Auditioning Nordost cables: Do speaker cables have a 'sound'?

The Audiophiliac tries out Nordost high-end cables, and likes what he hears.

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Nordost flat Red Dawn speaker cables Simon Marsh

It's a safe bet that your speaker cables don't look like Nordost's ultra-flat cables. Founded in 1991, Nordost is a high-technology cable manufacturer using conductor technology that was initially developed for the aerospace industry. Nordost designs and builds all of its audio, digital and video cables in its facilities in Holliston, Massachusetts. For this review I'm focusing on Nordost's speaker and headphone cables.

I still have a set of Nordost Super Flatline speaker cables from 10 or 12 years ago, and this pair has been used in hundreds of speaker reviews. Not only do the cables still sound great, their copper conductors aren't the least bit tarnished, and Nordost's proprietary banana plugs still provide a firm grip on binding posts after hundreds of insertions. No other banana plug has been as reliable over the long term.

Today I'm reviewing Nordost's Red Dawn speaker cables, which feature silver-plated, solid-core copper conductors and FEP extrusion insulation. These flat cables are extremely durable and can be run under carpets and rugs; the cables can be bent and folded into room corners without damaging the insulation.

When I hooked up the Red Dawn cables between my First Watt J2 power amplifier and Zu Druid V speakers the stereo soundstage expanded, treble was clearer and the midrange was more natural-sounding than I get from my Zu Libtec speaker cables. Even though I didn't touch my preamp's volume control when I swapped between the Red Dawn and Libtec cables, the music seemed louder, more energetic and livelier with Red Dawn. The Zu speakers are always dynamic, but they were more so with Red Dawn cables. I also tried Red Dawn with my Magnepan .7 speakers and Pass Labs XA100.5 power amps, and heard similar improvements.

Since there's no industrywide standard earcup connector, Nordost Heimdall 2 headphone cables must be ordered to match your headphones' connectors. The Heimdall 2 cable is 2 meters in length and terminated with a four-pin balanced XLR male connector you can use directly with balanced headphone amplifiers like my Oppo HA-1. The Heimdall 2 also comes with adapters with 3.5mm and 6.3mm plugs that will work with most portable and home headphone amplifiers. The glossy red cable is surprisingly flexible, it never got in the way.

I started listening to Heimdall 2 with my Oppo PM-1 headphones, and compared it with the stock Oppo cable, and the difference was dramatic. The drums and percussion on Aphex Twin's "Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments" album had more leading-edge snap. The Heimdall 2 added life to the PM-1's sound, which tends to be rather sweet and mellow; with the Heimdall 2 the music's energy levels seemed higher. On some tunes on this album you hear a child's voice off in the distance, and even though I know it's in the recording I felt I had to remove the headphones just to make sure the child wasn't really there -- the sound was that realistic.

The same Heimdall 2 cable connectors that fit the Oppo PM-1 also fit my Sennheiser HD 700 headphones . The standard Sennheiser cable sounds fine, but Heimdall 2 cable sounds clearer, and the soundstage opened up. Basically, the Heimdall 2 makes the HD700 sound like better and more transparent. Returning to the stock cable was a letdown; the sound felt congested and closed-in.

My Audeze LCD Series headphones have different connectors on their earcups, so I used a different set of Heimdall 2 cables with them. These are among the best headphones I own, so I was curious to see how the cables changed the sound. Again, the gains in transparency were significant. Hooking up the Heimdall 2 cables to my LCD-X was a breeze, but the connector fit was much too snug, so unplugging the cable from the LCD-X's earcups wasn't easy. It just took a while, and then I tried the cable with my Audeze LCD-3 headphones and had the same problem. Chances are you'll just leave the cables attached, so the overly snug fit might not be a problem for you.

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Nordost Heimdall 2 cables, shown with HiFiMan HE6 headphones Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Moving onto my HiFiMan HE6 headphones, which use entirely different connectors on their earcups, the Nordost connectors were superior in fit and finish to the standard HiFiMan cables. I've owned these headphones for years, but the Heimdall 2 cables worked their magic on the sound. The sound was less bright, more full-bodied and natural. I feel like I'm just now hearing the HE6 for the first time.

Obviously Heimdall 2 cables aren't making the headphones any better than they really are, but upgrading cables reveals more of the headphones' true sound. That's what seems to be happening; in every case I enjoyed the sounds of my headphones more with Nordost cables than the stock cables.

The cables I'm reviewing aren't expensive by extravagant high-end standards, but they are costly; the Nordost Heimdall 2 cable is 2 meters long, for $799. Red Dawn speaker cables run $1,040 for a 2-meter pair fitted with banana plug or spade connectors. The Nordost speaker cable line starts with White Lightning, which sells for $377 for a 2-meter pair.

If you've already invested in a pair of audiophile headphones or speakers, try a set of Nordost cables and see if they make a worthwhile difference. Some Nordost dealers offer loaners so customers can try the cables at home.

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