Transparent Audio REF XL Cables and Power products
I have been fortunate these last few weeks to audition a complete suite of Transparent Audio REF XL cables and power products. I own what I had thought was a fairly high-resolution two-channel audio system and listen mostly to small-scale jazz and classical music. My main reference is the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at which I recently joined Carl Smith and Brad O’Toole from Transparent to hear an all-Wagner program conducted by Daniele Gatti with vocal excerpts sung by Mezzo-Soprano Michelle DeYoung. It was a superb performance and a very memorable occasion.
With the music fresh in my ears, I was eager to go home and listen to the same music on my system. I have a recording of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” sung by Birgit Nilsson, conducted by George Solti and performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on the London label. At the BSO we heard the Prelude and Liebestod (“Love-Death’). What follows is a description of what the REF XL cables and power products sounded like in my system with this music and with some other selections.
Each time I attend a concert, I am struck by just how absolutely pure and beautiful the sound is in that glorious and famous hall. From the quietest, simple triangle strike or piano note to the loudest and most complex crescendo, the music is always clean, clear and undistorted. Every nuance, tonal color and reflection is easily heard from my seat in the eighth row, just left of the center aisle. I listen, absorbed by the energy and power of the music being played by the musicians and interpreted by the conductor. Though the sound is great, it is the music and the performance that I most want to experience.
It is that sense of incredible immediacy, clarity and impact generated by the instruments that I was not hearing from my system at home. Sure, my system sounds good and I really enjoy playing my LPs in the evenings and learning more about music, but when I return from an afternoon at the symphony and then listen at home, I am always aware that I am missing the energy and experience of a live performance. There is surely more musical information buried in the grooves of my record collection. It is almost as if there is a layer of fog or haze between me and the music, an artifact preventing the system from sounding truly convincing. It has become clear to me that the biggest difference between what I hear from an orchestra and what I hear at home is in the silence between the notes, the contrast between soft and loud, the content of musical details and the spatial context of the recording space.
Transparent Audio describes its goals as focused on three areas: Dynamics, Tone, and Space. These are the sonic characteristics that convince the listener that a musical performance sounds real. After listening extensively to the REF XL suite of products, and recalling what I hear at the BSO, I would describe the sound as being superior to other cables that I have had in my system in three basic ways: contrast, content and context.
(dynamic) CONTRAST: The noise floor with the REF XL cables, power cords, and PowerIsolator is lower than with my current cables. This allows me to hear more information. The contrast between soft and loud is greater. The delicate decay of a piano will slowly fade to silence, and then massed strings or tympani explode in the room, filling the space and washing over the listener. There are multiple sonic colors and nuance, but with these cables, the varying shades of grey turn to deep, black nothingness. This increased contrast heightens the sense of excitement and is much closer to the sound of a live performance. This also allows low-level details to be more easily heard. Extension is often used to describe how high or low audible frequencies reach. But this lower noise floor also affects the extension of sounds in terms of volume. With less noise to listen over or to filter out, soft sounds are heard becoming even softer, finally disappearing, and loud sounds can seem explosive because of the increased contrast. Perhaps this is what is referred to as dynamic extension. It is the opposite effect of the compression techniques that are used in modern recordings, in which everything is made to sound loud. A live symphony performance has absolutely no compression. The result of this increased contrast is that the system sounds more real.
(tonal) CONTENT: The amount of sonic content with the REF XL cables is much greater than with my cables. I hear more instrumental and vocal texture. There is more harmonic information. I especially notice this on cello bowing and piano strikes, sustains and decays. Brass cymbals and bells ring longer and cleaner. Horns have more bite. Transients are faster and clearer. Complex sounds like choral songs and massed strings are more defined. Tonal colors are more dense and timbre is more accurate. Instruments have more weight and body. There is more nuance to voices. Simply put, the cables are more resolving. Equally important however, is what does not come through. It is wonderful to hear more information, but it is also important to hear fewer artifacts - more of the good and less of the bad. There is no grain, glare, or grunge at the BSO. Nothing sounds colored. There is no sense that one frequency is emphasized over another. Sure, there are tonal balance decisions made by the placement of the instruments on the stage relative to where one sits and listens, but hearing as much of what is on the recording with as little overlaid as possible is, or should be, the goal. These cables have fewer of these artifacts. They are also very smoothly balanced. Unlike some other cables I have heard, they do not seem to emphasize one frequency over another. They also have greater frequency extension. They sound more clear, clean and coherent that my cables do, which enables the system to sound more like real music.
(special) CONTEXT: The REF XL cables better define the recording space context for the listener. The combination of increased contrast and lower noise floor with the added content or information result in a much better sense of “being there”. I had not really understood the distinction between the performance existing in one’s listening room versus the listener being transported to the performance space until I heard these cables in my system. In a well-treated listening room, and in a system capable of high resolution, these cables allow so much information through, that one cannot help but feel present at the performance space. The system disappears to a greater degree and sounds more spatially natural. Music emerges and flows around the room, filling it with spatial cues that enable the listener to believe he is somewhere else. The overall sound is bigger and more dimensional. Depth is increased and is more layered. Massed strings or voices become individual instruments, clearly defined in space rather than indistinct or homogenized sounds. The bass is clearly in front of and to the left of the piano. The piano is a Grand and it is near a curtain on a wooden stage in a small club with a clumsy waiter delivering a cocktail with ice.
These three characteristics - contrast, content, and context - all significantly contribute to the system sounding more like live music. By comparison, my current cables sound compressed, as if they are choking the signal and restricting the flow of music. They sound closed in and rolled off slightly. Important sonic information is being kept from the listener, preventing a more complete musical experience.
I used to think that a good system was basically a collection of good components. I have come to realize that to be able to approach the sound of real music, the owner must also address three crucial areas in order for his system to meet its potential: serious attention to the room/speaker/listener relationship, proper component isolation from the environment, and effective cable connections and power conditioning.
Two years ago, I was fortunate to have Jim Smith, author of Get Better Sound, voice my system to my room. I later installed Vibraplane air-isolation platforms under my turntable and amplifiers, and I have now just heard a suite of cables and power products which enable the components to sound their best and reduce noise. These three often overlooked areas, have elevated the system to a completely new level.
One of my goals in writing this review was not to use the word “transparent” to describe these products because I am sure it has already been done. The other was not to try to describe the network boxes because I do not really understand what they do. I will simply say that the cables are calibrated to the specific components with which they are to be used and I think the networks reduce noise. I can say, however, that the REF XL cables and power products certainly achieve the three characteristics that Transparent Audio lists as its goals: Dynamics, Tone, and Space. I will conclude by mentioning that the build quality of these products is exceptional and that the packaging in which they arrive is of the highest level.
Having spent some time now reflecting on the importance of cables and power in one’s system, I am reminded of a moment in Vienna with my good friend, Dr. Peter Poltun, Director of the Archives for the Weiner Staatsoper. We were taking a break from listening to a closed rehearsal of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Knowing he was about to make another one of his important pronouncements, I sat upright and listened closely. He leaned over, looked me in the eye, pointed at the first violin and, in his affable, yet emphatic way said, “Peter, that assemblage of wood, strings and glue is nothing more than a pile of useless junk unless that musician imbues it with the purpose for which it was built. That purpose is to make it SING. It must sing like the very first instrument ever played. And that very first instrument ever played was our voice, singing our song, WHILE WE WERE STILL LIVING IN THE TREES.”
When someone asks, “How important are cables?” I will smile remembering what Peter Poltun told me and thinking of these Transparent Audio products. They enable a system to fulfill its purpose. And if the cables are really, really good, like Michele DeYoung or Birgit Nilsson, they will allow the system to SING.
List of Transparent Audio cables and power products:
Ref XL Phono din to RCA
Ref XL 3’ RCA IC
Ref XL 20’ XLR IC
Ref XL 8’ mono Speaker Cable
Ref PowerLink 6’ Power Cord
Ref PowerLink 3’ Power Cord
Ref PowerLink 3’ Power Cord
List of recordings used for evaluation, all on LP:
Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Solti, Nilsson, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, London Stereo
Brahams, Piano Concerto No. 1, Arrau, Haitink, Philips
Beethoven, Violin Concerto, Grumiaux, Davis, Philips
Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Academy of St. Marin-in-the-Fields, Argo
J. S. Bach, Three Sonatas for Viola da Gamba & Harpsichord, Fink, Dreyfus, Denon
Cantate Domino, Motettkor, Proprius
Mozart, Fantasy K.475, Sonata K.457, Fantasy K.397, Rondo K.511, Arrau, Philips
Shirley Horn Trio, A Lazy Afternoon, SteepleChase
Johnny Hartman, Once in Every Life, Beehive
Carla White, Mood Swings, Milestone
The Sheffield Drum Record, Jim Keltner, Ron Tutt, Sheffield
List of system components:
SME 30/12A turntable
SME V-12 tone arm
Air Tight Supreme cartridge
Pass Labs Xono phono amplifier
Pass Labs XP-20 pre amplifier
Pass Labs XA160.5 amplifiers
Magico Mini 2 speakers
3 Vibraplane isolation platforms
Harmonic Technologies cables
EquiTech balanced power conditionerAssociated gear Click to view my Virtual System