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Interconnect Shoot-out!

The Competitors

XLO Type 1, Nordost Blue Heaven
Van Den Hul D102 III, Van Den Hul the First (and later, the Second as well)

Note: I had the opportunity to A/B/C all 5 i/cs listed above. All interconnects listed below were tested only on a straight 1-1 against my XLO type 1s

Added later: Esoteric Audio $125 interconnect from Merdeka (long story... not my fault my Dad bought it...:))

 

I picked up several metres of Van Den Hul D-352 for a double biwire configuration for the downstairs system and at the same time borrowed some Van Den Hul interconnects for evaluation against my current interconnects and also to see if they can be fitted on my downstairs system...

Again, the usual qualifications apply: cables are system dependent, my speaker cables (XLO 6A and Nordost Blue Heaven biwire) may match one set of interconnects over another, and my musical tastes may be different as well.

Expect more updates as I listen further, but heres my preliminary impressions fresh off my scribble notes and memory (I prefer to reduce my thoughts to writing immediately as my audio 'memory' is not that wonderful :))

First off, I plugged in the Van Den Hul's in place of my XLO type 1s in the CD to pre position. Yes I could hear the difference even though everything else was the same. Next, I moved on to driving my amp direct so that only one interconnect was used. By and large, the 'essential' features of the VdH's sound could be heard more clearly when driving direct.

D102 III
The first thing that struck me about the sound of this cable was that there was a more pronounced 'presence' in female vocals accompanied by what can only be described as 'reverb' or 'echo'. Playing Mary Black's Big Trip to Portland, which has reverb added to it, the reverb appeared over-exaggerated through the D102 III.

Overall, the sound is actually on the pleasant side. There is an impression of balance, harmony and gentleness in the sound though it still occasionally sounded sibilant (though not more so than any of the other cables). Imaging and focus were still not as good as the other cables inspite of the added 'presence' in female vocals. The best way I can described this paradox is that the sound seemed to congeal together at times such that back-front image specificity was lost. Left/Right imaging was still good, not least because of my system set-up and that I'm listening nearfield.

Another negative point appears to be that leading edges and transients were 'rolled over'. The opening piano lines in Big Trip to Portland which have a marvellous sparkle appeared 'rounded off' compared to all the other interconnects.

Bass was OK in the sense that I could not distinguish it from all the other cables except the XLO. But then I haven't done any bass torture tests yet... stay tuned.

Overall, I was disappointed with the D102 III, but that was on an absolute basis not thinking in account the fact that the D102 III is the budget cable of the lot. I can see that it would be extremely useful for a low end system seeking more 'body' and 'presence' but I don't think I can recommend it for a higher-end system in view of its colourations.

Footnote: after writing up my comments, I looked through Hi-Fi Choice as I remember it being reviewed positively somewhere. Basically, its a 'Best Buy' and these are HFCs comments: 'A cable with everything; good bass, treble, imaging and naturalness'.
Footnote 2: Its also What Hi-Fi 5 stars and Best interconnect 1999....

Nordost Blue Heaven

I ended the D 102 audition with Natalie Merchant's Gun Shy. Next, I plugged in the Blue Heavens and played the same song. The scribbling on my notepaper reveal my first impressions: "faster, speed, spacious, expressive, nuances"

There was a wonderful sense of pace and timing and all the nuances in the voice were revealed where they were previously veiled and congealed together in a slightly lumpy mess.

Playing the thin sounding Climb On (A Back thats Strong) from Shawn Colvin's vastly underrated album, Fat City, the Blue Heaven still acquitted itself extremely well. At no time was I thinking of the Blue Heavens as bright or brittle despite the thin nature of the recording. There was perhaps some upper treble splashiness at occasional points in the recording but it failed to detract (or distract) me from the highly positive presentation of the Blue Heavens.

Imaging was about the same L/R wise but the Blue Heavens had more depth compared to the D102.

 

Van Den Hul The First
First off, I have to deal with a troubling aspect of the First. When I plugged it between my CD player and amp, there has a hum. Not that loud, but still audible and not present in all the other interconnects. Using my multimeter I measured the First's resistance at 25 Ohms. Normal copper and silver cables are 0 Ohms. Well, something about the First was causing instability. Bravely, I still listened to 2 songs since the hum was not that bad :) When the First was plugged CD to pre-amp, there was no hum.

I was very impressed by the First. Vocals had a beautiful presence with plenty of detail and an extended treble. The sound was rich and full. Therein lay one of the 'issues' of this cable. The soundstage was not larger (system/room limitations), just more filled in, so much so that there seemed like hardly any space between instruments. 'Enveloping' would be an appropriate word.

On my system, I personally prefer a slightly sparse and delineated soundstage for simpler acoustic pieces. On my recordings, I would say that I prefer a sparser sound for 75% of my CDs vs 25% for the First's version. As you can see, I am reluctant to label one 'better' than the other.

I may have to borrow the Second to see if I can get a carbon interconnect without the hum problem. The sound from carbon does appear very promising indeed.

I can recommend the First for systems that need to fill up the soundstage. For example, systems where speakers are further apart and you don't listen nearfield, the presentation of the First would definitely be more beneficial whereas a Blue Heaven would just sound thin. The First would also ameliorate any lower-mid suckout like in my downstairs system.

For midrange comments see below. Suffice to say I would call it 'rich' but not 'syrupy' or 'liquid' like the Harmonic Technology which is really amazing in itself (I can't believe that a cable can change the sound that much and in that direction).

In view of the incompatibility with my amplifier, pls see my review of the Second and the First/Second in pre/power config below.

XLO Type 1
The XLO Type 1 was the last of the 4 interconnects that I tested. Yes, I know that the XLOs have superb bass, but for the CDs I was listening to, I didn't expect to hear any significant difference. Between the first 3 interconnects, I didn't notice any significant differences in bass (I wasn't using my bass testing song Lust from Tori Amos). However, the first song I played, Climb On from Shawn Colvin, I immediately noticed the wonderful propulsive bass and improved bass definition over the First.

In addition, there was an impression of better speed and crisper transients. However, the vocals on Climb On are thin and the fuller presentation of the First was preferable compared to the XLOs. But again, the XLO was definitely not bright or brittle but quite the contrary. Its basically a trait of high-end cables that they have extended treble that is still smooth without exaggerated sibilants.

The midrange of the XLO is superb and the adjectives continuous and coherent come to mind, while for the Blue Heavens the adjectives are fast and expressive. The First comes with the terms rich and beautiful (but not syrupy so) attached while the D 102 III just brings to mind the word 'disappointing' :)

Van Den Hul The Second
I subsequently got a pair of the Second which is a shielded version of the First (apparently, in pseudo balanced configuration). Listening driving the amp direct from CD player, I could not say it was more reticent or slower than the First. All the traits I mentioned for the First were present except for the nasty hum. Comparing it to the Blue Heavens, I preferred the more natural, full bodied midrange for female vocals, whether listening to darker recordings like Julia Fordham or to brighter recordings like Mary Black. Like the XLO, there was a 'continous-ness'to the sound. Perhaps the more appropriate term is 'grain-free'

Its negative points compared to the BH were the rolled off top end and slightly dead sound, but on points, the Second wins on my system; not least because the BH, though more extended in the treble, does occasionally sound 'splashy' with treble 'spotlighting'.

On the other hand, the XLO is still a champion with a more continuous, grain-free sound and a propulsive bass line. In the context of my system, I still preferred the XLOs sound.

 

If I were to rank the cables, I would say:

1. XLO Type 1
2. VdH The Second
3. Nordost Blue Heaven
4. VdH D 102 III

Esoteric Audio ($125 from Merdeka)
My Dad went to Merdeka to listen to PSB Stratus speakers and ended up buying an interconnect from them. Don't ask me why.

Anyway, I listened to them A/B vs my XLO type 1s using Nancy Bryan's Blood Song and the bass tester Tori Amos' Lust. It is becoming clearer to me that most cables are basically manage a decent midrange (subject to whatever colourations the designer deliberately adds) and the Esoteric is no different. The torture test is of course how it deals with the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum. Listening to the treble in Blood Song, the Esoteric sounded simply choppy and splashy (worse than Nordost Blue Heaven as well). Listening to the low synth bass in Lust, the bass notes simply didn't reach down far enough and didn't have the requisite detail I expected. The note goes down low and throbs. This makes an excellent test as to (1) how low it goes (2) how much detail when the bass note throbs.The Blue Heaven actually makes quite a good showing going down low and better than the Esoteric as well.

 

Van Den Hul The First and Second (CD to pre, pre to power respectively)

Since I didn't like the D102 that much in the context of my system and with the problems of the First, I managed to get hold of a pair of The Second. I plugged it in and thank goodness, no hum :)

I decided to do a 1 on 1 on a full system configuration i.e. with the pre and power used. This way, the VdH will face off directly against my XLO and Nordost (referred to as 'my cables')

The result. I liked it a lot :) Here are some interesting features of the sound that struck me.

Quieter: Granted that there is some loss of the highest top end air, but this alone doesn't explain fully why the cable sounds quieter. To get the same 'perceived' loudness as my other cables, I seem to need to increase the volume by at least 1 dB. For my tests, I listened at the same volume setting but later also increased the volume (on the basis that if a component allows you to play louder and closer to life-like levels, that in itself is kind of a good thing). Silences are black and instruments are full bodied and well seperated.

On the other hand, for my cables, when there is silence, I can still hear traces of high frequency energy which seems to allow me to 'look' into the soundstage whereas the blanks spaces with VdH are black. A matter of presentation IMHO.

High Frequency Rolloff: There is definitely a loss of high frequency energy but the question is whether this is offset by gains in midrange fullness. There is therefore a slight loss of treble detail compared to my cables. But a point I would like to make is that just because a cable (cheaper cables particularly) have extended treble doesn't mean I would automatically call them 'detailed'. In many cases, such cables are worse than the VdHs because instead of real detail, theres just 'high-frequency hash'. I must also admit that my cables appear to exhibit a tiny bit of this high frequency hash as well (I suppose thats what justifies the existence of more expensive XLO/Nordost cables :)). I would say that the high frequency roll-off did bother me, but than, when my recordings sound thin and brittle on my present cables, it also bothers me too.

Low level performance: Related to the quietness was the ability of VdH to render low level details very well, in a nice gentle manner. Microdynamics-wise, I would say that my cables are still a bit better (suggesting the microdynamics and low level resolution are different things).

Enveloping Soundstage: The soundstage is fuller and richer than with my cables. Earlier with the First on its own I said that the soundstage bloomed too much and resulted in instruments nudging/bunching into each other but this was not the case here. No doubt assisted by the black silence, instruments were clearly defined with just a touch of bloom.

As for depth and width, I would have to say that its about the same as my cables.

One fine example of the improved soundstage was with the songs on Julia Fordham's eponymously titled debut album. In Happy Ever After, the instrument layering was well seperated. When the backing chorus sings "Um by yay, Est ce le South Africa" (in the kind of traditional African style), the difference became really obvious. Whereas on my cables the backing chorus was a bit thin and diffuse, the chorus on the VdHs sounded full, rich, and enveloping.

Great tone for classical music: Listening to piano sounds on my usual vocals+piano songs, I was struck by the beautiful piano tone. Unlike the rolled-off piano notes I heard with the D102, the VdHs here reproduced the whole of the piano note with a gentle delicacy and yet sounding full at the same time. Personally, I like introspective pianists like Mistuko Uchida (Schubert sonata cycle from Philips - sublime) than firebrands :) Classical pieces like Anne-Sophie Mutter/Trondheim Soloists 4 Seasons that are on the spicy side recording wise were also beautifully reproduced.

Female Vocals: On brighter more brittle recordings like Shawn Colvin's Fat City and Kendall Payne's Jordan's Sister, the VdH was preferred. On the other hand, the presentation of my cables is still very good (i.e. extended treble but not bright and harsh) with good speed and timing. More importantly, there was a touch of added richness and fullness that made female vocals sound a touch more beautiful without sounding exaggerated (like the problem I had with the D102).

Bass: Not as hard hitting as my cables, but equally extended with a pleasant touch of midbass warmth. As such, I would not say that the bass is inferior but of a different presentation. (If I had all XLO cables, I'm definite that the XLO bass will beat the VdH and pretty much everything else - and I'm talking about quality, not quantity).

Conclusions

Both combinations of cables are fine with me. If I had either, I wouldn't feel any urge to change to the other. The First and the Second as a set are good cables which, in the context of my system did not exhibit any flaws. I would even go so far as to say that they are preferable in the context of female vocals (particularly since many of my CDs are a bit 'thin'); however, I do miss the ultimate top end air (but see the box below - ready for SACD?) Whether one chooses these cables over others will depend on the type of sound you want to achieve.

As for my personal preference, I don't know how to make a decision :) In their own way, the VdH exposes the weaknesses of my cables while auditioning my cables also exposes the weaknesses of the VdHs! When I listen to the VdH, I am reminded of the brittle/thin sound of my cables and when I listen to my cables I think of the 'deadness' in the top end etc....

Of course, what I would want would be a cable that combined the best of both worlds. :)

The more expensive cables are out of my league (it would make more sense to upgrade my components than to go to the silly money cables) but I would really be interested in trying them just to see whether they actually give the best of both worlds.... But again, going down to earth, upgrading cables is still not going to make as much a difference as upgrading your components to a higher level (having heard the Rm22si, and the SCD-1 in my system... I know. I would like to hear my downstairs MF-2500 in my system but it doesn't take banana plugs.. ugh).

.

Up next - D-352 speaker cables together with VdH interconnects - too rich for my blood?

 
Ready for SACD?
SACD/DVD-A promises enormous amounts top-end air which may make some systems sound so bright. And with upsampling and what have you, you can expect CDs played back on the newest SACD/DVD-A players to have extended treble as well (as is the case on the SCD-1 and less so on the 777ESD) Also, it makes for a stronger argument for cables like the First & Second that roll off some of the uppermost air.

 

 

 




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