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Check out the marketing data for your favorite high-end cable of choice and you're likely to find specifications prominently displayed for insulation, metallurgy, capacitance, inductance and speed. It's trendy for manufacturers to focus on one or more specs as the key to sonic nirvana. Some of them tout low capacitance or inductance; some, the wire purity; and others, the propagation speed of the signal relative to the speed of light. Well, right or wrong, you're not going to find that specmanship game at Silent Source. While there apparently is solid science, engineering and construction behind the cables, there is not however the macho sword fighting as to who has the lowest capacitance or the fastest transmission speed.

Frank is refreshingly plainspoken, direct and to the point. When pressed for more information concerning the measurements of his cables, Frank stopped me in mid sentence and offered a somewhat blunt assessment as to designers and engineers who put numbers first. "Look at two companies that are anal about numbers: Halcro and Wilson. You look at the numbers and I don't relate to those numbers at all relative to distortion. Look at any high-end amplifier manufacturer and look at what they claim for distortion levels. It's like the national budget, I can't relate the sound to the numbers. When I listen to these people's products, sometimes they are musical and sometimes they are not. It's like when we originally changed from tubes to transistors - at that point solid-state was spectacular but not very real and never emotional. When I listen to a system and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, then we've got something! It may not measure the very best - but who cares!"

Yet, from my discussions it's obvious that Frank and his company do pay attention to capacitance and other measurable specifications and they are integral to the design but clearly secondary to the sound. "It's really pretty cut, dry and simple. It's the metallurgy and the way the cable is constructed, and the way the cables are built to transmit the leading edge of the music transient as close to real time as possible - specifications do not exist in a vacuum. If you build it correctly with the right metals in the right configuration, keep the noise and vibrations out, do the shielding correctly; then it 'happens.'"

So what are the fundamental design philosophies of this emerging contender?
  • A design that allows hidden detail and resolution to emerge by the elimination or suppression of background noise, RFI or other such grunge.
  • The use of proprietary shielding, allowing silky clean, dead silent backgrounds - in essence, a silence source. Get it?
  • Neutral and uncolored with the ability to transmit all the information as 'safely' as possible.
  • Compatibility with a large variety of equipment.
  • An extraordinary attention to detail in the mechanical construction.
  • Priced affordably for the real world (or at least affordable relative to audiophile standards).

"... I always believed that cables were an important part of the system equation. But they really shouldn't influence the system. You should be able to change whatever components you want to and then hang with the cable that you have and not worry about re-voicing the entire system. We always felt that cables should be mechanically sound, easy to handle and should not have a sound. They should transfer current or signal from point A to point B. So to be honest with you, we are not interested in sound with the Silent Source cables. Our cables have never been accused of having a sonic signature of their own. But what they do is transfer either signal or power in a very special way from point A to point B. We get it done with resolution, speed, dynamics and focus, but to me these are not sonic signatures, they are just the characteristics that the sound would have if you were able to transmit it in a perfectly ideal way."

Another pet peeve of Frank's is cables that are system and component dependent. "Cables should be neutral and shouldn't care what you hook them up to. I solicited reports from systems all over the world with our cables with an amazing variety of equipment. The reports consistently stated that our cables were neutral. The only time we had a problem was from the old-time audiophiles who tune their system to a particular sound and if you put our cables and their system, you lose that tone control."

While Frank was somewhat tight lipped about measurements and specifications, when it came to the materials and manufacturing, he was quite open and proud of the quality of the components and the manufacturing processes. "A single-ended cable is a simple design but how you execute that design - the material you use, how the materials are configured and your construction methods, mean everything. As an example, our speaker spades are pretty substantial. They do a better job than hooking even bare wire directly to a binding post and they actually do a better job than small ones do, which goes against conventional theory. I can't even theorize on the design of the Eichmann Bullet Plugs, but I know that they do a better job than anything out there because we've tried everything."

"If you look at our products, we use similar material in all of the lines: machined aircraft alloy for all of our housings, Eichmann Bullet Plugs and Xhadow XLRs. In our research and development, we tried everything in terms of other people's products in a very controlled procedure and then using sophisticated computers, we wring out the designs."

The cable itself is flexible, pliant with a dark jacket and an external mesh covering. It's pretty thin as high-end speaker cables go, no more than ½" in diameter. An eight foot length probably weighs no more than a pound or two, quite a difference from the 25 lbs Transparent Opus monsters. Anyone who's even dabbled in the cable world is aware of the dielectric debate. To the layman, the term dielectric and insulator are often used interchangeably but to scientists and engineers, the term dielectric means far more than a plastic wire coating which keeps clumsy users from getting an electric shock. Although beyond my technical knowledge, dielectric theory delves deeply into the properties of insulation and its interaction to an electric field generated by the signal flowing in the wire. Do a quick search of any audio site and look for Teflon, cotton or vacuum and you will be inundated with tons of opinions and theories. As one might expect, Frank has some thoughts on the issue.

"Well, I'll first start off by suggesting that a vacuum dielectric in high-end cables is a myth. In my opinion it's impossible. There are only two dielectrics that we use - Teflon and cotton, which mechanically is very difficult. We buy the wire to our specification for the Signature and Silver Signature, either oxygen-free copper with a very high purity, silver or silver-plated copper depending on the cable. The coating is extruded Teflon. I know there are some in our industry who claim to hear the effects of Teflon. Well, they must be better than I because frankly, I can't hear it."

While the Signature cables are sourced with the Teflon coating, The Music Reference cables are built from bare wire. To give you some idea of the manufacturing complexity, "we jacket the bare silver wire in cotton; we use twisted pairs with a particular twist to deal with capacitance and other issues. We pull our shields over the top of that in a jacket of proprietary material to handle microphonics, followed by more shields and then the outside jacket... The result is truly greater than the sum of its parts. There is one source in the world for our conductors and that source will go to the grave with me. It is as close to hand drawn as possible using mechanical devices."

For the non-metallurgist in the audience, "drawing the wire" is a process where the wire is pulled through successive smaller dyes which narrow the wire diameter. The problem is that the metal distorts under this manufacturing process and its electric properties are altered. The solution used by a handful of manufacturers is a cryogenic treatment to restore the metal's original properties. As with his other manufacturing processes, Frank claims his treatment to be superior. "Deep immersion cryogenic treatment [using liquid nitrogen] is not what most people do when they take it [the cable] down into a gaseous medium and back out. We have one of the foremost metallurgists in the country. He has been doing cryogenic treatment for 30 years and through this treatment, we restore the metal as best as possible to the characteristics that we originally started with."

Every company's product offering has a sweet spot, that special claim to fame that makes it unique. With Silent Source it's their grounds and shields. Let's be realistic, compared to a speaker or amplifier, cables are really not that complex. Therefore according to Frank, much of the success of any cable focuses on the materials, connectors, shields and grounding. Viewed as a system, Frank claims the Silent Source shielding to be effective and quite intricate. "There's a lot going on inside our jackets, with several proprietary shields. We worked really hard designing shields that don't do any filtering. There are a few things that you have to get rid of – all the extraneous noise floating around, electromagnetics and microphonics."

"The first thing is to have a quiet background so we have an outer shield with custom designed braid which is the best antenna we can make. Then we add an inner shield referenced to the most common point in the system that is a reference ground – one that doesn't flow anything, a true shield. So in essence, we use one shield to drain off noise and one shield to keep noise from penetrating. Then we have a propriety material we use to jacket all of the cables that reduces microphonics. The material extends into the housing because it is somewhat useless to have all that dampening material in the middle of your cable when almost all noise is transmitted through the connector housing. Therefore we are able to achieve very natural and quiet backgrounds and against that we configure the wire and connectors in the system to transmit the signal as good as possible."

While some of Frank's discussion of his grounding theory was over my head, his passionate beliefs were clear. If the minutiae of cable-grounding turns you on, enjoy: "Most people don't fully understand the concept of grounds. Ground can be at different levels - you have system ground, you have power supply ground and signal ground with other intermediate stops. But you need to keep those in proper order to keep noise out of the system. Using earth ground as reference, system ground is at
some level above earth ground. Component power supply ground should be at a level above system ground with signal ground being at some level above power supply ground. So if you order the grounds when you are trying to get rid of noise, you tie it to the closest point that it can be removed from the system."

Most of the system problems have to do with hooking the ground planes to different design philosophies and each component together. Once you link the ground planes together though the cable system, then whatever is going on between the grounds and the levels of the grounds from one component to the next affects everything! It is a major reason that when you put a component in your system and determine that it's just not compatible, generally speaking it's the grounds that are not compatible. Printed circuit boards make things difficult. Point-to-point wiring was the best - you could keep things ordered. Circuit board design, by its nature, limits you. We used to put jumpers on circuit boards to solve those problems but big manufacturers don't want to do that. So you end up with the grounds not being ordered correctly. In very high-end sensitive equipment, this becomes audible."

There are break-in believers and non-believers. I am a card-carrying believer and all new equipment gets some break-in, period. By far, The Music References required the least break-in of any speaker cable in my experience. Frank attributes the out-of-the-box performance to the in-house break-in combined with their cryogenic treatment.

"It's pretty simple. Anything that is formed under heat and pressure alters the structure of the materials. For instance, flowing wire through high-speed dies fractures or distorts the structure of the wire. As with vacuum tubes, the cryogenic treatment relieves the stress. If we don't cryogenically treat cables, there are a couple of areas in the frequency spectrum which are quite irritating without extended break-in. We treat our cables cryogenically and do a minimum break-in of 72 hours. They will continue to get better but are 90% there out of the box." Agreed, the cables are almost there out-of-the-box with a slight easing of the presentation and a little more detail after another 20 hours. Subtle things though. Believe me, you'll be happy with their initial performance.