Hifi Zine
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Phono cables from Purist Audio Design and Furutech

When I improved my vinyl rig a couple of years back with the addition of an SME 20/2, later supplemented with a used SME V tonearm, I found myself wondering if those delicate signals carried from my cartridge to my phono stage perhaps benefit from upgrading. These thoughts were amply fed and encouraged by the numerous online testimonials from other SME V owners that the stock Van den Hul interconnect that SME ships with the arm is the weak link in an otherwise world-class analog front-end. Sow those seeds in the mind of any committed audiophile and you know what is eventually going to happen.

Let me say upfront that, in my view, the stock cable is not quite the sonics-killer that popular web discourse suggests. When I first put the arm in place with it, I was delighted with the obvious step up I was hearing from my records over my previous none-too-shabby VPI Aries, though how much of this was a function of the table or the arm was not easily determined. Nevertheless, the widespread criticism of the stock cable from more experienced SME owners made me think twice. Could it really be the case that the table was being held back by the tonearm cable? What’s an audiophile to do? When I had a chance to pick up a Harmonic Tech Silver Crystals phono cable as a replacement, I heard enough from this to believe I was moving in the right direction.

I have lived with the Harmonic Tech cable now for two years, quite happily, and would describe it now as my reference for phono cables. It offers a musical, full sounding reproduction that puts a bit more flesh on instrumental timbres than the stock cable, just as that company’s HDMI cable had done for my PS Audio digital front end. But this summer I had a chance to try out review samples from two other purveyors of phono cables: Purist Audio Design and Furutech, a luxury rarely afforded this humble reviewer, and I have enjoyed the experience. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Purist Audio Design’s Corvus Luminist Revision

Jim Aud, chief of Purist Audio Design (PAD) , was extremely accommodating to my request for a review sample and suggested the Corvus would make a good comparison with my reference. PAD is a specialist engineering company that makes only cables, and have been around long enough to suggest they do this well. Their designs are all hand-made and are known for their emphasis on shielding. They are also, truth be told, known for their prices as the top of the range PAD cables can hit five-figures. In fairness, they also offer many choices in the sub $1k category that are priced competitively with entry-level audiophile products

The Luminist edition of the PAD line reflects an advance in materials that reportedly produces a measurable drop in the noise floor, and those familiar with the PAD line of cables report these latest versions are also lighter and slimmer. I cannot comment on this as it’s the first time I’ve handled one of their cables but slim it is not compared to the other phono cables I’ve known. The Corvus, at $2500, comes packaged nicely in its own canvas bag and plastic sleeve. It has a slightly slinky and substantial feel that, combined with the packaging, primes you to think of it as precious and in need of special handling. I treated it as such and confess, the cable had a smooth, comfortable look and feel which exudes a tactile form of luxury. Clever impression management or genuine high quality design? You decide. I treated it with care and installed it between my phono stage and arm, adjusting it for a few minutes to make sure it was clear of my supporting base and snag free (it’s a small point but phono cables with a DIN connector can tug and pull my rig in a way that interferes with proper alignment if not addressed).

On first listen, I was impressed, but not fully convinced. Yes, it sounded obviously fuller than my reference cable, providing a more powerful sense of life to the music. and I sensed I was hearing a little more detail. But this is an expensive cable and I initially found its improvements over the Harmonic Tech welcome but not huge. If I’d spent that same amount improving my cartridge I would have hoped for greater immediate impact.

However, this impression changed over time as the rig settled in and I began swapping cables in and out of the tonearm over several months. I originally kept the PAD in for a month, then went back to the reference, then on again to another cable for a similar period. This made straight comparisons difficult, so after a couple of months, when I was sure both new cables had received enough play time to be settled, I started changing cables every few days or so, or sometimes more than once a day as I tried to get a handle on what each brought. Over time, I came to appreciate why so many SME owners rate the PAD tonearm cables highly.

If I had to characterize the sound of the Purist-cabled analog rig in one word I would say ‘organic’. The whole sonic picture presents a detailed yet ever so slightly warm balance, rendering most recordings very pleasing to the ear. The PAD is open, clear, and slanted slightly toward the mids and bass over treble. But this type of description must be interpreted in context since so many of these sonic qualities of vinyl rigs are influenced by other factors in the set up. Unlike most digital systems, an analog rig in a constant dynamic state as parts wear in (and out) and settings are adjusted slightly to compensate or to improve what one hears. I tried to leave my set up alone for the review period but routine checks and minor adjustments are a part of analog life. I use the descriptors above to highlight the subtle differences I hear between this and other phono cables, as a comparator not an absolute.

On Wes Montgomery’s Riverside Recording collection Round Midnight (of which I have two versions), the cymbals can sound peskily sharp in places, particularly at the end of Satin Doll as the band wraps up the take. I use these tracks to help set up new cartridges as they reveal clearly the impact of different arm height settings. The PAD offered one of the cleanest presentations of this album that I’ve heard at home. Not only could it tame the worse excesses of the sharp treble, but it allowed depth in the recording to come through, with greater separation of organ and guitar in the soundstage than I am used to hearing. Wes’ firm right hand thumb work was also clearer to decipher as details, previously unnoticed, emerged from a record I’ve owned for years.

On Joan Armatrading’s Show Some Emotion, an album I’ve owned for over 35 years, the acoustic guitar was beautifully reproduced, with great space between instruments opening up the soundstage in a most enjoyable fashion. The bass was tighter than before and details seemed to emerge effortlessly from a very quiet background. I had a similar experience with Ralph Towner and John Abercombie’s Saragossa Sea LP (ECM, 1976). This is a truly wonderful recording of two masters playing a wide-ranging set of cuts which interplay their styles and which mixes nylon strings with 12-string and electric guitars. The Purist enabled the space between notes to be heard, the reverb coming through and fading naturally. Lines between instruments emerged as the active interplay of two living musicians hearing, reacting, and clearly enjoying each other’s skills. Had I ever heard this record sound better? Not that I can recall. It’s at times like this that you sit back, enjoy how well your system can sound and wonder what more you might reasonably ask for in a record playing system. Yes, the PAD phono cable gave me many such moments over the last few months.

I’ve become a regular (and enthusiastic) purchaser this year of the MusicMatters classic jazz pressings, a series of 12 LPs from the Blue Note label that are sourced from the best analog tapes. Initially purchased selectively to fill out holes in my collection, I ended up signing up for the full set once I got to hear a few in my home. The superb Kenny Burrell Midnight Blue set has never sounded so good and with the PAD Corvus Luminist installed, I again found new pleasures in this old recording. I finally felt that here was an LP version that bettered the otherwise good sounding CD version and might actually improve in part the original Blue Note release I own. Music here sounds like music, with real instruments, ample space allowing one to really follow lines, and an articulation of bass that was clean and firm across the full recording. Just listening to the opening track, Chile con Carne, the percussion behind Burrell had a truer sense of space, sounding more like a real tom-tom than my reference. Small things, but summed over all the instrumental lines on this recording, they made the recording sound that much more like real music.

Perhaps more impressive however was the effect the addition of the Purist Audio Design cable had on recordings that I’d otherwise felt were a little dull or lacking in dynamics. My copy of Frank Sinatra singing with Quincy Jones and Orchestra from 1984, LA is My Lady, had left me unimpressed on first listens, convincing me that even though it was Ole Blue Eyes’ last real album, this was another session that Frank probably committed to more in theory than in practice. With the PAD on my tonearm, however, I was forced to reconsider my initial impression. The music took on a new lease of life, the band finally swinging powerfully behind a mature Sinatra who in places actually sounds like he’s having some fun. Yes, there is some of the old magic in those grooves after all and the PAD cable brought it out with ease, George Benson letting it fly on a couple of tracks where previously he’d seemed a little muted.

I could go on, listing album after album that I enjoyed. All told, this is not an affordable phono cable by any realistic measure. However, in the context of a fine turntable set up, PAD’s Corvus ekes out a level of performance that I’d not otherwise experienced, confirming again that in audio reproduction every part of the chain makes a difference. More worrying, I suppose, is that it’s not even their top cable, so you always wonder what the next one might provide. Leave that thought at the river, grasshopper, and just enjoy what you have here: great sound throughout the full range.

Furutech’s Silver Arrows Phono Cable

The Silver Arrows is Furutech’s top-of-the-line phono cable and relies on pure silver wire conductors with Furutech’s highly regarded rhodium-plated connectors. Leaving aside the stereotypical reactions some audiophiles have to the supposed sonic impact of silver over copper, the Furutech also has the look and feel of a very well made product which encourages you to settle it into your rig, rather than just treat it as a simple wire connection.

From the outset, this cable also made its presence felt, sounding like it had added some serious fuel to my rig. Nothing actually got louder (at least as measured by my cheap and cheerful iPad SPL meter), but the effect of adding the Furutech to my SME rig seemed to give everything a sonic kick in the pants. Upper frequency extremes seemed to expand, and rock and electric jazz LPs obviously gained more snap. If ever you need to demonstrate to someone that a cable might actually make a difference, try one of these on your favorite rock abum. The sounds immediately seemed to come at me with more force, greater width and all-round energy.

Furutech Silver Arrows Phono Cable

In my more conservative reviewer role, with lengthy back-and-forth listening over time I gained real respect for the Silver Arrows. Like the PAD, these represent a step up in resolution for my vinyl rig. The cable really does add some solidity to instrumental images, with guitar and bass sounding more lifelike and present than my reference. On Steely Dan’s Aja, the title track became a go-to track for comparing cables and proved that while the differences might be small, they are repeatedly hearable. The tom-tom rolls near the end of the track sounded firmer, more solid but perhaps a little less ambient than with other cables, particularly the PAD. The cymbals lost a little bit of detail – maybe – but mostly seemed to be less isolated from other instruments than I heard with the PAD. Thus, clear delineation was not as obvious with the Furutech but the combination of sound seemed to have a little more presence that was palpable even if it traded off ambience and decay slightly.

It is important to note here that the differences between these two cables were less apparent than the difference between each and the stock cable or my reference. Occasionally, the Silver Arrows could sound just a tad ragged in comparison to the smoothness of the PAD, as if the electric guitar was just distorting that little bit more or the transients were a tad harder but I can see that some folks would welcome these nuances as indicative of how instruments, particularly amplified guitars, can sound in real life. This is a very subtle cue though, not some obvious element that makes you question the set up. The music still sounded great but after long listening periods with other cables, the Silver Arrows just gave the impression that the musicians had dialed their amps up a notch on the gain stage.

To be specific, Kenny Burrell’s guitar seemed just a tad more amplified and the decay on some acoustic picking by Metheny was a little less pronounced with this cable. Indeed, on the Burrell album, the Silver Arrows revealed more clearly than any other cable the pre-echo that is captured in the original recording of the Midnight Blue album (confirmed to me by Ron at MusicMatters). It excelled in transient snap over any other cable I’ve heard but does this come at the slight cost of removing some of the bloom in the bass on this recording? I think so but it’s close and requires a lot of back-and-forth listening to be sure.

If any of this sounds like a criticism, hold on. What the Silver Arrow gave up in smoothness, it appreciably delivered on midrange resolution. If you use a guitar amp with reverb, you can tell the difference between various dial settings quite easily. The Silver Arrow cable dampens reverb down and slightly raises the treble control but as a result, it allows complex multi-instrumental sounds to come through cleanly and firmly. It never sounds as dry as an amp with reverb totally defeated but it’s a matter of levels — the SIlver Arrows cable is like an amp’s reverb set to 2 or 3 when other cables might be set to 5 or 6. For those who don’t hear the guitar amp comparison, just think of it as a kind of reduction in the spatial or ambient qualities of the room in which the instrument was recorded, which seems more obvious when reverb is higher. Too high, and you sound like you recorded the music in a cave. Too low and it sounds as if your ear is up against the speaker. Context, as they say, is everything.

With Burrell’s Midnight Blue, the music is almost in your face when you turn it up – intimate still (this is, after all, the epitome of late night studio submersion suggested by the title) but tangibly present in the room. Kenny’s guitar has just the faintest element of distortion coming in, the sign of warm tubes breaking up when he digs into the strings. Stanley Turrentine’s sax has that ‘blaat’ quality of air through metal that one experiences close up to a real player, as good as I’ve heard a sax sound in my room; terrific stuff indeed, just slightly different in emphasis than the PAD.

On Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, the Furutech offers more clarity and greater emphasis of the snare and percussive details on “I do it for your love” which certainly creates the impression of resolution being this cables forte. On some systems this will be a boon, on others it might overwhelm, depending on cartridge and other variables. This only goes to confirm how much of what we hear is a function of multiple interactions but I’d say that if you crave clarity and detail, this phono cable offers it about as well as I’ve heard. If I had to reduce this cable to one word, I’d call it ‘exciting’.

Conclusions

So what do we conclude? It’s actually not as complicated as it sounds. First, both these phono cables are superb, and a clear step up from the stock cable. They should be, given the price difference, but you can never count on any dollars spent on cables really making an improvement that matters to you. I think if you are a vinyl addict with a table that allows for it, these phono cables really are worth some of your attention and dollars over investments elsewhere in your rig. The right cable can elevate performance appreciably.

Second, the Purist and Furutech phono cables are more similar than different in that music just emerges from the grooves with a timbral accuracy that renders listening truly pleasurable. Cue up the usual clichés but these cables make the music sound more like music. It’s not hard to hear the benefits when you make the change but you do need to listen closely if you want to identify exactly where the benefits are found. At the very end of this review period I put the Harmonic Tech cable back in again and found that while it still sounded good, it just could not replicate the same sense of air and timbral accuracy that the PAD and Furutech cables offered.

Third, what differences exist between the PAD and Furutech are akin to slight preferences for a tone setting and surely are contingent on the cartridge and table one uses. I’d say the Purist Audio Designs is all about smooth, balanced coherence; the Furutech is more about wide-open resolution. The Purist is a sensual delight with acoustic jazz, a creamy, tube-like smoothie, the Furutech suits the vitality of rock or larger symphonic recordings which it imbues with a solid-state punch and liveliness that strikes me as close to reality. In fairness, both cables can reasonably claim to do it all, with aplomb, across many musical forms, and I doubt you would be unhappy with either if stepping up to this level in an otherwise decent rig.

What this tells me is that as you invest in your vinyl front end, there comes a point where the tonearm cable is the difference between good and excellent reproduction. Since these cables cost more than many turntables, I’d enter this niche only after I’d settled on a table. By then, small differences really seem to matter. When they matter, you could reasonably choose one of these cables according to your musical preferences and enjoy your grooves. In my SME rig, both offer better sonics than I’d heard before and I’d be happy with either but if you pushed me to choose, with the Clearaudio Concerto II taking up residence in my rig and my ever-growing collection of jazz dominating my listening sessions, I’d probably give the nod to the PAD; but ask me again tomorrow and I might change my mind.

 

Equipment under review

Purist Audio Designs Corvus Luminist Revision

Manufacturer website: http://www.puristaudiodesign.com/
Product page: http://www.puristaudiodesign.com/products/phono/pho_cor.php
Retail price: $2500 (USD)

Furutech Silver Arrows Phono Cable

Manufacturer website: http://www.furutech.com/
Product page: http://www.furutech.com/2013/02/03/1688/
Retail price: $1970 (USD)

Associated Equipment

Vinyl: SME 20/2 with SME V arm, and Clearaudio Concerto II cartridge
Phono stage: Whest P.03RDT
Preamp: SMcAudio VRE-1,
Power amps: Spectron Musician III Mk2 monoblocks
Cables: Harmonic Technology phono and interconnects, High Fidelity interconnects, Von Schweikert biwires for speakers
Power cords: Spectron Thunderbolts, Absolute Fidelity, Wywires.
Speakers: Von Schweikert VR5 Anniversary IIs
Conditioning by Audience and PS Audio (main components).


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