Last month I came across a fascinating article in Brain Pickings, a weekly neuroscience newsletter: In “The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story,” writer and blogger extraordinaire Maria Popova shared insights from the eminent Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner about what makes a great story. I think Bruner’s ideas and Popova’s enriching discussion can be used to understand what makes for a great audio cable.
To listen to a great piece of music through an exceptional high-end stereo is akin to being told a captivating story. An extraordinary cable must be a superlative storyteller. We can discriminate between cables by comparing how they communicate information to us in two fundamentally different forms of perception. Cables take the information decoded by a stereo -- the performance of a piece of music constructed in a different time and space -- and forward to us their re-creation not only of what happened but also, simultaneously, their versions of where, when, and how it happened. The first type of communication transmits to us the truth of the music itself; the second type transmits the beauty of the music by pulling us into a subjective and personal experience of the music. So a great cable appeals to our intellect by communicating a musical truth as faithfully as it can; and it appeals to our emotions by communicating a sense of our relationship to this truth. From a neuroscience perspective, a great cable must tickle both our intellectual (left) and our emotional (right) brains.
Bruner calls these two modes of perception the logico-scientific (characterized by a mathematical framework of analysis and explanation) and the narrative (characterized by the experiential encounter). To apply his argument to cables, a great cable must construct a soundscape and then immerse the listener in it. Intellectual understanding and emotional experience -- two sides of the perception of music. One mode speaks to your thoughts about the music, the other appeals to your feelings. If you’re a cable agnostic or denier, you might be rolling your eyes right now. But if you’ve invested a decent portion of your fun money in enjoying the beauties of recorded music, you’ve probably already read dozens of cable reviews in which critics make various claims about high-priced wires. My point is this: the best cables are the ones that not only give you the most information, but also produce a subjective, intangible, visceral emotional experience while giving you that information.
Enter Knut Skogrand
Skogrand Cables are unique, attractive artisanal speaker cables, interconnects, digital links, and power cords, designed and made to order in the mountains of Norway by Knut Skogrand and his team. Skogrand’s top model of speaker cables and interconnects, the Beethovens, cost a cool $23,500 USD for a 2.5m pair while his entry-level Rachmaninov costs a comparatively modest $2625 for the same length. I was sent samples from the Ravel line, in the middle of the Skogrand hierarchy: below the Ravels is the Brahms line, and above them the Tchaikovskys. I asked Skogrand for the Ravel speaker cables and interconnects because they were, in 2015, of comparable price to my own High Fidelity CT-1 Enhanced cables. All Skogrand products are built by Skogrand himself. The prices reportedly reflect the materials and hours required to build one unit of each model of each line.
To achieve his stated goal of offering a world-leading air-dielectric cable at each of the price points he offers, Skogrand uses various combinations of materials: balsa wood, Ultra Pure Ohno Continuous Cast (UP-OCC) copper, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), cotton, cross-linked polyolefin, perfluoroalkoxy (PFA) fluorocarbon, silver, gold, silk, and rhodium. It was this claim, and the beauty of the finished products, that made me curious to review them.
The Ravel’s basic architecture is solid-core copper conductors suspended in air within a framework of low-dielectric fabrics and a sheath of PTFE tubing. The proprietary topology and exotic ingredients combine to achieve a purported effective dielectric constant of 1.0018 with a signal-transfer speed of 299253.8km/h, or 99.82% of the speed of light. This makes the Ravel, according to Skogrand, one of the fastest speaker cables in the world, surpassed only by models higher in the Skogrand line.
I requested a 3m pair of Ravel speaker cables terminated in banana plugs, and a 1.5m pair of interconnects terminated with RCA plugs, so that I could use them with various combinations of source and amplification components. Both interconnects and speaker cables cost $6180 per 1m pair, plus $300 per additional half meter. The Ravel cables and interconnects are quite stiff. The PTFE tubing supports and protects what looks, from the outside, to be an underlying double helix -- like strands of DNA. The interconnects’ locking RCA plugs must be unscrewed before being unplugged. Other than a less-than-tight fit between the Skogrands’ bananas and the binding posts of my DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 speakers, installation went without a hitch. Silk sheaths are available in Skogrand’s two highest lines; those models, the Tchaikovskys and Beethovens, have got to be two of the most attractive cables in all of high-end audio.
Reveling in the Ravels
Using the template I previously described to judge and discriminate between audio cables, I began comparing the Skogrand Ravels with my High Fidelity Enhanced and Auditorium 23 speaker cables, and my Sablon Panatela and MG Planus 3 interconnects. I primarily used my Luxman L-590AX integrated amplifier, but alternated my Jamo R909 and Vivid Audio Oval K1 speakers. Sources were my Line Magnetic LM-515 CD player/DAC, my Luxman DA-06 DAC, and my Garrard 401 turntable (on a Woodsong Audio plinth), Thorens TD-125 tonearm, and Ortofon Xpression and Miyajima Shilabe cartridges.
I began by continuously streaming, from Tidal through the Line Magnetic, music by Maurice Ravel as performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra led by William Steinberg (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Capitol). The track I most often played was Ravel’s best-known work, Boléro, made infamous in the 1979 movie 10. In the film, Bo Derek insists to Dudley Moore that Boléro is a musical aphrodisiac. By contrast, I’d remembered it from years past as musical Ambien. Yes, the piece does eventually crescendo into a dramatic climax, but I remembered its endless repeated melody as immensely tedious. In Ravel’s defense, neuroscience researchers now speculate that, by this time in his life, he was suffering from frontotemporal dementia, and that this influenced the work’s repetitiveness.1 Ravel is thought to have had a version of FTD that includes, as a symptom, primary progressive aphasia in which the spoken-language network disintegrates and patients eventually lose their voice.
By contrast, the longer I listened, the stronger, more refined, and more enjoyable grew the voices of the Skogrand Ravels. Boléro no longer signaled sleepy time -- the Ravels conveyed a combination of genuine sensuality and threat, the main motif no longer meandering endlessly. The oboe and other woodwinds each picked up the main theme, slithering, seducing, enticing like Sirens, tempting me to make a very bad decision. Various combinations of Ravels and my current wires and gear ensued; the bottom line was that the Ravels significantly bettered each of my current speaker cables and interconnects by no small margin -- even inserting only the Ravel speaker cable or interconnect into a particular assortment of components dramatically elevated the sound quality of that system. Air, background “blackness,” liquidity, soundstaging, microdetail -- all improved. In every audiophile parameter, the Skogrands gave me new insight into the components they were tethered to and the music they were conveying, with one exception: The Auditorium 23 speaker cables and interconnects remained the best match for my tubed components from Shindo Laboratory. If you own Shindo gear, consider yourself fortunate that Auditorium 23’s cables, relatively inexpensive by current standards, are such an outstanding match.
If one work of Ravel’s best demonstrated the Skogrand Ravels’ storytelling abilities, it was the third movement, Scarbo, of his Gaspard de la nuit, performed by pianist Charles Rosen (16/44.1 FLAC, Opus). While Ravel is classified as an Impressionist composer, the Skogrand Ravel speaker cables and interconnects were not impressionistic in any aural sense. Images were clearly delineated and fully fleshed out; Rosen’s rendition of Scarbo tickled my amygdala, transporting me into a haunting state of increasing visceral tension.
A month or so into my listening to the Skogrands, I experienced a eureka moment: The tonal picture presented by the Ravels made a quantum leap in quality. The shift seemed as dramatic as drinking a double shot of espresso and putting on my reading glasses -- the resolution, already very good, jumped an order of magnitude, as if a cascade of stimulating catecholamines were quickening my pulse and locking in my frontal cortex. I was listening to “Taking Flight,” from the Vijay Iyer Trio’s phenomenal Break Stuff (CD, ECM 2420). The Skogrands’ pace and rhythm were remarkable as Marcus Gilmore’s drumming accelerated into breathtaking glissandos from Iyer’s piano, before both were gently coaxed to a smooth landing by the braking effect of Stephan Crump’s double bass. The Skogrands’ speed, lack of smearing, depth of soundstage, and grip were exhilarating.
The Skogrands reveled in the magical mystery tour that is Joanna Newsom’s Divers (LP, Drag City DC 561). Analog lovers take note -- this album is worth buying just as a sumptuous work of art. The lyrics of each song -- or, should I say, soundscape -- are printed on a page of archival-grade paper, on the back of which is a gorgeous painting of a fairy wonderland that visually complements the song. Newsom’s unique voice, lilting and childlike, was mesmerizing enough -- through the Skogrands, the tone of her concert harp also had an intoxicating purity of sound. The album is an aural (and visual) feast, and the Skogrand Ravels’ reproduction of the music made it an Alice in Wonderland experience that pulled me in until I was not merely listening, but immersed in and swimming in the sound -- they were mind-blowingly good at this. In comparison to my Auditorium 23s with Luxman L-590AX, the Ravels’ sound was much quicker, but not in a dry, analytical fashion. In comparison to my High Fidelity Enhanced wires, they were simply . . . higher fidelity: more insightful, more illuminating, and ultimately more rewarding.
I invited myself over to SoundStage! editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz’s man cave -- he calls it the Music Vault -- to see what the Skogrands could do in his setup. Jeff was hooking up Rockport Technologies’ Cygnus three-way floorstanding speakers to Soulution’s 711 power amplifier with original Nordost Valhalla speaker cables. The source was Wadia’s di322 DAC. We A/B/A’d several well-recorded files, choosing for their familiarity four audio-show demo staples.
First up was Suzanne Vega singing “Small Blue Thing,” from her Live at Montreux 2004 (24/96 FLAC, Eagle Vision). The Valhallas, while sounding quite formidable in their own way with this track, were tonally stingier, less nuanced, and less balanced: more tipped up in the highs, which accented Vega’s vocal sibilants and pushed forward higher-frequency tones. The Ravels shone throughout the audioband but excelled in the midrange, conveying Vega’s humanity with more conviction, realism, and warmth. Her inhalations and exhalations were breathtakingly vivid.
Both cables revealed a tremendous wealth of information in “Keith Don’t Go,” from Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Live (16/44.1 FLAC, The Right Stuff/Capitol). Taps on the guitar soundboard, harmonic overtones, breathing, scratches of strings -- all were delivered with startling clarity and finesse. But for richness of vocal and guitar tone, bragging rights again belonged to the Skogrands.
As I listened to Jeff Buckley sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” from Buckley’s Grace (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia), the Valhallas seemed to produce a slightly deeper sense of space and surrounding air -- a plush echo in the venue, and reverb in his guitar, resulting in longer decays that gave me a surreal sense of depth and transported me more easily into a front-row seat. The Ravels weren’t quite as concerned with rendering the 3D space in this song, though they did that quite well; rather, they shone more of a spotlight on the angelic quality of Buckley’s voice.
It was only with Rachel Podger’s violin tone in the Allegro of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in G Major, Op.4 No.12, from La Stravaganza, with Arte Dei Suonatori (DSD64, Channel Classics), that the Valhallas edged out the Ravels. In this range, the Valhallas’ tone was meatier.
Something for everyone
Ravel was said to have credited Edgar Allan Poe with being his “teacher in composition.” Poe showed him that “true art is a perfect balance between pure intellect and emotion.” The Skogrand Ravels epitomize this delicate balance by conveying both the truth and the beauty of recorded music with equal amounts of unerring fidelity and consummate grace. Loads of information, loads of feeling.
Stravinsky once described Ravel as “the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers,” for the detail and precision of his compositions. Of his own artistic aspirations, Ravel said, “My objective, therefore, is technical perfection. I can strive unceasingly to this end, since I am certain of never being able to attain it. The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time.” My sense is that Knut Skogrand is an old-world artisan driven by a similar ethos. But do yourself a favor -- don’t listen to his cables unless you’re prepared to write the check. Their tone will infect you.
. . . Tom Mathew
- Speakers -- DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93, Horning Eufrodite Ellipse, Jamo R909, Vivid Audio Oval K1, Rockport Technologies Cygnus
- Amplifiers -- Shindo Laboratory Cortese and Haut-Brion, Soulution 711
- Integrated amplifier -- Luxman L-590AX
- Preamplifiers -- Shindo Laboratory Masseto and Monbrison
- Digital sources -- Aurender X100L 12TB music server streaming Tidal, Line Magnetic LM-515 CD player/DAC, Luxman DA-06 DAC, Wadia di322
- Speaker cables -- Auditorium 23, High Fidelity CT-1 Enhanced, Nordost Valhalla
- Interconnects -- Auditorium 23, MG Planus 3, Sablon Panatela, Shindo Laboratory, Nordost Valhalla
- Digital cables -- Prana Wire Photon USB
- Turntable -- Garrard 401 turntable with Woodsong Audio plinth, Thorens TD-125 long-base tonearm from Vinyl Nirvana
- Cartridges -- Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum, Miyajima Shilabe, Ortofon Xpression
- Phono cable -- Bob’s Devices Sky 30 step-up and vintage phono cable
- Phono stage -- Luxman EQ-500 (in for review)
- Power conditioners -- Shindo Laboratory Mr. T, Silver Circle Audio Tchaik 6
- Furniture -- Kanso audio stands in Indian rosewood, maple burl, and amboyna; Symposium speaker stands
- Tweaks -- Acoustic Revive RR-888 ultra-low-frequency pulse generator
Skogrand Cables Ravel Speaker Cable
Price: $6180 USD per 1m pair ($300 per additional half meter).
Skogrand Cables Ravel Interconnects
Price: $6180 USD per 1m pair ($300 per additional half meter).
Warranty: Five years parts and labor (with registration).
Oeyer, Oppland 2636
Sonare Coeli, LLC
1547 Foxfire Court
Waupaca, WI 54981
Phone: (715) 412-4139
1. Amaducci, L. Grassi, E. and Boller, F., “Maurice Ravel and Right-Hemisphere Musical Creativity: Influence of Disease on His Last Musical Works?” European Journal of Neurology 9 (2002): 75-82.