It was at Montreals annual high-end show, Festival du Son et de lImage, that I first met Audio Marginals President - Daniel Garneau. Audio Marginal is based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Quebec, as many know, has a dominant French culture. Therefore, when pronounced in their native tongue, Audio Marginal turns into the more elegant Audio Mar-jen-elle. French is also the language to look to when deciphering the meaning of Marginal. In English, the term hovers closer to words such as mediocre, average, or passable. Not too flattering, and not too accurate either. On the other hand, the true French meaning, in English, is something closer to unique, off-the-beaten path, esoteric, or a little different. And that is an accurate reflection of how I have come to know Daniels company. They are, in fact, an audio company with a slightly different approach to audio and their path to good sound is quite often the road less traveled.
The gentlemen at Audio Marginal are strong believers in a couple guiding principles that would seem like 'policy' at their company. 1) they only use tubes for their amplifiers (line stage and power) with no solid state devices within earshot. 2) they are fanatical about the use of silver wire. Daniel believes that silver is the best conductor for use in audio, therefore, all of their products use silver wire, even within their electronics. So, when it comes to talking about their cables, pure silver designs are all that will be found.
Daniel arrived at my house with the family of Audio Marginal cables. At the upper end of the spectrum is his Faust series that includes a 1 meter interconnect that retails for $2,500 (Gasp! I nearly had to be picked up off the floor after I learned the price) and its companion speaker cable that retails for, hold on to your drawers, $3,000 for the pair. No, they are not the most expensive cables on the market, but for my pocket book they might as well be. Still, curiosity got the best of me and I tried these cables and found them to be exceptionally fine performers and so they should be at that price. In particular, I found the resolution and exquisite detail of the Faust interconnect to be among the best I have ever heard. No, they did not blow away the many interconnects lying around my floor, but rather, they showed a subtle and meaningful increase in performance that, at times, made my hair stand on end. They are really good and that level of sonic performance may be worth their cost to some audiophiles. Regardless of the price tag, for a reviewer, listening to products like the Faust wires provides us with opportunities to hear the very best products available. This helps us do a better job of telling our readers how the performance of more affordable products fits into the grand high-end scheme of things.
With the Faust playing wonderful music in my system I could almost hear its lower priced siblings screaming for attention. One step down from the Faust is the Noble interconnect. Noble, priced at $800 for a meter pair, can still kick a pretty good-sized dent in your pocket-book which limits their appeal to the majority of us audiophiles on a budget. And then there is the subject of todays review, the twins Silverflex and Ultra Silverflex priced at $200 and $300 per meter pair, respectively.
Daniel believes that the best cables are made from silver conductors and Teflon insulators. Subsequently, he uses the same quality of materials (except for the connectors) in all of his products. As well, he believes that size does matter and that bigger is not always better. The gauge of the conductor, he feels, is key. This is why he uses very thin silver conductors, and varying amounts of them, in all of his cable designs. The combination of these elements, he says, is what accounts for his cables' neutral sound and outstanding resolution. Housed in their black, mesh jackets, the Silverflex and Ultra Silverflex look almost identical. However, the Silverflex uses 24 gauge silver and Ultra Silverflex uses a combination of 24 and 32 gauge (the ultra-expensive Faust uses only 32 gauge). Deltron copper RCA connectors are used on both wires. These connectors do a fine job of attaching themselves to the back-panel jacks, but frankly, they do not look like much. This is particularly evident when you compare them to WBT, Cardas, etc. Daniel was quick to point this out before I said anything and assured me that he picked these connectors for their sonic attributes.
Although I know Daniel would have preferred to see me run an all-tube system, he would have to settle on a combination of tube and solid state equipment to test out his wires with. My test system was comprised of: Theta Digital source components, the Blue Circle BC-3 preamplifier feeding a Classe Fifteen amplifier powering up the Merlin TSM loudspeakers (B&W 803 Series 2 loudspeakers were also used for a time).
Some find that silver wire and solid state amplifiers can lead to system brightness. I found no such problem here. The Silverflex and Ultra Silverflex interconnects each exhibited an exceedingly neutral character that extended nicely into the high frequencies and never sounded edgy, tizzy, or zingy. Like any good cables, they imparted no sonic signature of their own. They were not warm, they were not bright, they were not boomy. It was simply like they were not there! And that is a high compliment.
It was in comparison to much more expensive wire, such as the Faust and the Nirvana S-L series ($695, 1 meter), that I found a few shortcomings with the Silverflex duo. Almost all the cables I had on hand in my home, including both versions of the Silverflex, exhibited a slight amount of midrange congestion that I originally thought was part of many of the recordings I was listening to. The S-L and Faust interconnect cables showed that there was a wee-bit more information behind this congestion curtain. In particular, the Faust wire was simply stunning in its ability to unravel midrange detail that no other cable could match. Every last nuance of musical information was able to shine through. The Nirvana cable not only displayed tremendous detail, but also scored high for its weightier, gutsier sound and its ability to throw a more focused and defined soundstage. Bass performance through the Nirvana, in terms of detail, dynamics, and weight, could not be matched by the other cables. I wish to point out, however, that the differences I am describing are by no means large. Subtle would be the best word to describe it. It is important to note that some of the performance of the best cables on the market is not replicated with their lowest priced counterparts and some people cannot live without those improvements. What is relevant, here, is that the sonic difference between some of the best that you can buy and their lower priced counterparts such as the Silverflex series is not nearly as substantial as the increase in price.
I also compared both Silverflex cables to the Stager Silver Solids that I reviewed in the July SoundStage! issue ($100 USD, 1 meter). I found this comparison particularly intriguing because the construction of each of these cables is quite similar. Both are unshielded and use high-purity silver in Teflon with connectors that appear of comparable quality. The main difference is that the Stagers use 20 gauge conductors.
The Stagers had a fuller sounding midrange and the bass, particularly in the upper regions, was more apparent. Although, as a deficit, they were not as defined in the upper bass region. In comparison, the Audio Marginal cables sounded more laid back and seemed to show more detail and refinement. On the other hand, the Stager cables had more weight and palpability that I know that some audiophiles will like. Depending on the type of system that these cables will be used in, each has attributes that people may find desirable making neither a universal cable for any system. In my system, which lends itself well to a more laid back sound, the Audio Marginal cables were preferred. What should go without saying, but I will say it anyway, is that in either case a lot of cable performance can be had for a fraction of the price that many audiophiles feel the need to pay. Sanity can reign supreme.
In my system, the Silverflex and Ultra Silverflex interconnects integrated seemlessly and neither added nor subtracted from the components they were connecting. That is precisely what a good interconnect should do. Their strengths include fine tonal balance from bass through to the high frequencies, excellent resolution of detail, and an exceedingly neutral character that helps them to disappear into the music. In the end, Silverflex and Ultra Silverflex sounded identical almost. And that is why I have been discussing both cables as if they were one - their performance was only a hair apart. It's not surprising since they share much in common. I found that the Ultra wire sounded a notch more detailed, mostly in the midrange. Just a smidgen. Subsequently, time and time again I found myself going back to the Ultra for that extra bit of musical information.
I applaud Audio Marginal for providing excellent sounding audio cables at a variety of price points. In my final assessment of the Silverflex and Ultra Silverflex I give the Ultra Silverflex the nod based on sonic performance alone. It has a smooth, relaxed, yet detailed presentation that makes wonderful music in my system. My experience shows that they are fine cables for use in a high quality system. However, considering that their Ultra Silverflex costs 50% more than the Silverflex and that the differences I am describing would be negligible to some the $200 Silverflex is the bargain of the two. As with any high-end audio purchase, see if you can try before you buy to see which one, if either, works best for you. Stay tuned, in the coming months you will hear what the more expensive Noble interconnect can do. Great start Audio Marginal!
|Audio Marginal Silverflex
and Ultra Silverflex Interconnects