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Product Review
 

Nordost Vishnu and Valhalla AC Power Cables

July, 2004

Jason Victor Serinus

 

Vishnu

Valhalla

Specifications:

       - Vishnu -

● Construction: Precision Micro
    Mono-Filament Design
● Insulation: FEP Teflon
● Conductors: 3x16 AWG Extruded
    Silver over 99.999999% OFC
● Connectors: IEC/Wall Plug
    US/UK/EUR
● Color: Lavender
● Speed: 85% Speed of light
● Power Rating: 25 AMP
● Capacitance: 10pF/ft
● DC Resistance: 4.0 Ohms per
    1000 ft/304 m as Terminated

● MSRP: $599 USA

       
- Valhalla -
● Construction: Precision Micro
    Mono-Filament
● Insulation: FEP Teflon
● Conductors: 7 x 16 AWG with 70
    microns Extruded Silver over
    99.999999% OFC
● Connectors: Gold Plated IEC/Wall
    Plug US/UK/EUR
● Color: Clear Red and Black
    Filaments
● Speed: 91% Speed of Light
● Power Rating: 60AMP
● Capacitance: 8pF/ft
● DC Resistance: 1.3 Ohms per
    1000 ft/304 m as Terminated.

● MSRP: $2,500 USA

 

Nordost
 

www.nordost.com

Preface

I first learned about the Nordost power cables from Scot Markwell, who at the time was reviewing equipment for audiophile publications in the U.S. and abroad as well as working as Harry Pearson’s assistant. The word was that they were like no other power cables on the market.

The news surprised me, not because I thought Nordost couldn’t make a good power cable, but rather because Vin Garino of Nordost had once told me that, besides their initial (discontinued) entry into the power cable arena, they had no intention of creating a line of power cables. It made me wonder if an engineering breakthrough of some sort had taken place.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Vin and Joe Reynolds of Nordost at CES 2004. Thanks to a plug from our Editor, John Johnson, we all agreed that I should review the power cables. As with a lot of high-end equipment these days, initial demand had outstripped supply, so review samples were months away. Meanwhile, I was given a copy of the U.K.’s HiFi+ that contained editor Roy Gregory’s extensive review of Nordost power cables. Roy’s review was so positive that it left my mouth watering.

My anticipation was heightened by the fact that I already used Nordost Valhalla interconnects and speaker cables everywhere in my digital chain. I couldn’t help wondering if Valhalla power cables would further complement my existing cables and increase the quality of my listening experience.

John initially suggested that I review the power cables via an add-on box placed within the context of a larger equipment review. I, on the other hand, felt that when a highly respected cable company releases a new line of power cables, with its statement product listing for $2500 and bearing the same “Valhalla” nomenclature as its statement interconnect and speaker cable, that an entire review devoted to the power cables was appropriate.

In the end, John accepted my reasoning. I, in turn, acknowledged the resistance to reviews of cabling and tweaks held by some readers of hi-fi magazines, including Secrets. My recent review of WireWorld interconnects and speaker cables has already generated a buzz on the Secrets cable forum, to which both John and I have posted replies. Who knows how much more will be shared on the subject by the time this review is posted. Hopefully readers will refrain from personal and ad hominem attacks, and instead speak from direct experience.

The WireWorld review recounts my first experience with comparing interconnects, my reactions to their high prices (which in retrospect seem miniscule compared to the price of Nordost Valhalla), and my surprising discovery that interconnects do sound different. Actually, my very first experience with the importance of superior cabling came much earlier in my life.

Once upon a time, in the pre-CD era when I thought the high-end referred to the top of the Empire State Building, I regularly read High Fidelity and Stereo Review, mainly for the recording reviews. Besides my Dual turntable, which was equipped with a basic Shure cartridge, I owned a used Pioneer receiver and equally ancient Advent speakers. Hook-up was accomplished by standard interconnects and thin, lamp cord speaker cable. The sound was better than what I heard from my car radio, but it bore little relationship to live music. But since I had no idea that a home system could begin to achieve the engaging reality of live performance, I was content to make do.

Then, one month Julian Hirsch penned a comparison review of speaker cables and came to the conclusion that speaker cables don’t make a difference. I read every word, put down the magazine, and found myself questioning what he had said. Determined to find out for myself, I visited an electronics supply store and came home with either 14- or 12-gauge silver-plated speaker wire. It cost $0.25/foot. The stuff was so thick that it was hard to connect to the receiver. But once I had done the best job I knew how, I took a listen. My jaw dropped as I heard what sounded like an extra octave of bass and far more body than ever before.

Perhaps 25 years after that initial experiment with speaker cables, tens if not hundreds of thousands of audiophiles invest in high-end cables, with many upgrading on a regular basis. Such organizations as The Cable Company allow potential customers to borrow different cabling and experiment at home before making purchases. Unless everyone investing in such products shares the same level of mass delusion, it seems reasonable to at least entertain the possibility that cables do make a difference.

Back to direct experience. When I loan distinctly non-audiophile friends interconnects and power cables to try in their systems, they invariably report back that they hear differences. A recent demo of a pair of used Tara Decade interconnects at the home of a confirmed jazz lover elicited the comment, “Now that finally sounds like what I hear in clubs.” My reply was that when he also upgraded his speaker cables from lamp cord to something decent and tried an aftermarket power cable on his receiver, he would probably discover that his mass market system and very old box speakers sounded better than what we commonly hear over the lousy sound systems in most clubs.

I know that it is more than reasonable to ask why and how, if our residences are wired with thin, sometimes heavily corroded wiring, the last few feet of wiring could possibly make a difference. I’m not an electrical engineer, and cannot offer a technical explanation. (I’m sure others can). All I know for certain is that those last few feet, as well as the quality of power they carry, make all the difference in the world. Install a separate line in your residence dedicated solely to your audio equipment, make sure it is well-grounded into the earth, borrow a well-respected power conditioner and power cables, and take a listen. Any one of those four things will make an audible difference. Put them all together, and you’ll be amazed at how much more involving and rewarding your listening experiences will become.

Introduction

When Joe’s package of two Valhalla and three Vishnu power cables arrived from Nordost, I was surprised to discover a relatively small, lightweight box. Accustomed to thick, often unwieldy power cabling - my sizeable Elrod cords were shipped in 4-6 foot long containers - I expected a container at least the size of a major power amplifier.

Disbelief increased as I opened the package. The Valhalla power cables, with their transparent outer shielding and red, black, and silver innards measured 7/16” thick. The lavender Vishnus were approximately 5/16” in diameter. How could such thin power cables trump the Elrod EPS and EPS Signatures that powered my components?

I immediately put the two Valhalla power cables on a pair of Parasound Halo JC-1 monoblocks (review coming shortly), and left them cooking for days on end. Nordost had assured me that 48 hours break-in time was sufficient, and I was sure that Parasound’s power-hungry amps would do the trick.

In retrospect, I question whether such a short break-in time is sufficient. (My experience is that most cable manufacturers understate the amount of break-in time necessary in order to not scare off potential customers.) Over the course of a month of use, the sound I have heard through the Valhallas progressed from flat, dull, and dry, to shiny bright albeit monochromatic to its current level. I remember at one point lamenting that while the top was as transparent and vibrant as all get-out, there was precious little body and bass. As you will read below, that is NOT the case once these power cables are broken-in. Had I drawn conclusions based on my initial experiences with the cabling, you would be reading a very different review.

As a result of the sonic transformations that occurred as the Valhallas continued to break-in, I spent far more time breaking-in the Vishnus. I first daisy-chained all three together via some neat adapters, plugged them into the nearest outlet I could find, and connected the last Vishnu to a 150 watt light bulb. I left the cords cooking for 8-10 days. With the Parasounds still going full blast, I decided not to bring up the subject of the electric bill with my spouse.

The flexibility of the Nordost Valhalla power cables, their 2 meter length, and the fact that, once they are fully broken-in, they don’t require days on end to sound their best, has made comparison and contrast relatively easy to accomplish. As you will read, I have tried virtually every possible combination and permutation of cable placement available to me. With an equipment chain consisting of a PS Audio P600 power plant, heavily modified and upgraded Sony transport, Theta Gen. VIII DAC/preamp, and either a single Jadis Defy 7 or two Parasound Halo JC-1 monoblocks, careful comparison took a considerable amount of time. Only after several weeks of such experimentation, invitations to several friends to share feedback, and enough plays of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances to contemplate violence, I’m ready to provide a report.

Listening

Up until now, my power cabling has consisted entirely of cords by David Elrod. At first, I used a full complement of EPS-2s and -3s. As much as I loved those cords, assurances from Jim Weil of Sound Applications and David himself that the EPS Signatures would provide far more body and bass heft led me to slowly replace all but one of my EPS -2 and 3s with EPS Signature 2s and 3s. Everything was ultimately powered by Signatures save for the Jadis amp, which was powered by an EPS-3.

I had grown quite satisfied with the Elrod cords. A recent decision to move my Talon Khorus X Mk. II speakers off their spikes and suspend them on the same Ganymede ball bearing supports I use under the rest of my equipment enabled me to decouple the speakers from the floor, resulting in far clearer bass. No longer dependent upon the width of my carpet to protect the hardwood floor from spike damage, I was able to separate my speakers by 12 feet. As a result, the soundstage widened, depth increased, everything became more realistic sounding. This led to even greater appreciation of the Elrod combination.

Then along came the two Valhallas. After they had broken in, I put one on my Jadis amp. I was initially confused by what I heard. While the bass was definitely substantial, everything sounded thicker and heavier than I wished it to sound. Was this the fault of the Valhalla, I wondered?

Further experimentation led to my discovery that the EPS Signatures, at least in my system, tend to increase body, midrange, and bass impact while simultaneously darkening the top. (I discovered the same effect with the AudioPrism SuperNatural S2 and many of the mostly discontinued Shunyata power snakes I’ve reviewed.) This never disturbed me before because the final Elrod cord in my chain, the EPS-3 on my amp, balanced out this darkening effect by lightening bass and adding clarity on top. This enabled me to hear a good deal of the heft of the Signatures without the darkness and heaviness that became apparent once the EPS-3 was replaced by a Nordost Valhalla.

It is essential to note that I have never heard the Elrod EPS Statement or S2 Statement II in my system. These huge $2700 power cables are in the same price range as the $2500 Valhallas and the only fair comparison with them. I did hear the EPS Statements in the Audio Aero/Joule/Joseph Audio room at CES 2004, and thought the sound one of the best at the show. The darkening effect of many cables in the $1500 range - the EPS Signatures are $1600 - may vanish with the $2700 EPS Statement. I encourage listeners to try the entire range of Elrod power cables, which I consider some of the best on the market.

What I needed to do was lighten things up. I tried the second Valhalla first on the Power Plant, then on my transport, last on the Theta Gen. VIII. In each position, it replaced an Elrod EPS Signature.

It was on the transport that the second Valhalla had the most impact. All of a sudden, I heard a level of deep bass, sparkling highs, three dimensionality, transparency, and air that I had never before heard on my system.

The change was anything but subtle. It was impossible to miss. The soundstage opened up, for the first time approaching the sense of boundlessness I experience in Davies Symphony Hall. There was an extra level of resonance, a greater awareness of the sound of the hall brought about by the Valhalla’s stunningly transparent window. (I can barely imagine how good this system will sound when the extra resolution promised by new digital formats becomes available to me via Theta’s anticipated DVD-A/SACD upgrade for the Theta Gen. VIII and Compli transport.)

I also experimented with adding two Vishnus to the mix. An hour or two of musical cables followed, as I jockeyed Valhallas and Vishnus back and forth between Power Plant, transport, Theta, and Jadis. My final conclusion is that the $600 Vishnu definitely shares with the Valhalla an extraordinary transparency and sparkling clarity that approach what I experience up close in live concert settings. What the Vishnu does not transmit is the sheer weight and bass extension of the Valhallas. For many audiophiles, combining one Valhalla on the transport or power conditioner with Vishnus on other components may deliver all the transparency, clarity, brilliance, and heft they desire.

While auditioning the phenomenal Parasound Halo JC 1 monoblocks, I put both Valhallas on the amps, my usual EPS Signature-3 on the Power Plant, and my usual EPS-Signature 2 on the Theta. On the transport, I variously tried the Vishnu ($600), the WireWorld Silver Electra 5 ($750), and the PS Audio X-treme Statement (variously listed for $400 and $500).

The WireWorld had the most bass heft of the three, and was quite transparent and alive on top. The Vishnu conveyed a shade less body and heft, but its highs (e.g., cymbals, piccolo, triangle) rang out with a three-dimensional vibrancy and additional degree of transparency that came much closer to the magic that I experience in live situations. With the Vishnu/Valhalla combo, sounds literally hang and glisten in space in a most thrilling way. The PS Audio conveyed the bass heft, but the top was darker than both the WireWorld Silver Electra 5 and the Nordost Vishnu, the window a bit clouded, and the presentation a bit murky. The sense of subtlety that I experience from both Nordost power cables was not to be had.

The $2500 Valhalla, of course, offers all the thrill, vibrancy, transparency, and subtlety of the $600 Vishnu as well as the size, weight, and bass heft of a $1600 EPS Signature. For audiophiles who want the ultimate in extension and musical involvement, the Valhalla is the way to go. Those who have heard the equivalent of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde from the center of Row H Orchestra of Davies Symphony Hall, or Mahler Symphony No. 2 from Row K Orchestra will especially appreciate what the Valhallas can do. They are, in a word, stunning.

Other Listeners Weigh In

Before writing this review, I invited two people over to join in a final cable comparison. The first visitor, my friend Alan, knows nothing about high-end audio equipment, but everything about the experience of live music, theater, and dance. The second, John Beavers, is a new acquaintance poised to write his first review (of Wolff power cables) for Positive Feedback. Alan brought along EMI’s Mariss Jansons conducting Shostakovich’s chilling Symphony No. 11, and John brought a Telarc disc of veteran bluesman Pinetop Perkins plus two of his favorite Wolff power cables. I was quite intrigued to discover what two men of very different backgrounds would say about the Nordost power cables.

First we auditioned the system using my usual complement of Elrod power cables. Listening to Pinetop Perkins, John found my system a little drier than he was accustomed to. He thought the vocals and piano sounded okay, but the highs less extended than he preferred. Alan thought the sound (meaning the timbre of voice and instruments) pretty natural.

On the Shostakovich 11, I was taken by the excellent depth and natural sound of the presentation. I also thought the sound somewhat veiled and only moderately transparent. Alan thought the sound quite natural but missing some air. (I was astounded to discover a distinctly non-audiophile speaking “our” language!) He commented that since the symphony’s subdued opening was meant to describe the open space of St. Petersburg square, a more open sound would have greatly enhanced his enjoyment. John echoed Alan’s dissatisfaction with the lack of air. (Both men, I might add, were quite taken with the excellence of Reference Recordings’ aforementioned Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, by far one of the best orchestral discs for auditioning equipment I have ever encountered.)

Then I replaced the Elrod EPS-3 on the amp and the EPS Signature-2 on the transport with Nordost Valhallas. An EPS Signature-2 remained on the Theta, and an EPS Signature 3 on the Power Plant.

With Valhallas powering the transport and amplifier, I discovered the Rachmaninoff more open and transparent. I wrote “Highs shimmer a lot more. Bass more solid." Alan commented, “More air, space and three-dimensionality. This sounds more alive.”

John’s comment deserves a paragraph by itself. “To be brutally honest, before you put the two Valhallas into the system, I wasn’t enjoying it very much. It was hard on my ears; it just felt like ‘recorded music.’ The Nordost Valhallas brought things to life. There was a sparkle on the high end and the cymbals. Dynamics were more impressive, quicker and hard-hitting.”

On Alan’s Shostakovich 11, I thought the opening drum rolls sounded so much clearer than before. The additional air was apparent. The offstage drums rolls were also clear, no longer sounding like a feeble wind machine. The soundstage seemed so more open and boundless. Alan was taken by the largeness of the space. Again I quote, “I never enjoyed your system much before. Now the brightness doesn’t have an edge to it.” John thought the timpani had more snap. “The main thing I hear is much more clarity. Everything springs into focus.”

On Pinetop Perkins, what struck me the most was how well I could hear the inner quality of the voice. The Valhallas provided a clearer path to the soul of the man, of which his voice was an extension. John felt everything sounded more natural. We both agreed that we could now clearly discern that the piano was an upright, not a concert grand.

Time for a switch. With the Vishnu replacing the Valhalla on the transport, the Valhalla replacing the EPS Signature 2 on the Theta, the second Valhalla remaining on the amp (I’m never going to remove it if I have anything to say about the matter), and the usual EPS Signature 3 on the Power Plant, John felt the music less potent, with the voice losing some of its character. I found the Shostakovich flatter sounding, lacking mystery, plainer and less involving. Alan thought he could live with the sound, but preferred the former combination of cords.

Another switch. This time, the Valhalla on the transport, the Vishnu on the Theta, and the remaining cords where they were. For me, the all-engrossing sense of mystery returned, as well as a lot more clarity and heft. Alan heard more clarity on high violins, John found the music more natural to listen to.

Then we returned the Valhalla to the transport, the EPS Signature 2 to the Theta, the second Valhalla on the amp, and the EPS Signature 3 on the Power Plant. Alan heard more space and air, John more warmth. I again confirmed that the EPS Signature 2 has significantly more body than the Vishnu, but at the expense of transparency and ultimate high extension.

Note from the Editor: At some point, we shall bench test power cables for impedance values and include the results in our cumulative table. I know there are some of our readers who will go immediately to the Secrets Forum after publication of this review to criticize the idea that power cords make any difference. I don't know if I could hear any differences myself, as I have never really sat down to compare power cords. But I intend to have Jason prove it to me on his system, single-blind with generic power cables included. I will report on the outcome. If there are differences, they are probably due to extremely low capacitance, but that discussion remains for the future.

8/20/04 - Here are the results of my listening tests with Jason's system, a photo of which is shown below:

I could indeed hear differences between different AC power cords, but they were very subtle. When I told Jason what I heard, he agreed and explained in more detail. What was interesting was that the generic $3 AC cord came in a tie for second place with the Nordost Vishnu, and ahead of another expensive AC power cord. The difference was one of small transients at the beginning edge of such things as guitar plucks. I can't explain how this is happening, but it did happen. Frankly, I am very surprised, but I am still not absolutely convinced, as this was not a single-blind test, and the differences were not dramatic. I knew which cords were being used, so it still could be psychological. Nevertheless, I heard differences when I had anticipated hearing none. The next step will be to have a group of people listen in a blind test. This is a much more complicated procedure and will take some time to organize and execute, but it will be done at some point, perhaps with the Bay Area Audiophile Society. In the meantime, I now have some Valhalla and Vishnu power cords so I will measure their impedance values compared to other cables we have on hand.

Conclusions

If you’re like me, you may have just cut to the chase by skipping the above details. I encourage you to read them, because they’re quite extensive.

If you have read them, I shall simply paraphrase and elaborate upon what I wrote above.

The Vishnu, which at $600 is far less expensive than many power cables on the market, offers a level of transparency, vibrancy, immediacy, and resolution I have never before experienced from a power cable in this price range. It does not offer ultimate bass heft or extension. But what it does convey, it conveys with lightening speed and the highest degree of musicality. Its strengths are second to none. All the undertones and overtones are there. It is a wonderful cable, a perfect complement to the Valhalla.

For audiophiles who want the ultimate in bass and treble extension as well as musical involvement, the Valhalla is the way to go. The bass is marvelous, the size and weight lifelike, the soundstage seemingly boundless, the window as clear as can be. Highs shimmer, bass pounds with lightning fast speed. Those who have heard the equivalent of Mahler’s compositions performed in a top notch concert hall will especially appreciate what the Valhallas can do. They are, in a word, stunning.
 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

Reference System:

Digital Front End:
Sony 707ES transport modified by Alexander Peychev of APL Hi-Fi
Theta Gen VIII DAC/Preamp
Perpetual Technologies P-1A with Modwright modified Monolithic Power Supply and Revelation Audio umbilical power cable (not currently in use)

Amplification:
Jadis Defy 7 Mk III or IV modified with a Siltech silver harness

Loudspeakers:
Talon Khorus X speakers MK. II (with latest modifications and Bybee filters)

Cabling:
Nordost Valhalla single-ended interconnects and balanced digital interconnects
Nordost Valhalla bi-wired speaker cable
Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II and Nordost Valhalla balanced interconnects for analog
Harmonic Tech Magic One interconnects for DVD-V
Powercables: Nordost Valhalla and Vishnu; Elrod EPS Signature 2 and 3 plus EPS 1, 2, and 3; WireWorld Silver Electra 5, PS Audio X-treme Statement, Harmonic Tech and AudioPrism SuperNatural S2

Accessories:
PS Audio P600 Power Plant power synthesizer with MultiWave II
PS Audio Ultimate Outlet; PS Audio Power Ports
Michael Green Deluxe Ultrarack, Basic Racks and room treatment,
Ganymede supports in main digital chain, Michael Green Audiopoints, and Black Diamond Racing Cones elsewhere
Shakti stones for Amp and Theta
Bedini Dual Beam Ultraclarifier
Audioprism Stoplight and Marigo as yet unreleased Signature Mat for CDs
Sheffield/XLO degmagnetiser and break-in disc and Ayre demagnetizing disc

 

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