Interview - Frank Dickens
Let's start with a little history. What is your technical background?
Well I guess I'm similar to others, having loved and collected music since I was a teenager. Out of school, I went into the Air Force and worked with independent government contractors on the Air Force Flying Command Post. With this process, I was schooled in and worked with highly complex communications equipment. We flew and essentially played war games with the Russians. I was responsible for keeping certain equipment up and running. At Tenneco it was the installation, modification and telemetry for thousand horsepower jet turbine pumping engines... Finally, I came to Texas and went to work for Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, doing research for the military, specializing in control circuits and power supplies. So I had a pretty good technical background. I had access to some very advanced labs especially in Texas. We did everything there from machine shop titanium housings to new control circuits, prototypes and circuit board design. I developed considerable skills and during the time on the weekends when we had the labs and computers for ourselves and used the opportunity for audio!

How did this transition to the business of audio cables come about?
My expertise over the years has been with grounding and shields. In the early days, much of the exotic circuitry was very difficult to deal with and required some rather exotic grounding and shielding. The independent contractors that I worked with in the military had engineers that only did grounding and shielding. The collaborations produced some powerful ideas and I actually developed some of the initial designs for the cables. The big deterrent at the beginning was a lack of materials to execute those designs. At one point, about 11 years ago, a supplier that I kept in contact with said, "I have something that will spec out to what you need." So we started and built our first cables and at the beginning, they were just for ourselves.

You started with power cords?
Yes, initially we built power cords, which is where the name originated. Unfortunately the first ones looked homemade. We started out by solving a lot of mechanical problems. The IEC that we build fits tighter than anybody's. The cables are extremely quiet and extremely flexible. Over time, we developed our own housings using aircraft alloys. We either chrome- or ceramic-coated them. Even the small details such as labeling have been replaced with engraving. Our goal was to supply power with very quiet background, starting with power cords. That is where the name came from because we were really a very 'Silent Source' of power.

We started with speaker cables about seven or eight years ago. We have a lot of overseas business but did not have a very commercial model at that time because I was not in a position to really produce larger volumes. Also, we were still developing the parts. Finally, it was important to me to have a really finished product before going into the US commercial market.

What is your reference system?
I have the original engineering pair of the JMlab Grand Utopia. The interesting thing about this particular pair is that not a single driver in them ever went into production. The original drivers were far too expensive. Powering the Utopias are Pass Labs XA 200 and X200.5 amplifiers. We also have a tri-amp set up with Viva Audio tube amplifiers that are not actually on the market but they are step above their Aurora models. For analog, the Walker Black Diamond with Air Tight PC-1 and two ultra-rare Koetsu Blue Lace cartridges. Digital is a highly modified experimental dCS Elgar and Esoteric.

What is your mission statement, specifically what are you trying to achieve with your cables?
When we first started to do this commercially, I said that if you have to sit down and listen to the nuances, we're dead and will never make it in this market. There are too many companies with big reputations and lots of money. I have to install the cables in one room, you have to come in from another and say, "What the heck happened?" Our cables have to offer an impact that is immediate and that you don't have to be an expert to hear. We had a gentleman from the Dallas Symphony with cables put into his system at Christmas time. His son came in and said, "You better turn it off before mom gets home, because if she finds out that you bought all that new equipment, you're in trouble." That is the type of impact we have as our foundation.

It's obviously a small industry so you have to compete with the name players like Nordost, Transparent, Tara and others. We honestly believe that all our midline cables blow most of them up and our top line cables [Music Reference] beats their best. We've successfully replaced top-end Transparent and Tara cables in some very high-end reference systems.

Transparent and Nordost are big players in the high-end...
Let's discuss the Nordost Valhalla. They have sold a ton of cables. Yet, we believe them to be slightly short on the lower midrange and tipped up slightly in the high end. I've heard them at length and found them at times to be slightly bright with a lot of apparent detail but not quite the emotion I personally look for. Reviewers in the past have stated that, "yes we noticed these tendencies but they are so transparent that in reality, we just overlook the flaws."

We know that you cannot have a system sound like live music. You're not playing live music. You're playing software. The best you can do is faithfully reproduce whatever that recording engineer and recording artist decided to put on that software to the best of their technical ability. That's what you've got to work with.

Let's talk about the voicing or the sonic signature of your cables.
We don't design for a specific sound. We don't say that we need to extend the upper frequency or that we need to pump up the bass. Because once that you start meddling somewhere, there is a price to pay somewhere else. We do not have a sonic signature. Stuart Marcus of Vampire Wire and Ray Kimber are two men I truly respect a great deal. We've had many conversations and we know that if you can affect large and small changes in current; or large and small changes in signal; as close to real time as possible; against a totally, naturally quiet background; retrieve as much of the low-level information as possible; then the magic happens. It's actually fairly simple. The weakness in most cables is the lower midrange and mid bass. Designers are trying to extend the top and can extend the bottom end and end up with something missing. Silent Source cables are immediately recognized for tight, articulate, focused, fast bass and mid bass. There is nothing added - no more bass than is on the recording. It's not that ours are accentuated, they just present naturally.

Our goal is to present the music signal uncolored. We transfer that signal with speed, accuracy and focus. The tonal balance is excellent top to bottom. The frequency range is smooth and extended. There is nothing that jumps out at you but just as importantly, there are no holes. If you listen and your system was bright, you might think that you lost some of the top. Or if your system was heavy, you might think that you lost something at the bottom. But when you listen for a short period of time with Silent Source. You will hear that it's now balanced top to bottom. This is all you can really hope to do.

In the design, what do you look at that others don't?
Analog timing is something rarely discussed. Listen to live music and at the beginning, the players can sound sort of disjointed as they warm up. Then if they're good, things just pop into focus and sound right. It clicks because they get the timing right. Everyone worries about digital timing but it's correctable. No one worries about analog timing. It's not correctable. Once it gets screwed up, it doesn't work. It's very easy to transmit a crescendo. It's very difficult to transmit very subtle changes and have them happen in real time.

In our wire for instance, our goal has always been to use that which transmits signal or current in its total form just as the software presents it - every last low level bit. You want to transfer it all and you want it to happen instantly. It's like the difference between an old manual linkage-and-drive-by wire. We want it to happen in real time.

As to manufacturing, just do everything as correctly as possible; the right metal, the right shape and size, the purity and even the thickness of the platting all matter. Then it's the connection. The old rule applies that you need a good mechanical connection, then a good solder connection. Sonically I guarantee you that no one beats our methods. The tightest mechanical connection, the best solders and even the soldering technique matters. Our soldering is probably closer to spot welding than traditional soldering. We use a very high temperature and high current soldering device, producing an instant amount of very intense heat for superior joints. Even the composition of our solder is unique having the proper balance between copper and silver content. It's not easy finding solder with high copper content.

Cable pricing is controversial and contentious. What is the Silent Source pricing philosophy?
We do not price our cables by what we think the market will bear. I have a problem with the high-end pricing system in general. It's a self-fulfilling negative prophecy. High-end products have low-volume so we raise the price and then will have even lower sales volume because of the high price. It's a downward spiral that's problematic.

I guarantee you that cable companies sit down and have discussions about marketing a certain cable to Avalon Sentinel or Wilson Alexandria owners by first determining the value of that particular system and then say that their cables should cost 'X' based upon the value of the customer's system. We don't operate that way. The very fact that our cables can be put into a system and outperform a $30,000 pair of wires, one could draw the conclusion that the others might be overpriced.

We want to keep our cables at a price that people can actually afford to buy but the audio industry makes that hard to do. We operate at very short margins from the manufacturing standpoint. Yet the cables are still priced far more than they would be or should be due to the high distribution and retail markups. The system makes it hard for small companies to be in the market. I would rather a customer buy six power cords for their system at a reasonable price than to buy one high-priced power cord and place it in a strategic position. So we said we're going to try and keep the price down. The entry-level stuff would certainly not be considered high-priced. Our Silver Signature is at the very low end of the premium cable pricing and our Music Reference is at the absolute bottom of the top-level cables. The foundation of all our cables is the same. As you go from one design to the other, it's just more of everything as you go up. It is a fairly reasonable spacing between the Signature and Silver Signature. When you go to The Music Reference, that's another story. It's is a pretty big gap.

Actually our pricing has created somewhat of a problem for us. We were not taken very seriously because we were priced far lower than the top-level competitors' cables. Without mentioning brands, our speaker cables and interconnects are a mere fraction of our competitors' most expensive cables. We fundamentally believe that $30,000 for an 8-foot pair of speaker cables is a bit much. Ours are $5,000 and we are replacing these very expensive cables with Silent Source in many systems. Ironically, some customers would not even look at us because we did not cost enough.

Where are you today as a company?
We view this year as somewhat of our coming-out party. We're developing a website. Up to this point we've been pretty much in R&D mode. Our research during the past two years has not been about the designs themselves but executing the designs in a way to produce higher volumes. We have a list of people around the world waiting to distribute the product.

We're never going to be a large
company. It's not our goal. One of our biggest fans is Ray Kimber who asked me a few years ago, "Are you proud of these?" I said, "Yes I am,' and he said we "should be". As a business we want to do good things at good prices. We want to be seen as a company that offers reference level products at reasonable prices. Construction of the cables is a very labor-intensive process. The last two or three years have been spent designing a process that allows us to hand build these cables in quantities sufficient for our expansion and we're now there. We've grown nicely without any marketing effort and without any major advertising. Now that we have the production capacity, we believe that the company will grow nicely.

Reviews scare the hell out of me. You're either up against someone's advertising dollars in terms of the publications; or we're up against an audiophile in a system where you are trying to knock down his favorite. The risk with the review is that an offhanded, innocent comment perceived the wrong way could literally end up killing a small business.

The future?
We're never going to be a large company that has a revolutionary design every six months. What we hope is that you buy our cables, keep them and recommend them to your friends. It is a positive that you can change equipment in your system without having to change our cables.

We just want to be known as a product which is totally neutral but does something for your system in that it cleans up the noise, gives you a natural quiet and transmits the signal in a way that extracts every ounce of detail. It's like with vinyl. You can get a better cartridge, improve the tone arm, adjust the VTA and all of a sudden you discover things on the record and never knew was there. So what you have done is extract more low-level information that previously was at a level too low for your system to extract. It was always there. Our goal is to not lose that detail to noise or because the materials we use won't transmit it fully and dissipate it instead. It's all about the execution of the design.

There is no grand revolutionary design out there. There is no witch doctor in Tanzania going to come out with a new cable design that's never been done before. That's not going to happen with anybody no matter what they say. We just want to put out the best product we can at a price people respect. As we expand, I hope that we are admired for selling our cables based on our production costs rather than what we think a percentage of your system ought to cost relative to cables.