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Published December 15, 2001

 

BetterCables Silver Serpent Audio Interconnects and Premium Speaker Cables

I’m not all that fond of audio cable. Frankly, I find it maddening to think that a few feet of wire can make a difference in a hi-fi system -- but it can. When you spend your money on something like a DVD player, you understand what you're paying for and you get a product with a remote, pretty lights, and lots of parts inside the box. Audio cables, by comparison, aren’t quite as exciting, and in many cases they can be extremely expensive, making their value questionable.

The problem is that choosing the wrong cable can degrade the sound of the best electronics. I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if the list of cable choices wasn’t so long, or the interactions between cable and electronics weren't so complicated. Inductance, resistance, and impedance -- jeez, you'd think a degree in electrical engineering was mandatory to simply listen to your favorite tunes! Why can’t someone just offer a neutral cable at a price that won’t cause your significant other -- or you -- to question your sanity?

Enter Brad Marcus, co-founder and president of the Internet-based BetterCables brand of audio and video interconnects. Since 1999, BetterCables' mission statement has been to design sonically neutral, yet affordable cable solutions for audio and video devices that would compete favorably with the more expensive high-end brands. And the company offers an impressive six-month satisfaction policy that guarantees buyers' money back if they don’t find the cables to their liking. This pledge is a nice touch -- if only other manufacturers would consider such a policy, maybe the trauma of buying expensive cable would be lessened.

The products under review are the Silver Serpent interconnects (priced at $79.95 for a .5-meter pair with RCA connectors) and the Premium speaker cables (priced at $139.95 for a three-meter pair with spade connectors). Considering what you can spend on cables today, these cables can be considered affordably priced.

Money where it counts

The no-nonsense philosophy of this Virginia-based company was apparent in the way the cables were delivered. There is no gold-plated box, no velvet bag, no cortege of 25 white horses to add marketing melodrama to the presentation. Just a couple of transparent zip-lock bags sporting plain, neatly printed stickers.

The cables seem well made and are relatively slender in profile. The silver jacket and red-rubber shrink terminations on the Silver Serpent interconnects did offer a bit more eye-catching glamour when compared to the black-net jacket of the Premium speaker cable. But judging a cable on its looks seems a bit ridiculous, especially if your living circumstances mandate concealment behind furniture. In this circumstance, the highly flexible nature of the analog interconnects made them easy to install within the cramped space behind my entertainment center. Even the speaker cables, which were nearly twice the diameter of the interconnects, were exceedingly easy to manage without any danger of crimping their meaty conductors.

Overall quality control for both the interconnect and the speaker cable proved to be pretty good, other than a Vampire banana plug that refused to put the bite on two different styles of five-way binding posts, and netting that separated from one of the screw-on termination jackets of the same banana. Simply spreading the banana connector with a jeweler’s screwdriver did the trick in remedying the lack of grip, while a small piece of electrical tape kept the speaker cable's netting in check.

The Silver Serpent interconnect utilizes a pure-copper center conductor, which is coated with 99.9999% pure silver. Like many silver-coated designs, the intent is said to reduce skin effect, or the tendency of high frequencies to ride the outermost surface of the conductor. Skin effect reportedly can cause time-alignment problems, which in turn contribute to smearing and an overall lack of cohesiveness between low, mid, and high frequencies. A copper braid offers 95% coverage of the cable. RCA connectors are solidly built and slim enough to fit into tight quarters.

The Premium speaker cable utilizes four 14AWG ultra-pure-copper conductors twisted in pairs, which yields an overall wire gauge of 11AWG. The spade connectors (or banana plugs for a  $40 premium) are hand-soldered to the cable using silver solder.

I connected the BetterCables between my Harman/Kardon AVR 510 receiver and Marantz DR6050 CD player/recorder. Speakers included a pair of NHT’s new ST4 floorstanding towers and my Cambridge SoundWorks Newton MC300 bookshelf speakers minus the low-end support of my CSW P1000 sub. Per the manufacturer's advice, I allowed the cables to burn in for approximately 40 hours before sitting down for a serious audition.

Listening

By the manufacturer's own admission, the CSW Newton Mc300 speaker system is designed to be compatible with a wide assortment of mid- and entry-level audio products. And while the sonic quality can be best described as slightly laid-back and tolerant, this does not restrict the system's ability to show differences between the sound of ancillary gear. Using my el cheapo 14AWG Home Depot wiring and some inexpensive CSW interconnects didn’t seem to make the Newton system sound bad -- but improving the cables improved the system. When I hooked up the BetterCables, the system displayed differences.

Given the Newton MC300 speakers' personality, I anticipated very little improvement when partnering them with the BetterCables, so I was surprised to hear distinct improvements. The Newtons continued to be laid-back and forgiving, but the new cable revealed more detail and greater clarity across the speakers’ frequency response. Rusted Root’s hit "Send Me Away" from When I Woke [Uni/Mercury 522713] displayed more energy and faster attack on drum hits, and there was less grain and stridency on potentially hard vocals. Sibilants exhibited less sizzle, while plosive sounds were less spitty. Music and vocals, like those on Duncan Sheik’s self-titled debut album [WEA/Atlantic 82879], had more of a liquid texture, which lent the close-mic’ed compositions a relaxed room-filling quality without loosing any of their snap. By comparison, the Home Depot cables introduced a much drier, less-crisp quality that sucked some energy from the performances, while the broad, full image seemed spottier across the soundstage.

The Newton MC300 speakers' limited bass capability didn’t allow me to judge sub-frequency extension below about 70Hz. However, there was a good deal of added detail in the lower midbass that made tracks off drummer Dave Weckel’s energetic Master Plan [Uni/GRP 9619] sound more open and tight, with drum solos that moved consistently, and seamlessly across both speakers. I also found the attack and snap of stick against skin to have less of an edge.

One may conclude that most of what I was hearing was a side effect of a cable possessing a rounded-off high end. Of course it could also be the personality of the CSW’s taking command. With the NHTs sitting patiently in the corner I wondered what effect the BetterCables might have on their extended, sometimes relentless high frequencies.

There was no denying the marked improvement that adding the BetterCables provided NHT’s ST4. Despite being cut from a slightly more forgiving cloth than its SuperTwo predecessor, the ST4 still possesses the trademark transparency that characterized the company’s goal of absolute sonic disclosure. The problem with this approach is the speaker’s tendency to get a bit harsh with many decent recordings.

The biggest difference I heard between the CSW/Home Depot cables and BetterCables appeared while listening to Jean Michel Jarre’s classic Zoolook [Sony XCD488140]. A recording that has its share of strident synthesizers, this 20-bit remastering will induce a moderate level of listening fatigue if given the chance. Let’s just say that with the Home Depot/CSW cables in place, my head started aching around "Woolloomooloo" -- ouch. When the BetterCables were inserted, however, the changes were instantly apparent. Electronic chirps and buzzes no longer had the annoying edginess I winced at with the previous cables. This dissonance allayed, the NHTs were able to flaunt their excellent imaging abilities and reveal Zoolook’s rich ambient soundscape, which I proceeded to enjoy immensely.

A more refined, less etched, top end wasn’t the only effect the BetterCables’s had on the ST4s. Midrange exhibited the same increase in detail that was apparent with the CSW speakers -- albeit the NHTs did offer a more forward presentation, with a bit more nuance in the midbass. These improvements also allowed live recordings to take on a more realistic tonality. Voices were more palpable, percussion demonstrated a more natural decay, with less ringing, and the sounds coming from an upright bass were pleasingly plump without being fat or slow in their pacing.

Priced right, but do they sound right?

Where the CSWs sounded thicker in their tonality, the NHTs sounded leaner, with a smoother edge. Like the difference between rich hot chocolate and a good cup of Starbuck’s coffee, an individual’s preference for one or the other speaker is a matter of taste. That the BetterCables actually added to my listening pleasure was a fact with either speaker.

These cables did an excellent job adding to the overall enjoyment of my system, and would make an excellent upgrade over basic cabling. What' s more, they offer the GoodSound! reader a cabling option that won’t cause too much undue financial stress. Who knows? Maybe even a little ol’ cable skeptic like me might break down and pick up a set.

Price of equipment reviewed


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