Transparent Audio Reference XL Interconnects and Speaker Cables
by Marc Mickelson
The role of the cables that connect the various parts of our audio systems is often blurry. Yes, the engineering goal is to pass along the signal, but how this should be done is often the subject of debate. Is the idea that cables should simply pass the signal without any influence of their own, the "purity at all costs" argument? Or should cables be used to effect a greater sense of enjoyment from the music -- the "passive tone controls" argument? I have my answer, and so do you, and this only complicates the issue as cable companies vie for our dollars.
Well, Transparent Audio takes another position that seemingly encompasses both arguments: cables should make the linking of components, often of disparate technologies and manufacturers, less of an electrical exercise, reducing noise in the process. The most visible way Transparent cables do this is via the proprietary networks that are part of the cables' design and manufacture. But not all Transparent cables are the same. The company's Reference XL line takes some of the fundamentals inherent in all of the company's products and maximizes their effect.
Transparent Audio was founded in 1980 by Jack and Karen Sumner and Carl Smith -- all of whom cite music as a significant element in their lives, either in terms of playing an instrument (or six in Jack Sumner's case) or musical scholarship. Transparent offers a very large array of cables at various price points for both audio and video applications, and the Reference XL line has only recently been surpassed in price and advancement by Transparent's Opus MM speaker cables, which cost a whopping $24,000 USD per pair. Believe it or not, Transparent has sold a good number of these cables, making the long-standing nature of the pricey Reference XL line all the more intriguing.
Transparent believes strongly that audio cables need networks, those large brick-like objects that appear somewhere along the length of the cables, and they've written a white paper discussing their beliefs in terms of electrical properties, materials, geometry, length and construction. I could easily spend many pages talking about all of this information, which I found to be very lucid, but for my purposes here, I'll boil it all down.
Transparent Audio concentrates on eliminating noise infiltration in audio cables, rightly believing that noise "obscures the ability of the cable to transfer extremely low-level harmonic and spatial information accurately" -- among other maladies. To this end, Transparent uses "many strands of single-gauge, precision-extruded, oxygen-free copper" in its cables, believing that copper is far superior to silver for audio and video applications. Each strand is annealed "to provide an extremely smooth and uniform surface," which is required "for best signal transfer." These conductors are formed into cables using twisted-pair geometry, which Transparent believes is best for addressing noise infiltration. Twisted-pair geometry resembles the DNA helix and is effective at reducing noise because the conductors are never parallel to each other.
But Transparent doesn't stop at its choice of conductor material and geometry. In order to reduce noise beyond what can be achieved through twisted-pair technology, Transparent adds networks, which address noise by purposely reducing the bandwidth of the cables "to that which is required for the application." This occurs via control of the cable's electrical resonance point -- "the point at which inductive reactance equals capacitive reactance." "Application," in Transparent's lexicon, means not only the kind of cable on which the network will be used -- power cords have very different electrical demands than interconnects -- but also the cable's length. Thus, Transparent's networks are not generic boxes slapped onto the cable just anywhere, but rather integral, and optimized, parts of the entire cable system. What's inside the Reference XL networks? The cavity is filled with resonance-damping epoxy. The networks are not alike for each cable Transparent produces.
An obvious benefit of Transparent's optimization is that their cables aim to help your components work better together, and nowhere is this illustrated more effectively than in the Reference XL line, which includes cables specifically for solid-state, tube and single-ended electronics. Before you purchase a set of Reference XL cables, you tell your dealer what kind of electronics you'll use the cables with (the upstream component determines which version you need), and Transparent builds the cables to suit them. What if you change electronics? Transparent will reconfigure your Reference XL cables for you at no charge. The Reference XL cables also come with a lifetime warranty for the original owner.
But given that even inexpensive Transparent cables have networks, what makes the Reference XL cables so special -- and costly? In a word, tolerances. Like all audio manufacturers, Transparent designs and builds its products with retail cost in mind. But with the Reference XL line, cost is less of a constraint, so the company is able to build cables with tighter tolerances -- in terms of materials and construction techniques -- so the cables are more optimally matched to the electronics with which they will be used. For instance, a pair of Reference XL speaker cables takes someone trained in their manufacture more than a day to make, with measurement and listening to follow. Yes, Transparent does both.
The Reference XL interconnects are clad in a black outer mesh, with one or two network boxes near their downstream ends. The Reference XL speaker cables also have the black mesh and are very thick through their midsection (hey, it happens!), terminating at both ends with what looks to be mini networks, although they protect the transition from one thick wire to two thinner connecting leads. The main network on the Reference XL speaker cables is immense -- over a foot long and heavy too -- while those on the interconnects are much smaller, six inches long or so. All of the networks on the Reference XL cables are solid machined acrylic. The spades and locking RCAs used are unlike any I've seen -- far more substantial and proprietary to Transparent Audio; XLRs are gold-plated numbers from Neutrik. In contrast to many expensive audio cables, all of the Reference XL cables are very flexible; the only impediment to fishing them between and around your components is the network boxes.
System -- and context
I used the Transparent XL cables I received for review primarily with a pair of Audio Research VTM200 mono amplifiers and Reference Two Mk II preamp. Thus, I received Reference XL V (for valve) speaker cables, which cost a hefty $9800 per eight-foot pair, as well as balanced V and single-ended SS (for solid state) interconnects -- $8000 and $4300 per meter pair respectively. For fun, I also used the cables with my Lamm L2 Reference preamp and ML2 monoblocks, even though they were not optimized for either. Speakers were Wilson WATT/Puppy 6es, and the digital source was either a Mark Levinson No.39 CD player or a Bel Canto DAC1.1/Pioneer DV-525 DAC/DVD player combo. The amps and CD player sat on Bright Star Big Rock bases, while the other electronics sat on a pair of sand-filled Target equipment racks. Power cords were from Shunyata Research (all models) and TARA Labs (RSC Air and RSC The One), and power distribution was via a Shunyata Hydra. The Audio Research mono amps accepted only power cords with 20-amp connectors, so I used the stock ARC power cords on them or a pair of Transparent Audio power cords sent along with the interconnects and speaker cables. I also received two 15-amp power cords and a digital cable, and I discuss all of these in the sidebar below -- so I wouldn't clutter the body of this review with too many products.
I had a number of cables on hand for comparison, but I chose Nordost Quattro-Fil interconnects and SPM Reference speaker cables because they were the closest in price to the very expensive Reference XL cables. They are also very different in materials and construction, making for a multi-faceted cable face-off.
Although I've been reviewing audio equipment for years, much of it expensive, I still pay close attention to the sticker prices of the components that come my way. And in the case of the Transparent cables I received for review, I couldn't help but notice that they, along with the electronics and speakers, planted my reference system comfortably into a very rarefied market segment. My house is still assessed at a higher value, but my car falls far short. These are costly cables to be sure, but they have their buyers, so it's my job to address them as I would any other product -- divulging what they sound like and ultimately telling you what they add to or subtract from my audio system. So if the price of these cables makes you mad, click your back button now and choose another review.
After reading Transparent Audio's literature and speaking at length with Jim Shannon, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, about Transparent's way of designing and building cables, I was particularly interested in determining if all the theory about the tighter tolerances of the Reference XL cables would translate into any special sonic traits. I was also curious to hear if the company's plan for addressing noise was effective -- and sonically special in any way. I was mentally impressed with Transparent's rigor, but it was the sonic payoff that I was most interested in, especially in light of the design principles Transparent observes.
So I was ready to go, but before I could do any meaningful listening, I had to burn in the cables. Transparent suggests 100 hours of play before the cables can be considered there, and I found this to be accurate. Over that time period, the soundstage turns from one that's merely strung from one speaker to the other into a three-dimensional rendering of musicians in space. Detail retrieval increases, and so does the sense that the detail emerges from black space.
However, right from the start, through the break-in period, and into the fat part of the review, I was impressed with the way the Reference XL cables handled bass. The low frequencies displayed state-of-the-art, pit-of-the-stomach power along with oodles of detail, in the form of gradations from soft to loud as well as delineation of, for example, kick drum from bass guitar. I listened to my fave rock reference disc, Keith Richards' Main Offender [Virgin 86499], but it was with less raucous jazz that the bass of the Reference XL cables really shone. An older Telarc recording with some great musical chops is trombonist Al Grey's Centerpiece: Live at the Blue Note [Telarc CD-83379]. I thought it was out of print because I couldn't find it in any local stores. I bid on a copy on eBay, didn't get it, then wondered if Telarc still had it for sale. They did via their website -- and at a discount to boot! On "Diz Related," Ben Brown's bass work throbs for eight minutes, and it was so much more elemental with the Reference XL cables in use, with variations in pitch helping to carry the tune along as though the bass were a percussion instrument.
The bass with the Reference XL cables was so much more involving, not as though I had added a subwoofer, but better bass drivers -- ones that were more easily able to start and stop, play louder too. But this was only the most easily discernible enhancement the Transparent cables brought to my system. Of greater musical importance was their overall composed sound. There was no perceived increase of speed or etch with the Reference XL cables in my system, but detail appeared with greater contrast from the black background, time and again making me believe that something about the detail was being emphasized. It was instead that space had become a physical entity, as much a part of the recording as the performers because of that heightened contrast. The overall effect is akin to the sound of JVC's XRCDs, in which the music sounds both more detailed and relaxed at the same time. Get Wynton Kelly's Piano [Victor VICJ-60259] for an idea of what I mean. It's a late-'50s recording that sounds so present and vivid, including down low, that you'll be surprised it's not contemporary. This part of the Reference XL cables' game is perplexing -- you swear something significant is happening, but it's hard to pin down. Yes, it takes some close listening and analysis to figure out, but it's there.
In keeping with the bass and composure, there's a chunkiness to images with the Reference XL cables that I can only surmise is on each disc, although it's not apparent with other sets of wire. Once the Transparent cables were properly burned in, and after I realized that they were indeed special, I pulled out all kinds of old favorites, discs that used to be in heavy use until others took their place, which is inevitable if you're a musical omnivore. The plucked bass at the beginning of "I Can See Clearly Now," from Holly Cole's Don't Smoke in Bed [Manhattan 81198], growled more than I remembered, so I turned it up, the Wilson's taking all of the substantial power the Audio Research amps could throw at them. Yes, this disc has audiophile-approved sound, but Pete Droge's Find a Door [American 43085-2] does not, sounding dense and murky. The Transparent Reference XL cables are not going to prettify bad recordings, but in the case of Find a Door, there was more of an actual soundstage, albeit one that was far more congealed than I heard with the Wynton Kelly XRCD, for example.
And over the course of months, I kept trying to figure out what the Reference XL interconnects and speaker cables were doing, which is the obvious goal of a review. But I worried all along that I would only convey effectively their low-frequency prowess and thus I'd pigeonhole them as "good for bass." In the end, they offer no reshaping or restructuring, but rather greater conveyance of, and connection with, the music on each disc. They become addictive, slowly. We reviewers learn to mistrust the "wow factor," the initial sonic jolt that something new adds to our systems because of the great change in the sound produced. There was no wow with the Reference XL cables, but I didn't want to remove them when it came time to send them back. And for me at least, this is rare with cables. In their overall enhancement to the sound of my system, the Transparent Reference XL cables were more like a pair of speakers or an amp than interconnects and speaker cables.
Perhaps no two brands of cables are more different than Nordost and Transparent. Nordost produces flat cables with copper and/or silver conductors side by side (for the most part), while Transparent champions twisted-pair geometry and networks. The cables look different and sound different too, although I'm convinced that both will have their adherents.
Where the Transparent Reference XL cables are composed, the Nordost Quattro-Fil interconnects ($1600 per meter pair) and SPM Reference speaker cables ($3350 per eight-foot pair) are light and energetic, especially from the treble into the midrange. The Transparent cables sound fuller, the Nordost more thin and stark by comparison. Down low, the Transparent cables were far superior in terms of bass weight and presence, but I can't say that the Nordost cables were deficient in either respect. It was more that the Reference XL cables portrayed low frequencies better than any others I've heard, the Nordost cables doing just fine on their own.
I've used the Nordost cables with my Lamm equipment to great effect -- they've been the best cables for this combination I've heard so far. I used the Reference XL cables with the Lamm gear too, although the speaker cables were not those for SET amps and the balanced interconnects were probably not optimal for the Lamm L2 preamp, which is a hybrid design. I heard many of the same qualities, but I preferred the greater nimbleness of the Nordost cables. With the ARC amps and preamp, however, there was no contest -- the Reference XL cables were more meaty and tonally even and ultimately more memorable. Still, there was the issue of having the not-quite-right Transparent cables with my Lamm gear that kept me wondering what if.... Thus, I can make no easy recommendation of one or the other for every system, although Transparent's ability to match cables to your equipment may tip the scales in their favor. Also, Nordost does have their Valhalla interconnects and speaker cables at the top of their line, and these are more comparable in terms of price to the Transparent Reference XLs.
To say the least, I enjoyed my time with the Transparent Reference XL interconnects and speaker cables. They helped my system reach new sonic heights in terms of bass quality and sheer listenability, and their overall synergy with the Audio Research electronics and Wilson speakers is without equal in my experience. They are very costly for sure, but so is everything else I have here. Normally I wouldn't recommend budgeting Reference XL kind of money for cables, but given the wicked sonic spell they cast, I'm now unsure. Why can't I throw a baseball 98 miles per hour or hit more than half my three-point attempts?
Are the Reference XL cables state of the art? Hard for me to say, really. Given the differences between them and the Nordost Quattro-Fil and SPM Reference, which are also highly coveted audio cables, I conclude that the Nordost cables may sound better with certain brands of gear or to listeners with certain tastes. Thus, the issue is not easy for me to sort out, although I can say that with the Audio Research electronics here, the Reference XLs were easily the finest and most musically distinguished cables I've heard -- and perhaps with other electronics to which they would be matched too.
If you are lucky enough to be putting together an audio system made up of equipment that is exactly what you want with no consideration of cost, you have to include the Transparent Audio Reference XL interconnects and speaker cables on your list. If you don't, you will be overlooking an element that may be as important to your enjoyment as your choice of amplifiers or speakers. And I can't say anything more convincing about a set of cables than that.
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