5% copper) or jewelry-grade silver (20% copper). Each silver strand receives six coats of polyurethane at "birth," as the wire leaves the final diamond die. This process not only prevents any surface oxidation from taking place, but also controls suface vibrational energy. Audio Note believes that even silver oxide is detrimental to signal transmission becauseof its low-level signal rectification. Litz construction is used together with small-diameter strands (0.2-mm diameter for the AN-SPX) to control skin-effect related phase shifts.

Sonically, the AN-SPX sets new standards in several respects. Its voicing is utterly natural. Harmonic textures ebb and flow with lyrical majesty, as if fashioned by Mother Nature herself. The AN-SPX conjures mental images of pure silk and velvet. Just listen to how this cable preserves the textural purity and integrity of a soprano’s upper registers. Folks, it doesn’t get any more liquid or pristine than this. The treble is well integrated with the mids, but is a bit softer sounding that the upper range of the Kimber 4AG or AudioQuest Diamond. And neither is it as quick as the of the Siltech FTM. Relative to the Kimber, the AN-SPX is tonally a tad more laid back through the midrange. However, the body and natural warmth of stringed instruments is properly preserved. Image outlines are portrayed incisively with exceptional focus and plenty of reach-out-and-touch palpability, though soundstage transparency falls short of the standard set by the Siltech GRM-4-SG and the FTM4 GOLD. A benchmark product in terms of integrity and purity.

The AN-SP speaker cable ($200/1ft pair) bears a strong sonic resemblance to its more expensive brother, the AN-SPX. It isn’t quite as sweet nor as spatially focused, but at half the price it represents a great value in silver cable.

 

This page was updated on: 06 Aug 1998
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