Rites of passage

First off, the Oval 10s didn't sound as spectacular in my system as I had originally hoped. I'll explain this later in the article. Let me start by addressing the strengths of the Oval 10s as I perceived 'em.

When I played Joanne Shenandoah's Eagle Cries [Red Feather Music 70052, 2001], her over-enunciation of the letter "s" was still present. However, these sibilants were better controlled. Compared with stock Beldens, the Oval 10s slightly softened the highs to keep the music from sounding too edgy. I say slightly because I could still hear how the strings on the guitar were fashioned from steel. The beautiful tone of Joanne's voice was as embracing as ever. Still, the bass grew fuller, became more articulate and defined.

Another trait that revealed itself through repeated listening? The Oval 10s lowered the noise floor of my recordings. With stock Belden power cords, the music was slightly grainy and uninvolving, as though the noise telegraphing through the power-cords-as-antennae turned the tunes bland. The Oval 10s did a decent job of keeping this noise out. They certainly made my equipment more involving. However, some of the softer passages in the music could become slightly muted.

Spinning "Der Liebende" from the Beethoven Songs CD [Hyperion 67055, 1999] with Stephan Genz and Roger Vignoles, all of the standard cues I check for in this recording were present: The reflections in the recording venue, the way the piano spreads across the soundstage. However, during the softer passages, I realized that what I thought was quiet was actually a little murky. I had to concentrate more (than I did when reviewing the Shunyata Cables), to hear the softer keystrokes on the piano, the more delicate inflections of Stephan Genz's voice. The volume setting was identical for the Oval 10s as for all other cables I am reviewing.

Oddly enough -- and perhaps resulting from the muted backgrounds -- the Oval 10s made my system sound more forceful. Specific instruments seemed to jump out. The massed strings in "Rondes printanieres", from Gergiev's performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring [Philips 80352, 2001] are plucked and bowed vigorously. The music veritably lurched out from the speakers. While this is a strength of this recording, the Oval 10s made the music sound arguably even more forceful yet curiously less dynamic. The Rite sounded more startling than impressive.

Another recording with widely varying dynamics is Missa Mexicana, performed by Andrew Lawrence-King and The Harp Consort (harmonia mundi usa 907243, 2002). It's a beautiful recording of music for mixed choir and soloists, as well as of some rousing instrumental pieces. I can't really judge the authenticity of the performance. Still, there is an authentic sense of occasion, even if said occasion only occurred in a 21st century studio. "Jacaras de la costa" opens with the trickling of rain sticks, followed by the unique timbre of a conch shell. The quieter background provided by the Oval 10s made the entrance of the conch shell more dramatic. My dog, who likes to sleep at my feet while I listen, stood up and looked at me for an explanation. Easy boy!

On the same recording, "Xa' Cara" features some heavy bass plucking, with strings attacks popping out at the listener. While this was surprising to hear, the rest of the stringed instruments were a bit flat, perhaps resulting from the slight muting of low-level cues. With the Oval 10s, this effect was more shocking than invigorating.

I'm describing a paradox. How can you experience a shocking presentation of muted quiet passages and slightly softened highs? For starters, the dynamics with the Oval 10s were significantly better than with the stock power cables. Everything was cleaned up enough to allow the music to expand and swell (where appropriate) without turning harsh. However, when I reconnected the Shunyata Research Diamondbacks and Guardian 4HT, the highs remained controlled without appearing handcuffed, the dramatic sweep from piano to fortissimo more uniform. While the Oval 10s did offer a better presentation with more detail than the Beldens, the Diamondbacks/Guardian elevated my system to a yet higher level. They offered more air, sparkle, better soundstaging, and a more cohesive transition from midrange to bass. Think yard equipment at a hardware store. Everything is labeled Good, Better, Best. My equipment sounded good in spite of the Belden power cables. It sounded much better with the Oval 10s. It sounded best with the Diamondbacks/Guardian, however.

Swing low

I decided to play to the Oval 10's strengths and spin some Rock and Roll. "You're My Best Friend" from Queen's A Night at the Opera [Hollywood Records 61065, 1991] is a sufficiently bombastic pop number. The Oval 10s brought out as much bass as my source equipment could muster. The kick drum was big and punchy, the heavy electric bass guitar lines dipped a bit lower. I could discern how the bass was being played, rather just hearing bass notes. These cables enticed my system to get up on stage and rock.

The mixing techniques used in the recording were also more apparent, whether panning Freddie Mercury's voice from right to left, or the spatial dimensions of the instruments presented during more complex passages. The lead guitar was in-yer-face just as it should be. After hearing the music swing this well, I could only hope that Queen hasn't been relegated to elevator music duty at the Hard Rock Café.

I also played some jazz, starting with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet's An Electrifying Evening With [Verve 557544, 1999]. They aren't kidding - the performance is a winner. Alas, the recording quality is another matter. The remastering is clean and emphasizes the trumpet, yet the bass is suppressed. "Kush" is my favorite cut, with a hypnotic bassline that rolls through the entire track. When I first heard this recording, I was disappointed over how thin that magic bassline turned out to be. With the Oval 10s in my system, the body of the bass guitar grew fuller and became easier to follow. Brushes on the cymbals were presented clearly, but again lacked that extra shimmer of the Diamondbacks/Guardian. The difference was that between hearing a brush on a drum skin sounding good and one becoming expressive.

Road Trip!

Since the Oval 10s did not sound completely convincing in my personal system, I hit the road and showed up on my friend Dave's doorstep. Dave is a DIYer, his system completely made up of DIY gear: Vacuum tube preamp, 40-watt vacuum tube amplifier, custom-built two-way stand-mounted speakers with Focal drivers and egg-shaped enclosures. The speaker cables are flat ribbons. Dave built them from scratch. Is there a test bench measurement for scratch?

Dave listens mostly to Jazz and world music (including Cuban and African drumming). The sound of his equipment values thoughtful detail over the stereotypical tube lushness. It's analytical without sounding bright or hard. All instruments and voices are clearly defined. I really like how Dave's System makes live recordings sound exceptional - as if you were sitting in while the number was being taped.

We listened to the Putumayo collection Cape Verde [Putumayo 156 1999]. Dave suggested "Injuria" sung by Jose 'Zeca' Neves. He enjoys the distinctive quality of Jose's voice. Jose is backed with light percussion, piano, rhythm guitar, and a bass guitar.

Dave's comments? The Oval 10s imparted a previously lacking smoothness to his equipment. Jose's voice sounded wonderful - a little smoky and very expressive! I suspect the smoothness was due to quieter backgrounds and softened highs offered by the Oval 10 as compared to the computer power cables Dave originally had in his system.

I also noticed that the bass sounded fuller and better defined, particularly in the strumming on the bass guitar as it had in my own system. We also tried the Diamondbacks. Here, they offered a little too much air on the instruments and did not grip the music the way the Oval 10s did. With Dave's equipment, the Oval 10s offered better bass control and a more coherent overall gestalt.

Comparison Shopping

To compare the Oval 10s with the Diamondbacks/Guardian is nearly unfair. The price of the Shunyata package is almost double, the Guardian a passive power conditioner, not a power cable per se. So how did the Oval 10s compare with just the Diamondbacks? In my system, the Diamondbacks offered more detail and air. They made everything sound more lively and sparkly on top. This energetic presentation of the Diamondbacks could overwhelm certain systems such as Dave's. Where the Oval 10s beat out the Diamondbacks (again, in my system) was in the bass. The Diamondbacks just didn't get my stingy rig to reach as low as I now know it can. With the Oval 10s, my system was ready to mine the depths.

Combining the Guardian 4-HT with the Diamondbacks was the only way to make my system sound as authoritative in the low end as it did with just the Oval 10s. The inclusion of the conditioner added control to the extra sparkle and detail, bass flowed more naturally albeit with less heft than the Analysis Plus. If I had to choose? The Diamondbacks/Guardian combo would be my first choice.

Taking the $350 Guardian out of the equation, the choice between Diamondbacks and Oval 10s grew more difficult. The Diamondbacks offered better highs, with that added illumination making my equipment sound more exciting. The Oval 10s offered better bass with better controlled, if slightly muted backgrounds and a smoother overall character. The difference in price is only $25 per cable. Unless you're going to purchase more than 4, expense isn't the decisive factor. Ultimately, what matters is how these cables will perform in your system. Both are definitely worth a listen.

Face the music

The Oval 10 power cable is a well-assembled, thoughtful design, with flexibility superior to any other after-market power cable I've tried to date. It is also relatively inexpensive. For $199, you get a 6" power cord that has the hallmarks of other Analysis Plus products; smooth yet robust, with less background noise and swingin' bass.

Any cable design worth its salt should significantly outperform stock Belden jobs. When I removed the Oval 10s and reinserted the stock cables, the quiet backgrounds were lost, bass vanished and the involvement factor collapsed.

With the Oval 10s, my system sounded best with Rock and Jazz. However, classical music emphasized what I'm attributing to a lack of synergy. Since my system already suffers a slightly rolled-off treble, the minor softening of the highs kept it from being as lively and exciting as with the Diamondbacks/Guardian. I wanted to hear more sparkle, a better mesh of top-to- bottom coherence. I guess that's the trade-off for gentler highs and lowered noise floor.

What systems would shine with the Oval 10s? Well, if the smoothest part of your system were the faceplates on the components, the Oval 10s should definitely be on your short-list. This includes systems that tend to sound too bright, beamy, over-etched or hyper-detailed. For such systems, the Oval 10s become the requisite spittoon to avoid messiness. Love bass? The Oval 10s were champs in bass reach, womp and articulation and would definitely benefit systems whose midbass was tipped up.

Imagine stretching out on a supportive table in a softly lit room. Nothing distracts you from the simple pleasure of listening to your breathing and the sound of your heartbeat. A masseuse walks into the room, rubs a little oil between her hands and starts carefully working you over from head to toe. When matched to the right system, the overall effect of the Oval 10 power cables was similar to a deep body massage. These purple Analysis Plus cords may thus just be what's needed to help ease and relax the tense and knotted muscles of your own audio system.

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