July 2008Nordost Frey Interconnects and Speaker Cables
by Kirk Midtskog
Cables fall into a gray area in high-end audio; they're not exactly components, but they can cost as much as a speaker or amplifier. And we certainly can't transfer audio signals without them. Some people use the phrase "snake oil" to describe them. I happen to believe that if users perceive an improvement by using more expensive cables, then that is their prerogative. Likewise, if an equally effective, but less expensive way of connecting audio gear is found, why not go that route? "Cables are over-engineered" is another statement I often hear. It is perhaps less combative and implies that some basic engineering and manufacturing will suffice -- that no extravagant materials or complicated construction are needed. I dont care one way or the other. If the improvements wrought by exotic materials or techniques are valued by the consumer, so be it. It is not for me to judge the spending choices of others.
Many electrical engineers maintain that a combined set of electrical properties --capacitance, inductance, and impedance -- determine a cable's performance, and that for this reason mere lamp cord will do just as well as expensive, exotic speaker cable. Here I disagree. I have readily heard substantial improvements with "audiophile" cables over the freebies that come with some electronics or the bulk wire you can buy at high-volume electronics stores, which is not to say that increased price always leads to commensurate performance. Materials, construction, and system interactions matter, and some cables do sound better in some situations than others. In fact, I have heard different cables make or break the listenability of some systems.
Having cleared all of that up, I have in hand Frey interconnects ("patch cords" before we got all fancy, $979 USD per meter pair) and Frey speaker cables ($2719 per eight-foot shotgun pair) from Nordost, a company whose products may actually be a standard against which other high-end cables are assessed -- deservedly or not. Nordost did not start the cable craze, but it did hit the market in the early '90s with nearly universal critical praise at all levels of its offerings and has continued to do so year after year. Expensive cables are often assessed against Nordosts Valhalla (now superseded by Odin), for example.
Nordost has put in some extensive engineering R&D and manufacturing capability over the years. It manufactures all of its cables -- including extruding its own wire -- in a plant in Ashland, Massachusetts, hence the Nordost name, which means "northeast" in the Nordic languages. Frey falls at the top the Norse line, with the Flatline and Reference lines coming in below and above. All make use of flat conductors -- six 26-gauge oxygen-free-copper (OFC) conductors with an extruded silver surface for the interconnects, and 28 24-gauge OFC conductors with the same silver surface for the speaker cables. The interconnect's conductors are wrapped in a FEP Teflon thread wound in a helix. An FEP tube goes over this. They are terminated with WBT NextGen gold-plated-copper connectors. With a dielectric constant of 1.12, Frey speaker cables are said to "transfer signals more efficiently and at extremely high speeds." They are available terminated with spades or Nordost Z plugs, the latter of which look like extensions of the cables themselves.
I listened to the Frey interconnects and speaker cables in my reference system and in a friends system with which I am quite familiar -- a fabulous sounding all-Gamut collection, including the fairly large L-7 speakers. I did some close listening to the interconnects and the speaker cables separately and mixed with my reference Shunyata Research cables, but mostly I used the Nordost cables together as a combo. The review samples were apparently fully burned in on Nordosts Vidar break-in device. I also ran the set continuously for two weeks, during which time I did hear some change in sonic character.
The Nordost cabling presented no awkward stiffness, torque, or connector difficulties. The interconnects, in particular, were quite flexible, and their NextGen gold-plated RCA connectors have quick deploy/release screw-down barrels that do away with the many turns to secure or release typical screw-down RCA connectors. Good marks for ease of use all around. The speaker cables were slightly longer than the specified 2.5 meters, or eight feet. Nordost has worked out specific optimal lengths that fall near the various standard lengths and therefore will err on the longer side to meet the optimal-length requirement. This is one reason why Nordost will not honor any warranty on a cable that has been cut down after its initial sale.
Freys lavender color may not work for everyone. I didnt have an opinion one way or another. I tend to focus on sonic performance over aesthetics. I would prefer a fantastic-sounding piece with looks only a mother could love over fine industrial art that sounds like, well, diaper contents.
Some time ago, I had used Nordosts SPM speaker cables for over a year and had also used a set of Quattro Fil interconnects for a shorter period. The Frey cables struck me as sounding quite different from those cables -- and everything I had formerly thought to be indicative of the Nordost sound. Where SPM and Quattro Fil sounded ultra quick, slightly thin, and up front to the point of seeming turbo charged, the Frey cables sounded well balanced and extended but not forced. If I were to pick a phrase to sum up Freys qualities as a combo, it would be "completely competent." At the risk of that sounding like damning praise, I mean "competent" in that the cables cover the sonic spectrum from top to bottom even-handedly, cover the frequency extremes well, and do it all with plenty of detail. They pull off a wide-open sound at the same time that they also reduce a kind of excess haze that often accompanies such extension and detail. What more could you ask for?
Freys ability to clear up the interstitial matter between apparent sounds in recordings gave the whole presentation a continuous, organized quality. I think this is where some would talk about a black background, but I have never quite taken to this phrase. Let's just say that some of the normal electronic noise or feeling of a slight discontinuity was diminished, and the musical elements were simply allowed to be more easily fleshed out. Tonal color, dynamics, air, and subtle details were all there in good measure; they were just a little less cluttered and more discernible with less effort. The various percussion and piano lines on "French Visit" from Eberhard Weber's Endless Days [EMC 1748] seemed to emerge with a presence and unforced speed that were impressive to the point of lending an extra layer of excitement to the recording.
This organized feeling could also come across as a bit too clean with some recordings and rob the experience of a bit of the music's natural verve. For all its cleanness, the Frey speaker cables, not so much the interconnects, seemed to homogenize the different moods in music, tilting more toward addressing the analytical elements in music rather than its ineffable mystery -- for lack of a better way to put it. For example, with the Eberhard Weber recording, I found myself delving into things like drummer Michael DiPasqua's use of frequent flams on the off beat while still keeping eighth notes on his ride cymbal, rather than becoming immersed in the sheer sweep of this odd and evocative music. My imagination was less likely to be sparked by the inner life of recordings when the Frey speaker cables were in the system. The Frey combo as a whole did not exhibit nearly the same analytical quotient in the all-Gamut system as they did in my own system. My system seemed to bring out their character in greater contrast in nearly all areas. Maybe my system is fussier about these things.
The tonal balance of the Frey interconnects seemed to be close to neutral, and there was a nice combination of fine upper-frequency information and a full-bodied quality. The Frey speaker cables tilted toward the brighter side of neutral in my system, but not to an unforgiving extent. You should just take this into account in your system configuration. The interconnects' neutral balance accompanied by their excellent frequency extension and detail really brought all kinds of music to life. Everything from Afro pop like Angelique Kidjo's Black Ivory Soul [Columbia CK 85799] to driving rock like Tool's 10,000 Days [Sony BMG 82876-819191-2] to contemplative jazz like Bobo Stensen's Serenity [EMC 1740] drew me in and heightened my appreciation of each different kind of music in its own right.
Across the board, the dynamics, both micro and macro, of the Frey cables were exemplary. From a dead silence to huge bass-drum wallops on Bernstein [RR-87CD], specifically "Divertimento for Orchestra," to the subtle shadings of violinist Lara St. John's bowing technique on Bach Works for Violin Solo [Well Tempered Productions WTP 5180], the Frey combo rendered the contrast from soft to loud exceedingly well. This kind of performance really can enhance musical interest, not just because it is exciting but because it reveals more of the performers' intent.
If soundstaging and imaging are your cup of tea, I can happily report that Frey's ability to convey width, height, and depth was just fantastic. The stage width, in particular, impressed me not only because of its extended boundaries but because of a seamless sweep of images from left to right that occupied the entire speaker end of my listening room. The back of the soundstage was quite deep and quite clearly presented, when the recording allowed for it. The front of the soundstage was also pushed back farther away from the back of my speakers with the Frey combo than with any other cables I have heard in my system. While this lent to the disappearing act of my system by moving the apparent source of the sound even farther away from the speakers, it also tended to foreshorten the total perceived stage depth, because the back of the stage did not also move a corresponding distance. What distance is technically accurate? I have no idea, but I nonetheless liked what I heard spatially with the Frey cables in my system.
I compared the Frey cables to my Shunyata Altair interconnects ($1000 per meter pair and now discontinued) and Andromeda speaker cables ($2000 2.5-meter shotgun pair, also discontinued). The first thing I noticed when I listened closely to the Frey combo was its stunning clarity and ability to sort out music from noise. By direct comparison, the Shunyata combo sounded slightly softer and just a tad more musically evocative. At a pure audiophile level, I believe the Nordost cables were technically more accomplished than the Shunyata Altair and Andromeda. More subtle elements in the music that occupy the space near my system's inherent noise floor were more easily fleshed out. The opening of John Rutter's Requiem, Five Anthems [RR-57CD] has a relentless repeated pattern of a tympani taps followed quickly by a softer and lower 16th note. That second, much softer tap was more discernible through the Nordost cables.
The Frey cables also seemed to have a bit more heft in the bass region. The low-frequency extension was equaled by the Shunyata combo, but more power and weight came through with the Frey cables. In the Shunyata's favor, they tended to fill a three-dimensional space from front to back with more verve and musical conviction, which allowed contrasts in musical mood to come through more readily. Again, the Nordost Frey interconnects, and especially the speaker cables, seemed to push the front of the soundstage a bit closer to the back of the soundstage and tended to foreshorten the total stage depth as a result.
I personally preferred the Frey interconnects over the matching speaker cables and found that they and Shunyata Andromeda speaker cables worked quite well together. The Frey speaker cables tended to rob some of the musical life from some recordings, ever so slightly tilting up in tonal balance. The Shunyata Altair interconnects were also just a hair more musically engaging than the Frey interconnects, but not as revealing or extended. Because of their greater apparent transparency and upper-frequency extension, many audiophiles will favor the Nordost interconnects, while some others will prefer the Shunyata interconnects' ability to draw out the inner life of different music, even if they give up some of the technical abilities of the Nordost cables to achieve it.
Even though I preferred the Frey interconnects over the matching speaker cables, I found much to admire about the Frey combo as a whole, and the prices of the interconnects and speaker cables are certainly competitive in the current cable market. Frey is startlingly revealing without an oft-accompanying haze through which you also get the good and the bad. Somehow Nordost has managed to give more of the good musical information from recordings while organizing much of the jangled, messy noise right out of the playback chain. Whether some of the musical soul "baby" has been organized right out along with the noisy "bath water" is up to each listener to determine.
We have all heard ultra-high-resolution systems at one point or another that were so devoid of the human quality that enlivens music in the first place that we wonder why anyone would put them together. Nordost has made significant inroads into a very difficult proposition: delivering high resolution without accompanying sonic downfalls. The Frey combo is very revealing while not insisting that you wear an audio hair shirt of ruthless fidelity to get it. The Frey interconnects and speaker cables are worthwhile products indeed.
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