Josh Clark looked at me expectantly. Clark, who plays a key role in designing Transparent’s audio cables, had announced on the second morning of my visit to the factory, which is located in Saco near Portland, Maine, that he was going to administer what amounted to a pop quiz to test what I remembered from his lengthy exposition about cable technology. I gulped. “Really, Josh?” I thought. Was I back in high school, frozen with apprehension, clutching a pencil with a death grip before the questions appeared on the chalkboard?
Not quite. But Josh had bombarded me with so much information about everything from the network modules Transparent employs to insulation technology that I started to feel like I was inside the Hadron super collider near Geneva after they put it into action to detect the Higgs boson. But I manned up, as they say, and volunteered that the three most significant qualities of their cables appeared to be tonality, spatiality, and timing. Then I mumbled something about capacitance being an issue as well. Josh nodded thoughtfully, but pointed out that I had missed mentioning the problem of RF interference.
It was a telling moment. Transparent Audio leaves little to chance. Insulation, the type of wire, connections, and vibrations are all closely scrutinized to improve the sound of their cables. Founded by a trio of owners—Karen and Jack Sumner and Carl Smith—the company has been developing and refining its products for three decades. The results are stunning.
After spending two days at the factory and an afternoon at Karen and Jack’s listening to their music room and system in Falmouth, it became clear to me that almost everyone associated with the company is a serious music lover. Take Josh Clark. He’s an avid and accomplished trumpet player. Then there is Carl Smith, who has written an excellent commentary about the legendary jazz pianist Bud Powell’s recordings. The book is called Bouncing With Bud. Chick Corea wrote the foreword for it. These are not people who view music as a hobby. It’s their passion.
In the factory listening room, I had the opportunity to hear a good deal of the Transparent’s line of cables. On the second day we listened not to the Wilson X-2 Alexandria, which is due to be replaced by the XLF, but on the Magnepan 3.6. The Magnepan clearly revealed the differences as you move up in the cable line.
You get more dimensionality, more texture, more dynamics, more of everything. The bestest and mostest was Transparent’s premium Opus cable. While I intend to discuss the Opus more fully when I review the Wilson XLF, I was certainly left agog by its level of tonal fidelity. Not to mention amazing ambient detail retrieval that captures the sense of the recording venue. In listening, it became apparent to me that the focus at Transparent is not on a brash sound, but a silky refined one. The sound levels were always moderate, realistic, beguiling. But I digress. My point is really that Transparent takes music very, very seriously.
Two quick anecdotes. First, when I traveled to Jack and Karen’s private home, they treated me to a two-and-a-half-hour session of Peter McGrath’s personal recordings of leading classical musicians, including Jorge Luis Pratt, complete with twelve-page document that discusses the various performers and works. Jack delivered brief remarks before several of the performances about the quality of the auditoriums as well. I can also assure you that the bane of most such sessions—people chattering about the performances as they’re being played—did not occur. We listened to the recordings, not each other. The fidelity via the Alexandria X-2, Series 2 and Lamm M2.2 reference mono blocks was superb and allowed me to discern almost instantly that on a recording of the soprano Lei Xu singing Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” she has a lovely voice but a somewhat shaky German accent. The clarinet playing by Alexander Fiterstein was immaculate. The sense of a low noise floor, which the cables clearly revealed, was most impressive.
A second anecdote: in his office, Carl Smith has several vintage gramophones that play 78s. He’s even learned how to restore them and shaves the needles to a length he deems most efficacious. Listening to Fats Waller play and sing “The Panic Is On” on Carl’s Victrola was a revelation. At a company suffused with such love for music, it should probably not be surprising that the cables sound so sterling.