The construction of the Vertex AQ system continues as, this time, Paul Rigby adds a series of high resolution, noise-draining Solfonn cables and also talks to boss, Steve Elford
“Hey, Bob. Glad you could join me on this frosty morning.”
“This better be good, Harry, I haven’t had breakfast yet and I’m freezing. What have you got to show me?”
“You should have worn a coat, Bob.”
“Just get on with it, Harry.”
“What? Tell me.”
“Keep going, Harry. I’m confused”
“In front of you, a Ferrari.”
“Well, I see a beat up Skoda, Harry. Not much else.”
“No, it’s not Bob. It’s a Ferrari. Isn’t she lovely?”
“You off the pills again, Harry? It’s a Skoda.”
“No, no. This has wheels, right?”
“There’s an engine under the bonnet.”
“I’ll take your word for that Harry.”
“Bob, Bob, there’s even a steering wheel inside! A Ferrari has all of these things. Right?”
“There you have it then! I have a great Ferrari, don’t I Bob?”
“I need to eat, see you soon Harry.”
You see, what I’m trying to say is that cables generally throw lots of specifications at you. Copper this. Silver that. Dielectric this. Oxygen free that. A twist here, a coating there. A few pretty colours and you’re done. See? I have all of the ingredients here…so it must be a Ferrari-class cable! Hmm? Everything is there to make a great cable isn’t it? So, stands to reason. Must be a Ferrari-class cable. Hence, I declare that it is a brilliant performer and I can charge lots of money for it.
This thinking shows a complete lack of understanding in what goes to make a Ferrari and, for that matter, a Ferrari-class cable.
Problem is, most manufacturers tend to wing it. A lot of people out there don’t have a clue what they are doing. They think that they understand what makes a great cable tick but not too many people do. Some have a inkling, others are on the right path but, on the whole, the same old issues remain. That is Problem No.1.
But that’s not the half of it. Problem No.2 is this. Most cable manufacturers believe that the point of a cable is to connect Box A to Box B to allow you to hear music and to do it while offering “great sound quality” with that recipe kit I mentioned above.
Believe it or not, sending a music signal from Box A the Box B is NOT the entire job of a cable. It’s not even the main job. No, most of the reason for a cable, a top quality cable, is to remove sonic rubbish from that music signal and to tackle problems of that ilk. Because, when this rubbish is removed, great music often follows on its own. Lead a horse to water…
These ‘problems’ hinge around my own personal nemesis and arch enemy. You know how there’s supposed to be many names for the devil? Well there’s many names for noise too. Some just call it distortion, others point at RFI (Radio Frequency Interference), there’s microphony, intermodulation…the list goes on. They come from different places, they do different things but they all combine to destroy music. I’m not talking about obvious stuff: static, radio messages from passing taxis… No, this stuff is insidious and invisible as an obvious noise. You don’t know it’s there until it’s gone. Your brain gets used to it being there so you don’t even hear it.
What this Vertex AQ technology is all about is directly tackling that issue(s). That’s where the company begins its efforts. Everything else follows from that stand point. All the staff care about is draining the 57 varieties of noise out of your system and leaving it free from sonic rubbish. The idea is to allow you to hear, properly hear, your hi-fi. Possibly for the first time.
Because of this basic difference in approach, maybe the car metaphor is wrong. Maybe I should have compared Vertex to an alien spaceship and the rest as cars: they both get you from A to B but they both do it in completely different ways.
This, in case you ever wondered, is why I’m bothering with this multi-part feature review approach to the company’s products and not relying on the single review format. Because Vertex don’t offer a single product (Well, they do, but it won’t do you much good and you won’t get too much from a single Vertex AQ ‘thing’) you cannot just cherry pick a single cable or box, review it and come to any sort of a conclusion. The ‘Product’, if you want to label this company’s suite of designs, consists of a host of different bits and pieces that you build like Lego set to form a complete system. Look, you wouldn’t buy the Lego Millennium Falcon, stick your hand in the box, pick out a handful of bricks and say, “Hey, I’ve got a Falcon, woohoo!” Same with Vertex AQ. You gotta build the whole kit to see the finished article.
So, you see, I am actually in the process of giving this system a ‘single review’. Because it’s so large, though, I’m having to do it in multiple parts.
With this latest review, my hi-fi has already reached a certain level of Vertex AQ integration. Their products occupy my speaker cables, power cables, power blocks, filters and grounding blocks. The biggest remaining hole is the basic interconnects and that’s what I’m reviewing now.
Before we get there, I wanted to chat to head honcho of Vertex AQ, Steve Elford because, not only does he offer different grades of interconnect, he sees cable in a different way to other outfits out there.
“The cables that you have are high resolution interconnects. We offer three versions, though: Standard, Silver and your ‘HiRez’. Like the other Vertex cables, these interconnects feature a box including a complex labyrinth that reduces vibration by impedance matching to drag out the vibration to the box where it is then broken down. The HiRez standard (on all of our products) utilises a more complex labyrinth. They take longer to make which is why they are more expensive.”
According to Elford, with a normal interconnect, you have vibration present in all of the circuits. So, if you connect a power amp to an interconnect, vibration will happily travel down that wire and it will pollute the other box on the other end but it also just exists in the circuits of each box too too. Putting a labyrinth on the interconnect helps to lower the vibration in the circuits and the wire between them. This vibration might be coming from the power supply, the box itself, it might be being picked up from the speakers or other components or just the music signal going through the circuits.
Imagine that you can map out the vibration between all of the circuits in your system. Attaching these cables, says Elford, will lower all of that. That is strategy number one, “Strategy number two,” added Elford, “is then to tackle Radio Frequency Interference which will trundle around the circuits and, particularly, the grounds to pick up and hold and pollute. In our boxes then, we add EMI absorption compounds. We can put passive devices on the ground lines and EMI absorption tubing on the rest of the leads. Hence, you get a lot of cleaning up in the upper midrange. All of the harshness you might normally hear that colours sound and stops you playing music loud.”
Vertex AQ also likes to optimise the insulators on the cables as well as the construction of the cables itself. For example, “We like to use solid core silver. You have to be careful with silver because its an excellent conductor. A lot of people say that they prefer copper interconnects because they say that silver interconnects sound brighter. Sorry, that bright sound has nothing to do with the silver. Silver carries more music but it also carries more of the shit (i.e. vibration and RFI) that you don’t want. In the HiRez cables, we use solid core silver conductor surrounded by a natural unbleached cotton insulation and then teflon tubing to hold it all together. The cotton is mostly air dielectric. The problem with other cables is that they use silver core but then do nothing to stop the vibration and RFI going up and down the cable.”
The difference between the Standard, Silver and Hi-Rez interconnects that Vertex AQ provide is the conductor and the insulation. The Standard uses silver-plated copper with extruded PTFE covering it, the Silver model adds solid-core silver with cotton insulation and a more complicated labyrinth while the HiRez adds to the Silver the anti-EMI treatment, which is quite expensive.
Not surprisingly, the cables take a bit of burning in when they are in your system. You will notice improvements over time. The cables will also perform differently in different system depending where most of the vibration exists.
“One thing,” said Elford, “as soon as you plug these cables into the system, particularly because your interconnect line-level grounds are usually common, you will affect everything else that gets plugged in. It’s a spider’s web thing. you will find vibration being drained everywhere. This not a ‘serial’, straight line, thing.”
In practical terms, each cable includes that noise reducing box of tricks that Steve Elford talks about above. This effectively means that, somewhere on your system platform or shelving, you will have to cater for a miniature chassis spanning 120 x 60 30mm for each cable. For this test, for example, there were six of the blighters that had to be housed. Now, for many users this won’t be a problem and you’ll be wondering what the fuss is all about. For others who might have more intensive space issues, you might want to check your layout first before you think about anything else.
As Elford has said before, when looking at this kit, his basic cables are very good but they do not appear to measure up with the Tellurium Qs and Nordosts and Atlas examples out there, at first glance, for bells, whistles, bright colours and weighty outer cases that are so thick that they resemble an oil pipe. The cable itself does feature careful design work, from Vertex AQ, it is true but the main engine is occurring in that box. That’s the heart of this cable.
Before we get to the Sound Quality testing, two more quick points. Firstly, the method of the review. I was given three sets of cables to work with. This was a reviewer’s ‘demand’, as it where. It was my idea, that is. The reason is that I wanted to add the Vertex cables gradually, one at a time, moving backwards up the chain. So, to begin, I will install two cables from my monoblocks to my pre-amp and measure the sound quality. Then, while keeping the mono block cables in place, add the Vertex AQ cables between the pre-amp and the phono amp. Finally, I will connect a specially made cable featuring an SME connector from my phono amp to the SME IV arm that occupies my Avid Acutus turntable.
The idea is to work towards the most important component in the hi-fi chain: the source.
Also, and this is my second point, only when I install the SME cable will there be an unbroken pathway of Vertex AQ cables from my turntable to my speakers (I already have a set of speaker cables running from the mono blocks to my Quad ESL-57 speakers from an earlier feature in this series). I freely admit that the SME arm itself does not include Vertex AQ wiring so my test is not wholly pure, I’ll admit, but what it lacks in accurate scientific plausibility it gains in real-world modelling. That is, I will be aping what a general customer would do and be advised to do.
Just to reiterate, this is Part 4 in a long running testing series of features so all of the previous cables that have been discussed and utilised are in place and ready to go for this test. Again, doing it this way, I can replicate what a typical customer might experience and can report on any improvements heard.
As this is a multi-part cable test, to prevent it wandering into War & Peace lengths (What do you mean, “It already is.”?), I’ll keep the test records down to a minimum of two. For vocal and jazz elements and orchestral arrangements, I’ll be using Sammy Davis Jr’s original pressing of Now (1970) and for my dynamic rock, I’ll be featuring the original pressing of Siouxsie And The Banshees’ Join Hands (1979).
To begin, I played the Davis LP track, the hit single from the LP, The Candy Man, and connected the first batch of Vertex AQ cables from my mono blocks to my pre-amp.My first impression, with the first pair of Vertex AQ cables in place (from the pre-amp to my monoblock power amps) was how much lower was the noise floor. There seemed to be a sense of smoothness that affected the entire soundstage. More than that, however, both Davis and his young backing singers often hit crescendos or loud vocal passages that could be rather shouty in nature. That issue was now vastly reduced. More than that, however, the bass guitar become prominent in nature, notably the higher notes of this instrument which were ‘visible’ for the first time. The added space and air in the soundstage meant that a rider cymbal, that sat under the vocals and behind the bass guitar emerged. The effect of these and similar enhancements (including a trumpet which sounded, how can I say this, ‘solitary’, I suppose, there was more space around it) resulted in a richer and deeper soundstage. Finally, later in the track, secondary percussion such as the splashy cymbal and tambourines were not only noticeable but offered tremendous reverb.
Moving to the dynamic Banshees tracks Poppy Day and Regal Zone, the initial bell sounds at the beginning of the former offered impressive reverb effects while the later deep bass provided meaty and hefty resonance. For Regal Zone, there was a sense of separation, Sioux’s vocals were moved to a dais of her own and, while the guitar was detailed and exacting and bass was punchy it was the secondary percussion that impressed, mostly because it was no longer being hidden behind the bloom from the louder instruments.
Returning to the Sammy Davis album, I installed the cables between my pre-amp and phono amp.
Then all hell broke loose. But in a good way.
Let’s put the sequence of events into some sort of order. Firstly, I was deafened. My comfortable listening volume had just been kicked into touch. Now? It felt that my pre-amp had been kicked up 10 gain notches. The reason? Well, I didn’t know, to be perfectly honest so I asked Vertex AQ. Elford reminded me that the Phono amp area handles tiny and delicate signals and that area deals with high gain, to get that tiny cartridge signal to a level that a basic amp can grab and utilise. Unfortunately, though, this area tends to be so swamped with distortion and noise that a lot of the music signal is literally sucked away into the distortion and you don’t hear it because of a nasty thing called intermodulation. Now, what was happening here was that the distortion was being removed, allowing all of the music signal to be ‘let through’. Hence, my ears bleeding all over my chair (well, almost).
So I leapt to the volume switch and down it went. But there was something else. A certain, unnecessary emphasis? Something in my system sounded as if it was suddenly trying too hard. After hunting, I discovered that the gain control on my phono amplifier needed nudging down, just a touch, but it paid off. Now? I had the same volume level for a lower set of gain settings on both my phono amp and pre-amp.
The next shock? The music itself. Everything had changed. Everything. Vocals were now completely structured in a different way. Davis and backing singers were no longer side by side but forward and above and behind and below. That rider cymbal that had sat behind the lead vocal and bass guitar moved to the left speaker where the drummer should be. The brass was now connected to other brass on the other speaker instead of being seemingly divorced. That is, they now played together as a unit. I had previously suspected that I had a trombone in there somewhere. Now, he appeared and played with new confidence. The drummer also exhibited connected drum rolls with cymbals strikes which could clearly be heard for the first time and also, this guy had suddenly, later in the track, decided to play his own little song on the cymbals! Previously, he sounded as if he was marking time on the cymbals, now he had a little rhythm going.
Back to the Banshees, the new cable seemed to put the Banshee house in order. Previously, the soundstage sounded a little chaotic which, you could, say, fell into line with the music but the new cable reordered the instruments into a more structured soundstage with the floating, treated, saxophone
now firmly part of the stereo image with drums just behind and the guitar. It was intriguing and added a new dimension to the track as a whole. Meanwhile the deep bass effect on Poppy Day offered more information. This big, bold noise was now separated into the initial strike and the after effects instead of one big impressive smudge.
I moved onto the final cable, connecting the phono amplifier to my turntable’s arm.
In many ways, the addition of the final piece in the Vertex AQ jigsaw was the most impressive, almost because it was the most subtle and took a little while to assimilate. Gone where the previous fireworks, the pizazz, the ‘wow factor’. What this final cable provided was an adult, grown up, mature listening experience. With this final cable, the music settled down and did just that: it sounded very musical.
When I was in my teens, and before I get into this journalism game, I used to read all of the hi-fi magazines. One of the most oft repeated pieces of advice when auditioning a new system was to focus on one element and follow it through a track and then compare that to a competing product or set of products. Oddly enough, I found myself doing that here, with both Sammy Davis and the Banshees. I didn’t mean to, I just found myself attracted to the bass guitar and I began to realise that I could hear every note the guy played. And it was all so easy. No effort was needed to hear him. He just sat in front of me and played. Nothing covered his work, nothing intruded, he just got on with his job. It was lovely to hear and so very relaxing. That’s how this track played out, in fact, in terms of vocal delivery, brass, percussion, harmonies, the lot. Very much a professional performance. I almost applauded at the end of it.
The one thing you have to remember with Vertex AQ and this series of features and maybe I have not emphasised this enough, is that this is a suite of products for high-end systems. They are not aimed at budget or mid-priced fare. This is serious stuff for serious hi-fi. Just look at the prices at the end of this piece and you’ll see for yourself. That said, if you have the funds for a seriously high-end hi-fi then these systematic cabling systems won’t make much of a dent in your budget. Their task is actually to save you money because they have been created to stop you upgrading unnecessarily.
In fact, they are designed to allow you to hear your system, possibly for the first time. I mean really hear your system. As opposed to hearing a mixed up melange of noise, distortion and music.
Have you ever heard people in the flesh or on-line or even at hi-fi shows and they say things like, “Yea, my speaker sounded a bit bright so I bought these copper speaker cables to balance out the sound and tame them a bit.” Or they bought a bright cartridge to off-set a dull system sound or similar. That, my friends, is all about noise and distortion and wrong-headed thinking. There’s no such thing as buying one component to liven up another or buying a cable to tone down this or that product. What this shows is a person who is attempting to make two wrongs make a right. Anyone who talks like this has noise and distortion issues and is going the wrong way about it to solve those issues. The Vertex AQ approach attempts to sort these affects from their source, removing them from every corner of your system, starting from the mains and working all around it to suck away noise in all its demented forms. I say that now with some confidence because I’ve heard my own system gradually change for the better on those terms.
As for this latest stage in the Vertex AQ story? I know this sounds rather profound and hifalutin but this series of cables actually allowed me to make sense of my hi-fi and my music. No, strike that, these cables didn’t, the increasing improvements in each stage of this superb Vertex AQ system allowed me to realise a higher level of performance. What I was hearing here was not, in fact, the result of installing these new set of cables, it was just another brick in the wall, as Floyd might say. Each improvement was now resting on the previous improvement, producing an accumulated suite of enhancements that was not only proving an amazing dividend but was actually restructuring my music and hi-fi components for the better. To be honest, I have only just begun to get my head around this latest suite of cables and I’m sure that sound quality will continue to improve as they steadily burn in. Can’t wait.
1.0m pair, single box on each conductor, £2,261.45
1.5m pair, single box on each conductor, £2,749.52
2.0m pair, two boxes on each conductor £3,533.39 (cost jump because of the second pair of boxes)
Additional cost per 0.5m £488.07
For a comparison, 1.0m standard Solfonn phono is £645.50, 1.0m Silver Solfonn phono is £1,291.01.
For Line Level Balanced (XLR) HiRez Solfonn:
1.0m pair, single box on each conductor, £2,725.34.
1.5m pair, single box on each conductor, £3,374.77.
2.0m pair, two boxes on each conductor £4,320.02 (cost jump because of the second pair of boxes)
Then additional cost per 0.5m £649.44
HiRez Solfonn Tonearm lead, price ratios the same as phono lead but longer lengths have only single boxe
1.0m pair, single box on each conductor, £2,261.45.
Additional cost per 0.5m £488.07
Good: low noise floor, rebalances your system, restructures your music, provides a mature soundstage.
Bad: possible space/cable storage issues for some
Tel: 01554 759267
Avid Acutus turntable
Black Rhodium SME cable
SME IV arm
Koetsu Black cartridge
Icon Audio PS3 phono amplifier
Aesthetic Calypso pre-amp
Icon Audio MB845 Mk.II mono-blocks
Quad ESL-57 speakers (One Thing modded)
Atlas & Tellurium Q interconnects
Vertex AQ speaker cables, Roraima power cables, Jaya filters, Pico grounding blocks and Taga power blocks.