Review: Transparent Audio REF XL Speaker cable

Category: Cables

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.

Peter Ayer

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
Ref PowerIsolator

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 conditioner

Associated gear
Click to view my Virtual System

Wow, first off what a incredible review. The first thing I notice is how carefully you listen. That's very obvious in your writing. 2nd, I wish reviewers made just might be at the top of the heap!

I am not surprised by your findings on Transparent. I to am quite smitten by it...I have owned other cables I dearly loved (like Purist) but keep coming back to Transparent for the virtues you mention.

Right now I am running mostly Ref XL MM2 and I do have Ref MM MM2 from pre to amp and amp to speaker.

I to agree the calibration of the networks certainly contributes to Transparent Audio's excellent performance...I recently changed from a Allaerts MC2 Finish Cartridge to a Lyra took me about 9 months before I sent my phono cables (3) in for re calibration (din to rca, SUT to phono, phono to pre)...but they are back a few weeks ago...sounding better than ever. Those calibrated networks make a difference for sure.

Congratulations on what must be a killer system, I can't wait to hear it in Boston next trip!
Thanks John for your kind words. I look forward to your possible visit. I'll give
you a really special SME tour. Bring your LPs.

It's funny. I never really appreciated opera before my recent trip to Vienna. Of
course, that is THE place to be introduced to the genre. Now I'm going through
my mother-in-law's extensive collection of opera records. She sang opera
professionally in Baltimore when my wife was growing up and enjoyed my
system in her later years. I wish she could hear it now.
Let me add the same sentiment as John - great review, Peter. You have a great ear and are wonderfully articulate at expressing your impressions.

I also have Ref XL cable and have heard nothing that compares.

This reminds me of two things:
1) I have to find out if I can get Ref XL cable for my tonearm (I have a Triplanar that comes with the cable and it doesn't disconnect in any way).

2) My IC between my DAC and preamp is not tuned for my current equipment. I need to get this sent back to TA for that adjustment.
Thanks Madfloyd,
You can always call Brad at Transparent or your dealer to ask about the Triplanar wire replacement. Regarding the IC for your DAC, yes, you should definitely send it to them for adjustment so that it is configured for your equipment. It'll sound better.
Madfloyd, I have a triplanar also. I had mine factory wired with a din (about 4 inches of wire past arm base). So I know it can be done...just don't know how easy/hard for a existing arm...mine was ordered new this way...
Great review, Peter.

I have three comments.


I try to be as product neutral as I can. However, in this case, I'd like to relay some actual business history.

As you know, in the 80s & early 90s, I ran a high-end retail shop. Of all the vendors we had, and - IMO - we had the best-of-the-best, Transparent easily stood out as the top company to work with. In this case, I'm talking about extraordinary customer service.

If, for any reason, a Transparent cable arrived with any sort of issue, from a mistake in what was specified by us, to a finishing glitch, to the exceedingly rare defective cable, the resolution of the matter was always the same. Next morning, the correction for the problem would arrive at the client's (or our shop's) doorstep. No matter what. I never understood how they could drop everything to make it happen, but they did. I always loved the performance of the cables, which was the reason we carried them. But the extraordinary customer service for us and our clients was never equaled, or even approached, IMO.

2 -

During that time I did hundreds of on-location recordings for various groups and the local public radio affiliate. When I asked Transparent if they would consider building some mic cables for me, they jumped right on it. I expected the improvement in sound, but was frankly astonished at their ruggedness (it's always tough on equipment that has to be moved about a great deal).

3 -

Peter, the comments about singing especially resonated with me (no pun). Musical instruments are just waiting to be put to such a use. Yet, I don't think enough of us in the audio world think of our systems in such a way.

Hopefully that is changing!


Jim Smith