My journey to find a reasonably priced cable able to do all the little things right has been a long one. Each cable that has entered my system came with it’s own strengths and weaknesses, but not one seemed to do everything right. I would occasionally ponder what one of the mega-bucks cables could do for my system but reason always prevailed and I continued to swap cables within my budget hoping to find the right one. The list of cables I have had in my system in chronological order is:
-Virtual Dynamics Audition
-Belden 89259 with Cardas SLVR
-Cardas Neutral Reference
-W Enterprises NW Gold Alloy
-Aural Thrills Active Gold (used Topline WBT’s, gold tri-alloy wire)
-Grover Reference mkI
-Aural Thrills Active Gold (used Midline WBT’s, solid gold wire, silver return wire)
-Aural Thrills Beryllium Copper
Of course these are not the only cables I have listened to, but they are the ones that have stayed in my system for a reasonable amount of time. The first 3 cables all have the typical copper flavoring, which I do not like. They give warmth and body to the music but cloud the details and do not do anything particularly well. The Grover mkII cable I owned was a real bargain for the price. It easily best the copper cables for clarity, imaging, focus, speed, detail and tonal balance. The Grover Reference beats out its kid brother the mkII by bettering what the mkII does well. I ended up selling these cables because while not bright or thin sounding, they add an edge to the music that I find to be unnatural (this accentuated edge shows up in almost all silver cables I have listened to). The Aural Thrills Active Gold cables I owned were very pleasing to my ears. Each cable gives a rich inviting midrange, large open soundstage, black background and a very smooth full-bodied sound. The solid gold wire version is superior to the older version because it has superior imaging and crisper, albeit more laid back highs that have a touch of sweetness to them (kind of magical). While not as fast as the Grover cables, these cables are both detailed and creamy smooth. Next up was Aural Thrills Beryllium copper cable. This cable is more detailed, faster, has less soft edges while still remaining smooth and just as full. I ended up returning it though, because I did not like its tone in my system. It has that copper warmth that puts a sonic blanket the whole music spectrum. I still hadn’t found the right cable for my system. Next up was the Grover/Wolff Empress.
I can tell that this cable is solidly built and will be able to handle many connection swaps. It is fairly flexible and none too heavy. The connectors look like the NOS ones used for the Grover Reference cables. They make a snug connection and are malleable enough that you can adjust their grip if needed. The sheathing looks to be the same type used for the Wolff carbon power cords (of which I own and highly recommend the Wolff carbon source cord). My only gripe with the cable is that the colours used for the shrink-wrapping aren’t attractive as the rest of the cable. But overall the build quality of the Empress is very nice and the looks are a definite improvement over Grover’s older cables.
The first thing that stuck me about the empress cable is how smooth it made my systems playback. Perhaps this was because in my past experience with silver cables I longed for this very trait. That typical silver edginess is in no way characteristic of this cable. Now I’ve heard this claim about other silver cables before, and I haven’t always agreed with such comments, but this is the real deal. Poor recordings are just as easy to listen to as good recordings but still do sound the poorer. I believe there is nothing worse then a highly resolving system that renders bad recordings almost unlistenable (hmm unlistenable does not show up on my spell checker but its too good a word not to use). I’m not sure how the carbon ribbons in this cable work, but they must be doing a lot of good to rid the cable of the infamous silver sheen. Now I have heard smooth cables before, but have I heard ones that are as detailed, as tonally accurate or as fast? The answer is no, and now let me go into more detail.
In my system I exclusively use Grado headphones that are known mainly for two things, great mids and prat (pace rhythm and timing). The Grados let me know which cables can keep up with the music and which cannot. To determine if an interconnect can recreate these complex passages I like to use tracks with some intense cymbal usage. Cables that get left in the dust cause the cymbals to smear into each other and kill the prat. In my tests the empress’s were never caught with their guard down; they flowed through the music with a natural grace and never sounded compressed or slow.
The mids of Grado headphones is another reason I enjoy them. I have found that some silver cables tend to bleach the mids and other cables to substantially colour them. Either of these flavors lead to one thing, what I hear played back does not sound as realistic, nor does it sound as the headphone was intended to sound in my opinion. Thankfully, the empress cables allow the Grado mids to shine in all their glory. Vocals blossom out of a black background and never sound coloured or held back. I would go as far as to say the mids of the empress cable are holographic while not being euphonic (although I do like that). The all-important midrange is just a pleasure to listen to using the empress interconnects.
The soundstage on these cables is large and well defined. It is open and never compressed. The empress does depth well and imaging is very precise. Great imaging is a characteristic of all Grover’s cables in my opinion. The sound produced by the empress shows no signs of thinness and is very well balanced. This is as neutral a cable as I have heard. The wonderful tone keeps the Grado’s notoriously forward highs in check (I didn’t try them with bowl pads mind you). Bass is detailed and full; everything is in its right place.
The detail of this cable is what I would call ‘natural detail’. Unnatural detail would be when a cable derives its detail from an emphasized high end (magnifying hiss and the like). The empress simply gives you what’s there, without emphasizing any part of the sound spectrum. This is detail without fatigue, while not rounding off the edges as some cables may do. There is no veil over the music, everything is there for you to touch and feel. The timbre of the music is what I would call accurate and believable, certainly much care was put into voicing this cables just right. Simply put, the empress makes digital played through my system sound like real music, and that’s all I could ever ask for in a cable.
As I see it there are two types of audiophiles, those that just want what was is on the recording played back as accurately as possible with as much detail as possible, and those who want to recreate the live event with a very musical and involving sound. Can a cable really combine both of these worlds into one? Well now I know that yes a cable can, but only the really good ones. Which leads me to my final point; the empress really does impress.
I mainly listen to rock music, so all my impressions were based on good and bad rock recordings. If you are interested in seeing what my system consists of, here is a link:
I hope to be able to update this review with a direct A/B comparison with another cable once my rig is all settled in later this fall. I recently switched from Grado rs-1’s to Grado ps-1 pros.