August 2004Siltech Signature Generation 6 Forbes Lake Interconnects and Eskay Creek Speaker Cables
by Marc Mickelson
More conjecture surrounds the sonic performance of interconnects and speaker cables than any other category of products in high-end audio. To skeptics, audio cables don't have a sound of their own -- a pair of jumper cables from Auto Zone sounds just as good as the most esoteric designer cables. To some believers, cables do make a sonic difference, but the results don't travel -- they depend on the audio system in which the cables are used.
I don't agree with either assertion. I have reviewed interconnects and speaker cables from a variety of companies, and that there were differences in sound among them is apparent. They were not always profound differences, especially between cables from the same manufacturer, but they were always present. Furthermore, during the course of my reviews, I used a great deal of equipment that employs differing technologies, and the only instances in which I discerned any sonic characteristics that were system-dependent were with networked cables from Transparent Audio and MIT, which are available in different versions for tube and solid-state electronics. In every other case, the sound I heard with solid-state gear translated to tube gear, and vice versa.
All of this makes an effective segue into discussing Siltech's Forbes Lake interconnects and Eskay Creek speaker cables. These are part of Siltech's top line, Signature, but the least costly cables in that line. Not only is it easy to appreciate the sonic character of these cables, it's easy to identify it as superior in every way to that of just about every cable I've heard. If you think that all interconnects and speaker cables sound alike, you will want to click your Back button right now and choose another review. If, on the other hand, you want to find out about some wonderful interconnects and speaker cables, read on.
Silver and gold
Siltech is known for its use of silver-gold conductors in its upper-end Signature and Classic lines, but few audiophiles know that the Netherlands-based company offers interconnects with silver-gold conductors for as little as $450 per meter pair and others with a mixture of silver-gold and OFC copper for a mere $99 per meter pair. In fact, Siltech has three separate lines of interconnects, speaker cables, power cords, phono cables and video cables -- Signature, Classic and MXT Professional -- and manufactures over 30 different products in all.
Earlier this year, Siltech upgraded its Signature line to incorporate its Generation 6 conductors. As with Siltech's Generation 5 conductors, which are still used in the company's Classic Series cables, Generation 6 conductors are silver with gold added. Siltech adds gold to address what it believes is a deficiency in the structure of pure-silver (and pure-copper) conductors: the crystal structure that makes up such conductors produces small distortions when current flows through, and this makes for compromised signal transmission. Siltech adds 24K gold to high-purity silver to "fill" the gaps between crystals and thereby improve "micro-conductivity."
The difference between G5 and G6 conductors, both of which are silver-gold, is in what Siltech calls the inclusion rate: the amount of the crystal gaps that are filled with gold. According to Siltech, the higher the inclusion rate, the lower the crystal-boundary distortions. G5 conductors have a 90% inclusion rate, while G6 conductors boast an inclusion rate of 99-100%. Perhaps the difference of 9-10% seems small, but with its Signature cables, Siltech aims at defining the state of the art. With such an endeavor, every little improvement is considered meaningful.
In terms of geometry, Siltech utilizes what it calls X-Balanced Micro Technology, which sounds like it should be uttered only by men and women sporting dark-rimmed glasses and lab coats. According to Siltech, the basic principal of this geometry is that when conductors are at 90 degrees to each other, the magnetic field collapses. "A cable using X-Balanced Micro-Technology measures 50-60dB less magnetic leakage than the typical audio cable" is Siltech's take, and this may explain why routing cables so they cross but don't run parallel produces better sound. In Siltech's case, the idea is to wind the cable so tightly that the angle of approach between the two conductors is very close to 90 degrees. Thus, a pair of G6 conductors looks like two corkscrews dirty dancing. One byproduct of such tight winding, I assume, is that for any length of cable, longer conductors are required, the shortest distance between two points being a straight line, which these conductors do not follow.
Siltech Signature G6 cables use proprietary locking SST RCA plugs and SP 003 spade connectors, both of which are said to enhance conductivity through the use of silver and gold. The spades are said to be products of what Siltech calls "soft metallurgy," which makes for a more malleable connector that creates a better connection. Siltech also pays attention to the mechanical design and construction of its Signature cables. Kapton insulation is used because of its superior dielectric properties. At both ends of each Signature cable is a handsome precision-machined casing that incorporates wide-spectrum ferrites that reportedly prevent radio-frequency and other interference from passing through the cables. Signature speaker cables come with a puck-like Cable Tuning Weight which is said to eliminate vibrations and unwanted resonances. All of this adds up to interconnects and speaker cables that are more meticulously constructed and robust than any I've encountered. When you see and hold these cables, you know that considerable work went into their design and manufacture.
Taking into account all that goes into Siltech's Signature G6 cables, including the liberal use of silver and gold, I have to say that their prices seem a little less astronomical, although they will still produce sticker shock. Signature G6 Forbes Lake interconnects cost $4300 USD per meter pair, with the Signature G6 Eskay Creek speaker cables coming in at $11,300 per 2.5-meter pair. The differences among these interconnects and speaker cables and the even costlier Signature wires are in the gauge of the conductors -- the more silver and gold used, the more the cables cost. In the middle of the Signature G6 line are Snow Lake interconnects at $6500 per meter pair and Echo Bay speaker cables at $19,025 per 2.5-meter pair. Top-of-the-top-line Compass Lake interconnects are a cool $9000 per meter pair, while a 2.5-meter pair of The Emperor speaker cables will set you back $26,750.
I used the Siltech Signature G6 cables with a virtual "cast of thousands," audio-wise. Speakers included Wilson Audio MAXX 2 and WATT/Puppy 7 along with Thiel CS2.4 and Paradigm Signature S8. Amplifiers were Lamm M1.2 Reference, ML1.1 and ML2.1 monoblocks; Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk II.3 monoblocks; Simaudio W-6 monoblocks; and a Belles 150A Reference stereo amp. Preamps were a Lamm L2 Reference, Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk II and Belles 21A with Auricap upgrade. Digital gear included Esoteric DV-50, UX-1 and X-01 multi-format players, and a Mark Levinson No.37 transport supplying bits to a Zanden Model 5000 Mk III DAC, which was connected with Stereovox or Audience BNC-terminated coaxial cables. Power cords were from Shunyata Research (Anaconda Vx, Anaconda Alpha and Taipan) and Siltech (Signature G6 Ruby Hill, which sounded particularly great with all of the digital gear I used). Interconnects and speaker cables were many, but for direct comparison I used Nordost Valhalla exclusively because of its similar price to that of the Siltech cables and its well-earned reputation as one of the best-sounding audio cables you can buy.
I used both RCA- and XLR-terminated Forbes Lake interconnects between source components, preamp and amplifiers. In most review contexts, this is unessential information, but with the G6 Signature cables, it's relevant because of Siltech's SST RCA connector, which contributed to sound that was better than that of the balanced interconnects and their Neutrik XLRs. The Lamm L2 Reference preamp and M1.2 Reference or ML2.1 monoblocks allow balanced connection, but they are not differentially balanced products. In the case of products that are differentially balanced, like the Atma-Sphere electronics, balanced connection overcomes any improvement from the RCA connectors. Here's hoping that Siltech will design and manufacture an XLR connector that's the sonic equal of its SST RCA.
One in-use issue arose with the SP 003 spades, however. Because they are softer than all other spades, they are also easier to scrape up by connecting them to your amplifier, especially one with the sort of binding posts whose nuts don't turn at the end where the spades make contact (various WBT binding posts, for instance). This happened to me while connecting the Eskay Creek speaker cables to the Simaudio W-6 monoblocks, even as I tried to avoid it. My only advice would be to tighten the binding posts less than usual -- somewhere between not quite loose and just about snug.
Audiophiles and reviewers often wax euphoric over equipment that maximizes one sonic aspect, even though the overall performance is less than superlative in many other ways. The praise heaped on horn-loaded speakers comes to mind -- sensitivity (and dynamics) Łber alles. In reality, the very best products aren't one-trick ponies. They do not rely on any single trait to prove their worth -- they are accomplished in every way. This is what Siltech Forbes Lake interconnects and Eskay Creek speaker cables are about. Nothing stands out -- every sonic criterion is in equilibrium with the others. These cables reproduce music with exacting balance and realness, yet they never sound clinical, dry, lean or spot-lit. Their performance is complexly satisfying and complete.
Interestingly, the Forbes Lake interconnects and Eskay Creek speaker cables were very rare examples of cables that sounded great right out of their boxes. Siltech tests and breaks in each Signature cable for 80 hours before it is shipped, and while subtle improvement, mostly in terms of microdynamics and low-level detail, occurred, I heard the lion's share of performance from the very beginning. There were soaring, pellucid highs that displayed no unnatural highlighting or emphasis, a transparent midband that conveyed every nuance and called no attention to itself, and bass power that matched that of the networked cables I've auditioned. All of this made some favorite CDs, such as John Hammond's spacious-sounding Wicked Grin [Pointblank Records 7243 8 50764 2 8], seem all the more impressive. There was a totality to the experience that was certainly aided by the world-class electronics and speakers I was using, but never hindered by the Siltech cables, which kept pace in every way with the high-achieving components they connected.
It was only after a few weeks, however, and some comparison to other cables that I came to discern the root cause of the Siltech Signature G6 performance: noise, or rather the lack thereof. Siltech addresses noise in the choice of materials and the construction of its Signature cables, and it pays dividends in the listening. Gone is a very fine layer of sonic dust, which reveals not a spare, characterless sonic portrait, but rather one rife with purity of tonal color. The best analogy I can give is having an old painting cleaned by a professional conservator. It's the same work, but more vibrant -- and exactly what the artist created.
I have listened to Tom Waits's Rain Dogs [Island 7 90299-2] with every assortment of audio equipment I've owned since the album's release in 1985. Rain Dogs does have a spare, bare-bones quality to it, which enhances its odd mixture of creaking instruments, diverse melodies and Waits's gravelly voice. The Siltech cables brought out all of the starkness, making Rain Dogs seem all the more challenging and musically satisfying. There really is nothing else like Rain Dogs -- it is a singular achievement among Tom Waits albums: less affected than the releases that preceded it, not as contrived as the releases that followed. Symphonic works shone over my system with the Siltech cables, especially the latest batch of two-channel Telarc SACDs. Barber's melancholy Adagio for Strings [Telarc SACD-60641] is beautifully portrayed via the Siltech cables, the massed strings sounding whole and supple, like undersea plants swaying in the current. Michael Murray's organ on the Saint-SaŽns Symphony No.3 "Organ" [Telarc SACD-60634] resounds with the sort of airy power that only Telarc organ recordings achieve regularly. Again, this authenticity was carried along by the Siltech cables, and it was neither overlaid with noise nor disrupted by any tonal shift.
The Siltech Forbes Lake interconnects and Eskay Creek speaker cables kept pace with the terrific Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk II.3 amps and Wilson Audio MAXX 2 speakers -- the best amplifiers and speakers I've heard. The signatures of these two products mirror each other in so many ways, and that of the Siltech Signature cables. There's an obvious and pleasing mastery up and down the sonic spectrum. It is not that other sets of cables ruined the sound of the Atma-Sphere amps and Wilson Audio speakers. Instead, the Siltech cables just settled into this grand company, heightening involvement with the music through their stunningly balanced portrayal. If you are lucky enough to audition Siltech Forbes Lake interconnects and Eskay Creek speaker cables, you will likely focus on one or more characteristics -- the terrific sound lends itself to this. But to get the full measure of these cables, you need to step back and take in the total presentation, not consider the particulars. You'll hear that everything draws your attention.
Nordost Valhalla ($3300 per meter pair of interconnects, $7350 per eight-foot pair of speaker cables) has become a well-known reference, and after hearing it I know why this is so: Valhalla is highly transparent, sounding more like nothing at all than any audio cable I've encountered. This holds true when compared to Forbes Lake and Eskay Creek, which have a faint residual warmth of which Valhalla is completely devoid. However, the Siltech cables show that Valhalla sounds leaner and slightly tilted toward the treble, two things I didn't notice when comparing Valhalla to other cables, including Nordost Valkyrja. I suspect that this is a matter of the Siltech cables' supreme balance making it easier to discern even minute differences in the competition. It also makes me wonder if that subtle warmth is in the sound of the Siltech cables or perhaps the electronics or even the recordings.
As I mentioned in my review of the Wilson Audio MAXX 2 speakers, both Valhalla and Forbes Lake/Eskay Creek proved to be better at retrieving low-level detail than any other cables I have on hand, although they do so differently. The Nordost cables sound brighter, which spotlights detail to a degree, whereas the Siltech cables are clearer throughout the musical spectrum, which is due, I believe, to their lower intrinsic noise. The Siltech cables sound more relaxed than Valhalla, but not relaxed overall -- another sign of their superb balance.
Are there other less expensive cable lines that perform in similar fashion to Siltech's Signature G6? I have heard similar well-balanced sound from Stereovox and Acoustic Zen cables, both of which use silver conductors, but the obvious answer is that Siltech's Classic cables, which use silver-gold conductors, are almost certainly cut from the same sonic spool as the Signature G6 wires. Dan Davis reviewed some of these on our Ultra Audio site, and there's nothing in that review that would lead me to believe they are not top-flight alternatives.
It's difficult to make a case for Forbes Lake and Eskay Creek being considered state of the art (and a Reviewers' Choice) when Siltech makes two interconnects and two speaker cables that it considers better. Yet, when I take into account all of the cables I've reviewed, I don't hesitate to say that the Siltech Signature G6 cables would be my first choice for use over the long haul. They are a true sonic reference point.
Like Lamm and Atma-Sphere electronics, like Wilson Audio speakers, Siltech Signature G6 Siltech Forbes Lake interconnects and Eskay Creek speaker cables sound just right -- highly detailed, tonally pure and utterly full-range. Among their merits are their ability to resolve low-level detail with the best cables and their low noise, the former more than likely a product of the latter. I used the Siltech cables with solid-state and tubed electronics, playing CDs and SACDs, even with four different pairs of speakers. In all cases their personality was the same, and at no time did I think that another cable I had heard would sound better.
There are plenty of cable skeptics among those of us who call ourselves audiophiles, and just as many who are not sure that cables which sound good in one system will sound just as good in another. I'll rely on what I hear as the arbiter, and in this regard, Siltech has, to quote Ruby Andrews, made a believer out of me.
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