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We Love to Listen

31st March 2015 -

Great Review of Chord cables at The Bristol Show

- Author:

Bristol Sound & Vision Show 2015

Way Out West

by Roy Gregory | 5 March 2015

This is an extract from the full review.

How often can you say that the most interesting product you heard at the show was a cable, or even a range of cables?

The "it all sounds the same" cable nay-sayers out there are going to hate this, but then they wouldn’t bother to listen anyway -- because they know that cables can’t make a difference. Except that The Chord Company, longtime suppliers of sensibly priced cables to the audiophile masses, were demonstrating that actually they do. Indeed, they were demonstrating that, contrary to all received wisdom (at least in certain quarters), not only do cables make a difference, but that the differences they make are so audible and so musically important that you’d have to be deaf or in denial not to hear them. Of course, that’s not exactly news and other cable companies like Nordost have been doing just that for years. But what made the Chord presentation so interesting were not just the sonic and musical differences between the cables they were playing, but the physical differences that produced them. Their first area of exploration was network cabling -- otherwise known as Ethernet cables (although Chord were keen to stress that their cables don’t actually adhere to the strict Ethernet standard, hence their chosen terminology) -- a core component of any server-or network-based replay system. Using a system built around a Melco NAS drive, Linn Klimax streamer and Bonnec amplification driving KEF Reference 1 loudspeakers, all fed from a Bonnec AC distribution unit and wired throughout with their flagship Sarum Tuned ARAY cables, they started by comparing a standard Ethernet cable between the Melco and the Klimax to their own C-Stream (£45), a cable that offers enhanced shielding and tighter-fitting plugs. The difference was far from subtle, with more apparent bandwidth, air and color, as well as greater separation, space and far clearer rhythmic patterns and phrasing. You can ignore this if you want -- or deny that it’s important or even that it happens -- but if you do and you run Ethernet in your system, you are throwing away serious musical benefits, benefits that only get bigger as you move further up the range. Next contender was the Anthem network cable. Significantly more expensive at £450 for the first terminated meter length, part of its USP is that subsequent meters only cost £50, making it a cost-effective option for longer runs. The cable itself uses carefully chosen insulation materials to create a hard/soft/hard sandwich skin that Chord have found to offer superior mechanical properties, in combination with the best available connectors, hand-terminated by Chord themselves. The difference here was really significant, with improved resolution, texture, tonal shadings and a natural expressive range that brought vocals and handclaps to life. Musical communication was much more convincing and direct, with the cable bringing body, dimensionality and subtle dynamic shifts to the mix. At this point we diverted to hear just what happens when you replace the standard Power Chord AC cable (£175) with the new Signature version (£500) featuring silver-plated conductors, a basic implementation of the company’s ARAY mechanical tuning and their own UK 13A plug design. The answer is increased dynamic range, a more positively planted sense of pace and timing, greater fluidity and a much more emphatic presentation. That was followed by the current Sarum Tuned ARAY power cord (£1250), which although it brought a nicely relaxed and expressive quality to the presentation, actually lacked the temporal authority of the Signature. Which brought us to the point of this little diversion -- the new Super ARAY AC cable (£1700). This combines the new 13A plug of the Signature with the basic design of the Sarum Tuned ARAY conductors, but with a different and far more effective approach to the mechanical tuning. Predictably, the step up in musical quality was far from subtle, with a richer tonal palette, greater depth and space but most significantly, a far more grasp of rhythmic sophistication, contrast and ensemble playing. The band just sounded tighter, like better players on a real roll. But, of course, power cords can’t make a difference. Any scientist will tell you that! Which brings us back to network cable and two more offerings, the Signature (£750) and Sarum Super ARAY (£1900), both of which include the Super ARAY mechanical tuning -- and both of which extend performance way beyond the already impressive Anthem. Interestingly, whilst the more expensive cable offered seriously worthwhile musical benefits over the Signature, both of these cables were cut from the same sonic stock. They were characterized by their natural tonality, sense of weight, body and musical flow, the coherence with which they presented the phenomenal detail they passed, the naturally articulate and expressive quality they brought to the performance as a whole. If a better system sounds more like people, then both these cables moved this system significantly closer to reality. Having been totally convinced of the virtues of the new Super ARAY tuning, the best news is that it’s retrofittable, with any Sarum Tuned ARAY interconnect or speaker cable upgradeable to the new Super ARAY standard. Form an orderly queue, please. Given the torrent of online abuse that AudioQuest has received for daring to launch an $11,000 network cable -- a cable that according to certain "experts" cannot possibly make any sonic difference -- the Chord Company presentation was both fascinating and timely. It was also utterly convincing. As I said, if you couldn’t hear the differences between these network cables you either weren’t listening or you are in denial. The rest of us will be only too happy to enjoy the considerable musical benefits. But we’re not quite done yet. The final card up Chord’s sleeve, a comparison between the new Sarum Super ARAY interconnect (£1900/meter pair) and a new flagship design, dubbed simply Chord Music and weighing in at £3000 -- an unheard of sum for a Chord product, yet comparatively modest in the world of high end cables. What made this particular comparison so interesting was that the cables were essentially identical, at least in terms of conductors, topology, contacts and mechanical tuning. The only difference is that the Chord Music interconnects used a new, proprietary dielectric dubbed Taylon by Chord (in the absence of any established brand name from the manufacturer) and had PTFE sleeves on the RCA plugs in place of the acrylic ones used on the Sarum. Beyond that, Alan Gibb and Nigel Finn, the Chord Company’s very own chuckle brothers, weren’t prepared to say a word, their lips sealed by confidentiality agreements and the threat of dire consequences if they should divulge militarily sensitive information. Reputedly, they also agreed not to employ the technology in the production of chemical, nuclear or biological weapons. Lucky us! Yada, yada, yada -- we’ve all heard variations on that theme plenty of times before. The real question is, how much difference can a bit of insulation and some plug covers actually make? After all, they don’t even pass the signal! Oh, dear. As I said, all those "they all sound the same" merchants won’t be happy. As big and musically important as the differences between the various network cables had been, as dramatic as the increase in dynamic range and rhythmic authority were with the power cords, the difference between the Sarum Super ARAY and the Chord Music interconnects was by far the largest and fundamentally most important difference demonstrated. This wasn’t a change; it was a transformation. I could point to the added body, weight, color, separation and harmonic development. I could flag up the added sense of drive, pace, attack and overall musical impetus. I should mention the increase in articulation and how much more natural the vocal delivery suddenly seemed. But all of these individual attributes seemed trivial in comparison to their collective impact, their effect on the performance as a whole. You could hear deeper into the mix; suddenly you could tell not just what was being played but why, how it drove the track and how it all fitted together; rhythmic patterns and structure fell into place; there was a new clarity and purpose to the performance which brought it right into the room. The whole thing just made a lot more sense -- and in this case it was Led Zeppelin doing the playing! The ability of the cable to project the sheer power and energy of the band, as well as sort out the recording so that you could hear exactly who was doing what, was remarkable. What was more remarkable was that the Sarum Super ARAY is no slouch, the Tuned ARAY version regarded as both an excellent performer and excellent value. Yet the Chord Music left it well and truly in the weeds: more natural, greater clarity, better communication and far less aurally "visible," the new cable just sounded right. Given that the album being played was Houses of the Holy, that’s no mean feat! Even more interestingly, apparently that’s the way it sounds pretty much from new, which given the extended break-in times for PTFE-insulated cables is another plus. For anybody who has worked with or listened to a lot of different cables, a lot of this will come as no surprise. Mechanical behavior and connector characteristics have been the cable insiders’ hot topic for a while now. The importance of dielectric materials is hardly news; that’s why manufacturers go to such lengths to remove as much of it as possible from direct contact with the conductors in their designs, from foaming it to constructing complex cradle arrangements. In extreme cases (Cogan-Hall springs to mind) they attempt to remove it altogether. But what was surprising was just how large and clearly defined the differences were, particularly between the network cables, which reinforces the old adage about the increasing importance of each system element the closer it gets to the source. Likewise, both the network cables and the power cords really rammed home the importance of connectors and mechanical considerations when it comes to cable design. But the really big news is that PTFE, the dielectric of choice for the last two decades is finally starting to show its age. The king might not be dead yet, but long live Taylon! Now, all we have to do is find out exactly what on earth it is. Oh, and don’t tell the "scientists."