These are not easy problems for an audiophile to solve. Reading reviews may help, but evaluating a single set of wires out of context often seems to lead the reviewer into a sudden love affair with an inanimate object, one that may not return your affection in the same way it seems to have done with the reviewer. Manufacturer hype is also fun—not to mention part of the sport of high-end audio. But hype is hype, and describing cables as sonic miracles doesn’t help. You can’t psych your ears into believing what you don’t really hear for any length of time.
In practice, you need the help of other audiophiles, and dealers or manufacturers who will provide loaners or exchanges. You also need patience and common sense. Improving your passive components takes as much time as improving your active ones, and your efforts must meet the same acid test for any serious purchase or investment: You personally hear the improvement clearly and decisively, and it has lasting sonic value in reproducing a wide range of the music you love. Buying a cable is no reason to splurge over the audio equivalent of a drunken Vegas wedding—in both cases you will soon sober up and have to live with the consequences.
The Transparent Audio XL Generation 5: Tailoring the “Wires” to a Particular System
There is, however, an alternative, and one whose value became even more clear to me when I had the opportunity to try out Transparent Audio’s new generation of cables. I’ve been using Transparent Audio XL interconnects and speaker cables as one of my primary references ever since I started employing the Wilson Alexias as one of my two reference speakers.
The Alexia is a great speaker but a difficult load, and is more sensitive to speaker cables than most. A friend suggested that Transparent Audio could provide a speaker cable tuned to both the Alexias and the Pass 160.8 monoblocks I use as my reference. I had some doubts about whether such tuning would produce better sound or more coloration, but in the past I had used Transparent Audio cables that were not tuned to given components, and had always found them to be exceptionally neutral.
Accordingly, I ended up trying out a full set of Transparent Audio XLs tuned to all the components in my system. For proprietary reasons, Transparent Audio does not go into a great deal of detail about the adjustments it uses in its interconnects and speaker cables, but when I asked Josh Clark of Transparent Audio to describe how the process worked, he provided the following details: “Each XL cable is custom-built for a customer’s system components and his specific room layout. For example, the speaker cable terminations are built to perfectly match the binding posts and their polarity orientation on the amplifier and speaker. For your Pass Labs XA 160.8 amplifiers we specified a flat spade with the positive on the right, and for your Wilson Alexia loudspeakers a bent spade with the positive on the left to fit the binding posts on these components. We also ask where the amplifier is located relative to the speakers so we can arrange the nameplates on the network modules to read correctly from the listening position. Every detail is important to us.
“The networks in the XL cables are custom-calibrated to perform with the electrical characteristics of the connected components. Different audio components have different input and output impedances and at the XL level we calibrate the networks so that they will perform ideally with any combination of components.
“Since we calibrate the XL cables for specific components, you may wonder what happens if you decide to change one of these components. In this case you would contact your dealer and, if necessary, he will arrange for us to re-calibrate and re-terminate the cables for the new system components. We offer this service at no charge to the original owners of the cables.”
I was more than happy to take advantage of this, the latest version of the company’s tuning process when Josh called me and told me that Transparent Audio had made its first major upgrade to the XL Series in better than half a decade. I was particularly happy to take advantage of it when Josh offered to come down and demonstrate them in one-on-one comparisons with the previous-generation XLs. (Reviewers do have perks.) Josh has since provided me with summary of the changes involved, and it is a further illustration of the fact that passive components can be as difficult to engineer and improve as active ones (see sidebar).
The Voyage and the Sound Quality
The new models of the XL cables did make improvements in sound quality that immediately grabbed my attention. We swapped the Generation 5s in for the previous generation in reverse order—going from the speaker cable to the phono tonearm cable. We went through a separate comparative listening session with each individual swap, using the same mix of different acoustic music—most in the form of 24-bit/96kHz recordings, but also including analog recordings and finally a mix of older Haydn chamber music and symphony LPs when it came to the phono interconnects.
I have to admit that I was surprised by the extent to which each step in the upgrade process made a real difference in several critical areas. Quite frankly, when I first talked to Josh, I didn’t expect that I would hear any serious changes, and thought that any improvements would be limited to the speaker cable. I was wrong, and my aural voyage through the new Transparent Audio XL Generation 5s quickly made this clear.
The improvements in dynamics were immediately apparent with each swap; even including the shorter pairs of interconnects. Step by step, my system opened up, and not simply at the symphonic level. Solo piano, small string groups, and solo violin acquired more life as well. Later listening made it clear that solo voice also become more dynamic and lifelike, with no added strain or hardness. I have always found low-level dynamics to be more important in enjoying music than peak dynamics, and the sound opened up as much at low levels as at high ones.