Ernie Fisher and my Nordost Experience

 

I’m happiest in this hobby when I’m learning. This is a story about one of those moments.

 

It’s been over a decade since I last wrote about cables. I find the technology and science of cabling opaque in comparison to amplifiers, speakers or, turntables, so I’ve spent little time experimenting with them and even less writing about them. While components in my Hi-Fi system have changed, my cabling has remained the same. I’ve been using the same Kimber Select KS1026 interconnects, Kimber TC12 speaker cables and Shunyata Venom power cables for over ten years.

 

Over the past year, however, I had an experience with some new cables from Nordost that have significantly improved the performance of my audio system. The change was so dramatic, in fact, that it bears exploration in writing. There is a back-story of how I came to discover the cables though, one that explains how I came to appreciate the impact Nordost had on my listening experience, so bear with me.

 

Part I – Letting Go

2015 was a year of monumental change, both in my personal life and my Hi-Fi life. At the beginning of the year, Natalie and I moved our family from a small row-house in downtown Toronto, one with a custom built audio cave that had been accumulating equipment for close to fifteen years, to a bigger house in the eastern part of the city, nearer the water.

 

Although the new house was larger overall, there was no private audio cave. Instead, a main floor living room would become our listening space. Our family was growing, and life priorities were changing. I already had less time for music listening, and even less for Hi-Fi writing. With a second child on the way, my relationship to my hobby needed to adapt to my new reality.

 

Prior to our move, as I stood down in my basement cave looking at my collection of audio equipment, I realized finding space in the new house for all of the gear was going to be a problem. The living room where the system was destined to go simply couldn’t accommodate it all.

 

A solution didn’t come to me right away, but, after some serious consternation, I came to the bold conclusion that the best approach for both my hobby and for my immediate needs would be to let it all go and to build a new audio system more suited to the new space after the move.

 

While the choice to strip back to nothing and start again was stressful, the truth was I needed a much simpler, more child-friendly system. So, prior to moving I started the process of selling my entire Hi-Fi collection. My Bryston, Allnic and Nagra amplifiers, my beloved Garrard turntable, and my ATC loudspeakers: I sold it all. Everything that is, except my cables.

 

While I felt a significant amount of melancholy as each individual piece of my audio collection left my possession, when our mid-January move came I was relieved to not have any audio equipment to transport across the city. Shortly thereafter, our second child, Nathan, was born and life became intensely full. For a number of months there was little time to be concerned about music, Hi-Fi and the equipment I had left behind.

 

As the year moved forward, a new normal with two small children began to form for Natalie and I. Time played a role in separating me from my old audio system. By the late summer and throughout the fall, as I began thinking about music and audio equipment again, the process of building a system from scratch felt exciting. I had a clean slate and was ready for something new.

 

Part II – A Change in Approach

My old basement cave was a complex array of equipment. It served as both a multi-channel home theatre and a stereo music system, designed to support both my professional sound work and my Hi-Fi hobby. In the cave, I used similar model ATC loudspeakers to those I use at work, and had created a very studio-like environment. At its peak my basement room was capable of sounding spectacular, but it could also be harsh, and it wasn’t always pleasant sounding.

 

After years of critical listening in a complex configuration I was ready for something simpler and more relaxed. In the new home we had a separate space for TV and movie watching, so the living room would be for music only. And I was in a phase with my Hi-Fi hobby where I wanted to sit back and enjoy my music rather than sit forward and study it.

 

I also wanted the music room to be a welcome place for my family, where the experience of listening to music would be shared rather than private. So as I started to plan the new system I thought I should start with loudspeakers. As much as I appreciate my active ATC monitors at work, for home use, the inefficiency of ATC’s passive models was a constant limitation to ancillary equipment choices. So, for our new room I began by looking for a speaker that would be easy to drive and flexible to arrange in a room. With the guidance of Audio by Mark Jones, I found my way to Tannoy.

 

 

fullsizerender-5
Audio by Mark Jones main listening room featuring Tannoy, CH Precision, Tenor, Kronos, VPI, AMG, Aurender and Massif

 

Part III – Building it up Again

Prior to meeting Jones, I had quietly lusted after Tannoy Prestige loudspeakers for years. I was attracted to their classic look; I knew the speakers mated well with different amplifier designs; and I appreciated the company’s long-standing legacy.

 

 

img_1790

Natalie and I listened to numerous Tannoy model speakers together. With Jones’ help we eventually selected a pair of Kensington GR loudspeakers as the first component for our new music room. Besides being very happy with how the speakers sounded, we also appreciated their robust, child-friendly grill covers. Natalie was happy to incorporate the speakers’ walnut finish into her interior design ideas for the living room where they would reside. It was an exciting first step.

 

 

After making the speaker choice, I spent a number of months exploring various amps, pre-amps, DACs and digital players from manufacturers including Pass Labs, PS Audio, Clayton, Bryston, McIntosh, Auralic, Esoteric Audio Research, Thoress, Unison Research, Wyetech Labs, Modwright, Allnic, Shindo, Rogue and Manley Labs.

 

img_8906

Since this story is really about Nordost, I will save the details of how I made the final selections for another day. But, so you know where I got to, my new audio system starts with a pair of Wyetech Labs Sapphire 300B mono-block amplifiers connected to an E.A.R. 868 preamplifier.

 

 

 

 

The front-end is digital only, with an Aurender N100 music server feeding a P.S. Audio Direct Stream DAC. The EAR 868 does have a built-in phono section though, so I’m ready and waiting for the day vinyl returns.

img_1812

 

 

img_1331Considering one of my priorities was to be more child-friendly, it is a bit ironic that the new system is tube-based. I was able to address the dangers of the exposed 300B valves by placing the amplifiers in a cabinet from Salamander that provides active cooling to help move out the hot air. As time goes on this feature has proved to be even more valuable, as my young son Nathan loves staring at the amplifiers when the valves are glowing.

 

When I finally put the new system together it would be an understatement to say I was happy. I thought it sounded wonderful, possessing a lovely, enveloping character. It was rich in body, tonally nuanced, spatially strong, and there was a wide sweet spot for listening. It might not have been as resolute or as strong in its ability to handle transient impact as I had with the old ATC speakers, but it may have been more natural sounding, and was certainly more relaxed. In a word, I thought it sounded beautiful. Unbeknownst to me, however, there was one major change still to come that would have a profound impact on the sound of our new room.

 

img_1830

 

Part IV – Ernie Fisher

I try to make a trip to visit my friend and mentor Ernie Fisher a few times a year. Fisher introduced me to high-end audio when I was in my early twenties, and also provided my first platform for writing when I started contributing to The Inner Ear Report print magazine in the mid 90s. Though in recent years both Fisher and The Inner Ear have slowed, we’ve stayed close friends, and continue to share our mutual passion for audio.

 

Back when we first met my visits with Fisher involved lengthy listening sessions, debates about the future of high-end audio, and some fine cognac. In recent years, since Fisher’s writing lessened and the birth of my children, our time together has shortened. More often now, it’s a cup of coffee that accompanies our listening and debating.

 

During one visit in November of 2015, I noticed a box of Nordost cables sitting unopened in Ernie’s hallway. While I was peeking into the box, Fisher pronounced, “take’em…you might like’em.” This was a generous gesture from Fisher, as the cables were clearly for him, but there was also a degree of irony in his suggestion.

 

ernie-beethoven

 

Ernie Fisher and I share a deep passion for music and the experience of listening. We are both attracted to the intricacies of quality high-end audio systems, have many commonalities about what we think an audio component should be able to do, and often agree about when a high quality system is doing things well. But we also have disagreements. One topic about which we are most frequently at odds is that of cables.

 

Fisher doesn’t care what a cable costs or how it transfers the audio signal. He doesn’t feel that it’s his job as a critic to concern himself with either the cost or the science of the products under review. Rather, he feels it’s the job of the reviewer to evaluate the performance of the product without any outside influence or expectation. If it sounds good and performs well under varying conditions, it should be stated as such in writing. Fisher feels it is for the consumer to determine what value they place on acquiring the performance level they seek. And for as long as I’ve known him, despite their sometime exorbitant prices, Fisher has been a big fan of Nordost cable products.

When evaluating a cable Ernie calls it as he hears it. He calls it fast; he trusts his ears and his years of experience, and after putting in the time required evaluating a cable product, he has no hesitation stating his opinion to his readers.

 

14686137_1195657660495847_176558845_n-png

Since the time I started writing about audio, I’ve never been comfortable with the price-points of some high-end cable products, Nordost included. In my work as a writer I’ve always felt more comfortable positioning myself alongside the consumer, and if I can’t see value in a product, if I can’t understand or justify it’s price, or if I would not seriously consider purchasing a product myself, I struggle to suggest to a reader that they should be willing to do so, regardless of how the product performs.

 

As for the process as analysis, I struggle to be as direct as Fisher. In addition to finding the technology elusive, I find the procedures of cable analysis within high-end audio to be lacking in thoroughness, and often to be overly subjective. I feel there are numerous variables inherent to the process, such as listening volume, echoic memory, the warm-up state of the connected equipment and our own unconscious expectations, all which potentially compromise or colour one’s thoughts on what’s been heard.

 

Now, I am not normally opposed to subjective opinion. There is certainly a place for individual taste in any constructive conversation about something as emotionally engaging as music and music listening. Jim Austin’s article Audio, Meet Science offers some excellent points on the value of subjectivity within high-end audio.

 

But I’ve found that in much writing on audio, subjective thoughts are too often equated with, or presented as, objective opinion. I feel that if no effort has been made to control the numerous factors that affect how we hear, the opinions of any one individual should be considered subjective, and presented to the reader as such.

 

Fisher and I have discussed these points extensively, with no compromise or conclusion found between us. I’m guessing this history was in the back of his mind when he made the casual comment that I should try the Nordost cables because I might like them. He was right.

Part V – Nordost

In early 2016 my Nordost experience began. The boxes from Fisher were labeled NORSE and cables inside were called TYR 2. Included in the package were three pairs of interconnect cables and a pair of speaker wires.

 

img_1767

Without realizing it, I was participating in a perfect Ernie Fisher listening experiment: I knew nothing about the product, including their price; I had zero personal investment in the cables and no expectations of what I would hear. At the time no one from the company was aware that I had the cables, and I had no intention to write about them, so I was free of any exterior bias that might influence my experience.

 

 

Since my system was now much simpler, there was enough cable to wire it entirely with Nordost signal cable, and installation took less than five minutes.

 

Without meaning to be hyperbolic, it took less time than that for the Nordost Tyr 2 cables to shake my audio world. From the first cut I played, the Big Star song Thirteen from the album #1 Record, I was conscious that changing the interconnect cables and speaker wire from my long-standing Kimber products had a profoundly positive impact on what I heard. The effect was dramatic and caught me completely off guard.

Though my initial reaction was entirely against my previous instincts, with every subsequent song I played I honestly felt that I didn’t need to worry about variables such as the setting of my volume levels, or whether to engage in something akin to a A-B-X test in order to verify my sonic discoveries. Everything about my new audio system sounded better with the Nordost cables.

Picture 745

Part VI – What’s the Difference?

With the Nordost TYR 2 interconnects and speaker cables managing the signal flow in my audio system some of the improvements to the sound are obvious: vocals are more natural sounding, with better extension and air through the voice frequencies; subtle transients are more defined; decays last longer; and there is better separation between notes and instruments, which make it easier to perceive the musicianship of the performers. The combined effect of these improvements is that the music becomes more harmonically complex, more enjoyable to listen to, and more complete. Here are a few examples.

 

Of late I’ve been enjoying Radiohead’s new release A Moon Shaped Pool, and two tracks in particular, Desert Island Disk and The Numbers, have caught my ear. Certain strengths in both the production and the composition of these songs have informed my recent listening experiences. Since the songs are similar in tone and structure I will keep my discussion to the later song.

 

a_moon_shaped_pool

The Numbers starts with a scattered piano, with layers of gentle guitar and percussion joining in before the vocals starts. Once the melody starts to take hold I appreciate having the ability to perceive the organization of instruments in space, observable in the separation between the central guitar/vocals/piano and the more spatial synth and strings elements that expand the sound of the song outward from the middle. This separation is audibly clearer and more defined with the Nordost cables installed.

 

When a string arrangement rises at about the two-thirds point, it adds an additional layer of complexity that pushing up the intensity, I feel like I can hear a kind of pressure building in the room, an attribute that was lacking with my previous cable configuration, while also expanding the overall soundstage wider and further back in the room.

 

Like most of A Moon Shape Pool, neither Desert Island Disk nor The Numbers becomes overbearing. Though sometimes complex, the songs remain coherent and are full of nuanced details. From a personal perspective, I’ve settled on them as the best of Radiohead’s latest offering, which I consider a five star affair. Listening to A Moon Shaped Pool on a great Hi-Fi system is a richly rewarding experience; one that was made better by Nordost.

beckmorningphase

Beck’s Morning Phase, the 2015 Grammy winner for Album of the Year, Best Rock Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, is another example of modern music that shines on my current system. While noting John H. Darko’s technical criticisms of Morning Phase, I am happy to say that I love the album as much as the Grammys did, both in terms of composition and sound. I think Beck is at his best here, in the album’s third track, Heart is a Drum. With Nordost, I hear smoothness in the guitar and voice, an expansiveness to the synth and percussion, and an increase in spatial energy, which now overwhelms at times (in a positive way). I just love how this song now floats around the room. It’s a killer track, simply gorgeous to listen to.

 

groove_yard_montgomery_brothers

Switching gears, I’ll cite The Montgomery Brothers’ song Bock to Bock (Back to Back), the first cut from their album Groove Yard, as an example of improved separation of musical instruments. It can be easy to lose track of Wes Montgomery’s guitar and Bobby Montgomery’s piano. I’m used to hearing these two instruments melding into a single sound. But during my Nordost experience, both musicians and instruments are clear and defined, leading to a more complete listening experience for the song and album.

 

After months of listening with the TYR 2 cables from Nordost I have many more examples of both technical improvement and an increase in overall listening enjoyment, but I think by now my perspective should be clear. There’s a lot to gain and a lot to like about these cables. My Nordost experience has left me in contemplation, with some serious decisions to consider as I’m not sure I can go backward from here.

 

Part VII – Next Steps

As enamored as I am with the Nordost cables I still have some hesitations. The Try 2 cables are expensive. The retail price for the 2m interconnect cables is $3350 US each, and the speaker cable is $6250 US. Though the rest of my Hi-Fi system isn’t cheap, $10k is more than I can afford for cabling. Based on my previously stated position of wanting to sit beside the consumer when making a recommendation, I’m feeling uncertain about the kind of endorsement I should offer.

 

But then I wonder, after hearing improvements as significant as the ones I have experienced, perhaps I shouldn’t care? Perhaps I should be willing to follow Fisher’s lead and simply state that, regardless of what the product costs or what I might do with my own system, if one of my readers can afford to spend this much on cabling, then I should strongly encourage them to consider Nordost Tyr 2 cables. My gut says I shouldn’t care and that I should make an unconditional recommendation. They are that good.

 

I suspect that if any one of Meredith Gabor, Joe Reynolds or Jon Baker from Nordost read this article they will call and offer an explanation of the cost and technology involved in the Tyr 2 cables, and to also make a case for why someone should be willing to invest this much in cabling. If the explanation makes sense, I will add it as an addendum to this report.

 

Part VIII – CONCUDING THOUGHTS

I recognize there are limitations to my analysis. I recently read a review of a First Watt J2 Power amplifier by Herb Reichert in which he used six pairs of loudspeakers in his analysis of the amplifier. I admire Reichert’s thoroughness, which greatly informed his analysis. I haven’t done that sort of comparison work here. The purpose of my report is less about producing a cable review that would likely get lost in a sea of high-end audio reporting, but to point toward an experience of education, and to share a story where something unexpected occurred.

High-End audio is so often constricted by bias. I feel there should be more time spent deconstructing prejudices and less time reinforcing them. My Nordost Experience represents a moment where a significant bias of my own has been exposed, and from which learning was allowed to occur. Perhaps from this point on I will have the ability to take a similar approach to Reichert’s in his First Watt amplifier review.

 

Lastly, I’ve debated, argued, and disagreed with Ernie Fisher many times in my hi-fi life. But I’ve also experienced great audio heights beside him. His insight and experience have been invaluable to my own development as both an audio enthusiast and a writer on Hi-Fi. I haven’t told him about the content of this article. The first he’ll know of it will be when he reads the final draft. But he deserves credit for this Nordost report. I wouldn’t have made the discovery without his recommendation.

 

, , , , ,

Comments are closed.