Nordost’s Valhalla Cables
|Nordost’s Valhalla Cables
Somewhere Over The Rainbow
23 June 2001
Valhalla Reference Interconnect Cable
Insulation: Flourinated Ethylene Propylene (FEP) Teflon
Conductors: eight solid 99.999999 oxygen-free copper (OFC)
with 78 microns of extruded silver
Capacitance: 22.0 pF/ft
Series Resistance: 6.4 ohms/1000ft/304m
Speed: 87% speed of light
Dimensions: ¼-inch/8cm diameter
Price (in USD): 0.6m pair, $2800; 1.0m pair, $3300; 1.5m pair, $3800
Valhalla Reference Speaker Cable
Insulation: FEP Teflon
Conductors: 40 solid 99.999999 OFC with 78 microns of extruded silver
DC resistance: 2.6ohms/1000ft/304m
Speed: 96% speed of light
Dimensions: 2-1/8 ins/5.5cm wide, 0.039ins/0.1mm thick
Price (in USD): 1m pair, $4200; 2m pair, $6100; 3m pair, $8000; 4m pair, $9900;
5m pair, $11800.
Impressions, With Background
Audiophile cables invite controversy. Such is their fate. Pocket-protector types – polyester pants and comb-overs optional – tell us that the wires we covet address problems that do not exist at prices that shouldn’t either. Even true believers balk at the numbers. We tend to see value in terms of avoirdupois: crane-delivered amps, etc. (It’s tough to make jokes about high-end excess. MBL features a mono amp the size of a mortuary slab and twice as heavy, is my guess.)
The optional comb-overs, henceforward objectivists, recommend disconnecting our lips from our opium pipes. We fantasize, they say. Peter Aczel of The Audio Critic is quite likely this persuasion’s most combative advocate. One especially scornful objectivist was a friend and advisor. (We no longer speak. Irreconcilable differences.) He lived a great distance from the poverty line. Recording his avocation, he could easily afford his top-tier gear. Pricey yes, but solid investments. In other, related respects he was the picture of frugality, and I doubt that this has changed. Any interconnect would do, provided it makes good contact. The idea of paying more than the price of heavy-duty lampcord for speaker cable struck him as ludicrous and, as his acolyte, me too. Many of the Fanfare columns in which I disparaged audiophile usage drew upon his advice. I’d been in touch with Peter Walker, the designer of the Quad electrostat, and Roy Allison, the great American speaker innovator, both of whom confirmed my friend’s low opinion of high-end wires. With respect, my lampcord collection’s at the Smithsonian. Out in the dumpster.
As for comparison, objectivists favor blind testing. A report on one of this procedure’s more troubling contests appeared in the January, 1987 Stereo Review. As Ian Masters details in “Do All Amplifiers Sound the Same?,” seasoned audiophiles, under test conditions they agreed to, were unable to distinguish to anyone’s statistical satisfaction a Pioneer receiver from la crème de la crème. The event continued raising hackles long after its publication. For the high end, Masters was the anti-Christ. In this he had a competitor. I refer to Bob Carver’s 1985 Stereophile challenge in which all who juried were obliged to concede that the wily Carver had indeed mimicked the sound of a high-end icon by tweaking one of his own, far less expensive models. A letter to the editor charged Carver with unethical conduct. The writer was apparently unconcerned with what Carver’s success implies. On the one hand (Stereo Review), nobody could tell the difference (“all amps sound the same”), and on the other (Stereophile), nobody could tell the difference (“I can get my amp to sound like yours”). Whatever we choose to make of this disparity, I think we must agree that blind testing is scientific methodology’s very backbone.
Should this distress me? Had I post-graduate degrees in electrical engineering, physics, and the philosophy of science – in other words, were I to share in the scientific method’s institutional skepticism with regard to claims based on free-floating impressions – I’d answer that with a thunderous maybe. But I don’t, I haven’t been, I’m not and I won’t. Nor is sound reproduction cancer research. Rather than agonize over blind testing’s validity, I rely on my ears. They’ve been with me for some time now, and I trust them. This positions me as a subjectivist. I’ve no problem with the title. As a subjectivist, I try to keep life simple: I love music, I love recordings, I love my sound system, to which I listen attentively in order to decide whether the addition or replacement under scrutiny makes a difference, and if it does, is it for the better or merely something else. And then I write. You read and perhaps act on my comments, listening and deciding for yourself. Like Ferdinand the bull, we prefer to sit and smell the flowers. (An appealing image, that: strong, virile, taciturn creatures who choose the Way of Peace and Passivity. Prosperity also helps.)
Some subjectivists call themselves observationalists, quite likely to deflect criticism, among other sins, of an undisciplined modus operandi. To be an observationalist suggests a broad experiential background upon which to draw in a state of disinterested calm, whereas a subjectivist is anyone who may have walked in from the street or perhaps an asylum for the criminally exuberant. It’s not a distinction I can get terribly excited about. We’re all of us alone with our ears.
Along with about every audiophile I’ve ever spoken with or read, I hear differences in wires and, as they say in this dodge, they’re sometimes not subtle. I mentioned in an earlier report replacing the audiophile interconnects I was writing about with no-name equivalents I pulled from a closet. The no-names trashed the system. It astonishes me that an impression as strong as this should be met with skepticism or denial. Indeed, were one’s impressions of difference to prove statistically unreliable in a blind test, I’d question the test, but this is not an issue I’m qualified to argue, nor does it interest me. I hear what I hear, and what I’m hearing delights.
Nordost’s Valhalla line is wildly expensive. Let’s let it go at that. I decline to huff and puff over what something costs. It’s not my place, nor is the reader a fool. This is, after all, Audiophilia, where residents and transients are requested to check their rationality (the deadliest of all concealed weapons) with the sheriff. If you find the ticket ludicrous, you walk, whatever I say (below) in the way of mitigation. As I write, a $731 eBay bid on a 1966 Barbie has not met its reserve. A 1988 fancy-dress Barbie goes for $790. Ken’s up there too, bless his little pectorals. Paying extravagant sums for old baseball cards, comic books, Swatch watches and the like strikes me as screwy, yet the world is large enough for collectors of scarce junk to exist in rapprochement with the likes of you and me, who ask only that remarkably dear cables be audibly superior. Not different, superior. My fingerprints differ from yours, but I’d hesitate to make a qualitative comparison. With regard to audio upgrades, one seeks heightened resolution, transparency, space and air, harmonic detail, timbral truth and dynamic agility against a setting of golden silence.
My wires of choice – power cords, interconnects, speaker cables – have been Acoustic Zen. As I reported, I preferred them in my system to Nordost’s remarkably fine SPM and Quattro Fil lines. Mark well: in my system. As a matter of common sense, one arrives at his opinions in a familiar setting. I learned this lesson in a blind CD-player comparison I and a friend participated in here at my place. I set up the players with identical CDs in such a way that only the tester knew which device was playing, and we alternated as testers. I identified the player unerringly, detecting differences he could not hear. So far as I’m aware, his aural acuity was at least the equal of mine, but I had the home-court advantage.
I’d been using Nordost’s SPM as an interconnect and speaker cable, and the Nordost Quattro Fil interconnect for comparison with the SPM. I had asked Nordost for XLR-terminations in keeping with the true-balanced circuitry of my Mark Levinson gear. The inclusion of the Ortho Spectrum AR-2000, the circuitry of which is not balanced despite its bank of XLR fittings, suggested single-ended interconnects. Thus my single-ended Acoustic Zens, a 1.5-meter pair from amps to CD player, and a .5-meter pair from CD to Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor, about which more below.
Nordost has provided me with their top-of-the-line cables in lengths identical to those I’d been using: single-ended interconnects at .5 and 1.5 meters, 8-foot speaker cables. (I did not request power cords.) They’d been burned in for several days prior to shipment on Nordost’s CBD1 “toaster,” as a terrific idea and courtesy I’d not till now experienced. Burn-in’s a bore. (Nordost dealers provide this service to consumers.)
The goodies arrived with, among other bits of information, a reprint of a review by Roy Gregory, whose Valhalla impressions I found on target. From another aspect of his remarks: “The value of audio reviews has been so undermined by the perpetual presentation of molehills as mountains as to be almost totally debunked. When a truly important advance arrives [e.g., Valhalla], the vocabulary to describe it has already been appropriated and abused.” It’s true, you know. We subjectivists are a passionate lot, and, like all ardent lovers, we overdo. Perhaps to discover when the glow’s worn thin that the beloved farts in her (or his) sleep. Please take what follows at face value. I’ll try to keep myself in check.
The 2-1/8th-inch-wide, paper-thin (0.1mm), textured-surface, silver Valhalla speaker cable rather resembles luxurious Christmas ribbon. One sees beneath a fine film of crystal-clear Teflon that each of its 40 strands (in four bands of ten) lie in the spiral embrace of a hair-fine thread – thus the texture, a luscious, light-reflecting look, though eye-appeal was probably last among design considerations. “The surface of each conductor is highly polished before a precision micro-monofilament is helically wrapped around it. A highly precision spaced and extremely concentric Teflon jacket is extruded over each conductor […].” I’m told that, owing to a balky machine, this latter aspect of the cable’s manufacture proved troublesome, which is why I waited a long time for my review pieces. The tubular, opalescent-silver interconnects are less revealing of a similar treatment. One takes on faith that with regard to the Valhalla interconnect, Nordost applies its “advanced ‘micro-monofilament’ technology … first used in the Quattro Fil interconnect. The surface of each conductor is highly polished…,” and so on. (Compared with the Quattro-Fil, the Valhalla interconnect is a thing of nacreous beauty.)
According to Nordost’s Joe Reynolds, the company makes its entire line in-house with proprietary machinery, from $1.99 per-foot speaker cable on up to Valhalla. (I know this not to be the case with at least several high-end cable brands.) Relative to price, I’m told that the Valhallas’ fabrication is painstaking and slow. I can indeed see that the similarly flat, now one-level-down SPM speaker cable and interconnect are considerably thicker than the Valhalla speaker cable, the dielectric of which is truly gossamer-light. Its application, I’m told, occurs at temperatures of 790o F. A cable’s dielectric (insulation) participates to some degree in signal transmission. The ideal dielectric, expressed as the dielectric constant, is 1.0, i.e., air or a vacuum. Nordost claims a dielectric constant of 1.12 for its Valhalla speaker cable. Unlike other designs which attempt to minimize the dielectric’s participation, because of the way the Teflon’s applied and the wires are arranged, the Valhalla speaker cable can be bent without degrading its dielectric constant. The interconnect’s number is a similarly low 1.38. Reynolds emphasizes the choice of solid-core wire since the better part of the signal passes along the wire’s surface; thus, too, attention to polish. Nordost’s Lars Kristensen tells me that five percent of the signal travels outside the dielectric! He recommends wiping the cables down a couple of times a year: smudges and the like affect the Valhalla’s performance. We’re a long way from zipcord. (Nordost makes and recommends ECO 3, a water-based anti-static and cleaning treatment, its purpose, to lower the noise floor. I’ve used it to what I think is good advantage. It’s terribly difficult to assess degrees of improvement at these heights.)
So then, how do the exquisitely made and remarkable looking Valhallas sound? For fear of being misunderstood, I hesitate to say they don’t. As to non-being, I can think of no higher praise. I’ve lived with a number of fine speaker cables and interconnects. Good as these others are, the Valhallas’ inclusion requires me to think in terms of exclusion. I’m less aware of intermediaries. The recording fairly springs to life. I listen with the strong impression that the sound emitting from my speakers is closer than ever to that of the production, no more or less dynamic, timbrally true, harmonically rich, dimensionally staged. (I could as easily have written that I appear to be in direct touch with my electronics’ and speakers’ innards.)
These expressions of clarity attach to dogs, mediocrities and stellar productions. The Valhallas do not prettify. One hears all the more clearly what ails a recording or renders it merely adequate. And yet, for someone who relishes the craft, these perceptions of essence are wonderfully rewarding. The listener is there. For the reader who prefers a euphonic buffer, the Valhallas’ take on Truth may not be the best of all canned worlds. No music lover, however devoted an audiophile, exists exclusively on sonic caviar. Franks and beans are sometimes inevitable. A friend on the West Coast emailed me a few thoughts about Shostakovitch’s op. 57 Piano Quintet, which put me in the mood to hear it again. I pulled two performances, a 1985 EMI CD reissue of an analog Melodiya featuring Richter and the Borodin Quartet, and a London (now Decca) with Ashkenazy and the Fitzwilliam Quartet. The Melodiya, even with its characteristic touch of Russian steel, is the better-sounding; the London is absurdly swimmy. The producer seemed not to understand that chamber music sounds better in an intimate space – something just under a cathedral, say. The Valhallas present these differences as honestly and precisely as ever I’ve heard. So large a dose of undiluted verity gets this listener higher than a kite. Besides, one always finds, productionwise, a little something to admire….
As a fresh take on a disc I played several times before the Valhallas’ arrival, I’m now hearing more space and air than is absolutely necessary in tenor Ian Bostridge’s performances of songs by Hans Werner Henze, with pianist Julius Drake [a recent release, EMI 5 57112 2]. It’s obvious that the surplus is in the recording; Others I’ve played are drier than last month’s teabag. It’s a curious thing: good engineers specializing in small-ensemble jazz – Jon Rosenberg, for example – get the space-air package just right. Because they try to idealize the smallish venues in which jazz ensembles normally appear? Conversely, are so many classical recordings of soloists, voice with piano, duos, trios, etc., more reverberant than they need to be in facsimile of the large halls in which these performers customarily appear? Schubert wrote his songs for private-residence gatherings of music-loving friends. That they are now performed in public spaces has more to do with the gate than spatially appropriate venues. Rosenberg’s warm and intimate recording of Phil Haynes & Free Country, a drummer-led quartet of sophisticated, country-inflected jazz [Premonition Records 6691 7 90744 2 9], emits enough midrange honey and cloud-nine bass to satisfy the needs of the farthest-gone euphonist. Any system contributions in this direction might well induce hyperglycemia. I could probably spend a month, breaking for meals and sleep, listening to well-recorded jazz (which much of it is) on this Valhalla-connected system.
Again, the catechism: good cables, along with a sound system’s other components, ought to put one in closer touch with the software. The issue is one of degree. My messenger service has consisted most recently of Harmonic Technology (interconnects, speaker cables, power cords), Nordost SPM (interconnects and speaker cables), Nordost Quattro Fil (interconnects), and Acoustic Zen (interconnects, speaker cables, power cords). I’ve also used Kimber, XLO, and Transparent, and others besides, but in systems too different to allow for comparison, not to neglect memory’s failings.
If the invisibility metaphor fails to connect, suffice it that I hear the Vallhallas excelling in the wealth of dynamic energy and harmonic complexity they transmit to the event. I’ve been playing a lot of music with strings lately and am besotted – cannot get away from the stuff! The sparkling coherence is something new to this system. In the Emersons’ performances on Deutsche Grammophon of the Shostakovitch quartets, for example, I’m aware of a connectivity, if you will, that elevates Da-Hong Seetoo’s, Max Wilcox’s and Nelson Wong’s fine recordings to a yet higher level of verisimilitude. String sound should breathe. One hears the wood singing, yet topside extension stops where it should. The quartet’s midrange through low end is ravishing: full-bodied and shapely. (Erotic, you think? I mean it to be. The best sex is transitory. Good sound is forever.)
Western Front, Vancouver, 1996 [hatOLOGY CD 513], with jazz violinist Carlos Zingaro and jazz cellist Peggy Lee, is improvisational, hugely inventive and abstract in character. The paces these masters put their instruments through has me staring into their phantom space in amazement – textures and sonorities to die for. It’s all there, along with the picture of a less than wonderful venue.
A few weeks into these Valhalla sessions, Stravinsky’s Firebird, Boulez conducting the Chicago Symphony [Deutsche Grammophon 437 850-2], provided a mind-boggling demonstration of the cables’ dynamic abilities. This is a diamond-bright recording, aggressive, in keeping with the Chicago’s remarkable brasses, but in no way abrasive. A visceral adventure rather – indoor fireworks! The score ranges between whisper and warfare, and oh, that bass drum…. (No audiophile report is complete without an ecstatic response to a great bass drum. The DG Firebird’s is taut and delectably loud.)
BIS CD 272, one of the Swedish label’s Kroumata Percussion Ensemble releases, is a superbly recorded thing I invariably return to at times such as this. The final track, Sven David Sandström’s Drums, a thunderous study in randomness melding to unison, thence again to randomness, has never sounded as well defined, dynamically true or spacious, as yet another demo of Valhalla’s astonishing qualities. In the glorious Culshaw production of Das Rheingold, the first of Wagner’s four Ring operas, recorded by Decca in 1958, the prelude to the first scene opens with a sustaining, low-pitched chord that now sounds like the birth of the world. The recording reveals both its age and stunning beauties. Nothing is withheld. Except further yammer about what I played.
To return – with reluctance – to Ortho Spectrum’s Analogue Reconstructor: I took it out of the system. Prior to Valhalla, I heard the AR-2000’s contribution as beneficial (see my review). A couple of weeks into Valhalla, I was curious to hear the system reduced to one set of interconnects, CD to amps. With the AR-2000 out, those you-are-there qualities spelled out above are all the more present. How much more? Useless to quantify. Any perceived amelioration takes one that much farther over the rainbow. (One does not hedge on an earlier endorsement without embarrassment. My preference with regard to the AR-2000 removed applies only to the Valhalla-connected system.)
Audio journalists often express approval in terms of proximity. “I’m closer to the music.” If we’re closer to anything, it’s the recording. Would one say, “I spent the evening with Sharon Stone,” the tryst consisting of watching the lovely lady perform in a film transferred to a disc one played on his home theater system? Our poor, randy swain dwells several formidable moats from his object of desire. One is close to the music in a front seat at a live performance – piano recital, jazz trio, Micronesian coconut drummers, augmented symphony orchestra with vocal soloists, several choruses, organ and, on national holidays, muzzle-loaders and corps de ballet. When we blur the distinction between music and music on recording, we may be expressing an uncritical fondness for a system’s “musicality,” an obfuscating quality if ever one was.
Ideal or idealized, big-M Musicality resides, or doesn’t, within the recording. I’ve plenty of discs that fall to either side of the line, with many more straddling. To redundate THE POINT: one wants his sound system to inject as little of its own character as possible into one’s connection with the recording. I’ve discussed this with true-blue, music-loving audiophiles who disagree. Be that as it may – I love you all – here’s to big-I Invisibility, the goal beyond reach. It’s all in the approach.
POSTSCRIPT TO THE VALHALLA REPORT
Having removed the Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor (see above), I was down to one set of interconnects. Madrigal’s Dave Nauber emailed the opinion that I’d hear a difference in my Mark Levinson gear were I to go back to balanced interconnects, which is what I was using, one pair, before my AR-2000 sojourn.
Madrigal’s Mark Levinson electronics employ true-differential, i.e., balanced, circuits. Because of the way balanced circuits operate, running a pair balanced interconnects between my No.39 CD player and 33H mono amps gives me 6dB more gain over single-ended interconnects. I do not offer this as an earnest of improvement but rather as a simple matter of electronic truth. (It’s an old trick: play something for a customer a little louder and he’s likely to hear it sounding a little better. I’ve taken level disparities into account.)
I mentioned in my AR-2000 report that the Japanese mystery box swallows up a bit of gain. I think now it’s more a case of the difference between single-ended and balanced interconnects with regard to the ML pieces. Even though the AR-2000 offers XLR inputs and outputs along with RCAs, I understand (from my colleague Jim Merod) that the AR-2000 does not employ a true-differential circuit, thus the difference in gain. Best to say it again: the AR-2000 is a little wonder, but not for me, not now. Before I installed these Valhalla cables, its benefits were obvious. Why no longer I cannot say. I have one responsibility: to report honestly on what I hear.
I was curious to see whether I’d agree with Dave were I to return to balanced interconnects. Nordost’s Jim Reynolds was willing to exchange my two pairs of single-ended Valhalla interconnects (loaners) for one pair of balanced, i.e., XLR-terminated, Valhalla interconnects (also a loaner). As I was about to leave on a ten-day trip, the balanced Valhallas had a good, long stay in Nordost’s CBD1 “toaster” prior to shipment. They arrived nicely broken in.
I began my Valhalla report with the AR-2000 in the system and noted remarkable improvements in sound. To repeat, the AR-2000’s removal brought me down to one pair of interconnects, CD player with its own level control directly to power amps. The improvements I earlier noted somewhat intensified. With balanced Valhallas replacing single-ended Valhallas, the improvements again intensified. Epiphany-wise, the seasoned audiophile understands that these intensifications, as delightful as they are, fall short of St. Joan’s voices. For our striving kind, any audible change for the better defies quantification. They all of them occupy an I-just-gotta-have-this! slot.
Dave Nauber is right. I am closer still to the recording. The balanced Valhalla interconnects do an astonishing job. Bear in mind that I’m describing how these Levinson pieces operate connected as recommended. Nobody in his right mind is going to spend a whole lot of money on my say-so, nor in all cases, or so I suspect, will balanced interconnects perform better than single-ended. Listen for yourself and get back to me, please, with your own impressions. Cheers.
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