January 2008



The viola is an instrument of patrician expressivity, with a burnished luster to its alto tone, its somewhat closeted sound made up of wonderfully variegated shades of gray.” Tim Page, reviewer for The New York Times 

Arriving at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall here in Boston on a chilly October night, I was surrounded by viola cases everywhere: cases on the arms of young musicians chatting in English, Portuguese and Chinese; cases slung haphazardly over the backs of chairs; cases stacked precipitously three fold along the walls of this venerable Hall. Violists young and old had come to hear master violist Kim Kashkashian, a faculty member at the New England Conservatory and a champion of the solo viola. This particular evening, Kashkashian was making an appearance with her long time musical partner, pianist Robert Levin, to perform selections from their newest duet recording, Asturiana [ECM New Series 9679-02], which showcases the viola and piano in creative transcriptions of Spanish and Argentine songs. As the lights dimmed and Kashkashian played her opening legato passage, you could almost hear a collective sigh of pleasure coming from the adoring audience. I had never heard a solo viola before, and its deep rich tones and expressive voice conjured up beautiful images of Old World stories, journeys taken and loves gained and lost in these Spanish and Latin songs. I left the concert hall marveling in just how beautiful a solo viola could indeed sound, with its unique “soft spoken, purple tones” (Kashkashian). I returned home to listen to the music contained on Asturiana, an excellent recording of great nuance and expression. I also discovered that in listening to Asturiana, Kahskashian’s viola was a great vehicle for exploring the particular sonic qualities offered by the newest addition to my reference system: a complete cable system provided by TARA Labs. 

Since their founding in 1986, TARA Labs (an acronym for “The Absolute Reference Audio”) has been in the innovative forefront of research and development in the field of audio cable design and manufacture. The cables under review here, TARA Labs “The One” speaker cables, ISM Onboard 0.8 interconnects (“0.8”) and ISM Onboard 0.8 XLR digital cables come in one step below the top of the line “The Zero” audio cables in TARA Labs’ complete product line. These cables all feature TARA Labs’ most recent proprietary technologies, including a conductor material called “Super Annealed Oxygen-Free Eight Nines Copper.” This solid core conductor material is composed of unbroken monocrystal structures that are said to achieve a smoother transfer of frequencies over a wide bandwidth. This conductor material is designed with a unique rectangular cross section pattern (“Rectangular Solid Core”, or “RSC”) claimed to achieve maximum frequency linearity. TARA Labs then places this RSC conductor material within a Teflon Air tube, utilizing air as dielectric. Finally, all of these cables incorporate TARA Labs latest “ISM Onboard” technology. This technology combines shielding techniques with the placement of an unobtrusive capsule directly on the surface of the cables (away from the signal path) that serves to absorb and ground Radio Frequency and Electromagnetic Interference (“RF/EMI”).

I refer readers to TARA Lab’s excellent website for a comprehensive discussion of each of these proprietary technologies. TARA Labs builds all their cables by hand and each is inspected at their own factory in Oregon. Upon arrival in their individual boxes, I found each cable to be of excellent build quality and craftsmanship, befitting their high cost. The 0.8 RCA connector plugs and XLR digital plugs were particularly excellent, the best design I observed in making a solid connection every time. All cables were easy to maneuver into place, although the solid capsule located near The One speaker cable’s terminations may require a little extra space when connected to amplifiers located close to walls. TARA Labs instructs that these cables require at least a few days of continuous break in time, and this was accomplished before any critical listening was performed.

I commenced my audition of the TARA Labs cabling system by first only substituting the TARA Labs 0.8 interconnects in for my reference Nordost Tyr interconnects, leaving my Nordost Tyr speaker cable and Nordost Silver Shadow digital cables in place. I started with Kashkashian’s rustic viola solos on Asturianaand immediately heard an increased sense of solidity and more layers of rich, tonal colors to Kashkashian’s viola. I also heard how her deep and resonant notes trailed off more fully into an airy, deeper surrounding soundstage. In comparison with the Tyr interconnects, there was a softer, rounder and more weighty presentation to her viola in all its registers. I then added the TARA Labs The One speaker cable to the mix and these changes were made even more pronounced. The TARA Labs cabling definitely brought out more solidity and depth to Kashkashian’s “purple toned” instrument, especially on her beautiful, long and languid bow strokes. 

For example, listening to Enrique Grandados’ short waltz, “El Majo Discreto,” there was a new sense of weight and natural layering to Kashkashian’s viola string color, making it even deeper in purplish color, density and texture. This song’s marvelous upswings in tempo that serve to gently move its lilting melody along were rendered more emphatically, more deeply, and with more noticeable decay into a multi layered, airy soundstage. Similarly, on Alberto Ginastera’s song, “Triste”, Levin’s delicate piano notes that begin the song decayed and trailed off into a more reverberant and layered soundstage than heard previously. With my reference Nordost Tyr speaker cable and interconnects, these same light piano flutters were rendered in a more resolute and speedier fashion, with less weight, substance and surrounding air. With the Tyr, there was a deep silence between each of these opening piano notes and they were rendered quick and agile. In comparison, with the TARA The One and 0.8 interconnects, there was also silence between notes but the notes themselves were rendered more rounded, with more depth of color and cushioned by more of the surrounding air of the recording venue. When Kashkashian enters “Triste” with a soulful morn on her viola, the TARA cabling brought out all of the layered depth of her deep, sad string colors. In this way, I thought that the emotional poignancy of this particular song was more effectively communicated with the TARA cabling in place, offering its special quality of natural weight and solidity to instruments and tone colors, and a more spacious, layered soundstage. A final example from Asturiana was the contrasting lightness of Manuel de Falla’s song, “Seguidilla Murciana,” which finds Kashkashian quickly rebounding in staccato fashion astride Levin’s playful, light trills. All the drama and inner resolution of this lighthearted song was captured beautifully with the TARA The One and 0.8 interconnects. Of particular note was the way this combination fleshed out the inner details of Kashkashian’s bowing techniques, while still offering that special weight and natural solidity to her instrument and its “soft purple” tonal colors. The song ends with a resounding flourish of Levin’s piano, and these notes were clear and concise, resounding in a much airier and spacious soundstage than heard before. I was hearing Asturiana in a new light with the TARA cabling in place, offering me a healthy slice of the complex tonal palette of the viola that had so engaged me in Kashkashian’s live performance in Jordan Hall. 

I tore myself away from the magic of Kashkashian’s solo viola to listen to the stringed instrument traditionally granted the place of royalty in the orchestra hierarchy, the violin, played by another contemporary maestro, Hilary Hahn. My newest favorite recording of Hahn’s is her performance of the moving and beautiful Concerto For Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 by Samuel Barber performed with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra [Sony Classical 89029]. I started by substituting only the TARA Labs 0.8 digital cable for the Nordost Silver Shadow digital, keeping all familiar reference Tyr speaker and interconnects in place. Listening to the fiery Third Movement of the Barber (where soloist and orchestra dash into a maelstrom of cascading notes and bombastic runs), the 0.8 digital was up to the task in terms of delivering the speed and inner details of this performance. Consistent with everything I had heard on Asturiana, the addition of the 0.8 digital brought a slightly deeper tonal palette to Hahn’s violin, best described again as a weightier, more ambient presentation. I did notice a slight decrease in the transient attacks to Hahn’s violin with the TARA 0.8 digital, as compared with the ultra agile Nordost Silver Shadow (which was also a bit leaner and cleaner up top). As I substituted in the TARA 0.8 interconnects, the solidity of the violin itself, the layering of the orchestra and the soundstage depth all increased exponentially. The 0.8 interconnects were most impressive, in that just by placing them into the system, all of the musical action flourished in a more solid, fully dimensional and layered presentation. The TARA 0.8 digital and interconnect combination presented a softer and rounder top end, lending more weight and solidity to Hahn’s pyrotechnics in the highest reaches of her instrument. Finally, substituting in the TARA The One speaker cabling brought out even more of these refinements, particularly heard in the orchestra’s huge sweeping crescendos, granted more weight and substance, tonal complexity and enveloping air by the full TARA cabling.

Coming down from Barber’s furiously paced beauty, I decided to slow it down a bit by first joining Madeleine Peyroux in her slow acoustic Blues gem “Hey Sweet Man” fromDreamland [Atlantic 82946] and then joining Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden for a sunset stroll on their eclectic Beyond The Missouri Sky [Verve 5371302]. Both of these excellent recordings brought out the best from the full TARA cable combination, with Peyroux’s vocals and guitar rendered with great natural solidity and tonal weight. Her deep voice was richly textured and smooth, with the lone sax coming in way, way over her shoulder in a much more layered soundstage than heard previously. The wooden blocks played for wonderful percussive effect on several of Peyroux’s numbers were astonishingly reverberant and solid with the TARA cabling in place. This same airy spaciousness and natural solidity and weight to voice and instruments were also heard in spades on Metheny and Haden’s duet. Here, guitar and acoustic bass slowly carved out their own rounded shapes in unhurried dialog within a deeply layered soundstage. One chink in the TARA Labs armor was discovered here: a slight loss of pitch definition in Haden’s lowest plunges on his acoustic bass. The Hansen Prince V.2 loudspeakers are capable of tremendous bottom end dynamics and articulation in my room, and on some of Haden’s deepest roams, this deepest bass became less controlled and unnaturally bloomy with the TARA cabling. Listening to these same tracks with the Tyr cabling system showed how it was still the champ in my particular system and room in providing superb pitch definition, speed and articulation, even in the lowest ends of the pool. The Tyr kept everything in natural, coherent shape from top to very bottom, although it still gave away a bit of that special airy, organic weight and presence afforded to instruments and voices by the TARA Labs cabling.

I concluded my audition of the full complement of TARA Labs cabling by listening to the “BIG ONE: Ginger Baker and the DJQ20 Band” at their sublime best on their magnificent recording,Coward of the County[Atlantic 831682]. The opening number, “Cyril Davies” took off skyward with my system strapped in with TARA Labs cabling. There was an expansion of the layered soundstage with individual instruments pinpointed in their own surrounding air and space. Silences were not unnaturally dead and black, but alive with the air and bloom of the recording venue. James Carter’s bass clarinet flowed naturally and plunged deep and weighty, dynamically moving more air than heard before. Ginger Baker’s huge kick drum was full and resonant and his shimmering cymbals sparkling into newly discovered air. Ron Miles’ trumpet nudged its rounded and brazen tone into an expansive soundstage, nestled within those same clear, grain free cymbal shimmers. Listening to this session was pure energy and joy, elevated by that special ambience, organic solidity of instruments and layering of soundstage afforded by the addition of the full TARA cabling system. 

This cable line from TARA Labs is special indeed. Like the Nordost Tyr line, it stands at the pinnacle of the best cabling that I have heard in my system to date, albeit with different refinements than the Tyr offers. I have not auditioned the lower priced cabling in the TARA line, but if they possess a good slice of the sonic gifts of these higher priced cables, I would definitely recommend them too for an audition in a mid priced or entry level system. For those most fortunate to have a truly reference caliber system, and looking to get it to another level of “that’s it!” organic solidity, soundstage layering and ambient spaciousness, these TARA Labs reference cables are among the finest I have heard. I will be keeping the 0.8 interconnects as my new references in my system. They, like TARA Labs The One speaker cables and 0.8 digital cable, have that special gift of refining the “soft spoken purple” tones of an instrument like Kashkashian’s viola so that it fuels our passion for listening even more. I can think of no better compliment! 


Pricing (sample length – others available):

TARA Labs The One Speaker Cable:
8 foot length pair: $3,850.00; biwire configuration: $5,650.00

TARA Labs ISM On Board 0.8 Interconnects: 
One meter length pair RCA or XLR: $3,495.00

TARA Labs ISM On Board 0.8 Digital Cable:
One meter length RCA: $2,395.00; XLR: $2,595.00

Company Information
550 Clover Lane
Ashland, Oregon 97520
Tel: (541) 488-6465
Website: www.taralabs.com

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