This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad is displayed above
Though it has no direct bearing on this cable comparison, Robert Grost had dispatched a tile of the ceramic ballistic armor that serves as the foundation material for his Cerious speaker cabinets. The coup de grace? An embedded Rhino bullet slug (a 9mm carbide armor-piercing tip fired from a two-foot distance). The tile is no thicker than just above a 1/4" but captured the bullet. No further comment.

While it occurred outside my digs, the following anecdote segues neatly into this review. At the just concluded Denver show, I spent Sunday after hours in the Audiopax exhibit. Eduardo de Lima and his partner were listening to the Zu Cable Druids for their personal edification (Zu had used the Audiopax Model 88 monos in their own room during the show). For the full Zu effect, I suggested we replace the entire wire harness (signal and power), then go back to the cables Audiopax had used for the event and conduct an impromptu cable A/B for 6 experienced listeners.

Gratifyingly, we all shared the same observations. They dovetailed with what I had already heard in Taos vis-à-vis Analysis Plus speaker cables. They also dovetailed with what Stephæn mentions in his Zu Cable Druid Mk4 follow-up. The Zu Cable Libtec included with his loan package cemented the deal and his subsequent acquisition of the Druids. The Libtec speaker cable retrieved more information sooner (i.e. at lower levels) than his resident Audience Au24. Low-volume listening with very early curtain calls is of ultimate importance to Stephæn. Good man. Protect your hearing.

Back to Denver: The Zu Cables had a lower noisefloor and clearly superior low-level resolution. They removed a slight blurring and fuzziness the Lindsay cables injected. Those countered with more apparent bass weight (something a subsequent adjustment on the Audiopax TimbreLock equalized a bit) but said weight accrued from a lack of differentiation and articulation. The Zu cables kept bass fundamentals and harmonics discernable. Across the audible band, they had sharper attacks, faster rise times (or less timing issues) and hence better definition of micro detail. Alas, they didn't exhibit the same sense of bass mass. Therein lies a generally valid rub. True high-resolution cables don't add things. They aren't in the business of tone shaping or frequency contouring. If you expect tone control behavior to fill holes your equipment leaves, this type of cable won't fit your bill at all.

Superior resolution requires immaculate timing. Different portions of the frequency spectrum can't get skewed. Leading edges should not get smeared or rounded off. The bundles of information, micro byte for micro byte, must arrive whole - on time, simultaneously for all its frequency constituents. This means minimal dielectrics to avoid capacitive energy storage. Less plastics, more conductor. It means impedance matching between the different elements of a cable. This minimizes or eliminates reflections and signal scattering. Solder joints are thus often replaced by cold welds or crimps to eliminate another dissimilar material junction. This type of cable won't ever impress with monstrous bass, luscious midrange, mind-altering soundstaging or other signs of additive effects. You shouldn't be able to hear such cables working behind the scenes. Instead, their credo is more music, less cable. Ultimately, it's about no cable - period. The goal becomes all music, no wire.

But how to know which is which - cable meddling vs. pure signal? Nobody has yet heard raw signal. The only way to approximate any half-way valid assumptions is comparatively. What cable appears to do the least editorializing? That's no hard science. We never know the still point of neutral though intimate familiarity with a reference system certainly helps. The best one can do is describe outcomes in context. If one chances upon another design that, by further subtraction of effects, suggests that the previous cable still interfered, it's the usual audiophile Eureka: "I didn't realize it until I heard it".

Without a doubt, two of the three cables of today's survey belong into the ultra high resolution category. I deliberately used the passive copper-tranny PRE-T1 by AudioZone and my solid-state Patek SEs - and for two reasons. One, no tubes to warm up and power down. In fact, I'd hot-swap the two pairs per brand, accepting brief pops and squeals whenever the ground connection on the active amps was remade. Two, no tubes to enhance the signal. What I wanted was utmost clarity and merciless honesty to chase the dragon tail of subtleties. If one cable curtailed HF extension, I'd hear it. If one emphasized the midrange, I'd hear it. If one blunted transients, I'd hear it. And so on. Of course, this A/B didn't allow for a lengthy settling period of the ceramic fluid shield. But how else to conduct a cable comparison - swap interconnects every few days?

Now remember from the onset that the differences heard weren't dramatic by any means. At this level of ambition and execution -- in this category of essentially neutral rather than pretty-(or pick any other flavor)-sounding cables -- it's all about nuances and low-level stuff. Before we get embroiled in hairsplitting, recall how these cables span the range of $495 to $5,750. Differences do remain. But how much they'd mean to you versus how much they'd set you back is neither for me to know nor decide.

Incidentally, one company other than Stealth Audio and Van den Hul has been working on a complete amorphous cable line (low and high-level signal and power). I and two other members on staff are in possession of preproduction samples. We have conducted side-by-side comparisons with the Indra. In our respective experiences, the Indra to date has beaten all comers - except for this new cable. This mystery subject also uses extremely thin conductors. Alas, its binary amorphous alloy isn't a limited lost'n'found spool of unobtainium. It's application-specific current manufacture exclusive to this firm. Final retails haven't been established yet. Neither am I at liberty to reveal more. Sorry. It's mentioned now only to stress again the very real merit of Serguei's ultra-thin amorphous concept. His personal handicap? Scale of operations. He can't commission manufacture of raw amorphous conductors. The costs would be prohibitive to a single owner/ operator. For now, the expensive Indra is available, the mystery cable still future ware. The Indra thus remains the production analog interconnect to beat - in our opinion of course.

On a practical note, the Cerious cables -- being literally full of themselves with fluid held captive by a thick outer sleeve -- won't bend as tightly as the other two. They thus exert more of a mechanical coil force that readily pushed the 9 lbs passive pre forward on the shelf until that placement tension had relaxed. Also, the self-locking RCA mechanism of the Cerious jack is far cruder and not nearly as easy to work as the Zu equivalent. In fact, I hated the Cerious connectors and had a hard time to get them to tighten enough to stop spinning or pull off too easily. Ditto for subsequent removal once I had tightened them sufficiently. If Zu can offer a mechanical far superior RCA for a cable at $250 less, I think Cerious should revisit its present connector solution.

Incidentally, the proprietary Stealth Carbon/Teflon/silver connector occasionally encounters RCA jacks upon which it won't to fit too easily either. This is possibly a side effect of its hand-crafted nature. Marja and Henk took an Indra into a hi-tech test lab in Holland to measure it. They found its impedance to be spectacularly low - lower than any of the other statement cables they've collected for an upcoming comparison of different approaches to cable design. They've also noticed that unlike other cables that seem to undergo a "reconditioning" effect when you disconnect them and reinstall them later, the Indra doesn't "change colors" and comes on song right away. That correlates with my own observations. What it suggests vis-à-vis other cables I don't pretend to understand.

System noise under no signal (passive preamp and 30dB gain amps on 101dB speakers, i.e. a rather critical application in this regard) was zero with the Varial, modest with the Cerious. This surprised the hell out of me. Steady-state cable-induced noise floor on speaker drivers when standing close? I didn't expect any difference under no signal conditions. Yet there it was. Less effective shielding of the ceramic cables? Unduly high resistance on the non-metallic return leg? Whatever the reason, two Cerious cables (source to pre, pre to amp) exhibited self-noise which 101dB efficient speakers revealed as hum. They were routed identically to the twin pairs of Varials and Indra and my system doesn't suffer ground loop noise. Inserting either the two Indras or two Varials completely removed this noise to dead silence.

The extreme top end where cymbal shimmer lives was somewhat subdued with the Cerious versus the Varial. Ditto for transient spikes, say on hard-hitting upper piano keys. Going all solid state on the particular pre/power power in use of course highlighted this element. You could downplay it with tubes or cables or tweaks. Which version was more pleasant? Which more honest? Redundant concerns all for today's purpose of observation gathering.

Swapping between the Cerious and Zu, the lower noise floor of the latter was evident also from the listening seat. That wasn't because the background noise of the ceramic cable was audible there (it wasn't at that distance between tracks). No, the Varial had a blacker background and recovered more ambient interactions between musicians and recording venue, in this case the Tord Gustavsen Trio's elegiac and quite mesmerizing The Ground [ECM 1892, recorded to typical Manfred Eichner standards which is to say, bloody top-notch]. This blackground quality was most readily noted in pianissimos, in the texture and clarity around their notes and how they still reflected off walls or even gave away microphone position. As Stephaen would ask, how far can you turn down the volume and still hear everything?

Based on Robert Grost's explanations, I had entered this review fully prepared to concede his cables breakthrough status. After all, there's no denying their construction and material ingredients being unique. Alas, asking how much detail was resolved, the unprepossessing Zu cable went farther. I have to call it a design of yet higher resolution.

While Tord's piano wasn't the best vehicle to be completely certain -- for that vocal tracks would fill in -- repeated swapping grew my suspicion that its midrange band was different from the Varials' in a familiar, subtly tube-enhanced fashion of greater warmth. I also felt that dynamic peaks on the Varial seemed a bit louder. Time to turn to female and male vocals, this by way of "Naranjo en Flor" and "Lamento di Apollo" from our 6moons m.a. recordings sampler. These two tracks were culled from the fantastic Buenos Aires Madrigal, one of Todd Garfinkle's best-ever releases.

Both the cello and female vocals now confirmed the suspicion. The Cerious cable does something to the midrange that is very enticing - a bit richer, a bit fleshier. Call it a juicy sliver of the lush life. The flip side is reduced microdynamic life, less violent outbursts and less extreme visibility of the very wet venues typical of m.a. recordings. Where the Varial was articulate without etching, the Cerious applied ultra-fine sandpaper to the transients for just a bit of rounding over like you would a furniture corner. Does this characterization suggest Carbon fiber conductors in the Cerious? It certainly leans in that general direction but don't mistake this to equate with sluggish, bloated or life-less. We're talking nuances, remember? Nothing life-altering, massive or grandiose. However, what I returned to in the end was sheer data recovery.

Having invested into a highly resolving system -- with the concomitant balancing act of musicality this always entails -- I gravitated strongly to the Varial. I prefer to get my "body enhancement fix" from the ModWright valve preamp, swapping out the passive currently on review loan. The Cerious cable is a slightly soft sounding cable with a warmish "minor triode" midrange. Its upper treble isn't completely developed and due to self noise at least on high-efficiency speakers, there's a reduction of ultimate resolution and leading-edge articulation for an overall softening effect.

Stealth Audio makes a metallized Carbon fiber cable that mixes metal and Carbon in a specific ratio to have the metal reintroduce the missing shimmer on top. Also, the return conductor isn't pure Carbon but contains metal to lower ground resistance well below one ohm. Price wise, this Stealth cable falls between Timachev's pure Carbon cable and the Indra - which will now make an appearance against the Varial. As already stated, this affordable Zu cable is the best interconnect from the Ogden stable. Its principals aren't shy to state that it's a highly revealing design that won't be kind to less-than-dialed systems. Along the same lines, the Cerious could rightly be called more forgiving (for which there are certainly thousands of applications.) So now the prior mention of "two out of these three are high-resolution designs" makes sense: Varial and Indra. They're in a different resolving class than the ceramic cable. Make no mistake, this could well make the hi-ressers inappropriate for your system if you ain't ready for a full-on warts-'n'all revelation.

Indra and Varial ran a dead heat in the resolution department. If one outclassed the other, this fell beyond my ability to reliably identify. What I could hear especially in my transistor context of ruthless honesty? The Indra removed a certain edginess especially Gustavsen's piano could elicit (and which I would usually remedy with the 5687s in my valve pre). This softening or relaxation didn't occur by way of data subtraction. It occurred by introducing what I can only call an organic quality. In my original Indra review, this caused me to talk about what this cable does in terms of what it doesn't do. It subtracts certain reminders of mechanicalness or artifice. Due to my experience with the mystery amorphous cable (it exhibits exactly the same qualities), I'm forced to concur that this quality is a function of removing the crystalline lattice work endemic to metal cables while otherwise remaining with metals rather than Carbon fiber. After these conceptual notions had solidified, I called Timachev. He concurred that the listening ease of his Carbon cable (which I haven't heard) is due to the same zero-crystal phenomenon that makes amorphous alloys special. In order to rebuild the treble softening he feels Carbon suffers by definition, he has to introduce a small metallic element. Does his metallized Carbon fiber cable beat the Indra for resolution? Not in his mind - but it's only half the price and deliberately more forgiving, "with a midrange to die for". More independent evidence for believing Cerious uses a Carbon conductor.

Peace in the snake pit
My verdict is as follows. For $495/pr/m, the Zu Cable Varial is a no-compromise ultra-resolution cable in the so-called neutral class. The $5,750/pr/m Stealth Audio Indra belongs in the same class but remains king if you can afford to spend 10 times more for identical magnification power yet wish to add an elusive yet tangible sense of relaxation. The $750 Cerious Technologies ceramic interconnect is a more forgiving 'gentler' effort. It belongs into the class of good-sounding (rather than not-sounding) cables. It mimics certain moderate SETs in how it puts a mild emphasis on the midrange while simultaneously shading the uppermost treble and defocusing the leading edge. In an all-transistor system that emphasizes transients and speed, the Cerious would be the no-brainer ticket. In a warmer valve rig, the higher resolution of the Indra or Varial would be more appropriate. In a superbly balanced statement system of either persuasion, both Zu and Stealth will be the only contenders. Over the Zu, the Indra offers quantitatively nothing extra for its steep surcharge. Yet qualitatively speaking, it introduces a subtle but very real change of gestalt that some may just find irresistible enough to make the hard cashish immaterial.

In my ongoing realisizing quest (close to ultra performance for sane 'philes), I'm returning the Cerious cables and keeping the Varials - in exchange for an invoice. They're my new affordable statement cables. Varial will be the first word off my tongue to anyone inquiring for the best without breaking the bank (if your system can handle the magnification power). The Cerious will find itself recommended to those who wish to tame system edge while introducing a touch of midrange glorification without resorting to glowing glass. And the Indra? Long live the old king. He still hasn't been displaced by pushy pretenders to the throne. For the very best best I've heard yet, the Indra remains what to aspire to. If aspiration and ability are separated by the gape of your open wallet, consider the Zu Cable Varial. It won't find itself outclassed even in the context of a reference system and in fact demands such a context to justify its superior resolution.
Context. Ultimately -- and postulating that best results might often rely on a single-brand wire harness -- this comparison could have been unduly weighted because I used the Zu Ibis cable. From what I had on hand, it's the most resolving speaker cable in my system context (and my speakers happen to additionally be wired with it internally). I did not enter this assignment to compare an all-Cerious setup to an all-Zu versus an all-Stealth. But it's only fair to point out that cable designers reference their individual products (interconnects, speaker cables, digital cables, power cords) in the context of their lineup, hence one would expect synergy or additive results if testing complete rather than partial wire harnesses. That's exactly why Edgar Kramer who wrote our introductory Cerious review was asked to hold on to his loaner interconnects. He is to wait for the speaker cables, digital cable and power cords to report on going ballistic - er, all ceramic. This will additionally eliminate the possibility of compromised results in today's comparison, from damping fluids that were insufficiently settled due to repeat short-term swapping. Stay tuned.

Lastly, think of the ceramic interconnect as an unshielded cable for that's what it is. This means that it is inherently more susceptible to ground and radiation issues. Circumstances -- just as with other unshielded designs -- may exist which preclude the successful employ of the Cerious cables (and I may just have been one such case).
Cerious Technologies website
Stealth Audio Cables website
Zu Cable website