Weirdly wired

To connect both stock and custom cables in parallel for convenient A/Bs (always pausing the CD player during a changeover to avoid running the nOrh SE-9 without a load), I whacked the pins off the stock job, stripped back enough raw copper hairs to create a full loop around the binding post and inserted AudioArt's spades below. This created equal contact pressure for both cables and now allowed fast mid-tune shifts by simply unplugging one tail's Neutrik connector for the other.

I picked the SE-9 because the ASL's binding post shafts were stouter than my cable's narrower Cardas spades could embrace. The only way to insert them was sideways around the central hole where the stem is just narrow enough - workable but not ideal even with a single connection. However, with the piggybacked scheme I had in mind, the mere prospect seemed foreboding enough to be discarded at once. (I later learned that this cable can also be ordered with wider spades or heavy-duty industrial pins to offer three termination options. Never mind my testiness then.)

Using the Cuban/Brazilian opener of Juan-Carlos Formell's Las Calles Del Paraiso [EMI Latin H2 7243 5 39860 2 5, 2002] -- conga, bombo and quinto drums, trumpet and trombones, solo and chorus vocals, guitar, cymbals and even violin -- the differences were plainly obvious:

On the stock cable, a lack in bass heft and reach multiplied with emphasized upper harmonics to cause leanness, edginess and sharpness on instruments and vocals. It produced a hashy flatness on the cymbals. While they were zzzinging with hollow élan, they lacked the body and glow of the lower harmonics.

Swapping to the AudioArt cable, the bass acquired true body, weight and definition. It made the stock cable sound diffuse and exiguous in that area. The hyper whitish edges around the singers receded for a more relaxed, less pushy feel. The midrange now had warmth yet didn't obscure resolution. The backup singers remained clearly differentiated, yet their contours were not excessively sandblasted to create acute relief. Quite the relief, really. Starkness, tension and jumpiness exhaled with a sigh, into something more at ease and natural to avoid eventual listener fatigue.

More surprising than this very welcome tonal redress was the expanse of depth in the soundstage. Yes, I did say soundstage. I most certainly did. After all, this is one of the very unique and compelling aspects of the AKGs' ears-off design approach to begin with.

As a function of their splaying outwards in the rear-firing direction, soundstage depth occurs behind you, not in front as with regular speakers. What the Stefan AudioArt cable did was explode the depth panorama. Think about outfitting your car with a slightly bowed aftermarket rearview mirror. It spans the whole width of your car's interior. Never mind what's in either lane - you'll see everything behind you without ever shifting your head.

This soundstage reversal sounds weird on paper only. Sample the freedom from usual in-your-head confines just once. Then sign here. You'll be an instant believer. Serdechny's cable builds out this unique dimension to an extent that nearly condemns the traditional headphone experience as somewhat crude by comparison; bereft of spacious finesse and airiness.

Weirdness only in concept

That a mere cable could make such a positive difference doesn't surprise. We've all experienced it with regular speaker cables. Unlike the Sennheiser HD580/600 however, the wiring harness of the AKG K-1000s' does not unplug from the actual transducers. The only thing replaceable is the portion upstream of the central 4-pin XLR. This means that the AudioArt cable does its job in series with the remaining stock stretch.

Here are two theories why that would work: The standard 16ft overall length exasperates HF distortion and harmonic leanness. Or introduces band-specific signal loss to skew tonal balance. In either case, length makes it patently worse. And - a 6ft power cord preceded by miles of Romex makes a difference because it's the first (not last) six feet seen by the component. Perhaps something similar is at work here?

Obviously the Stefan AudioArt K-1000 cable was "tuned" to counteract the bad genes of AKG's hardwired tail. This tonal grafting of two dissimilar sonic traits to arrive at a specific final sound clearly works. It's the "cable as tone control" axiom. Except rather than being arbitrary, here an ex-Sennheiser engineer spent the time on our behalf to investigate and design diverse coupling options and settle on the present one as the optimal choice.

James Serdechny's cable is no mere accessory. Defying the thermionic new-old-stock credo "the older the better", this cable proves that sometimes, new does distinctly outperform the old. The Stefan AudioArt is the K-1000s new-new-stock amplifier connection of choice. Really, AKG should include it as their new standard wiring harness. It turns my previous provisional or conditional recommendation (world-class 'phones when used with very expensive ancillaries and "behaved" recordings] into an unconditional one (even lesser sources and truly affordable amplifiers are admissible for great results).

Kudos to AudioArt for adding the Cardas spades. They transcend the relatively incongruous and skimpy original pins that seemed sorely out of place on a design otherwise so thoroughly engineered to the "t". All upcoming observations about the amplifiers were generated with the AudioArt cable exclusively. The stock job was permanently exiled into the garage.

8 watts of EL-34 glory

Shockingly, the SE-9's transformers were dead quiet even on my 103dB efficient Avantgarde Duos. They produced zero background hum when walking up close to the horns. Some very expensive transformer-coupled tube amps can't claim that. The same superior noise floor held for the headphones which, while painfully inefficient, are so close to your ears that power supply grunge or transformer-induced noise inaudible via regular speaker would be unacceptable. How about sufficient gain?

Most my listening took place at about 12:30 on the volume dial, around 11:00 with certain compressed albums. Clipping distortion set in after 2:30 o'clock. This may seem meager headroom to warrant a recommendation. But I actually view it as an inbuilt safeguard. It prevents listening at dangerously high levels. My wife consistently enjoys my system at volumes considerably lower than I - and the SE-9/K-1000 combo rocked plenty loud for this deaf dude. With the two critical hurdles of noisefloor and gain cleared, what's this duo sound like?

In a word? Glorious. The EL-34's trademark signature of glowing ardor without the cloying midrange bloom of certain bandwidth-limited triodes; that "lightness of being" typical of well-designed single-endeds -- transparent and immediate without being ghostly, washed-out or insubstantial --; low-level resolution that doesn't require brute force to "lift the veils"; a moderate sweetness that refuses to get edgy, harsh or grating yet communicates thereness; agile and extended bass that makes up in body what it gives up -- to high-current solidstaters -- in final sock'em impact; a finely resolved silky treble; and -- far more importantly than all this frequency band dissection -- an ease of flow and harmonious unfolding that transcends many of the "reminders of artifice" that more complex circuits often suffer by comparison.

The Music of Nubenegra [Intuition Records 3275-2, 1998] is a superb compilation authored by Manuel Dominguez' eponymous Madrid-based label. It concentrates on music from Cuba, Spain, Brazil, the Sudan and Equatorial Guinea.

"Indestructibile" is a duet between vocalista Omara Portuondo and Chucho Valdes on piano in a marvelously raw, fragile and minimalist setting. Despite its musical value, I've avoided to record it for CES exhibits I've worked in the past. Unless a system is dialed-in just so, Omara's vocal intensity occasionally is translated as "just about to get nasty" surges. Yet to not sublimate her artistic frankness by throttling things back to safety isn't a tightrope act you dare brave in public when your own wares are on temporary and less-than-optimized display.

The SE-9 acquitted itself very well in this private test. It perhaps erred ever so slightly on underplaying the innate edge yet never held back or sugarcoated events. It allowed me to settle fully into Omara's exploits. Involuntary cringes of anticipation were banished when I realized the SE-9 would never cross the line into jagged bluntness. Quite a challenging balance to maintain - candor without bared teeth.