Sometime in ancient history, when snakes freely roamed the earth without fear that their oil would be disparaged, John Johnson asked me if I wanted to review the complete line of Ultralink/XLO Argentum audio cables. Since I thrive on comparisons, be they of cabling, amplifiers, or sopranos, I welcomed the assignment. (The Argentum power cable is not necessarily just for audio, but we include it as such here.)
My history with cable comparisons goes back at least 15 years, to the time when I began to upgrade a fledgling high-end system by purchasing a $550 Rotel CD player. As I was about to cart it home, the dealer declared that I would have to spend at least $78 on an AudioQuest Ruby interconnect in order to get the most out of the player.
I was incensed that he would even dare suggest that I had to spend an extra $84 (with tax) in order to get good sound. I already knew that speaker cables made a difference, because I had once gone from lamp cord to 12-gauge silver wire on my old Advent loudspeakers, and immediately heard an extra octave (or so it seemed) of bass, and far more substance in the midrange. In fact, way before I had heard of “high-end audio,” I used to thank people who would put me up for a few nights by buying them $25 worth of better speaker cable, and watching their mouths drop as their sound improved. But $84 for one lousy pair of interconnects? Wasn’t the stuff from the Shack good enough?
Fit to be tied rather than cabled, I reluctantly marched out of the store with a loaner pair of Rubys. Ever the inquisitive one, I also made a near-fatal error, and asked to try the next level up ($110 plus tax), whose casing was blue.
Then I trotted over to a competitor’s establishment, borrowed a $55 pair of MIT interconnects, and took all three pairs home for a listen. In short order, it became so obvious that the $110 interconnects transmitted far more full-range sound than the rest. With my head hanging low, I first returned the MITs, then visited my dealer to plop down $118 or so dollars for a meter pair of AQ interconnects.
Since then, other cables from AudioQuest, Harmonic Technologies, WireWorld, Nordost, Acoustic Zen, Kimber, Bybee, HighWire, PS Audio, Echole, and Elrod have passed in and out of my system. I’ve tried entry level, middle of the pack, and top of the line cables from many of those companies, and also heard a host of other brands at shows. (It’s harder for me to comment on cables I’ve heard at shows, given that the reference system was different). I’ve wired an entire system with one brand, and a;sp experimented with mix and match.
For several years, my reference cables were Nordost Valhalla. Most recently, since the 2009 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I’ve had the loan of a complete line of Nordost Odin cabling. Valhalla is especially brilliant, open, and transparent in the high frequency range; Odin, to these ears, has all of Valhalla’s strengths, but is smoother on top, more tonally neutral throughout the range, and far richer in lower midrange and bass information. While I have hardly auditioned all the top-end cables in my system, the general consensus among those who have is that Nordost Odin is among the best.
I’m especially blown away by the Odin power cables, which are pretty amazing. I’ve introduced Odin power cables to several people’s system, including the home system of VTL’s Luke Manley and Bea Lam. Each time, I have observed people’s reactions when they’ve heard what a difference switching the power cable on the first piece of equipment in their chain (e.g. power conditioner or, if there is none, CD player or transport) to Odin has vastly improved the sound of the entire system. One of the most startling reactions was from Tim Marutani, a dealer and audio consultant who was beta testing TAD’s excellent new CD player. Once Tim heard the player powered by an Odin cable, he called Andrew Jones of TAD to declare that it sounded like a totally different player.
Which brings us back to Argentum. The price difference between the Argentum and Nordost Odin line is huge. How, I wondered, would an Argentum Proteus-12 power cable that costs $1050 for 2.74 meters compare with a Nordost Odin power cable that costs $16,000 for 2.5 meters? More to the point, assuming that the price difference was reflected in quality, how could I even think of comparing the two?
- Design: Proprietary, Symmetrically Balanced Windings
- Conductor: Multi-conductor, Cryogenically Treated, Laboratory Grade UP-OCC Copper
- Insulation: Ultra-low Capacitance Teflon and Teflon-variant Fluoropolymer
- Shielding: Full Copper Foil with Full Coverage Copper Braid
- Termination: Precision Machined Connectors with 24K Mil-spec Direct Gold-plated Contacts
- Proteus-12 AC Power Cord has Proprietary Counter-spiral, Multi-core, Multi-gauge Geometry; Low Capacitance Dielectric Insulation; Proprietary Double Shielded, Double Grounded Design and Proprietary Metal Shells with Premium Furutech Alpha Pure Copper AC Plug and IEC Connectors
- Mythos Analog Audio Interconnect: 1 Meter Pair = $400/RCA, $500/XLR
- Argento Coaxial Digital Cable: 1 Meter = $350
- Millenia AES/EBU Digital Cable: 1 Meter = $400
- Aureus-2 Speaker Cable: 6 Foot Pair = $900/ Bi-wired 6 Foot Pair = $1,000
- Proteus-12 AC Power Cord: 6 Feet = $900
- Argentum Acoustics
All Argentum interconnects, speaker cables, and power cables are made from cryogenically treated 99.99997% (four 9) Ultra Pure – Ohno Continuous Cast (UP-OCC) copper. The company maintains that silver has a higher total impedance than copper, and is thus less suited for most audio applications.The exception is silver’s use in Argentum’s high frequency digital datalinks. Silver is chosen because silver oxide, which forms on the outside of cabling when exposed to air, is more conductive to the megahertz-range digital signals that pass through or along the very outside of the conductor than the copper oxide that forms on the outside of copper cabling when it is exposed to air. (Obviously, Argentum is acknowledging that it cannot prevent oxidation in its cabling). This is all explained in a Technical White Paper downloadable from the Argentum website.
“Every bit of insulation, every cable forming member, every outer jacket and dielectric of Argentum cables and proprietary connectors is made from materials like Teflon and Teflon-variant fluoropolymers,” the company writes. “These are chosen for their low dielectric constants.
“In order to achieve optimal inductance and capacitance, Argentum speaker cables use multiple primary conductors of varying diameters formed into arrays of secondary conductors arranged in an alternating pattern over a single large diameter core. According to the white paper, “this multiple-shielded ‘best of both worlds’ solution reduces both self- and mutual inductance, allowing very low effective resistance, and providing perfect time alignment for signal information.”
All cables are hand-terminated. Audio interconnects come in RCA, XLR, and BNC terminations; video interconnects are either RCA or BNC. Connectors are non-magnetic and of minimal conducting mass, and include direct 24K gold plated contacts. Speaker cables are terminated with interchangeable 8.0mm billet-cut spade lugs made from CDA alloy 101 (99.994% pure) copper, and are direct gold plated. Deltron-style banana plugs are also available.
The Argentum Proteus-12 power cord is a 12-gauge (AWG) counter-spiral wound, multi-gauge, multi-core design with 6N UP-OCC copper and UL approved low-dielectric constant insulation and jacketing. It is double shielded and double grounded for noise-free operation, and terminated with Furutech™ Alpha Pure Copper™ AC plugs and IEC connectors featuring Argentum’s own proprietary precision-machined metal shells.
This is not the place to get into a discussion of why 1, 2, or 4 meters of power cabling can make a major difference in sound quality. I have my experience, and you have yours. For Argentum’s explanation, please download their white paper from their website.
Most important is the specific use for which Argentum cabling was designed. This is not just another cable designed to a specific price point.
(Argentum Cabling’s Design Philosophy)
My first listen to Argentum cabling was to the Millenia AES/EBU Digital cable. At the time, my reference digital cable was Nordost Valhalla AES/EBU.
I was not enthralled by what I heard. The system sounded darker, more covered and opaque, and less detailed.
I wondered what was up. The explanation came at CES 2009, where Argentum cabling was officially unveiled. There, Nate Mansfield, Sales Manager for Ultralink/XLO, gave me the low-down on the difference between the design philosophy of the two cable lines in the Ultralink family, XLO and Argentum.
XLO’s presentation is absolutely honest, Nate said in more words or less, and quite linear. Calling it “the high-end choice,” he noted that it is totally hand built, and its geometry is clearly visible.
Argentum, on the other hand, was designed to overlook flaws in components. Its presentation is intentionally more forgiving, and tends to soften highs. It is priced in the middle of the XLO line, is only partially hand-assembled, and its geometry is not visible. It may have certain design similarities to XLO cables, but its ideal applications are different.
That explained a lot. It also left me wondering if I had the best reference system for evaluating Argentum cabling.
Back in the 20th century, when I owned used Kenwood and Pioneer solid-state receivers – I forget which replaced which when one of them blew up – my fledgling system tended to be bright, unforgiving, and monochromatic, with little midrange warmth. Since then, I have done my best to assemble a far more musical system. Instead of a mass-market receiver, I now use VTL prototype MB-450 Series II Signature tube monoblocks. I also have a number of devices to fine-tune the sound in my large, irregular living room. My system is anything but monochromatic, hard, bright, overly detailed, or etched.
At this stage of the game, the only component I own that needs forgiving – lots of forgiving – is a decade-old, entry-level Pioneer DVD player that resides in the upstairs, second system. Because this antiquated mass-market DVD player sounds so monochromatically bright, I’ve surgically removed its wired-on, stock power cable and replaced it with an IEC connector and Elrod EPS-2 Signature power cable. I’ve chosen the Elrod because it softens the unit’s glare while bringing out far more midrange and bass than any stock power cable I’ve heard. Were I to instead use a Nordost Valhalla power cable, which is far more neutral, the player’s brightness would be dismaying, if not downright irritating.
I’m well aware of the adage that cables are not tone controls. Nonetheless, adages are adages, and cables are cables. Cables may not be tone controls per se, but since different cables have different sonic signatures, they affect tonal balance. Once you get a handle on the sound of different cables, you can judiciously choose cables that best balance out sonic flaws in components.
The ideal situation, of course, is to own a synergistic match of tonally neutral, maximally transparent components, and to mate them with neutral, full-range cables that best transmit sonic truth. Some of us own such components. Most of us do not.
For those whose components are sonically compromised and far from neutral, a judicious choice of cabling can help maximize system strengths while balancing out flaws. Argentum cabling, which was conceived with the goal of transforming a bright, overly etched system into one far more neutral and pleasing, might be just what the doctor ordered.
I auditioned Argentum by systematically replacing the Nordost Odin in my system. Since I had enough Argentum Proteus-12 power cables to replace all my power cables except the two on my amps, which use special 20 amp connectors, I started there.
With Argentum Proteus-12 powering my Nordost QB8, PS Audio Perfect Wave Transport, and Theta Gen. VIII Series 2 DAC/preamp, the presentation was quite engaging. While I still heard much of the air around instruments that I was accustomed to hearing, the piano and winds near the start of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances lacked some of the resonance I usually hear.
Then I changed the 1.5meter XLR interconnect between the Theta Gen. VIII Series 2 DAC/preamp and the VTL monoblocks from Nordost Odin to Argentum Mythos. I immediately noted a loss of richness and color. Timpani strokes were a bit blurred, because the bass response was not as fast and crisp. The sound was somewhat more pedestrian and ordinary, lacking some of the illumination that makes me love my system as much as I do.
I took copious notes on what happened with each subsequent cable change. I even changed one speaker cable at a time, switching between left and right channels on a recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto that features the violin front and center, in order to get a handle on the sound of Argentum Aureus speaker cable. I also played a large range of music, including some world, new age, and rock.
But why belabor the point? Anyone who has read this far knows where I’m going. Argentum’s line was designed with very different goals in mind than Nordost Odin. Argentum does exactly what it’s designed to do. For some systems, it will prove ideal.
We may not like to admit it, but a lot of us own source components, amplifiers, processors, and/or speakers that emphasize treble detail at the expense of midrange warmth and bass richness. In fact, some components are so bright and monochromatic that they’d fool you into thinking that low sampling rate mp3s actually transmit the sound of music. Argentum cabling was designed with such bright, overly detailed systems in mind. Its ability to transform a system into one far more neutral and pleasing is immense.
Argentum also has an equal effect on overly bright, compromised recordings. If you listen to lots of pop and rock, and lament that the wholesale application of compression that plagues today’s recording industry has not only limited dynamics but also replaced timbral variation with monochromatic noise and glare, Argentum might be just the cabling you need to make lousy recordings of music by artists you love more listenable. If much of your collection consists of low sampling rate mp3s that you’ve downloaded from the web or peer networks, you will likely find Argentum just what the doctor ordered.
JASON VICTOR SERINUS REFERENCE SYSTEMS
Main Living Room Reference System:
Digital Front End
PS Audio PerfectWave CD/DVD transport
PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC
Theta Gen VIII Series 2 DAC/Preamp
Apple Intel Dual Core Macbook Pro
Wavelength’s asynchronous Wavelink
VTL 450W tube monoblock prototypes with KT-88 tubes
Talon Khorus X speakers MK. IV with Bybee Quantum Noise Purifiers
Four Bybee Golden Goddess Super Effect Speaker Bullets, two on each speaker
Nordost Odin 1.5m single-ended and balanced interconnects
Nordost Odin 1.25 or 1.5m AES/EBU digital interconnect
Nordost Odin 1.25 or 1.5 m BNC digital interconnect (for use with computer hook-up)
Nordost Odin 3m. bi-wired speaker cable
Nordost Odin power cables (six total, two 1m. two 2m, two 2m w. 20 amp connectors for my amps)
Nordost Valhalla 1.5m power cables for my Classe 6 phono preamp and Nordost Quantum Qx4
Kimber AG Silver USB Cable
PS Audio HDMI based solid silver I2S12 cable
WireWorld Gold Starlight 6 BNC digital cable
Kimber D60 BNC cable
Nordost QB8 and Quantum Qx4
IsoClean or HiFi Tuning audiophile grade fuses in most components
Dedicated line for system
Clearaudio Emotion turntable with Satisfy arm
Soundsmith “The Voice” phono cartridge
Benz MC-Gold phono cartridge
Classe 6 phono preamp with better umbilical cord
Symposium Platform under turntable
Finite Elemente Cerapuc supports
Marigo Mystery Feet
Ganymede ball bearing supports
IsoClean and HiFi Tuning audiophile grade fuses in all equipment.
Synergistic ART Room Tuning system
Michael Green Deluxe Ultrarack, Basic Racks and Corner Tunes
Shakti stones on transport, DAC, amps, etc.
Four Shakti Hallographs
Echo Buster and Corner Busters
Bedini Dual Beam Ultraclarifier
Marigo Signature 3-D Mat v2;
Ayre demagnetizing CD
Various CD sprays
Michael Green brass Audiopoints
Main System Room Dimensions
The living/listening room is 24.5′ deep, 21.4′ wide. It’s big enough to accommodate 16 members of the Bay Area Audiophile Society, positioned in three or four rows facing the speakers. Ceilings are 9′ high with heavy wooden crossbeams, each 17″ in height.
The system itself is not in the center of the room. At the far end of the room, not far from the right speaker, is a large, 8.33′ wide wooden-framed archway that leads into a large dining room. (This is where first-order reflections head). The distance from the front door to the end of the dining room is 37′.
There is a lot of space to the left of the left speaker. First-order reflections aim toward a small alcove that leads to the front door. While a heavy curtain covers the windows behind the system, the wall behind the speakers is not flat due to record shelves and room supports. There are other openings on the right wall, close to the listening position, that lead to the stairway and kitchen. In the rear, behind the sweet spot, is a large granite fireplace that also catches and messes with the sound.
Floors are hardwood and carpet in front of the system, and hardwood elsewhere. Walls in the living room are a combination of plaster and wood, with a large granite fireplace in the rear. The dining room is all plaster.
Room treatment includes RoomTune and Echo buster triangles in upper corners; either an Echo Buster or heavy tapestry at key places on side walls, a complete Synergistic Acoustic ART resonance treatment system, and a few of Frank Cheng’s resonators. For photos, see http://forum.stereophile.com/photopost/showgallery.php/cat/500/ppuser/1260
Upstairs Second System:
Genesis I-60 Integrated amp
Von Schweikert VR-4jr. speakers bi-wired with Nordost Valhalla
Proton 26″ non-HD anything but flat decidedly undigital TV
Basic Pioneer DVD player
ExactPower EP15A equipped with outlets from Sound Applications and other mods
Nordost Valhalla bi-wired speaker cable
Assortment of WireWorld Gold Eclipse 5, Harmonic Tech Magic One, and Nordost Valhalla interconnects
Nordost Valhalla, Elrod EPS-2 Signature, and AudioPrism SuperNatural S2 power cables
Ganymede ball bearing supports
Desktop Computer System
Apple iMac G5 with Intel Core 2 Duo
Benchmark DAC-1 USB
Audio Engine 5 self-powered speakers
Dynaudio Focus 110A self-powered speakers
PS Audio Power Plant Premier
Nordost Valhalla power cabling
Harmonic Tech Magic One, Nordost Valhalla, or Nordost Odin interconnects
WireWorld Gold Eclipse speaker cable
WireWorld USB cable
Kimber AG Silver USB cable
Ganymede Ball Bearing supports