Ever since I received my Stellar Gain Cell DAC/Preamp and M700 monoblocks last month, I have been searching for a good pair of balanced interconnects to use with the Stellar gear. I view the GCD and M700s as “high value” components that offer excellent sound for moderate cost – at least by high-end audio standards. Although the Stellar gear can be used with either expensive or inexpensive IC’s, I’ve been looking for XLR cables that provide highly musical performance while costing less than $500 per pair. At the risk of boring some readers, I will describe my experience trying five different interconnects in my current system. (Please feel free to skip ahead to the final conclusions if the details are starting to put you to sleep.)
Baseline Cables and Components:
My current system sources consist of a Sony X55ES CD player used only as a transport, with the digital signal sent to the GCD via a Monoprice Toslink cable; a Thorens TD-160C turntable with Grado MCZ cartridge, which is rarely used and currently in need stylus replacement; and a Sonos Connect that sends digital audio (bypassing the Sonos DAC) via a BJC Belden 1694A coax cable to the GCD. My only analog IC is a 1m pair of Straight Wire Rhapsody II RCA cables that connects the GCD to the M700 amps. The amps feed Thiel CS 2.2 speakers using Straight Wire Encore speaker cables. Because Thiel speakers tend to be very revealing and can become too “bright” in some systems, I am looking for IC’s that are transparent but also have enough warmth to ensure that the Thiels do not become overly bright and fatiguing. All tested IC’s were in lengths of 3-5 feet.
The IC Contenders:
- Straight Wire Rhapsody II single-ended RCA
- Belden 1800F balanced XLR
- Cardas Parsec XLR (from Cable Co. lending library)
- Shunyata Research Venom XLR (from lending library)
- Synergistic Research Core Level 2 XLR (from lending library)
Most of my listening is done via Sonos or CD, with an emphasis on rock, blues, and singer-songwriter music. For comparing audio components, I find it most useful to concentrate on recordings that focus on an interesting male or female voice accompanied by just a few instruments that have been well-recorded. I especially like to evaluate the sound of individual instruments and voices to assess their naturalness and tone. For this comparison of IC’s, I focused on the following seven recordings: “Alison” by Holly Cole, “A Case of You (Live)” by Diana Krall, “Six Blade Knife” by Dire Straits, “‘Round Midnight” by Kenny Rankin (on a great Chesky recording), “Death Letter” by Cassandra Wilson (theme song for 3rdseason of True Detective), “Easy Money” by Rickie Lee Jones, and “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Christy Baron. I also listened to a range of music by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Tracy Chapman, Neil Young, Counting Crows, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Jarrett, Leo Kottke, Ed Sheeran, and Shawn Colvin.
How Do They Sound?
Straight Wire Rhapsody II RCA: Lower output than the balanced XLR’s, but quiet background even with volume turned up to match the XLR’s. Smooth, pleasant, musical. Leans toward “warm” sound, but doesn’t seem rolled off too much. “Liquid” highs and mids. Good bass control and impact. Good imaging but not overdone or “etched.” Lacking the highest level of transparency and detail, but very smooth and natural. Overall, a solid IC that tends toward some warmth and is smooth and musically satisfying. No listener fatigue! (This cable has been my “go-to” IC for many years but is no longer being produced by Straight Wire.)
Belden 1800F Balanced XLR: The Belden IC is inexpensive and has solid Neutrik connectors at the ends of a thin and flexible cable. Tended to have a bright and lively sound. Seems pretty open, but can get harsh on “hot” recordings. Noticed some excess sibilance and glare. Bass is present, but seems somewhat loose and doesn’t sound super tight. Individual instruments don’t have a consistently natural fullness, and they blur together at times. Not especially refined or forgiving. Fatiguing and too often prompted the urge to turn down the volume or stop listening. Overall, had a loose and lively presentation that could seem initially engaging but often produced listener fatigue.
Cardas Parsec XLR: This IC turned out to be the outstanding performer of the group – at least for my ears and my system. The cable has a substantial feel, solid Neutrik connectors, and is reasonably flexible. Female voice is fuller and sweeter than with the other IC’s. Individual instruments retain appropriate tone and do not blur into other instruments. “Live” recordings seem more alive. This cable has greater transparency and more detail than I’m used to with the Straight Wire, but still seems smooth and liquid. Imaging is more 3-D and holographic than the other wires. Bass is solid and tight, and the highs don’t sound rounded or rolled off. Cardas says that the Parsec was designed to have a touch of warmth combined with some of the detail and transparency of their Clear series of IC’s. Based on my listening, I would agree with that description. Even though the Parsec had more detail than I’m used to, I did not experience listening fatigue. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get the other IC’s switched out of the system so I could go back to listening to the Parsec. It had enough warmth to keep me happy and enough transparency to keep me interested. Overall, the Parsec is a natural, musical IC in my system!
Shunyata Research Venom XLR: The Venom is the thickest and stiffest of the IC’s tested, although it is flexible enough to make reasonable bends in the cable with a little effort. The grey cable cover is very attractive. The connectors are shiny and slippery to handle, and I much prefer the Neutrik connectors found on the other balanced IC’s in the group. The Venom is most similar to the Straight Wire in terms of sonic signature, but I think the Straight Wire is actually more neutral and provides a bit more high-frequency detail and bass impact than the Venom. The Venom’s greatest strength is its smoothness. This would be a great cable to use to balance out a system that is too bright and harsh on the high end. Venom is very forgiving, but it gives up some transparency to achieve that character. Voices sound a little recessed, and the music is not as alive or dynamic as it should be. Overall, the Venom is pleasant and listenable, and listening fatigue was not a problem. However, music is not quite as exciting as it should be when played through the Venom IC’s.
Synergistic Research Core Level 2 XLR: The SR Core 2 IC’s use relatively thin wire attached to solid Neutrik connectors. The overall sonic signature of this cable leans toward brightness, which makes it a poor match for my Thiel speakers. Voices on the Core 2 seemed light and thin, not rich or liquid. There was diminished bass impact, possibly due to the tilt toward brightness in the upper frequencies. I noticed more sibilance and a harder edge to transients with the Core 2, but these IC’s were very good at picking up room and background noise on live recordings, which could increase perceived transparency in some “muddy” systems. Like the Belden 1800F IC, the Core 2 produced listening fatigue for me, and I was happy to move on to listening to a more forgiving and musical IC.
In my system, the Cardas Parsec was the clear winner in these comparisons. It offered the best blend of transparency and warmth, which gave me access to natural sounding music using my electronics and speakers. Other IC’s may work better for other listeners using other audio systems, and it’s definitely worth giving several IC options a demo in your own system. I’m pretty sure that there are higher priced IC’s out there that would impress me if I tried them, but I’m not interested right now in devoting the serious investments in time and money needed to search out “possibly better” IC’s. For me, the Cardas Parsec appears to be a high-value IC choice for my Stellar-Thiel system, and I feel lucky to have found a compatible 1m balanced IC for under $400.
Best of luck to others who have embarked on a similar cable quest!