Ken Taraszka M.D. is an anesthesiologist by trade based in Tampa Bay, Florida. Ken is also a professional audiophile and home theater writer specializing in AV preamps and all facets of the audiophile market. In the past, Ken has been a staff writer and editor at AVRev.com. He has also at times been a frequent contributor at AudiophileReview.com.
Long ago I used to believe wire was wire and to this day there are many well respected AV equipment engineers who still feel this way but I have since gotten religion. Much like most audiophiles in the old days (early to mid-1980's) my system was wired with what today is affectionately called "lamp cord" for speaker wire. It was thin, affordable speaker cable and for nearly everyone in the market - it seemed good enough. Vividly, I remember when Noel Lee and Monster Cable came to market with meaningful aftermarket speaker cable. For retailers it was a game changer. It showed them a new way to add value to a sale not to mention profit. Nevertheless, audiophiles and enthusiasts mainly pooh-poohed this new component category with the argument of "why spend extra money on speaker wire when you can spend that money on speakers and or electronics?" It took me a few years to find my way and get over these early notions en route to higher audiophile and videophile enlightenment.
My conversion to the dark side of cables started when I first learned about aftermarket AC power cables for audiophile systems. The premise was so absurd I literally laughed in the face of the early adopter salesman who was willing to dare me to take home these pricey wires that looked more like Romex than anything that should be plugged into the back of a Mark Levinson amp. I got home and started my experiments, not just with my geeky self but with my wife as well, to hopefully bring a sense of reason to a seemingly absurd audiophile experiment. To our utter surprise, you could hear a difference. We were floored. When I swapped out the cables for my wife, she commented the sound was more open and the bass felt better. She then swapped them out for me and I could hear what she was talking about. It wasn't a little change. It was noticeable. But how could this be possible? I was starting to feel the power. I was starting to see what people were buzzing about with these un-Godly expensive aftermarket cables.
I went further in my search for ideal power, adding and swapping out various power conditioners. Some did compress the dynamics, especially when used on amplifiers, but some didn't and lowered the noise floor significantly. When I finally got to the upper end units, especially the ones with battery backup like my current reference PurePower 700 I was floored by the improvement, and it wasn't just with audio, it markedly improved the video performance of my display as well. As my enthusiasm and hunt for the best performance AV gear got more and more advanced - I not only bought it, I drank down the Kool Aid and went back for seconds. With tremendous skepticism about a world filled with snake oil salesmen - I was able to find some truth. Could a well made cable make a good sound for a fair price for most consumers? Absolutely yes. But when you get to upper echelon of performance, finding the Nth degree of performance opens you up to every element of your system including acoustics, EQ and yes, high end cables.
While I have done hundreds of hours of experimentation with cabling, mostly at the mid-level range, my eyes were opened even further when I got a chance to hear some true high end cables in my system from my friends at Transparent Audio. I had been warned that adding their interconnects and speaker wires would be on par with a component upgrade, and I was convinced that this wouldn't be the case, but I tried them, and low and behold they improved my system more than I had ever dreamed. My first experience with Transparent (I tried easily three or four other respected high end cables during my testing) made me feel the one component upgrade claim was not only reasonable but was conservative with a system on the higher end side of things.
Some religious fanatics go to the Vatican or travel to Mecca. Recently, I had the opportunity to go to audio Mecca in Saco, Maine known as the Transparent Audio factory. The trip was more impressive than a 15 pound lobster being plunked on your table. The thing that is most striking at Transparent is that their factory is designed to be like a home, as that is where most of Transparent's products end up. The warehouse where the finished cables are stored is in the rear of the building but the entire front of the office is built around the large kitchen and most if not all offices are within earshot of each other. The company philosophies are open and creative. They embrace failures and unlike many audiophile companies, feel that there is more than one way to solve a problem. This was clearly a forward-thinking company dedicated to the art of the very high end in audio and video reproduction. I quickly started to feel at home.
Corporate philosophies are easy to cook up but the proof is in the pudding, which for Transparent comes via what many believe to be the most state of the art listening room in America. We started off with a Rotel system with small B&W bookshelf speakers, initially wired with somewhat generic aftermarket cables. Respectfully, the system was not very enjoyable, and had a real lack of air and a bit of upper end harshness that would have become fatiguing in a short time. When the staff swapped in their entry level interconnects and speaker cables - the change was dramatically evident. Much of the edge in the system was gone and the separation improved. Moving further up the line showed continued improvements as did adding their upgraded power cords. Amazingly the improvement continued to be evident even in their highest lines, and they have one of the finest systems assembled to prove it. Moving into the world of the absurd, we demoed cables on a large format Wilson Alexandra-based system that was nothing short of incredible.
For the Rotel-level enthusiast there were real world performance improvements to be had at a price that most enthusiasts could afford or could ultimately upgrade to. However out at the lunatic fringe of EMM Labs, Wilson Audio and LAMM - there were new questions. Ask any truly wealthy person if they think that $30,000 per pair of speaker cables are worth the money and you will likely get laughed at, yet they spend that kind of money on jet fuel in a short trip on a plane or buying designer diamonds at 10 times markup on wholesale. Everyone has their own values and for those who truly love music and movies and who want to take the experience to the total extreme there are cables like Transparent's Opus line. Even compared to other high end brands and models of speaker cables (and interconnects) these cables show the utmost level of performance one can hope for. We swapped these carbon fiber encased, stunningly beautiful cables in and out of the systems and it was like seeing God. The music in this well treated, beautifully designed room was truly incredible. All skepticism aside - this was the best sounding room that I have ever heard, including anything and everything I have heard at dozens of showrooms, CES or CEDIA tradeshows as well as auditions in homes packing $250,000 audio systems. It wasn't just about cables, just as you wouldn't just take a bite out of a white truffle. It's about the overall experience and the merger of excellent ingredients from speakers to electronics to acoustical treatments, including of course high end cables. Everything tasted - I mean sounded - truly fantastic.
I know that people will want to argue that cables don't make a difference but to my ears they do. I will admit that there are some bogus cable companies out there selling snake oil, but there are also dozens making truly fantastic cables from the insanely priced Transparent Opus product down to Dtrovision's fiber optic HDMI cable that can run over 300 feet with beyond-1080p or Wireworld's new glass USB cable that for less than $100 can improve the sound of computer-based audio or iPod systems. The point isn't that you have to spend the remaining equity in your home to get to some audiophile fantasy system. My suggestion is that if you have an appreciation for the finer things in life - especially when it comes to your music and movies - that you ignore the skeptics and take a look at the total design of your system. It's not the power of any one component that will get you the best performance from your current system - it's the synergy of all of the parts together. Even if you are skeptical - give it a chance. I did and I will never go back to thinking the way I did years ago.