December 2002HMS Electronik Gran Finale TOP Match Interconnects and Gran Finale Mk 2 Speaker Cables
by Bill Cowen
Interconnects? You mean those things that came in the box with the CD player? I was courteously informed that what I possessed were not interconnects but merely patch cords, and that I most certainly needed some actual interconnects to go along with this fancy new preamp. While the preamp expenditure caused severe financial agony, the thought of spending $90 on a pair of interconnects was more painful than a three-day migraine. With the dealers offer of a full money-back guarantee, I (painfully) carted the cables off with the preamp.
But as this review is not about my past life, lets just proceed with the story of the HMS cables (and, no, I never did return those $90 interconnects).
If you havent heard of HMS before now, take a visit to the website of HMSs US distributor, where youll learn that the company has been in the cable business for more than 12 years. Due to the lack of a stateside distributor, the market for HMS products has been predominantly in Europe and Asia. With the introduction of HMS cables to the US, that may be about to change.
First up are the HMS Gran Finale TOP Match interconnects, and at $1190 USD per meter pair, they are anything but inexpensive -- and considerably more expensive than those first interconnects that started me down the high-end-cable path. What you get in return for your money is a pair of very nicely constructed, high-quality cables covered in a tightly woven black mesh outer sleeve. The RCA connectors are not of the locking variety, but they provided a very snug fit (yet not too snug) on all of my components. The center pin is a spring-type of gold-plated metal and offers excellent contact with the interior of a components RCA jack. At the load end of the cable is a beautifully finished wooden box that contains, among other things, a rotary potentiometer with ten discrete settings. This box includes an RFI/EMI filter as well as what HMS calls an impedance-matching circuit.
The Gran Finale Mark 2 speaker cables, which cost $2360 per eight-foot pair, are as nicely constructed as the interconnects and feature a bevy of short ferrite blocks along the entire length of the cable. While the wire itself is not of massive gauge, the blocks give the cable a certain heft and make it ever so slinky in handling. One benefit of the ferrite blocks is that the cables are insensitive to static generated from carpet as well as environmentally produced magnetic fields. As I normally suspend my speaker cables from the floor to eliminate interference from my static-prone carpet (and, yes, it is audible), I tried the Gran Finale Mk 2 speaker cables both suspended and flat on the carpet and found no sonic differences.
At the load (speaker) end of the speaker cables is a wooden box as well, but it's quite a bit larger than the one found on the interconnects. This box is outfitted with two paddle-type switches rather than a rotary potentiometer, and as with the interconnect boxes, it contains an RFI/EMI filter. The nine possible settings of the paddle switches activate to differing degrees what HMS terms a "current rise time" adjustment. According to HMSs US distributor, Christian Brouwer, this adjustment compensates for the difference in the reaction time to a signal occurring between a woofer and midrange driver (or tweeter). Im not much on technical matters, and whether this explanation is an eyebrow raiser or not is pretty much immaterial to me -- I just listen and report.
Setup and use -- and them boxes
For this review, HMS supplied both one-meter and three-meter sets of RCA-terminated interconnects and an eight-foot pair of speaker cables. This allowed me to wire up the digital side of my system exclusively with HMS cabling. So all listening notes below are from the digital source exclusively.
HMS recommends at least 100 hours of break-in time. The cables are provided with approximately that amount of burn-in time by the distributor for regular paying customers, but due to the time frames of the review, I received the cables fresh out of the box. I gave them 100 hours time on the Audiodharma Cable Cooker, followed by about 50 hours of music-signal time. Beyond that, I spent several days playing around with the various settings on both the interconnects and speaker cables prior to any serious evaluation.
The first thing I need to clarify is that the boxes on the cables are not some gobbledy-gook hokey-pokey. The various settings have a profound impact on the final sonic presentation. With the interconnects, position 0 is the bypass or disengaged setting. Moving up to setting 1 seemed to roll off the highs, reduce the overall SPLs a bit, and take some impact away from the bass. Setting 2? Audible distortion. Moving higher than setting 2 resulted in ever-increasing levels of distortion and gradual reduction in overall SPLs. To be fair, the components in play were all from the same manufacturer, so its safe to assume that no impedance mismatches were there to begin with. Perhaps these settings would be more useful between components that had some impedance-interaction issues. In the context of my system, setting 0 was best, so thats where I left it.
With the speaker cables, there was no distortion or shelving-down of overall SPLs regardless of the switch settings. Although there was some minor change noticed in the impact and (seeming) extension in the bass, these switches had the most impact in terms of soundstage and timing issues. From the bypass setting to fully engaged, I could get the sound to open up into a vast, three-dimensional soundstage, or collapse into a totally speaker-bound presentation. The timing issues seemed to go hand in hand with the soundstage -- the more the notes clung to the speakers, the more confused was the timing. And vice-versa. In the end, I once again preferred the switches in their neutral positions. But as with the interconnects, Im probably a worst-case situation for such switcheroo, as the Coincident Total Eclipses are rather time-coherent speakers to begin with. Perhaps the multitude of options with the HMS cables will be more beneficial to someone with speakers that are not as together when it comes to such things.
After determining the best switch settings, it was time to spin up some tunes and hear exactly what these cables contributed (or hopefully didnt contribute) to the sound. In a nutshell, the HMS cables just seemed to get out of the way of the music. While slightly to the warm side in tonal balance, they didnt go too far in that direction, and they were absolutely the antitheses of bright, edgy, or glaring.
Spinning up "Hella Good," from No Doubts Rock Steady [Interscope Records 0694931582], the growling bass-guitar riffs came through with a delineation that provided an instant clue that these cables were contenders. In fact, I was impressed enough with the way the bass lines carried through that I had to chuck in "Mista Bone," from Great Whites Twice Shy [Capitol D-101100]. While some of you may be wincing at my musical choices here, I use that cut frequently to test out subterranean acuity -- or the lack thereof. Bass notes came through with a visceral, concrete-rumbling impact and sustained shudder, yet without any boominess or overhang. Way cool. If youre a bass freak, you must check out these cables. If youre not, check them out anyway and you just might become one.
As the midrange is usually considered to be where the meat of the music is, I normally spend quite a bit of time analyzing this range. "Wild Child," from Enyas A Day Without Rain [Reprise 9362-47426-2] is one of my favorites -- her voice should be clear, placed well back in the soundstage, and have a total representation of body. The HMS combination proved to be a winner here, as Enya's voice was silky smooth, and I could almost see the outlines of her body standing next to the microphone. While imaging and soundstaging are sometimes lumped together, they are not the same thing, and the HMS cables are proof of that. The Enya disc brought this into a very sharp light -- while the HMS cables did not impart the deepest soundstage Ive heard, they are one of the best at casting fully dimensional and palpable images. Each performer and/or instrument was located in its own space, with a sense of body and outline that was uncannily real. Even my reference Omega Micros couldnt do as well in this regard. There was also an air of richness to Enyas voice that may have been due to the incredible "body-ness" that the HMS cables provided. Whatever it was, it put Enya in the room, and although Ive never met her, I really liked having her there.
In the dynamics department, the HMS cables are superb performers, both in the macro and microdynamic senses. Timing, or that dreaded PRaT (Pace Rhythm and Timing) thing were brought into the listening room in abundance. With "She," from James Newton Howard and Friends disc of the same title [Sheffield Labs 10055-2-G], the presentation could not have been more lifelike. A lack of dynamics or any stumbling with timing issues can cause this track to sound confused and, well, reproduced. The HMS duo brought out shimmering, nicely layered treble combined with good bass grunt and microdynamic follow-through (or fade) that put every instrument in proper relationship. Everything was more lifelike, and its hard to give a much higher compliment than that.
The nit-to-pick list is extremely short with the HMS cables. They are not the absolute reference as far as neutrality, tending to swagger a bit to the warm side. This is minor, so dont get all worked up about it. Personally, if something in the chain must err, Id prefer it to err in the direction of warmth rather than brightness or edginess. Real music doesnt shred your ears, and I cant very well live with reproduced music that does either. But this is a trait of these cables that must be taken into consideration. Perhaps the verdict would be different with an all solid-state system, and I can only vouch for what I hear in my system. Beyond that, I find nothing to fault with the HMS cables.
On hand for comparison were the Omega Micro A-7 interconnects ($995 per meter pair), and the Shunyata Research Lyra speaker cables ($1200 per eight-foot pair). No, I didnt have anything on hand that exactly matched the retail price of the HMS cables. Im just a humble reviewer and only play a rich audiophile on the Internet.
The Omega Micros have been my reference interconnects for quite some time, as their ability to draw the music out of a bunch of sand and glowing bottles caused a dislocation of my jaw when I first heard them. Their only down side is extreme fragility that makes them downright maddening to use, especially in the context of a reviewers system, where they have to be moved in and out on a regular basis.
The HMS interconnects offered a welcome respite with their sturdiness and were surprisingly close to the Omega Micros in sonic prowess. While each cable offered a different perspective, the overall quality was in startling parity. The Omegas displayed a more see-through character, combining a crystalline transparency with a shimmering, airy top end. The HMS interconnects were not quite as open up top, sounding just a touch more veiled and possessing a slightly warmer balance. Moving down in frequency, the HMS interconnects brought in a tremendous amount of wallop and impact in the lower midrange and bass notes, which the Omegas seemed to curtail. The Omegas had a deeper soundstage, while the HMS interconnects gave a better 3-D rendering inside the soundstage that they did portray. Tonally, the HMS interconnects were more forgiving, and played better with marginal recordings. The Omega Micros laid everything more, well, bare, good or bad (and sometimes really bad if the recording contained it).
I would have to call the Omegas the more neutral of the two, but understand that Im talking about degrees of very small magnitude here, and such small degrees that it would likely be hard to distinguish without a direct A/B comparison. The HMS always got along with the music, so if you listen for musical priorities rather than analytical ones, the HMS could well be the interconnect of choice.
While the price disparity between the Shunyata Research Lyra speaker cables and the HMS Gran Finale Mk 2s is far greater than the Omega Micro / HMS pairing, the sonic disparities were not as dramatic. The HMS cables were more refined and brought about a certain level of suaveness to the sound. The Lyras were a little more forward -- while not having any edge or grain, they just didnt have quite the same level of polish mustered by the Gran Finale Mk 2s. Again, Im talking very small degrees here, but noticeable nonetheless. The HMS speaker cables served up a large, nicely dimensioned soundstage, where the Lyras had a slightly smaller perspective overall. Tonally, the Lyras walked the tightrope of the neutrality line, while the Gran Finales nudged just a hair into that warmth I described earlier. Given the nearly double price difference, the Gran Finale Mk 2s should have performed at a higher level, and they did.
By any right, the HMS cables are expensive. But in the context of this hobby, and for cables that are suitable for high-resolution systems in particular, they arent insanely priced. Whether their switchable nature will appeal to you (or not) will likely depend on whether your system needs some help from cabling (or not). While I preferred the cables set to their neutral positions, my experience is only indicative of one persons tastes with one particular set of components. If I were matching electronics from various manufacturers or with differing technologies, the switchable nature of the HMS cables could very well make a noticeable difference for the better.
The HMS cables are very nicely constructed and offer more than a glimpse of the best available performance in the cable market today. While they would not be my first choice in a system that is laid-back or dull-sounding, someone who needs just a little respite from glare or edginess may find them to be the ideal candidate. As always, try before you buy, but do put HMS cables on your list as a very formidable contender.
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