When Ensemble distributor Brian Ackerman of Southern California's Artistic Audio desired to market his own upscale cable line after successfully selling Shunyata, Siltech and now Ensemble as a retailer, he turned to Luis de la Fuente of Stage III Concepts. Brian asked the designer to consider his Stage III Monument Series, the Brooklynite's current top offering, as this new project's base line. Proceed from there to its ultimate embodiment. Go to the extreme level. Stage IV. Make this into what you perhaps would have, already, had not cost been a prior limiting factor. In short, Brian seems to have taunted de la Fuente - with just the kind of bankrolled contract challenge gifted designers thrive on to go berserk.

The result? The Vacuum Reference line of cables first shown in prototype form at CES 2003. Its first member is today's interconnect, to be followed by a speaker cable, digital IC and power cords in short order. How does this low-level cable stack up financially in the questionable races of High-End audio wires that are becoming increasingly, er, exclusive as the years go by?

It's plainly left in the dust, by Senseless Concepts from Kharma, NBS, NordOst, Purist, Siltech, Transparent and other ultra-high-wire acrobats. Still, at $3,000/m/pr, the Vacuum Reference remains an example of the sky's-the-limit price escalation which the cable sector under transparent leadership seems committed to as a matter of strange pride. Hence Ridley Scott's original tag line, for his extra-terrestrial monster thriller Alien, continues to apply in a special way: "In outer space, nobody can hear you scream".

You see, a deep-space vacuum does become the non-dielectric here. It's something most cable designers agree on as the ultimate weapon against dielectric absorption and time-delayed signal "screams" inside ordinary insulation. Realistically speaking and moving beyond theory, it's also quite prohibitive to implement properly. Perhaps because he's from Australia where critters roam that don't exist elsewhere, Matthew Bond of TARA Labs -- unless I'm mistaken -- was the first to offer a commercially viable vacuum dielectric audio cable. Very cleverly, this hero's dubbed 'The Zero'. Now Luis' Vacuum Reference seems poised for the silver, by arriving at the same lone outpost next. Though in purely metallurgic terms, its inner quad matrix employs both silver and gold parallel conductors.

Added Luis that these conductors are 99.999% pure, continuous cast, deep-immersion cryo'd purled ribbons terminated with ultra-low mass, solderless solid silver RCAs or XLRs. Surrounded by multiple layers of fine quartz/silicia granules for mechanical resonance control, the inner core is a 28.5Hg vacuum. Silver/copper and Mylar braids form an outer double shield while the cable walls and plug housings are molded from carbon/nylon fiber-filled urethane resins which, like the rest of the cable, are fabricated by hand and in-house. Queried about prospective concerns over the state of not the art but the vacuum, Luis replied that he had been testing different materials and designs for over a year to assure acceptable flexibility while preventing porosity through which the vacuum could leak.

According to him, it's no longer an issue. The four inner tubes encasing the conductors are fashioned from Teflon/Nylon/Urethane reinforced by braids and sealed with two types of high-grade epoxies. About that expensive use of gold which offers only about 60% of silver's conductivity? Luis replied that the aurum element was particularly adept at transmitting ultra-low level detail and micro information but worked best in conjunction with silver rather than by its costly-chic lonesome.

With a gold-copperish glitter telegraphing through the top black mesh, the Vacuum Reference is a very attractive, 7/8" thick, surprisingly flexible cable whose elegantly contoured cylindrical main and RCA barrels taper slightly inwards and sport three grip surfaces flattened out of the curvature. The 7/16" pig tails are 5 inches long, the RCA's silver pins hollow cylinders without tension slits.

My 3-foot review pairs could easily be curled up into 7"-diameter tight circles, attesting to de Fuente's common sense concerns over user-friendly flexibility. Since returning the ridiculously priced, ridiculously stiff NBS Black Label cables to their maker unreviewed, ease of use, especially with statement cables, ranks high on my list of minimum qualifications. This bias has developed to such an extent that I really don't give a jackrabbit's turd over how good a cable might threaten to sound. If its volatile spring-loaded nature is liable to shear off jacks, benchpress components off their shelves or maim the hapless owner during attempts at disconnecting them, count me out.

As Caelin Gabriel so correctly stated in our recent interview, ease of use is part of the complete performance package. Surviving an up-close inspection from tail to tail without the slightest demerits for fit'n'finish, flexibility or workmanship but rather stimulating unrestrained admiration for a job superbly well done, the two review pairs needed to recover from Brian Ackerman's 4-day Cable Cooker regime. It seemed to have essentially eliminated the cable's lowest octave below 40Hz when it first arrived.

I'm not kidding - you can fry cables on these cookers if you forget to watch the clock. I recall a noted while distressed manufacturer ringing cable guru George Cardas on his cell phone a day before the last CES opened its doors. His display cables had been nuked by a well-meaning supplier who apparently assumed that more was better and subjected said wires to an overlong pre-show break-in protocol. Playing 24-hour low-level ocean surf from a New Age CD plus a low-frequency sweep on the Cardas/Ayre break-in CD (cut 7) cured the cables to help this room garner more than one "Best of Show" comment from showgoers afterwards.

After a week of nonstop playing safe for at night (reviewers do have a life) the cables audibly relaxed. Still, even weeks later they never achieved quite the weight or extension in the bottom-most octave I'm used to from my HMS Gran Finale and Analysis Plus Solo Oval copper cables. When reverting to pleasure listening to remind myself about why we suffer this madness called audio reviewing, I boosted my adjustable Avantgarde DUOs subwoofer by 2dB to enjoy the customary tonal balance. But since this clearly fell under the rubric of tampering with a controlled review environ, I subsequently always reverted back to the usual setting for critical evaluations, accepting this slightly curtailed bass whomp performance as inherent in this design.