August 2004Stage III Concepts Vacuum Reference Interconnects and Speaker Cables
by Jeff Fritz
If theres a more contentious subject amongst audiophiles than high-priced audio cables, its reviews of high-priced audio cables. There are some valid reasons for this. Weve all read accounts in which a reviewer claims to have seen the Promised Land after switching out one set of cables for another. When an evaluation doesnt elicit that type of review but concludes with a positive recommendation to try the product, the cable is sometimes unfairly judged as less than worthy. Such a scenario can be controversial. A reviewer can expect criticism from manufacturers expecting a rave and criticism from readers who own and value the product. On the other side of the aisle, there are those who sense a negative review lurking somewhere between the lines.
But thats all about to change now that Ive explained the cable-reviewing facts to yall, right? If the power of my pixels were that great Id be parting a sea somewhere. I can tell you that levelheaded observations will follow about some really first-class cables. Only you can determine whether what I describe might lead you to your audiophile promised land.
Value and guidelines
Design and materials implementation, as they relate to audio cables, are hotly debated subjects amongst manufacturers and hobbyists alike. Its obvious to most that predicting the effect that various cables will have on any given audio system is fraught with peril. It is therefore next to impossible to assign a dollar value to a cable product based on its predicted performance. So when someone tells you that a cable will make such-and-such amount of difference in your system, and that improvement is worth such-and-such number of dollars, take it with a grain of salt. You have to listen and assign your value -- in your system, with your music, and with your set of likes and dislikes.
A set of cable-auditioning guidelines would be nice, though. A few questions to ponder as youre auditioning cables just might help the purchasing process. Heres what I came up with. A set of cables might be worth the asking price when you conclude for yourself that (1) you love the sound of the cables in your system, as compared to the sound of other cables; (2) the cables fit all of your connectivity needs, now and in the foreseeable future; (3) you have confidence in the cables' construction, warranty, and product support; and maybe most important, (4) you cant get the same improvements by other, less-costly means.
When these things are decided upon you will likely know how much you would be willing to pay for a given set of cables.
Stage III Concepts
Stage III Concepts of Brooklyn, New York has been in the business of designing and producing specialty audio cables since 1996. The designer and owner of the company, Luis de la Fuente, is adamant about what sets his approach apart from that of his competitors. First, he states that he has a "no-secrets policy regarding any aspect of production. Materials, configurations, and technical data are described for each and every item." Thats refreshing. How many times have you been turned off by someone not willing to share even a hint of "proprietary" knowledge?
But such brutal honesty begs a question: If there is no top-secret stuff going on at Stage III Concepts, why are the Vacuum Reference cables so expensive? The interconnects cost $3000 USD per meter pair, while the speaker cables will set you back $7000 per eight-foot pair. Couldnt just about anyone assemble such a cable? Fuente wants you to know about the materials and construction processes involved in the manufacture of each Stage III Concept product precisely because he feels this is ample justification for his cables' price.
A second example of what sets Fuentes company apart is the complete hand fabrication of each product. As opposed to what Fuente describes as "hand finishing" -- when an off-the-spool cable is simply terminated with an off-the-shelf connector -- Stage III Concepts cables start life as bare silver conductors, various insulating materials, and in-house-fabricated connectors. When Brian Ackerman of Artistic Audio, the North American distributor, called to discuss the review samples he was sending, he stated that it would take several weeks to have them made. I now know why. Theyre created from the ground up.
The Vacuum Reference cables are Stage III Concepts top-of-the-line range. The construction is even more labor-intensive than that of their other cables, and as such is even more impressive than the details Ive described above. The Vacuum Reference cables start with "custom-extruded, continuous-cast pure-silver ribbon conductors and gold micro-strands (99.999%-pure Ag / 24-karat Au)." There are a total of eight conductors for each interconnect and 24 for each speaker cable. Each signal-carrying component -- meaning the conductors and the connectors -- is first cryogenically treated to, in Fuente's words, "optimize crystal structure." The connectors themselves are "ultra-low-mass, solderless, solid-silver RCA plugs or modified hollow silver-pin XLRs," while the speaker cables use "custom-made solid-silver spades." I can attest to the custom nature of these connectors: Ive never seen spades exactly like the ones on the speaker cables, and they do have the Stage III Concepts logo engraved right in.
The raw materials appear to be impressive, but the Vacuum References construction process, as described by Fuente, is Herculean. The silver conductors undergo a "multi-layered construction process" whereby a "Nylon vacuum core and PFA Teflon [is used] as [a] final dielectric [and] is vacuum drawn to 28.5" Hg [inches of mercury]." Added around the cable at that point are a layer of Nylon, a layer of Nylon-reinforced urethane, a plated-copper braided shield, a "fine silica granule mechanical damping layer," which is then encased with a layer of Tygon, another braid made of Mylar and, finally, a decorative outer mesh. Whew! But were not done yet. The cable and plug housings are "made in-house from an inert, non-resonant blend of carbon fiber and nylon-filled urethane."
The results are physically imposing. These are thick, heavy cables that weigh a considerable amount, as cables go. Be aware of this when connecting to small, light components placed on shelves. The weight of the cable may just pull the component right onto the floor. The speaker cables are so thick that there are two separately housed runs per channel -- and each leg is thicker than most of the larger double-run speaker cables Ive seen.
The system used for evaluation consisted of Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria X-2 loudspeakers, Teac Esoteric DV-50 and Lexicon RT-10 universal audio/video players, Orpheus Two and Audio Research MP1 preamplifiers, and Accustic Arts Amp-II AC High Performance and Coda S100 solid-state power amplifiers. The interconnects supplied to me were terminated with RCA connectors, while the speaker cables were fitted with spades. For comparison, I used Nordost Red Dawn II interconnects and speaker cables.
Big, bulky, heavy cables should sound full, powerful, and maybe a bit ponderous, right? Such thinking is just as wrong as associating silver cables with bright, thin sound. We all know that the stereotypes that equate the visual profile of a component or cable with its sound have no real basis in truth, right?
I was surprised at what I would come to find as the gestalt of these products. Not because I was expecting a particular sound, but because it was a unique sound that Ive not heard from cables before. Undeniably, the Stage III Concepts Vacuum Reference cables sonic signature was all about delicacy and refinement, specifically of the high frequencies. Granted, I was listening to finely recorded music: the ethereal acoustic in Mozarts Symphonies Nos.5 "The Hague" and 29 (Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra; Marco Boni, conductor [Pentatone Classics 5186 002]) as recorded in Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam in 2001. The entire frequency range of this disc was as neutral as Ive heard, but the upper registers were special. The signature of "Serenata notturna" was reproduced with a very light touch, but I could hear everything; the sound was the antithesis of the beat-you-over-the-head approach to high-frequency detail. In fact, I would not describe the sound as more detailed at all; instead, it was completely devoid of the glitzy sibilance that over time can fatigue and fool you into thinking (to use a well-worn reviewing phrase) theres more there there. What were standing out were subtle shadings and contrasts of the various stringed instruments that spoke to the me in subtle, important ways. It wasnt more detail, but better detail.
The other surprising aspect of what I heard was due to how I initially heard it. I had connected all of the components in my system with the Stage III Concepts cables and was tidying up the room by storing all of my unused cabling. The system was playing very low -- much lower than I typically listen. Without even being in the sweet spot, and at these very low levels, I could hear dynamic contrasts and shadings clearly. Eva Cassidys "Fields of Gold" (Live at Blues Alley [Blix Street 10046]) is touching in its truthfulness, and this was enhanced by the way her voice was honestly reproduced right in my room. As I sat down to listen further, the observation was strengthened: Cassidys vocals exhibited a reach-out-and-touch-her quality that I could hear into.
The mid and lower frequencies displayed similarly fine -- although not as striking characteristics. Subtle inflections -- the modulations of tone and pitch of a male singers vocals -- were made to sound more human, for example. It wasnt the big events -- the crescendos of the orchestra or the guitar riffs of stadium rock -- but the smaller shadings and performance details of simple yet truthful recordings that came to life just a hair better.
On hand at the time of my evaluation were cables from Nordost -- the Red Dawn II interconnects ($400 per meter pair) and speaker cables ($1600 per three-meter pair). Replacing the paper-thin Nordost with the dual-garden-hose-sized Stage III Concepts cables was a study in design contrasts. The sound of these two vastly different-appearing products was as apparent as the physical and cosmetic differences.
The Stage III Concept cables are delicately resolving and detailed, while not being forward or etched. The Nordost cables possess transient quickness and an open character that make many other cables sound slow and closed-in. Both products extend well into the upper reaches, too. A fine example could be heard listening to Guster on Ice: Live from Portland Maine [Reprise 48710], during which the ambient crowd noises intermingle in close proximity to the guitar work. Where the pricier Stage III Concepts cables leave the Nordosts behind is in their ability to portray layers of detail in this live performance, rendering a slightly more realistic, dimensional sound. Granted, without hearing the Stage III Concepts Vacuum Reference back-to-back with the Nordost cables, youd hardly be left wanting with the latter. Nevertheless, the Stage III Concepts cables' retrieval of low-level detail was superior.
Here are the answers to my own cable-auditioning checklist I proposed at the beginning of this review: (1) I love the sound of these cables; (2) they worked flawlessly for me with my equipment needs; (3) their construction appears to be as good as it gets, the company has been in business for years, and their candid approach seems solidly grounded; and (4) I havent been able to reproduce the effect these cables have on my system with anything else Ive tried.
The Vacuum Reference cables excelled at detail retrieval, presenting dynamic contrasts at low listening levels, uncovering subtle tonal shadings, and simply reproducing all of the musical details available in really good recordings. If these performance characteristics are your hot buttons, then by all means get a set of these Stage III Concepts cables to audition and put through your own cable-auditioning tests.
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