Transparent Audio Musiclink Ultra
Analog Interlink

HIGHER WIRE: Transparent MusicLink Ultra Interconnect

I became an audiophile at the age of thirteen. In 1973 my parents replaced our old amplifier, a tubed unit made by Bell, with a shiny new Pilot receiver whose high power cool running transistor circuitry was certain to render vacuum tube gear obsolete. Until that time, I had never imagined that audio components had a sound of their own -- a stereo was merely a means to the music -- a conduit which connected me to the wellspring of soon-to-be-classic rock n'roll pouring out of the United States and Britain. And yet, as I audition my record collection through this technological marvel, it became clear that something just wasn't right. Voices which I knew well were suddenly raspy and metallic. Cymbals which had once sizzled now hissed. Sure, the new receiver played louder but what did it matter ? Even the softest volume settings proved unlistenable. I had complained to my parents who, unable to hear the difference, assumed that I was suffering from some strange effect of puberty. It didn't matter. I had learned that an audio component could impose its personality upon the music. More importantly, I had learned to trust my own ears.

In 1973 the basic high end tenets had yet to be expounded. For example, the premise that tube circuitry could outperform early solid state designs had barely been articulated, much less accepted. Back then, cable was the orphan of the playback chain, something for a dealer to "throw in", as an afterthought -- when components were sold. Five years would pass before the pioneering work of Robert Fulton proved that cabling could have an impact on sound quality.

The importance which audiophiles now attach to cable selection reflects the triumph of the high end aesthetic, as well as the diligence of the best cable designers and manufacturers. Having achieved the status of full fledged components rather than accessories, modern cables are remarkably sophisticated products. During the twenty year metamorphosis by which lowly wires have become "connecting components" product development efforts have been concentrated in three areas: Conductor size, geometry and materials selection. Initially, the most logical method of improving performance was to increase wire gauge. As a result, the early stages of cable evolution were characterized by ever thicker conductors sheathed in stiff, bulky insulation. Eventually, as cable diameters swelled beyond the girth of garden hoses, alternative design approaches became necessary.

During the mid-to-late 1980's, as Brisson et al were experimenting with new conductor architectures, a second school of thought began to drive the cable industry. Since audiophile consumers had proven willing to pay a substantial premium for sonically superior products, manufacturers felt obliged to offer "major statement" components that demonstrated what could be achieved when cost was not a consideration. Relieved of the necessity of meeting a price point, designers demanded the finest materials with which to build these signature pieces. At the same time, metallurgical and manufacturing technologies, spurred by the demands of military and medical equipment contractors, were yielding conductors and dielectrics that approached theoretical perfection. Almost over night, terms such as Oxygen Free Linear Crystal or Mono Crystal Copper (and, increasingly, Silver), virgin Teflon, foamed polyethylene and Silver bearing solder became part of the audiophile vernacular.

Lately two companies have advanced to a new stage of cable development. MIT and Transparent Audio Laboratory, the firm which for eight years engaged in the marketing and manufacturing of MIT products, have both introduced cables which incorporate electrical compensation networks. In Transparent's case these networks, deployed near the ends of the cable and housed in gorgeous anodized aluminum casings, are proprietary low pass filters which according to the company, have been engineered to correct a host of audio maladies. As we would expect, the low pass filter prevents transmission of ultrasonic frequencies which could modulate the music signal and thereby, induce noise within the audible bandwidth. The network also provides an impedance matching function, facilitating the transfer of signal between components with wildly varying input and output impedances, and enabling Transparent cables to maintain their intended performance characteristics into virtually any load that a customer's equipment might present. Next, consider that a cable's electrical behavior changes as a function of frequency. In the treble region, cable is primarily inductive, and therefore tends to resist the transmission of high frequency information. But as we descend the frequency-spectrum, capacitive effects tend to dominate, causing lower-frequency signals to be blocked. The frequency at which inductance yields to capacitance is known as the resonant point of the cable. Transparent's filter networks lower this resonant point, restoring information which, in conventional cables, would be irretrievably lost. I should also mention that, although Transparent is reaching for the next rung on high end's evolutionary ladder, their cables clearly benefit from previous design advances. Admirably thick conductors drawn of high purity Oxygen Free Copper, are jacketed in high quality dielectric material. Silver-bearing solder is used exclusively, and of course, these cables are terminated with beautifully made connectors, the size and heft of which suggests that some sort of growth hormone might have been employed in their construction.

The preceding history and physics lessons would be pointless if the Transparent products did not honor the high end heritage of musical excellence. It is therefore with a sense of pleasure and (considering the time it takes to write this stuff) a twinge of relief that I offer my wholehearted endorsement of the Music Wave Ultra interconnects and Ultra BiCable speaker cable. Dynamically generous, tonally neutral and harmonically complete, the Transparents' sonics validate both their design philosophy and their asking price. I am also delighted to see a world class speaker cable optimized for biwiring. Although most of the great speakers now sport two sets of binding posts, cable manufacturers have largely refused to revise their products accordingly. Essentially two cables sharing a single jacket, Ultra BiCable employs individual high- and low-frequency networks for bi-wire operation, and is a compelling choice for those of us who believe that two wires are, sonically, better than one.

Experienced listeners will require little time to discover the Transparents' strengths, for in the areas of midbass reproduction, intratransient silence and low level detail, these cables represent a dramatic and demonstrable improvement over all those competitive products with which I am familiar. After a week of burn-in, I began my evaluations and was immediately impressed by both the quality and quantity of low frequency information. True to the company's design goals, it seems that the Ultra cables retrieve tonal details which are normally deleted during playback. Here, we are afforded a musical presentation whose midbass authority, weight and impact makes conventional cabling sound, by comparison, undernourished. No, I do not think the Transparent is boosting the bass signal. I have experienced components that attempt to re-equalize the audible spectrum, and know how too well the sonic symptoms of such an approach. The bloating, smearing and spatial confusion which attend those colored devices are, in the Transparent's case, conspicuous by their absence. What these cables provide is a sense of fundamental richness which, once heard is difficult to live without.

If midbass supremacy is the Transparent's most immediately apparent attribute, then its ability to reduce low level noise is the quality for which I developed the deepest appreciation. So much of our audio knowledge is based upon a subjective or observational listening evaluations that we are often unaware of a problem until we experience its solution. This is relevant because, prior to the installation of Ultra cabling, I had no idea how much amusical noise my system was amplifying. By lowering the noise level, the Transparent products facilitate the listener's perception of low level detail. Instrumental overtone, decay and ambiance are stunningly delineated, yet are rendered with a nonfatiguing ease devoid of electronic artifacts. More significantly, the lowered noise floor allows compositional pauses to achieve a near total silence. Timing relationships are clarified. With large and small scale works alike, the dramatic impact which the composer or performers intended becomes both more accessible and more enjoyable.

Another byproduct of the Transparents' noise reduction capabilities is a broadening of dynamic range. Audiophiles tend to think of dynamics as the ability of a component to maintain its composure when asked to reproduce high volumes. Fair enough, but if we define dynamic range as the magnitude of difference between the softest and loudest signals which a component can convey, then effecting a change at either the soft or the loud end of the volume scale will have any impact on dynamic range. The alacrity, with which these cables resolve low level information will transform (read: enlarge) the scope of volume related information within your system's purview. Those audiophiles who prefer lower, more rational volumes than I do should be especially impressed: you'll be able to hear finer detail at lower output levels. And volume junkies, fear not. The Ultras track mid and high level dynamics as well as any cable I have heard. Whether I auditioned orchestral spectaculars or power pop, I was unfailingly impressed with the easy unforced manor in which the Transparent cables portrayed climactic volume swings. Undoubtedly, these components' dynamic performance is abetted by the midbass prowess discussed earlier. Could there be turbochargers in those aluminum boxes?

Imaging and soundstaging were of a high order; nonetheless, I was able to glimpse these cables' personality. Spread across an impressively wide soundstage individual images possessed a sense of focus and dimensionality that surpasses every cable product in my experience. Solo vocalist, jazz quartet or symphony, image delineation was excellent regardless of musical type. I found, however, that the Ultras favored images at the front of the soundstage, imparting an immediate, up front perspective to the presentation.

By now, it should come as no surprise that the Ultras earned high marks for tonal accuracy, as well. Above that reference quality midbass, these cables remain essentially neutral through the mid-treble. Interestingly, I found the interconnects to be oh-so-slightly soft in the upper midrange / lower treble, while the speaker cables displayed an equally small rise in the same frequency region. Such is the synergy, between these products that, when used in concert, their tonal balance is exemplary. Indeed, these cables would be an ideal choice for a reviewer or other audiophile whose system changes frequently, as their linearity assures that differences between components may be quickly ascertained.

My only criticism of the Transparents' tonal performance concerns their extension in the extreme high treble region. That very last bit of air and ambiance is simply missing. Play a recording with noticeable tape hiss, and you will see what I mean. In this, I would speculate (always a dangerous affair) that the filter network is the culprit. Assuming I am correct, and this minor loss of ambiance is the price that must be paid for a dramatic lowering of the noise floor, then let it be said, that I am willing to pay the price ! I can live with subtractive errors, especially when they occur at frequencies where there is little or no information of musical importance. Across an astoundingly broad swath of the frequency spectrum, the Transparent cables were neutral, characterless, and -- dare I say it ? -- transparent. I have never heard a perfect component -- you may wonder if such exist -- but the Transparent Ultras approach that theoretical ideal.

So, are these cables the best in the world ? I cannot say. I have been mightily impressed by MIT and Siltech products of similar price and aspirations, but I have not heard them in my system. What if I were to declare that the best wines on Earth came from Bordeaux ? Certainly there would be, Burgundy, Barolo and Napa Valley devotees to assail my statement, and rightly so. Suffice it to say that Bordeaux is one of the great wine producing regions. There is no point in designating a single wine, artist, automobile or audio component as being the best, since no one individual's aesthetic sensibility can represent the whole of humanity. Suffice it to say that the Transparent Ultras deserve a place of honor among the world's great cable products and are worthy of your serious attention, Beyond that, no one can say.