Best Audio Cables

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Skogrand Vivaldi Interconnects

During 2016, my editor Suave Kajko at NOVO magazine let me audition a pair of Skogrand’s Tchaikovsky interconnect cables ($6,950 US) for about 8 months. Within a very short time, I concluded that these were (indeed… are) the quietest and most accurate pair of interconnects that I’d ever heard. As a reviewer, I wanted—perhaps even needed—to have those awesome cables in my arsenal of reviewing tools. Sadly, I had to return them.

At the TAVES Consumer Electronics Show in 2016, Suave asked if I’d like to review Skogrand’s new Vivaldi interconnects ($750 US/2m length) and a matching pair of Vivaldi speaker cables ($850 US/3m length).

Word spread like a virus through my local grapevine of audiophile friends that I’d be getting Skogrand’s new interconnects and speaker cables in for review. All of my audio-buds were drooling in anticipation at hearing the new ‘entry level’ cords. Up until now, the biggest issue with Skogrand’s wires has been their cost. You want the best…? Well… the best costs money: a LOT of money. Not any more though. The new Vivaldi cable line has price points that are far more accessible.

The excitement which Skogrand has created by releasing their entry-level (read: affordable) Vivaldi line of cables has been utterly remarkable.

Since 2011, Skogrand has been proudly making ultra-high end reference calibre audio cables in Norway. Whereas many of the bigger cable companies who established themselves in the 1990s and 2000s seem to be resting on their laurels and are still selling the same wires that they designed 15 or 20 years ago, Skogrand’s newer cable technologies are pushing the boundaries of what is, sonically speaking, possible.

The Vivaldi Interconnects (ICs) which I reviewed were about 3/4-inch in diameter. The have a striking ox-blood red colored, stitched fabric cover which sits underneath a heavy-gauge clear polymer outer jacket. The conductors are 24 AWG OCC (Ohno Continuous Cast) solid core copper wires. My review pair was terminated with locking Skogrand RCA plugs.

The primary sonic goal for all of Skogrand’s cables is to “…liberate the true sound of every system connected with [them].” Instead of adding or subtracting any sort of sonic coloration, all of Skogrand’s cords have been designed with the penultimate goal of letting audiophiles hear exactly how their components sound.

Skogrand uses balsa wood, OCC copper, Poly-tetra-fluoro-ethylene (PTFE) cotton, cross linked poly-olefin, Per-fluoro-alkoxy fluoro-carbon (PFA), silver, gold, silk, and rhodium in different configurations to achieve an exceptional clarity and accuracy from all their cables. The ends of the Vivaldi ICs are fairly stiff. As such, an end user will need at least 12 inches of clearance behind the components.

Skogrand Vivaldi Speaker Cables

The 3m pair of Vivaldi speaker cables (SCs) I reviewed came with a white tech-flex jacket and was terminated with Swiss-made CMC Euro-style Copper banana plugs.
Much like the ICs, the Vivaldi speaker cables also need at least 12 inches of clearance on both ends to hook-up an amplifier to most speakers.

Both the ICs and SCs come with air tight and water-proof Pelican hard shell flight cases. The build quality is exceptionally high for ICs and SCs in this price range.
Released in 1993, Junkhouse’s debut album Strays is a phenomenally well recorded rock record that contains a wide variety of toe-tapping songs with catchy guitar riffs and, in places, a strong acoustic edge that gives some of the tracks a small-town country feel.

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Skogrand Cables Wagner AC Power Cable Review.indd

When I began building my first hifi system some twenty years ago, I didn’t give much thought to cables. Cables simply served as a means of connecting all the components together.  Audio magazines introduced me to the idea of upgrading cables but it was only when I tried the first few cables in my own system that I truly began to appreciate how much influence good quality cables had on a system’s performance. As hifi component designers continue to push the envelope of audio performance in their products, audio cable designers need to develop cables that are more transparent than ever in order to let hifi components perform at their highest level. One of the cable companies that has been capturing the attention of music enthusiasts around the world for the last few years is Skogrand Cables of Norway. In business since 2011, the company has been on the ‘hifi show circuit’ around the world for several years now, demonstrating its high-end cables to a great acclaim of music listeners and industry types. I’ve been impressed by the exemplary performance of Skogrand cables on several occasions at audio shows but my true appreciation for the brand was born when I tested the Skogrand SCI Tchaikovsky interconnect cable in my own system earlier this year. Never before had a cable conjured up such an emotional connection with the music that I listen to, allowing my hifi system to truly achieve world-class performance. In fact, I loved this interconnect cable so much, it ended up finding a permanent position in my reference system.

Given this positive experience with the Skogrand interconnect, you can imagine my excitement at the chance of reviewing the Skogrand Cables Wagner AC power cable. It is a well known fact among hifi enthusiasts that when it comes to cables, power cables play the most significant role in the performance of a system. That’s because music reproduction starts at the wall power outlet. Music components essentially “shape” the AC power into the music that reaches our ears. Therefore, if you upgrade the cables in your hifi system, it is best to start with power cables and follow the signal path (interconnects next, and finally speaker cables).

Skogrand Cables produces a full range of hifi cables, including power cords, interconnects, digital cables and speaker cables. Skogrand power cords are available in two different series, called Wagner and Beethoven. The company’s speaker cables and interconnects are grouped into five different series, each named after a famous composer – Rachmaninov, Brahms, Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Skogrand digital cables on the other hand are available in the Grieg and Beethoven series.

The Wagner series of cables is Skogrand’s affordable (by high-end standards) series of power cords. The 2 meter Wagner AC power cable I received for this review retails for $2,500 US. These are far from the least expensive power cables you can find in the market, but as with everything in this world, when it comes to audio cables, you get what you pay for. High-end performance costs. In contrast, a 2 meter power cord from the flagship Beethoven series will run you a whopping $18,000 US.

Unlike some cable manufacturers, Skogrand Cables does not offer a great level of detail about its cables designs on the company’s website. Skogrand prefers for listeners to focus on what they hear from their music when using its cables. As stated on the company’s website, the Wagner AC power cable is designed to deliver a pure energy flow to your components, while protecting and preserving the energy transfer. The cable features a multi-strand design, which consists of two 4mm stranded UP-OCC copper conductors, and a single 5mm ground wire. Surrounding these conductors is a double braided copper shielding. A polyolefin cable jacket offers additional insulation. All Wagner power cords can be ordered with an optional silk brocade cable sleeve or black braid with purple polyolefin shining through. My review sample came in the unique and gorgeous silk brocade sleeve. Wagner cables are equipped with high-end Rhodium plated UP copper connectors, and can be ordered with North American or European power connectors.

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Skogrand SCI Tchaikovsky Interconnect Cables 01

Established in Norway in 2011, Skogrand Cables is still a relatively young player in the hifi business, yet the company has already earned remarkable respect within the industry and made it to the top of the ‘wish list’ for many audio enthusiasts and hifi writers.  What distinguishes Skogrand Cables apart from other cable brands are the company’s unique cable architectures and the use of extremely high-quality materials.  These factors enable music systems to achieve unprecedented levels of sonic performance, allowing music fans to connect with their music like never before.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting CEO Knut Skogrand at several audio shows in the last couple of years and have learned some insights about him as well as his company and products.  I’ve also had the chance to listen to Skogrand cables in several systems recently and always walked away incredibly impressed.

Today, Skogrand offers a full suite of speaker cables, interconnects, power cords and digital cables, with prices starting from $2,300 US.  The cables certainly aren’t inexpensive but if you’re looking to elevate your listening experience to the highest possible level, these are the prices you’ll have to pony up for world-class audio cables.  Skogrand speaker cables and interconnects are available across five different series, each named after a famous composer – Rachmaninov, Brahms, Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.  Power cords come in two different series, called Wagner and Beethoven.  Meanwhile, digital cables are available in the Grieg and Beethoven series.  In early 2016, Skogrand also began integrating its wiring into the ModWright Instruments DS 845 SET monoblock amplifier.  A Skogrand wiring upgrade is also available for the ModWright KWA 150 SE amplifier.  All Skogrand cables are meticulously hand-crafted in a small workshop in the mountain hills of Norway.  To learn more about the company and owner Knut Skogrand, I invite you to read “Skogrand Cables: Love at First Sound… An Interview With Knut Skogrand” on novo.press, written recently by Malcolm Gomes.

After numerous listening sessions with Skogrand cables in various music systems at audio shows, I was delighted to finally try a Skogrand cable in my own reference system, with components and music that I am intimately familiar with.  Skogrand sent me the SCI Tchaikovsky interconnect cable, priced at $6,950 US for a 1 meter pair.  At this price level, I was expecting nothing but the very best.

First, let me describe the cable technology briefly.  At the heart of the SCI Tchaikovsky interconnect is a 24 AWG Ultra Pure Ohno Continuous Cast Copper (UP-OCC) Solid Core (SC) pure copper conductor.  UP-OCC is pretty well the highest grade of copper you can find in audio cables and, if implemented well, can result in incredibly natural sound, without edginess or graininess that lower quality of copper suffers from.  This copper conductor is suspended in air within a framework of ultra low dielectric fabrics and PTFE tubing, allowing it to achieve a dielectric constant of 1.0018 and a signal transfer speed 99.82% the speed of light, making it one of the fastest cables in the world.  The conductor touches just 0.18% of the cable framework – this achievement enables the cable to reach an extremely high level of performance.  The SCI Tchaikovsky interconnect comes terminated with a choice of Rhodium plated RCA or XLR connectors – I was sent the RCA version to test.  Rounding out the cable is a visually distinctive pure silk sleeve, giving the cable an exceptionally classy appearance.  What do all of these characteristics mean when it comes to audio playback?  The cable provides a perfectly clean signal from your music source component to the amplifier, without taking anything away or introducing any distortions.  You can find many more technical details about this interconnect, along with insights about the manufacturing process, at www.skograndcables.com.

To determine the performance of the SCI Tchaikovsky interconnects, I tried them with numerous amplifiers, speakers and source components to get a true sense of what these cables are capable of.  One of the systems I did a lot of listening to included the Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 integrated amplifier and Raidho C 1.1 loudspeakers.  Another system consisted of the ModWright Instruments KWA 100 amplifier, ModWright Instruments LS 100 tube preamp and Focal Electra 1008 Be II speakers.  In both systems, the music source was the Bryston BDP-1 digital player connected to the Bryston BDA-1 DAC.  The SCI Tchaikovsky interconnects fed the signal from the DAC to the amplifier or preamp, depending on the system I used.

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Skogrand Cables SC Beethoven Speaker CablesIn the three and a half decades that I have been reviewing audio products, I have had the privilege of living through the 1980s when Noel Lee the founder of Monster Cables began his intrepid quest to get audio cables the respect they deserve. Initially, Noel’s products were regarded as snake oil to the ‘wire is wire’ crowd who believed that a lamp cord was good enough for speaker cabling and anyone paying more needs to get their head examined.

I watched with interest as ever more audiophiles gradually warmed up to the idea that cables mattered. This prompted a plethora of companies getting into this business, introducing cables with ever higher price points to a stage where it got patently ridiculous. At this point I found myself preferring to tune out rather than listen to the gobbledygook being spewed out by some companies to try and convince consumers that their cables were worth the price of a new automobile.

Then something happened that changed all that. I was contacted by Knut Skogrand, a true blue Norwegian Viking who very politely requested me to audition his uber expensive cables. What struck me was that he did not indulge in any sales talk or complicated technical rationale, which I found to be truly refreshing. His only request was that I gave his cables a listen. I did a bit of research and found a few things that peaked my interest. Apparently Knut handcrafted his cables in a remote mountain cabin turned workshop, right in the middle of nowhere in a magnificently desolated part of the land of the midnight sun, surrounded by rolling hills and lush verdant forests teeming with flora and fauna. “Now that is so different,” I thought to myself, “it must be worth investigating”.  And so I consented to giving the cables an audition. A package duly arrived a few weeks later in an impressive flight case that nestled the beautiful looking cables not unlike the way a jewel box cradles a fine diamond necklace.

I began the process of breaking in the speaker cables for a hundred hours before the audition and during that time I exchanged a few emails with Knut to better understand the man behind the cables. Knut turned out to be a musician. He started learning to play the piano from the age of seven and he played in various bands over a couple of decades, trying his hand not just on the ivories but also with a bass guitar and with drums. He has also written music, including a few movie scores. He credits his Lutheran pastor father for instilling in him a love of music. He remembers sitting on his father’s lap listening to classical music while being indoctrinated in the art of listening to the intent of the composer by paying particular attention to the phrasing, tempo and dynamics of the track. He also remembers his mother dancing around the living room with so much joie de vivre which revealed to him early on, the incredible impact that music could have on one’s very soul.

Knut’s tryst with cables occurred when he was 14. He recalls his frustration when during the process of mixing tracks, no cable he tried was able to portray exactly what he put into his musical compositions. He was particularly peeved at the way every cable he tried adversely impacted the dynamics and added very audible colouration and other forms of distortion to the music. He found that many other musicians that he met were experiencing the same frustrations and this prompted him to begin his journey to seek and hopefully find cable nirvana. His goal was to design cables that would totally get out of the way of the music and he recalls lying awake at night, juggling ideas and then trying them out to see if they worked. The process was not exactly cheap, so he sought and received funding from the Norwegian Government, which exponentially helped his ambitious quest.

One of the fundamental problems confronting cables is the gross impedance mismatch between the conductor (wire) and the dielectric (insulating jacket encasing the conductor). As current flows through a wire it creates a magnetic field around it that expands and contracts, permeating through the dielectric. The dielectric absorbs some of the magnetic energy and then re-releases it back into the conductor later. This effect is called time smearing and it distorts the signal by disorienting the sound stage, diminishing dynamics and sucking the life out of the music. The higher the dielectric constant of the insulating material, the more adversely it effects the flow of the music signal so obviously, the lower the dielectric constant, the better it is for cable performance.
The more common dielectrics used in audio cables have relatively high dielectric constants. For example polypropylene has a constant of around 2.2 to 2.6 while for Teflon it is in the region of 2.1 and PVC comes in at approximately 3.5. Knut’s solution was to use the clean and dry Norwegian mountain air as a dielectric. The solid core wires float in this air from one end of the cable to the other to achieve an effective dielectric constant of 1.00059. How he achieves this is his trade secret but what he does reveal is that, depending on the model, his handmade cables achieve more than a 99.28% air dielectric in comparison to what he claims, is the next best available (albeit machine made) cable that achieves an approximate 80% air dielectric.

With his flagship Beethoven Cables, Knut employs a PFA inner framework because it results in less stored static charge, a bit more flexibility and better impact strength that is 4.45 times stronger than the PTFE frameworks that he uses for his more affordable Vivaldi, Ravel and Tchaikovsky cables.

Another barrier to cable performance is the nature of the material used as the conductor. The most common material is copper, but there are various grades of copper and purity is just one of the factors that impacts performance. The problem with conventional copper wire is that it is composed of multiple crystals and so when the signal moves from one crystal boundary interface to another it encounters an abrupt discontinuity in conductivity. Knut transcended this hurdle by using a mechanical, thermal and biologically treated ultra-pure Ohno Continuous Cast copper wires with virtually no crystal borders. In other words the wire consists of just one crystal from end to end. In order to ensure that every one of his cables meets this spec, he scans the inner framework of the wire using three different x-ray techniques. If this test reveals any impurities or grain borders in the copper wire, it does not make the cut. Wires that do pass this test are then matched for exact similarity of size and performance before they are paired for sale.

So much for the technical aspects of Skogrand Cables; now let’s get down to brass tacks and see if all that technology and handcrafted attention to detail makes any difference to the performance. The Achilles Heel of most cables is their noise floor which when not low enough, fills the silence between the notes with noise, thus detracting from the enjoyment of the music. All the great composers from Bach to Beethoven to Mozart, were all acutely aware of the role that silence between the notes plays in music.

I teach the art of meditation, which also makes me aware of the profound beauty of silence. I could write volumes on the importance of silence in music but would just not be able to express it as succinctly as Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner a.k.a. Sting from the band “The Police” did, in his commencement address at the University of Berkeley in May 1994, and I quote; “Paradoxically, I’m coming to believe in the importance of silence in music. The power of silence after a phrase of music for example; the dramatic silence after the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the space between the notes of a Miles Davis solo. There is something very specific about a rest in music. You take your foot off the pedal and pay attention. I’m wondering whether, as musicians, the most important thing we do is merely to provide a frame for silence. I’m wondering if silence itself is perhaps the mystery at the heart of music? And is silence the most perfect music of all? Silence if disturbing, it is disturbing because it is the wavelength of the soul. If we leave no space in our music—and I’m as guilty as anyone else in this regard—then we rob the sound we make of a defining context. Great music is as much about the space between the notes as it is about the notes themselves.” Now that is as deep a truism as anything I have heard from any musician dead or alive.

I started the audition of the SC Beethoven cables with the “Kind of Blue” album by Miles Davis. Miles is legendary for the way he uses silence to enhance the profound beauty of his music. Through the Skogrand SC Beethoven cables, the silence between the notes did prove to be truly “golden”. Just as you need a background of the blackest of blacks to achieve true colours on a television screen, you need a background of absolute silence to allow music to show its true sonic colours. The dead silent background allowed me to hear even the subtlest inner details of the music. I was able to detect the unraveling of even the most complex passages with ease. With many cables you have to choose between analytical details and smoothness but not with the SC Beethovens. It is able to render each and every microscopic detail while still achieving a level of musicality that was really something to behold. Miles Davis was in the room with me, blowing his horn as only he can, with all the emotion that made me feel tingly with pleasure.

I then switched to Enya’s Shepherd Moons album. Here, I had a “eureka” moment! With most other cables I had auditioned before, I had to sometimes strain to decipher some of the lyrics and I always thought that it was because of Enya’s accent. Now I know better. It wasn’t the accent at all but rather the smearing and distortion that was getting in the way. Through the SC Beethovens, the words are very easy to decipher and with the strain gone, I was able to enjoy this diva’s gossamer toned voice to the hilt.

It was then time for music with very wide dynamic range and very complex passages and what better album to deliver this, than Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s – Scheherazade. The SC Beethoven was able to render the massive dynamic changes and the micro dynamic shading of this album with aplomb. The air around each instrument was very evident. The tonality was first rate and the complex textures and delineation of all the instruments in this philharmonic orchestra performance were spot on. The speed and dynamics of the leading edges as well as the way it allowed the decays to gently ebb into the blackness of the background, was better than I had heard from any cable before, irrespective of price.

I then put on Patricia Barber’s “Nardis”. Through the SC Beethoven, this track exploded with a level of dynamism that I had not heard using any other cable. Patricia’s voice had an eerily real presence and was significantly more haunting. The percussion instruments took on a new dimension with the cymbals sizzling with life like never before. During past auditions I listened to just the first few minutes of this relatively long track, but with the SC Beethoven cables, the pleasure factor was ramped up so high, I sat rooted to the sweet spot for the whole track.

Next up was Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America”. This album has some fabulous piano passages and here is where I enter my comfort zone because I play the keyboards for a rock band. Before auditioning any piano track I spend about 20 minutes playing the acoustic piano near my auditioning room to refresh my memory of what a live piano sounds like which is rich, ripe and well rounded. The piano is one of the most challenging instruments to reproduce because it is essentially a percussion instrument but with such incredible tonal variety and shading, it sounds wonderfully lyrical. Some cables render the piano notes in a crisp way while others make it sound more liquid than it really is. I have even heard some cables that either render piano notes with too much of a bite or conversely dull the prominent transients that a piano delivers.  The SC Beethoven cables managed to get it just right in that they rendered the complicated harmonics in a way that was not dull, etched or bright.

Diana Krall’s “My Love Is” begins with finger snaps. This is one of my staples for auditions because I can snap my own fingers along with the music and compare how the reproduced finger snaps sound. With the SC Beethoven, the finger snaps were tactile and taut just like my own finger snaps in that I could just hear not just the sound of skin’s impact on skin, but also the impact of the bone underneath.

Few duos in the history of music can harmonize as well as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle and through the SC Beethoven cables it was so much easier to follow each of their voices separately while still totally marveling at how well they complement each other. Just as you hear in a live performance, the main voice does not mask the secondary voice in any way.
The extremely low noise floor of these cables also allowed me to listen to my favourite music at significantly lower volume levels without losing detail or resolution. At the other end of the spectrum, they also allowed me to hear certain genres of music like rock and heavy metal, at higher volume levels without letting compression, smearing and other forms of distortion spoil the aural experience.

So do these cables have any downsides? From the sonic perspective I could not find any, but from the physical angle, they are not exactly the most flexible cables you can buy. However, when compared to most other solid core cables, they are more flexible and therefore a lot easier to handle. The advantage here is that you will need to allocate a lot less space for the cables to wind around your audio components. The Beethoven interconnects are also a lot more flexible than their speaker cable siblings. They are also not exactly the best at visually blending into the background because of their gorgeous silk adornment. So if you want your cables to be visually discreet, you may have to request Knut to accommodate a special order with jackets that are not as ostentatious.

To sum up, the SC Beethoven Cables are champions at just getting out of the way and letting the music flow unimpeded. They did not add any grunge or noise that I could detect, making the music sound incredibly pure and pristine. This is a double-edged sword because their sheer neutrality makes it imperative that you use upstream components that are also equally neutral. If any of your upstream components are anything but neutral, the SC Skogrand Cables will reveal all of their faults. These cables will also reveal bad recordings exactly for what they are. No other cable that I have auditioned in the past allowed me to hear even subtle errors by the recording engineer as clearly as these cables did. These cables go beyond high-definition to extreme definition in the way they accurately render the various aspects that make up this human miracle we call reproduced music!

Do they offer the best value for your money? Of course not! However if you have champagne and caviar taste, own exceedingly good audio gear, are willing to go well past the point of diminishing returns and if you are in the enviable position of having a cost-no-object budget that allows you the privilege of choosing the very best, then Skogrand SC Beethoven speaker cables are just what the doctor ordered.

I will end with one caveat. If you cannot afford these splendid speaker cables, my sincere advice is, don’t audition them, because every time you listen to your favourite tunes through any other speaker cable, you will be sure to feel a tinge of regret that you had to settle for less than the best.

Skogrand Cables
www.skograndcables.com

Skogrand SC Beethoven 2 Meter Speaker Cables
Price: $30,045 CAD / $25,000 US