Robert Harley Visits Transparent Audio - and Discovers a $210 "Miracle" Upgrade

Robert Harley Visits Transparent Audio - and Discovers a $210 "Miracle" Upgrade

Robert Harley Visits Transparent Audio—and Discovers a $210 “Miracle” Upgrade

Robert Harley

I recently made the trek to Maine to visit the venerable high-end cable manufacturer Transparent Audio. Transparent has long been a major player in the cable arena, and I wanted to get a first-hand look at their technology and design/production facilities. The 18,000 square-foot factory is nestled in an idyllic rural area in Saco, just outside Portland.

Transparent Audio was founded in 1980 by Karen Sumner, Jack Sumner, and Carl Smith to distribute high-end audio products. Karen and Jack were educators, and Smith an attorney, but all shared a passion for music and great sound. (Smith is responsible for the release of Sonny Rollins' CD Road Shows, and many of the live-performance recordings used on this CD came from his personal collection. He also wrote Bouncing with Bud, a definitive commentary on all the recordings of pianist Bud Powell.) Jack, an accomplished musician with a degree in physics and doctoral studies in research and statistical design, fulfilled his career ambitions as Transparent’s head of design. Karen, Transparent’s president, is the company’s entrepreneurial creative force in the areas of products, marketing, dealer training, and staff development.

Transparent Audio’s first imported line was the Norwegian brand Electrocompaniet. Soon thereafter Transparent got into the manufacturing business, making and marketing the iconic turntable of the 1980s, the Well Tempered Turntable.

Jack and Karen Sumner

In 1985 Transparent began distributing and later building MIT cables, a relationship that lasted until 1993 after which Transparent launched its own line of loudspeaker cables and interconnects. The following year the company introduced their first AC power conditioner, and a year after that, the Reference line of cables. It was the Reference line that announced Transparent as a significant force in the high-end cable market. The cables were extremely well received and found their way into many world-class systems.

Transparent has been steadily refining their cable, interconnect, and AC cord/conditioner technologies since the Reference products. The company introduced two important innovations during the 1990s—the first cables that could be individually calibrated to system components (1997), and an upgrade program that allows owners to trade in their Transparent cables toward newer or higher models (1998). The upgrade program gives owners a credit of 70% of the cable’s current retail price toward new cables, no matter the cable’s age. In addition, cables at Reference XL level and above can be re-optimized for the electronics with which they will be used—such as if you change preamps. There is no charge for this service for as long as the customer owns the cables.

After learning about the company’s history and current product line, I toured the factory. The company employs about 15 people in-house, with an additional 20 cable assemblers working from home. Employing home-based workers is a long tradition at Transparent; the company started the practice when it was small and short on factory space but discovered that home assemblers are happier and more productive. All the upper-end cables are made by two individuals, who together have more than 30 years’ experience building Transparent cables. In fact, just about everyone I spoke with had been with Transparent for a long time, and many had relatives who also worked at the company. The entire vibe was of one big, happy family who loves what they do.

Inside Transparent's warehouse

After a lunch that included my first lobster roll—a Maine tradition—we went into the spectacular listening room adjacent to the design laboratory. This was, along with Rockport’s room described in my blog post “The Best Stereo System I’ve Ever Heard,” the most elaborate listening room I’ve seen in an audio-manufacturing facility. The huge room was built from the ground up and featured a high ceiling, “room-within-a-room” construction, and extensive acoustic treatments from RPG. The electronics were all reference-quality, and speakers were Wilson Alexandria X-2 Series 2. (Transparent maintains a second, nearly identical, room off-site with multichannel capability, also with X-2s as the main speakers. I was fortunate to hear both.)

Designers Josh Clark and Jack Sumner in Transparent's Saco listening room

The second listening room in Falmouth provides multichannel playback.

Oddly, though, in front of the mighty X-2s was a pair of tiny B&W 685 speakers ($650) connected to a Rotel RCD-1072 CD player and RA-1062 integrated amplifier ($699 each). What was up with that?

Transparent had set up this modest system in parallel with their main system to demonstrate their least expensive cables and to make a point that interconnects, speaker cables, and AC power cords are important contributors to good sound at any level of equipment. They gave me the same demo that their dealers give to uninitiated customers who might not have listened to cable differences before.

The B&W/Rotel system was set up in parallel with the reference system that included Wilson X-2 Series 2 loudspeakers

We listened to the system (which sounded surprisingly good for under $2100—the B&W 685 was our 2007 Entry-Level Loudspeaker of the Year winner for good reason) and then substituted the stock cords on the Rotel integrated amp and CD player with Transparent’s entry-level High-Performance PowerLink cords. Frankly, I didn’t expect to hear much of a difference for several reasons—we were switching to a very modestly priced cord ($105) not a “super cord,” and the playback system, although very good, was not the last word in resolution.

Seconds into the first piece of music I was struck by the system’s greater harmonic richness, reduction in treble hash and grain, increased dimensionality, and overall sense of ease and musicality. Resolution of low-level detail improved, yet the sound was more relaxed—always a sign something good is happening. This wasn’t a “golden ears” difference of audiophile minutia, but a fundamental improvement in the system’s ability to convey musical expression. And at $210 for both AC cords—10% of the system price—this upgrade was nothing short of miraculous.

We continued listening, substituting generic interconnects for Transparent’s $85 The Link interconnect. Again, the difference this entry-level cable made to the Rotel/B&W system was significant—smoother textures, greater warmth and body to timbres, and increased dimensionality. Next up for replacement was a generic 14-gauge speaker wire for Transparent’s The Wave ($200 for an 8’ pair). The system took yet another step up in smoothness, harmonic richness, resolution, and musical engagement.

After experiencing this demo for myself, I can see why Transparent encourages its dealers to present its products in this context. Anyone can hear the difference; it’s not esoteric, but simply a cost-effective way of getting more enjoyment out of a music system. More important, however, is that this demo allows the entry-level audiophile an opportunity to hear for himself the value of specialty cables.

From there we went up the Transparent line in interconnects, speaker cables, and AC power conditioners, with each step representing an improvement in sound quality from this modest system. We then switched to the reference system, wired with top of the line Opus interconnects and speaker cables. The Wilson X-2s, which I’ve listened to nearly daily for more than a year in my own system, sounded fabulous in this context. The big, dynamic, and open sound for which the X-2s are famous took a step forward. The soundstage was huge and dimensional, with tremendous depth and width. It’s impossible to judge the performance of one component within the context of an unknown system, but for whatever reasons, the X-2s really sang.

(Neil Gader is reviewing Rotel’s new “15-Series’ integrated amplifier and CD player (the replacements for the RA-1062 and RCD-1072) and will report in more depth on the High-Performance PowerLink AC cords, The Wave speaker cable, and The Link interconnect.)