Friday, May 2, 2008

Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects

Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects 
Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects 
Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects 
Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects 
Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects 
Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects 
Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects 
Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects 
Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects 
Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables & interconnects 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

I've been in a nostalgic funk of late. What started it was visiting Golden, Colorado, where I spent my graduate-school days, and seeing all of the changes, not to mention the lecture halls full of kids who couldn't be a day over 12. When I commented on how young the freshmen looked, our host—a colleague of mine from grad school, now a professor—responded, "Those are seniors, Brian." I felt a little old.

So when the Monster Cable Sigma Retro booklet began talking about "our Golden Age of Hi-Fi," and I assumed that they were talking about the early days of Monster Cable—my formative audio years—it was too much. I can handle the encroaching gray in my beard, and I can even accept the fact that my 1986 Ducati F1 is no longer a new bike—but don't call me an audio geezer!

Fortunately, when I read on a bit, I discovered that the Golden Age being recalled was the 1950s and '60s. "Whew!" I thought with relief. "Guess I'm not a geezer yet." See, I didn't really catch the audio bug until '79 or '80. And while the '50s and '60s were truly another age—just after the Jurassic, I think—1980 was only a few years ago.

My youthful self-image shaken but intact, I took a close look at the Sigma Retros, a special series of cables created by whiz designer Demian Martin, formerly of Spectral and Entec fame. According to Martin, the Sigmas were deliberately conceived as a "Retro" product targeted at the single-ended triode (SET) market. Although their architecture is based on up-to-date theories on wave propagation, they eschew such things as termination networks in favor of simplicity and an emphasis on very-high-purity materials. In this case, that means "six-nines" (99.9999% pure) copper and a polyethylene insulator called PEX2, specially modified to increase the cross-linking between polymer chains and thus reduce the amount of electromagnetic energy dissipated by molecular movement.

The resulting cables are expensive, though no more so than other super-premium cables. They're well-built and easy to use, flexible, with simple, solid terminations. They're also nice-looking and luxurious to the touch, with their smoothly rounded plugs—"a stylish termination that resembles a jet engine nacelle"—and soft fabric covering.

And "luxurious" doesn't even begin to describe their packaging. If you buy the full system kit—a pair of 8' speaker cables packaged with 6' and 3' interconnect pairs—it all comes in a brushed Halliburton-style aluminum briefcase, the cables themselves snuggled in soft, velvet bags.

Monster Sigma Retro Gold interconnect
The Sigma Retro Gold interconnects use three different gauges of six-nines copper conductors. They're drawn and annealed to Monster's spec, then wound with the company's patented Microwire thread. This serves three purposes: it creates a mostly air dielectric, correctly spaces the conductors, and prevents any noise generated by their rubbing together. The wrapped conductors are then wound in a variation of a Litz construction, with the smaller conductors more concentrated near the surface of the bundle and the larger ones near the center. The winding architecture is based on the principle of having each conductor spend an equal amount of time at the bundle's surface as at its center, but is modified based on the different conductors' ratios of "skin" to "core," to try to balance out their propagation speed across the frequency spectrum.

The bundles—two in the case of the interconnect—are each encapsulated in an extruded PEX-2 insulator dielectric. Next, they're wound using an architecture Monster calls Super Multi-Twist, designed to reject audio bandwidth distortion, and the twisted pair is encapsulated in another extruded PEX2 tube. The outer tube is surrounded by two shields, one foil and one braided, which are tied to one end of the cable and covered by the soft fabric I mentioned earlier.

My first impression of the Sigma Retros, after a couple of evenings of serious listening, was very positive. They struck me as very good-sounding cables that seemed to be doing everything pretty well, and that were free of any overt colorations. As I listened over the next few evenings, I made a quick run through the audio checklist: bottom-end definition and punch, high-frequency air and extension, nicely detailed midrange with rich tonal colors, expansive soundstage, solid three-dimensional images. The Sigmas earned an A+ in every subject. Everything that I knew my system could do was being done, with nothing added or removed.

Over the next several evenings, I listened more carefully, homing in on specific aspects of the Monsters' performance, and occasionally comparing them to one or more of my reference interconnects: Audience's Au24, Nirvana's SX-Ltd., and Nordost's Valhalla. All three are superb, but each has a slightly different personality. The Nirvana is smooth and natural-sounding, perhaps a touch warm, with blacker-than-black silences and the best ability to re-create a coherent acoustic picture I've heard. The Valhalla is ever so slightly cool, and the fastest, airiest, most precise cable I've ever had in my system. The Au24 sits midway between the other two, with a dead-neutral tonal balance and a pretty even mix of their strengths and weaknesses.

In terms of tonal balance, the Monsters matched the Au24's neutrality. There was no extra warmth—cellos sounded like cellos and violas like violas, and female vocals were intimate, but with the correct mix of delicacy and body, and none of the extra huskiness that some cables and components can add. Similarly, the Monsters weren't overly cool. There was no emphasis of a guitar's string sound over its body resonance, for example, and no extra steel in flutes, violins, and piccolos.

The Monsters were actually a bit better at the frequency extremes than the Au24s, and had slightly greater extension. They had more impact at the bottom end, but this was due to their improved precision and better pitch definition, not to an increased level. I really noticed the Monsters' great bottom end during Sam Jones' bass solos on "On Green Dolphin Street" and "I Ain't Got Nobody," from the Red Garland Trio's Bright and Breezy (LP, Riverside/Jazzland SMJ-6099, Japanese import). Things like the finger movements against the strings, the pitch changing as Jones bent the strings, or the snapping, changing vibration of the strings themselves, were more vivid and electric with the Monsters.

The Sigmas were similarly stellar in their speed, clarity, air, and extension at the top end. Charlie Persip's cymbals on Bright and Breezy had a marvelous ring, with just the right mix of bell-like tone and metallic edge, surrounded by wonderful cascading waves of outward-radiating shimmer. The way a piccolo could cut through the air above an orchestra was also spot on with the Monsters, perfectly balancing the instrument's cutting edge and sweet, hollow tone.

Edge definition and detail were superb. The Monsters' sonic picture was a little sharper and more obvious, in fact, than with either the Au24s or the Nirvanas—more akin to the Nordost Valhalla in this respect. The most obvious example of this I heard were the maracas on Jimmy Buffett's "Migration," from A-1-A (ABC DSD-50183). Through the Monsters, they had exactly the right hollow sound, and their movements in space were beautifully transcribed. I'd swear I could count the individual beans rattling and swirling around inside. In addition to the detail, the Monsters also had a sort of "crisp mountain air" clarity—the spaces between images seemed cleaner and more open, which made the images stand out even more sharply.

The Monsters were also excellent in their reproduction of dynamic transients, and in their re-creation of images and soundstages. In these areas they were somewhere between the smoother, more coherent Au24 and Nirvana and the explosive, wide-open Valhalla. They had a slightly more forward soundstage and more projection than the Nirvanas or Au24, and things like rim shots and sharp guitar chops were just a bit sharper and faster—though not up to the standard set by the Valhallas.

On the other hand, while the Monsters' images were dimensional and their soundstages large—particularly in width and height—they didn't have quite the image dimensionality or soundstage depth of the Nirvanas or Au24s. Both of those latter cables replaced my listening room with a stunningly natural, completely coherent reproduction of the original acoustic space, with a sort of walk-into-it depth and seamless ambience. The Monster interconnects were very good, but not quite as good. On the flip side, however, the Monsters—or the Valhallas—made things like miking patterns more obvious, and better distinguished between the specific environments around individual instruments in multimiked studio recordings.

Summing Up: The Monster Sigma Retro Gold interconnects were superb performers. They were on a par, overall, with my three reference interconnects—Nirvana SX-Ltd., Nordost Valhalla, Audience Au24—but with a slightly different set of strengths and weaknesses. The Monsters should sound great in any system, but whether or not they prove to be the single, absolute best match will depend on other factors, including associated equipment, source material, and listener preferences. The Sigma Retros and my reference cables all work beautifully in my current setup, and I could happily live with any of them. For now, I'm sticking with the Monsters.

Monster Sigma Retro Gold speaker cable
Monster's Sigma Retro Gold speaker cable is similar in construction to its interconnect sibling, but a bit simpler. In the speaker cable, each conductor bundle uses two different gauges of six-nines copper conductors, again wrapped with microfiber, then woven around a solid, nonconducting core. The bundles, again two, are encased in extruded PEX-2 insulators and laid up using Monster's Super Multi-Twist architecture. In the case of the speaker cable, there is no outer PEX2 tube and no shielding—the twisted pair is wrapped directly in the fabric. Terminations are 24k platinum-gold-plated spades of three different sizes.

As with the interconnects, my first impressions of the Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables were all quite positive. I let the cables break in by running my system 'round the clock for several days, and though I didn't do any serious listening during this time, the music was always in the background, and I did sit down for a few minutes here and there, just to relax and listen. The sound was great: vivid and engaging, but with nothing overt jumping out and demanding attention—no overt anomalies, in other words. I always hated to get up and leave the music.

As I listened more carefully, homing in on the details of the Monsters' performance, I continued to be impressed. Their overall performance and character were very similar to the Sigma Retro interconnects, and very similar to my reference Audience Au24 cables (Nordost Valhalla was my other reference).

Like the Au24s, the Monsters were tonally very neutral, though there were subtle differences in their personalities. While I wouldn't say either was right or wrong, or that the Monsters sounded "cool" or "lean," they weren't quite as warm- or rich-sounding through the midrange as the Au24s. Red Garland's Bright and Breezy was a great example. The Monsters did a fantastic job of capturing the initial attack of the piano hammers hitting the strings, but the Au24s filled in slightly better the notes' bloom and resonance following the initial transients.

On drums, too, the Monsters' attack was sharp and realistic, but the round skin tone behind it, particularly in the case of lower toms, wasn't quite as rich and tonally dense as with the Audiences. Ditto for Thad Jones' cornet on the wonderful The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Quartet (Artisthouse AH 9403). With the Monsters, Jones' cornet had a bit more brassy blare; with the Au24s, a little more golden bloom. On the other hand, the differences between the Monsters and Nordost's Valhalla were in the opposite direction, and a bit larger. The Monsters had a significantly richer, more tonally dense sound than the Valhallas, but not their speed and precision.

The Monsters were excellent at the frequency extremes, and kind of a hybrid of my two reference cables. Their accuracy and excellent reproduction of dynamic transients extended to the very bottom, sounding a lot like the Nordosts in this regard. They didn't, however, have quite as much bottom-end warmth or power as the Au24s. For example, the Au24s made Sam Jones' bass sound a bit bigger and warmer; through the Monsters, the instrument sounded slightly cleaner and more precise.

On top, the Sigma Retros were again clean and precise, but not quite as extended as either the Audience or Nordost wires. With the Monsters, Charlie Persip's cymbals on Bright and Breezy had a sharper, more powerful initial crash, but the shimmering waves moving outward were a bit attenuated. Or, for another example, listen to the maracas on "Migration." With the Monsters, the sharp, hollow attacks when the instrument is shaken were very precise, and snapped with a very realistic impact. When the instrument was swirled around, however, some of the low-level, higher-frequency subtleties weren't as evident—the ssshhhh was a bit deeper in pitch and just slightly dulled.

The Sigma Retro speaker cables revealed huge soundstages, although, as with the interconnects, these stages were a bit more wide and tall than deep. Individual images were nicely detailed and tangible, but not quite as dimensional as with my reference cables. Unlike the Sigma Retro interconnects, which had a consistent, slightly forward perspective, the speaker cables were more neutral, neither noticeably forward nor at all recessed.

The Sigma speaker cables' resolution of detail and edge definition were superb, and there was the same beguiling, crystal clarity in the spaces between images that I noted with the Sigma interconnects. Also like the interconnects, their ability to precisely describe miking patterns, or the fragmented spaces blended together in a studio recording, was incredible. Buffett's A-1-A really showed this off. In the closing moments of most of the songs, as they fade out, there are very soft percussion instruments. Even at the limit of audibility, the sizes and characteristics of the spaces around these instruments remained discernible.

Summing Up: As good as Monster's Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables were, I wasn't quite as taken with them as I was with the interconnects. It's odd, because both wires had very similar characteristics, and I'd be hard-pressed to say in which wire these characteristics were more obvious. But while in my current setup I slightly preferred the Monster Cable interconnects to my other reference wires, I preferred—again, only slightly—the Au24 speaker cables.

On the other hand, it's possible that the Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables are a bit more narrowly focused than the interconnects, and Monster's targeting of the SET market in their development of the Sigma Retro line has resulted in a speaker cable that's not ideally suited to my 600W VTL Ichiban monoblocks and power-hungry Thiel CS6 speakers. But even with this potential mismatch, the bottom line is that these are still great speaker cables. Depending on your associated equipment and listening preferences, they might be absolutely perfect.

Where does that leave us?
It's been a while since I thought about Monster Cable in the context of super-high-end cables. Sure, their product name, like Scotch tape or Xerox, has become synonymous with an entire industry. To the rest of the world, Monster Cable is high-performance cable. But somewhere along the line, rightly or wrongly, they lost their high-end credibility—at least with me. It became easy to dismiss them as "no longer a high-end company." And who could blame them? The world and its riches lie in Game Boy and car audio cables, not in our tiny little audiophile utopia.

But somewhere deep inside Monster Inc., Sigma Retro Gold was conceived and now exists as a kind of outlaw. It's ironic, because the technological and financial power that make possible the development of special materials and constructions such as the ones in the Sigma Retro Golds also put very real constraints on the bottom line. When Demian Martin discovered the superior performance of his platinum-gold-plated spade lugs, he toyed briefly with similarly plated conductors, "but I knew that [head monster] Noel Lee would never go for it because of the expense. I'm just grateful that we were able to build Sigma Retro in a company like Monster. I'm not sure that Noel is even really aware of this product, which is probably good for me."

It's certainly good for us. Outlaw product or not, Demian Martin and Monster Cable have built a line of superior cables in their Sigma Retro series, cables that are fully competitive with the very best I've heard. In some ways—how they balance continuity and edge definition, for example, or the amazing clarity between their images—they might well be the best I've heard. In other areas, or in other systems, I might prefer another of my reference cables by a bit. I can't say whether or not these cables will be the best match for a particular system and listener. I can definitively say, however, that anyone shopping for high-end cables should give them a listen. Highly recommended!

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