To qualify $1,810 or $2,370 worth of respective cable upgrades vis-à-vis my in-house HMS ($1,190/pr ) or Analysis Plus ($630/pr) reference pairs? I took advantage of my Jolida JD-100's twin outputs and the convenience of the PRe1's remote source selection. It allowed me to toggle between its two single-ended inputs to assess the magnitude of improvements (or perhaps mere differences?) between the known and unknown quantities in my review system. For programme material, Sevara Nazarkhan's groovy Yol Bolsin winked at me [RealWorld 7243 543206 2 0, 2003]. It's one of our most recent Blue Moon Award winners that marries traditional Uzbek tunes with Hector Zazou's contemporary ambience. You get immaculately recorded chill-down female vocals, funky dotar riffs, low bass and plenty of percussive and synthesizer elements swirling 'round in space. On my favorite track "Gazli", there's even the added timbres and textures of the hammered Turkish kanun zither and ney flute.

So? After intent A/Bs, my name was essentially sore saddle - er, so subtle. Compared to the Analysis Plus Solo Oval, the Vacuum Reference borrowed Photoshop's "Sharpen Edges" command and, with a fine-tipped brush, applied its low-key magic across the board. This injected slightly heightened high-frequency components into the demarcations of sound and silence.
Sevara Nazarkhan "Yol Bolsin" - click for review
Vacuum Reference on AUDIOPAX Model 88s

The effect of this was exactly like that of the software manipulation used sparingly. It raised the color temperature between solid borders to sharpen contrasts. Things popped just a little harder for apparently greater inner detail. Note the qualifier 'apparent'. What happened was simply greater emphasis, similar to the notched-up image outline effect of tweeters slightly north of neutral.

It translated as a few added degrees of acuteness, a bit more tension and a very minor sense of vocal forwardness, the latter augmented by the aforementioned modest slimming down of bass weight. On balance, the Solo Oval seemed, er, balanced more cohesively. It didn't concentrate a spotlight anywhere on the music. The Vacuum Reference, albeit quite underhandedly, did turn on that light.

Vacuum Reference and Solo Crystal active, Gran Finale in standby

In best Bulgarian Wedding music style, "Dügün" on Sezen Aksu's The Wedding and the Funeral dedicated to Goran Bregovic tunes [Emarcy 558 647-2] is a wildly uptempo, shifty Gipsy brass band affair. There are pounding 4/5 beat tuba bass lines that put German oompah bands to shame; blistering trumpet solos leaving nothing to the imagination; hard left/right shimmying cymbal'd tambourines; bone-dry Tsifeteli percussion trills; and Turkey's most famous diva letting it rip. The silver cable's innate penchant for crisp transients created a row or two of more nearfield sharpness, with somewhat brighter reflections from the precisely timed tambourines flanking the singer. The transient charge rendered drum skin and blatty brass attacks more crisply, on one hand supporting beat exactitude, on the other introducing an element of hardness.

Occasionally and at higher outputs, this mild added edge illumination (probably countered by the parallel gold conductors to remain well controlled) caused a small psychological anticipation of glare on approaching vocal peaks. That glare never quite materialized, but the sense of "just about" was tangible. Think of looking at a slightly agitated mid-afternoon lake. If you changed your viewing height and angle long enough, you just know that sooner or later, you'd capture a bright white refraction for a cheap thrill of momentarily searing retina burn.

The Gran Finale was a mite leaner than the Solo Oval whose minor warmth is a function of becomingly fulsome mid- and bass bands. Both again were warmer than the Vacuum Reference but every bit as adept at resolving the fantastic amount of low-level detail in these recordings. Contrasted with the Artistic Audio cable, the HMS was clearly more relaxed. For my taste, its softer relief seemed more natural. But then, my reference system does not need any help in the acceleration department. A dynamically more reticent one cold well benefit. The Solo Oval in the middle seemed endowed with the best bass weight of this small group while the Vacuum Reference, conceivably, led the charge with the lowest noise floor.

However, no further marks of distinction, no further areas of clear-cut differentiation emerged that wouldn't belong in the realm of imagination or hopeful thinking. Which brings to mind Wes Phillips' recent comment leading up to his Shunyata Research cable review: "... reviewing cables is hard, thankless work. When I was an editor at a stereo magazine, we'd assign cable reviews to the young reviewers who hadn't learned to say no yet (it usually took about one cable review for them to learn)..."

What can I say? Even as the publisher of my finally own -- and small -- on-line magazine, I still haven't learned this basic lesson. Call it dim-witted, call it untempered enthusiasm. Call it unquenched curiosity, call it Teutonic tenacity. Or perhaps I have a hard time saying no, especially when I'm asked very nicely? That already softened up Jack Nicholson's bristly Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men when faced with Tom Cruise's annoyingly cocky Lt. Daniel Alistair Kaffee. And Brian Ackerman did ask very nicely indeed. Though he may regret it now that the jury's verdict is in. Col. Julius Alexander Randolph just ordered the court to put the shackels on Nicholson's hard line warrior of you-can't handle-the-truth fame.

Why regrets? Because though clearly very good, Brian's Artistic Audio Vacuum Reference cable, at $3,000, didn't do anything my far more affordable cables didn't do. Knowing that it operated with gold and silver in a vacuum didn't convince my ears that it sounded superior. Different, yes - slightly. Superior? Not a chance. Accordingly, I found myself at a bad disadvantage looking to justify its significantly dearer price of admission. How does Luis' own $1,000 Monument interconnect with the same all-silver RCAs, the same cryo'd silver conductors compare, I wonder? Does the vacuum and gold really make much difference?

It clearly does as a manufacturing challenge. The labor clock ticks loudly, the raw materials bill can't be pretty, either. But do diamonds on a watch keep better time? Different listeners and their systems prefer different aural perspectives. If his new cable competed with or outperformed the >$7,000 Siltech G5 he also sells, Brian's customers should gleefully embrace the Vacuum Reference. However - had those same imaginary customers been present during my listening tests? They'd likely agree that the contenders of this grouping crossed the finish line in unison lockstep. It made declaring a "winner" simply a function of whose jersey, marital status and bank account you preferred. Or else I'm deaf. But then dig this: What you don't know can't hurt you, what you can't hear won't cost ya.

In the final analysis, Artistic Audio's new entrant into the air-less cable races is an exceptionally well-made product. It unquestionably performs to a very high standard of micro-detail resolution. In my system, it also exhibited a mild case of what is generally dubbed a "silver signature" - fast, incisive, a bit lit up. This latter trait never became objectionable, just recognizable. In the right system context -- systems a few clicks on the sluggish side of central -- this would be a pronounced asset.

One possible performance advantage was hinted at but could never be verified for certain. You see, my rural surroundings of a low-load, single family dwellings power grid; my 20-amp lines; the cryo'd World Power outlets; the Walker Audio's still in-house SOTA-level passive Velocitor line conditioner; the HMS Gran Finale RFI/EMI shielded speaker cables; and the HMS Energia filtered power cords all add up to a very low intrinsic system noise floor. That's a blessing and requirement to successfully enjoy 103dB efficient hornspeakers that act as noise microscopes. Then add very low ambient noise, again due to living remotely at the edge of a 5,500-head mountain hamlet. Cable designs priding themselves on ultra-low noise floors don't get to strut their stuff with as much obvious flash and impressiveness as they might elsewhere.

Why bring this up? Because there were indicators that the Vacuum Reference could be one such design - that slightly enhanced degree of pop and thereness factor I've mostly laid at the feet of the solid silver conductors. It's something to leave for the next reviewer not yet inured to the prospects of cable assignments.

Faint praise tends to be its own worst enemy. To be sure, nothing in today's review subject's audible performance was faint. What left me less than enthusiastic was solely one fact: You could purchase nearly five pairs of Analysis Plus Solo Crystals for the same outlay, to obtain very similar performance on the same world-class plateau - contingent, as usual, on system interactions. The big man in New York was right - cable reviewing is somewhat of a two-edged sword for all concerned.

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