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Product Review

Nordost Valhalla Interconnects and Speaker Cables
July, 2002

Jason Serinus

 

Specifications

 

Valhalla Reference Interconnect Cable

Insulation: Flourinated Ethylene Propylene (FEP) Teflon Conductors: eight solid 99.999999 oxygen-free copper (OFC) with 78 microns of extruded silver
Capacitance: 22.0 pF/ft
Inductance: 0.55uH
Dielectric constant: 1.38
Series Resistance: 6.4 ohms/1000ft/304m
Speed: 87% speed of light
Dimensions: 1⁄4-inch or 8cm diameter
Price (in USD): 0.6m pair, $2800; 1.0m pair, $3300; 1.5m pair, $3800. Add $500 per additional half-meter. Add $60 for XLR.

Valhalla Reference Digital Interconnect: $2000/meter, $250 per additional half meter

Valhalla Reference Speaker Cable
Insulation: FEP Teflon
Conductors: 40 solid 99.999999 OFC with 78 microns of extruded silver
Capacitance: 11.8pF/ft
Inductance: 0.096uH
Dielectric Constant 1.12

DC resistance: 2.6ohms/1000ft/304m
Speed: 96% speed of light
Dimensions: 2-1/8 ins/5.5cm wide, 0.039ins/0.1mm thick
Price (in USD):
1m bi-wired pair, $4500
2m pair, $6400
3m pair, $8300
4m pair, $10,200
5m pair, $12,100.
Add $950 per additional half meter.

Nordost Corporation
420 Franklin Street
Framingham, Massachusetts 01702
Phone 508.879.1242; Fax 508.879.8197
info@nordost.com

http://www.nordost.com

Introduction

For the past year and a half, my sound system has been equipped with Nordost Quattro Fil interconnects and SPM speaker cable. I consider the time I’ve spent with this cabling a privilege. Once I had experienced the silence, refinement, and natural balance that the Nordost imparted to recordings I love, I could not return to my old cables. Although there were moments when I missed the sheer bass impact of one of my less-than-transparent interconnects, I certainly did not miss the harshness, tizziness, coloring, and lack of transparency of my pre-Nordost cable combination.

Although I heard about Valhalla cabling as soon as it appeared on the scene, I initially encountered it in January 2001, when I attended my first CES. There, Nordost’s Vin Garino showed me one of the first runs of Valhalla speaker cable. Vin’s eyes glistened as he told me that the cable was so new that he had not yet had time to install it in his own system. It looked pretty wondrous: a remarkably thin silver-colored ribbon, with teeny strands of silver carefully wound over copper with a precision that they would make a professional tailor jealous with envy.

As I gazed at the speaker cable’s silvery strands, I thought of Valhalla, the residence of the Richard Wagner’s mythological Gods, a celestial kingdom whose destruction was brought about by the intrusion of earthly passion and desire. If the Gods couldn’t resist, how could I? My entire being was seized by only one thought. I wanted Valhalla.

Want, however, is one thing, and money is another. The Kingdom of Valhalla may have crashed and burned in Wagner’s Die Götterdamerung, but that did not mean that I needed to follow the same path. In short, I commanded myself to get real; bankruptcy court was not what I wanted to experience in the next act of the opera entitled Jason Serinus. Valhalla, at least for the time being, needed to remain in the realm of mythology.

All Things Come To Those Who Wait

A year later, when I attended CES 2002, I discovered many of the finest systems I heard were equipped with Valhalla cabling. Happily, I came equipped with a small pile of discs that enabled me to discern a commonality between these systems.

I usually asked to hear one of my favorite reference tracks, Terry Evans’ “Blues No More” from his JVC-XRCD disc (originally recorded by Audioquest), Puttin’ It Down. This disc offers the delicate clarity of brushed cymbals, the strong impact of drums, the twang of Ry Cooder’s electric guitar, the hoarse beauty of Evans’ voice, plus keyboards and trombone; all are captured in a silent, three-dimensional soundstage offering lots of air and space between sounds. For contrast, I also auditioned a second disc, the then just-released SACD of Hilary Hahn playing Brahms’ Violin Concerto. (Hahn’s playing is so wonderful that several dealers immediately purchased the disc to use in subsequent demonstrations).

Especially impressive were two setups that included the dcs Purcell DAC and Verity speakers. These rooms offered sound so transparent, so immediate, and so full that I consider them the closest electronic set-ups I have heard to what I frequently experience live sitting in the orchestra of San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.

Upon returning to Oakland, the sound of those rooms haunted me. Then I discovered that Joe Cutrefelli, proprietor of the Bay Area JC Audio dealership (http://www.jcaudio.com), had become a Nordost distributor. Since I was about to try some NOS Siemens CCa tubes that Joe was selling, I made the pilgrimage to Martinez to hear his setup. There, in a room almost as small as those at CES, equipped with totally different gear, I experienced some of the same seductive splendor that I had first encountered in Vegas.

Clearly the Valhalla was a central element in these satisfying experiences.

Next, I borrowed a 1.5m length of Valhalla interconnect from The Cable Company (http://www.fatwyre.com). Placing it between my DAC and preamp, I heard a major increase in transparency, image size and weight, and color. I was primed.

Happily, the time was right for Valhalla to come my way. I began with two lengths of single-ended interconnects, plus two lengths of XLR-terminated digital interconnect. Later on, after Joe Cutrufelli told me that if I really wanted to experience all the benefits that Valhalla can offer, I needed to have Valhalla speaker cable as well. So, I added 2m of bi-wired Valhalla speaker cable to the mix.

Sonic Reference

It is essential to point out that my reference for sonic evaluation remains the sound of unamplified acoustic instruments. Before I finish this review, I will have again attended Davies Symphony Hall, this time to hear a Russian Festival program that includes Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird and the Glazunov Violin Concerto. Depending upon the location of my orchestra seat, there may be times when the sound approaches my level of sonic saturation. But even in those cases, I know that it will remain “glistening” rather than “bright,” that it will never distort or boom, that nothing will smudge, that there will never be an issue of transparency or noise floor, and that all levels of the sonic spectrum will remain in balance.

Last week, I attended several Early Music concerts in the Berkeley Festival and Exposition. From prime orchestra seats in a large hall, I moved to a prime seat in First Congregational Church for American Bach Soloists performing with chorus and orchestra, and, in the last row of the intimate Hertz Hall, vocal and instrumental performances by Magnificat, the Artaria Quartet, and Skip Sempé and Capriccio Stravagante with the fabulous mezzo-soprano Guillemette Laurens. Sound is very different in each of these venues. The sum of these experiences I carry with me when I listen to sound waves transported through Nordost cabling.

(Of course, just because music is live does not mean that it sounds great. You think your room has problems? I couldn’t hear the cello in the Artaria Quartet until I moved from a reviewer’s aisle seat to the center of the last row. It’s not only sound systems that have sweet spots).

I admit it. I’m spoiled. Perhaps if I lived in an area that offered mediocre concerts, I would ask less from my sound system. But blessed with life in a center for all kinds of music, be it folk, traditional, avant garde, cutting edge rock, or classical, I demand a lot from reproduced sound.

I know I cannot expect anything approaching the scale and quality of the full orchestral Davies Symphony Hall experience from a sound system sequestered in an asymmetrical 14.5 x 17 x 9 living room that lacks thousands of dollars of room treatment. But if I can experience anything approaching that level of excitement, involvement, and musical satisfaction, I am one happy camper.

Listening To Valhalla

Since music for me is a living entity, I shall write in the present tense.

My immediate impressions of Valhalla’s impact on reproduced sound remain unchanged months after a single set of loaner Valhalla interconnects began to grace my system.

First of all, with Valhalla sound gets bigger, rounder and more life-like. The difference this makes on visceral levels cannot be understated.

In concert, a timpani or bass drum whack is a big event, one that can, in the case of first big whack in The Firebird Suite, cause many listeners to jump. It is preposterous to pretend one can appreciate such a wallop when it is reproduced by a boom box or typical car stereo. With Valhalla cabling, one can not only hear and feel the wallop, but hear the reverberation within the drum, and sense the enormity of the instrument’s cavity.

Valhalla consistently reveals the soul of music. This I learned within a week of its installation, when I invited a friend over to listen to the Erato recording of Jake Heggie’s opera, Dead Man Walking. We had both attended this opera’s San Francisco world premiere, and cried through parts of it. Unfortunately, the night I attended, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was unable to sing the title role due to the death of her father.

This was an especial shame because Graham’s voice and sensibility are perfect for the role of Sister Helen Préjean. I know Graham’s artistry quite well. Not only have I spent many hours reveling in her recordings of Reynaldo Hahn and Ned Rorem, but I sat in the first row of Hertz Hall for her last Berkeley recital, and most recently in the orchestra of Davies Symphony Hall for her moving performance of Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et la mer. I know what her voice sounds like, and the level of unaffected, heartfelt sincerity and emotional intimacy that she brings to her performances.

When I put on the first disc of Heggie’s opera, I wondered if I would again experience Graham’s magic. The answer is a resounding “yes.” There, in the center of that special voice, I again heard that depth of feeling, that sincerity, that belief in the centrality of love and beauty that makes Susan Graham such a great artist. It’s all there on the disc, and it’s all there to be had with Valhalla.

About a month ago, I spent several hours comparing performances of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. I listened to Christoph Poppen, Hilary Hahn, Joseph Silverstein, and Arthur Grumiaux. Each of these players offers a different sound, different technique, and different interpretation. Those differences were as apparent as the differences between the slim, silvery sound of violinists Kyung Wha-Chung and Kyoko Takezawa, both of whom I have heard perform live in the past year.

Currently I’m in the midst of evaluating violinist Joshua Bell’s new Sony collaboration with conductor Roger Norrington in the Beethoven and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos. My stack of comparison recordings for the Beethoven alone includes mono Heifetz with Toscanini, Living Stereo Heifetz with Munch, scratchy Kreisler in 1926, the teenage Hahn just a few years ago, and the Penguin Guide’s Rosette-rated Schneiderhan/Jochum. Each of these violinists has a different sound, with different weights to their instrument. As I listen and compare, I feel entirely confident that, thanks to Valhalla cabling, I can distinguish differences in how each employs subtle dynamic shifts, tonal shading, vibrato, and the like. This cabling is that accurate.

Lest I give the impression that Valhalla cabling is over-analytical or etched, let me assure you that this is not the case. It offers the most relaxed, neutral, complete sonic presentation I have to experience.

One more point. I recently attended a Great American Music Hall CD debut party for Garrin Benfield, a young artist whose second disc, Nowhere is Brighter (Eighth Note Records), offers the superb engineering of Michael Rodriguez, mastering of Bernie Grundman, and electronics from Pass Labs. It also boasts, as members of the band, veteran rock musicians Ricky Fataar on drums (Bonnie Raitt, Beach Boys) and James “Hutch” Hutchinson on bass (Bonnie Raitt, Crosby Stills Nash Young). No less a personage than Boz Scaggs adds his guitar solo to one of this independent artist’s 16 tracks, joining occasional guest artists that include Charlie Gillingham (Counting Crows), Danny Cao (Vinyl), Julie Wolf (Ani Difranco), Jimmy Pugh (Robert Cray), and Jon Cleary (Bonnie Raitt).

In no uncertain terms, I must proclaim that Great American Music Hall’s sound system sucks. If I had heard the distorted hash that the debut party offered when I first played Garrin Benfield’s CD, I would have immediately put it in the “for sale” pile. Instead, I heard a clarity to rival some of the best recorded CDs in my collection. And as good as this disc sounded when I first auditioned it with Quattro Fil interconnects and SPM speaker cable, it sounded that much more full, alive, and involving with Valhalla.

Is Valhalla Right For You?

If your budget allows for Valhalla cabling, the question remains, is it an appropriate purchase? The key is the quality of your reference equipment.

Since Valhalla cabling is extremely neutral, it will not mask the sound of bad recordings, nor soften the impact of harsh electronics. If your DAC or amp delivers muddy, unfocused bass, don’t expect Valhalla to focus it for you. If you’ve got low wattage single-ended electronics that are closed off on top and bottom, don’t expect Valhalla to artificially boost your top end. If you’ve got everything plugged into the wall, don’t expect a lower noise floor when you use Valhalla. And if you’ve got $75,000 worth of electronics powered by stock power cords, do not expect, even with Valhalla cabling, to hear anything approaching the quality of sound that such electronics can ultimately output.

I am currently in the midst of comparing two CD players: one, a $229 Sony CD/SACD/DVD player, the other a $499 NAD CD player. These players, on one level, are a huge bargain. Equipped with wired-in power cords, they replace four boxes (Audio Alchemy transport, Perpetual Technologies P-1A and Monolithic power supply, and Theta DAC), plus eliminate the need for two digital interconnects and three detachable power cords. That’s a huge savings, and quite tempting.

For now, I shall simply say that, on redbook CDs, neither player can offer the magic I experience from my current setup. As good as the Valhalla is, the magic, the believability, the level of sonic involvement, the sound staging, the three dimensionality, and the timbral accuracy I desire is simply not there. My intuition tells me that, if I had owned either of these players when I owned the Quatro Fil and SPM, I would not have been drawn to upgrade my cabling to Valhalla.

Simply put, Valhalla shines best when your equipment is of high order.

Conclusion

My several months of living with Valhalla cabling leave no question in my mind as to why it has been greeted with rave reviews. Its fullness, clarity, accuracy, neutrality, and honesty are in my experience unparalleled.

With Valhalla, I finally know what my equipment, and especially the Talon Khorus X speakers that I reviewed some months back, can offer. Thanks to Valhalla, listening to reproduced music has become a pleasure.

If you have invested a great deal of time and resources in building a quality sound system, you owe it to yourself to bring Valhalla cabling to your home and see what it can do for you.

- Jason Serinus -

Review System:

Talon Khorus X speakers

Bruce Moore Dual 70 tube poweramp with Electro-Harmonix 6550, Siemens CCa, and cryogenically treated Russian 6922-equivalent tubes
Bruce Moore Companion III tube preamp with Siemens CCa tubes (rewired with Nirvana hook-up wire)

Theta Gen. 5A single-ended DAC;
Perpetual Technologies P-1A with Monolithic Power Supply;
Audio Alchemy DDS-Pro transport

Sony DVP-NV500V SACD/DVD-V with detachable powercord

PS Audio P600 Power Plant power synthesizer with MultiWave;
PS Audio Ultimate Outlet;
PS Audio Power Ports in wall

Cabling:
Nordost Valhalla speaker cable
Nordost single-ended Valhalla interconnects from Theta to preamp and preamp to amp;
Nordost Valhalla AES/EBU digital interconnects from transport to P-1A and P-1A to Theta;
Shunyata Python powercable on the transport;
Nordost powercable on the preamp;
Custom Power Company Top Gun High Current powercables on the amp and P-1A
Elrod EPS-1 cord on the Theta
PS Audio Lab Cables or Top Gun High Current cord on P600

Sundry:
Michael Green Deluxe Ultrarack, Basic Racks, and room treatment; Black Diamond Racing cones and MG audiopoints; inner tube, maple cutting boards, bags of sand also under transport; sand and maple also under preamp, amp, and P600; homemade bass traps; Shakti stone atop Theta and Shakti On-Lines on some powercords; Bedini Dual Beam Ultraclarifier, Audioprism Stoplight and Blacklight, Gryphon Exorcist; Sheffield/XLO degmagnetiser and break-in disc.

Analog (hardly the strong suit of the system, rarely used):
Dual 1219, Sumiko Blue Point and a Classe 6 phono preampwith the optional umbilical cord. Paired with Tara Decade and Nirvana SL-1 interconnects, and a Shunyata Sidewinder powercord.

Related to the article above, we recommend the following:

Cable Primer
IEEE 1394 Nature of Equipment Reviews
The Digital Link What we Hear
High Fidelity Accuracy, Distortion, and the Audiophile
 

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