Ensemble Cables – The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
|Ensemble Cables – The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
|A Message from the 12 × 12
|30 October 2000
MasterFlux Interconnects, 2+2 conductors, doubled shielded, drain wire, single-ended or balanced terminations, $460/m ($230 each additional meter pair)
MegaFlux FSF Speaker cables, 6 conductors @ 1.5 mm squared, double-shielded w/ conductor film shield, gold-plated spades or banana terminations, 3m pair – $1,670 ($230 each additional meter pair)
GigaFlux Digital cable, 75 ohm, triple-shielded w/ film shield, 2 drain wires, RCA or BNC terminations, $445/m ($199 each additional meter)
PowerFlux FSF power cord, double-shielded, 2+2 conductors, 2 drain wires + earth conductor, hospital grade plug, IEC connector, 2m cord – $420 ($145 each additional meter)
MegaPowerFlux power cord, same as the PowerFlux but w/triple-shielding & heavy duty IEC connector, 2m cord – $680
Power Point power strip, 6-outlet AC distribution unit, parallel star-configured wiring, 16A max., 1800W (115V)/3600W (230V) total, NEMA 5-15 sockets, hospital grade plug, $585 w/ 2m PowerFlux cord
MegaPower Point power strip, same as Power Point w/ 2m MegaPowerFlux power cord – $980
Address: (US Distributor)
36 Mallorn Drive
Aliso Viejo, CA 92656
Tel (949) 362-6080
Fax (949) 362-3933
Ensemble Inc. Ltd
P.O. Box 261
H. Annoni-Str. 23
CH-4132 Muttenz 1, Switzerland
Greetings, audio beings! Reporting to you once again from the 12 × 12 (as mentioned in my previous review, these are my listening room dimensions – and no, for you non-USA types, that’s in feet, not meters). Last time around we covered a fine little speaker – the Sonus Faber Concertinos. Since then, I’ve been experimenting with relocating my audio rack (a 5-tier Salamander stand), which occupied the spot – like many two-channel dwellings – right smack in the middle of the speakers. I felt that freeing up this space would allow an increase in imaging, and possibly soundstaging (remember back when you took High-end 101 how the professor spoke of not placing your TV set between your speakers? – of course, Home Theatre 201 came around and had everyone scratching their heads again). So, with limited floor space, I settled on the rear corner to the right of my two-seater. And, since the room is dedicated, rearranging equipment/furniture wasn’t a problem, spouse-wise that is.
Usually, any repositioning of gear requires, at minimum, a reassessment of cable lengths. Right off the bat, I needed a substantially longer pair of interconnects now that some distance was placed between my amplifier and the front-end components. Sure, I was concerned with increasing the length of any cable in the system (longer cables mean more capacitance, more capacitance mean treble rolloff), but I trust the ears of my audio comrades who, for the most part, would chose increasing the interconnects and leaving speaker cables short than vice versa. So, as luck would have it, I pried open the closet door (packed to the brim with empty audio gear cartons) and, BAM! Out of nowhere falls a 4-meter pair of Harmonic Tech Truth Links! (See, I knew those pair of pythons would come in handy one day!) As soon as I plugged those boys into the system, I get the eneverable phone call from Mr. Perry for a review package pick-up. “Cables?” “Ah, man, I just moved all my stuff around,” while reaching for my lower back. “Don’t worry,” he assured me, “I think this company uses crystal ball technology because they threw in a nice long set of interconnectsjust for you.” As I loosen my weight belt, a sigh of relief fell over the 12 × 12…
‘Ensemble’- A Group of People or Objects in Perfect Harmony
Not well known to the US music listening community, due to little domestic press coverage and a stealth–like appearance by the Swiss company, Ensemble, founded in 1986 by Urs Wagner, Ph.D., has adhered to its ‘policy of building products that together will guarantee a result beyond the single unit approach’. A design focus on areas such as the control and suppression of mechanical interference (the prevention and redirection of unwanted vibrational energy) and electrical interference (extensive proprietary shielding against EMI and RFI emissions) have yielded a robust array of products from digital front ends (CD transports, jitter reduction units & DACs) to amplifiers (power, integrated & phono stages) to speakers (mini-monitors & full range floorstanders) to power conditioners (isolation transformers & outlet strips) to isolation accessories (platforms, cones & tube dampers) and yes, to a full complement of cables to hook it all up. Yeah, I know. Here we go again with another company which manufactures not only all the pieces to the audio-playback puzzle, but also claims their products are the best whether as individual upgrades or as a complete system package. How many times have we heard this pitch before to only have the company fall short of its claims due to the engineering being spread out too far to focus on any individual product’s quality development? Well, hold on to your sweet spot, because a heavyweight contender may have entered the ring…
And If You Accept This Mission …
I arrived at the Perry Estate to pick up a box of cables, plus some cords and power strips to boot. The ‘Nackman’ (Marshall Nack) had previously escaped with a truckload of Ensemble gear and has filed his official report elsewhere in this publication. From the shear number of samples, I knew this was going to be a challenging endeavor. First, I decided to split the review into two subgroups – audio (both digital & analogue interconnects, and speaker cables) and power (AC cords & outlet strips). Second, I would follow some sort of logical progression: 1) switch out cables along the signal path beginning from the source end out to speaker end, allowing sufficient time for break-in (usually 4 to 5 days) between insertions, and then 2) replace all power cords, from source components to the power amp. Finally, I would remove all AC line conditioning and replace with outlet strips so as to review my system with the complete Ensemble overhaul.
Cable Geometry? Shield Times Shield divided by Shield…Equals?
During our telephone conversation, the humble, but quite confident, Dr. Wagner informed me that he doesn’t get into the ‘number nines’ game when it comes to his conductor’s copper content (“If I told you it was “six nines” or “seven nines”, how would you know the difference? How would you measure it?”). He just states that it is ‘of the highest purity’. Upon initial inspection, I could see and feel that these cables were well constructed. And don’t think that cable manufacturing was a recent afterthought to roundoff the company’s product line. Ensemble has been in the cable biz for over 10 years, currently incorporating a fourth generation of cable manufacturing advancements.
No fat & clunky corrective-filtering boxes hanging off the cable ends here. Ensemble’s weapon of defense (against those naughty interference waves) is an application of extensive shielding. Dr. Wagner calls it FSF (Film Shield Force) – “I, Doctor Spock…the film shield force is fully functional & engaged.” The film shield, between the conductor and insulation, in addition to double & triple shielding layers around the whole conductor bundle, allows an ultra-quiet behavior, lending to that “music-appearing-out-of-blackness” levels of resolution. The distributor, Artistic Audio’s Brian Ackerman, had informed me that the analogue & digital interconnects and the speaker cables are directional (the direction of the manufacturers writing on the cable jacket is the direction of the signal flow). This suggests that the cables are probably non-isotropic (a grain structure develops during the drawing process of the copper conductors resulting in a cable which sounds different when a signal is passed thru it in the reverse direction). Switching the cables back and forth, while listening for differences in dynamics, particularly at the audio bands outer extensions, did not show signs of restriction. But, for the most part, I installed the cables as recommended by Mr. Ackerman.
The environmentally correct Dr. Wagner has provided his cables with a non-halogen (if your cables burst into flames from a post ’65 Coltrane solo, the fumes won’t kill you), near airtight polypropylene dielectric coating for the lowest loss factor (Less energy, absorbed by the dielectric, is released back into the cable to degrade the signal). The Ensembles were not as flexible as the Harmonic Tech cables, especially around tight corners behind the audio rack, this obviously due to Ensemble’s combination of rugged sheathing and multiple shielding. But, nevertheless, the cables are quite manageable given their many-layered construction.
All connectors are made of the highest quality Swiss products. Both the GigaFlux and the single-ended MasterFlux have spring-loaded RCA’s, with ‘Ground Before Signal’ contact. Just in case you disconnect or insert the cables while components are ‘on’, you won’t get that nasty ‘thump’. A tightening chuck provides excellent strain relief with secure contact to component jacks. The MasterFlux balanced interconnects are terminated with Neutrik XLR connectors. Good stuff indeed!
The Mega Flux speaker cables come terminated with very high purity copper, gold plated spade lugs. The cables initially presented a hook-up problem. Both review pairs were terminated with ¼” lugs and my Pass Labs Aleph 0s power amp and the Concertinos have slightly wider binding posts. “What’s up with the Europeans and the small lugs?” (Oh-oh, that didn’t sound right). But, as per a tip from a fellow contributor, with so many speaker cable connector types passing through a reviewer’s hands, it is best to purchase a complete set of binding post extenders like the Monster Cable X-Terminator-II (6 pairs should do – at $60 a pair, not a cheap proposition). They’re the best quality extenders with the least degradation to the transferred signal I could find and were quite handy for quick inserts/removals with just a twist of a knob. Anyway, you don’t have to shell out that type of cash just to connect a speaker cable (unless you got it like that). Ensemble will terminate the cables as per your type/size requirements.
Something I thought was cool, which I’m surprised most High-end manufacturers miss on, is thePowerFlux ‘Gold’ FSF power cord’s IEC connector. It has a small felt pad on its underside which helps keep the connector secure within a components IEC slot. Simple, but real nice. The Harmonic Tech CL-3 cord plugged into my CD transport (Museatex CDD) seems like its just hanging on (eventhough its never popped out) from only the weight of the cord itself! TheMega Flux FSF has a more impressive connector, with a barrel as fat as high-grade plug. One problem. The barrel is so large that I couldn’t get to the on/off switch on the backs of my front-end devices (the switch, on all three components – CDD, Museatex Bidat & Z-Systems rdp-1 – seats right above or below the IEC slot). So, if you have similar units, and you like to power down your system when not in use, you’ll have to unplug the Mega Flux FSF before you can turn the system off! Luckily, all I had to do was shut off my PS Audio P300. I don’t know if the Swedes can remedy this situation while maintaining the obvious mechanical (& better yet, sonic) attributes of the larger connector. You, the consumer, will have to way out the pros and cons on this one. And yes, as mandatory in this class (and price range), both power cords are terminated with heavy-duty hospital grade plugs.
Boy, You Better Go To Your Room And Clean Up Your…AC?
Both the Power Point and the Mega Power Point, are 6-outlet AC distribution units. Housed in a nicely finished aluminum chassis, each individually power outlet is addressed from the center feed by means of a proprietary Teflon-insulated, silver-clad high-purity copper wire. And just to show how the Ensemble company backs their power cord technology, all products come standard with a PowerFlux FSF cord, as does the Power Point (the Mega Power Point is fed by a Mega Flux FSF cord). One little peeve here. A couple of the Mega Power Point’s rubber feet kept falling off. Also, a couple of loose screws were rattlin’ around inside the chassis (probably due to rough shipping). For a power strip priced just shy of a grand, I’d expect better quality construction.
Gentlemen, Start Your Engines…
As soon as the GigaFlux cables were installed between the CDD, the zdp-1 and the Bidat – sitting out was a pair of Harmonic Tech (HT) Cyber-Link Silver Digital cables– I registered a lift in transparency. A great recording of piano/guitar duets, Michele Camilo & Tomatito, ‘Spain’ (Verve 314 561 545-2), provided the reference material to see how well the cables handle both the quick attack & transients of a flight fingered flamenco guitar virtuoso and the dynamic breath of a grand at the hands of the master latin-jazz pianist. After initial break-in, the GigaFlux cables allowed a little more air around the musicians as they tackled the floating intro to the Chick Corea standard. Camilo & Tomatito leap into the famous melody line head first (Boy, oh, boy! That sure brings back memories of the late 70’s when my high school buddies and I were hopelessly attempting to impress each other by figuring out those blinding Mahavishnu/ReturnToForever/WeatherReport fusion licks on our pawnshop-worn instruments). The guitarist is imaged center and slightly behind the speaker line with Camilo slightly in front and spread across the soundstage. A minute decrease in depth was detected verses the Cyber-Link’s performance. But make note that a pair of Bybee Quantum Force Interconnect filters were assisting the HT cables. Together, the line filters bring out that last bit of juice from the HT’s. But, when matted with the GigaFlux, outer treble extension suffered at the hands of increased depth.
Removing the Bybees and leaving the GigaFlux cables to handle the digital transfer solo, I continued down the signal path by introducing the Master Flux interconnects (Two pairs of HT Single Crystal Silver XLR Balanced interconnects – a pair each straddling a TDS Passive Audiophile Enhancer – were moved to the side). Ensemble provided a hefty punch in this round. All that shielding really paid off in this critical section – the line level signal between the pre and power amps. This is one of the areas where your system is most vulnerable to attack – even from itself! Nearby digital cables with their high frequency 1’s and 0’s giving off RFI, AC power cords imposing EMI and low frequency vibrations emanating down thru your speakers to the floor. That clarity was an immediate hit. Noise floor dropped a couple of steps.
Jane Monheit’s ‘mature-beyond-her-22-years’ vocals on “I Got It Bad (and that Ain’t Good)“, “Never Never Land” (N-Coded Music NC-4207-2), emerging from a backdrop of solid black, was refreshingly intimate. The Master Flux helped to expose the innocence of a young woman, aware of her talents but, still intimidated by the presence of her master sidemen (the core trio of Ron Carter (bass), Kenny Baron (piano) & Lewis Nash (drums)). I reached for the Clifford Jordan Quartet’s, “Live at Ethell’s” (Mapleshade 56292). This is a well known ‘live jazz’ recording, no doubt due to the ‘no-nonsense’ recording techniques of Mapleshade founder and recording engineer, Pierre M. Sprey (the label’s catalog rightfully spotlights this recording, stating that high-end manufacturer, Audio Research, uses the CD as one of their references to fine tune their components under factory listening tests). Again, I experienced that neutralness. And not at all did the MasterFlux sound analytical, or even lean in the lower spectrum. To hear the delicate tenor saxophone fingerings, of breath forced thru slightly closed keypads, was thrilling. Jordan’s only vocal appearance (ever), Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life“, is accurately captured with the saxophonist’s impulsive dash to bring his instrument Mic up to his mouth, to everyone’s surprise including Sprey.
During the stay of the Ensemble family, an EAR 534 push pull stereo tube amp (review forthcoming) stopped over for a visit to the 12 x 12. The review piece had single-ended inputs, so for the remainder of the Ensemble evaluation, I switched to the set of RCA Master Flux interconnects. At this point, I spent sometime becoming acquainted with the EAR amp. For three weeks, the magic of tubes settled in while details of its features were noted for reference. It was now time to throw in theMega Flux FSF speaker cables. As I was hanging with the EAR, I kept popping in the newly released CD by Roy Hargrove, “Moment to Moment“, accompanied by his quintet and the Monterey Jazz Festival Chamber Orchestra. When you’ve lived with solid-state amps for awhile, even a single ended unit like the Pass Labs Aleph 0s, hearing a tube amp again brings out the romantic side not only in the audiophile but also in the unsuspecting spouse. The massive soundstage of the strings, caressing the intro to “You Go to My Head” brought out the bottle of Pomeral. After a couple of bars, Hargrove trumpets thru with his horn focused dead center. I brought the HT Pro 9 Plus “shotgun” speaker cables back and did a quick A/B. The Pro 9’s lead me to believe that Mr. Hargrove stood up straight from a slight slouch, more vertical extension as it may, which I know is difficult to conceive given only two speakers (I know Mr. Ambiophonics, Ralph Glasgal, is probably thinking ‘What the hell has Heru been smokin’?’), especially from small monitors like the Concertinos. The HT’s tightened up that sound emanating from his horn, in addition to the bottom. Probably that single-crystal conductor technology of Mr. Robert Lee (HT’s former Chief Engineer) did very little to degrade the EAR’s damping factor, allowing better control of the woofer/midrange. The Mega Flux FSF cables, now reinserted, presented more upper extension, with the violins and violas singing above the cellos. At this point, with complete Ensemble transmission from transport to speakers, a sonic signature, characteristic of other cables, was not being placed on the sound, just more music from the speakers to the ears.
Around the sixth week, the PowerFlux FSF power cords were introduced to the system. As mentioned previously, the CCD, the RDP-1 & the Meitner Bidat are fed from a PS Audio P300 Power Plant. Three (3) HT PRO-AC11 CL-3 power cords were uplifted and replaced with the PowerFlux FSF cords. I pulled out my trusty Marcus Roberts Trio CD, “In Honor of Duke” (Columbia CK 63630), which contains superbly recorded upright bass and trap drums. The second track ‘There it is’ opens with Roland Guerin’s bass solo, full of fingerboard slides, pull-offs and double stops. Here the Ensembles didn’t present an overwhelming difference. Maybe, and I mean just maybe, there was something in the way of increased resolution. Details of drummer Jason Marsalis’ (Oh yes, there is another brother!) stick work on track 5, “Groove Until You Move“, was as defined as with the CL-3’s in, whether on snare drum snaps or cymbal shimmers.
Hot off the production line, Ensemble’s new Mega PowerFlux cords were being tooted as the reference cable to beat. I replaced two of the PowerFlux FSF cords with their big brothers (I only had two Mega’s in the review package), and removed a PowerSnakes Sidewinder power cord from the EAR amp and replaced it with one of the PowerFlux’s. Now, going back to Mr. Robert’s trio, there was some definite smoothing out of the rough edges. The coherency of the music was nicely balanced from Marsalis’ kick drum wacks to Robert’s upper octave sprinklings. The upper mids loss that smear and locked into that certain rightness. It was time to get funky, so I reached into my bag of tricks and pulled out the new Steely Dan recording, “Two Against Nature” (Giant 9 24719-2). Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, this their first studio recording in nearly twenty years, surrounds themselves, as always, by a whole slew of choice-picked studio musicians including a wicked horn section. This dynamic duo is legendary for their perfectionism in the studio. In the 70’s, Steely Dan records were usually carried under the arms of budding audiophiles to test showroom systems, especially speakers. Though, for this CD, the over compression (as applied to so many commercial recordings today) is a bit much for my tastes. But the Mega PowerFlux cords helped to revive, to bring across the feeling of the session, which is what quality audio gear is supposed to do anyway, isn’t it?
Honey, Are You Sure You Paid the Electric Bill?
My reference system contains a hefty scoop of AC conditioning. In addition to the PS Audio P300, a Quantum Life Symphony AC Line Conditioner and three (3) Richard Gray’s Power Company 400s Power Line Conditioners fill out the line-up. The Quantum and two daisy-chained 400s units nurture the power to the power amp and the P300, which in turn is fed from the remaining Gray, feeds the whole front-end. I had become so attached with what this crew was doing for my listening palate that it was like ripping off an arm when I had to take them out of the system. So, let’s see how the Ensembles handle those corrupted sinewaves from my wall receptacles…
After I plugged the EAR amp’s PowerFlux into the Power Point strip and all three front-end units into the Mega Power Point strip, I threw a CD into the transport and pushed repeat. The manufacturer suggests a long break-in period. One week later, when I sat down to take a critical listen, I could see why so many audiophiles around the world have become seduced by the Ensemble lure. It’s like that feeling you get when on that first brisk spring day, after an extremely cold winter, you push back the drapes and open up the windows to air out the house. Everything is clean and smelling fresh. Hamiet Bluiett & Larry Willis, “If Trees Could Talk” (Mapleshade 06332), and Joey DeFrancesco w/ Jimmy Smith, “Incredible!” (Concord Jazz CCD-4890-2) would provide the necessary sonic assault I needed to give the Ensembles a good go around. Bluiett & Willis’ recording (you should here this on Mr. P’s system!) contains some of the most realistic baritone saxophone sounds I’ve come to encounter. That BIG sound from Bluiett imaging about three feet in front of your nose is intimidating to say the least. But, after awhile, after the initial phase wore off, I felt that the system was a touch too forward. I was missing that flexibility of the P300 to adjust the AC regenerator frequency (I usually leave it at 90Hz) which gives a nice balance (enough for the power supply capacitors to sing while not so high as to thin out the treble). Turning up the flames with the Defrancesco/Smith organ burners was making me crave the Gray’s. The Power Point couldn’t handle those swelling transients of those famous revolving Leslie speakers like the 400s. Not that the Power Point was struggling, mind you, but that heft supplied from the Gray’s reserve (sorry Mr. J-10) made the organ that much more believable. And in my system, with my tastes leaning toward the more bottom heavy, jazz-bass walking material, this feature is essential.
As I See (uh, Hear) It…
Man, oh, man! What a trip! And now for my conclusion…Has Ensemble lived up to it’s claims? Very much so! Super high caliber products designed so neutral and transparent that together they provided an exponential soundscape of musical flight. But, just like that other Swedish company, FM acoustics, this comes with a price tag. To fully outfit my system would place cabling & AC conditioning cost just below $10K. That’s quite a wallop for the average stiff. My cabling, AC conditioning, audio rack, amp stand and a full Echobuster room treatment solution still come below this price point. But (once again) if you got it like that or if the stock market’s been ‘beddi, beddi good to you,’ no disappointment will be had from the pluses gained from an all out Ensemble massage (OK, OK, I’m sorry but I couldn’t resist getting that word in before I finished).
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